Paramount 12637 – Ramblin’ Thomas – 1928

Out of the marshlands of northwestern Louisiana, where the Sabine River demarcates the edge of Texas, came Willard Thomas, a rambling character whose mournful singing and sliding steel guitar would epitomize the sound of a world where the blues was all around.

Willard Thomas was born in Logansport, Louisiana, right on the Texas border, around 1902, one of at least eight children of farmers Joel and Laura Thomas.  His father played fiddle and Willard and his two brothers, Joel Jr. and Jesse, took up the guitar.  Thomas purchased a guitar from the Sears-Roebuck catalog, which came with a metal slide for playing Hawaiian steel guitar.  Making good use of the hardware, he taught himself to play slide guitar in a rather idiosyncratic style, though also proving to be a fairly versatile player.  Like many bluesmen in the region, Thomas took up in Deep Ellum in Dallas, alongside the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Coley Jones, and Huddie Ledbetter.  He made his way around San Antonio and Oklahoma, where he no doubt encountered other musicians, such as “Texas” Alexander., and reportedly even associated with King Solomon Hill in Shreveport, with whom he shared some elements of musical style.  At some point along the way, he picked up the nickname “Ramblin'” Thomas, attributable either to his style of living or his style of playing, if not both.  Perhaps at the behest of Blind Lemon Jefferson, who had a session around the same time, Dallas music seller R.T. Ashford arranged for Thomas venture to Chicago, Illinois, in February of 1928 for a session with Paramount Records, netting a total of eight titles of which all were released.  He returned to Chicago that November for another seven titles, including a memorable rendition of the blues staple “Poor Boy Blues” (a.k.a. “Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home”), and possibly accompanied fellow Texas blues singer Moanin’ Bernice Edwards on another two.  Finally, he made four recordings for Victor in their field trip to Dallas in February of 1932, one of which—”Ground Hog Blues”—bears considerable resemblance to Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 10 (Ground Hog Rootin’ in My Back Yard)”, recorded three days earlier at the same sessions; Jesse Thomas would later claim that Rodgers’ Blue Yodel was inspired by his brother’s song.  Willard Thomas reportedly died of tuberculosis around 1944 or ’45 in Memphis, Tennessee.  Outside of his recording career, most details surrounding Thomas’ life remain shrouded in obscurity.  Brother Jesse “Babyface” Thomas also performed fairly prolifically over a lengthy career, recording first in Dallas in 1929, then reemerging after World War II as the “Blues Troubadour” on a number of different labels.

Paramount 12637 was recorded in February of 1928 in Chicago, Illinois, featuring Willard Thomas singing and accompanying himself on slide guitar.  Be advised before listening that this rare record is in pretty sorry shape.  I’ve tried to get it as listenable as I can with the resources available to me, but it’s about the worst sounding record I’ll ever post on Old Time Blues (I have some dignity, you see).  If your ears can’t stomach the noise, I wouldn’t blame you—you can go on over to YouTube and look it up in better quality (I recommend this transfer).

First, Thomas plays and sings his mournful slide guitar opus, “So Lonesome”, the first title recorded at his first session and one of his best remembered songs.

So Lonesome, recorded February 1928 by Ramblin’ Thomas.

On the flip, Thomas sings another outstanding blues of a rather deep shade: “Lock and Key Blues”, his third recorded side.

Lock and Key Blues, recorded February 1928 by Ramblin’ Thomas.

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.

Okeh 8106 – Sippie Wallace – 1923

While Blind Lemon Jefferson is often identified as the Father of the Texas Blues for his pioneering recordings made in 1926, it is every bit as important to acknowledge the lady blues singers that blazed the trail before him, such as the “Texas Nightingale”, Houston’s own Sippie Wallace.

Sippie was born Beulah Bell Thomas on the Bell Bayou near Pine Bluff, Arkansas,  on November 1, 1898, one of the thirteen children of the musical family of George and Fanny Thomas.  The family moved to Houston, Texas, before the turn of the century (her birthplace is often cited as Houston, but the U.S. Census of 1900 suggests Arkansas).  She acquired the nickname Sippie in school because her “teeth were so far apart [she] had to sip everything.”  Her father was a deacon in the Shiloh Baptist Church, where she sang and played the organ.  On summer evenings, she would sneak away with some of her siblings to the tent shows, where she first met the blues, and where she first began singing it when one of the stars asked her to join the chorus.  Soon, she was traveling with the shows across the state.  Her older brother George W. Thomas gained note as a ragtime musician and composer in New Orleans (and whose daughter Hociel also sang the blues), and she moved there with her younger brother Hersal—also a pianist—to live with him in 1915.  There, in 1917, she met and later married Matt Wallace.  Like her contemporaries “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith, she toured on the T.O.B.A. vaudeville circuit in the early 1920s, during which time she earned the sobriquet “The Texas Nightingale”.  She moved with her brothers to Chicago in 1923, and not long after made her recording debut for the Okeh record company.  That arrangement proved quite lucrative, and she recorded forty-four sides for the company between October of 1923 and May of 1927, some featuring star-studded accompaniments by the likes of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Clarence Williams, and many others backed by brother Hersal.  Subsequently, she recorded four sides for Victor in 1929, backed by some members of the Dixieland Jug Blowers and her own piano, of which only two made the cut.  She moved to Detroit in 1929, and following the deaths of both her husband and brother George in 1936, she turned from the blues to religion, becoming organist and choir director at the Leland Baptist Church.  She made one record with Albert Ammons’ Rhythm Kings for Mercury in 1945, reviving her old “Bedroom Blues”, but kept her back mostly to the blues until 1966, when her friend and fellow Texas blues singer Victoria Spivey convinced her to make a comeback.  Her return was met with success, and she toured the United States and Europe and recorded several albums, particularly influencing young musician Bonnie Raitt.  She was one of the last surviving classic female blues singers of the 1920s when she was incapacitated by a stroke in March of 1986.  Sippie Wallace died eight months later on her eighty-eighth birthday.

Okeh 8106 was recorded in October of 1923 in Chicago, Illinois.  It is Sippie Wallace’s first record and accounts for the entirety of her first recording session.  Wallace is accompanied on piano by Eddie Heywood, Sr.

“Shorty George Blues” was composed by Sippie’s brother George and niece Hociel.  Fellow Texans Lead Belly and James “Iron Head” Baker later recorded largely unrelelated folk songs under the same title, but the echoes of Wallace’s song can be heard throughout the country blues; the opening verse alone recycled in numerous other blues songs, such as Bo Weavil Jackson’s “You Can’t Keep No Brown”.

Shorty George Blues, recorded October 1923 by Sippie Wallace.

Another family affair, Wallace shares the composer’s credit with her brother George W. Thomas for her “Up the Country Blues”, drawing both lyrics and style from the country blues tradition not yet recorded at the time.

Up the Country Blues, recorded October 1923 by Sippie Wallace.