Victor 21549 & V-40017 – “Buddy” Baker – 1928

There are fair number of artists who might have achieved the success of Jimmie Rodgers, but, for whatever reason, did not.  Some, like Atlanta’s Ernest Rogers, were not musicians by profession, and only recorded a few songs on the side.  Others perhaps lacked something that Rodgers had, be it talent, charisma, ambition, or maybe simply luck.  Regardless of the circumstances, in the wake of the Singing Brakeman’s monumental success were a drove of excellent-yet-underappreciated artists who left behind recorded legacies ranging from one song to dozens.  One such artist is “Buddy” Baker, a vaudevillian performer who made only two records for Victor in 1928, about whom there have previously existed nary any publicized biographical details, and about the same number of decent sounding recordings of his work.

Baker pictured in the 1930 Victor “Old Familiar Tunes” catalog.

Research reveals that “Buddy” was in fact Ernest H. Baker, and was born on May 17, 1902, in Escambia County, Alabama, the son of John and Rebecca Baker.  In his teenage years he worked in a mill, but he pursued a career in music when he came of age.  He traveled to Chicago in June of 1928 to record for the Victor Talking Machine Company, and cut six sides on the twenty-first and two more the following day.  Of those eight, only four were released: “Penitentiary Blues” and “Box Car Blues” on Victor 21549, and “Matrimonial Intentions” and “Alimony Blues” on Victor V-40017.  Of the four unissued sides were “I Want My Mammy”, “Nobody Knows What’s On My Mind Blues”, and “Razor Jim”.  Baker returned to the Victor studio one year later in Camden, New Jersey to wax four more, including “It’s Tough on Everybody” and “The Rambling Cowboy”, but this time, none were released.  His four surviving recordings depict an artist with a clever sense of diction and a penchant for simplistic scat singing, and a unique approach to a guitar method typical of his time.  At the time of his recording career, he was living with his family in Mobile, Alabama, and began performing on radio station WODX around the time of its inauguration in 1930.  Later, he seems to have taken up in Ohio, where he found work as a welder for Babcock and Wilcox.  Probably in 1932, he married a woman named Jessie.  Baker died from peritonitis, resulting from a perforated ulcer, in Barberton, Ohio, on May 24, 1937, and his body was shipped back home to Alabama to be buried in his family’s plot in Mobile’s Magnolia Cemetery.  Like Jimmie Rodgers, Buddy Baker was gone from the world at only thirty-five.

Victor 21549 and V-40017 were recorded on June 21, 1928 at 952 North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Illinois.  On both, Ernest “Buddy” Baker sings and accompanies himself on guitar.  21549 purportedly sold a total of about 9,400 copies, while sales figures for V-40017 are not available.

Baker’s “Penitentiary Blues” is one of many renditions of the old folk ballad “Little Sadie”—also known as “Bad Lee Brown”—which was later adapted into the western swing repertoire as “Cocaine Blues” (not to be confused with the unrelated Luke Jordan and Dick Justice song of the 1920s).  Preceding Clarence Ashley’s “Little Sadie” (which used a different melody) by more than a year, this version is likely the earliest recording of the classic folk song, though the song itself existed for at least several decades prior to first being recorded.  Other early (pre-“Cocaine”) recordings of the song include “Seven Foot Dilly” John Dilleshaw’s unissued “Bad Lee Brown” for Okeh in 1929 and Riley Puckett’s “Chain Gang Blues” for Bluebird in 1934.  Woody Guthrie must have had a copy of Baker’s record, because he recorded a nearly identical version under the title “Bad Lee Brown” in 1944.  As “Cocaine Blues”, it was introduced in 1947 by T.J. “Red” Arnall as a member of W.A. Nichol’s Western Aces on the S & G label.  It inspired contemporary covers by Roy Hogsed on both Coast and Capitol and Billy Hughes on King, and was famously revived by Johnny Cash in his 1968 Folsom Prison concert.

Penitentiary Blues, recorded June 21, 1928 by “Buddy” Baker.

On the reverse, Baker sings a real blues number, “Box Car Blues”, with some clever songwriting and a little Emmett Miller style yodeling added in for flavor.

Box Car Blues, recorded June 21, 1928 by “Buddy” Baker.

On the first side of his second (and final) record, Baker sings “Matrimonial Intentions”, showcasing more of his guitar playing.  This song was covered by Jack White in the 2017 American Epic Sessions, which saw modern artists recording covers of 1920s and ’30s songs on 78 RPM with acoustic instrumentation.  White put together a fine performance of it, and he’ll always have my respect for digging up such an obscure old title.

Matrimonial Intentions, recorded June 21, 1928 by Buddy Baker.

Finally, Baker concludes his brief career on records with “Alimony Blues”, bemoaning divorce with some fairly inventive guitar work.

Alimony Blues, recorded June 21, 1928 by Buddy Baker.

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.

Vocalion 1111 – Furry Lewis – 1927

There are some folks who say that seeing two “elevens” in a row holds some special or otherworldly significance.  Well, I don’t claim to know a thing about that, but I would say that this record does little to refute that proposition, for it constitutes the earliest musical document of a man who would in later years become one of the most beloved ambassadors of the blues during the its latter-day revival: Furry Lewis.

Walter E. Lewis is said to have been born on the sixth of March, likely in 1899 (as suggested by the U.S. Census of 1900), though the man himself claimed to have been born in 1893, and many (older) sources agree with that date.  He hailed originally from the Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood, but grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was nicknamed “Furry” from a young age for reasons now lost to time.  It was probably around the same time that he took up music, starting out on a homemade cigar box guitar.  He claimed that his first “proper” instrument was given to him by the Father of the Blues himself: W.C. Handy.  In his youth, Furry took to a life of hoboing, which cost him his left leg in 1917, after he got it caught in a coupling between train cars in an ill-fated attempt to ride the blinds.  Thereafter, he returned home to Memphis and played around Beale Street.  Sometime in the early 1920s, Furry encountered songster extraordinaire Jim Jackson, who hooked him up with a job performing in Dr. Willie Lewis’s traveling medicine show.

In April of 1927, Furry traveled to Chicago to cut his first two-and-a-half records (and one unissued side) for Vocalion, who promoted him as singing “blues in a real Southern style.” He returned there in October of the same year to make three more records, plus an unreleased recording of “Casey Jones Blues”.  Finally, when the Victor Talking Machine Company made one of their excursions south, Furry cut eight more sides at the Memphis Auditorium on August 28, 1928, which included some of his finest and best known works.  Though not the most sophisticated of guitar players, he was a master of his own style with relaxed competence, and his natural showmanship, combined with exceptional diction and an amiable personality, made him a magnetic performer.  A career in music did not put food on Furry’s table however, and he spent most of his life in obscurity, working odd jobs for the city of Memphis, primarily as a street sweeper.  He still played music professionally—if only part time—at least as late as 1940, at which time he was enumerated by the U.S. Census in Missouri as a forty-four-year-old musician working for the “carnival”, and married to a blues singer by the name of Anny Mae Bell (though in later years he was quoted as saying “what do I need with a wife as long as the other man’s got one”).

In 1952, Harry Smith included Lewis’s two-part Victor recording of “Kassie Jones” in his influential Anthology of American Folk Music, and when the white folks at large finally came around to appreciating the musical merits of the Afro-American blues during the folk music revival of the late 1950s and early ’60s, Furry was among the first of the drove of still-living bluesmen of the genre’s first generation on records to be “rediscovered” (though really he was there all along).  He was recorded in his Memphis home by Samuel B. Charters in 1959, resulting in a Folkways LP which bring him into a greater spotlight than he had ever known before.  As his style of music enjoyed a surge of popularity the likes of which it had never known before, Furry rose to a position of stardom that exceeded that of his contemporaries; while most of the rediscovered blues greats mostly found their greatest success at folk music festivals and such affairs, Furry’s fame brought him a guest spot on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1974 and a small role in the 1975 Burt Reynolds movie W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, and he opened for the Rolling Stones on two occasions.  After enjoying his newfound fame for more than a decade, Furry Lewis died in Memphis of heart failure, complicated by pneumonia, on September 14, 1981.

Vocalion 1111 was recorded on April 20, 1927 in Chicago, Illinois.  Furry Lewis accompanies himself on his own guitar on side “A”, but on “B” is instead accompanied by Landers Waller on guitar and Charles Johnson on mandolin (one of whom can be heard in the background making comments).

Though some discographies suggest otherwise, the guitar playing on “Rock Island Blues” is unmistakably Furry’s own handiwork, and the melody closely mirrors that of his “Furry’s Blues” and “Good Looking Girl Blues”.

Rock Island Blues, recorded April 20, 1927 by Furry Lewis.

On the “B” side, Johnson’s mandolin and Waller’s guitar lend an entirely different atmosphere to “Everybody’s Blues”.

Everybody’s Blues, recorded April 20, 1927 by Furry Lewis.

Vocalion 5250 – Otto Gray and his Cowboy Band – 1928

Nearly a decade before the days of Bob Wills and Milton Brown created the mold for the western swing band, the Oklahoma Cowboy Band, under leader Otto Gray, paved the way for their style of showmanship with their barnstorming nation-wide touring, widespread radio exposure, exuberant stage presence, and extraordinarily large ten-gallon hats.

Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys on a promotional postcard. Circa 1930.

Officially, the venerable Oklahoma Cowboy Band was founded in 1924 by real cowboy Billy McGinty, born January 1, 1871, who served in Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and starred in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.  However, it seems that inklings of the organization existed as early as 1921.  Under McGinty, the band made one record, including the first recording of “Midnight Special”, for Okeh in 1926.  Soon after, McGinty retired from music to focus on his ranch and his duties as postmaster of Ripley, Oklahoma, and the band’s manager and announcer Otto Gray assumed leadership.  Gray was a Stillwater man, born March 2, 1884.  On the side he raised midget cattle on his Oklahoma ranch.

Members came in and out throughout their run, but in their heyday, the band had a fairly steady lineup consisting of three Gray family members: Otto; his wife, the former Florence Opal Powell, known as “Mommie” (February 27, 1888 to November 14, 1950), who sang occasionally; his son Owen (February 3, 1908 to August 12, 1947), who sang and played guitar; the Allen brothers: fiddler Lee “Zeke” and left-handed banjo picker Wade “Hy” Allen (not the same Allen Brothers as the “Chattanooga Boys”); “Chief” Sanders; and Rex, the “wonderful police dog,” the “bark of the air,” who barked in rhythm on their radio shows.  Most of the band members were competent on more than one instrument, and one of their novelties was to “finger one instrument and play another.”

Under Gray’s leadership, the Oklahoma Cowboys toured the vaudeville circuit, and reportedly appeared on over 130 radio station across the States.  On the record, they recorded fifteen sides for Gennett in 1928, of which seven were issued, with an additional two in 1930, followed by eighteen sides for Brunswick/Vocalion from 1928 to 1931, all of which were issued.  In spite of their relatively prolific recording career, their records are quite scarce today.  They shot a one-reeler, titled Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, for Veribest Pictures in 1929 or ’30.  In November, 1930, they published and official songbook, titled Songs: Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, which sold for fifty cents a copy and included some hits from their repertoire, such as “Midnight Special” and “Adam and Eve”.  On June 6, 1931, they became the first Western band to be featured on the cover of Billboard magazine. The Oklahoma Cowboys continued to perform into the late 1930s; Otto Gray retired from music in 1936.

Vocalion 5250 was recorded on September 17, 1928 in Chicago, Illinois.  The personnel at this session is unconfirmed, but likely includes “Chief” Sanders on fiddle, Wade “Hy” Allen on left handed tenor banjo, Owen “Zeb” Gray on guitar, and another unknown guitarist—quite possibly Lee “Zeke” Allen, seeing as he’s only official band member not accounted for in that listing aside from “Mommie”, but I’m not sure if she played an instrument, and he did play second guitar in their 1929 short film.  Owen Gray performs the vocals on both sides.

First, Zeb tells the story of mankind from Adam to Ford on the humorous “Adam and Eve”.

Adam and Eve, recorded September 17, 1928 by Otto Gray and his Cowboy Band.

Next, on a popular hillbilly song and staple of the Oklahoma Cowboys’ repertoire, Zeb tells us all that we shouldn’t—or couldn’t—be doing: (don’t try it, ’cause) “It Can’t Be Done”.

It Can’t Be Done, recorded September 17, 1928 by Otto Gray and his Cowboy Band.

Vocalion 03002 – State Street Boys – 1935

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.