Hollywood No. 1 – Roll Grane – 1938

Something about the Great Depression must have given folks World’s Fair fever, for at least five different expositions were held in the United States in the 1930s.  I can’t say I blame them either, a trip to a World’s Fair would probably do a lot to lift my spirits right now, and I’m not even experiencing economic ruin, severe drought, and another world war on the horizon, but I digress.  It seems that these fairs got people to singing, and some of them even had official records released in their honor, to be sold among the countless trinkets and souvenirs that could be brought home from one.  Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress Exposition commissioned two pieces, one a pop song by local bandleader Art Kassel, the other a march by the renowned John Philip Sousa—his last composition, in fact.  The 1939 New York World’s Fair got George and Ira Gershwin to pen a song in its honor prior to the former’s untimely demise.

The Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939 in San Francisco was not as grandiose an affair, but it still managed to attract the attention of songwriters.  One such individual was Mr. Roll Grane of Oakland, California.  A California native and member of the California Contented Club, which was evidently a heavy promoter of the San Francisco fair, in 1938 he composed a ditty titled “I’m Off to California in the Morning” to bring attention to the event, and to San Francisco’s bridges.  A competent guitarist and vaudevillian vocalist with an eccentric style, Grane himself performed his song for the radio, and copies of the sheet music were distributed around Oakland at conventions in the year preceding the Exposition.  Though the fair attracted significant crowds, Grane himself fell victim to obscurity, and details regarding his life and times are virtually non-existent.

Hollywood No. 1 (matrix number “H5”) was recorded on September 19, 1938, possibly in either Los Angeles or San Francisco, California, and was pressed by the Allied Phonograph and Record Mfg. Co.  It is a single sided record bearing a decorative etching on the reverse.  On it, Roll Grane sings and accompanies himself on guitar; his performance is announced at the beginning by an unknown individual.

Grane sings his own “I’m Off to California in the Morning”—”telling about our wonderful bridges… and exposition”—in a fashion sounding fresh off the vaudeville stage, and the song itself resembles a folksy take on the same sort of theme as the Century of Progress Exposition’s official song “In 1933”, advising listeners to head to California to visit the upcoming Golden Gate Exposition.  This song is Mr. Grane’s sole claim to any sort of lasting fame, and it is probably the only recording he ever made.

I’m Off to California in the Morning, recorded September 19, 1938 by Roll Grane.

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.

Vocalion 04727 – W. Lee O’Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys – 1938

On this day, we celebrate the life and accomplishments of one hayseed flour salesman from Ohio whose name went down in the history books: Mr. “Pappy” O’Daniel.

“Pappy”, as pictured on the cover of “Beautiful Texas”.

Wilbert Lee O’Daniel was born in Malta, Ohio on March 11, 1890.  When he was a baby, the family relocated to Kansas following the death of the O’Daniel patriarch.  Lee entered the flour industry at the age of eighteen, and soon went on the move, eventually settling in Fort Worth, where he began working for the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company of Saginaw, Texas as sales manager.  In 1928, O’Daniel became the company’s director of advertising in the newly emerging medium of radio broadcasting.  About three years later, he hired the Wills Fiddle Band, at the time consisting of fiddler Bob Wills, guitarist Herman Arnspiger, and singer Milton Brown, to perform on the air as the Light Crust Doughboys.  Not a fan of their hillbilly music however, O’Daniel canceled their show a couple weeks later.  Fans of the show were not pleased, and soon the Light Crust Doughboys were back on the air.  By 1933, the original Doughboys had parted ways, and a new lineup of musicians had taken over the moniker, going on to achieve great radio acclaim.  In 1935, O’Daniel was fired from his position with the Burrus Mill, and he went on to found his own flour company, the W. Lee O’Daniel Flour Company, manufacturer of Hillbilly Flour.  To promote the new product, “Pappy” O’Daniel formed a new radio band: the Hillbilly Boys, which included his two sons Mike and Pat.  Broadcasting from WBAP in Fort Worth and “border blaster” XEPN in Piedras Negras, Mexico, the Hillbilly Boys also found considerable fame with their madcap radio theme “Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy”.

Come 1938, W. Lee O’Daniel registered to run for Governor of Texas—his platform, the ten commandments, and his campaign slogan, the golden rule.  He took his Hillbilly Boys on the campaign trail and drew huge crowds.  Winning the election, he promised no sales tax or poll tax, an end to capital punishment, and an old-age pension.  He delivered on none.  Nonetheless, he proved popular enough and was reelected in 1940.  Shortly into his second term as Governor, O’Daniel set his sights on a more prestigious and powerful position, the United States Senate.  When Senator Morris Sheppard died in 1941, O’Daniel appointed the eighty-six year old son of Sam Houston, Andrew Jackson Houston, to fill his empty seat in the interim.  When Houston himself died several months later, O’Daniel defeated Lyndon B. Johnson in a special election and took the seat for himself.  When the next election came around, he asserted that his opponents, former governors Dan Moody and James V. Allred, were part of a communist conspiracy against him, alienating himself from some of his supporters, but nonetheless claiming the election.  In 1944, he campaigned for the Texas Regulars, opposing Roosevelt’s fourth term.  Serving ineffectively for eight years, O’Daniel declined to run for reelection in 1948—citing the hopelessness of saving America from the commies (though in reality he had simply embarrassed too many of his constituents)—and was replaced by “Landslide Lyndon”.  Thereafter, he retired to a ranch outside Fort Worth, making several ill-fated political comebacks in the 1950s and claiming that the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate schools in Brown v. Board of Education was a communist plot.  W. Lee O’Daniel died on May 12, 1969 in Dallas, at the age of 79.

Vocalion 04727 was recorded in Dallas, Texas on December 3, 1938.  The Hillbilly Boys are Mike O’Daniel on fiddle, Bundy Bratcher on the accordion, Kermit Whalen on the steel guitar, Pat O’Daniel on tenor banjo, Leon Huff and Curly Perrin on guitars, and Wallace Griffin on string bass.  Huff sings the vocals on both sides.

First: the Hillbilly Boys’ theme song, “Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy”, really the 1933 song “I Like Mountain Music” with new words added by W. Lee O’Daniel to reflect his floury interests.

Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy (I Like Mountain Music), recorded December 3, 1938 by W. Lee O’Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys.

On the other side, the Hillbilly boys do a swell job swinging the 1927 tune “One Sweet Letter From You”.  I bought the record for “Please Pass the Biscuits Pappy”, but I do believe I like this one better.

One Sweet Letter from You, recorded December 3, 1938 by W. Lee O’Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys.

MacGregor & Sollie 875/6 – The Texas Drifter – 1938

On this day, the anniversary of his birth, we remember the Texas Drifter, Goebel Reeves, renowned singing hobo of the Great Depression days.  To commemorate the occasion, here is one of the last recordings Reeves made, and perhaps one of the most exceptional.

Goebel Leon Reeves was born on October 9, 1899 in Sherman, Texas to a middle class family.  His father sold shoes and his mother was a music teacher.  After his father’s election to the Texas state legislature, the Reeves moved to Austin, where Goebel worked as a pageboy.  Reportedly, his first experience with hobos was in Austin; an encounter with a railroad bum left him enthralled with the lifestyle.  Reeves served as a bugler in the First World War, and was wounded on the front lines.  After the war, he turned to the life of a hobo, bumming across the nation and singing for a living.  Sometime in the 1920s, Reeves sailed to Europe as a merchant seaman.  Reeves claimed to have met and befriended Jimmie Rodgers, who at the time would have been working on the railroad as a brakeman.  He was also known to have made a variety of colorful claims that were verifiably false.  In the 1920s, Reeves performed on WFAA in Dallas, and made his first records for Okeh in 1929, spurred to do so after hearing Jimmie Rodgers on record.  Throughout the decade that followed, Reeves recorded for Gennett, Brunswick, and the American Record Corporation, under such names as “The Texas Drifter” and “George Riley.”  Throughout the 1930s, he made radio appearances on Rudy Vallée’s program, the WLS National Barn Dance, and the WSM Grand Ole Opry.  In 1933, he appeared at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.  He made his final recordings in 1938, a series of non-commercial records for MacGregor & Sollie in Hollywood, California.  Reeves worked as a sailor again in the 1930s, and he entertained United States troops during World War II, before returning to the States to work for the government in internment camps in California, owing to the fact that he spoke Japanese.  Goebel Reeves later joined the Wobblies and retired to Bell Gardens, California, where he remained until a fatal heart attack on January 26, 1959, having lived quite a life.

MacGregor & Sollie 875 and 876 (or matrices MS 2635 and MS 2636 depending on which number you choose to use) was recorded in 1938 at 729 S. Western Avenue in Hollywood, California.  I haven’t been able to locate the actual date of recording.  It is pressed in Columbia style Royal Blue colored laminated shellac.

First, Reeves sings the old familiar “Pictures from Life’s Other Side”.

Pictures From Life's Other Side

Pictures From Life’s Other Side, recorded 1938 by The Texas Drifter.

On the reverse, the Texas Drifter recites his account of “The Hobo’s Convention”, recounting an actual convention held in Portland, Oregon on June 3, 1921, closing out with some wild and exuberant yodeling like only he could do.

The Hobo's Convention

The Hobo’s Convention, recorded 1938 by The Texas Drifter.

Updated with improved audio on June 30, 2017.

Bluebird B-7746 – Artie Shaw and his Orchestra – 1938

Clarinetist Artie Shaw does everything his advisors tell him not to do.  He shouts down other bandleaders, kicks music publishers out the back door calling them racketeers, scowls at his admirers, refuses to turn on the charm or be civil, says he’s there to make music and not to pose.  When kids come to dance, he plays what he likes, thinks they should like it.  He plays no request numbers.  In other words, he does as he damn pleases.

— Esquire’s Jazz Book, 1944

Artie Shaw, October 1939. Down Beat photo by Ray Rising.

Artie Shaw, October 1939. Down Beat photo by Ray Rising.

I’ve been meaning to try and work some more swing music into the busy schedule here on Old Time Blues, and with today (May 23) being Artie Shaw’s birthday, it seems like a prime opportunity.

Arthur Jacob Arshawsky was born on May 23, 1910 in New York City, his father hailing from Russia and his mother from Austria.  He took up the saxophone at the age of thirteen, and soon switched to clarinet.  In the mid-1920s, Shaw worked with Austin Wylie’s orchestra, before moving on to Irving Aaronson’s Commanders, and later Roger Wolfe Kahn’s orchestra and others.  Into the 1930s, he found steady work as a studio player like so many other New York jazz musicians of the day.  By the middle of the 1930s, Shaw had started his own orchestra, recording for Brunswick as “Art Shaw and his New Music”.  He began a contract with the RCA Victor Company in 1938, with whom he produced his largest volume of hits, including “Begin the Beguine”, “Back Bay Shuffle”, and his theme song “Nightmare”.  Where Benny Goodman was the “King of Swing”, many proclaimed Shaw the “King of Clarinet”, though Shaw felt it ought to have been the other way around, as “Benny Goodman played Clarinet. [He] played music.”  In 1940, Shaw made his feature film debut with Fred Astaire in Second Chorus, which Astaire considered “the worst film he ever made”, and caused Shaw to swear off movie appearances.  During World War II, Shaw enlisted in the Navy and led a band in the Pacific, while Glenn Miller was doing the same in Europe, and received a medical discharge after eighteen months.  Throughout the 1950s onward, he experimented with artistic variations on jazz music.  Artie Shaw was by his own admission “a very difficult man”, and was married eight times (probably making him the runner up for the title of “Most Married Swing Bandleader” after Charlie Barnet, who was married eleven times).  Shaw died of diabetes at the age of 94 in 2004.

Bluebird B-7746 was recorded July 24, 1938 in New York City.  The band consisted of Artie Shaw on clarinet, John Best, Claude Bowen, and Chuck Peterson on trumpets, George Arus, Ted Vesely, and Barry Rogers on trombones, Les Robinson and Hank Freeman on alto saxes, Tony Pastor and Ronnie Perry on tenor saxes, Les Burness on piano, Al Avola on guitar, Sid Weiss on string bass, and Cliff Leeman on drums.

First up is Artie Shaw’s famous rendition of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine”, described by Shaw as “a nice little tune from one of Cole Porter’s very few flop shows.”

Begin the Beguine

Begin the Beguine. recorded July 24, 1938 by Artie Shaw and his Orchestra.

Tony Pastor sings the vocal on Shaw’s swing rendition of the famous “Indian Love Call”.

Indian Love Call

Indian Love Call, recorded July 24, 1938 by Artie Shaw and his Orchestra.