Jimmie Rodgers: Newspaper Highlights, 1929 – 1932

Jimmie Rodgers: Newspaper Highlights, 1929–1932

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Birmingham, Alabama (July 1929)

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“Waiting for a Train” (an October 1928 recording) was released on February 8, 1929, but was soon replaced by a dubbed version using a master that was transcribed on April 26, 1929 (easily identified by the “4R” marking in the wax, at the nine o’clock position; original takes show just plain 4). The -4R pressing are still quite common, but pressings from the original, unmolested master tend to be elusive, especially in decent condition. They’re well worth seeking out for the rich bass and “forward” quality that were lost in the anemic-sounding dubbing.

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Austin, Texas (January 1930)

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Hamlin, Texas (March 1929)

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Huntsville, Alabama (July 1931)

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H. C. (Henry Columbus) Speir is best remembered as the free-lance talent scout who landed recording sessions for the likes of Tommy Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House, and other blues greats. His role in promoting white country music performers has been largely overlooked and will be the subject of a future posting. (Jackson, Mississippi, January 1929)

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Jackson, Mississippi (January 1929). Note the offer to autograph records. Signed records still turn up today, mainly in the South, but forgeries likely exist.
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Marshall, Texas (May 1932)

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On a roll at Victor — The ad picturing the ever-dour Carter Family is from September 1931, and “Blue Yodel” is from October. The latter of course is Rodger’s celebrated side with trumpet accompaniment by Louis Armstrong, recorded in Hollywood on July 16, 1930, but not released until September 11, 1931. Armstrong was still under exclusive contact to Okeh at the time, and Victor took pains to ensure his anonymity, leaving his name off the labels and not even listing him in the original recording ledger.

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Rodgers with W. I. Swain’s traveling tent show, “In the Flesh” and sharing billing with “Plenty of Girls” (top: Pampa, Texas, May 1930; bottom: Camden, Arkansas, March 1931).

 

Worth Reading and Hearing: “The Blue Sky Boys” and “Black Swans”

Looking for a gift for that hard-to-shop-for vintage-record fan? Here are a couple of recent releases we’ve enjoyed:

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THE BLUE SKY BOYS

Dick Spottswood
ISBN 978-1-4968-1641-2
University Press of Mississippi

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Legendary musicologist, historian, and producer Dick Spottswood turns his attention to Bill and Earl Bollick, two brothers from Hickory, North Carolina, who as the Blue Sky Boys captivated record buyers and radio audiences in the 1930s.

The Bolicks bucked the latest trends in country music during the years leading up to World War II, preferring close-harmony renditions of southern folk tunes, old-time songs, hymns, and new compositions in a similar mold. Self-accompanied on guitar and mandolin, they developed a low-key, distinctive and readily recognizable sound that was sometimes imitated but never quite duplicated.

Their story is told in part by Bill Bolick himself, whose recollections are skillfully interwoven with Dick Spottswood’s perceptive commentary. Even if the Blue Sky Boys are not your cup of tea, you’ll find much of interest here, such as the role that radio played in disseminating country music, and how sponsors and station owners of the period treated or mistreated their artists. There are numerous illustrations (many of them rarely seen or previously unpublished), a detailed discography, and other useful backmatter.

Dick Spottswood is the author of numerous important works, the most monumental being his five-volume Ethnic Music on Records. He now lives in Naples, Florida, where he produces and hosts Bluegrass Country’s online version of “The Dick Spottswood Show” (aka “The Obsolete Music Hour”). The Blue Sky Boys has won a well-deserved 2019 Award for Excellence from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections.

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BLACK SWANS

Leslie Gerber, Tim Brooks, and Steve Smolian, producers
Parnassus PACD-96067 (CD)
Parnassus Records

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This ground-breaking CD focuses on black classical and operatic performers of the early twentieth century, a group largely overlooked by modern writers (a notable exception being co-producer Tim Brooks, whose Lost Sounds explored many of them in depth for the first time).

The recordings fall into three basic groups: Roland Hayes’ privately made Columbias; the 1919 Broome Specials (Broome having been the first black-owned record label); and the Black Swan operatic series of 1921–1922. As experienced collectors know, these records range from scarce to extraordinarily rare, and assembling them all is a notable achievement. Twenty of the twenty-five selections are reissued here for the first time.

Understand that this is not an “easy listening” compilation, from either a musical or a technological standpoint. Steve Smolian has been diligent in his sound-restoration work, but clean copies do not always exist of records this rare (some of which were poorly recorded to begin with), and the sound quality varies accordingly. Musically, there are some gems here, as well as some failures that nevertheless are worth hearing, for historical perspective if nothing else.

Black Swan’s Harry Pace misjudged his audience, stubbornly clinging to the belief that they would flock to what he called “numbers of a higher standard,” even as meager sales proved him wrong. Although it might be true that some of these artists failed to gain wider recognition because of their color, voices and technique that fell short of the demands of their material certainly are also to blame. The Harlem Renaissance, like any cultural movement, had its share of the mediocre and the pretentious, some of whom are on display here.

As expected, Roland Hayes emerges as the most promising performer of the lot. The fact that he had to pay Columbia to record him — only to move to England, where he was welcomed by the Vocalion label and went on to achieve international acclaim — speaks volumes about the times. Perhaps the most musically interesting items are the two piano solos by R. Nathaniel Dett, playing his own compositions. Co-producer Leslie Gerber has provided excellent program notes, including biographical sketches based in part on Lost Sounds.

While not for the casual listener, Black Swans can be a rewarding experience if approached with an open mind and some knowledge and appreciation of black history.

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The Mitchell Brothers (John & Bill Mitchell) • Newspaper Highlights (1915–1939)

The Mitchell Brothers (John & Bill Mitchell)
Newspaper Highlights (1915–1939)

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Although remembered primarily as members of Carson Robison’s synthetic-cowboy band in the 1930s, that was John and Bill Mitchell’s second act. Their first show-business career had begun much earlier, as a novelty banjo-and-vocal act. They were performing professionally by the time they were in prep school, honed their skills with the University of Washington’s “Pain Killer” Banjo Band in the late ’teens, and by the early 1920s were traveling the vaudeville circuits. By the time Robison tapped the brothers for his Bucakroos in 1932, they had retired from the stage and were running an oil-burner business, but Robison finally persuaded them to join his new band by dangling a trip to England as an incentive.

The Mitchells’ first recording session was brokered by California Ramblers manager Ed Kirkeby, who at that time was still managing other artists as well as his own band. It was held for Pathé on April 26, 1923, according to Kirkeby’s files, and the resulting sides — “Blue Hoosier Blues” and “Banjo Blues” (issued simultaneously on Pathé 021002 and Perfect 11123) — were inexplicably issued under the alias, “McGavock & Tillman” (and later, disguised as “Harper & Coralie” for a Cameo reissue).

In late 1924, the Mitchells signed with Victor and recorded several sides acoustically over a couple of months. Unfortunately, the records were released in February 1925, just as the company was upgrading to electrical recording, and they were deleted when much of the acoustic catalog was purged in 1926. They returned to Victor in October of that year for a final side.

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Capsule biography of the Mitchell Brothers (Kenosha [WI] Evening News, January 26, 1927)

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One of the earliest ads for the Mitchell Brothers (Hot Springs, Arkansas, April 1915), while they were still prep-school students.

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John and Bill Mitchell (left) as members of the University of Washington “Pain Killer” Banjo Band, Decemeber 1919.

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Playing the Liberty in Spokane, Washington, May 1921 (top) and September 1922.

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Seattle, June 1921

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Announcement of the Mitchell Brothers’ first record to be issued under their own name (Victor 19531), January 1925. The recordings were made in New York on November 26, 1924.

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Nashville, July 1926

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The Mitchell Brothers with Carson Robison’s make-believe cowboy band (variously billed as the Pioneers or the Buckaroos), March 1934. Pearl Pickens, who had attended Julliard, and was Bill Mitchell’s wife.

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A 1939 Screen and Radio Weekly account of the Buckaroos’ formation. Note the reference to college graduates John and Bill Mitchell as “a couple of cowhands,” typical of the shtick that went along with synthetic country-and-western groups like Robison’s.    

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MITCHELL BROTHERS: Nobody Knows What a Redhead Mama Can Do

New York: January 9, 1925
Victor 19561 (mx. B 31599 – 2)

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MITCHELL BROTHERS: Popular Medley (Linger While; Doo Wacka Doo; Eliza; Doodle Doo Doo)

New York: January 9, 1925
Victor 19561 (mx. B 31598 – 4)

John Mitchell (tenor vocal, banjo); Bill Mitchell (baritone vocal, banjo)

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We still have some copies of American Record Labels & Producers 1888-1950 (winner of the 2019 ARSC Award for Excellence), but stocks are running low on this special limited edition. Order soon to ensure delivery in time for Christmas!

 

Correcting “Country Music” (PBS) • Jimmie Rodgers’ Record Royalties: The Actual Story

Correcting Country Music (PBS)
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Jimmie Rodgers’ Record Royalties: The Actual Story
By Allan Sutton

 

Ken Burns’ Country Music (PBS) offers up its share of errors and hoary, now-debunked anecdotes, some of which are sufficiently egregious that they’re worth addressing here. For starters, there’s the matter of the royalties paid on Jimmie Rodgers’ Victor record sales.

As the Burns team would have, Rodgers enjoyed sudden wealth from the royalties on sale of his records — but that was not the case. In fact, during his first two years with Victor, Rodgers not only received no royalties on his record sales, but was one of Victor’s lowest-paid artists.

Any sudden wealth that might have come Rodgers’ way from 1927 into early 1929 would have come from live-performance fees and sales of his sheet music (which Ralph Peer published, and on which he held the copyrights), not from record-sale royalties — because none were paid during that time.

Fortunately, there is reliable, primary-source documentation concerning this matter, in the official minutes of the Victor Talking Machine Company’s Managers’ Committee — a source with which the Burns team was obviously unfamiliar and in which, had they looked, they would have found some fascinating glimpses into the workings of Ralph Peer and the nascent market for country music records.

As the minutes make clear, in three separate entries at various times, Rodgers was paid no royalties on sales of his records from 1927 until mid-February 1929. During that period, he received only a flat payment of $75 per approved title, with an agreement to  raise that figure to $100 in July 1929 and to $150 in July 1930, but still without a royalties provision. By comparison, Victor at the time was paying pseudo-hillbilly Vernon Dalhart a $400 advance per title, against an artist royalty of 1¢ per side (½¢ for duets) on his record sales.

In early 1929, Rodgers finally “expressed dissatisfaction” with the existing pay agreement, and Victor executives approved a revised package, superseding the original agreement. Beginning on February 15, 1929, Rodgers was to receive a $100 advance per approved selection, against an artist royalty of ½¢ per side. The change was reported in the Managers’ Committee’s minutes for March 6, 1929:

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That still fell far short of what Victor had been paying Dalhart. However, Dalhart had priced himself out Victor’s good graces some months earlier, insisting on a $25,000 annual guarantee and the right to record for any other companies he chose. (Managers’ Committee minutes, June 6, 1928). Estimating that Victor would have to sell 2.5 million records a year just to meet that guarantee, management decided not to renew Dalhart, who soon began a long downward spiral.

Dalhart’s loss of his Victor contract almost certainly worked to Rodgers’ advantage, with Victor officials noting, “While [Dalhart] is practically the leading artist of his type, we have other artists which we can build up to take his place… .”  And build they certainly did, in Rodgers’ case.

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For the stories behind the many country music labels and producers you won’t hear mentioned on Ken Burns’ Country Music, be sure to check out American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950, a special limited edition available exclusively from Mainspring Press and Nauck’s Vintage Records.

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Samantha Bumgarner: Newspaper Highlights (1924 – 1960)

Samantha Bumgarner: Newspaper Highlights
(1924 – 1960)

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North Carolina native Samantha Bumgarner inspired Pete Seeger to take up the banjo, performed for British royalty, and (with Eva Davis) was the first female country music performer to make records.

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The team of Bumgarner and Davis cut five titles in Columbia’s New York studio on April 22, 1924, three of which were released. Bumgarner returned to the studio the following day, without Davis, to record seven more titles, five of which were released.

Bumgarner’s records appear to have sold reasonably well throughout the Appalachian region; we’ve found copies as far north as the South Mountain area in Pennsylvania, and as far west as the Alleghenies in West Virginia. But Bumgarner failed to attract a national following, and Columbia did not invite her or Davis back.

However, Bumgarner would remain active in the Asheville, North Carolina, area for several decades. Beginning in 1928 she was a star attraction at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, an annual Asheville event founded and managed by folklorist/performer Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Pete Seeger, who heard Bumgarner perform there in the mid-1930s, claimed her as his inspiration for taking up the five-string string banjo.

In June 1939, Lunsford took Bumgarner to perform for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at a White House concert staged by the WPA, which featured such diverse talent as Marian Anderson, Kate Smith, Josh White, the Golden Gate Quartet, and the Coon Creek Girls. Bumgarner continued to perform into the late 1950s.

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Asheville, North Carolina (July 1924). The caption is reversed; Bumgarner is on the right.

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August 1940

.Bumgarner (with Bill McCanlass, top) performing at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville (August 1942)

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At the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival (Asheville,
September 1949)

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Asheville (March 1960)

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December 25, 1960

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April 23, 1924, was a busy date at the Columbia studio, with Bumgarner recording in the morning, followed that afternoon by  Bessie and Clara Smith. Here are two historic sides from that day:

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SAMANTHA BUMGARNER: Fly Around, My Pretty Little Miss

New York: April 23, 1924
Columbia 146-D (mx. 81716 – 1)

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SAMANTHA BUMGARNER: Georgia Blues

New York: April 23, 1924
Columbia 166-D (mx. 81719 – 1)

 

 

Uncle Dave Macon: Newspaper Highlights (1922 – 1952)

Uncle Dave Macon: Newspaper Highlights (1922 – 1952)
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Before he was “Uncle”: Dave Macon in Nashville, November 1922 (top left), September 1923 (top right), and January 1923 (bottom)

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Macon’s earliest releases (left, 1924) were solo efforts, accompanied by his own banjo. In May 1927 (right), he traveled to New York for a series of marathon sessions that netted multiple takes of thirty-eight titles in five days — considerably more than the twenty-five reported in this Nashville Tennessean article, which misidentifies the McGee brothers as “Mack D. Brothers.”

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Dayton, Ohio (December 1926, left), and Atlanta, Georgia
(March 1925)

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Madison, Wisconsin (July 1931)

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Zanesville, Ohio (December 1937)

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Waynesboro, Virginia (July 1938)

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Gaffney, South Carolina, with son Dorris (July 1939)

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Tallahassee, Florida (January 1938, left), and Lincoln, Nebraska,
December 1937

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Macon had a starring role in Paramount Pictures’ Grand Ole Opry, which had its premier in Nashville. (June 1940)

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Cullman, Alabama (August 1940). Macon was a well-known figure in and around Cullman, where he often performed at E. C. Wheeler’s farm auctions.

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Ashland, Alabama (July 1940, left), and McComb, Mississippi
(April 1944)

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Troy, Alabama (February 1942). The Grand Ole Opry continued to feature stereotypical “blackface” fare long after it had fallen out of favor with much of the American public.

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Tampa, Florida (March 1943)

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Shreveport, Louisiana (July 1943)

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Bryan, Texas (April 1947)

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Macon’s “retirement” was short-lived, and he was soon on the road again. (Nashville, May 30, 1950)

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Murfreesboro, Tennessee (March 22, 1952)

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Murfreesboro, Tennessee (March 23, 1952)

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And a few favorites from the Fruit Jar Drinkers sessions:

 

UNCLE DAVE MACON & HIS FRUIT JAR DRINKERS:
Sail Away Ladies

New York (Brunswick studio, room #1): May 7, 1927
Vocalion 5155 (mx. E 4936)
Personnel per Brunswick files: Uncle Dave Macon (vocal/banjo); Sam McGee (guitar); Kirk McGee, Mazy Todd (fiddles, the latter listed as “Maize”)

 

UNCLE DAVE MACON & HIS FRUIT JAR DRINKERS:
Rock About My Sara Jane

New York (Brunswick studio, room #1): May 7, 1927
Vocalion 5152 (mx. E 4925)
Same personnel as above

 

UNCLE DAVE MACON & HIS FRUIT JAR DRINKERS: Tom and Jerry

New York (Brunswick studio, room #1): May 9, 1927
Vocalion 5165 (mx. E 4959)
Same personnel as above

 

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Country Music Record Fans: For information on hundreds of country music record companies and labels, from the behemoths to the smallest, most obscure regionals, be sure to check out American Record and Producers, 1888 – 1950, a special limited edition available from Mainspring Press while supplies last.

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Sam Moore’s “Guitar Accordion Pipe Organ”

Sam Moore was noted for playing unconventional musical instruments, but this one surely tops them all. It’s his “Guitar Accordion Pipe Organ,” from the collection of the Music Maker Relief Foundation. Unfortunately, he don’t know of any recordings he made with it.

Our thanks to Music Maker Relief Foundation program manager Aaron Greenhood for supplying the photographs. The MMRF website and blog are well worth a visit if you’re a fan of American roots music. Based in Hillsborough, North Carolina, the organization was founded “to preserve the musical traditions of the South by directly supporting the musicians who make it, ensuring their voices will not be silenced by poverty and time. Music Maker will give future generations access to their heritage through documentation and performance programs that build knowledge and appreciation of America’s musical traditions.”

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Courtesy of Music Maker Relief Foundation

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© Timothy Duffy, 2013. Used with permission of MMRF.

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© Timothy Duffy, 2013. Used with permission of MMRF.

 

Related Post: Sam Moore: From “Laughing Rag” to
“Spooning and Ballooning”

 

Riley Puckett, Gid Tanner, and The Skillet Lickers: Newspaper Highlights (1915 – 1951)

Riley Puckett, Gid Tanner, and The Skillet Lickers:
Newspaper Highlights (1915 – 1951)

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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:

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Riley Puckett appeals for aid (Atlanta Constitution,
October 22, 1915)

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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)

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Another early mention of Tanner (Atlanta, April 1916)

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Hillbilly hubris (February 1919)

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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.

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Columbia’s first full-page ad for Tanner and Puckett (May 1924), pre-dating formation of the Skillet Lickers

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Montgomery, Alabama, with Puckett misidentified as a fiddler
(April 1927)

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Greenville, South Carolina (May 1928)

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Centreville, Alabama (July 1928)

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Election night before the advent of television. Note the mention of Puckett also playing piano. (Alexander City, Alabama,
November 1, 1928)

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Ashville, Alabama (November 21, 1929). Note the absence of fiddler Clayton McMichen and the substitution of Claude Davis for Riley Puckett.

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At the movies: The Skillet Lickers share a bill with “Working Girls”
(Chillicothe, Ohio, December 1931)

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Puckett, Tanner, and friends on Bluebird records
(November 1934)

One of the last ads for the Skillet Lickers, with only Tanner remaining from the original group (Jasper, Alabama, April 1951)

 

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And a few favorites from their vast output:

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GID TANNER & HIS SKILLET LICKERS
(Riley Puckett, lead vocal): Dixie

Atlanta: March 29, 1927
Columbia 15158-D (mx. W 143795 – 2)

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GID TANNER & HIS SKILLET LICKERS (Riley Puckett, vocal):
Alabama Jubilee

Atlanta: April 17, 1926
Columbia 15104-D (mx. W 142037 – 2)

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GID TANNER & HIS SKILLET LICKERS (Gid Tanner, vocal):
Soldier’s Joy

San Antonio (Texas Hotel): March 30, 1935
Bluebird B-5658 (mx. BVE 82722 – 1)

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GID TANNER & HIS SKILLET LICKERS (Ted Hawkins, mandolin):
Hawkins’ Rag

San Antonio (Texas Hotel): March 29, 1934
Bluebird B-5435 (mx. BVE 82677 – 1)

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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.

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GID TANNER (vocal with own banjo): You’ve Got to Stop Drinking Shine

Atlanta: December 6, 1930
Columbia 15716-D (mx. W 151062 – 1)

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Victor on the Road: Ralph Peer Goes to El Paso (Summer 1929)

Press coverage of Ralph Peer’s summer 1929 visit to El Paso, Texas, gives a taste of the excitement that was generated when  Victor and other large East Coast record companies came to far-flung locations seeking talent. Three local El Paso artists had already been chosen to record by the end of June, in advance of the Victor team’s arrival, and auditions continued through the second week of July:

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El Paso Herald (June 28, 1929)

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Among those whose recordings were issued were M. S. Dillehay, the Rodeo Trio (D. A. Champaigne, Kenneth Deshazo, and Phil Smith), and the Maxwell family string band from New Mexico, which someone at Victor named the “White Mountain Orchestra.” But the artist who got the most attention from the local press was another member of the Maxwell family, Billie Maxwell Warner, whose records were released under her maiden name:

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El Paso Herald (July 2, 1929)

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The local reporters poked a little fun at a couple of unnamed cowboys who came to audition:
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El Paso Herald (July 11, 1929)

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In the end, four of Billie Maxwell’ songs were released in the  Victor V-40000 country-music series. True to form, Peer had her listed as the “arranger” of these numbers, enabling him to file for copyright on what were actually public-domain folk tunes. Here’s her “Haunted Hunter,” which was also issued in Canada on the Aurora label. Both editions are rare:

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BILLIE MAXWELL, “THE COWGIRL SINGER” (vocal and guitar):
Haunted Hunter

El Paso, TX: July 11, 1929 — Released May 16, 1930
Victor V-40241 (mx. BVE 55234 – 1)
From a tape dubbing, courtesy of the late Gilbert Louey

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El Paso Evening Post (Decemebr 5, 1929)

Three ARSC 2015 Awards for Mainspring Press Books: Eli Oberstein, Victor Special Labels, Ajax Records

We’re honored to announce that three Mainspring Press titles have received 2015 awards from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections. Details and secure online ordering are available on the Mainspring Press website.

The ARSC Award for Excellence—Best Label Discography went to Eli Oberstein’s United States Record Corporation: A History and Discography, 1939–1940:

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2015 Certificates of Merit were awarded to The Victor Discography: Special Labels, 1928–1941; and Ajax Records: A History and Discography:

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ORDER SOON if you’re interested in Oberstein or Victor Special Labels. Both titles have been on the market for a while, so supplies are running low (and in addition, there’s recently been a big library run on USRC). We won’t be reprinting either title once our current supplies are gone.

Sorry, Ajax has already sold out (it was a 2013 title — the wheels sometimes turn very slowly at ARSC), although we might consider reprinting this one if there’s sufficient interest — Let us know.