Vocalion 1727 – Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law) – 1932

The last thing we heard from the East St. Louis blues king Peetie Wheatstraw was a couple of swing-blues sides from the tail end of his career.  Now, let us direct our attentions eight years earlier toward the beginning of his recorded legacy.

A cropped version of the only known photograph of Wheatstraw, pictured in Decca catalog.

Though the only known photograph of William Bunch—better known as Peetie Wheatstraw—depicts him holding a National metal-bodied resonator guitar, the artist played piano on the overwhelming majority of his recordings, while guitar was provided by the likes of Charley Jordan, Kokomo Arnold, or Lonnie Johnson. Other times he played nothing at all, only singing and leaving his accompaniment solely to other musicians.  But that depiction of Peetie was not entirely inaccurate; it is said that he started out his musical career on the guitar and learned to handle the instrument with proficiency, before switching to piano later on.  By the time he made his first records in 1930, he was primarily playing piano, developing a signature formula which he continued to use for the majority of his more than one-hundred-fifty sides.  In 1932 however, Wheatstraw had a pair of stand-out sessions which departed from his standard formula.  On a recording trip to New York City in March of 1932, Wheatstraw first played piano for Charley Jordan on a series of sides, then Peetie picked up the guitar himself, and, on March fifteenth and seventeenth, he laid down four blues songs unlike any other that he recorded: “Police Station Blues”—later echoed by Robert Johnson in his “Terraplane Blues”—and “All Alone Blues” on the former day, and “Can’t See Blues” and “Sleepless Nights’ Blues” on the latter. Afterward, he returned home to East St. Louis, and didn’t cut another record for two years, by which time he had settled into his formula, and never touched a guitar again, at least on records.

Vocalion 1727 was recorded on March 15, 1932 in New York City.  Peetie Wheatstraw sings and plays guitar on both sides.  Both sides were also reissued around 1938 to ’39, each on separate records, with the first side appearing on Vocalion 04592 and the second on Vocalion 04912.

First, despite whatever technical limitations Peetie may have had, he dishes out a wonderful performance on “Sleepless Nights’ Blues”, a great classic of equal or perhaps greater merit than his more popular “Police Station”, earning its way into the Yazoo compilation St. Louis Blues 1929-1935, The Depression.

Sleepless Nights’ Blues, recorded March 15, 1932 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).

Reusing many of the licks heard on the previous side (though actually vice-versa, since this one was recorded earlier), Wheatstraw next sings “Can’t See Blues”.  Like his piano playing, Wheatstraw had a very idiosyncratic style of playing guitar (which is to say, he typically followed a very similar pattern in all of the songs he played).

Can’t See Blues, recorded March 15, 1932 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).

Columbia 15038-D – Charlie Poole Accomp. by The North Carolina Ramblers – 1925

Unquestionably one of the foremost names in “old-time” music during the 1920s, as well as one of the leading figures in the development of what would become “country music” is the original North Carolina Rambler: Charlie Poole.

Charlie Clay Poole hailed from Randolph County, North Carolina, in the town of Franklinville, where he was born on March 22, 1892, the son of an Irish immigrant.   As did his parents before him, Charlie went to work in a textile mill, but his real interest was in making music.  Unable to afford a proper instrument, he fashioned his first banjo out of a gourd.  As the result of a childhood incident in which he bet friends that he could catch a baseball without wearing a mitt, he learned to play the instrument in a unique three-fingered style of picking.  In addition to his musical proclivities, Poole also had a reputation as a rounder and hell raiser supreme.  After years toiling away his youth in the mill, Poole saved up enough money to purchase a Gibson banjo, then quit his job to pursue a career as a musician.  Joined by his brother-in-law Posey Rorer, who played fiddle, and a host of other local musicians, he entertained at local functions.  With the addition of guitarist Norman Woodlieff, the trio traveled to New York City in July of 1925 to make their first records for Columbia as the “North Carolina Ramblers”, producing four sides for which they received seventy-five dollars pay.  Their first record turned out to be a hit, and Poole, along with Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers, helped to make Columbia into a powerhouse of old-time music in the genre’s earliest years on record, and he was one of the best-selling artists in their “Old Familiar Tunes” series.  Thereafter, the North Carolina Ramblers returned to New York once a year—twice in 1930—to make further records, with two excursions to Paramount and Brunswick on the side, ultimately resulting in a total of eighty sides cut, of which all but ten were released.  Membership within the band changed as years passed; Woodlieff was replaced with former railroad engineer Roy Harvey, and Lonnie Austin and Odell Smith came to take Rorer’s place, but Charlie Poole always remained constant as the North Carolina Ramblers’ nucleus and main attraction (though members of the group did make several records without him).  Aside from recording, the North Carolina Ramblers also toured Vaudeville and appeared on radio around the Appalachian region.  After his last recording session, Poole and band were invited to Hollywood to provide music for a Western movie in 1931.  Unfortunately, before leaving for the west, Poole suffered a heart attack and died at the age of thirty-nine on May 21, 1931.

Columbia 15038-D was recorded on July 27, 1925 in New York, New York.  Sales figures have been reported as an astounding 102,451 copies.  It is Charlie Poole’s first released record, consisting of his third and fourth recorded sides.  The North Carolina Ramblers are Posey Rorer on fiddle, Norman Woodlieff on guitar, and of course Poole on the banjo.

First, Poole sings what could probably be considered the definitive recording of the old folk song “Can I Sleep In Your Barn Tonight Mister”.

Can I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight Mister, recorded July 27, 1925 by Charlie Poole Accomp. by The North Carolina Ramblers.

On the reverse, they play the classic “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues”—my personal favorite of the North Carolina Ramblers’ recordings—referring to the card game called “Georgia skin”, a game of chance popular in the South in those days, both for playing and singing about.

Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues, recorded July 27, 1925 by Charlie Poole Accomp. by The North Carolina Ramblers.

Vocalion 3567 – Erskine Hawkins and his ‘Bama State Collegians – 1937

Erskine Hawkins in 1936 or earlier, pictured in the 1942 Victor and Bluebird Catalog.

Right up there in the pantheon of great jazz trumpeters resides the “Twentieth Century Gabriel”, bandleader Erskine Hawkins, whose popular recordings helped to define the Swing Era.

Erskine Ramsay Hawkins was born in Birmingham, Alabama on July 26, 1914, named for local industrialist Erskine Ramsay, who promised to open bank accounts for boys named in his honor.  He attended Birmingham’s Industrial High School and played trumpet in the band under director Fess Whately before graduating to the State Teachers College.  There, he led the ‘Bama State Collegians, with whom he later traveled to New York to embark on his recording career.  Hawkins cut his first two records on July 20, 1936 for Vocalion, debuting with “It Was a Sad Night in Harlem”.  Thereafter, he returned to the Vocalion studio four times, recording four sides at each session, resulting in a total of twenty.  He also secured a gig as house band at Harlem’s renowned Savoy Ballroom, alternating with Chick Webb’s orchestra, an arrangement which lasted a decade.  Billed as the “Twentieth Century Gabriel”, as his popularity climbed, he was signed by the RCA Victor Company in 1938 to record for their Bluebird label, a fruitful arrangement that resulted in prolific recordmaking and numerous successes, including his own “Tuxedo Junction” in 1939—most famously covered by Glenn Miller’s orchestra—and “Tippin’ In” in 1945.  He remained with RCA Victor, eventually graduating to their flagship Victor label, until 1950, after which he moved to Decca’s budget label Coral.  After the conclusion of the Swing Era following World War II, like so many of his contemporaries, Hawkins’ fame began to wind down, but he remained active as a musician.  From the 1960s until the end of his career, he led the house orchestra at the Concord Resort Hotel in the Catskill Mountains of New York.  Erskine Hawkins died on November 11, 1993 at his home in New Jersey.

Vocalion 3567 was recorded on April 19, 1937 in New York City.  The ‘Bama State Collegians are Erskine Hawkins, Wilbur Bascomb, Marcellus Green, and Sam Lowe on trumpets, Edward Sims and Robert Range on trombones, William Johnson and Jimmy Mitchelle on alto saxes, Paul Bascomb on tenor sax, Haywood Henry on clarinet and baritone sax, Avery Parrish on piano, William McLemore on guitar, Leemie Stanfield on string bass, and James Morrison on drums.

First up, the ‘Bama State Collegians play a swinging orchestration of the Stephen Foster standard “The Old Folks at Home”, here given the familiar title “‘Way Down Upon the Swanee River”.

‘Way Down Upon the Swanee River, recorded on April 19, 1937 by Erskine Hawkins and his ‘Bama State Collegians.

On the flip, they play an outstanding jazz rendition of the 1921 Henry Creamer and Turner Layton composition “Dear Old Southland”, quite probably my personal favorite swing side.  Brian Rust notes that this piece was arranged by trumpeter Sam Lowe, and I suspect the former side was as well, though not noted as such.

Dear Old Southland, recorded on April 19, 1937 by Erskine Hawkins and his ‘Bama State Collegians.

Okeh 8480 – Sylvester Weaver – 1927

Blues guitarist Sylvester Weaver bears the tremendous distinction of not only being an outstanding musician, but also a pioneer in the field of recorded blues, with his historic records impressing on artists so far and wide as Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys.

Sylvester Weaver was born on July 25 in either 1896 or ’97, in Louisville, Kentucky.  Most details surrounding his early life are lost to the march of time, but it is quite conceivable that he might have been involved in the rich jug band culture surrounding Louisville, which included groups led by Earl McDonald and Buford Threlkeld, better known as Whistler.  In 1923, he traveled to New York City with blues singer and fellow Louisvillian Sara Martin, who had been recording successfully for Okeh Records since the previous year.  With Martin, Weaver recorded on October 24, 1923 what may have been the earliest vocal blues backed by a single guitar.  He followed with his own first solo record the next month: the instrumentals “Guitar Rag” and “Guitar Blues”, which some suggest comprise the first country blues record by a male artist; though that position is contested, they probably are the earliest solo “country” blues guitar instrumentals, and they without question made an indelible mark on musical history.  Weaver ultimately recorded twenty-five or twenty-six sides between 1923 and ’25, sometimes in New York, sometimes in St. Louis and Atlanta when Okeh made field trips to those cities, before taking a hiatus from his recording career.  His triumphant return came in April of 1927, when he returned to New York with Sara Martin once again to make another series of records.  He continued to record throughout the rest of that year, sometimes joined by fellow guitarist Walter Beasley, and often in accompaniment of singers like Martin or Helen Humes, as well as waxing a few vocal takes of his own.  But in spite of his recording success, at the end of 1927, Sylvester Weaver returned home to Louisville, soon fading back behind the same veil of obscurity that surrounded his early years, and he died there on April 4, 1960.

Okeh 8480 was recorded on April 13 and 12, 1927, respectively, in New York City.  It was released that September.  Both sides are instrumental guitar solos by Sylvester Weaver.

Firstly, Weaver plays his famous “Guitar Rag”, his second recording of the signature piece—the original having been made in 1923—that would later form the basis for Leon McAuliffe’s even more famous “Steel Guitar Rag” as recorded by Bob Wills in 1936.

Guitar Rag, recorded April 13, 1927 by Sylvester Weaver.

On the rather unusually titled rag piece “Damfino Stump”, Weaver plays six-string banjo-guitar, lending to a rather Papa Charlie Jackson-esque sound.  One wonders if perhaps it was meant to be titled “Stomp” rather than “Stump”, though I prefer the latter, personally.

Damfino Stump, recorded April 12, 1927 by Sylvester Weaver.

Bluebird B-5181 – Bill Scotti and his Hotel Montclair Orchestra – 1933

Sheet music cover for “The Road is Open Again”, featuring Dick Powell and FDR, 1933.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated President of the United States in 1933, the vice grip of the Great Depression that was strangling the nation was at its tightest, having peaked over the winter of ’32 to ’33, and the new president got right to work trying to alleviate that condition.  On June 16, 1933, only three months after taking office, Roosevelt signed into law the National Industrial Recovery Act (or NIRA), rolling out his first wave of New Deal programs, including the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works and the National Recovery Administration.  The latter of those two, christened the NRA (sweet thing, sweet thing), was unveiled with great fanfare under the zealous leadership of its director Hugh S. Johnson.  In addition to an enormous parade dedicated to the Administration, Hollywood churned out a number of promotional films to support the NRA.  One such film saw Jimmy Durante enthusiastically pleading that employers “give a man a job.”  Another starred Dick Powell (in a role reminiscent of his part in Gold Diggers of 1933) as a frustrated songwriter tasked with composing a ditty dedicated to the NRA, but unable to produce any satisfactory results until he is visited in a dream by Presidents Washington, Lincoln, and Wilson, who explain the patriotic tenets of the National Recovery Administration and provide Powell’s character the inspiration needed to come up with “The Road is Open Again”.

Bluebird B-5181 was recorded on September 15, 1933 in New York City by saxophone player Bill Scotti’s orchestra from the Hotel Montclair in Montclair, New Jersey, featuring vocals by pianist Larry Murphy, Tom Low, and Larry Lloyd.

On side “A”, Larry Murphy sings the solo refrain on an iconic Great Depression melody, Yip Harburg, Billy Rose, and Harold Arlen hit from the Paramount motion picture Take a Chance: “It’s Only a Paper Moon”.

It’s Only A Paper Moon, recorded September 15, 1933 by Bill Scotti and his Hotel Montclair Orch.

On “B”, the trio of Larry, Tom, and Larry sing the patriotic “theme song” of President Roosevelt’s NRA, “The Road is Open Again”, as featured by Dick Powell in the short film of the same name, recorded only two days after “NRA Day.”

The Road is Open Again, recorded September 15, 1933 by Bill Scotti and his Hotel Montclair Orch.