One of the few independent record labels to spring up during the Great Depression was Crown, founded in 1930 by the Plaza Record Company after the merger that created the American Record Corporation, leaving them without their flagship label, Banner. Most of Crown’s output consisted of popular and jazz music, but they also issued some interesting country recordings, such as this one.
Frankie Marvin was born January 27, 1904 in Butler, Indian Territory, where he grew up with his brother, the future popular singer and ukulele man Johnny Marvin. At some point in the mid-1920s, Frankie came to New York to begin a recording career like his brother. Frankie Marvin sang variously as a studio vocalist for dance and jazz bands (he can be heard singing “St. James Infirmary” with King Oliver’s Orchestra) and a country singer a la Jimmie Rodgers, often accompanying himself on guitar. Marvin also worked as an accompanist to Gene Autry on some of his early records.
Crown 3058, recorded in New York by Frankie Marvin in January 1931 features two off-brand versions of country hits of the day.
First, Marvin sings Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 8”, better known today as “Mule Skinner Blues”. Based on my own research, this is likely the first of many covers of Rodgers’ classic song.
Blue Yodel No. 8, recorded January 1931 by Frankie Marvin and his Guitar.
Next, Marvin sings his, Gene Autry, and George Rainey’s composition “True Blue Bill”, occasionally known as “I’m a Truthful Fellow”. He seems to be channeling “Ukulele Ike” Cliff Edwards’ trademark form of scatting, known as “effin'”, here.
True Blue Bill, recorded January 1931 by Frankie Marvin and his Guitar.
Eighty-three years ago today, the end came for Jimmie Rodgers. On May 17, 1933, Jimmie traveled to New York City for what turned out to be his final recording session, during which he had to lie down in-between songs. He cut his last recordings on the 24th, and returned to his room in the Taft Hotel. On May 26, 1933, only two days after waxing his final song, “Years Ago”, Jimmie Rodgers finally succumbed to his tuberculosis, and died in his hotel room of a pulmonary hemorrhage at the age of 35. He had fought T.B. since 1924. At the time of his death, he represented a large percentage of Victor’s total sales deep in the Great Depression. America’s Blue Yodeler left behind a legacy of more than a hundred recorded songs, later going down in history as the Father of Country Music.
After Jimmie’s passing, a wave of tributes ensued, including a number of songs by WLS artist Bradley Kincaid, and these tearjerkers by Gene Autry.
Melotone M 12733 was recorded June 22, 1933, less than one month after Jimmie Rodgers’ death, in New York City by Gene Autry. Both songs were penned by Bob Miller.
First, Autry sings a reasonably accurate account of Jimmie Rodger’s life on “The Life of Jimmie Rodgers”.
The Life of Jimmie Rodgers. recorded June 22, 1933 by Gene Autry.
On the flip, he sings a heartfelt tribute to Jimmie on “The Death of Jimmie Rodgers”.
The Death of Jimmie Rodgers, recorded June 22, 1933 by Gene Autry.
On this day, the twenty-fourth of May, in the year of 1933, America’s Blue Yodeler cut his last records. With the nation in the grip of the Great Depression in 1933, the economic state prohibited Victor from continuing to make field trips to record in the South, so Jimmie had to travel to the studios in New York. By ’33, Jimmie was not in good health; tuberculosis had gotten the better of him, and cross country travel would do his health no favors. During his final sessions, he had to lie down and rest in-between takes, and relied on studio musicians for accompaniment on many of his final recordings. Only two days after making his final recordings, Jimmie Rodgers expired in his room at the Taft Hotel of a pulmonary hemorrhage.
Montgomery M-4415 was recorded May 18 and May 24, 1933 in New York City. The latter of which turned out to be Jimmie’s final session. It was originally issued on Bluebird B-5281, this issue was pressed from those masters and sold through the Montgomery Ward catalog. Despite his failing health, Jimmie maintained a strong voice for most of these sides, and accompanies himself on guitar on both.
Jimmie Rodgers’ famous series of “Blue Yodels” began in 1927 with “T for Texas”, and concluded here with the thirteenth song in the series, the fittingly titled “Jimmie Rodgers’ Last Blue Yodel”, or “The Women Make a Fool Out of Me”.
Jimmie Rodgers’ Last Blue Yodel, recorded May 18, 1933 by Jimmie Rodgers.
In 1927, Jimmie Rodgers began his recording career in Bristol, Tennessee with “The Soldier’s Sweetheart”. In 1933, he concluded that career with “Years Ago”.
Years Ago, recorded May 24, 1933 by Jimmie Rodgers.
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 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 July 10, 1930 by Jimmie Rodgers.
Updated with improved audio on June 20, 2017, and on July 10, 2017.
On this day, September 8, in the year of our Lord 1897, the Father of Country Music, America’s Blue Yodeler, the great Jimmie Rodgers was born. Rodgers began recording at Victor’s legendary Bristol sessions, and became one of America’s most popular singing stars throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, until his tragic demise from tuberculosis at the age of 35.
James Charles Rodgers was born in Meridian, Mississippi or Geiger, Alabama, after his mother died when he was a child, the young Jimmie spent much of his youth with various relatives before returning to live with his father, a railroad man. Following in his father’s footsteps, Jimmie began working as a water boy, and later a brakeman for the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad, though his first love was entertainment. Working on the railroad, Jimmie Rodgers learned the ways of music from the likes of gandy dancers and hobos. After tuberculosis put his railroad work on hiatus, Rodgers turned to entertaining, and organized various groups and shows on vaudeville and radio.
In 1927, Ralph Peer headed a recording field trip for Victor records in Bristol, Tennessee, and on August 4 of that year, from 2:00 to 4:30 in the afternoon, Rodgers recorded his first sides, Sleep, Baby, Sleep and The Soldier’s Sweetheart. After his first record’s moderate success, Jimmie Rodgers traveled north to record further sides and held his second session in Camden, New Jersey. Achieving great success with his records over the next few years, Rodgers became one of the nations most popular artists, earning nicknames such as “America’s Blue Yodeler” and “The Singing Brakeman”, and later “The Father of Country Music.” He was also one of the first artists to popularize country music, after Vernon Dalhart. Ultimately, his tuberculosis caught up with him, and a mere two days after his final recording session, Jimmie Rodgers died in the Taft Hotel in New York City.
Victor 21142, from Jimmie Rodgers’ second recording session, was recorded November 30, 1927 at Victor’s Camden, New Jersey studio and issued in May of 1928. The record was a hit, and remained in Victor’s catalog for many years, well into the 45 RPM era.
On the first side, Jimmie sings his first of thirteen “Blue Yodels”, this one simply titled “Blue Yodel” here, but also frequently known by the title “T for Texas”.
Blue Yodel, recorded November 30, 1927 by Jimmie Rodgers.
On the flip, Rodgers sings Kelly Harrell’s “Away Out on the Mountain”, which features some of his more elaborate yodeling.
Away Out on the Mountain, recorded November 30, 1927 by Jimmie Rodgers.