Gold Star 1314/1313-A – Harry Choates and his Fiddle – 1946

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.

Jole Blon, recorded March 31, 1946 by Harry Choates and his Fiddle.

On the other side, “Basile Waltz”, also sung in Cajun, is a lowdown minor key tune that takes you right down into the bayou.

Basile Waltz, recorded June 1946 by Harry Choates and his Fiddle.

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 (which may account for why it sounds different than almost all of  Peetie’s other songs, on which he accompanied himself on piano).

First up, Peetie Wheatstraw sings one of his more noted 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.

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.

Columbia 36886 – Frank Sinatra – 1945

After exhausting some of my best patriotic material on last year’s Fourth of July, I had to deliberate considerably on what I should discuss on this year’s Independence Day.  Although it steps a bit out of Old Time Blues’ usual prewar milieu, I don’t think I could find a more beautifully patriotic record that better captures what it means to be an American than this 1945 Frank Sinatra classic.  This also marks the official debut of my new pre-owned Grado phonograph cartridge (although I’ve updated the audio on some older posts), so the sound should be a little crisper than in the past.

Columbia 36886 was recorded in two sessions, the first around 8:45 PM on August 22, 1945, the second around 9:15 PM on August 27, 1945, both in Hollywood, California.  On the first date, Axel Stordahl conducts an orchestra made up of Uan Rasey, Leonard Mach, and Bruce Hudson on trumpet, Peter Beilman, Elmer Smithers, and Carl Loeffler on trombone, James Stagliano on French horn, Fred Stulce, Heinie Beau, Don Lodice, Harold Lawson, and Leonard Hartman on reeds, Sam Freed, Jr., Nicholas Pisani, Peter Ellis, Sol Kindler, Mischa Russell, Gerald Joyce, Samuel Cytron, Howard Halbert, David Frisina, Anthony Perrotti, Walter Edelstein, and William Bloom on violins, David Sterkin, Maurice Perlmutter, and Allan Harshman on viola, Cy Bernard, Jack Sewell, and Arthur Kafton on ‘cello, Ann Mason Stockton on harp, Frank Leithner on piano, Perry Botkin on guitar, Jack Ryan on string bass, and Ray Hagan on drums.  On the second date, the orchestra is largely the same, except Charles Griffard replaces Rasey on trumpet, Jimmy Skiles replaces Beilman on trombone, John Cave replaces Stagliano on horn, Mannie Gershman replaces Stulce on reeds, Olcott Vail, Victor Arno, and George Kast replace Joyce, Halbert, and Bloom on violin, Garry White replaces Harshman on viola, Fred Goerner and Nicholas Ochi-Albi replace Bernard and Kafton on ‘cello, and Lauretta McFarland, Mark McIntyre, and Dave Barbour replace Stockton, Leithner, and Botkin on harp, piano, and guitar, respectively.

In 1945, shortly after the conclusion of the Second World War, the young Frank Sinatra, ever a hit with the bobby soxers, starred in an RKO Radio Pictures short film, written by Albert Maltz and directed by Mervyn LeRoy, titled The House I Live In.  In it, Sinatra, taking five from a recording session, breaks up a fight between a group of schoolboys, who are putting the hurt on a peer for being Jewish.  Frank steps in and teaches the boys a lesson on tolerance, and what it means to be an American, before singing the titular song.  The moving film won an honorary Academy Award and Golden Globe for its excellence, and was in later years inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

With music by Earl Robinson and words by Abel Meeropol (under the pen name Lewis Allan), “The House I Live In” made its debut in 1942 as part of the revue Let Freedom Sing, before it came to star in the film of the same name.  Although it was written by individuals whose politics would only a few years later gain them McCarthy-era ostracism, I can think of few songs so truthfully and patriotically American as “The House I Live In”.  It reflects truly timeless values that are every bit as valid today as they were then.

The House I Live In, recorded August 22, 1945 by Frank Sinatra.

Maintaining the patriotic theme, on the flip, Sinatra is joined by the Ken Lane Singers for a lovely rendition of “America, the Beautiful”.

America, the Beautiful, recorded August 27, 1945 by Frank Sinatra.

Asch A 345 – The Wayfaring Stranger – 1944

On June 14, we commemorate anniversary of the birth of Burl Ives, star of stage, screen, radio, and records.

"The Wayfaring Stranger" by Burl Ives. Cover photograph bu Gjon Mili.

“The Wayfaring Stranger” by Burl Ives. Cover photograph bu Gjon Mili.

Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives (what a name) was born on June 14, 1909 near Hunt City in rural Illinois, one of seven children of Scots-Irish farmers Levi and Cordelia Ives.  As a child, while singing in his mother’s garden, he was discovered by his uncle, who invited him to sing at his old soldiers reunion.  Ives made his first recording in 1929, a test for the Starr Piano Company of Richmond, Indiana, makers of Gennett Records, though no record was issued, and the masters were destroyed.  After dropping out of college, Ives hoboed across the states as an itinerant folk songster during the Great Depression.  He began appearing on Terra Haute, Indiana’s WBOW around 1931, and in 1940, began hosting a radio show of his own, called The Wayfaring Stranger.  In 1938, he made his Broadway debut in Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse.  After working with the left leaning Almanac Singers in the early 1940s, Ives was drafted into the United States Army in 1942, receiving a medical discharge the following year.  Ives began his long career in motion pictures, appearing in the 1946 Western Smoky as a singing cowboy.  In the early 1950s, Ives was blacklisted as a suspected communist, and testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Throughout the 1950s onward, he continued to have a prolific career in music and pictures.  In 1964, he made his most enduring appearance in the Rankin/Bass television special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, narrating the program as Sam the Snowman.  Burl Ives died of cancer on April 14, 1995, at the age of eighty-five.

Asch album A 345 was recorded in 1944 and edited by Alan Lomax.  Try as I might, I can’t seem to locate a source giving the exact date.  Going by the matrix numbers, I’d venture it was recorded sometime early in that year, January or February, possibly even late in 1943.  It was re-issued on the Stinson label in 1947.

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