Star Talent 770 – Slim Willet – 1950

With his uniquely characteristic songwriting and unparalleled instrumental sound, the renown of Abilene, Texas, disc jockey, television host, music impresario, and honky tonk hero Slim Willet surely deserves to be as big as his own name-belying size—and perhaps it would have been had he gone to Nashville or Hollywood—yet sadly he has been relegated to little more than a footnote in the annals of country music.

Winston Lee Moore was born on December 1, 1919, in Victor, Texas, a tiny, no-longer-existent town a a mile south of “Hogtown”—a big country oil boom-town better known as Desdemona.  As a teenager during the Great Depression, he reportedly spent a short time working in the CCC, before being drummed into Army service during World War II.  Upon his discharge, he settled in Abilene and attended Hardin-Simmons University, earning a journalism degree in 1949 (though in later years, he jokingly claimed to have studied “how to be a hillbilly disc jockey”).  Thereafter, he went to work as a promoter and disc jockey for local radio station KRBC, hosting his own Big State Jamboree.  On the air, he adopted the stage name “Slim Willet”, taking the sobriquet “Slim” ironically—he really was quite the opposite—and borrowing the name “Willet” from the comic strip Out Our Way.  The year of 1950 proved a professionally momentous one for Willet, for it brought his breakout into the recording industry.  In April of that year, his composition “Pinball Millionaire” was recorded by rising country star Hank Locklin for 4 Star Records, placing Willet’s name on a record label for the first time.  Soon after, Willet’s own first recordings as a singer were released on the Dallas-based Star Talent label.  He went on to cut several more discs for Star Talent over the course of the year that followed  and subsequently set up his own studio to produce “Slim Willet Special Releases”, contracting pressing to the California-based 4 Star Records with the option for them to release his records on their own label, but he did not achieve more than local success.

Tides turned for Willet come September of 1951, when he received a letter from a soldier in Korea requesting that he play a song for his sweetheart back in Abilene.  The soldier sent along a message asking his love to stay true and not let stars get in her eyes.  That letter inspired Willet to compose a love song, which he titled “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes” and recorded the following February.  The record big shots didn’t like the song at first, calling it “off beat, off meter, off everything,” but agreed to release it as the B-side of a Texas oilfield number called “Hadacol Corners”.  In spite of their predictions, “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes” became a national hit upon its release, spawning popular covers by Perry Como and Ray Price, among others, and bringing Willet to the national spotlight for a time.  In the wake of “Stars”, Willet continued to record for 4 Star, producing several more popular records in a similar style—as well as one for Decca—and made appearances on the Big D Jamboree on KRLD in Dallas, and the Louisiana Hayride on KWKH in Shreveport.  He set up his own full-fledged record company—initially called Edmoral but later renamed Winston—around 1953, recording local West Texas talent while still contracted to 4 Star, and moved his own recording activities to it once his engagement with them ended around 1954 (though he had made pseudonymous recordings for his own label before that).  As rock ‘n’ roll took off, Willet made several rousing rockabilly records under the pseudonym “Telli W. Mils, The Fat Cat” (i.e. Slim Willet spelled backwards), in a fashion rather resembling—though in fact preceding—that of fellow Texan “The Big Bopper”.  While never able to rekindle the nationwide success of “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes”, Willet remained a popular personality in Abilene, and continued to record, perform, and disc jockey until his untimely death from a heart attack on July 1, 1966.  Posthumously, Willet has been honored with induction in Country Music Disc Jockey and West Texas Music Halls of Fame.

Star Talent 770 was recorded in the spring of 1950 at the studio of KRBC in Abilene, Texas.  Slim Willet is accompanied by the Brushcutters, featuring Shorty Underwood on fiddle, Earl Montgomery on rhythm guitar, Georgia Underwood on bass, Price Self piano, and unidentified lead guitar and steel guitarists.

The first side he ever recorded, Slim Willet made his big debut with “I’m Going Strong”, a most apt title for more than one reason.

I’m Going Strong, recorded spring 1950 by Slim Willet.

On the “B’ side, Willet sings one of his signature numbers in the genre over which he reigned supreme: “I’m a Tool Pusher from Snyder” (later re-titled “Tool Pusher on a Rotary Rig”).  With this song, Willet established the first in a string of oilfield songs that would overture his recording and songwriting career, ultimately culminating in his self-produced 1959 LP Texas Oil Patch Songs, on which he re-recorded “Tool Pusher”.

I’m a Tool Pusher from Snyder, recorded spring 1950 by Slim Willet.

Montgomery Ward M-4462 – Powder River Jack–Kitty Lee – 1930

Powder River Jack H. Lee, pictured in his book The Stampede.

Over the past decade-and-a-half-or-so, the Senate of the United States has made a tradition of decreeing the fourth Saturday of every July to be the National Day of the American Cowboy.  Across the western states, the holiday is celebrated with festivals and other such customary jubilations; on Old Time Blues, we shall celebrate the occasion in the only way we know how—with appreciation of an old record.

Born Jackson Martin on the first of October, 1874, Jack H. Lee was counted among the eldest of the more authentic tradition of cowboy singers to cut records in the days before Hollywood Autrys and Rogerses took center stage (though the extent of that authenticity has been called into question).  Purportedly after joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show around 1893, Jack met his future wife Kitty Miller, a native Illinoisan six years his senior, and the two began a long career singing genuine cowboy songs on vaudeville and in rodeos.  Claiming to hail from Montana, they dubbed themselves Powder River Jack and Pretty Kitty Lee and were performing together at least as early as 1898.  Ultimately, the duo became one of the most popular early cowboy acts, though their recorded legacy leaves little evidence of that success.  The Lees were recorded for the first time in November of 1930, with a session for the RCA Victor Company in Hollywood.  The date produced four titles, all of which were released to limited success as the nation plunged into the Great Depression.  They returned to the studio six years later, waxing two sides for Decca in Chicago, which have never been released.  An additional three recordings were made of Jack performing at the National Folk Festival in Washington, D.C., in May of 1938.  Powder River Jack also published several books of cowboy lore and song folios during the 1930s which demonstrated his penchant for misappropriating authorship of traditional cowboy poetry (even going so far as to claim “Red River Valley” as his own).  Jack Lee died in a car accident on February 24, 1946, in Chandler, Arizona; he was survived for nine years by Kitty, and both are interred side-by-side in the City Cemetery in Mesa, Arizona.  Because of Jack’s tendency to plagiarize, the duo’s merit as cowboy performers has been challenged.  While indeed neither Jack nor Kitty were likely ever working cowhands and much of their backstory was probably fabricated, they did perform and preserve genuine western folk music—even if they wrongfully attributed its origins—and, with that caveat, are no less deserving of recognition than their contemporary early cowboy recording artists.

Montgomery Ward M-4462 was recorded on November 3, 1930, in Hollywood, California.  It was originally released on Victor 23527, of which a total of 2,158 copies were reported sold.  Jack and Kitty both strum their guitars, while the former blows the harmonica on a rack between stanzas.  Jack sings solo vocals on both sides.

“Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail [sic]”, illustrated by Powder River Jack.

Certainly one of the most enticing cowboy songs put to shellac in the 1920s and 1930s and today a standard of the traditional cowboy repertoire, “Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail”, was truthfully written by Gail Gardner in 1917, though Lee claimed the credit on the record and otherwise (much to the former’s chagrin).  Legend has it that Gardner and his chums in Prescott, Arizona, once tarred and feathered Powder River Jack for stealing his song.

Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail, recorded November 3, 1930 by Powder River Jack–Kitty Lee.

“Powder River, Let ‘er Buck”, ostensibly actually written by Jack himself, lent its name to one of his publications in the same year he cut the record.

Powder River, Let ‘er Buck, recorded November 3, 1930 by Powder River Jack–Kitty Lee.

Supertone 9741 – Cullen Bros. – 1930

On this Mother’s Day, I take a moment away from Old Time Blues’ usual dedication to long gone musicianers to spend a moment of appreciation for all the beloved mothers of the world, not least my own.

A portrait of motherhood in the roaring twenties.

Though nowadays rather receded from their former stature within popular culture, there once existed nearly an entire genre of “mother songs” dedicated to maternal appreciation, songs like Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “You’ll Never Miss Your Mother ‘Till She’s Gone”, Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mother, the Queen of My Heart”, and Rudyard Kipling’s “Mother o’ Mine” to name just two of many.  Hundreds—if not thousands—of songs were published and recorded in the first decades of the twentieth century celebrating the love of a son (or daughter) for his mother.  Indeed, many of them tended a little on the sappy side, but the sentiment behind them, generally, was honest and sincere, and represented a culture which rightfully valued a mother’s love.  The record published herein contains two such songs, originally published in the early decades of the twentieth century, in honor of dear old mother, as sung in duet by the so-called Cullen Brothers (though in fact they were not really brothers and only one was a Cullen).

Supertone 9741 was recorded on May 23, 1930, presumably in Richmond, Indiana.  The “Cullen Brothers” are in fact Billy Cullen and Barney Kleeber.  The instrumentalists on piano, violin, and guitar are unidentified.  The same pairing was also issued on Champion 16045, credited to its true artists, and the “A” side also appeared on Superior 2513, credited to “Ward and Scott”.

Firstly, Cullen and Kleeber sing Arthur Dewey Larkin’s composition “Mother Dear (Do You Hear Me Calling You)”, originally published in 1922.

Mother Dear (Do You Year Me Calling You), recorded May 23, 1930 by the Cullen Bros.

Next, from 1914, they sing H.C. Weasner’s “Just a Dream of Mother” on the “B’ side.

Just a Dream of Mother, recorded May 23, 1930 by the Cullen Bros.

CroMart 101 – Elmo Newcomer (The Pipe Creek Kid) – c. 1947

Whoopin’ and hollerin’ fiddler from Bandera, Elmo Newcomer—the “Pipe Creek Kid”—was one of the more colorful figures in Texas folk music (and that’s saying something).

Jessie Elmo Newcomer was born in San Antonio, Texas, on April 25, 1896, son of rancher Andrew Jackson “Jack” Newcomer and his wife Lura Bell (née Stokes).  Elmo followed in his father’s footsteps and became a stockman on the family farm Pipe Creek, Texas, about eight miles from Bandera.  He served as a cook in the the Third Trench Mortar Battalion during the First World War, and was honorably discharged on March 30, 1919.  Shortly after his return home, he married Miss Birdee Augusta Ellis, on April 16 of the same year, with whom he would have five children over the subsequent decades.  His uniquely uninhibited style of fiddle playing was recorded in May of 1939 by folklorists John Avery and Ruby Terrill Lomax for the Library of Congress in thirteen performances at his home in Pipe Creek.  Around twenty years later, Newcomer made two records for the San Antonio-based CroMart label, recreating tunes which he had previously recorded for Lomax.  Though well known locally for his music making proclivities, he spent most of his life on the farm, and did not seek fame or fortune as a professional musician.  Tragedy befell the Newcomers with the deaths of sons Clyde from tetanus in 1940 and William in a 1951 car accident, and Elmo and Birdee divorced at some point during the 1940s or 1950s; she later remarried, while he did not.  Elmo Newcomer died from arteriosclerosis at the V.A. Hospital in Kerrville, Texas, on December 8, 1970, and was buried in the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio.  His descendants have carried on his musical legacy around Pipe Creek.

The recording date of CroMart 101 is not established by any available sources, but I have it on good authority that it dates to around 1947, give or take, and was probably recorded in San Antonio, Texas.  Newcomer is accompanied by guitar, likely played by one of his sons.  Both performances are virtually identical to his Library of Congress recordings of 1939, albeit in much higher fidelity.  The Cro-Mart Recording Company was founded by H.M. Crowe and Buster Martin of San Antonio.

Newcomer first fiddled a wild and crazy rendition of the old-time staple “Cotton Eyed Joe”, an especially popular number with Texas musicians.

Cotton Eyed Joe, recorded c.1947 by Elmo Newcomer (The Pipe Creek Kid).

He next does the “Old Grey Mare”, with his wild hollers complimented by some choice diction: “Old grey mare come a-footin’ down from Delaware, lookin’ for her underwear; she couldn’t find ’em anywhere.”

Old Grey Mare, recorded c.1947 by Elmo Newcomer (The Pipe Creek Kid).

Victor 19427 – Vernon Dalhart – 1924/1925

Producing many of the earliest “country” music hit records in the wake of Fiddlin’ John Carson’s unexpected success, Texas-born, city-bred Vernon Dalhart has been the subject of some controversy as to his merits and authenticity, but if Jimmie Rodgers be the “father” of country music, and Uncle Dave Macon the grandfather, then surely the polished, classically trained Vernon Dalhart must be some great-uncle.

Vernon Dalhart, pictured in the Victor catalog.

Marion Try Slaughter II was born on April 6, 1883, in the east Texas town of Jefferson, the son of Bob and Mary Jane Slaughter.  When he was ten, his father was killed by his uncle in a dispute, and he later moved with his mother to Dallas.  In his teenage years, he spent some time as a cowhand in west Texas for a summer job.  Aspiring to sing opera, Try studied at the Dallas Conservatory of Music, then set out for New York to strike it big.  Deeming “Try Slaughter” an unsuitable name for an operatic tenor, he instead adopted the name of two west Texas towns for his stage name: “Vernon Dalhart”.  Soon, he began recording professionally for Edison and other record companies, mostly singing popular songs of the day.  In the dawning days of “country” music on records, Dalhart got wind of Henry Whitter’s 1923 recording of “The Wreck on the Southern Old 97”, and brought the tune to the attention of the Edison company.  He recorded the song for Thomas Edison on May 14, 1924, and then set about doing it again for Victor.  Victor bigwig Nat Shilkret agreed to record the song on the condition that Dalhart produce a suitable number for the “B” side.  He obliged in the form on “The Prisoner’s Song”, adapted from an old folk song he had heard from his cousin Guy Massey.  For the session, Dalhart was paired with Victor staff whistler and guitarist Carson Robison and violinist Lou Raderman.  Billed on the label as “mountaineer’s songs”, the resulting record sold a reported seven million copies, notwithstanding Dalhart’s remakes on other labels.  The runaway success relaunched the singer’s career as a “hillbilly” singer, and, teamed with Robison, he continued to find success singing disaster songs and weepy ballads like “Death of Floyd Collins” until the end of the decade.  Following a series of disagreements regarding royalties and Dalhart’s replacement of fiddler Murray Kellner with his friend Adelyne Hood, Robison broke away from the act to strike out on his own.  In the decade that followed, Robison’s success grew while Dalhart’s waned.  By 1930, his stream of successful songs had gone dry, and he recorded only sporadically through that decade.  He made his final recordings in 1939, with a group called the Big Cypress Boys, drawing their name from a bayou back home in Jefferson, Texas.  Afterward, he retired from professional performance and began coaching voice in Bridgeport, Connecticut, before going on to a number of non-musical odd jobs until his death from a heart attack on September 14, 1948.

Two different versions of Victor 19427 were made, the first was recorded acoustically on August 13, 1924, which was re-made electrically on March 18 of the following year, both session in New York City.  For both versions, Dalhart is accompanied by Carson Robison on guitar, Lou Raderman on violin, and his own harmonica.  Both the acoustical and electrical versions are posted herein, in that respective order.  In the interest of unnecessarily full disclosure, the media featured in this post is sourced from three different copies of the record, one for the acoustical takes, one for the electrical takes, and one for the labels (as neither of the transferred copies have particularly presentable labels).

On the first side of his big hit record, Dalhart rather joyfully sings of disaster and death on Henry Whitter’s “Wreck of the Old 97”, one of the most popular railroad songs ever made.  Regardless of questions of Dalhart’s authenticity as a folk singer, I would posit that these songs are indubitably a part of Americana.

Wreck of the Old 97, recorded August 13, 1924, and March 18, 1925 by Vernon Dalhart.

Following Dalhart’s introduction, “The Prisoner’s Song” became one of the biggest hits of the 1920s, inspiring numerous covers, dance band arrangements, organ solos, and translations into Spanish, Italian, Polish, and other languages.  Dalhart himself recorded the song a number of times, and it remained widely known and recorded into the 1950s.  In spite of Dalhart’s copyrighting the song in his cousin’s name, some accounts suggest that the finished product was mostly a result of Nat Shilkret’s re-arrangement, and Shilkret in later years spoke of the song as “the one that guy stole from me.”

The Prisoner’s Song, recorded August 13, 1924, and March 18, 1925 by Vernon Dalhart.