Victor 23503 – Jimmie Rodgers – 1930

Today I present a record that stands out particularly in the annals of history, one of the best of the one-hundred-and-some-odd songs recorded by America’s Blue Yodeler, Mr. Jimmie Rodgers: the very first recording of the classic country song “Mule Skinner Blues”.

An advertisement for Victor 23503 from a 1930 Victor promotional flyer.

I must say that this record is something of a “holy grail” to me, it’s one I sought for a long, long time, and words cannot describe the feeling of finally having it in my grasp.  I searched for what at least seemed like ages, until a nice copy finally appeared on eBay.  I managed to win the auction, and after what seemed like an eternity, this one was delivered, albeit packed woefully inadequately.  Thankfully, by what I can only describe as the grace of God, it made it into my possession safely in that LP mailer without the slightest damage, and boy is it a thing to behold.

Victor 23503 was recorded on July 10 and 11, 1930 in Hollywood, California, and issued on February 6, 1931 in Victor’s 23500 series for “Old Familiar Tunes.”  As designated by the small “o” above  Nipper’s nose near the top of the label, this copy was pressed at the Victor plant in Oakland, California.  Several days later, while still in Hollywood, Jimmie recorded with Louis Armstrong, who was at the time appearing at Frank Sebastian’s New Cotton Club in Los Angeles.  Jimmie was in exceptionally fine form at these Hollywood sessions, and they turned out to be quite productive.

In the latter of the two sessions, Jimmie cut his renowned “Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues)” in only one take, just after recording his railroad tune “The Mystery of Number Five” (Victor 23518), the only two sides he recorded that day.  Rodgers’ opening line, “Good mornin’, captain.  Good mornin’, shine,” appeared two years earlier in Tom Dickson’s “Labor Blues” (Okeh 8570), though the rest of the song bears no resemblance to Rodgers’ Blue Yodel, lyrically or melodically.  Whether Rodgers picked up the verse from Dickson’s song or elsewhere, I couldn’t say.  This recording stands out as one of a relative few that Rodgers made during the later phase of his career to feature self-accompaniment on his own guitar (fewer than half of his recordings feature his own accompaniment, and the bulk of those were made prior to 1930), and his playing is at his finest, with a rare guitar solo midway through.

Around 1940, the song was resurrected by Grand Ole Opry players Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff (separately), and many times subsequently.  In 1955, Rodgers’ recording—along with a number of his other sides—was overdubbed with Hank Snow’s band and reissued in an effort to keep the music “up-to-date.”

This was the song that introduced me to Jimmie Rodgers, and has always been one of my favorites—if not my very favorite—as well as one of Jimmie’s most enduring songs.  I was first familiar with Dolly Parton’s 1970 recording, which was one of my favorites as a boy—when I first heard Jimmie yodeling it, boy, it was a whole other world!  Not only did it spark my love for Rodgers’ music, but it was a major factor in starting me down the road of collecting 78 records.  I could listen to it a million times and never tire.

Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues), recorded

Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues), recorded July 11, 1930 by Jimmie Rodgers.

On the “B” side, “Jimmie’s Mean Mama Blues”, recorded the previous day, Jimmie is accompanied by an outstandingly hot Hollywood-based five piece jazz band led by pianist Bob Sawyer, who co-wrote the tune with one Walter O’Neal.  Another Rodgers classic, this tune was later covered by Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys in 1936, sung by Tommy Duncan.  I love how the band stops playing during Jimmie’s first yodel, leaving just him and his guitar.  We previously sampled Sawyer’s work with Carlyle Stevenson’s band five years prior to this.

Jimmie's Mean Mama Blues, recorded

Jimmie’s Mean Mama Blues, recorded July 10, 1930 by Jimmie Rodgers.

Updated with improved audio on June 20, 2017, and on July 10, 2017.

Restored Photographs of Old Hollywood

Digging through an old box of my family heirlooms, among the family photos, bible, and a few pieces of 1930s sheet music, I discovered this small collection of photographs of 1920s movie stars.  Unfortunately, they are all badly damaged from mold, and many are heavily stained.

Fortunately, using the magic of computers, I was able to restore some of them to something resembling their original glory.  With a combination of the GIMP to clean up the damage and Picasa to restore the original warm sepia tones, here they are.  I must say, the hair was difficult to fix.  It’s no professional fix, but I think they look pretty decent, if I’m to toot my own horn.

Interestingly, all these personalities were among those that failed to make the transition to talking pictures in the late 1920s and into the 1930s, all the ladies had outright quit acting by 1930, while Fairbanks held on a little longer, but never made as much of a hit in talkies as in the silents.  Mary Miles Minter left acting in 1923 after the scandal surrounding the murder of director William Desmond Taylor.  Also interesting to note, all these actors, besides Minter, were among the first stars to place their hand and footprints in the forecourt at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, a tradition which allegedly started when Norma Talmadge accidentally stepped in the wet cement there.

From left to right, top to bottom, you see Douglas Fairbanks, whom I actually fixed up long before the others, and the photo was in much better shape to begin with, Mary Miles Minter, Constance Talmadge (her hair was really a devil to clean up), and Norma Talmadge.  If I had to guess, I’d say that all these photographs date to around 1920.

Brunswick 4677 – Harry Richman with Earl Burtnett and his Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel Orchestra – 1930

Today, August 10th, marks the 120th birthday of one of my favorite vaudevillians, Harry Richman, so for your listening pleasure today, I present one of my favorite records of all time, one of the best of the many excellent songs by Irving Berlin, the great “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in its original iteration, performed by Richman, the song’s originator.  This is about as close as you can get to an “original recording” from an age when songwriters wrote their songs and all the record companies made their own records at about the same time.

Harry Richman, born Harold Reichman on August 10, 1895 in Cincinnati, Ohio, spent the bulk of the 1920s working the vaudeville circuit.  In 1926, he became a hit, starring in George White’s Scandals, and by 1930 scored himself the starring role in the motion picture “Puttin’ on the Ritz”.  The movie was not a huge success, due in part to Richman’s “overpowering” personality, but the movie’s titular theme song was a hit record for Richman.  Richman continued to perform as usual after that, debuting in 1932 what would become his radio theme, “I Love a Parade”.

Irving Berlin first penned “Puttin’ on the Ritz”, which would later become one of his most famous compositions, in May 1927, but did not publish it until December 1929. Its lyrics tell of the at the time common occurrence of White people visiting Harlem for the jazzy atmosphere cultivated by its black residents, a Jazz Age account of a time when, as Langston Hughes put it, “the Negro was in vogue”.  About fifteen years later, Berlin revised the song’s lyrics with more timely lyrics about the opulent lifestyle of Park Avenue dwellers, which are more commonly remembered today.

On Brunswick 4677, Harry Richman sings “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “There’s Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie” from the motion picture Puttin’ on the Ritz, accompanied on both by Earl Burtnett’s Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel Orchestra.  Both sides were recorded January 30, 1930 in Los Angeles, California.  The Biltmore Hotel Orchestra consists of Fuzz Menge on trumpet, Fran Baker on cornet, Lank Menge on trombone, Hank and Gene Miller on clarinet and alto sax, Fred Stoddard on clarinet and tenor sax, Earl Burtnett on piano, Bill Grantham on banjo, Harry Robison on string bass, and Jess Kirkpatrick on drums.

On “A”, Richman sings, well, if you can’t figure that out yourself by now then you sure haven’t been paying much attention!

Puttin' on the Ritz, recorded January 30, 1930 by Harry Richman.

Puttin’ on the Ritz, recorded January 30, 1930 by Harry Richman.

And on the flip, Richman sings his own collaborative composition, “There’s Danger in Your Eyes, Chérie”.

There's Danger in Your Eyes Chérie, recorded January 30, 1930 by Harry Richman

There’s Danger in Your Eyes Chérie, recorded January 30, 1930 by Harry Richman.

Updated on June 24, 2016.