Vocalion 02614 – Sonny Scott – 1933

When the Great Depression rolled in, along with it came the blues.  People had been singing the blues since times untold, yes, but the hard times surely gave them something to sing ’em about.  Unfortunately for us today, the Depression also nearly killed the recording industry, so recordings of blues from the early 1930s are rather scarce, deep country blues even more so.  These two 1933 sides by Alabama or Mississippi musician Sonny Scott are among the few, and offer an opportunity to hear the real blues of the Great Depression afflicted South.

Not much is known about the life and times of blues guitarist and singer Sonny Scott.  In the early 1930s, he reportedly resided in Quitman, Mississippi, and he presumably had some ties to neighboring Alabama, as he was an associate of pianist Walter Roland.  Scott’s friend and student Gress Barnett from Quitman related to researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow that Sonny’s surname was Scarborough, and that he was also known as “Babe”.  “Scott”, presumably, was a corruption of “Scarborough”, if not his given name.  In the Summer of 1933, Scott traveled with Roland to New York City, where they were recorded by the American Record Corporation.  It has been suggested that Scott and Roland had both arrived in Birmingham only recently when they ventured to New York.  From the seventeenth to the twentieth of July, 1933, Scott cut a total of seventeen released sides, eleven solo and six in duet with Walter Roland.  He also participated in the Jolly Two and Jolly Jivers recordings with Roland and Lucille Bogan, resulting in a further eight sides.  The musical content of these recordings ranged from the deep blues of “Hard Luck Man” to upbeat hokum numbers like “Hungry Man’s Scuffle”.  In those recordings, Scott revealed himself to be a competent guitarist.  While Roland continued to record for some time thereafter, frequently accompanying Bogan, Scott went home, never to record again, fading into total obscurity.  Barnett reported that Sonny Scott had died in Shubuta, Mississippi—where his sister was said to have lived—a short time before World War II.

The two sides of Vocalion 02614 were recorded in New York City on July 20 and 18, 1933, respectively.  It is the last issued of Scott’s recordings.  Sonny Scott accompanies himself on guitar.  In their “Rarest 78s” column, the contributors to 78 Quarterly estimated fewer than ten copies of it to exist, with this particular copy listed as having belonged to the late Mr. Steve LaVere.

First, Scott starts in with a snappy little bit, but segues into singing a song of Great Depression misery, “Red Cross Blues No. 2”.  Scott and Roland must have been particularly proud of this number, for they each recorded separate versions of “Red Cross Blues” and “Red Cross Blues No. 2”, and in later years the song was covered by Lead Belly, who presented it as a draft-dodging song from the First World War.  Scott’s and Roland’s versions of this song reference a particular Red Cross Store on Third Avenue in Birmingham, Alabama.

Red Cross Blues No. 2, recorded July 20, 1933 by Sonny Scott.

He sings an archetypal country blues song on the back, though among the more philosophical ones—”Fire-Wood Man”—with some rather profound lyrics: “Lord, a man come in this world, and he have but a few minutes to stay; lawd his head is full of nonsense, and his feet’s all full of pain.”

Fire-Wood Man, recorded July 18, 1933 by Sonny Scott.

Conqueror 8066 – Johnny Marvin – 1932

The days of the Great Depression, in spite of the stalled economy, proved to be anything but a time devoid of happening, for times of unrest and discontent always seem to push men to action.

One such action took place on the nation’s capital, during the summer of 1932; thousands of down-on-their-luck veterans of the Great War and their supporters marched on the capitol to demand the government pay their bonuses for their service in the war, which they were not scheduled to receive until 1945.  Dubbed the “Bonus Army”, the protestors built up a Hooverville along the banks of the Anacostia river.  The legislators debated how to respond to the veterans’ plea, but ultimately denied them their bonus.  The Bonus Army’s struggle reached its climax on July 28, 1932, when a riot broke out, resulting in two men being shot and killed by police.  In response, President Hoover called in the Army to “surround the affected area and clear it without delay,” so Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur commanded a contingent of five-hundred infantrymen and six tanks against the protestors, and, despite Hoover’s subsequent order to stop the assault, forced the veterans and their families out of the camp with tear gas, MacArthur claiming that the Bonus Army had been taken over by communists plotting to overthrow the federal government.  The Bonus Army reconvened on Washington following Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933, and the new administration provided more favorable results, compromising with the veterans by offering them jobs in the CCC, or a free ride back home.  Most of them took the job.

Needless to say, a sizable fraction of Americans were outraged by the attack on their own war veterans, and the media came out in support of the “forgotten man”, paying them tribute in films like Gold Diggers of 1933.  On this record, the “Ukulele Ace” Johnny Marvin sings in a “citybilly” style what is most certainly the first song dedicated to the Bonus Army, and probably among the earliest American protest songs on record.

Conqueror 8066 was recorded in New York City on July 28, 1932—the very same day the Bonus Army conflict reached its climax—by Johnny Marvin, who accompanies himself on guitar.  Roy Smeck plays steel guitar, switching to banjo on the “B” side.

Johnny Marvin sings out in support of the dejected veterans on “I’m The Man That’s Been Forgotten No. 1” on the first side of this record.

I’m the Man That’s Been Forgotten No. 1, recorded July 28, 1932 by Johnny Marvin.

Marvin concludes his protest song on the reverse with “I’m the Man That’s Been Forgotten No. 2”.

I’m the Man That’s Been Forgotten No. 2, recorded July 28, 1932 by Johnny Marvin.

Gem 3522 – Dick Robertson and his Orchestra – 1933

Dick Robertson, as pictured on the cover of Decca’s 1941 catalog.

Alongside Chick Bullock as one of the most prolific vocalists of the 1930s, though perhaps even more so, the voice of Dick Robertson was near omnipresent during the years of the Great Depression.  Though easily dismissed due to his nature as a studio vocalist, and the sheer volume of his work, Robertson was a competent singer who contributed countless excellent performances over a career stretching more than twenty years.

Dick Robertson was born on July 3, 1903, in Brooklyn, New York (though some sources assert 1900).  Prior to entering the show business, he worked in construction as a foreman.  Robertson began his career in music in the second half of the 1920s, entering the recording industry in 1927, partnered with recording veteran and career duet partner Ed Smalle.  He continued to record with Smalle for a time before striking out on his own as a jack-of-all-trades vocalist.  At different times, he played most every role a singer could: crooner, jazz singer, hillbilly, and many others.  As did many, Robertson used a variety of pseudonyms throughout his career, some more memorable ones being “Bob Richardson”, “Bob Dickson”, and “Bobby Dix”.  He recorded as a solo vocalist for Brunswick in the last two years of the 1920s and Victor in the first few of the 1930s.  At the same time, Robertson began recording extensively with dance and jazz bands on virtually every label, with orchestras ranging from those of Leo Reisman and Ben Selvin to Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, and frequently with Gene Kardos’ band.  In the early 1930s, he began fronting various bands to record as “Dick Robertson and his Orchestra”, first on the ARC and Crown dimestore labels, then for Bluebird from 1933 to ’35, and finally graduating to Decca in 1935, for whom he recorded steadily until 1944, promoted as one of their many top artists.  Still, he continued to sing as a studio vocalist with other groups all the while, up until the middle of the 1940s, racking up hundreds of vocal credits (and many more uncredited performances).  Robertson also proved to be quite a capable songwriter, his most notable composition being “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me)”, which became a hit for the Ink Spots in 1940.  He made his last recordings in 1949 on Decca’s subsidiary label Coral, after which he disappeared into obscurity.  Dick Robertson reportedly died on July 13, 1979, ten days after his seventy-sixth birthday.

Gem 3522 was recorded in July of 1933 by Dick Robertson fronting a studio band, probably that of Walter Feldkamp.  It was also issued on Crown with the same catalog number.  Gem was a short-lived offshoot of the Crown label, which itself only existed for three years.  Much like RCA Victor’s Sunrise label, it lasted only for several months, and its purpose is uncertain.  Presumably it was pressed as a client label for some retailer, though, to my knowledge, no one knows for whom they were made.

First, Robertson gives a fine delivery of Billy Hill and Peter DeRose’s “Louisville Lady”, a haunting tale about a jilted lover who threw herself into the Ohio River, sung from the perspective of her man, who comes to the riverside to beg forgiveness from his lost love.  Certainly this must be one of Robertson’s best, at least of the sides he recorded under his own name.

Louisville Lady, recorded July 1933 by Dick Robertson and his Orchestra.

On the “B” side, Dick croons the Andy Razaf and Reginald Foresythe penned Dixie melody “Mississippi Basin”, another jim dandy.

Mississippi Basin, recorded July 1933 by Dick Robertson and his Orchestra.

Bluebird B-5181 – Bill Scotti and his Hotel Montclair Orchestra – 1933

Sheet music cover for “The Road is Open Again”, featuring Dick Powell and FDR, 1933.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated President of the United States in 1933, the vice grip of the Great Depression that was strangling the nation was at its tightest, having peaked over the winter of ’32 to ’33, and the new president got right to work trying to alleviate that condition.  On June 16, 1933, only three months after taking office, Roosevelt signed into law the National Industrial Recovery Act (or NIRA), rolling out his first wave of New Deal programs, including the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works and the National Recovery Administration.  The latter of those two, christened the NRA (sweet thing, sweet thing), was unveiled with great fanfare under the zealous leadership of its director Hugh S. Johnson.  In addition to an enormous parade dedicated to the Administration, Hollywood churned out a number of promotional films to support the NRA.  One such film saw Jimmy Durante enthusiastically pleading that employers “give a man a job.”  Another starred Dick Powell (in a role reminiscent of his part in Gold Diggers of 1933) as a frustrated songwriter tasked with composing a ditty dedicated to the NRA, but unable to produce any satisfactory results until he is visited in a dream by Presidents Washington, Lincoln, and Wilson, who explain the patriotic tenets of the National Recovery Administration and provide Powell’s character the inspiration needed to come up with “The Road is Open Again”.

Bluebird B-5181 was recorded on September 15, 1933 in New York City by saxophone player Bill Scotti’s orchestra from the Hotel Montclair in Montclair, New Jersey, featuring vocals by pianist Larry Murphy, Tom Low, and Larry Lloyd.

On side “A”, Larry Murphy sings the solo refrain on an iconic Great Depression melody, Yip Harburg, Billy Rose, and Harold Arlen hit from the Paramount motion picture Take a Chance: “It’s Only a Paper Moon”.

It’s Only A Paper Moon, recorded September 15, 1933 by Bill Scotti and his Hotel Montclair Orch.

On “B”, the trio of Larry, Tom, and Larry sing the patriotic “theme song” of President Roosevelt’s NRA, “The Road is Open Again”, as featured by Dick Powell in the short film of the same name, recorded only two days after “NRA Day.”

The Road is Open Again, recorded September 15, 1933 by Bill Scotti and his Hotel Montclair Orch.

Vocalion 02605 – W. Lee O’Daniel and his Light Crust Doughboys – 1933

It has come time once again to pay tribute to a legend lost, to the greatest of them all, America’s Blue Yodeler, and the Father of Country Music: Jimmie Rodgers.  At the time of this posting, it has been eighty-five years to the day that Jimmie walked through those pearly gates, a victim of the white plague at only thirty-five years old.

In the wake of Jimmie Rodgers’ tragic demise, numerous songwriters published melodies eulogizing him.  Among the most successful of these were Bob Miller’s “The Life of Jimmie Rodgers” and “The Death of Jimmie Rodgers”, recorded by Gene Autry and Bradley Kincaid, the latter of whom also sang “Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers’ Lament”, composed by Rich Kuster.  But those were far from the only ones.  Songwriters Dwight Butcher and Lou Herscher, who had collaborated with Rodgers in composing “Old Love Letters”, which Jimmie cut at his last session, penned the popular “When Jimmie Rodgers Said Goodbye”, recorded by a fair number of artists, including Autry and radio yodeler Kenneth Houchins, and by Grand Ole Opry performers Asher Sizemore and his son Little Jimmie under the title “Little Jimmie’s Goodbye to Jimmie Rodgers”.  Three years after Rodgers’ passing, Ernest Tubb made his recording debut backing Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers (the former Carrie Williamson) on a weepy performance of “We Miss Him When the Evening Shadows Fall”, then he sang “The Last Thoughts of Jimmie Rodgers” and “The Passing of Jimmie Rodgers” himself.  Even decades later, Rodgers was still being honored in song by devotees such as Tubb and Hank Snow, two of the countless many whose lives his music had touched.

Vocalion 02605 was recorded on October 11th and 10th, 1933, respectively, in Chicago, Illinois.  The Light Crust Doughboys are Herman Arnspiger and Leon Huff on guitars, Sleepy Johnson on banjo, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, and Ramon DeArman on string bass.  Leon Huff provides lead vocals.  W. Lee O’Daniel was there, too, but he didn’t do anything on this record.

Opening out with a guitar run reminiscent of Rodgers’ signature style, Leon Huff sings and yodels W. Lee O’Daniel’s own tribute to the Blue Yodeler, “Memories of Jimmy [sic] Rodgers” (though either he or the record company misspelled Rodgers’ name).

Memories of Jimmy [sic] Rodgers, recorded October 11, 1933 by the Light Crust Doughboys.

Lightening up considerably from the more solemn tone of the previous song, the Doughboys sing a humorous number poking a little fun at the Depression on the flip, “I Want Somebody to Cry Over Me”, punctuated by Sleepy Johnson’s tenor banjo.

I Want Somebody to Cry Over Me, recorded October 10, 1933 by the Light Crust Doughboys.