Melotone M 12117 – Dessa Foster and Howling Smith – 1931

Some twenty years before Chester Burnett became famous as “Howlin’ Wolf”, another blues musician claimed that title for his own, a Texas guitarist and singer also known as “Funny Paper” Smith, called such after his eponymous “Howling Wolf Blues”, which he recorded in four parts in 1930 and ’31.  Regrettably, like so many of his contemporaries, very little is known of the life and times of the original “Howling Wolf”.

Most sources suggest that the blues singer and guitarist known as “Funny Paper Smith” was John T. Smith, as is indicated on the labels of the records he made for the Vocalion company in 1930 and ’31.  He is usually said to have been born in East Texas the 1880s or ’90s, and to have died sometime in the 1940s.  Indeed, there are some documents to corroborate that a black musician by the name of John Smith existed in Texas during those years, though aside from sharing the most common name around, there is little to connect him to “Funny Paper”.  It is also frequently suggested that his “Funny Paper” sobriquet was a mistake on the part of the record company, and that his nickname was properly “Funny Papa”.  A good deal of that information seems to derive from the notes of the 1972 Yazoo compilation of some of his material—The Original Howling Wolf—which itself appears to have mostly been derived from an interview with fellow Texas bluesman Thomas Shaw (the same album also erroneously displays an early photograph of the Black Ace purported as Smith, thus staining its claim to accuracy).

Recently released research by the esteemed Mack McCormick—continued by Bob Eagle—has related a compelling argument for a different scenario; they suggest that “John Smith” was merely an assumed name used by the artist to evade trouble back home.  In a 1962 interview, McCormick played one of the Smith’s records for Mrs. Alberta Cook White of Smithville, Texas, who identified the singer as her older brother, Otis Cook, whom she claimed was born there in Bastrop County on April 1, 1910.  She related that he learned to play guitar as a youth and began rambling around the state of Texas, leaving behind life as a farmer in favor of becoming an itinerant songster, playing at local functions and sometimes leaving home for weeks at a time to visit Waco and Dallas, possibly encountering Blind Lemon Jefferson along the way.  He was reportedly known to most of his contemporaries as the “Howling Wolf”, not as “Funny Papa” or “Funny Paper”, and he was described as being a tall, dark-skinned man of about one-hundred-sixty-five pounds (to complicate matters, it was suggested that the “Howling Wolf” name may have been used by more than one musician in Texas around the same time).  Census documents suggest he was incarcerated at Ramsey State Farm in Rosharon, Texas, on a charge of attempted arson in the spring of 1930, after which he promptly made for Chicago.  There, “Smith” began his career as a recording artist for Vocalion Records, the details surrounding which are considerably more certain than those surrounding his identity.

Dubbed “‘Funny Paper’ Smith (The Howling Wolf)”, he entered the studio for the first time on September 18, 1930, to make two unreleased test recordings for the Vocalion company, “Hobo Blues” and “Old Rounder’s Blues” for the Vocalion company—the latter perhaps a rendition of Lemon Jefferson’s song of the same name.  He made his debut in earnest the following day, cutting the first two installments of his eponymous, four-part, “Howling Wolf Blues” and two more sides the day after, all of which were issued this time around.  He returned to the studio thrice more before the end of the year to make another five sides.  The following year, he had a further five sessions resulting in fifteen more sides.  Afterwards, “Funny Paper” evidently went back home to Texas.  He resurfaced four years later in Fort Worth to record for Vocalion once again.  From the twentieth through the twenty-third of April, 1935, he cut a total of thirty-two sides—including parts five and six of “Howling Wolf Blues”—on some of which he was joined by Moanin’ Bernice Edwards and Black Boy Shine on pianos and vocals and “Little Brother” Willie Lane on guitar.  Of all those, only his three sides with Bernice Edwards were released, of which only one—a hot “skiffle” record—bore credit to “Howling Smith”; all others were “found to be faulty,” and never released in any form.  In all, his recording activities netted a grand total of fifty-six sides, though only twelve records were issued to his name.  In the late 1930s, “Smith” teamed up for a time with “Texas” Alexander before parting ways near the Oklahoma border, at which point Alexander joined with Lowell Fulson.  Sometime later, Otis Cook is believed to have settled down with a family back home in Bastrop, where he later died on August 29, 1979.  A testament to his reputation in his home state, the “Howling Wolf Blues” later became something of a standard among Texas blues players, with renditions made by his protégé Willie Lane, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Tom Shaw.

Melotone M 12117 was recorded on January 19, 1931, in Chicago, Illinois.  It was also issued on Polk P9013 and later on Vocalion 02699 in 1934.  Dessa Foster and J.T. “Funny Paper” Smith duet and banter on a novelty blues in the manner of those made by Victoria Spivey and Lonnie Johnson for Okeh, while Smith accompanies on guitar.  It has been proposed that “Dessa Foster” is a pseudonym for Mississippi Delta blues singer Mattie Delaney (frankly I’m rather dubious, but some compelling evidence has been presented, and there is a compelling aural similarity).

On the first part of the comic duet “Tell it to the Judge—No. 1”, Howling Smith plays the part of a police officer, barging into Miss Foster’s house with the question: “where that booze at?”

Tell it to the Judge—No. 1, recorded January 19, 1931 by Dessa Foster and Howling Smith.

Opening with a fine bit of guitar reminiscent of his work on “Honey Blues”, recorded the following month, Smith assumes the role of the titular judge on “Tell it to the Judge—No. 2”, and he’s not giving any more breaks to “Betty”.

Tell it to the Judge—No. 2, recorded January 19, 1931 by Dessa Foster and Howling Smith.

Vocalion 04560 – Light Crust Doughboys – 1938

“Now listen ev’rybody from near and far, if you wanta know who we are—we’re the Light Crust Doughboys from Burrus Mill!”

For more than eight decades and counting, the national song of the greatest state on earth has been played by the Light Crust Doughboys of Fort Worth, Texas, from their beginnings with Bob Wills and Milton Brown, they were among the earliest groups to pioneer the jazzed up hillbilly music we now call western swing.

The Light Crust Doughboys from Burrus Mill on the air in the early 1940s.  From left-to-right: Zeke (Muryel Campbell), Cecil Brower, Bashful (Dick Reinhart), announcer Parker Willson, Abner (Kenneth Pitts), Snub (Ramon DeArman), Junior (Marvin Montgomery), and Knocky Parker. Pictured in the WFAA-KGKO-WBAP 1941 Combined Family Album.

The venerable Light Crust Doughboys got their start in 1931, when W. Lee O’Daniel, a manager of the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company in Saginaw, Texas, set out to hire musicians to promote the company’s product on the radio waves.  Meanwhile, the Wills Fiddle Band, consisting of fiddler Jim Rob Wills, guitarist Herman Arnspiger, and singer Milton Brown, were eager to secure a corporate sponsor as the Great Depression tightened its grip.  They had previously worked under the employ of an electric lamp company as the “Aladdin Laddies”, and Wills convinced O’Daniel and Burrus to sponsor the act in 1931.  Newly christened the “Light Crust Doughboys”, after the flour Burrus produced, they made their radio debut under O’Daniel’s management around the beginning of 1931, with announcer Truett Kimsey establishing their famous introduction: “the Light Crust Doughboys are on the air!”  Soon after, O’Daniel canceled the show because he didn’t like their “hillbilly” music.  Fortunately, they’d already built a sizable base of fans, and public outcry forced O’Daniel to reinstate their program.  The original lineup of Doughboys made one record—against O’Daniel’s wishes—for RCA Victor as the “Fort Worth Doughboys”, but it wasn’t long before the members parted ways.  Milton Brown got fed up with O’Daniel’s management (he required that they also work factory jobs for Burrus) and left to form his own Musical Brownies, while Bob Wills was fired for consistent unreliability the following year, so a new group of musicians assumed the mantle of Doughboys.  By the time the band recorded again in 1933, this time for Vocalion, only Arnspiger remained from its original roster, and new members included Leon Huff and Ramon DeArman.  Come 1935, W. Lee O’Daniel was fired from Burrus Mill, and founded his own flour company with a new radio band to match, but the Doughboys stayed put.

All throughout the Great Depression years, thousands of listeners tuned their radios to listen in on the Light Crust Doughboys on stations across the Southwest.  On the side, they continued to record successfully for Vocalion (and later Okeh and Columbia, once the label was discontinued in 1940), and even appeared in movies such as the Gene Autry picture Oh, Susanna!  In 1936, they hired tenor banjo player Marvin (“Smokey”) Montgomery, who would become a mainstay of the group, composing many of the pieces they played, and eventually becoming the band’s de facto leader.  As was so often the case, when World War II rolled in, many band members went off to fight, and Burrus canceled their show in 1942.  After the war was through however, the band was reinstated in 1946, fronted by singer and fiddle player Jack Perry, though it never recovered its prewar popularity, and only lasted a few years.  Yet an end for the Doughboys wasn’t to be, for in the 1960s, Marvin Montgomery revived the group, and he continued to be involved with the group until shortly before his death in 2001.  Management of the group was assumed by Art Greenhaw in 1993, and the Doughboys shifted their focus more toward gospel music.  To this day, though the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company is long gone, the Light Crust Doughboys remain the “official music ambassadors of the Lone Star State,” by decree of the state’s legislature.

Vocalion 04560 was recorded in Dallas, Texas on November 30, 1938.  The Light Crust Doughboys are Buck Buchanan and Kenneth “Abner” Pitts on fiddles, Muryel “Zeke” Campbell on steel guitar, “Knocky” Parker on piano, Marvin “Junior” (later “Smokey”) Montgomery on tenor banjo and tenor guitar, Ramon “Snub” DeArman on guitar, and Jim Boyd on string bass.

First, Pitts, Montgomery, and DeArman sing and meow Marvin Montgomery’s “Pussy, Pussy, Pussy”, a perfectly innocent little ditty about a young girl who’s looking for her pet cat—honest!  This song proved quite a hit in coin machines and even attracted the attention of Fats Waller.  The Doughboys followed it up the next year with “We Found Her Little Pussy Cat”, and in fact the song proved popular enough that it remains in the Doughboys’ repertoire even in the modern day.

Pussy, Pussy, Pussy, recorded November 30, 1938 by the Light Crust Doughboys.

Next, they take it slow and easy on an instrumental performance of Joe Sullivan’s “Gin Mill Blues”, served as straight up, if rather barrelhouse jazz for the most part, with only a dash of “hillbilly” flavor, highlighting the talent of pianist Knocky Parker.

Gin Mill Blues, recorded November 30, 1938 by the Light Crust Doughboys.

Paramount 12296 – Charlie Jackson – 1925

Papa Charlie Jackson, as he appeared in the Paramount Book of Blues, circa 1927.

The time has come to pay tribute to one of the greatest and most prolific “songster” musicians to record, as well as one of my own personal favorites: the incomparable Papa Charlie Jackson.

“Papa” Charlie Jackson was born in New Orleans, purportedly on November 10, 1887 and by the name William Henry Jackson.  The Paramount Book of Blues described his character as “witty—cheerful—kind hearted,” and armed with a commanding voice and banjo-playing skills to match, he started out playing in tent shows and vaudeville, eventually winding up in Chicago.  Rather than the more common guitar or five-string banjo, Jackson opted for the somewhat unconventional six-string banjo-guitar, though he occasionally switched to a standard acoustic guitar.  In Chicago, Jackson performed at various local establishments and busked on Maxwell Street.  Signed to Paramount Records in the summer of 1924, Jackson became the first male blues artist on the label’s roster—as well as one of the earliest male blues artists to record for anybody—and quickly one of its most successful regardless of sex.  In addition to his solo records, Jackson recorded in duet with Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Blind Blake, and Hattie McDaniel on separate occasions, and provided banjo and vocals for jazz bands such as Freddie Keppard’s Jazz Cardinals and Tiny Parham’s “Forty” Five.  A few of his songs, notably “Shake that Thing” and “Salty Dog”, achieved huge success.  From 1924 until 1930, Jackson recorded around seventy hokum, blues, and folk songs for Paramount, not counting those where he was an accompanist or instrumentalist.  Well into the Great Depression and after four years of recording silence, Jackson concluded his recording career with two sessions for Okeh in 1934 yielding two records, followed by one unconfirmed 1935 session for Bluebird backing Big Bill Broonzy.  Falling thereafter into a period of total obscurity, Charlie Jackson died in Chicago on May 7, 1938.

Paramount 12296 was recorded around August of 1925 in Chicago, Illinois by Charlie Jackson, singing with accompaniment by his own banjo-guitar.

First up, Papa Charlie sings a little hokum on the classic “Mama Don’t Allow It (And She Ain’t Gonna Have it Here)”, a variant of the timeless “Mama Don’t Allow”, usually attributed to Cow Cow Davenport.  Here the composer is credited as William Henry Jackson.

Mama Don’t Allow It (And She Ain’t Gonna Have it Here), recorded c. August 1925 by Charlie Jackson.

Next, Jackson sings his own “Take Me Back Blues”, one of his many compositions.  Evidently a popular number, he later followed this tune up with “Take Me Back Blues No. 2” in 1929, issued on Paramount 12797, that time on an ordinary acoustic guitar and with considerably less energy.

Take Me Back Blues, recorded c. August 1925 by Charlie Jackson.

Champion 16081 – Hokum Boys – 1930

This record is a surprisingly obscure one considering its excellence, even in light of its extraordinary scarcity.  A Google search will yield precious few results, and the upload of the only side that’s on YouTube has accrued only around five-hundred views in more than half a decade.  Its rarity earned it a spot on Document Records’ “Too Late, Too Late: Newly Discovered Titles and Alternate Takes” series rather than their Hokum Boys or Big Bill Broonzy series proper, and that may be the only commercial reissue it’s ever gotten (I’m not sure).  To the few who know of it (mostly a small cadre of record collectors and blues researchers), it is held in high regard as perhaps Big Bill Broonzy’s best record.  I had the fortune of being enlightened to its existence some years ago, and the even greater fortune of being able to acquire a copy.  I hope to shed a much needed ray of sunshine onto this gem of prewar blues guitar, and help get it some of the recognition it deserves.

In 1930, Big Bill Broonzy was under the management of Chicago “race music” impresario Lester Melrose, and playing good-time music with Georgia Tom and Frank Brasswell (or Braswell, a.k.a. “The Western Kid”) as the “Hokum Boys” (a mantle originally used by Georgia Tom and Tampa Red).  Broonzy hadn’t recorded since his earliest, somewhat poorly received “Big Bill and Thomps” Paramount sessions of 1927 and ’28.  Among the tunes recorded by Broonzy and the Hokum Boys were (fittingly) hokum titles like “Somebody’s Been Using that Thing” and “Eagle Riding Papa” (both of which were later covered by Milton Brown), urban blues novelties like “Mama’s Leavin’ Town”, and fast guitar rags like “Saturday Night Rub” and “Pig Meat Strut”.  On the rags, Frank Brasswell’s flatpicked rhythm combined with Bill’s adept fingerpicking to make musical magic. The trio, occasionally including Delta blues man Arthur Petties, first recorded in New York for the American Record Corporation in various configurations and under various names, including “Sammy Sampson” for Bill’s solo work.  Next they traveled to Richmond, Indiana to cut several sides for the Starr Piano Company’s Champion label, all ones they had made previously for the ARC, this time with Bill’s solo work credited to “Big Bill Johnson”.  Those Champions were the last sides to feature Brasswell, who proceeded to drop off the face of the earth.  Bill on the other hand would go on to great acclaim.

Champion 16081 was recorded on May 2, 1930 in Richmond, Indiana.  The Hokum Boys are Big Bill Broonzy (recording for the Starr Piano Co. as “Big Bill Johnson”) and Frank Brasswell on guitars.  It sold a total of 959 copies, of which only a handful are known to exist today.  As such, it is listed in the “Rarest 78s” section of 78 Quarterly (issue number six), and while the total number of existing copies was not estimated at the time, a current estimate places the number at “fewer than ten known copies.”  More popular versions of both tunes were recorded for the American Record Corporation the previous month (and both, in my opinion, are not near as good as these).  There is some debate as to the correct playback speed for these recordings, with suggestions from my esteemed colleagues Mr. Russ Shor of Vintage Jazz Mart and Mr. Pete Whelan of 78 Quarterly ranging from the standard 78.26 RPM to 83 RPM.  Based on an E chord on a guitar in standard tuning, my best estimate would be that they should play at approximately 80 RPM, to which I’ve set the transfers posted herein.

First up, Bill and Frank get hot on Broonzy’s classic rag composition “Saturday Night Rub” with a performance described by blues guitar teacher Woody Mann as “one of the most hard-driving rag tunes ever recorded.”  Midway through, Bill utters those immortal words, “I’m gonna play this guitar tonight from A to Z!”

Saturday Night Rub, recorded May 2, 1930 by the Hokum Boys.

“Pig Meat Strut” on the “B” side is perhaps my favorite guitar instrumental (though there’s some stiff competition from Blind Blake, William Moore, Bayless Rose, Frank Hutchison, and others).  Bill and Frank’s “Famous Hokum Boys” version of the rag for the ARC, recorded a little less than a month before this one, is often hailed as one of his best (I say phooey), but it sounds like a hot mess compared to this masterpiece!  The riff used in “Pig Meat Strut” was seemingly ubiquitous in hokum of this era—such that I’d dub it the “hokum riff”—and appeared in a number of Broonzy and Brasswell’s other recordings of this era, later serving as the basis for Big Bill’s popular “Hey Hey” in 1951.  Interestingly, a nearly identical melody was also used by Texas blues man Little Hat Jones in his “Kentucky Blues”, recorded only a month after this one, though any actual connection between the two is unknown to me.

Man, did they get in the groove and how!

Pig Meat Strut, recorded May 2, 1930 by the Hokum Boys.

Vocalion 1216 – Tampa Red and Georgia Tom – 1928

On July 1, we commemorate the the 117th anniversary of the birth of Thomas A. Dorsey, known in different phases of his career as “Georgia Tom”, and as the “father of gospel music.”  In his long life, he was a prolific songwriter and recording artist of both religious and secular songs.

Thomas Andrew Dorsey was born July 1, 1899 in Villa Rica, Georgia, the son of a preacher and a piano teacher.  He began playing piano as a young man, and relocated to Chicago in 1916, where he was educated in music at the Chicago School of Composition and Arranging.  He began working for Paramount Records as an agent and accompanist, and made his name in the blues world as “Georgia Tom.”  During his time at Paramount, he worked with Ma Rainey and the Pace Jubilee Singers.  In 1921, he heard W.M. Nix sing at the National Baptist Convention, and by the end of the 1920s, Dorsey had begun his life’s work as a composer of gospel songs, though he continued to play blues primarily at that time.  In 1928, he teamed up with guitarist Hudson Whittaker, better known as Tampa Red, and made a hit with “It’s Tight Like That”.  Following that success, he and Tampa Red became the first of many combinations of musicians to record as the “Hokum Boys,” making music in a similar vein as “Tight Like That”, and the duo remained popular into the early 1930s.  After the hokum craze ended in the 1930s, Dorsey primarily worked writing sacred songs, and worked as a musical director at several churches.  By the end of his life, his blues work was largely forgotten, and he was renowned for his sacred songs as the “father of gospel music.”  After a long career, Dorsey died in Chicago in 1993, at the age of 93.

There are a number of different versions of the hokum blues classic “It’s Tight Like That” that will pop up here at some point.  We last heard it played by Zack Whyte’s Chocolate Beau Brummels, now here’s original recording, done on in 1928 by Tampa Red and Georgia Tom, the original Hokum Boys.  This record set off a craze for so called hokum songs, that is mostly peppy songs with humorously raunchy lyrics and often very thinly veiled innuendo, which reigned in popularity over more serious blues songs for a period in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Vocalion 1216 was recorded in Chicago on two separate dates, October 16, and November 6, 1928.  It features the guitar of Hudson Whittaker: “Tampa Red”, and the piano of Thomas A. Dorsey: “Georgia Tom”, with both singing the vocals.

Recorded on the latter date, “It’s Tight Like That” was one of the biggest blues hits of the 1920s, and remains a hokum blues staple.  The label rather humorously (at least I think so) lists the composer credits for Hudson Whittaker and Thomas A. Dorsey as “Tampa – Dorsey”, some later issues corrected this error.

It's Tight Like That, recorded

It’s Tight Like That, recorded November 6, 1928 by Tampa Red and Georgia Tom.

Next, Georgia Tom sings solo, accompanied by Tampa Red on guitar on “Grievin’ Me Blues”, one of those songs that, even though a little on the humorous side, I feel just emanates the essence of blues music.  This one was recorded on the earlier date.

Grievin' Me Blues, recorded

Grievin’ Me Blues, recorded October 16, 1928 by Georgia Tom.

Updated with improved audio on May 23, 2017.