Okeh 05668 – Ted Daffan’s Texans – 1940

In Old Time Blues’ continuing cavalcade of Texas’ native music, western swing, we turn our spotlight to the accomplished steel guitarist and composer of such standard songs as “Born to Lose”: Ted Daffan.

Ted Daffan and his Texans, pictured in the Hillbilly Hit Parade of 1941.  From left-to-right standing: Buddy Buller, Chuck Keeshan, probably Elmer Christian; seated: Ralph Smith, Ted Daffan, and probably Harry Sorensen.

Theron Eugene Daffan was born in the Beauregard Parish of Louisiana on September 21, 1912, but he got across the border to Texas as fast as he could.  He graduated from high school in Houston and later found work there in a musical instrument shop.  Inspired by Milton Brown’s music, Daffan became a pioneering user of the electrified steel guitar, following in the footsteps of the Musical Brownies’ Bob Dunn.  During the days of the Great Depression, he played steel guitar in Hawaiian radio bands before moving on to Texas swing bands like Shelly Lee Alley’s Alley Cats and the Bar-X Cowboys.  In 1939, Daffan composed “Truck Driver’s Blues”, one of the earliest examples of what was to become a common theme in country music—supposedly Daffan would see truck drivers come into restaurants while he was dining and go straight for the jukebox, and he wanted a part of that racket—which became a hit for Cliff Bruner’s Boys and the Light Crust Doughboys.  As a result of that success, Daffan was signed by CBS in 1940 to record with his own band, the Texans, for their Okeh label.  With his Texans, Daffan had hits with “Worried Mind”, “I’m a Fool to Care”, and “Born to Lose”, all compositions of his own, and all of which became standards in their own right.  Like Bob Wills, Daffan relocated to California in the 1940s and led a band there, but only stayed for a couple of years before returning to Texas.  After World War II, he began shifting his career focus away from playing and recording music and more toward songwriting and publishing, and he founded and owned both record and music publishing companies.  Ted Daffan died in Houston on October 6, 1996.

Okeh 05668 was recorded on April 25, 1940 at the Burrus Mill Studio in Saginaw, Texas.  It is Ted Daffan and his Texans’ first record.  Daffan’s Texans are made up of Ted Daffan on lap steel guitar, Sidney “Buddy” Buller on electric tenor guitar, Chuck Keeshan on second guitar, Harry Sorensen on accordion, Ralph Smith on piano, and Elmer Christian on string bass.

The first side the Texans recorded, Chuck Keeshan sings the Tommy Duncan-style vocal on Daffan’s own composition, the classic “Worried Mind”.

Worried Mind, recorded April 25, 1940 by Ted Daffan’s Texans.

On the flip-side, Daffan showcases his steel-guitar playing abilities on the instrumental “Blue Steel Blues”.

Blue Steel Blues, recorded April 25, 1940 by Ted Daffan’s Texans.

Okeh 40339 – Jack Gardner’s Orchestra – 1924

In Old Time Blues’ continuing series honoring the musical heritage of Texas, we pay due tribute to the bandleader whose orchestra bears the distinction of producing the earliest commercial recordings made within the borders of the Lone Star State: the Dallas-based pianist and songwriter Jack Gardner.

Jack Gardner and his Orchestra, pictured on 1925 sheet music for “Dallas, I Love You”.

Jack was born Francis Henry Gardner on August 14, 1903, in Joliet, Illinois.  He took up playing piano while a young boy, and began playing professionally after the family relocated to Denver, Colorado, reportedly appearing with Boyd Senter’s band.  He was also a competent and relatively prolific songwriter best remembered for the 1927 hit “Bye-Bye, Pretty Baby”.  Many sources state that Gardner moved to Chicago in 1923 and remained there until 1937, but, unless there were two different pianists named Jack Gardner, that cannot be accurate as at least in the middle years of that decade, he was director of the house band at the stately Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, Texas.  When Ralph S. Peer of the Okeh record company brought mobile recording equipment to a dealer’s warehouse in Dallas in 1924, Gardner and his orchestra had the special privilege of being the first to make commercial recordings in the state of Texas.  Upon Okeh’s return to Dallas the following year, his orchestra had another session, this time introducing the talent of local singer Irene Taylor, who would later go on to be featured by the most popular orchestra in the United States: Paul Whiteman’s.  Gardner may have been in Chicago as early as the end of 1925, at which time he is suggested as a possible instrumentalist with Fred Hamm’s orchestra, one of a number of groups managed by Chicago impresario Edgar A. Benson.  He had definitely made it to the toddling town by 1928, at which time he began sitting in with jazz bands such as those of Wingy Manone and Jimmy McPartland.  In 1939, Gardner went to New York City to assume the role of pianist first with Sandy Williams, then in Texas-raised trumpeter Harry James’s orchestra, a position which he held for around a year before returning to Chicago.  After an active period there, Jack Gardner returned to Dallas, where he remained until his death on November 26, 1957.

Okeh 40339 was recorded in September or October of 1924, in Dallas, Texas, the Gardner band’s first session.  Though the orchestra’s personnel is only tentatively identified, it probably includes at least some of the following members: Johnnie Mills and Charlie Willison cornets, Stanton Crocker on trombone, Robert B. Dean, Robert K. Harris, and Bernie Dillon on reeds, Jack Gardner on piano, Earl D. McMahan on banjo, Ralph W. “Cricket” Brown on tuba, and Bob Blassingame on drums.  Dillon White sings the vocal on side “A”, and may also be an instrumentalist.

First, Dillon White sings the vocal on “Who? You?”, one of Jack Gardner’s own compositions.  I must admit that White’s vocal gives me a little chuckle every time I listen to it (“Who? Yoouu!“), but that band sure could play!

Who? You?, recorded c.September-October 1924 by Jack Gardner’s Orchestra.

They follow with a wild, eccentric jazz tune, another Gardner original: “Who’d a Thunk It”.  One thing you can say for certain: the folks in Texas did like their jazz played hot!

Who’d a Thunk It, recorded c.September-October 1924 by Jack Gardner’s Orchestra.

Victor 19813 – Carl T. Sprague – 1925

It’s come time we heard again from one of my favorite cowboy singers: Carl T. Sprague.  This is a record that I’ve had since my earliest days of collecting, one of about a hundred that I inherited from my great-great-grandfather.  As such, it’s been in my family since its original purchase in 1925.  Like many of that bunch however, the condition leaves something to be desired.  I’ve been searching fruitlessly for a replacement copy for some time, but as of yet no cigar.  (If you happen to have a copy you’re looking to get rid of, let’s talk.)  It escaped my interest for a long while after it arrived in my possession; before I’d listened to it, I assumed it was just a run of the early vocal record like all the Henry Burr and John Steel and whatnot that the old folks seemed so fond of.  Once it finally made its way onto my turntable, I realized I had been missing out.  It piqued my interest in old folk music and introduced me to Carl T. Sprague.  I later delved deeper to uncover more about the history of both songs, and became even more enthralled.  Suffice to say, it’s since become one of my favorite folk music records.  Both songs were popular comical songs in the second half of the nineteenth century, and both were scarcely recorded in the next century.  Though Sprague is credited on the labels as composer of both sides, the songs actually predate his birth by quite a few years.  Both were originally published on broadside song sheets, as was common practice in the several centuries preceding 1900.

Victor 19813 was recorded in Camden, New Jersey on August 3 and 5, 1925.  It was released in December of that year, and cut from the catalog in 1928.  They are among the earliest electrical recordings made, only a few months after Victor introduced their new process.  The Discography of American Historical Recordings notes that Victor’s “Special Booklet 1925” as a source.  I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it’s possible that this record never saw widespread release.  Obviously staples of his repertoire, Sprague re-recorded both these sides in 1972 for his eponymous LP.

First, is Sprague’s first recorded side, “Kisses”, a song which dates back to the days of broadside song sheets.  It was originally published in 1882 as “Sock Her on Her Kisser”.  Another version was recorded in 1941 by Lewis Winfield Moody for the Library of Congress by Robert F. Draves, under the title “Everybody Has a Finger in the Pie”.  Chubby Parker of WLS recorded “The Kissing Song” in 1931, which may be a version of the same song, but having never heard it, I cannot confirm.  Canadian folklorist MacEdward Leach collected a version of the song as “Turtle Dove” in Newfoundland in 1951.  The DAHR makes note that a re-make (take “5”) of “Kisses” was recorded on June 22, 1926; this take appears to be the originally issued one (“3”).  Sprague’s 1972 re-recording of the song was titled “Kissing”.

Kisses, recorded August 3, 1925 by Carl T. Sprague.

On “B”, Sprague sings another popular humorous ditty titled “The Club Meeting”, also known as “I’ve Only Been Down to the Club”, seemingly the first of only a very few recordings of the song.  Like the previous, this song was originally published on a broadside; it appears to have been originally published by E.H. Harding of New York in 1876, words and music by Joseph P. Skelly, also known for the memorable 1884 song “A Boy’s Best Friend is his Mother”, recorded by Vernon Dalhart and others.  Al Hopkins’ Buckle Busters (a.k.a. Hill Billies) recorded the song as “Down to the Club” in 1927 for Brunswick, the lyrics to which were transcribed and printed in the songbook “The Roaming Cowboy”, Book No. 2, published by the “border blaster” radio station XEPN of Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico in the mid-to-late 1930s.  Another version was sung by Sam Bell of Tuolumne County, California for the Library of Congress in 1939, recorded by Sidney Cowell Robertson.  Additional recordings were made by Walter Coon for Gennett in 1930 as “The Club Had a Meeting” and Billy Vest for Columbia in 1931 as “The Club Held a Meeting”, but neither were released.  (And my apologies for the label butchery, you can thank my great-great-grandfather’s fondness for writing numbers all over his records and my own attempt to get the junk off.)

The Club Meeting, recorded August 5, 1925 by Carl T. Sprague.

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.