Montgomery Ward M-8493 – Roy Shaffer – 1939

Though once a widely known and popular personality on radio stations around St. Louis, with a brief recording career that produced only eight discs, cowboy singer Roy Shaffer since drifted into near total obscurity; in fact, the article hereafter appears to be the only substantial biography of him ever published.

Roy Shaffer and Gang appearing on KWK, St. Louis.  Roy pictured third from left.  Circa 1940s.

Roy was born Jesse Lee Shaffer on December 6, 1906, one of several children of Luther and Anna Shaffer of Mathiston, Mississippi.  After growing up on the farm, he left home to pursue the life of a singing cowboy.  According to one account, he got his start in the famous 101 Ranch Wild West Show, and made his debut appearance on the radio in 1926.  By the middle of the 1930s, he was living in New Orleans and appearing on WWL, billed as the “Lone Star Cowboy” (making him one of quite a few, including native Texan Leon Chappelear, to adopt that sobriquet), an engagement which purportedly brought him as many as 7,462 fan letters in one day.  He also reportedly claimed, at various times, the pseudonyms of the “Rambling Yodeler” ,”Tennessee Kid”, “Mississippi Tadpole”, “Louisiana Bullfrog”, and “Reckless Red”.  During that stint, M.M. Cole of Chicago published a book of his songs, and he made his first phonograph records, cutting four sides for Decca in their field trip to New Orleans in 1936.  Also around that time, he married Cajun girl Edith Falcon, who would later join in in the act, billed as “Eddie Shaffer”.  He returned to the studio once more in 1939 to record a further twelve songs, this time for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, in Chicago.  These included a rendition of the classic cowboy song “Bury Me Out on the Prairie”, the popular “Great Speckled Bird”, and covers Chris Bouchillon’s “Talking Blues” and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Match Box Blues”.  Those two sessions accounted for the entirety of Shaffer’s known commercial recording work, but his greatest success was evidently found on the radio; in 1939, Rural Radio magazine reported that Shaffer had appeared on fifty-nine radio stations, “both the smallest and the largest,” though he was reported as “off-the-air” and living in Istrouma, Louisiana, in 1938.  By 1940, he was in St. Louis, where he remained for the majority of his career, and employed by the Carson-Union-May-Stern furniture store to appear on their radio programs on several different local stations.  He made appearances on WEW from 1939 into ’41 with his “Hillbillies”, after which he began appearing on KWK with his “Gang”, a gig he still held in the middle-to-late part of the decade; he was also on KSD in 1942 with his “Missouri Ramblers”.  By the early 1950s, he was on KWRE in Warrenton, Missouri.  He also made off-air appearances, attending and participating in rodeos and giving live programs for his fans, often at events put on by Carson’s Furniture Store.  In the 1950s, he owned and operated a “hillbilly park” in Mexico, Missouri.  He was still active on the radio in St. Louis as late as 1956.  Roy Shaffer died in March of 1974 in Greenville, Mississippi, at the age of sixty-eight.  Several of Shaffer’s recordings were later reissued on BMG’s East Virginia Blues: The Secret History of Rock and Roll and JSP Records’ Classic Field Recordings: Landmark Country Sessions from a Lost Era, but those have done little to rise the artist up and out from the depths of obscurity.

Montgomery Ward M-8493 was recorded on June 26, 1939, at RCA Victor’s Studio C in Chicago, Illinois by Roy Shaffer, singing with guitar.  It was also released on Bluebird B-8234.

In his casual delivery of Chris Bouchillon’s seminal “Talking Blues”, Shaffer oozes southern charm like hot butter through sourdough toast.  “If you want to go to heaven, let me tell you how to do it; just grease yourself in a little mutton suet…”

Talking Blues, recorded June 26, 1939 by Roy Shaffer.

Flip the record over and he gets low-down on his arrangement of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s classic Texas folk blues standard “The Match Box Blues”—one of my personal favorites.

The Match Box Blues, recorded June 26, 1939 by Roy Shaffer.

Okeh 8106 – Sippie Wallace – 1923

While Blind Lemon Jefferson is often identified as the Father of the Texas Blues for his pioneering recordings made in 1926, it is every bit as important to acknowledge the lady blues singers that blazed the trail before him, such as the “Texas Nightingale”, Houston’s own Sippie Wallace.

Sippie was born Beulah Bell Thomas on the Bell Bayou near Pine Bluff, Arkansas,  on November 1, 1898, one of the thirteen children of the musical family of George and Fanny Thomas.  The family moved to Houston, Texas, before the turn of the century (her birthplace is often cited as Houston, but the U.S. Census of 1900 suggests Arkansas).  She acquired the nickname Sippie in school because her “teeth were so far apart [she] had to sip everything.”  Her father was a deacon in the Shiloh Baptist Church, where she sang and played the organ.  On summer evenings, she would sneak away with some of her siblings to the tent shows, where she first met the blues, and where she first began singing it when one of the stars asked her to join the chorus.  Soon, she was traveling with the shows across the state.  Her older brother George W. Thomas gained note as a ragtime musician and composer in New Orleans (and whose daughter Hociel also sang the blues), and she moved there with her younger brother Hersal—also a pianist—to live with him in 1915.  There, in 1917, she met and later married Matt Wallace.  Like her contemporaries “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith, she toured on the T.O.B.A. vaudeville circuit in the early 1920s, during which time she earned the sobriquet “The Texas Nightingale”.  She moved with her brothers to Chicago in 1923, and not long after made her recording debut for the Okeh record company.  That arrangement proved quite lucrative, and she recorded forty-four sides for the company between October of 1923 and May of 1927, some featuring star-studded accompaniments by the likes of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Clarence Williams, and many others backed by brother Hersal.  Subsequently, she recorded four sides for Victor in 1929, backed by some members of the Dixieland Jug Blowers and her own piano, of which only two made the cut.  She moved to Detroit in 1929, and following the deaths of both her husband and brother George in 1936, she turned from the blues to religion, becoming organist and choir director at the Leland Baptist Church.  She made one record with Albert Ammons’ Rhythm Kings for Mercury in 1945, reviving her old “Bedroom Blues”, but kept her back mostly to the blues until 1966, when her friend and fellow Texas blues singer Victoria Spivey convinced her to make a comeback.  Her return was met with success, and she toured the United States and Europe and recorded several albums, particularly influencing young musician Bonnie Raitt.  She was one of the last surviving classic female blues singers of the 1920s when she was incapacitated by a stroke in March of 1986.  Sippie Wallace died eight months later on her eighty-eighth birthday.

Okeh 8106 was recorded in October of 1923 in Chicago, Illinois.  It is Sippie Wallace’s first record and accounts for the entirety of her first recording session.  Wallace is accompanied on piano by Eddie Heywood, Sr.

“Shorty George Blues” was composed by Sippie’s brother George and niece Hociel.  Fellow Texans Lead Belly and James “Iron Head” Baker later recorded largely unrelelated folk songs under the same title, but the echoes of Wallace’s song can be heard throughout the country blues; the opening verse alone recycled in numerous other blues songs, such as Bo Weavil Jackson’s “You Can’t Keep No Brown”.

Shorty George Blues, recorded October 1923 by Sippie Wallace.

Another family affair, Wallace shares the composer’s credit with her brother George W. Thomas for her “Up the Country Blues”, drawing both lyrics and style from the country blues tradition not yet recorded at the time.

Up the Country Blues, recorded October 1923 by Sippie Wallace.

Silvertone 5013 – Chubby Parker – 1927

With his “little old-time banjo” by his side, Chicago-based Chubby Parker was of the earliest folksingers to find fame on the radio, and could be viewed as the WLS National Barn Dance’s counterpart to the WSM Grand Ole Opry’s Uncle Dave Macon.

Chubby Parker, as pictured in 100 WLS Barn Dance Favorites. A crop of the only well-publicized photograph of Parker.

“Chubby” was born Frederick R. Parker on October 23, 1876, in Lafayette, Indiana, the only (living) son of the deputy treasurer of Tippecanoe County.  His father, North, had roots in Kentucky, and his mother, Emma, in Virginia.  He attended Purdue University and earned his degree in electrical engineering in 1898.  Sometime after the turn of the century, he left Indiana for city life in Chicago, and there he married Miss Frances S. Kischel in 1907 and had a daughter name Claudia four years later.  At the time of the first World War, Parker claimed his occupation as patent attorney and “inventor”.  In 1925, he became one of the earliest stars on the burgeoning scene of country and folk music when he joined the cast of the National Barn Dance on the Sear-Roebuck owned radio station WLS.  With simple banjo accompaniment, sometimes with the addition of whistling or harmonica, Parker’s repertoire consisted almost entirely of traditional folk and old-time songs ranging from well known numbers like “Oh, Susanna” and “The Year of Jubilo” (a.k.a. “Kingdom Coming”) to remarkably obscure ones such as his version of the old minstrel song “Pompey Smash and Davy Crockett”; he displayed a particular predilection toward humorous nonsense songs like “Bib-A-Lollie-Boo”.  While admittedly unbased conjecture, it stands to reason that Parker may have been employed by the station as for his engineering abilities prior to his becoming an on-air personality, as would have been somewhat common practice in those early days of radio broadcasting.  Though not possessing the best voice and far from the most exemplary banjo player, Parker was met with widespread adulation and reportedly garnered 2,852 pieces of fan mail in one week in February of 1927.  He began publishing sheet music of his some of his popular numbers, such as “Nickety Nackety Now Now Now” and “I’m a Stern Old Bachelor”.  Sears also marketed Supertone “Ragtime King” five-string banjos emblazoned with Parker’s autograph, and some of his Silvertone records featured the same.  Beginning in the very same month that all those letters came in, Chubby Parker recorded for the Starr Piano Company, manufacturers of Gennett Records and a plethora of other labels, ultimately producing a total of thirty-six sides for the company in a span of three years, of which twenty-eight were released, mostly on the Sears-Roebuck labels Silvertone and Supertone.  He also recorded as banjoist with Tommy Dandurand’s Barn Dance Fiddle Band (try saying that three times fast).  That stint was interrupted by one errant session for Columbia that produced only one record, which became his most famous after the inclusion of one side—”King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O”—in Harry Smith’s influential Anthology of American Folk Music.  In 1931, he concluded his recording career with three consecutive sessions for the American Record Corporation, producing a further nineteen sides—mostly re-recordings of songs he had recorded once or twice before—all of which were released, again primarily marketed by Sears-Roebuck on their Conqueror label, though one also appeared on the other ARC dimestore labels.  Thereafter, Parker apparently departed the Barn Dance, purportedly jealous of fellow folksinger Bradley Kincaid’s popularity.  He made at least one brief return to the program in 1936, and was still promoted in station publications at the same time.  By the end of the 1930s, Parker, then in his early sixties, had apparently retired from all work.  Chubby Parker died in Chicago on August 28, 1940.

Silvertone 5013 was recorded in Chicago, Illinois, on April 2, 1927, at the studios of the Starr Piano Co—Parker’s second recording session.  He cut earlier versions of both sides at his first, but they were rejected.  Chubby Parker sings, whistles, and banjos.  It was also released on Silvertone 25013 and Supertone 9191, and with side “A” appearing on Gennett 6097 and Champion 15278 and “B” on Gennett 6120 and Champion 15298.

Parker’s rendition of “Oh, Susanna” is one of the most quaint, most rustic things I have ever heard in my entire life—and believe me when I tell you, I have heard a great many quaint and rustic things!  Parker’s simple banjo and enormously understated performance is a far cry from the rollicking style in which Carson Robison recorded the Stephen Foster standard five years later.  Do be advised however, Foster’s lyrics gravitate considerably in the direction opposite what may be considered politically correct.  Tony Russell’s Country Music Records discography notes that this issue used the spelling “Oh, Suzanna”; though some copies do display that variation, this one, as you can plainly see, does not.

Oh, Susanna, recorded April 2, 1927 by Chubby Parker.

On the reverse, Chubby sings and whistles his version of the old chestnut “Little Brown Jug”; he tended to work through these numbers quite fast, and packed considerable number of verses into the three-minute limit.  Parker, rather atypically, played his banjo in a manner quite reminiscent of the “boom-chang” style of plucking alternating bass strings and strumming in-between that was nigh ubiquitous among old-time guitarists of the 1920s and ’30s, as exemplified by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and many others, rather than common styles of banjo picking.

Little Brown Jug, recorded April 2, 1927 by Chubby Parker.

Vocalion 03492 – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – 1936

In a remarkably rare occurrence, I received this record on the very day of publication (it’s not the first time it’s happened, but it’s sure not often).  I had originally intended to post it later in remembrance of vocalist Tommy Duncan, who sings on both sides, but then I noticed that it was the anniversary of its recording, and I was struck by the serendipity of it all.  Combine that with the fact that this is quite probably my favorite Bob Wills record, and I knew I’d have to rush this one on through and select a different record with which to eulogize Mr. Duncan.

In 1936, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were a year into their up-and-coming recording career, but had thus far only had one recording session, spread out over three consecutive days the previous September, part in Vocalion’s field trip down to Dallas.  Since then, a few changes had been made, notably Wills had added a trumpet player, Everett Stover—whom he had originally hired as an announcer—to the band’s pioneering horn section, which had previously consisted of reeds and trombone, the latter of which had erstwhile been dropped from the roster.  Still appearing on Tulsa’s KVOO from Cain’s Ballroom, they found growing regional success.  Exactly one year after their first sessions, the Playboys traveled northward to Chicago to make their return to the microphone of the American Record Corporation (Vocalion’s parent company).  On September 28, 1936, they entered the studio to record only four songs.  The following day, they were back for thirteen more, opening the set with their soon-to-be smash hit, “Steel Guitar Rag”, and closing with two fiddle solos from Wills, which were not released.  Mirroring their first three-day session, they finished up on the thirtieth with a final twelve sides.  Ultimately, a total of seventeen of their twenty-nine recorded sides were deemed suitable for release, many of which proved successful enough for subsequent reissue on other labels.  Afterwards, the Texas Playboys took themselves back to Tulsa, not to return to the studio until the next year, but they were already well down the path to national stardom.

Vocalion 03492 was recorded in Chicago, Illinois, on September 30, 1936, the last day of Wills’ second series of recording sessions.  It carried over to Okeh with the same catalog number, and was later reissued on Columbia 37624 and 20223, the latter in their “folk” series.  The Texas Playboys are Bob Wills, Jesse Ashlock, and Sleepy Johnson on fiddles, the last of whom doubles on guitar, Herman Arnspiger on guitar, Johnnie Lee Wills on tenor banjo, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, Al Stricklin on piano, Everett Stover on trumpet, Ray DeGeer on clarinet, Zeb McNally on saxophone, Joe Ferguson on string bass, and Smokey Dacus on drums.

Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan sing in duet on the scalding hot “Bring it On Down to My House”, a cover—via Milton Brown—of Blind Willie McTell’s “Come On Around to My House Mama”.

Bring it On Down to My House, recorded September 30, 1936 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

On the flip, Duncan sings and yodels solo on “Mean Mama Blues”, a cover of the equally jazzified Jimmie Rodgers song of six years prior (and not to be confused with the 1941 Ernest Tubb song of the same name).

Mean Mama Blues, recorded September 30, 1936 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Paramount 12354 – Blind Lemon Jefferson – 1926

A crop of the only known photograph of Lemon Jefferson, circa 1926, as was pictured in the Paramount Book of Blues.

The legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson was renowned for traveling far and wide all across the United States, ranging territories far exceeding that traversed by many of his contemporaries.  His journeys broadened his musical horizons considerably wider than most home-bound musicians and brought him into contact with numerous other blues people, whom he seldom failed to impress.  While many of his contemporaries were confined to their region or state, Lemon achieved national fame through his successful recording contract, and toured all around the country.  As such, he impressed his music on a broad variety of different audiences, and conversely incorporated a broad variety of different musical influences into his own style of playing.

While he may not have “walked from Dallas to Wichita Falls,” Lemon was an institution in his native Texas around his local haunts like Central Track (a.k.a. Deep Ellum) in Dallas, and was said to have taken the interurban train from Denison down to Waco, entertaining passengers along the way, sometimes joined by his friend Huddie Ledbetter.  Lemon was well known around such small towns as Mart, Texas—eighteen miles east of Waco—where he would sit on Main Street for hours on end playing his music for passers-by.  He was a staple at country barbecues and picnics, one of which brought him into contact with the eight-year-old Sam Hopkins, who helped guide him around, and it’s said that he became one of the only people Lemon would allow to play with him.  A similar privilege was afforded to young Dallas-native Aaron “Oak Cliff T-Bone” Walker—purportedly the stepson of Dallas String Band bassist Marco Washington, an associate of Jefferson’s—who was indelibly impressed with the elder bluesman’s style of playing.  Josh White, too, claimed to have spent some time as Jefferson’s lead boy for a brief period in his youth.  In Johnson City, Tennessee, Lemon’s playing attracted the interest of white musician Clarence Greene, who was inspired by Jefferson’s virtuoso blues guitar-picking, showing it particularly in his song “Johnson City Blues”.  Probably through his records, Lemon also impressed his style on white musicians Larry Hensley and Debs Mays, who recorded versions of his “Match Box Blues” and “Rabbit Foot Blues”, respectively, in the middle of the 1930s, following Jefferson’s own demise; both imitated Lemon’s style of playing closely.  Travels in Virginia brought Lemon in contact with ragtime guitarists Stephen Tarter and Harry Gay, who introduced young musician Lesley Riddle to him.  Riddle soon after befriended A.P. Carter, and impressed his blues knowledge on the Carter Family in the next decade.  In 1928, while passing through Minden, Louisiana, Jefferson picked up fellow musician Joe Holmes, traveling with him in Texas for a short period.  Holmes eventually traveled to Wisconsin to record for Paramount as King Solomon Hill, and posthumously eulogized his friendship with Jefferson in the song “My Buddy Blind Papa Lemon”.  He was also eulogized by his old friend Lead Belly in at least four different songs, including his 1935 ARC recording of “My Friend Blind Lemon”, and the eponymous “Blind Lemon”, memorably recounted in the 1976 movie about Ledbetter’s life: “Blind Lemon—oh baby—he’s a blind man!  He doin’ all he can—oh baby—’till he’s travelin’ through the land.”

Paramount 12354 was released with two different sets of masters; original pressings use 2472 and 2471, respectively, recorded at Paramount’s studio in March of 1926, this one uses the later takes—1054 and 1053, though the labels were not altered to reflect it—which were electrically recorded at Marsh Laboratories in Chicago, Illinois around May of the same year.  You may note that both labels erroneously give composer’s credit to “Lemons” Jefferson.

Firstly Lemon delivers one of his most successful numbers: “Long Lonesome Blues”, with that hot bit in the middle in which he busts out the lyrics: “hey, mama mama, papa papa ’deed double do love you doggone it, somebody’s talking to you mama papa ’deed double do love you” (or something to that effect) in double time.  Beginning with the lyrics, “I walked from Dallas, I walked to Wichita Falls” (which were later copped by Bob Wills), this song stood alongside “Match Box Blues”—with which it shares many melodic similarities—as one of Lemon’s best known numbers to his audiences back home in Texas.

Long Lonesome Blues, recorded c. May 1926 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

“The blues come to Texas, lopin’ like a mule,” Lemon opens his “Got the Blues”, which in later years lent the verse to title Mack McCormick and Paul Oliver’s magnum opus book on the Texas blues.  Echoes of the song can be heard in subsequent Texas blues songs from Texas Alexander’s “Texas Special” to Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Mojo Hand”.

Got the Blues, recorded c. May 1926 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.