Victor 21549 & V-40017 – “Buddy” Baker – 1928

There are fair number of artists who might have achieved the success of Jimmie Rodgers, but, for whatever reason, did not.  Some, like Atlanta’s Ernest Rogers, were not musicians by profession, and only recorded a few songs on the side.  Others perhaps lacked something that Rodgers had, be it talent, charisma, ambition, or maybe simply luck.  Regardless of the circumstances, in the wake of the Singing Brakeman’s monumental success were a drove of excellent-yet-underappreciated artists who left behind recorded legacies ranging from one song to dozens.  One such artist is “Buddy” Baker, a vaudevillian performer who made only two records for Victor in 1928, about whom there have previously existed nary any publicized biographical details, and about the same number of decent sounding recordings of his work.

Baker pictured in the 1930 Victor “Old Familiar Tunes” catalog.

Research reveals that “Buddy” was in fact Ernest H. Baker, and was born on May 17, 1902, in Escambia County, Alabama, the son of John and Rebecca Baker.  In his teenage years he worked in a mill, but he pursued a career in music when he came of age.  He traveled to Chicago in June of 1928 to record for the Victor Talking Machine Company, and cut six sides on the twenty-first and two more the following day.  Of those eight, only four were released: “Penitentiary Blues” and “Box Car Blues” on Victor 21549, and “Matrimonial Intentions” and “Alimony Blues” on Victor V-40017.  Of the four unissued sides were “I Want My Mammy”, “Nobody Knows What’s On My Mind Blues”, and “Razor Jim”.  Baker returned to the Victor studio one year later in Camden, New Jersey to wax four more, including “It’s Tough on Everybody” and “The Rambling Cowboy”, but this time, none were released.  His four surviving recordings depict an artist with a clever sense of diction and a penchant for simplistic scat singing, and a unique approach to a guitar method typical of his time.  At the time of his recording career, he was living with his family in Mobile, Alabama, and began performing on radio station WODX around the time of its inauguration in 1930.  Later, he seems to have taken up in Ohio, where he found work as a welder for Babcock and Wilcox.  Probably in 1932, he married a woman named Jessie.  Baker died from peritonitis, resulting from a perforated ulcer, in Barberton, Ohio, on May 24, 1937, and his body was shipped back home to Alabama to be buried in his family’s plot in Mobile’s Magnolia Cemetery.  Like Jimmie Rodgers, Buddy Baker was gone from the world at only thirty-five.

Victor 21549 and V-40017 were recorded on June 21, 1928 at 952 North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Illinois.  On both, Ernest “Buddy” Baker sings and accompanies himself on guitar.  21549 purportedly sold a total of about 9,400 copies, while sales figures for V-40017 are not available.

Baker’s “Penitentiary Blues” is one of many renditions of the old folk ballad “Little Sadie”—also known as “Bad Lee Brown”—which was later adapted into the western swing repertoire as “Cocaine Blues” (not to be confused with the unrelated Luke Jordan and Dick Justice song of the 1920s).  Preceding Clarence Ashley’s “Little Sadie” (which used a different melody) by more than a year, this version is likely the earliest recording of the classic folk song, though the song itself existed for at least several decades prior to first being recorded.  Other early (pre-“Cocaine”) recordings of the song include “Seven Foot Dilly” John Dilleshaw’s unissued “Bad Lee Brown” for Okeh in 1929 and Riley Puckett’s “Chain Gang Blues” for Bluebird in 1934.  Woody Guthrie must have had a copy of Baker’s record, because he recorded a nearly identical version under the title “Bad Lee Brown” in 1944.  As “Cocaine Blues”, it was introduced in 1947 by T.J. “Red” Arnall as a member of W.A. Nichol’s Western Aces on the S & G label.  It inspired contemporary covers by Roy Hogsed on both Coast and Capitol and Billy Hughes on King, and was famously revived by Johnny Cash in his 1968 Folsom Prison concert.

Penitentiary Blues, recorded June 21, 1928 by “Buddy” Baker.

On the reverse, Baker sings a real blues number, “Box Car Blues”, with some clever songwriting and a little Emmett Miller style yodeling added in for flavor.

Box Car Blues, recorded June 21, 1928 by “Buddy” Baker.

On the first side of his second (and final) record, Baker sings “Matrimonial Intentions”, showcasing more of his guitar playing.  This song was covered by Jack White in the 2017 American Epic Sessions, which saw modern artists recording covers of 1920s and ’30s songs on 78 RPM with acoustic instrumentation.  White put together a fine performance of it, and he’ll always have my respect for digging up such an obscure old title.

Matrimonial Intentions, recorded June 21, 1928 by Buddy Baker.

Finally, Baker concludes his brief career on records with “Alimony Blues”, bemoaning divorce with some fairly inventive guitar work.

Alimony Blues, recorded June 21, 1928 by Buddy Baker.

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.

An Edison Needle Type Electric Dance Band Double Feature – 14003 & 14041 – 1929

B.A. Rolfe, as pictured in a 1932 publication.

Thomas A. Edison’s “Needle Type Electric” records—sometimes called “thin” Edisons for reasons self explanatory—were his last hurrah in the record business, before bidding the industry farewell forever.  Unlike his vertically cut, quarter-of-an-inch thick Diamond Discs, they were plain, ordinary shellac 78s, which could be played on any Victrola or like talking machine.  The completely redesigned labels—with an array of lightning bolts striking from the top, framing the name “Edison”, emblazoned in bold, block lettering—represent the pinnacle of late-1920s commercial art.  Thus, like any of the countless extremely short-lived record lines (e.g. Black Patti, Timely Tunes, Sunrise, etc.—all of which, incidentally, also had beautifully designed labels), they are quite uncommon today.

First up, the famed B. A. Rolfe and his Lucky Strike Dance Orchestra plays “Dance of the Paper Dolls” and “Fioretta”, both sides featuring vocals provided by an uncredited Jack Parker.  Born on October 24, 1879, Benjamin Albert Rolfe, known in earlier life as the “Boy Trumpet Wonder” was a trumpet prodigy who went on to become a popular radio bandleader and Edison recording artist.  During the 1910s and ’20s, Rolfe spent a stretch as a Hollywood movie producer, following which he established his distinguished career as a bandleader.  Notably. he directed his “Palais D’or Orchestra”—named for his own Broadway cabaret—from 1926 until 1928, at which point it became the “Lucky Strike Dance Orchestra” for the remainder of his time with Edison.  Rolfe remained a radio mainstay into the 1930s, appearing in a pair of Vitaphone short films, and leading the B.F. Goodrich Silvertown Orchestra in 1935 and ’36.  B.A. Rolfe died of cancer on April 23, 1956.

Edison 14003 was recorded on March 19, 1929 in New York City.  Both tunes also appeared on separate Diamond Discs, as the “R” side of their respective discs.  This Needle Type record provides a somewhat uncommon opportunity to hear Rolfe’s orchestra on a standard laterally cut phonograph record. First up is “Dance of the Paper Dolls”, which also appeared on Diamond Disc 52548, backed with “Hello Sweetie”.

Dance of the Paper Dolls, recorded on March 19, 1929 by B. A. Rolfe and his Lucky Strike Dance Orchestra.

On the “R” side, Rolfe’s orchestra plays “Fioretta”, from the 1929 Broadway musical of the same name.  This disc, unfortunately, is a little moisture damaged, causing some noticeable “swishing.”  This one was also issued on Diamond Disc 52531, backed with “If I Had You”.

Fioretta, recorded on March 19, 1929 by B. A. Rolfe and his Lucky Strike Dance Orchestra.

Next up is another Edison dance band on Edison 14041, recorded on July 18, 1929, also in New York City.  The Hotel Commodore Dance Orchestra (under the direction of violinist Bernhard Lewitow) first plays “Where the Sweet Forget-Me-Nots Remember” I’m not sure who the vocalist is on this one, so if anyone could tip me off, I’d be much obliged.

Where the Sweet Forget-Me-Nots Remember, recorded July 18, 1929 by Hotel Commodore Dance Orchestra Under the Direction of Bernhard Levitow.

On the reverse, they play “Smiling Irish Eyes”, from the 1929 Warner Bros. Vitaphone talkie of the same name, starring Colleen Moore, now a lost film.  This tune also appeared on Diamond Disc number 52637.  These two are in better shape than the previous, and if you ask me, the music is too; those last two are just too darned dainty.

Smiling Irish Eyes, recorded July 18, 1929 by Hotel Commodore Dance Orchestra Under the Direction of Bernhard Levitow.

Updated on April 28, 2018.

Bluebird B-5433 & B-5562 – Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers – 1934

Few old time “hillbilly” string bands of the 1920s and ’30s left behind such illustrious and distinguished legacies (and darned good music, too) as Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.  From their first recordings in 1926, Tanner’s Skillet Lickers established themselves as one of the most commercially successful “hillbilly” bands of the decade.  But as the twenties ceased to roar giving way to depression, the record industry quickly faltered, and so did the recording oriented Skillet Lickers.  The band had their last session for Columbia Records—with whom they had recorded exclusively since their first session—in October of 1931, and broke up thereafter.  Fiddle player Clayton McMichen went on to form his Georgia Wildcats and found success on radio and records through the remainder of the decade.  Come 1934 however, Gid put together a reunion of sorts.  Together with his son Gordon Tanner, old pal Riley Puckett, and mandolin player Ted Hawkins, they traveled to San Antonio, Texas, where the RCA Victor Company was holding a series of recording sessions at the Texas Hotel.  There, they recorded in two sessions on March 29th and 30th a series of twenty four sides, mostly energetic and jubilant dance tunes in stark contrast with the hard times the nation was then facing at the depth of the Great Depression, concluding with two of their classic “skit” records: “Prosperity and Politics” and “Practice Night With the Skillet Lickers”.

Bluebird B-5433 and B-5562 were both recorded on March 29, 1934 at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, Texas—the same time and place Riley Puckett recorded his famed solo performance of “Ragged but Right” and others.  The former was released on April 18th of that year, and the latter on July 18th.  B-5433 was also issued concurrently on Montgomery Ward M-4845, and B-5562 was reissued widely throughout the following decades on RCA Victor 20-2167 and 420-0569, making it all the way into the 45 RPM era on 447-0569.  The Skillet Lickers are Gid Tanner and his son Gordon Tanner on fiddles, Ted Hawkins on mandolin, and Riley Puckett on guitar.

On B-5433, the Skillet Lickers play two old time fiddle standards, both tunes which they recorded previously in 1930 and ’29, respectively.  First it’s “Georgia Waggoner”, the first side they recorded at the reunion session.

Georgia Waggoner, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

Next, keeping in the same theme, they follow with one of my personal favorites, a high energy rendition of “Mississippi Sawyer”, punctuated by Hawkins’ mandolin.  The band members can be heard talking over the music, lending to an informal atmosphere.

Mississippi Sawyer, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

On B-5562, the Skillet Lickers first play that old 1921 L. Wolfe Gilbert standby, “Down Yonder” (which we last heard played by an unidentified pianist).  This might just be my favorite Skillet Lickers side; I like their 1934 sound with the added mandolin, even though the old mainstays like Clayton McMichen and Fate Norris are absent.

Down Yonder, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

Then, they play another utterly bright and feel-good tune, the traditional fiddle piece “Back Up and Push”.  Though not credited as such in Russell’s Country Music Records, I’m quite certain Riley Puckett’s voice can be heard on this side, hollering some of the calls (“now ladies in the center and gents catch air, hold ‘er Newt, don’t let ‘er rare”).

Back Up and Push, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

Updated on April 28, 2018.

A Gene Autry Christmas Double Feature – Columbia 20377 & 38610 – 1947/1949

Old Time Blues wishes everyone a very merry Christmas! 1911 Postcard.

That special time of the year has come around once again.  Last year we celebrated with Harry Reser’s band, and what better way to celebrate this holiday season than with these four Christmas classics sung by our old pal Gene Autry.

Columbia 20377, in the hillbilly series, was recorded on August 28, 1947 and released on October 6 of the same year.  First up, Gene Autry sings his own Christmas classic, “Here Comes Santa Claus (Down Santa Claus Lane)”.

Here Comes Santa Clause (Down Santa Claus Lane), recorded August 28, 1947 by Gene Autry.

On the reverse, he sings the charming “An Old-Fashioned Tree”.

An Old-Fashioned Tree, recorded August 28, 1947 by Gene Autry.

The first side of Columbia 38610 was recorded on June 27, 1949, the second sometime in July of the same year.  Autry is accompanied by the Pinafores on both sides.  First, Gene sings Johnny Marks’ classic song about the beloved character created for Montgomery Ward in 1939, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”.

Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer, recorded June 27 and July, 1949 by Gene Autry and the Pinafores.

Next, on “If It Doesn’t Snow On Christmas” Autry ponders how Santa Claus will make out in his sleigh it there’s no snow.  Ol’ Gene seems to have forgotten that the sleigh is flight capable.

If It Doesn’t Snow On Christmas, recorded June 27 and July, 1949 by Gene Autry and the Pinafores.