Bluebird B-8621 – Riley Puckett – 1940

Riley Puckett in the late 1930s or early 1940s. His most frequently published portrait.

With euphonious singing voice, enticing guitar playing, and a wide and diverse repertoire ranging from old folk ballads to modern pop songs, Riley Puckett, dubbed the “Bald Mountain Caruso” or sometimes “King of the Hillbillies” (an honorific contested by Uncle Dave Macon), was one of the most popular and prolific rural musicians of the pre-World War II era, both solo and as a member of Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers.

George Riley Puckett was born either in Alpharetta, Georgia or thrity-five miles away in Dallas on May 7, 1894.  He was blinded in infancy by a treatment for an eye infection gone awry, though those who knew him suggested that he could still tell light from dark.  Subsequently, he attended the Georgia School for the Blind in Macon, at which Blind Willie McTell would later enroll.  Taking up the banjo at twelve and later switching to guitar, Puckett soon made a name for himself at fiddler’s conventions with his playing and singing, his beautiful voice and exceptional range earning him the nickname the “Bald Mountain Caruso”.  He was also noted for his unique method of guitar playing, relying on dynamic runs.  On September 28, 1922, Puckett made his radio debut with Clayton McMichen’s Home Town Band on Atlanta’s WSB.  In February of 1924, Riley Puckett and fiddle player Gid Tanner cut test recordings for Columbia, and in March they pair traveled to New York to record for the first time in two sessions.  His “Rock All Our Babies to Sleep” has often been cited as the first “country” record to feature yodeling, a full three years before Jimmie Rodgers made his first records.  After those two sessions, boy did the floodgates open; from 1924 to 1931, Puckett recorded nearly two-hundred titles for Columbia, notwithstanding the eighty-five plus he made as a member of the Skillet Lickers, with hits like “My Carolina Home” cementing him as one of their best-selling artists in the Old Familiar Tunes series.  After a break from recording during the Great Depression, Riley made his triumphant return in 1934 when he signed with Bluebird, ultimately producing nearly another hundred titles, including perhaps his best known song “Ragged but Right”.  A 1937 side venture took him to Decca for a further twelve.  Riley also sang on radio stations all around the South and Midwest; by the end of the 1930s, he was singing on WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee.  After ten sessions for Bluebird, he had his final record date on October 2, 1941 in Atlanta.  Riley Puckett died from blood poisoning, the result of an infected boil, on July 13, 1946.

Bluebird B-8621 was recorded on October 1, 1940 in Atlanta, Georgia.  Riley Puckett is accompanied by his own guitar and an unknown woman mandolin player.  It was concurrently issued on Montgomery Ward M-8885.

First up, Riley sings one of my favorites, a song that got its start in Tin Pan Alley with Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins’ “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do” in 1922, which through some twists and turns, and lyrical adjustments, made its way into Southern folk and blues repertoires as “Nobody’s Business” or some variation on that, seeing recordings by Earl Johnson’s Dixie Entertainers in 1927, Mississippi John Hurt in 1928, and many others.  Riley himself recorded it three times, first on an unissued recording for Columbia in 1924, then twice more for Bluebird, in 1935 and—this one—in 1940.

Nobody’s Business, recorded October 1, 1940 by Riley Puckett.

On the flip, Puckett does his version of a popular big band hit of the day, Saxie Dowell’s “Playmates”—the melody of which was lifted from Charles L. Johnson’s 1904 intermezzo “Iola”—and gives a heck of a good delivery to boot.  Perhaps I just have my mind in the gutter, but with all the “climb up my apple tree, look down my rain barrel, slide down my cellar door,” this sure sounds like a lot of double entendre to me!

Playmates, recorded October 1, 1940 by Riley Puckett.

Decca 7815 – Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law) – 1940

Though he wasn’t the most talented instrumentalist, nor the most able vocalist, the popular blues musician Peetie Wheatstraw—the Devil’s Son-in-Law, the High Sheriff from Hell—achieved great success in his time, and made a considerable impact on fellow musicians for years to come.

Contrary to the events presented in the 1977 film Petey Wheatstraw, Peetie Wheatstraw was not born as a walking, talking child.  Rather, he was born as William Bunch on December 21, 1902, likely in Ripley, Tennessee or Cotton Plant, Arkansas.  He learned to play the piano and guitar and in 1929 took up residence in East St. Louis, assuming the moniker “Peetie Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-in-Law”.  Some have suggested the “Peetie Wheatstraw” name traces its roots back to early Afro-American folklore, yet others suggest that Bunch himself was the originator.  Brought to the studio by bluesman and talent scout Charley Jordan, Wheatstraw made his first record for Vocalion in 1930—”Tennessee Peaches Blues”, assisted by an unidentified fellow by the name of “Neckbones” (possibly J.D. “Jelly Jaw” Short)—and he continued to record for them until 1936, with a handful of recordings made for Victor in 1931 on the side.  While still featured on Vocalion, Wheatstraw began recording for Decca in 1934, soon switching to that label exclusively.  Peetie Wheatstraw died in a car accident on his thirty-ninth birthday—he was sitting in the back seat of a Buick driven by a friend, when it struck a standing freight train, killing all passengers—less than one full month after recorded the prophetic seeming “Bring Me Flowers While I’m Living”.

With an idiosyncratic and formulaic style of singing and playing piano, Peetie Wheatstraw maintained a position as one of the top-selling and most prolific blues artists throughout the decade of the 1930s, alongside Blind Boy Fuller, Big Bill, and Bumble Bee Slim.  Influences of Wheatstraw’s signature piano style, mumbled vocals, and “hoo-well-well” holler could be heard in the music of many less successful blues artists across the land, such as Alabama’s Peanut, the Kidnapper (whose stage name is one of the few to rival “Peetie Wheatstraw”).  A testament to his success, fellow blues musician Robert Nighthawk was billed by Decca for a time as “Peetie’s Boy”.  Even noted Texas bluesman Andrew “Smokey” Hogg started out veritably copying Wheatstraw’s vocals and guitar playing, and was known as “Little Peetie Wheatstraw”.

Decca 7815 was recorded on April 4, 1940 and August 28, 1940 in New York City.  Peetie Wheatstraw is accompanied by Jonah Jones on trumpet, possibly Lil Armstrong on piano, and Sid Catlett on drums.

First up, Peetie Wheatstraw sings one of his more famous recordings, the swing infused “Gangster’s Blues”.  The noted accompanists account for the reason why these two songs don’t sound just like most every other song Wheatstraw recorded.

Gangster’s Blues, recorded April 4, 1940 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).

Next, Wheatstraw sings “Look Out for Yourself”, one of countless blues songs echoing the melody of “Sitting On Top of the World”.

Look Out for Yourself, recorded August 28, 1940 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).

Okeh 05476 – Blind Boy Fuller – 1940

One of the most commercially successful blues artists of the 1930s, along with the likes of Big Bill, Josh White, and Peetie Wheatstraw, was Blind Boy Fuller, who cut 130 sides—both low down blues and peppy rags—between 1935 and 1940.

The artist who would become Blind Boy Fuller was born Fulton Allen on July 10, 1907 (or 1904, according to some sources) in Wadesboro, North Carolina, one of ten children born to May Jane Walker and Calvin Allen.  He learned field hollers and old time songs from his elders, and took up the guitar.  As a result of untreated neonatal conjunctivitis, Allen began to lose his sight in his teenage years, and was totally blind by the end of the 1920s.  Unable to continue working manual labor, he turned to performance, playing street corners, rent parties, and the like, eventually settling in Durham, North Carolina.  There, he developed a following amongst the local musicians, including Bull City Red, Sonny Terry, and Dipper Boy Council, with whom he would later record.  In 1935, J.B. Long, manager of the United Dollar Store discovered Allen, and arranged for him to record for the American Record Corporation in New York City as “Blind Boy Fuller”, along with Bull City Red and Rev. Blind Gary Davis.  Fuller made his debut in four sessions from July 23 to 26, 1935.  He would return to New York seven times, and also travel to Columbia, South Carolina, Memphis, Tennessee, and Chicago, adding up to a total of twenty-three sessions (if my count is correct) between 1935 and 1940 for the ARC, plus two in 1937 for Decca.  He was scheduled to appear in John Hammond’s From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938, but was unable to make it, as he was in jail for shooting at his wife (no small feat for a blind man).  Sonny Terry substituted for him.  Fuller’s health was in decline by the early 1940s, owing to a heavy alcohol intake causing him kidney troubles, and he had his last record date on June 19, 1940, in Chicago.  Following a period of infirmity, Fuller died of pyemia on February 13, 1941.

Okeh 05476 was recorded on March 5 and 6, 1940 in New York City by Blind Boy Fuller.  On the former, Fuller is accompanied on washboard by Bull City Red (real name George Washington, also known as “Oh Red”).  It was originally issued on Vocalion with the same catalog number, and later appeared on Columbia 37230 and 30011 around 1946.

On the first side, Fuller does one of his best remembered rag tunes, the classic boogie number “Step it Up and Go”, with some lively picking on his National Duolian.

Step It Up and Go

Step it Up and Go, recorded on March 5, 1940 by Blind Boy Fuller.

On the flip, he plays a little bluer on “Little Woman You’re So Sweet”, with a tune in the “Sitting On Top of the World” family.  If you ask me, these lyrics are nothing to write home about, but the delivery is top-notch!

Little Woman You're So Sweet

Little Woman You’re So Sweet, recorded on March 6, 1940 by Blind Boy Fuller.

Okeh 05694 – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – 1940

I just found out that today (March 6) is the birthday of the late, great Bob Wills.  Now, I’m not about to let the 111th anniversary of the day that such a hero of Texas’ music was brought into this world fall by the wayside, so I’ve hastily put together this tribute.  What better way to pay respects to the King of Western Swing than with one of his most famous records.

James Robert Wills was born near Kosse, Texas, where he picked cotton on the family farm and learned to play the fiddle and mandolin, following in his father’s footsteps, who was the champion fiddler of the state of Texas.  The Wills later relocated to a farm near the little town of Turkey, Texas, which now bills itself as Wills’ home.  At sixteen, Bob hopped a freight train and left home to become a professional entertainer, but returned home in his twenties to become a barber.  In Fort Worth, Wills added the blues to his repertoire, and made his first recordings in Dallas with Herman Arnspiger in 1929, though they were not issued.  Wills cut his first issued record in Dallas in 1932 with the Light Crust Doughboys, featuring Milton Brown’s vocals.  In the early 1930s Bob Wills formed his famous Texas Playboys and toured the nation, becoming one of the leading music stars of the era, and an originator of the western swing genre.  Wills continued to perform until a stroke in 1969, despite the diminishing popularity of western swing.  Wills died May 13, 1975 in Fort Worth, Texas.  He is honored every year with the annual Bob Wills Fiddle Festival and Contest in Greenville, Texas.

Okeh 05694 was recorded April 16, 1940 at the Burrus Mill in Saginaw, Texas (near Dallas, which is indicated by the matrix numbers with a “DAL” prefix”).  The Texas Playboys consist of Bob Wills, Jesse Ashlock, and Lewis Fierney on fiddles, Herman Arnspiger and Eldon Shamblin on guitars, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, Johnnie Lee Wills on banjo, Son Lansford on bass, Al Stricklin on piano, and Smokey Dacus on drums.  We heard a few of those musicians with the Light Crust Doughboys seven years prior to this record.

Tommy Duncan sings the vocal on the famous “New San Antonio Rose”.  The old “San Antonio Rose” was just an instrumental of the same tune.

New San Antonio Rose

New San Antonio Rose, recorded April 16, 1940 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Bob takes the fiddle on the eponymous “Bob Wills’ Special”, a low-down old fashioned western swing riddled with those hollers that Wills specialized in.

Bob Wills' Special

Bob Wills’ Special, recorded April 16, 1940 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Victor 26525 – Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra – 1940

December 12 marks the monumental occasion of the one-hundredth anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth.  For such an occasion, I’d love to post Sinatra’s first record with Harry James’ orchestra.  Unfortunately, I don’t own a copy, so here’s the earliest Sinatra record I do have, this classic swing with Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra in 1940.

Francis Albert Sinatra was born December 12, 1915 in Hoboken, New Jersey, the only son of Italian immigrants.  Sinatra began singing as a child, and idolized Bing Crosby.  In 1935, he joined a local vocal trio called the 3 Flashes, which became known as the Hoboken Four after Sinatra joined.  After a successful performance on Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour, they embarked on a tour of the United States and Canada.  Following that engagement, Sinatra found work as a singing waiter in a New Jersey roadhouse, and he began to perform on WNEW in New York.  In 1939, Sinatra began performing with Harry James’ orchestra, and made his first commercial recordings for Brunswick that year.  Before long, he left James band to replace Jack Leonard as vocalist for Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra.  After great success with Dorsey, by 1942 Sinatra wanted to go solo, and he parted ways unceremoniously with the bandleader.  Rumor has it that Sinatra’s mobster godfather Willie Moretti forced Dorsey to release Sinatra from his binding contract at gunpoint.  After going his way, Sinatra signed with Columbia records while the musicians’ strike and subsequent recording ban was in effect, and his first solo recordings were quite successful.  The rest, as they say, is history, with Sinatra going on to huge success, the Rat Pack days, all with a few slumps in between, for the next five decades or so, until his death in 1998.

Victor 26525 was recorded on February 26, 1940 in New York City, not long after Sinatra joined Dorsey’s orchestra.  The Dorsey orchestra is in fine form , and on these earlier recordings, Sinatra sings a bit higher than he did in his greatest fame, and to my ear, honestly resembles a better Ray Eberle.  Nonetheless, as always, he had a very pleasant voice. In the band are Zeke Zarchy, Ray Linn, and Jimmy Blake on trumpets, Ward Silloway and Lowell Martin on trombones, Johnny Mince on clarinet and alto sax, Les Robinson and Fred Stulce on alto sax, Paul Mason and Babe Russin, on tenor sax, Bob Kitsis on piano, Benny Heller on guitar, Gene Traxler on string bass, and the great Buddy Rich on drums.

First up, Old Blue Eyes croons the Eddie DeLange and Jimmy Van Heusen tune, “Shake Down the Stars”.

Shake Down the Stars, recorded

Shake Down the Stars, recorded February 26, 1940 by Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra (Vocal refrain by Frank Sinatra).

On the back, Sinatra sings and swings “Moments in the Moonlight”.

Moments in the Moonlight, recorded

Moments in the Moonlight, recorded February 26, 1940 by Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra (Vocal refrain by Frank Sinatra).

Updated on August 19, 2016.