Monday, November 30, 2009
"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 appeared to capitalize on the appeal of blind artists: Phamous.
Nothing at all is known about 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). This was recorded in early 1950 at ACA in Houston, got mentioned in Billboard in their April 1 issue, and then was repressed with a different label, ID'ing the band as Old Pop Watts And His Old Plantation Melody Boys. Alas, the record was not a repeat of "I Love You Because," and poor Otis disappeared back into the mists.
Billboard, April 1, 1950.
A little bit more is known about the band, which includes a pretty nice steel guitarist, electric mandolinist, and pianist on "I Lost My Heart." The Old Plantation Melody Boys were a Rosenberg group, sponsored by Old Plantation sausage. The group included, at various times, Lester Woytek (guitar) and Frank Juricek (steel guitar). "Old Pop 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 c. late 1940s. 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, so it's probably safe to assume that the owner had hopes that Leon Payne's success would rub off on his artists. But who was the owner? The address on later labels is 908 1/2 Travis Street, amid the skyscrapers in downtown Houston. The 1950 city directory IDs this address as the location for Howard's Fun Shop, a magic store. I tracked down an ex-employee of this store, which was a Houston institution for decades, but he denied all knowledge of any excursion into the record business. Kevin Coffey has speculated that the spelling of "Phamous" must have some significance, perhaps related to female "blind troubadour," Helen Phelps, who had four releases. The mystery remains.
Thanks to Kevin Coffey and Al Turner.