Lasso L-104 – Buck Roberts and the Rhythmairs – 1948

In Old Time Blues’ tradition of honoring the great figures of Texas fiddle, we have chronicled the lives of pioneers like Eck Robertson and Moses J. Bonner, legends like Bob Wills and Hoyle Nix, and lesser-known outsiders like Elmo Newcomer.  Now, it comes the time to pay due tribute to one of the more recent Texas giants: the late, great Johnny Gimble.

One of nine children of telegraph operator James Frank Gimble and his wife Minnie, John Paul Gimble was born in the East Texas city of Tyler on May 30, 1926, and raised a few miles outside of town in the community of Bascom.  He started out in music young, playing fiddle and mandolin in a band with his brothers that eventually became known as the Rose City Swingsters on local radio and functions.  He distinguished himself from other fiddlers by favoring a five-stringed instrument, as opposed to the typical four-string fiddle.  He parted their company in 1943 to play banjo with singer-turned-politician Jimmie Davis on the trail of his gubernatorial campaign.  At the age of eighteen in 1944, he enlisted in the U.S. Army to aid in the war effort.  Upon his discharge, he returned to Texas to form a new band with his brothers called the Blues Rustlers, but soon struck out on his own once again to join Buck Roberts’ Rhythmairs—one of the top bands in Austin—in 1948.  With the Rhythmairs, Gimble made his first record, fiddling and singing on their only disc on Fred M. Caldwell’s Lasso label.  From there, he was drafted into Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, a most prestigious position which he held until 1951, though he continued a sporadic association with Wills afterward.  Back home in Texas once again, Gimble married and settled for a time in Dallas, where he worked as a session musician and in local bands such as those of Dewey Groom, Bill Boyd, and Al Dexter at ballrooms and on radio shows like KRLD’s Big D Jamboree and on television.  For part of that decade, Gimble played music part time while also working as a barber in Waco.  In the late 1960s, he moved to Nashville, where he found enormous success as a studio musician on a veritable scadzillion country records.  When he finally returned to Texas again in the 1980s, Gimble established himself as an elder statesman of western swing, playing in groups with the old greats of the genre, until he was the last old great remaining.  He carried the tradition into the twenty-first century, and continued to play quite prolifically until shortly before his death at his Texas Hill Country home on May 9, 2015.  Among numerous pre-and-posthumous honors, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2018.

Lasso L-104 was recorded in 1948, most probably in Austin, Texas.  The Rhythmairs were known to consist of Johnny Gimble, Joe Castle, Gerald “Jerry” Chinnis on fiddles, Eldon “Curly” Roberts on steel guitar, “Pee Wee” Poe on piano, Carlton Roberts on rhythm guitar, Buck Roberts on bass, and Shorty Oakley on drums, though whether all of those members or different members participated in this session is unknown.

On the “A” side, Gimble sings the vocal refrain and does his hep little fiddle-and-humming in harmony thing on “Don’t You Darken My Door Anymore”.  Incidentally, leader Buck Roberts’s grandson Jason today carries on the western swing torch as a fiddler and leader of both his own band and the modern iteration of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys.

Don’t You Darken My Door Anymore, recorded 1948 by Buck Roberts and the Rhythmairs.

In the tradition of naming waltzes after towns in Texas—like the successful “Bandera Waltz”, “Westphalia Waltz”, and “Houston Waltz”—the Rhythmairs play Johnny Gimble’s instrumental composition, the “Shiner Waltz”, on the “B” side.

Shiner Waltz, recorded 1948 by Buck Roberts and the Rhythmairs.

Bluebird B-5257 – Fort Worth Doughboys – 1932

Boasting ninety years of continuous operation, and an active recording career only slightly shorter, the venerable Light Crust Doughboys from Burrus Mill of Fort Worth, Texas, can rightly lay claim to the title of longest-running western swing band in the music’s history.

The original lineup of the Light Crust Doughboys, circa 1931; from left-to-right Milton Brown, Derwood Brown, announcer Truett Kimsey, Bob Wills, and Herman Arnspiger.

The progenitor of the Light Crust Doughboys was born when aspiring jazz singer Milton Brown joined forces with Jim Rob Wills and his Wills Fiddle Band (consisting of Wills and guitarist Herman Arnspiger) in 1930.  Finding success in local dance halls, they soon took their act on the radio, bringing on Brown’s younger brother Derwood and fiddler-banjoist-guitarist Sleepy Johnson.  After a brief sponsorship by the Aladdin Lamp Company as the “Aladdin Laddies”, they convinced W. Lee O’Daniel of the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company to take the group on as the “Light Crust Doughboys” in 1931, drawing their name from the brand of flour produced by the mill.  After two weeks of successful broadcasts, O’Daniel canceled their show, citing distaste for their “hillbilly music.”  Fortunately, the will of the people prevailed and the Doughboys were brought back by popular demand (under the stipulation that the boys also work day jobs at the mill).  Though O’Daniel initially forbade his band from recording, the Doughboys managed to get in a brief recording session during the RCA Victor Company’s 1932 field trip to Dallas, cutting one record under the rather thinly veiled pseudonym “Fort Worth Doughboys”.  Not long after that session, the original lineup of the Light Crust Doughboys began to disintegrate under O’Daniel’s rather draconian leadership.  Brown found the arrangement too stifling, and quit the band in 1932 to form his own Musical Brownies, ultimately achieving much greater success than he could have found as a Doughboy and cementing his position as the founder of western swing before his untimely death in 1936.  Wills, on the other hand, was fired in 1933 as an unreliable employee, and thereafter moved to Waco to form his Playboys.  O’Daniel subsequently hired a new group of musicians and evidently retracted his embargo on recording, bringing the group to Chicago for a 1933 session followed by consistent record dates afterward.  W. Lee O’Daniel himself was fired from the Burrus Mill in 1935, after which he founded his own mill and string band to go with it—the Hillbilly Boys—while the Light Crust Doughboys managed to carry on just fine without him.

Bluebird B-5257 was recorded on February 9, 1932, at the Jefferson Hotel in Dallas Texas.  It was originally issued on Victor 23653, which sold a total of 1,246 copies, and also reissued on Electradisk 2137, Sunrise S-3340, Montgomery Ward M-4416 and M-4757, and, in Canada, on Aurora 415.  The Fort Worth Doughboys are Milton Brown, singing, Bob Wills on fiddle, Derwood Brown on guitar, and Sleepy Johnson on tenor guitar.

Whether it is to be considered the first western swing record remains a point of contention among historians of the genre; some argue that the music thereon lacks the improvisational element of jazz music, and thus cannot be considered western swing.  Personally, I am of the “smells-like-a-rose-no-matter-what-you-call-it” mindset, and it sounds like western swing to me.  At the very least, it should be unanimous that it is a crucial predecessor to the subsequent western swing movement.

On the obverse, the Doughboys play Milton Brown’s adaptation of the Famous Hokum Boys’ (Georgia Tom Dorsey, Big Bill Broonzy, and Frank Brasswell) 1930 hokum blues number “Nancy Jane”.

Nancy Jane, recorded February 9, 1932 by the Fort Worth Doughboys.

And on the reverse, they play Brown’s own composition “Sunbonnet Sue”, which to my ear seems to have drawn some melodic inspiration from the 1930 popular song “Sweet Jennie Lee” (who incidentally received mention in the lyrics alongside some other popular gals from songs of the day).

Sunbonnet Sue, recorded February 9, 1932 by the Fort Worth Doughboys.

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.

Slim Willet, as pictured on the original sheet music for “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes”.

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.