In Old Time Blues’ ever-continuing tradition of honoring Texas musicians, the time has come to play our respects to “l’Parrain de la Musique Cajun”—Harry Choates—whose 1946 hit of “Jole Blon” put Cajun music on the charts.
Harry Henry Choates was born on December 26, 1922 somewhere in the southern part of Louisiana, i.e. Cajun country. Different sources suggest Rayne, New Iberia, and Cow Island. He moved with his family to Port Arthur, Texas as a child, and spent most of his childhood glued to the jukebox. Choates took up the fiddle by the age of twelve and began busking around town, also learning to play guitar, steel guitar, and accordion. Playing alongside such notables as Leo Soileau and Happy Fats’ Rayne-Bo Ramblers while only still a youth, Choates was soon to find great success of his own. In the mid-1940s, he organized a band of his own—the Melody Boys—and began recording professionally for the Houston-based Bill Quinn’s Gold Star Records (“King of the Hillbillies”), then later for Charles D. and Macy Henry’s Macy’s Recordings (“Queen of Hits”), as well as a few other labels. They also played around south Texas. Choates’ Gold Star recording of “Jole Blon” (read all about that below) became a smash hit, and won him his greatest fame. Unfortunately, that fame was to be short-lived for Choates; he was an alcoholic, and frequently showed up at gigs drunk. His habitual unreliability got him blacklisted by the local musicians’ union, after which his band broke up. After moving to Austin in the early 1950s, Choates was jailed for failing to make child support payments to his estranged wife Helen. While imprisoned and experiencing withdrawals from liquor, he knocked himself unconscious on the cell bars. After a few days spent comatose, Harry Choates died on July 17, 1951, the official cause listed as “fatty metamorphosis of the liver.”
Gold Star 1314 and 1313-A were recorded at the Quinn Recording Co. at 3104 Telephone Road, Houston, TX, on or around March 31, 1946 for “1314” and around June of 1946 for “1313” (in spite of the numbering, “1314” was apparently recorded earlier). It was soon after issued on Modern Records number 20-511 out of Los Angeles, and DeLuxe 6000. Some copies of the Gold Star issue misspelled Choates as “Shoates” while the Modern misspelled it “Coates”. Per Praguefrank’s online discography, Harry Choates’ Melody Boys (though not credited as such on the label) consist of Choates on fiddle and vocals, Esmond Pursley and B.D.Williams on guitar, Charles Stagle on banjo, James Foster on string bass, and William Slay on piano for the the “1314” side. On the “1313” side, Abe Manuel plays rhythm guitar while Williams takes the bass, and Joe Manuel plays banjo.
“Jolie Blonde”—French for “Pretty Blonde”—was for many years a popular tune in Cajun country, first recorded in 1929 by the Breaux Frères. In 1946, Harry Choates took his Melody Boys to Bill Quinn’s recording studio in Houston, making the song their first recording, which Quinn misspelled as “Jole Blon”. The record was released in the summer of ’46 and became an unexpected runaway hit, rising to number four in the Billboard charts, becoming the only Cajun record to reach that position. Gold Star couldn’t keep up with the demand, and had to lease masters to other record companies. Numerous follow-ups and sequels were spawned by the success, by Choates—including an English version, “Jole Brun (Pretty Brunette)”, “Mari Jole Blon (Jole Blon’s Husband)”, and “Jole Blon’s Farewell”—and by others, such as Moon Mullican’s “New Pretty Blonde (New Jole Blon)” and “Jole Blon’s Sister”, Bob Wills’ “Jolie Blond Likes the Boogie” (itself sort of a sequel to his “Ida Red Likes the Boogie” of the previous year), Wayne Raney’s “Jole Blon’s Ghost”, and others. Unfortunately, Choates, a chronic alcoholic, sold his rights to royalties for a hundred dollars and a bottle of whiskey.
On the other side, “Basile Waltz”, also sung in Cajun, is a lowdown minor key tune that takes you right down into the bayou.