Okeh 45227 – Oscar Harper’s Texas String Band – 1928

Though one of the most prolifically recorded Texas fiddlers prior to 1930, precious little has been chronicled of the life and times of Oscar Harper.  With ten issued sides (one not) to his credit, Harper ranked behind only Eck Robertson, Bernard Cartwright of the Cartwright Brothers, and Daniel H. Williams of the East Texas Serenaders, and tied with Samuel Peacock of Smith’s Garage Fiddle Band and “Red” Steeley of the Red Headed Fiddlers, for number of recordings behind his belt (assuming my tallies are accurate).

Oscar Hamilton Harper was born on February 10, 1888, most probably in Ashdown, Arkansas, very close to the Texas border (though in later years, he claimed to have been born in Texas, and may actually have), one of the ten children of Robert and Mary Ann Harper.  Having lived in the state for a time prior to Oscar’s birth, the Harpers returned to Texas in the last decade of the nineteenth century, settling in the region to the east and north of Dallas.  Oscar joined in his family’s work as farmers in his youth, and by 1910 was working as a hired hand on a farm in Rockwall, Texas.  The circumstances surrounding his introduction to the instrument are obscure, but he presumable took up fiddle playing at some time during his formative years.  In 1918, Harper was drafted into the U.S. Army, but did not see action overseas, and was discharged as a private less than a year later following the war’s end.  No less than two months after his discharge, he married Alline Daisy Gaskey on May 10, 1919, in Kaufman County and had at least six children.  By the 1920s, he had settled in Terrell, Texas, where he was known to play with fellow resident fiddlers by the likes of Ervin Solomon and Prince Albert Hunt.  Some suggest that Harper worked as a barber, but no records appear to corroborate this.  In March of 1928, Harper traveled with his nephew Doc and Prince Albert Hunt to San Antonio to record for the Okeh record company, who were conducting a field trip there.  With the duo of Oscar and Doc dubbed “Oscar Harper’s Texas String Band”, the session resulted in three sides and one released record, featuring two popular waltz numbers.  Some sources suggest that he also sat in on Prince Albert Hunt’s “Blues in a Bottle” record, waxed immediately after his session.  Harper’s two man string band made another disc in October of ’29 for Vocalion, and again recorded for Okeh the following month, this time billed simply as “Oscar and Doc Harper”, both times in Dallas.  Among the melodies he recorded at the latter session were the original Texas-flavored pieces “Terrell Texas Blues” and “Dallas Bound”.  By 1930, Harper had retired from farm labor and was working as a full-time musician on the radio and at local dances.  At one such function in February of 1942, Harper was recorded by John A. Lomax for the Library of Congress playing traditional fiddle tunes like “The Girl I Left Behind Me”, with a band including Prince Albert Hunt’s old associate Harmon Clem on guitar.  In the second half of the 1930s, the Harpers moved from their farm in Terrell to Dallas, residing at 1913 Gano Street (now the site of Dallas Heritage Village).  Oscar Harper died from complications of uremia in Dallas on February 5, 1952.

Okeh 45227 was recorded on March 8, 1927, in San Antonio, Texas.  Harper’s String Band is Oscar on the fiddle and Doc Harper on the guitar.  It was Harper’s best-selling record.

The rough-hewn, rather slipshod, yet entirely melodic character of Harper’s playing heard in his “Kelly Waltz”, punctuated by Doc’s strong guitar rhythm, exemplifies the sound of early Texas fiddle music.

Kelly Waltz, recorded March 8, 1928 by Oscar Harper’s Texas String Band.

The Harpers fiddle another upbeat waltz tune on the reverse: “Bouquet Waltz”.

Bouquet Waltz, recorded March 8, 1928 by Oscar Harper’s Texas String Band.

Brunswick 6181 – Herman Waldman and his Orchestra – 1931

In Old Time Blues’s continuing appreciation of both territory jazz bands and artists and musicians from Texas, we now turn our attention to one of the most successful dance orchestras from the state of Texas: that of Herman Waldman.

Bandleader Herman Waldman was born in New York City on January 26, 1902 (by his own account, though some sources suggest a date of two days later), the son of Austro-Hungarian immigrants Morris and Anna (née Sororowitz) Waldman.  The family had taken up residence in Dallas, Texas, before Herman was twenty.  As a youth, he worked as a clerk in a railroad office.  A violinist, Waldman had formed his orchestra by the latter years of the 1920s.  They were said to have had engagements at Dallas’s Adolphus and Baker Hotels, which also hosted the talents of Alphonso Trent and Jack Gardner at different times.  The band was playing hot when they recorded for the first time as part of the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company’s field trip to Dallas in October of 1929.  That session produced only one record: the hot jazz “Marbles” and “Waiting”.  When Brunswick ventured to San Antonio two years later, Waldman’s orchestra recorded once again, again producing only one record.  In addition to their sparse recordings, the Waldman band toured around the southern and southwestern states, reportedly appearing at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and the Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City.  In between their recording sessions, a young trumpeter named Harry James joined Waldman’s band, before moving on to the nationally successful Ben Pollack’s orchestra.  In the midst of the Great Depression, the group made their final recordings, this time for Bluebird, at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, on April 3, 1934, this time making two records.  By that time, scarcely any trace of the hot band that produced “Marbles” back in ’29 was audible; instead, they played popular tunes in the fashion of the sweet dance bands prevalent in the day, though they did so with the proficiency of any of the big New York orchestras.  Though they never recorded again, Waldman and his orchestra were still going at least as late as 1941.  Herman Waldman died in Dallas on March 7, 1991.

Brunswick 6181 was recorded on the afternoon of August 31, 1931, in San Antonio, Texas.  Waldman’s band is made up of Rex Preis and Ken Switzer on trumpets, Bill Clemens on trombone, Bob “Baldy” Harris and Jimmy Segers (or “Segars”) on clarinet and alto sax, Arno “Tink” Navratil on clarinet and tenor sax, Herman Waldman on violin, Tom Blake on piano, Vernon Mills on banjo, Barney Dodd on tuba, and Reggie Kaughlin on drums.

On the first side, Waldman’s orchestra plays “Got No Honey”, a composition by band members Arno “Tink” Navratil and Jimmy Segers, and seemingly the only recording of this song.  Trumpet man Ken Switzer takes the vocal.

Got No Honey, recorded August 31, 1931 by Herman Waldman and his Orchestra.

On the flip-side, they play a competent rendition of the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Lazy River”.  Banjoist Vernon Mills sings the lyric, joined by a trio consisting of Switzer and two others.

Lazy River, recorded August 31, 1931 by Herman Waldman and his Orchestra.

Bluebird B-6513 – The Tune Wranglers – 1936

The Tune Wranglers, as pictured in the 1937 Bluebird catalog.  Standing, left-to-right: Eddie Duncan, Bill Dickey, Eddie Whitley; seated: Tom Dickey, Buster Coward.

Pioneering, barnstorming cowboy string band from San Antonio, Texas, the Tune Wranglers made a name for themselves both for their rollicking and raucous music and as one of the earliest bands to play in the style that would later be known as western swing.

Much like their contemporaries Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, the Tune Wranglers began with a partnership between a guitarist and a fiddler: respectively Edwin Portavent “Buster” Coward, born December 11, 1903, in Chesterville, Texas, and Thomas Ephraim “Tom” Dickey, born November 29, 1899, in Markham, Texas.  Dickey learned fiddle as a child, and got his professional start on Mexican border radio in 1929.  Coward too started music young, playing guitar, and also served as the most frequent vocalist and de facto bandleader as the group’s most prominent and constant member.  The duo organized the first incarnation of the band in 1935 and began touring all across the region and making appearances on radio stations WOAI and KTSA in San Antonio, Texas.  They added to their ranks hot shot tenor banjoist Joe Barnes (a.k.a. “Red Brown”), pianist Eddie Whitley, and upright bassist J. Harrell “Curley” Williams.  They made their recording debut before long, on an RCA Victor field trip to San Antonio on the twenty-seventh-and-eighth of February, 1936.  In seven sessions from 1936 to 1938, they recorded a series of seventy-nine sides for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, all made in San Antonio.  Their widely variegated repertoire consisted of popular songs like “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'” (many of which had their title altered, likely in a royalty dodge by producer Eli Oberstein, who did the same to recordings by fellow San Antonians Boots and his Buddies), old cowboy ballads like “The Girl I Left Behind Me”, blues like “Red’s Tight Like That”, jazz like “It Don’t Mean a Thing”, Mexican numbers like “Rancho Grande”, and original compositions such as “Texas Sand”.  Some of their instrumental recordings were released under the name “Tono Hombres” for the Mexican market.  They added steel guitar before their third record date, played by the prolific Eddie Duncan, and a number of other musicians sometimes sat in or replaced others, including pianist George Timberlake, and banjoist Eddie Fielding.   Most every member took a turn singing at one point or another.  Tom Dickey parted ways with the band in 1937 to lead another band called the Show Boys, with whom he recorded for Bluebird in 1938; he later made further recordings for the Folkraft label in the latter part of the 1940s, still operating out of San Antonio.  His position in the Tune Wranglers was filled by first by Ben McKay and later by Leonard Seago.  By 1938, the band included a reed section consisting of twins Neal and Beal Ruff, the former of whom also doubled on tenor banjo.  The Wranglers moved to Fort Worth in 1939 to begin appearing on KFJZ, but disbanded soon after around 1940.  Tom Dickey later operated a cafe in San Antonio, and died in that city on August 24, 1954.  Buster Coward later worked as a flying instructor and died from a coronary at his home near Boerne, Texas, on April 28, 1975.

Bluebird B-6513 was recorded on February 28, 1936, in San Antonio, Texas.  It was released on August 26 of the same year and remained in “print” for decades to come.  This pressing dates to the mid-1940s.  It was also issued on Montgomery Ward M-4766; “Texas Sand” was reissued on RCA Victor 20-2070 around 1946, backed with their other big hit: “Hawaiian Honeymoon”.  The Tune Wranglers are Buster Coward singing and on guitar, Tom Dickey on fiddle, Red Brown on tenor banjo, Curley Williams on string bass, and Eddie Whitley on piano.

Penned by guitarist and vocalist Buster Coward, “Texas Sand” became something of a standard in Texas country music, and was later covered by Webb Pierce in one of his earliest recording sessions.

Texas Sand, recorded February 28, 1936 by the Tune Wranglers.

As marvelous as the first side is, I do believe the Wranglers managed to really outdo themselves on the “B” side with their tour de force performance of “Lonesome Blues”, also featuring Buster Coward’s strong vocal talent and hot performances by every member of the band.

Lonesome Blues, recorded February 28, 1936 by the Tune Wranglers.

Bluebird B-8899 – Ernest Tubb – 1936

Ernest Tubb at about twenty-two years old, pictured in the 1937 Bluebird Records catalog.

That time has rolled around once again to fondly remember my dear cousin, Ernest Tubb.  The last time we heard from E.T., he was performing his biggest hit: “Walking the Floor Over You”.  Now let us turn back the clock a few years to his earliest recording sessions, long before he had the fame and acclaim that, once found, would last him the rest of his career.

Ernest Tubb made his recording debut in a room at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio on the twenty-sixth of October, 1936, accompanying the widow of his idol Jimmie Rodgers on a song she wrote in a tribute to her late husband.  He received no credit for his role in the production on the record’s label, which simply read “with accompaniment played on Jimmie Rodgers’ own guitar.”  Mrs. Rodgers had loaned Tubb Jimmie’s instrument—as well as the Blue Yodeler’s tuxedo to wear in publicity shots—and helped him secure a contract with the RCA Victor Company, for whom her husband had recorded for the entirety of his six year career to help him get started in his musical career, after he had contacted her and the two became friendly.  Tubb began his recording career in earnest the following day, waxing six sides, all in the style of his hero, complete with yodeling and guitar work lifted straight from Rodgers’ records..  He began with his own tribute to the Singing Brakeman he so adored: “The Passing of Jimmie Rodgers” and “The Last Thoughts of Jimmie Rodgers”—both penned by Rodgers’ songwriting partner and sister-in-law Elsie McWilliams—which constituted the first record issued to his name.  He followed up with four more sides, which did not see release until six years later.  Despite the lack of success brought by his first disc, Tubb was behind the Victor mike again less than half a year later to cut another two sides, this time with his friend Merwyn J. Buffington joining him on second guitar.  The resulting disc, without the words “Jimmie Rodgers” on the label to ensure its success, sold even more poorly than the first, and Tubb did not return to record for RCA Victor again.  For the remainder of the 1930s, Tubb continued to struggle as an artist, frequently working day jobs to support himself as gigs on Texas radio stations and honky-tonks failed to pay the bills.  In 1939, a tonsillectomy damaged his yodeling ability (though he did yodel on rare occasions in subsequent years), forcing him first to shift his focus to songwriting before returning to singing with a new, less blue yodeling style all his own which ultimately found him immense, lifelong success and a longstanding contract with Decca Records to go with it, but he never forsook his adoration for his hero Jimmie Rodgers.

Bluebird B-8899 was recorded between 1:00 and 2:15 in the afternoon of October 27, 1936 at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. It was released on January 9, 1942, after he had started making hits for Decca.  Ernest Tubb sings his own compositions, accompanying himself on the late Jimmie Rodgers’ custom Martin 000-45 guitar.

First, Tubb borrows heavily from the Blue Yodeler on “Married Man Blues”, with a guitar introduction lifted from Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 5” and an opening verse directly from his “Whippin’ That Old T.B.”.

Married Man Blues, recorded October 27, 1936 by Ernest Tubb.

Next, he does “Mean Old Bed Bug Blues”, an original composition distinct from the song of the same name sung by the likes of Bessie Smith and Furry Lewis.  In my opinion, this is perhaps Tubb’s best Bluebird side—though “Since That Black Cat Crossed My Path” is another top contender.  Though Tubb very seldom recorded with only his own guitar as accompaniment, he proves on these sides to have been nearly as proficient on the instrument as his idol, Jimmie Rodgers.  Though far from a hit record, the song was later covered by Hawshaw Hawkins in 1946.

Mean Old Bed Bug Blues, recorded October 27, 1936 by Ernest Tubb.

Montgomery Ward M-7085 – Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers/Bolick Bros. – 1936

In the city of New York, on the twenty-sixth of May, 1933, the famous Singing Brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers, met his untimely end at the age of only thirty-five.  Suffering a fatal pulmonary hemorrhage in his room in the Taft Hotel, he had finally succumbed to the T.B. that had dogged him since 1924.  He had completed his final recording session only two days earlier.

Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers, pictured in the 1937 Bluebird catalog.

In the wake of Jimmie Rodgers’ demise, the spirit of great Blue Yodeler was eulogized in a considerable volume of tribute songs.  Among them, cowboy star and former Rodgers cover artist Gene Autry made a two part record honoring his late inspiration, future Texas governor and senator W. Lee O’Daniel penned another one that was recorded by his Light Crust Doughboys, but surely the most heartfelt of all the tributes was by Rodgers’ own widow, Mrs. Carrie Williamson Rodgers.

It was three years after her husband’s death when she first entered a recording studio, one operated by the same company for whom her husband had made so many records—RCA Victor—set up temporarily in a hotel in San Antonio, the city Rodgers had called home in the last years of his life.  She brought with her a burgeoning young radio singer, one of the legion of devotees of her late husband, whom she had befriended after he contacted her for an autographed picture of the famed singer; his name was Ernest Tubb.  He made six sides at those sessions, his first; she made only one.  Her lone recording was a touching original composition dedicated to Jimmie, with Tubb backing on Rodgers’ famous custom Martin 000-45 guitar, emblazoned with “Jimmie Rodgers” in pearl lettering inlaid across the fretboard, and “Blue Yodel” on the headstock.  The following year, Mrs. Rodgers returned to the microphone with Tubb—and his buddy Merwyn Buffington—accompanying to make one more side: “My Rainbow Trail Keeps Winding On”, only tangentially related to Jimmie.  She bookended her scant recording career many years later, all the way in 1956, when she met with the reunited original Carter Family at the site of the famous Bristol Sessions, where Jimmie and the Carters made their first records, to record “Mrs. Jimmy [sic] Rodgers Visits the Carter Family”, a sequel to 1931’s “Jimmie Rodgers Visits the Carter Family”.  Carrie remained in San Antonio for the rest of her years, and never remarried.  She died there from complications of colon cancer on November 28, 1961, at the age of fifty-nine.

Montgomery Ward M-7085, a split release, was recorded in two separate sessions: the first side on October 26, 1936, in San Antonio, Texas, and the second on the thirteenth of the same month and year in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Side “A” was also issued on Bluebird B-6698, backed with Jimmie Rodgers and Sara Carter duetting on “Why There’s a Tear in My Eye”, and a year or so later on another Montgomery Ward, M-7279, backed with Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers’ only other song.  Side “B” was also released on Bluebird B-6808 with another side by the same artists.

Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers, by her own admission, was no singer, but she succeeded nonetheless in delivering a heartrending performance on her tribute to her late husband: “We Miss Him When the Evening Shadows Fall”.  Whatever she may have lacked in ability, she made up for with sincerity.  Carrie is accompanied, as the label states, “on Jimmie Rodgers’ own guitar,” played by the Blue Yodeler’s posthumous protégé Ernest Tubb.

We Miss Him When the Evening Shadows Fall, recorded October 26, 1936 by Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers.

On the reverse, the Bolick Brothers—Earl, on guitar, and Bill, on mandolin—better known as the proto-bluegrass duo the Blue Sky Boys, deliver an inspirational message in the gospel song “I Believe It”.

I Believe It, recorded October 13, 1936 by the Bolick Bros.