Ernest Tubb reading fan mail in the early 1940s. Pictured in Ernest Tubb Radio Song Book No. 1.
Old Time Blues and I extend our warmest wishes for a Merry Christmas to all of our valued readers!
I always try to put up a suitable selection for the holiday, though in some past years, I’ve let it fall by the wayside in the chaos of the season. But not this time. In celebration of this year’s yuletide, I present an Ernest Tubb bookend to an Ernest Tubb year—the third of his records posted in 2019, the first year during which any of his records have entered the Old Time Blues spotlight. This record holds a special significance to me, for it is one of several in my possession which originally belonged to my great-grandmother, who was in fact a first cousin to Ernest Tubb, though I’m not sure that she knew it. On it, the Texas Troubadour croons two colors of Christmas, in performances of the holiday classics “White Christmas” and “Blue Christmas”.
Decca 46186 was recorded on August 26, 1949, at the Castle Studio in the Tulane Hotel at 206 8th Avenue North in Nashville, Tennessee, and was produced by Paul Cohen; the two sides account for the entirety of Tubb’s session that day. Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours are Tommy “Butterball” Paige on lead electric guitar, Jack Shook and Tubb himself on guitars, Jack Drake on string bass, and Owen Bradley on the organ. There sounds to be a steel guitar present, but I’m not sure who’s playing it. Backup vocals are provided by the Three Troubadettes: Anita Kerr, Alcyone Bate Beasley, and Dottie Dillard.
On the first side, E.T. sings us a heartfelt rendition of Irving Berlin’s famous “White Christmas”, though, growing up in Texas, a white Christmas would surely not be “like the ones he used to know.” Tubb recorded an earlier take of “White Christmas” with his full band two years prior, but it was never released and is reported as “lost”. Move it on over, Bing Crosby!
White Christmas, recorded August 26, 1949 by Ernest Tubb.
While the Christmastime staple “Blue Christmas” is most commonly associated with Elvis Presley, who recorded it in 1957, and the first recording was made in 1948 by Doye O’Dell, I consider Ernest’s rendition to be the definitive.
Blue Christmas, recorded August 26, 1949 by Ernest Tubb.
The two Stripling Brothers have had the Old Time Blues limelight shined at them once before, when they played for us their tour de force breakdown “The Lost Child”, but, with that article dedicated primarily to the honor of the great record man Joe Bussard, I have yet to delve deeply into the duo’s history. Fortunately, the time has now come to rectify that oversight.
The story of the brothers Stripling began in Alabama, in the county of Pickens, on the eighth of August, 1896, with the birth of Charlie Melvin Stripling. His brother Ira Lee followed him into the world almost two years later on June 5, 1898. As a youth, Charlie learned to fiddle from a neighbor called “Uncle Plez”—properly Pleasant C. Carroll, born circa 1850—who imparted the old-time traditions of the middle nineteenth century on the young man. Soon, brother Ira took up the guitar to back Charlie up, ordering a six dollar instrument from a catalog. Soon the pair was taking on fiddle contests and conventions, competing for cash prizes. Not content with his meager earnings as a sharecropper, Charlie Stripling set out to win the first prizes to help bring the bacon home to his wife and six kids, and so was bent on becoming the finest fiddler in the region. Like quite a few fiddler of his time, he supplemented his old-time repertoire with more modern “fox-trot” melodies to please a less geriatric audience. The team played dances and functions around the area, and began performing on Birmingham radio station WAPI. When the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company ventured down south to Birmingham late in 1928, the Striplings cut their first record for the company’s Vocalion label. Subsequently, the pair went on to record quite prolifically for regional old-time artists of their day, traveling to Chicago the following year to make a further sixteen sides for Vocalion. Five years later, they traveled all the way to New York to record for the newly founded Decca company, making a total fourteen more sides. When Decca came to New Orleans in 1936, the Striplings had their fourth and final session, rounding out their discography with another fourteen sides. By the end of their recording career, the Stripling Brothers netted a total of twenty-one records, with four sides unissued by Decca. Though the vice grip of the Great Depression took the brothers off of records, and Ira retired from music to dedicate his time to managing the store he owned, Charlie Stripling continued fiddling for the rest of his life. He was joined sometimes by his sons Robert and Lee, and later formed a band when his sons went off to war, but he never made another record. Charlie Stripling died on January 19, 1966. He was survived for a little more than a year by Ira, who passed on March 11, 1967.
Decca 5018 was recorded on September 10, 1934 at the Pythian Temple on 135 West 70th Street in New York City, and is the Stripling Brothers’ first released record on the Decca label. As with all of the Striplings’ records, the instrumentation consists of Charlie on fiddle and Ira on guitar.
First, the brothers break it down on the lively “Possum Hollow”.
Possum Hollow, recorded September 10, 1934 by the Stripling Brothers.
Next, they play that ubiquitous fiddle melody, the waltz known as “Wednesday Night”.
Wednesday Night, recorded September 10, 1934 by the Stripling Brothers.
Of all the countless musical artists active before the Second World War, only a fraction were fortunate enough to have their art preserved on records, and an even smaller fraction recorded prolifically, leaving whatever magical music they produced mostly unheard. That however, does not necessarily imply that those artists who left behind few, if any, recordings were not popular within their own domain. One such artist who achieved considerable note with audiences in his homeland of Texas, but only left behind a precious few recordings was a peculiar, but quite remarkable, bluesman (and my own fourth personal favorite Texas blues musician) known as the Black Ace.
The man later called the “Black Ace” was born Babe Kyro Lemon Turner on the twenty-first of December, 1907 (some sources state 1905), on his family’s farm in the small settlement of Hughes Springs, deep in the farthest northeast reach of the state of Texas—the same region that brought up the likes of Little Hat Jones and Lead Belly. He took up playing the guitar sometime in his youth and began playing the blues by the end of the 1920s in the vicinity of his hometown, and teamed up with the younger Andrew “Smokey” Hogg in the decade that followed. Evidently inspired by Hawaiian-styled blues player Oscar “Buddy” Woods, Turner bought a square-necked National tricone resonator guitar and learned to play steel guitar, using an old medicine bottle as a slide. In the 1930s, he relocated to Fort Worth and began performing on the radio. There, he made his first recordings on April 5, 1936: two sides for the American Record Corporation including his eponymous theme song “Black Ace Blues”, from which he adopted the nickname, but both were unissued and are considered lost. When the Decca record company made a field trip to Dallas early in 1937, Turner recorded again, cutting six sides, all of which were issued this time around (some sources suggest that he traveled to Chicago with Smokey Hogg and Whistling Alex Moore for the session, but they are erroneous). The resulting three records proved to be the entirety of Black Ace’s pre-war recording career, and he would not record again for twenty-three years. In spite of his scant recorded legacy, Turner seems to have enjoyed considerable regional popularity; his radio program lasted into up until the outbreak of World War II, and, remarkably for an early blues musician, he boasted a (very brief) motion picture career. In 1941, Turner had a bit part in Spencer Williams’ race movie The Blood of Jesus, ostensibly portraying himself, first being heard-and-not-seen playing “Golden Slippers Blues”, then appearing as a member of a band performing on the back of a flatbed truck with the devil at the wheel. He was drafted into the Army in 1943, and continued to play music while in the service, but retired from professional musicianship after returning from the war. He was coaxed back in front of the microphone in 1960 by Chris Strachwitz and Paul Oliver to record an album for Strachwitz’s Arhoolie Records, thus preserving a further seventeen pieces of his repertoire for posterity. Two years later, he made his second filmed appearance in Samuel Charters’ 1962 documentary The Blues, in which he reprised his theme song “The Black Ace” for the last time. After suffering from cancer, B.K. Turner died in Fort Worth on November 7, 1972.
Decca 7340 was recorded on February 15, 1937 in Dallas, Texas. It is the second released of Black Ace’s three records. B.K. Turner sings and plays his own Hawaiian guitar; he is accompanied by an unidentified rhythm guitar player (possibly Andrew “Smokey” Hogg).
Firstly, the Black Ace plays and sings “You Gonna Need My Help Some Day”, loosely covering Big Bill Broonzy’s “You May Need My Help Some Day” from a year prior—which in turn echoes some elements from Kokomo Arnold’s “Milk Cow Blues” of 1935.
You Gonna Need My Help Some Day, recorded February 15, 1937 by the Black Ace (B.K. Turner).
On the reverse, he does “Whiskey and Women”, showcasing a bit more of the Black Ace’s Hawaiian-styled blues playing.
Whiskey and Women, recorded February 15, 1937 by the Black Ace (B.K. Turner).
Ernest Tubb with Jimmie Rodgers’s Martin guitar. Circa early-to-mid-1940s.
On the ninth of February, we celebrate the birth of one of the brightest shining stars in all of country music: the Texas Troubadour, my cousin, Ernest Tubb.
Ernest Dale Tubb was born on February 9, 1914, in the now-ghost town of Crisp, Texas, the son of cotton sharecroppers Calvin Tubb and Ellen Baker, whose mother died while she was still an infant, and her father, purportedly a full-or-half-blooded Cherokee, left to start anew. As a youth, he worked as a soda jerk, but like so many of his generation, hearing Jimmie Rodgers inspired the young Tubb to pick up a guitar and start singing and yodeling. In the middle of the 1930s, Tubb began singing on San Antonio’s KONO, an unpaid job which required him to seek employment digging ditches for the WPA. He soon established contact with Jimmie Rodgers’s widow Carrie (née Williamson), who befriended the young singer and indefinitely loaned him her late husband’s custom Martin 000-45 guitar. She also brought the young Tubb to the attention of the RCA Victor Corporation, for whom Jimmie had recorded. When the record company made one of its field trips to San Antonio in October of 1936, Ernest Tubb made his first recordings, singing solo accompanied by his own guitar on six sides, and accompanying Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers in another one, a tribute to her departed husband. Of Tubb’s solo recordings, only one record was released initially, another tribute to the Singing Brakeman, featuring “The Passing of Jimmie Rodgers” and “The Last Thoughts of Jimmie Rodgers” on the Bluebird label, the others were held back for several years. He was behind the recording microphone for a second time when RCA Victor was back in San Antonio the following March, and he recorded two more solo sides, this time backed on second guitar by his friend Buff Buffington, and another one backing Mrs. Rodgers, all of which were released this time. All Tubb’s Bluebird records sold quite poorly, and it would be several years before he returned to the studio. In 1939, a tonsillectomy instigated a shift from singing to focus greater on writing songs.
Come 1940, Ernest Tubb got a better gig singing on the radio, sponsored by the Gold Chain flour company, but at seventy-five dollars a week, it still wasn’t enough to make ends meet. The same year, he also began a new recording contract with Decca, and he made his first records for them at the Rice Hotel in Houston on April 4, 1940, beginning with “Blue Eyed Elaine”, dedicated to his wife. His records continued to attract limited public attention, and Tubb was contemplating throwing in the towel, but things turned around after a 1941 session in Dallas, when his original composition “Walking the Floor Over You” became an unexpected hit. Its success was such that it precipitated a move to Hollywood, where Tubb made a few film appearances, and earned him membership in the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 1943, an engagement which lasted four decades. Soon, he became known as the “Texas Troubadour”, a name which was later applied to his band as well. He made some patriotic songs of note during the War, such as “Soldier’s Last Letter”, and by the last year of the 1940s, Tubb had charted seven hit records, including an early recording of “Blue Christmas”. Tubb’s music helped to popularize honky-tonk style country music, and earned him a devoted base of fans. His success continued in the decades to come, with hits like 1965’s “Waltz Across Texas”, and he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in the same year. Following a life well spent, Ernest Tubb died on August 14, 1984 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Side A of Decca 5958 was recorded at Bunny Biggs’ Sound Recording Studios, Inc. in Dallas, Texas, on April 26, 1941 and in Los Angeles on October 30, 1940, respectively. On the “A” side, Tubb is accompanied by his own guitar, WBAP staff musician Fay “Smitty” Smith on steel guitar, and an unknown string bass. On “B”, he is accompanied only by his and Dick Ketner’s guitars.
First, Tubb sings the first (and, in my very humble opinion, the best) of many recorded versions of his famous hit song, “Walking the Floor Over You”. Tubb was inspired to write the song while separated from his family as he worked to build a career for himself in the show business, spending many lonely hours on the road. The result was something magical, with a sincerity that few but Tubb could deliver. Real, good, country music.
Walking the Floor Over You, recorded April 26, 1941 by Ernest Tubb.
On the flip-side, Tubb sings a song written by Jimmie Rodgers’ widow, Carrie Williamson Rodgers: “I’m Missing You”.
I’m Missing You, recorded October 30, 1940 by Ernest Tubb.
Bob Dunn, behind Lonnie Glosson, from a group photo published by XEPN, Piedras Negras, Mexico, c.1938.
Continuing in Old Time Blues’ tradition of honoring the heroes of western swing music, this post is dedicated to a figure of immense significance to the genre, the father of electric steel guitar, Bob Dunn.
Robert Lee Dunn was born in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, on February 5, 1908. The son of a fiddler, Bob followed in his father’s musical footsteps, taking up slide guitar and playing Hawaiian music, as was enjoying a surge of popularity at the time, drawing influence from leading players such as Sol Ho’opi’i. Inspired by the music of those like Jack Teagarden, Dunn soon shifted toward jazz, and added an electric pickup to his guitar, playing in an idiosyncratic brassy style peculiar to him. In the late 1920s, he played in groups such as the Panhandle Cowboys and Indians, before winding up in Fort Worth in 1934. There, he joined Milton Brown’s Musical Brownies, with whom he pioneered the use of steel guitar in western swing music. He made his recording debut in the Brownies first Decca session on January 27, 1935, purportedly earning him the distinction of being the first musician to record with an electrified steel guitar. Dunn remained with the Brownies until Brown’s untimely death in 1936, after which he went on to play with Roy Newman’s Boys and Cliff Bruner’s Texas Wanderers before forming a band of his own—the Vagabonds—with whom he made several records for Decca from 1938 to 1940. After the Vagabonds broke up, Dunn played in a variety of different western swing bands, including Bill Boyd’s Cowboy Ramblers, Dickie McBride’s Village Boys, Bill Mounce’s Sons of the South, and the Sons of Dixie. He retired from his performing career in 1950 and opened a music store in Houston. Bob Dunn died on May 27, 1971.
Decca 5828 was recorded on April 11, 1940 in Houston, Texas at Dunn’s Vagabonds’ last session. The Vagabonds are Bob Dunn on steel guitar, possibly Rudy Rivera on clarinet, Sam Jones on electric tenor guitar, an unknown second guitar, Mancel Tierney on piano, and Hezzie Bryant on string bass.
On the first side, Dunn shows off his unique style of playing on his hot instrumental composition “Juke Box Rag”.
Juke Box Rag, recorded April 11, 1940 by Bob Dunn’s Vagabonds.
Next, Dunn himself sings a crooning vocal on another of his own compositions, “I’ll Forget Dear (That I Ever Loved You)”.
I’ll Forget Dear (That I Ever Loved You), recorded April 11, 1940 by Bob Dunn’s Vagabonds.