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.

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.

Victor 19744 – Seger Ellis – 1925

Seger Ellis, as pictured on his Okeh record label.

The United States of America isn’t the only one born on the fourth of July, for it’s also the birthday of Texas’ own Seger Ellis, popular crooner of the Jazz Age.  But perhaps Ellis’ greatest talent was on the piano that gave him his start down the road to fame.

Seger Pillot Ellis was born on Independence Day of 1904 in Houston, Texas.  He learned to play piano sometime in his early years from Jack Sharpe (who later recorded with the KXYZ Novelty Band) and began performing on local radio station KPRC in 1925.  He also played in Lloyd Finlay’s Houston-based jazz band, with whom he made his first records when Victor made their first field trip to Texas in March of ’25.  Aside from the seven sides with Finlay, Ellis recorded two solo sides playing piano: “Prairie Blues” and “Sweet Lovable You”, both compositions of his own.  Both masters were rejected, apparently for technical reasons, but Ellis was invited thereafter to come to Camden, New Jersey and re-make them, and that he did.  Between 1925 and 1930, Seger Ellis recorded a total of twenty-three piano solos for Victor, Columbia, and Okeh records, of which only ten were released, all of them excellent hard-driving rag pieces showcasing a strong left hand.  In spite of his outstanding piano abilities, Ellis’ real fame was to come from his warbly tenor croon.

After signing with Okeh in 1926 as something of their answer to successful Victor artist (and fellow Texan) Gene Austin, Ellis rose to become one of the label’s most heavily promoted artists.  He toured England in 1928, and the same year was granted a picture label devoted to his records, an honor previously bestowed to the likes of Paul Whiteman and Ted Lewis.  A jazzbo through-and-through, Ellis’ accompaniment often included the Dorsey Brothers, and for one session Louis Armstrong, and in addition to his popular vocals, he sang alongside jazz bands like Frankie Trumbauer’s, and occasionally made “hillbilly” records as “Bud Blue”.  In 1929, he starred in a Warner Brothers Vitaphone short titled How Can I Love You?  He retained his successful engagement with Okeh through the end of 1930, at which time he briefly signed with Brunswick.  The Great Depression found Ellis in a period of recording dormancy, though he continued to work.  As a radio personality on Cincinnati’s WLW, Ellis is remembered for giving the Mills Brothers their big break.  In the 1930s, Ellis married vocalist Irene Taylor (the “Mississippi Mud girl”).  Ellis resumed his recording career for Decca in 1936, at first singing with Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra, but soon starting up a swing band of his own.  Two years later, he returned to Brunswick, this time as director of his “Choir of Brass” orchestra, featuring Taylor as vocalist.  That band lasted until 1941—moving to Vocalion and later Okeh following Brunswick’s demise—after which Ellis returned home to Texas and divorced Irene Taylor.  Ellis served his country during the war, and afterwards made a few more records for the Bullet label of Nashville in 1948, and a few more for Kapp in the 1950s, by which time his voice had matured into a robust baritone.  Through the following decades he remained active as a songwriter, for which he is remembered for “You’re All I Want For Christmas” (as well as “Shivery Stomp” from so many years earlier) and continued to perform locally, but disappeared from the national spotlight.  Seger Ellis died at the age of ninety-one on September 29, 1995, in his hometown of Houston.

Victor 19755 was recorded on August 10, 1925 at Victor’s headquarters in Camden, New Jersey.  It was released in November of ’25, and stayed in the Victor catalog until 1931.

Seger Ellis first recorded “Prairie Blues” during Victor’s field trip to Houston in March of 1925, a test recording which was apparently rejected for technical reasons.  He was thereafter invited to Camden to record the version featured here, a re-take made on the same matrix number (though with a “BVE” electric prefix rather than the original “B” acoustic prefix).  One of Ellis’ original compositions, the tune remained in his repertoire for quite a while, and he re-recorded in 1930 for Okeh.  It evidently gained some note in its day, being reprised in Okeh’s 1929 “hillbilly” variety record “The Medicine Show”.

Prairie Blues, recorded August 10, 1925 by Seger Ellis.

On the flip-side, Seger dishes out more of that same rambunctious raggy piano sounding straight out of a little honky-tonk in some Texas oil boom town on his “Sentimental Blues”.  Famed jazz pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith reported said of the piece: “I never thought I’d hear genuine whorehouse piano again!”

Sentimental Blues, recorded August 10, 1925 by Seger Ellis.

Gem 3522 – Dick Robertson and his Orchestra – 1933

Dick Robertson, as pictured on the cover of Decca’s 1941 catalog.

Alongside Chick Bullock as one of the most prolific vocalists of the 1930s, though perhaps even more so, the voice of Dick Robertson was near omnipresent during the years of the Great Depression.  Though easily dismissed due to his nature as a studio vocalist, and the sheer volume of his work, Robertson was a competent singer who contributed countless excellent performances over a career stretching more than twenty years.

Dick Robertson was born on July 3, 1903, in Brooklyn, New York (though some sources assert 1900).  Prior to entering the show business, he worked in construction as a foreman.  Robertson began his career in music in the second half of the 1920s, entering the recording industry in 1927, partnered with recording veteran and career duet partner Ed Smalle.  He continued to record with Smalle for a time before striking out on his own as a jack-of-all-trades vocalist.  At different times, he played most every role a singer could: crooner, jazz singer, hillbilly, and many others.  As did many, Robertson used a variety of pseudonyms throughout his career, some more memorable ones being “Bob Richardson”, “Bob Dickson”, and “Bobby Dix”.  He recorded as a solo vocalist for Brunswick in the last two years of the 1920s and Victor in the first few of the 1930s.  At the same time, Robertson began recording extensively with dance and jazz bands on virtually every label, with orchestras ranging from those of Leo Reisman and Ben Selvin to Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, and frequently with Gene Kardos’ band.  In the early 1930s, he began fronting various bands to record as “Dick Robertson and his Orchestra”, first on the ARC and Crown dimestore labels, then for Bluebird from 1933 to ’35, and finally graduating to Decca in 1935, for whom he recorded steadily until 1944, promoted as one of their many top artists.  Still, he continued to sing as a studio vocalist with other groups all the while, up until the middle of the 1940s, racking up hundreds of vocal credits (and many more uncredited performances).  Robertson also proved to be quite a capable songwriter, his most notable composition being “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me)”, which became a hit for the Ink Spots in 1940.  He made his last recordings in 1949 on Decca’s subsidiary label Coral, after which he disappeared into obscurity.  Dick Robertson reportedly died on July 13, 1979, ten days after his seventy-sixth birthday.

Gem 3522 was recorded in July of 1933 by Dick Robertson fronting a studio band, probably that of Walter Feldkamp.  It was also issued on Crown with the same catalog number.  Gem was a short-lived offshoot of the Crown label, which itself only existed for three years.  Much like RCA Victor’s Sunrise label, it lasted only for several months, and its purpose is uncertain.  Presumably it was pressed as a client label for some retailer, though, to my knowledge, no one knows for whom they were made.

First, Robertson gives a fine delivery of Billy Hill and Peter DeRose’s “Louisville Lady”, a haunting tale about a jilted lover who threw herself into the Ohio River, sung from the perspective of her man, who comes to the riverside to beg forgiveness from his lost love.  Certainly this must be one of Robertson’s best, at least of the sides he recorded under his own name.

Louisville Lady, recorded July 1933 by Dick Robertson and his Orchestra.

On the “B” side, Dick croons the Andy Razaf and Reginald Foresythe penned Dixie melody “Mississippi Basin”, another jim dandy.

Mississippi Basin, recorded July 1933 by Dick Robertson and his Orchestra.

Victor V-40028 – Kay Kyser and his Orchestra – 1928

A somber looking Kay Kyser in a promotional photo from the 1930s.

Well before Kay Kyser’s fame as the “Ol’ Perfessor” of his “Kollege of Musical Knowledge” in the swing era of the 1930s and ’40s, he directed a respectable territory dance band out of his home state of North Carolina which recorded three Victor records in the late 1920s; this one is his first.

Kay was born James Kern Kyser in Rocky Mount, North Carolina on June 18, 1905.  He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was a cheerleader and theatrical producer.  Though expected to follow in his family’s footsteps of academic achievement, Kyser was persuaded around 1927 by Hal Kemp to take over leadership of his Carolina Club Orchestra at UNC when Kemp went off to strike it big as a bandleader, though he didn’t know a lick about music.  To better perform his band directing duties, he took some clarinet lessons, but mostly “fronted” the band, making use of his exuberant cheerleading skills.  As bandleader, he adopted his middle initial as his professional name, becoming “Kay” Kyser.  After Kyser graduated from UNC in 1928, he took the orchestra touring as a “territory band”, and on November 26th of 1928 and 1929, the band recorded a total of eight sides for Victor in Camden and Chicago, respectively, six of which were released.  In 1933, Hal Kemp recommended Kyser’s band to perform at Chicago’s Blackhawk Restaurant, a position earlier filled by Coon-Sanders’ Original Nighthawk Orchestra, which proved to be their big break, and they held that gig for several years.  There, Kyser developed the format that was soon to make him famous on radio: the Kollege of Musical Knowledge, with Kay at the helm as the “Ol’ Perfessor”.  The band secured a new recording contract with Brunswick in 1935, and during those years, they were joined by popular vocalists Ginny Simms and Harry Babbitt, as well as cornet player Merwin Bogue, better known as “Ish Kabibble”.  The “Kollege” made its radio debut in 1938 to great popular acclaim, and soon Kyser and the band were starring in motion pictures, beginning with That’s Right—You’re Wrong in 1939.  When the war came on, Kyser and his band got right to entertaining the troops, and once it was through, his popularity endured through the slow demise of the swing era.  Though he continued to have hits in the latter half of the 1940s, the Kollege of Musical Knowledge radio show ended in 1949 and was followed by a brief run on television.  Afterward, Kyser, who had been suffering from arthritis, used the lull as an opportunity to retire from public life.  In his later years, he became involved in Christian Science, to which he had converted in hopes of relieving his arthritis, and served as the denomination’s president in 1983.  At the age of eighty, Kay Kyser died on July 23, 1985 in his home state of North Carolina.

Victor V-40028 was recorded on November 26, 1928 in Camden, New Jersey and issued in the “Native American Melodies” series, as they called their V-40000 series prior to May of 1930, which was usually reserved for “hillbilly” music, but also included some regional dance bands.  Kay Kyser’s orchestra consists of Marion Reed, Frank Fleming, and Charles Kraft on trumpets, George Weatherwax on trombone, John White and Sully Mason on clarinet and alto saxes, Art Walters on clarinet and tenor sax, George Duning and/or Benny Cash on piano, George Sturm on banjo, Bill Rhoads on tuba, and Muddy Berry on drums.

First off, the boys play a peppy fox trot titled “Tell Her (You Really Love Her)”, an original composition by Kyser, Hal James, and Saxie Dowell.  Though not noted as such, the vocalist here sounds to me like reed man Sully Mason.

Tell Her (You Really Love Her), recorded November 26, 1928 by Kay Kyser and his Orchestra.

On the reverse, they play their first side recorded, a waltz of Kyser’s own composition: “Broken Dreams of Yesterday”—not bad for a guy with no musical background!

Broken Dreams of Yesterday, recorded November 26, 1928 by Kay Kyser and his Orchestra.

Brunswick 6047 – Harris Brothers Texans – 1930

One of several outstanding Texas-based jazz and dance bands to make records in the years preceding World War II, the Harris Brothers Texans demonstrated themselves to be formidable music-makers, but with only three records to their name, all of which are rarely encountered today, the band is shrouded by a veil of near total obscurity, unknown to most outside of a small cadre of vintage jazz aficionados.  Previously, scarcely any information regarding them was available.  Now, following intensive research, I have endeavored to piece together a short but relatively comprehensive history of the band herein (at least the most extensive one hitherto published; with special thanks to the research of the late Murray L. Pfeffer and his Big Bands Database).

The three Harris Brothers were Abraham “Abe” Harris, born October 12, 1890 or ’91, Louis Joseph “Lou” Harris, born in October of 1891, and Myer Isadore “Monk” Harris, born January 9, 1894, the sons of Emanuel and Sarah Harris of Navasota, Texas, descendants of Jewish Prussian immigrants who arrived in Texas in the 1870s, by way of South Carolina.  Abe Harris was a drummer in the First World War, and after his completing his service, he started a jazz band with his brothers, Lou playing trumpet and Monk playing trombone and euphonium.  Originally directed by Abe, Lou Harris assumed leadership of the band by the late 1920s onward, and it was apparently fronted for a time around 1926 by reed and violin player and singer Harry Samuels, who had been a childhood friend of the Harris brothers.  The Harris Brothers Orchestra played in Corsicana in 1922, before taking up in the Houston area the following year, making them contemporaries of Lloyd Finlay’s orchestra, and in 1923 and ’24, they played in the ballroom of the Crystal Palace in Galveston.  In the middle part of the decade, the Harris Brothers Orchestra relocated to north Texas, where they broadcasted from WFAA in Dallas and were engaged at the roof ballroom of the Baker Hotel in Dallas beginning in 1926 and at least as late as 1929.

When the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company made their field trips to record in Texas, the orchestra cut records, resulting in three sessions, all in Dallas, yielding a grand total of eight sides, six of which were released.  First in October of 1928, they recorded the hot jazz tunes “Somebody Stole My Gal” and “The Pay Off”, released on the Vocalion label. The following year, they cut “Gut Bucket Shuffle”, “Louisiana, That’s My Home”, and two unknown unissued titles.  Finally, they concluded their brief recorded legacy with two pop-styled songs: “Oh How I Cried the Morning After” and “The South’s Been a Mother to Me”.  Though credited on their records as the “Harris Brothers Texans”, at home the band was simply called the “Harris Brothers Orchestra”.  By this time, the Harris Brothers’ musical style was comparable to that of the contemporary Phil Baxter’s orchestra and other Texas dance bands of the era, featuring a rather loose instrumentation and a “big” sound punctuated by strong “oom-pah” bass rhythm, with occasional use of accordion, somewhat evocative of Texas’ polka bands.  Much of their recorded material displayed a certain uniquely Texan character.  An unidentified group called “The Harris Brothers” had two test sessions for Gennett in 1928—prior to any of the Harris Brothers’ Brunswick recordings—but given that they are believed to have been a vocal group, it is doubtful that they were one and the same.

Around the same time as their Brunswick engagement, the Harris Brothers Orchestra played at the Dallas Country Club, and they were engaged at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas in 1929 following Alphonso Trent’s tenure there.  During their time at the Adolphus, bandleader Lou Harris gave a large quantity of arrangements to New Orleans expatriate Don Albert, who had recently parted ways with Troy Floyd’s orchestra and was starting up his own band.  The band remained together under the directorship of Lou Harris at least into the late 1930s, playing in Dallas and Abilene—perhaps even venturing all the way to Hollywood on a 1935 tour—and they provided music at the Greater Texas and Pan-American Exposition at Dallas’ Fair Park in 1937.  Myer Harris eventually retired from music and built homes in Dallas.  Abe Harris died on May 23, 1960, Lou in 1969, and Monk on November 8, 1990, all three in Dallas.

Brunswick 6047 was recorded in November of 1930 (though some sources suggest a January 1931 date) in Dallas, Texas.  The personnel of the band probably includes at least some of the following members: Lou Harris and Paul Skinner on trumpets, Myer “Monk” Harris on trombone, Harry Samuels, Gene Hammel, and probably at least one other—possibly Robert Dean—on reeds (clarinet, two alto saxophones, and tenor sax), Murray Lambert on piano, Liebling Mayo on banjo (though Johnson and Shirley’s American Dance Bands suggests a possible Lester Peacock), an unknown tuba player, and Abe Harris on drums.  The vocalist may be reed man Harry Samuels.

First up, the Texans play a hot jazz arrangement of “The South’s Been a Mother to Me”, apparently the only recording of this song.

The South's Been a Mother to Me

The South’s Been a Mother to Me, recorded November 1930 by the Harris Brothers Texans.

On the flip, they maintain their booming sound on William Gould and Joey Ray’s popular song “Oh How I Cried the Morning After (The Night Before With You)”.

Oh, How I Cried the Morning After (The Night Before With You)

Oh How I Cried the Morning After (The Night Before With You), recorded November 1930 by the Harris Brothers Texans.