Vocalion 04145 – Shelly Lee Alley and his Alley Cats – 1938

Shelly Lee Alley pictured in the Hillbilly Hit Parade of 1941.

Though he never achieved the stardom of contemporaries like Bob Wills or Spade Cooley—or even Milton Brown—songwriter and fiddler Shelly Lee Alley left his mark on music history as one of the founding fathers of the Texas-born, jazz-inflected style of music now called western swing, despite hesitations toward so-called “hillbilly” music.

Shelly Lee Alley was born on July 6, 1894 on his father’s farm in Alleyton, Texas, descended from Stephen F. Austin’s original “old three hundred” settlers.  The Alleys being a musical family, Shelly learned to play the fiddle, and had reportedly composed his first song by the age of six.  During the First World War, Alley led a band at Camp Travis in San Antonio.  After the war, he led several successful dance bands in Dallas, and started out performing on the newly emerging medium of radio early in the 1920s.  Though initially focusing on popular music, by the end of the 1920s, Alley began to shift his focus to the burgeoning form that would later become known as western swing.  Alley was well-acquainted with Jimmie Rodgers, who recorded his “Travellin’ Blues” in 1931, with Alley and his brother Alvin accompanying on fiddles, and “Gambling Barroom Blues” the following year, backed by Clayton McMichen’s band.  In the first half of the 1930s, he played in various fiddle bands around South Texas, and in the middle of the decade, Alley organized a band called “Alley Cats”.  After sitting in on a session with Lummie Lewis and His Merry Makers, Alley began recording with his Alley Cats in 1937.  At various times, the Alley Cats included Cliff Bruner, Ted Daffan, Leon “Pappy” Selph, and Harry Choates, all of whom would become stars in their own right.  Between 1937 and 1940, Alley recorded sixty-seven titles for the Vocalion, most or all his own compositions, followed by a further six for Bluebird in 1941.  Alley disbanded the Alley Cats during World War II, but brought the group back to make one record for the Globe label in 1946.  A consistently sickly fellow who was known to imbibe paregoric, Shelly Lee Alley largely retired from performing in the 1940s.  Alley cut his last record in 1955 for Jet in Houston, singing two of his own compositions accompanied by the Jet Staff Band. Alley died on June 1, 1964 in Houston.

Vocalion 04145 was recorded on May 10th and 11th, 1938 in Dallas, Texas.  The Alley Cats are Shelly Lee Alley and Cliff Bruner on fiddles, Anthony Scanlin on clarinet and tenor sax, Ted Daffan on steel guitar, and on the “A” side Douglas Blaikie on piano and Lester J. Voss on string bass, replaced with an unknown pianist and Pinkie Dawson on “B”.  Alley provides the vocals on both sides.

First, the Alley Cats get low-down and dirty on Alley’s “Try it Once Again”.

Try it Once Again, recorded May 10, 1938 by Shelly Lee Alley and his Alley Cats.

On the back, they get real hot on another of Alley’s compositions: “You’ve Got It”.

You’ve Got It, recorded May 11, 1938 by Shelly Lee Alley and his Alley Cats.

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.

Brunswick 6047 – Harris Brothers Texans – 1930

One of several outstanding Texas-based jazz and dance bands to make records in the years preceding World War II, the Harris Brothers Texans demonstrated themselves to be formidable music-makers, but with only three records to their name, all of which are rarely encountered today, the band is shrouded by a veil of near total obscurity, unknown to most outside of a small cadre of vintage jazz aficionados.  Previously, scarcely any information regarding them was available.  Now, following intensive research, I have endeavored to piece together a short but relatively comprehensive history of the band herein (at least the most extensive one hitherto published; with special thanks to the research of the late Murray L. Pfeffer and his Big Bands Database).

The three Harris Brothers were Abraham “Abe” Harris, born October 12, 1890 or ’91, Louis Joseph “Lou” Harris, born in October of 1891, and Myer Isadore “Monk” Harris, born January 9, 1894, the sons of Emanuel and Sarah Harris of Navasota, Texas, descendants of Jewish Prussian immigrants who arrived in Texas in the 1870s, by way of South Carolina.  Abe Harris was a drummer in the First World War, and after his completing his service, he started a jazz band with his brothers, Lou playing trumpet and Monk playing trombone and euphonium.  Originally directed by Abe, Lou Harris assumed leadership of the band by the late 1920s onward, and it was apparently fronted for a time around 1926 by reed and violin player and singer Harry Samuels, who had been a childhood friend of the Harris brothers.  The Harris Brothers Orchestra played in Corsicana in 1922, before taking up in the Houston area the following year, making them contemporaries of Lloyd Finlay’s orchestra, and in 1923 and ’24, they played in the ballroom of the Crystal Palace in Galveston.  In the middle part of the decade, the Harris Brothers Orchestra relocated to north Texas, where they broadcasted from WFAA in Dallas and were engaged at the roof ballroom of the Baker Hotel in Dallas beginning in 1926 and at least as late as 1929.

When the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company made their field trips to record in Texas, the orchestra cut records, resulting in three sessions, all in Dallas, yielding a grand total of eight sides, six of which were released.  First in October of 1928, they recorded the hot jazz tunes “Somebody Stole My Gal” and “The Pay Off”, released on the Vocalion label. The following year, they cut “Gut Bucket Shuffle”, “Louisiana, That’s My Home”, and two unknown unissued titles.  Finally, they concluded their brief recorded legacy with two pop-styled songs: “Oh How I Cried the Morning After” and “The South’s Been a Mother to Me”.  Though credited on their records as the “Harris Brothers Texans”, at home the band was simply called the “Harris Brothers Orchestra”.  By this time, the Harris Brothers’ musical style was comparable to that of the contemporary Phil Baxter’s orchestra and other Texas dance bands of the era, featuring a rather loose instrumentation and a “big” sound punctuated by strong “oom-pah” bass rhythm, with occasional use of accordion, somewhat evocative of Texas’ polka bands.  Much of their recorded material displayed a certain uniquely Texan character.  An unidentified group called “The Harris Brothers” had two test sessions for Gennett in 1928—prior to any of the Harris Brothers’ Brunswick recordings—but given that they are believed to have been a vocal group, it is doubtful that they were one and the same.

Around the same time as their Brunswick engagement, the Harris Brothers Orchestra played at the Dallas Country Club, and they were engaged at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas in 1929 following Alphonso Trent’s tenure there.  During their time at the Adolphus, bandleader Lou Harris gave a large quantity of arrangements to New Orleans expatriate Don Albert, who had recently parted ways with Troy Floyd’s orchestra and was starting up his own band.  The band remained together under the directorship of Lou Harris at least into the late 1930s, playing in Dallas and Abilene—perhaps even venturing all the way to Hollywood on a 1935 tour—and they provided music at the Greater Texas and Pan-American Exposition at Dallas’ Fair Park in 1937.  Myer Harris eventually retired from music and built homes in Dallas.  Abe Harris died on May 23, 1960, Lou in 1969, and Monk on November 8, 1990, all three in Dallas.

Brunswick 6047 was recorded in November of 1930 (though some sources suggest a January 1931 date) in Dallas, Texas.  The personnel of the band probably includes at least some of the following members: Lou Harris and Paul Skinner on trumpets, Myer “Monk” Harris on trombone, Harry Samuels, Gene Hammel, and probably at least one other—possibly Robert Dean—on reeds (clarinet, two alto saxophones, and tenor sax), Murray Lambert on piano, Liebling Mayo on banjo (though Johnson and Shirley’s American Dance Bands suggests a possible Lester Peacock), an unknown tuba player, and Abe Harris on drums.  The vocalist may be reed man Harry Samuels.

First up, the Texans play a hot jazz arrangement of “The South’s Been a Mother to Me”, apparently the only recording of this song.

The South's Been a Mother to Me

The South’s Been a Mother to Me, recorded November 1930 by the Harris Brothers Texans.

On the flip, they maintain their booming sound on William Gould and Joey Ray’s popular song “Oh How I Cried the Morning After (The Night Before With You)”.

Oh, How I Cried the Morning After (The Night Before With You)

Oh How I Cried the Morning After (The Night Before With You), recorded November 1930 by the Harris Brothers Texans.

Victor 20122 – Carl T. Sprague – 1926

Texas boy Carl T. Sprague was among the first cowboy singers to make records, with his first session taking place in 1925.  He also holds the uncommon distinction of being perhaps my favorite cowboy singer.

Sprague as pictured in Victor’s 1930 catalog of Old Familiar Tunes.

Carl Tyler Sprague was born in Brazoria County, Texas, near the town of Manvel, on May 10, 1895.  His family was involved in the thriving cattle business, through which the young Sprague learned the traditional songs of the cowboy.  He attended Texas A&M to study agriculture, but was interrupted by the First World War, in which he served as a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps.  After the war’s end, he returned to Texas A&M, and graduated with a degree in animal husbandry.  After graduating, he was employed as an athletic instructor at the university, a position which he held from 1922 until 1937, and acquired the nickname “Doc”.  Following the success of Vernon Dalhart’s “mountaineer’s songs”, Sprague wrote to the Victor Talking Machine Company expressing interest having them record some of his cowboy songs.  They apparently obliged, and Sprague traveled to Camden, New Jersey to make two test recordings.  Victor must’ve liked them, because two months later, he returned to record a series of ten sides in sessions on the third, fourth, and fifth of August, 1925, half of which were issued.  His first record, “When the Work’s All Done This Fall”, became quite a hit, and proved that people were interested in hearing the song of the cowboy.  That was followed by a further three sessions over the following three years in Camden, Savannah, Georgia, and Dallas, producing eighteen more sides, all of which were released.  In spite of his records’ success, singing was but a hobby for Sprague, and he did not pursue a music career outside of record-making.  He left his post at Texas A&M in 1937 and opened a store in Bryan, and when the Second World War rolled in, he served once again, as a recruiter.  The folk revival of the 1960s brought Sprague back into music, and he played and lectured around the country, and recorded two LPs in 1972 and ’74.  Carl T. Sprague died on February 21, 1979 in Bryan, Texas, where he had called home since 1920.

Victor 20122 was recorded in Camden, New Jersey on June 22, 1926, at Sprague’s second series of sessions.  The record was released in December of the same year, and remained in the catalog all the way until 1944, perhaps indicating it was Sprague’s greatest success.  Sprague is accompanied by two fiddles played by H.J. McKenzie and C.R. Dockum.

Stark, bleak, and sorrowful, “O Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie (The Dying Cowboy)” is a mesmerizing, repetitive, and minimalistic piece, with Sprague’s vocal backed by the beat of his guitar and the forlorn fiddle’s croon, which I feel really encapsulates an archetype of cowboy music.  The song has been featured in recent years on Dust-to-Digital’s evocative multimedia collection I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces: Music in Vernacular Photographs (1880-1955).

O Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie (The Dying Cowboy), recorded June 22, 1926 by Carl T. Sprague.

On “B”, Sprague sings “The Cowboy’s Dream”, a less depressing and rather enchanting melody.  It also provides a demonstration of Sprague’s distinctive and simple-yet-pleasing style of playing guitar, which from both aural and photographic evidence, seems to have been done on a metal-bodied resonator, or at least it was by the end of his recording career in 1929.

The Cowboy’s Dream, recorded June 26, 1926 by Carl T. Sprague.

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.