Milestone Recordings in American Music


So Sweet (1930)

The next recordings are pure pop delight. Songs like “Confessin’” and “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” are often referred to as “sweet” and criticized for being a watered-down version of the “hot” swinging jazz that people like Louis Armstrong were making. But that is missing the point: yes, this is jazz with all of the rough edges smoothed out, but what is left is a pure distillation of the beauty within. This is sweet candy for the ears. The same can be said for treats like “The Peanut Vendor” and “Mood Indigo” as well. Treat yourself and enjoy.

Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians
Confessin’ (Columbia 2259-D, 1930)

For the record, Louis Armstrong himself was a huge fan of Guy Lombardo. Listening to “Confessin’,” that comes as no surprise. The light sound here is deceiving: this is a band on top of its game. The orchestra moves as one with every instrument in place, and the playing is exceptional. The exquisitely crafted melody has you so entranced that by the time the lovely single-string guitar solo starts 40 seconds in, you already feel like confessin’ your love for this song. There is another minute of equally sweet music to go, though, before the singing begins. The wonderful guitar re-enters at this point to back up the vocals, and the effect is just heavenly.

~ You may also like: Red Nichols and His Five Pennies, “Ida! Sweet As Apple Cider” (Brunswick 3626, 1927)

Nat Shilkret and the Victor Orchestra
Dancing with Tears in My Eyes(Victor 22425, 1930)

Nat Shilkret was the head of Victor’s “light music” division. As a bandleader, he rivaled Paul Whiteman in popularity in the late 1920s. (It was actually Shilkret who led Whiteman’s band in the famous 1927 recording of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”) “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” was the biggest hit of his career. Again, there is nothing technically challenging about this piece, and its classification as “jazz” is tenuous at best, but it is so amazingly beautiful it will make your heart ache. This song itself is like a dance: listen to the baritone sax at the one minute mark, and then the orchestra’s response. Once the vocals are finished, the orchestra comes in with a bit of ballroom-worthy light jazz that is hard to resist dancing to, with or without tears in your eyes. That baritone sax peeks in again at the very end, as the instruments come together for a delicately beautiful finale.

~ You may also like: Ben Selvin and His Orchestra featuring Scrappy Lambert, “Dancing in the Dark” (Columbia 2473-D, 1931)

Don Azpiazu and His Havana Casino Orchestra
The Peanut Vender (El Manicero)(Victor 22483, 1930)

Cuba had already become a popular destination for Americans during Prohibition in the 1920s, and ties with New York were particularly strong. Many influential New York bands played regularly in Havana, and in 1930 this Cuban ensemble traveled to New York and recorded “The Peanut Vendor.” While not strictly music in the “American tradition,” it became the first Cuban record to sell more than a million copies and kick-started a Cuban music craze. Cuban and American music have continued to intermingle and influence each other ever since.

“The Peanut Vendor” is a pregón (a song based on a street vendor’s cry) and is performed in the son style, which combines Spanish guitar and song structure with African rhythms and percussion. It is a heavenly song. The gentle, polyrhythmic percussion is hypnotic and makes it hard to sit still while listening. Singer Antonio Machín’s vocals are enchanting, and trumpeter Julio Cueva adds just the right amount of flair. At the end, the music softens and trails off dreamily as Machín repeats “Me voy” (“I’m going”) softer and softer. Wonderful.

~ You may also like one of the most popular bands during the 1930s Cuban music craze: Lecuona Cuban Boys, “Rumba Tambah” (Columbia 45-DC 735 , 1935)

The Jungle Band (Duke Ellington)
Mood Indigo (Dreamy Blues) (Brunswick 4952, 1930)

Not above sounding sweet himself, this Duke Ellington record is simply amazing. The Brunswick version of “Mood Indigo” is the second of three he recorded in late 1930 (the first was released as Okeh 8840 and the third was Victor 22587). As usual, all of these versions are unique and worth acquiring, but this seven-piece “Jungle Band” version is the one to start with. The horns begin by painting a slow, muted picture on top of a subdued but persistent rhythm section. Then clarinetist Barney Bigard steals the show with the first solo, giving a performance that shows that hot and sweet are not mutually exclusive. Even when he dramatically soars to the highest register – and squeaks on the way back down – it sounds like he is floating weightlessly. The trumpet solo by Arthur Whetsol continues in the same minimalistic but beautiful vein, and then after a brief interlude by Ellington on piano, the horns come together again for the mellow wrap-up.

~ You may also like: Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, “The Blues with a Feelin’” (Okeh 8662, 1929)


Happy Days (1930)

The world may have been in an economic depression, but one never would have known that listening to the music being made in 1930.

1930 Headlines … Worldwide Great Depression worsens … Radio mystery program The Shadow debuts … Construction is begun on the Boulder Dam (Hoover Dam) … The BBC begins regular TV transmission in U.K.

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
St. Louis Blues (Okeh 41350, 1930)

This is the second recording Louis Armstrong made of W.C. Handy’s classic “St. Louis Blues.” The first was a slow, heartfelt recording in 1925 with Armstrong on cornet and blues great Bessie Smith on vocals. This version is every bit as brilliant, but that is where the comparison stops, because the two sound nothing alike. Armstrong takes the same Handy melody as a starting point, but creates his own unique interpretation of it: he speeds it up, adds exotic percussion and jazz instrumentation, and improvises like mad. Not only does he add his own unique spin to the melody, but he throws the original lyrics away and starts over from scratch. He sings lines like, “I believe in my soul my baby’s tryin’ to quit me,” but there is no trace of melancholy. Instead, Armstrong’s vocals are as exuberant as his trumpet playing. And his trumpet playing is phenomenal, especially in the song’s final minute where Armstrong abandons the original melody all together and soars into the stratosphere with some unbelievably joyous improvisation. It is nothing less than we have come to expect from him, but for the mainstream audiences who were just starting to pay attention to him, this must have been quite a revelation.

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five, “St. James Infirmary” (Okeh 8657, 1929)

Louis Armstrong
Weather Bird(Okeh 41454, 1930)

The first record released under just Armstrong’s name was actually a duet with pianist Earl Hines. It was recorded in Chicago in December 1928 but not issued until nearly two years later in October 1930. Compare it with other any other jazz record made during this time, and you’ll see why: this is revolutionary stuff that did not easily fit into the rest of Armstrong’s cannon. Armstrong is as impressive as ever, but he actually plays it fairly straightforward. It is Hines that steals the show, as he turns all previous notions of jazz piano inside out, sounding like nothing that had ever been heard before. We had been given some glimpses into Hines’ revolutionary style in his previous work on Armstrong’s Hot Five recordings, but not to this degree. He sounds twenty years ahead of his time, as he plays fast and loose with the tempo and bangs out a series of what at times sounds like completely random notes. Despite the perceived chaos, however, there is a method to Hines’ madness and it all fits together brilliantly. For example, listen to his solo about half-way through, where his two hands seem to be playing two different songs, and at times even two different tempos, but they somehow come together again just before Armstrong re-enters. Its complexity makes “Weather Bird” a challenge to listen to, but also a delight. This is where modern jazz begins.

~ You may also like: Earl Hines, “57 Varieties” (Okeh 8653, 1929)

Ben Selvin and His Orchestra
Happy Days Are Here Again (Columbia 2116-D, 1930)

This song was written in 1929 and first recorded in November of that year by Leo Reisman and His Orchestra (Victor 22221), soon after the Black Tuesday stock market crash that marked the start of the Great Depression. Popular band leader Ben Selvin had a big hit with it the following year, and Franklin D. Roosevelt revived it as his Presidential campaign theme song in 1932. It is an enjoyable piece that captures its time well. The lyrics paint an unabashedly sunny picture: “Your cares and troubles are gone / There'll be no more from now on.” However, the singing in Selvin’s version is very reserved and mostly sticks to the lower registers, suggesting a cautious optimism. The instruments are also mostly toned down, although there are a few showy flashes, which become more pronounced toward the end, finishing the song on a high note.

~ You may also like: Claude Hopkins And His Orchestra, “Mush Mouth” (Columbia 2674-D, 1932)

Fred Astaire
Puttin’ On the Ritz(Columbia DB 96, 1930)

Fred Astaire’s first claim to fame was his marvelous dancing, which he expertly displayed in many of Hollywood’s biggest musicals. He also had a pleasant singing voice that helped him score several chart hits, including this classic Irving Berlin number. Most of Astaire’s better known hits were sung in a sweet, “crooning” style, but this record is fiery by comparison. Not only is the instrumentation feisty, but Astaire proves himself adept at jazz singing, with loads of expression and a swinging approach to timing. The tap dancing interludes are also well done, the tapping syncing nicely with the bouncing rhythm section.

Incidentally, this is the first recording on this list made outside of the United States: Astaire cut this record while on tour in London in March 1930.

~ You may also like the first British jazz record to gain popularity in America: Fred Elizalde and His Music featuring Al Bowlly, “If I Had You” (British Brunswick 3948, 1928)


Hard Times: 1930-1939

The 1920s were a unique period in the development of American music, and as we reach the end of that decade, it’s worth taking a look back at its significance. More than any other decade, the ‘20s stand apart musically, and it is important that we not forget this music: not just because of its historical significance, but because so much of it is amazing and unlike anything that would come after. This was a decade where every artist was a pioneer, every record a first. While modern audiences often don’t appreciate the richness of this period, the ‘20s rival any decade since in terms of the diversity of music captured on record. And although the musical landscape was rapidly evolving thanks to technology and social changes, the recordings of this period give us a window at least into the music that had been passed down but never recorded in the previous decades and centuries.

For many rural artists of the 1920s, making records was a curiosity, a way to earn a few extra dollars, but not a primary source of income. Few artists achieved fame on a national level, and in many cases record sales were limited to within a few miles of the artist’s home town. Many rural artists – African American and white alike – never found success in their own times, and lived their entire lives in relative poverty. Some recorded a few sides and were never heard from again: we have no biographical information, no surviving photographs, just a handful of scratchy records. The fact that some of these records were made at all is in many ways a miracle, and one can only speculate about the equally talented artists that never got the chance to leave such a legacy behind.

As the 1930s began under the shadow of the Great Depression, money for buying records dried up and with it recording opportunities for all but a handful of the artists of the ‘20s. Many brilliant careers stalled as poor rural artists were forgotten, and put aside their banjos and guitars to take jobs as janitors and field hands. Some of those artists would be rediscovered in their twilight years decades later, and would finally find the fame they so deserved, playing before thousands of appreciative fans at folk festivals. But for many more, it was too late. A shockingly high percentage of these artists died young, done in by a combination of fast living, poor medicine and hard times. They were buried, some in unmarked graves, and quickly forgotten.

The 1930s would in many ways be even harder. At the height of the Great Depression, many record companies went out of business, and there were almost no new records being made. And yet, the well never went completely dry. Jazz would continue to capture audiences’ attention, thanks to the fresh new sound of big band swing, and for those jazz artists able to make the transition, there were many opportunities. Blues, country and other “folk” styles also managed to hold on, and they too innovated new sounds that would earn a place in history.

What follows are some of the undeniable classics of this new decade, as well as a few all-but-forgotten gems that deserve to be rediscovered. Start here, but by all means explore the music of the ‘30s on your own as well… and enjoy!


Lovable and Sweet (1929)

These final three recordings from 1929 feature three very talented ladies singing lovely, jazzy pop songs. All three are sweet slices of pure heaven.

Annette Hanshaw
Lovable and Sweet(Okeh 41292, 1929)

Annette Hanshaw was one of the first great female jazz singers. “Loveable And Sweet” was one of her best records, and is a great showcase for her easy-going, accessible style and a natural sense of swing. Her tone fluctuates subtly between matter-of-fact and dreamy as she describes her man: “Talk about your perfect lover / And you couldn’t help discover / That he’s that way lovable and sweet / He’s candy!” The instrumentation is well done, as is Hanshaw’s effortless scat singing, and they match the charming tone of the rest of the song. The song slows to a perfect end, as the dreaminess finally wins when Hanshaw delivers the final, affectionate line: “He’s very loveable, and oh so sweet.”

~ You may also like: Marion Harris, “The Man I Love” (Victor 21116, 1928)

Ruth Etting
Love Me or Leave Me (Columbia 1680-D, 1929)

Ruth Etting was one of the most popular singers of the late 1920s and early ‘30s. Compare her style to Annette Hanshaw or Ethel Waters, and you’ll hear a big difference: while Etting’s style and accompaniment was certainly flavored by the jazz of her time, she sang her songs in a by-the-book pop style instead of the looser, improvised feel of true jazz singers. “Love Me or Leave Me” was her signature song, and in this recording Etting relies on her expressive, versatile voice to deliver the sentimental lyrics. Twice in the song she sings: “There’ll be no one unless that someone is you / I intend to be independently blue.” Notice how she hits the word “you” in those places. The first time, she hits a high, clear, beautiful note that perfectly captures her sense of sad resolve. But as the song progresses, more emotion bubbles to the surface, and when she sings that line again, the word “you” starts on an even higher note, but wavers dynamically.

~ You may also like: Ruth Etting, “Ten Cents a Dance” (Columbia 2146-D, 1930)

Ethel Waters
Am I Blue? (Columbia 1837-D, 1929)

Ethel Waters was a versatile blues, jazz and pop singer, and one of the most popular entertainers of her day. “Am I Blue?” was one of her best recordings, a dazzling performance that bears witness to her remarkable range. She sings the verses in a very earthy, bluesy fashion, but her approach becomes lighter and jazzier for the choruses. Along the way, she freely varies her tone and timing, bending the song to her will with a supreme sense of showmanship. He voice goes from rough and raspy to pure and sweet with ease, and it is always highly expressive: at times she almost shouts the lines, and at other times she almost cries them. The jazz instruments follow her lead, providing an understated, bluesy backdrop that shadows her tone step for step and provides just the right accompaniment for her incredible voice.

~ You may also like: Willard Robison, “Deep Elm” (Perfect 12387, 1927)


Louis & Orchestra (1929)

In 1929, Louis Armstrong moved back to New York and Okeh began billing his band as the “Savoy Ballroom Five,” but like the previous “Hot Five” records, the personnel involved varied. On “Mahogany Hall Stomp” (recorded in March 1929 and released in April), the group grew to 10 musicians, which would prompt Okeh to bill all subsequent ensembles as an “Orchestra.” (This would be true even of “Basin Street Blues” and “Muggles,” which had actually been recorded in late 1928 in Chicago with a smaller band of six musicians, but were not released until May and July of 1929, respectively.)

Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five
Mahogany Hall Stomp (Okeh 8680, 1929)

“Mahogany Hall Stomp” is incredibly fun to listen to. The song starts off with a straight-ahead solo by Armstrong on trumpet followed by a short, enjoyable stretch by Albert Nichols on alto sax, and some fancy guitar work by Lonnie Johnson. Then Armstrong returns with a mute, and heats things up quite a bit. As he did on “West End Blues,” Armstrong brilliantly sustains a single note over several bars, this time with Lonnie Johnson picking out a quiet melody behind him on guitar. Armstrong fades the note to a whisper in the middle, then crescendos and comes out at the end with a series of very controlled, staccato notes that allow the rhythm section to rise to the foreground with a compelling beat. As Armstrong finishes, J.C. Higginbotham enters on trombone and keeps the fun going with a very swinging solo. Armstrong then comes back without the mute to finish things up. Throughout the song, the band plays in an easy-going style that is halfway between New Orleans jazz and big band swing, with a prominent bass line that keeps things jumping and makes it hard not to tap your toes.

~ You may also like the B-side of the original single: Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five, “Beau Koo Jack” (Okeh 8680, 1929)

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Basin Street Blues (Okeh 8690, 1929)

“Basin Street Blues” (named after a street in New Orleans’ French Quarter) is a much softer recording that features Armstrong and Earl Hines passing the melody back and forth. The record begins with a quiet introduction featuring Hines on the celesta, a piano-like instrument with a tinkling sound similar to a music box. Armstrong then enters with a reserved trumpet solo, followed by Hines similarly reserved on piano. Armstrong then adds some soft, sweet scat singing (with Hines and banjo player Mancy Carr humming softly behind him), and Hines adds some more piano. Armstrong comes back with a more forceful trumpet solo that soars higher and higher, and the rest of the band rises to meet him (especially Fred Robinson on trombone). Armstrong then softens again and fades out, as Hines re-enters on celesta to bring the lullaby to a beautiful close.

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, “A Monday Date” (Okeh 8609, 1928)

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Muggles (Okeh 8703, 1929)

“Muggles” is one of Armstrong’s subtle masterpieces. Like “Basin Street Blues,” it is a slower number that takes its time unfolding before reaching a crescendo and then fading out again at the end. Earl Hines starts things off with a quiet but very inventive piano solo. Fred Robinson and Jimmy Strong then add mellow solos on trombone and clarinet, respectively – both of which reflect rather well on the song’s title, which was slang for marijuana. Armstrong then enters with a forceful trumpet solo. At this point, the rhythm section initially starts playing double time, and the excitement level ramps up significantly, but they soon slow back down and Armstrong’s solo becomes very mellow itself. Hines returns at the end with some more noteworthy piano improvisation behind Armstrong’s solo.

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, “Wild Man Blues” (Okeh 8474, 1927)

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Ain’t Misbehavin’(Okeh 8714, 1929)

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” was written by Fats Waller, who made a solo piano recording of it in 1929. It was also featured in the hit Harlem show Hot Chocolates that year, where it was performed to great reviews by none other than Louis Armstrong. It would become one of his signature songs, and this record shows why. Although well executed, the recording doesn’t break any new ground for him in terms of trumpet playing. (He still manages to make it exciting, though, especially at the end, where he finishes on a high note – both literally and figuratively.) However, it features some great singing from Armstrong that shows his ability to improvise vocally as well as with his trumpet. He varies the melody, the words and the timing as he sings, making everything sound effortless while creating a blueprint that top jazz singers continue to follow.

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” (Okeh 41550, 1932)


Handfuls (1929)

The following selections are all about showing off. From breakneck piano playing to virtuoso guitar, the musicians on these recordings all have heaping handfuls of talent, and put it to excellent use.

Blind Willie Dunn and His Gin Bottle Four (Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson)
A Handful of Riffs (Okeh 8695, 1929)

Lonnie Johnson was a brilliantly innovative guitarist who straddled the line between blues and jazz and had a profound influence on both. Some of his finest work was done with fellow jazz guitarist Eddie Lang. (Lang, who was white, was originally billed as “Blind Willie Dunn” on these recordings to appear African American because of the prejudice against racial integration.) Johnson and Lang move in perfect synchronicity on “A Handful of Riffs.” Johnson’s impressive, ever-changing improvisations are the obvious highlight, as he picks out single notes at a furious pace that redefined what jazz guitar was capable of. But Lang’s contribution should not be overlooked either. He creates a solid yet remarkably varied harmonic backdrop against which Johnson’s free-form playing sounds even more dynamic. Johnson made some solo recordings during his career as well, but while expertly played, they cannot compare to the dynamic he created when playing with Lang.

~ You may also like: Blind Willie Dunn (Eddie Lang) and Lonnie Johnson, “Hot Fingers” (Okeh 8743, 1929)

Fats Waller
Handful of Keys (Victor V-38508, 1929)

Fats Waller was one of the finest pianists of all time. He took lessons from James P. Johnson himself and was a master of the “stride” piano style that Johnson pioneered, surpassing even his teacher in terms of improvisation and overall mastery. He also composed a number of jazz standards, including “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” “Handful of Keys” is one of his best early piano recordings, a full-steam-ahead masterpiece of complexity. Like Johnson, Waller’s stride playing sounds equal parts order and chaos, with hints of ragtime reshaped by rapid improvisation. To fully appreciate just how fast Waller is playing on this record, try listening at first just to his left hand playing the rhythm on the bass keys. That part alone would challenge the average pianist, but his right hand moves even faster playing the melody!

~ You may also like the original, solo piano version of Waller’s most well-known composition: Fats Waller, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (Victor 22108, 1929)

Walter Page’s Blue Devils
Blue Devil Blues (Vocalion 1463, 1929)

As the nation prepared to enter the 1930s, Kansas City was beginning to establish itself as the new hotbed of swinging jazz. Unlike the more sophisticated sound coming out of places like New York, Kansas City jazz was intentionally rough around the edges. It was straightforward and bluesy – and incredibly good. Walter Page’s Blue Devils were one of the best bands in the region, but only recorded two songs before most of the band (including Page himself) was absorbed into a rival band led by Bennie Moten. “Blue Devil Blues” is notable for featuring the recording debut of two of the greatest musicians of the Big Band Era: pianist William “Count” Basie and singer Jimmy Rushing.

Even more than that, though, this record is notable because it is simply fantastic. After a brief introduction by Basie, Oran “Hot Lips” Page plays a simple but effective, bluesy trumpet solo. This then gives way to a sassy, squeaking chorus on clarinet by Henry “Buster” Smith that is worth the price of admission by itself. Then Rushing enters, singing two verses in the “blues shouter” style that Kansas City jazz was known for, combining blues emotion and jazz swing. The song, like this band, ends far too quickly, but fortunately there would be plenty more Kansas City jazz records like this in the years to come.

~ You may also like: Count Basie and His Orchestra with Jimmy Rushing, “Blues in the Dark” (Decca 1682, 1938)

Jabbo Smith’s Rhythm Aces
Jazz Battle(Brunswick 4244, 1929)

Jabbo Smith was one of the most gifted trumpet players of his generation, but he was never as prolific as his peers and the recordings he made with his Rhythm Aces were not well received at the time. That’s a shame, as those records are now recognized as some of the best of the period. The group’s first single, “Jazz Battle,” in particular stands above most of the competition. The record can be neatly divided into two halves, each featuring a series of solos divided and bookended by some fine ensemble playing. During the first half, Smith gets things moving with a short, rousing intro and is soon joined by the other three musicians in some whirlwind, anything-goes New Orleans style jazz. The players then take turns soloing: Omer Simeon on clarinet, Ikey Robinson on banjo, Simeon again, Cassino Simpson on piano, and then a short but forceful blast from Smith on trumpet. The solos stay pretty close to the established theme, but are well executed and enjoyable, especially Simeon’s.

In the second half, they start soloing again, but the style is looser and less predictable. Simpson’s piano dances to a cadence that invokes a funky Harlem stride, and Robinson deftly does likewise on banjo. Then, before Robinson has even finished, Smith enters with the record’s highlight solo, an amazingly agile display that cannot help but conjure comparisons to Louis Armstrong. Indeed, while no one could match Armstrong’s sheer virtuosity, and only Bix Beiderbeck at his best could rival him in tone, Smith proves himself Armstrong’s equal in terms of boldness and creativity. This is magic, and the fact that this and Smith’s other recordings failed commercially is both inexplicable and inexcusable.

~ You may also like: Jabbo Smith’s Rhythm Aces, “Michigander Blues” (Brunswick 7069, 1929)


String Band Assortment (1929)

From Appalachia to Louisiana and beyond, rural string band music in the 1920s did not fit into a single, simple category. Here are three examples of vastly different styles that share only two things in common: the use of nothing but stringed instruments, and incredible musicianship.

Taylor-Griggs Louisiana Melody Makers
Where the Sweet Magnolias Bloom(Victor 40184, 1929)

Whereas the Appalachian string band style steered towards fast, dance-oriented songs, the country music made further west tended to be slower in pace and more mellow in tone. This band, featuring several members and associates of the Taylor and Grigg families of Arcadia, Louisiana, was exceptionally smooth. Other than the fact that the instruments all had strings, it almost doesn’t make sense to put them in the same category as other string bands. “Where the Sweet Magnolias Bloom” is a fine example of the band’s prowess, a lovely waltz that manages to be sweet as honey without losing its down-home appeal.

While fiddler Foster Taylor may take a few liberties with tuning and singer Oscar Logan may have a southern accent, the record is as sweet as anything that was being made for pop audiences. That fiddle is the key to the entire song, by the way. Yes, it flirts with being out of tune, but this merely makes it sound like it is swaying with the dance, and the at times shrill yet always beautiful tone does more to tell the song’s story than the brief vocals ever could. Also magnificent is the warm, rich double bass played by Ausie Grigg.

~ You may also like: Fiddlin’ Doc Roberts Trio, “Cumberland Blues” (Melotone 12834, 1933)

Narmour & Smith
Carroll County Blues(Okeh 45317, 1929)

Mississippi natives William Thomas Narmour and Shellie Walton Smith created some of the most captivating string band music of the era. “Carroll County Blues” may be the greatest example of their unique style. The real star here is Narmour’s fiddle, from which he coaxes as much range of expression as any Delta blues singer from the region. Where a fiddler from Georgia or Kentucky might dazzle with speed, Narmour dazzles with tone, stretching notes out for maximum impact. Smith’s contribution on guitar is much more primal, as he pounds out a steady, unchanging rhythm in an almost percussive way. Smith basically plays the same note over and over, occasionally changing key for a few notes with Narmour, but just as quickly switching back to the same, droning approach. This actually works, though, as Narmour fluidly dances around the beat and occasionally falls in with it, only to magically re-emerge with a fresh perspective.

~ You may also like another spellbinding, slightly more uptempo performance by the duo: Narmour and Smith, “Captain George, Has Your Money Come?” (Okeh 45242, 1928)

Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers
Soldier’s Joy(Columbia 15538-D, 1929)

Georgia’s Skillet Lickers was one of the most popular string bands of the 1920s, and listening to this record it is not hard to see why. “Soldier’s Joy” is one of the best-known fiddle tunes of all time. In the Skillet Lickers’ version, the record opens with a brief spoken introduction that ends: “Don’t you let them dance on your new carpet; you make them roll it up.” And at that point, you just know this is going to be an amazing romp.

The band consisted of Riley Puckett on guitar and vocals; Clayton McMichen, Gid Tanner and Lowe Stokes on fiddles; and Fate Norris on banjo – and the interplay between them is electric. Bluegrass had not been invented yet, but it’s clear where it found its inspiration. As the guitar and banjo keep rhythm, the fiddles go crazy (especially McMichen’s) in a feverish flurry of activity that covers all the bases. Also worth noting is Puckett’s voice, which is strong and clear enough to rise above the fray, and pleasant to listen to as well.

~ You may also like: Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers with Riley Puckett, “Hell Broke Loose in Georgia” (Columbia 15516-D, 1928)


Storytellers (1929)

In some cases, a song succeeds because of the subject matter and lyrics; in other cases, because of the music and performance. The following folk and country recordings succeed on both levels: whether conveying a timeless truth or an entirely original tale, they all entertain while telling a compelling story.

Dick Justice
Cocaine (Brunswick 395, 1929)

Although we tend to think of blues, country and folk as distinct traditions, they share a lot in common, and in the early part of the 20th Century it was not uncommon for rural white “country” music to incorporate elements from rural African American “blues,” and vice-versa. Until the folk revival of the 1960s, though, few white performers would come as close to an authentic African American style as West Virginia native Dick Justice. Although Justice also recorded traditional British folk ballads, it is his blues material that really stands out.

Justice’s style was greatly influenced by Luke Jordan, an African American folk-blues singer from western Virginia. In fact, Justice’s recording of “Cocaine” is an almost word-for-word retelling of Jordan’s “Cocaine Blues” (Victor 21076, 1927) and is sung – sincerely – from an Africa American point-of-view. Justice gives a winning performance. His voice and playing are simple but pleasant, and he narrates the song with subtle charisma. The relaxed pace of the record belies the wild nature of the lyrics, which tell a series of seemingly unrelated but equally scandalous vignettes: from a girlfriend who steals food for him to a furniture man who repossesses all of the narrator’s belongings. (“If there ever was a devil born without any horns / Musta been a furniture man.”) Of course, all of this craziness may be understandable in light of the occasional interjection, “I’m simply wild about my good cocaine!”

~ You may also like the flip side of this single: Dick Justice, “Old Black Dog” (Brunswick 395, 1929)

Mississippi John Hurt
Stack O’ Lee(Okeh 8654, 1929)

John Hurt straddled the line between folk and blues, creating a unique sound all his own. In “Stack O’ Lee” he tells what is considered to be the definitive version of the “Stagger Lee” (as it is more commonly spelled) tale, which was based on a true story. Hurt sings of Stagger Lee killing another man in an argument over a “five dollar Stetson hat,” and later being put to death for his crime. Hurt sings the sometimes violent lyrics in a beautiful, peaceful voice, and sounds comforting as he ends each verse with the refrain: “That bad man / Oh, cruel Stagger Lee.” His guitar technique is equally gentle, a deft, easy-going fingerpicking style that sounds nothing like his fellow Delta bluesmen. In fact, neither the record companies nor the public knew what to make of Hurt’s unusual, understated style, and his records sold poorly at the time. Compare this to the fiery Charley Patton or Tommy Johnson, and you can perhaps see why. But listen to his music on its own merits today, and Hurt’s talent and influence are undeniable.

~ You may also like: Mississippi John Hurt, “Frankie” (Okeh 8560, 1928)

The Carter Family
John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man (Victor V-40190, 1929)

This Carter Family classic tells the story (based on true events) of a man who flees after committing murder, but is caught and ultimately hanged for the killing. Sara sings it in a little higher register than normal, and combined with Maybelle’s upbeat guitar, it gives the song a sense of lightness that belies the serious subject matter. Rather than being a song about murder and crime, it ends up being a song of redemption, as John Hardy ultimately finds peace in God before his execution, telling his wife: “I'll meet you in that sweet bye-and-bye.”

~ You may also like: The Carter Family, “No Depression in Heaven” (Decca 5242, 1936)

The Carter Family
I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes (Victor V-40089, 1929)

This is a simple song of lost love sung by Sara in her trademark low, melancholy voice. The record begins with regretful narration: “It would been better for us both had we never / In this wide and wicked world had never met.” But the narrator cannot forget her lost love, admitting that she thinks of him often, “And I wonder if he ever thinks of me.” Sara’s plain-but-compelling voice is as strong as ever, and A.P. does a wonderful job singing the restrained harmony. His voice is buried behind his wife’s, and even behind Maybelle Carter’s steady guitar work, but he has just enough presence to subtly convey that a similar sense of heartache might exist as well on the other side of the failed relationship.

~ You may also like: The Carter Family, “My Dixie Darling” (Decca 5240, 1936)

Jimmie Rodgers
Waiting For a Train (Victor V-40014, 1929)

In 1929, “steel guitar” (so called because of the steel slide used to play it) was seen as a novelty instrument associated with Hawaiian music. As with so many other things, we have Jimmie Rodgers to thank for making it a mainstay of country music, beginning with this classic recording. In fact, Rodgers loved to experiment, and also added jazzy cornet and clarinet backing. It turned out to be a stroke of genius, as the unusual mix clicked with listeners and made the record a hit. The entertaining lyrics and Rodgers’ pleasant, expressive voice didn’t hurt either. Rodgers’ trademark yodel is only heard briefly here, but yodeling wasn’t his only feat of vocal gymnastics: the opening train whistle sound is all him.

~ You may also like: Jimmie Rodgers, “Train Whistle Blues” (Victor 22379, 1930)

The Bently Boys
Down on Penny’s Farm(Columbia 15565-D, 1929)

Almost nothing is known about the Bently Boys, but this song about the difficulties of life as a sharecropper is simply marvelous, and would prove influential. (Bob Dylan, for example, took inspiration from it when writing “Maggie’s Farm” in 1965.) The lyrics tell the story of someone who rents a portion of a farm, but can’t earn enough from working that farm to pay the rent he owes: “[George Penny has] got to have his money or somebody's check / You pay him for a bushel, and you don't get a peck.” The singer has a pleasant and compelling voice, and the sound quality is excellent for 1929. Between each of the verses, the banjo repeats a simple but entrancing passage. The repetition of this banjo part conveys the endless-cycle nature of the work, and yet it is so upbeat and catchy that despite the hardship conveyed by the lyrics, the record ends up being a joy to listen to.

~ You may also like: Clarence “Tom” Ashley, “The Coo Coo Bird” (Columbia 15489–D, 1929)


Diddie Wa Diddie (1929)

From intricate guitar work to improvised jugs and kazoos, 1929 was an incredibly prolific year for the blues. The following selections show off some of the great diversity released that year.

Tommy Johnson
Canned Heat Blues (Victor V-38535, 1929)

Tommy Johnson’s slavish addiction to alcohol has been well-documented, but perhaps nowhere better than the autobiographical “Canned Heat Blues.” This being the age of Prohibition, alcohol was not always readily available, so Johnson fed his addiction in any manner he could. There are stories of him consuming shoe polish for its alcohol content, for example. This particular song focuses on the practice of drinking denatured alcohol from cans of Sterno “canned heat” cooking fuel. Johnson is fully aware how desperate and risky this is, singing: “Crying, mama, mama, mama, you know, canned heat killing me.” And yet he is unable to stop himself, adding: “I woke up this morning with canned heat on my mind.”

Johnson’s distinct voice sounds incredible here, complete with trademark falsetto flourishes in the last line of each verse, which makes the song all the more poignant. Never has a cry for help sounded so hopeless or so beautiful. Johnson’s guitar keeps a slow but firm rhythm, while creating some amazing harmonic tension with the vocals. Perhaps the best moment comes in the very last verse. Johnson sings the line: “Believe to my soul, Lord, it gonna kill me dead,” then leaves the rest of the verse unsung with just his guitar playing. The guitar continues on for a short while after that, slowing down as the melody unravels and comes to an end.

The alcoholism soon took its toll, and while Johnson remained a popular performer in the Jackson, Mississippi area, he made only a handful more records and then never recorded again.

~ You may also like: Tommy Johnson, “Slidin’ Delta” (Paramout 12975, 1930)

Peg Leg Howell
Broke and Hungry Blues(Columbia 14438-D, 1929)

Georgia’s Joshua “Peg Leg” Howell (he lost his leg as the result of a shotgun injury received during an altercation with his brother-in-law) was one of the earliest country blues artists recorded. While he wasn’t the strongest singer or musician, he had a personable style and a remarkable range – playing everything from folk ballads to uptempo, jazzy numbers. “Broke and Hungry Blues” is one of his best known recordings. It had been written and previously recorded by Blind Lemon Jefferson (Paramount 12443, 1927), but Howell’s version surpasses even the legendary Texan’s. Howell’s guitar playing is a hybrid between the dominant Piedmont style and the older, “frailing” style; he plays proficiently but slowly, without an excess of flashy fingerpicking. He is accompanied by Eddie Anthony, a frequent collaborator, who plays fiddle with similar, deliberate pacing. Howell’s voice is unrefined but endearing, delivering the stellar lyrics with conviction: “I’m sick, broke and hungry, good gal done drove me away / I’m outdoors, mama, ain’t got nowhere to stay.” Both Howell’s voice and Anthony’s crying fiddle display considerable vibrato, which adds an immediacy to the narrator’s hopelessness.

~ You may also like: Peg Leg Howell, “Skin Game Blues” (Columbia 14473-D, 1929)

Henry Thomas
Fishing Blues(Vocalion 1249, 1929)

“Fishing Blues” is the greatest example of Henry Thomas’ style. Despite the title, this is pretty far from the blues. It is a simple song about the joys of fishing, and it bounds forward on the strength of his jaunty guitar playing and pleasant voice. But what truly stands out are the pan pipes parts between verses. This is an amazing, unexpected sound that instantly draws in the listener and makes the performance unforgettable.

~ You may also like: Henry Thomas, “Railroadin’ Some” (Vocalion 1443, 1929)

Blind Blake
Diddie Wa Diddie (Paramount 12888, 1929)

Blind Blake is famous for his incredibly active and intricate guitar picking style. “Diddie Wa Diddie” is one of his most popular recordings, and demonstrates his ability to create a complex sound on his six-string guitar that was reminiscent of a ragtime piano. Blake sings the simple but amusing lyrics in a very relaxed style that resembles a lot of the other country blues of his day. The guitar is another story all together, though. The syncopated melodies he creates behind the vocals are impressive enough on their own, but between verses, he really lets his fingers fly and creates something remarkable that no one else has ever duplicated.

Almost nothing is known of Blake’s personal life. After the Great Depression hit, he simply faded into anonymity and was never heard from again.

~ You may also like some more of Blake’s amazing fingerpicking: Blind Blake, “Blind Arthur’s Breakdown” (Paramount 12892, 1929)

Memphis Jug Band
K.C. Moan(Victor V-38558, 1929)

This is a great record from the opening train-whistle harmonica to the final, hummed note. Everything from the harmonica-and-kazoo choruses to the slightly out-of-sync, three-part harmonies has a bittersweet feel to it. The band gives an amazing performance that convincingly evokes the motion of a train, and the brief lyrics conjure a compelling picture: “I thought I heard that K.C. when she blowed / She blowed like my woman’s on board.” The final verse contains no words, just some lovely, introspective humming until everything but the voices fade out for the final note.

~ You may also like: Memphis Jug Band, “Stealin’, Stealin’” (Victor V-38504, 1929)

The Cincinnati Jug Band
Newport Blues(Paramount 12743, 1929)

Memphis did not have a monopoly on jug band music, as this enjoyable instrumental number by the Cincinnati Jug Band illustrates. The use of the jug is very prominent, as in addition to keeping rhythm, the jug player makes his instrument wail periodically. The instrumentation also features harmonica, guitar and washboard, and the sounds all combine into an unusual but very soulful record.

~ You may also like: Whistler and His Jug Band, “The Jug Band Special” (Okeh 8816, 1930)


King of the Delta (1929)

When I get to heaven, the very first thing I’m going to ask is to hear what Charley Patton’s singing and playing sounded like without all of the crackling and popping. Patton is one of the giants of the Delta blues, and the style’s first big star. Unfortunately, he recorded for the Paramount label, which was infamous for making records out of inferior, easily-scratched materials. In addition, when Paramount went out of business, they melted and sold all of the masters for scrap, so those few scratched records that survived are all we have left. Be forewarned here, the sound of these recordings is distractingly poor. But if you can focus past the hissing, you will be rewarded with some of the most exciting blues ever recorded.

Charley Patton
Pony Blues (Paramount 12792, 1929)

Patton was already a big star around the Mississippi Delta, having performed there for more than twenty years before his first recording session in 1929. During that first session, he recorded one of his signature songs, “Pony Blues,” which became his first hit and soon made him the nation’s best selling blues artist. Right out of the gate, Patton’s distinct, weathered voice commands attention on this track. It is a huge, powerful voice and Patton doesn’t hold back. This is one of his slower songs, which gives him the chance to stretch out some of the notes and imbue them with immense amounts of character. The song starts out very mellow, but his brilliant bottleneck guitar work soon becomes lively and varied, and his voice follows suit, covering an impressive range in the process.

~ You may also like: Charley Patton, “Down the Dirt Road Blues” (Paramount 12854, 1929)

Charley Patton
Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues(Paramount 12805, 1929)

“Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues” features some of Patton’s best lyrics: “Oh Lord have mercy on my wicked soul / I wouldn't mistreat you, baby, for my weight in gold.” Even better than the lyrics, though, are all of the unexpected touches Patton adds. He starts with the basic twelve-bar blues structure, but makes many unexpected turns, including some atypical chord changes and spoken interjections. (“I know you wanna go, baby!”) Perhaps best of all, though, is the occasional thumping he does against his guitar, which gives the record an edgy urgency.

~ You may also like: Charley Patton, “Revenue Man Blues” (Vocalion 02931, 1935)

Charley Patton
Mississippi Boweavil Blues (Paramount 12805, 1929)

On “Mississippi Boweavil Blues,” Patton sings a steady stream of lines about the dreaded insect pest known for destroying cotton crops. (“Suck all the blossoms and leave your hedges square, Lordie!”) He punctuates each at the end with a few high notes of his guitar, then moves to the next line. The song drives forward for the length of the record without variation, creating a rhythmic pattern that picks up speed as the record goes on. By the time it finishes, it has become almost hypnotic, and its end leaves you wanting more.

~ You may also like: Charley Patton, “Pea Vine Blues” (Paramount 12877, 1929)

Charley Patton
Shake It and Break It (But Don’t Let It Fall Mama) (Paramount 12869, 1929)

Patton is mostly remembered for his emotive Delta blues songs, but he actually had a very diverse repertoire, as the playf “Shake It and Break It” shows. This upbeat record is Patton at his most fun, singing delightfully bawdy lyrics that play on the euphemism “jellyroll”: “You can snatch it, you can grab it, you can break it, you can twist it / Any way that I love to get it … My jelly, my roll, sweet mama, don’t you let it fall!”

~ You may also like a pair of gospel blues recordings (released under a pseudonym) that further show Patton’s range: Elder J.J. Hadley (Charley Patton), “Prayer of Death (Parts 1 & 2)” (Paramount 12799, 1929)


Mighty Tight (1929)

The late 1920s saw male blues artists make tremendous inroads, and the diversity of blues styles recorded was truly amazing. The jazz-influenced, classic female blues style was far from dead, though. In fact, as these next two recordings show, it was stronger than ever.

Sippie Wallace
I’m a Mighty Tight Woman (Victor V-38502, 1929)

Sippie Wallace was one of the more successful female blues artists of the 1920s. She wrote a lot of her own songs, including “I’m a Mighty Tight Woman,” one of her best. Like her contemporaries, her voice is very powerful, and yet it has a subtle softness to it here that works perfectly with the somewhat vulnerable lyrics: “I've come to you, pretty papa, falling on my knees / To ask if you ain't got nobody, kind darling, take me please.” The jazz accompaniment is also some of the strongest to ever make it onto a blues record. Johnny Dodds is so good on clarinet that he very nearly upstages Wallace. This record is a pure delight from start to finish.

~ You may also like the great jazz accompaniment by Louis Dumaine’s Jazzola Eight on this record: Genevieve Davis, “Haven’t Got A Dollar To Pay Your House Rent Man” (Victor 20638, 1927)

Bessie Smith
Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out (Columbia 14451-D, 1929)

This song is so good it floors me every time I hear it: Bessie Smith, voice strong and expressive as ever, delivers some of the most classic lyrics in blues history. In the beginning of the song, the narrator reminisces about the times when she had money: “I carried my friends out for a good time / Buying bootleg liquor, champagne and wine.” But as she falls on hard times, she finds that her so-called friends cannot be found: “It’s mighty strange, without a doubt / Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.” Every word is simply amazing. For the final verse, Smith repeats some earlier lines, and doesn’t even have to sing all of the words. The story was so memorable and expertly sung on the first telling that she can just hum through most of the line, sing the last few words, and the listener knows what she means. Those hummed lines capture more feeling without words than most songs can ever hope to convey.

~ You may also like: Bessie Smith, “‘After You’ve Gone” (Columbia 14197-D, 1927)


Piano Blues (1929)

The piano had been used in the blues from the very beginning, as witnessed by Clarence Williams’ brilliant accompaniment on Bessie Smith’s first hits. But as the next two recordings illustrate, it really came into its own as a lead blues instrument in the late 1920s.

Speckled Red
The Dirty Dozen(Brunswick 7116, 1929)

Rufus Perryman, a.k.a. “Speckled Red,” is best remembered for this song, which is named after “the dozens,” a popular African American tradition in which two contestants compete to see who can come up with the wittiest insults. (Elements of “the dozens” would later be incorporated into hip-hop.) Red lays down some witty insults of his own over the course of the song, including the obligatory references to “yo’ mama” (not to mention “yo’ poppa”). Red’s singing voice isn’t particularly notable, but with some wonderful nonsense during the verses and a memorable boogie woogie beat during the chorus, this song is tremendous fun.

~ You may also like some great, instrumental piano blues: Little Brother Montgomery, “Farish Street Jive” (Bluebird 6894, 1937)

Roosevelt Sykes
44 Blues(Okeh 8702, 1929)

Roosevelt Sykes’ “44 Blues” is a great example of the piano being used to convey a more reserved, very traditional blues feeling. Sykes does some impressive eight-to-the-bar playing in places, but he keeps the instrument’s impact understated and slows it way down during the verses to provide just the right mood for the plaintive vocals. The lyrics of this song are brief but nevertheless tell an incredibly engaging story: the number originally refers to the narrator’s .44 pistol, which the song implies that he uses when he finds his woman with another man. But he finds no peace, as the number 44 continues to haunt him: “Lord, I got a little cabin / Lord, it’s number 44 / Lord, I wake up every morning / The wolves be scratching on my door.”

~ You may also like Sykes performing in a more uptempo style: Roosevelt Sykes, “Dirty Mother for You” (Decca 7160, 1936)


Boogie Woogie (1928-1929)

Boogie woogie is a bluesy style of piano playing that features a driving, eight-beats-per-measure bass line. While these early boogie woogie classics stick to solo piano, the style would prove very popular and influential across the entire spectrum of American music in the coming decades. Pretty soon, that “eight-to-the-bar” rhythm would pop up in everything from jazz to blues to country to rock and roll.

Cow Cow Davenport
Cow Cow Blues(Vocalion 1198, 1928)

“Cow Cow Blues” was one of the earliest boogie woogie records ever released, and proved popular enough to give pianist Charles Davenport his nickname (although he was not its author). Davenport gives the form a spectacular workout, with his left hand pounding out a fast rhythm that doesn’t slow down until the last note, while his right hand freely improvises at an equally furious pace.

~ You may also like: Pine Top Smith, “Jump Steady Blues” (Vocalion 1298, 1929)

1929 Headlines … Herbert Hoover is inaugurated as the 31st U.S. President … Radio comedy show Amos & Andy debuts … The Great Depression begins with “Black Tuesday” U.S. stock market crash on October 29

Pine Top Smith
Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie(Vocalion 1245, 1929)

Clarence “Pine Top” Smith was not the first to record a boogie woogie record, but he was the first to have a major hit. Sadly, not long after “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie” was released, the 24 year old was killed by a stray bullet when a fight broke out at a dancehall. Listen to this record, and you will get a sense of just how big a loss that was. Smith was a fine pianist, but what really makes this record stand out is Smith’s incredible sense of fun. Even as he nimbly moves his hands across the piano at breakneck speed, the melody always sounds relaxed and swinging. And his hands aren’t the only thing in constant motion: so is his mouth as he half-sings/half-speaks dance instructions to an imaginary audience, telling them to “boogie woogie,” “mess around” and “shake that thing!” After each verse he interjects, “That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout!” And, especially after the final verse, the excitement in his voice and in his piano is so infectious, it is almost impossible not to obey and “shake that thing!”

~ You may also like: Cripple Clarence Lofton, “Strut That Thing” (Vocalion 02951, 1935)

Urban Blues (1928)

As the United States transitioned to an increasingly urban society, it was inevitable that rural music traditions like the blues would evolve, too. The next two recordings are early examples of that shift to a new, more polished blues sound.

Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell
How Long, How Long Blues (Vocalion 1191, 1928)

Hailing from Indianapolis rather than from the deep south, pianist/vocalist Leroy Carr and guitarist Scrapper Blackwell were pioneers of a new, “urban” blues sound. Carr and Blackwell created a more sophisticated sound that retained the spirit of country blues, but with the rough edges smoothed out and a decidedly jazzier feel.

“How Long, How Long Blues” was the duo’s first hit and would remain their signature song until Carr’s death in 1935. Carr’s smooth, pleasant singing style bears little resemblance to the loud, rough style of many previous blues artists, but still manages to capture the emotion of the song incredibly well. Blackwell’s jazz-like, single-string guitar technique is simply amazing to hear, and it combines beautifully with Carr’s rolling piano to provide a soulful, melancholy backdrop throughout the record.

~ You may also like: Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, “Prison Bound Blues” (Vocalion 1241, 1929)

Tampa Red and Georgia Tom
It’s Tight Like That(Vocalion 1216, 1928)

Hudson Whittaker adopted the name “Tampa Red” after moving in the 1920s from Florida to Chicago. He proved very influential in refining the city’s urban blues sound with his smooth, single-string bottleneck guitar style. “It’s Tight Like That” offers a good example of that well-polished sound, including some wonderfully bent notes during the bridge about half-way through. Tampa Red is joined on this record by “Georgia Tom,” none other than Thomas A. Dorsey, who would later gain fame composing gospel songs. This song’s hokum lyrics are about as far from gospel as they could get, however, and are full of bawdy double-entendres: “I went to see my gal up across the hall / Found another mule kicking in my stall!”

~ You may also like some more of that great bottleneck guitar: Tampa Red, “Things ‘Bout Comin’ My Way” (Vocalion 02774, 1934)


West End Blues (1928)

In 1929, Louis Armstrong would return to New York and would work from that point on with a full orchestra. First, though, he would spend 1928 making several more classic small-group recordings in Chicago, including some that would rank among the best of his career, like the immortal “West End Blues.”

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Hotter Than That(Okeh 8535, 1928)

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Struttin’ with Some Barbecue(Okeh 8566, 1928)

After the Hot Seven recordings in the spring of 1927, Louis Armstrong’s group returned to its classic Hot Five lineup, which would last for only a few more sessions. These two selections were both written by Armstrong’s wife, Lil, and feature some of the group’s best work.

For “Hotter Than That,” the ensemble could have actually been called a Hot Six, because they are joined by Lonnie Johnson on guitar. The record sets the tone early with solos from Armstrong on cornet and Johnny Dodds on clarinet. Then Louis Armstrong launches into a long scat singing section, which evolves into a mellow but riveting exchange between his voice and Johnson’s expertly picked guitar. Lil Hardin Armstrong’s booming piano jump starts the action again, and the band kicks back in as lively as ever. Kid Ory gives us a short, swinging solo on trombone, then Armstrong’s cornet takes over. The band backs him up with a little stop-time playing, and then Johnson’s guitar returns for some more quick fingerpicking to end the song.

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, “Fireworks” (Okeh 8597, 1928)

“Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” evolves so wonderfully throughout the course of the record that by the time it returns to the main theme again at the end, it almost sounds like a completely different song. It starts with some fantastic interplay between Armstrong’s cornet, Ory’s trombone and Dodds’ clarinet. The three then take turns soloing: first Dodds, then Ory, then Armstrong. It all sounds incredible: this is a fantastic melody and the soloists do a wonderful job with it. Then the real fireworks happens, just over two minutes into the song, as the band starts playing stop-time and Armstrong’s cornet kicks things up a notch. And again, as good as it was at the beginning, by the time the song reaches the final few bars, with the band all playing stop-time in unison, it is magical.

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven, “Willie the Weeper” (Okeh 8482, 1927)

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
West End Blues (Okeh 8597, 1928)

Armstrong reassembled his “Hot Five” band in June 1928, but with entirely new personnel. Despite such changes, the group was able to continue making some incredible music, including this recording of the Joe “King” Oliver composition “West End Blues” (named for a section of New Orleans). In fact, this would prove to be the single most beautiful record Armstrong would ever make: every note is simply perfect.

The record starts with a dramatic call-to-arms from Armstrong’s cornet, which effortlessly glides into an easy-going twelve-bar blues. Fred Robinson’s trombone takes the first solo atop some atypical, clinking percussion from Zutty Singleton (whose presence actually made this group a “Hot Six”). Jimmy Strong’s clarinet then trades off in a duet with Louis Armstrong’s very relaxed and peaceful scat singing. Earl Hines, one of the all-time great jazz pianists, then takes a turn with a very inventive solo that manages to be technically impressive while maintaining the easy-going flow of the song.

Next comes Louis Armstrong with one of the most famous solos in jazz history. Listen to how he sustains the opening note: even though the pitch stays constant, he brings that single note to life with vibrato and changes in volume, until the pent up energy finally comes tumbling out in the end in an impressive cascade of notes. Like Hines’ solo earlier, Armstrong manages to sound fresh and innovative without losing the song’s easy-swinging spirit. It is a sublime moment, over far too soon, that both sums up everything he has done to that point and shrewdly predicts the possibilities jazz has left to explore. A final strike of the woodblock from Zutty Singleton puts an exclamation point on this record, the pinnacle of 1920s jazz.

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five, “Tight Like This” (Okeh 8649, 1928)

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