Columbia 14333-D – Washington Phillips – 1927

While now regarded alongside the nigh-legendary Blind Willie Johnson as a pioneer of the gospel music genre, snuff-dipping jack-leg preacher from Texas Washington Phillips was once largely forgotten and shrouded by mystery and misconceptions.  Today, thanks to the tireless efforts of folklorists and researchers like Michael Corcoran, Phillips may finally begin to receive the appreciation he has so long deserved.

George Washington Phillips was born on January 11, 1880, near Cotton Gin, Texas, a few miles west of Teague in Freestone County—the very same region that produced pioneering blues luminary Blind Lemon Jefferson—one of at least ten children born to Timothy and Nancy Phillips.  As an adult, he worked for a time as a hotel waiter in Mexia, but soon continued in the family trade of farming, working a strip of land very near the place of his birth in rural Simsboro.  On the side, he found his calling as an itinerant preacher and sanctified singer in local churches and any opportune venues.  In stark contrast to the fire-and-brimstone preaching of contemporaries like Blind Willie Johnson and his fellow guitar evangelists, Phillips’s music was delivered with a gentle touch and kind nature.  More remarkably, Phillips eschewed the guitar in favor of accompanying his singing on an ethereal sounding instrument of rather enigmatic origin, previously thought to have been a toy-piano like zither known as a Dolceola (which may be heard on some of Lead Belly’s 1944 Capitol recordings, played by Paul Howard), but now widely believed to have been an instrument of his own invention which he dubbed a “manzarene”, comprised of two modified tabletop zithers (a celestaphone and a phonoharp) played in tandem, with which he was photographed in 1927.  Possibly owing to an association with Lemon Jefferson, when the Columbia Phonograph Company made their first field trip to Dallas, Phillips made the journey eighty miles northward to record his sacred music.  On Friday, December 2, 1927, directly following a session by the Cartwright Brothers’ cowboy singing duo, Washington Phillips became the first African-American musician, and only the second overall, to be recorded at the field trip.  He waxed a total of six sides that day and the following Monday, and subsequently returned the following two Decembers to record a further twelve (two of which are presumed lost).  Though the sudden onset of Depression curtailed Columbia’s field trips south, Phillips was still in Dallas in 1930, lodging at Wade Wilson’s shotgun house near Oak Cliff, though he eventually returned to the country life in Freestone County.  Locally, “Wash” Phillips was as well known for his mule cart from which he peddled farm-fresh produce as he was for his music, and many of his hometown acquaintances were unaware that he had made records.  Census records indicate that he was married at least twice, first to Anna, and then to Susie.  At the age of seventy-four, Washington Phillips died following a fall on the stairs outside the Teague welfare office on September 20, 1954.

Columbia 14333-D was recorded in Dallas, Texas, on December 5, 1927, possibly at the Jefferson Hotel.  On it, Washington Phillips sings and accompanied himself on “manzarene”.  78 Quarterly estimated “possibly as many as 30 to 40 copies” were extant.

Perhaps Washington Phillips’s best known recording and composition, in “Denomination Blues” he chides various religious sects for their perceived hypocrisy.  Split into two parts, he sings and plays “Part 1” on the first side.

Denomination Blues – Part 1, recorded December 5, 1927, by Washington Phillips.

He concluded the number with “Part 2” on the reverse, turning his attention to the different varieties of “so-called Christians.”  Of Phillips’s limited discography, the song proved particularly influential, being later adapted into the gospel song “That’s All” (for which Phillips received no credit, possibly because the song was believed to be of traditional origin), recorded by artists as diverse as Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Merle Travis alike, which rather altered the song’s message by deviating from Phillips’s anti-sectarian “you better have Jesus, and that’s all” theme.

Denomination Blues – Part 2, recorded December 5, 1927, by Washington Phillips.

Star Talent 770 – Slim Willet – 1950

With his uniquely characteristic songwriting and unparalleled instrumental sound, the renown of Abilene, Texas, disc jockey, television host, music impresario, and honky tonk hero Slim Willet surely deserves to be as big as his own name-belying size—and perhaps it would have been had he gone to Nashville or Hollywood—yet sadly he has been relegated to little more than a footnote in the annals of country music.

Winston Lee Moore was born on December 1, 1919, in Victor, Texas, a tiny, no-longer-existent town a a mile south of “Hogtown”—a big country oil boom-town better known as Desdemona.  As a teenager during the Great Depression, he reportedly spent a short time working in the CCC, before being drummed into Army service during World War II.  Upon his discharge, he settled in Abilene and attended Hardin-Simmons University, earning a journalism degree in 1949 (though in later years, he jokingly claimed to have studied “how to be a hillbilly disc jockey”).  Thereafter, he went to work as a promoter and disc jockey for local radio station KRBC, hosting his own Big State Jamboree.  On the air, he adopted the stage name “Slim Willet”, taking the sobriquet “Slim” ironically—he really was quite the opposite—and borrowing the name “Willet” from the comic strip Out Our Way.  The year of 1950 proved a professionally momentous one for Willet, for it brought his breakout into the recording industry.  In April of that year, his composition “Pinball Millionaire” was recorded by rising country star Hank Locklin for 4 Star Records, placing Willet’s name on a record label for the first time.  Soon after, Willet’s own first recordings as a singer were released on the Dallas-based Star Talent label.  He went on to cut several more discs for Star Talent over the course of the year that followed  and subsequently set up his own studio to produce “Slim Willet Special Releases”, contracting pressing to the California-based 4 Star Records with the option for them to release his records on their own label, but he did not achieve more than local success.

Tides turned for Willet come September of 1951, when he received a letter from a soldier in Korea requesting that he play a song for his sweetheart back in Abilene.  The soldier sent along a message asking his love to stay true and not let stars get in her eyes.  That letter inspired Willet to compose a love song, which he titled “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes” and recorded the following February.  The record big shots didn’t like the song at first, calling it “off beat, off meter, off everything,” but agreed to release it as the B-side of a Texas oilfield number called “Hadacol Corners”.  In spite of their predictions, “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes” became a national hit upon its release, spawning popular covers by Perry Como and Ray Price, among others, and bringing Willet to the national spotlight for a time.  In the wake of “Stars”, Willet continued to record for 4 Star, producing several more popular records in a similar style—as well as one for Decca—and made appearances on the Big D Jamboree on KRLD in Dallas, and the Louisiana Hayride on KWKH in Shreveport.  He set up his own full-fledged record company—initially called Edmoral but later renamed Winston—around 1953, recording local West Texas talent while still contracted to 4 Star, and moved his own recording activities to it once his engagement with them ended around 1954 (though he had made pseudonymous recordings for his own label before that).  As rock ‘n’ roll took off, Willet made several rousing rockabilly records under the pseudonym “Telli W. Mils, The Fat Cat” (i.e. Slim Willet spelled backwards), in a fashion rather resembling—though in fact preceding—that of fellow Texan “The Big Bopper”.  While never able to rekindle the nationwide success of “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes”, Willet remained a popular personality in Abilene, and continued to record, perform, and disc jockey until his untimely death from a heart attack on July 1, 1966.  Posthumously, Willet has been honored with induction in Country Music Disc Jockey and West Texas Music Halls of Fame.

Star Talent 770 was recorded in the spring of 1950 at the studio of KRBC in Abilene, Texas.  Slim Willet is accompanied by the Brushcutters, featuring Shorty Underwood on fiddle, Earl Montgomery on rhythm guitar, Georgia Underwood on bass, Price Self piano, and unidentified lead guitar and steel guitarists.

The first side he ever recorded, Slim Willet made his big debut with “I’m Going Strong”, a most apt title for more than one reason.

I’m Going Strong, recorded spring 1950 by Slim Willet.

On the “B’ side, Willet sings one of his signature numbers in the genre over which he reigned supreme: “I’m a Tool Pusher from Snyder” (later re-titled “Tool Pusher on a Rotary Rig”).  With this song, Willet established the first in a string of oilfield songs that would overture his recording and songwriting career, ultimately culminating in his self-produced 1959 LP Texas Oil Patch Songs, on which he re-recorded “Tool Pusher”.

I’m a Tool Pusher from Snyder, recorded spring 1950 by Slim Willet.

Brunswick 7043 – Ben Norsingle – 1928

Yet another casualty to the march of time, Dallas singer Ben Norsingle cut two records for the Brunswick company in 1928, yet today he resides among the countless practitioners of the early blues now shrouded in obscurity.   What can be gleaned of his life, however, makes for a most interesting story.

Benjamin Norsingle was born in the vicinity of Dallas, Texas, around either 1901 or 1906, the son of Andy and Betty Norsingle.  The details surrounding his early life are lost to time, but by his young adulthood, he was singing in Fort Worth with John Henry Bragg and others.  There, he was discovered by Dallas blues impresario Hattie Burleson, who signed him up with Ella B. Moore’s “Hot Ella Company” vaudeville troupe, performing at the Park Theater.  Burleson also arranged for Norsingle’s sole record date, with Brunswick during their first field trip to Dallas in 1928, resulting in four sides backed by a small jazz band typical for the time and place.  When the Hot Ella Company folded and Ella Moore made for Kansas City in 1930, Norsingle went to Cincinnati to perform with Melvin Shannon.  By the next year he was in Chicago, where he and a young man named John Reed were accused (whether rightfully or wrongfully I do not know) of slaying a butcher named John Martin during a holdup of his shop on August 3, 1931.  Norsingle fled back to Dallas in the aftermath, but was apprehended after a few weeks and confessed to the crime.  Brought back to Chicago, he and his accomplice were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.  Despite a temporary stay of execution from Governor Louis L. Emmerson in December of 1931 for the duo to appeal their case to the Supreme Court, Ben Norsingle was strapped into the electric chair in the Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois, and executed at 12:10 A.M. on January 15, 1932, immediately following Reed.  In his final moments amongst the living, Norsingle’s accomplice John Reed made a final statement attributing his downfall to “bad company,” and adding that the world would be better if “boys would be obedient to their parents.”

Brunswick 7043 was recorded in Dallas, Texas on October 28, 1928 by Ben Norsingle.  He is accompanied by a small band made up mostly of members of Troy Floyd’s Plaza Hotel Orchestra from San Antonio, with Don Albert on trumpet, Allen Vann on piano, John Henry Bragg (or Caffrey Darensbourg) on guitar, and Charlie Dixon on tuba.

Norsingle first sings the low-down “Motherless Blues”, a song which might have been something of a downer if not for his matter-of-fact delivery.  While Norsingle possessed decent vocal faculties, and his accompaniment was top-notch, critics have criticized his nearly utter lack of emotion in the songs he sang.

Motherless Blues, recorded October 28, 1928 by Ben Norsingle.

Rather foreshadowing his untimely demise, Norsingle spins a yarn of ill-favor by fate on “Black Cat Blues”.  You may note that both songs bear composer’s credit to Hattie Burleson, who was responsible for both “discovering” Norsingle and bringing him to the attention of the Brunswick company.

Black Cat Blues, recorded October 28, 1928 by Ben Norsingle.

Vocalion 15461 – Bessie Coldiron “The Sunflower Girl of W B A P” – 1926

As Old Time Blues’ parade of long-forgotten Texas recording artists marches ever forward (and backward), we turn our attention to a popular singer who was neither a Texan nor recorded in Texas, but nonetheless made an inextricable contribution to the musical heritage of the state.  Much of the research regarding the Sunflower Girl comes courtesy of Fort Worth’s own illustrious and mononymous Dismuke (of the eponymous Radio Dismuke).

Bessie Coldiron, the Sunflower Girl, in an advertising postcard from KGKO, sister station of WBAP, circa 1939.

Though she was billed as the “Sunflower Girl from Kansas”, Bessie Coldiron was born Bessie Ellen Warrington in Oklahoma on June 4, 1902.  Her father died before she was ten years old, and she grew up in Kansas City with her mother, two brothers, and two sisters.  There, on March 3, 1923, she married Ray Orville Coldiron, a carpenter from Nebraska.  Though residents of Kansas, the Coldirons paid a visit to Fort Worth, Texas, at the end of 1925, during which her singing was noticed by “Hired Hand” Harold Hough (who may have been a relative of hers), announcer at WBAP.  He liked what he heard and invited her to try-out for a spot on the radio, singing songs and accompanying herself on the piano.  Her musical proclivities proved popular with listeners, and thus she began a five month engagement with the Fort Worth radio station as the “Sunflower Girl of WBAP”.  Afterwards, she embarked on a tour of the Majestic-Orpheum vaudeville circuit in the spring and summer of ’26.  Following its conclusion, Bessie returned to Texas and WBAP, but not before she went to the Brunswick-Balke-Collender recording studio in New York City for her first record date.  There she cut four sides on September 16, 1926, and four more one week later, of which all but two were released on the Vocalion label.  She would record again the following June, this time for Columbia in Chicago, cutting four sides in two consecutive days.  All of them were issued this time around, rounding out her scant recording career at five records.  But she continued to enjoy popularity on the radio, appearing sporadically on WBAP and her sister station KGKO until at least the beginning of the 1940s.  It would seem that Coldiron had departed from the station by 1941, as she does not appear in the WBAP-KGKO-WFAA “Family Album” published that year.  In 1930, she was reported as living with her husband in St. Louis, but Bessie and Ray were divorced by 1940, by which time he had already taken a third wife.  Bessie Coldiron died on February 28, 1990, in Hayward, California.  Her ex-husband, incidentally, died in Fort Worth in 1988.

Vocalion 15461 was recorded on September 16, 1926 in New York City.  These sides, from Coldiron’s first session, were originally “test” recordings, but were mastered and released.  Bessie Coldiron accompanies herself on piano on both sides.

First, Bessie sings the utterly wholesome George Olsen creation, “She’s a Cornfed Indiana Girl”.

She’s a Cornfed Indiana Girl, recorded September 16, 1926 by Bessie Coldiron “The Sunflower Girl of W B A P”.

On the flip-side, she sings a charming rendition of “What’s the Use of Crying?”.  I have a set of lyrics to this song written out by my great-grandmother in the front of a textbook from when she was a school girl in Bryan, Texas; perhaps she’d heard it sung by the Sunflower Girl.

What’s the Use of Crying?, recorded September 16, 1926 by Bessie Coldiron “The Sunflower Girl of W B A P”.

CroMart 101 – Elmo Newcomer (The Pipe Creek Kid) – c. 1947

Whoopin’ and hollerin’ fiddler from Bandera, Elmo Newcomer—the “Pipe Creek Kid”—was one of the more colorful figures in Texas folk music (and that’s saying something).

Jessie Elmo Newcomer was born in San Antonio, Texas, on April 25, 1896, son of rancher Andrew Jackson “Jack” Newcomer and his wife Lura Bell (née Stokes).  Elmo followed in his father’s footsteps and became a stockman on the family farm Pipe Creek, Texas, about eight miles from Bandera.  He served as a cook in the the Third Trench Mortar Battalion during the First World War, and was honorably discharged on March 30, 1919.  Shortly after his return home, he married Miss Birdee Augusta Ellis, on April 16 of the same year, with whom he would have five children over the subsequent decades.  His uniquely uninhibited style of fiddle playing was recorded in May of 1939 by folklorists John Avery and Ruby Terrill Lomax for the Library of Congress in thirteen performances at his home in Pipe Creek.  Around twenty years later, Newcomer made two records for the San Antonio-based CroMart label, recreating tunes which he had previously recorded for Lomax.  Though well known locally for his music making proclivities, he spent most of his life on the farm, and did not seek fame or fortune as a professional musician.  Tragedy befell the Newcomers with the deaths of sons Clyde from tetanus in 1940 and William in a 1951 car accident, and Elmo and Birdee divorced at some point during the 1940s or 1950s; she later remarried, while he did not.  Elmo Newcomer died from arteriosclerosis at the V.A. Hospital in Kerrville, Texas, on December 8, 1970, and was buried in the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio.  His descendants have carried on his musical legacy around Pipe Creek.

The recording date of CroMart 101 is not established by any available sources, but I have it on good authority that it dates to around 1947, give or take, and was probably recorded in San Antonio, Texas.  Newcomer is accompanied by guitar, likely played by one of his sons.  Both performances are virtually identical to his Library of Congress recordings of 1939, albeit in much higher fidelity.  The Cro-Mart Recording Company was founded by H.M. Crowe and Buster Martin of San Antonio.

Newcomer first fiddled a wild and crazy rendition of the old-time staple “Cotton Eyed Joe”, an especially popular number with Texas musicians.

Cotton Eyed Joe, recorded c.1947 by Elmo Newcomer (The Pipe Creek Kid).

He next does the “Old Grey Mare”, with his wild hollers complimented by some choice diction: “Old grey mare come a-footin’ down from Delaware, lookin’ for her underwear; she couldn’t find ’em anywhere.”

Old Grey Mare, recorded c.1947 by Elmo Newcomer (The Pipe Creek Kid).