Over the years I've shared my favorite vintage 78s with friends who are not part of the hard core 78 collector crowd. While we might share a taste for the same films, books and restaurants, we're not quite on the same page with music, at least not yet. Since I'm fondest of music from the 1920s and 1930s, and that's a long way from the 21st Century, it's a challenge to break in those who live with contemporary sounds. Not that I'm hoping to make full converts, but if I share some of my favorite 78s, maybe some will cross the accessibility threshold and they'll acquire a taste for more. Inevitably, when it comes to 1920s jazz, most fall flat – it all apparently sounds like cartoon music. With blues singers, the all too familiar refrain is that it's three chords and the same song over and over. Even though I always play those I consider "can't miss winners," in principle I can't totally disagree with them as I've spent many hours squirming my way through what I consider “formulated” blues 78s by lesser, second tier blues singers.
The great country bluesmen seldom recorded a formulated dud, but in acquainting myself with their body of work, I discovered that those few 78s where country blues singers chose to work their magic on popular tin-pan-alley hits were some of my favorite 78s. It was refreshing to hear the different tempos, more varied melodies, and new notes coming out of the instruments of these masters once outside the confines of the blues idiom. The best selling sheet music for these songs could be found sitting on pianos in middle class homes. Orchestras in every podunk town were playing stock arrangements of them at dance halls. And in a few rare cases, they made it onto “race” records by blues singers. Some of my purist blues collector friends pointed out with a sneer, those were POP records, eyeballing me like there was a cancer hanging over my blues collecting impulse, yet I prized these performances over many of the straight blues sides, and whenever possible I would swing a trade for some of these pop records by blues singers. So I'm of a different ilk, not strictly a blues collector, but a music collector who likes great blues singers, especially when they are not singing the blues.
I've picked out six of my favorite schlocky pop records by bluesmen to share, and for context I've introduced some of them with popular versions waxed for the masses.
Starting with Skip James, the Delta blues singer who could arguably be ranked the greatest bluesman on record. The 1931 recording of “I'm So Glad” is a masterpiece of guitar finger picking and one of the most dynamic blues records ever recorded, although it's not really a blues. Its source goes back to a 1927 pop tune “So Tired,” also recorded earlier by the slicker urban blues singer Lonnie Johnson as “I'm So Tired Of Living All Alone.” It was a national hit for early crooner Gene Austin, and a best selling dance band record by Jean Goldkette's Orchestra, one of the finest jazz bands of the late 1920s. Skip took the core strain of melody and ran with it.
Jean Goldkette's disc with vocal by Hoagy Carmichael from 1927 is followed by Skip's 1931 Paramount record.
|James "Kokomo" Arnold|
James “Kokomo” Arnold was one of the major early slide guitarists and an influence on Robert Johnson, who covered some of his songs. In the 1930s he would record over 80 blues sides, but only a few of them came close to the over-the-top guitar wildness of his first record “Paddlin' Blues,” not really a blues but an adaptation of “Paddlin' Madeline Home,” a 1925 tin pan alley ode to the pleasures of canoeing.
First, a typical dance band recording of the newly minted song recorded in late 1925 by the British band of Jack Hylton:
Then Kokomo Arnold as “Gitfiddle Jim” struts his stuff in early 1930:
Of all the older black musicians who are collectively lumped under the rather empty term “songsters,” meaning their song choices showed they were on the scene before there were codified “bluesmen,” Louis Lasky is one of my favorites. He had a trademark flat picking style on twelve string guitar and a low end, gruff baritone singing voice akin to that of Blind Willie Johnson. Based in Chicago, he appeared as a side man on a few recording sessions in the 1920s, but the only session under his own name took place in 1935, at which time he recorded three titles. One of them, “Caroline,” strayed too far from standard blues and was never released, but fortunately one test pressing survives.
In it Louis worked the melody of the 1928 popular song “A Precious Little Thing Called Love” from the film Shopworn Angel into a song about “Caroline” in which instrumental breaks showcase his flawless flat picking technique.
For vocal contrast (and that's an understatement), America's sweetheart, the ethereal Annette Hanshaw sings “A Precious Little Thing Called Love” from early 1929 followed by Lasky's “Caroline.”
|Papa Charlie Jackson|
The versatile singer / songwriter Papa Charlie Jackson played in minstrel and medicine shows, on vaudeville stages, and in jazz bands around Chicago in the 1920s. Although not really a country bluesman, he was the first successful male blues singer on Paramount Records. His strong selling Paramount sides from 1924 and 1925 might have paved the way for Blind Blake and Blind Lemon Jefferson, who would begin to record for Paramount about a year later.
Papa Charlie played six string banjo, which recorded and projected better than guitar in days before amplification. His big hit was the suggestive “Shake That Thing,” which became an anthem for jazz bands in the 1920s and is still a staple today in the traditional jazz repertoire. He wrote and recorded 70 other blues covering sex, rent parties, conniving women, and his brushes with the law, but he kept a sentimental 1905 pop tune “Bright Eyes, Good-bye” in his repertoire, and Paramount let him put it on record. I picked up a copy of this 78 from a blues collector's disposal pile in San Francisco years ago – he considered it Papa Charlie's worst record, not a blues or jazz tune, just a sentimental tear jerker. Fine with me.
While blues singers seldom ventured into pop song, the terrific black string band musicians Evans and McLain covered blues, popular song, and took it a step further, recording instrumentals that were part of the white country music tradition as well. Hailing from eastern Tennessee where blacks were outnumbered twelve to one, they would be immersed in the sounds of traditional Appalachian string band music, so not surprisingly, “Old Hen Cackled” and “Sourwood Mountain” were among the tunes they recorded. But they were also tuned into the popular songs of the day and one of my favorites is their version of the 1926 pop tune “After I Say I'm Sorry,” which they made their own as “So Sorry Dear.” It's beautifully arranged and features intricate tongue-in-groove mandolin and guitar.
Mandolin player Al Miller was a Chicago street musician who had some success in the late 1920s with double entendre hokum style blues songs like “Somebody's Been Using That Thing,” “I Found Your Key Hole,” and “Gimme A Li'l Taste.” Before he found his niche, he recorded the pop tune “Someday Sweetheart” for Black Patti, the holy grail of race record labels, and the closest thing to 78 porn among early record labels. The curious sound of Miller's voice might make this a challenging listen for those who aren't dyed-in-the-wool 78 fanatics, like trying “five spiced rabbit head” at a Chinese restaurant. But if you can get beyond his voice and hear the music, you'll find a unique performance with dynamic mandolin and guitar breaks.
Published in 1919, “Someday Sweetheart” was composed by the Los Angeles-based Spikes Brothers, who were driving forces in the West Coast black jazz scene as musicians, song writers, proprietors of a music store on Central Avenue, and owners of several nearby cafes that featured jazz bands.
It had already become a jazz standard by the time Miller recorded it in 1927, so preceding Miller's version here is Jelly Roll Morton's 1926 recording with the Red Hot Peppers. Morton's orchestration features solo work by Omer Simeon on bass clarinet and Morton on piano before the full band takes it home. The tempo is that of a blues, played slow with wistful sincerity, and Morton changed the name to “Someday Sweetheart Blues” to reflect that.
|Jelly Roll Morton and the Red Hot Peppers|
So there you have it. These six 78s are a few of my favorites, but if any blues aficionados out there know of other pop tunes covered by notable pre-war country blues singers, please let me know. And if you're a “nothing but the blues” purist, take a moment to weed some of these schlocky pop tunes out of your blues record collection. We'll make you a generous offer to take them off your hands.
A tip of the hat to Vince Giordano who dipped into his vast sheet music collection and supplied some of the covers displayed here. Vince leads a band in New York City called The Nighthawks that plays hot jazz of the 1920s and 1930s twice a week at Sofia's restaurant in Times Square. If you find yourself in Manhattan, be sure to leave some room in your schedule for a night with the Nighthawks. They're something special.
We've been continually adding 78s to our buy stuff section on Amoeba.com covering a variety of genres and periods including blues, gospel, jazz and more. Here are some highlights from our latest additions:
Lazy Woman Blues / In Love Again
Blues guitar master Lonnie Johnson from a 1941 Bluebird session.
I'm Grown / Mean Ole Lonesome Train
Electified country blues by Lightnin' Slim on Excello.
Sammy Myers with King Mose Royal Rockers
Sleeping in the Ground / My Love Is Here To Stay
Jackson, Mississippi blues by harp master Sammy Myers on Ace.
I Believe I'll Give It Up / Reconsider Baby
Post war blues on Checker by Lowell Fulson.
Blujean Bop / Who Slapped John
A classic rockabilly item by Gene Vincent.
She's Got Her Jinx On Me / Ease My Troubled Mind
A Western Swing item by honky tonk singer Buddy Jones backed by the great Leo Raley on hot mandolin.
Ray Noble and His Orchestra with Al Bowlly
Lying In The Hay / Wanderer
A rare early Depression Victor 24000 series disc by Ray Noble's orchestra with the great crooner Al Bowlly on vocals.
78 COLLECTION UPDATE
A few of the significant batches of 78s that came in recently:
We acquired an extensive collection of 1/4” thick Edison 78s, and have been selling these in the Hollywood store or through eBay. Included in this lot were 1920s dance bands, popular vocalists, foreign bands, opera singers and classical performers. These were recorded in the “hill and dale” mode, meaning the needle rides up and down rather than from side to side as it does when playing LPs, 45s and most 78s. They require a cartridge wired to play them or a pre-amp with a special setting.
Turkish / Armenian records. One family cleaned out their garage and brought in their grandparents' records, a rich vein of Turkish and Armenian 78s recorded during the 1920s, a golden age for ethnic 78s for those of us who like traditional music of other cultures. Featuring raw, soulful vocals and wild improvisations on oud and fiddle by first generation musicians playing old world music, these will be sold in the Hollywood store and through eBay over the next few months.
Jazz 78s. We recently acquired a large jazz 78 collection from the 1930s and 1940s which contained a nice run of like-new master pressings of 1920s classic jazz 78s. While these are not on the original labels, they are from the same stampers, often pressed on better shellac than the originals, and are priced at a small fraction of what the originals would fetch in such pristine shape. Some of these will be out for sale in the Hollywood store and others will be available through the 78s section on Amoeba.com.
We're always eager to buy any 78 collection of clean, desirable records. Check out the Amoeba.com 78 page for a reminder of the labels and music genres we're looking for. We're especially interested in buying blues 78s, country 78s, jazz 78s, and quantities of exotic 1920s foreign records.