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.

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.

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.

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.

Bluebird B-5775 – Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies – 1934

Milton Brown, during his tenure with the Light Crust Doughboys. Circa 1931.

The fourth of April, 2019, marks a historic occasion, for on this day eighty-five year prior, Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies made their debut recordings, and they surely did so with a bang.

Milton Brown first cut a record in Dallas, Texas on February 9, 1932, while still a member of “Pappy” O’Daniel’s original Light Crust Doughboys.  He left that band not long afterward, and started his own, the Musical Brownies, which would gain him considerable renown.  When the Victor record company returned to Texas in April of 1934, Brown and his Brownies traveled to San Antonio for a session at the Texas Hotel.  The Brownies’ musical excellence was demonstrated by their first track, “Brownie’s Stomp”, played masterfully and hotter than anything, and laid down in one take without a hitch.  Thereafter, they submitted a total of seven additional sides to hot wax, including the classics “Four, Five or Six Times” and “Garbage Man Blues”.  The following August, they returned to San Antone and recorded once again for RCA Victor, immortalizing a further ten performances, including blues songs like Memphis Minnie’s “Talking About You” and the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Just Sitting On Top of the World”, pop songs like “Girl of My Dreams” and “Loveless Love”, the old-time number “Get Along, Cindy”, and the waltz “Trinity Waltz”.  That session concluded the Brownies engagement with the Victor company; in 1935, they made a longer journey to Chicago, to begin a longer and more fruitful contract with Decca, which lasted until 1937, holding one final session after Milton Brown’s untimely demise the previous year.

Bluebird B-5775 was recorded at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, Texas on April 4, 1934, the first two sides from Brown’s first session with his Musical Brownies.  The Musical Brownies consist of Cecil Brower on fiddle, Derwood Brown on guitar, Ocie Stockard on tenor banjo, Wanna Coffman on string bass, and “Papa” Fred Calhoun on piano.  Both are instrumental numbers, so Milton sits them out aside from an occasional holler or shout.

The Brownies’ “Joe Turner Blues”—a different melody than the 1915 W.C. Handy composition, apparently attributed (though both names are misspelled on the label) to the Brownie’s fiddler Cecil Brower and Milton Brown himself—is a superbly orchestrated blues instrumental, beautifully demonstrating their musical talent.  This “Joe Turner Blues” became a standard of Texas string band repertoires and was later recorded in 1937 by the Hi-Flyers and in 1940 by Adolph Hofner and his Texans.

Joe Turner Blues, recorded April 4, 1934 by Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies.

“Brownie’s Stomp” on the other side—their first side recorded—is a real show piece, with hot solos by every Brownie.

Brownie’s Stomp, recorded April 4, 1934 by Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies.

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.