Okeh 41571 – Chick Webb and his Orchestra – 1934

February 10th marks the anniversary of the birth of one of several men who may well have been the father of swing music—the incomparable Chick Webb.

Chick was born William Henry Webb in Baltimore, Maryland.  The year of his birth has been disputed, with 1902, 1905, 1907, and 1909 all suggested, though ’05 is the most likely candidate.  As a child, tuberculosis of the spine stunted his growth and led to his hunchbacked appearance.  His doctor suggested the young Webb take up the drums to help alleviate his condition, so he worked as a newsboy to save up enough money for a kit.  By the mid-1920s, he was leading a band in Harlem.  After one unissued side for Vocalion in ’27, Webb cut his first record for Brunswick in 1928, issued under the pseudonym “The Jungle Band” (a name usually reserved for Duke Ellington’s recordings on that label).  These two Brunswick sides, titled “Dog Bottom” and “Jungle Mama” were stomping hot jazz.  In 1931, Webb’s orchestra became the house band of the famed Savoy Ballroom in Harlem,  Following a ’31 date with Vocalion, Webb signed with Columbia, waxing thirteen sides in 1933 and ’34, four of which appeared on their subsidiary Okeh label.  Two months after completing his final Okeh recordings in July of 1934, Webb signed with Decca, which would last him the remainder of his career.  Not too long after beginning his contract with Decca, Webb brought on a new girl singer by the name of Ella Fitzgerald.  In a number of “battles of the bands” at the Savoy, Webb and his orchestra bested the likes of Benny Goodman and Count Basie, though he once lost to Duke Ellington’s band.  By the end of the 1930s, however, Webb’s condition was catching up to him.  Following an operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Chick Webb died on June 16, 1939 in his hometown of Baltimore.

Okeh 41571 was recorded on July 6, 1934 in New York City by Chick Webb and his Orchestra.  Purportedly, matrices W 152770 and W 152772 were the last masters recorded by the Columbia Phonograph Company before its absorption into the American Record Corporation.  Webb’s Orchestra is made up of Mario Bauza, Bobby Stark, and Taft Jordan on trumpets, Sandy Williams and Fernando Arbello on trombones, Pete Clark and Edgar Sampson an alto saxes, Elmer Williams and Wayman Carver on tenor saxes, Joe Steele on piano, John Trueheart on banjo and guitar, John Kirby on string bass, and of course Chick Webb on drums.

First up, baritone Charles Linton delivers a wonderful vocal on Webb’s all-around magnificent rendition of the 1932 “Fats” Waller, Don Redman, and Andy Razaf standard “If it Ain’t Love”.

If it Ain’t Love, recorded July 6, 1934 by Chick Webb and his Orchestra.

Next, trumpet man Taft Jordan performs a Satchmo style vocal on “True”.

True, recorded July 6, 1934 by Chick Webb and his Orchestra.

Musicraft 31 – Negro Sinful Songs Sung by Lead Belly – 1939

In 1942, Woody Guthrie purchased a copy of Negro Sinful Songs, the Musicraft record album by his friend and colleague Lead Belly, as a gift for his wife.  A true poet, he inscribed at follows:

The gift I’d buy, had to be better than perfume and stronger than metal.  It had to be the simplicity of a whole people and the dignity of a race, the honesty of a saloon and the frenzy of a church.  So when I heard Lead Belly’s voice on these records, I thought here is the surprise I’ve been looking for.  Surprise!

Now, as Guthrie honored his wife with the album, we pay tribute to the man himself: Huddie Ledbetter—the legendary Lead Belly.  I’d pursued this set for quite a long while.  It didn’t come cheap, but I have to say, hokey as it might sound, I really am profoundly moved by these records.  I hope that you will be, too.

Negro Sinful Songs Sung by Lead Belly.  Later pressings switched to a (less evocative) design featuring a portrait of Lead Belly, rather than this one of black sharecroppers.

The exact date and year of Huddie William Ledbetter’s birth are uncertain—the date is most often given as January 20, believed to have been in 1888 or ’89 (the latter is officially offered by the Lead Belly Foundation), January 29, 1885 has also been suggested—but it is known that he was born on the Jeter Plantation in northwestern Louisiana, close to Mooringsport, the son of sharecroppers Wesley and Sallie Ledbetter.  When Huddie was five years old, the Ledbetters bought a piece of land in East Texas and moved across the state border, starting a farm of their own.  His first instrument was the accordion (or “windjammer” as he called it), and his uncle Terrell introduced him to the guitar not long after.  By the turn of the century, Huddie was an accomplished musicianer.  When his father would travel into Shreveport to sell their crops, Huddie would “put on long pants” and go down on Fannin Street to play his music.  He set out on his own in his early twenties, making his living as an itinerant songster.  In the early part of the 1910s, Ledbetter was in Dallas, playing the blues with Blind Lemon Jefferson in Deep Ellum.  He reportedly became enamored with the twelve-string guitar after seeing a Mexican musician performing with one.

In 1918, Ledbetter killed a man in a fight over a woman in Dallas (he was later quoted as saying, “a man tried to cut my head off.”), and was sentenced to thirty years imprisonment in Huntsville, Texas.  With no possibility for parole, he wrote a song to Governor Pat Neff, appealing for a pardon—”[If I] had you, Governor Neff, like you got me, I’d wake up in the morning and I’d set your free.”  In his final days in office, Neff granted his pardon on January 15, 1925, Ledbetter having served six years, seven months and eight days of his sentence.  In 1930 however, Ledbetter was back behind bars after a fight with three white men in Mooringsport, Louisiana.  The sheriff saved him from a lynch mob, but he was sentenced to five-to-ten years at Angola Prison Farm   At some point during one of Ledbetter’s prison stays, he acquired the nickname “Lead Belly”.  Exactly how it came to be is uncertain, but the name stuck, and he used throughout all of his professional musical career.  Three years into his sentence at Angola—in July of 1933—the prison was visited by John Avery Lomax and his son Alan, who were traveling the South with a trunkload of recording equipment to capture the folk music of America for the Library of Congress.  There, they captured Lead Belly’s voice on record for the first time.  Lomax returned the following year, eager to record Lead Belly’s extensive repertoire of folk songs; Lead Belly was eager to find someone to deliver his petition for a pardon to Governor O.K. Allen.  Following his release, Lead Belly returned to John A. Lomax, asking that he allow him to assist in his travels, lest his release be rescinded.  Lomax obliged, and Lead Belly accompanied him in his travels from September until the end of 1934.

Lomax, with Lead Belly along, arrived back in New York City around the New Year of 1935, and Lead Belly achieved notoriety, appearing in a March of Time newsreel and radio program made in celebration Lomax’s greatest discovery.  Ledbetter married his sweetheart, Martha Promise, that January, and she became his manager.  Days later, he made his first commercial recordings for American Record Corporation; he was introduced to their A&R man Art Satherly by recording artist Tex Ritter.  From the twenty-third to the twenty-fifth of January, the fifth of February, and twenty-fifth of March of 1935, Lead Belly cut more than forty sides for the ARC, of which only three records (six sides, that is) were released.  Those issued were all blues sides, rather than his folk songs.  These “race records” didn’t prove too popular with black listeners, who by that time were more interested in modern artists like Big Bill Broonzy than Lead Belly’s country blues, and they sold rather poorly.  That March, Lead Belly accompanied Lomax on a lecture in colleges across New England.

A full color spread of Lead Belly, as published in Life magazine on April 19, 1937.

The day after his final ARC session, Lead Belly left for Louisiana—moving to Dallas soon after—and his partnership with Lomax ended rather acrimoniously, with a paycheck for three-hundred dollars—Lead Belly’s cut of the 1,500 dollars they earned during their time together, subtracting “expenses for purchasing a new Stella guitar, clothing, dentist’s fees, etc.”  When he arrived in Shreveport, Lead Belly hired a lawyer and filed suit against John A. Lomax for full payment of his earnings while working for Lomax.  The suit was settled that September for two-hundred-fifty dollars, with Lead Belly asking for a reconciliation between the two.  By the early part of 1936, the Ledbetters had returned to New York, living in an apartment on West 52nd Street.  That November, John and Alan Lomax published Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly, and the following April, Lead Belly was publicized in a Life magazine spread.  By the latter half of the 1930s, there was a surge in popularity for folk music burgeoning in New York, championed largely by leftists and union agitators, and Lead Belly was soon to become endeared to their movement.  As early as 1937, he was already being touted as a “people’s artist.”  While those folk singers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger dressed in workingman’s garb—flannel shirts and denim workwear—Lead Belly, no doubt fed up on those styles from his time working on the field and in prison, always wore fine clothes—double breasted suits and bow ties.

On March 5, 1939, Lead Belly was jailed for assault at Riker’s Island, and once bailed, Alan Lomax arranged for a recording session with the “high end” record label Musicraft on the first of April.  These were to be his first commercial recordings since his ARC sessions in 1935, the proceeds of which would help with Lead Belly’s legal expenses.  Ten sides were released by Musicraft in an album titled Negro Sinful Songs Sung by Lead Belly.  As the folk music movement grew, so did Lead Belly’s popularity.  He began to perform on the radio, and achieve greater success.  In June of 1940, Alan Lomax convinced Victor to record Lead Belly, and he produced another album, this time paired with the Golden Gate Quartet to produce the three disc set The Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison Songs.  The next year, he attended the third inauguration of President Roosevelt, and began recording for Moe Asch’s Asch Records.  All the while, he continued to record prolifically for the Library of Congress.  In the middle of the 1940s, Lead Belly traveled to Los Angeles, California while Paramount Pictures optioned John A. Lomax’s autobiography Adventures of a Ballad Hunter as a picture, starring Bing Crosby as Lomax and Josh White as Ledbetter (oh how I wish that had come to fruition).  While there, Lead Belly had a short-lived radio program, and—again thanks to Tex Ritter—recorded twelve sides for Capitol Records.

Throughout the entire decade of the 1940s, Lead Belly’s popularity and success skyrocketed.  From humble beginnings, he was being touted as “quite probably the greatest living American folk singer.”  He toured, appearing in countless concerts, mostly in New York by the ’40s.  But by the end of the decade, Lead Belly started to wind down.  His success was soaring in 1949, and he embarked for a tour of Europe, but he soon fell ill, and was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in Paris.  On his return to the states, Lead Belly played his last concert on June 15, 1949 at the University of Texas in Austin, remembering the life of John A. Lomax, who had died from a stroke the previous year.  On December 6, 1949, Huddie Ledbetter succumbed to his illness and died at the Bellevue Hospital in New York City, leaving behind a legacy of well over five hundred recorded songs and a profound impact on all the world’s music for generations to come.

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Columbia 2586-D – Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra – 1931

So the time again come again to pay tribute to one of the forefathers of swing music and leader of one of the finest jazz orchestras of the 1920s and ’30s, the incomparable Fletcher Henderson.

Fletcher Hamilton Henderson, Jr., was born on December 18, 1897 into a middle class family in Cuthbert, Georgia in a home built by his father.  Like so many, Fletcher learned to play piano as a boy, along with his brother Horace, who also went on to become a noted jazz musician and bandleader.  Henderson graduated from Atlanta University in 1920 with a bachelor’s in chemistry and mathematics, and thereafter moved to New York City with intention to attend Columbia University.  He got sidetracked soon after arriving however, and instead made his entry into the world of Harlem’s jazz music; while lodging with a riverboat musician, Fletcher filled in for him from time to time.  He soon began working as a song plugger for W.C. Handy, which led his getting his big break in 1921.  When publisher Harry Pace broke with Handy to form Black Swan Records, he made Henderson the musical director for the fledgling “race” label.  At Black Swan, Henderson led his first orchestra, and he continued to lead after the company folded in 1923.  Henderson began to record prolifically on most every record label in existence, both as a bandleader and as an accompanist to early blues singers.  In its heyday, his band often included jazz luminaries such as Don Redman, Coleman Hawkins, and, for a stretch in 1924 and ’25, Louis Armstrong.  A car accident in August of 1928 left Henderson with a few broken bones, and by some accounts a depression that caused his work to decline in quality.  Nonetheless, his orchestra continued to perform and record for another decade.  In 1931, his became the house band of Connie’s Inn, a prominent Harlem nightclub comparable to the famed Cotton Club.  As the swing era began to swing later in that decade, rising star Benny Goodman began purchasing arrangements from Henderson for his own orchestra to play; Goodman’s legendary rendition of Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter” is practically a recreation of Henderson’s recordings of the same from 1928, ’32, and ’33.  He continued to lead his own band as well until 1939, at which point he disbanded his group to join Goodman’s as a staff arranger, but re-formed an orchestra and recorded sporadically throughout the 1940s.  A stroke in 1950 left Henderson partially paralyzed, and he retired from music.  Fletcher Henderson died two years later on December 29, 1950.

Columbia 2586-D was recorded on December 2, 1931 in New York City.  The orchestra consists of Russell Smith, Rex Stewart, and Bobby Stark on trumpets, Jimmy Harrison and Claude Jones on trombone, Benny Carter on clarinet and alto sax, Harvey Boone on alto sax, Coleman Hawkins on tenor sax, Fletcher Henderson on piano, Clarence Holiday (that’s Billie’s father) on banjo and guitar, John Kirby on string bass and tuba, and Walter Johnson on drums.

First up, Henderson’s orchestra plays what is in a constant struggle with “Copenhagen” for the title of my favorite of their tunes, Smack’s jazzed up fox trot arrangement of the old Paul Dresser waltz “My Gal Sal”.

My Gal Sal

My Gal Sal, recorded December 2, 1931 by Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra.

On the reverse, they play “My Pretty Girl” in a similar manner as Jean Goldkette’s rendition of four years prior, with a vocal by Lois Deppe.

My Pretty Girl

My Pretty Girl, recorded December 2, 1931 by Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra.

Bluebird B-5403 – Delmore Brothers/Allen Brothers – 1933/1930

The Delmore Brothers, Rabon and Alton, as pictured on a WLS Grand Ole Opry publication, circa 1935.

Now what we have here is a good old-fashioned split release; one artist on one side, a different one on the other.  Not just any old split release though, these two sides happen to contain a couple of the hottest hillbilly performances of the Depression years.  Two of my own personal favorites at least.

Bluebird B-5403 was recorded on December 6, 1933 in Chicago, Illinois, and November 22, 1930 in Memphis, Tennessee, respectively, and was released on April 4, 1934.  The two sides also appeared together on Montgomery Ward M-4750.  The Delmore Brothers are Alton on guitar and Rabon on tenor guitar, vocals by both; the Allen Brothers are Austin on tenor banjo and vocals and Lee on guitar and kazoo.

The Delmore Brothers were born into a family of poor farmers in Elkmont, Alabama—first Alton on Christmas Day in 1908, then Rabon on December 3, 1916.  Their mother Mollie wrote and sang church songs, and soon Alton joined, publishing his first song with his mother in 1925.  They started out their musical career singing at local fiddle contests, and cut their first record for Columbia on October 28, 1931 in Atlanta.  Two years later, they secured a contract with RCA Victor’s Bluebird records, and spot on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry.  They found their greatest success as Opry members, playing alongside Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith and Uncle Dave Macon, and remained on the show until a dispute in 1939.  After parting ways, they continued to   The Delmores switched to the King label in 1944, shortly after the label’s inception, with whom they had some of their greatest record successes, including “Freight Train Boogie” in 1946 with harmonica player Wayne Raney, and “Blues Stay Away from Me” in 1949.  The Delmore Brothers’ career ended with Rabon’s early death from lung cancer on December 4, 1952.  Alton lived on for twelve more years, dying of a heart attack on June 8, 1964.

First up, from their first Bluebird session, Alton and Rabon Delmore sing and play up a real masterpiece on their spectacular and widely imitated hit composition “Brown’s Ferry Blues”, one of twelve sides recorded that day.  The Delmores followed up two years later with “Brown’s Ferry Blues-Part 2” and “Part 3” two years after that, and re-recorded the popular tune all the way in 1946 for King Records.

Brown’s Ferry Blues, recorded December 6, 1933 by the Delmore Brothers.

Not to be confused with the Australian duo of the late 1960s, the Allen Brothers—Austin, born February 7, 1901, and Lee, born June 1, 1906—originated from Sewanee, Tennessee, and got their start in music playing in medicine shows and coal mining towns.  Sometimes called the “Chattabooga Boys” for their frequent references to the Tennessee town, the duo made their first records for Columbia in April of 1927, and followed up with two further sessions for them until one of their records was mistakenly issued in their 14000-D “race” series rather than the 15000-D “Old Familiar Tunes” series, which seems to have offended the pair, because they threatened to bring a lawsuit against Columbia Records.  Instead, they switched to Victor for the vast bulk of their recorded output between 1928 and ’32.  They concluded their recording career with a series of sessions for Vocalion in October of 1934 (little did they know, apparently, that around that same time, Vocalion was under the same parent company as their forsaken Columbia).  After that, the vice grip of the Great Depression forced them to end their musical careers, and seek employment in the construction game.  Austin died on January 5, 1959, while Lee survived into the folk revival of the 1960s, when he was persuaded to perform once again, before his own death on February 24, 1981.

Here, the Chattanooga boys, Austin and Lee Allen sing their second take on this old folk ditty with “A New Salty Dog”.  This one was originally issued in Victor’s “Old Familiar Tunes” series, number 23514, in 1931.  Their old “Salty Dog” was recorded for Columbia in 1927; in my opinion, the “new” one’s better.

A New Salty Dog, recorded November 22, 1930 by the Allen Brothers.

Brunswick 6162 – Connie Boswell – 1931

We’ve celebrated the anniversary of the incomparable Miss Connie Boswell’s birth several times before here on Old Time Blues, but this time around it’s particularly significant, for it’s her 110th birthday.  Likewise, this is a particularly significant record for the occasion: Connie’s first solo record (excepting her early 1925 straggler).

Connie Boswell around 1932.

Connie was born Constance Foore Boswell—taking her middle name from her mother’s maiden name—in Kansas City, Missouri on December 3, 1907, the third of the Boswell children, and the middle Boswell sister.  They relocated to Birmingham when Connie was about three years old, and it was there where she suffered the incident that would leave her crippled, most likely by a bout of infantile paralysis, though her mother claimed it was the result of an accident involving a toy wagon.  In any event, she was left completely incapacitated, yet in spite of adversity, Connie recovered, even being able to stand up and walk after a fashion for a time, though she would later rely on a wheelchair.  Soon after the accident, the Boswells packed up and moved to New Orleans, where the children were exposed to—and became a part of—the genesis of jazz.

The three Boswell Sisters became a popular musical act around town, singing harmony and playing instruments; when the Victor Talking Machine Company made their first field trip to Houston and New Orleans, the Boswells made their first record.  Several years later, after some setbacks, the trio left for Chicago to embark on a vaudeville tour.  Eventually, they wound up in California, where they settled for a time in Los Angeles and became popular radio personalities.  Then a young hotel clerk they’d met and befriended in a seedy joint in San Francisco—Harry Leedy—came to visit and convinced them to take him on as their manager, and later Connie’s husband.  He succeeded in getting them a contract with Brunswick, and they traveled to New York to make records.  But in spite of his successful management of the trio, Leedy believed that Connie was the only sister with a lick of talent, and that the other two were essentially superfluous.  He pushed for Connie to do more solo work, which she did, and he positioned her to take more leading vocals on the Sisters’ records.  Ultimately, it’s likely that Leedy contributed considerably to the tensions that resulted in the Boswell Sisters 1936 breakup.

After the disintegration of the trio, Connie’s career fell into a bit of a slump, but her runaway swing hit of von Flotow’s “Martha” brought fast to the spotlight.  Throughout the remainder of the 1930s, and into the ’40s, she remained one of the most popular singers in the nation, duetting frequently with Bing Crosby.  She made a number of noteworthy film appearances in It’s All Yours and Artists and Models in 1937, the latter which saw her sing the Academy award nominated “Whispers in the Dark”, Kiss the Boys Goodbye in 1941, Syncopation in 1942, and Swing Parade of 1946.  Around 1942, she altered the spelling of her name to “Connee”, stating that it was easier to sign, but also possibly due to numerological reasons recommended by her sister Martha.  In the years following the Second World War, Connee Boswell’s career began to slow down, and she took a hiatus from her long time association with Decca Records in 1946.  The following year, she made two records for Apollo, and then quieted down for a five year stretch.  In 1952, Connee made a triumphant return to Decca, accompanied by Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five, but her voice was beginning to sound noticeably hoarse in her mid-forties.  Nonetheless, she continued making records and television appearances on programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show through the decade, concluding with her final album in 1958.  Also in ’58, she made an appearance in the movie Senior Prom, and took a recurring role as “Savannah Brown” in the television adaptation of Pete Kelly’s Blues.  Slowing down in the 1960s, Connee made two rock ‘n’ roll-esque 45s for the Charles label in 1962, her last commercial records.  After a fairly quiet decade, Connee Boswell died of stomach cancer on October 12, 1976.

Brunswick 6162 was recorded around July 27, 1931 in New York City.  Connie Boswell is accompanied more-or-less by the Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra, consisting of Manny Klein on trumpet, on trombone, Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet, Harry Hoffman on violin, sister Martha Boswell on piano, Dick McDonough on guitar, Joe Tarto on string bass, and Chauncey Morehouse on drums and vibraphone.

First, Connie sings an upbeat composition by the Harries Tobias and Barris, “What is It?”, with a little swinging going on in the background.

What is It?, recorded July 27, 1931 by Connie Boswell.

Next, Connie sings the lovely “I’m All Dressed Up With a Broken Heart”, a torch song which, much like Russ Columbo’s “You Call it Madness”, is truly evocative of its era.

I’m All Dressed Up With a Broken Heart, recorded July 27, 1931 by Connie Boswell.