Friday, December 17, 2010
Homer Clemons and his Texas Swingbillies - Operation Blues / From the Start and to the End (Swing 1001/2)
"From the Start and to the End"
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.