Bob Dunn, behind Lonnie Glosson, from a group photo published by XEPN, Piedras Negras, Mexico, c.1938.
Continuing in Old Time Blues’ tradition of honoring the heroes of western swing music, this post is dedicated to a figure of immense significance to the genre, the father of electric steel guitar, Bob Dunn.
Robert Lee Dunn was born in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, on February 5, 1908. The son of a fiddler, Bob followed in his father’s musical footsteps, taking up slide guitar and playing Hawaiian music, as was enjoying a surge of popularity at the time, drawing influence from leading players such as Sol Ho’opi’i. Inspired by the music of those like Jack Teagarden, Dunn soon shifted toward jazz, and added an electric pickup to his guitar, playing in an idiosyncratic brassy style peculiar to him. In the late 1920s, he played in groups such as the Panhandle Cowboys and Indians, before winding up in Fort Worth in 1934. There, he joined Milton Brown’s Musical Brownies, with whom he pioneered the use of steel guitar in western swing music. He made his recording debut in the Brownies first Decca session on January 27, 1935, purportedly earning him the distinction of being the first musician to record with an electrified steel guitar. Dunn remained with the Brownies until Brown’s untimely death in 1936, after which he went on to play with Roy Newman’s Boys and Cliff Bruner’s Texas Wanderers before forming a band of his own—the Vagabonds—with whom he made several records for Decca from 1938 to 1940. After the Vagabonds broke up, Dunn played in a variety of different western swing bands, including Bill Boyd’s Cowboy Ramblers, Dickie McBride’s Village Boys, Bill Mounce’s Sons of the South, and the Sons of Dixie. He retired from his performing career in 1950 and opened a music store in Houston. Bob Dunn died on May 27, 1971.
Decca 5828 was recorded on April 11, 1940 in Houston, Texas at Dunn’s Vagabonds’ last session. The Vagabonds are Bob Dunn on steel guitar, possibly Rudy Rivera on clarinet, Sam Jones on electric tenor guitar, an unknown second guitar, Mancel Tierney on piano, and Hezzie Bryant on string bass.
On the first side, Dunn shows off his unique style of playing on his hot instrumental composition “Juke Box Rag”.
Juke Box Rag, recorded April 11, 1940 by Bob Dunn’s Vagabonds.
Next, Dunn himself sings a crooning vocal on another of his own compositions, “I’ll Forget Dear (That I Ever Loved You)”.
I’ll Forget Dear (That I Ever Loved You), recorded April 11, 1940 by Bob Dunn’s Vagabonds.
“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.
In Old Time Blues’ continuing cavalcade of Texas’ native music, western swing, we turn our spotlight to the accomplished steel guitarist and composer of such standard songs as “Born to Lose”: Ted Daffan.
Ted Daffan and his Texans, pictured in the Hillbilly Hit Parade of 1941. From left-to-right standing: Buddy Buller, Chuck Keeshan, probably Elmer Christian; seated: Ralph Smith, Ted Daffan, and probably Harry Sorensen.
Theron Eugene Daffan was born in the Beauregard Parish of Louisiana on September 21, 1912, but he got across the border to Texas as fast as he could. He graduated from high school in Houston and later found work there in a musical instrument shop. Inspired by Milton Brown’s music, Daffan became a pioneering user of the electrified steel guitar, following in the footsteps of the Musical Brownies’ Bob Dunn. During the days of the Great Depression, he played steel guitar in Hawaiian radio bands before moving on to Texas swing bands like Shelly Lee Alley’s Alley Cats and the Bar-X Cowboys. In 1939, Daffan composed “Truck Driver’s Blues”, one of the earliest examples of what was to become a common theme in country music—supposedly Daffan would see truck drivers come into restaurants while he was dining and go straight for the jukebox, and he wanted a part of that racket—which became a hit for Cliff Bruner’s Boys and the Light Crust Doughboys. As a result of that success, Daffan was signed by CBS in 1940 to record with his own band, the Texans, for their Okeh label. With his Texans, Daffan had hits with “Worried Mind”, “I’m a Fool to Care”, and “Born to Lose”, all compositions of his own, and all of which became standards in their own right. Like Bob Wills, Daffan relocated to California in the 1940s and led a band there, but only stayed for a couple of years before returning to Texas. After World War II, he began shifting his career focus away from playing and recording music and more toward songwriting and publishing, and he founded and owned both record and music publishing companies. Ted Daffan died in Houston on October 6, 1996.
Okeh 05668 was recorded on April 25, 1940 at the Burrus Mill Studio in Saginaw, Texas. It is Ted Daffan and his Texans’ first record. Daffan’s Texans are made up of Ted Daffan on lap steel guitar, Sidney “Buddy” Buller on electric tenor guitar, Chuck Keeshan on second guitar, Harry Sorensen on accordion, Ralph Smith on piano, and Elmer Christian on string bass.
The first side the Texans recorded, Chuck Keeshan sings the Tommy Duncan-style vocal on Daffan’s own composition, the classic “Worried Mind”.
Worried Mind, recorded April 25, 1940 by Ted Daffan’s Texans.
On the flip-side, Daffan showcases his steel-guitar playing abilities on the instrumental “Blue Steel Blues”.
Blue Steel Blues, recorded April 25, 1940 by Ted Daffan’s Texans.
Seems it’s seldom these days that I post any music just for music’s sake, just to celebrate the greatness of a song, rather than to commemorate some occasion or happening. I’ve already quite thoroughly expounded upon the life and time of Milton Brown—the Father of Western Swing—so I feel I needn’t go into much more detail about that here, you may go read it on that page if you so desire. But there’s still plenty more to say about the many records Brown made in his short two year recording career, and goodness knows there’s so much more to hear. So herein is one of my own favorites of those many, I hope you’ll enjoy it as well, and I also hope to be able to offer some anecdotes and shed some light that may perhaps not have been shed otherwise.
Though his recording career only spanned from 1934 to 1936 (excluding the Fort Worth Doughboys session in ’32), in four sessions, two for Bluebird and two for Decca, spread over a week’s worth of days, Milton Brown managed to cut a total of one-hundred-and-three sides. Decca 5201 comes from the first and second days of Brown’s last session, his second for Decca. It was recorded at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, Louisiana on March 3rd and 4th, 1936. The Musical Brownies at this point in time included Milton Brown singing and leading Cecil Brower and Cliff Bruner—the latter a new addition to the band for this session—on fiddles, Derwood Brown on guitar, Ocie Stockard on banjo, Bob Dunn on steel guitar, Wanna Coffman on string bass, “Papa” Fred Calhoun on piano.
Firstly, the Musical Brownies get hotter than anything on “Somebody’s Been Using that Thing”, one of several tunes Milton lifted from the Hokum Boys’ repertoire, some others being “Easy Ridin’ Papa” and “Nancy Jane”—though it was written and originally recorded by mandolinist Al Miller in 1929. To set the record straight (pun intended), one “Greaseman” has evidently propagated preposterous misinformation that the lyric in this song is “Georgia boy, somebody’s been using that thing,” while it is in fact “sure as you’re born, somebody’s been using that thing,” albeit slurred to sound like “sho’s yo’ bo’n.” This one is a serious contender against “Garbage Man Blues” to win the title of my personal favorite Milton Brown song.
Somebody’s Been Using That Thing, recorded March 3, 1936 by Milton Brown and his Brownies.
On the “B” side, Milton sings a respectable pop vocal on Sammy Fain, Irving Kahal, and Pierre Norman’s jazz standard “When I Take My Sugar to Tea”. Listening to this tune, one wonders if Brown was familiar with the work of the Boswell Sisters.
When I Take My Sugar to Tea, recorded March 4, 1936 by Milton Brown and his Brownies.
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.