Brunswick 7184 – Gene Campbell – 1930

The enigmatic Gene Campbell was among the most exemplary of the Texas blues musicians to record in the beginning of the Great Depression, yet nothing much is known of the elusive guitarist and singer; he had a more prolific recording career than most of his contemporaries, and in fact bears the distinction of being the only guitar-playing country blues singer recorded by Brunswick in Texas (all others were backed by jazz bands), yet all but very few substantial details surrounding his life and times have been lost to time.

An account related in the early 1960s to the esteemed researcher Mack McCormick by fellow Texas blues musician James “Smokestack” Tisdom—a protégé of Campbell’s—suggests that the singer’s proper name was Willie Gene Campbell and that he hailed from San Antonio and was born around 1902.  Lyrics such as “born in Texas, raised in Texas too” in his “Western Plain Blues” and mention of “Waco, Dallas, Fort Worth, or San Antonio” in his “Don’t Leave Me Here Blues”, further pointed to Campbell’s roots in the Lone Star State.  Queries of public records have as yet yielded no conclusive information regarding Campbell.  He seems to have spent at least a portion of his life drifting across the region of his origin, and it is possible that he at one time belonged, in some respect, to the loose group of songsters and blues moaners known to hang around the Deep Ellum neighborhood in Dallas that included the likes of Ramblin’ Thomas, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Huddie Ledbetter.  It was in Dallas that Gene Campbell made his first two recordings in November of 1929, beginning his rather brief recording career with commanding performances of “Mama, You Don’t Mean Me No Good No How” and “Bended Knee Blues” (Brunswick 7139).  In his work, he demonstrated a strong and smooth singing voice somewhat reminiscent of his contemporary “Texas” Alexander and an idiosyncratic but deft guitar style echoing that of the influential Lonnie Johnson, that may have employed a flatpick.  Many of his songs dealt with the familiar subject matter of woman troubles, and most shared a similar melody and structure, spiced up with a variety of embellishments.  His first record must have impressed the Brunswick people, because the following year, he traveled to their headquarters in Chicago to cut a further ten sides.  Among those ten recorded at his second session was the two-part “Freight Train Yodeling Blues” (Brunswick 7161), which echoed both the themes and melodies popularized by “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers, and illustrated Campbell’s variegated repertoire.  When Brunswick returned to Dallas that November, Campbell recorded another four songs.  He returned to Chicago one final time for two days in January of 1931 to make his last eight, resulting in a grand total of twenty-four sides as his recorded legacy, and making him the most prolific of the handful of country blues players to be recorded by Brunswick, and the second most prolific artist in their 7000-series of “race” records, behind only calypsonian Lionel Belasco.  James Tisdom reported that Campbell was still living in the early 1960s and working as a rice farmer in Bay City, but was no longer active as a musician.    Unfortunately, McCormick was not able to locate Campbell if he was indeed still living at that time, and his fate remains undetermined.

Brunswick 7184 was recorded around May of 1930 in Chicago, Illinois, at Campbell’s second session.  Gene Campbell sings the blues, accompanying himself on the guitar.

Though you may not be able to read the label, Campbell first sings “Lazy Woman Blues”, imploring his girl that she “must get a job, or [she] must leave.”  The lyrics of this song were closely mirrored seven years later in a song called “Trifling Woman” by Fort Worth blues musician Black Ace (B.K. Turner), further suggesting Campbell’s Texas roots, as well as his influence on fellow artists in the region.

Lazy Woman Blues, recorded c. May 1930 by Gene Campbell.

On the reverse, he moans another verse of romantic discontent on the rather morose sounding “Wish I Could Die”.

Wish I Could Die, recorded c. May 1930 by Gene Campbell.

Paramount 12417 – Elzadie Robinson – 1926

Elzadie Robinson, pictured in the Paramount Book of Blues, circa 1927.

When asked to imagine “country blues,” what image springs to mind?  Probably that of a lone man with an acoustic guitar busking on some southern street corner, or hiking down a lonesome dusty road.  But ubiquitous as that description may seem, a woman and a piano can make for just as much of “country” blues as a man and a guitar, as proven by Elzadie Robinson on the pair of haunting, down home blues songs herein.

Elzadie Robinson is believed to have been born on the twenty-fourth of April in either 1897 or 1900, and in Logansport, Louisiana, right on the border with Texas.  Little is known of her early life, or what brought her into the world of the blues.  Paramount promotional material reported that she began singing professionally around the age of twelve, and was popular in Houston and Galveston area cabarets.  She and her accompanist Will Ezell were discovered in 1926 by Art Laibly of Paramount Records and referred to Chicago record.  From then until 1929, she sang for the label, making a total of sixteen records.  Singing mostly songs of her own composition, Robinson was most often accompanied by pianists such as Will Ezell or Bob Call, sometimes joined by more musicians such as Blind Blake or Johnny Dodds.  She was distinguished alongside Ma Rainey and Ida Cox as one of Paramount’s most prominent blues ladies, and as such was honored with a segment dedicated to her in their circa 1927 publication The Paramount Book of Blues.  She married Perry Henderson of Flint, Michigan, in 1928, and retired from music the following year.  As with her upbringing, details surrounding her later life are obscure.  Many years later, Ezadie Henderson died on January 17, 1975.

William Ezell, Robinson’s most frequent accompanist, hailed from the eastern half of Texas; he was born in the town of Brenham on December 23, 1892.  He got his start as an itinerant pianist in turpentine camp barrelhouses and the like deep in the Piney Woods of east Texas, the birthplace of the musical style known as boogie woogie.  Traveling with Elzadie Robinson to Chicago in 1926, Ezell began recording extensively for Paramount Records in the five years that followed, both as an accompanist to singers like Robinson, Lucille Bogan, and others, and as a solo pianist and occasional vocalist, making several recordings with Blind Roosevelt Graves.  Recordings such as “Pitchin’ Boogie” and “Heifer Dust” helped to define the boogie woogie genre in its early years on records.  It has been reported that following the death of Blind Lemon Jefferson in the winter of 1929, Ezell accompanied the musician’s body as it was transported by train back from Chicago to Wortham, Texas.  He made his final recordings in 1931, as Paramount was faltering under the burden of the Great Depression, accompanying vaudevillian vocalist Slim Tarpley.  He is said to have returned south to Louisiana after the demise of Paramount Records, but soon came back to Chicago, and continued playing professionally until at least the 1940s, at which time he was reportedly employed by the WPA as a watchman.  Will Ezell died in Chiago on August 2, 1963.

Paramount 12417 was recorded around October of 1926 in Chicago, Illinois.  Of the two takes issued for both sides, these are “1” and “2”, respectively.  It is the first record of both Robinson and Ezell.

First, Robinson and Ezell make a blues straight out of the East Texas lumber camps: “Sawmill Blues”.  Robinson’s lazy vocals, seeming to hang behind Ezell’s piano playing, lend a candid, even dreamlike quality to the recording, as if we just stepped into a Piney Woods juke joint at the end of the night following a hard working day.

Sawmill Blues, recorded c. October 1926 by Elzadie Robinson.

On the reverse, Elzadie’s vocal drifts in and out on the classic “Barrel House Man”—the melody of which was later appropriated for Lucille Bogan’s “Sloppy Drunk Blues” (this one’s better though, I say)—to Ezell’s strong accompaniment, making ample use of the sustain pedal for that genuine barrelhouse sound.

Barrel House Man, recorded c. October 1926 by Elzadie Robinson.

Gold Star 662 – Lightnin’ Hopkins – 1949

Dating to four years after the close of the second World War, these two sides are a little past the typical era of material presented on Old Time Blues, but their excellence earns them a position among the ancients.  They are the work of the artist who succeeded Blind Lemon Jefferson as “King of the Texas Blues”—and perhaps the coolest man to ever walk the earth—the legendary Lightnin’ Hopkins.

The man who would become “Lightnin'” was born Sam John Hopkins on the fifteenth of March in either 1911 or 1912, in Centerville, Texas, located halfway between Dallas and Houston.  He moved with his mother to neighboring Leona after the death of his father in 1915.  While attending a church picnic in nearby Buffalo, Texas, around the year 1920, the eight-year-old Hopkins encountered Blind Lemon Jefferson, who was providing music for the function.  Jefferson instilled the blues in Hopkins, and the young boy was inspired to build a cigar box guitar for himself and start down the path of a musician.  He began his musical career with Jefferson—who purportedly scolded the young musician for joining in his music-making, but allowed him the rare privilege of playing alongside him once he became aware of Hopkins’ age—and his cousin “Texas” Alexander.

By the middle of the 1920s, Hopkins was living as an itinerant musician, a streak which was cut short by a stretch spent in the Houston County Prison Farm, on charges unknown.  After his release, Hopkins returned to his hometown and found work as a farmhand, giving up music for a short time.  By the end of the Second World War,  Hopkins had picked up his guitar once again and went back to Houston to sing on street corners.  There, in 1946, he was discovered by Lola Anne Cullum, a talent scout for the Los Angeles, California-based Aladdin Records.  Hopkins traveled to California, and made his first records accompanying Texas piano man Wilson “Thunder” Smith, which gained him his nickname “Lightnin'”.  Recording a total of forty-three sides for Aladdin between 1946 and ’48, Hopkins went on to make discs for numerous other labels over the course of his long career.  He settled in Houston by the beginning of the 1950s, and began recording for Bill Quinn’s Gold Star label, producing some hit records such as “‘T’ Model Blues” and “Tim Moore’s Farm”.

Already popular with southern black audiences, Lightnin’ became endeared to the folk and blues revivalists thanks to the promotion of Texas musicologist Mack McCormick in 1959, and he appeared at Carnegie Hall on October 14, 1960.  In 1962 he made the album Mojo Hand, introducing the titular song, which was to become a standard of his repertoire.  In 1967, he was the star of Les Blank’s documentary The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins.  He toured around the world, and made appearances on Austin City Limits in the 1970s, establishing himself as one of the leading country blues figures of his day.  After performing professionally to great acclaim in five consecutive decades, Lightnin’ Hopkins died of esophageal cancer on January 30, 1982.

Gold Star 662 was recorded around July of 1949 at 3104 Telephone Road in Houston, Texas.  Lightnin’ Hopkins sings and accompanies himself on guitar; on side “A”, he is backed on slide guitar by Harding “Hop” Wilson.

Firstly, Hopkins sings “Jail House Blues”, a quintessential country blues song drawing inspiration from the “floating verses” endemic of the blues, and with the slide guitar accompaniment adding a bit of extra zest to Lightnin’s own playing.

Jail House Blues, recorded c. July 1949 by Lightnin’ Hopkins.

One of Lightnin’s bigger hits of his early career, he sings and plays solo on “‘T’ Model Blues” (“Lord, my starter won’t start this mornin'”)—a masterful blues that sends a shiver right down my spine.

‘T’ Model Blues, recorded c. July 1949 by Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Decca 7340 – Black Ace (B. K. Turner) – 1937

Of all the countless musical artists active before the Second World War, only a fraction were fortunate enough to have their art preserved on records, and an even smaller fraction recorded prolifically, leaving whatever magical music they produced mostly unheard.  That however, does not necessarily imply that those artists who left behind few, if any, recordings were not popular within their own domain.  One such artist who achieved considerable note with audiences in his homeland of Texas, but only left behind a precious few recordings was a peculiar, but quite remarkable, bluesman (and my own fourth personal favorite Texas blues musician) known as the Black Ace.

The man later called the “Black Ace” was born Babe Kyro Lemon Turner on the twenty-first of December, 1907 (some sources state 1905), on his family’s farm in the small settlement of Hughes Springs, deep in the farthest northeast reach of the state of Texas—the same region that brought up the likes of Little Hat Jones and Lead Belly.  He took up playing the guitar sometime in his youth and began playing the blues by the end of the 1920s in the vicinity of his hometown, and teamed up with the younger Andrew “Smokey” Hogg in the decade that followed.   Evidently inspired by Hawaiian-styled blues player Oscar “Buddy” Woods, Turner bought a square-necked National tricone resonator guitar and learned to play steel guitar, using an old medicine bottle as a slide.  In the 1930s, he relocated to Fort Worth and began performing on the radio.  There, he made his first recordings on April 5, 1936: two sides for the American Record Corporation including his eponymous theme song “Black Ace Blues”, from which he adopted the nickname, but both were unissued and are considered lost.  When the Decca record company made a field trip to Dallas early in 1937, Turner recorded again, cutting six sides, all of which were issued this time around (some sources suggest that he traveled to Chicago with Smokey Hogg and Whistling Alex Moore for the session, but they are erroneous).  The resulting three records proved to be the entirety of Black Ace’s pre-war recording career, and he would not record again for twenty-three years.  In spite of his scant recorded legacy, Turner seems to have enjoyed considerable regional popularity; his radio program lasted into up until the outbreak of World War II, and, remarkably for an early blues musician, he boasted a (very brief) motion picture career.  In 1941, Turner had a bit part in Spencer Williams’ race movie The Blood of Jesus, ostensibly portraying himself, first being heard-and-not-seen playing “Golden Slippers Blues”, then appearing as a member of a band performing on the back of a flatbed truck with the devil at the wheel.  He was drafted into the Army in 1943, and continued to play music while in the service, but retired from professional musicianship after returning from the war.  He was coaxed back in front of the microphone in 1960 by Chris Strachwitz and Paul Oliver to record an album for Strachwitz’s Arhoolie Records, thus preserving a further seventeen pieces of his repertoire for posterity.  Two years later, he made his second filmed appearance in Samuel Charters’ 1962 documentary The Blues, in which he reprised his theme song “The Black Ace” for the last time.  After suffering from cancer, B.K. Turner died in Fort Worth on November 7, 1972.

Decca 7340 was recorded on February 15, 1937 in Dallas, Texas.  It is the second released of Black Ace’s three records.  B.K. Turner sings and plays his own Hawaiian guitar; he is accompanied by an unidentified rhythm guitar player (possibly Andrew “Smokey” Hogg).

Firstly, the Black Ace plays and sings “You Gonna Need My Help Some Day”, loosely covering Big Bill Broonzy’s “You May Need My Help Some Day” from a year prior—which in turn echoes some elements from Kokomo Arnold’s “Milk Cow Blues” of 1935.

You Gonna Need My Help Some Day, recorded February 15, 1937 by the Black Ace (B.K. Turner).

On the reverse, he does “Whiskey and Women”, showcasing a bit more of the Black Ace’s Hawaiian-styled blues playing.

Whiskey and Women, recorded February 15, 1937 by the Black Ace (B.K. Turner).

Columbia 14410-D – Dallas String Band with Coley Jones – 1928

With a repertoire ranging from ragtime to pop songs, the eight songs recorded by the Dallas String Band are incomparable to most anything else on shellac records, and indeed are very difficult to categorize—they’re sometimes characterized as “pre-blues”, but none could technically be classified as blues songs, they bear some resemblance to white Texas string band music, and they’re all listed in Rust’s Jazz Records discography—but they are surely among the most fascinating music ever preserved.  It probably wouldn’t be too far fetched to presume that their music bears substantial similarity to rural Afro-American music of the nineteenth century.

A fixture of the Dallas blues scene during the 1920s, playing music that could perhaps best be described as a ragtime-rooted precursor to blues music, the Dallas String Band was primarily made up of vaudevillian songster Coley Jones on mandolin, bassist Marco Washington, and guitarist Sam Harris, with a few transient members joining in occasionally.  They were said to have sometimes employed a clarinet or saxophone, occasionally featured trumpeter Polite “Frenchy” Christian, and Blind Lemon Jefferson was also said to have sat in from time-to-time, though none of them ever appeared on any of the group’s records.  The band’s repertoire was drawn largely from minstrel, vaudeville, and ragtime traditions, including such songs as “So Tired” and “Chasin’ Rainbows”, as well as popular songs like “Shine” and “Sugar Blues”.  Every December from 1927 until 1929, Dallas String Band recorded for Columbia Records when they made field trips to Dallas, ultimately resulting in a total of eight recorded sides—not including side-operations by its members—all of which were released.  The group gained posthumous attention when their “So Tired” appeared in Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 motion picture Ghost World.

The band’s leader, Coley Jones, was a prominent figure in the Afro-American music scene of Dallas, Texas in the 1920s, though little is known of his life.  He was born most likely in the 1880s, and may have been in Dallas by the turn of the century.  As an itinerant musician, playing in medicine show type venues, his repertoire consisted largely of folk songs and old minstrel tunes like “Drunkard’s Special” and “Traveling Man”.  In addition to the Dallas String Band, Jones was a member of a jazz band by the name of the Satisfied Five, which also included noted drummer Herbert Cowans, with whom he broadcasted on WFAA and played at the famed Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells. Following his brief recording career—which resulted in a twenty-one sides in total, solo, in duet with Bobbie Cadillac, and with the Dallas String Band—Jones’ whereabouts are largely unknown, and he is presumed to have died in the 1930s.  Marco Washington was born on June 30, 1886 in Marshall, Texas.  He worked as a porter in a dry goods store in Grand Prairie and served in World War I prior to becoming a full-time musician.  He played bass in Henry Williams’ String Band from Marshall before moving to Dallas.  Purportedly, he taught his stepson, Dallas native Aaron Walker—also known as “Oak Cliff T-Bone”, later shortened to simply “T-Bone Walker”—how to play guitar and several other instruments.  He died in Dallas from complications of hypertension on December 30, 1952.  Sam Harris was born in Palmer, Texas, on April 19, 1889.  In addition to his musical activities, he worked as a laborer in Waxahachie.  His later whereabouts and activities are undetermined.

Columbia 14410-D was recorded on December 9, 1928 in Dallas, Texas.  The Dallas String Band is made up of Coley Jones on mandolin and lead vocals, probably Sam Harris on guitar, and Marco Washington on string bass.  Rust lists an unknown second mandolin, which Mack McCormick speculated as being Jones’ little brother “Kid Coley”, but I’m not so sure that more than one is present.

On the first side, they play the sublime “Chasin’ Rainbows”.  I wouldn’t be exaggerating one bit to place this song easily in my top ten favorite recordings.  The song is perhaps better known by the cover version by R. Crumb’s Cheap Suit Serenaders to audiences outside of, well, R. Crumb (and the few of us out there like him).

Chasin' Rainbows

Chasin’ Rainbows, recorded December 9, 1928 by the Dallas String Band with Coley Jones.

On the reverse, “I Used to Call Her Baby” is another pleasing raggy number, played this time with a little more pep.

I Used to Call Her Baby

I Used to Call Her Baby, recorded December 9, 1928 by the Dallas String Band with Coley Jones.

Updated on May 6, 2019.