Okeh 8784 – Mississippi Sheiks – 1930

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 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 71.  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 possibility.  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” with the same melody, borrowing some lyrics from “Sitting on Top of the World”.  To  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.

Melotone M 12181 – Stripling Brothers – 1928

This record features a pair of top-notch old-time fiddle and guitar duets, by the Stripling Brothers, Charlie and Ira, of Alabama; two of the most talented and outstanding artists of that genre.  Today, I’m posting this fantastic disc in honor of the birthday of the legendary King of Record Collectors, Mr. Joe Bussard, who has for many years used “The Lost Child” as the theme for his radio program.  This is one of a number of fairly hard to find and generally excellent records that I had the great fortune of uncovering in the backroom of one of my favorite record stores.

Melotone M 12181 was recorded November 15, 1928 at the Bankhead Hotel in Birmingham, Alabama by the Stripling Brothers: Charlie on fiddle and Ira on guitar.  It was originally issued on Vocalion 5321, this issue dates to 1931.

This fine fiddlin’ tune, titled “The Lost Child” is used as the radio theme song for the esteemed collector (that’s an understatement) Joe Bussard’s radio show “Country Classics” on WREK 91.1 FM in Atlanta.  It’s a masterpiece of hillbilly fiddle music, one of the best pieces I’ve heard.

The Lost Child

The Lost Child, recorded November 15, 1928 by the Stripling Brothers.

Like the previous side, the reverse of this disc is a musical masterpiece, yet in spite of the outstanding musical content, I had some reservations about posting this record because of the unsavory and rather offensive title, “The Big Footed Nigger in the Sandy Lot”, for fear it might stir up controversy.  Unpleasant as it is, such things come with the territory of eighty-some-odd year old music; my recommendation is just enjoy the music and ignore the title.  It really is a beautiful melody, with outstanding fiddling by Charlie Stripling.

The Big Footed Nigger in the Sandy Lot

The Big Footed Nigger in the Sandy Lot, recorded November 15, 1928 by the Stripling Brothers.

Updated with improved audio on June 23, 2017.

Bluebird B-5942 – Jimmie Rodgers/Jesse Rodgers – 1931/1935

This record is a remarkable one for a number of reasons.  One of those is that, being a Depression era release, it is quite scarce (and I don’t mean to sound braggadocious, I’m still surprised that I have it, myself).  Another is that is one of a number of records of the 1920s and 1930s to feature black and white artists performing together, in this case Jimmie Rodgers with the Earl McDonald’s Louisville Jug Band.  On the downside, this copy has certainly seen better days.  The years have not been kind to it, and its sound reflects that. It’s still listenable, but has a layer of surface noise.  Another bit worth mentioning is that the flip side of this record, which was released after Rodgers’ passing, features a recording by another blue yodeler who happened to be Jimmie Rodgers’ first cousin.

Both sides of Bluebird B-5942 were recorded on separate occasions.  The “A” side was recorded on June 16, 1931 in Louisville, Kentucky, the “B” side was recorded January 28, 1935 in San Antonio, Texas.  The personnel of the jug band on the first side includes George Allen on clarinet, Clifford Hayes on violin, Cal Smith on tenor guitar, Fred Smith on guitar and Earl McDonald on jug, the same basic group as the Dixieland Jug Blowers.

On the first side, the Blue Yodeler sings “My Good Gal’s Gone”, with outstanding accompaniment by Earl McDonald’s Louisville Jug Band.  Though it was recorded in 1931, this 1935 Bluebird is the first issue of this recording.

My Good Gal’s Gone, recorded June 16, 1931 by Jimmie Rodgers.

On the “B” side, Jimmie’s first cousin, Jesse Rodgers sings “Leave Me Alone, Sweet Mama” in a style that reminds me of Cliff Carlisle more than Jimmie.  Jesse stuck around for quite a while, later dropping the “d” from his name to become Jesse Rogers by the end of the 1930s.

Leave Me Alone, Sweet Mama, recorded January 28, 1935 by Jesse Rodgers.

Leave Me Alone, Sweet Mama, recorded January 28, 1935 by Jesse Rodgers.

Updated with improved audio on May 23, 2017.

Victor 21470 – Jules Allen “The Singing Cowboy” – 1928

From 1930 Victor catalog.

From 1930 Victor catalog.

If there’s one thing I enjoy, it’s singing cowboys.  Not those Hollywood type like Roy Rogers (not that I have anything against Roy, I like him too), but the handful of real life cowboys that made recordings of songs from right there on the range in the 1920s and ’30s.  This record falls squarely into that category.  This was one of my lucky finds from a little store out in Mineral Wells, Texas, along with some other fine rural selections.  It’s likely been in Texas ever since it left the pressing plant in Camden.

Jules Verne Allen was born on April 1, 1883 in the charming little town of Waxahachie, Texas, he began working as a cowboy in the next decade, punching cattle from Montana to the Rio Grande.  He served his country in the Great War, enlisting in the Army in 1917.  For many years, Allen worked as an officer of the law, as a police officer and deputy sheriff in El Paso, and as a member of the legendary Texas Rangers.  As a cowboy, he learned the traditional songs of the West, played on the guitar, and when the Western phenomenon swept the nation in the late 1920s, Allen began performing those songs on the radio for WOAI in San Antonio and WFAA in Dallas.  Billed as “The Singing Cowboy”, he cut three sides for the Victor Talking Machine Co. on one of their field trips in El Paso in 1928, later making twenty more sides, of which all but one were issued.  One of the most popular of the early singing cowboys, in 1933, Allen wrote Cowboy Lore, a book detailing the life of a cowpuncher.  Continuing to perform on the radio into the 1940s, Allen died on July 10, 1945.

Victor 21470 was recorded April 21, 1928 by Jules Allen during one of Victor’s field trips in El Paso, Texas.  These two are Allen’s debut recordings.

First up, Allen sings N. Howard Thorp’s classic cowboy song, “Little Joe, the Wrangler”.

Little Joe, the Wrangler, recorded

Little Joe, the Wrangler, recorded April 21, 1928 by Jules Allen.

Next, Allen sings the Texas gambling song “Jack o’ Diamonds” in the old cowboy rather than the blues style associated with the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson.  The last time we heard this tune, it sung by TCU physics professor Newton Gaines, and to be honest, I believe ol’ Jules delivers a better performance.

Jack o' Diamonds, recorded

Jack o’ Diamonds, recorded April 21, 1928 by Jules Allen.

Victor 20971 – Blue Steele and his Orchestra – 1927

Blue Steele. From 1930 Victor catalog.

Blue Steele. From 1930 Victor catalog.

Perhaps the most commercially successful territory band of the 1920s was that of Blue Steele, who toured the southern United States in the 1920s and 1930s.  In addition to his success in music, Steele was also one of the more interesting characters of the 1920s territory band scene.

The man known as Blue Steele was born Eugene Staples on March 11, 1893 or 1897 in Arkansas.  According to legend, his nickname came from a metal plate he had in his head after being wounded in the Great War.  Perhaps caused by that injury, he was also known for his short temper and erratic behavior.  He started out playing trombone and mellophone in Watson’s Bell Hops, before starting his own band in 1925.  Although Steele filled his band with great musicians, because of his unstable personality and often poor treatment of his employees—he was known to have a habit of throwing punches right into the bells of his band members’ brass instruments—they tended not to stay with him for long, and we can thank Steele for bringing us a number of great talents by scaring them out of his band.  Quite a number of his musicians, including reed man and vocalist Kenny Sargent and guitarist, banjoist, and arranger Gene Gifford moved on to the Casa Loma Orchestra, a band known for their strict code of conduct, which may have been a welcome change from their prior engagement.  Nevertheless, Steele continued to lead successful bands well into the 1950s, despite becoming increasingly unstable as years passed; as legend has it, he murdered a tax agent in Atlanta “for no apparent reason.”  Blue Steele died July 7, 1971.

Victor 20971 was recorded August 26, 1927 in Savannah, Georgia, the first, and probably most successful record by Blue Steele and his Orchestra.  The personnel includes Frank Krisher and Frank Martinez on trumpets, Blue Steele on trombone and mellophone, Sunny Clapp on trombone, Kenny Sargent on clarinet, alto and baritone sax, Roger Sanford on alto sax, Pete Schmidt on tenor sax, Ted Delmarter on banjo and/or guitar, Sol Lewis on piano, Marvin Longfellow on tuba, and Tom Summers on drums.  The session was supervised by Ralph Peer.

The first side of this disk features a waltz, but all you pep-purists never fear, for it’s a good waltz, in fact it’s the first recording of Sunny Clapp’s “Girl of My Dreams, I Love You”.  Kenny Sargent sings the vocal on this side.

Girl of My Dreams, I Love You

Girl of My Dreams, I Love You, recorded August 26, 1927 by Blue Steele and his Orchestra.

On the reverse, they play a peppy tune, “Sugar Babe, I’m Leavin’!”.  In my opinion, this is just about the zenith of music, pretty much perfection.  A vocal trio consisting of Sargent, Pete Schmidt and Steele himself sings on this side.  It’s bandleader Steele that completes this side with his interjection of, “and that’s Sugar Babe.”

Sugar Babe, I'm Leavin'!

Sugar Babe, I’m Leavin’!, recorded August 26, 1927 by Blue Steele and his Orchestra.