Victor 21549 & V-40017 – “Buddy” Baker – 1928

There are fair number of artists who might have achieved the success of Jimmie Rodgers, but, for whatever reason, did not.  Some, like Atlanta’s Ernest Rogers, were not musicians by profession, and only recorded a few songs on the side.  Others perhaps lacked something that Rodgers had, be it talent, charisma, ambition, or maybe simply luck.  Regardless of the circumstances, in the wake of the Singing Brakeman’s monumental success were a drove of excellent-yet-underappreciated artists who left behind recorded legacies ranging from one song to dozens.  One such artist is “Buddy” Baker, a vaudevillian performer who made only two records for Victor in 1928, about whom there have previously existed nary any publicized biographical details, and about the same number of decent sounding recordings of his work.

Baker pictured in the 1930 Victor “Old Familiar Tunes” catalog.

Research reveals that “Buddy” was in fact Ernest H. Baker, and was born on May 17, 1902, in Escambia County, Alabama, the son of John and Rebecca Baker.  In his teenage years he worked in a mill, but he pursued a career in music when he came of age.  He traveled to Chicago in June of 1928 to record for the Victor Talking Machine Company, and cut six sides on the twenty-first and two more the following day.  Of those eight, only four were released: “Penitentiary Blues” and “Box Car Blues” on Victor 21549, and “Matrimonial Intentions” and “Alimony Blues” on Victor V-40017.  Of the four unissued sides were “I Want My Mammy”, “Nobody Knows What’s On My Mind Blues”, and “Razor Jim”.  Baker returned to the Victor studio one year later in Camden, New Jersey to wax four more, including “It’s Tough on Everybody” and “The Rambling Cowboy”, but this time, none were released.  His four surviving recordings depict an artist with a clever sense of diction and a penchant for simplistic scat singing, and a unique approach to a guitar method typical of his time.  At the time of his recording career, he was living with his family in Mobile, Alabama, and began performing on radio station WODX around the time of its inauguration in 1930.  Later, he seems to have taken up in Ohio, where he found work as a welder for Babcock and Wilcox.  Probably in 1932, he married a woman named Jessie.  Baker died from peritonitis, resulting from a perforated ulcer, in Barberton, Ohio, on May 24, 1937, and his body was shipped back home to Alabama to be buried in his family’s plot in Mobile’s Magnolia Cemetery.  Like Jimmie Rodgers, Buddy Baker was gone from the world at only thirty-five.

Victor 21549 and V-40017 were recorded on June 21, 1928 at 952 North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Illinois.  On both, Ernest “Buddy” Baker sings and accompanies himself on guitar.  21549 purportedly sold a total of about 9,400 copies, while sales figures for V-40017 are not available.

Baker’s “Penitentiary Blues” is one of many renditions of the old folk ballad “Little Sadie”—also known as “Bad Lee Brown”—which was later adapted into the western swing repertoire as “Cocaine Blues” (not to be confused with the unrelated Luke Jordan and Dick Justice song of the 1920s).  Preceding Clarence Ashley’s “Little Sadie” (which used a different melody) by more than a year, this version is likely the earliest recording of the classic folk song, though the song itself existed for at least several decades prior to first being recorded.  Other early (pre-“Cocaine”) recordings of the song include “Seven Foot Dilly” John Dilleshaw’s unissued “Bad Lee Brown” for Okeh in 1929 and Riley Puckett’s “Chain Gang Blues” for Bluebird in 1934.  Woody Guthrie must have had a copy of Baker’s record, because he recorded a nearly identical version under the title “Bad Lee Brown” in 1944.  As “Cocaine Blues”, it was introduced in 1947 by T.J. “Red” Arnall as a member of W.A. Nichol’s Western Aces on the S & G label.  It inspired contemporary covers by Roy Hogsed on both Coast and Capitol and Billy Hughes on King, and was famously revived by Johnny Cash in his 1968 Folsom Prison concert.

Penitentiary Blues, recorded June 21, 1928 by “Buddy” Baker.

On the reverse, Baker sings a real blues number, “Box Car Blues”, with some clever songwriting and a little Emmett Miller style yodeling added in for flavor.

Box Car Blues, recorded June 21, 1928 by “Buddy” Baker.

On the first side of his second (and final) record, Baker sings “Matrimonial Intentions”, showcasing more of his guitar playing.  This song was covered by Jack White in the 2017 American Epic Sessions, which saw modern artists recording covers of 1920s and ’30s songs on 78 RPM with acoustic instrumentation.  White put together a fine performance of it, and he’ll always have my respect for digging up such an obscure old title.

Matrimonial Intentions, recorded June 21, 1928 by Buddy Baker.

Finally, Baker concludes his brief career on records with “Alimony Blues”, bemoaning divorce with some fairly inventive guitar work.

Alimony Blues, recorded June 21, 1928 by Buddy Baker.

Vocalion 5250 – Otto Gray and his Cowboy Band – 1928

Nearly a decade before the days of Bob Wills and Milton Brown created the mold for the western swing band, the Oklahoma Cowboy Band, under leader Otto Gray, paved the way for their style of showmanship with their barnstorming nation-wide touring, widespread radio exposure, exuberant stage presence, and extraordinarily large ten-gallon hats.

Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys on a promotional postcard. Circa 1930.

Officially, the venerable Oklahoma Cowboy Band was founded in 1924 by real cowboy Billy McGinty, born January 1, 1871, who served in Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and starred in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.  However, it seems that inklings of the organization existed as early as 1921.  Under McGinty, the band made one record, including the first recording of “Midnight Special”, for Okeh in 1926.  Soon after, McGinty retired from music to focus on his ranch and his duties as postmaster of Ripley, Oklahoma, and the band’s manager and announcer Otto Gray assumed leadership.  Gray was a Stillwater man, born March 2, 1884.  On the side he raised midget cattle on his Oklahoma ranch.

Members came in and out throughout their run, but in their heyday, the band had a fairly steady lineup consisting of three Gray family members: Otto; his wife, the former Florence Opal Powell, known as “Mommie” (February 27, 1888 to November 14, 1950), who sang occasionally; his son Owen (February 3, 1908 to August 12, 1947), who sang and played guitar; the Allen brothers: fiddler Lee “Zeke” and left-handed banjo picker Wade “Hy” Allen (not the same Allen Brothers as the “Chattanooga Boys”); “Chief” Sanders; and Rex, the “wonderful police dog,” the “bark of the air,” who barked in rhythm on their radio shows.  Most of the band members were competent on more than one instrument, and one of their novelties was to “finger one instrument and play another.”

Under Gray’s leadership, the Oklahoma Cowboys toured the vaudeville circuit, and reportedly appeared on over 130 radio station across the States.  On the record, they recorded fifteen sides for Gennett in 1928, of which seven were issued, with an additional two in 1930, followed by eighteen sides for Brunswick/Vocalion from 1928 to 1931, all of which were issued.  In spite of their relatively prolific recording career, their records are quite scarce today.  They shot a one-reeler, titled Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, for Veribest Pictures in 1929 or ’30.  In November, 1930, they published and official songbook, titled Songs: Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, which sold for fifty cents a copy and included some hits from their repertoire, such as “Midnight Special” and “Adam and Eve”.  On June 6, 1931, they became the first Western band to be featured on the cover of Billboard magazine. The Oklahoma Cowboys continued to perform into the late 1930s; Otto Gray retired from music in 1936.

Vocalion 5250 was recorded on September 17, 1928 in Chicago, Illinois.  The personnel at this session is unconfirmed, but likely includes “Chief” Sanders on fiddle, Wade “Hy” Allen on left handed tenor banjo, Owen “Zeb” Gray on guitar, and another unknown guitarist—quite possibly Lee “Zeke” Allen, seeing as he’s only official band member not accounted for in that listing aside from “Mommie”, but I’m not sure if she played an instrument, and he did play second guitar in their 1929 short film.  Owen Gray performs the vocals on both sides.

First, Zeb tells the story of mankind from Adam to Ford on the humorous “Adam and Eve”.

Adam and Eve, recorded September 17, 1928 by Otto Gray and his Cowboy Band.

Next, on a popular hillbilly song and staple of the Oklahoma Cowboys’ repertoire, Zeb tells us all that we shouldn’t—or couldn’t—be doing: (don’t try it, ’cause) “It Can’t Be Done”.

It Can’t Be Done, recorded September 17, 1928 by Otto Gray and his Cowboy Band.

Hollywood No. 1 – Roll Grane – 1938

Something about the Great Depression must have given folks World’s Fair fever, for at least five different expositions were held in the United States in the 1930s.  I can’t say I blame them either, a trip to a World’s Fair would probably do a lot to lift my spirits right now, and I’m not even experiencing economic ruin, severe drought, and another world war on the horizon, but I digress.  It seems that these fairs got people to singing, and some of them even had official records released in their honor, to be sold among the countless trinkets and souvenirs that could be brought home from one.  Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress Exposition commissioned two pieces, one a pop song by local bandleader Art Kassel, the other a march by the renowned John Philip Sousa—his last composition, in fact.  The 1939 New York World’s Fair got George and Ira Gershwin to pen a song in its honor prior to the former’s untimely demise.

The Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939 in San Francisco was not as grandiose an affair, but it still managed to attract the attention of songwriters.  One such individual was Mr. Roll Grane of Oakland, California.  A California native and member of the California Contented Club, which was evidently a heavy promoter of the San Francisco fair, in 1938 he composed a ditty titled “I’m Off to California in the Morning” to bring attention to the event, and to San Francisco’s bridges.  A competent guitarist and vaudevillian vocalist with an eccentric style, Grane himself performed his song for the radio, and copies of the sheet music were distributed around Oakland at conventions in the year preceding the Exposition.  Though the fair attracted significant crowds, Grane himself fell victim to obscurity, and details regarding his life and times are virtually non-existent.

Hollywood No. 1 (matrix number “H5”) was recorded on September 19, 1938, possibly in either Los Angeles or San Francisco, California, and was pressed by the Allied Phonograph and Record Mfg. Co.  It is a single sided record bearing a decorative etching on the reverse.  On it, Roll Grane sings and accompanies himself on guitar; his performance is announced at the beginning by an unknown individual.

Grane sings his own “I’m Off to California in the Morning”—”telling about our wonderful bridges… and exposition”—in a fashion sounding fresh off the vaudeville stage, and the song itself resembles a folksy take on the same sort of theme as the Century of Progress Exposition’s official song “In 1933”, advising listeners to head to California to visit the upcoming Golden Gate Exposition.  This song is Mr. Grane’s sole claim to any sort of lasting fame, and it is probably the only recording he ever made.

I’m Off to California in the Morning, recorded September 19, 1938 by Roll Grane.

Broadway 8089 – Georgia Melody Boys – 1927

There were some artists of yesteryear who created a truly unique sound, and made music that was without parallel (for better or for worse).  Names like Washington Phillips—who played what he called a “manzarene”, possibly two modified zithers played simultaneously, to accompany his sanctified singing—come to mind.  In this case (partly because I don’t have any of Mr. Phillips’ records), we’ll look at the Golden Melody Boys, a truly obscure duo whose sound was aptly characterized by Tony Russell as “a bubbling sixteen-string polyphony.”  While I count eighteen (the American tiple has ten strings), they certainly made music like no other that I am aware of.

The Golden Melody Boys—Dempsy “Demps” Jones and Philip Featherstonhaugh (or “Featherstonehaugh”, or “Featherstone”)—were a musical duo hailing from Ceder Rapids, Iowa.  Demps was born on November 9, 1890 in Fountain Run, Kentucky; Phil on November 4, 1892 in Illinois.  Phil could play a mean mandolin, and Demps was skilled on guitar, banjo, and the rather out-of-the-ordinary tiple.  Aside from their musical proclivities, Dempsy was the Linn County Recorder, and worked variously on the side as a baseball player, a newspaperman, in construction, and for Quaker Oats.  Phil, apparently, was more or less of a bootlegger.  They were playing together as early as 1925, and played on Earl May’s KMA in Shenandoah, Iowa, as well as a number of other stations.  They made their recording debut in October of 1927 for the New York Recording Laboratories (makers of Paramount, Broadway) in Chicago, and cut a total of eighteen sides for them over the following year, all of which but one were released.  Dempsy followed up with six solo re-recordings of earlier titles for the Starr Piano Company (for their Champion and Superior labels) on November 19, 1931 in Richmond, Indiana.  Jones stayed in Iowa, starting a family band in the 1930s which apparently continued all the way into the days of television, while Featherstonhaugh moved west.  Jones died on April 10, 1963 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Featherstonhaugh on March 1, 1969 in Beaumont, California.  As of late, their “Gonna Have ‘Lasses in de Mornin'” made its way into PBS’s grand project American Epic.

Broadway 8089 was recorded circa October of 1927 in Chicago, Illinois.  The Golden Melody Boys (here under the rather thin pseudonym “Georgia Melody Boys”) consist of Demps on tiple and Phil on mandolin.  Demps provides the vocals.  It was their first released record, and was also issued on Paramount 3068.  Jones recorded both these songs again in their 1931 Gennett session.

“My grandfather’s hat was too big for his head, it was caused by drinking Milwaukee beer,” is the first line in “The Old Tobacco Mill” (a parody of the old “My Grandfather’s Clock”), and is just the sort of whimsical, often nonsensical lyrics that characterize the bulk of the Golden Melody Boys’ recorded output.

The Old Tobacco Mill, recorded October, 1927 by the Georgia Melody Boys.

On “The Cross Eyed Butcher”, we’re treated to two stories for the price of one, first that ot the titular butcher, then of a fellow’s dental follies, with a nice little instrumental break in-between.  Demps’s vocals rather remind me of Frank Crumit, who—incidentally—was also a tiple player.

The Cross Eyed Butcher, recorded October, 1927 by the Georgia Melody Boys.

Victor 20715 – Frank Crumit – 1927

Frank Crumit with tiple. As pictured in The Eveready Book of Radio Stars.  Circa 1932.

I like Frank Crumit.  He was a consummate vaudevillian with a pleasant voice and proficient with all manner of stringed instruments—and he made great music.  His favorite food was gravy.  So it seems only appropriate that Old Time Blues pay tribute to him and his distinguished body of work sooner or later.

Crumit was born on September 26, 1889 in Jackson, Ohio, son of Mary and Frank, Sr.  He made his stage debut in a minstrel show at only five years old.  He received a degree in electrical engineering from Ohio University, but left that career behind when in 1912, the opportunity of becoming a singer with Paul Biese’s orchestra presented itself.  Before long, Crumit struck out as a vaudeville star of his own, billed as the “One-Man Glee Club”.  Throughout the 1910s and ’20s, he starred in musical shows like Betty, Be Good, Greenwich Village Follies of 1920, and Tangerine.  Working on Tangerine, he met Julia Sanderson, who was starring in the show, and (though both were married) it was love at first sight.  The two later divorced their respective spouses and married in 1927.  Crumit made his first recording for the Columbia Phonograph Company in December of 1919, “My Gal”, appearing on the reverse of Al Jolson’s “Swanee” (Columbia A2884).  He remained with Columbia until 1923, when he switched to Victor, with whom he stayed until moving to Decca in 1934.  Among his plentiful song successes were “A Gay Caballero”, “The Song of the Prune”, “Abdul Abulbul Amir”, and “I Married the Bootlegger’s Daughter”.  As radio became the nation’s favorite form of entertainment, Crumit’s recording career took a backseat as he and wife Sanderson ascended to radio stardom as “the ideal couple of the air.”  As record sales dragged during the Great Depression, the Crumits remained one of the most popular acts on the air, hosting such programs as the Blackstone Plantation and the quiz show The Battle of the Sexes.  Frank Crumit died suddenly of a heart attack on September 7, 1943, one day after what was to be his final radio show was broadcast.

Victor 20715 was recorded on May 11 and April 8, 1927, respectively, in New York City.  It was released in August of ’27, and, like a number of Crumit’s records, remained in the catalog until 1944.  On the “A” side, Crumit is accompanied by Andy Sannella on clarinet and Nat Shilkret on piano.  Crumit accompanies himself on guitar on both sides (this is unconfirmed by the DAHR for the second side, but seems most likely).

First, Crumit does a fabulous take on the folk song “Frankie and Johnnie”, with a hot little ensemble accompanying.  This is my personal favorite version of the song, surpassing even Jimmie Rodgers’ famous rendition.  Outstanding performance.

Frankie and Johnnie, recorded May 11, 1927 by Frank Crumit.

Next, Crumit sings one of his more famous tunes, and another of my favorites, the 1877 music hall song “Abdul Abulbul Amir”.  This song’s success inspired Crumit to follow up with “The Return of Abdul Abulbul Amir” and “The Grandson of Abdul Abulbul Amir”.  The song’s popularity persisted into the 1940s, and in 1941, Crumit wrote revised lyrics for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cartoon Abdul the Bulbul-Ameer.

Abdul Abulbul Amir, recorded April 8, 1927 by Frank Crumit.