Vocalion 5264 – Emry Arthur – 1928

A contemporary of artists such as Bradley Kincaid, and an antecedent of the likes of Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, and Pete Seeger, mountain balladeer Emry Arthur, with songs like “Man of Constant Sorrow”, was an important member of the first generation of popular American folk singers on records.

Emry Paul Arthur was born on September 17, 1902 in Wayne County, Kentucky.  His father was a respected singer and amateur song collector in the area; his mother died when he was in infancy.  Like his brothers, Emry followed in his father’s musical footsteps, learning to play a guitar; however, a hunting accident cost him a fingertip and limited him to a simple yet effective strumming style.  In adulthood, the search for work brought him to Indianapolis.  At the beginning of 1928, Arthur traveled a short ways to Chicago to make some records with his banjo-playing brother Henry for Vocalion.  They sold better than might’ve been anticipated, and Arthur returned to record quite prolifically over the following year, until his marriage broke up and sent him to Wisconsin.  There, he found employment with the Wisconsin Chair Company in Port Washington, and recorded for their Paramount label in 1929 and ’31, sometimes in duet with his new wife Della Hatfield.  He also recorded for William Myers’ Lonesome Ace in 1929, providing guitar accompaniment for Dock Boggs on his four sides for the label.  Following a single unissued recording for Gennett in 1931, Arthur took a four year recording hiatus, returning in 1935 for one session with Decca.   All-in-all, Arthur’s recording activities resulted in a total of nearly one hundred sides from 1928 to 1935; of particular note are his 1929 “Reuben, Oh Reuben” and two recordings of Dick Burnett’s “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, one for Vocalion in 1928 and one for Paramount in 1931.  After the conclusion of his recording career, Emry Arthur returned to Indianapolis, where he remained, with Della, until his death on August 22, 1967.

Vocalion 5264 was recorded on August 30, 1928 in Chicago, Illinois; Arthur’s ninth session.  He recorded unreleased takes of both sides the previous month.  Emry Arthur accompanies himself on the guitar.

An all around classic folk song, Arthur’s “Train Whistle Blue[s]” shares much in common with “K.C. Railroad Blues” recorded by Andrew and Jim Baxter, and “K.C. Moan” by the Memphis Jug Band.

Train Whistle Blue, recorded August 30, 1928 by Emry Arthur.

On the reverse, Emry sings another fine blues, “Empty Pocket Blues”, also drawing many floating verses from folk music tradition.

Empty Pocket Blues, recorded August 30, 1928 by Emry Arthur.

Vocalion 3567 – Erskine Hawkins and his ‘Bama State Collegians – 1937

Erskine Hawkins in 1936 or earlier, pictured in the 1942 Victor and Bluebird Catalog.

Right up there in the pantheon of great jazz trumpeters resides the “Twentieth Century Gabriel”, bandleader Erskine Hawkins, whose popular recordings helped to define the Swing Era.

Erskine Ramsay Hawkins was born in Birmingham, Alabama on July 26, 1914, named for local industrialist Erskine Ramsay, who promised to open bank accounts for boys named in his honor.  He attended Birmingham’s Industrial High School and played trumpet in the band under director Fess Whately before graduating to the State Teachers College.  There, he led the ‘Bama State Collegians, with whom he later traveled to New York to embark on his recording career.  Hawkins cut his first two records on July 20, 1936 for Vocalion, debuting with “It Was a Sad Night in Harlem”.  Thereafter, he returned to the Vocalion studio four times, recording four sides at each session, resulting in a total of twenty.  He also secured a gig as house band at Harlem’s renowned Savoy Ballroom, alternating with Chick Webb’s orchestra, an arrangement which lasted a decade.  Billed as the “Twentieth Century Gabriel”, as his popularity climbed, he was signed by the RCA Victor Company in 1938 to record for their Bluebird label, a fruitful arrangement that resulted in prolific recordmaking and numerous successes, including his own “Tuxedo Junction” in 1939—most famously covered by Glenn Miller’s orchestra—and “Tippin’ In” in 1945.  He remained with RCA Victor, eventually graduating to their flagship Victor label, until 1950, after which he moved to Decca’s budget label Coral.  After the conclusion of the Swing Era following World War II, like so many of his contemporaries, Hawkins’ fame began to wind down, but he remained active as a musician.  From the 1960s until the end of his career, he led the house orchestra at the Concord Resort Hotel in the Catskill Mountains of New York.  Erskine Hawkins died on November 11, 1993 at his home in New Jersey.

Vocalion 3567 was recorded on April 19, 1937 in New York City.  The ‘Bama State Collegians are Erskine Hawkins, Wilbur Bascomb, Marcellus Green, and Sam Lowe on trumpets, Edward Sims and Robert Range on trombones, William Johnson and Jimmy Mitchelle on alto saxes, Paul Bascomb on tenor sax, Haywood Henry on clarinet and baritone sax, Avery Parrish on piano, William McLemore on guitar, Leemie Stanfield on string bass, and James Morrison on drums.

First up, the ‘Bama State Collegians play a swinging orchestration of the Stephen Foster standard “The Old Folks at Home”, here given the familiar title “‘Way Down Upon the Swanee River”.

‘Way Down Upon the Swanee River, recorded on April 19, 1937 by Erskine Hawkins and his ‘Bama State Collegians.

On the flip, they play an outstanding jazz rendition of the 1921 Henry Creamer and Turner Layton composition “Dear Old Southland”, quite probably my personal favorite swing side.  Brian Rust notes that this piece was arranged by trumpeter Sam Lowe, and I suspect the former side was as well, though not noted as such.

Dear Old Southland, recorded on April 19, 1937 by Erskine Hawkins and his ‘Bama State Collegians.

Vocalion 04145 – Shelly Lee Alley and his Alley Cats – 1938

Shelly Lee Alley pictured in the Hillbilly Hit Parade of 1941.

Though he never achieved the stardom of contemporaries like Bob Wills or Spade Cooley—or even Milton Brown—songwriter and fiddler Shelly Lee Alley left his mark on music history as one of the founding fathers of the Texas-born, jazz-inflected style of music now called western swing, despite hesitations toward so-called “hillbilly” music.

Shelly Lee Alley was born on July 6, 1894 on his father’s farm in Alleyton, Texas, descended from Stephen F. Austin’s original “old three hundred” settlers.  The Alleys being a musical family, Shelly learned to play the fiddle, and had reportedly composed his first song by the age of six.  During the First World War, Alley led a band at Camp Travis in San Antonio.  After the war, he led several successful dance bands in Dallas, and started out performing on the newly emerging medium of radio early in the 1920s.  Though initially focusing on popular music, by the end of the 1920s, Alley began to shift his focus to the burgeoning form that would later become known as western swing.  Alley was well-acquainted with Jimmie Rodgers, who recorded his “Travellin’ Blues” in 1931, with Alley and his brother Alvin accompanying on fiddles, and “Gambling Barroom Blues” the following year, backed by Clayton McMichen’s band.  In the first half of the 1930s, he played in various fiddle bands around South Texas, and in the middle of the decade, Alley organized a band called “Alley Cats”.  After sitting in on a session with Lummie Lewis and His Merry Makers, Alley began recording with his Alley Cats in 1937.  At various times, the Alley Cats included Cliff Bruner, Ted Daffan, Leon “Pappy” Selph, and Harry Choates, all of whom would become stars in their own right.  Between 1937 and 1940, Alley recorded sixty-seven titles for the Vocalion, most or all his own compositions, followed by a further six for Bluebird in 1941.  Alley disbanded the Alley Cats during World War II, but brought the group back to make one record for the Globe label in 1946.  A consistently sickly fellow who was known to imbibe paregoric, Shelly Lee Alley largely retired from performing in the 1940s.  Alley cut his last record in 1955 for Jet in Houston, singing two of his own compositions accompanied by the Jet Staff Band. Alley died on June 1, 1964 in Houston.

Vocalion 04145 was recorded on May 10th and 11th, 1938 in Dallas, Texas.  The Alley Cats are Shelly Lee Alley and Cliff Bruner on fiddles, Anthony Scanlin on clarinet and tenor sax, Ted Daffan on steel guitar, and on the “A” side Douglas Blaikie on piano and Lester J. Voss on string bass, replaced with an unknown pianist and Pinkie Dawson on “B”.  Alley provides the vocals on both sides.

First, the Alley Cats get low-down and dirty on Alley’s “Try it Once Again”.

Try it Once Again, recorded May 10, 1938 by Shelly Lee Alley and his Alley Cats.

On the back, they get real hot on another of Alley’s compositions: “You’ve Got It”.

You’ve Got It, recorded May 11, 1938 by Shelly Lee Alley and his Alley Cats.

Vocalion 1191 – Leroy Carr – 1928

Perhaps the most popular “race” artist of his time, smooth city-slicker Leroy Carr played the blues in a more sophisticated style than his more country counterparts.  Beginning with his “How Long – How Long Blues”, Carr’s music steered the blues away from its rural roots toward a new and more urbane direction, followed by countless budding artists in his wake.

Leroy Carr was born on March 27, 1905 in Nashville, Tennessee, but not long after wound up in Indianapolis to stay.  Carr taught himself to play piano and left to join a traveling circus—then the Army—in his young adulthood, but by 1922, he came back to Indianapolis and settled down with a wife and child.  There, he teamed up with guitarist Francis “Scrapper” Blackwell and gained a reputation for playing the blues at rent parties and nightclubs.  Carr also became a part time bootlegger and a full time alcoholic.  In the summer of 1928, the Vocalion record company traveled to Indianapolis in search of new marketable talent, presenting Carr with the opportunity to make his first record.  Scrapper Blackwell did so first, recording “Kokomo Blues” and “Penal Farm Blues” on June 16, and Carr joined him in the studio three days later to cut “How Long – How Long Blues” and “My Own Lonesome Blues”.  That record turned out to be a smash success, covered even by down home country blues hit maker Blind Lemon Jefferson, and soon Carr was in high demand.  He traveled with Blackwell to Chicago two months later to make more records for his return to the Vocalion studio, with whom he continued to record through 1934.  As one of the best-selling “race” artists, he recorded prolifically, and had another big hit with “Blues Before Sunrise” in 1934, and he also toured successfully with Blackwell.  At the beginning of 1935, Carr switched to Bluebird Records, starting out with the successful “When the Sun Goes Down”, which fast became a blues standard.  Unfortunately, Carr’s alcoholism took its toll on his health, and his habitual drunkenness caused a rift between him and Blackwell, who parted with him acrimoniously in the middle of his first Bluebird session.  That session also turned out to be his last, for Carr soon after fell ill with nephritis and died on April 29, 1935, a little more than a month after his thirtieth birthday.  His legacy was carried on by artists like Bumble Bee Slim and Peetie Wheatstraw, who modeled their careers after his influential piano and guitar style, and in later years by Nat King Cole and Ray Charles, who drew inspiration from his smooth and laid back blues.

Vocalion 1191 was recorded on June 19, 1928 in Indianapolis, Indiana by Leroy Carr, singing and piano, backed by Scrapper Blackwell on guitar.  It was Carr and Blackwell’s first record, together or separately.  This copy was pressed in 1935 or ’36, as indicated by the black and gold “scroll” style label.  It was also reissued on Banner 32557, Oriole 8166, and Romeo 5166.  That it was still for sale nearly a decade after it was originally made—combined with its well-worn condition—present a testament to just how popular this record was.

First, Leroy Carr sings his big hit, the immortal “How Long – How Long Blues”, later covered many times over by countless artists, even breaking out of the blues genre and into jazz, and others.  Though known as a Carr original, the song has its roots in earlier songs, such as Ida Cox and Papa Charlie Jackson’s “How Long, Daddy, How Long?”, and shares a common melody with “Sitting On Top of the World” and its many offshoots.  It’s success was so that Carr followed up with “How Long How Long Blues-Part 2” and “Part 3”, “The New How Long How Long Blues” and “Part 2”, and “How Long Has That Evening Train Been Gone “.

How Long – How Long Blues, recorded June 19, 1928 by Leroy Carr.

On the reverse, Carr sings “My Own Lonesome Blues”.  As you can probably tell, Sadie must’ve enjoyed it quite a bit—at least until she decided to sell it for ten cents!

My Own Lonesome Blues, recorded June 19, 1928 by Leroy Carr.

Vocalion 02605 – W. Lee O’Daniel and his Light Crust Doughboys – 1933

It has come time once again to pay tribute to a legend lost, to the greatest of them all, America’s Blue Yodeler, and the Father of Country Music: Jimmie Rodgers.  At the time of this posting, it has been eighty-five years to the day that Jimmie walked through those pearly gates, a victim of the white plague at only thirty-five years old.

In the wake of Jimmie Rodgers’ tragic demise, numerous songwriters published melodies eulogizing him.  Among the most successful of these were Bob Miller’s “The Life of Jimmie Rodgers” and “The Death of Jimmie Rodgers”, recorded by Gene Autry and Bradley Kincaid, the latter of whom also sang “Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers’ Lament”, composed by Rich Kuster.  But those were far from the only ones.  Songwriters Dwight Butcher and Lou Herscher, who had collaborated with Rodgers in composing “Old Love Letters”, which Jimmie cut at his last session, penned the popular “When Jimmie Rodgers Said Goodbye”, recorded by a fair number of artists, including Autry and radio yodeler Kenneth Houchins, and by Grand Ole Opry performers Asher Sizemore and his son Little Jimmie under the title “Little Jimmie’s Goodbye to Jimmie Rodgers”.  Three years after Rodgers’ passing, Ernest Tubb made his recording debut backing Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers (the former Carrie Williamson) on a weepy performance of “We Miss Him When the Evening Shadows Fall”, then he sang “The Last Thoughts of Jimmie Rodgers” and “The Passing of Jimmie Rodgers” himself.  Even decades later, Rodgers was still being honored in song by devotees such as Tubb and Hank Snow, two of the countless many whose lives his music had touched.

Vocalion 02605 was recorded on October 11th and 10th, 1933, respectively, in Chicago, Illinois.  The Light Crust Doughboys are Herman Arnspiger and Leon Huff on guitars, Sleepy Johnson on banjo, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, and Ramon DeArman on string bass.  Leon Huff provides lead vocals.  W. Lee O’Daniel was there, too, but he didn’t do anything on this record.

Opening out with a guitar run reminiscent of Rodgers’ signature style, Leon Huff sings and yodels W. Lee O’Daniel’s own tribute to the Blue Yodeler, “Memories of Jimmy [sic] Rodgers” (though either he or the record company misspelled Rodgers’ name).

Memories of Jimmy [sic] Rodgers, recorded October 11, 1933 by the Light Crust Doughboys.

Lightening up considerably from the more solemn tone of the previous song, the Doughboys sing a humorous number poking a little fun at the Depression on the flip, “I Want Somebody to Cry Over Me”, punctuated by Sleepy Johnson’s tenor banjo.

I Want Somebody to Cry Over Me, recorded October 10, 1933 by the Light Crust Doughboys.