Brunswick 7043 – Ben Norsingle – 1928

Yet another casualty to the march of time, Dallas singer Ben Norsingle cut two records for the Brunswick company in 1928, yet today he resides among the countless practitioners of the early blues now shrouded in obscurity.   What can be gleaned of his life, however, makes for a most interesting story.

Benjamin Norsingle was born in the vicinity of Dallas, Texas, around either 1901 or 1906, the son of Andy and Betty Norsingle.  The details surrounding his early life are lost to time, but by his young adulthood, he was singing in Fort Worth with John Henry Bragg and others.  There, he was discovered by Dallas blues impresario Hattie Burleson, who signed him up with Ella B. Moore’s “Hot Ella Company” vaudeville troupe, performing at the Park Theater.  Burleson also arranged for Norsingle’s sole record date, with Brunswick during their first field trip to Dallas in 1928, resulting in four sides backed by a small jazz band typical for the time and place.  When the Hot Ella Company folded and Ella Moore made for Kansas City in 1930, Norsingle went to Cincinnati to perform with Melvin Shannon.  By the next year he was in Chicago, where he and a young man named John Reed were accused (whether rightfully or wrongfully I do not know) of slaying a butcher named John Martin during a holdup of his shop on August 3, 1931.  Norsingle fled back to Dallas in the aftermath, but was apprehended after a few weeks and confessed to the crime.  Brought back to Chicago, he and his accomplice were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.  Despite a temporary stay of execution from Governor Louis L. Emmerson in December of 1931 for the duo to appeal their case to the Supreme Court, Ben Norsingle was strapped into the electric chair in the Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois, and executed at 12:10 A.M. on January 15, 1932, immediately following Reed.  In his final moments amongst the living, Norsingle’s accomplice John Reed made a final statement attributing his downfall to “bad company,” and adding that the world would be better if “boys would be obedient to their parents.”

Brunswick 7043 was recorded in Dallas, Texas on October 28, 1928 by Ben Norsingle.  He is accompanied by a small band made up mostly of members of Troy Floyd’s Plaza Hotel Orchestra from San Antonio, with Don Albert on trumpet, Allen Vann on piano, John Henry Bragg (or Caffrey Darensbourg) on guitar, and Charlie Dixon on tuba.

Norsingle first sings the low-down “Motherless Blues”, a song which might have been something of a downer if not for his matter-of-fact delivery.  While Norsingle possessed decent vocal faculties, and his accompaniment was top-notch, critics have criticized his nearly utter lack of emotion in the songs he sang.

Motherless Blues, recorded October 28, 1928 by Ben Norsingle.

Rather foreshadowing his untimely demise, Norsingle spins a yarn of ill-favor by fate on “Black Cat Blues”.  You may note that both songs bear composer’s credit to Hattie Burleson, who was responsible for both “discovering” Norsingle and bringing him to the attention of the Brunswick company.

Black Cat Blues, recorded October 28, 1928 by Ben Norsingle.

Vocalion 03174 – J. H. Bragg and his Rhythm Five – 1935

Today’s selections highlights banjo picker J.H. Bragg, who was quite a prolific player in the Texas jazz scene of the 1920s and ’30s, but like many of his contemporaries, has fallen into near total obscurity in the present day.

John Henry Bragg was born in Fort Worth, Texas on August 10, 1898 into a family of musicians.  His father was a medicine show entertainer in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and later taught all of his family to play instruments.  John Bragg learned to play guitar and piano, but later switched to banjo because it could be better heard over a band.  Bragg’s first professional engagement was with the Sadie Smith Jazz Band in Fort Worth around 1918.  He was married to blues singer Ardell “Shelly” Bragg, who recorded several sides for Paramount Records in 1926 and ’27.  In 1927, he went to San Antonio to play in Troy Floyd’s orchestra at the Plaza Hotel (and the Shadowland speakeasy), with whom he remained until the band broke up in the early ’30s.  In his later years, he claimed to have been responsible for introducing Don Albert to Floyd.  In late 1928, Bragg, along with some other members of Floyd’s orchestra, accompanied blues singers Hattie Burleson, Ben Norsingle, Jewell Nelson, and Ollie Ross in a series of sessions held by Brunswick and Columbia in Dallas.  Like his former band mate Don Albert, Bragg formed his own band in the 1930s, his Rhythm Five, though it never found the same notoriety as Albert’s famous swing band.  The Rhythm Five recorded but one session for Vocalion in 1935, which yielded four sides, all of which were issued.  During World War II, Bragg was hired to play at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, and he retired in 1968.  In 1980, he was interviewed by Sterlin Holmesly.  John Henry Bragg died on January 1, 1988, and was presumably buried next to his wife Ardell in San Antonio’s Eastview Cemetery, though no date was ever chiseled into his tombstone.

Vocalion 03174 was recorded on August 28, 1935 in San Antonio, Texas, the only session by Bragg’s Rhythm Five.  In the band are Joe Hathaway on alto sax, Al Freeman on piano, John Henry Bragg on banjo, and Walter Warden on string bass.  Israel Wicks sings the vocals.

First, one of more commonly reissued of the four sides waxed by Bragg’s Rhythm Five, “Frisky Honey” was featured on the CD compilation That Devilin’ Tune – A Jazz History (1895-1950).

Frisky Honey

Frisky Honey, recorded August 28, 1935 by J. H. Bragg and his Rhythm Five.

In their last side cut at the session, they play an energetic rendition of Cow Cow Davenport’s “Mama Don’t Allow” as “Mama Don’t Like Music”, with their “mama don’t allow no [what have you] played in here” verses allowing for ample solos from each musician.  I can’t find that this side has ever been commercially reissued, though I can’t understand why, it’s a fine tune.

Mama Don't Like Music

Mama Don’t Like Music, recorded August 28, 1935 by J. H. Bragg and his Rhythm Five.

Okeh 8571 – Troy Floyd and his Plaza Hotel Orchestra – 1928

The Lone Star State in the 1920s was home to a host of fantastic territory jazz bands, such as those of Alphonso Trent, Eddie Fennell and Sugar Lou Morgan, Fred Gardner, Jimmie Joy, and Le Roy Williams.  One of the most outstanding of these territory bands, both in musical virtuosity and history, was that of Troy Floyd.  Floyd’s eleven piece orchestra played at the Plaza Hotel in San Antonio, and gigged on-the-side at the Shadowland, a notorious speakeasy and one of the most successful jazz clubs in Texas.

Troy Floyd was born around San Antonio, Texas on January 5, 1901, and learned to play the saxophone and clarinet. He organized his first group, a sextet, in 1924. The group expanded over time, and by 1928, Floyd’s orchestra was playing at the Plaza Hotel and broadcasting on KTSA.  Floyd’s band made two released records, both featuring one song broken up into two parts, plus an unissued recording of “Wabash Blues” on two of Okeh Records’ field trips to San Antonio.  Floyd’s band holds special significance in Texas’ musical legacy, for, in addition to its own merit, it helped to launch the careers of at least two musicians of note; in the 1930s, New Orleans born trumpeter Don Albert started his own Texas-based swing band, and banjoist J.H. Bragg founded a jazz group of his own, both of which made several records with Vocalion in the 1930s.  Troy Floyd disbanded his orchestra in 1932, and later worked as a pool hall operator in San Diego, California, where he died on July 16, 1953.

Okeh 8571, part of their legendary race series, was recorded March 14, 1928 in San Antonio, Texas. The personnel features future band leader and trumpet virtuoso Don Albert and Willie Long on trumpets, Benny Long providing unique solos on trombone, Troy Floyd and N.J. “Siki” Collins on clarinet and alto sax, Scott Bagby on clarinet and tenor sax, John Henry Bragg on banjo, Allen Vann on piano, Charlie Dixon (a different one from Fletcher Henderson’s banjoist) on trombone and tuba, John Humphries on drums, and the bellowing Kellough Jefferson singing the vocal refrain.

The title of “Shadowland Blues” refers to the San Antonio speakeasy of the same name, though the lyrics, sung by Kellough Jefferson, make no reference to the club. This amazing territory band recording is characterized by what has been called the “gut bucket” trombone playing of Benny Long, which some have said mars the performance, but I disagree, I think it gives it a unique and rural character, as opposed to homogenized classically-trained, Whiteman-esque jazz.

A two-parter, they play “Shadowland Blues (Part 1)” on the first side…

Shadowland Blues (Part 1), recorded March 14, 1928 by Troy Floyd and his Plaza Hotel Orchestra.

…and “Shadowland Blues (Part 2)” on the back.

Shadowland Blues (Part 2), recorded March 14, 1928 by Troy Floyd and his Plaza Hotel Orchestra.

Updated with improved audio on July 9, 2017.