Boasting ninety years of continuous operation, and an active recording career only slightly shorter, the venerable Light Crust Doughboys from Burrus Mill of Fort Worth, Texas, can rightly lay claim to the title of longest-running western swing band in the music’s history.
The progenitor of the Light Crust Doughboys was born when aspiring jazz singer Milton Brown joined forces with Jim Rob Wills and his Wills Fiddle Band (consisting of Wills and guitarist Herman Arnspiger) in 1930. Finding success in local dance halls, they soon took their act on the radio, bringing on Brown’s younger brother Derwood and fiddler-banjoist-guitarist Sleepy Johnson. After a brief sponsorship by the Aladdin Lamp Company as the “Aladdin Laddies”, they convinced W. Lee O’Daniel of the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company to take the group on as the “Light Crust Doughboys” in 1931, drawing their name from the brand of flour produced by the mill. After two weeks of successful broadcasts, O’Daniel canceled their show, citing distaste for their “hillbilly music.” Fortunately, the will of the people prevailed and the Doughboys were brought back by popular demand (under the stipulation that the boys also work day jobs at the mill). Though O’Daniel initially forbade his band from recording, the Doughboys managed to get in a brief recording session during the RCA Victor Company’s 1932 field trip to Dallas, cutting one record under the rather thinly veiled pseudonym “Fort Worth Doughboys”. Not long after that session, the original lineup of the Light Crust Doughboys began to disintegrate under O’Daniel’s rather draconian leadership. Brown found the arrangement too stifling, and quit the band in 1932 to form his own Musical Brownies, ultimately achieving much greater success than he could have found as a Doughboy and cementing his position as the founder of western swing before his untimely death in 1936. Wills, on the other hand, was fired in 1933 as an unreliable employee, and thereafter moved to Waco to form his Playboys. O’Daniel subsequently hired a new group of musicians and evidently retracted his embargo on recording, bringing the group to Chicago for a 1933 session followed by consistent record dates afterward. W. Lee O’Daniel himself was fired from the Burrus Mill in 1935, after which he founded his own mill and string band to go with it—the Hillbilly Boys—while the Light Crust Doughboys managed to carry on just fine without him.
Bluebird B-5257 was recorded on February 9, 1932, at the Jefferson Hotel in Dallas Texas. It was originally issued on Victor 23653, which sold a total of 1,246 copies, and also reissued on Electradisk 2137, Sunrise S-3340, Montgomery Ward M-4416 and M-4757, and, in Canada, on Aurora 415. The Fort Worth Doughboys are Milton Brown, singing, Bob Wills on fiddle, Derwood Brown on guitar, and Sleepy Johnson on tenor guitar.
Whether it is to be considered the first western swing record remains a point of contention among historians of the genre; some argue that the music thereon lacks the improvisational element of jazz music, and thus cannot be considered western swing. Personally, I am of the “smells-like-a-rose-no-matter-what-you-call-it” mindset, and it sounds like western swing to me. At the very least, it should be unanimous that it is a crucial predecessor to the subsequent western swing movement.
On the obverse, the Doughboys play Milton Brown’s adaptation of the Famous Hokum Boys’ (Georgia Tom Dorsey, Big Bill Broonzy, and Frank Brasswell) 1930 hokum blues number “Nancy Jane”.
And on the reverse, they play Brown’s own composition “Sunbonnet Sue”, which to my ear seems to have drawn some melodic inspiration from the 1930 popular song “Sweet Jennie Lee” (who incidentally received mention in the lyrics alongside some other popular gals from songs of the day).