Riley Puckett, Gid Tanner, and The Skillet Lickers: Newspaper Highlights (1915 – 1951)
Among the first superstars of real country music (as opposed to the synthetic stuff cranked out by the likes of Vernon Dalhart), Riley Puckett and Gid Tanner worked their way up from humble beginnings in Georgia — Puckett performing for spare change on the streets of Atlanta, and Tanner competing at the “old-time fiddlers’ conventions” that were so popular at the time. Here’s a glimpse of their stories, from newspaper clippings of the period:
Riley Puckett appeals for aid (Atlanta Constitution,
October 22, 1915)
One of the earliest mentions of Gid Tanner, getting ready to perform at the spring convention of the Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Association
(January 17, 1915)
Another early mention of Tanner (Atlanta, April 1916)
Hillbilly hubris (February 1919)
Gainesville, Georgia (July 1924). The Skillet Lickers had yet to be formed at this point, leaving the makeup of Tanner’s Famous Orchestra an intriguing mystery.
Columbia’s first full-page ad for Tanner and Puckett (May 1924), pre-dating formation of the Skillet Lickers
Montgomery, Alabama, with Puckett misidentified as a fiddler
Greenville, South Carolina (May 1928)
Centreville, Alabama (July 1928)
Election night before the advent of television. Note the mention of Puckett also playing piano. (Alexander City, Alabama,
November 1, 1928)
Ashville, Alabama (November 21, 1929). Note the absence of fiddler Clayton McMichen and the substitution of Claude Davis for Riley Puckett.
At the movies: The Skillet Lickers share a bill with “Working Girls”
(Chillicothe, Ohio, December 1931)
Puckett, Tanner, and friends on Bluebird records
One of the last ads for the Skillet Lickers, with only Tanner remaining from the original group (Jasper, Alabama, April 1951)
And a few favorites from their vast output:
GID TANNER & HIS SKILLET LICKERS
(Riley Puckett, lead vocal): Dixie
Atlanta: March 29, 1927
Columbia 15158-D (mx. W 143795 – 2)
San Antonio (Texas Hotel): March 29, 1934
Bluebird B-5435 (mx. BVE 82677 – 1)
CLAYTON McMICHEN, RILEY PUCKETT, GID TANNER, LOWE STOKES, FATE NORRIS, BOB NICHOLS & BILL BROWN: A Corn Licker Still in Georgia — Part 4
Atlanta: April 12, 1928
Columbia 15258-D (mx. W 140322 – 2) Bill Brown (playing the hapless visitor on this side) was a manager in Columbia’s Atlanta office. This was not a pseudonym for Harry C. Browne, as columnist Jim Walsh once claimed.
GID TANNER (vocal with own banjo): You’ve Got to Stop Drinking Shine
Atlanta: December 6, 1930
Columbia 15716-D (mx. W 151062 – 1)
“Every Italian Tenor Is an All Around General
Thomas Edison’s Views on Opera Singers
During 1910–1912, Thomas Edison’s engineers conducted numerous recording sessions using eminent operatic singers in New York and abroad, and Edison reviewed the results closely. He was also fond of reviewing competing companies’ artists and records, which more often than not came in for scathing criticism.
Edison’s handwritten comments have survived and offer a glimpse of the inventor’s general hostility toward opera singers, particularly any who exhibited the dreaded “tremolo.” His musical prejudices — which extended to pop music as well — cost his company dearly, causing it to pass up future best-selling artists ranging from John McCormack (“Terrible tremolo…couldn’t stand it”) to Al Jolson (“Coney Island beer saloon singer, not for us”).
The excerpts below — from a mixture of 1910–1912 sessions, some later issued Diamond Discs, and selected Victor Red Seals — were transcribed by the late Ray Wile from Edison’s notes in the Edison National Historic Site’s archives:
ADELINA AGOSTINELLI (Edison mx. 430):
“Her tremolo queers this song. Hold it.”
GIOVANNI ALBANESE (Edison mx. 1067):
“Don’t care for him.”
ENRICO CARUSO (Victor 95210)
“Caruso is getting big tremolo, tune N.G., all N.G. [no good].”
THOMAS CHALMERS (Edison mx. 813):
“A non-tremolo singer” [i.e., good, in Edison’s eyes].
GUIDO CICCOLINI (Edison mx. 5634):
“Ciccolini is getting so sharp that he drops every overtone and only emits fundamentals… I have about made up my mind that EVERY Italian tenor is an all around general damn fool.”
EDUARDO DE BURY (Edison mx. 469):
“Singer no good.”
GERALDINE FARRAR (Victor 96002):
“Farrar should not be permitted to sing on a phono, she will jump out [of] any record.”
EDUARDO FERRARI-FONTANA (Edison mx. 4332):
“Pretty good. The S.O.B. has got Caruso skinned.”
CHARLES HACKETT (Edison mx. 1050):
“Hackett has a very variable voice, sharp in some notes soft in others, and nasty rapid tremolo.”
ORVILLE HARROLD (Edison mx. 1283):
“One-note tenor – accepted. The next time they get any of our money before I hear the goods, it will be a cold day in Hell!”
HEINRICH HENSEL (Edison mx. 549):
“Rotten. Never use this voice.”
AGNES KIMBALL (Edison mx. 852):
“This singer has too many glaring defects of voice.”
HEINRICH KNOTE (Edison mx. 638):
“Singer good — has some tremolo but not highly conspicuous.”
MARIA LABIA (mx. 861):
“Nip & tuck between Bori & Labia.”
GIOVANNI MARTINELLI (mx. 1064):
“Good tenor has some tremolo and guttural sounds but his high beats Caruso. He is a far better singer than Caruso is now.”
JOHN McCORMACK (general comment):
“Fine voice marred by a terrible tremolo. I turned him down for I couldn’t stand it.”
LUIGI MONTESANTO (Edison trial):
“Tremolo bad, coarse, guttural, very uneven volume. Not wanted.”
GIOVANNI POLESE (Edison mx. 494):
“Not as good as Chalmers.”
GIOVANNI POLESE (Edison mx. 987):
“Some opera perverts have probably got educated to this type of voice.”
ADELE PONZANO (Edison trial):
“Voice fair but awful tremolo. Can’t use her.”
IDA ZIZOLFI (Edison trial):
“Terrible rapid tremolo. Not wanted.”
Jabbo Smith with Fats Waller and James P. Johnson in Keep Shufflin’ (New York, February 1928). With the addition of reed man Garvin Bushell, this group cut four remarkable sides for Victor on March 27, 1928, as the Louisiana Sugar Babes.
The Rhythm Aces records were a musical triumph, but a
sales bust (Chicago Defender, August 1929)
A battle of the bands in Lansing, Michigan, August 1929. Particularly interesting is the note in the newspaper story concerning Smith’s full eleven-piece orchestra, which is not known to have recorded. The “famous quintet known as ‘Four Aces and a Joker'” mentioned in the article was the small unit that made the Brunswick recordings.
Jabbo Smith after his move to the Midwest, playing in Racine, Wisconsin
(top, May 1932) and Sheboygan, Wisconsin (bottom, May 1933).
Jabbo Smith performs to save his home (January 1977). The benefit raised only $700 of the $10,000 he needed, but the concert marked the beginning of a remarkable comeback.
Hobnobbing with Benny Goodman (February 1980) and
Dizzy Gillespie (November 1979)
Jabbo in California: Los Angeles (top, December 1980)
and San Francisco (August 1981)
New York (January 19, 1991)
And a couple of masterpieces from the Rhythm Aces series — Personnel, as given by Jabbo Smith to researcher Dick Spottswood in 1966 (and bearing little resemblance to the undocumented, apparently fabricated listings in Rust’s Jazz Records and derivative works), are: Smith (trumpet, vocal), Willard Brown (reeds), Earl Frazer (piano), Ikey Robinson (banjo), Lawson Buford (brass bass).
JABBO SMITH & HIS RHYTHM ACES – “Four Aces and the Joker” (Jabbo Smith, vocal): Decatur Street Tutti
Chicago: April 4, 1929
Brunswick 7078 (mx. C 3233 – A)
JABBO SMITH & HIS RHYTHM ACES – “Four Aces and the Joker”: Band Box Stomp
Chicago: August 22, 1929
Brunswick 7111 (mx. C 4100 – A)
Sam Moore’s 1921 Victor recording of “Laughing Rag” is an astonishing record for the period, blending Southern folk, Hawaiian, and ragtime influences in a way unlike anything that had been heard on records up to that time. Music historian Dick Spottswood has praised Moore’s performance on that record for its “aggressive mainland verve…which stands halfway between Hawaiian and the 1920s country guitar rags of Sam McGee, Blind Blake, Roy Harvey, and Sylvester Weaver.”
The Moores had already established a reputation as musical family when Samuel Pasco Moore was born in Monticello, Florida, on June 28, 1887. His father, Samuel Lewis Moore, was a Civil War veteran and holder of a Confederate Cross of Honor. Music, however, was only an avocation for the family, which operated a successful construction business.
Sam Moore with his family and banjo, both circa 1895
(courtesy of Betsy Loar)
Proficient on the violin by age seven, Sam was later sent to Macon, Georgia, to study under Professor W. C. Kaler. After a badly healed broken arm ended his aspirations as a violinist, Moore turned to the banjo and guitar and also began to experiment with everyday objects — most notably, the ordinary hand-saw — as musical instruments.
In 1919, Moore left home to audition for Florenz Ziegfeld in New York. The result was a six-moth run at Ziegfeld’s Roof Garden. For a time, the newly arrived Georgian was the toast of New York society, even serving as guest of honor at a reception hosted by the editors of TheMusical Courier that was attended by Enrico Caruso and other luminaries. “Those eminent artists,” a New York paper reported, “were so delighted by Mr. Moore’s playing on a carpenter’s hand-saw, that they hovered so closely around him that he hardly had room to play.”
Moore traveled to Chicago during the summer of 1920. There he met Harry Skinner, an employee of Lyon & Healy, the city’s leading music retailer. In September, Moore made a well-advertised appearance in Lyon & Healy’s auditorium, at which he played his hand-saw.
Moore’s appearance at Lyon & Healy (Chicago, September 1920)
Skinner introduced Moore to his new invention, an eight-string steel guitar named the octo-chorda. (Although several accounts credit Moore with its invention, a 1926 news article confirms that Moore’s eight-string steel guitar was “the recent invention of Harry Skinner of Lyons & Healy in Chicago.”) Together, Moore and Skinner composed a showpiece for the octo-chorda, titled “Laughing Rag.”
Moore was soon traveling on the Keith and Orpheum vaudeville circuits, sometimes with Horace D. Davis. A great-grandson of Robert E. Lee, who also performed under the name of John Powell, Davis was an accomplished guitarist.
During the summer of 1921, Moore recorded “Laughing Rag” as an octo-chorda solo for the Gennett, Okeh, and Victor labels. Gennett 4747 was the first to be recorded, in New York on June 11, 1921, with piano accompaniment by Frank Banta. The recording was erroneously entered in the Gennett files as a hand-saw solo, and was even advertised as such in some newspapers, but the records are correctly labeled.
Okeh 4412 was released in November, coupled with Moore’s “Chain Gang Blues,” using an uncredited accompanist. Moore recorded two more octo-chorda solos for Okeh at about the same time — “Wang Wang Blues” and “Tuck Me to Sleep in My Old ‘Tucky Home” (the latter with Davis, coupled on Okeh 4423).
But Moore’s most successful recording of “Laughing Rag,” musically as well as in terms of sales, was made for the Victor Talking Machine Company in their New York studio on August 24, 1921, originally as part of a trial session. For this version, Moore used Horace Davis to accompany on the harp-guitar, an odd hybrid instrument with six primary strings plus an additional set of strings that resonated sympathetically.
SAM MOORE & HORACE DAVIS: Laughing Rag
New York: August 24, 1921 (Released March 1922)
Victor 18849 (mx. B 25543 – 1) Recorded as a test and later accepted for commercial release, per the Victor files. Originally scheduled for release on Victor 18846, coupled with Moore & Davis’ “Cry Baby Blues,” which was canceled before release.
Victor inexplicably delayed its release of “Laughing Rag” for seven months, only to discover that they had a hit on their hands. The guitar interplay between Moore and Davis proved to be irresistible. Victor’s version remains a perennial favorite with collectors and has been commercially reissued several times, most recently on RCA’s “Classic Ragtime” CD. But of the fourteen titles Moore and Davis recorded for Victor between August 1921 and September 1922, only three were issued, the other two being straightforward “Hawaiian” numbers.
Unfortunately for modern listeners, “Laughing Rag” was an anomaly. In 1922, Moore and Davis split, and Moore teamed with Carl Freed, a ukulele- and guitar-playing comedian who also played the musical spoons. Together, they developed a novelty vaudeville act entitled “Spooning and Ballooning,” in which Moore played an inflated rubber balloon and other gadgets to Freed’s spoon accompaniment. The Columbus [Georgia] Ledger for April 9, 1924, reported that “Among the most appreciative of Sam Moore’s audiences are the negroes who go north… [they] often talk to the performer from the galleries, which makes the act ‘go big’…”
An early review of “Spooning and Ballooning” (Altoona, Pennsylvania, October 1922)
The long-running “Spooning and Ballooning” plays Allentown, Pennsylvania
Although Moore’s guitar work is what interests most modern collectors, his use of offbeat instruments is what captivated audiences in the 1920s. In April 1924 Moore’s father told the Columbus Courier, “That boy can music out of anything. When he was a small boy, I’ve seen him get music out of a pitchfork.” Moore didn’t leave any known recordings on the pitchfork, but he made a number of hand-saw records, beginning with “Mother Machree” for Gennett, on the reverse side of “Laughing Rag.”
By the time Moore recorded for Columbia in 1922, however, the musical-saw fad was fading in New York. Moore’s April 7, 1922, Columbia session yielded a single release (A3750), which appears to have sold poorly. A few Moore saw-solo releases followed during 1923–1924 on Brunswick and Vocalion, on some of which Horace Davis made a reappearance, but again, sales appear to have been small.
From a 1924 Vocalion supplement
By the mid-1920s, with several firms marketing cheap musical saws and instruction courses, the hand-saw was largely relegated to the status of an amateur’s novelty instrument. Moore carried on, championing the hand-saw as well as a host of other instruments that had fallen from (or, in the case of the rubber balloon, never attained) grace. Interest in “Spooning and Ballooning” faded, and Moore and Freed eventually went their own ways.
By 1927, Moore was once again working with Horace Davis, but no issued recording resulted. Together, they recorded Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” for Brunswick on November 8, which was to have been coupled with a remake of “Laughing Rag” on Brunswick 3713. However, there is no evidence in the Brunswick files that the latter title was recorded, and Brunswick 3713 was canceled before release. Two October 1928 Brunswick duets with ukulele player Edmund Evans were rejected.
But “Laughing Rag” had not run its course. In 1928, Roy Smeck cut his own country-inflected version, which was issued on the Plaza-group of dime-store labels:
ROY SMECK: Laughing Rag (octo-chordo)
New York: March 5, 1928
Regal 8547 (mx. 7824 – 3) Labels mistakenly show piano accompaniment by F. Henri Klickmann.
A formal 1920s portrait of Sam Moore (left), and a snapshot taken during his stint with KFSO radio’s “Country Store” (courtesy of Betsy Loar)
In the 1930s, Moore left the stage for radio work, writing for and performing on several NBC shows into the 1940s. For a time he teamed with his wife, Carolyn, in a stereotypical “blackface” act called “Sambo & Mandy” for local radio broadcasts and personal appearances.
Moore suffered from asthma, and eventually he settled in San Francisco for health reasons. There he was featured in the cast of KFSO’s “Country Store.” He died in San Francisco on November 13, 1959, at the age of 72.
Thanks to Betsy (Moore) Loar, the grand-daughter of Sam Moore, for sharing her rare photos and other source materials. Discographical data are from the original company files, via the University of California–Santa Barbara’s Discography of American Historical Recordings site and John R. Bolig.
Compiled by George Blacker with the
Record Research Associates
One of the late George Blacker’s many projects that never saw publication, The Okeh Vertical-Cut Discography was compiled from firsthand inspection of the original discs, with the assistance of members of the Record Research group. We are pleased to finally be able to offer it, especially since it adds substantially to the rather sketchy material in Laird & Rust’s Greenwood Press discography.
This discography is being offered free of charge for personal use only. Reproduction or other use exceeding customary fair-use standards is prohibited without the prior written consent of Mainspring Press. Please e-mail us with any questions concerning fair use, or with corrections and additions.
Some of these recording were also issued under the Rishell label in the U.S., and the Phonola label in Canada. These issues, for which we are still gathering and fact-checking data, will be added in a later update to the discography.
In addition to distributing Okeh records, Rishell briefly marketed some Okeh pressings under their own label.