“Crazy Blues” – The Centennial

One hundred years ago today – August 10, 1920 – Mamie Smith & Her Jazz Hounds recorded “Crazy Blues.”

The recording was made in the New York City studios of OKeh Records. Ralph Peer, the recording director for OKeh in New York, supervised the session.

“Crazy Blues” was the first Blues recording by an African/American singer.

The vocalist, Mamie Smith, was 37 years old. She had sung and danced and played piano on the Vaudeville circuit since she was 10.

“Crazy Blues” was written by African-American composer Perry Bradford in 1912. Originally called “Nervous Blues,” Bradford changed the title for its original sheet music publication in 1915.

The members of the Jazz Hounds who accompanied Mamie Smith on the session were:

  • Perry Bradford – Piano
  • Ernest Elliott – Clarinet
  • Dope Andrews – Trombone
  • Johnny Dunn – Cornet
  • Leroy Parker – Violin

Today, this type of Blues is referred to as “Classic Blues:” a female vocalist with at least a piano for accompaniment, all instrumentalists playing in the Jazz style of the times.

In 1920, however, this was something new.

Give a listen.

 

The success of “Crazy Blues” b/w “It’s Right Here For You (If You Don’t Get It, ‘Taint No Fault Of Mine)” by Mamie Smith & Her Jazz Hounds took everyone by surprise.

Especially OKeh Records.

75,000 copies of the 78-rpm disc – #4169 – were sold in the first month after its release and 1,000,000 before six months had passed.

“Crazy Blues” proved that there was a very real market for music by African-American artists. American record companies soon began recording and releasing such records in earnest. Established performing artists including Bessie Smith (“Empress of the Blues”), Alberta Hunter, Sara Martin (“The Blues Sensation of the West”), Ma Rainey (“Mother of the Blues”) and Victoria Spivey became recording artists as well.

In 1924, OKeh recorded Ed Andrews, the first male Blues singer/guitarist.

By the late 1920’s, five different record companies competed for sales in this new category, one that they called “Race Records.”

A few years after the release of “Crazy Blues,” Metronome magazine boldly proclaimed: “Blues are here to stay!”

As I always say, “Good music doesn’t get old.”

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This Historic Day In Music: The Carter Family

In the evening, on August 1, 1927, The Carter Family – Alvin Pleasant Carter, his wife Sara Dougherty Carter and Sara’s younger cousin, Maybelle Addington Carter – made their first recordings.

The recording session took place in a make-shift recording studio located on the second floor of the building used by the Taylor-Christian Hat Company at 408 State Street in downtown Bristol, Tennessee.

Ralph Peer, a traveling talent scout for New York City-based Victor Records, had set up the studio and produced the recording session.

The Carters stood together that evening on a small wooden stage in the middle of the blanket-draped room and leaned into the single microphone. Sara played the autoharp and sang lead, Maybelle played a small Stella acoustic guitar and together with A.P., sang harmony.

When the session was done, they had recorded four songs and, though no one knew it yet, they’d made history.

Here’s one of those recordings. Give a listen.

 

Years later, Maybelle would recall this day:

“When we made the record and played it back, I thought it couldn’t be. I just couldn’t believe it, this being so unreal, you standing there and singing and they’d turn around and play it back to you.”

Over the next seventeen years, The Carter Family would record – and listen to the playback of – hundreds of songs. Their music would come to define Country music for decades.

The Carter Family was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970 and the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1988. They were given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.

To this day, A.P., Sara and Maybelle are widely referred to as “The First Family of Country Music.”

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The First Record With A Fender

It was a Country record on the Capitol label.

Released in July of 1950, Capitol Record #1124 was available in two formats: a 78 rpm 10″ shellac disc and the more modern 45 rpm 7″ vinyl “single.”

“I’ll Never Be Free” by Bennie Benjamin & George Weiss was the song on the A-side. On the B-side was “Ain’t Nobody’s Business But My Own” by Irving Taylor.

The featured vocalists on the record were Capitol Records artists Kay Starr…

…and Tennessee Ernie Ford.

 

Ms. Starr and Mr. Ford recorded “I’ll Never Be Free” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business But My Own” at Capitol Records’ studios in Los Angeles, California on June 28, 1950.

There were two guitarists among the studio musicians gathered for the recording session.

One of them was Speedy West on pedal steel guitar.

The other was Jimmy Bryant on electric guitar.

 

Jimmy Bryant was a 25-year-old, Georgia-born, Jazz-influenced Country guitar player working in the Southern California area. In early 1950 he had become quite well known for his dazzling guitar duets with Speedy West on a local Country music TV show. Although Speedy had been recording for Capitol since late 1948, the June 28, 1950 date was Jimmy’s first recording session.

The instrument that Jimmy Bryant played that day was a Fender Esquire solid body electric guitar.

It would be the first time a Fender guitar was used on a record.

Here now are both of those remarkable and most enjoyable recordings. Give a listen!

Speedy West’s pedal steel is most prominent on “I’ll Never Be Free,” but Jimmy adds in some very tasty fills at the 0:19, 0:42, 1:28 and 2:15 marks.

 

Just To Let You Know: “I’ll Never Be Free” would reach the #2 spot on the U.S. Country chart and #3 on the Pop chart before the end of the year.

Jimmy Bryant’s superb playing is showcased on “Ain’t Nobody’s Business But My Own.” He takes the opening solo and then a breathless full solo starting at 1:09. He contributes endlessly inventive counter melodies behind the vocals on most of the verses and all four statements of the chorus.

 

JTLYK#2: The record pictured in those YouTube videos – Capitol Records EAP 1-621 – was a 45 rpm 7″ vinyl EP (extended play) record released in 1955.

 

The Fender Esquire solid body electric guitar was designed by Leo Fender. In 1950, it became the first electric guitar manufactured and sold by Leo’s company, the Fender Electric Instrument Company of Fullerton, California.

 

Jimmy Bryant had been a devoted fan of the Fender electric ever since the Fall of 1949. That was when Jimmy got to try out Leo Fender’s recently-completed prototype for his “standard electric” guitar one night at the Riverside Rancho dance hall in northern Los Angeles.

That prototype guitar was part of the Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City from April to October, 2019 BP. I took this photograph there on September 29.

Leo Fender built a second prototype of his “standard electric” – one with all six tuning pegs lined up on the left side of the headstock – in the winter of 1949/50. Finally, when all the details of the design had been decided, the manufacturing of Leo’s guitar began at Fender’s Fullerton facility in March, 1950.

Don Randall, the company’s salesperson, christened the instrument “the Esquire.”

Given how ubiquitous and iconic Leo Fender’s electric guitars – the Telecaster (1951), the Stratocaster (1954) –  have become in the past 70 years, the discovery of these two recordings was a real thrill.

For the discovery of those recordings (and the writing of this post) I am most grateful to Mr. Ian S. Port for his truly exceptional book: The Birth Of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘N’ Roll.

One last detail: Speedy West played a three-neck pedal steel guitar (see picture above) that was custom built for him in 1948 by Paul Bigsby of Downey, California; another major guitar pioneer who plays a big part in Mr. Port’s book.

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Opening Day 2020

Baseball – at least for now – is back!

Yesterday – Thursday, July 23, 2020 – was the Official Opening Day of the 2020 American Major League Baseball Season.

But today – Friday, July 24, 2020 – is Opening Day 2020 for the only team that really matters (to me): the Boston Red Sox!

And I’m ready!

I’ve got the 60-game schedule printed and hanging on the front of the refrigerator.

 

I’ve got a picture I took at Fenway Park during a game I went to in August 2018 as the desktop image on my laptop.

 

I’ve got my gear on.

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And I’ve got Steve Goodman and Jethro Burns cranked up on the jukebox.

 

Yeah, I’m ready.

GO RED SOX!!!!

So, who are you rootin’ for?

(That crackerjack rendition of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” is from Steve Goodman’s excellent 1984 album Affordable Art. Steve steps up to the plate on acoustic guitar and vocals with designated hitter Jethro Burns knocking it out of the park on mandolin.)

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Sparklers: “Woke Up With The Blues In My Fingers” by Lonnie Johnson

This is the sixth installment of this category featuring recordings of outstanding performances by noteworthy guitarists – or outstanding guitarists giving noteworthy performances.

So, Ladies and gentlemen! Let me introduce to you…

“Woke Up With The Blues In My Fingers” by Lonnie Johnson.

Give a listen. (You’ll be glad you did!)

 

Lonnie Johnson recorded that piece for OKeh Records on May 1, 1927.

I discovered it on an album I bought many years ago at the Tower Records (Remember Tower Records?!?) that used to dominate the corner of Newbury Street and Mass Avenue in Boston, Massachusetts.

That album was released on the Origin Jazz Library label in 1980. It was produced by Lawrence Cohn.

Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on February 8, in either 1889, 1894 or 1899. (His passport said 1894.) He passed away on June 16, 1970 in Toronto, Canada.

His recording career began in 1925 after winning first prize for eight weeks in a row in a Blues contest sponsored by OKeh Records at the Booker T. Washington Theatre in St. Louis, Missouri.

Music journalist Pete Welding proclaims Lonnie Johnson to be “…one of the greatest, most accomplished, and most widely influential of all Blues performers.”

Fellow Blues musician Johnny Shines claimed that his friend Robert Johnson admired Lonnie’s music so much that Robert “…would tell people he was one of the Johnson boys from Texas. He’d give people the impression that he was from Texas and was related to Lonnie Johnson.”

If you enjoyed “Woke Up With The Blues In My Fingers,” Lonnie Johnson left an extensive legacy of equally brilliant recordings. (He was a fabulous vocalist, too!) They are well worth searching out!

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This Historic Day In Music: John & Alan Lomax Meet Huddie Ledbetter – Take 3

In early June, 1933, Texas-based Folk song collector John Lomax and his 18-year-old son Alan drove out of Dallas on a mission. They were going on “the first major trip in the United States to capture black folk music in the field.”

(All quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the 1992 book The Life & Legend of Lead Belly by Charles Wolfe & Kip Lornell.)

The elder Lomax was no stranger to song collecting. In 1910, his book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads had made him “a national figure in the field of folk song.”

Now John envisioned a new book that would “especially focus on the neglected genre of the black work song.” He even had a title: American Ballads and Folk Songs.

To collect such music, John decided to visit “sections of the South with a high percentage of blacks.” Specifically, his journey would pinpoint “labouring camps, lumber camps… and eventually, prisons and penitentiaries.”

Prisons and penitentiaries?

Alan Lomax answered that question in his 1993 book, The Land Where The Blues Began:

“We thought we should find that the African-American away from the pressure of the church and community, ignorant of the uplifting educational movement, having none but official contact with white men, dependent on the resources of his own group for amusement, and hearing no canned music, would have preserved and increased his heritage of secular folk music.”

John Lomax convinced the Macmillan Company publishers to give him a contract and a small cash advance. He also secured research funds and the promise of a new state-of-the-art portable recording machine – one that used 12-inch annealed aluminum discs – from the Library of Congress. This 315 pound disc-cutting behemoth was not received by the travelers, however, until they’d reached Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in early July.

But it arrived just in time.

In mid July the Lomaxes spent a few days at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.

On Sunday, July 16, Andrew Reaux, the captain of the prison’s Camp A, introduced them to inmate Huddie Ledbetter.

John later wrote about that meeting:

“We found a Negro convict so skillful with his guitar and his strong, baritone voice that he had been made a ‘trusty’ and kept around Camp A headquarters as laundryman, so as to be near at hand to sing and play for visitors. Huddie Ledbetter…was unique in knowing a very large number of songs, all of which he sang effectively while he twanged his twelve-string guitar.”

Huddie – who went by the nickname “Lead Belly” – played and sang seven songs for the Lomaxes that day.

They were (in approximately this order):

  • “The Western Cowboy”
  • “(Honey) Take A Whiff On Me”
  • “Angola Blues”
  • “Frankie and Albert”
  • “Irene”
  • “You Can’t Lose Me Cholly”
  • “Ella Speed”

But since John and Alan were still learning how to use their new equipment, they only recorded a part or two (three for “Irene”) of each song.

The original discs from that July 16, 1933, recording session now safely reside in the archives of the Library of Congress.

The recordings on those discs were copied and eventually digitized by the Library. In 1997, they were released by Document Records on a CD titled: Field Recordings, Vol.5 – Louisiana, Texas, Bahamas. The tracks from that album were posted on YouTube in 2005.

I discovered them there yesterday.

Here they are.

I sincerely hope you take the time to listen to them both. I think you’ll find they make for a fascinating listening experience.

 

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This Historic Day In Music: Woody Guthrie – Take 4

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name “Woody Guthrie?”

I’m guessing that it’s not “children’s songs.”

(I would really like to know your answer to that question!)

Well, Woody Guthrie was a dad. He fathered eight children – starting with Gwendolyn Gail, born in 1935 and lastly Lorinna Lynn, born in 1954 – and reportedly wrote songs for all of them. Woody was, however, especially inspired by his daughter Cathy Ann, born in 1943; his first child with Marjorie Mazia, his second wife.

The first collection of Woody Guthrie’s children’s songs to appear on record came out in 1946. Titled: Songs To Grow On: Nursery Days, it was released as a set of three, 78-rpm discs by Moses Asch on his Disc Recordings label.

A second collection of six songs came out on Disc Recordings in 1947. This set was titled: Songs To Grow On: Work Songs for Nursery Days.

Woody wrote most of the songs for the second collection in late September, 1946, while Marjorie, Cathy and he were vacationing with Alan Lomax and his family in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.*

The first song on Songs To Grow On: Work Songs for Nursery Days is called “Build My House.”

I learned this exceptionally fun tune from a 1990 Smithsonian Folkways cassette album called “a fish that’s A song: 19 songs and stories for children.”

Give a listen!

Here’s the chorus, if you want to sing along:

“Bling blang, hammer with my hammer / Zingo zango, cutting with my saw.”

 

I hope you enjoyed that!

“Build My House” was retitled “Bling-Blang” when Moses Asch included it on the 1956 Folkways Records LP Songs To Grow On For Mother And Child.

Woody Guthrie wrote the liner notes for that album and offered these “instructions” for how he hoped the songs would be used by parents and children alike.

“Watch the kids. Do like they do. Act like they act. Yell like they yell. Dance the ways you see them dance. Sing like they sing. Work and rest the way kids do.

You’ll be healthier. You’ll feel wealthier. You’ll talk wiser. You’ll go higher, do better and live longer here amongst us if you’ll just only jump in here and swim around in these songs and do like the kids do.

I don’t want the kids to be grownup. I want to see the grown folks be kids.”

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born this day, July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma.

*From the liner notes with the Smithsonian Folkways CD Woody Guthrie – Hard Travelin’: The Asch Recordings, Vol.3, by Guy Logsdon & Jeff Place.

 

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This Historic Day In Music: “Blowin’ In The Wind” – Take 2

This blog has two mottos.

“Good music doesn’t get old.” – Ferdinand Joseph “Jelly Roll Morton” LaMothe

“All valuable stories need to be told over and over again.” – Bruce Springsteen

Therefore, this post.

Also, quite sadly, this song is more relevant today than it ever was.

As the story goes…

Bob Dylan wrote “Blowin’ In The Wind” sometime in late March/(most likely) early April, 1962.

The first person he sang it for was his friend, Gil Tuner. Turner was a folksinger, political activist, editor of Broadside Folk music magazine and host of the hootenannies at Gerde’s Folk City in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

Gil’s response to Dylan’s new song was: “Jesus Christ, I’ve never heard anything like that in my entire life! That’s the most incredible song!”

Bob Dylan debuted “Blowin’ In The Wind” on stage at Gerde’s Folk City on April 16, 1962.

From that point on, Dylan performed “Blowin’ In The Wind” every chance he got.

Todd Harvey explains in his excellent 2001 book, The Formative Dylan: Transmission and Stylistic Influences, 1961-1963 that: “By the end of 1963 the song had become (Dylan’s) signature piece and had taken on a life of its own, working its way into the American psyche as a Civil rights and counterculture standard.”

On Monday, July 9, 1962, 21 year old Bob Dylan recorded “Blowin’ In The Wind” in Columbia Record’s Studio A in New York City. It was released on May 27, 1963 as the first track on his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

(Peter, Paul & Mary released their recording of “Blowin’ In The Wind” as a single on June 18, 1963. It went on to be a Top-10 million selling record and won the Grammy Award in 1964 for Best Folk Recording.)

Music journalist Paul Williams observed in his 1994 book, Bob Dylan: Performing Artist 1960-1973 that Dylan’s rendition that day “…has a presence, a magic, as if (he) took a deep breath and thought, ‘Okay, this one’s for posterity.'”

Listen for yourself.

(I know. You’ve heard it a thousand times. But go ahead, listen again.)

 

According to The Official Bob Dylan Website, Dylan has performed “Blowin’ In The Wind” one thousand five hundred and eighty four times since April 16, 1962. (The last time was on July 14, 2019.)

If you add in all of the times Peter, Paul & Mary performed it along with the performances of all of the other Folk singers (myself included) around the world who proudly included the song in their repertoire…

…why, oh why, are the answers to all of those questions still so elusive?

 

P.S.: This Historic Day In Music: “Blowin’ In The Wind” – Take 1 posted on July 9, 2015.

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This Historic Day In Music: Richard Starkey

Richard Starkey was born on July 7, 1940 in Liverpool, England. He was the only child of Richard and Elsie (Gleave) Starkey.

Richard was thirteen years old when he contracted pleurisy and then developed tuberculosis. He was hospitalized for well over a year. In 1954, thanks to a music program the hospital had to educate and entertain the younger patients, Richard started playing the drums.

“I never wanted anything else from then on,” he later recalled.

In 1959, Richard was the drummer with Rory Storm & The Hurricanes, a very popular Liverpool band. While working a three month engagement at the Butlins holiday camp that year, everyone in the band picked stage names for themselves. Richard created his by combining his penchant for wearing a lot of rings and a re-spelling of his last name.

Thus, he became: Ringo Starr.

Ringo continued playing with Rory Storm & The Hurricanes for the next few years. He was widely considered to be the best drummer in Liverpool. He became the first-call fill-in drummer for an up-and-coming Liverpool band called The Beatles when their regular drummer, Pete Best, couldn’t make a gig.

Eventually, the three other members of The Beatles – George Harrison, John Lennon and Paul McCartney – decided that they should get Ringo in the band full time.

Ringo Starr played his first gig as an official member of The Beatles on Saturday, August 18, 1962, at Hulme Hall, in Port Sunlight, Birkenhead, England.

Ringo often said, looking back over his years with The Beatles, that the song “Rain” featured one his favorite performances among all of their records.

“Rain” was written by John Lennon & Paul McCartney. It was recorded at Abbey Road studios during sessions held on April 14 and 16, 1966. It was released in the United Kingdom by Parlophone Records on June 10, 1966 as the B-side of a 45-rpm single. (“Paperback Writer” was the A-side)

Give a listen!

 

To put it all simply:

Ringo was my favorite Beatle.

He inspired me to learn how to play the drums.

Playing drums led to my learning how to play the guitar.

Playing guitar…well, here I am.

Happy Birthday, Ringo.

Peace & Love to you and many, many thanks.

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Mississippi John Hurt

The birthday of singer/guitarist Mississippi John Hurt has always been celebrated here at sixstr stories as having been on July 3, 1893.

The first post commemorating the day appeared on July 3, 2010 under the heading “On This Day In Music History.” Each of the next 3 years saw “This Historic Day In Music” posts on July 3 continuing the festivities.

In preparing to launch another toast to this extraordinary musician from Teoc, Mississippi, I found out that July 3, 1893 is no longer considered to be his birthday!

My source in 2010 was the All Music Guide to The Blues (3rd Edition), published in 2003.

Today, the definitive source for all-things Mississippi John Hurt seems to be a book I was not familiar with: Mississippi John Hurt: His Life, His Times, His Blues – the 2011 biography by Phillip Ratcliffe.

In his book, Mr. Ratcliffe distills four possible birthdates from various sources – March 8, 1892, March 16, 1892, May 7, 1893 & May 8, 1895 – down to March 8, 1892. This is the date that is inscribed on Mr. Hurt’s gravestone and the date that his grandnephew, Fred Bolden, remembers as being when the family celebrated his uncle’s birthday.

The only explanation for the July 3, 1893 date can be found on the Mississippi John Hurt commemorative historic marker erected in February, 2008 by the Mississippi Blues Commission along the Mississippi Blues Trail in Avalon, Mississippi. The text on the marker states that: “According to a family bible, Hurt was born on July 3, 1893.”

Well, for all of us here at sixstr stories, anytime is a good time to celebrate the irresistible music of Mississippi John Hurt. So here’s a video of the man himself from his November 1966 appearance on Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest television series.

 

I hope you enjoyed that!

I also hope you’ll stay tuned for my post of March 8, 2021, when I promise to extensively and more-accurately celebrate the birthday of John Smith Hurt.

However old it might be… “Good music doesn’t get old.”

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