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.

Vocalion 04727 – W. Lee O’Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys – 1938

On this day, we celebrate the life and accomplishments of one hayseed flour salesman from Ohio whose name went down in the history books: Mr. “Pappy” O’Daniel.

“Pappy”, as pictured on the cover of “Beautiful Texas”.

Wilbert Lee O’Daniel was born in Malta, Ohio on March 11, 1890.  When he was a baby, the family relocated to Kansas following the death of the O’Daniel patriarch.  Lee entered the flour industry at the age of eighteen, and soon went on the move, eventually settling in Fort Worth, where he began working for the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company of Saginaw, Texas as sales manager.  In 1928, O’Daniel became the company’s director of advertising in the newly emerging medium of radio broadcasting.  About three years later, he hired the Wills Fiddle Band, at the time consisting of fiddler Bob Wills, guitarist Herman Arnspiger, and singer Milton Brown, to perform on the air as the Light Crust Doughboys.  Not a fan of their hillbilly music however, O’Daniel canceled their show a couple weeks later.  Fans of the show were not pleased, and soon the Light Crust Doughboys were back on the air.  By 1933, the original Doughboys had parted ways, and a new lineup of musicians had taken over the moniker, going on to achieve great radio acclaim.  In 1935, O’Daniel was fired from his position with the Burrus Mill, and he went on to found his own flour company, the W. Lee O’Daniel Flour Company, manufacturer of Hillbilly Flour.  To promote the new product, “Pappy” O’Daniel formed a new radio band: the Hillbilly Boys, which included his two sons Mike and Pat.  Broadcasting from WBAP in Fort Worth and “border blaster” XEPN in Piedras Negras, Mexico, the Hillbilly Boys also found considerable fame with their madcap radio theme “Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy”.

Come 1938, W. Lee O’Daniel registered to run for Governor of Texas—his platform, the ten commandments, and his campaign slogan, the golden rule.  He took his Hillbilly Boys on the campaign trail and drew huge crowds.  Winning the election, he promised no sales tax or poll tax, an end to capital punishment, and an old-age pension.  He delivered on none.  Nonetheless, he proved popular enough and was reelected in 1940.  Shortly into his second term as Governor, O’Daniel set his sights on a more prestigious and powerful position, the United States Senate.  When Senator Morris Sheppard died in 1941, O’Daniel appointed the eighty-six year old son of Sam Houston, Andrew Jackson Houston, to fill his empty seat in the interim.  When Houston himself died several months later, O’Daniel defeated Lyndon B. Johnson in a special election and took the seat for himself.  When the next election came around, he asserted that his opponents, former governors Dan Moody and James V. Allred, were part of a communist conspiracy against him, alienating himself from some of his supporters, but nonetheless claiming the election.  In 1944, he campaigned for the Texas Regulars, opposing Roosevelt’s fourth term.  Serving ineffectively for eight years, O’Daniel declined to run for reelection in 1948—citing the hopelessness of saving America from the commies (though in reality he had simply embarrassed too many of his constituents)—and was replaced by “Landslide Lyndon”.  Thereafter, he retired to a ranch outside Fort Worth, making several ill-fated political comebacks in the 1950s and claiming that the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate schools in Brown v. Board of Education was a communist plot.  W. Lee O’Daniel died on May 12, 1969 in Dallas, at the age of 79.

Vocalion 04727 was recorded in Dallas, Texas on December 3, 1938.  The Hillbilly Boys are Mike O’Daniel on fiddle, Bundy Bratcher on the accordion, Kermit Whalen on the steel guitar, Pat O’Daniel on tenor banjo, Leon Huff and Curly Perrin on guitars, and Wallace Griffin on string bass.  Huff sings the vocals on both sides.

First: the Hillbilly Boys’ theme song, “Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy”, really the 1933 song “I Like Mountain Music” with new words added by W. Lee O’Daniel to reflect his floury interests.

Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy (I Like Mountain Music), recorded December 3, 1938 by W. Lee O’Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys.

On the other side, the Hillbilly boys do a swell job swinging the 1927 tune “One Sweet Letter From You”.  I bought the record for “Please Pass the Biscuits Pappy”, but I do believe I like this one better.

One Sweet Letter from You, recorded December 3, 1938 by W. Lee O’Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys.

Vocalion 14848 – Uncle Dave Macon – 1924

Uncle Dave Macon in a characteristic pose, as pictured in Songs and Stories of Uncle Dave Macon, 1938.

With a stage persona that brought rural electrification to Tennessee early, the legendary “Dixie Dewdrop,” “King of the Hillbillies,” Uncle Dave Macon, has been called the “grandfather of country music” (Jimmie Rodgers, of course, being the “father”), and that’s no stretch; his energetic renditions of old time minstrel ditties and jubilant sacred songs made him an enduring and beloved favorite of Southern listeners from the dawn of radio entertainment until the early 1950s.

David Harrison Macon was born on October 7, 1870, five miles south of McMinnville, Tennessee in small settlement of Smartt Station, son of Martha and Confederate veteran John Macon.  In 1884, the Macons purchased a hotel and moved to Nashville.  While there, the young Dave learned banjo from circus performer Joel Davidson.  After his father was murdered in ’86, Macon and his mother sold the hotel and took up in Readyville.  His mother ran a stagecoach inn there, and Dave used his musical proclivities to entertain guests.  Soon after, Macon started a mule train, which lasted until the automobile killed off business in 1920.  The next year, Macon was hired for his first professional musical engagement.  In 1923, Macon was “discovered” by Marcus Loew of the famous theater chain of the same name, and brought into the world of processional vaudeville.  Joining with fiddler Sid Harkreader, Macon’s act became a hit, and the Sterchi Brothers Furniture Company arranged a recording session for them with Vocalion in July of 1924.  Late in 1925, the fledgling radio station WSM in Nashville started their Barn Dance program to compete the successful show of the same name on Chicago’s WLS, and Macon became one of the first stars of what would later become known as the Grand Ole Opry.  In 1927, he formed the Fruit Jar Drinkers with the McGee Brothers and Mazy Todd.  After recording for Vocalion from 1924 to 1929, Macon recorded only sporadically in the 1930s, with sessions for Okeh in 1930, the Starr Piano Company’s Champion in 1934 (try to find those records!), and Victor’s Bluebird in 1935 and 1938.  Despite slacking off in recording, Uncle Dave continued to perform live for many years.  In 1940, he appeared in the Republic Pictures film Grand Ole Opry, accompanied by his son Dorris.  Uncle Dave Macon played his last performance on March 1, 1952, and died three weeks later, on the twenty-second, at the age of eighty-one.  His life is celebrated annually with “Uncle Dave Macon Days” in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Vocalion 14848 was recorded on July 8 and 9, 1924 in New York City, “Sung and Played by Uncle Dave Macon (Banjo)”.  It was shortly afterward issued on Vocalion 5041, in their “Hillbilly” series.  It is comprised of his first and sixth recorded sides, and was his second issued record.

The first side he ever recorded, “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy” is one of Uncle Dave’s most iconic pieces, and perhaps his best remembered in this day and age.  Fourteen years later, the song was published in his official songbook, Songs and Stories of Uncle Dave Macon.

Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy, recorded July 8, 1924 by Uncle Dave Macon.

On the reverse, Uncle Dave plays and sings “Papa’s Billie Goat”, a cover of fellow country music pioneer Fiddlin’ John Carson’s recording of the previous year.

Papa’s Billie Goat, recorded July 9, 1924 by Uncle Dave Macon.