Victor 19149 – Henry C. Gilliland–A. C. (Eck) Robertson – 1922

This disc bears the distinction of being one of the first records (though not the first) whose contents could be considered “country” music.  However, the pair of musicians responsible for producing these tunes—Henry C. Gilliland and A.C. “Eck” Robertson—almost certainly were the first old time musicians from Texas to make a record.  What you’ll hear here is some of the finest rustic fiddling what am.

Henry Clay Gilliland was born on March 25, 1845 in Jasper County, Missouri.   His family relocated to Texas when he was eight years old, settling in Parker County (home of peaches).  He learned to play the fiddle at a young age from his older brother Joseph, and the two rose to prominence around Weatherford.  When the South seceded, Gilliland enlisted and served in the Arizona Brigade of the Second Texas Cavalry.  After the war was done, he returned home and became known as an Indian fighter and small-time politician.  Alongside talents such as Moses J. Bonner, Gilliland became one of the most prominent Texas fiddlers of his day.

Eck Robertson (back row center, with fiddle) and family. As pictured in 1930 Victor catalog.

Alexander Campbell Robertson was born in Delaney, Arkansas on November 20, 1887 (though his tombstone says 1886).  Like Gilliland forty-some years his senior, Robertson’s family moved to Texas in his early childhood, making their home near Amarillo in the panhandle of the state.  His father was a fiddler-turned-preacher, and many of the other men in his family were also skilled on the instrument.  Unsurprisingly given such a heritage, the young “Eck” soon took up the fiddle himself.  At sixteen, he took off to join a medicine show, hoping to win fame as a musician.  After marrying and settling briefly in Amarillo as a piano tuner, he went on the road once again to play in fiddle contests and vaudeville shows throughout the Southwest.

The two men crossed paths at a Confederate reunion in 1922 in Richmond, Virginia; Robertson was the son of a veteran, Gilliland was a veteran himself.  Together, they played before a crowd of some four-thousand at the convention.  The two fiddlers evidently hit it off, and, with aid from a friend of Gilliland’s in a high place, very soon after traveled to New York to make a record for the Victor Talking Machine Company.  On June 30, 1922, the duo cut four sides, starting with “Arkansaw Traveler”, which, coupled with “Sallie Gooden” (Victor 18956) is often credited as the first “country” music record (though it is debatably not).  The following day, Robertson returned to the studio alone to make six more solo recordings.  Six of those ten sides saw release, only two of which featured Gilliland.  Henry C. Gilliland died on April 21, 1924 in Altus, Oklahoma at the age of seventy-nine, and was thereafter memorialized as the “greatest fiddler in the world.”  Eck Robertson on the other hand continued to perform and record.

In 1929, the Victor company twice ventured into Dallas to record the local talent, and Eck returned to the studio, this time bringing his family along: wife Nettie, son Dueron, and daughter Daphne.  In four sessions that year—one in August and three in October, the last of which was only nine days before the stock market crash that would all but kill off such recording field trips —Robertson recorded a further fourteen sides, five solo, nine with his family, and two with fellow fiddler Dr. J.B. Cranfill (seemingly the same man as the noted Dallas prohibitionist James Britton Buchanan Boone Cranfill, though I can’t find definitive confirmation), which altogether yielded a total of ten issued sides.  From then on out, he maintained that Victor had given him the short end of the stick.  Robertson also performed on Fort Worth’s WBAP from time to time, and he made a reported hundred non-commercial recordings for the Sellers transcription company of Dallas in September of 1940, which appear to be lost today.  Eck Roberton died on February 15, 1975 at age of eighty-eight, in Borger, Texas.

Victor 19149 was recorded on June 30 and July 1, 1922 in New York City, the former being their first session.  It was released on November 30, 1923, and remained in the catalog until 1936.  I found this record in Mineral Wells, Texas, not far from Gilliland’s home town of Weatherford; perhaps it was his own personal copy.  Unlikely a prospect as that is, it is conceivable that it could have been owned by someone personally acquainted with him.

First, both Robertson and Gilliland play a fiddle duet on the classic “Turkey in the Straw”.  Listen closely to the end for a little artifact from the recording studio: a small “bump”.  Could be one of the men setting down his instrument, could be something else entirely.

Turkey in the Straw, recorded June 30, 1922 by Henry C. Gilliland–A. C. (Eck) Robertson.

Next, Eck plays solo on another old time classic, the traditional Texas fiddle tune “Ragtime Annie”.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is truly old time fiddling.

Ragtime Annie, recorded July 1, 1922 by A. C. (Eck) Robertson.

Victor 25523 – Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra – 1937

The nineteenth of November marks the anniversary of the birth of the legendary “Sentimental Gentleman of Swing”—Tommy Dorsey.  I could pay tribute to him with some rare and obscure hot jazz disc from his early days, but frankly, I’d rather commemorate the occasion with my favorite of his records, one of his biggest swing hits.

A young Tommy Dorsey in the 1920s.

The younger of the famed Dorsey Brothers, Thomas Francis Dorsey, Jr., was born on November 19, 1905 in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, one of four Dorsey children, of whom three survived into adulthood.  Tommy initially took up the trumpet as a boy in his father’s band, and later switched to trombone.  He played both instruments proficiently throughout his career.  Tommy got his first professional gig in 1921, when his brother Jimmy recommended him to replace trombonist Russ Morgan in Billy Lustig’s Scranton Sirens Orchestra, and both brothers played in that band until Jean Goldkette poached them for his own orchestra in 1923.  Tommy made his first recordings with Goldkette in 1924, but remained in the band’s roster—which also famously included the likes of Bix Beiderbecke, Frankie Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, and Eddie Lang—only until 1925, when he left to join the California Ramblers. and began working prolifically as a studio musician.  Before departing, Tommy, along with other members of Goldkette’s orchestra, sat in at the first session of Bix Beiderbecke’s Rhythm Jugglers in 1925.  Both Dorsey brothers joined “King of Jazz” Paul Whiteman’s orchestra in 1927.  He made his first record under his own name in 1928: a pair of trumpet solos on the Okeh label.  The Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra also made their first records for Okeh in 1928, originally strictly as a recording band made up of studio men, an arrangement which continued into the 1930s.  Not long after forming a “real” band around 1934 with a recording contract for Decca, Tommy—always the temperamental one—stormed off the stage in 1935, creating a rift between the brothers.  Thereafter, the brothers split up; Jimmy continued to lead the former Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra for Decca, while Tommy bought out Joe Haymes’ orchestra and began recording for Victor.  Both Dorseys enjoyed great success leading their own orchestras, and the two became leading names as the swing era began.

With “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” as his theme song, Dorsey’s orchestra was known for playing music on sweet side, but he also led a smaller jazz group: the Clambake Seven.  Among the many hits to Tommy Dorsey’s name were “Song of India” and “Marie” in 1937, “I’ll Never Smile Again” in 1940, and “Opus No. 1” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street” in 1944, the latter two featuring arrangements by Sy Oliver.  In 1939, Dorsey replaced vocalist Jack Leonard with a young man from Hoboken, who had previously made his first records with the orchestra of Harry James: Frank Sinatra.  Sinatra remained in his band until 1942, when, as things tended to go with Tommy Dorsey, they parted ways acrimoniously.  In 1947, both Dorsey brothers appeared in the biographical picture The Fabulous Dorseys, and in 1953, they finally reunited when Jimmy disbanded his own band was invited to join Tommy’s.  Together once again, they began appearing on television.  Tommy Dorsey died after choking in his sleep on November 26, 1956.  Jimmy took over and led his band until his own death the following year.  Like that of fellow bandleader Glenn Miller, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra continued to operate and perform into the modern day.

Victor 25523 was recorded at RCA Victor’s Studio 2 in New York City on January 29, 1937 in a session supervised by Leonard Joy.  The orchestra is made up of Bunny Berigan, Jimmy Welch, Joe Bauer, and Bob Cusumano on trumpets, Tommy Dorsey, Les Jenkins, and E. W. “Red” Bone on trombones, Joe Dixon on clarinet and alto sax, Fred Stulce and Clyde Roundson alto sax, Bud Freeman on tenor sax, Dick Jones on piano, Carmen Mastren on guitar, Gene Traxler on string bass, and Dave Tough on drums.  It originally appeared with Victor’s “scroll” label, which was discontinued in 1937, this pressing dates to soon after, probably around 1938.  It was Tommy Dorsey’s first big hit with his own orchestra, after his split with brother Jimmy.

On the “A” side, designated a “Swing Classic”, the boys swing the old “Song of India”, originally from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1896 opera Sadko, with an enticing arrangement by Dorsey.

Song of India, recorded January 29, 1937 by Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra.

On “B”, they play a song that’s truly near the top of my very long list of favorites, Irving Berlin’s “Marie”, with a lead vocal by Jack Leonard, backed by a chorus made up of members of the band—and a solid trumpet solo provided by Berigan.  I tell you, all the really best swing records have Bunny Berigan in the lineup.

Marie, recorded January 29, 1937 by Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra.

Brunswick 6074 – Cab Calloway and his Orchestra – 1931

It’s been quite a while since we’ve last heard from our old friend Cab Calloway here on Old Time Blues, but has come time to turn out attention to what may well be his greatest claim to fame—”Minnie the Moocher”.

Cab Calloway and his Orchestra in the early 1930s. Pictured in Of Minnie the Moocher & Me, photograph from Frank Driggs Collection.

With a career spanning more than half a century, it’s no stretch to say that Cab Calloway sang hundreds of songs on record, radio, stage, and screen, but no song is so indelibly identified with him as his own composition “Minnie the Moocher”.  Minnie “messed around with a bloke named Smokey” who “showed her how to kick the gong around”—a euphemism for smoking opium.  Cab wrote “Minnie” early in his career, around 1930, based heavily on “Willie the Weeper”, a popular folk tune and vaudeville favorite that originated in the early twentieth century.  He first recorded it early in 1931, and it became an instant success, spawning close to a dozen covers in the first year.  Becoming his theme song, Cab reprised “Minnie” in Fleischer Studios’ eponymous Betty Boop cartoon the following year, appearing both as himself and rotoscoped as a ghost walrus.  Such a sensation it was that sequels followed, like “Kickin’ the Gong Around”, “Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day”.  Cab’s original Brunswick recording was reissued all throughout the 1930s and onward, and he made new recording more than once, including an unissued Victor recording in 1933, and another for Okeh in 1942 (not to mention recordings made after the 78 era, upon which I’m not qualified to comment).

Brunswick 6074 was recorded on March 3, 1931 in New York City.  Still following the basic roster of their predecessor, the Missourians, Cab’s orchestra is made up of R.Q. Dickerson, Lammar Wright, and Reuben Reeves on trumpets, De Priest Wheeler and Harry White on trombones, Arville Harris on clarinet and alto sax, Andrew Brown on bass clarinet and tenor sax, Walter “Foots” Thomas on alto, tenor, and baritone sax and flute, Earres Prince on piano, Morris White on banjo, Jimmy Smith on string bass and tuba, and Leroy Maxey on drums.

And so now here it is, Cab Calloway’s first ever recording of his theme song, “Minnie the Moocher (The Ho-De-Ho Song)”.  “Minnie had a heart as big as a ‘hay-wale’.”

Minnie the Moocher (The Ho-De-Ho Song), recorded March 3, 1931 by Cab Calloway.

Unlike “Minnie”, Cab’s “Doin’ the Rumba” on the flip-side is all but forgotten.  Nonetheless, it’s still a fine song, with hot, Spanish tinged, playing from the former Missourians.

Doin’ the Rumba, recorded March 3, 1931 by Cab Calloway.

Brunswick 6543 – Art Tatum – 1933

Art Tatum in the 1940s. Pictured in the 1944 Esquire Jazz Book.

One of the greatest musicians in the history of jazz music was Art Tatum, whose virtuosity on the piano was perhaps unparalleled.  He was a favorite of almost all fellow jazz musicians, as well as such classical greats as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Leopold Stokowski.

Arthur Tatum, Jr., was born on October 13, 1909 in Toledo, Ohio, the son of a guitar playing father and piano playing mother.  As a baby, he was afflicted with cataracts, which left him mostly blind for the rest of his life, in spite of surgical intervention.  As a child prodigy with perfect pitch, Tatum learned to play the piano play by ear.  He attended blind school in the 1920s, and later studied music.  Tatum began playing on the radio in 1927, known as “Toledo’s Blind Pianist”, and soon began playing at the local Waiters & Bellman’s Club, where he was a favorite of jazz greats by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Andy Kirk, and Fletcher Henderson.  In 1932, Tatum was noticed by the singer Adelaide Hall, who invited him to tour with her.  He accompanied her back to New York, where he made his first recordings as a member of her backing orchestra.  Not long after, he had his first solo recording session for Brunswick records, cutting the first versions of his famous arrangements of “Tea for Two” and “Tiger Rag”, among others.  His subsequent recordings were made for Decca.  Tatum remained in New York until the end of 1934, then went back west to the Midwest, and to Los Angeles, appearing on Rudy Vallée’s Fleischmann Hour in 1935.  He returned to New York in 1937, and then embarked on the Queen Mary for a tour of England.  After returning to the States, Tatum was a hit on 52nd Street throughout the 1940s, and toured around the country frequently.  He also participated in concerts and sessions organized by jazz impresario Norman Granz, and was one of Esquire’s 1944 Jazz All-Stars.  A chronic alcoholic, Art Tatum suffered kidney failure and died on November 5, 1956.

Brunswick 6543 was recorded in New York City on March 21, 1933.  It is Art Tatum’s first issued solo record, and his second and third recorded solo sides.  Both are modernistic stride improvisations on old standards.

First up is one of Art Tatum’s most famous performances, his frenetic arrangement of Nick La Rocca’s “Tiger Rag”.

Tiger Rag, recorded on March 21, 1933 by Art Tatum.

Next up is Tatum’s interpretation of W.C. Handy’s famous “St. Louis Blues”.  Brian Rust notes two issued takes of this side, this is “A”.

St. Louis Blues, recorded on March 21, 1933 by Art Tatum.

Brunswick 7000 – Clarence Williams and his Washboard Band – 1927

One of the most dominant figures in jazz music in the 1920s—alongside the likes of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson—was Clarence Williams, who had his finger in just about every pie there was in the world of music for more than a decade in the 1920s and ’30s.

Clarence Williams was born on October 8, 1893 (though some sources suggest 1898, it has been suggested that that was fabricated for “vanity” purposes), in Plaquemine, Louisiana, of Creole and Choctaw descent.  He began singing and playing piano at a young age, and ran off to join Billy Kersand’s minstrels at the age of twelve.  He later settled in New Orleans, where he played professionally, and began composing songs, starting a music publishing company with fellow jazz musician Armand J. Piron.  A few of his many noted compositions include “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home”, the “Royal Garden Blues”, and “Shout, Sister, Shout”.  Williams and Piron later started a touring vaudeville act, which brought him in to contact with W.C. Handy, who invited to duo to join him in an Atlanta concert.  In 1921, Williams moved to Chicago and opened a music store, and the following year married blues singer Eva Taylor, with whom he frequently collaborated.  Williams first recorded a pair of vocal sides for Okeh in September of 1921, which were unissued, but he soon followed with more successful session the next month, producing four recordings, all of which were released.  From then on, he recorded extensively, often as an accompanist for blues singers, such as Bessie Smith or his wife Eva Taylor, or as leader of studio groups such as his “Blue Five”, “Washboard Band”, “Jug Band”, or “Jazz Kings”.  The bulk of his recordings were made for Okeh, Columbia, and Vocalion, but he also appeared on Bluebird, Brunswick, and numerous other labels.  During the 1920s, Williams was supervisor of “race” records for Okeh.  With his hand in virtually every facet of the music industry, Williams became one of the most commercially successful and influential people in jazz.  He continued to record fairly prolifically throughout the 1930s, up until his retirement in 1943, at which point he sold his back-catalog to Decca Records.  Clarence Williams died in Queens, New York on November 6, 1965.  He was survived by his wife, Eva Taylor, who passed in 1977.

Brunswick 7000 was recorded on March 8, 1927 in New York City.  It was the first record released in Brunswick’s 7000-series of “race” records, before their signature “lightning bolt” styled label was introduced.  Williams’ Washboard Band was made up of Ed Allen on cornet, Carmelo Jari (or Jejo) on clarinet, Clarence Williams on piano, and Floyd Casey on washboard.  Clarence Lee sings the vocals.  Different takes of both sides were released on Vocalion 1088.

First up is the train-themed “P.D.Q. Blues”, played slow.

P.D.Q. Blues, recorded March 8, 1927 by Clarence Williams and his Washboard Band.

Next, they play a stomp, the “Cushion Foot Stomp”, to be precise.

Cushion Foot Stomp, recorded March 8, 1927 by Clarence Williams and his Washboard Band.