Victor 23580 – Jimmie Rodgers – 1930/1931

Jimmie Rodgers gussied up in a tuxedo, with his signature “Blue Yodel” Martin guitar, circa 1930.

After ascending to stardom with hits like “Sleep Baby Sleep” and “Blue Yodel”, Jimmie Rodgers began relentlessly touring across the United States, often to his own physical detriment.  In the summer of 1930, Rodgers was in Hollywood.  While there he had a total of ten recording sessions between the thirtieth of June and the sixteenth of July.  During that time, he recorded a total of fourteen sides, including such classics as “Moonlight and Skies”, “Pistol Packin’ Papa”, and “Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues)”, and was backed by a variety of talent including Lani McIntire’s Hawaiians and Bob Sawyer’s Jazz Band.  On his final Hollywood session, Rodgers recorded only a single title, another installment in his “Blue Yodel” series titled “Standin’ On the Corner”.  For accompaniment, he was joined by a young trumpeter who had just arrived in California for an engagement at Frank Sebastian’s New Cotton Club in Culver City, an up-and-coming talent named Louis Armstrong, and his wife Lil on piano.  How exactly this rather unlikely collaboration came to be is lost to time; Armstrong in later years recounted that he’d “been knowin’ Jimmie for a long time,” and “Jimmie said, ‘man, I feel like singin’ some blues,’ [and Louis] said ‘okay daddy, you sing some blues, and I’m gonna blow behind you,’ and that’s the way the record started!”  It certainly wasn’t the first time Rodgers had been backed by jazz players.  Likely, the session was engineered by Ralph Peer, who was acquainted with Armstrong as well as Rodgers.  In any event, the resulting music etched into hot wax that day became the stuff of legend, three great American styles of music—jazz, blues, and “hillbilly”—all crossed paths to make something even greater, brought together by two of the greatest figures in all of America’s rich musical legacy: Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong.

Victor 23580 was recorded in two separate sessions, the first on July 16, 1930 in Hollywood, California, and the second on June 15, 1931 in Louisville, Kentucky.  Victor files report a total of 25,071 copies sold—not bad for 1931.  The 78 Quarterly included the disc in their “Rarest 78s” section of the tenth issue, suggesting “less than fifteen?”  Frankly, I suspect that there are quite a few more copies out there than that, but it is regardless one of Rodgers’ more sought after records due to the accompaniment.  On the “A” side, Rodgers is accompanied by Louis and Lil Armstrong on trumpet and piano, respectively.  On “B” he is accompanied by Cliff Carlisle on steel guitar, Wilber Ball on guitar, and his own ukulele.

On the “A” side, Jimmie sings and yodels that rough-and-tumble blues number, the ninth entry in his famous series, “Blue Yodel Number 9 (Standin’ On the Corner)”.  The song bears considerable resemblance to another blues song on which Louis played four years prior: “The Bridwell Blues” by Nolan Walsh, which featured a similar piano and trumpet accompaniment and the opening lines, “I was standing on the corner, did not mean no harm… and a police came, nabbed me by my arm,” raising questions over whether Rodgers was familiar with Armstrong’s work, or, conversely, that Armstrong had an uncredited hand in composing the song.  “The Bridwell Blues” itself was preceded by “Standing On the Corner Blues” by Ozie McPherson, further cementing Jimmie Rodgers’ foundation in the blues.

Blue Yodel Number 9, recorded July 16, 1930 by Jimmie Rodgers.

On the reverse, Jimmie sings another dilly: “Looking for a New Mama”.  This is one of only two recorded sides that have Jimmie playing ukulele (the other being “Dear Old Sunny South By the Sea” from 1928).  Ralph Peer in later years opined that Rodgers’ peculiar chording techniques on the guitar were carried over from his skill on the ukulele.  Jimmie also claimed proficiency on banjo and steel guitar, though he was never recorded playing either.

Looking for a New Mama, recorded June 15, 1931 by Jimmie Rodgers.

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.

Victor V-40028 – Kay Kyser and his Orchestra – 1928

A somber looking Kay Kyser in a promotional photo from the 1930s.

Well before Kay Kyser’s fame as the “Ol’ Perfessor” of his “Kollege of Musical Knowledge” in the swing era of the 1930s and ’40s, he directed a respectable territory dance band out of his home state of North Carolina which recorded three Victor records in the late 1920s; this one is his first.

Kay was born James Kern Kyser in Rocky Mount, North Carolina on June 18, 1905.  He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was a cheerleader and theatrical producer.  Though expected to follow in his family’s footsteps of academic achievement, Kyser was persuaded around 1927 by Hal Kemp to take over leadership of his Carolina Club Orchestra at UNC when Kemp went off to strike it big as a bandleader, though he didn’t know a lick about music.  To better perform his band directing duties, he took some clarinet lessons, but mostly “fronted” the band, making use of his exuberant cheerleading skills.  As bandleader, he adopted his middle initial as his professional name, becoming “Kay” Kyser.  After Kyser graduated from UNC in 1928, he took the orchestra touring as a “territory band”, and on November 26th of 1928 and 1929, the band recorded a total of eight sides for Victor in Camden and Chicago, respectively, six of which were released.  In 1933, Hal Kemp recommended Kyser’s band to perform at Chicago’s Blackhawk Restaurant, a position earlier filled by Coon-Sanders’ Original Nighthawk Orchestra, which proved to be their big break, and they held that gig for several years.  There, Kyser developed the format that was soon to make him famous on radio: the Kollege of Musical Knowledge, with Kay at the helm as the “Ol’ Perfessor”.  The band secured a new recording contract with Brunswick in 1935, and during those years, they were joined by popular vocalists Ginny Simms and Harry Babbitt, as well as cornet player Merwin Bogue, better known as “Ish Kabibble”.  The “Kollege” made its radio debut in 1938 to great popular acclaim, and soon Kyser and the band were starring in motion pictures, beginning with That’s Right—You’re Wrong in 1939.  When the war came on, Kyser and his band got right to entertaining the troops, and once it was through, his popularity endured through the slow demise of the swing era.  Though he continued to have hits in the latter half of the 1940s, the Kollege of Musical Knowledge radio show ended in 1949 and was followed by a brief run on television.  Afterward, Kyser, who had been suffering from arthritis, used the lull as an opportunity to retire from public life.  In his later years, he became involved in Christian Science, to which he had converted in hopes of relieving his arthritis, and served as the denomination’s president in 1983.  At the age of eighty, Kay Kyser died on July 23, 1985 in his home state of North Carolina.

Victor V-40028 was recorded on November 26, 1928 in Camden, New Jersey and issued in the “Native American Melodies” series, as they called their V-40000 series prior to May of 1930, which was usually reserved for “hillbilly” music, but also included some regional dance bands.  Kay Kyser’s orchestra consists of Marion Reed, Frank Fleming, and Charles Kraft on trumpets, George Weatherwax on trombone, John White and Sully Mason on clarinet and alto saxes, Art Walters on clarinet and tenor sax, George Duning and/or Benny Cash on piano, George Sturm on banjo, Bill Rhoads on tuba, and Muddy Berry on drums.

First off, the boys play a peppy fox trot titled “Tell Her (You Really Love Her)”, an original composition by Kyser, Hal James, and Saxie Dowell.  Though not noted as such, the vocalist here sounds to me like reed man Sully Mason.

Tell Her (You Really Love Her), recorded November 26, 1928 by Kay Kyser and his Orchestra.

On the reverse, they play their first side recorded, a waltz of Kyser’s own composition: “Broken Dreams of Yesterday”—not bad for a guy with no musical background!

Broken Dreams of Yesterday, recorded November 26, 1928 by Kay Kyser and his Orchestra.

Victor V-40001 – Vaughan Happy Two – 1928

The following record is something a bit different from the run-of-the-mill—by any measure.  But if it’s that so-called “old, weird America” you’re looking for, as Greil Marcus put it, then you’ll hardly find much weirder and older than this.

The musical selections on these two sides are performed by the Vaughan Happy Two, a duo related to the Vaughan Quartet, a popular and prolific sacred singing group, though its members did not sing with the quartet.  The Vaughan Quartet, Happy Two, and several other associated groups were sponsored by the James D. Vaughan Music Company of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee a successful publisher of sacred music, the namesake founder of which also established the Vaughan School of Music in 1911 and radio station WOAN in 1922.  Vaughan’s Quartet first recorded in 1921 and did so extensively thereafter.  Many of their recordings were issued on Vaughan’s own private record label, as well as Victor and Paramount.  The Vaughan Happy Two—Arthur B. Sebren and Cullie G. Wilson—was formed in 1925, and made their first records in 1928, which they followed up with five more sessions between then and 1930, making for a total of four sessions for the Vaughan label and two for Victor, twenty-two sides in all.  Their recorded repertoire included both sacred and secular songs, and their traveling stage act reportedly extended to monologues and musical saw.  The recordings they left behind, at least the ones on this disc, are rather reminiscent of the parlor music from so long ago, an old fashioned style that unsurprisingly proved popular with many rural listeners in the 1920s, longing for simpler times as the modern world rapidly advanced around them.

Victor V-40001 was recorded on October 20, 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia.  It is the second release in Victor’s “Native American Melodies” series, as they dubbed their V-40000 rural series prior to May of 1930.  It was probably released early in 1929, and was cut from the catalog in 1930.  The Vaughan Happy Two are tenor C.G. Wilson and baritone A.B. Sebren, accompanied on piano by M.B. Stroud.

They first sing “A Married Man in Trouble”, a song composed by prolific gospel songwriter James Rowe and Vaughan Quartet member Adger M. Pace. Though called the “Happy Two”, this song is quite the opposite (“how sad, how sad”), though indeed it is delivered in good humor.

A Married Man in Trouble, recorded October 20, 1928 by Vaughan Happy Two.

On the “B” side, Sebren and Wilson sing “Chicken”, which, while credited to J. Porter Thomason and Charles W. Vaughan, is an adaptation of the old minstrel song “Chicken Don’t Roost Too High for Me”, performed by artists as diverse as Riley Puckett and Gid Tanner and the Beale Street Sheiks (Frank Stokes and Dan Sane, as “Chicken You Can Roost Behind the Moon”).

Chicken, recorded October 20, 1928 by Vaughan Happy Two.

Victor 20122 – Carl T. Sprague – 1926

Texas boy Carl T. Sprague was among the first cowboy singers to make records, with his first session taking place in 1925.  He also holds the uncommon distinction of being perhaps my favorite cowboy singer.

Sprague as pictured in Victor’s 1930 catalog of Old Familiar Tunes.

Carl Tyler Sprague was born in Brazoria County, Texas, near the town of Manvel, on May 10, 1895.  His family was involved in the thriving cattle business, through which the young Sprague learned the traditional songs of the cowboy.  He attended Texas A&M to study agriculture, but was interrupted by the First World War, in which he served as a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps.  After the war’s end, he returned to Texas A&M, and graduated with a degree in animal husbandry.  After graduating, he was employed as an athletic instructor at the university, a position which he held from 1922 until 1937, and acquired the nickname “Doc”.  Following the success of Vernon Dalhart’s “mountaineer’s songs”, Sprague wrote to the Victor Talking Machine Company expressing interest having them record some of his cowboy songs.  They apparently obliged, and Sprague traveled to Camden, New Jersey to make two test recordings.  Victor must’ve liked them, because two months later, he returned to record a series of ten sides in sessions on the third, fourth, and fifth of August, 1925, half of which were issued.  His first record, “When the Work’s All Done This Fall”, became quite a hit, and proved that people were interested in hearing the song of the cowboy.  That was followed by a further three sessions over the following three years in Camden, Savannah, Georgia, and Dallas, producing eighteen more sides, all of which were released.  In spite of his records’ success, singing was but a hobby for Sprague, and he did not pursue a music career outside of record-making.  He left his post at Texas A&M in 1937 and opened a store in Bryan, and when the Second World War rolled in, he served once again, as a recruiter.  The folk revival of the 1960s brought Sprague back into music, and he played and lectured around the country, and recorded two LPs in 1972 and ’74.  Carl T. Sprague died on February 21, 1979 in Bryan, Texas, where he had called home since 1920.

Victor 20122 was recorded in Camden, New Jersey on June 22, 1926, at Sprague’s second series of sessions.  The record was released in December of the same year, and remained in the catalog all the way until 1944, perhaps indicating it was Sprague’s greatest success.  Sprague is accompanied by two fiddles played by H.J. McKenzie and C.R. Dockum.

Stark, bleak, and sorrowful, “O Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie (The Dying Cowboy)” is a mesmerizing, repetitive, and minimalistic piece, with Sprague’s vocal backed by the beat of his guitar and the forlorn fiddle’s croon, which I feel really encapsulates an archetype of cowboy music.  The song has been featured in recent years on Dust-to-Digital’s evocative multimedia collection I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces: Music in Vernacular Photographs (1880-1955).

O Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie (The Dying Cowboy), recorded June 22, 1926 by Carl T. Sprague.

On “B”, Sprague sings “The Cowboy’s Dream”, a less depressing and rather enchanting melody.  It also provides a demonstration of Sprague’s distinctive and simple-yet-pleasing style of playing guitar, which from both aural and photographic evidence, seems to have been done on a metal-bodied resonator, or at least it was by the end of his recording career in 1929.

The Cowboy’s Dream, recorded June 26, 1926 by Carl T. Sprague.