Domino 4328 – The Pickard Family – 1929

The Carter Family was not the only family effort in early country music—far from it, in fact.  There was the venerable Stoneman Family, the pioneering Fiddlin’ Powers and Family, and, rivaling or perhaps exceeding the Carters’ popularity as radio entertainers in their time, the Pickard Family.

The Pickard Family, broadcasting from WSM, Nashville. Circa 1932.

The Pickards’ story begins with the birth of patriarch Obediah Orlando Pickard in Beardstown, Tennessee, on July 22, 1874.  He served in a non-combatant role in the Spanish American War, as a member of the First Regiment Tennessee Infantry Band, at which post he the distinction of playing for Admiral George Dewey.  At the turn of the century, he worked, along with the rest of his family, for the U.S. Census Office, and later gave his occupation as a traveling salesman for a collection agency (whatever that is).  He married Leila May Wilson on Christmas Day, 1906, and the couple brought Obed Orlando, Jr. (“Bubb”), into the family the very next year.  His birth was followed by Leila Mai in 1909, Ruth Carmen in 1912, James Phaney (“Charlie”) in 1914, and Margaret Ann in 1924.  Though they had played music amateurly, it was only after tragedy struck that the Pickards entered the music business; following the death of eldest daughter Leila Mai in a shooting accident in 1925, Obed reportedly heard the terrible news over the radio from WSM, Nashville, while traveling for work, and telephoned the station to extend his thanks for bringing the fact to his immediate attention, at which point he was said to have been hired by the “Solemn Old Judge”, George D. Hay.  An alternative account suggests that he was hired after Hay visited the bank in which Pickard worked and was recommended to the radio man by his brother Nixon.  In either event, Obed Pickard and his family began appearing on WSM in 1926, becoming one of the earliest stars of the program that would soon be known as the Grand Ole Opry.  “Dad” Pickard made his debut recordings on March 31, 1927, with four sides for the Columbia Phonograph Company.  The rest of the family did the same the following November for the Plaza Music Company, later the American Record Corporation, to whom they were contracted for a total of twenty-five sides between then and 1930, interrupted by a stint with Brunswick that produced an additional eleven.  In all, their released output amounted to sixteen records, many issued on a variety of labels with their sides in different configurations.  They departed from WSM for a time in 1928 and appeared on WJR in Detroit and WGAR in Buffalo before returning to the Opry in 1931.  Leaving the show again in 1933, the Pickards performed around the States for a while, eventually winding up on “goat gland doctor” John R. Brinkley’s border blaster radio station XERA in Villa Acuña, Mexico, just across the border from Del Rio, Texas.  Subsequently, they relocated permanently to California by the beginning of the 1940s.  There, they made appearances in several motion pictures, recorded again for the Coast label in 1947 and, in 1949, hosted a pioneering television program over KNBH in Los Angeles.  Dad Pickard died in Los Angeles on September 24, 1954, at the age of eighty.  After his passing, the Family continued to perform professionally at least until the late part of the decade, making some singles for Coral and an album on Verve.  Charlie Pickard was the next to go, at the young age of fifty-five on May 7, 1970.  Mom Pickard followed on May 5, 1972, back home in Nashville, Tennessee.  Bubb, Ruth, and Ann all survived well into their eighties, passing on March 20, 1997, March 13, 1995, and February 4, 2006, respectively.

Domino 4328 was recorded in New York City on February 18, and January 31, 1929, respectively.  It was also released on Broadway 8179 (as by the “Pleasant Family”—and that they were), Conqueror 7349 and 7736, Paramount 3231, QRS R.9006, Regal 8776, and with the sides split up on too many issued to list.  The Pickards playing here are “Dad” Obed, Sr., on harmonica and Jew’s harp, “Bubb” Obed, Jr., on guitar, and “Mom” Leila on piano, on side “A” only.  Dad, Mom, and Ruth sing on the first side, while Dad sings solo on the reverse.

Firstly Dad Pickard sings and picks his Jew’s harp in his take on the old-timer most commonly known as “Johnson’s Old Gray Mule”, rendered here as “Thompson’s Old Gray Mule”, with Mom and Ruth chiming in with a refrain from “Goodbye Liza Jane”.

Thompson’s Old Gray Mule, recorded February 18, 1929 by The Pickard Family.

On the flip, Obed sings solo on “The Little Red Caboose Behind the Train”, honoring the great American railroad men, and set to the tune of the 1871 minstrel standard “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane”.

The Little Red Caboose Behind the Train, recorded January 31, 1929 by The Pickard Family.

Conqueror 8274 – Callahan Brothers – 1934

Following in the same vein as popular sibling acts such as the Delmore Brothers, the, Callahan Brothers—consisting of the duo of Homer and Walter (who later adopted the sobriquets Bill and Joe for the sake of brevity)—made a name for themselves in the budding country music industry of the Great Depression-era.

Hailing from the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, in the county of Madison, Walter Callahan, born January 27, 1910, and his brother Homer, born March 27, 1912, grew up surrounded by the rich musical culture of the mountain folks.  As they were in adolescence, the soon-to-be-famous Jimmie Rodgers was getting his start singing on the radio in nearby Asheville, and in the year of the Singing Brakeman’s demise, 1933, the Callahans got their own big break in the very same town.  While singing and yodeling at an Asheville music festival, the brothers were discovered by a talent scout for the American Record Corporation, who invited them to New York for a session.  They obliged, and had their first record date on January 2, 1934, a session which produced a hit with “She’s My Curly Headed Baby”.  With a two-guitar accompaniment and a repertoire consisting of old sentimental songs such as “Maple On the Hill” to hokums like “Somebody’s Been Using That Thing” to straight blues like “St. Louis Blues”, they were able to produce a string of decently selling records during the times of economic depression.  In addition to their work as a duet, the brothers also each recorded solo.  Around the time of their recording debut, the duo also began appearing on Asheville’s WWNC, soon moving to WHAS in Louisville, and then to WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia.  Walter retired back home for a brief period in the late 1930s, leaving brother Homer to continue solo for a time.

Reunited at the end of the 1930s, Walter and Homer changed their names to Joe and Bill, respectively, and went to Texas to begin performing on KRLD in Dallas.  There, they became early members of the station’s Big D Jamboree when it debuted in the late 1940s.  They also recorded transcriptions to be played on the Mexican border blaster stations, bringing their music to an even wider audience.  In 1945, they made an appearance with Jimmy Wakely in the Western movie Springtime in Texas.  They continued singing on the radio and on records into the 1950s.  Also in the 1950s, Homer/Bill worked as manager to Lefty Frizzell.  Walter/Joe retired back home once again by the end of that decade, this time for keeps, and became a grocer.  He died in North Carolina on September 10, 1971.  Homer stayed in Texas and in music for the rest of his long life, which came to an end on September 12, 2002.

Conqueror 8274 was recorded In New York City on January 3 and 2, 1934, respectively, the Callahans’ first sessions.  Homer and Walter Callahan sing and yodel, accompanied by their own two guitars.

From the second day of the Callahan Brothers’ first sessions, the duo sings and yodels the lonesome song “I Don’t Want to Hear Your Name”.

I Don’t Want to Hear Your Name, recorded January 3, 1934 by the Callahan Brothers.

On the reverse, the brothers sing a hot hillbilly take on W.C. Handy’s famous “St. Louis Blues”, cut on their first record date.

St. Louis Blues, recorded January 2, 1934 by the Callahan Brothers.

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.