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, found its way—perhaps by way of the medicine show circuit—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.

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 as “Ma Blonde Est Partie“.  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.

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.

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.