‘Race Series’ Performer Biographies

Written by Frank Phillips 1


For a survey and overview of the 78rpms mentioned below, please see article here.

BLACK DEVILS – Named on the original Columbia release (⦿14585- D) as the Red Devils – a novelty group of banjo, kazoo, violin and piano, led by Benny Nawahi who was probably of Hawaiian origin. He played steel guitar in a trio on a recording session with tenor sax and piano in 1929, called the QRS Boys, and made records under his own name (King Nawahi’s Hawaiians) which was a guitar trio, in 1930, but few of these records had any jazz content. The two tracks presented here in Parlophone’s ‘Race’ Series were made in February 1931. He was in Columbia’s studios again in April 1931 directing what was probably a (novelty) sextet, The Georgia Jumpers, when four sides were made and released on Columbia ⦿14603-D and ⦿14620-D – a surprising event when studio time was difficult to procure in the Depression!

LILLIE DELK CHRISTIAN – At the time of her first recordings Lillie Delk Christian, (born 1896), was running a boarding house in Chicago with her husband Charlie, and used to sing to entertain her lodgers for a few coins. The guitarist/banjoist Johnny St. Cyr lodged with her and took her along to a recording session where he had been told to bring a vocalist. This led to further recording sessions, a total of sixteen sides for Okeh. The Chicago Defender reported her concert dates in the 1930’s and her appearance in revival concerts in the mid 1960’s. She was probably the first ‘race’ artist to record the popular ‘white’ radio songs of the day.

WILTON CRAWLEY – Listed in Who’s Who of Jazz as clarinetist/ vocalist/ contortionist! He was born in Smithfield, Virginia, around 1900, moving with his family to Philadelphia where he and his brother, Jimmy (who also played clarinet) formed a band together. Wilton worked in variety during the 1920’s and 30’s with some success. He recorded under his own name for Okeh during 1927 and 1928, playing solo clarinet and providing his own vocals, accompanied by Eddie Heywood on piano and Eddie Lang on guitar. The track [listed on pages 26-27 in the Parlophone’s ‘Race’ Series] was one of these from a session in May 1928. In October and December 1929 and then again in June 1930, he made recordings for Victor under the name of Wilton Crawley and His Orchestra, which at the time included likes of Henry Allen, Luis Russell, Pops Foster, Paul Barbarin, Freddy Jenkins, Johnny Hodges and Sonny Greer. But mostly, he is remembered for having Jelly Roll Morton present on the two later dates mentioned.

DUKE ELLINGTON enjoyed an exceptionally long career as pianist/ bandleader/ composer. He was born Edward Kennedy Ellington in Washington DC on 29 April 1899. The nickname ‘Duke’ was bestowed upon him by a neighbour in early childhood. Duke Ellington began his musical career by ‘subbing’ for pianist Lester Dishman at the ‘Poodle Dog Cafe’, where he wrote his first composition Soda Fountain Rag. His early years were spent working in various bands, including a week in New York with Wilber Sweatman, and later joined Elmer Snowden’s Washingtonians in Atlantic City, then in New York. He became leader of the Washingtonians early in 1924, graduating to the famous Cotton Club in December 1927, for along association which lasted until February 1931. It was during this period that a contingent from Duke’s Cotton Club Orchestra recorded this side, issued in Parlophone’s ‘Race’ Series, on a session of 2 August 1929.

FLETCHER HENDERSON – Pianist/arranger/composer/bandleader, James Fletcher Henderson was born in Cuthbert, Georgia on the 18 December 1898, and died in New York City on 28 December 1952. His early studies brought him a degree in chemistry and he moved to New York in 1920, intending to do post graduate research, but instead he became a song demonstrator for the Pace-Handy Music Company. He followed Pace into the recording business when the latter set up The Black Swan Recording Company, where he became piano accompanist to Ethel Waters on her tour with The Black Swan Troubadours, from autumn 1921 to summer 1922. Early in 1924 he became leader of a newly-formed band for a residency at the Club Alabam in New York, before moving to the Roseland Ballroom in late summer of 1924, which was the beginning of a long association with that venue. It was towards the end of April 1927 when the recording which is presented on pages 28-29 was made. At the time the Henderson Orchestra was filled with stars of the calibre of Tommy Ladnier, Jimmy Harrison, Buster Bailey, Don Redman, Coleman Hawkins and Kaiser Marshall.

CLAUDE HOPKINS – This pianist/leader/arranger/composer was born, Claude D. Hopkins on 24 August 1903 in Alexandria, Virginia, but was raised in Washington DC, where both his parents were on the staff of Howard University. He learned to play piano at the age of seven, and his studies in both music and medicine gained him a degree at Howard University, from where he moved for a further year’s study at Washington Conservatory. He played in college orchestras, then led his own band in Atlantic City during the summer of 1924, before playing briefly in New York with Wilbur Sweatman. From September 1925 to spring 1926 he toured Europe where he led a band for the Josephine Baker Review, then his own band in Italy and Spain before returning to New York to lead a band at the Smile-a-While, Ashbury Park, New Jersey in the summer of 1926. In 1927 he led a band of his own in the touring revue, Ginger Snaps. He led bands in the late 1920’s at the Roseland Ballroom, Ashbury Park, Cocoanut Grove, New York and a new band at the Savoy Ballroom in 1930. He also played long residencies at the Roseland again from 1931 to 1934, and the Cotton Club from late 1934 to 1936. He was probably still at the Roseland when he recorded his only side to be issued in Parlophone’s ‘Race’ series, [⦿R2283]

LONNIE JOHNSONAlonzo Johnson, who became equally renowned in the fields of both jazz and blues, was born in New Orleans on 8 February (probably) 1889, and died in June 1970. He is known to have played guitar and violin on gigs with his brother (James ‘Steady Roll’ Johnson) in New Orleans cafes and theaters. He visited Britain (may have been 1917), playing in revues in London, then theatre tours, but on returning to New Orleans found his whole family had succumbed to the flu epidemic of 1918-19. He moved to St. Louis around 1922 and worked with the likes of Charlie Creath, Fate Marable and Nat Robinson, playing mainly violin and piano. Then he spent two years in a steel foundry while playing occasional gigs before coming to the notice of the Okeh Record Company. He worked for Okeh as a staff musician from around 1925 to 1932, during which time he recorded with countless artistes including, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ed Lang, Jimmy Blythe, Don Redman, Charles Creath King Oliver, Hoagy Carmichael, Alma Henderson, Bertha ’Chippie’ Hill, Luella Miller, Irene Scruggs, Clara Smith, Victoria Spivey and Clarence Williams. The two solo recordings issued in Parlophone’s ‘Race’ series [ ⦿ R2259 – See pages 28-29] came from a session in Memphis, which took place in February 1928.

JUNGLE TOWN STOMPERS – This group was probably a pickup band, brought together for this single session of April 1928, from which one of only two sides cut on the day was issued in Parlophone’s ‘Race’ series. [ ⦿ R2212]. The seven-piece group included Louis Metcalf, Luis Russell, Elmer Snowden and Charlie Holmes. It should be noted that Metcalf, Holmes and Russell himself were included in the line-up of Luis Russell’s Burning Eight recording, of January 1929, which was presented as the seventh side in this series. Only eight days after this Jungle Town Stompers’ session, a very similar line-up (including five of the Jungle Town group) appeared on a Harmony recording date under the name of Jasper Davis and His Orchestra. Only two sides were cut on that session also.

EMMETT MILLER – The three Emmett Miller sides [ ⦿ R2163/B and ⦿ R2270A/B] were perhaps the strangest choices of the thirty-four sides selected for this series. Emmett Miller was a black-face singer/comedian in the minstrelsy tradition, who also worked in vaudeville. He was white, as were the musicians who formed his backing groups (invariably called the Georgia Crackers). He is remembered today for his recording of ‘Lovesick Blues’ which was to influence performers Jimmy Rodgers and the country star, Hank Williams. Miller was born Emmett Dewey Miller in the Vineville district of Macon, on 2 February 1900, and decided on becoming a minstrelsy comedian at a very early age. But by the mid-1920’s, when he had mastered his art to a very fine degree, minstrelsy was in terminal decline. Okeh’s attempt to convert him into a singer of ballads, to compete with other white singers of the day, was less than successful. His career lumbered on for twenty years, in the hope of seeing a revival of minstrelsy, but he died in obscurity and poverty in March 1962.

LUIS RUSSELL – This pianist/bandleader/arranger was born Luis Carl Russell in Careening Clay, near Bocas Del Toro, Panama, on 6 August 1902, and died in New York City on 11 December 1963. His father was a pianist, organist and music teacher, so there was little surprise that  young Luis would study music and learn to play guitar, violin, organ and piano. In 1917 he worked in a Panama cinema, playing accompaniments to silent films, then he played for a white band in the Casino Club, Colon,  Panama. He won $3000 in a lottery and moved with his mother and sister to New Orleans, where he worked with the Arnold Du Pas Orchestra in late 1921 and then Albert Nicholas’ Band, of which he later became leader before joining Doc Cooke in Chicago, late in 1924. The following year he left to join King Oliver, and after the band had played in Milwaukee, Detroit and St. Louis, they arrived at the Savoy Ballroom in May 1927. Russell left soon after to join George Howe’s Band at the Nest Club, but in October 1927 he took over the band as leader and remained in residence for the next year. The late 1920’s saw the band play regularly in New York, at the Saratoga Club, Arcadia Ballroom, the Savoy, and Connie’s Inn, among other venues. For some months in 1929 the Luis Russell Band provided accompaniment for Louis Armstrong before returning to residency work in clubs and ballrooms in New York. The four recordings selected for inclusion in Parlophone’s ‘Race’ series [ ⦿ R2186, ⦿ R2212/A and ⦿ R2225/B] were recorded during the eighteen-month period from January 1929 to May 1930.

SEVEN GALLON JUG BAND – As the band’s name might suggest, this was another of the novelty ‘pick-up’ groups with which Parlophone’s Race Series was peppered [ ⦿ R2329]. The band was probably organized by Clarence Williams, who blew the jug and also partnered Frank Robinson and Fats Waller in providing the vocal. The recording was made just a couple of months after the Wall Street Crash, during the period when the full impact of the catastrophe had not yet been felt, and studio time could still be procured without too much difficulty.

BESSIE SMITH – The most illustrious of all the Classic Blues singers, Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, on 15 April 1895, and died, Mississippi on 26 September 1937. Bessie began singing at a very early age and sang at the local Ivory Theatre. Around 1912 she began touring the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, where she first met Ma Rainey. She toured the T.O.B.A. circuit, first with The Florida Cotton Pickers, then as a solo act. Around 1919 she sang and danced in her own Liberty Belles act, and made regular appearances in Atlantic City, usually with Charlie Taylor’s Band. She is known to have played at the Lyric Theatre in New Orleans in 1921, worked in the revue How Come in 1922, played a season in Philadelphia, and was in New York for a recording session for Okeh in January 1923, but the only side made was rejected. Her first Columbia recordings were made in February 1923 but neither of the two sides cut on this session was released. She had previously made recordings for Emerson (in early 1921) which also remain unreleased. However, ‘Down-Hearted Blues’ from her second Columbia date was issued, and she continued to record for Columbia for the bulk of her career. One of the three sides which appeared in Parlophone’s Race Series [ ⦿ R2329 and ⦿ R2344] came from the closing years of her recording life, the other two were from a session in 1925, on which Louis Armstrong was  present. She established herself as one of the highest paid artistes on  the theatre circuits, but during the Depression years, along with many other entertainers, she had difficulty in finding work, and at the time of her death had not made any records for nearly four years.

VICTORIA SPIVEYVictoria Spivey played piano, organ and ukulele, but mostly she sang. She also composed many of the songs she sang and proved to be a very astute business woman. She was born in Houston , Texas (probably in 1906), one of eight children, but was raised in Dallas. At the age of twelve she was playing piano in a local theatre, and moved to St. Louis, Missouri before her twentieth birthday, where she made her first recording in May 1926, for Okeh. This was ‘Black Snake Blues’, which she sang to her own piano accompaniment. She was featured during the following year at the Lincoln Theatre, New York, and in 1929 she was in Hollywood, securing roles in the films Hallelujah and King Victor’s Missy Rose. The two recordings issued in Parlophone’s Race Series [ ⦿ R2177/A/B] came from her final Okeh session in July 1929, when the accompanying band included: Louis Armstrong, Fred Robinson, Jimmy Strong, Gene Anderson, Mancy Cara and Zutty Singleton. She recorded for Victor, Vocalion and Decca through the 1930’s, and formed a dancing partnership with her second husband Billy Adams, remaining active in show business until she left in 1952, to become a church administrator. She returned to music again in 1961, and during that decade also organized her own record company, using the Spivey label.

ETHEL WATERS – Ethel Waters was born illegitimate, the result of a knifepoint rape of her thirteen-year-old mother, in Chester, Pennsylvania in October 1896. She sang in church as a child, and was working as a maid when she won a talent contest at a local theatre, which set her on the way to a career in music. At first she played theatres in Philadelphia and Baltimore, where she was given the nickname Sweet Mama Stringbean because of her tall, slender stature. She performed regularly on the Southern and Eastern vaudeville circuits, then in 1917, at the age of twenty three, she moved to New York and worked her way up to become a ‘top-of-the-bill’ act. She made her recording debut for the Black Swan label and toured during 1921/1922 with the Fletcher Henderson-led band the Black Swan Troubadours.  When Paramount bought the Black Swan label, she continued to record  for the new owners, and for Vocalion, before signing for Columbia in 1925. She captured new audiences when she played the Plantation Club on Broadway, where the clientele were predominantly white. Her vaudeville background prepared her well for singing the popular songs of the day, and the Blues, along with the many stage shows and revues in which she was featured in the 1920’s and 30’s, which included: Africana, Black Bottom Revue, Rhapsody In Black, As Thousands Cheer, etc. She visited Europe in 1930, and from 1935 to 1939 headed her own touring show with Eddie Mallory, to whom she was married at the time. During 1932, she recorded with Duke Ellington, then with Benny Goodman and Bunny Berigan in 1933. She had a hit with Stormy Weather recorded in May 1933, with a Star- Studded white band, then in November 1933 she recorded the two sides which are included on pages 30-31, [ ⦿ R2394], in the Parlophone’s Race Series, accompanied by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra.

CLARENCE WILLIAMS – Clarence Williams (pianist/vocalist/arranger/ composer/bandleader) was born on 8 October 1898* in Plaquenine Delta, Louisiana. He was the son of a musician who moved the family to New Orleans in 1906. Clarence ran away from home at the age of twelve to join Billy Kersand’s Minstrel Show, where he worked as a singer, then as Master of Ceremonies. He later returned to New Orleans, concentrating on his piano studies, and by 1913 he was composing his own songs. He was a featured entertainer at Storyville’s Poodle Dog Cabaret before touring in vaudeville over the next few years as a dancer, then formed a duo with Armond Piron, and around 1917 they toured briefly with W.C. Handy. For a while Williams and Piron ran a publishing company, but when that broke up, Williams went to Chicago and opened a music store close to the Vendome Theatre. He went to New York where he organized his own music publishing company, which became highly successful. When the ’Race’ record business started at the beginning of the 1920’s he was soon organizing sessions with his own groups, as piano accompanist for singers, or merely involved in directing on dates. He married Eva Taylor in 1921, and worked for Okeh as ‘Race’ record judge between 1923 and 1928. He led his own bands at various venues, usually around New York and he broadcast regularly, often with Eva Taylor. He had been a prolific composer through the 1920’s and 30’s, and sold his publishing catalogue to Decca in 1943 for $50,000. Among his composition credits are Royal Garden Blues, Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jelly Roll (in collaboration with Spencer Williams – no relation), Sugar Blues, Baby Won’t You Please Come Home, Cushion Foot Stomp, Gulf Coast Blues, and many more. His recordings appeared on all the major ‘Race’ labels through the 1920’s and 30’s – Okeh, Brunswick, Paramount, Columbia and Victor, etc. But the eight sides issued in Parlophone’s Race Series were all derived from Okeh recordings made between April 1927 and April 1930.

1. PLEASE NOTE: All work included in any Discographer Magazine issue, written or compiled by Frank Phillips is copyrighted. Reproduction by any means without consent from the publisher (78rpm Community) or the estate of Frank Phillips is strictly prohibited.

* Given as 6 October 1893 in Dictionary of Jazz – Panasee/Gautier

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