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 (No. 6), 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).  Per advice from Mr. Russ Shor, I’ve adjusted the transfers to playback at around 83 RPM, and per advice from Mr. Pete Whelan, I’ve also left in the original 78.26 RPM ones.  Take your pick.

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 riffs in “Pig Meat Strut” later became 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 of 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 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.

Columbia 14427-D – Bessie Smith – 1929

Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues. From Jazzmen, 1938.

Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues. From Jazzmen, 1939.

On this day, we celebrate the 122nd anniversary of the birthday of the Empress of the Blues herself, Bessie Smith.

Bessie Smith was born on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, though the 1900 census reported that she was born in 1892.  Both her parents died while she was still a child, and she and Bessie and some of her siblings turned to busking to make ends meet.  Her brother left to join Moses Stoke’s troupe in 1910, and returned later to take Bessie with him.  She worked, variously, in stage shows and on the T.O.B.A. vaudeville circuit.  In 1923, Smith was in New York, and made her first records for Columbia, with whom she would remain for the rest of her career, save for a few Columbia’s subsidiary Okeh.  She became a fixture of the Harlem Renaissance, and the highest paid black performer in the United States.  In 1929, she made her only filmed appearance in St. Louis Blues.  Hard times came with the Great Depression however, she made her final recordings on Columbia in 1931, and after a hiatus, made four more in 1933 for Okeh, accompanied by Buck Washington and his band, which proved to be her last.

In the wee hours of September 26, 1937, Bessie was riding down Highway 61—”the Blues Highway”—with her lover at the wheel, when his Packard collided with a slow-moving truck ahead.  Bessie was mortally wounded.  The first to arrive at the scene was one Dr. Smith who dressed Bessie’s wounds while his fishing buddy called for an ambulance.  After some time passed with no ambulance in sight, the doctor decided to move Bessie in his own car, when another car came screaming down the road and plowed into Bessie’s Packard, which bounced off Dr. Smith’s car and landed in the ditch off the side of the road.  Finally, two ambulances arrived, one from the white hospital, and another from the black hospital.  Bessie Smith was taken to the G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where her badly injured right arm was amputated, but she never regained consciousness, and died that morning.  (Contrary to rumors propagated by John Hammond, she did not die as a result of being brought to an all-white hospital, as she was not taken to an all-white hospital.)

Columbia 14427-D was recorded May 8, 1929 in New York City by Bessie Smith.  She is accompanied on piano by Clarence Williams and on guitar by Eddie Lang.  The DAHR shows takes “2” and “3” were issued on both sides, these are “3” and “2”, respectively.  Both sides are more than a bit on the raunchy side, so if you’re a prude, you may want to turn back here.

On the first side of this disc, Bessie sings “I’m Wild About That Thing”, probably one of her more famous tunes.

I'm Wild About That Thing

I’m Wild About That Thing, recorded May 8, 1929 by Bessie Smith.

On the reverse, Smith sings the equally racy “You’ve Got to Give Me Some”.

You've Got to Give Me Some

You’ve Got to Give Me Some, recorded May 8, 1929 by Bessie Smith.