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Mecca Flats – Chicago Southside Piano

Posted in - Biography on January 20th 2013 1 Comments

“Lovin’s been here and gone to Mecca Flats” so states the lyric of Jimmy Blythe’s most famous and well known composition.

Mecca Flats was an apartment building designed in 1891 and finished just in time for the “Columbian World Exposition” in Chicago in 1893. It was at the corner of 35th and State Street in Chicago’s South Side. It was a fine structure when built. It was raised in 1951 in an urban renewal project at which time it was in bad shape. There was some effort to save it as a historical building.

The “Flats” would probably be called a tenement today but it was highly praised when built. It housed many of the new immigrants arriving daily from the old south. By the early twenties it was overcrowded and run down.

Many of the blues musicians an their families lived there after arriving in town. If they were successful, they could move into the brownstones down on Ellis Avenue. By the thirties crime was so high some mail men were afraid to deliver the mail. It was unusual in that there were two large atriums in the interior wings with large skylights in the ceiling and wrought iron railings on the balconies. It looked much better on the inside than the out. The residents could just walk out the front door and be on “The Stroll”.

Mecca Appartments

The “Columbian Exposition” of 1893 brought people from all over the country to see the new marvels. The music venues did not have any official ragtime or blues but music was all about. It has been said that Scott Joplin visited. Ragtime was in it’s infancy and the blues had not yet been announced but this was a great time for pianists from around the country to hear many different styles.

Schermata 2013-01-20 alle 21.12.18The larger area around the “Flats” was known as “The Bronzeville District”. Starting about 1912 and through most of the twenties, about an 8 block area of South State Street was known as “The Stroll”. The core area was from 31st to 35th streets.This area was frequented with cafes, bars, dance halls and music shops. The famous “Sunset Cafe” was located at at 315 E. 35th. The “Sunset” was a black and tan club where all ethnicities could freely mingle. Many important musicians had a gig there during this time period. The building still stands and as the picture shows is now housing an Ace hardware. Some remnants of the cafe era can still be seen in remote parts of the building. It’s one of the few still standing.

Royal Garden BluesThe “Royal Gardens” was located at 459 E. 31st Street and was the inspiration for one of the all time great jazz/blues  compositions-”Royal Garden Blues” written by Clarence Williams and Spencer(unrelated) Williams in 1919. In 1921 the club was renamed “Lincoln Gardens”. These two clubs anchored the “Stroll” district.

Schermata 2013-01-20 alle 21.13.24When Clarence Williams moved from New Orleans in 1918 he located his new music store at 3129 South State Street just a few blocks away from the Royal Gardens. He called his store “The Home of Jazz” and that name appears on his Chicago publications.Schermata 2013-01-20 alle 21.12.50 Lloyd Smith had a small music shop on 31st Street. When Clarence moved his music publishing business to New York in 1922 Lloyd moved his store to the South State Street location and called it “The Original Home of Jazz”. Clarence Johnson was part of that organization along with Lloyd’s brother Warren and most of the greats came into the store. “Jelly Roll” Morton, Lemuel Fowler, Jimmy Blythe, “Georgia” Tom Dorsey, Spencer Williams, Charles Warfield and the Thomas brothers to name a few. This was fortuitous as this location plays an important role in our story. During Clarence William’s tenure this location became a popular hangout for the inner circle of the industry in Chicago – composer’s, talent managers, record producers and musicians, particularly pianists and this continued after William’s departure. Lloyd Smith was a pretty good southside pianist who recorded only a few pieces for Columbia/Capitol A-rolls. I'm Goin' AwayHe recorded “I’m Goin’ Away” which only appears once. It was recorded by Clarence Johnson on Staffnote and QRS piano rolls.
I'm Going Away“I’m Goin’ Away” is one of the few pieces of actual sheet music published by the firm that I have seen. It was successful enough to be recorded by Alberta Hunter on Paramount with Eubie Blake on piano.Schermata 2013-01-20 alle 21.36.43 They did publish Jelly Roll Morton’s “Big Fat Ham” in August of 1923. Due to a “quirk” in the way royalties were paid on phonograph records most of the copyrighted tunes were just arrangements made for the singer and never published as sheet music. That is who received the mechanical licensing fees that were paid. Not the actual copyright owner of the original music. This was quick money where-as actual publishing required a distribution network which in the black community only Clarence Williams and W.C. Handy had achieved. Many of these tunes end up on the Capitol blues A-rolls and on no other piano roll.
Thomas A. Dorsey (Georgia Tom) relates hanging out there to make contacts and he got his first big break from those contacts. He later ended up traveling with “Ma” Rainey as her pianist and arranger. J. Mayo Williams hired him to do most of the arrangements for the singers he was recording. Dorsey said that he never saw a published piece of sheet of music while working for “Chicago Music Publishing” The efforts of J. Mayo Williams resulted in Chicago becoming a 2nd center of the jazz and blues recording industry after only New York.

 

ChicagoThe Melrose Brothers opened their first music shop around 1918 or 1919 in rented space at 6311 Cottage Grove Ave somewhat south of the “district”. They became involved with “Jelly Roll” Morton in 1923 which quickly changed their fortunes. By 1926 their success allowed a move downtown next to the Chicago theatre at 177 N.State Street.Schermata 2013-01-20 alle 21.13.47 Earlier that space was held by Williams & Piron. In 1921 they published “Take It Easy (When You’re Lovin’ me)” by Lemuel Fowler. Schermata 2013-01-20 alle 21.30.47As was often the case later, Walter attached his name as lyricist. This was one of Take It EasyLemuel’s earliest compositions and was probably published shortly after his arrival in Chicago.

The Kentucky Boys – of the three pianists featured here very little is known, but the least is known about Lemuel Fowler. I suggest that he might have been from the Louisville area. One of his few compositions that relates to an area is “L & N Blues” which refers to the Louisville and Nashville railroad. Lemuel, Clarence and Jimmy all appear in Chicago within a year or so of each other and I think some of the jug band influence from that area is reflected in the playing of all three. They recorded each others tunes as evidenced by the piano roll of “The Fowler Twist” recorded by Clarence Johnson. The sheet music is very scarce and the piano roll is even rarer. In the Clarence Johnson section you can see the sheet music he co- composed by with Clarence Williams and the piano roll of the same tune performed by Jimmy Blythe. These guys were rediscovered by piano roll collectors starting in the fifties with premier collector/authority Mike Montgomery. In the early seventies I issued 88 note versions on my “Jazz Classic” label of some of the best Capitol 65 note nickelodeon rolls Recorded by Blythe. This was the first time most roll collectors had heard these performances and the rush was on to find more.

Jimmy BlytheJames “Jimmy” Blythe was born in Lexington, Kentucky in about 1901. His family appears to have been fairly poor and his early musical education is unknown. It has been suggested that he was probably self-taught to a large extent. Louisville about 80 miles west was famous for its Jug Bands. I believe the Jug Band Style influenced his early piano style and would go even further to say that his was “Jug Band Piano” .

The family moved to Chicago sometime between 1916 and 1918. In the late teens he was tutored by Clarence M. Jones who was already well established in the Chicago area. Clarence who was born in 1889 was probably a “father” figure to Jimmy and Clarence Johnson. Jones had significant formal musical training and was able to advance Jimmy’s skills.J ones was known as “The Sultan of Syncopation” and according to an ad in the “Chicago Defender” from July of 1919 you could see him at the “Owl Theatre” on State near 47th leading his band “The syncopators”. The “Owl” advertised itself as the most popular theatre on the south side. More important to our story- he was the manager of the Imperial piano roll company and had contacts in the center of piano roll manufacturing which was Chicago at the time.

Schermata 2013-01-20 alle 21.14.21The Columbia music roll company was formed c.1919. By 1922 they had hired Jimmy to crank out pop tunes for there piano roll division which consisted of “Supertone” sold by the Sears Roebuck company and a slew of other labels many intended for discount sales. In 1924 the company had been successful enough to expand and they changed the company name to the “Capitol Music Roll Company”. Most of there releases were from “Hand-Played” masters. Many of the releases do not credit the pianist but many of the best ones do. On some labels the versions were shorter with the Capitol 88 note versions often being full length.

47 of the Capitol 10-tune coin piano rolls have been discovered to date which feature primarily Jimmy Blythe and Clarence Johnson. The majority of those were recorded by Blythe. Many of those tunes were never recorded anywhere else. Most of the selections are regrettably short – 2:00 to 2:30 long. This was to encourage repeated play of the coin pianos.

Mike Montgomery found over forty copyright entries in the library of congress records accorded to Blythe. Only two of his compositions are known to have been published. “Chicago Stomps” and “Mecca Flat Blues”. Paramount Records published a small booklet of their top artists which included the music to “Mecca Flats”. This booklet is quite rare but has been reproduced. Walking Blues“Walking Blues” was published by Axel Christensen who took co-composer credit. This is “Chicago Stomps” with a different title. “Chicago Stomps” was Blythe’s signature piece and is considered the first full recording of a boogie-woogie piano solo(1924). As happened so often co-credit was given to get a piece published and slowly the actual composers name is removed from the piece. Later the title was changed to “Boogie Woogie Blues” and Blythe’s name was gone.This sheet is vary rare and the copy from the Montgomery collection recently sold on ebay to a collector in Germany for well over $500.00. Axel Christensen for many years had schools around the country to teach people to play Ragtime. By the twenties it was called “The Christensen School of Popular Music”. At the same time as “Walking Blues” was published (1924) Axel published (using the same graphics) “Pomeranian Blues” This tune appears 5 times on the Capitol blues A-rolls. You might wonder about it’s provenance. It is a bravura performance of an excellent unknown tune probably play by Clarence Johnson.

The story of “Mecca Flat Blues” takes us down a different path. Blythe often worked with Alexander “Alex” Robinson. In 1926 and 27 they had a popular radio show on station KYW. Alex was married to Aletha Dickerson who was the secretary of J.Mayo “Ink” Williams. These characters were significant in the South Side music scene of the twenties. Paramount Records of Grafton, Wi. had become so successful with their “Race” records division that by 1922 they were working with Mayo Williams as as their unofficial recording director. His job was to bring artists in for recording. He was busy enough to open an office at 3621 South State Street and hire a secretary-Aletha Dickerson. Book of BluesShe worked for William’s publishing company, The Chicago Music Publishing Company. Some of her duties were were to type out song lyrics and deposit them and the music at the Library of Congress for copyright registration. She ends up with co-composer credit on “Jimmy Blues” and “Fat Meat and Greens” both written by Blythe. She also operated Dickerson’s record shop at 31st and State during this time. It was a popular hang out of black and white musicians. “Mecca Flat Blues” only appears in this little booklet which was issued by Paramount to advertise their best artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Ma Rainey. Of course co-composer credit is given to Aletha’s husband, Alex Robinson.

Grafton was about 110 miles from Chicago so Paramount set up temporary recording facilities in the Lyon and Healy building. From 1924 until his death in 1931 Blythe was the house pianist for Paramount Records, appearing on many records accompanying blues singers. Jimmy Blythe was the busiest little known musician in Chicago during the twenties. Dickerson who died in 1994 described Blythe this way “He was a nice guy but one who preferred to view life through a rosy glow induced by alcohol”. This may be one reason why there is so little information about him and why his compositions got away.
He recorded with many different groups including ;Blythe’s Owls, Blythe’s Washboard Band, Blythe & Burton and Jimmy Bertrand’s Washboard Band among many others. I consider the washboard band kind of a city version of the rural jug band. In this same vein, one of Paramounts popular groups was “The Hokum Boys” with Thomas A. Dorsey on piano. A lot of the titles of Blythe’s tunes have a hokum flavor to them. This music is related to the jug band style as well.

This little book is so rare I believe only one copy is known. John Steiner who bought the Paramount name ,rights and left over materials acquired it with the Paramount materials. Fortunately is was reproduced. Included in the book is the music for 30 songs. Included are “Black Snake Moan” by Blind Lemon Jefferson,” Chicago Monkey Man Blues” by Ida Cox and Lovie Austin with co-composer credit to J. Mayo Williams. Not to be outdone, Aletha Dickerson has her “Bad Luck Woman Blues” (1927) included along with the greats. These remarks are not meant to minimize the efforts of the producers, promoters, managers and business people who were necessary, it’s just a shame that the real creators have had so little recognition.

A RollThe piano roll (nickelodeon roll) is an important part of the history of Chicago South-side piano during the 1920’s. Two of Chicago’s best pianist, composers were Jimmy Blythe and Clarence Johnson. They recorded literally hundreds of tunes for the Capitol Roll & Record Company, located at 721 N.Kedzie Ave. Formerly the Columbia Roll & Record Company.

Nickelodeons were the Juke Box of their day. Many South-side establishments had them and their patrons wanted to hear and dance to their favorite “low down” blues tunes. Capitol was happy to oblige.

Pictured at left is a label from roll # 2085 which was issued in 1927. “Armour Avenue Struggle” (1924) and “Delta Blues” (1924) also called “Delta Bottom Blues” were composed by Blythe and performed by him on this roll. “Armour Avenue Struggle” was one of his better known tunes. “Beale Street Blues” is performed by Clarence Johnson and “Lost My Baby Blues” is played by Harry Giese.

From 1919 until 1931, Capitol issued nearly one thousand different ten-tune rolls. Of that number 10% were all blues rolls. These recordings are significant in that Blythe and Johnson made very few solo phonograph recordings, but probably a total of nearly 500 piano roll recordings between them. Many 78 recordings are lost to time and the ones remaining are of usually poor audio quality. In addition, a large percentage of tunes appearing on the Capitol rolls appeared nowhere else and many are totally unknown.

Listed below are tunes appearing on these rolls known to have been composed by Jimmy Blythe

Adam’s Apple (1926), Ain’t Gonna Run You Down (1924), Alley Rat Blues(Stomp)(1927), Armour Avenue Struggle (1924), Back Alley Rub (1925), Black Gal Make It Thunder (1930), Boogie Woogie Blues (1929), Bow To Your Papa (1930), Breakin’ The Blues (1926), Brownskin Mama (1929), Butcher Shop Blues (1926), Chicago Stomp (1924), Cold Black Ground Blues (1925), Comin’ Home Blues (1925), Delta Blues (1924), Don’t Break Down (1930), Farm House Blues (1928), Fast Stuff Blues (1927), Forty Blues (1926), Forty-Seventh Street Stomp (1926), Function Blues (1929), Gabe Face Blues (1928), Georgia Breakdown (1925), Gotta’ Be Booked (1928), Have Mercy (1927), I Won’t Give You None (1929), Idle Hour Special (1926), It Must Be Hard (1926), It’s Hot, Leave It Alone (1928), Jimmy’s Blues (1925), Lovin’s Been Here and Gone To Mecca Flats (1926), Mama Don’t Want No Sweet Man Any Mo’ (1924), Mama’s Got ‘Em (1930), Me and The Blues (1930), Mecca Flat Blues (1924), Midnight Strutter’s Ball (1924), Messin’ Around Blues (1926), My Baby Blues (1928), Nicaragua Blues (1928), Society Blues (1927), South-side Stomp (1927), St.Louis Man (1928), Steppin’ On The Gas (1925), Sugar Dew Blues (1928), Thats My Business (1930), True Blues (1924), When Granpa Steps Out (1929), World’s Jazz Crazy and So Am I, The (1925), You’re Not The Kind I Thought You Were (1929). There are dozens of tunes not identified which are probably composed and played by Blythe.

DOCD-5476Jimmy Blythe with his job as house pianist for Paramount accompanied many blues singers. One interesting singer was Priscilla Stewart. She recorded 25 sides all with Blythe or “friends of Blythe” on piano. The cover of the Document CD is pictured to the left. She was considered a 2nd or maybe 3rd tier blues singer. Like so much of this story nothing is known about her. Aletha Dickerson composed “Priscilla’s Blues” (1925) or so the copyright states. This was recorded on A-rolls at least three times so it must have had some local popularity. Her version of “Mecca Flat Blues” with Blythe on piano is my favorite.

Schermata 2013-01-20 alle 21.47.33Her recording relationship with Jimmy leads me to believe there was some friendship involved. In addition to “Mecca Flat” she recorded Blythe’s “True Blues” and “Delta Bottom Blues”. She sings several other songs on this album that were composed by Aletha Dickerson which shows the relationship that this group had. Priscilla also records her own “Lonesome Hour Blues” with Jimmy on piano with some nice double time breaks. All of these tunes were also released on A-rolls.

Schermata 2013-01-20 alle 21.47.42Another “friend” of Jimmy was J.H. Shayne who is known for composing “Mr.Freddie Blues” which became his nick name (Mr.Freddie). Recorded by Priscilla with Mr. Freddie on piano. Jimmy recorded an excellent version for Columbia player rolls. His A-roll version appears at least 5 times showing the tunes popularity in Chicago. The phonograph recordings used to produce this cd are very scarce as the sound quality on many selections here attests.

Clarence Johnson had moved to Detroit, Lem Fowler was in New York, but Jimmy Blythe was still there working right up until the very end. He died June 21st, 1931 of epidemic meningitis.

CD2CD covers of recently available products, the enhancedCD4 pianola rolls cds are currently available. The two RST cds are not now available. The liner notes of the RST cds and the Clarence Johnson cd were written by Mike Montgomery. One reviewer noted that the tempos were a little slow on the “Messin’ Around” cd. I think we piano roll collectors have probably played many of these a little fast. Listening to Blythe accompany CD1Priscilla Stewart on “Mecca Flat Blues”, the tempo is fairly slow. The Messin Around and Low Down Papa albums were originally released on vinyl in the early nineties on Paul Affeldt’s label and produced by Ed Sprankle.CD3 The current versions are new recordings using midi files and recorded with a synthesized piano sound as realized by Frank Himpsl.

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Of the three artists featured here the least is known about Lemuel Fowler. He is indeed a “Mystery Man”. He must have arrived in Chicago in late 1918 or early 1919. His first composition was “Before Day Blues” copyrighted February 13, 1919 and published by William A. Thomas, Chicago. “Take It Easy” was copyrighted April 18th, 1921 with the more common “Sleepy Hollow…” coming in between. On piano roll Lemuel only recorded his own compositions. He recorded a total of 23 rolls for The U.S. Music Roll Company, The QRS company and one for the International. By early 1922 he had moved to New York. He recorded 16 of his tunes on piano roll for the QRS Company.

Fowler picture courtesy of Randolph HerrSchermata 2013-01-20 alle 21.17.57

SheetLem’s biggest hit was “He May Be Your Man (But He Comes To See Me Sometimes)”. This song was so popular that it spawned several successful follow ons such as “He’s My Man Now”. Published by Perry Bradford in 1922 (scarcest edition) and soon sold to Ted Browne Publishing which released it in at least two different editions. This was released on piano roll by the U.S. Music company on roll # 40852 in September of 1922 played by the composer. The Browne cover with the parrot is the least common of the Browne editions. The tune was so popular that it was recorded by many blues singers and continued to be recorded into the thirties. Lucille Hegamin’s version is advertised on the cover of Bradford’s edition(at left). It was recorded on Columbia music rolls by Jimmy Blythe and on Browne’s piano roll label by Clarence Johnson. After selling the copyright too quick, Perry Bradford put out his own version “He Used To Be Your Man” without the same success. “He May Be Your Man” was still in the air in October of 1924 when Priscilla Stewart recorded an unattributed song “I Never Call My Man’s Name” with James Blythe on piano. This may be Blythe’s tribute. It is an outstanding tune which I’ve not heard before.

Roll 2Several of these rolls are extremely rare or have not been found: “Whip It To A Jelly” on QRS-3909 or Imperial-06549. The International version is shown to be played by Fowler on the label, but it is not a satisfying take. That version was also released on a National nickelodeon roll. “Four Flushin’ Papa” on US-42874 was only recently discovered. “Jealous Mama Blues” on QRS-4850 was recently found by Mark Forer on Clark-A-1174. This version is only 2:19 long. To my knowledge the 88 note version has not been found. That tune was copyrighted 8-06-1924 but was not released until 1930 by QRS. I suspect that some old masters which had never been released were issued just as the depression was getting under way. “Scat Mr. Sweetback-Blues” was copyrighted 3-03-1925 but not issued until August of 1931 on QRS-5245 along with a few others. From November of 1923 until April of 1927 Lem did not have any rolls released.

VinylHis second most popular composition as evidenced by surviving sheet music was “You’ve Got Everything A Sweet Mama Needs But Me”, copyrighted September, 5, 1922 and published by Mills Music in 1923. He recorded it on piano roll for QRS with roll # 2233, issued in August of 1923. At the right is the label from his Columbia 3922 recording with Helen Baxter on Vocal.He made 57 phonograph recordings many accompanying female vocalists. He had a group -Fowler’s Washboard Wizards which recorded a number of tunes. More evidence of the Jug Band, Washboard background in his playing.

“Squawkin’ The Blues” was copyrighted June 26th, 1923 by Mills Music, but it was apparently never published. It was recorded by Lem on QRS-5050 piano roll as “Squabblin’ The Blues” but not issued until Januaryof 1931. It contains a musical reference to Blythe’s “Chicago Stomp” or vice versa.

Fowler appears to be the most ambitious of the three. He moved to New York about the same time as Clarence Williams who was always quick to see where the business was going. Mike Montgomery relates (in the notes to the RST disc) the story about how Fowler made 10 recordings of “He May Be Your Man” with various vocalists all in a two month period. He probably got all those recordings done before the first one was even issued.

Fowler was missing from 1932 until 1962 when he visited J. Lawrence Cook in New York. Montgomery searched and could not even locate a death certificate.

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Clarence Johnson was from Louisville, Kentucky. He was probably born shortly before the new century as he looks a little older than Jimmy Blythe who was born in 1901 and Lemuel looks the youngest of the three. He enlisted in the Army from the Chicago area in 1917 so he was probably the first to arrive in the city. He was discharged in 1919 just as the South Side was exploding with new arrivals.

During that year he signed with the U.S. Music company to make piano rolls. He joined Columbia Music Rolls in late 1920.

Schermata 2013-01-20 alle 00.13.29Probably, Clarence’s most successful composition was “Kansas City Man Blues” published by Clarence Williams from his New York location at 1547 Broadway in 1923. Williams took co-composer credit and shows his own name in larger type face. On the back cover is an ad for “Achin’ Hearted Blues” among others. It was recorded by Clarence Williams for QRS and Jimmy Blythe for Capitol. Recorded by Clarence Williams and his Blue Five on record with Sidney Bechet on soprano sax. Mamie Williams had a popular recording. It is still a jazz standard today. Clarence Williams made quite a bit of money with this tune. I wonder how much Clarence Johnson got?. It was recorded on Capitol A-rolls by Art Gillham.

For at least 6 months in 1923, Clarence was in New York. He was in the recording studio from February until at least August. Clarence Williams put most of these dates together and he along with Lem Fowler were also very active One of their favorite singers during this spell was Edna Hicks, half sister of Lizzie Miles. She was often accompanied by Clarence Johnson or Lem Fowler. She died tragically in 1925.

Clarence was the best technical pianist of the three and he was also the most creative. His version of “Beale Street Blues” is outstanding. He even uses a tango rhythm in one section. Blues singer Lizzie Miles said he was her favorite accompanist.

Schermata 2013-01-20 alle 00.13.53Schermata 2013-01-20 alle 21.19.37“Achin’ Hearted Blues” also published by Clarence Williams in addition to Williams, Spencer Williams also gets credit. I suspect Spencer wrote the lyrics and Johnson wrote the music. Of course its not possible at this date to determine any of those arrangements for certain. Published in 1922 just after arriving in New York. There is a good chance that this deal was made while Williams was still in Chicago. Johnson recorded it for the Columbia Music Roll Company and it appears only once on the A-rolls. It had more success with vocalists and vaudeville performers as Wiessernd Resser on the cover attest.

Schermata 2013-01-20 alle 00.14.30“Jelly’s Blues” was copyrighted by the “Original House of Jazz” in 1924 but was never published as no sheet music copy has ever shown up. Clarence was associated with the Smith’s so its curious why it was never published. The “OHofJ” was mentioned earlier and was composed of Lloyd Smith, his brother Warren and Clarence. Clarence made a trip to New York in 1923 to record a few piano rolls for the QRS company and this roll was released in December of 1924 on roll # 2994. The roll is not quite rare, but it is very scarce.

Schermata 2013-01-20 alle 00.14.42Schermata 2013-01-20 alle 21.20.12“The Fowler Twist”-(Tango) shows the interaction between “The Kentucky Boys”. It is an almost unknown Fowler composition. Copyrighted February 2, 1922 by W.L.Albury Music Publishing Company of New York. The US roll # 40744 was not discovered until 1994. Performed by Clarence Johnson it is a great performance of Fowler’s 3rd known composition. In 1994 when Montgomery acquired this roll the sheet music was unknown.
I have since acquired the sheet music.

Schermata 2013-01-20 alle 00.15.02At right is the label from his piano roll of “Gulf Coast Blues” released August of 1923, one of the most successful blues compositions of the period.

Schermata 2013-01-20 alle 00.15.20At the left is a tune he composed in 1922. It was published by the Melrose Brothers with co-composer credit given(taken) by Walter Melrose and Warren Smith. Melrose publishing was still located at their early address of 63rd and Cottage Grove. Advertised on the inside cover is Lem Fowler’s “Take It Easy”.

Clarence moved to Detroit where he had relatives in the late twenties. By that time the piano roll business which reached its peak in 1926 had started to cool. He died August 9, 1933.

Schermata 2013-01-20 alle 00.16.43Blythe and Johnson were not the only pianists to record for Columbia/Capital. One was the local band leader and pianist Lindsay McPhail. He had a hit with “San” and recorded his “Flag That Train” in 1925 for Capitol. His performance is quite good. His other rolls are mostly just pop tunes. It was published by Quigley and Benson located in the Garrick building which was located at 58-64 West Randolph Street in the heart of the theatre and hotel district. Pictured on the cover is the Oriole Orchestra of Russo and Ted Fiorito featured at the Edgewater Beach Hotel.
Other noted pianists were Lloyd Smith who’s “The Original Home of Jazz” music store was located at 3129 South State Street. Lloyd and his brother Warren were active in the Chicago music scene during this period. At least two of his compositions were recorded by him for Col/Cap; “I’m Going Away To Wear You Off My Mind” and “Yearning Blues”. Other noted composers recording were Art Gillham who wrote “Mean Blues” , Fred Rose who wrote “Deep Henderson” and Harry Geise who co-wrote 31st Street Blues with Wendell Hall. Everett Robins recorded his “Hard Luck Blues”. It only appeared once on the A-rolls but fortunately the Capitol 88 Note version was found and reissued as that A-roll has not been found.It was recorded by singer Edna Hicks. Charlie Garland was one of their artists who was alive and well, living in Southern California as late as the seventies.

Schermata 2013-01-20 alle 22.18.21The history of early Jazz and Blues has been accorded primarily to jazz bands, vocalists and guitar players. The piano players with the exception of a few greats, Jelly Roll Morton, Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson and Fats Waller have mostly been lost to time. The early piano blues are little known as few solo recordings were made due to the technologicallimitations of the time. This music has been kept alive by piano roll and sheetmusic collectors. A small resurgence of interest has been reignited since thosefirst Capitol A-rolls of Blythe and Johnson were issued as 88 note rolls in the early seventies.

We’ve got talented young pianists who have become excited about this music. Nathan Bello was considering making his thesis at Juilliard about Jimmy Blythe’s Capitol music rolls. He had transcribed and memorized around 70 of them. “Pine Top” Smith is often credited as making the first boogie-woogie recording, but he was listening to Jimmy Blythe play long before that recording was made. Maybe the mystery caused by the fact that we know so little of these guys makes it all the more exciting.

Richard L. Riley,
August 17, 2012

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  • Rick Benjamin - Reply

    March 3, 2017 at 7:54 pm

    This is really brilliant work. Thank you!

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