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Mecca Flat Blues – The Jimmy Blythe Story

Posted in - Biography on March 19th 2013 2 Comments

I have been interested in Jimmy Blythe since the 1950s when piano rolls crediting him as the artist began turning up with considerable regularity.The Blythe piano rolls number over 200; some are single-tune song rolls (with words) for home player piano owners, and other hotter performances (without words) are for the 10-tune rolls that were made for coin-operated “nickelodeon” pianos. Many of these are of Blythe’s own blues compositions.

The rolls turned me on to his 78s , and I gradually determined to find out more about this elusive but widely recorded man. From the two death notices in the Chicago Defender, on Sat. 20 June 1931 and on 27 June 1931, I obtained his death certificate and Census records. Blythe was born on 20 May 1901 in Keene, Kentuckym a small all black rural town 12 miles south-west of Lexington, the heart of the horse breeding and racing part of Kentucky. Keene is in Jessamine County, and when I visited there in January 1981 I located an elderly man, then 82, who remembered Blythe as a boy and who told me the Blythe Family used to live in a house on the main road (now Route 1271).

The father, Richard, was born in Madison, Kentucky, in April 1854. In Keene he was a laborer who worked at farms where hemp, corn and tobacco were the main crops. Richard was married to Rena (or Arena) Stovall (born in Jessamine Co. Nov. 1857) and there were five children: Bessie (b. 19 July 1882), Effie (b. 28 Feb. 1892), Mary Maud (b. 1889), Aubrey, a son (b. July 1897 about whom nothing else is known) and James Louis Blythe (b. 20 May 1901).

The Blythes moved to Lexington in about 1911 to Patterson St. where city directories show Richard as a laborer (1913), a houseman (1915) and a janitor (1917). James Blythe was a boarder there as late as 1917, but sister Effie had moved to Chicago in about 1913. Jimmy probably moved to Chicago in 1918 and stayed with Effie.

His earlier musical influences are obscure. Buddy Burton recalled (in 1959) that Blythe began working for the Mavis Talcum Powder Co. and began studying with Clarence Jones, the well known pianist, orchestra leader, composer and arranger who was also a prolific piano roll artist (for Rolla Artis, Imperial and Vocalstyle).

Blythe’s first recordings were for the Columbia Music Roll Co. in Chicago (as were Clarence Johnson’s). Blythe became a good reader and was an accurate player. He got so good at his craft that it was natural that he became a regular pianist for Columbia (later Capitol) rolls, specializing in recording the blues tunes that everyone seemed to be cranking out in the early 20s, as well as being able to turn out credible and appealing fox trot, and even waltz songs. Quite a number of these rolls reveal Blythe’s special style and patented breaks, runs and harmonies.

Blythe’s first two 78s, his April 1924 solos “Chicago Stomps” and “Armour Avenue Struggle”, were probably released in June or July but they weren’t copyrighted until March 1925.

Chicago Stomps – from Capitol A-Roll #2225

Armour Avenue Struggle – from Capitol A-Roll #2085

“Chicago Stomps” is widely considered to be the first full boogie-woogie piano solo ever recorded.

It must have been popular for it got Axel Christensen’s attention. In April 1927, Axel published it as an instrumental piece and called it “The Walking Blues” crediting James Blythe as co-composer.

Axel probably sold copies to students attending the Axel Christensen School of Popular Music which had branches in the major cities in the United States.

Later, in December 1927, Axel recorded the sheet music version of “Walking Blues” as a piano solo, on Paramount 20603, without composer credits. Later, probably after Blythe’s death, Axel continued to publish this number calling it simply “Boogie Woogie Blues”. Blythe’s name had disappeared entirely on these later pubblications. (A June 1929 recording of a “Walking Blues” on Paramount 12803 by Raymond Barrow is credited to Barrow as composer and is apparently a different number.)

Of Blythe’s numerous compositions, the only other tune that became published was “Mecca Flat Blues” from 1924, credited to Blythe, Alexander Robinson and J. Mayo Williams. It appeared in the Paramount Book of Blues, a sort of souvenir booklet of songs and pictures issued for Paramount customers by the Chicago Music Publishing Co. which controlled the copyrights on most of the tunes recorded on the Paramount label.

“Mecca Flat” appears on this CD as “Lovin’s Been Here and Gone to the Mecca Flat” which refers to a large apartment building on the South Side of Chicago. “Lovin’s Been Here and Gone to the Mecca Flat” was recorded in May 1926 as an uptempo piano solo stomp version of “Mecca Flat Blues” which Priscilla Stewart first recorded with Blythe in Aug. 1924. The 1926 solo contains some bass figures that suggest Blythe had been listening to Jelly Roll Morton’s left hand during that time.

1) Mecca Flat Blues
(Priscilla Stewart,vcl w/ Jimmy Blythe, piano – Chicago Aug 1924 – 9025-1-2 Paramount 12224)
Transcription from original recording – Copyright 2013 By N. Bello (ASCAP). All Rights Reserved

2) Lovin’ Been Here And Gone To The Mecca Flat
(Jimmy Blythe piano solo – Chicago May 1926 – 1025 Paramount 12370)
Transcription from original recording – Copyright 2013 By N. Bello (ASCAP). All Rights Reserved

“Armour Avenue Struggle” uses an interesting coda that Thomas “Fats” Waller used earlier on his piano roll of “You Can’t Do What My Last Man Did” which QRS released for sale three months earlier, in Jan. 1924. Clearly, the working pianists used every opportunity they could to learn new tricks, figures, breaks and codas.

It is worth comparing Blythe’s June 1925 solo version of “Fat Meat And Greens” – by Aletha Dickerson and John Bishow – with Jelly Roll Morton’s very different solo of the same tune made just 10 months later.

Blythe plays a straighforward simple blues based on the tune’s simple theme while Jelly’s solo is very “Mortonized”. If we didn’t know better (for the composer credits), we’d think Morton was playing his own original composition.

Listen to Blythe’s use of the “St. Louis Tickle” theme in the coda of “Jimmie Blues” as well as at the end of “Pump Tillie”.

Viola Bartlette sings Blythe’s attempt at cleverness – “Anna Mina Forty And St. Louis Shorty” – a hard to understand tale about a wild couple (she’s tall, he’s short) who danced all night and bragged about it the next day.

“Quite Knocking On My Door” was composed by LaThair Stevens who described Blythe (to John Steiner in 1965) as a “slightly stout pixieish fellow much like Erroll Garner”.

Bartlette’s “Shake That Thing” (by composer Papa Charlie Jackson) is taken at a satisfyingly relaxed tempo, but I am not convinced that it is Blythe that is accompanying her.

“Old Man Blues” is really “So Is Your Old Man” with words by Lawrence Dixon (Vance Dixon’s brother ?) and music by pianist Klien Tindull, about whom little is known. The latter also composed “Down on the Amazon” and both tunes were copyrighted at the same time in April 1926, just before Tindull recorded them for Paramount. “Old Man Blues” (as it is called on the Herwin issue as by the “Birmingham Bluetette”) features an interesting pianist who plays some ascending arpeggios that sound like Waller’s “Handful of Keys” but is probably Tindull himself at the piano and not Blythe.

Ales Robinson was the husband of Aletha Dickerson and a composer in his own right (“You Shall Reap What You Sow” from 1923). He and Blythe composed “You’re Not The Kind I Thought You Were” (but Blythe wrote “My Baby” by himself). Blythe puts a number of figures he used on his piano rolls into these numbers with Robinson, and his accompaniment on “My Senorita” is his only known attempt at playing in a habanera or Latin style. The co-composer  on “Senorita” is Alexander Mason, about whom nothing else is known.

“Alley Rat” is a fine Blythe solo (with double-time speed-ups) into which he incorporates an old folk strain, known sometimes (per Larry Gushee) as “The Last Shot Got Him”. It’s the same fragment Ted Browne worked into the trio of his “That Rag” in 1907 (calling it the “Chicago Slow Drag”) and which Blind Boone included in his “Rag Medley No. 2” as “So They Say” in 1909. It must have been a favorite lick used by just about everyone.

“Shake Your Shimmy” and “Bull Fiddle Rag” are simple, repetetive tunes and must have been wonderful to dance to. Best of all they showcase Bill Johnson’s bass playing to perfection.

Blythe’s final piano duets were made with Charlie Clark on 20 March 1931. Clark was Blythe’s nephew – son of his sister Bessie whose husband was also Charles Clarke. Charlie, the nephew, was born 16 May 1907 – probably in Lexington – and it was natural for him to grow up with a musical aptitude having his Uncle Jimmy nearby to coach him. These are Clark’s first and only records, and when Blythe died on Sunday, 14 June 1931 (of epidemic meningitis), Charles Clark’s chance to record further vanished (I belive Clark to be playing the treble, as Burton did in his duets with Blythe).

Amazingly, the only known photo of Jimmy Blythe was a posed Paramount publicity shot that showed Jimmy O’Bryant’s Washboard Band with Jasper Taylor playing washboard and kneeling on the left, O’Bryant playing clarinet on the right and Blythe seated in the middle at an open gran piano, his left hand in the air, fingers extended.

Jimmy O' Bryant Washboard Band

The trio photo appeared in the Defender at least three times during June and October 1925 in Paramount display ads. The same photo, cropped so it showed Blythe alone at the piano, ran in July 1926. At Blythe’s dead, this photo was apparently all the Defender had in its files, so the paper published an enlargement of Blythe’s face to run with the second death notice which appeared on 27 June.

Jimmy Blythe

Sadly we still have little biographical data on one of the most important and most widely-recorded Chicago South Side musicians.

Jimmy Blythe is buried in Chicago’s Lincoln Cemetery. I located the grave some years ago and it will not surprise you to know that there is no headstone.

– Michael Montgomery
Detroit, Michigan

from “Jimmy Blythe – In Chronological Order 1924 – 1931” – RST Records JPCS-1510-2 linear notes.

 

As of now (2) people have had something to say...

  • Michael Walter - Reply

    May 25, 2014 at 10:21 am

    Thank you for this interesting article on a very influential, yet less ‘famous’ Chicago player!
    Jimmy’s early Boogie Woogie recordings are almost forgotten, the fame of history went to others (Meade Lux Lewis, Clarence Smith, Albert Ammons, Jimmy Yancey e.a.). But they all learned from Jimmy!
    His precise, accurate and elaborate arrangements are ear-pleasing, his stride technique is a great example of telling ‘multiple stories’ at the same time.
    As so often the true Jazz gems are hardly recognized during their lifetime – just to be re-discovered by later generations, just think of James C. Booker III from N.O.!
    Jimmy Blythe is one of them, but thanks to the internet we can enjoy his music today at ease!
    I have been to Chicago a few times, visiting the famous places around Maxwell Street, “35th and Dearborn” etc, yet I missed out on Jimmy Blythe’s last resting place, so sorry.
    mw

  • Andy Cuckson - Reply

    June 5, 2016 at 12:41 pm

    I echo Michael Walter’s previous comments about this Jimmy Blythe article. Having the RST CD, I was very pleased to find this article by Michael Montgomery, which seems to be an extended version of the RST liner notes – or even the original draft which RST needed to edit to fit! The extra content, like the Jimmy O’Bryant Washboard Band illustration, is very welcome.
    Speaking of the later pianists and the Blythe influence, I have often wondered if Lewis & Ammons modelled their duet act on Jimmy’s duets with Burton and Clark. I expect they did, and they certainly worked hard at the effect – witness their ‘Nagasaki’ on Blue Note.
    Many thanks to the web site’s founders & all its contributors, who share their knowledge and hard work with enthusiasts like me – I will be coming back time & time again to see what’s new.

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