Brunswick 7184 – Gene Campbell – 1930

The enigmatic Gene Campbell was among the most exemplary of the Texas blues musicians to record in the beginning of the Great Depression, yet nothing much is known of the elusive guitarist and singer; he had a more prolific recording career than most of his contemporaries, and in fact bears the distinction of being the only guitar-playing country blues singer recorded by Brunswick in Texas (all others were backed by jazz bands), yet all but very few substantial details surrounding his life and times have been lost to time.

An account related in the early 1960s to the esteemed researcher Mack McCormick by fellow Texas blues musician James “Smokestack” Tisdom—a protégé of Campbell’s—suggests that the singer’s proper name was Willie Gene Campbell and that he hailed from San Antonio and was born around 1902.  Lyrics such as “born in Texas, raised in Texas too” in his “Western Plain Blues” and mention of “Waco, Dallas, Fort Worth, or San Antonio” in his “Don’t Leave Me Here Blues”, further pointed to Campbell’s roots in the Lone Star State.  Queries of public records have as yet yielded no conclusive information regarding Campbell.  He seems to have spent at least a portion of his life drifting across the region of his origin, and it is possible that he at one time belonged, in some respect, to the loose group of songsters and blues moaners known to hang around the Deep Ellum neighborhood in Dallas that included the likes of Ramblin’ Thomas, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Huddie Ledbetter.  It was in Dallas that Gene Campbell made his first two recordings in November of 1929, beginning his rather brief recording career with commanding performances of “Mama, You Don’t Mean Me No Good No How” and “Bended Knee Blues” (Brunswick 7139).  In his work, he demonstrated a strong and smooth singing voice somewhat reminiscent of his contemporary “Texas” Alexander and an idiosyncratic but deft guitar style echoing that of the influential Lonnie Johnson, that may have employed a flatpick.  Many of his songs dealt with the familiar subject matter of woman troubles, and most shared a similar melody and structure, spiced up with a variety of embellishments.  His first record must have impressed the Brunswick people, because the following year, he traveled to their headquarters in Chicago to cut a further ten sides.  Among those ten recorded at his second session was the two-part “Freight Train Yodeling Blues” (Brunswick 7161), which echoed both the themes and melodies popularized by “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers, and illustrated Campbell’s variegated repertoire.  When Brunswick returned to Dallas that November, Campbell recorded another four songs.  He returned to Chicago one final time for two days in January of 1931 to make his last eight, resulting in a grand total of twenty-four sides as his recorded legacy, and making him the most prolific of the handful of country blues players to be recorded by Brunswick, and the second most prolific artist in their 7000-series of “race” records, behind only calypsonian Lionel Belasco.  James Tisdom reported that Campbell was still living in the early 1960s and working as a rice farmer in Bay City, but was no longer active as a musician.    Unfortunately, McCormick was not able to locate Campbell if he was indeed still living at that time, and his fate remains undetermined.

Brunswick 7184 was recorded around May of 1930 in Chicago, Illinois, at Campbell’s second session.  Gene Campbell sings the blues, accompanying himself on the guitar.

Though you may not be able to read the label, Campbell first sings “Lazy Woman Blues”, imploring his girl that she “must get a job, or [she] must leave.”  The lyrics of this song were closely mirrored seven years later in a song called “Trifling Woman” by Fort Worth blues musician Black Ace (B.K. Turner), further suggesting Campbell’s Texas roots, as well as his influence on fellow artists in the region.

Lazy Woman Blues, recorded c. May 1930 by Gene Campbell.

On the reverse, he moans another verse of romantic discontent on the rather morose sounding “Wish I Could Die”.

Wish I Could Die, recorded c. May 1930 by Gene Campbell.

Brunswick 6047 – Harris Brothers Texans – 1930

One of several outstanding Texas-based jazz and dance bands to make records in the years preceding World War II, the Harris Brothers Texans demonstrated themselves to be formidable music-makers, but with only three records to their name, all of which are rarely encountered today, the band is shrouded by a veil of near total obscurity, unknown to most outside of a small cadre of vintage jazz aficionados.  Previously, scarcely any information regarding them was available.  Now, following intensive research, I have endeavored to piece together a short but relatively comprehensive history of the band herein (at least the most extensive one hitherto published; with special thanks to the research of the late Murray L. Pfeffer and his Big Bands Database).

The three Harris Brothers were Abraham “Abe” Harris, born October 12, 1890 or ’91, Louis Joseph “Lou” Harris, born in October of 1891, and Myer Isadore “Monk” Harris, born January 9, 1894, the sons of Emanuel and Sarah Harris of Navasota, Texas, descendants of Jewish Prussian immigrants who arrived in Texas in the 1870s, by way of South Carolina.  Abe Harris was a drummer in the First World War, and after his completing his service, he started a jazz band with his brothers, Lou playing trumpet and Monk playing trombone and euphonium.  Originally directed by Abe, Lou Harris assumed leadership of the band by the late 1920s onward, and it was apparently fronted for a time around 1926 by reed and violin player and singer Harry Samuels, who had been a childhood friend of the Harris brothers.  The Harris Brothers Orchestra played in Corsicana in 1922, before taking up in the Houston area the following year, making them contemporaries of Lloyd Finlay’s orchestra, and in 1923 and ’24, they played in the ballroom of the Crystal Palace in Galveston.  In the middle part of the decade, the Harris Brothers Orchestra relocated to north Texas, where they broadcasted from WFAA in Dallas and were engaged at the roof ballroom of the Baker Hotel in Dallas beginning in 1926 and at least as late as 1929.

When the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company made their field trips to record in Texas, the orchestra cut records, resulting in three sessions, all in Dallas, yielding a grand total of eight sides, six of which were released.  First in October of 1928, they recorded the hot jazz tunes “Somebody Stole My Gal” and “The Pay Off”, released on the Vocalion label. The following year, they cut “Gut Bucket Shuffle”, “Louisiana, That’s My Home”, and two unknown unissued titles.  Finally, they concluded their brief recorded legacy with two pop-styled songs: “Oh How I Cried the Morning After” and “The South’s Been a Mother to Me”.  Though credited on their records as the “Harris Brothers Texans”, at home the band was simply called the “Harris Brothers Orchestra”.  By this time, the Harris Brothers’ musical style was comparable to that of the contemporary Phil Baxter’s orchestra and other Texas dance bands of the era, featuring a rather loose instrumentation and a “big” sound punctuated by strong “oom-pah” bass rhythm, with occasional use of accordion, somewhat evocative of Texas’ polka bands.  Much of their recorded material displayed a certain uniquely Texan character.  An unidentified group called “The Harris Brothers” had two test sessions for Gennett in 1928—prior to any of the Harris Brothers’ Brunswick recordings—but given that they are believed to have been a vocal group, it is doubtful that they were one and the same.

Around the same time as their Brunswick engagement, the Harris Brothers Orchestra played at the Dallas Country Club, and they were engaged at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas in 1929 following Alphonso Trent’s tenure there.  During their time at the Adolphus, bandleader Lou Harris gave a large quantity of arrangements to New Orleans expatriate Don Albert, who had recently parted ways with Troy Floyd’s orchestra and was starting up his own band.  The band remained together under the directorship of Lou Harris at least into the late 1930s, playing in Dallas and Abilene—perhaps even venturing all the way to Hollywood on a 1935 tour—and they provided music at the Greater Texas and Pan-American Exposition at Dallas’ Fair Park in 1937.  Myer Harris eventually retired from music and built homes in Dallas.  Abe Harris died on May 23, 1960, Lou in 1969, and Monk on November 8, 1990, all three in Dallas.

Brunswick 6047 was recorded in November of 1930 (though some sources suggest a January 1931 date) in Dallas, Texas.  The personnel of the band probably includes at least some of the following members: Lou Harris and Paul Skinner on trumpets, Myer “Monk” Harris on trombone, Harry Samuels, Gene Hammel, and probably at least one other—possibly Robert Dean—on reeds (clarinet, two alto saxophones, and tenor sax), Murray Lambert on piano, Liebling Mayo on banjo (though Johnson and Shirley’s American Dance Bands suggests a possible Lester Peacock), an unknown tuba player, and Abe Harris on drums.  The vocalist may be reed man Harry Samuels.

First up, the Texans play a hot jazz arrangement of “The South’s Been a Mother to Me”, apparently the only recording of this song.

The South's Been a Mother to Me

The South’s Been a Mother to Me, recorded November 1930 by the Harris Brothers Texans.

On the flip, they maintain their booming sound on William Gould and Joey Ray’s popular song “Oh How I Cried the Morning After (The Night Before With You)”.

Oh, How I Cried the Morning After (The Night Before With You)

Oh How I Cried the Morning After (The Night Before With You), recorded November 1930 by the Harris Brothers Texans.

Brunswick 118 – “Dock” Boggs – 1927

Recognized as one of the great luminaries of old time folk music—thanks in no small part to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music—is “Dock” Boggs, whose blend of hillbilly style and Afro-American blues and penchant for “lonesome songs” distinguished him as a unique figure in American music, and lent a window into the melancholic soul of a rural artist.

Moran Lee Boggs was born in West Norton, Virginia on February 7, 1898, named after the town doctor who (presumably) delivered him.  His father gave him the nickname “Dock” while he was a toddler, and the name stuck, Boggs preferring it over his given name.  His music-loving father taught him how to sing, and he soon took up the banjo, which he learned to pick in a clawhammer style he called “knockdown.”  The young Boggs also learned folk songs such as “John Henry” from a local black songster called “Go Lightning” who played by the railroad tracks.  Other influences included his brother Roscoe, an itinerant musician by the name of Homer Crawford, and his brother-in-law, the Holiness preacher Lee Hansucker, as well as many phonograph records.  Like Frank Hutchison and so many of his contemporaries, Boggs was a coal miner by trade, and musician by passion.

In 1927, with a borrowed banjo, Boggs auditioned for the Brunswick-Balke-Collender company at the Hotel Norton.  Out of however many auditioned, only Boggs and John Dykes’ Magic City Trio made the cut, and thereafter he traveled to the Brunswick studios in New York City and cut eight sides, which were all issued.  After returning to Norton in 1928, Boggs organized a band, calling themselves “Dock Boggs and his Cumberland Mountain Entertainers” and playing at local functions.  In spite of his musical success, he was met with opposition from his wife, who wished for her husband to walk the straight and narrow path away from bootlegging, gambling, and the Devil’s music.  Two years after his first recordings, Boggs was contracted by music store owner W.A. Myers to record for his remarkably short-lived record label The Lonesome Ace—”Without a Yodel.”  For Myers, Dock ventured to Chicago to cut four titles, accompanied by Emry Arthur on guitar, for Paramount Records, who was doing the recording and pressing work for The Lonesome Ace. Those four, including the haunting “Old Rub Alcohol Blues”, were to be the final recordings of his original musical career.

When the Great Depression came on, records sales dropped to near zero, putting the hurt on Boggs’ music career.  He had an ill-fated attempt at a radio show in 1930, and in June of 1931, Boggs was offered the opportunity to record for Victor in Louisville, but was unable to raise funds for the journey.  He spent the rest of that decade in the coal mines, eventually giving up on his life as in music.  After living in obscurity for several decades, Dock Boggs was rediscovered in 1963 by Mike Seeger.  Seeger brought Boggs back into music as part of the burgeoning folk revival of the day.  He made appearances at such to-dos the American Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina and the Newport Folk Festival, and also recorded fairly extensively for Folkways Records.  Dock Boggs’ health was in decline by the 1970s, and he died on his seventy-third birthday on February 7, 1971.

Brunswick 118 was recorded on March 10, 1927 in New York City by “Dock” Boggs, accompanied on guitar by G.H. “Hub” Mahaffey, a player in John Dykes’ Magic City Trio.  It is Boggs’ first issued record, though his third and fourth recorded sides.  Though the condition of this copy is rather lacking, I’ve tried to get the most out of it, as always.  These things do tend to be quite scarce nowadays.

First up is “Down South Blues”.  Boggs once professed, “lonesome songs always appealed to me.”

Down South Blues, recorded March 10, 1927 by “Dock” Boggs.

On the designated “B” side, Boggs sings what is perhaps his most famous song, “Sugar Baby”, made legendary by its inclusion in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.  “What more can a poor boy do?”

Sugar Baby, recorded March 10, 1927 by “Dock” Boggs.

Brunswick 6162 – Connie Boswell – 1931

We’ve celebrated the anniversary of the incomparable Miss Connie Boswell’s birth several times before here on Old Time Blues, but this time around it’s particularly significant, for it’s her 110th birthday.  Likewise, this is a particularly significant record for the occasion: Connie’s first solo record (excepting her early 1925 straggler).

Connie Boswell around 1932.

Connie was born Constance Foore Boswell—taking her middle name from her mother’s maiden name—in Kansas City, Missouri on December 3, 1907, the third of the Boswell children, and the middle Boswell sister.  They relocated to Birmingham when Connie was about three years old, and it was there where she suffered the incident that would leave her crippled, most likely by a bout of infantile paralysis, though her mother claimed it was the result of an accident involving a toy wagon.  In any event, she was left completely incapacitated, yet in spite of adversity, Connie recovered, even being able to stand up and walk after a fashion for a time, though she would later rely on a wheelchair.  Soon after the accident, the Boswells packed up and moved to New Orleans, where the children were exposed to—and became a part of—the genesis of jazz.

The three Boswell Sisters became a popular musical act around town, singing harmony and playing instruments; when the Victor Talking Machine Company made their first field trip to Houston and New Orleans, the Boswells made their first record.  Several years later, after some setbacks, the trio left for Chicago to embark on a vaudeville tour.  Eventually, they wound up in California, where they settled for a time in Los Angeles and became popular radio personalities.  Then a young hotel clerk they’d met and befriended in a seedy joint in San Francisco—Harry Leedy—came to visit and convinced them to take him on as their manager, and later Connie’s husband.  He succeeded in getting them a contract with Brunswick, and they traveled to New York to make records.  But in spite of his successful management of the trio, Leedy believed that Connie was the only sister with a lick of talent, and that the other two were essentially superfluous.  He pushed for Connie to do more solo work, which she did, and he positioned her to take more leading vocals on the Sisters’ records.  Ultimately, it’s likely that Leedy contributed considerably to the tensions that resulted in the Boswell Sisters 1936 breakup.

After the disintegration of the trio, Connie’s career fell into a bit of a slump, but her runaway swing hit of von Flotow’s “Martha” brought fast to the spotlight.  Throughout the remainder of the 1930s, and into the ’40s, she remained one of the most popular singers in the nation, duetting frequently with Bing Crosby.  She made a number of noteworthy film appearances in It’s All Yours and Artists and Models in 1937, the latter which saw her sing the Academy award nominated “Whispers in the Dark”, Kiss the Boys Goodbye in 1941, Syncopation in 1942, and Swing Parade of 1946.  Around 1942, she altered the spelling of her name to “Connee”, stating that it was easier to sign, but also possibly due to numerological reasons recommended by her sister Martha.  In the years following the Second World War, Connee Boswell’s career began to slow down, and she took a hiatus from her long time association with Decca Records in 1946.  The following year, she made two records for Apollo, and then quieted down for a five year stretch.  In 1952, Connee made a triumphant return to Decca, accompanied by Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five, but her voice was beginning to sound noticeably hoarse in her mid-forties.  Nonetheless, she continued making records and television appearances on programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show through the decade, concluding with her final album in 1958.  Also in ’58, she made an appearance in the movie Senior Prom, and took a recurring role as “Savannah Brown” in the television adaptation of Pete Kelly’s Blues.  Slowing down in the 1960s, Connee made two rock ‘n’ roll-esque 45s for the Charles label in 1962, her last commercial records.  After a fairly quiet decade, Connee Boswell died of stomach cancer on October 12, 1976.

Brunswick 6162 was recorded around July 27, 1931 in New York City.  Connie Boswell is accompanied more-or-less by the Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra, consisting of Manny Klein on trumpet, on trombone, Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet, Harry Hoffman on violin, sister Martha Boswell on piano, Dick McDonough on guitar, Joe Tarto on string bass, and Chauncey Morehouse on drums and vibraphone.

First, Connie sings an upbeat composition by the Harries Tobias and Barris, “What is It?”, with a little swinging going on in the background.

What is It?, recorded July 27, 1931 by Connie Boswell.

Next, Connie sings the lovely “I’m All Dressed Up With a Broken Heart”, a torch song which, much like Russ Columbo’s “You Call it Madness”, is truly evocative of its era.

I’m All Dressed Up With a Broken Heart, recorded July 27, 1931 by Connie Boswell.

Brunswick 6074 – Cab Calloway and his Orchestra – 1931

It’s been quite a while since we’ve last heard from our old friend Cab Calloway here on Old Time Blues, but has come time to turn out attention to what may well be his greatest claim to fame—”Minnie the Moocher”.

Cab Calloway and his Orchestra in the early 1930s. Pictured in Of Minnie the Moocher & Me, photograph from Frank Driggs Collection.

With a career spanning more than half a century, it’s no stretch to say that Cab Calloway sang hundreds of songs on record, radio, stage, and screen, but no song is so indelibly identified with him as his own composition “Minnie the Moocher”.  Minnie “messed around with a bloke named Smokey” who “showed her how to kick the gong around”—a euphemism for smoking opium.  Cab wrote “Minnie” early in his career, around 1930, based heavily on “Willie the Weeper”, a popular folk tune and vaudeville favorite that originated in the early twentieth century.  He first recorded it early in 1931, and it became an instant success, spawning close to a dozen covers in the first year.  Becoming his theme song, Cab reprised “Minnie” in Fleischer Studios’ eponymous Betty Boop cartoon the following year, appearing both as himself and rotoscoped as a ghost walrus.  Such a sensation it was that sequels followed, like “Kickin’ the Gong Around”, “Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day”.  Cab’s original Brunswick recording was reissued all throughout the 1930s and onward, and he made new recording more than once, including an unissued Victor recording in 1933, and another for Okeh in 1942 (not to mention recordings made after the 78 era, upon which I’m not qualified to comment).

Brunswick 6074 was recorded on March 3, 1931 in New York City.  Still following the basic roster of their predecessor, the Missourians, Cab’s orchestra is made up of R.Q. Dickerson, Lammar Wright, and Reuben Reeves on trumpets, De Priest Wheeler and Harry White on trombones, Arville Harris on clarinet and alto sax, Andrew Brown on bass clarinet and tenor sax, Walter “Foots” Thomas on alto, tenor, and baritone sax and flute, Earres Prince on piano, Morris White on banjo, Jimmy Smith on string bass and tuba, and Leroy Maxey on drums.

And so now here it is, Cab Calloway’s first ever recording of his theme song, “Minnie the Moocher (The Ho-De-Ho Song)”.  “Minnie had a heart as big as a ‘hay-wale’.”

Minnie the Moocher (The Ho-De-Ho Song), recorded March 3, 1931 by Cab Calloway.

Unlike “Minnie”, Cab’s “Doin’ the Rumba” on the flip-side is all but forgotten.  Nonetheless, it’s still a fine song, with hot, Spanish tinged, playing from the former Missourians.

Doin’ the Rumba, recorded March 3, 1931 by Cab Calloway.