Broadway 8089 – Georgia Melody Boys – 1927

There were some artists of yesteryear who created a truly unique sound, and made music that was without parallel (for better or for worse).  Names like Washington Phillips—who seemingly played two modified zithers simultaneously to accompany his sanctified singing—come to mind.  In this case (partly because I don’t have any of Mr. Phillips’ records), we’ll look at the Golden Melody Boys, a truly obscure duo whose sound was aptly characterized by Tony Russell as “a bubbling sixteen-string polyphony.”  While I count eighteen (the American tiple has ten strings), they certainly made music like no other that I am aware of.

The Golden Melody Boys—Dempsy “Demps” Jones and Philip Featherstonhaugh (or “Featherstonehaugh”, or “Featherstone”)—were a musical duo hailing from Ceder Rapids, Iowa.  Demps was born on November 9, 1890 in Fountain Run, Kentucky; Phil on November 4, 1892 in Illinois.  Phil could play a mean mandolin, and Demps was skilled on guitar, banjo, and the rather out-of-the-ordinary tiple.  Aside from their musical proclivities, Dempsy was the Linn County Recorder, and worked variously on the side as a baseball player, a newspaperman, in construction, and for Quaker Oats.  Phil, apparently, was more or less of a bootlegger.  They were playing together as early as 1925, and played on Earl May’s KMA in Shenandoah, Iowa, as well as a number of other stations.  They made their recording debut in October of 1927 for the New York Recording Laboratories (makers of Paramount, Broadway) in Chicago, and cut a total of eighteen sides for them over the following year, all of which but one were released.  Dempsy followed up with six solo re-recordings of earlier titles for the Starr Piano Company (for their Champion and Superior labels) on November 19, 1931 in Richmond, Indiana.  Jones stayed in Iowa, starting a family band in the 1930s which apparently continued all the way into the days of television, while Featherstonhaugh moved west.  Jones died on April 10, 1963 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Featherstonhaugh on March 1, 1969 in Beaumont, California.  As of late, their “Gonna Have ‘Lasses in de Mornin'” made its way into PBS’s grand project American Epic.

Broadway 8089 was recorded circa October of 1927 in Chicago, Illinois.  The Golden Melody Boys (here under the rather thin pseudonym “Georgia Melody Boys”) consist of Demps on tiple and Phil on mandolin.  Demps provides the vocals.  It was their first released record, and was also issued on Paramount 3068.  Jones recorded both these songs again in their 1931 Gennett session.

“My grandfather’s hat was too big for his head, it was caused by drinking Milwaukee beer,” is the first line in “The Old Tobacco Mill” (a parody of the old “My Grandfather’s Clock”), and is just the sort of whimsical, often nonsensical lyrics that characterize the bulk of the Golden Melody Boys’ recorded output.

The Old Tobacco Mill, recorded October, 1927 by the Georgia Melody Boys.

On “The Cross Eyed Butcher”, we’re treated to two stories for the price of one, first that ot the titular butcher, then of a fellow’s dental follies, with a nice little instrumental break in-between.  Demps’s vocals rather remind me of Frank Crumit, who—incidentally—was also a tiple player.

The Cross Eyed Butcher, recorded October, 1927 by the Georgia Melody Boys.

Brunswick 4535 – Bill Robinson Accompanied by Irving Mills and his Hotsy Totsy Gang – 1929

Bill Robinson in the Hot Mikado.

Bill Robinson in the Hot Mikado (1939).

May 25 is National Tap Dance Day.  It’s also the 138th anniversary of the birth of the great tap dancer and consummate entertainer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.  (The two falling on the same day is far from a coincidence.)  With his characteristic dancing and charismatic persona, Robinson broke numerous color barriers in the show business, and likely introduced the word “copacetic” into the popular lexicon.

Bill Robinson was born Luther Robinson in Richmond, Virginia on May 25, 1878, at some point, he switched names with his brother and became “Bill”.  Robinson began dancing in front of theaters for tips at the age of five, and was eventually offered work inside the theater.  At one point, he had an act with Al Jolson.  His career as an entertainer was interrupted when the Spanish-American War broke out, and he enlisted in the Army.  Once out of the Army, Robinson embarked on a long and groundbreaking career in vaudeville.  After Bert Williams’ death in 1922, Robinson succeeded him as the top black entertainer in the United States.  Somewhere along the way, he picked up the nickname “Bojangles”.  In 1928, Robinson appeared in Lew Leslies Blackbirds of 1928, and in 1939, he had a successful run in Michael Todd’s Hot Mikado.  Today, Robinson is likely best remembered for his film appearances with Shirley Temple, beginning with The Little Colonel in 1935.  Also in 1935, he appeared in Will Rogers’ last film, In Old Kentucky.  In his own final movie, in 1943, Robinson starred in Stormy Weather, with Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, and the Nicholas Brothers.  Bill Robinson died of heart failure on November 25, 1949.

Brunswick 4535 was recorded September 4, 1929 in New York by Bill Robinson, whose tap-dancing is accompanied by Irving Mills’ Hotsy Totsy Gang.  The personnel of the band seems to be undetermined, it is most likely a white studio group possibly consisting Mannie Klein and Phil Napoleon on trumpets, Miff Mole on trombone, Pee Wee Russell, Arnold Brilhart and/or Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet and alto sax, Larry Binyon on tenor sax, Joe Tarto on tuba, Chauncey Morehouse on drums and an unknown piano and guitar player.  Some other sources however, including Robinson himself, cite it as Duke Ellington’s band.  I would be inclined to believe it’s more likely the former of the two.

On the first side of this very entertaining disc, Robinson patters with his feet and with his mouth on “Doin’ the New Low Down”, a song he introduced in Blackbirds of 1928.

Doin' the New Low Down

Doin’ the New Low Down, recorded September 4, 1929 by Bill Robinson Accompanied by Irving Mills and his Hotsy Totsy Gang.

On the reverse, Bojangles seems a little more exuberant on his performance of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'”.  “This is the way I walk when I got plenty money on Broad-way!”

Ain't Misbehavin'

Ain’t Misbehavin’, recorded September 4, 1929 by Bill Robinson Accompanied by Irving Mills and his Hotsy Totsy Gang.

Broadway 1140 – Devine’s Wisconsin Roof Orchestra – 1927

So I’m told that it’s International Jazz Day today.  I was unaware of the occasion, but I certainly can’t let it fall by the wayside, so here’s a real humdinger of a jazz record…

One of the best ways to experience the “real” jazz of the 1920s and 1930s is to seek out the oftentimes scarce records by the so-called “territory bands”, that being bands that traveled around various regions, usually by bus, gigging at dance halls, hotel ballrooms, and the occasional radio station.  I think it’s safe to assume that those bands played what the regular folks were interested in hearing.

Today’s disc comes from a fine Midwestern territory band that had the distinction of playing at Milwaukee’s Wisconsin Roof Garden, an open-air ballroom perched atop the Carpenter Building at 700 North 6th Street, owned and operated by George J. Devine, who lent his name to the band for many of their records.  The band, led by saxophone player and Kansas-native Bill Carlsen, was a hot one, playing in a style that we today might call “dixieland jazz” (at that time, of course, it was just “jazz”), with that hot and raucous sound common to Midwestern jazz bands.

Broadway 1140 was recorded in December of 1927 at Paramount’s Chicago studio by Devine’s Wisconsin Roof Orchestra, directed by Bill Carlsen (spelled Carlson on the label).  The band includes Dip Happe and Alec Alexander on trumpets, Ole Turner on trombone, Paul Peregrine, Harry Bortner and Bill Carlsen on reeds, Lee Simmons on piano, Ralph West on banjo, Chet Harding on tuba and Harry Pierce at the drums.  This record was also issued as Paramount 12599.

First, the band plays a fine rendition of the “New St. Louis Blues”, which, as it turns out, is actually the same old St. Louis Blues as always.  My speculation is that bands like this one titled it “new” to entice buyers that likely already owned a copy of the “old” St. Louis Blues.

New St. Louis Blues, recorded December 1927 by Devine's Wisconsin Roof Orchestra.

New St. Louis Blues, recorded December 1927 by Devine’s Wisconsin Roof Orchestra.

Next up, they play one of my all-time favorite versions of that classic (or as Satchmo might put it, “one of the good old good ones”), “Tiger Rag”.  This pressing is the first of two extant takes of this side.

Tiger Rag, recorded December 1927 by Devine's Wisconsin Roof Orchestra.

Tiger Rag, recorded December 1927 by Devine’s Wisconsin Roof Orchestra.

Broadway 8114 – Harkins and Moran – 1927

I’ve been featuring a lot of jazz recently, and I think it’s about time for a change of pace, so today I offer this old time country record for your enjoyment.

When I bought my VV 4-4 Victrola a while back, along with it came a collection of about sixty or seventy records in the Victrola’s original albums.  Most of these records were standard popular fare of the 1920s: Gene Austin, Waring’s Pennsylvanians, and plenty of waltzes.  However, as I flipped to the last couple of pages in one album, I discovered three records on the Broadway label, which are always fun to find.  One of them was a popular song pairing, the other two were old time fiddle records.

This one, Broadway 8114 is credited to “Harkins and Moran”, an alliterative pseudonym for actual artists Sid Harkreader, fiddle and Grady Moore, guitar.  It was recorded in June of 1927 at the Chicago studios of the New York Recording Laboratories (of Paramount fame).  It was also issued on Paramount 3023, and “John Henry” was issued on Herwin 75532 with different backing.

The duo’s fine rendition of the old folk song “John Henry” is marred by a large edge flake that necessitated a small amount of audio restoration, but I think it cleaned up fairly well.  The same set of lyrics was sung by Harkreader’s associate Uncle Dave Macon in his memorable rendition.

John Henry, recorded June 1927 by Harkins and Moran.

John Henry, recorded June 1927 by Harkins and Moran.

On the flip side, Harkreader and Moore play the classic “Old Joe”, a track that was featured on Volume 2 of Yazoo’s compilation, “Times Ain’t Like They Used To Be: Early American Rural Music”.  Real fine fiddle music.

Old Joe, recorded in June 1927 by Harkins and Moran.

Old Joe, recorded June 1927 by Harkins and Moran.

Updated with improved audio on July 20, 2017.