In August 1986, Phil Alvin released his debut solo album in the wake of The Blasters‘ unfortunate dissolution. They had one of the great first runs in American music history (roughly 1980-85), but with brother Dave jumping ship for X in March, not to mention pianist Gene Taylor quitting after a famously terrible gig in Montreal the previous October, Phil had nothing to lose. Of course, given that his resulting LP, Un “Sung Stories,” was a collection of old blues, jazz, country, and pop songs originally recorded between 1925-1953, he also had nothing to gain. The music industry barely knows what to do with contemporary music. Give it an homage to pre-Elvis roots music, record execs are more likely to defenestrate themselves in a cocaine and tequila blackout than actually market it. Hmmm … that gives me an idea. Someone get me enough cocaine and tequila to induce a blackout.
What makes Un “Sung Stories” a unique, thoroughly engaging document of old school americana isn’t simply Phil’s inherent soulfulness. He was also smart/lucky enough to employ two different backing bands, both of whom instilled swing and funk to the sessions. The first was the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, at the time a relative unknown in the states (in Europe they were much more popular). They’d been together since 1977, but in 1986 they were still a year away from being signed to a major label (Columbia). The other backing band — and this is stunning to consider in retrospect — was Sun Ra & His Arkestra. Yes, THE Sun Ra. Birmingham, Alabama native, Philly expat, afrofuturist, Egyptologist, ambassador to Saturn, pioneer of electric piano and analog synthesizer, and visionary, cosmic jazz pianist whose influences ranged from boogie woogie and Basie to Monk and Rachmaninoff. How Phil Alvin managed to procure Sun Ra’s services is a Downey miracle, but God bless him for pulling it off.
“My memories of Sun Ra are many fold and all I can say is that we got along great from the beginning. I watched him sit 18 hours in a studio only getting up one time to use the restroom and throwing charts over his head listening to a 12-piece band make a chord and he would say ‘Marshall (Allen), didn’t I give you a B flat?’ What I mean is Sun Ra could hear one bad note out of 12 to 15 musicians all playing at once.
–Phil Alvin to Michael Limnios, Blues @ Greece, September 6, 2012
Un “Sung Stories” was dedicated to “The Big Man” Joe Turner, who passed away on November 24, 1985, about the time The Blasters 1.0 were imploding. Big Joe actually mentored Phil and Dave when they were teenagers in the 1970s. They attended his shows, picked his brain, and tapped into the firsthand knowledge Big Joe gained over his then-50 year career. And while he’s best known as the operatic shouter behind rock ‘n’ roll era hits, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (1954) and “Honey Hush” (1953), Big Joe’s career actually began in 1925 when he dropped out of school at 14 to sing the blues full-time in Kansas City nightclubs. Therefore, his career spanned the entire history of the blues and mirrored the chronology covered by Phil’s album.
So, this post works on a couple levels. It pays tribute to Un “Sung Stories” the album, but also the songs that comprise the album. With a few exceptions, most of these stories continue to be unsung, whether in their Phil Alvin or original guises. Let’s get it sung, people.
UN “SUNG STORIES” – SIDE 1
1. Phil Alvin & The Dirty Dozen Brass Band – Someone Stole Gabriel’s Horn
Lee Allen – tenor saxophone
Right out the box, Un “Sung” offers a glorious trifecta of Phil Alvin’s soulful voice, Lee Allen‘s bedrock tenor sax, and the Dirty Dozen second line funkcophony. A cover of a Bing Crosby/Dorsey Brothers classic from the ’30s, “Gabriel’s” takes that straight-laced Dixieland foundation and dresses it up streetwise ’70s finery. Stylistically, the marriage of Phil and the DDBB was congruous in the sense that both The Blasters and Dirty Dozen Brass Band took very traditional song forms and updated them for modern audiences.
“We started out playing the traditional music of New Orleans. We were practicing on Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, and we brought that music to the street. People loved it. Then we started playing Jimmy Forrest, ‘Night Train,’ and then Michael Jackson — all these different influences. It worked. We got a lot of static in the beginning from the older guys, who said we weren’t a traditional band. But we were. We were just playing music we wanted to play, like an experimental workshop type of thing.”
–Roger Lewis (DDBB) to Ted Panken, Jazz Times, August 6, 2012
If you review the caption at the top of this post, you’ll note that Bing Crosby is one of the musicians to whom Un “Sung” is “indebted.” (Incidentally, that list is from the actual album cover, not me projecting influences onto the album.) If the impetus behind Un “Sung” was to breathe new life into undervalued (or unknown) old songs and shine a spotlight on forgotten artists, Bing makes for a curious, though appropriate starting point. He’s now a cultural footnote to anyone under 40, but Bing Crosby was unquestionably the most popular singer and entertainer of the 20th century until The Beatles came along. He was more commercially successful and technologically impactful than Sinatra and Elvis at their respective peaks. Forget about chart success for a moment. Do you know who first mastered recordings to tape and whose investments led directly to multitrack recording? That would be Bing. However, Sinatra had the benefit of surviving long enough to become a beloved elder statesman in the rock era, whereas Crosby is that old dude who sang with Bowie and the “White Christmas” guy. Such is life.
As for Elvis, he’s usually credited with introducing black music to white teenagers. However, Phil Alvin has an interesting twist on that idea. Check out this exchange in a 2008 interview with The Wenatchee World:
WW: The thing that always struck me about The Blasters’ music is it often doesn’t sound like what I think of as rock ‘n’ roll or rockabilly. It’s got sort of a postwar, pre-Elvis kind of feel at times.
Phil: Hopefully, that is because maybe we have pointed that way. All of these names that people had for different fashions that have lived on top of music don’t really have a lot to do with the core, the current of music that’s being passed through time, through your culture — if I’m not getting too abstract, which I tend to do. For example, Elvis Presley was a white guy that sang black music. They’ll say that Elvis was the first, but Elvis wasn’t the first that tag was given to. That tag was given to Bing Crosby, in the ’20s, as a jazz singer.
–Phil Alvin to Jefferson Robbins, Wenatchee (WA) World, July 17, 2008
Bing Crosby & The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra – Someone Stole Gabriel’s Horn
Recorded March 14, 1933
“Someone Stole Gabriel’s Horn” was written and recorded in the 1930s, not the ’20s. Still, it’s a perfect example of the white-black cross-cultural exchange that existed long before Elvis. Granted, Bing and The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra were white and the lyrics were written by a white man named Ned Washington (best known, if known at all, as the co-writer of “When You Wish Upon A Star” from Pinocchio/Disney fame). However, the music was mostly written by a black man named Edgar Hayes, pianist and arranger for the sorely underrated Mills Blue Rhythm Band. The Mills in MBRB was music publisher Irving Mills, the third writer of “Gabriel’s” and manager of the Mills Blue Rhythm Band in the 1930s. It was Mills who booked the band at The Cotton Club in Harlem as hotshot understudies to (and de facto farm system for) Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway (who we’ll hear more from later).
2. Phil Alvin – Next Week Sometime
Art Fein’s Poker Party
September 5, 1986
L-R: Ted Carroll, Phil, Phast Phreddie, host Art Fein
While you can find videos of Phil singing tracks that appeared on Un “Sung” (“Daddy Rollin’ Stone” and “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?”, both below), this clip from Art Fein’s Poker Party is the only footage I’ve found contemporary with the record’s release. In Adios Lounge world, this is a vitally important historical document, its cable access origins and fluctuating audio be damned. I’d like to think that somewhere out there is an enterprising investor looking to compile a remastered, multi-disc video release of the Poker Party, what with Fein (pronounced “fine”) being a legendary LA scenester, raconteur, author, talk show host, and all-around character. By the way, check out Fein’s website, Another Fein Mess, and learn yourself something. The only downside is that it seems to be have been designed at the height of the Geocities era and never updated. Oh well. No pain, no gain.
Alec Johnson – Next Week Sometime
Singer Alec Johnson‘s original version of “Next Week Sometime” features Kansas Joe McCoy on guitar. Kansas Joe was older brother to Delta blues guitarist/mandolinist, Papa Charlie McCoy, and also husband to Delta blues singer/guitarist, Memphis Minnie (“When The Levee Breaks”). According to a visitor on the blues website, WeenieCampbell.com, Alec Johnson is actually the nom de disque of Ferdinand Chatmon, brother of Delta blues singer/guitarist, Bo Carter, who cut a few sides in the 1930s with none other than Papa Charlie McCoy. Incidentally, Bo Carter cut the first version of “Corrine, Corrina” in 1928. In 1956, it became a hit for an R&B singer/rock ‘n’ roller. That singer’s name? Big Joe Turner.
YOU’VE HEARD THE STORY ‘BOUT MINNIE THE MOOCHER
“There are a lot of characters and stories that I’ve always liked and they’re not very well elaborated on anymore. There’s certainly no cause in the modern music industry to ever pay real intelligent musical respect to a song that’s not gonna get anybody who’s alive any publishing. So you don’t get to hear ‘The Ghost of Smokey Joe.’ Who’s Smokey Joe? That’s always been the job of musicians, to sort through old records and oral tradition.”
—Phil Alvin to Chris Willman, LA Times, June 1, 1986
3. Phil Alvin & The Sun Ra Arkestra – The Ballad Of Smokey Joe
Medley: “Minnie The Moocher” + “Kickin’ The Gong Around” + “The Ghost Of Smokey Joe”
Cab Calloway is another musician to whom Un “Sung Stories” is indebted. Like Bing Crosby, two tracks on the album are covers of songs Cab made popular. Actually, that’s half-true. “The Ballad Of Smokey Joe” is a medley of THREE Calloway songs — not two, as the LP suggests — all riffing on the infamous “Minnie The Moocher” saga. While “Minnie” might be best known today for its role in The Blues Brothers, it was a gigantic hit upon its release in 1931, and that it WASN’T censored in the early ’30s is a marvel of caucasian ignorance.. Based on Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon‘s 1927 hit, “Willie the Weeper,” “Minnie” — and by extension, “The Ballad Of Smokey Joe” — is a tale of cocaine addiction (“She loved him though he was cokie”; “He was sweatin’, cold, and pale”; He was broke and all his junk ran out”) and opium addiction (“Kickin’ the gong around”) involving a pimp and his junkie woman (“a red hot hoochie coocher”). But hey, other than that it’s wholesome family fare.
“The Ballad Of Smokey Joe” is also the first song on Un “Sung” to get the Sun Ra treatment. On paper, a collaboration between the Arkestra and a Blaster seems incongruous, to say the least. Like we’re gonna get “Marie Marie” in polyrhythmic 5/4 time and transposed into E flat. In fact, the combination as recorded sounds exactly like what it should: hot jazz from the 1930s. In the video below, Phil discusses, among other things, the importance of old school showmanship to Sun Ra. This is actually the first part of the Art Fein clip posted above, but I thought it fit better here. Below the vid is a quote relevant to this idea of jazz as entertainment, a novel concept in 2013, let alone 1986.
“Jazz doesn’t appeal popularly, doesn’t go out and talk to people, sing songs to people, try to get people dancing or something. It’s more playing around with music. Used to be, when Louis Armstrong and those guys played it, (jazz) was “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You.” Much more of the entertainment jazz tradition is in rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll, not inside what you call jazz. And Sun Ra, who learned from Fletcher Henderson, always kept a show. No matter how far outside, he’s one of the greatest third (stream) or whatever name you wanna give to avant garde jazz. John Gilmore and Marshall Allen, guys like that in the band, are the founders of some of these movements, they ALWAYS entertained on stage. Music was done to entertain.”
–Phil Alvin, beginning at 1:05
How ’bout a triple shot of Cab in his prime? Dude is like a combination of (and precursor to) Louis Jordan, James Brown, and Prince, but wrote songs about slangin dope like Death Certificate-era Ice Cube.
By the way, guess who’s credited with co-writing “Minnie The Moocher”? That would be Irving Mills of “Someone Stole Gabriel’s Horn” and Mills Blue Rhythm Band fame. And having previously mentioned the MBRB, did you hear Phil namedrop them in the above video (referencing their song, “Ride, Red, Ride”)? As it turns out, Mills managed both the MBRB and the Cab Calloway Orchestra, and it was Cab, along with Duke Ellington, who broke the network radio color barrier when both orchestras were broadcast by NBC from the Cotton Club, where Mills ensconced both groups.
Cab Calloway – Minnie The Moocher
From Calloway Boogie aka Cab’s Club, 1950
Cab Calloway – Kickin’ The Gong Around
From The Big Broadcast (1932)
Incidentally, The Big Broadcast is a musical comedy starring Bing Crosby and according to Wikipedia was released on October 14, 1932. That means it was in theaters when Bing released “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” which we’ll get to momentarily.
Cab Calloway – The Ghost Of Smokey Joe
Recorded March 28, 1939
Is there a better or more familiar call and response in music than:
If there are better options, that has to be short list.
4. Reverend Anderson Johnson – Death In The Morning
“Mother ran screaming and crying
‘Death, my child is young
Hasn’t had any pleasurable life
Spare him just a little while longer’
I heard Death say,
‘Mother mother, the old and young
Rich and poor to the judgment they must go
All your silver and all your gold
Nothing satisfies me, but your soul.'”
The 4th song on Side 1 of Un “Sung Stories” is an obscure gospel song about a mother and child meeting Death. I’m not including the Phil version for three reasons. 1) I don’t want ALL of the Un “Sung” tracks available here because you should have some incentive for buying the vinyl and/or mp3s. 2) The Alvin arrangement is pretty faithful to the original, despite adding light drums (Dave Carroll, Blasters drummer circa 1993-94) and gospel backup vocals (The Jubilee Train Singers, last heard on “Samson And Delilah” from The Blasters’ Hard Line LP, released the previous year). Finally, 3) This haunting video would totally overshadow the Alvin version even if I included it! It’s both horrifingly creepy and strangely touching in a primitive, pre-modern way. In that sense, then, it’s perfect for this post. If Phil was paying homage to (mostly) pre-“modern” music and trying to make it relevant for a late 20th century audience, then how fitting is it that through YouTube we’re exposed to 19th century mourners expressing themselves in a way totally foreign to 21st century sensibilities? If Phil was singing “un sung stories,” these people were living them.
5. Phil Alvin & The Sun Ra Arkestra – The Old Man Of The Mountain
If “Someone Stole Gabriel’s Horn” was a perfect marriage of Phil Alvin and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, this song is a perfect marriage of Phil Alvin and the Arkestra. The second Cab Calloway cover on Un “Sung” — or fourth, depending on how you count such things — “Old Man” is righteous cacophony, with what sounds like 18 different horn parts delivering swinging funk, Arthur O’Neil’s giddyup drums pushing the beat forward, Bruce Edwards on slinky guitar lead, and Sun Ra’s piano slightly behind the beat, but in the middle of the action, directing traffic. On top of this swirling foundation, Phil sings with restrained gusto.
“The Old Man Of The Mountain” was written by composer/arranger Victor Young and songwriter Billy Hill. Young was actually a concert violinist who helped transform Hoagy Carmichael‘s “Stardust” into one of the canonical American songs. When Carmichael wrote it in 1927 it was an upbeat jazz number. However, in 1930, bandleader Isham Jones had Young, his violinist, slow down the arrangement and play a gorgeous solo that rocketed “Stardust” to #1 and turn it into the weepy anthem it has remained ever since. Hill’s most famous tune is probably “The Glory Of Love,” best known today as the song Bette Midler sings in Beaches, which would be awesome if I was a 55-year-old housewife or drag queen. More relevant to today’s discussion, Hill also wrote “Empty Saddles,” a song featured in the 1936 western musical, Rhythm On The Range, when it was sung by the film’s star, Bing Crosby, the only western Bing ever appeared in.
Betty Boop/Cab Calloway animated short – “The Old Man Of The Mountain”
A Fleischer Studios production
Originally aired August 4, 1933
We now return to Cab Calloway and … Betty Boop? Indeed. “The Old Man Of The Mountain” was the third and final Fleischer Brothers cartoon to pair Betty and Cab. The first was “Minnie The Moocher” (originally aired February 26, 1932) and the second was “Snow White” (originally aired March 31, 1933). In all three shorts, film footage of Cab Calloway was rotoscoped, or traced into animation, in this case to provide dance steps for the Old Man during his duet of “You’ve Got to Hi-De-Hi.” As it turns out, this short was one of the last to feature sexy Betty. The early Boop toons were surreal, featured hot jazz, and for some reason or another, Betty’s dresses kept coming off. For some Americans, this sexual aggression was too much. By 1934, Paramount was being pressured to turn Betty into less of a freewheeling sexpot and something more “Meredith Baxter Birney-ish.” Good going, mainstream 1930s values. Hope you’re happy with yourself.
UN “SUNG STORIES” – SIDE 2
1. Phil Alvin – Daddy Rollin’ Stone
Gary Masi and Mike Roach – guitar
Gene Taylor – piano
Gary Taylor – bass
Dave Carroll – drums
One of only two tracks on Un “Sung” with post-World War II origins (“Death In The Morning” being the other) and the only track that finds Phil backed by a rock band. While “Daddy Rollin’ Stone” is NOW a regular part of Blasters setlists, this wasn’t always the case. It first showed up in 1996-97 during the early stages of the Phil/John Bazz (bass)/Keith Wyatt (guitar)/Jerry Angel (drums) version of the band. Of course, conspicuous by his accompaniment is original Blasters pianist, the great Gene Taylor. So, in a weird way, this is like an alternate version of The Blasters from 1986.
In 2004, Phil was interviewed by American Music: The Blasters/Dave Alvin newsletter, regarding 4-11-44, their fifth studio album, which begain with “Daddy Rollin’ Stone.” When asked about the song, here was Phil’s reply:
Phil: I don’t see this version as very different from the one on my solo record, Un “Sung Stories.” There is a bassline difference and there is the attitudinal difference of The Blasters that are playing it. On the solo record it was Dave Carroll, Gary Masi, and Mike Roach.
American Music: What is the origin of this song?
Phil: I bought the Otis Blackwell record on the Jay-Dee label. It’s a very early record like ’51 or ’52 (actually 1953). When I heard that thing, I said, ‘DAMN!’ I never heard anybody else doing it, but now my friend Drac from Finland gave me a copy of Jimmy Ricks doing it. Damn! In fact, that’s the one (the Blackwell version) I wanted to put on my top ten list – the father of doo wop. C’est la vie. (Laughs) (Editor’s note – Phil just got off the phone with a major UK music magazine writer telling his ’10 essential important records.’)
–Phil to American Music: The Blasters/Dave Alvin newsletter, Issue 44, November 2004
I included the band members because one of those names should look familiar. You may have heard of “Big” Al Sears. He was first tenor in the Duke Ellington Orchestra from 1944-49, replacing the great Ben Webster. But, you should DEFINITELY know the drummer, “Panama” Francis. After all, he was in Cab Calloway’s band for five years (1947-52) and appears in the video of “Minnie The Moocher” posted above. Furthermore, he came to the Calloway Ork from a lengthy stint with Lucky Millinder (1940-47), who you should remember being referenced by Phil in the video above (“Phil Alvin Speaks”). Connections, my peeps. It’s all about connections.
2. Phil Alvin – Titanic Blues
Phil Alvin – solo guitar
The LP says it was written by an obscure blues singer named Henry Spaulding, but according to this Spaulding discography, he released exactly ONE 78 RPM single: “Cairo Blues” b/w “Biddle Street Blues” (Brunswick 7085). That discrepancy aside, Henry Spaulding belongs in this discussion. He was a St. Louis blues singer in the 1920s-30s and he intersects with other figures referenced on Un “Sung Stories.” If you scroll down a bit on that same discography, you’ll see that Spaulding appears on a 1969 compilation entitled, The Blues In St. Louis: 1929-1937. Leading off the comp is Henry Townsend, the last musician to whom Un “Sung” is indebted. Meanwhile, ending the comp is Peetie Wheatstraw, whose “Gangster Blues” is coincidentally the closing track on Un “Sung”.
There’s also one track by a musician named Charley Jordan. This is relevant because in 1972, another St. Louis-based blues collection was released, this one called, St. Louis Blues: 1929-1935 (The Depression). Of that comp’s 14 tracks, Townsend, Jordan, and Wheatstraw are responsible for 10 of them. Please note that the only other musician with more than one track is a man named Hi Henry Brown. His first cut is “Preachers Blues.” His second cut? Well, that would be “Titanic Blues,” recorded with none other than Charley Jordan on second guitar.
Hi Henry Brown (w/Charley Jordan) – Titanic Blues
Recorded March 14, 1932
“Little children crying, ‘Mama, mama what shall we do?’
Little children crying, ‘Mama, mama what shall we do?’
Captain Smith said, ‘Children, I’ll take care of you.'”
Like “Death In The Morning,” “Titanic Blues” references the death of children, a mostly taboo subject in modern (or postmodern) music. While certainly morbid, both songs transcend the exploitative by being an honest reflection of period events and a culture in which child mortality was a realistic concern.
3. Phil Alvin – Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?
The Observatory, Santa Ana, CA
January 26, 2013
Benefit For Phil Alvin
“Brother” was a #1 hit for both Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallée in the early 1930s because it clearly spoke to a nation whose men built the railroads (“Once I built a railroad/I made it run/Made it race against time”), built the skyscrapers (“Once I built a tower up to the sun/Brick and rivet and lime/Once I built a tower, now it’s done”), and fought in World War I (“Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell/Full of that Yankee-Doodley-Dum/Half a million boots went sloggin’ through Hell”), only to find themselves in bread lines at the height of the Depression. So, juxtapose that reality against the backdrop of Reagan-era materialism and “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” must’ve seemed like alien folk music — like panpipe transcriptions found on stone tablets at Machu Picchu — when it appeared on Un “Sung” in 1986.
Of course, songs don’t exist in a vacuum. Fast-forward to 2012 when Phil Alvin was waylaid by the deadly MRSA virus and nearly died. According to brother Dave he luckily recovered, but unluckily amassed a significant amount medical bills. As a result, a benefit was organized for January 26, 2013, at The Observatory in Santa Ana, California. It was called “Brotherly Love: A Night For Our Brother, Phil Alvin,” but it could’ve just as easily been called, “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” Appearing were X, The Knitters, a version of Los Lobos, and The Original Blasters, though Keith Wyatt played lead guitar on about half the set because Dave, of all people, showed up late. I was in attendance and in my opinion, The Blasters — especially Phil — stole the show. The band was locked in, the guitars were searing, but most shocking of all, Phil’s voice sounded better than ever. And there’s no small amount of irony (and poignancy) that he breathed fresh life into what may have been a song about the Depression, but also became a song about himself.
Check out this frightening account of Phil’s battle with MRSA:
“After his release from the hospital, he was on massive amounts of antibiotics for three months that severely depleted his immune system. He went on a European tour with [The Blasters] in June of (2012) and in Valencia, Spain, he was hospitalized because he couldn’t breathe. After flat-lining in the emergency room, he was brought back to consciousness by a Spanish doctor named Dr. Maria (as in ‘Marie Marie,’ ironically) and a tracheotomy was performed. He remained in the Spanish hospital for a little over two weeks undergoing treatment. He’s fine now and singing better than before, believe it or not.”
–Dave Alvin to Randy Lewis, LA Times, December 27, 2012
Bing Crosby – Brother Can You Spare A Dime?
Recorded October 25, 1932
Here’s the Bing Crosby original with excellent stock footage of the era. Also, check out A Depression-Era Anthem For Our Times, an excellent NPR feature about “Brother Can You Spare A Dime?” done at the height of the 2008 recession (November 15, 2008).
4. Phil Alvin – Collins Cave (aka The Death Of Floyd Collins)
Phil Alvin – guitar
Richard Greene – violin
Phil reprises a famous folk song about cave dweller, Floyd Collins. If the name of his accompanist, violinist Richard Greene, sounds familiar, it should. He was one of the founding members of Muleskinner, Clarence White‘s bluegrass band who came together in 1973 to back up Bill Monroe for a TV special. They recorded one self-titled album before White’s tragic death later that year ended the group before it had a chance to really start.
“Collins Cave” began life as “The Death Of Floyd Collins” and it was originally recorded in 1925 by Vernon Dalhart and Fiddlin’ John Carson. This is significant because these two men were the immediate precursors to Jimmie Rodgers, correctly credited as “The Father of Country Music.” In 1923, Carson recorded the very first country hit single, “The Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane.” The success of Dalhart recordings like “The Wreck Of The Old 97,” “The Prisoner’s Song,” and yes, “Floyd Collins” in 1924-25 convinced a young talent scout and record producer named Ralph Peer that maybe there was something to this country music fad. Oh, it’s probably worth noting that he’d had previous experience with country music. The man who recorded that fateful Carson disc back in ’23? Ralph Peer.
But, who was this mysterious Floyd Collins? He was actually a spelunker in central Kentucky, and on January 30, 1925, while trying to discover a new entrance to the state’s extensive system of underground caves, he became trapped in a narrow crawlway 55 feet below the surface. The efforts to save Collins became a national sensation, being followed obsessively in newspapers and on radio, which was then new technology. After 4 days, during which Collins could be brought water and food, a collapse in the cave closed the entrance passageway to everything except voice contact. After 14 days underground, Collins died of exposure, thirst, and starvation, 3 days before a rescue shaft could reach his position.
Intro to the Floyd Collins Story
Vernon Dalhart (w/Fiddlin’ John Carson) – The Death Of Floyd Collins
Recorded September 9, 1925
“This song was made after receiving a telegram from Mr. Polk Brockman of the James K. Polk Company in Atlanta to make one. He was in Florida. After listening to the radio so much, we knew the entire tragic horror of it, so, after getting the telegram, Daddy took his guitar out to the front steps and went to singing. I went to him, wrote it all down, made the musical score, and had it finished and in the mails in a very short time. The music was finished, but with pure simplicity. Mr. Brockman received it in a few hours from the time he sent the telegram. He then rushed it to New York, where Vernon Dalhart recorded it. We were told while in New York that this song had made several of the performers plus Mr. Brockman an awful lot of money, Well, as Daddy said many times, he wanted the people to sing them and love them, that was enough to pay for him.”
–Irene Spain Futrelle, co-writer of “The Death Of Floyd Collins,” on Country Music Treasures
5. Phil Alvin – Gangster’s Blues
Phil Alvin – guitar
Peetie Wheatstraw – Gangster’s Blues
Recorded August 28, 1940
“Gangster’s Blues” is one of two songs on Un “Sung” whose arrangement differs drastically from its source (“Daddy Rollin’ Stone” being the other). Where Phil picks understated solo electric guitar on his rendition, Peetie’s original was a piano blues with jazz overtones. In fact, the band includes some familiar names. Lil Hardin Armstrong was a pianist, composer, arranger, singer, and bandleader, but she’s best known as the wife of Louis Armstrong. “Big” Sid Catlett was actually the drummer in Louis’ big band at the time of this recording and drummer in the Louis Armstrong All-Stars from 1947-49. As for Jonah Jones, he made a previous appearance in this post. Like drummer “Panama” Francis, Jones appeared with Cab Calloway in the video for “Minnie The Moocher.”
Peetie Wheatstraw is barely known today outside of hardcore blues circles, but he was a profound influence on many bluesmen of the 1930s-40s, in particular a fella by the name of Robert Johnson. When Johnson claimed that he learned to play guitar by meeting the Devil at “the crossroads,” it was only after Wheatstraw had already billed himself as “The Devil’s Son-In-Law” and “The High Sheriff of Hell.” Also like Johnson, Peetie met an untimely death when the car in which he was riding drove into a parked freight train, killing two other passengers instantly, and Wheatstraw a few hours later.
Daddy Rollin’ Stone
Un “Sung Stories” was probably never meant for more than a niche audience. Unfortunately, the album received barebones marketing (at best) upon its release, but also emerged at a time when CDs were replacing vinyl as the format of choice. As the years went on, there was no incentive to release it on disc, so it went from sub-niche to virtual non-existence. It deserves better than that. I figure with the Adios Lounge bump, now literally dozens of people will get turned onto this hidden gem. If you’re a Blasters fan, you may not get much in the way of Louisiana boogie, rockabilly, or Chicago blues, but there’s plenty of delta blues, country, R&B, and swing jazz to be had. It’s still the greatest sound right from the U.S.A.
Buy Un “Sung Stories” on vinyl [Discogs]
Buy Un “Sung Stories” MP3 album [Amazon]