Decca 7340 – Black Ace (B. K. Turner) – 1937

Of all the countless musical artists active before the Second World War, only a fraction were fortunate enough to have their art preserved on records, and an even smaller fraction recorded prolifically, leaving magical whatever music they produced mostly unheard.  That however, does not necessarily imply that those artists who left behind few, if any, recordings were not popular within their own domain.  One such artist who achieved considerable note with audiences in his homeland of Texas, but only left behind a precious few recordings was a peculiar, but quite remarkable, bluesman (and my own fourth personal favorite Texas blues musician) known as the Black Ace.

The man later called the “Black Ace” was born Babe Kyro Lemon Turner on the twenty-first of December, 1907 (some sources state 1905), on his family’s farm in the small settlement of Hughes Springs, deep in the farthest northeast reach of the state of Texas—the same region that brought up the likes of Little Hat Jones and Lead Belly.  He took up playing the guitar sometime in his youth and began playing the blues by the end of the 1920s in the vicinity of his hometown, and teamed up with the younger Andrew “Smokey” Hogg in the decade that followed.   Evidently inspired by Hawaiian-styled blues player Oscar “Buddy” Woods, Turner bought a square-necked National tricone resonator guitar and learned to play steel guitar, using an old medicine bottle as a slide.  In the 1930s, he relocated to Fort Worth and began performing on the radio.  There, he made his first recordings on April 5, 1936: two sides for the American Record Corporation including his eponymous theme song “Black Ace Blues”, from which he adopted the nickname, but both were unissued and are considered lost.  When the Decca record company made a field trip to Dallas early in 1937, Turner recorded again, cutting six sides, all of which were issued this time around (some sources suggest that he traveled to Chicago with Smokey Hogg and Whistling Alex Moore for the session, but they are erroneous).  The resulting three records proved to be the entirety of Black Ace’s pre-war recording career, and he would not record again for twenty-three years.  In spite of his scant recorded legacy, Turner seems to have enjoyed considerable regional popularity; his radio program lasted into up until the outbreak of World War II, and, remarkably for an early blues musician, he boasted a (very brief) motion picture career.  In 1941, Turner had a bit part in Spencer Williams’ race movie The Blood of Jesus, ostensibly portraying himself, first being heard-and-not-seen playing “Golden Slippers Blues”, then appearing as a member of a band performing on the back of a flatbed truck with the devil at the wheel.  He was drafted into the Army in 1943, and continued to play music while in the service, but retired from professional musicianship after returning from the war.  He was coaxed back in front of the microphone in 1960 by Chris Strachwitz and Paul Oliver to record an album for Strachwitz’s Arhoolie Records, thus preserving a further seventeen pieces of his repertoire for posterity.  Two years later, he made his second filmed appearance in Samuel Charters’ 1962 documentary The Blues, in which he reprised his theme song “The Black Ace” for the last time.  After suffering from cancer, B.K. Turner died in Fort Worth on November 7, 1972.

Decca 7340 was recorded on February 15, 1937 in Dallas, Texas.  It is the second released of Black Ace’s three records.  B.K. Turner sings and plays his own Hawaiian guitar; he is accompanied by an unidentified rhythm guitar player (possibly Andrew “Smokey” Hogg).

Firstly, the Black Ace plays and sings “You Gonna Need My Help Some Day”, loosely covering Big Bill Broonzy’s “You May Need My Help Some Day” from a year prior.

You Gonna Need My Help Some Day, recorded February 15, 1937 by the Black Ace (B.K. Turner).

On the reverse, he does “Whiskey and Women”, showcasing a bit more of the Black Ace’s Hawaiian-styled blues playing.

Whiskey and Women, recorded February 15, 1937 by the Black Ace (B.K. Turner).

Broadway 1482 – Abe McDow and his Band Southern – 1931

The orchestra preserved on this record appears to be something of an enigma.  Once in a blue moon—in only the most dedicated of record collecting and researching circles—the question arises: ” Who is Abe McDow?”  Alas, no definitive answers have ever been uncovered, and even the most dedicated of researchers have been unable to crack the case.

Whatever their story, Abe McDow and his Band Southern cut five recordings—”I Idolize My Baby’s Eyes”, “Shine On Harvest Moon”, “Minnie the Moocher”, “I Apologize”, and “(With You On My Mind I Find) I Can’t Write the Words”—for the New York Recording Laboratories (manufacturers of Paramount records) in Grafton, Wisconsin, in 1931, near the last days of the company’s existence.  Presumably, they were a territory dance band, likely touring in the Midwest, as did many of their contemporaries that recorded for Paramount.  Though called the “Band Southern”, it is possible, perhaps even probable, that they did not hail from below the Mason-Dixon Line, but rather adopted the sobriquet to evoke certain images of Dixieland that were so popular at the time—much in the fashion of Henny Hendrickson’s so-called Louisville Serenaders.  Paramount scholar Alex van der Tuuk has tentatively proposed that the orchestra may have hailed from Iowa.  It is also possible that “Abe McDow” was actually “McDowell”—as is reportedly credited on the label of Broadway 1483—and his name was either misprinted or shortened by the people at Paramount (whose competence in record-making was often rather questionable), though research on that name, too, has returned little information.

Broadway 1482 was recorded in November of 1931 in Grafton, Wisconsin.  Regrettably, the personnel of the band is entirely unidentified, aside from vocalists Roy Larsen and Bob Lilley, who presumably make up two-thirds of the trio singing on the “A” side.

First, the Band Southern plays a downright marvelous rendition of that evergreen 1908 vaudeville classic “Shine On Harvest Moon”, one of my personal favorite versions of the ubiquitous melody.

Shine On Harvest Moon, recorded November 1931 by Abe McDow and his Band Southern.

Next, they play a colorful version of Cab Calloway’s big hit, “Minnie the Moocher” (with his name misspelled on the label), using an arrangement remarkably similar to the one played by King Carter and his Royal Orchestra, so I would presume it’s more-or-less a stock arrangement.  It’s a tough call, but I might actually like this one better than Cab’s—it certainly stays true to the song’s lowdown roots.  (“Well it must have been of ‘plat-in-um.’  ‘Cause it says it was of ‘plat-in-um.’  So it must have been of ‘plat-in-um.'”)

Minnie the Moocher, recorded November 1931 by Abe McDow and his Band Southern.

Vocalion 03002 – State Street Boys – 1935

Looking south on State Street in Chicago. Circa 1933.

If there’s one thing I’m particularly fond of, it’s the swinging Lester Melrose-style Chicago blues of the mid-1930s, by the likes of Big Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam, Memphis Minnie, Blind Boy Fuller, and so many others.  This record is one that I think you’ll find is most befitting of that description.

The State Street Boys (not to be confused with the Jimmy Blythe’s State Street Ramblers) were a studio group that managed to blend modern swing music and country blues.  They cut eight sides for the American Record Corporation in January of 1935, of which three records were issued on Okeh at the very end of their “race” records series (all of which were re-released on Vocalion shortly thereafter), and the last on Vocalion.  The following year, they were reincarnated as the State Street Swingers, with even more jazz in their style.

Vocalion 03002 was recorded on January 10, 1935 in Chicago, Illinois.  It was more-or-less concurrently issued on Okeh 8962.  Personnel for this session is disputed, and differs for each side.  According to the ever-reliable Stefan Wirz’ American Music discographies, both sides feature the talents of Black Bob on piano, and possibly Bill Settles on string bass.  The first side features Carl Martin on guitar and singing and Zeb Wright on fiddle, while the second has Big Bill Broonzy on fiddle and singing and Bill “Jazz” Gillum on harmonica.

“Don’t Tear My Clothes”—seemingly the first recording of the blues standard—is one of my personal favorites, and I consider it to be the definitive version.  Some sources state the vocalist on this side to be Big Bill rather than Carl Martin, and it does sound a bit like Broonzy.  But it also sounds like Carl Martin.  I long believed it to be Broonzy myself (with admittedly very little research into it at the time), but I’ve come around to agree that it sounds more like Martin’s voice and guitar picking.

Don’t Tear My Clothes, recorded January 10, 1935 by the State Street Boys.

On the “B” side, Big Bill (and this time it’s definitely him) sings and plays fiddle on “She Caught the Train”—a great opportunity to hear him on an instrument other than his usual guitar.  The identity of the second (frankly rather bad) vocalist is unknown, but I would imagine that it would have to be one of the other members of the band.

She Caught the Train, recorded January 10, 1935 by the State Street Boys.

Conqueror 8274 – Callahan Brothers – 1934

Following in the same vein as popular sibling acts such as the Delmore Brothers, the, Callahan Brothers—consisting of the duo of Homer and Walter (who later adopted the sobriquets Bill and Joe for the sake of brevity)—made a name for themselves in the budding country music industry of the Great Depression-era.

Hailing from the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, in the county of Madison, Walter Callahan, born January 27, 1910, and his brother Homer, born March 27, 1912, grew up surrounded by the rich musical culture of the mountain folks.  As they were in adolescence, the soon-to-be-famous Jimmie Rodgers was getting his start singing on the radio in nearby Asheville, and in the year of the Singing Brakeman’s demise, 1933, the Callahans got their own big break in the very same town.  While singing and yodeling at an Asheville music festival, the brothers were discovered by a talent scout for the American Record Corporation, who invited them to New York for a session.  They obliged, and had their first record date on January 2, 1934, a session which produced a hit with “She’s My Curly Headed Baby”.  With a two-guitar accompaniment and a repertoire consisting of old sentimental songs such as “Maple On the Hill” to hokums like “Somebody’s Been Using That Thing” to straight blues like “St. Louis Blues”, they were able to produce a string of decently selling records during the times of economic depression.  In addition to their work as a duet, the brothers also each recorded solo.  Around the time of their recording debut, the duo also began appearing on Asheville’s WWNC, soon moving to WHAS in Louisville, and then to WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia.  Walter retired back home for a brief period in the late 1930s, leaving brother Homer to continue solo for a time.

Reunited at the end of the 1930s, Walter and Homer changed their names to Joe and Bill, respectively, and went to Texas to begin performing on KRLD in Dallas.  There, they became early members of the station’s Big D Jamboree when it debuted in the late 1940s.  They also recorded transcriptions to be played on the Mexican border blaster stations, bringing their music to an even wider audience.  In 1945, they made an appearance with Jimmy Wakely in the Western movie Springtime in Texas.  They continued singing on the radio and on records into the 1950s.  Also in the 1950s, Homer/Bill worked as manager to Lefty Frizzell.  Walter/Joe retired back home once again by the end of that decade, this time for keeps, and became a grocer.  He died in North Carolina on September 10, 1971.  Homer stayed in Texas and in music for the rest of his long life, which came to an end on September 12, 2002.

Conqueror 8274 was recorded In New York City on January 3 and 2, 1934, respectively, the Callahans’ first sessions.  Homer and Walter Callahan sing and yodel, accompanied by their own two guitars.

From the second day of the Callahan Brothers’ first sessions, the duo sings and yodels the lonesome song “I Don’t Want to Hear Your Name”.

I Don’t Want to Hear Your Name, recorded January 3, 1934 by the Callahan Brothers.

On the reverse, the brothers sing a hot hillbilly take on W.C. Handy’s famous “St. Louis Blues”, cut on their first record date.

St. Louis Blues, recorded January 2, 1934 by the Callahan Brothers.

Vocalion 1727 – Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law) – 1932

The last thing we heard from the East St. Louis blues king Peetie Wheatstraw was a couple of swing-blues sides from the tail end of his career.  Now, let us direct our attentions eight years earlier toward the beginning of his recorded legacy.

A cropped version of the only known photograph of Wheatstraw, pictured in Decca catalog.

Though the only known photograph of William Bunch—better known as Peetie Wheatstraw—depicts him holding a National metal-bodied resonator guitar, the artist played piano on the overwhelming majority of his recordings, while guitar was provided by the likes of Charley Jordan, Kokomo Arnold, or Lonnie Johnson. Other times he played nothing at all, only singing and leaving his accompaniment solely to other musicians.  But that depiction of Peetie was not entirely inaccurate; it is said that he started out his musical career on the guitar and learned to handle the instrument with proficiency, before switching to piano later on.  By the time he made his first records in 1930, he was primarily playing piano, developing a signature formula which he continued to use for the majority of his more than one-hundred-fifty sides.  In 1932 however, Wheatstraw had a pair of stand-out sessions which departed from his standard formula.  On a recording trip to New York City in March of 1932, Wheatstraw first played piano for Charley Jordan on a series of sides, then Peetie picked up the guitar himself, and, on March fifteenth and seventeenth, he laid down four blues songs unlike any other that he recorded: “Police Station Blues”—later echoed by Robert Johnson in his “Terraplane Blues”—and “All Alone Blues” on the former day, and “Can’t See Blues” and “Sleepless Nights’ Blues” on the latter. Afterward, he returned home to East St. Louis, and didn’t cut another record for two years, by which time he had settled into his formula, and never touched a guitar again, at least on records.

Vocalion 1727 was recorded on March 15, 1932 in New York City.  Peetie Wheatstraw sings and plays guitar on both sides.  Both sides were also reissued around 1938 to ’39, each on separate records, with the first side appearing on Vocalion 04592 and the second on Vocalion 04912.

First, despite whatever technical limitations Peetie may have had, he dishes out a wonderful performance on “Sleepless Nights’ Blues”, a great classic of equal or perhaps greater merit than his more popular “Police Station”, earning its way into the Yazoo compilation St. Louis Blues 1929-1935, The Depression.

Sleepless Nights’ Blues, recorded March 15, 1932 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).

Reusing many of the licks heard on the previous side (though actually vice-versa, since this one was recorded earlier), Wheatstraw next sings “Can’t See Blues”.  Like his piano playing, Wheatstraw had a very idiosyncratic style of playing guitar (which is to say, he typically followed a very similar pattern in all of the songs he played).

Can’t See Blues, recorded March 15, 1932 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).