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.
Jimmie Rodgers gussied up in a tuxedo, with his signature “Blue Yodel” Martin guitar, circa 1930.
After ascending to stardom with hits like “Sleep Baby Sleep” and “Blue Yodel”, Jimmie Rodgers began relentlessly touring across the United States, often to his own physical detriment. In the summer of 1930, Rodgers was in Hollywood. While there he had a total of ten recording sessions between the thirtieth of June and the sixteenth of July. During that time, he recorded a total of fourteen sides, including such classics as “Moonlight and Skies”, “Pistol Packin’ Papa”, and “Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues)”, and was backed by a variety of talent including Lani McIntire’s Hawaiians and Bob Sawyer’s Jazz Band. On his final Hollywood session, Rodgers recorded only a single title, another installment in his “Blue Yodel” series titled “Standin’ On the Corner”. For accompaniment, he was joined by a young trumpeter who had just arrived in California for an engagement at Frank Sebastian’s New Cotton Club in Culver City, an up-and-coming talent named Louis Armstrong, and his wife Lil on piano. How exactly this rather unlikely collaboration came to be is lost to time; Armstrong in later years recounted that he’d “been knowin’ Jimmie for a long time,” and “Jimmie said, ‘man, I feel like singin’ some blues,’ [and Louis] said ‘okay daddy, you sing some blues, and I’m gonna blow behind you,’ and that’s the way the record started!” It certainly wasn’t the first time Rodgers had been backed by jazz players. Likely, the session was engineered by Ralph Peer, who was acquainted with Armstrong as well as Rodgers. In any event, the resulting music etched into hot wax that day became the stuff of legend, three great American styles of music—jazz, blues, and “hillbilly”—all crossed paths to make something even greater, brought together by two of the greatest figures in all of America’s rich musical legacy: Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong.
Victor 23580 was recorded in two separate sessions, the first on July 16, 1930 in Hollywood, California, and the second on June 15, 1931 in Louisville, Kentucky. Victor files report a total of 25,071 copies sold—not bad for 1931. The 78 Quarterly included the disc in their “Rarest 78s” section of the tenth issue, suggesting “less than fifteen?” Frankly, I suspect that there are quite a few more copies out there than that, but it is regardless one of Rodgers’ more sought after records due to the accompaniment. On the “A” side, Rodgers is accompanied by Louis and Lil Armstrong on trumpet and piano, respectively. On “B” he is accompanied by Cliff Carlisle on steel guitar, Wilber Ball on guitar, and his own ukulele.
On the “A” side, Jimmie sings and yodels that rough-and-tumble blues number, the ninth entry in his famous series, “Blue Yodel Number 9 (Standin’ On the Corner)”. The song bears considerable resemblance to another blues song on which Louis played four years prior: “The Bridwell Blues” by Nolan Walsh, which featured a similar piano and trumpet accompaniment and the opening lines, “I was standing on the corner, did not mean no harm… and a police came, nabbed me by my arm,” raising questions over whether Rodgers was familiar with Armstrong’s work, or, conversely, that Armstrong had an uncredited hand in composing the song. “The Bridwell Blues” itself was preceded by “Standing On the Corner Blues” by Ozie McPherson, further cementing Jimmie Rodgers’ foundation in the blues, and the “standin’ on the corner” lyric dates back at least to the 1895 Ben Harney and John Biller composition “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon but You’ve Done Broke Down”, likely earlier.
Blue Yodel Number 9, recorded July 16, 1930 by Jimmie Rodgers.
On the reverse, Jimmie sings another dilly: “Looking for a New Mama”. This is one of only two recorded sides that have Jimmie playing ukulele (the other being “Dear Old Sunny South By the Sea” from 1928). Ralph Peer in later years opined that Rodgers’ peculiar chording techniques on the guitar were carried over from his skill on the ukulele. Jimmie also claimed proficiency on banjo and steel guitar, though he was never recorded playing either.
Looking for a New Mama, recorded June 15, 1931 by Jimmie Rodgers.
Perhaps the most popular “race” artist of his time, smooth city-slicker Leroy Carr played the blues in a more sophisticated style than his more country counterparts. Beginning with his “How Long – How Long Blues”, Carr’s music steered the blues away from its rural roots toward a new and more urbane direction, followed by countless budding artists in his wake.
Leroy Carr was born on March 27, 1905 in Nashville, Tennessee, but not long after wound up in Indianapolis to stay. Carr taught himself to play piano and left to join a traveling circus—then the Army—in his young adulthood, but by 1922, he came back to Indianapolis and settled down with a wife and child. There, he teamed up with guitarist Francis “Scrapper” Blackwell and gained a reputation for playing the blues at rent parties and nightclubs. Carr also became a part time bootlegger and a full time alcoholic. In the summer of 1928, the Vocalion record company traveled to Indianapolis in search of new marketable talent, presenting Carr with the opportunity to make his first record. Scrapper Blackwell did so first, recording “Kokomo Blues” and “Penal Farm Blues” on June 16, and Carr joined him in the studio three days later to cut “How Long – How Long Blues” and “My Own Lonesome Blues”. That record turned out to be a smash success, covered even by down home country blues hit maker Blind Lemon Jefferson, and soon Carr was in high demand. He traveled with Blackwell to Chicago two months later to make more records for his return to the Vocalion studio, with whom he continued to record through 1934. As one of the best-selling “race” artists, he recorded prolifically, and had another big hit with “Blues Before Sunrise” in 1934, and he also toured successfully with Blackwell. At the beginning of 1935, Carr switched to Bluebird Records, starting out with the successful “When the Sun Goes Down”, which fast became a blues standard. Unfortunately, Carr’s alcoholism took its toll on his health, and his habitual drunkenness caused a rift between him and Blackwell, who parted with him acrimoniously in the middle of his first Bluebird session. That session also turned out to be his last, for Carr soon after fell ill with nephritis and died on April 29, 1935, a little more than a month after his thirtieth birthday. His legacy was carried on by artists like Bumble Bee Slim and Peetie Wheatstraw, who modeled their careers after his influential piano and guitar style, and in later years by Nat King Cole and Ray Charles, who drew inspiration from his smooth and laid back blues.
Vocalion 1191 was recorded on June 19, 1928 in Indianapolis, Indiana by Leroy Carr, singing and piano, backed by Scrapper Blackwell on guitar. It was Carr and Blackwell’s first record, together or separately. This copy was pressed in 1935 or ’36, as indicated by the black and gold “scroll” style label. It was also reissued on Banner 32557, Oriole 8166, and Romeo 5166. That it was still for sale nearly a decade after it was originally made—combined with its well-worn condition—present a testament to just how popular this record was.
First, Leroy Carr sings his big hit, the immortal “How Long – How Long Blues”, later covered many times over by countless artists, even breaking out of the blues genre and into jazz, and others. Though known as a Carr original, the song has its roots in earlier songs, such as Ida Cox and Papa Charlie Jackson’s “How Long, Daddy, How Long?”, and shares a common melody with “Sitting On Top of the World” and its many offshoots. It’s success was so that Carr followed up with “How Long How Long Blues-Part 2” and “Part 3”, “The New How Long How Long Blues” and “Part 2”, and “How Long Has That Evening Train Been Gone “.
How Long – How Long Blues, recorded June 19, 1928 by Leroy Carr.
On the reverse, Carr sings “My Own Lonesome Blues”. As you can probably tell, Sadie must’ve enjoyed it quite a bit—at least until she decided to sell it for ten cents!
My Own Lonesome Blues, recorded June 19, 1928 by Leroy Carr.
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, 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), recorded November 1930 by the Harris Brothers Texans.
Few songs in the vast and diverse country blues tradition have had such an enduring impact, and few melodies known such ubiquity, as the Mississippi Sheiks’ legendary 1930 recording of “Sitting On Top of the World”. Yet in spite of its great import, the song’s origins are quite obscure. Thus, I endeavor herein to unravel the tangled roots of one of America’s greatest blues songs. I do ask that if you readers have any greater insight into the song’s history than I have to offer, please let me in on it by commenting on this post.
The Mississippi Sheiks—Bo Carter, Lonnie Chatmon, and Walter Vinson—pictured in the 1937 Bluebird catalog.
The Mississippi Sheiks were a versatile country string band with a repertoire consisting of everything from deep plantation blues melodies to the latest Tin Pan Alley pop hits. Though its personnel varied from session to session, core members were Lonnie Chatmon on fiddle and Walter Vinson on guitar. Sometimes, they were joined by other Chatmon brothers Sam and Armenter—better known as Bo Carter—or mandolin player Papa Charlie McCoy, brother of Kansas Joe McCoy. The Chatmon family of Bolton, Mississippi had a venerable musical history in the region. Patriarch Henderson Chatmon, born into slavery around 1850, was a fiddle player, and he passed his legacy of music on to his sons Lonnie, Bo, Sam, Harry, and reputedly Charley Patton by a different mother. Lonnie Chatmon was born either in June of 1888 or on November 8, 1890. He provided the heart of the Sheiks as their main fiddle player, remaining ever-present through all the Sheiks sessions and varying membership. Guitar picker Walter Vinson, sometimes called Vincent or Vincson, and credited pseudonymously as Walter Jacobs, was born on February 2, 1901, also in Bolton. Prior to becoming a Mississippi Sheik, he played alongside such noted talents as Charlie Spand, Rube Lacey, and the aforementioned Papa Charlie McCoy. He made his first records with Bo Carter for Brunswick in 1928, also Carter’s first.
Following in the footsteps of similar Bo Carter and Walter Vinson groups of 1928 and ’29, the Mississippi Sheiks had their first recording session in Shreveport, Louisiana in February of 1930 for Okeh, and continued to record exclusively for them through 1931, with several of their records released in the 45000 “hillbilly” series rather than the 8000 “race” series, and their two final discs appearing on the parent label Columbia. While at Okeh, the Sheiks accompanied “Texas” Alexander in a single San Antonio session. Meanwhile, offshoot groups such as the Mississippi Mud Steppers and Mississippi Blacksnakes, both featuring Charlie McCoy, cut several records for Okeh and Brunswick. Thereafter, they traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin to make a series of records for the faltering Paramount label in July of ’32 before returning to Okeh in ’33 for a single session while the record industry was in dire straits. The following year, they signed with RCA Victor’s new up-and-comer Bluebird, with whom they remained until their final session in 1935. Lonnie cut several more records for Bluebird late in 1936 with brother Sam Chatmon, who had participated in a handful of earlier Sheiks sessions, before calling it quits.
After the days of the Mississippi Sheiks had drawn to a close in the middle of the 1930s, the Chatmons, excepting Bo, quit music and returned to a life as farmers. Lonnie Chatmon died around 1942 of ’43. Walter Vinson and Bo Carter continued to enjoy solo recording careers into the 1940s. Bo Carter made some (as yet unreleased) final recordings for Paul Oliver in 1960 with Will Shade and Dewey Corley of the Memphis Jug Band, and died four years later at the age of seventy-one. Walter Vinson too returned to music in 1960, making a rather more successful comeback than Carter, before retiring for the last time in 1972, owing to atherosclerosis, three years before his death. Sam Chatmon spent many years working on plantations in Mississippi before the folk revival of the 1960s brought him back to the spotlight with great success, dying at the age of 86 in 1983.
Okeh 8784 was recorded at the Mississippi Sheiks’ first session on February 17, 1930 in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Sheiks are Walter Vinson (a.k.a. Walter Jacobs) on guitar and vocal, Lonnie Chatmon on fiddle, and on the second side, Bo Carter on second guitar. It is the Sheiks’ second issued record.
Without a doubt the Sheiks’ greatest success—then as now—is “Sitting on Top of the World”. The Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon accredited composition has subsequently been covered by dozens, if not hundreds of artists, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008. After proving to be one of the biggest “race” hits of 1930, the Sheiks followed up with “Sitting on Top of the World No. 2” (Okeh 8854) in 1931 and “The New Sittin’ on Top of the World” (Paramount 13134) in ’32. Bearing no resemblance to the 1926 popular song “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” besides its title, the unmistakable melody of “Sitting on Top of the World”, or a very similar one, was used by quite a number of recordings prior to the Sheiks’ 1930 waxing.
Where exactly and from whom the melody originated is considerably more difficult to pin down than simply citing some of the many songs to use it. Walter Vinson claimed to have written the song after playing for a white dance. Ida Cox recorded “How Long, Daddy, How Long” in 1925 with a like melody, accompanied by Papa Charlie Jackson, the composer credited as “W.H. Jackson”. Leroy Carr made that song famous three years later with his influential “How Long – How Long Blues”, and reused the melody in his “You Got to Reap What You Sow” only two months later. Some have suggested that the Sheiks were introduced to the melody by way of Tampa Red and a song he recorded several times called “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way”, however I am dubious of that prospect; the earliest recording of “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way” was cut on January 17, 1931 by one “Sam Hill” from Louisville—apparently a pseudonym for Walter Vinson—for Brunswick records, at the same session as the Sheiks’ offshoot the Mississippi Blacksnakes. Tampa Red made his first recording of the song the following month, with the composer credited as “Sam Hill”. The Sheiks themselves recorded the song later in that year. However, prior to every recording of “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way”, the Atlanta-based fiddler Eddie Anthony recorded the very similar “Everything’s Coming My Way” in December of 1930, with the same melody, borrowing some lyrics from “Sitting on Top of the World”. To complicate matters further, the 1941 Sam Price and his Texas Bluesiscians recording of “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way” perplexingly credits Bert Johnson and Spencer Williams as composers.
Contemporaneous to the Sheik’s “Stitting On Top of the World”, a version was cut by Charley Patton, an associate of the Sheiks, only a few months after theirs under the title “Some Summer Day”. Big Bill Broonzy used the popular melody in his two-parter “Worrying You Off My Mind” in 1932, and Robert Johnson too echoed it in his 1936 “Come On in My Kitchen”. Milton Brown introduced the tune into the western swing repertoire with his 1934 recording titled “Just Sitting on Top of the World”, which was in turn covered by Bob Wills and others.
Sitting on Top of the World, recorded February 17, 1930 by the Mississippi Sheiks.
Though a little worse for wear, owing to a touch of groove stripping, the Sheiks give us some more of their good stuff, with Bo Carter sitting in, on the less well-remembered, but nonetheless excellent “Lonely One In this Town”.
Lonely One In this Town, recorded February 17, 1930 by the Mississippi Sheiks.