Paramount 12417 – Elzadie Robinson – 1926

Elzadie Robinson, pictured in the Paramount Book of Blues, circa 1927.

When asked to imagine “country blues,” what image springs to mind?  Probably that of a lone man with an acoustic guitar busking on some southern street corner, or hiking down a lonesome dusty road.  But ubiquitous as that description may seem, a woman and a piano can make for just as much of “country” blues as a man and a guitar, as proven by Elzadie Robinson on the pair of haunting, down home blues songs herein.

Elzadie Robinson is believed to have been born on the twenty-fourth of April in either 1897 or 1900, and in Logansport, Louisiana, right on the border with Texas.  Little is known of her early life, or what brought her into the world of the blues.  Paramount promotional material reported that she began singing professionally around the age of twelve, and was popular in Houston and Galveston area cabarets.  She and her accompanist Will Ezell were discovered in 1926 by Art Laibly of Paramount Records and referred to Chicago record.  From then until 1929, she sang for the label, making a total of sixteen records.  Singing mostly songs of her own composition, Robinson was most often accompanied by pianists such as Will Ezell or Bob Call, sometimes joined by more musicians such as Blind Blake or Johnny Dodds.  She was distinguished alongside Ma Rainey and Ida Cox as one of Paramount’s most prominent blues ladies, and as such was honored with a segment dedicated to her in their circa 1927 publication The Paramount Book of Blues.  She married Perry Henderson of Flint, Michigan, in 1928, and retired from music the following year.  As with her upbringing, details surrounding her later life are obscure.  Many years later, Ezadie Henderson died on January 17, 1975.

William Ezell, Robinson’s most frequent accompanist, hailed from the eastern half of Texas; he was born in the town of Brenham on December 23, 1892.  He got his start as an itinerant pianist in turpentine camp barrelhouses and the like deep in the Piney Woods of east Texas, the birthplace of the musical style known as boogie woogie.  Traveling with Elzadie Robinson to Chicago in 1926, Ezell began recording extensively for Paramount Records in the five years that followed, both as an accompanist to singers like Robinson, Lucille Bogan, and others, and as a solo pianist and occasional vocalist, making several recordings with Blind Roosevelt Graves.  Recordings such as “Pitchin’ Boogie” and “Heifer Dust” helped to define the boogie woogie genre in its early years on records.  It has been reported that following the death of Blind Lemon Jefferson in the winter of 1929, Ezell accompanied the musician’s body as it was transported by train back from Chicago to Wortham, Texas.  He made his final recordings in 1931, as Paramount was faltering under the burden of the Great Depression, accompanying vaudevillian vocalist Slim Tarpley.  He is said to have returned south to Louisiana after the demise of Paramount Records, but soon came back to Chicago, and continued playing professionally until at least the 1940s, at which time he was reportedly employed by the WPA as a watchman.  Will Ezell died in Chiago on August 2, 1963.

Paramount 12417 was recorded around October of 1926 in Chicago, Illinois.  Of the two takes issued for both sides, these are “1” and “2”, respectively.  It is the first record of both Robinson and Ezell.

First, Robinson and Ezell make a blues straight out of the East Texas lumber camps: “Sawmill Blues”.  Robinson’s lazy vocals, seeming to hang behind Ezell’s piano playing, lend a candid, even dreamlike quality to the recording, as if we just stepped into a Piney Woods juke joint at the end of the night following a hard working day.

Sawmill Blues, recorded c. October 1926 by Elzadie Robinson.

On the reverse, Elzadie’s vocal drifts in and out on the classic “Barrel House Man”—the melody of which was later appropriated for Lucille Bogan’s “Sloppy Drunk Blues” (this one’s better though, I say)—to Ezell’s strong accompaniment, making ample use of the sustain pedal for that genuine barrelhouse sound.

Barrel House Man, recorded c. October 1926 by Elzadie Robinson.

Blue Note 2 – Albert Ammons – 1939

Albert Ammons and Meade "Lux" Lewis. From Jazzmen, 1939.

Albert Ammons and Meade “Lux” Lewis. From Jazzmen, 1939.

On September 23, 1907, 109 years to the day before this posting, the boogie woogie piano great Albert Ammons was born.

Ammons was born in Chicago to piano playing parents, who passed on the art to him at a young age.  He developed his barrelhouse style with his close friend Meade “Lux” Lewis, taking notes from Hersal Thomas and Jimmy Yancey.  In the 1920s, both he and Lewis were working as taxicab drivers, and began playing together as a duo.  Ammons started a band in 1935, and recorded for Decca with his Rhythm Kings in 1936.  On December 23, 1938, Ammons appeared in John Hammond’s concert, From Spirituals to Swing at Carnegie Hall, celebrating the history of jazz from spirituals to swing.  The event featured Count Basie’s orchestra with Hot Lips Page and Jimmy Rushing, the Golden Gate Quartet, bluesmen Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Terry, and fellow boogie woogie pianists Pete Johnson, and Meade “Lux” Lewis, to name a few.  The concert created a surge in the popularity of boogie woogie, with Ammons at the forefront, and he worked quite extensively throughout the following decade, culminating with his performance at Harry S. Truman’s inauguration in 1949.  After a period of illness, Ammons died on December 2, 1949.

Blue Note 2 was recorded on January 6, 1939 in New York by Albert Ammons.  It was Blue Note’s second release, from the new record label’s first recording session, held in a rented studio.

Ammons recorded his famous “Boogie Woogie Stomp” previously in 1936 for Decca with his Rhythm Kings, but that version, in my opinion, lacked the same kind of driving energy that characterizes this solo recording.  A truncated version of the piece (which Ammons recorded for the Solo-Art label) was used in Norman McLaren’s 1940 animation Boogie Doodle.

Boogie Woogie Stomp

Boogie Woogie Stomp, recorded January 6, 1939 by Albert Ammons.

On the other side, Ammons improvises “Boogie Woogie Blues”, demonstrating his formidable ability as a pianist.

Boogie Woogie Blues

Boogie Woogie Blues, recorded January 6, 1939 by Albert Ammons.

Vocalion 1198 – Cow Cow Davenport and Ivy Smith – 1928

Cow Cow Davenport, circa 1940s.

Cow Cow Davenport, circa 1940s.  Magazine clipping from “The Jazz Record”.

April 23 marks the 122nd anniversary of the birth of the Man that Gave America Boogie Woogie, Charles “Cow Cow” Davenport.  Since it also marks my own birthday, that makes it a very special occasion, and thusly, I hope to offer a very special presentation.

Charles Edward Davenport was born in Anniston, Alabama on April 23, 1894.  He took up the piano at the age of twelve.  Davenport’s father was a pastor, and opposed his son’s musical interests, sending him away to a seminary to continue in his father’s work.  The young Charles was kicked out the the seminary for playing ragtime.  He began his professional career playing boogie woogie piano in medicine shows and touring the TOBA vaudeville circuit.  In 1924, Davenport made his debut recordings as an accompanist for his vaudeville partner Dora Carr for Okeh Records, recording his trademark composition, “Cow Cow Blues”, one of the earliest instances of boogie woogie piano on record, from which he got his nickname.  After Okeh, Cow Cow several records for Paramount, and recorded fairly prolifically, solo and as an accompanist.  By the later 1920s, he was working with a new partner, Ivy Smith, and recording for Vocalion records, with whom he made a larger number of sides.  He also worked as a talent scout for Vocalion, bringing in such talent as Clarence “Pine Top” Smith. Composed by Davenport were such classics as “Mama Don’t Allow It” and supposedly “You Rascal You”, which he claimed to have sold to Sam Theard.  In the early 1930s, he took up in Cleveland, Ohio, which remained his home for the rest of his life.  In 1938, Davenport suffered a stroke that caused minor paralysis in his right hand that forced him to temporarily retire from music and take menial jobs, and impeded his playing for the rest of his life.  Nevertheless, he continued to perform and record.  In 1942, his name was put up in lights when Freddie Slack’s Orchestra had a smash hit with “Cow Cow Boogie”, no doubt taking its name from the aging piano man.  His final years plagued by ill health, Cow Cow Davenport died of heart failure on December 12, 1955 in Cleveland.

Vocalion 1198 was recorded in Chicago on July 16, 1928 featuring Cow Cow Davenport on piano assisted by his vaudeville partner, Ivy Smith on one side.  Two known takes of each side were recorded that day, and both are presented here.  Takes “A” come from the original issue, and takes “B” are from the 1943 reissue on Brunswick 80022.

Davenport first plays solo on his eponymous song “Cow Cow Blues”, deriving its name from the cowcatchers mounted on the front of old steam engines.

Cow Cow Blues

Cow Cow Blues, recorded July 16, 1928 by Cow Cow Davenport.

On the reverse, Davenport is joined by the vocals of his stage partner Ivy Smith on “State Street Jive”.  “What kinda piano player is this?” Smith asks on take “B” of this tune.

State Street Jive

State Street Jive, recorded July 16, 1928 by Cow Cow Davenport and Ivy Smith.

Oriole 8122 – Bessie Jackson – 1930

Hailing from Birmingham, Alabama was the blues singer Lucille Anderson, better known by her married name Lucille Bogan, or her commonly used pseudonym, Bessie Jackson.  Born on April Fools’ Day of 1897 in Amory, Mississippi, Bogan is sometimes considered among the “big three” of blues singing, along with Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith (though I would argue that Lizzie Miles deserves a position among them).  She was known for her unadulterated singing with lyrics ranging from raunchy to downright filthy, often much more so than those of her contemporaries.  This record contains some of her tamer material, but there’s one record floating around out there with lyrics that would put some of the present day’s songs to shame for their “explicit content”.  However, this is a family website, so I’m not going to go into detail on that one.  Bogan died of coronary sclerosis in 1948.

Oriole 8122, issued in their “race records” series, was recorded in Chicago sometime in March of 1930.  It features Lucille Bogan under her typical pseudonym Bessie Jackson, accompanied by boogie woogie piano player Charles Avery.  This record was originally issued as Brunswick 7210, this issue likely dates to 1931.

First up, Bogan sings on the boogie woogie piece “Alley Boogie”, probably one of the earliest instances of a song title using the term “boogie”, following “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie”.

Alley Boogie, recorded March 1930 by Bessie Jackson.

Alley Boogie, recorded March 1930 by Bessie Jackson.

Labeled here as the “B” side, but generally and more properly serving as the “A” side on most issues of this pair is the quintessential “Sloppy Drunk Blues”, one of Bogan’s signature numbers.

Sloppy Drunk Blues

Sloppy Drunk Blues, recorded March 1930 by Bessie Jackson.

Perfect 0252 – Walter Roland – 1933

Recorded in the deepest depths of the Great Depression, I offer to you these two boogie woogie piano tunes from the brief recording career of the skilled Alabama blues man Walter Roland.

Walter Roland was born in December of either 1902 or 1903 in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, and was working as a musician by the 1920s, playing piano and guitar and singing.  Though Roland remained an active musician until the end of his life, he recorded only a few times in the 1930s.  In 1933, Roland traveled to New York with guitar player Sonny Scott to record for the American Record Corporation, and would return twice between then and 1935.  During those trips, he recorded solo, and also played as an accompanist with Lucille Bogan and Joshua White, as well as part of the “Jolly Jivers” with Scott and Bogan.  Some of his records were released under the pseudonym Alabama Sam.  After returning home, Roland did not make another recording, but continued to play music.  By the 1950s, he was a farmer, but sometimes worked as a street musician.  Sometime in the 1960s, he was blinded by buckshot after trying to break up an altercation between neighbors, and he retired in the later part of that decade.  Roland died of lung cancer October 12, 1972 in Fairfield, Alabama.

Perfect 0252 was recorded over two consecutive days on July 19 and 20, 1933 in New York City, Roland’s second released disc from his ARC sessions.  It got an honorable mention in 78 Quarterly’s famous “Rarest 78s” column.  These ARC race records seldom turn up in very good condition, and this one is no exception, but thankfully, despite a few brief blasts of noise, the music is still prominent.

Roland’s first number is the classic “Early This Morning (‘Bout Break of Day)”, his own version of Charlie Spand’s “Soon This Morning”.  Unfortunately, the text on the label has faded away completely, leaving only the faintest trace of what was originally printed.  This side was recorded on the July 20 date.  Roland also recorded the same tune the previous day, accompanying his guitar-playing associate Sonny Scott.

Early This Morning

Early This Morning (‘Bout Break of Day), recorded July 20, 1933 by Walter Roland.

On the flip side, Roland plays and sings “House Lady Blues”, a piano blues masterpiece.  This one was recorded on the earlier date of July 19.

House Lady Blues

House Lady Blues, recorded July 19, 1933 by Walter Roland.

Updated with improved audio on April 26, 2018.