Bluebird B-5433 & B-5562 – Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers – 1934

Few old time “hillbilly” string bands of the 1920s and ’30s left behind such illustrious and distinguished legacies (and darned good music, too) as Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.  From their first recordings in 1926, Tanner’s Skillet Lickers established themselves as one of the most commercially successful “hillbilly” bands of the decade.  But as the twenties ceased to roar giving way to depression, the record industry quickly faltered, and so did the recording oriented Skillet Lickers.  The band had their last session for Columbia Records—with whom they had recorded exclusively since their first session—in October of 1931, and broke up thereafter.  Fiddle player Clayton McMichen went on to form his Georgia Wildcats and found success on radio and records through the remainder of the decade.  Come 1934 however, Gid put together a reunion of sorts.  Together with his son Gordon Tanner, old pal Riley Puckett, and mandolin player Ted Hawkins, they traveled to San Antonio, Texas, where the RCA Victor Company was holding a series of recording sessions at the Texas Hotel.  There, they recorded in two sessions on March 29th and 30th a series of twenty four sides, mostly energetic and jubilant dance tunes in stark contrast with the hard times the nation was then facing at the depth of the Great Depression, concluding with two of their classic “skit” records: “Prosperity and Politics” and “Practice Night With the Skillet Lickers”.

Bluebird B-5433 and B-5562 were both recorded on March 29, 1934 at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, Texas—the same time and place Riley Puckett recorded his famed solo performance of “Ragged but Right” and others.  The former was released on April 18th of that year, and the latter on July 18th.  B-5433 was also issued concurrently on Montgomery Ward M-4845, and B-5562 was reissued widely throughout the following decades on RCA Victor 20-2167 and 420-0569, making it all the way into the 45 RPM era on 447-0569.  The Skillet Lickers are Gid Tanner and his son Gordon Tanner on fiddles, Ted Hawkins on mandolin, and Riley Puckett on guitar.

On B-5433, the Skillet Lickers play two old time fiddle standards, both tunes which they recorded previously in 1930 and ’29, respectively.  First it’s “Georgia Waggoner”, the first side they recorded at the reunion session.

Georgia Waggoner, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

Next, keeping in the same theme, they follow with one of my personal favorites, a high energy rendition of “Mississippi Sawyer”, punctuated by Hawkins’ mandolin.  The band members can be heard talking over the music, lending to an informal atmosphere.

Mississippi Sawyer, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

On B-5562, the Skillet Lickers first play that old 1921 L. Wolfe Gilbert standby, “Down Yonder” (which we last heard played by an unidentified pianist).  This might just be my favorite Skillet Lickers side; I like their 1934 sound with the added mandolin, even though the old mainstays like Clayton McMichen and Fate Norris are absent.

Down Yonder, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

Then, they play another utterly bright and feel-good tune, the traditional fiddle piece “Back Up and Push”.  Though not credited as such in Russell’s Country Music Records, I’m quite certain Riley Puckett’s voice can be heard on this side, hollering some of the calls (“now ladies in the center and gents catch air, hold ‘er Newt, don’t let ‘er rare”).

Back Up and Push, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

Updated on April 28, 2018.

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.

Bluebird B-5558 – Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies – 1934

I recently learned of the passing of western swing legend Milton Brown’s little brother Roy Lee Brown at the age of 96 on May 26, 2017.  I had read of him and watched him discuss Milton on a television documentary.  Not long ago, I was reading about him, and wondered what had become of him as of late.  I was saddened to hear of his death.  I had already written out this article beforehand to publish soon, so I’m posting it now, dedicated to his memory…

I love hot jazz and I love hillbilly music.  If you put the two together, what do you get?  Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies.  If I had to pick one, I’d rank Brown’s Brownies as my favorite musical ensemble (I’d probably have to place my favorite singular musician as Jimmie Rodgers).  Part of that could be that they came from Fort Worth, Texas, one of my favorite places on Earth, no doubt.  But they could’ve come from Kalamazoo or Timbuktu, and I’d still love that certain sound they had, that no other western swing band could quite capture.  I don’t recall ever hearing anything by the Brownies that I didn’t like, from their hot numbers to their waltzes, though I’d have to say my favorites are the pieces Brown adapted from blues songs.  Much as I like the music of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Milton Brown just had something special that they lacked.

Despite my love of the Brownies, I’ve never to this day posted a single one of their records on Old Time Blues.  Well that’s got to change.  Thus, here is one of the best Musical Brownies records that I have the pleasure of owning.  Now don’t go thinking I’ve forgotten anything with the lack of biographical details and what-have-you in this post, there’ll be more on that later.

Bluebird B-5558 was recorded at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, Texas on April 4, 1934 at the Musical Brownies’ first session (but not Milton Brown’s, he had first recorded two years prior with the Fort Worth Doughboys).  It was released on July 18 of the same year.  The Musical Brownies are Derwood Brown on guitar, Cecil Brower on fiddle, Ocie Stockard on tenor banjo, Wanna Coffman on string bass, Fred Calhoun on piano, and of course Milton Brown singing the vocals.

First—it’s actually the “B” side, but I don’t care—is the rollicking “Garbage Man Blues”, Brown’s scorching hot take on Luis Russell’s “Call of the Freaks” (though like a number of Musical Brownies Bluebirds, Dan Parker is credited as the songwriter).  Brown may have picked it up from the Washboard Rhythm Kings, who prefaced their rendition with a similar spoken prelude.  The frenzied, half scat chorus of “get out your cans, here comes the garbage man” is interspersed with enticing instrumental solos by Brower, Stockard, Brown, and Calhoun, in that order.  Milton sings the first verse out of key, but soon recovers.  Brown’s biographer Cary Ginell informs me that producer Eli Oberstein refused to allow a re-take, reasoning that listeners would be none the wiser.  Frankly, I don’t think Brown’s error detracts much from the excellence of the performance (to be completely honest, I never noticed until it was pointed out to me).  Roy Newman and his Boys, from Dallas, covered “Garbage Man Blues” in 1935, and in later years the song has been resurrected by Pokey LaFarge.

Since I chanced to get my hands on this record, I’ve been listening to it over and over again.  Doesn’t get much better than this!

Garbage Man Blues, recorded April 4, 1934 by Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies.

On the other side is something quite different, Milton Brown’s own composition “My Precious Sonny Boy” played as a waltz, complete with Ted Lewis style spoken interlude.  Quite a sincere and touching song, really.  Nicely orchestrated too.

My Precious Sonny Boy, recorded April 4, 1934 by Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies.

Updated with improved audio on June 21, 2017.

Columbia 2958-D – Benny Goodman and his Music Hall Orchestra – 1934

Benny Goodman, as pictured in Esquire’s Jazz Book, 1944.

The first birthday ever celebrated on Old Time Blues was the legendary Benny Goodman’s.  Now the time has come around once again to pay tribute to one of the most important musical figures of the twentieth century, and one of my own favorites, the one and only King of Swing.

Benjamin David Goodman was born on May 30, 1909, the ninth of twelve children of David and Dora Goodman, a family of poor Jewish immigrants in Chicago, Illinois, a pivotal location in the development of jazz.  Goodman’s father took him to free concerts on the weekends, and enrolled him in twenty-five cent music lessons at the local synagogue.  He later took clarinet lessons under a classically trained professional.  Benny soon joined the boy’s club band at the Hull House.  He first played professionally in 1921, and joined Ben Pollack’s Orchestra at the age of sixteen, with whom he made his first commercial recordings in 1926.

In 1928, Goodman made his first records under his own name for Vocalion and Brunswick as “Bennie Goodman’s Boys”.  By that time, he had already recorded quite extensively, and continued to work prolifically as a studio musician until forming his own orchestra.  After making a series of dance band recordings for Brunswick’s Melotone label in 1930 and ’31, and one date with Columbia the same year, Goodman, with the help of John Hammond, who arranged for a series of sessions for Columbia, put together the first incarnation of the band that would make him famous in 1933.  With Jack Teagarden, Gene Krupa, and others in-and-out, Goodman’s new band played swing.  In June of 1934, Goodman and his orchestra opened at Billy Rose’s new Music Hall at 52nd and Broadway, and secured a spot on the NBC radio show Let’s Dance.  With need to expand his repertoire as a result of his newfound success, Goodman began purchasing sophisticated arrangements from Fletcher Henderson. In 1935, Goodman’s orchestra switched from the failing Columbia to Victor Records, which soon produced a hit with “King Porter Stomp”.

On August 21, 1935, Benny Goodman’s orchestra kicked off the swing era with a famous engagement at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, California.  In 1937, Goodman and his orchestra appeared in The Big Broadcast of 1937 and Hollywood Hotel.  As Goodman’s popularity continued to soar, Goodman earned the distinction of leading the first jazz ensemble to play at Carnegie Hall, at his legendary concert on January 16, 1938.  In addition to his orchestra, Goodman also led small groups, his famous Trios, Quartets, and Sextets.  Goodman refuted segregation, employing the likes of Charlie Christian, Lionel Hampton, and Teddy Wilson, once stating, “If a guy’s got it, let him give it. I’m selling music, not prejudice.”  At various points, his band employed the enticing vocals of Helen Ward, Martha Tilton, and Peggy Lee, among many others.  In 1939, he left Victor to return to Columbia, which had been purchased and revived by CBS, with his band appearing on first issue of the revived label.  His success did not falter through the end of the swing era in the middle of the 1940s.  Even after swing had swung, Goodman was still in demand as a revered jazz musician.  In 1947, he switched labels once again, to Johnny Mercer’s Capitol Records.  He made forays into bebop, cool jazz, and classical music.  Benny Goodman continued to play until his death from a heart attack on June 13, 1986.

Columbia 2958-D was recorded on August 16, 1934 in New York City.  In the band are Russ Case, Jerry Neary, and Sam Shapiro on trumpets, Red Ballard and Jack Lacey on trombone, Benny Goodman on clarinet, Hymie Schertzer and Ben Kantor on alto sax, Arthur Rollini on tenor sax, Claude Thornhill on piano, George Van Eps on guitar, Hank Wayland on string bass, and Sammy Weiss on drums.  As indicated by the “Music Hall” appellation, this record dates to Goodman’s stretch at Billy Rose’s Music Hall.

First up is Benny Goodman’s amazingly energetic first recording of “Bugle Call Rag”, most certainly my favorite recording of the standard.  Goodman recorded another notable version for Victor in 1936, and it remained a staple of his repertoire.

Bugle Call Rag, recorded August 16, 1934 by Benny Goodman and his Music Hall Orchestra.

On the other side, Will Hudson’s “Nitwit Serenade” borrows a famous part from the ArmstrongOliver jazz standard “Dipper Mouth Blues”.

Nitwit Serenade, recorded August 16, 1934 by Benny Goodman and his Music Hall Orchestra.

Perfect 13090 – Bill Cox – 1933/1934

A Perfect sleeve emblazoned with the NRA Blue Eagle.

A Perfect sleeve displaying the NRA Blue Eagle (to the right, above Morton Downey.)

September 13, 1933 was “NRA Day”, celebrated in New York City with one of, if not the largest parade in the city’s history, complete with an appearance by the U.S. Navy’s airship U.S.S. Macon.

With today’s politics, hearing of the NRA brings to mind the National Rifle Association, but in days of yore, it held an entirely different meaning.  In the 1930s, the abbreviation referred to the National Recovery Administration.  That NRA was one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s earliest New Deal agencies, created in 1933 by the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA).  With its signature “Blue Eagle” as the logo, the NRA set forth a series of codes and regulations intended to help employ more people and get the economy back on its feet.  Though popular with many workers, the NRA was ruled unconstitutional by Supreme Court, thus bringing it to an end in May of 1935.  During its existence from 1933 to 1935, NRA Blue Eagles were displayed in store windows and emblazoned on all sorts of consumer products, ranging from garments to fruit crates to record sleeves.

Perfect 13090 was recorded in two separate sessions on August 30, 1933 and September 9, 1934 at the American Record Corporation studios in New York City.  The former session was Cox’s first with the ARC, having recorded previously with the Starr Piano Company (Gennett).  Interestingly for a black label Perfect, this is a laminated pressing.

On this disc, the Dixie Songbird, Bill Cox laments to his sweetheart his employer’s delay in joining the NRA in what may just be the greatest political topical song of the Great Depression-era: “N. R. A. Blues”.  “When they gonna join the NRA?  Sweet thing, sweet thing.  When they gonna join the NRA, I never have heard the big boss say.  Sweet thing, yes baby mine.”

N. R. A. Blues, recorded August 30, 1933 by Bill Cox,

N. R. A. Blues, recorded August 30, 1933 by Bill Cox.

Starting out with a little bit of the old “Jack o’ Diamonds”, on the flip, Cox sings a low down old time country blues tune, “Hard Luck Blues”, sounding a bit like Jimmie Rodgers in his vocals on this side.  A Great Depression-era country tune evocative of Dust Bowl times.

Hard Luck Blues, recorded September 4, 1933 by Bill Cox.

Hard Luck Blues, recorded September 4, 1934 by Bill Cox.

Updated with improved audio on June 23, 2017.