Victor V-40311 – Stuart Hamblen – 1930

Texas-born singer, songwriter, and storyteller Stuart Hamblen made his greatest hit with gospel songs in the 1950s, but many years earlier he got his start as pioneering singing cowboy, and helped push along the birth of “country and western” music in the days when the genre was narily yet zygotic.

Stuart Hamblen, pictured on a 1930 Victor flyer.

Carl Stuart Hamblen was born on October 20, 1908 in Kellyville, Texas, four miles west of Jefferson, the son of itinerant Methodist preacher Dr. J.H. Hamblen.  As a boy, he spent much of his time traveling with his father on his evangelical pursuits, eventually taking the young Stuart to Hamlin, Texas, out Abilene way.  There he encountered the lore of the western cowboy, and his songs, as well as that of black field hands.  He attended McMurry College with intentions to become a teacher, but instead was drawn to music.  In 1926, Stuart Hamblen began singing on KFYO in Abilene, by some accounts making him radio’s first singing cowboy.  Three years later, he won a talent contest in Dallas, and used the cash prize to secure passage northward to Camden, New Jersey, home of the Victor Talking Machine Company, where he aimed to make some records, following much in the footsteps of his antecedent Carl T. Sprague.

On June 6, 1929, Hamblen made his recording debut with four sides for Victor, singing and strumming his guitar to “The Boy in Blue”, “Drifting Back to Dixie”, “When the Moon Shines Down Upon the Mountain”, and “The Big Rock Candy Mountains, No. 2”.  Thereafter, the young man went west, to California, where he became “Cowboy Joe” on Los Angeles’ KFI.  Meanwhile, he made a further ten sides for Victor through 1931, culminating with his own popular compositions “My Brown-Eyed Texas Rose” and “My Mary”, both later popularly covered by the likes of the Light Crust Doughboys, Milton Brown, and others.  By the middle of the 1930s, Hamblen had formed a western band called his “Covered Wagon Jubilee” (or simply his “Gang”), which at one point included guitarist Wesley Tuttle, and with whom he recorded again, first making a pair of unreleased sides for the American Record Corporation in 1934, before signing with Decca for another nine that year and the next, of which all but one were released.  Those proved to be his last records for nearly a decade, none of which ever seemed to sell very well, and he focused primarily on his radio work.  From the late 1930s through the ’40s, Hamblen also appeared in several motion pictures, several of which starred Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and John Wayne.  In 1938, he ran for Congress in California, as a Democrat.  During World War II, he wrote and sang some patriotic songs, and recorded again for Russian spy Boris Morros’ American Recording Artists (ARA) label in 1944.

At the height of his singing cowboy fame, Stuart Hamblen built up quite a reputation as a hard drinker, gambler, and all-around hellraiser.  He’d get drunk, shoot out streetlights, and get sent to jail, only to have his sponsors bail him out so he could be on the radio the next day.  But that changed when Billy Graham came to Los Angeles on his first Crusade in 1949.  Hamblen’s wife persuaded him to attend the revival, and the reverend turned his life around.  Hamblen experienced a religious awakening, and announced the very next day on his radio program that he was “hitting the sawdust trail.”  From then on out, he dedicated his work to sacred music, composing “It is No Secret (What God Can Do)” and “This Ole House”, and recording far more prolifically—and successfully—than ever before, with sessions for Columbia, RCA Victor, and Coral.  He also prominently supported the temperance movement, and, after his radio show was canceled because he refused to do advertise beer, he renewed his political ambitions in 1952 with a presidential run on the Prohibition Party ticket, garnering 72,949 votes.  He also remained associated with Billy Graham, who credited much of his success to Hamblen’s timely conversion.  Hamblen was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, and was honored with “Stuart Hamblen Day” Los Angeles on February 13, 1976 and later with “Stuart Hamblen Days” in Jefferson, Texas.  Following a battle with brain cancer, Stuart Hamblen died at the age of eighty on March 8, 1989.

Victor V-40311 was recorded in Hollywood, California on August 21, 1930.  It was released on October 17th of that year, and sold a total of 1,826 copies.  Hamblen is accompanied by his own guitar, as well as unidentified players on steel guitar and fiddle.

Hamblen sounds rather like Ernest Tubb (who would not make a record for another six years) as he sings and yodels his own composition “Sailor’s Farewell”.

Sailor’s Farewell, recorded August 21, 1930 by Stuart Hamblen.

On the reverse, he sings a cowboy’s tale of heartache on another original composition: “By the Sleepy Rio Grande”.

By the Sleepy Rio Grande, recorded August 21, 1930 by Stuart Hamblen.

Hollywood No. 1 – Roll Grane – 1938

Something about the Great Depression must have given folks World’s Fair fever, for at least five different expositions were held in the United States in the 1930s.  I can’t say I blame them either, a trip to a World’s Fair would probably do a lot to lift my spirits right now, and I’m not even experiencing economic ruin, severe drought, and another world war on the horizon, but I digress.  It seems that these fairs got people to singing, and some of them even had official records released in their honor, to be sold among the countless trinkets and souvenirs that could be brought home from one.  Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress Exposition commissioned two pieces, one a pop song by local bandleader Art Kassel, the other a march by the renowned John Philip Sousa—his last composition, in fact.  The 1939 New York World’s Fair got George and Ira Gershwin to pen a song in its honor prior to the former’s untimely demise.

The Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939 in San Francisco was not as grandiose an affair, but it still managed to attract the attention of songwriters.  One such individual was Mr. Roll Grane of Oakland, California.  A California native and member of the California Contented Club, which was evidently a heavy promoter of the San Francisco fair, in 1938 he composed a ditty titled “I’m Off to California in the Morning” to bring attention to the event, and to San Francisco’s bridges.  A competent guitarist and vaudevillian vocalist with an eccentric style, Grane himself performed his song for the radio, and copies of the sheet music were distributed around Oakland at conventions in the year preceding the Exposition.  Though the fair attracted significant crowds, Grane himself fell victim to obscurity, and details regarding his life and times are virtually non-existent.

Hollywood No. 1 (matrix number “H5”) was recorded on September 19, 1938, possibly in either Los Angeles or San Francisco, California, and was pressed by the Allied Phonograph and Record Mfg. Co.  It is a single sided record bearing a decorative etching on the reverse.  On it, Roll Grane sings and accompanies himself on guitar; his performance is announced at the beginning by an unknown individual.

Grane sings his own “I’m Off to California in the Morning”—”telling about our wonderful bridges… and exposition”—in a fashion sounding fresh off the vaudeville stage, and the song itself resembles a folksy take on the same sort of theme as the Century of Progress Exposition’s official song “In 1933”, advising listeners to head to California to visit the upcoming Golden Gate Exposition.  This song is Mr. Grane’s sole claim to any sort of lasting fame, and it is probably the only recording he ever made.

I’m Off to California in the Morning, recorded September 19, 1938 by Roll Grane.

Victor 23580 – Jimmie Rodgers – 1930/1931

Jimmie Rodgers gussied up in a tuxedo, with his signature “Blue Yodel” Martin guitar, circa 1930.

After ascending to stardom with hits like “Sleep Baby Sleep” and “Blue Yodel”, Jimmie Rodgers began relentlessly touring across the United States, often to his own physical detriment.  In the summer of 1930, Rodgers was in Hollywood.  While there he had a total of ten recording sessions between the thirtieth of June and the sixteenth of July.  During that time, he recorded a total of fourteen sides, including such classics as “Moonlight and Skies”, “Pistol Packin’ Papa”, and “Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues)”, and was backed by a variety of talent including Lani McIntire’s Hawaiians and Bob Sawyer’s Jazz Band.  On his final Hollywood session, Rodgers recorded only a single title, another installment in his “Blue Yodel” series titled “Standin’ On the Corner”.  For accompaniment, he was joined by a young trumpeter who had just arrived in California for an engagement at Frank Sebastian’s New Cotton Club in Culver City, an up-and-coming talent named Louis Armstrong, and his wife Lil on piano.  How exactly this rather unlikely collaboration came to be is lost to time; Armstrong in later years recounted that he’d “been knowin’ Jimmie for a long time,” and “Jimmie said, ‘man, I feel like singin’ some blues,’ [and Louis] said ‘okay daddy, you sing some blues, and I’m gonna blow behind you,’ and that’s the way the record started!”  It certainly wasn’t the first time Rodgers had been backed by jazz players.  Likely, the session was engineered by Ralph Peer, who was acquainted with Armstrong as well as Rodgers.  In any event, the resulting music etched into hot wax that day became the stuff of legend, three great American styles of music—jazz, blues, and “hillbilly”—all crossed paths to make something even greater, brought together by two of the greatest figures in all of America’s rich musical legacy: Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong.

Victor 23580 was recorded in two separate sessions, the first on July 16, 1930 in Hollywood, California, and the second on June 15, 1931 in Louisville, Kentucky.  Victor files report a total of 25,071 copies sold—not bad for 1931.  The 78 Quarterly included the disc in their “Rarest 78s” section of the tenth issue, suggesting “less than fifteen?”  Frankly, I suspect that there are quite a few more copies out there than that, but it is regardless one of Rodgers’ more sought after records due to the accompaniment.  On the “A” side, Rodgers is accompanied by Louis and Lil Armstrong on trumpet and piano, respectively.  On “B” he is accompanied by Cliff Carlisle on steel guitar, Wilber Ball on guitar, and his own ukulele.

On the “A” side, Jimmie sings and yodels that rough-and-tumble blues number, the ninth entry in his famous series, “Blue Yodel Number 9 (Standin’ On the Corner)”.  The song bears considerable resemblance to another blues song on which Louis played four years prior: “The Bridwell Blues” by Nolan Walsh, which featured a similar piano and trumpet accompaniment and the opening lines, “I was standing on the corner, did not mean no harm… and a police came, nabbed me by my arm,” raising questions over whether Rodgers was familiar with Armstrong’s work, or, conversely, that Armstrong had an uncredited hand in composing the song.  “The Bridwell Blues” itself was preceded by “Standing On the Corner Blues” by Ozie McPherson, further cementing Jimmie Rodgers’ foundation in the blues, and the “standin’ on the corner” lyric dates back at least to the 1895 Ben Harney and John Biller composition “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon but You’ve Done Broke Down”, likely earlier.

Blue Yodel Number 9, recorded July 16, 1930 by Jimmie Rodgers.

On the reverse, Jimmie sings another dilly: “Looking for a New Mama”.  This is one of only two recorded sides that have Jimmie playing ukulele (the other being “Dear Old Sunny South By the Sea” from 1928).  Ralph Peer in later years opined that Rodgers’ peculiar chording techniques on the guitar were carried over from his skill on the ukulele.  Jimmie also claimed proficiency on banjo and steel guitar, though he was never recorded playing either.

Looking for a New Mama, recorded June 15, 1931 by Jimmie Rodgers.

Columbia 36886 – Frank Sinatra – 1945

After exhausting some of my best patriotic material on last year’s Fourth of July, I had to deliberate considerably on what I should discuss on this year’s Independence Day.  Although it steps a bit out of Old Time Blues’ usual prewar milieu, I don’t think I could find a more beautifully patriotic record that better captures what it means to be an American than this 1945 Frank Sinatra classic.  This also marks the official debut of my new pre-owned Grado phonograph cartridge (although I’ve updated the audio on some older posts), so the sound should be a little crisper than in the past.

Columbia 36886 was recorded in two sessions, the first around 8:45 PM on August 22, 1945, the second around 9:15 PM on August 27, 1945, both in Hollywood, California.  On the first date, Axel Stordahl conducts an orchestra made up of Uan Rasey, Leonard Mach, and Bruce Hudson on trumpet, Peter Beilman, Elmer Smithers, and Carl Loeffler on trombone, James Stagliano on French horn, Fred Stulce, Heinie Beau, Don Lodice, Harold Lawson, and Leonard Hartman on reeds, Sam Freed, Jr., Nicholas Pisani, Peter Ellis, Sol Kindler, Mischa Russell, Gerald Joyce, Samuel Cytron, Howard Halbert, David Frisina, Anthony Perrotti, Walter Edelstein, and William Bloom on violins, David Sterkin, Maurice Perlmutter, and Allan Harshman on viola, Cy Bernard, Jack Sewell, and Arthur Kafton on ‘cello, Ann Mason Stockton on harp, Frank Leithner on piano, Perry Botkin on guitar, Jack Ryan on string bass, and Ray Hagan on drums.  On the second date, the orchestra is largely the same, except Charles Griffard replaces Rasey on trumpet, Jimmy Skiles replaces Beilman on trombone, John Cave replaces Stagliano on horn, Mannie Gershman replaces Stulce on reeds, Olcott Vail, Victor Arno, and George Kast replace Joyce, Halbert, and Bloom on violin, Garry White replaces Harshman on viola, Fred Goerner and Nicholas Ochi-Albi replace Bernard and Kafton on ‘cello, and Lauretta McFarland, Mark McIntyre, and Dave Barbour replace Stockton, Leithner, and Botkin on harp, piano, and guitar, respectively.

In 1945, shortly after the conclusion of the Second World War, the young Frank Sinatra, ever a hit with the bobby soxers, starred in an RKO Radio Pictures short film, written by Albert Maltz and directed by Mervyn LeRoy, titled The House I Live In.  In it, Sinatra, taking five from a recording session, breaks up a fight between a group of schoolboys, who are putting the hurt on a peer for being Jewish.  Frank steps in and teaches the boys a lesson on tolerance, and what it means to be an American, before singing the titular song.  The moving film won an honorary Academy Award and Golden Globe for its excellence, and was in later years inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

With music by Earl Robinson and words by Abel Meeropol (under the pen name Lewis Allan), “The House I Live In” made its debut in 1942 as part of the revue Let Freedom Sing, before it came to star in the film of the same name.  Although it was written by individuals whose politics would only a few years later gain them McCarthy-era ostracism, I can think of few songs so truthfully and patriotically American as “The House I Live In”.  It reflects truly timeless values that are every bit as valid today as they were then.

The House I Live In, recorded August 22, 1945 by Frank Sinatra.

Maintaining the patriotic theme, on the flip, Sinatra is joined by the Ken Lane Singers for a lovely rendition of “America, the Beautiful”.

America, the Beautiful, recorded August 27, 1945 by Frank Sinatra.

Brunswick 6472 – Bing Crosby with Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians – 1933

Guy Lombardo. From 1932 P&G publication.

Guy Lombardo. From 1932 P&G publication.

Today we honor the consummate bandleader Guy Lombardo, whose Royal Canadians were a staple on records and radio for many decades—and who better to help celebrate the occasion than old Der Bingle?

Gaetano Alberto Lombardo was born in London, Ontario on June 19, 1902.  His father had each of his children learn to play different instruments so they could accompany his singing.  The Lombardo brothers put their first orchestra together when they were still children, and they first played in public in 1914.  Ten years later, Guy Lombardo and his Orchestra made their first recordings for the Starr Piano Company in Richmond, Indiana, released on the Gennett label.  After Gennett, the Royal Canadians recorded briefly for Brunswick, which yielded two issued sides on Vocalion in 1927, and then with Columbia, with whom he stayed until 1931.  Following his engagement with Columbia, he took his band to Brunswick from 1932 to ’34, then to Decca, as many Brunswick artists did after former employee Jack Kapp founded the company.  The Royal Canadians switched to Victor for a period, before returning to Decca in 1938.  Lombardo’s was perhaps most famous for his New Years Eve shows, which began at the Roosevelt Hotel in 1929, and continued until after his death, with the tradition carried on by his band, despite competition from Dick Clark.  Though Lombardo’s “sweet” style of music was derided by many jazz fans who preferred their music served hot, he was reportedly hailed by the likes of both Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.  Guy Lombardo died of a heart attack on November 5, 1977.

Brunswick 6472 was recorded January 12, 1933 in New York City by Bing Crosby accompanied by Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians.  Both songs originate from the 1933 musical film 42nd Street.

First, Bing croons “Young and Healthy”, with Lombardo’s Royal Canadians in fine form.

Young and Healthy

Young and Healthy, recorded January 12, 1933 by Bing Crosby with Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians.

On the flip-side, Lombardo takes top billing on “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me”.

You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me

You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me, recorded Janury 12, 1933 by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians with Bing Crosby.