Lem Fowler Biography
Lem Fowler is a mystery figure in jazz history. Although he lived over 60 years, he largely disappeared after 1932 and his birth and death dates and locations have not been positively identified. What is known is that during 1922-32 he recorded 57 songs and 23 player piano rolls in New York and Chicago. Fowler’s first piano roll (from 1922) was his composition “He May Be Your Man But He Comes To See Me Sometimes,” a big hit that is still a standard for blues and jazz singers today. Fowler briefly became in great demand and started recording by May 1923 on a fairly regular basis, accompanying Helen Baxter and other singers on a variety of dates. He also recorded two unaccompanied piano solos (“Satisfied Blues” and “Blues Mixture”) in 1923 and led sessions during 1925-27 (12 songs in all) that featured his Washboard Wonders (trumpeter Sidney DeParis is on the two 1926 titles) and Fowler’s Favorites. After 1932, Fowler dropped out of the music business and, although spotted in 1962, he lived the rest of his life in self-imposed obscurity. An RST CD (1923-1927) has all of the numbers that he recorded as a leader along with his performances accompanying singers Helen Baxter and George Williams.
Lem Fowler Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order 1923-1927
Lem Fowler made 80 recordings that were issued for public sale during the 10‑year period 1922‑1932. These include 57 78s and 23 player piano rolls. In addition, as many as 12 of his compositions were also published as sheet music, and the publishers were well‑known firms: McKinley Music, Walter Melrose, Perry Bradford, Ted Browne, Jack Mills, Clarence Williams, W. C. Handy and Triangle (Joe Davis). I have most of this material and I’ve been studying and researching Fowler for 40 years. I may know as much about his musical output as anyone else, and yet we know nothing about him personally. My guess is he was born about 1900 or soon thereafter, but I don’t know where. Copyright records show his first three compositions were done in Chicago. From early 1922 on, all the addresses are New York, so it may be he started out in Chicago and relocated to New York in 1922 (although I could not find him in the 1920 Illinois Census when I checked it in 1994). He made six piano rolls for the U. S. Music Co Chicago and he would have had to record these there. The last of these came out in 1924, so obviously he would have had to return to Chicago at least once or twice for this purpose. His very first recording was the U. S. Music piano roll of He May Be Your Man But He Comes To See Me Sometimes. Lem first copyrighted this himself, in New York, in February 1922 (the roll was not released until September 1922). He sold the tune to Perry Bradford in early May, 1922. Bradford published it immediately and sent copies to all the roll and record companies and the tune became a hit. Since Lem did not personally record it on 78, it is not represented here, however Lucille Hegamin recorded it three times (in Jan., Feb. and Oct. 1922) for Arto, Paramount and Cameo. Trixie Smith recorded it in April (for Black Swan and Paramount), and Edith Wilson, who sang it the rest of her life, recorded it with her Jazz Hounds in June 1922. Lizzie Miles did it in August for OKeh, and later in the year, the Original Memphis Five (with Anna Meyers on the vocal) and the Cotton Pickers recorded it for Pathé and Brunswick, respectively. (It was so popular and such a standard for blues singers that at least three singers recorded it again in the 1930s ‑ Amanda Randolph, Merline Johnson [The Yas Yas Girl] and Trixie Smith!) Perry Bradford was doing so well with the song that Ted Browne, in Chicago, bought the song and published their version by late July. It is not clear whether Bradford transferred the mechanical rights (royalties on records and piano rolls) to Browne or not. I’m guessing he kept selling his own copies of the sheet music and was slow to transfer the mechanical rights, because there was litigation in late 1922 (as reported in the New York Clipper) which resulted in Bradford serving four months in prison. Whatever happened, He May Be Your Man established Lem Fowler as a song writer and pianist to be reckoned with in the music industry in New York. We can see the evidence here. The first 10 recordings on this CD, which do, of course, feature Fowler on piano, were all done in a two‑month period (mid‑May to mid‑July 1923). Lem seems to have taken his new batch of tunes to every recording company he could find during that period. Five different labels said yes, which is why we’re presenting three different recodings of You Got Ev’rything…, two different versions of Squawkin’ The Blues and two versions of Satisfied Blues. We know that Helen Baxter became “Ellen Coleman” on Edison, and it’s my guess that Baxter also posed as “Helen McDonald” on Gennett and “Mae Scott” on Paramount. Her voice is clear and distinct and that would have appealed to the white recording executives. I suspect that Lem Fowler managed to get all these recordings finished before the first one had even been issued for sale. If Helen Baxter really did all the singing on these 1923 discs, it was simply good business to use different names so that as the various records came out it would not appear that the same singer went around and did the same tune for all of them, even though that’s probably what happened.
Probably as a result of this necessary subterfuge, Lem also began to use pseudonyms himself. These, in my opinion, include James Meller,” “Relphow James,” “Ed Richard,” and ‘P. Henry.” Curiously, “Edith Smith”, shown as the composer of Chitterlin’ Strut, is also shown as the owner of several Fowler tune copyrights (Chitterlin’ Strut, Dodgin’ My Man, Pig Foot Shuffle, Steppin’ Ol’ Fool and Express Train Blues). I’m convinced that Fowler kept control of all of his unpublished compositions, and “Edith Smith” – who may have been a real person, perhaps a wife or girl friend – was simply a cover name. There is much fine music on this CD. George Williams recorded many numbers with Bessie Brown for Columbia. On track 11 the composer credit (Williams and Brown) probably refers to George and Bessie (though Bessie is not present here). In 1969 Louis Hooper told me that the composer of What-Cha-Call-Em-Blues (credited to “Steve L. Roberts”) was in reality Max Kortlander of the QRS piano roll company. (Indeed, QRS issued a roll of that tune played by Max for release in Sept. 1925.) Based on that, it seems safe to assume that Max Kortlander is also the true composer of Oh! Dark Gal. Chitterlin’ Strut, from 1925, is played here as an instrumental. Lem added lyrics to it, which he copyrighted in 1927, calling it then Fowler’s Hot Strut or simply Hot Strut, as shown on track 24. Lem’s piano solo work on this number is so smooth and confident it suggest he had a lot of experience playing in clubs and with bands, yet I have never seen anyreference in any publication to show that Lem ever played gigs, or did rent parties, or went on tour, or wrote for shows, or played in theaters.
Fowler was a very competent composer who could write 12-bar blues numbers as well as songs having verses and choruses. Not surprisingly, most of his recordings feature his own numbers. It is interesting, therefore, to hear the three non-Fowler tunes performed by the Washboard Wonders: Florida Blues, Jelly Roll Blues, and Salty Dog. Florida Blues was first published by King Phillips (the composer) in Florida in 1915. He sold it to Pace & Handy in 1916, and that firm issued a song version of it in 1917. Why Fowler’s band recorded it at this relatively late date is not clear, but the tune sounds like a typical Handy blues composition, and when I hear this version, I can picture the ODJB playing it about this same way. Salty Dog is played very fast, almost too fast. Although featured as an instrumental here, it’s really a published song with many sets of lyrics. The success of Lem Fowler, especially in live performance, may have inspired Lem Fowler to compose How’m I Doin, which became popular in the 1930s, as kind of an adult party song. (Shake That Thing is another example).
Jelly Roll Blues is the Morton tune, but curiously, Columbia failed to credit Morton as the composer on the record label. The band rips through it, almost too fast, and they must have had difficulty getting a clean take. Indeed, this is take 5, but for all that this works as an uptempo stomp.
Frisky Feet (for which there was never a copyright) is the working title Lem gave in 1926, to a tune which (in 1927) would be called Percolatin’ Blues.
Because these two numbers are presented here one after the other, you can see – and hear – that they are the same number but recorded 15 months apart. On Percolatin’ Blues, Lem sings for the first and only time I know of on records. Since QRS recorded Lem playing this on a QRS piano roll on 19 September 1927 (for release in December), we can tell exactly what Lem is singing because of the printed lyrics as shown on the piano roll. Lem sings an approximation of these words:
Hop to the right, then hop to the left, then percolate.
Hot ziggety – percolate,
Hot ziggety – percolate.
Hop to the left, then back to the right, then percolate,
Hot ziggety, camel walk, camel walk,
Then you start messin’ around.
Now shake it to the east, shake it to the west, then you just percolate.
Oh, baby that percolate is steamin’ hot.
Got rid of my corns and bunions,
I’m ready to strut my onions,
I’ll dance out my shoes, don’t care what I do,
When I hear them blues.
From 1932 to 1962 Lem Fowler seems to have dropped out of sight as far as the music business goes. J. Lawrence Cook, the prolific piano roll arranger at QRS, reported seeing Lem when he came by the factory in 1962. Cook thought he was long dead, and told him so. Fowler offered no explanation as to what he had been doing all those years, but did borrow three or four dollars from Cook, promising to pay the loan back because he was expecting some sort of music check shortly. Not surprisingly, Cook never saw him again. When I moved to New York in 1964 I hunted for Fowler, even visiting an address where ASCAP said they were mailing his checks. It was in care of a tailor shop in Harlem. When I got there the shop was gone, and local businesses knew nothing of his whereabouts. I even searched New York City death records, to no avail. Lem must have wanted to remain an obscure figure. If he was alive in 1961 he must have been aware of the revived interest in jazz and blues music of the 1920s, the reissued recordings and the appearance of revival jazz bands. All he would have had to do was approach just about any jazzscholar, identify himself, and receive a red carpet treatment. But it didn’t happen, unfortunately. Two studio photographs exist of Fowler, apparently ordered by QRS. One was used in a half-page display ad which QRS ran in Negro newspapers (in Chicago, Baltimore and New York) in August 1923. the other photo, of Lem at a grand piano, appeared in The Billboard, “A Weekly Theatrical Digest and Review of the Show World,” for August 4, 1923. That photo and its caption are reproduced on the cover of this CD. I guess in lieu of knowing anything personal about Lemuel Fowler, we’ll just have to be satisfied with the great, lively music he left behind.
(My thanks to Roger Misiewicz, John Wilby, Charlie Rasch and Keith Miller for their help and information used in these notes).
– Michael Montgomery, Detroit, Michigan 1995
– from “Lem Fowler Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order 1923-1927” – DOCD-5476 linear notes.
- You Got Ev’ry Thing a Sweet Mama Needs But Me (81026)
- Satisfied Blues (A Barrel House Blues)
- Daddy Ease It to Me
- Squawkin’ The Blues
- You Got Ev’ry Thing a Sweet Mama Needs But Me
- Cruel Back Bitin’ Blues (A Heart Aching Chant)
- You Got Ev’ry Thing a Sweet Mama Needs But Me (9066)
- Squawkin’ The Blues
- Satisfied Blues
- Blues Mixture
- What Make Papa Hate Mama So?
- Oh! Dark Gal
- Chitterlin’ Strut
- Washboard Stomp
- Dodgin’ My Man
- Pig Foot Shuffle
- Steppin’ Old Fool
- Express Train Blues
- The Florida Blues
- Salty Dog
- Jelly Roll Blues
- Frisky Feet
- Percolatin’ Blues
- Hot Strut
|Helen Baxter (Ellen Coleman)||Vocals|
You Got Ev’rything A Sweet Mama Needs But Me (QRS 2233)
Satisfied Blues (QRS 2381)
Percolatin’ Blues (QRS 4103)
Fowler’s Hot Strut (QRS 4385)
Steppin’ Ol’ Fool (QRS 4469)
Down And Out Blues (QRS 4471)
Gin Mill Blues (QRS 4580)
Number Runner’s Blues (QRS 4678)
L & N Blues (QRS 4870)
Showin’ Out (QRS 4885)
Squabblin’ The Blues (QRS 5050)
He May Be Your Man (But He Come To See Me Sometimes) (QRS 40852)
The Wicked Fives (Dirty Fives) (US Music 41077)
You Got Ev’ry Thing A Sweet Mama Needs (But Me) (US Music 41407)
Satisfied Blues (US Music 41496)
Double Crossin’ Daddy (US Music 41539)