Melotone M 12117 – Dessa Foster and Howling Smith – 1931

Some twenty years before Chester Burnett became famous as “Howlin’ Wolf”, another blues musician claimed that title for his own, a Texas guitarist and singer also known as “Funny Paper” Smith, called such after his eponymous “Howling Wolf Blues”, which he recorded in four parts in 1930 and ’31.  Regrettably, like so many of his contemporaries, very little is known of the life and times of the original “Howling Wolf”.

Most sources suggest that the blues singer and guitarist known as “Funny Paper Smith” was John T. Smith, as is indicated on the labels of the records he made for the Vocalion company in 1930 and ’31.  He is usually said to have been born in East Texas the 1880s or ’90s, and to have died sometime in the 1940s.  Indeed, there are some documents to corroborate that a black musician by the name of John Smith existed in Texas during those years, though aside from sharing the most common name around, there is little to connect him to “Funny Paper”.  It is also frequently suggested that his “Funny Paper” sobriquet was a mistake on the part of the record company, and that his nickname was properly “Funny Papa”.  A good deal of that information seems to derive from the notes of the 1972 Yazoo compilation of some of his material—The Original Howling Wolf—which itself appears to have mostly been derived from an interview with fellow Texas bluesman Thomas Shaw (the same album also erroneously displays an early photograph of the Black Ace purported as Smith, thus staining its claim to accuracy).

Recently released research by the esteemed Mack McCormick—continued by Bob Eagle—has related a compelling argument for a different scenario; they suggest that “John Smith” was merely an assumed name used by the artist to evade trouble back home.  In a 1962 interview, McCormick played one of the Smith’s records for Mrs. Alberta Cook White of Smithville, Texas, who identified the singer as her older brother, Otis Cook, whom she claimed was born there in Bastrop County on April 1, 1910.  She related that he learned to play guitar as a youth and began rambling around the state of Texas, leaving behind life as a farmer in favor of becoming an itinerant songster, playing at local functions and sometimes leaving home for weeks at a time to visit Waco and Dallas, possibly encountering Blind Lemon Jefferson along the way.  He was reportedly known to most of his contemporaries as the “Howling Wolf”, not as “Funny Papa” or “Funny Paper”, and he was described as being a tall, dark-skinned man of about one-hundred-sixty-five pounds (to complicate matters, it was suggested that the “Howling Wolf” name may have been used by more than one musician in Texas around the same time).  Census documents suggest he was incarcerated at Ramsey State Farm in Rosharon, Texas, on a charge of attempted arson in the spring of 1930, after which he promptly made for Chicago.  There, “Smith” began his career as a recording artist for Vocalion Records, the details surrounding which are considerably more certain than those surrounding his identity.

Dubbed “‘Funny Paper’ Smith (The Howling Wolf)”, he entered the studio for the first time on September 18, 1930, to make two unreleased test recordings for the Vocalion company, “Hobo Blues” and “Old Rounder’s Blues” for the Vocalion company—the latter perhaps a rendition of Lemon Jefferson’s song of the same name.  He made his debut in earnest the following day, cutting the first two installments of his eponymous, four-part, “Howling Wolf Blues” and two more sides the day after, all of which were issued this time around.  He returned to the studio thrice more before the end of the year to make another five sides.  The following year, he had a further five sessions resulting in fifteen more sides.  Afterwards, “Funny Paper” evidently went back home to Texas.  He resurfaced four years later in Fort Worth to record for Vocalion once again.  From the twentieth through the twenty-third of April, 1935, he cut a total of thirty-two sides—including parts five and six of “Howling Wolf Blues”—on some of which he was joined by Moanin’ Bernice Edwards and Black Boy Shine on pianos and vocals and “Little Brother” Willie Lane on guitar.  Of all those, only his three sides with Bernice Edwards were released, of which only one—a hot “skiffle” record—bore credit to “Howling Smith”; all others were “found to be faulty,” and never released in any form.  In all, his recording activities netted a grand total of fifty-six sides, though only twelve records were issued to his name.  In the late 1930s, “Smith” teamed up for a time with “Texas” Alexander before parting ways near the Oklahoma border, at which point Alexander joined with Lowell Fulson.  Sometime later, Otis Cook is believed to have settled down with a family back home in Bastrop, where he later died on August 29, 1979.  A testament to his reputation in his home state, the “Howling Wolf Blues” later became something of a standard among Texas blues players, with renditions made by his protégé Willie Lane, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Tom Shaw..

Melotone M 12117 was recorded on January 19, 1931, in Chicago, Illinois.  It was also issued on Polk P9013 and later on Vocalion 02699 in 1934.  Dessa Foster and J.T. “Funny Paper” Smith duet and banter on a novelty blues in the manner of those made by Victoria Spivey and Lonnie Johnson for Okeh, while Smith accompanies on guitar.  It has been proposed that “Dessa Foster” is a pseudonym for Mississippi Delta blues singer Mattie Delaney (frankly I’m rather dubious, but some compelling evidence has been presented, and there is a compelling aural similarity).

On the first part of the comic duet “Tell it to the Judge—No. 1”, Howling Smith plays the part of a police officer, barging into Miss Foster’s house with the question: “where that booze at?”

Tell it to the Judge—No. 1, recorded January 19, 1931 by Dessa Foster and Howling Smith.

Opening with a fine bit of guitar reminiscent of his work on “Honey Blues”, recorded the following month, Smith assumes the role of the titular judge on “Tell it to the Judge—No. 2”, and he’s not giving any more breaks to “Betty”.

Tell it to the Judge—No. 2, recorded January 19, 1931 by Dessa Foster and Howling Smith.

Brunswick 6181 – Herman Waldman and his Orchestra – 1931

In Old Time Blues’s continuing appreciation of both territory jazz bands and artists and musicians from Texas, we now turn our attention to one of the most successful dance orchestras from the state of Texas: that of Herman Waldman.

Bandleader Herman Waldman was born in New York City on January 26, 1902 (by his own account, though some sources suggest a date of two days later), the son of Austro-Hungarian immigrants Morris and Anna (née Sororowitz) Waldman.  The family had taken up residence in Dallas, Texas, before Herman was twenty.  As a youth, he worked as a clerk in a railroad office.  A violinist, Waldman had formed his orchestra by the latter years of the 1920s.  They were said to have had engagements at Dallas’s Adolphus and Baker Hotels, which also hosted the talents of Alphonso Trent and Jack Gardner at different times.  The band was playing hot when they recorded for the first time as part of the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company’s field trip to Dallas in October of 1929.  That session produced only one record: the hot jazz “Marbles” and “Waiting”.  When Brunswick ventured to San Antonio two years later, Waldman’s orchestra recorded once again, again producing only one record.  In addition to their sparse recordings, the Waldman band toured around the southern and southwestern states, reportedly appearing at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and the Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City.  In between their recording sessions, a young trumpeter named Harry James joined Waldman’s band, before moving on to the nationally successful Ben Pollack’s orchestra.  In the midst of the Great Depression, the group made their final recordings, this time for Bluebird, at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, on April 3, 1934, this time making two records.  By that time, scarcely any trace of the hot band that produced “Marbles” back in ’29 was audible; instead, they played popular tunes in the fashion of the sweet dance bands prevalent in the day, though they did so with the proficiency of any of the big New York orchestras.  Though they never recorded again, Waldman and his orchestra were still going at least as late as 1941.  Herman Waldman died in Dallas on March 7, 1991.

Brunswick 6181 was recorded on the afternoon of August 31, 1931, in San Antonio, Texas.  Waldman’s band is made up of Rex Preis and Ken Switzer on trumpets, Bill Clemens on trombone, Bob “Baldy” Harris and Jimmy Segers (or “Segars”) on clarinet and alto sax, Arno “Tink” Navratil on clarinet and tenor sax, Herman Waldman on violin, Tom Blake on piano, Vernon Mills on banjo, Barney Dodd on tuba, and Reggie Kaughlin on drums.

On the first side, Waldman’s orchestra plays “Got No Honey”, a composition by band members Arno “Tink” Navratil and Jimmy Segers, and seemingly the only recording of this song.  Trumpet man Ken Switzer takes the vocal.

Got No Honey, recorded August 31, 1931 by Herman Waldman and his Orchestra.

On the flip-side, they play a competent rendition of the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Lazy River”.  Banjoist Vernon Mills sings the lyric, joined by a trio consisting of Switzer and two others.

Lazy River, recorded August 31, 1931 by Herman Waldman and his Orchestra.

Montgomery Ward M-4244 – Gene Autry – 1931

Gene Autry, pictured in his Sensational Collection of Famous Original Cowboy Songs and Mountain Ballads, 1932.

It would not be exaggeration in the slightest to call Gene Autry a true American hero.  From humble roots, he got his start in the show business covering Jimmie Rodgers’ hits for other record labels, but soon proved his own merit as a prolific songwriter and talented musician.  Before long, he broke into Hollywood in a series B-Westerns and rose not only to become one of America’s earliest “superstars”, but the idolization of millions of adoring fans.  His shrewd business sense made him a multi-millionaire by the time of his retirement at the age of only fifty-seven, and surely one of the only twentieth century entertainers to have a town named after him.

Gene was born Orvon Grover Eugene Autry in Tioga, Texas, on September 29, 1907, son of Delbert and Elnora Autry.  The family moved a few miles north to the towns of Achille and Ravia, Oklahoma, when Gene was a child, and when not preoccupied with song he spent time in his youth helping out on his father’s farm.  In 1941, the nearby town of Berwyn was renamed “Gene Autry” in his honor.  Autry took up the guitar at the age of twelve on a model from the Sears-Roebuck catalog.  After high school, he got a job working as a telegrapher for the Frisco Line.  He often played his guitar and sang to pass the time during slow hours on the job, a habit which gained him the attention of a notable passer-through: Will Rogers.  Rogers liked Autry’s music, and recommended that he go to New York to make records.  Autry did just that in the fall of 1928, but he was turned down by Victor A&R man Nat Shilkret on the grounds that the company had only just signed two similar artists (one of whom may have been Jimmie Rodgers, who had only begun his recording career the previous summer).  Shilkret suggested that Autry seek work on the radio instead, and that he did.  Upon his return home to Oklahoma, Autry began singing on KVOO in Tulsa as “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy”.  He made his triumphant return to New York the very next fall, and this time he found success.  With Frankie and Johnny Marvin accompanying, he cut two sides for Victor in duet with frequent collaborator Jimmy Long.  Thereafter, he began recording prolifically for a variety of record labels, beginning with a session for Gennett, the masters of which were sold to Grey Gull and Cova’s QRS label.  He then signed on with Columbia for a short time, mostly appearing on their budget labels singing dimestore imitations of Jimmie Rodgers’ songs.  In 1930, he joined the cast of the National Barn Dance on Sears-Roebuck’s radio station WLS in Chicago.  The same year, he began his long association with the American Record Corporation, appearing on their many dimestore labels and still covering Rodgers, but increasingly producing his own original material.  It was that arrangement that brought him his first big hit in 1931: “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine”.  Meanwhile, he continued to record occasionally for Victor and Gennett until going exclusive with the ARC in 1933.  The following year, while singing on the radio with Smiley Burnette, he was “discovered” by Hollywood big-shot Nat Levine and selected to appear in an uncredited role in the Ken Maynard western picture In Old Santa Fe.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Montgomery Ward M-4244 was recorded in two sessions in New York City, the first on February 12, 1931, and the second on March 31 of the same year.  Side “A” was originally issued on Victor 23548 (which sold 1,901 copies) and “B” on Victor 23589 (which sold only 1,537).  Autry accompanies himself on guitar on both sides, and his joined on steel guitar by his friend Frankie Marvin on the first.

The rollicking and raunchy “Do Right Daddy Blues” is a distant cry from Autry’s typically mild and genial cowboy songs of later years, instead more resembling one of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel” songs with their characteristic braggadocio and hint of machismo.  Two takes of this number exist, though this one—take “1”—was the only issued originally; the second take was released as part of Bluebird/BMG’s 2004 compilation East Virginia Blues, in their When the Sun Goes Down series examining the “secret history” of rock ‘n’ roll.  Autry also recorded a version of the song for the American Record Corporation’s dimestore labels (Perfect, Banner, Romeo, etc.) two months later, and he followed up with a different version for Victor’s short lived Timely Tunes offshoot and sequel titled “Don’t Do Me That Way” (and subtitled “Do Right Daddy Blues No. 2”) at the same session in which he recorded the “B” side of the record presented herein.  The song was later picked up by western swinger Leon Chappelear, who recorded it first as “New Do Right Daddy” in 1937, and again as “I’m a Do Right Daddy” in 1951.

Do Right Daddy Blues, recorded February 18, 1931 by Gene Autry.

On “High Steppin’ Mama”, Autry shows us just how much inspiration he drew from Jimmie Rodgers in his early career, presenting a song that sounds like it could have come straight from the Blue Yodeler himself—equally in content as in style.

High Steppin’ Mama, recorded March 31, 1931 by Gene Autry.

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.

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 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.