Vocalion 3567 – Erskine Hawkins and his ‘Bama State Collegians – 1937

Erskine Hawkins in 1936 or earlier, pictured in the 1942 Victor and Bluebird Catalog.

Right up there in the pantheon of great jazz trumpeters resides the “Twentieth Century Gabriel”, bandleader Erskine Hawkins, whose popular recordings helped to define the Swing Era.

Erskine Ramsay Hawkins was born in Birmingham, Alabama on July 26, 1914, named for local industrialist Erskine Ramsay, who promised to open bank accounts for boys named in his honor.  He attended Birmingham’s Industrial High School and played trumpet in the band under director Fess Whately before graduating to the State Teachers College.  There, he led the ‘Bama State Collegians, with whom he later traveled to New York to embark on his recording career.  Hawkins cut his first two records on July 20, 1936 for Vocalion, debuting with “It Was a Sad Night in Harlem”.  Thereafter, he returned to the Vocalion studio four times, recording four sides at each session, resulting in a total of twenty.  He also secured a gig as house band at Harlem’s renowned Savoy Ballroom, alternating with Chick Webb’s orchestra, an arrangement which lasted a decade.  Billed as the “Twentieth Century Gabriel”, as his popularity climbed, he was signed by the RCA Victor Company in 1938 to record for their Bluebird label, a fruitful arrangement that resulted in prolific recordmaking and numerous successes, including his own “Tuxedo Junction” in 1939—most famously covered by Glenn Miller’s orchestra—and “Tippin’ In” in 1945.  He remained with RCA Victor, eventually graduating to their flagship Victor label, until 1950, after which he moved to Decca’s budget label Coral.  After the conclusion of the Swing Era following World War II, like so many of his contemporaries, Hawkins’ fame began to wind down, but he remained active as a musician.  From the 1960s until the end of his career, he led the house orchestra at the Concord Resort Hotel in the Catskill Mountains of New York.  Erskine Hawkins died on November 11, 1993 at his home in New Jersey.

Vocalion 3567 was recorded on April 19, 1937 in New York City.  The ‘Bama State Collegians are Erskine Hawkins, Wilbur Bascomb, Marcellus Green, and Sam Lowe on trumpets, Edward Sims and Robert Range on trombones, William Johnson and Jimmy Mitchelle on alto saxes, Paul Bascomb on tenor sax, Haywood Henry on clarinet and baritone sax, Avery Parrish on piano, William McLemore on guitar, Leemie Stanfield on string bass, and James Morrison on drums.

First up, the ‘Bama State Collegians play a swinging orchestration of the Stephen Foster standard “The Old Folks at Home”, here given the familiar title “‘Way Down Upon the Swanee River”.

‘Way Down Upon the Swanee River, recorded on April 19, 1937 by Erskine Hawkins and his ‘Bama State Collegians.

On the flip, they play an outstanding jazz rendition of the 1921 Henry Creamer and Turner Layton composition “Dear Old Southland”, quite probably my personal favorite swing side.  Brian Rust notes that this piece was arranged by trumpeter Sam Lowe, and I suspect the former side was as well, though not noted as such.

Dear Old Southland, recorded on April 19, 1937 by Erskine Hawkins and his ‘Bama State Collegians.

Victor 23580 – Jimmie Rodgers – 1930/1931

Jimmie Rodgers gussied up in a tuxedo, with his signature “Blue Yodel” Martin guitar, circa 1930.

After ascending to stardom with hits like “Sleep Baby Sleep” and “Blue Yodel”, Jimmie Rodgers began relentlessly touring across the United States, often to his own physical detriment.  In the summer of 1930, Rodgers was in Hollywood.  While there he had a total of ten recording sessions between the thirtieth of June and the sixteenth of July.  During that time, he recorded a total of fourteen sides, including such classics as “Moonlight and Skies”, “Pistol Packin’ Papa”, and “Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues)”, and was backed by a variety of talent including Lani McIntire’s Hawaiians and Bob Sawyer’s Jazz Band.  On his final Hollywood session, Rodgers recorded only a single title, another installment in his “Blue Yodel” series titled “Standin’ On the Corner”.  For accompaniment, he was joined by a young trumpeter who had just arrived in California for an engagement at Frank Sebastian’s New Cotton Club in Culver City, an up-and-coming talent named Louis Armstrong, and his wife Lil on piano.  How exactly this rather unlikely collaboration came to be is lost to time; Armstrong in later years recounted that he’d “been knowin’ Jimmie for a long time,” and “Jimmie said, ‘man, I feel like singin’ some blues,’ [and Louis] said ‘okay daddy, you sing some blues, and I’m gonna blow behind you,’ and that’s the way the record started!”  It certainly wasn’t the first time Rodgers had been backed by jazz players.  Likely, the session was engineered by Ralph Peer, who was acquainted with Armstrong as well as Rodgers.  In any event, the resulting music etched into hot wax that day became the stuff of legend, three great American styles of music—jazz, blues, and “hillbilly”—all crossed paths to make something even greater, brought together by two of the greatest figures in all of America’s rich musical legacy: Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong.

Victor 23580 was recorded in two separate sessions, the first on July 16, 1930 in Hollywood, California, and the second on June 15, 1931 in Louisville, Kentucky.  Victor files report a total of 25,071 copies sold—not bad for 1931.  The 78 Quarterly included the disc in their “Rarest 78s” section of the tenth issue, suggesting “less than fifteen?”  Frankly, I suspect that there are quite a few more copies out there than that, but it is regardless one of Rodgers’ more sought after records due to the accompaniment.  On the “A” side, Rodgers is accompanied by Louis and Lil Armstrong on trumpet and piano, respectively.  On “B” he is accompanied by Cliff Carlisle on steel guitar, Wilber Ball on guitar, and his own ukulele.

On the “A” side, Jimmie sings and yodels that rough-and-tumble blues number, the ninth entry in his famous series, “Blue Yodel Number 9 (Standin’ On the Corner)”.  The song bears considerable resemblance to another blues song on which Louis played four years prior: “The Bridwell Blues” by Nolan Walsh, which featured a similar piano and trumpet accompaniment and the opening lines, “I was standing on the corner, did not mean no harm… and a police came, nabbed me by my arm,” raising questions over whether Rodgers was familiar with Armstrong’s work, or, conversely, that Armstrong had an uncredited hand in composing the song.  “The Bridwell Blues” itself was preceded by “Standing On the Corner Blues” by Ozie McPherson, further cementing Jimmie Rodgers’ foundation in the blues, and the “standin’ on the corner” lyric dates back at least to the 1895 Ben Harney and John Biller composition “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon but You’ve Done Broke Down”, likely earlier.

Blue Yodel Number 9, recorded July 16, 1930 by Jimmie Rodgers.

On the reverse, Jimmie sings another dilly: “Looking for a New Mama”.  This is one of only two recorded sides that have Jimmie playing ukulele (the other being “Dear Old Sunny South By the Sea” from 1928).  Ralph Peer in later years opined that Rodgers’ peculiar chording techniques on the guitar were carried over from his skill on the ukulele.  Jimmie also claimed proficiency on banjo and steel guitar, though he was never recorded playing either.

Looking for a New Mama, recorded June 15, 1931 by Jimmie Rodgers.

Vocalion 04145 – Shelly Lee Alley and his Alley Cats – 1938

Shelly Lee Alley pictured in the Hillbilly Hit Parade of 1941.

Though he never achieved the stardom of contemporaries like Bob Wills or Spade Cooley—or even Milton Brown—songwriter and fiddler Shelly Lee Alley left his mark on music history as one of the founding fathers of the Texas-born, jazz-inflected style of music now called western swing, despite hesitations toward so-called “hillbilly” music.

Shelly Lee Alley was born on July 6, 1894 on his father’s farm in Alleyton, Texas, descended from Stephen F. Austin’s original “old three hundred” settlers.  The Alleys being a musical family, Shelly learned to play the fiddle, and had reportedly composed his first song by the age of six.  During the First World War, Alley led a band at Camp Travis in San Antonio.  After the war, he led several successful dance bands in Dallas, and started out performing on the newly emerging medium of radio early in the 1920s.  Though initially focusing on popular music, by the end of the 1920s, Alley began to shift his focus to the burgeoning form that would later become known as western swing.  Alley was well-acquainted with Jimmie Rodgers, who recorded his “Travellin’ Blues” in 1931, with Alley and his brother Alvin accompanying on fiddles, and “Gambling Barroom Blues” the following year, backed by Clayton McMichen’s band.  In the first half of the 1930s, he played in various fiddle bands around South Texas, and in the middle of the decade, Alley organized a band called “Alley Cats”.  After sitting in on a session with Lummie Lewis and His Merry Makers, Alley began recording with his Alley Cats in 1937.  At various times, the Alley Cats included Cliff Bruner, Ted Daffan, Leon “Pappy” Selph, and Harry Choates, all of whom would become stars in their own right.  Between 1937 and 1940, Alley recorded sixty-seven titles for the Vocalion, most or all his own compositions, followed by a further six for Bluebird in 1941.  Alley disbanded the Alley Cats during World War II, but brought the group back to make one record for the Globe label in 1946.  A consistently sickly fellow who was known to imbibe paregoric, Shelly Lee Alley largely retired from performing in the 1940s.  Alley cut his last record in 1955 for Jet in Houston, singing two of his own compositions accompanied by the Jet Staff Band. Alley died on June 1, 1964 in Houston.

Vocalion 04145 was recorded on May 10th and 11th, 1938 in Dallas, Texas.  The Alley Cats are Shelly Lee Alley and Cliff Bruner on fiddles, Anthony Scanlin on clarinet and tenor sax, Ted Daffan on steel guitar, and on the “A” side Douglas Blaikie on piano and Lester J. Voss on string bass, replaced with an unknown pianist and Pinkie Dawson on “B”.  Alley provides the vocals on both sides.

First, the Alley Cats get low-down and dirty on Alley’s “Try it Once Again”.

Try it Once Again, recorded May 10, 1938 by Shelly Lee Alley and his Alley Cats.

On the back, they get real hot on another of Alley’s compositions: “You’ve Got It”.

You’ve Got It, recorded May 11, 1938 by Shelly Lee Alley and his Alley Cats.

Gem 3522 – Dick Robertson and his Orchestra – 1933

Dick Robertson, as pictured on the cover of Decca’s 1941 catalog.

Alongside Chick Bullock as one of the most prolific vocalists of the 1930s, though perhaps even more so, the voice of Dick Robertson was near omnipresent during the years of the Great Depression.  Though easily dismissed due to his nature as a studio vocalist, and the sheer volume of his work, Robertson was a competent singer who contributed countless excellent performances over a career stretching more than twenty years.

Dick Robertson was born on July 3, 1903, in Brooklyn, New York (though some sources assert 1900).  Prior to entering the show business, he worked in construction as a foreman.  Robertson began his career in music in the second half of the 1920s, entering the recording industry in 1927, partnered with recording veteran and career duet partner Ed Smalle.  He continued to record with Smalle for a time before striking out on his own as a jack-of-all-trades vocalist.  At different times, he played most every role a singer could: crooner, jazz singer, hillbilly, and many others.  As did many, Robertson used a variety of pseudonyms throughout his career, some more memorable ones being “Bob Richardson”, “Bob Dickson”, and “Bobby Dix”.  He recorded as a solo vocalist for Brunswick in the last two years of the 1920s and Victor in the first few of the 1930s.  At the same time, Robertson began recording extensively with dance and jazz bands on virtually every label, with orchestras ranging from those of Leo Reisman and Ben Selvin to Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, and frequently with Gene Kardos’ band.  In the early 1930s, he began fronting various bands to record as “Dick Robertson and his Orchestra”, first on the ARC and Crown dimestore labels, then for Bluebird from 1933 to ’35, and finally graduating to Decca in 1935, for whom he recorded steadily until 1944, promoted as one of their many top artists.  Still, he continued to sing as a studio vocalist with other groups all the while, up until the middle of the 1940s, racking up hundreds of vocal credits (and many more uncredited performances).  Robertson also proved to be quite a capable songwriter, his most notable composition being “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me)”, which became a hit for the Ink Spots in 1940.  He made his last recordings in 1949 on Decca’s subsidiary label Coral, after which he disappeared into obscurity.  Dick Robertson reportedly died on July 13, 1979, ten days after his seventy-sixth birthday.

Gem 3522 was recorded in July of 1933 by Dick Robertson fronting a studio band, probably that of Walter Feldkamp.  It was also issued on Crown with the same catalog number.  Gem was a short-lived offshoot of the Crown label, which itself only existed for three years.  Much like RCA Victor’s Sunrise label, it lasted only for several months, and its purpose is uncertain.  Presumably it was pressed as a client label for some retailer, though, to my knowledge, no one knows for whom they were made.

First, Robertson gives a fine delivery of Billy Hill and Peter DeRose’s “Louisville Lady”, a haunting tale about a jilted lover who threw herself into the Ohio River, sung from the perspective of her man, who comes to the riverside to beg forgiveness from his lost love.  Certainly this must be one of Robertson’s best, at least of the sides he recorded under his own name.

Louisville Lady, recorded July 1933 by Dick Robertson and his Orchestra.

On the “B” side, Dick croons the Andy Razaf and Reginald Foresythe penned Dixie melody “Mississippi Basin”, another jim dandy.

Mississippi Basin, recorded July 1933 by Dick Robertson and his Orchestra.

Romeo 5025 – Sammy Sampson/Georgia Tom – 1930

Big Bill with his Gibson Style O guitar, as pictured in the 1941 Okeh race records catalog.

Previously on Old Time Blues, we took a look at one of the earliest records made by the illustrious Big Bill Broonzy, featuring the two rambunctious rags “Saturday Night Rub” and “Pig Meat Strut”.  Now that the time to pay birthday tributes to Mr. Broonzy has rolled around yet again, we turn our attention to another piece of work dating to one month earlier in Big Bill’s long and extensive career.

After his first 1927 and ’28 Paramount records brought little commercial success, Big Bill took a hiatus from recording.  Come 1930 however, he made his triumphant return, sitting in on an American Record Corporation session on April 8th, backing Frank Brasswell on two characteristic blues sides, then joining with the “Famous Hokum Boys”, under the auspices of founding member Georgia Tom Dorsey, to cut a re-do of the classic “Somebody’s Been Using That Thing” and three hot guitar rags.  The following day, Bill got his own time in the limelight—after a fashion—when he recorded three solo efforts of his own, “I Can’t Be Satisfied”, “Grandma’s Farm”, and “Skoodle Do Do”, all released under the pseudonym “Sammy Sampson”.  Bill continued to record under that name—excluding the results his three or four excursions to Richmond, and one to Grafton—until 1932, when the ARC (and Bluebird, for a time) finally decided to start putting out his records under his own name, albeit without his last name credited, which didn’t make it onto labels until he started recording for Mercury in 1949 (save for composer credits, which were often attributed to “Willie Broonzy” of “Williard Broonzy”).

Romeo 5025 was recorded on April 9 and 10, 1930 in New York City.  “Sammy Sampson” is, of course, a pseudonym for Big Bill Broonzy. It was also issued on Oriole 8025 and Jewel 20025, and side “A” also appeared on Perfect 157 backed with “Skoodle Do Do”.  The 78 Quarterly speculated “more than thirty [copies] on all labels,” making it perhaps not quite rare, but rather scarce nonetheless (if we’re going to split hairs), while the Perfect issue was estimated at “less than fifteen”.

On his outstanding “I Can’t Be Satisfied”, Big Bill is accompanied by his usual partner in his early days, the flatpicking Frank Brasswell, on second guitar.  To be frank, Big Bill’s earliest works were sometimes rather hit or miss; this one’s a hit—enough of one that it was covered by Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys about six years later.  It’s like rock ‘n’ roll twenty years early, only better—one of Bill’s best recordings, in my opinion.

I Can’t Be Satisfied, recorded April 9, 1930 bu Sammy Sampson.

On the flip-side, Georgia Tom Dorsey sings “Mama’s Leaving Town” in a characteristic style much in the same vein as his “Grievin’ Me Blues”—in fact, the two have very similar melodies.  He is accompanied by Broonzy on guitar.  If the song was a little peppier and hokumier, it probably would’ve been credited to the “Famous Hokum Boys”.

Mama’s Leaving Town, recorded April 10, 1930 by Georgia Tom.