Friday, December 17, 2010

Homer Clemons on Swing 1001/2

Homer Clemons and his Texas Swingbillies - Operation Blues / From the Start and to the End (Swing 1001/2)

"Operation Blues" (Original version)

Most people are by now familiar with Homer Clemons' "Operation Blues" -- it was singled out by Nick Tosches in his influential and ground-breaking book Country: The Biggest Music in America, has been reissued many times, and can be purchased for 99 cents at iTunes. Even the original Blue Bonnet and Modern label 78s are pretty easy to find. Few would deny that "Operation Blues" is a classic example of a risque blues reinterpreted and filtered through what is now generally but vaguely described as "Texas Swing."

Prior to 1995, however, nobody knew that an earlier and, in my mind, far superior version of "Operation Blues" existed on the Swing label out of Paris, Texas. This was the same label that gave us Roy Lee Brown's superb "Ice Man Song" (heard here), and several rare blues outings bought from Gold Star. Swing, as we now know, was part of a family of labels operated by Jimmy Mercer in Paris from 1946 to 1950, which included Royalty, Cajun Classics, Hill-Billy Hit Parade, Western Magic, All-Spice, and probably others. (The article below mentions a "Down Beat" label also, which has not been found.) Mercer also did custom pressings and, remarkably, bootlegged the Freedom label (which I'll address in a future post). Out of all of these, Swing is the rarest and most coveted -- the "Black Patti" of Texas labels.

In his early days, Mercer was pressing on highly fragile, reclaimed shellac -- he ground up used 78s, cooked them, dried them, and pressed new records out of them, just as Bill Quinn had done. In light of this, combined with the fact that distribution was probably limited to Dallas and Fort Worth, it's a miracle that even one copy exists today of Swing 1001/2 (or the next release, also by Clemons). I've never seen this record, either in a collection or for sale. The above picture is a "historic recreation" courtesy of Photoshop. The only known copy resides safely put away in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, probably thanks to the efforts of the late Bob Pinson. It was resting there in quiet anonymity, and might have remained forgotten, but fortunately Kevin Coffey visited in 1995 and immediately grasped its significance. Thanks to him and Bob we have these sound files.

And the music? Sure, it's poorly recorded and pressed, but the brilliance of the musicians cuts through the noise loud and clear. What immediately impresses the modern listener is the complete absence of fiddle and steel guitar -- instead the 'front line' is comprised of lead guitar, a blues-drenched clarinet, and an extremely jazz minded pianist whose crazy solo couldn't have been bettered by Art Tatum. This is the real thing. So much of what is thought of and celebrated as "Texas Swing" is in fact a banal, toned-down compromise, because some record company yahoo was sitting behind behind the booth saying, "Oh no, you can't play those fancy chords, this is hillbilly music after all. What will the people in Waxahatchie think?" Perhaps the far more tame flipside was intended for the "hillbilly" market. God only knows who "Operation Blues" was intended for. It might have sold some around Dallas in early 1947, but was soon eclipsed by the Blue Bonnet version. It's humbling to think something this good could just completely disappear without a trace.

Why did Clemons re-record these songs a few months later with a completely different and much smaller band? We don't know.
Clemons himself is a mystery; while many Dallas musicians remembered "Operation Blues," few could recall anything about the man who recorded it (twice). Johnny Gimble knew and worked with him in 1954, and remembered Clemons being seriously injured in a car crash around that year. He might be the "Homer Zerle Clemons" who died in Van Zandt County in 1961.

Below: Announcement of Swing Records in the Paris News, November 24, 1946, erroneously describing Swing as "the only record pressing business in Texas today" (Gulf/Gold Star pre-dated it by over a year). Click to enlarge. Courtesy Martha Evans, Lamar County Genealogy Society.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Woody Bridges on Royce 1638/39

Woody Bridges - Old Old Man / Rich Man's Servant (Royce 1638/39)

"Old Old Man"

"Rich Man's Servant (Poor Man's Wife)"

Woody Bridges has been a part of the Beaumont/Port Arthur scene since the early '50s -- he sang with Cliff Bruner, Deacon Anderson, Troy Passmore, and Billy Carter there -- but this 1963 outing was his first single. It was made at Gold Star with Bob Davis (electric mandolin), Herbie Treece (guitar), Wiley Barkdull (piano), Phil Parr (bass), and unknown steel guitar and drums.Both sides are good and deserved a wider recognition than the Royce label could provide.

A few years later Woody made a couple of records for Jack Rhodes that came out on Jack's Pathfinder label. "I really liked Jack Rhodes," Woody says today. "He helped (my wife) Grace and me a lot. I was offered a Captiol recording contract back then. But I would have had to go on the road with the Ray Price group for 273 days a year. Jack talked me out of it, saying he liked me too much to see me destroy my life. We had three kids at the time. Jack said I would lose my family and it would destroy me because I cared too much. I didn't like it at the time, but later in life I was very glad he did that."

Woody confirms that Royce was owned by Ray Jackson (the guy who wrote "Who Shot Sam" among others) and Jim Reddell. Jerry Robinson's Royce single was posted here.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Cliff Bruner on Preview 1008

Cliff Bruner with Pee Wee Whitewing and the Others Brothers - Welcome to the Club / Faded Love (Preview 1008)

Cliff Bruner's return to the recording studio after a 21 year absence didn't make any headlines. It was 1971, and the country music world wasn't too concerned with an aging 56-year-old's rather pedestrian attempt to sound contemporary. Bruner had been an insurance salesman ever since the bottom fell out of the Beaumont/Port Arthur dance scene in the early '50s but had never stopped playing fiddle or working occasional gigs. His brilliant fiddle playing had helped make him semi-famous, yet that instrument is nowhere to be found on this side -- a typical example of what was wrong with country music during these years.

"Welcome to the Club" is credited to Jimmie Davis, someone Cliff always spoke of admiringly (he had played with Davis in the pre-war days). Preview is a Jay Miller label.