Broadway 8089 – Georgia Melody Boys – 1927

There were some artists of yesteryear who created a truly unique sound, and made music that was without parallel (for better or for worse).  Names like Washington Phillips—who seemingly played two modified zithers simultaneously to accompany his sanctified singing—come to mind.  In this case (partly because I don’t have any of Mr. Phillips’ records), we’ll look at the Golden Melody Boys, a truly obscure duo whose sound was aptly characterized by Tony Russell as “a bubbling sixteen-string polyphony.”  While I count eighteen (the American tiple has ten strings), they certainly made music like no other that I am aware of.

The Golden Melody Boys—Dempsy “Demps” Jones and Philip Featherstonhaugh (or “Featherstonehaugh”, or “Featherstone”)—were a musical duo hailing from Ceder Rapids, Iowa.  Demps was born on November 9, 1890 in Fountain Run, Kentucky; Phil on November 4, 1892 in Illinois.  Phil could play a mean mandolin, and Demps was skilled on guitar, banjo, and the rather out-of-the-ordinary tiple.  Aside from their musical proclivities, Dempsy was the Linn County Recorder, and worked variously on the side as a baseball player, a newspaperman, in construction, and for Quaker Oats.  Phil, apparently, was more or less of a bootlegger.  They were playing together as early as 1925, and played on Earl May’s KMA in Shenandoah, Iowa, as well as a number of other stations.  They made their recording debut in October of 1927 for the New York Recording Laboratories (makers of Paramount, Broadway) in Chicago, and cut a total of eighteen sides for them over the following year, all of which but one were released.  Dempsy followed up with six solo re-recordings of earlier titles for the Starr Piano Company (for their Champion and Superior labels) on November 19, 1931 in Richmond, Indiana.  Jones stayed in Iowa, starting a family band in the 1930s which apparently continued all the way into the days of television, while Featherstonhaugh moved west.  Jones died on April 10, 1963 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Featherstonhaugh on March 1, 1969 in Beaumont, California.  As of late, their “Gonna Have ‘Lasses in de Mornin'” made its way into PBS’s grand project American Epic.

Broadway 8089 was recorded circa October of 1927 in Chicago, Illinois.  The Golden Melody Boys (here under the rather thin pseudonym “Georgia Melody Boys”) consist of Demps on tiple and Phil on mandolin.  Demps provides the vocals.  It was their first released record, and was also issued on Paramount 3068.  Jones recorded both these songs again in their 1931 Gennett session.

“My grandfather’s hat was too big for his head, it was caused by drinking Milwaukee beer,” is the first line in “The Old Tobacco Mill” (a parody of the old “My Grandfather’s Clock”), and is just the sort of whimsical, often nonsensical lyrics that characterize the bulk of the Golden Melody Boys’ recorded output.

The Old Tobacco Mill, recorded October, 1927 by the Georgia Melody Boys.

On “The Cross Eyed Butcher”, we’re treated to two stories for the price of one, first that ot the titular butcher, then of a fellow’s dental follies, with a nice little instrumental break in-between.  Demps’s vocals rather remind me of Frank Crumit, who—incidentally—was also a tiple player.

The Cross Eyed Butcher, recorded October, 1927 by the Georgia Melody Boys.

Decca 5070 – Milton Brown and his Brownies – 1935

Milton Brown was one of the founders of that marvelous fusion of hot jazz and hillbilly string band music that we now call Western Swing, yet a tragically early demise led his name into near-obscurity today.  Not only did Brown’s music lay the foundations of Western swing music, it also served to inspire such subsequent luminaries as Django Reinhardt.

William Milton Brown was born in Stephenville, Texas on September 7, 1903 to Barty and Martha Brown, a family of poor sharecroppers.  Ma and Pa Brown determined that Milton and his sister Era would get an education to live a better life, and so they did.  Singing old standards and church songs, Milton’s musical talent showed itself at an early age.  Tragedy struck in 1918 when his sister died, and the Browns relocated to Fort Worth.  Milton finished high school late, as helping to support his family made his attendance sporadic, and after graduating, he pursued a career in music.  In 1927, he sang in a local group called the Rock Island Rockets, and his younger brother Derwood soon joined him on guitar.  Nonetheless, Brown made his living as a cigar salesman until the Great Depression left him unemployed.

Brown’s big break came in 1930, when he crossed paths with the Wills Fiddle Band at a dance in Fort Worth and joined in a chorus of the “St. Louis Blues”.  Leader Bob Wills was impressed and asked him—and his brother Derwood—to join the band.  After a stretch on Fort Worth’s WBAP as the “Aladdin Laddies,” the Wills Fiddle Band was contracted by W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel of the Burrus Mill and Elavator Company of Saginaw, Texas, producer of Light Crust Flour, thus becoming the first generation of the prolific Light Crust Doughboys.  In 1932, the Doughboys cut two sides for the Victor Company in Dallas, as the “Fort Worth Doughboys”, producing one of the finest—and earliest—Western Swing records made.  Not too long after, Milton had a spat with Pappy, and left to form his own band: the Musical Brownies.

For the Brownies, Brown hired jazz musician Bob Dunn, the first player to electrify his steel guitar, and fiddlers Cecil Brower and Cliff Bruner.  Their regular spot was the Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion in Fort Worth, buy they also toured Waco, Corsicana, Weatherford, and Mineral Wells.  They’d a play a hot tune, then follow with a waltz to let the dancers cool off.  After two 1934 sessions for Bluebird, the Brownies secured a spot on Decca Records’ roster, which produced a string of successful records.  Tragically— perhaps as much for the world to be deprived of his talent as for his own misfortune—the end came too soon for Milton Brown when he fell asleep behind the wheel while driving a young lady home one night, and wrapped his car around a telephone pole on the Jacksboro Highway.  Although he was expected to make a full recovery from the accident, Brown died of pneumonia on April 18, 1936, at the young age of thirty-two.

Decca 5070 was recorded on January 27, 1935 at the Furniture Mart Building at 666 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, the Brownies’ first Decca session.  Brown’s Musical Brownies consist of Cecil Brower on fiddle, Derwood Brown on guitar, Ocie Stockard on tenor banjo, Bob Dunn on his famous electrified steel guitar, Wanna Coffman on string bass, and Fred Calhoun on piano.  Milton, of course, sings the lead vocals, with Derwood and Dunn backing.

First up is Milt’s recording of the tune that launched his career, W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”.  A signature piece, at the Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion the Brownies were known to stretch this one out to a full fifteen minutes.  Even limited to a three-and-a-half minute phonograph record, Brown makes a tour-de-force performance out of it.  Make note of Bob Dunn’s idiosyncratic steel guitar solo.

St. Louis Blues

St. Louis Blues, recorded January 27, 1935 by Milton Brown and his Brownies.

Next, the Brownies swing Eddie Green’s blues standard “A Good Man is Hard to Find”.

A Good Man is Hard to Find

A Good Man is Hard to Find, recorded January 27, 1935 by Milton Brown and his Brownies.

Vocalion 1094 – Henry Thomas “Ragtime Texas” – 1927

An  advertisement for “Cottonfield Blues”, as reprinted in The Devil’s Music, 1976.

One of the great figures of country blues, one of those who have attained a near legendary status, is Henry Thomas, also known by the nickname “Ragtime Texas”.  One of the oldest rural black musicians to record (though probably not the oldest—Daddy Stovepipe was purported to have been born seven years earlier), Thomas predated contemporary songsters like Jim Jackson, Lead Belly, and Charley Patton as well as many fellow Texas musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and “Texas” Alexander.

Henry Thomas was born in 1874 in Big Sandy, Texas, one of nine children in a family of sharecroppers; his parents were former slaves.  In his youth, he determined that he was not to live his life as a farmer, and turned to the life of a songster.  He left his home around the time he was sixteen, and lived the life of a hobo and itinerant musicianer.  Thomas learned to play the “quills” (an instrument much like panpipes), and later the guitar to accompany his singing.  Like any songster worth his salt, Thomas learned to play a variety of styles from minstrel songs, to folk ballads and blues, to rags and dance tunes.  His music earned him the hobo nickname “Ragtime Texas”.  On the Texas & Pacific and M-K-T lines, Thomas hoboed all around Texas and the South (much of which he outlined in his “Railroadin’ Some”), bringing his music with him and expanding his repertoire all the way.  He sang of his home state of Texas, of his life as a hobo, and plenty more.  His travels likely brought him to the World’s Fairs of Chicago and St. Louis in 1893 and 1904, respectively.  In 1927, Thomas traveled to Chicago to cut a record for Vocalion, recording four sides, of which three were released.  Over the following years, he returned to Chicago for five further sessions, netting a total of twenty-three titles from 1927 to 1929.  Little to none of what happened after his final recordings is known.  Many sources claim that he died in 1930, but others claimed to have seen him in Houston in 1949, and around Tyler, Texas in the 1950s.  Long after the end of his life, Thomas’ “Bull Doze Blues” served as the primary inspiration for the band Canned Heat’s 1968 famous hippie anthem “Going Up the Country”.

Vocalion 1094 was recorded on June 30, 1927 (other sources suggest a date of April 19 or July 5 of the same year) in Chicago, Illinois.  It is Henry Thomas’ first issued record, and, aside from an unissued cut of “The Fox and the Hounds”, his first recorded sides.

First, Thomas sings and whistles his fantastic rendition of the perennial folk ballad “John Henry”, putting his own unique spin on the tale of the legendary steel driving man.

John Henry

John Henry, recorded June 30, 1927 by Henry Thomas “Ragtime Texas”.

Turn the record over and Ragtime Texas next delivers a driving performance on “Cottonfield Blues”, bearing some musical resemblance to the “Hesitation Blues”.  Unusual as Thomas music is—what with the quills and the droning guitar—I can’t get enough of it.  It’s truly entrancing, wondrous music!

Cottonfield Blues

Cottonfield Blues, recorded June 30, 1927 by Henry Thomas “Ragtime Texas”.

Melotone 7-07-64 – Big Bill – 1937

It’s come time once again to pay tribute to blues legend Big Bill Broonzy, on the (unconfirmed) anniversary of his birth.  Last time, I posted one of his earlier records, coupling his memorable flatpicked “How You Want it Done?” with “M & O Blues”, featuring his own jug band.  This time around, I present two sides from around the time when he was shifting from his country blues roots to a more urbane style.  I biographed Big Bill in that previous post, so I feel that I needn’t go over that again here.

An ever-versatile musician, the 1930s marked a period of development and transition for Big Bill Broonzy’s music.  He started out the decade playing pure country blues from back where he came from, akin to Josh White, or Buddy Moss.  His recordings from that period, like “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “How You Want it Done?” generally feature his own guitar, sometimes backed with another guitar or a piano.  Later, around the time the swing era kicked off in the middle part of the decade, Chicago evidently had an effect on him, as he started to develop a more citified style to fit with the public’s changing tastes.  Accordingly, his recordings started to swing, often backed by an instrumental ensemble with horn and rhythm, comparable to urban blues contemporaries like Peetie Wheatstraw.  He worked extensively with fellow blues people such as pianist Black Bob, Hawaiian guitar man Casey Bill Weldon, harmonica player Bill “Jazz” Gillum, and his half brother Washboard Sam.  By the end of the decade, his work had become quite sophisticated, producing some of his most memorable work, including “Key to the Highway” and “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town”.  After the end of World War II, however, as interests in folk music began to bud, Bill returned to his rural roots.

Melotone 7-07-64 was recorded on January 31, 1937 in Chicago. Illinois.  Big Bill is accompanied by a rhythm band made up of “Mister Sheiks” Alfred Bell on trumpet, Black Bob Hudson on piano, Bill Settles on string bass, Fred Williams on drums, and Broonzy’s own guitar.

First up, Big Bill plays a classic mid-1930s blues side, “Mean Old World”, an entirely different piece than the T-Bone Walker hit of the 1940s, though Walker may have found some inspiration in this Broonzy tune.

Mean Old World, recorded January 31, 1937 by Big BIll.

Next, Bill does a peppy one with a hot dance accompaniment, “Barrel House When it Rains”, featuring the piano of the mysterious Black Bob, among others noted Chicago blues figures.

Barrel House When it Rains, recorded January 31, 1937 by Big BIll.

Vocalion 03046 – Memphis Minnie, Black Bob, Bill Settles – 1935

The time has come to pay tribute to the consummate blues woman Memphis Minnie, on the 120th anniversary of her birth.

Memphis Minnie came into the world as Lizzie Douglas, one of thirteen children born to Abe and Gerturde Douglas in Algiers, New Orleans, on June 3, 1897.  She didn’t care for the name Lizzie, and took to using the name “Kid” Douglas, a nickname given by her parents, when performing.  Before she was a teenager, she learned to play banjo and guitar, and ran away to Beale Street at thirteen.  Taking to a life of music, she played street corners and toured the South with the Ringling Brothers Circus.  In 1929, she was given the moniker of “Memphis Minnie” by a Columbia record man while making her first records with her second husband Joe McCoy, who was dubbed “Kansas Joe”.  The next year saw the release of one of her most famous songs, “Bumble Bee”, of which she recorded a number of different versions.  Minnie and Kansas Joe went on to make a series of records together for Vocalion and Decca before their divorce in 1935.  Relocating to Chicago, Minnie became a staple of the nightclubs, joined Lester Melrose’s stable of blues artists, and beat Big Bill Broonzy in a cutting contest.  In the late 1930s, Minnie married Ernest Lawlars, better known as Little Son Joe, another blues artist, and they performed together as she had with her previous husband.  In 1941, she recorded some of her biggest hits, “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” and “Looking the World Over”.  Minnie continued to perform and record into the 1950s, but ill health forced her to retire thereafter.  Memphis Minnie died of a stroke, the last of several, on August 6, 1973.

Vocalion 03046 was recorded on August 22, 1935 in Chicago, Illinois.  As the label would suggest, the instrumentation features Memphis Minnie on guitar, Black Bob Hudson on piano, and Bill Settles on string bass.

The identity of pianist “Black Bob” is surrounded by a great deal of uncertainty and confusion.  He is known to have been a prolific sideman for Big Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam, Memphis Minnie, and others, and he recorded extensively for Bluebird and the American Record Corporation between 1932 and 1942, yet his real name and identity are not verified.  A number of names have been put forth, including Bob Hudson, boogie-woogie man Bob Call, Chicago pianist Bob Robinson, and others.  The most likely candidate seems to be Hudson, who recorded with the Memphis Nighthawks on the same day as Black Bob’s session with Big Bill’s Jug Busters, and made one unissued side under his own name two days later, which is reported to match stylistically with Black Bob’s playing.  Most sources, when a last name is given at all, identify Black Bob as Hudson.

First up, Minnie, Bob, and Bill beat out the swing number “Joe Louis Strut”, one of a number of tunes dedicated to the world heavyweight champion of the same name.

Joe Louis Strut, recorded August 22, 1935 by Memphis Minnie, Black Bob, Bill Settles.

One of those “number of tunes” is on the flip, on which Minnie sings solo on her tribute/plea for love to Louis, the classic “He’s in the Ring (Doing that Same Old Thing)”.  This is take “2” of the song, I prefer the first take myself, but to my knowledge, it wasn’t released commercially on 78.

He’s in the Ring (Doing that Same Old Thing), recorded August 22, 1935 by Memphis Minnie