Bluebird B-8621 – Riley Puckett – 1940

Riley Puckett in the late 1930s or early 1940s. His most frequently published portrait.

With euphonious singing voice, enticing guitar playing, and a wide and diverse repertoire ranging from old folk ballads to modern pop songs, Riley Puckett, dubbed the “Bald Mountain Caruso” or sometimes “King of the Hillbillies” (an honorific contested by Uncle Dave Macon), was one of the most popular and prolific rural musicians of the pre-World War II era, both solo and as a member of Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers.

George Riley Puckett was born either in Alpharetta, Georgia or thrity-five miles away in Dallas on May 7, 1894.  He was blinded in infancy by a treatment for an eye infection gone awry, though those who knew him suggested that he could still tell light from dark.  Subsequently, he attended the Georgia School for the Blind in Macon, at which Blind Willie McTell would later enroll.  Taking up the banjo at twelve and later switching to guitar, Puckett soon made a name for himself at fiddler’s conventions with his playing and singing, his beautiful voice and exceptional range earning him the nickname the “Bald Mountain Caruso”.  He was also noted for his unique method of guitar playing, relying on dynamic runs.  On September 28, 1922, Puckett made his radio debut with Clayton McMichen’s Home Town Band on Atlanta’s WSB.  In February of 1924, Riley Puckett and fiddle player Gid Tanner cut test recordings for Columbia, and in March they pair traveled to New York to record for the first time in two sessions.  His “Rock All Our Babies to Sleep” has often been cited as the first “country” record to feature yodeling, a full three years before Jimmie Rodgers made his first records.  After those two sessions, boy did the floodgates open; from 1924 to 1931, Puckett recorded nearly two-hundred titles for Columbia, notwithstanding the eighty-five plus he made as a member of the Skillet Lickers, with hits like “My Carolina Home” cementing him as one of their best-selling artists in the Old Familiar Tunes series.  After a break from recording during the Great Depression, Riley made his triumphant return in 1934 when he signed with Bluebird, ultimately producing nearly another hundred titles, including perhaps his best known song “Ragged but Right”.  A 1937 side venture took him to Decca for a further twelve.  Riley also sang on radio stations all around the South and Midwest; by the end of the 1930s, he was singing on WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee.  After ten sessions for Bluebird, he had his final record date on October 2, 1941 in Atlanta.  Riley Puckett died from blood poisoning, the result of an infected boil, on July 13, 1946.

Bluebird B-8621 was recorded on October 1, 1940 in Atlanta, Georgia.  Riley Puckett is accompanied by his own guitar and an unknown woman mandolin player.  It was concurrently issued on Montgomery Ward M-8885.

First up, Riley sings one of my favorites, a song that got its start in Tin Pan Alley with Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins’ “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do” in 1922, which through some twists and turns and lyrical adjustments, found its way—perhaps by way of the medicine show circuit—into Southern folk and blues repertoires as “Nobody’s Business” or some variation on that, seeing recordings by Earl Johnson’s Dixie Entertainers in 1927, Mississippi John Hurt in 1928, and many others.  Riley himself recorded it three times, first on an unissued recording for Columbia in 1924, then twice more for Bluebird, in 1935 and—this one—in 1940.

Nobody’s Business, recorded October 1, 1940 by Riley Puckett.

On the flip, Puckett does his version of a popular big band hit of the day, Saxie Dowell’s “Playmates”—the melody of which was lifted from Charles L. Johnson’s 1904 intermezzo “Iola”—and gives a heck of a good delivery to boot.  Perhaps I just have my mind in the gutter, but with all the “climb up my apple tree, look down my rain barrel, slide down my cellar door,” this sure sounds like a lot of double entendre to me!

Playmates, recorded October 1, 1940 by Riley Puckett.

Bluebird B-5433 & B-5562 – Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers – 1934

Few old time “hillbilly” string bands of the 1920s and ’30s left behind such illustrious and distinguished legacies (and darned good music, too) as Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.  From their first recordings in 1926, Tanner’s Skillet Lickers established themselves as one of the most commercially successful “hillbilly” bands of the decade.  But as the twenties ceased to roar giving way to depression, the record industry quickly faltered, and so did the recording oriented Skillet Lickers.  The band had their last session for Columbia Records—with whom they had recorded exclusively since their first session—in October of 1931, and broke up thereafter.  Fiddle player Clayton McMichen went on to form his Georgia Wildcats and found success on radio and records through the remainder of the decade.  Come 1934 however, Gid put together a reunion of sorts.  Together with his son Gordon Tanner, old pal Riley Puckett, and mandolin player Ted Hawkins, they traveled to San Antonio, Texas, where the RCA Victor Company was holding a series of recording sessions at the Texas Hotel.  There, they recorded in two sessions on March 29th and 30th a series of twenty four sides, mostly energetic and jubilant dance tunes in stark contrast with the hard times the nation was then facing at the depth of the Great Depression, concluding with two of their classic “skit” records: “Prosperity and Politics” and “Practice Night With the Skillet Lickers”.

Bluebird B-5433 and B-5562 were both recorded on March 29, 1934 at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, Texas—the same time and place Riley Puckett recorded his famed solo performance of “Ragged but Right” and others.  The former was released on April 18th of that year, and the latter on July 18th.  B-5433 was also issued concurrently on Montgomery Ward M-4845, and B-5562 was reissued widely throughout the following decades on RCA Victor 20-2167 and 420-0569, making it all the way into the 45 RPM era on 447-0569.  The Skillet Lickers are Gid Tanner and his son Gordon Tanner on fiddles, Ted Hawkins on mandolin, and Riley Puckett on guitar.

On B-5433, the Skillet Lickers play two old time fiddle standards, both tunes which they recorded previously in 1930 and ’29, respectively.  First it’s “Georgia Waggoner”, the first side they recorded at the reunion session.

Georgia Waggoner, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

Next, keeping in the same theme, they follow with one of my personal favorites, a high energy rendition of “Mississippi Sawyer”, punctuated by Hawkins’ mandolin.  The band members can be heard talking over the music, lending to an informal atmosphere.

Mississippi Sawyer, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

On B-5562, the Skillet Lickers first play that old 1921 L. Wolfe Gilbert standby, “Down Yonder” (which we last heard played by an unidentified pianist).  This might just be my favorite Skillet Lickers side; I like their 1934 sound with the added mandolin, even though the old mainstays like Clayton McMichen and Fate Norris are absent.

Down Yonder, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

Then, they play another utterly bright and feel-good tune, the traditional fiddle piece “Back Up and Push”.  Though not credited as such in Russell’s Country Music Records, I’m quite certain Riley Puckett’s voice can be heard on this side, hollering some of the calls (“now ladies in the center and gents catch air, hold ‘er Newt, don’t let ‘er rare”).

Back Up and Push, recorded March 29, 1934 by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers.

Updated on April 28, 2018.

Columbia 15324-D – Riley Puckett – 1928

Blanche H. Bailey, the former Mrs. Riley Puckett, and Robert Puckett, at her home in Riverdale, GA. April 29, 1979. From the collection of Roy Robert Puckett, reproduced with permission.

Blanche H. Bailey, the former Mrs. Riley Puckett, and Robert Puckett, at her home in Riverdale, GA. April 29, 1979.
From the collection of Roy Robert Puckett, reproduced with permission.

May the seventh marks the 122nd anniversary of the birth of country music legend Riley Puckett.

George Riley Puckett was born May 7, 1894 in Dallas, Georgia.  He lost his sight as an infant after a doctor threw salt in his eyes as an ill-fated attempted treatment for an eye infection, and was educated at the Georgia School for the Blind in Macon, Georgia (same place where Blind Willie McTell was educated).  As an adult, Riley’s clear baritone singing voice earning him the title of the “Bald Mountain Caruso.”  As talented with a guitar as with his voice, he sang, yodeled, and played both solo and with the string bands of some of the finest fiddle players of their time, Gid Tanner and Clayton McMichen.  Puckett began playing on WSB in Atlanta during radio’s infancy in 1922, and recorded his first sides for Columbia in 1924, backed by Gid Tanner, starting with the same song that began his contemporary Fiddlin’ John Carson’s recording career, “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane”.  In the 1920s, Puckett was one of Columbia’s most popular hillbilly artists, but parted ways with the company in 1931, and recorded for a number of other record labels thereafter, ultimately leaving him with a recorded output of several hundred sides, solo and as a sideman.  Puckett continued to record sporadically throughout the Great Depression and into the 1940s.  In 1946, he died of blood poisoning from an untreated boil.

The last time we heard from ol’ Riley Puckett was when we heard him sing one of his most popular and well remembered songs, Ragged but Right.  Now, here’s another of his records that is a little more obscure.

Columbia 15324-D was recorded October 22 and 23, 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia by Riley Puckett.

Last time we heard Kelly Harrell’s “Away Out On the Mountain”, it was sung by Jimmie Rodgers.  As much as I like Jimmie, I think Riley does excellent work with this song too.

Away Out On the Mountain, recorded

Away Out On the Mountain, recorded October 22, 1928 by Riley Puckett.

Next up is “The Moonshiner’s Dream”, taking us back to the days of Prohibition.

The Moonshiner's Dream, recorded

The Moonshiner’s Dream, recorded October 23, 1928 by Riley Puckett.

Bluebird B-5587 – Riley Puckett – 1934

At one of my regular haunts the other day, I happened upon this exceptionally fine copy of what may be considered the great country singer Riley Puckett’s best record.  As it happens, some of Puckett’s relatives in Georgia are close family friends of mine, so I thought it might be nice to whip up a quick post for this fine disc.

George Riley Puckett was born in 1894 in Dallas, Georgia.  He was struck blind after a doctor threw salt in his eyes attempting to treat an infection.  Around the time of his early performances, he was dubbed “The Bald Mountain Caruso.”  Rising to become one of the most popular country musicians of the era, Puckett recorded both solo and with a number string bands, most notably Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers, from 1924 until 1941.  He died of blood poisoning in 1946.

On Bluebird B-5587, Riley Puckett plays guitar and sings two of his finest songs, accompanied by the Skillet Lickers’ Ted Hawkins on mandolin.  Both sides were recorded March 29, 1934 at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, Texas.

On side “A”, Riley soulfully sings and yodels Carson Robison’s humorous tale of salvation on the wonderful “I’m Gettin’ Ready to Go”.

I’m Gettin’ Ready to Go, recorded March 29, 1934 by Riley Puckett.

On the “B” side, Puckett delivers a marvelous performance of one of his most famous songs, “Ragged but Right”.

Ragged but Right, recorded March 29, 1934 in San Antonio by Riley Puckett

Ragged but Right, recorded March 29, 1934 by Riley Puckett