Looking south on State Street in Chicago. Circa 1933.
If there’s one thing I’m particularly fond of, it’s the swinging Lester Melrose-style Chicago blues of the mid-1930s, by the likes of Big Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam, Memphis Minnie, Blind Boy Fuller, and so many others. This record is one that I think you’ll find is most befitting of that description.
The State Street Boys (not to be confused with the Jimmy Blythe’s State Street Ramblers) were a studio group that managed to blend modern swing music and country blues. They cut eight sides for the American Record Corporation in January of 1935, of which three records were issued on Okeh at the very end of their “race” records series (all of which were re-released on Vocalion shortly thereafter), and the last on Vocalion. The following year, they were reincarnated as the State Street Swingers, with even more jazz in their style.
Vocalion 03002 was recorded on January 10, 1935 in Chicago, Illinois. It was more-or-less concurrently issued on Okeh 8962. Personnel for this session is disputed, and differs for each side. According to the ever-reliable Stefan Wirz’ American Music discographies, both sides feature the talents of Black Bob on piano, and possibly Bill Settles on string bass. The first side features Carl Martin on guitar and singing and Zeb Wright on fiddle, while the second has Big Bill Broonzy on fiddle and singing and Bill “Jazz” Gillum on harmonica.
“Don’t Tear My Clothes”—seemingly the first recording of the blues standard—is one of my personal favorites, and I consider it to be the definitive version. Some sources state the vocalist on this side to be Big Bill rather than Carl Martin, and it does sound a bit like Broonzy. But it also sounds like Carl Martin. I long believed it to be Broonzy myself (with admittedly very little research into it at the time), but I’ve come around to agree that it sounds more like Martin’s voice and guitar picking.
Don’t Tear My Clothes, recorded January 10, 1935 by the State Street Boys.
On the “B” side, Big Bill (and this time it’s definitely him) sings and plays fiddle on “She Caught the Train”—a great opportunity to hear him on an instrument other than his usual guitar. The identity of the second (frankly rather bad) vocalist is unknown, but I would imagine that it would have to be one of the other members of the band.
She Caught the Train, recorded January 10, 1935 by the State Street Boys.
Though unquestionably a truly legendary figure in the history of jazz, the legacy of Joe Oliver has been overshadowed that of his foremost disciple: Louis Armstrong. But to some of us moldy figs, Joe Oliver is still king.
King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band around 1923. From left to right: Johnny Dodds, Baby Dodds, Honoré Dutrey, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Lil Hardin, and Bud Scott. Pictured in Jazzmen, 1939.
Joseph Nathan Oliver was born in Aben, Louisiana and moved to New Orleans in his youth. The date of his birth is uncertain, but December 19, 1881 is the most probable candidate; the same date in 1885, and May 11, 1885 have also been posited. At first taking up the trombone, Oliver soon switched to cornet. As a youth, Joe Oliver lost sight in his left eye in a fight, and often played with a derby hat tipped down over it. He won the title “King” of New Orleans cornettists, which had earlier belonged to Buddy Bolden, from Freddie Keppard one night in 1916. Oliver took up in Chicago in 1919 and founded his famous Creole Jazz Band, soon becoming a fixture in the Windy City. In 1922, he sent for his young protégé Louis Armstrong, who was back home in New Orleans, to join him in the city. King Oliver’s Creole Jazz band waxed their first phonograph record sides for the Starr Piano Company, makers of Gennett records, in their famous “shack by the track” in Richmond, Indiana on April 5, 1923. They made a total of thirteen sides for Gennett before moving on to record fifteen more for Okeh, four for Columbia, and three for Paramount, before breaking up in 1924. Thereafter, he recorded some landmark duets with Jelly Roll Morton for Marsh Labs in Chicago in 1925, and soon started a new band, the Dixie Syncopators, which began recording for Brunswick/Vocalion in 1926. The Dixie Syncopators, which at various times included Luis Russell, Kid Ory, Barney Bigard, and other luminaries, stuck together until the end of 1928, after which Russell took over the reins. In 1927, at the height of his success, Oliver was offered the position of house bandleader at Harlem’s Cotton Club, but he declined, hoping to hold out for more money. Instead, the gig went to Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. On the side, Oliver also recorded occasionally as a sidemen with jazz bands such as Clarence Williams’ various orchestras and Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang‘s Gin Bottle Five, and with blues singers like “Texas” Alexander, Victoria Spivey, and Lizzie Miles. Thanks in no small part to his penchant for sugar sandwiches washed down with a bucket of sugar water, Oliver by this time had developed gum disease, which limited his ability to play cornet. Nonetheless, he signed with Victor in 1929 to record with a new orchestra, which often featured his nephew Dave Nelson, though his own involvement was frequently relegated to directing. In 1931, Oliver went back to Brunswick for three final sessions, from which the last three titles were released on Vocalion under the pseudonym “Chocolate Dandies”, and he never recorded again. He continued to tour with a band until money ran out, leaving him broke and stranded, in a Savannah, Georgia, where he found work as a janitor in a pool hall. Joe Oliver died penniless of arteriosclerosis on April 10, 1938
Okeh 4918 was recorded June 23, 1923 in Chicago, Illinois. King Oliver’s (Creole) Jazz Band consists of Joseph “King” Oliver and Louis Armstrong on cornets, Honoré Dutrey on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Lil Hardin on piano, Bud Scott on banjo, and Baby Dodds on drums.
A re-doing of the same tune King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band originally recorded for Gennett in April of 1923, “Dipper Mouth Blues”, composed by Oliver and Armstrong is certainly the group’s most famous efforts. Oliver famous cornet solo beginning one minute and seventeen seconds into the recording was hugely influential to the genre, and frequently imitated in subsequent years. After Louis Armstrong left the band, he took “Dipper Mouth” with him to Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, and the piece was re-arranged by Don Redman and recorded as “Sugar Foot Stomp”. Henderson kept the piece in his repertoire after Armstrong’s departure and recorded it at least thrice more.
Dipper Mouth Blues, recorded June 23, 1923 by King Oliver’s Jazz Band.
On the reverse of this disc is Lil Hardin and Louis Armstrong’s composition: “Where Did You Stay Last Night?”. Armstrong kept the tune in his repertoire and in later years performed it with his All-Stars.
Where Did You Stay Last Night?, recorded June 23, 1923 by King Oliver’s Jazz Band.
Blind Blake was one of the most prolific male blues artists of the 1920s, and one of the most skilled guitarists of all time, yet today details about his life and times are even scarcer than his records. He turned up in Chicago, recorded one-hundred-and-twenty-some-odd sides, both solo and as an accompanist, then disappeared from sight of the prying eyes of history. Even among his contemporaries, Blind Blake seemed to be something of an enigma, though they universally hailed his musical abilities. With all the mystery surrounding Blake, all that is certainly clear is that his virtuosity was second-to-none.
Blind Blake, as pictured in The Paramount Book of Blues, 1927. A cropped version of the only known photograph of him.
Arthur Blake, misidentified by some sources—including Blind Willie McTell—as Arthur Phelps, was born, reportedly, in 1896. Paramount’s 1927 Book of Blues stated that he hailed from “Jacksonville, in sunny Florida,” but his death certificate placed his birth in Newport News, Virginia. Either way, it is probable that Florida served as his home for a large portion of his life. Whether or not he was born blind is also the subject of speculation; the aforementioned Book of Blues suggested as much, but some have proposed that he was born sighted, but or developed his condition later in life (perhaps as a result of some bad bootleg). Purportedly on the recommendation of a Florida record dealer, Blake traveled to Chicago and made his recording debut for Paramount Records in July of 1926, accompanying singer Leola B. Wilson, and cut his first solo record a month later: “Early Morning Blues” and “West Coast Blues” appearing on Paramount 12387. He was noted for his ability to play a guitar like a piano, capable of producing intricate fingerpicked ragtime melodies with a Charleston rhythm—exemplified in such pieces as his tour de force “Blind Arthur’s Breakdown” (Paramount 12892)—and indeed he was also a skilled pianist, though he only demonstrated that ability on one recording: “Let Your Love Come Down”, accompanying Bertha Henderson. Alongside Blind Lemon Jefferson and Papa Charlie Jackson, Blake became one of the most successful male blues artists on Paramount’s roster, and he collaborated periodically with other artists such as Gus Cannon on titles like “Poor Boy, Long Ways from Home” and “My Money Never Runs Out” (Paramount 12588 and 12604), Charlie Spand on the stomping boogie-woogie “Hastings St.” (Paramount 12863), Charlie Jackson on “Papa Charlie and Blind Blake Talk About It” (Paramount 12911), and jazz clarinetist Johnny Dodds on several sides including “C.C. Pill Blues” (Paramount 12634). Blake concluded his recording career with “Champagne Charlie is My Name” and “Depression’s Gone from Me Blues”, the latter set to the popular melody of “Sitting On Top of the World”, recorded in Grafton, Wisconsin around June of 1932 and released on Paramount 13137. To add further mystery, there is question as to whether the performer of “Champagne Charlie is My Name” actually is Blake at all, or some unknown artist masquerading under his name (personally, I’m under the impression that it probably is Blake, though it is below his usual quality; maybe he was hitting the bottle that day). Not long after that last session, Paramount Records folded, and Blake never recorded again. He remained in Wisconsin in the 1930s, living in Brewer’s Hill in Milwaukee with his wife Beatrice, though he was unable to find work during the hard times of the Great Depression. Blake fell ill with pneumonia in 1933 and died from complications of tuberculosis on December 1, 1934.
Blind Blake’s virtuoso ragtime guitar playing served as a major influence on the Piedmont style of blues playing, and directly influenced many of its foremost musicians, including Blind Boy Fuller, Josh White, and Buddy Moss, as well as—directly and indirectly—countless other musicians. Renowned guitarist Rev. Blind Gary Davis drew considerable inspiration from Blake, and once mused that he “ain’t never heard anybody on a record yet beat Blind Blake on guitar. [He liked] Blake because he plays right sporty.” In later years, Gus Cannon later recalled that Blake “could see more with his blind eyes than [Cannon] with [his] two good ones.” Georgia Tom Dorsey remembered Blake as “a good worker and a nice fellow to get along with.” Race records executive J. Mayo Williams stated that Blake “liked to get drunk and fight.”
Paramount 12565 was recorded in Chicago, Illinois, in November and October of 1927, respectively. It also appeared on Broadway 5053 under the pseudonym “Blind George Martin”. On side “A”, Blake is accompanied on banjo by Gus Cannon, who was recording for Paramount at the time as “Banjo Joe”, and in fact it is Cannon’s first recording. Alas, the record is afflicted by a condition endemic to these Paramounts; though not in particularly poor condition and the music is mostly clear and undistorted, poor pressing quality and decades of less-than-optimal storage have resulted in a high level of surface noise behind the music. To make things worse, both sides were recorded at a rather low volume. As such, both sides are most assuredly audible (and even enjoyable to my desensitized ears), but I apologize for not being able to offer better quality sound.
First, Blake sings the medicine show favorite “He’s in the Jail House Now”, later popularized by Jimmie Rodgers’ two landmark recordings, though I would consider Blake’s version here to be the definitive. Other notable versions of the vaudeville staple were recorded by Whistler’s Jug Band in 1924, Earl McDonald’s Louisville Jug Band in 1927, Jim Jackson in 1928, Boyd Senter’s Senterpedes in 1929, the Memphis Jug Band and Bill Bruner, the latter of which drew both on Rodgers and Blake’s versions, in 1930, Eliot Everett’s Orchestra in 1932, and Billy Mitchell in 1936, not counting outright copies of Rodgers’ rendition by the likes of Gene Autry and Frankie Marvin, and the song remains popular on the roots music scene today, with performances by such artists as Dom Flemons and Pokey LaFarge.
He’s in the Jail House Now, recorded c. November 1927 by Blind Blake.
On the reverse, another of Blake’s best, he shows off his guitar-playing prowess on “Southern Rag”, punctuated by spoken interjections in Geechee dialect. “Now we goin’ on an old Southern r… rag!”
Southern Rag, recorded c. October 1927 by Blind Blake.
Louis Armstrong around the age of nineteen, circa 1920. Pictured in Jazzmen, 1939.
As the anniversary of the day the great Louis Armstrong was born rolls around once again, it’s come time to commemorate the occasion with another page from musical history. Previously, we’ve examined his theme song, his original Hot Five’s last recordings, and his 1933 European tour. Now let us turn our attention to an earlier point in old Satchel Mouth’s illustrious career, toward one of the most memorable records from his first endeavor as the leader of a band.
After Louis Armstrong parted ways with his mentor King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1924, he was invited to New York City for a seat in Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, the top black dance band in operation, making his first records with them on October 7, 1924. He remained with Henderson for only a year, but in that time helped produce some of the band’s greatest musical successes. Thereafter, he returned to Chicago and started up a band of his own: the Hot Five, featuring the extraordinary talents of Johnny Dodds, Kid Ory, Johnny St. Cyr, and his wife Lil, sometimes joined by guests like Lonnie Johnson. He secured a contract with Okeh Records, for whom he had recorded as a member of Oliver’s Jazz Band, and the Hot Five made their first three recordings on November 12, 1925. In addition to his bandleading, Armstrong also worked as something of a staff trumpeter at Okeh, often backing blues singers like Bertha “Chippie” Hill. Though his contract forbade him from making records under his own name on other labels, he occasionally made clandestine ventures to other companies; the Hot Five cut one record for Vocalion as “Lill’s Hot Shots”, and Armstrong sat in for a session with Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra. Nonetheless, his contract proved to be quite fruitful, for Armstrong remained on Okeh’s roster—sometimes expanding the Hot Five to the Hot Seven, and later fronting full-fledged orchestras—until the middle of 1932, at which point he left the faltering label in favor of recording for Victor, which had managed to stay afloat as the Great Depression took its heavy toll on the record companies.
Okeh 8300 was recorded on February 26, 1926 in Chicago, Illinois, at the Armstrong’s Hot Five’s third session. The Hot Five is its original lineup of Louis Armstrong on cornet, Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Lil Armstrong on piano, and Johnny St. Cyr on six-string banjo.
First up is “Heebie Jeebies”, most certainly the definitive version of this tune, which we last heard played by Fess Williams’ Royal Flush Orchestra. Armstrong’s recording of this popular jazz tune is frequently cited as one of the most influential early examples of scat singing. According to Richard M. Jones, Armstrong’s famous scat chorus began because his lyric sheet fell off his music stand and he couldn’t remember the words. That story is likely pure fiction, though Armstrong did blurt out “I done forgot the words” in his scat chorus on his 1930 recording of “(I’m a) Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas”.
Heebie Jeebies, recorded February 26, 1926 by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five.
Next up is the the first ever recording of Kid Ory’s hot jazz standard, “Muskrat Ramble” (sometimes titled “Muskat Ramble”, and occasionally “Muskrat Scramble”, which I imagine as quite a terrible egg dish).
Muskrat Ramble, recorded February 26, 1926 by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five.
The incomparable Blind Lemon Jefferson truly was an artist without parallel. Having cut his first disc in 1925 or ’26, he was one of the earliest male country blues musicians to record, and the success of his records paved the way for more blues artists to have their music immortalized in wax. His peculiar yet virtuosic style of singing and guitar playing set him apart from all his contemporaries, and caused him to be seldom imitated (and interestingly, many of his early imitators were white; see Larry Hensley, Roy Shaffer). Considering both the quality and originality of his work, as well as the volume of his output, it would seem fair to consider Blind Lemon Jefferson one of the greatest heroes of the Texas blues.
Blind Lemon Jefferson, as pictured in the Paramount Book of Blues, 1927.
Like so many early blues people, much of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s life is shrouded in mystery. He is usually said to have been born in September 24, 1893, though he claimed a date of October 26, 1894, himself. July of 1897 has also been proffered by some sources, and his obituary suggested he was born about a decade earlier. He learned to play guitar in his childhood or teens. As an adult, he weighed about two-hundred-fifty pounds, and has been described as a snappy dresser, always wearing a John B. Stetson hat and a box-back suit from the Model Tailors in Dallas, and conversely as “fat, and a slovenly dresser.” Lemon reported his profession to census takers in 1920 as a musician, his employer the “general public,” and outside of music he was said to have worked as a wrestler in Dallas. He played and sang at functions around Freestone County and on street corners, honky tonks, and bordellos in Dallas, most notably on the east end of Elm Street called Deep Ellum, and even on the interurban railway that ran from from Waco north to Denison. He was known to have worked with Lead Belly, and may have also associated with Washington Phillips and the Dallas String Band. Like fellow Paramount artists Charley Patton and Blind Blake, only one published photograph of Lemon is known to exist (though at least one phony has been reputed as a second one, and there may well be another authentic but unpublished one in private hands).
As with his life, there is much legend surrounding the demise of Blind Lemon Jefferson. It’s known that he died on a cold winter day in Chicago—around ten o’clock in the morning on December 19, 1929. Some claim that he was poisoned by a jilted lover (much like the fate that befell Robert Johnson some nine years later). Others have supposed that he was robbed of a royalty payment and murdered by a guide hired to help him find his way to the train station. More reliable accounts suggest that he either died of a heart attack in his car and was abandoned by his driver, or became disoriented trying to find his way through a snowstorm and died from hypothermia. His death certificate stated “probably acute myocarditis,” supporting the heart attack hypothesis. In any event, Paramount Records paid for his body’s return to Texas by train, accompanied by Texas piano man Will Ezell, to be buried in the Wortham Negro Cemetery (now called the Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery). His funeral was reportedly attended by two or three hundred people, both black and white. Lemon’s passing inspired a small wave of tributes, and Paramount released a memorial record in his honor, featuring Walter and Byrd singing “Wasn’t it Sad About Lemon” and Rev. Emmett Dickinson’s sermon on the “Death of Blind Lemon”, comparing Jefferson to Jesus Christ. Had Lemon survived into the folk and blues revival of the 1960s, his impact would likely have been enormous. Today, Lemon’s grave marker (placed in 1997) bears the epitaph “Lord, it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you; see that my grave is kept clean.”
The tombstone of Blind Lemon Jefferson in Wortham, Texas, as it appeared eighty-eight years and one day after his death. Kept clean at the time, as it were.
Paramount 12608 was recorded around February of 1928 in Chicago, Illinois by Blind Lemon Jefferson. It also appeared on Broadway 5059, though I’m not certain whether or not anyone has ever seen one of those, I know I haven’t. It was released that March or early April, and first advertised in the Chicago Defender on April 7, 1927.
Now, I ordinarily prefer not to make posts honoring artists on the anniversaries of their deaths, but rather to celebrate their lives; under the circumstances however, this record seems an appropriate case to make an exception, for it contains Lemon’s legendary “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”. This song, together with “Match Box Blues” and “That Black Snake Moan” could be viewed as a sort of triumvirate of Lemon’s most famous and perhaps most influential songs. A folk song sometimes known as “Two White Horses in a Line” or (in later years) “One Kind Favor”, Lemon first recorded the song in October of 1927, issued on Paramount 12585, backed with “He Arose from the Dead” under his sanctified pseudonym “Deacon L.J. Bates”. That version was pulled soon after release and replaced with “Where Shall I Be”, while Lemon recorded a new version of “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” several months later, which saw release under his own name on the record you see and hear here. Son House used the melody for his “Mississippi County Farm Blues”, which he recorded for Paramount in 1930, and many others have since performed and recorded Jefferson’s original. In 1934, John A. Lomax recorded a bottleneck guitarist named Pete Harris singing the song in Richmond, Texas under the title “Blind Lemon’s Song”, demonstrating the impact of Jefferson’s recording, and in 1952, Harry Smith included the song in his influential Anthology of American Folk Music.
See That My Grave is Kept Clean, recorded February 1928 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.
On the reverse, technically the “A” side, keeping with the rather morbid theme, Lemon sings “‘Lectric Chair Blues”, another excellent blues, even if it lacks the same grandeur as the previous one. The original Chicago Defender advertisement said of the song: “Salty tears—wet tears—big, round tears—all kinds of tears and heart throbs, and you should put yourself in his place to feel just as blue. ‘Lectric chair is the next place he’s gonna sit down in, and he ain’t tired either, so he don’t wanta sit down.”
‘Lectric Chair Blues, recorded February 1928 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.