Decca 7340 – Black Ace (B. K. Turner) – 1937

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).

Decca 5958 – Ernest Tubb – 1941/1940

Ernest Tubb with Jimmie Rodgers’s Martin guitar. Circa late 1930s/early 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.

Decca 5958 was recorded in Dallas, Texas on April 25, 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 of recorded versions of his famous hit song, “Walking the Floor Over You”.  Real, good, country music.

Walking the Floor Over You, recorded April 25, 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.

Decca 5828 – Bob Dunn’s Vagabonds – 1940

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.

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.