Shelly Lee Alley pictured in the Hillbilly Hit Parade of 1941.
Though he never achieved the stardom of contemporaries like Bob Wills or Spade Cooley—or even Milton Brown—songwriter and fiddler Shelly Lee Alley left his mark on music history as one of the founding fathers of the Texas-born, jazz-inflected style of music now called western swing, despite hesitations toward so-called “hillbilly” music.
Shelly Lee Alley was born on July 6, 1894 on his father’s farm in Alleyton, Texas, descended from Stephen F. Austin’s original “old three hundred” settlers. The Alleys being a musical family, Shelly learned to play the fiddle, and had reportedly composed his first song by the age of six. During the First World War, Alley led a band at Camp Travis in San Antonio. After the war, he led several successful dance bands in Dallas, and started out performing on the newly emerging medium of radio early in the 1920s. Though initially focusing on popular music, by the end of the 1920s, Alley began to shift his focus to the burgeoning form that would later become known as western swing. Alley was well-acquainted with Jimmie Rodgers, who recorded his “Travellin’ Blues” in 1931, with Alley and his brother Alvin accompanying on fiddles, and “Gambling Barroom Blues” the following year, backed by Clayton McMichen’s band. In the first half of the 1930s, he played in various fiddle bands around South Texas, and in the middle of the decade, Alley organized a band called “Alley Cats”. After sitting in on a session with Lummie Lewis and His Merry Makers, Alley began recording with his Alley Cats in 1937. At various times, the Alley Cats included Cliff Bruner, Ted Daffan, Leon “Pappy” Selph, and Harry Choates, all of whom would become stars in their own right. Between 1937 and 1940, Alley recorded sixty-seven titles for the Vocalion, most or all his own compositions, followed by a further six for Bluebird in 1941. Alley disbanded the Alley Cats during World War II, but brought the group back to make one record for the Globe label in 1946. A consistently sickly fellow who was known to imbibe paregoric, Shelly Lee Alley largely retired from performing in the 1940s. Alley cut his last record in 1955 for Jet in Houston, singing two of his own compositions accompanied by the Jet Staff Band. Alley died on June 1, 1964 in Houston.
Vocalion 04145 was recorded on May 10th and 11th, 1938 in Dallas, Texas. The Alley Cats are Shelly Lee Alley and Cliff Bruner on fiddles, Anthony Scanlin on clarinet and tenor sax, Ted Daffan on steel guitar, and on the “A” side Douglas Blaikie on piano and Lester J. Voss on string bass, replaced with an unknown pianist and Pinkie Dawson on “B”. Alley provides the vocals on both sides.
First, the Alley Cats get low-down and dirty on Alley’s “Try it Once Again”.
Try it Once Again, recorded May 10, 1938 by Shelly Lee Alley and his Alley Cats.
On the back, they get real hot on another of Alley’s compositions: “You’ve Got It”.
You’ve Got It, recorded May 11, 1938 by Shelly Lee Alley and his Alley Cats.
One of several outstanding Texas-based jazz and dance bands to make records in the years preceding World War II, the Harris Brothers Texans demonstrated themselves to be formidable music-makers, but with only three records to their name, all of which are rarely encountered today, the band is shrouded by a veil of near total obscurity, unknown to most outside of a small cadre of vintage jazz aficionados. Previously, scarcely any information regarding them was available. Now, following intensive research, I have endeavored to piece together a short but relatively comprehensive history of the band herein (at least the most extensive one hitherto published; with special thanks to the research of the late Murray L. Pfeffer and his Big Bands Database).
The three Harris Brothers were Abraham “Abe” Harris, born October 12, 1890 or ’91, Louis Joseph “Lou” Harris, born in October of 1891, and Myer Isadore “Monk” Harris, born January 9, 1894, the sons of Emanuel and Sarah Harris of Navasota, Texas, descendants of Jewish Prussian immigrants who arrived in Texas in the 1870s, by way of South Carolina. Abe Harris was a drummer in the First World War, and after his completing his service, he started a jazz band with his brothers, Lou playing trumpet and Monk playing trombone and euphonium. Originally directed by Abe, Lou Harris assumed leadership of the band by the late 1920s onward, and it was apparently fronted for a time around 1926 by reed and violin player and singer Harry Samuels, who had been a childhood friend of the Harris brothers. The Harris Brothers Orchestra played in Corsicana in 1922, before taking up in the Houston area the following year, making them contemporaries of Lloyd Finlay’s orchestra, and in 1923 and ’24, they played in the ballroom of the Crystal Palace in Galveston. In the middle part of the decade, the Harris Brothers Orchestra relocated to north Texas, where they broadcasted from WFAA in Dallas and were engaged at the roof ballroom of the Baker Hotel in Dallas beginning in 1926 and at least as late as 1929.
When the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company made their field trips to record in Texas, the orchestra cut records, resulting in three sessions, all in Dallas, yielding a grand total of eight sides, six of which were released. First in October of 1928, they recorded the hot jazz tunes “Somebody Stole My Gal” and “The Pay Off”, released on the Vocalion label. The following year, they cut “Gut Bucket Shuffle”, “Louisiana, That’s My Home”, and two unknown unissued titles. Finally, they concluded their brief recorded legacy with two pop-styled songs: “Oh How I Cried the Morning After” and “The South’s Been a Mother to Me”. Though credited on their records as the “Harris Brothers Texans”, at home the band was simply called the “Harris Brothers Orchestra”. By this time, the Harris Brothers’ musical style was comparable to that of the contemporary Phil Baxter’s orchestra and other Texas dance bands of the era, featuring a rather loose instrumentation and a “big” sound punctuated by strong “oom-pah” bass rhythm, with occasional use of accordion, somewhat evocative of Texas’ polka bands. Much of their recorded material displayed a certain uniquely Texan character. An unidentified group called “The Harris Brothers” had two test sessions for Gennett in 1928—prior to any of the Harris Brothers’ Brunswick recordings—but given that they are believed to have been a vocal group, it is doubtful that they were one and the same.
Around the same time as their Brunswick engagement, the Harris Brothers Orchestra played at the Dallas Country Club, and they were engaged at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas in 1929 following Alphonso Trent’s tenure there. During their time at the Adolphus, bandleader Lou Harris gave a large quantity of arrangements to New Orleans expatriate Don Albert, who had recently parted ways with Troy Floyd’s orchestra and was starting up his own band. The band remained together under the directorship of Lou Harris at least into the late 1930s, playing in Dallas and Abilene—perhaps even venturing all the way to Hollywood on a 1935 tour—and they provided music at the Greater Texas and Pan-American Exposition at Dallas’ Fair Park in 1937. Myer Harris eventually retired from music and built homes in Dallas. Abe Harris died on May 23, 1960, Lou in 1969, and Monk on November 8, 1990, all three in Dallas.
Brunswick 6047 was recorded in November of 1930 (though some sources suggest a January 1931 date) in Dallas, Texas. The personnel of the band probably includes at least some of the following members: Lou Harris and Paul Skinner on trumpets, Myer “Monk” Harris on trombone, Harry Samuels, Gene Hammel, and probably at least one other—possibly Robert Dean—on reeds (clarinet, two alto saxophones, and tenor sax), Murray Lambert on piano, Liebling Mayo on banjo (though Johnson and Shirley’s American Dance Bands suggests a possible Lester Peacock), an unknown tuba player, and Abe Harris on drums. The vocalist may be reed man Harry Samuels.
First up, the Texans play a hot jazz arrangement of “The South’s Been a Mother to Me”, apparently the only recording of this song.
The South’s Been a Mother to Me, recorded November 1930 by the Harris Brothers Texans.
On the flip, they maintain their booming sound on William Gould and Joey Ray’s popular song “Oh How I Cried the Morning After (The Night Before With You)”.
Oh How I Cried the Morning After (The Night Before With You), recorded November 1930 by the Harris Brothers Texans.
Wilbert Lee O’Daniel was born in Malta, Ohio on March 11, 1890. When he was a baby, the family relocated to Kansas following the death of the O’Daniel patriarch. Lee entered the flour industry at the age of eighteen, and soon went on the move, eventually settling in Fort Worth, where he began working for the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company of Saginaw, Texas as sales manager. In 1928, O’Daniel became the company’s director of advertising in the newly emerging medium of radio broadcasting. About three years later, he hired the Wills Fiddle Band, at the time consisting of fiddler Bob Wills, guitarist Herman Arnspiger, and singer Milton Brown, to perform on the air as the Light Crust Doughboys. Not a fan of their hillbilly music however, O’Daniel canceled their show a couple weeks later. Fans of the show were not pleased, and soon the Light Crust Doughboys were back on the air. By 1933, the original Doughboys had parted ways, and a new lineup of musicians had taken over the moniker, going on to achieve great radio acclaim. In 1935, O’Daniel was fired from his position with the Burrus Mill, and he went on to found his own flour company, the W. Lee O’Daniel Flour Company, manufacturer of Hillbilly Flour. To promote the new product, “Pappy” O’Daniel formed a new radio band: the Hillbilly Boys, which included his two sons Mike and Pat. Broadcasting from WBAP in Fort Worth and “border blaster” XEPN in Piedras Negras, Mexico, the Hillbilly Boys also found considerable fame with their madcap radio theme “Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy”.
Come 1938, W. Lee O’Daniel registered to run for Governor of Texas—his platform, the ten commandments, and his campaign slogan, the golden rule. He took his Hillbilly Boys on the campaign trail and drew huge crowds. Winning the election, he promised no sales tax or poll tax, an end to capital punishment, and an old-age pension. He delivered on none. Nonetheless, he proved popular enough and was reelected in 1940. Shortly into his second term as Governor, O’Daniel set his sights on a more prestigious and powerful position, the United States Senate. When Senator Morris Sheppard died in 1941, O’Daniel appointed the eighty-six year old son of Sam Houston, Andrew Jackson Houston, to fill his empty seat in the interim. When Houston himself died several months later, O’Daniel defeated Lyndon B. Johnson in a special election and took the seat for himself. When the next election came around, he asserted that his opponents, former governors Dan Moody and James V. Allred, were part of a communist conspiracy against him, alienating himself from some of his supporters, but nonetheless claiming the election. In 1944, he campaigned for the Texas Regulars, opposing Roosevelt’s fourth term. Serving ineffectively for eight years, O’Daniel declined to run for reelection in 1948—citing the hopelessness of saving America from the commies (though in reality he had simply embarrassed too many of his constituents)—and was replaced by “Landslide Lyndon”. Thereafter, he retired to a ranch outside Fort Worth, making several ill-fated political comebacks in the 1950s and claiming that the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate schools in Brown v. Board of Education was a communist plot. W. Lee O’Daniel died on May 12, 1969 in Dallas, at the age of 79.
Vocalion 04727 was recorded in Dallas, Texas on December 3, 1938. The Hillbilly Boys are Mike O’Daniel on fiddle, Bundy Bratcher on the accordion, Kermit Whalen on the steel guitar, Pat O’Daniel on tenor banjo, Leon Huff and Curly Perrin on guitars, and Wallace Griffin on string bass. Huff sings the vocals on both sides.
First: the Hillbilly Boys’ theme song, “Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy”, really the 1933 song “I Like Mountain Music” with new words added by W. Lee O’Daniel to reflect his floury interests.
Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy (I Like Mountain Music), recorded December 3, 1938 by W. Lee O’Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys.
On the other side, the Hillbilly boys do a swell job swinging the 1927 tune “One Sweet Letter From You”. I bought the record for “Please Pass the Biscuits Pappy”, but I do believe I like this one better.
One Sweet Letter from You, recorded December 3, 1938 by W. Lee O’Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys.
Though perhaps best known as the man who brought into this world such memorable ditties as “Piccolo Pete”, “Harmonica Harry”, and “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy (from Dumas)”, among others, maestro Phil Baxter was also a capable pianist and vocalist, and the leader of a successful Southern-based territory jazz band in the 1920s.
Philip Kerley Baxter was born in the small settlement of Rural Shade in Navarro County, Texas on September 5, 1896, twenty miles southeast of Corsicana, the son of Thomas and Lila Baxter, who were at the time making their way via horse and buggy to Palestine (Texas, that is). He served his country in the First World War, and was writing music by 1921 and leading his own jazz band later in the decade. Baxter’s orchestra first recorded in St. Louis, Missouri on October 24, 1925, cutting four titles for Okeh Records, three of which were issued. Around that time, he and Carl Moore published a version of “St. James Infirmary” as “Gambler’s Blues”—Baxter claimed to have co-written the song, but neglected to file for a copyright, which Irving Mills did in 1929 under the pseudonym “Joe Primrose”. Baxter’s orchestra, previously called the “Texas Tommies”, became the house band for El Torrean Ballroom in Kansas City in 1927, broadcasting on KMBC, a post which they retained until 1933. He returned to the recording studio four Octobers after his first session in 1929, when he waxed four further sides for the Victor Talking Machine Company in his hometown of Dallas, Texas, all of which were released that time around, including the noted “I Ain’t Got No Gal Now”. Following the Dallas session, Baxter made no further commercial recordings, though a few home recordings have turned up (which are, most unfortunately, not part of the Old Time Blues collection). The Baxter orchestra continued into the middle of the 1930s. In his later years, his music was hindered by arthritis. Phil Baxter died on November 21, 1972 in Dallas.
Victor V-40160 was recorded on October 20, 1929 in the ballroom of the Park Hotel in Dallas, Texas. The band’s roster includes Ray Nooner and Al Hann on trumpets, Al Jennings on trombone, Ken Naylor on clarinet and alto saxophone, Jack Jones on alto sax, Thurmond Rotroff on tenor sax, Davy Crocker on accordion, Phil Baxter on piano, Joe Price on banjo and guitar, Pop Estep on tuba, and Marion Flickinger on drums. Baxter sings the vocals on both sides. Perhaps only a regional release without nationwide distribution—though it appeared in Victor’s catalog for Old Familiar Tunes—it is said to have sold only a few hundred copies. As such, it—along with the other Baxter Victor—made it into the honorable mentions (or rather “Conspicuous Omissions”) section of 78 Quarterly’s series on the “Rarest 78s.”
First, the band plays the magnificent “I Ain’t Got No Gal Now”, a real tour de force, perhaps my favorite jazz side of them all. The band plays here in a style all their own, mellow yet hot, with a loose sort of sound, with accordion that was obligatory in Texas dance bands of the era. Simply a masterpiece!
I Ain’t Got No Gal Now, recorded October 20, 1929 by Phil Baxter and his Orchestra.
On the reverse, they play a delightful Texas themed number: “Down Where the Blue Bonnets Grow”, another excellent ditty, and with even more accordion!
Down Where the Blue Bonnets Grow, recorded Octiber 20, 1929 by Phil Baxter and his Orchestra.
I just found out that today (March 6) is the birthday of the late, great Bob Wills. Now, I’m not about to let the 111th anniversary of the day that such a hero of Texas’ music was brought into this world fall by the wayside, so I’ve hastily put together this tribute. What better way to pay respects to the King of Western Swing than with one of his most famous records.
James Robert Wills was born near Kosse, Texas, where he picked cotton on the family farm and learned to play the fiddle and mandolin, following in his father’s footsteps, who was the champion fiddler of the state of Texas. The Wills later relocated to a farm near the little town of Turkey, Texas, which now bills itself as Wills’ home. At sixteen, Bob hopped a freight train and left home to become a professional entertainer, but returned home in his twenties to become a barber. In Fort Worth, Wills added the blues to his repertoire, and made his first recordings in Dallas with Herman Arnspiger in 1929, though they were not issued. Wills cut his first issued record in Dallas in 1932 with the Light Crust Doughboys, featuring Milton Brown’s vocals. In the early 1930s Bob Wills formed his famous Texas Playboys and toured the nation, becoming one of the leading music stars of the era, and an originator of the western swing genre. Wills continued to perform until a stroke in 1969, despite the diminishing popularity of western swing. Wills died May 13, 1975 in Fort Worth, Texas. He is honored every year with the annual Bob Wills Fiddle Festival and Contest in Greenville, Texas.
Okeh 05694 was recorded April 16, 1940 at the Burrus Mill in Saginaw, Texas (near Dallas, which is indicated by the matrix numbers with a “DAL” prefix”). The Texas Playboys consist of Bob Wills, Jesse Ashlock, and Lewis Fierney on fiddles, Herman Arnspiger and Eldon Shamblin on guitars, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, Johnnie Lee Wills on banjo, Son Lansford on bass, Al Stricklin on piano, and Smokey Dacus on drums. We heard a few of those musicians with the Light Crust Doughboys seven years prior to this record.
Tommy Duncan sings the vocal on the famous “New San Antonio Rose”. The old “San Antonio Rose” was just an instrumental of the same tune.
New San Antonio Rose, recorded April 16, 1940 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.
Bob takes the fiddle on the eponymous “Bob Wills’ Special”, a low-down old fashioned western swing riddled with those hollers that Wills specialized in.
Bob Wills’ Special, recorded April 16, 1940 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.