Vocalion 03492 – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – 1936

In a remarkably rare occurrence, I received this record on the very day of publication (it’s not the first time it’s happened, but it’s sure not often).  I had originally intended to post it later in remembrance of vocalist Tommy Duncan, who sings on both sides, but then I noticed that it was the anniversary of its recording, and I was struck by the serendipity of it all.  Combine that with the fact that this is quite probably my favorite Bob Wills record, and I knew I’d have to rush this one on through and select a different record with which to eulogize Mr. Duncan.

In 1936, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were a year into their up-and-coming recording career, but had thus far only had one recording session, spread out over three consecutive days the previous September, part in Vocalion’s field trip down to Dallas.  Since then, a few changes had been made, notably Wills had added a trumpet player, Everett Stover—whom he had originally hired as an announcer—to the band’s pioneering horn section, which had previously consisted of reeds and trombone, the latter of which had erstwhile been dropped from the roster.  Still appearing on Tulsa’s KVOO from Cain’s Ballroom, they found growing regional success.  Exactly one year after their first sessions, the Playboys traveled northward to Chicago to make their return to the microphone of the American Record Corporation (Vocalion’s parent company).  On September 28, 1936, they entered the studio to record only four songs.  The following day, they were back for thirteen more, opening the set with their soon-to-be smash hit, “Steel Guitar Rag”, and closing with two fiddle solos from Wills, which were not released.  Mirroring their first three-day session, they finished up on the thirtieth with a final twelve sides.  Ultimately, a total of seventeen of their twenty-nine recorded sides were deemed suitable for release, many of which proved successful enough for subsequent reissue on other labels.  Afterwards, the Texas Playboys took themselves back to Tulsa, not to return to the studio until the next year, but they were already well down the path to national stardom.

Vocalion 03492 was recorded in Chicago, Illinois, on September 30, 1936, the last day of Wills’ second series of recording sessions.  It carried over to Okeh with the same catalog number, and was later reissued on Columbia 37624 and 20223, the latter in their “folk” series.  The Texas Playboys are Bob Wills, Jesse Ashlock, and Sleepy Johnson on fiddles, the last of whom doubles on guitar, Herman Arnspiger on guitar, Johnnie Lee Wills on tenor banjo, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, Al Stricklin on piano, Everett Stover on trumpet, Ray DeGeer on clarinet, Zeb McNally on saxophone, Joe Ferguson on string bass, and Smokey Dacus on drums.

Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan sing in duet on the scalding hot “Bring it On Down to My House”, a cover—via Milton Brown—of Blind Willie McTell’s “Come On Around to My House Mama”.

Bring it On Down to My House, recorded September 30, 1936 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

On the flip, Duncan sings and yodels solo on “Mean Mama Blues”, a cover of the equally jazzified Jimmie Rodgers song of six years prior (and not to be confused with the 1941 Ernest Tubb song of the same name).

Mean Mama Blues, recorded September 30, 1936 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Victor P-79 – Smoky Mountain Ballads – 1941

In the year of 1941, the venerable folklorist and song collector John A. Lomax—best remembered for his 1910 book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, his field recordings made for the Library of Congress in the 1930s, and his discovery of the legendary Lead Belly—set out, at the age of seventy-four, to assemble a groundbreaking album of folk music from the Great Smoky Mountains of the southeastern United States.  He selected from the catalog of the Victor record company (and their subsidiary label Bluebird) a total of ten masters of traditional mountain folk music recorded by relatively contemporary musicians and groups by the likes of Uncle Dave Macon, the Monroe Brothers, and the Carter Family.  It was late in his illustrious career, and only one of the numerous remarkable accomplishments to his name.

The album cover for Smoky Mountain Ballads, edited by John A. Lomax.

John Avery Lomax was born on September 23, 1867, in Goodman, Mississippi, but he got to Texas as fast as he could.  His parents James Avery and Susan Frances Lomax brought the family by wagon to “the low cedar-clad hills of Bosque County,” north of Meridian, Texas, where young John was reared.  Growing up on what was then the western frontier, Lomax was exposed to cowboy ballads and folk songs sung by a former slave hired to work on the family farm, and he began to do what had seldom yet been done: collect them and write them down.  At twenty-one, he left farm life behind and enrolled in college in Granbury.  After graduating, he became a schoolteacher around the region of his upbringing.  In 1895, he entered the University of Texas in Austin, graduating two years later with a major in English literature.  While there, he showed his collection of folk songs to one of his English professors, who decried them “cheap and unworthy.”  The dejected Lomax then burned them behind his dormitory and turned his focus to his studies.  After his graduation, he married Bess Brown—with whom he would have four children, Shirley, John Jr., Alan, and Bess—and taught English for a stretch at Texas A&M.  In 1907, he attended Harvard as a graduate student under Professors Barret Wendell and George Lyman Kittredge.  Unlike his professor at U.T., they encouraged his interest in cowboy songs and ultimately helped him receive a Sheldon grant to research them.  Thus, in 1910, at the age of forty-three, John A. Lomax published Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, with a foreword by former president Theodore Roosevelt, the first in a series of song collections he would compile.  With U.T. professor Leonidas Payne, he also established the Texas Folklore Society in 1909.  From 1910, Lomax also worked an administrative job at the University of Texas, until Texas governor Jim “Pa” Ferguson’s feud with academics got him fired in 1917.  So he moved to Chicago to work as a banker in a firm operated by the son of one of his former professors, and later worked with U.T. alumni groups after Ferguson’s impeachment.

After his wife passed in 1931, at his son John Jr.’s encouragement, Lomax set off on a lecture tour that ultimately resulted in his involvement in the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song.  Having previously recorded some Texas folksingers like Newton Gaines on wax cylinders, he arranged with the Archive to provide him with portable recording equipment, with which he would traverse the American South in search of traditional folksingers to record for posterity in the Library of Congress, preferably ones untainted by the influence of modern popular culture—those who still adhered to an older tradition.  With his son Alan behind the wheel of his Ford sedan, the Lomaxes began their journey in their home state of Texas in June of 1933, visiting rural prison farms in search of musical convicts whose incarceration had separated their traditional repertoires from the dissemination of popular music.  They were first turned away at the gates of the prison in Huntsville, but they soon found success when they arrived at the Central State Prison Farm in Sugar Land, Texas.  There, they discovered sixty-three-year-old James “Iron Head” Baker and seventy-one-year-old Moses “Clear Rock” Platt,two “habitual criminals” who had spent the better part of their lives in the Texas prison system.  Lomax recorded them singing hollers such as “Go Down Old Hannah”, “Old Rattler”, and “Black Betty”, ultimately making return trips to collect more of their music.  Lomax eventually grew fond of “Iron Head”, and send him small amounts of money, which were reciprocated in the form of small handcrafted trinkets.  Eventually, Lomax secured Baker’s parole to act as his assistant, though the arrangement was short-lived.  Soon after, they ventured on to Louisiana, where they paid a visit to the State Penitentiary at Angola.  Locked away behind the prison walls was a singer and guitarist who would become Lomax’s greatest discovery: the forty-five-year-old Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter.  After recording Lead Belly in several performances in July of 1933, Lomax returned a year later with superior equipment to capture more of his extensive repertoire in better quality.  This time, Lead Belly requested that Lomax deliver a song he had prepared as a plea for his pardon to Louisiana Governor O.K. Allen.  Lomax obliged, and Lead Belly was released later that year (though the state insisted that the song had nothing to do with it).  Required to find work or face re-incarceration, Lead Belly convinced Lomax to take him on as a driver and aide in his travels. Ultimately, Lomax traveled several hundred-thousand miles and preserved hundreds of songs by numerous performers, both in and out of prison, for the Library of Congress.

With Lead Belly along, Lomax went back to Yankeeland to begin a new series of lecture tours featuring the folksinger.  Not long afterward, the partnership between the folklorist and the folksinger ended quite acrimoniously, as Lead Belly sued Lomax for payment that he believed had been withheld—though they later recovered a friendly acquaintanceship.  In 1934, he remarried, to Miss Ruby Terrill, whom he had first met in 1921 while she was the dean of women at the East Texas State Normal College in Commerce.  His associated with the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Music continued after his field work had more-or-less concluded.  In 1947, with his son Alan, he wrote and published Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, a memoir of his life on the road in search of America’s native song.  John A. Lomax died from a stroke on January 26, 1948; an ailing Lead Belly gave his last concert in Austin, Texas, honoring the late folklorist.  His legacy was carried on by his sons John Jr., Alan, and Bess, and his influence continued to be felt, both in the field of folklore scholarship and in folk music for the decades to come.

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Decca 5201 – Milton Brown and his Brownies – 1936

Seems it’s seldom these days that I post any music just for music’s sake, just to celebrate the greatness of a song, rather than to commemorate some occasion or happening.  I’ve already quite thoroughly expounded upon the life and time of Milton Brown—the Father of Western Swing—so I feel I needn’t go into much more detail about that here, you may go read it on that page if you so desire.  But there’s still plenty more to say about the many records Brown made in his short two year recording career, and goodness knows there’s so much more to hear.  So herein is one of my own favorites of those many, I hope you’ll enjoy it as well, and I also hope to be able to offer some anecdotes and shed some light that may perhaps not have been shed otherwise.

Though his recording career only spanned from 1934 to 1936 (excluding the Fort Worth Doughboys session in ’32), in four sessions, two for Bluebird and two for Decca, spread over a week’s worth of days, Milton Brown managed to cut a total of one-hundred-and-three sides.  Decca 5201 comes from the first and second days of Brown’s last session, his second for Decca.   It was recorded at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, Louisiana on March 3rd and 4th, 1936.  The Musical Brownies at this point in time included Milton Brown singing and leading Cecil Brower and Cliff Bruner—the latter a new addition to the band for this session—on fiddles, Derwood Brown on guitar, Ocie Stockard on banjo, Bob Dunn on steel guitar, Wanna Coffman on string bass, “Papa” Fred Calhoun on piano.

Firstly, the Musical Brownies get hotter than anything on “Somebody’s Been Using that Thing”, one of several tunes Milton lifted from the Hokum Boys’ repertoire, some others being “Easy Ridin’ Papa” and “Nancy Jane”—though it was written and originally recorded by mandolinist Al Miller in 1929.  To set the record straight (pun intended), one “Greaseman” has evidently propagated preposterous misinformation that the lyric in this song is “Georgia boy, somebody’s been using that thing,” while it is in fact “sure as you’re born, somebody’s been using that thing,” albeit slurred to sound like “sho’s yo’ bo’n.”  This one is a serious contender against “Garbage Man Blues” to win the title of my personal favorite Milton Brown song.

Somebody’s Been Using That Thing, recorded March 3, 1936 by Milton Brown and his Brownies.

On the “B” side, Milton sings a respectable pop vocal on Sammy Fain, Irving Kahal, and Pierre Norman’s jazz standard “When I Take My Sugar to Tea”.  Listening to this tune, one wonders if Brown was familiar with the work of the Boswell Sisters.

When I Take My Sugar to Tea, recorded March 4, 1936 by Milton Brown and his Brownies.

Vocalion 03394 – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – 1936

Look out friends, here’s Leon! Take it away, boys, take it away!

The last thing we heard from ol’ Bob Wills was his famous “New San Antonio Rose” of 1940.  Now, let’s get a little hotter with an early side by the King of Western Swing (and if you ask me, that Spade Cooley never deserved the title).

Following a pair of unissued recordings with his “Wills Fiddle Band” for Vocalion, and a stretch with the Light Crust Doughboys of Burrus Mill, Bob Wills first organized his Texas Playboys in Waco, Texas in 1933.  The next year, they relocated to Oklahoma, where they began a radio program broadcast from Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa.  In September of 1935, Will’s Texas Playboys recorded for the first time in a series of sessions held in Dallas that included “Osage Stomp”, I Ain’t Got Nobody”, and “I’m Sittin’ On Top of the World”, as well as four sides with only Wills and guitarist Sleepy Jackon, highlighting his own merits as a fiddler.  They followed up the next September in Chicago, cutting such classics as “Trouble in Mind” and the famous “Steel Guitar Rag”.  Wills built his band around such talents as steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe and singer Tommy Duncan, all of whom he helped make famous with his “hollers,” announcing their solo and other quips.  Over the years, Wills developed his Texas Playboys from a fairly small string band into a full-fledged swing orchestra that drew larger crowds than Benny Goodman and both Dorsey brothers’ orchestras.  In the 1940s, the Texas Playboys toured across the states, and eventually settled in California.  Throughout that decade, they made a series of film appearances, and their popularity soared, to the point that they were a national sensation.  During the War, Wills made a number of patriotic records such as “Smoke on the Water” and “Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima”.  The popularity of the Texas Playboys continued through the postwar era, and into the early 1950s, when they recorded Wills’ famous “Faded Love”.  As 1950 turned to 1955 however, musical trends shifted, and their popularity began to wane.  Nonetheless, the Texas Playboys continued to perform until 1965.  Wills continued his solo career until a stroke in 1969.  Bob Wills and many of the former Texas Playboys were reunited in 1973 at a tribute concert with Merle Haggard.  After the first day of that concert Wills suffered a stroke that led to his death two years later, in 1975.

Vocalion 03394 was recorded in the Furniture Mart Building at 666 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago on Tuesday, September 29 and Wednesday the 30 of 1936, just over a year after their first sessions in Dallas, and their first return to the studio since.  The Texas Playboys are made up of Bob Wills, Jesse Ashlock, and Sleepy Johnson—who doubles on guitar—on fiddles, Everett Stover on trumpet, Ray DeGeer on clarinet and saxophone, Robert “Zeb” McNally on alto sax, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, Johnnie Lee Wills on tenor banjo, Herman Arnspiger on guitar, Al Stricklin on piano, Joe Ferguson on string bass, and William “Smokey” Dacus on drums.  I don’t know why it is, but these “scroll” label Vocalions tend to be some of the most enticing records out there!  Lots o’ great stuff to be found on ’em.

Leon McAulliffe’s famous “Steel Guitar Rag” was derived from blues guitarist Sylvester Weaver’s “Guitar Rag” of the previous decade, which he recorded first in 1923, and again in 1927.  Wills’ Texas Playboys heat up on this side a helluva lot more than Weaver ever did, with a healthy dose of hot jazz injected in it.  Becoming one of the Texas Playboys’ best-sellers, the success of “Steel Guitar Rag” made “take it away, Leon” a household phrase in the Depression era South.  That saxophone solo at around a minute-and-a-half in is just sublime!

Steel Guitar Rag

Steel Guitar Rag, recorded September 29, 1936 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Next, cut the following day, the Texas Playboys get low-down with a vocal duet between Wills and Tommy Duncan on “Swing Blues No. 1” (yes, there was a “Swing Blues No. 2”, too).

Swing Blues No. 1

Swing Blues No. 1, recorded September 30, 1936 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Vocalion 3401 – Don Albert and his Orchestra – 1936

In their heyday, Don Albert’s orchestra was called “America’s Greatest Swing Band”, a title which they perhaps deserved.  Today, their renown, however great it may have been in the 1930s, has faded.

Don Albert was born Albert Anité Dominique in New Orleans on August 5, 1908.  He was the nephew of trumpeter Natty Dominique, and also reportedly a relative of Barney Bigard.  Albert took up the trumpet to join in on the Crescent City’s famous brass bands, and was instructed on the instrument by Milford Piron, brother of the renowned bandleader Armand J. Piron.  Sometime in the middle part of the 1920s, Albert relocated to Dallas, where he joined Alphonso Trent’s orchestra at the Adolphus Hotel (later the Gunter Hotel), with whom he toured across the southwestern United States.  After departing from Trent, Albert joined Troy Floyd’s orchestra of the Plaza Hotel in San Antonio, with whom he remained until forming his own band in 1929.  Initially calling themselves “Don Albert and his Ten Pals”, Albert’s new band played the Texas State Fair in 1929, and supplanted Floyd’s band at the Shadowland speakeasy in San Antonio.  In the 1930s, Albert’s orchestra toured across twenty-four of these United States, and billed themselves as “America’s Greatest Swing Band”, but only recorded eight titles in one San Antonio session for the American Record Corporation.  In the 1940s, Albert opened an integrated club, Don’s Keyhole, in San Antonio, which closed in 1948, at which point he returned to New Orleans for a short period.  Once back in San Antonio, Albert opened another club, and following harassment from authorities, filed a restraining order against the city, taking his case all the way to the Texas Supreme Court and winning.  Aside from his musical work, Albert was also employed as a civil servant at Fort Sam Houston from the late forties or early fifties until retiring in 1974.  Don Albert retired from performance in the late 1950s, but continued to play sporadically for the rest of his life.  He died in San Antonio on March 4, 1980.

Vocalion 3401 was recorded on November 18, 1936 in San Antonio, Texas.  Don Albert directing Billy Douglas, Alvin Alcorn, and Hiram Harding on trumpets, James “Geechy” Robinson and Frank Jacquet on trombones, Herbert Hall on clarinet, alto sax, and baritone sax, Gus Patterson and Harold “Dink” Taylor on alto sax, Louis Cottrell on clarinet and tenor sax, Lloyd Glenn on piano, Ferdinand Dejan on guitar, James Johnson on string bass, and Albert Martin on drums.

The “big” sound of Albert’s “Rockin’ and Swingin'” exemplifies that of Texas jazz in the 1930s (compare to Boots and his Buddies’ “Rose Room”).

Rockin' and Swingin'

Rockin’ and Swingin’, recorded November 18, 1936 by Don Albert and his Orchestra.

On the other side, Merle Turner sings the vocal on this band’s swinging version of the seven year old (at the time of recording, that is) popular song from The Dance of Life, “True Blue Lou”.

True Blue Lou

True Blue Lou, recorded November 18, 1936 by Don Albert and his Orchestra.