"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. Lester Woytek (far left), M.J. (Old Pop) Watts (third from right). 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.