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).

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.

First up, Peetie Wheatstraw sings one of his more famous 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).