Vocalion 03139 & 03206 – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – 1935

Bob Wills, pictured in the 1940 Okeh Country Dance and Folk catalog.

Fresh from Cain’s Dance Academy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, it is Old Time Blues’ pleasure to bring you a program with Bob Wills and his famous Texas Playboys!

Bob Wills (then known as Jim Rob) made his first recordings for Brunswick/Vocalion in 1929, a pair of fiddle solos accompanied by guitarist Herman Arnspiger, but none were released and remain unheard.  It would be three years before Wills recorded again, this time with Milton Brown as a member of the original Light Crust Doughboys.  Still that lone 1932 session only yielded two recordings which didn’t sell too well under the Depression conditions, and both Wills and Brown parted ways with the Doughboys soon after.  It wouldn’t be for another three years that Wills began his recording career in earnest.  By that time, he had taken his fiddle band to Tulsa to make a name for himself as leader of the “Texas Playboys” at Cain’s Ballroom, and along the way had added a horn section and drums to the ensemble.  When the American Record Corporation came to Dallas in 1935, the Playboys returned to Texas.  On September 23, 1935, Wills and his Texas Playboys recorded eight titles, starting with “Osage Stomp”, borrowing from the Memphis Jug Band’s “Memphis Shakedown” and “Rukus Juice and Chittlin'”, followed by twelve more the following day.  On the third day, Wills returned to the studio solo to cut four fiddle solos backed on guitar by Sleepy Johnson.  This time, as the record industry was beginning to recover with the beginning of the swing era, his records sold many more copies, and the Texas Playboys traveled to Chicago almost exactly one year later for another three sessions. producing thirty-one more sides, including the famous “Steel Guitar Rag”.  Soon the Playboys skyrocketed to national fame, drawing larger crowds than Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey with hits like “New San Antonio Rose”, and making a string of successful motion picture appearances, ultimately winning him the title “King of Western Swing” (that Spade Cooley never deserved it if you ask me).

Vocalion 03139 and 03206 were recorded in Dallas, Texas on September 24, 1935, the second day of the Texas Playboys’ first session.  In the band are Bob Wills, Jesse Ashlock, and Art Haynes on fiddles, Robert “Zeb” McNally on alto saxophone, Sleepy Johnson and Herman Arnspiger on guitars, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar and guitar, Johnnie Lee Wills on tenor banjo, Al Stricklin on piano, Thomas “Son” Lansford on string bass, and William “Smokey” Dacus on drums.

To start us out, the Playboys swing a hot instrumental: “Black and Blue Rag”, with Bob addressing his Playboys by name as they take their instrumental solos.

Black and Blue Rag, recorded September 24, 1935 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

On the back of 03139, Bob sings the vocal himself on the Mississippi Sheiks’ blues standard “Sittin’ On Top of the World”.

Sittin’ On Top of the World, recorded September 24, 1935 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Tommy Duncan joins the show on “I Ain’t Got Nobody”, giving a wild Emmett Miller-style yodeling performance.

I Ain’t Got Nobody, recorded September 24, 1935 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Finally, Duncan sings again on the Playboys’ rendering of the popular song of one year prior, “Who Walks in When I Walk Out”, surely one of the hottest, wildest, most driving western swing performances ever recorded.  It’s also the first time we hear Bob holler those immortal words “take it away, Leon!”

Who Walks in When I Walk Out, recorded September 24, 1935 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Okeh 40339 – Jack Gardner’s Orchestra – 1924

In Old Time Blues’ continuing series honoring the musical heritage of Texas, we pay due tribute to the bandleader whose orchestra bears the distinction of producing the earliest commercial recordings made within the borders of the Lone Star State: the Dallas-based pianist and songwriter Jack Gardner.

Jack Gardner and his Orchestra, pictured on 1925 sheet music for “Dallas, I Love You”.

Jack was born Francis Henry Gardner on August 14, 1903, in Joliet, Illinois.  He took up playing piano while a young boy, and began playing professionally after the family relocated to Denver, Colorado, reportedly appearing with Boyd Senter’s band.  He was also a competent and relatively prolific songwriter best remembered for the 1927 hit “Bye-Bye, Pretty Baby”.  Many sources state that Gardner moved to Chicago in 1923 and remained there until 1937, but, unless there were two different pianists named Jack Gardner, that cannot be accurate as at least in the middle years of that decade, he was director of the house band at the stately Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, Texas.  When Ralph S. Peer of the Okeh record company brought mobile recording equipment to a dealer’s warehouse in Dallas in 1924, Gardner and his orchestra had the special privilege of being the first to make commercial recordings in the state of Texas.  Upon Okeh’s return to Dallas the following year, his orchestra had another session, this time introducing the talent of local singer Irene Taylor, who would later go on to be featured by the most popular orchestra in the United States: Paul Whiteman’s.  Gardner may have been in Chicago as early as the end of 1925, at which time he is suggested as a possible instrumentalist with Fred Hamm’s orchestra, one of a number of groups managed by Chicago impresario Edgar A. Benson.  He had definitely made it to the toddling town by 1928, at which time he began sitting in with jazz bands such as those of Wingy Manone and Jimmy McPartland.  In 1939, Gardner went to New York City to assume the role of pianist first with Sandy Williams, then in Texas-raised trumpeter Harry James’s orchestra, a position which he held for around a year before returning to Chicago.  After an active period there, Jack Gardner returned to Dallas, where he remained until his death on November 26, 1957.

Okeh 40339 was recorded in September or October of 1924, in Dallas, Texas, the Gardner band’s first session.  Though the orchestra’s personnel is only tentatively identified, it probably includes at least some of the following members: Johnnie Mills and Charlie Willison cornets, Stanton Crocker on trombone, Robert B. Dean, Robert K. Harris, and Bernie Dillon on reeds, Jack Gardner on piano, Earl D. McMahan on banjo, Ralph W. “Cricket” Brown on tuba, and Bob Blassingame on drums.  Dillon White sings the vocal on side “A”, and may also be an instrumentalist.

First, Dillon White sings the vocal on “Who? You?”, one of Jack Gardner’s own compositions.  I must admit that White’s vocal gives me a little chuckle every time I listen to it (“Who? Yoouu!“), but that band sure could play!

Who? You?, recorded c.September-October 1924 by Jack Gardner’s Orchestra.

They follow with a wild, eccentric jazz tune, another Gardner original: “Who’d a Thunk It”.  One thing you can say for certain: the folks in Texas did like their jazz played hot!

Who’d a Thunk It, recorded c.September-October 1924 by Jack Gardner’s Orchestra.

Vocalion 04145 – Shelly Lee Alley and his Alley Cats – 1938

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.

Brunswick 6047 – Harris Brothers Texans – 1930

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

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)

Oh How I Cried the Morning After (The Night Before With You), recorded November 1930 by the Harris Brothers Texans.

Vocalion 04727 – W. Lee O’Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys – 1938

On this day, we celebrate the life and accomplishments of one hayseed flour salesman from Ohio whose name went down in the history books: Mr. “Pappy” O’Daniel.

“Pappy”, as pictured on the cover of “Beautiful Texas”.

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.