Mean Mistreater Blues

Memphis Minnie, Columbia 37295, 1944

I had my first opportunity to become a Memphis Minnie fan back in 1967, but I failed to pursue it. I was just a junior-high kid, after all, with almost no exposure to the blues of my grandparents’ generation. (My grandparents had little to no exposure to it either.) A schoolfriend’s dad worked for RCA and passed along a promo LP copy of Jefferson Airplane’s first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, and my friend passed it along to me. I loved every song on the record, including its only cover, “Chauffeur Blues,” which was the standout vocal number for Signe Toly Anderson. Signe left the group shortly after that album’s release, to be replaced by Grace Slick.

“Chauffer Blues” is credited on the Airplane record as being written by Lester Melrose. He was one in the long line of producers who claimed writer credit in order to grab royalties. The original recording, made in 1941 as “Me and My Chauffer Blues,” is credited to Ernest “Little Son Joe” Lawlar, third husband of Lizzie Douglas, otherwise known as Memphis Minnie. Minnie is thought to have been the actual songwriter, as she was for most of her couple-hundred recorded songs. She lived another six years after the Airplane cover, without acknowledgment or royalties from them. Was she even aware they’d recorded it?

I was a dumb teenager. I had no idea what I was missing by not investigating “Chauffeur Blues,” just as I blithely failed to follow up on Robert Johnson, Reverend Robert Wilkins, Tommy Johnson, and other blues singer-songwriters covered by sixties rockers. It didn’t help that there was no YouTube then, nor did it help that I mostly listened to top 40 radio and played in a band that tried to cover The Beatles and The Byrds.

I’m catching up now, grabbing Memphis Minnie 78s as I’m able, making up for lost time by playing the hell out of ‘em. Among my favorites is “Mean Mistreater Blues,” which features the insistent rhythm guitar of Little Son, and the sharp, dancing guitar fills and rides and the powerful vocals of Minnie. It is hard to find affordable copies of 78s recorded by most of the men who created the greatest country blues music. It is a real treat that records by the only woman who regularly pops up in the country blues pantheon can be found in very nice condition for a reasonable price. Unlike most of her male peers, Memphis Minnie recorded into the fifties, maintaining the style and quality of her earliest recordings. The earliest ones may be a bit on the pricy side, but the later gems are plentiful.

Ms. Minnie’s vocal quality on “Mean Mistreater Blues” and many of her other recordings reminds me of her friend and mutual admirer Bukka White, whose records are in short supply and way out of my price range. But, you know what? I don’t feel like I’m “settling” for Memphis Minnie. She’s right up there with Bukka and the country blues men’s club.

Passion Flower

Johnny Hodges & His Orchestra, Bluebird 30-0817, 1944

If you haven’t listened to this record before, you may be startled like I was after the first eight bars, when Johnny Hodges’ alto sax leaps up out of the horn section’s measured, blended ensemble with its eerie, keening cries. Jarring, and then profoundly beautiful.
There was no better pairing of instrumentalist and songwriter in all of popular music than Johnny Hodges and Billy Strayhorn. Hodges was an Ellington stalwart on sax for decades, and was a key component in the Ellington Orchestra’s sound. But he was particularly suited to the ballads of Mr. Strayhorn, Mr. Ellington’s right-hand composer-arranger-accompanist.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a disproportionate number of Strayhorn’s slow-to-medium-tempo compositions were named after flowers

Strayhorn’s most well-known composition is the bouncy, up-tempo Ellington Orchestra theme song “Take the ‘A’ Train.” But his ballads especially draw me in, with their deep, dark, alluring beauty. His moody, complex “Lush Life” made it into Will Friedwald’s Stardust Melodies: A Biography of 12 of America’s Most Popular Songs, right alongside “Mac the Knife,” “My Funny Valentine,” and, of course, “Stardust.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a disproportionate number of Strayhorn’s slow-to-medium-tempo compositions were named after flowers: “Lotus Blossom,” “Lament for an Orchid,” “Ballad for Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus Eaters,” “Violet Blue,” “In a Blue Summer Garden.” Best of all of these, though—right up there with “Daydream” and “Chelsea Bridge”—were “Passion Flower” (1944) and “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” (1947).

Others have covered these songs. Strayhorn himself recorded them in Paris in 1961, on The Peaceful Side. (Incredibly, on this, his only album as leader, Strayhorn is not given writing credits for these songs! “Passion Flower” is shown as being by E. Coates and G. Wiskin, and “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” is credited to Duke Ellington. According to David Hajdu, in his Billy bio Lush Life, Strayhorn wrote in his name on copies he gave to friends.) The recordings are truly beautiful, with assists from the vocal group The Paris Blue Notes and a string quartet. But we miss Johnny Hodges.

Hodges introduced both of these songs on side projects, as Johnny Hodges & His Orchestra. The “Orchestra” playing on “Passion Flower” comprised Ellington players Jimmy Blanton, Sonny Greer, Harry Carney, Lawrence Brown, Ray Nance, and the Duke himself. A mostly different set of Ellingtonians played on “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” and Billy Strayhorn himself handled piano duties. Nice backup bands, yes, to allow Hodges’ alto to careen and wail so untethered, so plaintively that the immense emotional depth of Strayhorn as channeled through Hodges is overwhelming. How fortuitous it was that these two were brought together musically.

I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling

Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys , Columbia 20459, 1947

This song helped dislodge several prejudices I’d long had against bluegrass music. I’d listened to and enjoyed quite a few Bill Monroe records over the years, including “Little Georgia Rose,” “Gotta Travel On,” and the original ¾-time “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” but never owned any and never sought any out. Then I came across the 78 of “Little Cabin on the Hill” and “I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling” and brought it home for a spin. I enjoyed “Cabin” about like I had other bluegrass songs, appreciating the instrumental breaks, tapping along to the steady beat. But when I turned the record over, it stayed there for a while.

It’s one of the most enchanting passages of music I’ve ever heard in a pop recording, and it’s from the world of bluegrass.

The song starts out with pretty ordinary musical structure on the verses. Bill Monroe, taking the lead vocals with his sharp tenor, out-Dickenses Dickens’ melodramatic Little Nell scene as he pines about a young girl on her deathbed trying to console her bereft parents. “Tell Mommy to come to me quickly / I want to kiss you both then go.” That piqued my interest.

But then a series of escalating surprises unfolds during the chorus. First, the instruments drop way down, and three vocal parts come in, with Bill on top. Next, on the second line of the chorus, the voices swoop way up, with Monroe on a high B, and the effect is startling. Then, on line three, the vocalists entwine themselves in a “steel-guitar” harmony, going in and then out of discordance. Line four brings us back to reality, and the instruments rejoin for verses four and five. Every time I listen to the record and it gets to those last two verses, I know that three-part-harmony chorus is about to come around one more time, and I’m spellbound waiting for it. It’s one of the most enchanting passages of music I’ve ever heard in a pop recording, and it’s from the world of bluegrass. What a revelation!

Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys during this key period included Lester Flatt on vocals and guitar and Earl Scruggs on banjo. They were soon to break away to become a bluegrass-novelty act of great renown. In fact, when I was growing up, I was familiar with Flatt & Scruggs, thanks to their theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies, and their appearance on the show as themselves, come to visit old flame Pearl. But I don’t think I was aware of the great Bill Monroe until way into my adulthood. If he’d only made an appearance on Petticoat Junction…but I don’t reckon t’were Bill’s kinda thang, do you?

Before the few Bill Monroe 78s I recently acquired, I owned no bluegrass music, other than a Dave Grisman LP or two and the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack album. But now I listen to bluegrass a little differently, and I’m at long last a Bill Monroe convert.

September Song

Walter Huston, Decca DU 40001, 1945 (?)

Kurt Weill had a special knack for intriguing, alluring melodies, and was able to find lyricists to partner with whose words added to the effect rather than taking anything away. Weill’s songs are so strong that quite a few non-singers have done a little magic with them. Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya was not so much a singer as an actress, but her recordings of Weill songs from his German as well as his American musicals are considered definitive. She originated the role of Polly Peacham in Weill’s best-known work, The Three-Penny Opera (lyrics by Bertolt Brecht), which introduced “Mackie Messer”—known in the US as “Mac the Knife.” Her “Surabaya Johnny” (from Happy End, with lyrics by Brecht), sung in German, is chilling, even if you don’t understand German.

Also worth finding is Burgess Meredith singing “Johnny’s Song” from a 1956 recording of the songs from the 1936 musical Johnny Johnson (lyrics by Paul Green), Weill’s first American show after leaving Germany. The Penguin wasn’t a singer, but he acts his way through Weill’s complex melody, and it works.

Not so great was Lou Reed’s take on “September Song,” from Hal Willner’s Weill tribute album Lost in the Stars. Croaker Marianne Faithfull and growler Tom Waits are both suited to the material and make out better than Lou, who gives the exquisitely melodic Kurt Weill the Velvet Underground monotone treatment. (Hal Willner’s tribute projects are all uneven but provocative, and three of his choices of composers to salute are three of my favorite songwriters—Weill, plus Thelonious Monk, with That’s the Way I Feel Now, from 1984, and Nino Rota, with Amarcord Nino Rota, from 1981.)

Walter Huston is best-remembered for his role as the old gold-panner who puts Bogart’s character in his place in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. If you’re only familiar with the actor from this role, you may be unable to imagine him crooning emotional ballads. This record presents that other side.

Huston wasn’t a singer, but there is so much feeling built into “September Song”’s melody and lyrics (by Maxwell Anderson) that a great actor can wring a lot of emotional response from it. I’d enjoyed Walter Huston’s version of “September Song” on a cast album for Knickerbocker Holiday, and was thrilled to find it on shellac. He comes through, delivering a big emotional punch, and then does it again on the B-side.

I had no idea Walter Huston had done a version of “Lost in the Stars,” which was the bonus I discovered on the flip side of this record. Of all of Kurt Weill’s beautiful melodies, “Lost in the Stars” (from the musical of the same name, also with lyrics by Maxwell Anderson) is probably the most haunting. Huston’s version doesn’t top Tony Bennett’s version with The Count Basie Orchestra, but it is poignant and, in its own way, beautiful. These two recordings seem to be absolutely ideally suited to the 78 rpm format; I can’t really imagine listening to them any other way.

There is a mystery about the recording that I haven’t yet solved. The musical Lost in the Stars was completed in 1948 and debuted in 1949. I can find no mention of the title song existing prior to the collaboration of Weill and Anderson. Yet everything I can find regarding this recording states it was made in 1944. Since Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton’s book upon which the musical was based, wasn’t published until 1948, my guess is that the info about the recording date is wrong. But I suppose it’s possible that Weill and Anderson collaborated on the song before they knew where they’d put it. As deliberate as Weill was, though, and as perfect the song is in the show, I doubt that was the case.

Tomorrow Night

Lonnie Johnson, King 4201, 1948, #19 Pop and #1 R&B

Whenever I see a photograph of Lonnie Johnson, an urbane, black city fellow from New Orleans, I’m startled that he looks nothing at all like Frith Wilson, a simple, white, Okie farmer.

I found a copy of Lonnie Johnson’s “Tomorrow Night” in its original habitat, the 78 rpm platter, and it’s splendid.

The way I remember my Grandpa Wilson’s voice, it is so much like Lonnie Johnson’s voice on this song that every time I listen to “Tomorrow Night” I imagine it coming out of Grandpa’s mouth, as he sits in a sea-green metal chair on the front porch of his farmhouse, strumming an old guitar. I never actually heard my Grandpa Wilson, who’s been dead for almost forty years, sing or play guitar, but he’s somehow being channeled through this disc.

Lonnie Johnson’s “Tomorrow Night” got me back into 78s. His original recording of “Tomorrow Night” was on 10” shellac, issued just before the 45 rpm format was introduced. I became addicted to the recording only fairly recently, and had it in MP3 format—woefully unsuitable to the task of conveying Mr. Johnson’s full musical and spiritual impact. I found a copy of the 45 online and ordered it, unaware that when “Tomorrow Night” was reissued in the 45 rpm format in the early fifties, some unwanted, unwarranted guests were invited along for the ride: A saccharine choir and florid piano, apparently added to shore up Johnson’s basics, were, I guess, intended to give the record some mass appeal. The additions subtract all the intimacy and earthiness that give the original its appeal. (Think of Ray Charles’s cover of Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” The worst thing about it is the background singing. If they had just let the Raelets do the backups, or just let Ray croon it solo…) Grandpa Wilson, I’m sure, would’ve preferred the unmolested version. So I found a copy of Lonnie Johnson’s “Tomorrow Night” in its original habitat, the 78 rpm platter, and it’s splendid.

It wasn’t always so splendid. When Lonnie Johnson recorded “Tomorrow Night” in 1948, more than two decades into his recording career, he pulled off a miracle, rescuing a pleasant-but-forgettable Sam Coslow/Will Grosz song from being forever stuck in 1939 by Horace Heidt’s milquetoast dance-band recording. And he did it almost single-handedly (or double-handedly, I should say, with his guitar). There’s a barely audible piano and bass in there providing the least little bit of backing, but the song is all Johnson’s.
With some records, there is a key musical element that locks them in as all-time favorites. With Johnson’s “Tomorrow Night,” it’s his strong, clear 6th note on the word “night” in the title phrase that opens each verse.

He is rightfully revered for his guitar style, which influenced many who came along after him, and his guitar work on “Tomorrow Night” is very fine. But it’s his syrup-and-acid voice that carries it aloft. It’s smooth but with a raw edge, and on “Tomorrow Night” Johnson sounds the way Howlin’ Wolf might have if he’d been asked to rein it in a little at a society soiree. Or the way Grandpa Wilson may have sounded if he’d been asked to let loose a little at a family reunion.

I also have a brassier and bolder LaVern Baker cover of the song, issued as a single in 1955 on the B side of her hit “Tweedle Dee.” It’s not bad at all, just not sublime. Elvis Presley recorded a version of “Tomorrow Night” at Sun that hews pretty close to Lonnie Johnson’s. He also plays up the glorious 6th, unlike Bob Dylan, who misses that element completely in his 1992 recording of the song.

Now about Sam Coslow, co-writer of the song. He’s written a couple of other songs, with his usual writing partner Arthur Johnston, that I love. One is “Troubled Waters,” recorded in 1934 by the Duke Ellington Orchestra with vocals by Ivie Anderson, singing as “one of the devil’s daughters.” The other’s a song I knew as “Lotus Blossom” that actually started out as “Marijuana.” It was written, also in 1934, for the movie Murder at the Vanities, a pre-code film with not only a song about marijuana’s soothing properties but with naked nymphs covering their breasts with their hands. Sam Coslow evidently made the title change somewhere along the way, but in his autobiography Cocktails for Two, barely mentions “Marijuana” and mentions “Lotus Blossom” not at all. (By the way, the subtitle of the memoir is The Many Lives of Giant Songwriter Sam Coslow. “Giant songwriter.” He wrote that about himself. Nice.)

About Lonnie and Frith: I think I can safely suppose that the slick, big-band milieu that Coslow traded in would’ve held less appeal for my grandpa than the rougher, down-home folk-blues stylings of Lonnie Johnson. So maybe Okie folky Woody Guthrie is the bridge. I can imagine Grandpa enjoying listening to Woody, and I can imagine Woody digging Lonnie.

Solitude

Duke Ellington, Victor 27564, 1941

“In my solitude you haunt me / With dreadful ease of days gone by.” Dreadful ease? Sounds like a post-punk band-name, or maybe a vape flavor. What in the hell was lyricist Eddie DeLange thinking when he wrote that? Well, he didn’t write that. He wrote “reveries,” and someone, rather than locating sheet music for this classic song or listening just a wee bit more carefully (and thinking about it for a moment), heard it as “dreadful ease.” And figured that made sense. So these mis-heard lyrics are all over the internet.

According to Duke Ellington, writing in his memoir Music Is My Mistress, he composed this most gorgeous of songs in 1934, as a rush job for a recording session that needed one more song. Lyrics were added later by DeLange. Ellington’s manager Irving Mills also took writing credit, as he often did without contributing a word or a note, to get a cut.

Ellington’s Orchestra had a hit with it late in ’34, and I have that version on vinyl. But I came across a 78 recorded in 1941 that’s all Duke, at the piano. I do love to listen to Duke playing solo—in his solitude, you might say—but often prefer him amidst the colorations of his hand-picked, well-groomed band members. In this case, though, the feeling of solitude is intensified by the focus of the one instrument, the performance in the hands of the song’s creator. Along the way, he tosses in a few of his usual flourishes, but not to excess, and makes an odd modulation, from Db to F, sound perfectly natural.

The flip side of Duke’s solo “Solitude” is Henry Creamer and Turner Layton’s 1921 composition “Dear Old Southland,” which was an oldie by 1941. Duke went it alone on that one, too, recording it, with a little stride action, on the same day as “Solitude.”

Many of the great pre-rock vocalists recorded fine versions of this one, particularly the great ladies—Ella, Sarah, Nina, and especially Billie.

I performed this song for years with a vocal trio. I got something wrong about it, but it was intentional: changing a minor chord to a major in the third bar of the verse, which I always felt was sacrilege, but I liked the way it sounded vocally. So, sorry, Duke. At least I never sang “with dreadful ease of days gone by.”

Whispering Grass (Don’t Tell the Trees)

The Ink Spots, Decca 3258, 1940, #10 Pop

Back in 1985, my friend and musical associate John Wilson came up with the idea of the Gentlemen’s Club, a four-part-harmony group modeled on The Four Freshmen. We still do very occasional gigs here and there, complete with the plaid pants, blazers, and dickies we’d worn since the beginning. When we were thirty, the clothes made us look campy and retro; in our sixties, they just make us look old. (Perhaps now we should dress like hipsters.) The group was kind of a relief project from Wilson’s highly-charged, high-decibel nasty rockin’ country band Bowley & Wilson. I was doing my stint with B&W as bassist/ vocalist at the time, and Wilson knew I really thrived on close-harmony stuff from hearing some home recordings I was working on when he first met me.

I think I would’ve felt right at home as an Ink Spot or a Platter.

One saccharine song on The Gents’ very first set list was the Ink Spots classic “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.” I sang lead, and although I didn’t exactly impersonate the melodramatic crooning of Inks lead singer Bill Kenny, I did schmaltz it up quite a bit. I realized quickly, singing this type of song for the first time, that it felt very natural, much more natural than I felt singing Beatles songs, or James Taylor or Wilson Pickett. It’s strange to think that the music style I have the greatest affinity for is the smooth, sweet sound of the black vocal groups of the forties and fifties, but it’s true: I think I would’ve felt right at home as an Ink Spot or a Platter. “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” has stayed with me ever since, even separate from the Gentlemen’s Club, even when my pants aren’t plaid, even when I am dickie-less, and it led me to other Ink Spots classics, most notably “Whispering Grass (Don’t Tell the Trees).”

I have to figure that when Fred and Doris Fisher wrote it they were having a little fun with this odd ballad of nature-as-prattling gossip-monger: the whispering “green grass,” the “blabbering breeze,” the snow that buries lovers’ secrets. Whatever their intent, it sure gets a laugh, or at least some puzzled looks, when I sing it now.

German-born Fred Fisher was at least partly responsible for such novelty classics as “Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle?,” “Pull the Cork Out of Erin, Let the River Shannon Flow,” and “Wee, Wee, Marie (Will You Do Zis for Me?)” Doris was his daughter. She also wrote “Put the Blame on Mame,” “You Always Hurt the One You Love” (which Spike Jones made into a novelty classic), and other hits. So, it was a father-daughter team with a sense of humor.

Others, including Ringo Starr, have recorded “Whispering Grass,” but it’s The Ink Spots’ version that is special, and it’s all because of the lead vocal of Mr. Bill Kenney. Like nearly all Ink Spots hits, it starts with a finger-picked guitar playing a D / Eb diminished / Em / A pattern. The other Spots are barely heard oohing as Kenney warbles. Very formulaic, but addictive—if you find Bill Kenney’s crooner voice as appealing as I do.

Another part of the formula, one reason their songs don’t date well, is the verse that follows the chorus. It’s usually spoken by bass Hoppy Jones, with an Amos-and-Andy-ish delivery sprinkled with “honey chile” and “honey lamb” and “mm-mm-mm” commentary. (The flip side of this record, “Maybe,” obediently follows this pattern, except that Hoppy’s spoken break is replaced by another member’s looser sung delivery.)

I sometimes wonder about the group’s name. Everything I’ve read about them seems to indicate they came up with the name themselves, but I figured the term “ink spots” was generally applied to black people by white people as a belittling description. Maybe I’m overthinking it. Best just to enjoy the special sounds The Ink Spots created and hope they had as good a time singing the songs as I have listening to them.