I recently found a book at my local library: Talking Guitar: Conversations With Musicians Who Shaped Twentieth-Century American Music (2017) by Jas Obrecht.
The first chapter in this extraordinary collection of interviews is titled: “Guitarchaeology: Setting The Stage.” In the section of this chapter under the heading, “The Players Adapt,” Mr. Obrecht writes about the March 1, 1938 recording session during which George Barnes became the first person to play an electric guitar on a Blues record. Mr. Barnes was part of the 4-piece ensemble that backed up vocalist Big Bill Broonzy on that Tuesday in Chicago. The two songs the quintet recorded were “Sweetheart Land” and “It’s A Low Down Dirty Shame.” (See my “This Historic Day In Music” post of March 1, 2018 to listen to those fine performances.)
Then Mr. Obrecht writes: “Immediately afterward, he (George Barnes) accompanied Curtis Jones singing the same two songs.”
Earlier in the chapter there had been a footnote (#38) referencing an article from the April, 1995 issue of Guitar Player magazine.
The article was “Birth of the Blast: The First Electric Guitars on Record” by Dick Spottswood. In this detailed and fascinating article, Mr. Spottswood also wrote of the March 1, 1938 session stating that: “Each singer (Broonzy and Jones) recorded separate versions of ‘Sweetheart Land’ and ‘It’s A Low Down Dirty Shame,’ with Barnes credited as Hobson (Hot Box) Johnson on the Jones versions.”
Sure enough, in Blues & Gospel Records 1890-1943 (4th edition) by Dixon, Godrich & Rye, Blues musician Curtis Jones recorded “It’s A Low Down Dirty Shame” and “Sweetheart Land” on March 1, 1938. Mr. Jones sang and played piano. He was accompanied by George Gant on alto saxophone, Hobson “Hot Box” Johnson on electric guitar and an unknown string bassist.
“It’s A Low Down Dirty Shame” b/w “Little Jivin’ Woman” by Curtis Jones was issued later that year on Vocalion Records, #04027. Mr. Jones’ recording of “Sweetheart Land” was never released.
Give a listen to Curtis Jones.
That was, of course, electric guitarist Hobson “Hot Box” Johnson/George Barnes doing a very fine job on the opening solo of that track.
Interesting to note that the opening solo on the Big Bill Broonzy recording of “It’s A Low Down Dirty Shame” was given to the tenor saxophonist. The man cutting loose on that solo was named Bill with the last name of either Osborn, Austin or Owsley, depending on the source.
Curtis Jones – born on August 8, 1906, in Naples, Texas – was a Blues singer, pianist, occasional guitarist and songwriter.
Mr. Jones’ recording career began in Chicago in September, 1937. His most well-known songs were “Lonesome Bedroom Blues” – released in 1937 on Vocalion Records – and “Tin Pan Alley” – released in 1941 on OKeh Records.
Curtis Jones did not record from the start of World War Two until 1953 when Parrot records issued the single “Wrong Blues” b/w “Cool Playing Blues.” His first full length album – Trouble Blues – came out in 1960 on the Bluesville label.
In 1962, Curtis Jones moved to Europe where he recorded and performed extensively until his death in Munich, Germany on September 11, 1971.
Of special note: in 1962, Bob Dylan included a rendition of “Highway 51 Blues” on his debut album for Columbia Records and credited “C. Jones” as the songwriter.
I found another book (this time on-line): Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy by Roger House and published in 2010 by Louisiana State University Press.
In the “Recording Sessions” section of this book, I located the entry for the March 1, 1938 sessions. It shows that Mr. Broonzy and company first recorded “Sweetheart Land” (Studio log #C-2145-2) and then cut “It’s A Low Down Dirty Shame” (Studio log #C-2146-1).
Also noted in the entry is that “Sweetheart Land” was released on Vocalion records #04041. (It was backed with “I Want You By My Side.”)
Then Mr. House lists Big Bill Broonzy’s recording of “It’s A Low Down Dirty Shame” as: “ARC unissued.”
The American Record Company was one of several labels that released Mr. Broonzy’s recordings in the 1930’s and it seems that, for some reason, they decided to take a pass on “It’s A Low Down Dirty Shame.” Didn’t they know it was one of the first Blues records to feature an electric guitar?
Big Bill Broonzy’s recording of “It’s a Low Down Dirty Shame” did not see the light of day until Columbia Records issued it on their “Roots N’ Blues” series album Good Time Tonight (CK 46219) in 1990.
Of all the numbers in this post – years of publication, dates of recording sessions, record company catalogue numbers of 78’s and albums, recording studio log numbers of songs and their “takes” – I find that two of them are especially significant. They are…
04027: the Vocalion Records catalogue number for the Curtis Jones record of “It’s A Low Down Dirty Shame” and…
04041 – the Vocalion Records catalogue number for the Big Bill Broonzy record of “Sweetheart Land.”
If a record company’s catalogue numbers are indicative of the chronological order in which their records were released, then Curtis Jones’ recording of “It’s A Low Down Dirty Shame” is the first time anyone heard an electric guitar on a Blues record.