Okeh 6893 – Bessie Smith with Buck and his Band – 1933

Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues. From Jazzmen, 1938.

The time has come once again to honor the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith.  I’ve already covered her life in some detail previously, so this post is dedicated to her famous last session.

Bessie Smith’s career flourished throughout the roaring twenties, but was hampered by the onset of the Great Depression.  Bessie made her final recordings for the Columbia label—for whom she had recorded since her debut in 1923—near the end of 1931, as the economy continued to dive.  After two years spent touring, record producer John Hammond brought her back to the studio for a session with Okeh (a subsidiary of Columbia since 1926).  For this session, Smith was paid a non-royalty sum of $37.50 (equivalent to around $690 dollars today).  With an all-star band led by pianist Buck Washington (best known as half of the popular vaudeville duo Buck and Bubbles) assembled to accompany her, the four sides cut at that session helped bring her style into the burgeoning era of swing.  That lone Okeh session, however, proved to be her last.  Smith made no further recordings between then and her fatal car accident four years later, and in that period of time faded into obscurity; by 1936 she was working as a hostess in a Philadelphia club.

Okeh 6893 was recorded on November 24, 1933 in New York City.  It was originally issued on Okeh 8949, this reissue dates to 1952.  In the band accompanying Bessie is the almost legendary lineup of Frank Newton on trumpet, Jack Teagarden on trombone, Chu Berry on tenor sax, Buck Washington on piano, Bobby Johnson on guitar, and Billy Taylor on string bass.  Benny Goodman was recording in an adjoining studio that day, and sat in for this session, but I’m not sure if he can be heard on these two sides.  The songs on both sides were composed by Wesley “Sox” Wilson.

First up, Bessie is at her all-time best on the legendary “Gimme a Pigfoot”.

Gimme a Pigfoot, recorded November 24, 1933 by Bessie Smith with Buck and his Band.

Next, she gives another great performance on the classic “Take Me For a Buggy Ride”.

Take Me For a Buggy Ride, recorded November 24, 1933 by Bessie Smith with Buck and his Band.

Victor 19639 – Connie Boswell/Boswell Sisters – 1925

In 1925, the Boswell Sisters had made quite a name for themselves in their hometown of New Orleans.  Three years prior, they had won a talent contest for WAAB radio, which earned them a three day gig at the Palace Theatre.  They were regularly engaged around town, particularly at functions of the Young Men’s Gymnastic Club, whose promotive director had taken a shine to the Bozzies.  It was a YMGC function where the sisters were noticed by vaudeville headliners Van and Schenck, who were at the time playing at the Orpheum.  They loved the Boswells’ act, and promised to pull some strings in their favor when they returned to New York.  Very soon after that, they cut their first record.  E.T. King of the Victor Talking Machine Company was in town with mobile recording equipment, just in from Houston on the first such “field trip” they ever made (though not the first recording session held in New Orleans).  The Boswell Sisters were the first artists to record for Victor in New Orleans, they cut three sides, “You Can Call Me Baby All the Time”, “I’m Gonna Cry (The Cryin’ Blues)”, and “Pal o’ Mine” on March 22, 1925, followed by “Dad” and “Nights When I Am Lonely” on the 25th.  Only two of those five were issued.  Other artists to record on the historic New Orleans field trip were Tony Parenti’s Famous Melody Boys, Piron’s New Orleans Orchestra, and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.  Reportedly the Boswells’ record was mistaken for a “race” record, and as a result kept out of many record stores.  Nonetheless, the sisters were eager to head to Camden and cut a few more, though fate held them in New Orleans until 1928.

Victor 19639 was recorded on March 22 and 25, 1925 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  These recordings were made acoustically, shortly before Victor commenced mainstream electrical recording (though they had made several prior to these).  It is the Boswell Sisters first record, as well as their only record made in the 1920s.

Tragically, this record arrived in my possession broken in three pieces, the result of incompetent packing (one of the worst jobs I’ve ever seen), and can be seen on the “wall of shame” on Old Time Blues’ guide to packing 78s.  I couldn’t allow a record this rare and this great to remain in pieces however, so I set about repairing it.  After warming up by repairing two other broken discs, I carefully lined up the grooves, setting the pieces as tightly together as possible, and superglued the edges and run-out to hold it together.  Fortunately, it tracked, and played with clicks.  After transferring, I painstakingly removed every click the cracks caused, and equalized out the rest of the thumps.  The end result exceeded my every expectation of what this broken record could sound like.  A few slight clicks still remain, but I believe you’ll find that it sounds quite clean, all things considered (seeing as it has the equivalent of four cracks to the label in it).

First, in the style of her idol Mamie Smith, seventeen-year-old Connie belts out “I’m Gonna Cry (Cryin’ Blues)”, accompanied on piano by her sister Martha.  Young Vet joins in later on to help Connie vocally imitate a hot instrumental break.

I'm Gonna Cry (Cryin' Blues)

I’m Gonna Cry (Cryin’ Blues), recorded March 22, 1925 by Connie Boswell.

Next, all the sisters join in on “Nights When I Am Lonely”, which features the Bozzies’ trademark style of scat known as “-ggling” (that’s pronounced “gulling”).  On this side, they are accompanied on piano by Vitaly Lubowski, who had recorded the previous day with Tony Parenti’s Famous Melody Boys.

Nights When I Am Lonely

Nights When I Am Lonely, recorded March 25, 1925 by the Boswell Sisters.

Regal 9791 – Harry Richman – 1925

Harry Richman around the mid-1920s.

Harry Richman around the mid-1920s.

August 10 once again marks the birthday of one of Old Time Blues’ favorite vaudevillians, Harry Richman.  Last year, we celebrated the occasion with his famous “Puttin’ on the Ritz”.  This time, I offer to you Richman’s first recording ever.

Harry Richman was born Harold Reichman on August 10, 1895 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  He began performing by the age of eleven, and was working the vaudeville circuits by eighteen.  After striking out as an act of his own in the early 1920s, he worked his way up, appearing as the star of George White’s Scandals in 1926.  In 1930, he made his motion picture debut in Puttin’ on the Ritz, in which he introduced the famous Irving Berlin song of the same name.  Though his acting career failed to take off, he appeared in four more pictures from 1930 to ’38.  Throughout the 1930s, Richman hosted a radio program, and made a number of popular records.   He was also noted as a record setting aviator, making a famous round-trip flight across the Atlantic in 1936 with Dick Merrill.  In 1938, he married former Ziegfeld girl Hazel Forbes, though they had divorced by 1942.  After his career slowed down in the 1940s, Richman made a number of brief comeback appearances, largely in a nostalgic context.  He published an autobiography titled A Hell of a Life in 1966, and died in 1972.

Regal 9791 was recorded January 30, 1925, most likely in New York.  Unfortunately, though it appears to be in decent condition, it suffers from a very thin, quiet signal, and sounds generally lousy.  In spite of that, the music is still plainly audible.

First, Harry croons “Will You Remember Me”, with guitar accompaniment adding a charming, folksy effect.

Will You Remember Me

Will You Remember Me, recorded January 30, 1925 by Harry Richman.

Richman seems to put on his best Jolson for “California Poppy”.

California Poppy

California Poppy, recorded January 30, 1925 by Harry Richman.

Updated with improved audio on November 13, 2016.

Columbia 2652-D – Ted Lewis and his Band – 1932

Is everybody happy?

Columbia's custom sleeve and label dedicated to Ted Lewis.

Columbia’s custom sleeve and label dedicated to Ted Lewis.

In addition to Jimmie Lunceford, June 6 also marks the 126th anniversary of Ted Lewis’ birth.  Here’s one of his most popular records of the 1930s, as well as one of my personal favorite Ted Lewis vocal performances.

Ted Lewis was born Theodore Leopold Friedman in Circleville, Ohio on June 6, 1890.  He took up playing the clarinet professionally, though some would argue that his abilities on the instrument were limited.  He first recorded with Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band, and soon began recording for Columbia with his own jazz band, switching to Decca in 1934.  With his trademark phrase, “is everybody happy?”, his schmaltzy “talk-singing” and tendency to employ top-notch musicians made him one of the most popular musical personalities of the 1920s, and into the 1930s, alongside Paul Whiteman.  However, his style faded from popularity as swing became king, and his music fell out of favor, though he continued to perform for many years.  Ted Lewis died on August 25, 1971.

Columbia 2652-D was recorded March 15 and 22, 1932 in New York City.  Ted Lewis’ band consists of Muggsy Spanier and Dave Klein on trumpets, George Brunies on trombone; Ted Lewis and Benny Goodman on clarinet and alto sax, Sam Shapiro and Sol Klein on violins, Jack Aaronson on piano, Tony Gerhardi on guitar, Harry Barth on string bass and tuba, and John Lucas on drums.

The quintessential Depression-era tune “In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town”, introduced in the motion picture Crooner, became one of the most popular songs of 1932, both for Ted Lewsis and for other artists.  In my opinion, this is one of Lewis’ best vocals.

In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town

In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town, recorded March 15, 1932 by Ted Lewis and his Band.

On the other side, Lewis and his band do a fine job with “Sweet Sue – Just You”, featuring a great clarinet solo by Benny Goodman.

Sweet Sue - Just You

Sweet Sue – Just You, recorded March 22, 1932 by Ted Lewis and his Band.

Brunswick 2569 – Al Jolson with Isham Jones Orchestra – 1924

Al Jolson, circa 1920. From "Swanee" sheet music cover.

Al Jolson, circa 1920. From “Swanee” sheet music cover.

On May 26, we celebrate the anniversary of the “World’s Greatest Entertainer”, Al Jolson’s birth.  From the 1910s to the 1930s, Jolson was among America’s top entertainers.  Here he is with one of the finest bands of that era, that of Isham Jones.

Jolson was born Asa Yoelson in the Russian Empire, and emigrated to the United States in 1894.  His actual date of birth was never known to him, be decided to go with May 26, 1886.  The young Jolson was introduced to show business in 1895, and began performing on street corner with his brother Harry.  By the beginning of the 20th century, the Jolson brothers were working on stage in burlesque and vaudeville, but soon the team broke up, and Al was left working solo.  Jolson made his Broadway debut in 1911 in La Belle Paree, and in 1919, he appeared in Sinbad and introduced “Swanee”, “My Mammy”, and “Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody”.  Jolson also made his first records in 1911, for Victor.  He switched to Columbia Records in 1913, and then to Brunswick in 1924, with whom he remained until picking up again with Decca in the 1940s.

Though he was making hits on stage for over a decade, and in fact had a theater named after him on 59th Street in New York City, his biggest fame came in 1927, when he appeared in the Warner Brothers picture The Jazz Singer, touted as the first talkie (though in fact it was only part talking, and part silent).  After the immense success of The Jazz Singer, Jolson appeared in a string of successful motion pictures, from 1928’s The Singing Fool, to The Singing Kid in 1936, in which he appeared with Cab Calloway.  Jolson was noted for having demanded equal treatment for Calloway, his co-star, during the production of The Singing Kid.  In 1929, Jolson married the young ingenue Ruby Keeler.  Jolson entertained troops overseas during World War II His career wound down a bit in the 1930s, but was revived in 1946 with the smash hit The Jolson Story, starring Larry Parks as Jolson.  With that picture’s success, Jolson began recording again for Decca, making a string of popular discs  Parks reprised his role in 1949 in Jolson Sings Again.  When the Korean War commenced, Jolson insisted upon traveling overseas once again to entertain the troops, though his health was failing him.  Exhaustion and dust inhalation plagued in in Korea, and contributed to Jolson’s death from a heart attack in 1950, his last words were reported as, “Boys, I’m going.”

Brunswick 2569 was recorded January 17, 1924 in Chicago, Illinois by Al Jolson, accompanied by Isham Jones’ orchestra.  Both sides come from Jolson’s first session with Brunswick.  The band likely included Louis Panico on cornet, Carroll Martin and Bud Graham on trombones, Al Mauling on alto sax, clarinet, and oboe, Isham Jones on tenor sax, Artie Vanasec on soprano sax and violin, Leo Murphy on violin, Al Eldridge on piano, Joe Miller on banjo, John Kuhn on tuba and Arthur Layfield on drums.

“I’m Goin’ South” is typical Jolson fare, hammy vaudeville about going back home to Dixie.

I'm Goin' South

I’m Goin’ South, recorded January 17, 1924 by Al Jolson with Isham Jones Orchestra.

Turn the record over, however, and you’ll find one of Jolson’s all time best, one of my favorites, “California, Here I Come”.  This side also features a ukulele solo by the composer himself, Buddy DeSylva.  His 1946 Decca version has got nothing on this one!

California, Here I Come

California, Here I Come, recorded January 17, 1924 by Al Jolson with Isham Jones Orchestra.

Updated with improved audio on May 26, 2017.