Vocalion 03002 – State Street Boys – 1935

Looking south on State Street in Chicago. Circa 1933.

If there’s one thing I’m particularly fond of, it’s the swinging Lester Melrose-style Chicago blues of the mid-1930s, by the likes of Big Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam, Memphis Minnie, Blind Boy Fuller, and so many others.  This record is one that I think you’ll find is most befitting of that description.

The State Street Boys (not to be confused with the Jimmy Blythe’s State Street Ramblers) were a studio group that managed to blend modern swing music and country blues.  They cut eight sides for the American Record Corporation in January of 1935, of which three records were issued on Okeh at the very end of their “race” records series (all of which were re-released on Vocalion shortly thereafter), and the last on Vocalion.  The following year, they were reincarnated as the State Street Swingers, with even more jazz in their style.

Vocalion 03002 was recorded on January 10, 1935 in Chicago, Illinois.  It was more-or-less concurrently issued on Okeh 8962.  Personnel for this session is disputed, and differs for each side.  According to the ever-reliable Stefan Wirz’ American Music discographies, both sides feature the talents of Black Bob on piano, and possibly Bill Settles on string bass.  The first side features Carl Martin on guitar and singing and Zeb Wright on fiddle, while the second has Big Bill Broonzy on fiddle and singing and Bill “Jazz” Gillum on harmonica.

“Don’t Tear My Clothes”—seemingly the first recording of the blues standard—is one of my personal favorites, and I consider it to be the definitive version.  Some sources state the vocalist on this side to be Big Bill rather than Carl Martin, and it does sound a bit like Broonzy.  But it also sounds like Carl Martin.  I long believed it to be Broonzy myself (with admittedly very little research into it at the time), but I’ve come around to agree that it sounds more like Martin’s voice and guitar picking.

Don’t Tear My Clothes, recorded January 10, 1935 by the State Street Boys.

On the “B” side, Big Bill (and this time it’s definitely him) sings and plays fiddle on “She Caught the Train”—a great opportunity to hear him on an instrument other than his usual guitar.  The identity of the second (frankly rather bad) vocalist is unknown, but I would imagine that it would have to be one of the other members of the band.

She Caught the Train, recorded January 10, 1935 by the State Street Boys.

Vocalion 1727 – Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law) – 1932

The last thing we heard from the East St. Louis blues king Peetie Wheatstraw was a couple of swing-blues sides from the tail end of his career.  Now, let us direct our attentions eight years earlier toward the beginning of his recorded legacy.

A cropped version of the only known photograph of Wheatstraw, pictured in Decca catalog.

Though the only known photograph of William Bunch—better known as Peetie Wheatstraw—depicts him holding a National metal-bodied resonator guitar, the artist played piano on the overwhelming majority of his recordings, while guitar was provided by the likes of Charley Jordan, Kokomo Arnold, or Lonnie Johnson. Other times he played nothing at all, only singing and leaving his accompaniment solely to other musicians.  But that depiction of Peetie was not entirely inaccurate; it is said that he started out his musical career on the guitar and learned to handle the instrument with proficiency, before switching to piano later on.  By the time he made his first records in 1930, he was primarily playing piano, developing a signature formula which he continued to use for the majority of his more than one-hundred-fifty sides.  In 1932 however, Wheatstraw had a pair of stand-out sessions which departed from his standard formula.  On a recording trip to New York City in March of 1932, Wheatstraw first played piano for Charley Jordan on a series of sides, then Peetie picked up the guitar himself, and, on March fifteenth and seventeenth, he laid down four blues songs unlike any other that he recorded: “Police Station Blues”—later echoed by Robert Johnson in his “Terraplane Blues”—and “All Alone Blues” on the former day, and “Can’t See Blues” and “Sleepless Nights’ Blues” on the latter. Afterward, he returned home to East St. Louis, and didn’t cut another record for two years, by which time he had settled into his formula, and never touched a guitar again, at least on records.

Vocalion 1727 was recorded on March 15, 1932 in New York City.  Peetie Wheatstraw sings and plays guitar on both sides.  Both sides were also reissued around 1938 to ’39, each on separate records, with the first side appearing on Vocalion 04592 and the second on Vocalion 04912.

First, despite whatever technical limitations Peetie may have had, he dishes out a wonderful performance on “Sleepless Nights’ Blues”, a great classic of equal or perhaps greater merit than his more popular “Police Station”, earning its way into the Yazoo compilation St. Louis Blues 1929-1935, The Depression.

Sleepless Nights’ Blues, recorded March 15, 1932 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).

Reusing many of the licks heard on the previous side (though actually vice-versa, since this one was recorded earlier), Wheatstraw next sings “Can’t See Blues”.  Like his piano playing, Wheatstraw had a very idiosyncratic style of playing guitar (which is to say, he typically followed a very similar pattern in all of the songs he played).

Can’t See Blues, recorded March 15, 1932 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).

Vocalion 04560 – Light Crust Doughboys – 1938

“Now listen ev’rybody from near and far, if you wanta know who we are—we’re the Light Crust Doughboys from Burrus Mill!”

For more than eight decades and counting, the national song of the greatest state on earth has been played by the Light Crust Doughboys of Fort Worth, Texas, from their beginnings with Bob Wills and Milton Brown, they were among the earliest groups to pioneer the jazzed up hillbilly music we now call western swing.

The Light Crust Doughboys from Burrus Mill on the air in the early 1940s.  From left-to-right: Zeke (Muryel Campbell), Cecil Brower, Bashful (Dick Reinhart), announcer Parker Willson, Abner (Kenneth Pitts), Snub (Ramon DeArman), Junior (Marvin Montgomery), and Knocky Parker. Pictured in the WFAA-KGKO-WBAP 1941 Combined Family Album.

The venerable Light Crust Doughboys got their start in 1931, when W. Lee O’Daniel, a manager of the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company in Saginaw, Texas, set out to hire musicians to promote the company’s product on the radio waves.  Meanwhile, the Wills Fiddle Band, consisting of fiddler Jim Rob Wills, guitarist Herman Arnspiger, and singer Milton Brown, were eager to secure a corporate sponsor as the Great Depression tightened its grip.  They had previously worked under the employ of an electric lamp company as the “Aladdin Laddies”, and Wills convinced O’Daniel and Burrus to sponsor the act in 1931.  Newly christened the “Light Crust Doughboys”, after the flour Burrus produced, they made their radio debut under O’Daniel’s management around the beginning of 1931, with announcer Truett Kimsey establishing their famous introduction: “the Light Crust Doughboys are on the air!”  Soon after, O’Daniel canceled the show because he didn’t like their “hillbilly” music.  Fortunately, they’d already built a sizable base of fans, and public outcry forced O’Daniel to reinstate their program.  The original lineup of Doughboys made one record—against O’Daniel’s wishes—for RCA Victor as the “Fort Worth Doughboys”, but it wasn’t long before the members parted ways.  Milton Brown got fed up with O’Daniel’s management (he required that they also work factory jobs for Burrus) and left to form his own Musical Brownies, while Bob Wills was fired for consistent unreliability the following year, so a new group of musicians assumed the mantle of Doughboys.  By the time the band recorded again in 1933, this time for Vocalion, only Arnspiger remained from its original roster, and new members included Leon Huff and Ramon DeArman.  Come 1935, W. Lee O’Daniel was fired from Burrus Mill, and founded his own flour company with a new radio band to match, but the Doughboys stayed put.

All throughout the Great Depression years, thousands of listeners tuned their radios to listen in on the Light Crust Doughboys on stations across the Southwest.  On the side, they continued to record successfully for Vocalion (and later Okeh and Columbia, once the label was discontinued in 1940), and even appeared in movies such as the Gene Autry picture Oh, Susanna!  In 1936, they hired tenor banjo player Marvin (“Smokey”) Montgomery, who would become a mainstay of the group, composing many of the pieces they played, and eventually becoming the band’s de facto leader.  As was so often the case, when World War II rolled in, many band members went off to fight, and Burrus canceled their show in 1942.  After the war was through however, the band was reinstated in 1946, fronted by singer and fiddle player Jack Perry, though it never recovered its prewar popularity, and only lasted a few years.  Yet an end for the Doughboys wasn’t to be, for in the 1960s, Marvin Montgomery revived the group, and he continued to be involved with the group until shortly before his death in 2001.  Management of the group was assumed by Art Greenhaw in 1993, and the Doughboys shifted their focus more toward gospel music.  To this day, though the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company is long gone, the Light Crust Doughboys remain the “official music ambassadors of the Lone Star State,” by decree of the state’s legislature.

Vocalion 04560 was recorded in Dallas, Texas on November 30, 1938.  The Light Crust Doughboys are Buck Buchanan and Kenneth “Abner” Pitts on fiddles, Muryel “Zeke” Campbell on steel guitar, “Knocky” Parker on piano, Marvin “Junior” (later “Smokey”) Montgomery on tenor banjo and tenor guitar, Ramon “Snub” DeArman on guitar, and Jim Boyd on string bass.

First, the Doughboys sing and meow Marvin Montgomery’s “Pussy, Pussy, Pussy”, a perfectly innocent little ditty about a young girl who’s looking for her pet cat—honest!  This song proved quite a hit in coin machines and even attracted the attention of Fats Waller.  The Doughboys followed it up the next year with “We Found Her Little Pussy Cat”, and in fact the song proved popular enough that it remains in the Doughboys’ repertoire even in the modern day.

Pussy, Pussy, Pussy, recorded November 30, 1938 by the Light Crust Doughboys.

Next, they take it slow and easy on an instrumental performance of Joe Sullivan’s “Gin Mill Blues”, served as straight up, if rather barrelhouse jazz for the most part, with only a dash of “hillbilly” flavor, highlighting the talent of pianist Knocky Parker.

Gin Mill Blues, recorded November 30, 1938 by the Light Crust Doughboys.

Vocalion 03139 & 03206 – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – 1935

Bob Wills, pictured in the 1940 Okeh Country Dance and Folk catalog.

Fresh from Cain’s Dance Academy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, it is Old Time Blues’ pleasure to bring you a program with Bob Wills and his famous Texas Playboys!

Bob Wills (then known as Jim Rob) made his first recordings for Brunswick/Vocalion in 1929, a pair of fiddle solos accompanied by guitarist Herman Arnspiger, but none were released and remain unheard.  It would be three years before Wills recorded again, this time with Milton Brown as a member of the original Light Crust Doughboys.  Still that lone 1932 session only yielded two recordings which didn’t sell too well under the Depression conditions, and both Wills and Brown parted ways with the Doughboys soon after.  It wouldn’t be for another three years that Wills began his recording career in earnest.  By that time, he had taken his fiddle band to Tulsa to make a name for himself as leader of the “Texas Playboys” at Cain’s Ballroom, and along the way had added a horn section and drums to the ensemble.  When the American Record Corporation came to Dallas in 1935, the Playboys returned to Texas.  On September 23, 1935, Wills and his Texas Playboys recorded eight titles, starting with “Osage Stomp”, borrowing from the Memphis Jug Band’s “Memphis Shakedown” and “Rukus Juice and Chittlin'”, followed by twelve more the following day.  On the third day, Wills returned to the studio solo to cut four fiddle solos backed on guitar by Sleepy Johnson.  This time, as the record industry was beginning to recover with the beginning of the swing era, his records sold many more copies, and the Texas Playboys traveled to Chicago almost exactly one year later for another three sessions. producing thirty-one more sides, including the famous “Steel Guitar Rag”.  Soon the Playboys skyrocketed to national fame, drawing larger crowds than Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey with hits like “New San Antonio Rose”, and making a string of successful motion picture appearances, ultimately winning him the title “King of Western Swing” (that Spade Cooley never deserved it if you ask me).

Vocalion 03139 and 03206 were recorded in Dallas, Texas on September 24, 1935, the second day of the Texas Playboys’ first session.  In the band are Bob Wills, Jesse Ashlock, and Art Haynes on fiddles, Robert “Zeb” McNally on alto saxophone, Sleepy Johnson and Herman Arnspiger on guitars, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar and guitar, Johnnie Lee Wills on tenor banjo, Al Stricklin on piano, Thomas “Son” Lansford on string bass, and William “Smokey” Dacus on drums.

To start us out, the Playboys swing a hot instrumental: “Black and Blue Rag”, with Bob addressing his Playboys by name as they take their instrumental solos.

Black and Blue Rag, recorded September 24, 1935 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

On the back of 03139, Bob sings the vocal himself on the Mississippi Sheiks’ blues standard “Sittin’ On Top of the World”.

Sittin’ On Top of the World, recorded September 24, 1935 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Tommy Duncan joins the show on “I Ain’t Got Nobody”, giving a wild Emmett Miller-style yodeling performance.

I Ain’t Got Nobody, recorded September 24, 1935 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Finally, Duncan sings again on the Playboys’ rendering of the popular song of one year prior, “Who Walks in When I Walk Out”, surely one of the hottest, wildest, most driving western swing performances ever recorded.  It’s also the first time we hear Bob holler those immortal words “take it away, Leon!”

Who Walks in When I Walk Out, recorded September 24, 1935 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

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.