Vocalion 04050 – Roy Rogers – 1938

Roy Rogers and Trigger, pictured on a circa 1940s arcade card.

Most of the attention dedicated to cowboys here on Old Time Blues is directed toward the early, more authentic folk singers rather than the singing cowboys of movie fame.  Indeed, I tend to prefer the gritty old cowpunchers with clothes all plastered o’er with dough over the idealized movie star cowboys, but that doesn’t mean I can’t also appreciate a splendid piece of old Hollywood charm—and this disc by the “King of the Cowboys” himself, Roy Rogers, epitomizes that description (although frankly, I tend to favor Gene Autry).

The man who would become Roy Rogers was born Leonard Franklin Slye on November 5, 1911, to a family of modest means in Cincinnati, Ohio.  The Slyes moved to a farm in nearby Duck Run when Len was seven-years-old, while his father also worked in a shoe factory in Portsmouth, twelve miles away.  On the farm, he learned horseback riding, and played mandolin for local square dances.  On the eve of the Great Depression, the Slyes packed their bags and left for sunny California.  After working a variety of jobs there, Slye began to seek work singing, yodeling, and playing music professionally.  He sang on the radio with several groups like the Rocky Mountaineers and O-Bar-O Cowboys, with whom he toured the southwestern states.  After the dissolution of the O-Bar-O Cowboys, Slye joined with Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer—both of whom he had worked with previously—to form the vocal and instrumental Pioneer Trio, which, with the addition of Hugh Farr, evolved into the Sons of the Pioneers by the time of their recording debut in 1934.  The Sons quickly established themselves on the musical scene with the success of Nolan’s “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, which became an enduring standard of the cowboy genre.  As a California-based cowboy group, the Sons of the Pioneers soon began making regular appearances in western pictures, beginning with Slightly Static in 1935, and before long, Slye was making regular appearances on screen.  His big break came in 1938, when cowboy star Gene Autry held out for a bigger paycheck for his starring role in Under Western Stars; instead, Republic Pictures replaced him with the guitarist from the Sons of the Pioneers, changing his name from Len Slye to the more Hollywood-suitable Roy Rogers.  Eventually, Rogers came to rival, or perhaps even surpass, Autry in popularity, gaining the honorific “King of the Cowboys”.  The 1942 picture Man From Cheyenne introduced Rogers’ trusty palomino steed Trigger, who remained with Rogers until his death in 1965.  On New Years’ Eve of 1947, a year following the death of his wife Arline, Roger married Frances Octavia Smith, better known as Dale Evans, who became the “Queen of the Cowboys” to his “King”; the two remained married until his death.  Much like Autry, Rogers enjoyed success across a variety of media, including radio and comic books, in addition to his movies and records.  As television came to supplant radio as America’s chief form of entertainment in the home, Rogers and Evans starred in a program from 1951 until ’57, and again in 1962.  Rogers made his last film appearance in 1975’s Mackintosh and T.J., and his final television appearances in the following decade.  After enjoying fame in seven decades of the twentieth century, Roy Rogers died from congestive heart failure on July 6, 1998.

Vocalion 04050 was recorded on March 30, 1938 in Los Angeles, California.  Roy Rogers’s singing is accompanied by an unidentified cowboy orchestra—made up of fiddle, steel guitar, organ, accordion, guitar, and string bass—and vocal group.

All the Hollywood theatrics were brought in for the melodramatic “Dust Over the West”—composed by none other than Johnny Marvin—which was nominated for the 1938 Academy Award for Best Original Song, though it lost to Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin’s “Thanks for the Memory” from The Big Broadcast of 1938.  Nevertheless, the song made enough of a hit that Brunswick also dedicated a special picture label to Horace Heidt and his Brigadiers’ dance band version.  Gene Autry cut a much less theatrical version of the song in 1937—the year before it was published in connection with Under Western Stars—with his own name added beside Marvin’s to the songwriter’s credit.

Dust Over the West, recorded March 28, 1938 by Roy Rogers.

A much more lighthearted number than the previous—though by no means no less theatrical—Rogers follows with “When a Cowboy Sings a Song”, which could practically be an anthem for Roy Rogers career, though it made far less of a success than “Dust”.

When a Cowboy Sings a Song, recorded March 28, 1938 by Roy Rogers.

Vocalion 03492 – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – 1936

In a remarkably rare occurrence, I received this record on the very day of publication (it’s not the first time it’s happened, but it’s sure not often).  I had originally intended to post it later in remembrance of vocalist Tommy Duncan, who sings on both sides, but then I noticed that it was the anniversary of its recording, and I was struck by the serendipity of it all.  Combine that with the fact that this is quite probably my favorite Bob Wills record, and I knew I’d have to rush this one on through and select a different record with which to eulogize Mr. Duncan.

In 1936, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were a year into their up-and-coming recording career, but had thus far only had one recording session, spread out over three consecutive days the previous September, part in Vocalion’s field trip down to Dallas.  Since then, a few changes had been made, notably Wills had added a trumpet player, Everett Stover—whom he had originally hired as an announcer—to the band’s pioneering horn section, which had previously consisted of reeds and trombone, the latter of which had erstwhile been dropped from the roster.  Still appearing on Tulsa’s KVOO from Cain’s Ballroom, they found growing regional success.  Exactly one year after their first sessions, the Playboys traveled northward to Chicago to make their return to the microphone of the American Record Corporation (Vocalion’s parent company).  On September 28, 1936, they entered the studio to record only four songs.  The following day, they were back for thirteen more, opening the set with their soon-to-be smash hit, “Steel Guitar Rag”, and closing with two fiddle solos from Wills, which were not released.  Mirroring their first three-day session, they finished up on the thirtieth with a final twelve sides.  Ultimately, a total of seventeen of their twenty-nine recorded sides were deemed suitable for release, many of which proved successful enough for subsequent reissue on other labels.  Afterwards, the Texas Playboys took themselves back to Tulsa, not to return to the studio until the next year, but they were already well down the path to national stardom.

Vocalion 03492 was recorded in Chicago, Illinois, on September 30, 1936, the last day of Wills’ second series of recording sessions.  It carried over to Okeh with the same catalog number, and was later reissued on Columbia 37624 and 20223, the latter in their “folk” series.  The Texas Playboys are Bob Wills, Jesse Ashlock, and Sleepy Johnson on fiddles, the last of whom doubles on guitar, Herman Arnspiger on guitar, Johnnie Lee Wills on tenor banjo, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, Al Stricklin on piano, Everett Stover on trumpet, Ray DeGeer on clarinet, Zeb McNally on saxophone, Joe Ferguson on string bass, and Smokey Dacus on drums.

Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan sing in duet on the scalding hot “Bring it On Down to My House”, a cover—via Milton Brown—of Blind Willie McTell’s “Come On Around to My House Mama”.

Bring it On Down to My House, recorded September 30, 1936 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

On the flip, Duncan sings and yodels solo on “Mean Mama Blues”, a cover of the equally jazzified Jimmie Rodgers song of six years prior (and not to be confused with the 1941 Ernest Tubb song of the same name).

Mean Mama Blues, recorded September 30, 1936 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Vocalion 05551 – Charlie Burse and his Memphis Mudcats – 1939

Standing alongside Will Shade and Gus Cannon as a jug band mainstay of the 1920s and ’30s, “Laughing” Charlie Burse’s exuberant vocals and bright tenor guitar work was the life of the party on numerous records by the Memphis Jug Band and his own group, the Memphis Mudcats, yet he seems not nearly as well-remembered or biograhpied as many of his peers.

Charlie Burse was born in Decatur, Alabama, on August 25, 1901, son of Robert and Emma Burse.  He learned to play the banjo and guitar in his youth, earning him the nickname “Uke Kid”, and he left his family home in Sheffield, Alabama, for Memphis in the 1920s.  His musicianship on the four-string tenor guitar garnered the notice of Will Shade, who invited Burse to join his Memphis Jug Band in 1928 in replacement of guitarist Will Weldon.  He made his debut recordings with the Memphis Jug Band on September 13, 1928, playing guitar and backing up Shade’s vocals on “A Black Woman is Like a Black Snake” and “On the Road Again”.  Burse stayed with the band—playing tenor guitar or mandolin—for the remainder of their recording career, rising to become a top-billed vocalist by their last session in 1934 and subsequent breakup.  He continued to play around Memphis with Shade, and several years later organized his own band—the Memphis Mudcats—updating the out-of-style jug band instrumentation to include reeds and dispense with the jug in favor of string bass.  With the Mudcats, Burse recorded again, cutting twenty sides for Vocalion on a Memphis field trip in July of 1939.  All the while, he maintained a day job as a laborer in a number of trades including painting and carpentering.  He did not find his way behind a recording mike again until 1950, when he waxed “Shorty the Barber” for Sam Phillips in a style not too dissimilar from his earlier records, gaining the distinction of becoming one of the earliest to record at what would soon become Sun Studio.  The folk revival in the 1950s brought new fame to Burse and Shade, who recorded for Sam Charters and Alan Lomax, and he appeared on television with Shade in 1958, performing the old Memphis Jug Band version of “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues”.  He continued his musical partnership with Will Shade until his death from heart disease on December 20, 1965.

Vocalion 05551 was recorded in two separate sessions in 1939, the first on July 8, and the second on July 15, both in Memphis, Tennessee.  The Memphis Mudcats consist of Charlie Burse on tenor guitar and vocals and otherwise unknown musicians playing alto saxophone, piano, bass, and percussion. One of the members may be Robert Carter, who provided vocals on another of the group’s songs, and it would stand to reason that the percussionist could possibly be Charlie’s brother Robert Burse.

The Mudcats first play a slow, but far from down-in-the-dumps number: “Dawn of Day Blues”.

Dawn of Day Blues, recorded July 8, 1939 by Charlie Burse and his Memphis Mudcats.

They up the tempo on the flip for the mildly hokumesque number “You Better Watch Out”, rather reminiscent of “Bottle it Up and Go”, which Burse recorded twice with the Memphis Jug Band in 1932 and ’34.

You Better Watch Out, recorded July 15, 1939 by Charlie Burse and his Memphis Mudcats.

Vocalion 1111 – Furry Lewis – 1927

There are some folks who say that seeing two “elevens” in a row holds some special or otherworldly significance.  Well, I don’t claim to know a thing about that, but I would say that this record does little to refute that proposition, for it constitutes the earliest musical document of a man who would in later years become one of the most beloved ambassadors of the blues during the its latter-day revival: Furry Lewis.

Walter E. Lewis is said to have been born on the sixth of March, likely in 1899 (as suggested by the U.S. Census of 1900), though the man himself claimed to have been born in 1893, and many (older) sources agree with that date.  He hailed originally from the Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood, but grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was nicknamed “Furry” from a young age for reasons now lost to time.  It was probably around the same time that he took up music, starting out on a homemade cigar box guitar.  He claimed that his first “proper” instrument was given to him by the Father of the Blues himself: W.C. Handy.  In his youth, Furry took to a life of hoboing, which cost him his left leg in 1917, after he got it caught in a coupling between train cars in an ill-fated attempt to ride the blinds.  Thereafter, he returned home to Memphis and played around Beale Street.  Sometime in the early 1920s, Furry encountered songster extraordinaire Jim Jackson, who hooked him up with a job performing in Dr. Willie Lewis’s traveling medicine show.

In April of 1927, Furry traveled to Chicago to cut his first two-and-a-half records (and one unissued side) for Vocalion, who promoted him as singing “blues in a real Southern style.” He returned there in October of the same year to make three more records, plus an unreleased recording of “Casey Jones Blues”.  Finally, when the Victor Talking Machine Company made one of their excursions south, Furry cut eight more sides at the Memphis Auditorium on August 28, 1928, which included some of his finest and best known works.  Though not the most sophisticated of guitar players, he was a master of his own style with relaxed competence, and his natural showmanship, combined with exceptional diction and an amiable personality, made him a magnetic performer.  A career in music did not put food on Furry’s table however, and he spent most of his life in obscurity, working odd jobs for the city of Memphis, primarily as a street sweeper.  He still played music professionally—if only part time—at least as late as 1940, at which time he was enumerated by the U.S. Census in Missouri as a forty-four-year-old musician working for the “carnival”, and married to a blues singer by the name of Anny Mae Bell (though in later years he was quoted as saying “what do I need with a wife as long as the other man’s got one”).

In 1952, Harry Smith included Lewis’s two-part Victor recording of “Kassie Jones” in his influential Anthology of American Folk Music, and when the white folks at large finally came around to appreciating the musical merits of the Afro-American blues during the folk music revival of the late 1950s and early ’60s, Furry was among the first of the drove of still-living bluesmen of the genre’s first generation on records to be “rediscovered” (though really he was there all along).  He was recorded in his Memphis home by Samuel B. Charters in 1959, resulting in a Folkways LP which bring him into a greater spotlight than he had ever known before.  As his style of music enjoyed a surge of popularity the likes of which it had never known before, Furry rose to a position of stardom that exceeded that of his contemporaries; while most of the rediscovered blues greats mostly found their greatest success at folk music festivals and such affairs, Furry’s fame brought him a guest spot on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1974 and a small role in the 1975 Burt Reynolds movie W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, and he opened for the Rolling Stones on two occasions.  After enjoying his newfound fame for more than a decade, Furry Lewis died in Memphis of heart failure, complicated by pneumonia, on September 14, 1981.

Vocalion 1111 was recorded on April 20, 1927 in Chicago, Illinois.  Furry Lewis accompanies himself on his own guitar on side “A”, but on “B” is instead accompanied by Landers Waller on guitar and Charles Johnson on mandolin (one of whom can be heard in the background making comments).

Though some discographies suggest otherwise, the guitar playing on “Rock Island Blues” is unmistakably Furry’s own handiwork, and the melody closely mirrors that of his “Furry’s Blues” and “Good Looking Girl Blues”.

Rock Island Blues, recorded April 20, 1927 by Furry Lewis.

On the “B” side, Johnson’s mandolin and Waller’s guitar lend an entirely different atmosphere to “Everybody’s Blues”.

Everybody’s Blues, recorded April 20, 1927 by Furry Lewis.

Vocalion 5250 – Otto Gray and his Cowboy Band – 1928

Nearly a decade before the days of Bob Wills and Milton Brown created the mold for the western swing band, the Oklahoma Cowboy Band, under leader Otto Gray, paved the way for their style of showmanship with their barnstorming nation-wide touring, widespread radio exposure, exuberant stage presence, and extraordinarily large ten-gallon hats.

Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys on a promotional postcard. Circa 1930.

Officially, the venerable Oklahoma Cowboy Band was founded in 1924 by real cowboy Billy McGinty, born January 1, 1871, who served in Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and starred in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.  However, it seems that inklings of the organization existed as early as 1921.  Under McGinty, the band made one record, including the first recording of “Midnight Special”, for Okeh in 1926.  Soon after, McGinty retired from music to focus on his ranch and his duties as postmaster of Ripley, Oklahoma, and the band’s manager and announcer Otto Gray assumed leadership.  Gray was a Stillwater man, born March 2, 1884.  On the side he raised midget cattle on his Oklahoma ranch.

Members came in and out throughout their run, but in their heyday, the band had a fairly steady lineup consisting of three Gray family members: Otto; his wife, the former Florence Opal Powell, known as “Mommie” (February 27, 1888 to November 14, 1950), who sang occasionally; his son Owen (February 3, 1908 to August 12, 1947), who sang and played guitar; the Allen brothers: fiddler Lee “Zeke” and left-handed banjo picker Wade “Hy” Allen (not the same Allen Brothers as the “Chattanooga Boys”); “Chief” Sanders; and Rex, the “wonderful police dog,” the “bark of the air,” who barked in rhythm on their radio shows.  Most of the band members were competent on more than one instrument, and one of their novelties was to “finger one instrument and play another.”

Under Gray’s leadership, the Oklahoma Cowboys toured the vaudeville circuit, and reportedly appeared on over 130 radio station across the States.  On the record, they recorded fifteen sides for Gennett in 1928, of which seven were issued, with an additional two in 1930, followed by eighteen sides for Brunswick/Vocalion from 1928 to 1931, all of which were issued.  In spite of their relatively prolific recording career, their records are quite scarce today.  They shot a one-reeler, titled Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, for Veribest Pictures in 1929 or ’30.  In November, 1930, they published and official songbook, titled Songs: Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, which sold for fifty cents a copy and included some hits from their repertoire, such as “Midnight Special” and “Adam and Eve”.  On June 6, 1931, they became the first Western band to be featured on the cover of Billboard magazine. The Oklahoma Cowboys continued to perform into the late 1930s; Otto Gray retired from music in 1936.

Vocalion 5250 was recorded on September 17, 1928 in Chicago, Illinois.  The personnel at this session is unconfirmed, but likely includes “Chief” Sanders on fiddle, Wade “Hy” Allen on left handed tenor banjo, Owen “Zeb” Gray on guitar, and another unknown guitarist—quite possibly Lee “Zeke” Allen, seeing as he’s only official band member not accounted for in that listing aside from “Mommie”, but I’m not sure if she played an instrument, and he did play second guitar in their 1929 short film.  Owen Gray performs the vocals on both sides.

First, Zeb tells the story of mankind from Adam to Ford on the humorous “Adam and Eve”.

Adam and Eve, recorded September 17, 1928 by Otto Gray and his Cowboy Band.

Next, on a popular hillbilly song and staple of the Oklahoma Cowboys’ repertoire, Zeb tells us all that we shouldn’t—or couldn’t—be doing: (don’t try it, ’cause) “It Can’t Be Done”.

It Can’t Be Done, recorded September 17, 1928 by Otto Gray and his Cowboy Band.