Champion 16081 – Hokum Boys – 1930

This record is a surprisingly obscure one considering its excellence, even in light of its extraordinary scarcity.  A Google search will yield precious few results, and the upload of the only side that’s on YouTube has accrued only around five-hundred views in more than half a decade.  Its rarity earned it a spot on Document Records’ “Too Late, Too Late: Newly Discovered Titles and Alternate Takes” series rather than their Hokum Boys or Big Bill Broonzy series proper, and that may be the only commercial reissue it’s ever gotten (I’m not sure).  To the few who know of it (mostly a small cadre of record collectors and blues researchers), it is held in high regard as perhaps Big Bill Broonzy’s best record.  I had the fortune of being enlightened to its existence some years ago, and the even greater fortune of being able to acquire a copy.  I hope to shed a much needed ray of sunshine onto this gem of prewar blues guitar, and help get it some of the recognition it deserves.

In 1930, Big Bill Broonzy was under the management of Chicago “race music” impresario Lester Melrose, and playing good-time music with Georgia Tom and Frank Brasswell (or Braswell, a.k.a. “The Western Kid”) as the “Hokum Boys” (a mantle originally used by Georgia Tom and Tampa Red).  Broonzy hadn’t recorded since his earliest, somewhat poorly received “Big Bill and Thomps” Paramount sessions of 1927 and ’28.  Among the tunes recorded by Broonzy and the Hokum Boys were (fittingly) hokum titles like “Somebody’s Been Using that Thing” and “Eagle Riding Papa” (both of which were later covered by Milton Brown), urban blues novelties like “Mama’s Leavin’ Town”, and fast guitar rags like “Saturday Night Rub” and “Pig Meat Strut”.  On the rags, Frank Brasswell’s flatpicked rhythm combined with Bill’s adept fingerpicking to make musical magic. The trio, occasionally including Delta blues man Arthur Petties, first recorded in New York for the American Record Corporation in various configurations and under various names, including “Sammy Sampson” for Bill’s solo work.  Next they traveled to Richmond, Indiana to cut several sides for the Starr Piano Company’s Champion label, all ones they had made previously for the ARC, this time with Bill’s solo work credited to “Big Bill Johnson”.  Those Champions were the last sides to feature Brasswell, who proceeded to drop off the face of the earth.  Bill on the other hand would go on to great acclaim.

Champion 16081 was recorded on May 2, 1930 in Richmond, Indiana.  The Hokum Boys are Big Bill Broonzy (recording for the Starr Piano Co. as “Big Bill Johnson”) and Frank Brasswell on guitars.  It sold a total of 959 copies, of which only a handful are known to exist today.  As such, it is listed in the “Rarest 78s” section of 78 Quarterly (No. 6), and while the total number of existing copies was not estimated at the time, a current estimate places the number at “fewer than ten known copies.”  More popular versions of both tunes were recorded for the American Record Corporation the previous month (and both, in my opinion, are not near as good as these).  Per advice from Mr. Russ Shor, I’ve adjusted the transfers to playback at around 83 RPM, and per advice from Mr. Pete Whelan, I’ve also left in the original 78.26 RPM ones.  Take your pick.

First up, Bill and Frank get hot on Broonzy’s classic rag composition “Saturday Night Rub” with a performance described by blues guitar teacher Woody Mann as “one of the most hard-driving rag tunes ever recorded.”  Midway through, Bill utters those immortal words, “I’m gonna play this guitar tonight from A to Z!”

Saturday Night Rub, recorded May 2, 1930 by the Hokum Boys.

“Pig Meat Strut” on the “B” side is perhaps my favorite guitar instrumental (though there’s some stiff competition from Blind Blake, William Moore, Bayless Rose, Frank Hutchison, and others).  Bill and Frank’s “Famous Hokum Boys” version of the rag for the ARC, recorded a little less than a month before this one, is often hailed as one of his best (I say phooey), but it sounds like a hot mess compared to this masterpiece!  The riffs in “Pig Meat Strut” later became Big Bill’s popular “Hey Hey” in 1951.  Interestingly, a nearly identical melody was also used by Texas blues man Little Hat Jones in his “Kentucky Blues”, recorded only a month after this one, though any actual connection between the two is unknown to me.

Man, did they get in the groove and how!

Pig Meat Strut, recorded May 2, 1930 by the Hokum Boys.

Champion S-16443 – Luke Baldwin – 1931

One of the outstanding folk song spinners of the 1930s was the “Dixie Songbird”, Bill Cox.  In spite of his innocuous nickname, Cox’s repertoire consisted largely of topical songs about hot-button issues of the day, including “The Trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann” (about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping), “The Fate of Will Rogers and Wiley Post”, and “N. R. A. Blues”.

William Jennings Cox was born in Eagle, West Virginia on August 4, 1897.   In his youth, he took up the harmonica, and guitar, both of which he came to play with proficiency.  In 1927, Cox reportedly made his professional debut on WOBU radio in West Virginia, performing as the “Dixie Songbird,” a moniker which he retained throughout his musical career.  Two years later, in 1929, Cox ventured to Richmond, Indiana to cut his first records for the Starr Piano Company, manufacturers of Gennett Records (and their subsidiary labels such as Champion, Supertone, and so forth).  Like many of his contemporaries, his earliest recordings were covers of songs by Jimmie Rodgers, but he soon branched out into making renditions of old folk songs and his own original compositions.  Cox continued to record for Gennett until around 1931, and after an apparent hiatus, resumed his recording career in 1933 for the American Record Corporation, with whom he remained until he retired from recording.  On many of these records, he was accompanied by fellow West Virginian Cliff Hobbs.  Under the ARC, Cox’s records were issued on Conqueror, Perfect, Melotone, Oriole, Banner, Vocalion, and later Okeh.  After retiring from recording in 1940, Cox fell on hard times, and was discovered destitute and living in a converted chicken coop in 1966.  The following year, he recorded an album that would be his swan song.  Bill Cox died on December 10, 1968.

Champion S-16443 was recorded on August 17, 1931 in Richmond, Indiana by Bill Cox, released under the pseudonym Luke Baldwin.  He is accompanied by his own guitar.  It sold a total of only 301 copies!  It was also issued on Superior 2833 (which appears to have sold only 55 copies, if my interpretation of George Kay’s Superior Catalog is correct, and if it is indeed accurate), and later reissued with the sides split up, with “In 1992” on Decca 5497 and Champion 45093, and with “I Found You Among the Roses on Champion 45106 and Montgomery Ward 4942.

Cox plays harmonica on own composition “I Found You Among the Roses”, set to the tune of Edward B. Marks and Joseph W. Stern’s “My Mother Was a Lady”, or at least Jimmie Rodgers’ recording of it, which is likely where Cox found his inspiration.  Please note that this is an entirely different song than the 1916 George B. Pitman song of the same name as recorded by the Carter Family.

I Found You Among the Roses

I Found You Among the Roses, recorded August 17, 1931 by Luke Baldwin.

On the “B” side, Cox predicts the future on “In 1992”, a novelty song penned by musical duo Arthur Fields and Fred Hall.

In 1992

In 1992, recorded August 17, 1931 by Luke Baldwin.

Champion 15687 – Dan Hughey – 1929

Before there were folk singers like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, there was “The Kentucky Mountain Boy”, Bradley Kincaid (who performs under a pseudonym on this disc).  Equally comfortable in hillbilly attire as with round framed spectacles, tidy hair, and pressed suits, Kincaid was of a decidedly more sophisticated mold than many of the more “hillbilly” folk singers of his day, while still not succumbing to the urbanity that has in some eyes damaged the credibility of such performers as Vernon Dalhart.

Bradley Kincaid was born in Point Level, Kentucky on July 13, 1895 and made his radio debut on Chicago’s WLS National Barn Dance in 1926 and later became a member of the Grand Ole Opry on WSM in Nashville in 1945.  After a long and successful career which included giving future Grand Ole Opry star Marshall Jones the nickname “Grandpa” while working with him at a Boston radio station in 1935, Kincaid died following injuries sustained in a car accident at the ripe old age of 94 on September 23, 1989.

Champion 15687 was recorded January 28, 1929 in Richmond, Indiana by Bradley Kincaid, given the nom de disque “Dan Hughey” on this release.  It was also issued on Gennett 6761 and Supertone 9362, and later reissued on Champion 45057 by Decca.  The “A” side also appeared on Superior 2656.

One of the great classic American folk songs, Kincaid first sings “Four Thousand Years Ago”, called “The Highly Educated Man” by John A. Lomax in his American Ballads and Folk Songs.

Four Thousand Years Ago

Four Thousand Years Ago, recorded January 28, 1929 by Dan Hughey.

On the reverse, Kincaid sings “Liza Up In the ‘Simmon Tree”.  This is one of those folk songs that bears great lyrical similarity to other songs; for example, “shoes and stockings in her hand and her feet all over the floor” can be heard in Wendell Hall’s “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'”, and “well, I wouldn’t marry a poor girl, I’ll tell you the reason why…” is similar to the lyrics of “Chewing Gum”, as sung by the Carter Family.

Liza Up in the Simmon Tree

Liza Up in the ‘Simmon Tree, recorded January 28, 1929 by Dan Hughey.

Updated on June 15, 2017.

Champion 15714 – Smoke Jackson and his Red Onions – 1929

Recorded on this day in 1929, here’s one of my favorite discs, though the condition is rather lacking, owing to a heavily scratched surface from many years of unsleeved storage. “Smoke Jackson and his Red Onions” is a pseudonym for Zack Whyte’s Chocolate Beau Brummels, a fine Midwestern territory band.  The 78 Quarterly estimated “at least 15” copies of this record in their “Rarest 78s” article.  While it’s most likely not quite that scarce, it’s still far from a common disc.

Zack Whyte was born in 1898 in Richmond, Kentucky, and attended Wilberforce College, where he played banjo with Horace Henderson’s Collegians. He started leading his own Cincinnati-based bands in 1923, and eventually formed the Chocolate Beau Brummels, a territory band that recorded six sides with Gennett in 1929, and helped to bring several greats including Sy Oliver and Herman Chittison to prominence. Whyte retired from music in 1939 and died in 1967.

These two superb sides of Champion 15714 were recorded in Richmond, Indiana on February 26, 1929.  This Champion issue sold around 8,000 copies.  It was also issued on Gennett 6797 and Supertone 9368 under the pseudonym “Eddie Walker and his Band.”  According to the Red Hot Jazz Archive, includes the star-studded lineup of Zack Whyte directing and playing banjo, Bubber Whyte (his brother?), Henry Savage, and the great Sy Oliver on trumpets, Floyd Brady on trombone, Clarence Paige, Ben “Snake” Richardson, and Earl Tribble on alto saxes, Al Sears on tenor and baritone sax, the always excellent Herman Chittison on piano, Montgomery Morrison on tuba, and William Benton on drums.

Beginning with side “A”, the Chocolate Beau Brummels play a stomping rendition of Hudson Whittaker and Thomas A. Dorsey’s (a.k.a. Tampa Red and Georgia Tom) hit “It’s Tight Like That”. I believe this is the second take, and it really gets in the groove.

It's Tight Like That, recorded February 26, 1929 by Zack Whyte and his Chocolate Beau Brummels.

It’s Tight Like That, recorded February 26, 1929 by Smoke Jackson and his Red Onions.

On the flip-side, which is a little worse for wear, they play a masterful rendition of Joe “King” Oliver’s “West End Blues”, with a beautiful piano intro by Herman Chittison and some fine banjo by the leader.  The label splits the composer’s credit between Oliver and publisher Clarence Williams. I believe this one is the third take, but with Gennett’s lack of any identifying marks in the “dead wax”, it’s hard to be sure.

West End Blues, recorded February 26, 1929 by Zack Whyte and his Chocolate Beau Brummels.

West End Blues, recorded February 26, 1929 by Smoke Jackson and his Red Onions.

Updated with improved audio on January 15, 2017 (for “It’s Tight Like That”).

Champion 16212 – Cliff Carlisle – 1931

Cliff Carlisle was born in Taylorsville, Kentucky in 1903 one of quite a number of singers that started out as something of a copyist of Jimmie Rodgers, and in fact recorded with him on steel guitar in one 1931 session.  He started out recording in 1930 with guitarist and vocalist Wilber Ball for the Starr Piano Company (Gennett) in Richmond, Indiana.  After Ball left the act in 1934, Cliff began playing with his younger brother Bill Carlisle, who eventually eclipsed Cliff in popularity.  The two brothers continued recording, both together and separately, well into the 1950s, when Cliff retired.  Cliff Carlisle died in 1983 in Lexington, Kentucky.

Champion 16212 was recorded February 13, 1931 in Richmond, Indiana, and features Wilber Ball on second guitar.  According to the sales figures presented by the Old Time Herald, this record sold 1,461 copies, not a whole lot by any means, but a pretty decent seller by 1931 Champion standards.

One of Cliff’s standards, which he recorded on more than one occasion (this one being the first), “The Brakeman’s Reply” has quite a twist ending; you’ll have to listen…

TheBrakemansReply

The Brakeman’s Reply, recorded February 13, 1931 by Cliff Carlisle.

“Box Car Blues” is a perfect example of the kind of rip-roaring steel guitar and hollering yodeling at which Cliff Carlisle so excelled.  Just listen to that guitar!

Box Car Blues, recorded February 13, 1931 by Cliff Carlisle.

Box Car Blues, recorded February 13, 1931 by Cliff Carlisle.