Though once a widely known and popular personality on radio stations around St. Louis, with a brief recording career that produced only eight discs, cowboy singer Roy Shaffer since drifted into near total obscurity; in fact, the article hereafter appears to be the only substantial biography of him ever published.
Roy Shaffer and Gang appearing on KWK, St. Louis. Roy pictured third from left. Circa 1940s.
Roy was born Jesse Lee Shaffer on December 6, 1906, one of several children of Luther and Anna Shaffer of Mathiston, Mississippi. After growing up on the farm, he left home to pursue the life of a singing cowboy. According to one account, he got his start in the famous 101 Ranch Wild West Show, and made his debut appearance on the radio in 1926. By the middle of the 1930s, he was living in New Orleans and appearing on WWL, billed as the “Lone Star Cowboy” (making him one of quite a few, including native Texan Leon Chappelear, to adopt that sobriquet), an engagement which purportedly brought him as many as 7,462 fan letters in one day. He also reportedly claimed, at various times, the pseudonyms of the “Rambling Yodeler” ,”Tennessee Kid”, “Mississippi Tadpole”, “Louisiana Bullfrog”, and “Reckless Red”. During that stint, M.M. Cole of Chicago published a book of his songs, and he made his first phonograph records, cutting four sides for Decca in their field trip to New Orleans in 1936. Also around that time, he married Cajun girl Edith Falcon, who would later join in in the act, billed as “Eddie Shaffer”. He returned to the studio once more in 1939 to record a further twelve songs, this time for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, in Chicago. These included a rendition of the classic cowboy song “Bury Me Out on the Prairie”, the popular “Great Speckled Bird”, and covers Chris Bouchillon’s “Talking Blues” and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Match Box Blues”. Those two sessions accounted for the entirety of Shaffer’s known commercial recording work, but his greatest success was evidently found on the radio; in 1939, Rural Radio magazine reported that Shaffer had appeared on fifty-nine radio stations, “both the smallest and the largest,” though he was reported as “off-the-air” and living in Istrouma, Louisiana, in 1938. By 1940, he was in St. Louis, where he remained for the majority of his career, and employed by the Carson-Union-May-Stern furniture store to appear on their radio programs on several different local stations. He made appearances on WEW from 1939 into ’41 with his “Hillbillies”, after which he began appearing on KWK with his “Gang”, a gig he still held in the middle-to-late part of the decade; he was also on KSD in 1942 with his “Missouri Ramblers”. By the early 1950s, he was on KWRE in Warrenton, Missouri. He also made off-air appearances, attending and participating in rodeos and giving live programs for his fans, often at events put on by Carson’s Furniture Store. In the 1950s, he owned and operated a “hillbilly park” in Mexico, Missouri. He was still active on the radio in St. Louis as late as 1956. Roy Shaffer died in March of 1974 in Greenville, Mississippi, at the age of sixty-eight. Several of Shaffer’s recordings were later reissued on BMG’s East Virginia Blues: The Secret History of Rock and Roll and JSP Records’ Classic Field Recordings: Landmark Country Sessions from a Lost Era, but those have done little to rise the artist up and out from the depths of obscurity.
Montgomery Ward M-8493 was recorded on June 26, 1939, at RCA Victor’s Studio C in Chicago, Illinois by Roy Shaffer, singing with guitar. It was also released on Bluebird B-8234.
In his casual delivery of Chris Bouchillon’s seminal “Talking Blues”, Shaffer oozes southern charm like hot butter through sourdough toast. “If you want to go to heaven, let me tell you how to do it; just grease yourself in a little mutton suet…”
Talking Blues, recorded June 26, 1939 by Roy Shaffer.
Flip the record over and he gets low-down on his arrangement of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s classic Texas folk blues standard “The Match Box Blues”—one of my personal favorites.
The Match Box Blues, recorded June 26, 1939 by Roy Shaffer.
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.
In 1942, Woody Guthrie purchased a copy of Negro Sinful Songs, the Musicraft record album by his friend and colleague Lead Belly, as a gift for his wife. A true poet, he inscribed at follows:
“The gift I’d buy, had to be better than perfume and stronger than metal. It had to be the simplicity of a whole people and the dignity of a race, the honesty of a saloon and the frenzy of a church. So when I heard Lead Belly’s voice on these records, I thought here is the surprise I’ve been looking for. Surprise!“
Now, as Guthrie honored his wife with the album, we pay tribute to the man himself: Huddie Ledbetter—the legendary Lead Belly. I’d pursued this set for quite a long while. It didn’t come cheap, but I have to say, hokey as it might sound, I really am profoundly moved by these records. I hope that you will be, too.
Negro Sinful Songs Sung by Lead Belly. Later pressings switched to a (less evocative) design featuring a portrait of Lead Belly, rather than this one of black sharecroppers.
The exact date and year of Huddie William Ledbetter’s birth are uncertain—the date is most often given as January 20, believed to have been in 1888 or ’89 (the latter is officially offered by the Lead Belly Foundation), January 29, 1885 has also been suggested—but it is known that he was born on the Jeter Plantation in northwestern Louisiana, close to Mooringsport, the son of sharecroppers Wesley and Sallie Ledbetter. When Huddie was five years old, the Ledbetters bought a piece of land in East Texas and moved across the state border, starting a farm of their own. His first instrument was the accordion (or “windjammer” as he called it), and his uncle Terrell introduced him to the guitar not long after. By the turn of the century, Huddie was an accomplished musicianer. When his father would travel into Shreveport to sell their crops, Huddie would “put on long pants” and go down on Fannin Street to play his music. He set out on his own in his early twenties, making his living as an itinerant songster. In the early part of the 1910s, Ledbetter was in Dallas, playing the blues with Blind Lemon Jefferson in Deep Ellum. He reportedly became enamored with the twelve-string guitar after seeing a Mexican musician performing with one.
In 1918, Ledbetter killed a man in a fight over a woman in Dallas (he was later quoted as saying, “a man tried to cut my head off.”), and was sentenced to thirty years imprisonment in Huntsville, Texas. With no possibility for parole, he wrote a song to Governor Pat Neff, appealing for a pardon—”[If I] had you, Governor Neff, like you got me, I’d wake up in the morning and I’d set your free.” In his final days in office, Neff granted his pardon on January 15, 1925, Ledbetter having served six years, seven months and eight days of his sentence. In 1930 however, Ledbetter was back behind bars after a fight with three white men in Mooringsport, Louisiana. The sheriff saved him from a lynch mob, but he was sentenced to five-to-ten years at Angola Prison Farm At some point during one of Ledbetter’s prison stays, he acquired the nickname “Lead Belly”. Exactly how it came to be is uncertain, but the name stuck, and he used throughout all of his professional musical career. Three years into his sentence at Angola—in July of 1933—the prison was visited by John Avery Lomax and his son Alan, who were traveling the South with a trunkload of recording equipment to capture the folk music of America for the Library of Congress. There, they captured Lead Belly’s voice on record for the first time. Lomax returned the following year, eager to record Lead Belly’s extensive repertoire of folk songs; Lead Belly was eager to find someone to deliver his petition for a pardon to Governor O.K. Allen. Following his release, Lead Belly returned to John A. Lomax, asking that he allow him to assist in his travels, lest his release be rescinded. Lomax obliged, and Lead Belly accompanied him in his travels from September until the end of 1934.
Lomax, with Lead Belly along, arrived back in New York City around the New Year of 1935, and Lead Belly achieved notoriety, appearing in a March of Time newsreel and radio program made in celebration Lomax’s greatest discovery. Ledbetter married his sweetheart, Martha Promise, that January, and she became his manager. Days later, he made his first commercial recordings for American Record Corporation; he was introduced to their A&R man Art Satherly by recording artist Tex Ritter. From the twenty-third to the twenty-fifth of January, the fifth of February, and twenty-fifth of March of 1935, Lead Belly cut more than forty sides for the ARC, of which only three records (six sides, that is) were released. Those issued were all blues sides, rather than his folk songs. These “race records” didn’t prove too popular with black listeners, who by that time were more interested in modern artists like Big Bill Broonzy than Lead Belly’s country blues, and they sold rather poorly. That March, Lead Belly accompanied Lomax on a lecture in colleges across New England.
A full color spread of Lead Belly, as published in Life magazine on April 19, 1937.
The day after his final ARC session, Lead Belly left for Louisiana—moving to Dallas soon after—and his partnership with Lomax ended rather acrimoniously, with a paycheck for three-hundred dollars—Lead Belly’s cut of the 1,500 dollars they earned during their time together, subtracting “expenses for purchasing a new Stella guitar, clothing, dentist’s fees, etc.” When he arrived in Shreveport, Lead Belly hired a lawyer and filed suit against John A. Lomax for full payment of his earnings while working for Lomax. The suit was settled that September for two-hundred-fifty dollars, with Lead Belly asking for a reconciliation between the two. By the early part of 1936, the Ledbetters had returned to New York, living in an apartment on West 52nd Street. That November, John and Alan Lomax published Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly, and the following April, Lead Belly was publicized in a Life magazine spread. By the latter half of the 1930s, there was a surge in popularity for folk music burgeoning in New York, championed largely by leftists and union agitators, and Lead Belly was soon to become endeared to their movement. As early as 1937, he was already being touted as a “people’s artist.” While those folk singers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger dressed in workingman’s garb—flannel shirts and denim workwear—Lead Belly, no doubt fed up on those styles from his time working on the field and in prison, always wore fine clothes—double breasted suits and bow ties.
On March 5, 1939, Lead Belly was jailed for assault at Riker’s Island, and once bailed, Alan Lomax arranged for a recording session with the “high end” record label Musicraft on the first of April. These were to be his first commercial recordings since his ARC sessions in 1935, the proceeds of which would help with Lead Belly’s legal expenses. Ten sides were released by Musicraft in an album titled Negro Sinful Songs Sung by Lead Belly. As the folk music movement grew, so did Lead Belly’s popularity. He began to perform on the radio, and achieve greater success. In June of 1940, Alan Lomax convinced Victor to record Lead Belly, and he produced another album, this time paired with the Golden Gate Quartet to produce the three disc set The Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison Songs. The next year, he attended the third inauguration of President Roosevelt, and began recording for Moe Asch’s Asch Records. All the while, he continued to record prolifically for the Library of Congress. In the middle of the 1940s, Lead Belly traveled to Los Angeles, California while Paramount Pictures optioned John A. Lomax’s autobiography Adventures of a Ballad Hunter as a picture, starring Bing Crosby as Lomax and Josh White as Ledbetter (oh how I wish that had come to fruition). While there, Lead Belly had a short-lived radio program, and—again thanks to Tex Ritter—recorded twelve sides for Capitol Records.
Throughout the entire decade of the 1940s, Lead Belly’s popularity and success skyrocketed. From humble beginnings, he was being touted as “quite probably the greatest living American folk singer.” He toured, appearing in countless concerts, mostly in New York by the ’40s. But by the end of the decade, Lead Belly started to wind down. His success was soaring in 1949, and he embarked for a tour of Europe, but he soon fell ill, and was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in Paris. On his return to the states, Lead Belly played his last concert on June 15, 1949 at the University of Texas in Austin, remembering the life of John A. Lomax, who had died from a stroke the previous year. On December 6, 1949, Huddie Ledbetter succumbed to his illness and died at the Bellevue Hospital in New York City, leaving behind a legacy of well over five hundred recorded songs and a profound impact on all the world’s music for generations to come.
Albert Ammons and Meade “Lux” Lewis. From Jazzmen, 1939.
On September 23, 1907, 109 years to the day before this posting, the boogie woogie piano great Albert Ammons was born.
Ammons was born in Chicago to piano playing parents, who passed on the art to him at a young age. He developed his barrelhouse style with his close friend Meade “Lux” Lewis, taking notes from Hersal Thomas and Jimmy Yancey. In the 1920s, both he and Lewis were working as taxicab drivers, and began playing together as a duo. Ammons started a band in 1935, and recorded for Decca with his Rhythm Kings in 1936. On December 23, 1938, Ammons appeared in John Hammond’s concert, From Spirituals to Swing at Carnegie Hall, celebrating the history of jazz from spirituals to swing. The event featured Count Basie’s orchestra with Hot Lips Page and Jimmy Rushing, the Golden Gate Quartet, bluesmen Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Terry, and fellow boogie woogie pianists Pete Johnson, and Meade “Lux” Lewis, to name a few. The concert created a surge in the popularity of boogie woogie, with Ammons at the forefront, and he worked quite extensively throughout the following decade, culminating with his performance at Harry S. Truman’s inauguration in 1949. After a period of illness, Ammons died on December 2, 1949.
Blue Note 2 was recorded on January 6, 1939 in New York by Albert Ammons. It was Blue Note’s second release, from the new record label’s first recording session, held in a rented studio.
Ammons recorded his famous “Boogie Woogie Stomp” previously in 1936 for Decca with his Rhythm Kings, but that version, in my opinion, lacked the same kind of driving energy that characterizes this solo recording. A truncated version of the piece (which Ammons recorded for the Solo-Art label) was used in Norman McLaren’s 1940 animation Boogie Doodle.
Boogie Woogie Stomp, recorded January 6, 1939 by Albert Ammons.
On the other side, Ammons improvises “Boogie Woogie Blues”, demonstrating his formidable ability as a pianist.
Boogie Woogie Blues, recorded January 6, 1939 by Albert Ammons.