Decca 7815 – Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law) – 1940

Though he wasn’t the most talented instrumentalist, nor the most able vocalist, the popular blues musician Peetie Wheatstraw—the Devil’s Son-in-Law, the High Sheriff from Hell—achieved great success in his time, and made a considerable impact on fellow musicians for years to come.

Contrary to the events presented in the 1977 film Petey Wheatstraw, Peetie Wheatstraw was not born as a walking, talking child.  Rather, he was born as William Bunch on December 21, 1902, likely in Ripley, Tennessee or Cotton Plant, Arkansas.  He learned to play the piano and guitar and in 1929 took up residence in East St. Louis, assuming the moniker “Peetie Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-in-Law”.  Some have suggested the “Peetie Wheatstraw” name traces its roots back to early Afro-American folklore, yet others suggest that Bunch himself was the originator.  Brought to the studio by bluesman and talent scout Charley Jordan, Wheatstraw made his first record for Vocalion in 1930—”Tennessee Peaches Blues”, assisted by an unidentified fellow by the name of “Neckbones” (possibly J.D. “Jelly Jaw” Short)—and he continued to record for them until 1936, with a handful of recordings made for Victor in 1931 on the side.  While still featured on Vocalion, Wheatstraw began recording for Decca in 1934, soon switching to that label exclusively.  Peetie Wheatstraw died in a car accident on his thirty-ninth birthday—he was sitting in the back seat of a Buick driven by a friend, when it struck a standing freight train, killing all passengers—less than one full month after recorded the prophetic seeming “Bring Me Flowers While I’m Living”.

With an idiosyncratic and formulaic style of singing and playing piano, Peetie Wheatstraw maintained a position as one of the top-selling and most prolific blues artists throughout the decade of the 1930s, alongside Blind Boy Fuller, Big Bill, and Bumble Bee Slim.  Influences of Wheatstraw’s signature piano style, mumbled vocals, and “hoo-well-well” holler could be heard in the music of many less successful blues artists across the land, such as Alabama’s Peanut, the Kidnapper (whose stage name is one of the few to rival “Peetie Wheatstraw”).  A testament to his success, fellow blues musician Robert Nighthawk was billed by Decca for a time as “Peetie’s Boy”.  Even noted Texas bluesman Andrew “Smokey” Hogg started out veritably copying Wheatstraw’s vocals and guitar playing, and was known as “Little Peetie Wheatstraw”.

Decca 7815 was recorded on April 4, 1940 and August 28, 1940 in New York City.  Peetie Wheatstraw is accompanied by Jonah Jones on trumpet, possibly Lil Armstrong on piano, and Sid Catlett on drums (which may account for why it sounds different than almost all of  Peetie’s other songs, on which he accompanied himself on piano).

First up, Peetie Wheatstraw sings one of his more noted recordings, the swing infused “Gangster’s Blues”.  The noted accompanists account for the reason why these two songs don’t sound just like most every other song Wheatstraw recorded.

Gangster’s Blues, recorded April 4, 1940 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).

Next, Wheatstraw sings “Look Out for Yourself”, one of countless blues songs echoing the melody of “Sitting On Top of the World”.

Look Out for Yourself, recorded August 28, 1940 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).

Okeh 8535 – Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five – 1927

That special time of year has come again that we celebrate the birth of the great Louis Armstrong, on the event of his 115th birthday.  Last year, we commemorated the occasion with his theme song, Sleepy Time Down South”.  This time around, we have even more excellence from Armstrong’s original Hot Five.

Louis Armstrong's Hot Five.

Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five (autographed to Muggsy Spanier).  Left to right: Armstrong, Johnny St. Cyr, Johnny Dodds, Kid Ory, Lil Armstrong.  From Jazzmen, 1939.

Louis Armstrong was born in the cradle of jazz, New Orleans, Louisiana, on August 4, 1901.  He grew up in a poor family in Storyville, and played witness to jazz in its infancy.  As a child, he made money working for a Jewish family by the name of Karnofsky, who came to treat him as one of their own.  Armstrong played as a youngster with the band of the New Orleans Colored Waif’s Home, and was instructed in cornet by Professor Peter Davis.  After leaving the home, Louis hauled coal by day and played by night, with all the jazz greats of New Orleans. “King of Cornet”, Joe Oliver, “Papa Joe” as Louis called him, came to be Armstrong’s mentor before heading north to play in Chicago in 1919.  He soon began playing in the famous brass bands of New Orleans, and on riverboats on the Mississippi.

In 1922, Armstrong received a request from Oliver to join him in Chicago.  Nervously, he obliged, and in that April, Armstrong made his first recordings with King Olivier’s Creole Jazz Band for Gennett Records.  With the Creole Jazz Band, Louis met piano player Lil Hardin, and before long the two were married.  It was Lil’s idea that Louis should leave King Oliver’s band; she believed his potential was wasted as a sideman to Oliver, and so he did.  In 1924, Armstrong left to work briefly with Ollie Powers’ band, before spending a year with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, and then with Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra (not to mention a number of other ventures on the side).  His biggest break came in 1925, when he formed his first Hot Five, and thus the first time he appeared on records as leader.  Through the rest of the 1920s, Armstrong kept busy playing and recording prolifically.  After some work with Carroll Dickerson’s orchestra in ’29, Louis left for California in 1930 to play a gig at Sebastian’s New Cotton Club in Los Angeles, California, fronting Les Hite’s orchestra.

Following that engagement, he traveled from place-to-place for a period, from back to Chicago, to home in New Orleans, to California again, before embarked on a much celebrated tour of Europe in 1933.  When he returned to the states in 1935, his fame was only on the rise.  After playing swing and jazz into the post-war era, and in 1947, he assembled his All-Stars, as a revival in “dixieland” came about.  Armstrong remained steadily popular until his death in 1971.  From the 1920s into the 1960s, Armstrong his inimitable mark on music, and cemented his place as one of the greatest jazz musicians, and most beloved American icons, of all time.

Okeh 8535 was recorded December 13, 1927 in Chicago, Illinois.  The Hot Five consists of Louis Armstrong on cornet, Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Lil Armstrong on piano, and Lonnie Johnson on guitar.  This was the last session by the “original” Hot Five, in 1928 Armstrong organized a new group made up from members of Carroll Dickerson’s orchestra, including Earl Hines and Zutty Singleton.

Now, no matter what the question may be, the answer is right here for you, “Hotter than That”.

Hotter than That

Hotter than That, recorded December 13, 1927 by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five.

On the flip-side, they play Kid Ory’s composition, “Savoy Blues”.

Savoy Blues

Savoy Blues, recorded December 13, 1927 by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five.