African-American History Month - "if number one should start to fall"
Both Johnny Cash and Fats Domino would have celebrated birthdays today, this 26th day of February, African-American History Month. I’m a fan, but I can’t give you anything unique or insightful on those two giants - everyone else is talking about them anyway. No, we’re going to talk about two unreleased records.
When I interviewed retired teacher and American Negro League - Memphis Red Sox - ballplayer Lonnie Harris, I had to ask him about playing and traveling in the South in the 1950’s. “It was hell” (read that slowly with a hint of Brooklyn accent-complete interview here- https://www.willittlepitcher.com/single-post/2016/08/28/Meet-Memphis---Lonnie-Harris). So it was for the performers working the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA) the mostly white-owned theater owners' group that Ma Rainey allegedly referred to as “Tough on Black Asses.” TOBA was started with vaudeville in mind - dancers, actors, musicians, comedians, and singers - coming together in a variety show of sorts. The association included theaters from the East coast to Kansas City and all points south. Of two iterations of TOBA, the first was organized by the Barrassos of Memphis and the second (1921) by Milton Starr of Nashville, The theaters they and others (including a few African-Americans later) owned gave future legends and budding stars a place to work, but they had to put up with a grueling schedule, low pay and perks - only the stars were provided meals and refreshments - and of course institutional racism from venues, restaurants, hotels, and performers’ unions. Vaudeville gave some of the best performers their start. Some lesser known or recognized names include Lena Wilson, who sang duets with her classically trained pianist brother Danny, singer/dancer Edith Goodall, and composer/performer Perry Bradford. Goodall joined the Wilsons to form a trio and married Lena’s brother Danny.
They were all recognized for their talent and found new roles in Harlem and New York City’s recording studios. Bradford composed and arranged the earliest recorded blues - Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” in 1920. Edith Wilson danced and sang her way through vaudeville and New York, recording until 1930. She had two uncredited roles in Hollywood (“black woman”) and became one of the traveling actresses portraying Aunt Jemima, selling that pancake mix. Lena Wilson performed in the late teens (and in her late teens) on the TOBA circuit and settled in New York. She sang in clubs and recorded sparsely through the 1920’s. She also played piano and led a combo, proving a versatile blues performer with various arrangements, solo and with a group. In 1923 she recorded a version of “'Tain't nobody's biz-ness if I do” by Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins, first recorded in 1922, and later recorded by errrbody. She wrote a blues, “I Need You to Drive My Blues Away” with Fletcher Henderson which Duke Ellington cited as paving the way, a “tenderly composed” “pure folk blues.” She sang about this fine city in an oft-recorded name song “Memphis, Tennessee” by Perry Bradford, accompanied by the Nubian Five, aka The Original Memphis Five - no relation to Chuck Berry’s brilliant 1950’s original - and worked fairly often with cornet-trumpet pioneer and bandleader Johnny Dunn in his heyday (more here- https://www.willittlepitcher.com/single-post/2018/02/13/African-American-History-Month---muted-history). Among those collaborations are two known unreleased tracks, though various takes have survived. Lena Wilson did not enjoy a long life. She died in New York of pneumonia around 1939. She was 40 or 41 years old.
“Humming Man” and this one, which really should be a blues classic, were recorded in New York City on this day in 1923, but left in Columbia’s vaults. This is supposed to be one of the three takes.