Decca 5201 – Milton Brown and his Brownies – 1936

Seems it’s seldom these days that I post any music just for music’s sake, just to celebrate the greatness of a song, rather than to commemorate some occasion or happening.  I’ve already quite thoroughly expounded upon the life and time of Milton Brown—the Father of Western Swing—so I feel I needn’t go into much more detail about that here, you may go read it on that page if you so desire.  But there’s still plenty more to say about the many records Brown made in his short two year recording career, and goodness knows there’s so much more to hear.  So herein is one of my own favorites of those many, I hope you’ll enjoy it as well, and I also hope to be able to offer some anecdotes and shed some light that may perhaps not have been shed otherwise.

Though his recording career only spanned from 1934 to 1936 (excluding the Fort Worth Doughboys session in ’32), in four sessions, two for Bluebird and two for Decca, spread over a week’s worth of days, Milton Brown managed to cut a total of one-hundred-and-three sides.  Decca 5201 comes from the first and second days of Brown’s last session, his second for Decca.   It was recorded at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, Louisiana on March 3rd and 4th, 1936.  The Musical Brownies at this point in time included Milton Brown singing and leading Cecil Brower and Cliff Bruner—the latter a new addition to the band for this session—on fiddles, Derwood Brown on guitar, Ocie Stockard on banjo, Bob Dunn on steel guitar, Wanna Coffman on string bass, “Papa” Fred Calhoun on piano.

Firstly, the Musical Brownies get hotter than anything on “Somebody’s Been Using that Thing”, one of several tunes Milton lifted from the Hokum Boys’ repertoire, some others being “Easy Ridin’ Papa” and “Nancy Jane”—though it was written and originally recorded by mandolinist Al Miller in 1929.  To set the record straight (pun intended), one “Greaseman” has evidently propagated preposterous misinformation that the lyric in this song is “Georgia boy, somebody’s been using that thing,” while it is in fact “sure as you’re born, somebody’s been using that thing,” albeit slurred to sound like “sho’s yo’ bo’n.”  This one is a serious contender against “Garbage Man Blues” to win the title of my personal favorite Milton Brown song.

Somebody’s Been Using That Thing, recorded March 3, 1936 by Milton Brown and his Brownies.

On the “B” side, Milton sings a respectable pop vocal on Sammy Fain, Irving Kahal, and Pierre Norman’s jazz standard “When I Take My Sugar to Tea”.  Listening to this tune, one wonders if Brown was familiar with the work of the Boswell Sisters.

When I Take My Sugar to Tea, recorded March 4, 1936 by Milton Brown and his Brownies.

Decca 7126 – Bumble Bee Slim – 1935

Some people cast aspersions on the quality of Bumble Bee Slim’s body of work, declaring it to be inferior, or “unbluesworthy”.  I can’t speak for his entire body of work, because I’ve only listened to a fraction of it, but I think both these sides—particularly the latter—are quite excellent blues sides of the more urbane variety epitomized by Leroy Carr, which proved to be the most commercially profitable style in the Great Depression days than the country blues most coveted by collectors today (and I can’t claim to not be a part of that bunch).

Amos Easton was born in Brunswick, Georgia on May 7, 1905.  He learned to play the guitar, and ran off to join the circus at the age of fifteen.  Winding up in the Midwest in the early days of the Great Depression, Easton made his debut recordings under the name “Bumble Bee Slim” in Grafton, Wisconsin for the faltering Paramount Records in October of 1931, resulting in six sides backed backed by slide guitar, including an adaptation of Memphis Minnie’s “Bumble Bee”—from which he presumably derived his stage name—as “Honey Bee Blues”.  Drawing a great deal of inspiration from popular blues duo Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, Easton recorded again half a year later, this time for Vocalion, producing the popular “B and O Blues” as well as another rendition of Minnie’s “Bumble Bee”, this time under the title “Queen Bee Blues”.  From then on, Bumble Bee Slim recorded in earnest with Vocalion from 1932 to ’37, Decca and its subsidiary Champion from 1934 to 1936, and Bluebird in 1935 and ’36 (as “Amos”).  Though able to play guitar himself, Easton did not play on many of his records, and was instead accompanied by a variety of guitarist and pianists, including at various times Big Bill Broonzy and Peetie Wheatstraw.  After concluding his business with Vocalion, Easton went home to Georgia.  A few years later, he relocated to California, a place in which he had expressed great interest in a number of his songs, and in the middle of the 1940s, Slim began recording again on burgeoning West Coast blues and jazz labels.  In the 1950s and early 1960s, he recorded several albums, but could not achieve the success he had known in the 1930s.  Amos Easton died in Los Angeles, California on June 8, 1968.

Decca 7126 was recorded on July 7 and 8, 1935 in Chicago, Illinois.  Bumble Bee Slim’s outstanding accompaniment appears to consist of Dot Rice on piano and Scrapper Blackwell (recording for Decca as “Frankie Black”) on guitar.

On the “A” side, Bumble Bee Slim demonstrates an apparent lack of geographical knowledge with the opening verse “the Smoky Mountains is way out in the west.”  He delivers “Smoky Mountain Blues” in a style very reminiscent of his inspiration and contemporary Leroy Carr.

Smoky Mountain Blues, recorded July 7, 1935 by Bumble Bee Slim.

On the “B” side Easton sings one of his most popular numbers, his first re-worked version of Buddy Moss’s “Oh Lordy Mama” as “Hey Lawdy Mama”.  The song was later adapted as swing by Count Basie in 1938, and subsequently covered by Louis Armstrong, Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy, and others.  Easton later recorded the song at least twice more with the titles “Meet Me in the Bottom”, accompanied by Peetie Wheatstraw, and “Meet Me at the Landing”, both in 1936.  The guy just couldn’t stop singing it.  I prefer this version myself.  It is worth distinguishing this song from the earlier “Hey Lawdy Mama—The France Blues” recorded by Long “Cleve” Reed and Little Harvey Hull (The Down Home Boys) for Black Patti in 1927; the two songs share very little in common.

Hey Lawdy Mama, recorded July 8, 1935 by Bumble Bee Slim.

Decca 7815 – Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law) – 1940

Though he wasn’t the most talented instrumentalist, nor the most able vocalist, the popular blues musician Peetie Wheatstraw—the Devil’s Son-in-Law, the High Sheriff from Hell—achieved great success in his time, and made a considerable impact on fellow musicians for years to come.

Contrary to the events presented in the 1977 film Petey Wheatstraw, Peetie Wheatstraw was not born as a walking, talking child.  Rather, he was born as William Bunch on December 21, 1902, likely in Ripley, Tennessee or Cotton Plant, Arkansas.  He learned to play the piano and guitar and in 1929 took up residence in East St. Louis, assuming the moniker “Peetie Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-in-Law”.  Some have suggested the “Peetie Wheatstraw” name traces its roots back to early Afro-American folklore, yet others suggest that Bunch himself was the originator.  Brought to the studio by bluesman and talent scout Charley Jordan, Wheatstraw made his first record for Vocalion in 1930—”Tennessee Peaches Blues”, assisted by an unidentified fellow by the name of “Neckbones” (possibly J.D. “Jelly Jaw” Short)—and he continued to record for them until 1936, with a handful of recordings made for Victor in 1931 on the side.  While still featured on Vocalion, Wheatstraw began recording for Decca in 1934, soon switching to that label exclusively.  Peetie Wheatstraw died in a car accident on his thirty-ninth birthday—he was sitting in the back seat of a Buick driven by a friend, when it struck a standing freight train, killing all passengers—less than one full month after recorded the prophetic seeming “Bring Me Flowers While I’m Living”.

With an idiosyncratic and formulaic style of singing and playing piano, Peetie Wheatstraw maintained a position as one of the top-selling and most prolific blues artists throughout the decade of the 1930s, alongside Blind Boy Fuller, Big Bill, and Bumble Bee Slim.  Influences of Wheatstraw’s signature piano style, mumbled vocals, and “hoo-well-well” holler could be heard in the music of many less successful blues artists across the land, such as Alabama’s Peanut, the Kidnapper (whose stage name is one of the few to rival “Peetie Wheatstraw”).  A testament to his success, fellow blues musician Robert Nighthawk was billed by Decca for a time as “Peetie’s Boy”.  Even noted Texas bluesman Andrew “Smokey” Hogg started out veritably copying Wheatstraw’s vocals and guitar playing, and was known as “Little Peetie Wheatstraw”.

Decca 7815 was recorded on April 4, 1940 and August 28, 1940 in New York City.  Peetie Wheatstraw is accompanied by Jonah Jones on trumpet, possibly Lil Armstrong on piano, and Sid Catlett on drums.

First up, Peetie Wheatstraw sings one of his more famous recordings, the swing infused “Gangster’s Blues”.  The noted accompanists account for the reason why these two songs don’t sound just like most every other song Wheatstraw recorded.

Gangster’s Blues, recorded April 4, 1940 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).

Next, Wheatstraw sings “Look Out for Yourself”, one of countless blues songs echoing the melody of “Sitting On Top of the World”.

Look Out for Yourself, recorded August 28, 1940 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).

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.

Decca 1600 – Connie Boswell with Bob Crosby’s Bob Cats – 1937

Connie Boswell with ceramic cats, late 1930s.

Connie Boswell with ceramic cats, late 1930s.

The time has come once again to remember Miss Connie Boswell of the famous Boswell Sisters on the anniversary of her birth.  Last time, we celebrated the occasion with her “Washboard Blues”.  Since I’ve already covered Connie’s life, let’s instead take a look at a very important record in her career.

In 1936, the Boswell Sisters had taken their last curtain call.  Connie was the only one still singing professionally, and the Andrews Sisters came to fill the role once occupied by the Bozzies.   Though already a popular recording artist, the following year, Connie came up with something that was to make hers one of the biggest names in popular music through the 1940s.  Inspired by her childhood love for Caruso, as well as that for her sister Martha, Connie wanted to swing Friedrich von Flotow’s “M’appari tutt’amor” from the opera Martha.  At first, Decca was hesitant to release the swinging tune, worried that desecrating the operatic piece as jazz would spark outrage, but she convinced them, assuring the company that she would assume full responsibility if things turned sour.  On the contrary, “Martha” was Connie’s biggest hit since the breakup of the Boswell Sisters, and made her one of the biggest things of 1938, earning her a newspaper interview with famed reporter Ernie Pyle.  The attention Connie received even caused bandleader Larry Clinton to send an irritated letter accusing her of ripping off the idea from him.  After “Martha”, Connie held her position, making a series of hits, including a number of duets with Bing Crosby, until a 1947 hiatus took her out of the Hit Parade until her return to recording in 1951, at which point she revived “Martha” in “soundie” format for Snader Telescriptions.

Decca 1600 was recorded on November 13, 1937 in Los Angeles, California.  Bob Crosby’s Bob Cats are made up of Yank Lawson on trumpet, Warren Smith on trombone, Matty Matlock on clarinet, Eddie Miller on tenor sax, Bob Zurke on piano, Nappy Lamare on guitar, Bob Haggart on string bass, and Ray Bauduc on drums.

Below, taking up more space on this page than I’d like, you can see Connie Boswell’s own lyric sheet, most likely a rough draft, for “Martha”, presumably typed by Connie herself.  It is typed on a letterhead bearing the name of Harry Leedy, Connie’s husband and manager, as can be seen through the paper near the bottom.  Evidently, she made a mistake and flipped the sheet over to type on the other side.

Lyrics for "Martha" hand typed, presumably, by Connie herself, on Harry Leedy letterhead.

Lyrics for “Martha” hand typed, presumably, by Connie herself.

Now, the much anticipated, and unfortunately under-appreciated today, “Martha (Ah So Pure [M’appari tutt’amor])” really swings, thanks in no small part to the top-of-the-line accompaniment by Bob Crosby’s Bob Cats.  As you can see, Decca took special care to label it “Swing Vocal” rather than simply “Vocal”

Martha

Martha, recorded November 13, 1937 by Connie Boswell with Bob Cats.

On the reverse, Connie swings another tune, this time the old cowboy song “Home On the Range”.  “I like the nightclub with its swinging saxes, but when it comes to payin’ taxes, I’ll take my home on the range.”

Home On the Range

Home On the Range, recorded November 13, 1937 by Connie Boswell with Bob Crosby’s Bob Cats.