Okeh 40339 – Jack Gardner’s Orchestra – 1924

In Old Time Blues’ continuing series honoring the musical heritage of Texas, we pay due tribute to the bandleader whose orchestra bears the distinction of producing the earliest commercial recordings made within the borders of the Lone Star State: the Dallas-based pianist and songwriter Jack Gardner.

Jack Gardner and his Orchestra, pictured on 1925 sheet music for “Dallas, I Love You”.

Jack was born Francis Henry Gardner on August 14, 1903, in Joliet, Illinois.  He took up playing piano while a young boy, and began playing professionally after the family relocated to Denver, Colorado, reportedly appearing with Boyd Senter’s band.  He was also a competent and relatively prolific songwriter best remembered for the 1927 hit “Bye-Bye, Pretty Baby”.  Many sources state that Gardner moved to Chicago in 1923 and remained there until 1937, but, unless there were two different pianists named Jack Gardner, that cannot be accurate as at least in the middle years of that decade, he was director of the house band at the stately Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, Texas.  When Ralph S. Peer of the Okeh record company brought mobile recording equipment to a dealer’s warehouse in Dallas in 1924, Gardner and his orchestra had the special privilege of being the first to make commercial recordings in the state of Texas.  Upon Okeh’s return to Dallas the following year, his orchestra had another session, this time introducing the talent of local singer Irene Taylor, who would later go on to be featured by the most popular orchestra in the United States: Paul Whiteman’s.  Gardner may have been in Chicago as early as the end of 1925, at which time he is suggested as a possible instrumentalist with Fred Hamm’s orchestra, one of a number of groups managed by Chicago impresario Edgar A. Benson.  He had definitely made it to the toddling town by 1928, at which time he began sitting in with jazz bands such as those of Wingy Manone and Jimmy McPartland.  In 1939, Gardner went to New York City to assume the role of pianist first with Sandy Williams, then in Texas-raised trumpeter Harry James’s orchestra, a position which he held for around a year before returning to Chicago.  After an active period there, Jack Gardner returned to Dallas, where he remained until his death on November 26, 1957.

Okeh 40339 was recorded in September or October of 1924, in Dallas, Texas, the Gardner band’s first session.  Though the orchestra’s personnel is only tentatively identified, it probably includes at least some of the following members: Johnnie Mills and Charlie Willison cornets, Stanton Crocker on trombone, Robert B. Dean, Robert K. Harris, and Bernie Dillon on reeds, Jack Gardner on piano, Earl D. McMahan on banjo, Ralph W. “Cricket” Brown on tuba, and Bob Blassingame on drums.  Dillon White sings the vocal on side “A”, and may also be an instrumentalist.

First, Dillon White sings the vocal on “Who? You?”, one of Jack Gardner’s own compositions.  I must admit that White’s vocal gives me a little chuckle every time I listen to it (“Who? Yoouu!“), but that band sure could play!

Who? You?, recorded c.September-October 1924 by Jack Gardner’s Orchestra.

They follow with a wild, eccentric jazz tune, another Gardner original: “Who’d a Thunk It”.  One thing you can say for certain: the folks in Texas did like their jazz played hot!

Who’d a Thunk It, recorded c.September-October 1924 by Jack Gardner’s Orchestra.

Okeh 8300 – Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five – 1926

Louis Armstrong around the age of nineteen, circa 1920. Pictured in Jazzmen, 1939.

As the anniversary of the day the great Louis Armstrong was born rolls around once again, it’s come time to commemorate the occasion with another page from musical history.  Previously, we’ve examined his theme song, his original Hot Five’s last recordings, and his 1933 European tour.  Now let us turn our attention to an earlier point in old Satchel Mouth’s illustrious career, toward one of the most memorable records from his first endeavor as the leader of a band.

After Louis Armstrong parted ways with his mentor King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1924, he was invited to New York City for a seat in Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, the top black dance band in operation, making his first records with them on October 7, 1924.  He remained with Henderson for only a year, but in that time helped produce some of the band’s greatest musical successes.  Thereafter, he returned to Chicago and started up a band of his own: the Hot Five, featuring the extraordinary talents of Johnny Dodds, Kid Ory, Johnny St. Cyr, and his wife Lil, sometimes joined by guests like Lonnie Johnson.  He secured a contract with Okeh Records, for whom he had recorded as a member of Oliver’s Jazz Band, and the Hot Five made their first three recordings on November 12, 1925.  In addition to his bandleading, Armstrong also worked as something of a staff trumpeter at Okeh, often backing blues singers like Bertha “Chippie” Hill.  Though his contract forbade him from making records under his own name on other labels, he occasionally made clandestine ventures to other companies; the Hot Five cut one record for Vocalion as “Lill’s Hot Shots”, and Armstrong sat in for a session with Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra.  Nonetheless, his contract proved to be quite fruitful, for Armstrong remained on Okeh’s roster—sometimes expanding the Hot Five to the Hot Seven, and later fronting full-fledged orchestras—until the middle of 1932, at which point he left the faltering label in favor of recording for Victor, which had managed to stay afloat as the Great Depression took its heavy toll on the record companies.

Okeh 8300 was recorded on February 26, 1926 in Chicago, Illinois, at the Armstrong’s Hot Five’s third session.  The Hot Five is its original lineup of Louis Armstrong on cornet, Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Lil Armstrong on piano, and Johnny St. Cyr on six-string banjo.

First up is “Heebie Jeebies”, most certainly the definitive version of this tune, which we last heard played by Fess Williams’ Royal Flush Orchestra.  Armstrong’s recording of this popular jazz tune is frequently cited as one of the most influential early examples of scat singing.  According to Richard M. Jones, Armstrong’s famous scat chorus began because his lyric sheet fell off his music stand and he couldn’t remember the words.  That story is likely pure fiction, though Armstrong did blurt out “I done forgot the words” in his scat chorus on his 1930 recording of “(I’m a) Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas”.

Heebie Jeebies, recorded February 26, 1926 by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five.

Next up is the the first ever recording of Kid Ory’s hot jazz standard, “Muskrat Ramble” (sometimes titled “Muskat Ramble”, and occasionally “Muskrat Scramble”, which I imagine as quite a terrible egg dish).

Muskrat Ramble, recorded February 26, 1926 by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five.

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.

Okeh 41470 – The Three Boswell Sisters – 1930

The Boswell Sisters in 1930 or early 1931. Pictured on the sheet music cover for “Roll On, Misissippi, Roll On”.

It seems that it’s been far too long since we last heard from our good friends the Boswell Sisters.  I try to give both the sisters’ works and Connie’s solos equal attention in accordance with the fairness doctrine, and it’s already been more than a year since I last posted one of the trio’s records, so here are those syncopating harmonists from New Orleans with one of their earliest records.

The years of 1929 and ’30 saw the Boswell Sisters on the West Coast.  They had settled in Los Angeles following a vaudeville tour of the States, residing in an apartment at El Pueblo Court in Hollywood.  They became popular local radio artists, even recording around fifty titles for a series of transcription discs made by the Continental Broadcasting Corporation to be shipped out for broadcast in Hawaii.  They also “side-miked” for some motion pictures, to have their voices dubbed over those of movie actors that couldn’t sing, notably for the number “Harlem Hop” in the film Under Montana Skies.  In 1930, they hadn’t made a commercial record in five years, not since their first one made in New Orleans in 1925, but that was soon to change.  That July, the sisters teamed with Jackie Taylor’s Los Angeles-based dance band to record two sides, “We’re On the Highway to Heaven” from Oh Sailor Behave and “That’s What I Like About You”, though only the former was released.  Later, that October, Okeh recorded them solo, singing four songs including the first commercial take of their signature song “Heebie Jeebies”.  All four sides were released, essentially constituting the beginning of their solo recording career.  Not long after, with Harry Leedy hired as their manager, they moved to New York and began their fruitful engagement with Brunswick, often accompanied by the Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra, that resulted in their vibrant and prolific legacy.

Okeh 41470 was recorded on October 3 and 31, 1930 in Los Angeles, California, the second of their two Okeh records.  The instrumentation consists solely of Martha Boswell’s piano and the trio’s vocal effects.  This is the pure, unadulterated Boswell Sisters sound of their early days, before the influence of manager Harry Leedy, record bigwig Jack Kapp, and their ilk.

On the first side, the Bozzies sing “Gee, But I’d Like to Make You Happy” from the musical picture Good News (it was written for the movie and did not appear in the 1927 stage production).

Gee, But I'd Like to Make You Happy

Gee, But I’d Like to Make You Happy, recorded October 3, 1930 by The Three Boswell Sisters.

On the flip, recorded at the later date, they sing one of my favorite Boswell performances, “Don’t Tell Her What’s Happened to Me”, rendered as “Don’t Tell Him“.

Don't Tell Her What's Happened to Me

Don’t Tell Her What’s Happened to Me, recorded October 31, 1930 by The Three Boswell Sisters.

Okeh 45057 – Dave Cutrell/Mc Ginty’s Oklahoma Cow Boy Band – 1926

Long before the days of so-called “country and western” music, real working cattlemen sang and played their songs out on the range.  Regrettably, being so far away from centers of civilization, only relatively little of that authentic cowboy music was fortunate enough to be recorded for posterity before commercial hillbilly music took off.  However, a handful of real cowboy singers and musicians did make it into the studio, including the Oklahoma Cowboy Band, founded by former Rough Rider Billy McGinty, which, unlike many contemporaries, would later go on to achieve nationwide acclaim.

The Oklahoma Cowboy Band, directed by Otto Gray, broadcasting from the General Electric station WGY, Schenectady, N.Y. around 1930.  Left-to-right: Otto Gray, Rex, Florence “Mommie” Gray, Owen “Zeb” Gray, “Chief” Sanders, Lee “Zeke” Allen, and Wade “Hy” Allen.  Pictured in Songs: Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, 1930.

Band founder and financier William M. “Billy” McGinty of the Indian Territory was a true cowboy of legendary stature.  Born in Missouri on New Year’s Day of 1871, he started out punching cattle at the age of fourteen, on a ranch in Kansas.  During those years, he got to know old west legends by the likes of outlaw Bill Doolin and built up a reputation for being able bust any bronc, no matter how tough it were.  Following the loss of the Battleship Maine, he went south to join up with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, going on to become a hero at the Battle of San Juan Hill—Roosevelt said of him, “we had no better or braver man in the fights”.  When the war was through, he came back home to become a star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.  Sometime in the early 1920s, McGinty founded the Oklahoma Cowboy Band of local musicians around Ripley, Oklahoma.  The band made their first radio appearance in 1925 on Bristow, Oklahoma’s KFRU, and their first record for Okeh the following year.  McGinty later retired as the band’s manager to focus on his ranch in Ingalls and his duties as postmaster of Ripley, leaving Otto Gray, who raised midget cattle in Stillwater and had previously served as the band’s director, to assume his position and lead the band to great national success.  McGinty published an autobiography titled The Old West, as Written in the Words of Billy McGinty in 1937.  In his later years, he served stints as president of the Roosevelt Rough Riders Association and the Cherokee Strip Cowpunchers Association.  Billy McGinty died on May 21, 1961 at the age of ninety, and was buried in the Ingalls Cemetery.

Okeh 45057 was recorded in St. Louis, Missouri in May of 1926 by Dave Cutrell and McGinty’s Oklahoma Cowboy Band (Otto Gray, director).  Both the DAHR and Rust and Laird’s Discography of OKeh Records, 1918-1934 place the recordings in Atlanta, Georgia in March of that year, but earlier pressings on the state “Recorded in St. Louis” on the label, and Victoria Spivey made her first recordings on the adjoining matrices in St. Louis on May 11, 1926, likely placing these around that date.  The May date is further corroborated by Tony Russell’s Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921-1942.  Although the label credits McGinty’s band as accompanying Cutrell’s vocal on the first side, he is backed only by a single guitar, likely his own.  The personnel of McGinty’s Cowboy Band for this session is unknown, but it may include Cutrell.  McGinty’s band cut two additional unissued sides that day, the titles and contents of which are lost to time.

Dave Cutrell’s recording of “Pistol Pete’s Midnight Special” holds the distinction of being the first recorded version of the traditional prison song “The Midnight Special”.  It was subsequently recorded by Wilmer Watts and his Lonely Eagles for Paramount around April of 1927 as “Walk Right in Belmont”, blues man Sam Collins for Gennett that September, and again by Otto Gray’s Oklahoma Cowboy Band in March of 1929.  In the next decade, the song came to be associated with Lead Belly, who made his first of at least five recordings of the song at his second Library of Congress session with John Avery Lomax while still incarcerated at Angola Prison Farm on July 1, 1934.  Since then, it has been recorded countless times in a variety of styles and genres.

By many accounts, the song spins a story of a prisoner at Texas’ Sugar Land penitentiary longing to receive a pardon from the governor.  The titular Midnight Special was a train that came in the middle of the night to take pardoned ex-convicts away, so as to avoid the threat of extrajudicial action by people in town, and legend had it that if the Midnight Special shone its light on you, you were soon to be pardoned.  Cutrell adds two humorous verses of his own mentioning band leaders Billy McGinty and Otto Gray: “Mr. McGinty’s a good man, but he’s run away now with a cowboy band.” and “Now Otto Gray, he’s a Stillwater man, but he’s manager now of a cowboy band.”

Pistol Pete’s Midnight Special, recorded c. May 1926 by Dave Cutrell.

On the “B” side, with fiddle, guitar, banjo, and ‘cello, McGinty’s Oklahoma Cowboy Band plays a rousing instrumental of “Cow Boy’s Dream” that puts you right there by the campfire.  In my opinion, this side is one of only a few records that capture the mystique of the wide open space of the Old West.  It also appears that whoever was typesetting the labels for Okeh that day wasn’t too fond of compound words.

Cow Boy’s Dream, recorded c. May 1926 by Mc Ginty’s Oklahoma Cow Boy Band (Otto Gray, Director).