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.
Big Bill with his Gibson Style O guitar, as pictured in the 1941 Okeh race records catalog.
Previously on Old Time Blues, we took a look at one of the earliest records made by the illustrious Big Bill Broonzy, featuring the two rambunctious rags “Saturday Night Rub” and “Pig Meat Strut”. Now that the time to pay birthday tributes to Mr. Broonzy has rolled around yet again, we turn our attention to another piece of work dating to one month earlier in Big Bill’s long and extensive career.
After his first 1927 and ’28 Paramount records brought little commercial success, Big Bill took a hiatus from recording. Come 1930 however, he made his triumphant return, sitting in on an American Record Corporation session on April 8th, backing Frank Brasswell on two characteristic blues sides, then joining with the “Famous Hokum Boys”, under the auspices of founding member Georgia Tom Dorsey, to cut a re-do of the classic “Somebody’s Been Using That Thing” and three hot guitar rags. The following day, Bill got his own time in the limelight—after a fashion—when he recorded three solo efforts of his own, “I Can’t Be Satisfied”, “Grandma’s Farm”, and “Skoodle Do Do”, all released under the pseudonym “Sammy Sampson”. Bill continued to record under that name—excluding the results his three or four excursions to Richmond, and one to Grafton—until 1932, when the ARC (and Bluebird, for a time) finally decided to start putting out his records under his own name, albeit without his last name credited, which didn’t make it onto labels until he started recording for Mercury in 1949 (save for composer credits, which were often attributed to “Willie Broonzy” of “Williard Broonzy”).
Romeo 5025 was recorded on April 9 and 10, 1930 in New York City. “Sammy Sampson” is, of course, a pseudonym for Big Bill Broonzy. It was also issued on Oriole 8025 and Jewel 20025, and side “A” also appeared on Perfect 157 backed with “Skoodle Do Do”. The 78 Quarterly speculated “more than thirty [copies] on all labels,” making it perhaps not quite rare, but rather scarce nonetheless (if we’re going to split hairs), while the Perfect issue was estimated at “less than fifteen”.
On his outstanding “I Can’t Be Satisfied”, Big Bill is accompanied by his usual partner in his early days, the flatpicking Frank Brasswell, on second guitar. To be frank, Big Bill’s earliest works were sometimes rather hit or miss; this one’s a hit—enough of one that it was covered by Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys about six years later. It’s like rock ‘n’ roll twenty years early, only better—one of Bill’s best recordings, in my opinion.
I Can’t Be Satisfied, recorded April 9, 1930 bu Sammy Sampson.
On the flip-side, Georgia Tom Dorsey sings “Mama’s Leaving Town” in a characteristic style much in the same vein as his “Grievin’ Me Blues”—in fact, the two have very similar melodies. He is accompanied by Broonzy on guitar. If the song was a little peppier and hokumier, it probably would’ve been credited to the “Famous Hokum Boys”.
Mama’s Leaving Town, recorded April 10, 1930 by Georgia Tom.
This record is a surprisingly obscure one considering its excellence, even in light of its extraordinary scarcity. A Google search will yield precious few results, and the upload of the only side that’s on YouTube has accrued only around five-hundred views in more than half a decade. Its rarity earned it a spot on Document Records’ “Too Late, Too Late: Newly Discovered Titles and Alternate Takes” series rather than their Hokum Boys or Big Bill Broonzy series proper, and that may be the only commercial reissue it’s ever gotten (I’m not sure). To the few who know of it (mostly a small cadre of record collectors and blues researchers), it is held in high regard as perhaps Big Bill Broonzy’s best record. I had the fortune of being enlightened to its existence some years ago, and the even greater fortune of being able to acquire a copy. I hope to shed a much needed ray of sunshine onto this gem of prewar blues guitar, and help get it some of the recognition it deserves.
In 1930, Big Bill Broonzy was under the management of Chicago “race music” impresario Lester Melrose, and playing good-time music with Georgia Tom and Frank Brasswell (or Braswell, a.k.a. “The Western Kid”) as the “Hokum Boys” (a mantle originally used by Georgia Tom and Tampa Red). Broonzy hadn’t recorded since his earliest, somewhat poorly received “Big Bill and Thomps” Paramount sessions of 1927 and ’28. Among the tunes recorded by Broonzy and the Hokum Boys were (fittingly) hokum titles like “Somebody’s Been Using that Thing” and “Eagle Riding Papa” (both of which were later covered by Milton Brown), urban blues novelties like “Mama’s Leavin’ Town”, and fast guitar rags like “Saturday Night Rub” and “Pig Meat Strut”. On the rags, Frank Brasswell’s flatpicked rhythm combined with Bill’s adept fingerpicking to make musical magic. The trio, occasionally including Delta blues man Arthur Petties, first recorded in New York for the American Record Corporation in various configurations and under various names, including “Sammy Sampson” for Bill’s solo work. Next they traveled to Richmond, Indiana to cut several sides for the Starr Piano Company’s Champion label, all ones they had made previously for the ARC, this time with Bill’s solo work credited to “Big Bill Johnson”. Those Champions were the last sides to feature Brasswell, who proceeded to drop off the face of the earth. Bill on the other hand would go on to great acclaim.
Champion 16081 was recorded on May 2, 1930 in Richmond, Indiana. The Hokum Boys are Big Bill Broonzy (recording for the Starr Piano Co. as “Big Bill Johnson”) and Frank Brasswell on guitars. It sold a total of 959 copies, of which only a handful are known to exist today. As such, it is listed in the “Rarest 78s” section of 78 Quarterly (issue number six), and while the total number of existing copies was not estimated at the time, a current estimate places the number at “fewer than ten known copies.” More popular versions of both tunes were recorded for the American Record Corporation the previous month (and both, in my opinion, are not near as good as these). There is some debate as to the correct playback speed for these recordings, with suggestions from my esteemed colleagues Mr. Russ Shor of Vintage Jazz Mart and Mr. Pete Whelan of 78 Quarterly ranging from the standard 78.26 RPM to 83 RPM. Based on an E chord on a guitar in standard tuning, my best estimate would be that they should play at approximately 80 RPM, to which I’ve set the transfers posted herein.
First up, Bill and Frank get hot on Broonzy’s classic rag composition “Saturday Night Rub” with a performance described by blues guitar teacher Woody Mann as “one of the most hard-driving rag tunes ever recorded.” Midway through, Bill utters those immortal words, “I’m gonna play this guitar tonight from A to Z!”
Saturday Night Rub, recorded May 2, 1930 by the Hokum Boys.
“Pig Meat Strut” on the “B” side is perhaps my favorite guitar instrumental (though there’s some stiff competition from Blind Blake, William Moore, Bayless Rose, Frank Hutchison, and others). Bill and Frank’s “Famous Hokum Boys” version of the rag for the ARC, recorded a little less than a month before this one, is often hailed as one of his best (I say phooey), but it sounds like a hot mess compared to this masterpiece! The riff used in “Pig Meat Strut” was seemingly ubiquitous in hokum of this era—such that I’d dub it the “hokum riff”—and appeared in a number of Broonzy and Brasswell’s other recordings of this era, later serving as the basis for Big Bill’s popular “Hey Hey” in 1951. Interestingly, a nearly identical melody was also used by Texas blues man Little Hat Jones in his “Kentucky Blues”, recorded only a month after this one, though any actual connection between the two is unknown to me.
Man, did they get in the groove and how!
Pig Meat Strut, recorded May 2, 1930 by the Hokum Boys.
It’s come time once again to pay tribute to blues legend Big Bill Broonzy, on the (unconfirmed) anniversary of his birth. Last time, I posted one of his earlier records, coupling his memorable flatpicked “How You Want it Done?” with “M & O Blues”, featuring his own jug band. This time around, I present two sides from around the time when he was shifting from his country blues roots to a more urbane style. I biographed Big Bill in that previous post, so I feel that I needn’t go over that again here.
An ever-versatile musician, the 1930s marked a period of development and transition for Big Bill Broonzy’s music. He started out the decade playing pure country blues from back where he came from, akin to Josh White, or Buddy Moss. His recordings from that period, like “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “How You Want it Done?” generally feature his own guitar, sometimes backed with another guitar or a piano. Later, around the time the swing era kicked off in the middle part of the decade, Chicago evidently had an effect on him, as he started to develop a more citified style to fit with the public’s changing tastes. Accordingly, his recordings started to swing, often backed by an instrumental ensemble with horn and rhythm, comparable to urban blues contemporaries like Peetie Wheatstraw. He worked extensively with fellow blues people such as pianist Black Bob, Hawaiian guitar man Casey Bill Weldon, harmonica player Bill “Jazz” Gillum, and his half brother Washboard Sam. By the end of the decade, his work had become quite sophisticated, producing some of his most memorable work, including “Key to the Highway” and “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town”. After the end of World War II, however, as interests in folk music began to bud, Bill returned to his rural roots.
Melotone 7-07-64 was recorded on January 31, 1937 in Chicago. Illinois. Big Bill is accompanied by a rhythm band made up of “Mister Sheiks” Alfred Bell on trumpet, Black Bob Hudson on piano, Bill Settles on string bass, Fred Williams on drums, and Broonzy’s own guitar.
First up, Big Bill plays a classic mid-1930s blues side, “Mean Old World”, an entirely different piece than the T-Bone Walker hit of the 1940s, though Walker may have found some inspiration in this Broonzy tune.
Mean Old World, recorded January 31, 1937 by Big BIll.
Next, Bill does a peppy one with a hot dance accompaniment, “Barrel House When it Rains”, featuring the piano of the mysterious Black Bob, among others noted Chicago blues figures.
Barrel House When it Rains, recorded January 31, 1937 by Big BIll.
On June 26, we celebrate the probable birthday of blues legend Big Bill Broonzy. As is the case with many early blues players, such as Lemon Jefferson, the exact date of his birth is disputed; Broonzy himself claimed to have been born in 1893, but family records stated a more probable date of 1903. There is also mystery surrounding his place of birth, while Broonzy stated his hometown as Scott, Mississippi, recent research suggests he may have come from Arkansas.
Whatever the true details may be, Big Bill grew up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and learned from his uncle to play a homemade cigar box fiddle, which he played at local social functions. In 1920, as many Southern black people did at the time, Broonzy emigrated to Chicago in search of new opportunity, where he switched from fiddle to guitar, mentored by Papa Charlie Jackson. In Chicago, Broonzy worked odd jobs while trying make it as a musician. In 1927, he got his break when Charlie Jackson helped him l get an audition with J. Mayo Williams of Paramount Records, and after several rejected tests, made his first released records with his friend John Thomas as “Big Bill and Thomps”. Though his records sold poorly for the first few years, sales eventually began to pick up as he gained popularity in the Chicago blues scene in the 1930s, even playing in John Hammond’s From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938 and ’39, with his style evolving from his rural roots to a more urban style all the while. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Big Bill recorded steadily, both solo and as an accompanist. In the late 1940s into the 1950s, Broonzy became a part of the folk music revival occurring at that time, and he toured abroad in the 1950s, starting in Europe in 1951. His autobiography, written with the help of Yannick Bruynoghe, was published in 1955. Broonzy died of throat cancer in August of 1958.
Perfect 0207 was recorded March 29 and 30, 1932 in New York City, at Big Bill’s first and second session for the American Record Corporation under his own name (excepting some 1930 recordings under the name Sammy Sampson and as a part of the Hokum Boys). The Jug Busters side features W.E. “Buddy” Burton on kazoo, piano by Black Bob Hudson, and Jimmy Bertrand on washboard. The identity of the jug player is unknown.
“How You Want it Done?”, recorded March 29, is a fantastic side with stupendous flatpicked guitar by Big Bill, an unusual method for blues playing. It’s likely that Broonzy picked up this song, along with its flatpicking style, from his contemporary Louie Lasky, who later recorded it in 1935, though Bill recorded it earlier. Big Bill first recorded this song in 1930 for Gennett, then for Paramount in ’31 (of which no copies have been located) This recording was also featured on the last record in Vocalion’s race series (1745). It remained in Broonzy’s repertoire for many years, and he was filmed performing it in 1957.
How You Want it Done?, recorded March 29, 1932 by Big Bill.
Recorded one day after the first side, Big Bill is accompanied by a jug band on “M & O Blues”, referring of course to the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. The authorship of this song is often credited to Walter Davis. It’s worth noting that there was another “M & O Blues” sung by legendary Delta bluesman Willie Brown which was an entirely different song. Though the label looks prettier, this side unfortunately has some pretty bad stripped grooves that make a lot of noise in brief but quite intrusive passages, but it does clean up a bit as it plays. Heck, the Document Records transfer is quite noisy, so cut me a little slack!
M & O Blues, recorded March 30, 1932 by Big Bill & his Jug Busters.