Victor 19744 – Seger Ellis – 1925

Seger Ellis, as pictured on his Okeh record label.

The United States of America isn’t the only one born on the fourth of July, for it’s also the birthday of Texas’ own Seger Ellis, popular crooner of the Jazz Age.  But perhaps Ellis’ greatest talent was on the piano that gave him his start down the road to fame.

Seger Pillot Ellis was born on Independence Day of 1904 in Houston, Texas.  He learned to play piano sometime in his early years from Jack Sharpe (who later recorded with the KXYZ Novelty Band) and began performing on local radio station KPRC in 1925.  He also played in Lloyd Finlay’s Houston-based jazz band, with whom he made his first records when Victor made their first field trip to Texas in March of ’25.  Aside from the seven sides with Finlay, Ellis recorded two solo sides playing piano: “Prairie Blues” and “Sweet Lovable You”, both compositions of his own.  Both masters were rejected, apparently for technical reasons, but Ellis was invited thereafter to come to Camden, New Jersey and re-make them, and that he did.  Between 1925 and 1930, Seger Ellis recorded a total of twenty-three piano solos for Victor, Columbia, and Okeh records, of which only ten were released, all of them excellent hard-driving rag pieces showcasing a strong left hand.  In spite of his outstanding piano abilities, Ellis’ real fame was to come from his warbly tenor croon.

After signing with Okeh in 1926 as something of their answer to successful Victor artist (and fellow Texan) Gene Austin, Ellis rose to become one of the label’s most heavily promoted artists.  He toured England in 1928, and the same year was granted a picture label devoted to his records, an honor previously bestowed to the likes of Paul Whiteman and Ted Lewis.  A jazzbo through-and-through, Ellis’ accompaniment often included the Dorsey Brothers, and for one session Louis Armstrong, and in addition to his popular vocals, he sang alongside jazz bands like Frankie Trumbauer’s, and occasionally made “hillbilly” records as “Bud Blue”.  In 1929, he starred in a Warner Brothers Vitaphone short titled How Can I Love You?  He retained his successful engagement with Okeh through the end of 1930, at which time he briefly signed with Brunswick.  The Great Depression found Ellis in a period of recording dormancy, though he continued to work.  As a radio personality on Cincinnati’s WLW, Ellis is remembered for giving the Mills Brothers their big break.  In the 1930s, Ellis married vocalist Irene Taylor (the “Mississippi Mud girl”).  Ellis resumed his recording career for Decca in 1936, at first singing with Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra, but soon starting up a swing band of his own.  Two years later, he returned to Brunswick, this time as director of his “Choir of Brass” orchestra, featuring Taylor as vocalist.  That band lasted until 1941—moving to Vocalion and later Okeh following Brunswick’s demise—after which Ellis returned home to Texas and divorced Irene Taylor.  Ellis served his country during the war, and afterwards made a few more records for the Bullet label of Nashville in 1948, and a few more for Kapp in the 1950s, by which time his voice had matured into a robust baritone.  Through the following decades he remained active as a songwriter, for which he is remembered for “You’re All I Want For Christmas” (as well as “Shivery Stomp” from so many years earlier) and continued to perform locally, but disappeared from the national spotlight.  Seger Ellis died at the age of ninety-one on September 29, 1995, in his hometown of Houston.

Victor 19755 was recorded on August 10, 1925 at Victor’s headquarters in Camden, New Jersey.  It was released in November of ’25, and stayed in the Victor catalog until 1931.

Seger Ellis first recorded “Prairie Blues” during Victor’s field trip to Houston in March of 1925, a test recording which was apparently rejected for technical reasons.  He was thereafter invited to Camden to record the version featured here, a re-take made on the same matrix number (though with a “BVE” electric prefix rather than the original “B” acoustic prefix).  One of Ellis’ original compositions, the tune remained in his repertoire for quite a while, and he re-recorded in 1930 for Okeh.  It evidently gained some note in its day, being reprised in Okeh’s 1929 “hillbilly” variety record “The Medicine Show”.

Prairie Blues, recorded August 10, 1925 by Seger Ellis.

On the flip-side, Seger dishes out more of that same rambunctious raggy piano sounding straight out of a little honky-tonk in some Texas oil boom town on his “Sentimental Blues”.  Famed jazz pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith reported said of the piece: “I never thought I’d hear genuine whorehouse piano again!”

Sentimental Blues, recorded August 10, 1925 by Seger Ellis.

Victor 19644 – Lloyd Finlay and his Orchestra – 1925

Featuring the Houston-based band of Lloyd Finlay, this record has the distinction of being one of Victor’s first field recordings in the state of Texas.  According to the files available on the Discography of American Historical Recordings, the first Victor recording session in Texas took place the day before the one that created this record, on March 17, 1925, when Finlay’s orchestra made their first recording.  Victor would not make it back to the Lone Star State until April of 1928.  That makes this record one of special interest to me, as one of my primary focuses in collecting is the musical history of Texas.  These Lloyd Finlay records also hold the distinction of being the debut recordings of the Houston-born pianist and future singer Seger Ellis, who would go on to become Okeh Records’ answer to popular crooner Gene Austin.

Lloyd Calvin Finlay was born on November 9, 1883, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, one of five children to George William and Ella (née Laughlin) Finlay.  His father was a traveling nursery salesman from Wisconsin whose work brought him all around the northern Midwest.  Lloyd Finlay studied violin and began venturing southward from the land of his birth shortly after the turn of the century to make a living as a musician, settling for a time in Oklahoma, where he married Nebraska-native Grace Coldiron—a pianist herself—before continuing onward until he hit water, settling permanently in Houston, Texas.  There, he found employment conducting theater orchestras.  By the onset of the First World War, Finlay was musical director at the Majestic Theatre at Texas Avenue and Milam Street.  During the days of the “Roaring Twenties”, Finlay was well-regarded as a society bandleader and musician in the Houston territory, and was in-demand for local events.  His repute reportedly extended as far as New York City, where vaudevillians were purported to remark that “Houston, Texas, [was] the town to play, they got Lloyd Finlay’s orchestra there.”  When the Victor Talking Machine Company brought their recording equipment to Houston on their first field trip into Texas—second only to Okeh, who has recorded in Dallas less than half a year earlier—Finlay’s orchestra was the first to be recorded.  On the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth of March, 1925, Lloyd Finlay’s twelve-piece ensemble—featuring local musician Seger Ellis on piano—waxed seven sides, of which all but one were released.  Unfortunately, none of his three records proved to be a hit, and likely only saw regional distribution.  By 1930, Finlay had separated from his wife, and was living in a boarding house.  Around 1933, Finlay departed the Majestic and began directing the orchestra at the Metropolitan Theatre at 1018 Main Street.  Thereafter, he went to work managing the Tower Theater at Westheimer and Waugh, a position which he held for the remainder of his life.  At the age of fifty-three, Lloyd Finlay died from complications during a surgery to remove his gall bladder on May 10, 1937, at St. Joseph’s Infirmary in Houston.

Victor 19644 was recorded on March 18 and 19, 1925, in Houston, Texas; it was released later in the same year, and remained “in-print” for less than a full year..  Besides Finlay on violin and Seger Ellis on piano, the personnel for this record is unknown.  This record was transferred at 76 RPM, as is often accepted for acoustic Victor records.

The first side, recorded March 19, is “Jews-Harp Blues”, and features a solo by the titular instrument beginning around two minutes in.  Finlay’s orchestra displayed a tight and polished, if rather old-fashioned sound compared to other early Texas-based jazz groups on records, like hot playing of Jimmie Joy’s or the wild and reckless abandon of Jack Gardner’s.

Jews-Harp Blues, recorded March 19, 1925 by Lloyd Finlay and his Orchestra

Jews-Harp Blues, recorded March 19, 1925 by Lloyd Finlay and his Orchestra

The flip-side features “Fiddlin’ Blues” (apparently also known as “Fido Blues”), recorded the previous day, March 18, and likewise prominently features the virtuosity of Finlay’s eponymous instrument.

Fiddlin' Blues, recorded March 18, 1925 by Lloyd Finlay's Orchestra

Fiddlin’ Blues, recorded March 18, 1925 by Lloyd Finlay’s Orchestra

Updated on May 26, 2021.