Monday, November 30, 2009

Otis Glover (Blind Boy) with Old Pop Watts And His Old Plantation Melody Boys on Phamous 101

"When I Was A Small Boy"

"I Lost My Heart"

The late 1940s/early 1950s were the high water mark for the popularity of country music in Texas, and it seems that everybody who could sing country was in demand -- including the visually impaired. Blind artists had always been part of popular music in America, but the national success of Leon Payne and his "I Love You Because" in 1949 was perhaps the catalyst for the addition of blind singers to several Houston area bands in this period. And, in a bizarre footnote, a record label soon appeared to help blind artists get exposure: Phamous.

Otis Glover, identified as a "Blind Boy" on the hand-drawn label (obviously by the same artist who had designed the Gold Star and Eddie's labels), hailed from Freeport. A 1948 article that ran in that city's newspaper, The Freeport Facts, recorded that the 28-year-old Otis attended the Lighthouse for the Blind in Austin and was "learning to read Braille, make door mats, make maps under government contract, to weave, and to get around independently." No mention of him as a singer (though musicianship, too, was strongly encouraged at Austin's Lighthouse).

This was recorded in early 1950 at ACA, got mentioned in Billboard in their April 1 issue, and then was repressed with a different label design, ID'ing the band as Old Pop Watts And His Old Plantation Melody Boys, and the songwriter of "I Lost My Heart" as Leonard Gilliam. Alas, the record was not a repeat of "I Love You Because," and poor Otis disappeared back into the mists. It isn't known if he continued singing. He died at MD Anderson Hospital in Houston in 1973.

Billboard, April 1, 1950.

 The Old Plantation Melody Boys were a Rosenberg group, formed around January, 1946, that sometimes included Houston players, sponsored by Old Plantation sausage (owned by M.J. "Old Pop" Watts). The group included, at various times, Lester Woytek (guitar-vocals) and Frank Juricek (steel guitar). Watts was not a member of the group, merely their sponsor. They broadcast in Houston over KXYZ and KTHT, and appear on all subsequent Phamous releases.

Old Pop Watts and his Old Plantation Melody Boys, KXYZ promo photo, c. late 1940s. From left:Lester Woytek (vocals, guitar), Jack Kay (fiddle), Clarence Freudensprung (bass), Oscar Woytek (steel guitar), M.J. (Old Pop) Watts (announcer, manager), unknown (guitar), unknown (accordion). Click to enlarge.

"When I Was A Small Boy" is an updated version of an old folk song, alternatively known as "Dallas County Jail" and "Logan County Jail." A version was printed in John Cox's Folk-Songs of the South (1925), Vance Randolph's Ozark Folksongs (1946), and finally Malcolm Laws in Native American Balladry (1964), who gave it the number "E 17." Laws was unaware of Otis's version, but is aware of the verse "I'm going down to Huntsville to wear that ball and chain." Interestingly, blues singer Henry Thomas inserts this same line in a completely unrelated song, "Run Mollie Run" (1927). (Gene Autry's "Dallas County Jail Blues" is not related, despite the title.)

Eight releases on Phamous have been recovered, all on 78 and all probably dating from 1950-51. All except the first and last have the legend "Blind Troubadours" on the label.

An AP reporter named Martha Cole found out about Phamous and, intrigued, researched an article that ran in the Austin American-Statesman on November 15, 1951 ("Blind Helps Blind Here"). Datelined in Freeport, M.J. Watts is identified as the owner of "a small recording company, 'Phamous Records,' using blind talent only." According to the article Watts was 52 years old, a World War I veteran, and was himself going blind. The writer makes it sound as if Watts started Phamous as a philanthropic enterprise, which it probably was, though she adds that they have sold "15 to 20 thousand records a year." No explanation is given for the unusual spelling, "Phamous." Watts lived in Freeport, but used a Houston address for most of his business dealings.

Not long after the article ran, Phamous ceased to exist. Vision-impaired musicians continued to emerge, but the ancient, romantic figure of the "blind troubadour" soon passed into history.

Advertisement for an Otis Glover benefit to pay for his recording session, Freeport Facts, December 1, 1949.

Thanks to Kevin Coffey, Bill McClung and Al Turner.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Range Riders on Vocalion test (UPDATE)

How Come You Do Me Like You Do? Take 3 (Vocalion test)

Little information has survived about the Range Riders, a Hot Springs/Shreveport band who broadcast in both cities in the late 1930s. Their lone session was recorded by Art Satherley for Vocalion in Hot Springs on March 1, 1937. Of the ten titles recorded by the group, six were released, including Take One of "How Come You Do Me Like You Do?" This Gene Austin pop oldie is given a satisfying, semi-western swing treatment, though if their intention was to be a "western" band then The Range Riders are slightly behind the times by not including an electric steel guitar, and adding a tuba as well as a string bass. The instrumentation and repertoire is more pop than western so the name "Range Riders" seems like a bit of an anomaly. There is a breezy, lost-in-time feeling to their session; sales were probably abysmal, and Satherley no doubt responded to inquiries with a token "don't call us, we'll call you" send-off.

This is a test pressing of the previously unknown and unheard Take Three of "How Come You Do Me Like You Do?" This take was rejected because the fiddler is off-key during the introduction, but otherwise, it's a strong take, with a more aggressive bass solo than the issued version. It's unusual to hear slapped bass from this period.

The Range Riders. Click to enlarge.

Precisely who was in this group at this time has not been definitively established; however, some possible names have survived. A poor quality, undated newspaper clipping from The Shreveport Times exists in the archives of LSU-Shreveport and is reproduced here. The band is ID'd as: Harold Roberts (bass), Fred Selders (fiddle), Ruth Byles (vocals), H.C. Wilkerson (fiddle), Larry Nola (clarinet/sax), and Lewis Lamb (guitar). There is no tubist or pianist in the photo, as is heard on the record.

Tony Russell's Country Music Records lists Harold "Little Willie" Roberts on bass, and vocals on "How Come..." This appears to be the same person better known as "Pee Wee" Roberts, who led a western swing band on KTBS in Hot Springs during the 1940s (see the George Ogg interview). Russell lists as possible Jelly Green on fiddle and Spec Harrison on clarinet/alto sax, but both instruments could be also played by the men ID'd in the photo. Lewis Lamb, who does not sing on the released masters (but may play guitar), is presumably the same person who recorded for Freedom in Houston around 1951. Of the rest, nothing is known.

Jazz Oracle has reissued the entire Range Riders session on their highly recommended CD devoted to the Hot Springs sessions, Arkansas Shout. More info can be found here.

UPDATE: Kevin Coffey has pointed out that someone calls out "Play it Mr. Spec" during the clarinet solo on this take, which confirms that Spec Harrison is the clarinetist on this session.

Thanks to Chris Brown, and Mike Roseberry at LSUS.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Johnny Nelms on Azalea 015/016

"After Today"

"Cry, Baby, Cry"

Despite being a presence on the country music scene in Houston for over 30 years, Johnny Nelms never found the right song or right label to break out of the local honky-tonks. His long recording career included stops at Gold Star, Freedom, Starday, D, Tilt, Westry, Bagatelle, (briefly) Decca, and probably others, but none of these give the likes of Peck Touchton or Eddie Noack anything to worry about. They are decent C&W records, but nothing more. He was more successful as a club owner, pipefitter, Mason, and eventually a politician, serving in the Texas House of Representatives during the 62nd Legislature in 1971-72. When I met him in 1996, he was a bail bondsman in downtown Houston. (No, I wasn't there to see him about bailing me out of jail.)

For my money, Nelms' 1955 outing on the Azalea is his finest hour. The record, made at Bill Quinn's Gold Star Studio before it's renovation, is pretty low-fidelity, but Johnny's singing is great and musically, "After Today" is what '50s honky-tonk is all about: raw, direct, and emotional..."white man's blues," as (ironically) a black country music fan explained to me once. The uncredited backing band here is Peck Touchton's Sunset Wranglers, which includes Doug Myers (fiddle), Herman McCoy (guitar), Hoyt Skidmore (steel guitar), and George Champion (piano) -- the same band heard on Peck's Starday and first Sarg session. Peck remembered Johnny very well and often played at his club, The Dancing Barn, on Houston's East Side:

"We were working at the Dancing Barn with Johnny Nelms [c. 1955]," Touchton said in a 1999 interview. "We worked out there a long time. The Dancing Barn was a rough damn club, too. It was on LaPorte Road. (Nelms’s) old man, his daddy, had just got out of the pen for killing a man when we were working out there. His daddy killed one or two people. At least one. You could just look at the old man and know that the old son-of-a-bitch was dangerous. There was a few knives pulled out there during that time. Even the band had fisticuffs with the crowd."

Azalea moved around a lot. Starting in Mobile, Alabama, it moved to Houston for awhile, then Dallas, and the final releases have a Fort Worth address. To make things more confusing, Nelms' record was advertised in Billboard on July 16, 1955, with a New Orleans address. Presumably, label owner Dave Livingstone was a guy who "got around." He was certainly tenacious, releasing 31 records over about seven years. None were hits, but there were quality outings from the Hooper Twins, James O'Gwynn, Dixie Drifters, Coye Wilcox, Adrian Roland, the Country Dudes, Joe Poovey, and Marvin Paul. The label should be of interest to anyone into '50s Texas country music.

Nelms was born January 9, 1931 in Huttig, Arkansas (not Houston like he told me in 1996). He died at age 70 in Houston on February 17, 2001.