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.

Brunswick 4597 – Billy Murray and Walter Scanlan – 1929

Billy Murray, as pictured in 1921 Victor catalog.

In commemoration of the anniversary of the birth of the “Denver Nightingale”, recording pioneer and prolific record artist Billy Murray, I present the latest record of him currently in the Old Time Blues collection.

William Thomas Murray was born on May 25, 1877—the same year Edison invented the phonograph that he later would help to proliferate—in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, son of Patrick and Julia Murray.  Murray later quipped, “I squalled for the first time in 1877, and so did the phonograph. I didn’t do very much for ten years after that, but neither did the phonograph.”  The Murrays moved to Denver in 1882, and by sixteen, Billy was performing professionally.  Murray made his first of hundreds of phonograph recordings for Peter Bacigalupi in San Francisco in 1897, and was recording regularly and professionally in the New York area by 1903.  Over the following decades, Murray recorded a huge multitude of songs, in various styles and genres, for virtually every record label in operation.  Coinciding with the advent of electrical recording in 1925, the public’s tastes were changing, and Murray began to fall from favor.  To adjust to the new recording systems, he softened his singing voice, though his work became more sporadic.  In the 1920s, he often worked as a vocalist for dance bands; he appeared on Jean Goldkette’s memorable recording of “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover” in 1927, featuring Bix Beiderbecke.  Starting in the late 1920s, Murray lent his voice to animated cartoons, providing the voice of Bimbo, and others, in shorts made by Fleischer Studios.  He worked sporadically on radio through the 1930s, including appearances on the WLS National Barn Dance.  In 1940, Murray made a series of recordings for Bluebird, accompanied by Harry’s Tavern Band, and made his last recordings in 1943 for the Beacon label with fellow recording pioneer Monroe Silver, known for his “Cohen” character.  After retiring in 1944 due to heart issues, Billy Murray died suddenly of a heart attack at a Guy Lombardo show on Long Island on August 17, 1954.

Brunswick 4597 was recorded in September or October of 1929 by Billy Murray with his frequent duet partner Walter Scanlan (whose real name was Walter van Brunt).

First, the duo sings humorous number from the 1929 Sono Art-World Wide talking picture The Great Gabbo, in which it was performed by Erich von Stroheim in the titular role, with his ventriloquist dummy.

Icky, recorded September/October 1929 by Billy Murray and Walter Scanlan.

On the reverse, Murray and Scanlan sing another comic song most frequently associated with Eddie Cantor, “My Wife is On a Diet”.

My Wife is On a Diet, recorded September/October 1929 by Billy Murray and Walter Scanlan.

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 “Socks” 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.

Updated with improved audio on October 20, 2017.