Monday, October 21, 2013

Chas. Creath

There seems to be way too much emphasis put upon the importance of the Mississippi river in the story of American music. The river was not the only way to travel and it's hard to believe that music, art and fashion was a side-effect of freight shipping.

It's more logical and well documented that the traveling entertainment groups and the start of the commercial music industry are how new music trends spread through the nation.

The paths to success of the early music legends in St. Louis are not based upon the river. None began in the South and traveled up the river, nor were the St. Louisans taught how to play jazz or blues by North-bound travelers.

A good example of early homegrown St. Louis talent would be Charles Creath. Born in Missouri, Creath was living in East St. Louis when he joined P G Lowrey's band. Traveling around the midwest in the teens, Creath and other St. Louis music legends like William Blue and Harvey Lankford spread the new sound of jass on what would later become the Black vaudeville circuit.

A regional superstar in the dawn of the jazz age, Creath's Jazz-O-Maniacs of course played for dances on excursion boats out of St. Louis. But the steamboats were merely one venue and there were many more jobs for musicians in the city through the social clubs, hotels and dancehalls.

Creath, (or manager Jesse Johnson) cleverly had six bands named the Jazz-O-Maniacs working around the area in an attempt to handle the demand for hot St. Louis jazz music. People traveled miles to hear Creath's dynamic trumpet jazz and promoters would postpone and re-book dates to be sure Chas himself would appear in person.

This widespread popularity caught the attention of national recording companies and Creath’s band was signed to the Okeh label. The Jazz-O-Maniac’s hit recordings were landmarks of music history for being the first male vocal blues, the first pairing of the words rock and roll in music vocabulary, and if not the first, one of the earliest integrated bands in the recording industry.

It's clear that the jazz legends of St. Louis did not learn from and were not influenced by the mythic New Orleans players like Oliver, Keppard or Bolden. The early music of St. Louis is groundbreaking and creative and uniquely its own. The rivers and railroads were much more important for hauling commerce than culture and the more we learn about St. Louis history the clearer it is that the Confluence at St. Louis was where others came to hear what was new.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Lonnie Johnson and Baby Cox with Duke Ellington

In 1928, St. Louis blues guitar legend Lonnie Johnson recorded a batch of songs with Duke Ellington and on a couple of the cuts a singer credited as Baby Cox made a terrific vocal scat to Lonnie's solo guitar work.

Over the years, Lonnie was certainly under-credited for his influential and important work and it seems that the performer listed as Baby Cox was also forgotten because today there is hardly anything known about the singer other than the name.

Devil At The Confluence is all about crediting the uncredited St. Louis musicians such as Lonnie Johnson, and although the research shows that Baby Cox was not a St. Louisan, she deserves better than history has treated her, so here is what we found about the forgotten Jazz-age entertainer:

Gertrude Cox was born to the vaudeville family of Jimmy Cox and his wife, Anna Mae Cox in Memphis, TN around 1907. Jimmy, known as the Black Charlie Chaplin, had his own touring revue, the Georgia Red Hots, and was composer of the popular standard, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out,” that was a hit for Bessie Smith.

Working as soon as she could, Gertrude was billed as Baby Cox and was a very popular part of her parent's act. A newspaper reported that the Cox Trio was getting six encores every night in Atlanta, Georgia, with Baby Cox on the bill in 1910. The next decade of reviews consistently cheer Baby Cox's act in the Theater Owners Booking Association touring circuit.

Still very popular and no longer a child in 1923, she had married and had a baby. The family tried to work Gerturde's child into the act as "Baby I Love Cox," but it seems that he didn't have what it takes to be on the stage.

Her talents as a singer, dancer, and comedienne brought her the opportunity to join a touring gig with a hugely successful Butterbeans and Susie show in 1927. And within a couple of years she was offered a role in another famous show, Fats Waller's "Hot Chocolates" on Broadway.

In the summer of 1928 she was listed with multiple shows and getting rave reviews frequently. This seems to be the height of her career and it was at this point, in the fall of 1928, that Duke Ellington asked her to record.

The 1920s ended with Baby Cox on top of Broadway and being sued by one of her minor show producers to keep her from appearing in other shows.

In the 1930s, Baby Cox, (married name, Gertrude Jordan Davis,) was living in New York with two children and performing at the famous Connie's Inn. There were rumors of her suffering from "nervous strain" but she assured reporters that it was possible to raise children and have a show-biz career as a single mother.

But after a musical theater flop titled "Hummin’ Sam" opened and closed in a single performance on April 8, 1933, the press wrote less and less about Baby Cox.

So why aren't Baby Cox and Lonnie Johnson very well-known having been superior performers and innovators? That's a hard question to answer. Cox and Johnson were driven, professional artists who succeeded using their talent in a tough business. 
What more is needed for them to be counted among the Robert Johnsons and Louis Armstrongs?
Sometimes it seems that many of the true creative artists in the past are forgotten simply because no one kept a biography of their work for others to learn about them. Maybe we can fix that.

Check out the link to YouTube. The Mooche was one of the cuts made by Baby Cox with Lonnie Johnson for Duke Ellington and a wonderful example of two early jazz creatives improvising with guitar and voice.

Duke Ellington's - The Mooche.
Lonnie Johnson and Baby Cox solo at 1:32

Friday, August 23, 2013

The enumerator and Frank James.

St. Louis, 1900.

   "Good morning Sir, I'm with the United States Census. Can I have your name?" The young man asked.
   "Last name?"
   "It's Frank James."
The kid looked up at the man in the door. Whoa, it is him.
It was strange to see him in the flesh and odd that the world famous bandit would be here. In this house. In St. Louis. But maybe that's why he isn't dead.
   "Where were you born Sir?"
The man squinted at the kid.
   "I'm supposed to ask.2 cents per name wasn’t worth getting a slug in the gut and he added, “I’ve always respected you.
   "Look kid, is there something you can do about all those questions?" grunted James. 
   "Uh, well no. Or maybe. Uh, if you were out of town I’d have to..."
   "Yeah kid. I'm out of town."
   "OK, Right. Uh, I've read all your books."
   "I didn't write those. It wasn't like they say." And as the door shut he said, "See you around kid".

The kid stepped off the porch and onto the sidewalk of Laclede Avenue. He couldn't believe it. The brother of Jesse, the outlaw, killer, famous bank and train robber. The man in hundreds of pulp novels and movies and in that song that every schoolboy knows.

On the enumeration sheet he wrote, “James, Frank.” 
Then across the columns for Age and Occupation, "Gone to Jefferson City."

Then, "Member of the famous James Gang of Missouri," and then, "WOW.
And again, "WOW.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Preserving St. Louis' intangible cultural legacy; Stagolee, Frankie and Johnny, the Club Plantation.

   Billy Lyons may have had three little children and a very sickly wife, 
but when he wasn’t gambling, he worked as a short order cook.

   A lot of the truth has been lost in the retelling of the fable of badman Stagolee and Billy, two men who were real people living in St. Louis over a hundred years ago. In fact, the real lives of Billy Lyons and Lee Shelton have never been told.

   And as far as world famous legends go, Stagolee is about as big as they get. The story and song tell of the murder of Billy Lyons during a card game. But over the years, the prose outlived the facts and the buildings are gone. No artifacts remain. And that’s St. Louis’ fault.

   The city has what seems like a compulsion for demolishing buildings. And although there are individuals and groups concerned with the preservation of old buildings, those efforts are often more interested in architecture, rather than what happened within the buildings. Unfortunately, the sites of most of St. Louis’ culturally important landmarks are not the unique or ornate buildings. 

   The stories are our intangible cultural legacy, and it’s a kind of demo by neglect when it’s lost because we didn’t fight to save it. Stories, traditions and folklore are as significant to civilizations as their monuments. We have a world-famous legacy. We need to preserve our heritage and we need to be the advocates for our cultural history to preserve it. 

   Frankie Baker revisits the empty lot where the rooming house stood 
where she shot Allen Britt in 1899. The song Frankie And Johnny 
was created by the musicians of the city and became an international 
favorite and one of the oldest and most popular American standards. 

The Palladium building in Grand Center, site of the St. Louis Club Plantation is under threat of demolition.

 The site of where Chuck Berry's Club Bandstand stood in 1958.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Stagger Lee: Invention and legend.

The legend of Stagger Lee has a mystery within it: Why was Billy shot? 
That can be discussed and pondered, though there probably isn't anything that can prove why he was killed. But there are things that aren't mysteries, they're just false, just made up.
Like Cecil Brown's book, Stagolee Shot Billy - it just made up the story that Lee Shelton was a pimp.
Shelton wasn't a pimp. And there is nothing that says he was other than Brown's book. Brown made it up. It's just that simple.
Many people assume Brown's book proved that Shelton was a pimp, but there are no footnotes to factual sources.

Starting with his very first mention of Stagolee Shelton 
as a pimp on page 8:

                 "The fact that Stagolee was a pimp…"

No footnote. That's just the author writing his own personal statement.
And everytime the word "pimp" is used with Shelton's name, no proof is provided. Each time is simply the author repeating his conjecture or making more things up:

  • p. 11; "...a real Stagolee, a well-known figure in St. Louis’s red-light district during the 1890s, a pimp…" No footnote. 
  • p. 12; "The hero of the ballad was a pimp…" No footnote.
  • p. 16; "…the black pimps in St. Louis” No footnote.
  • p. 23; "Lee Shelton belonged to a group of exotic pimps" No footnote.
  • p. 33; (Song lyrics, no footnote.)
  • p. 45; "...if Lee Shelton was a pimp even before arriving in St. Louis"  No footnote.
  • p. 46; "If he was a successful pimp..." No footnote.
  • p. 50; "Shelton, a pimp who became a legend" No footnote.
  • p. 84; "The Stags were probably the first party of pimps" No footnote. 
  • p. 103; "Shelton… owned a club called the Modern Horseshoe Club, drove a carriage, and was known to be a pimp."  No footnote.
  • p.104; "...since he was both a pimp and a gambler"  No footnote.
  • p. 116; "Shelton had been a pimp, a political figure, a saloonkeeper"  No footnote.
  • p. 218; "We have seen how the Stagolee narrative has been associated with the pimp and the prostitute, begining with ragtime music" No footnote.

Each of these statements are the author's musings. None of these statements have basis in historical fact. There was no pimp named Stagolee in St. Louis. There was no pimp club or pimp political party. Shelton was not a club owner, a maquereaux, mack, or pimp. Simply, there are no police arrests, legal documents, newspaper articles, or other factual sources that provide proof that Lee Shelton was a pimp.

There may be lyrics, opinions, and dreams that say Staggerlee was a pimp or whatever else, but those aren't facts.

And if I were to write that Lee Shelton was a laborer and footnote it to the Missouri State Penitentiary Register Book V, State Archives, Office of the Secretary of State, Jefferson City, Missouri, that then is a sourced fact.

This is a blogpost to correct inaccuracies concerning the incident of Billy and Staggerlee. An earlier post shows that a house said to be Shelton's house is the wrong house. It's important to note that made-up stuff is OK, that's the legend. But why make a swindle out of it?

Devil At The Confluence was written partly to correct assumptions and errors about the music history of St. Louis. Part of the reason this city's proud history isn't well-known is because many opinions and writings about the history are not, but are assumed to be, fact.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

St. Louis bluesman Hi Henry Brown and the Nutpickers Strike

  Last week, St. Louis workers went on strike to protest Missouri's shameful sub-poverty minimum wage and coincidentally next week is the 80 year anniversary of one of the most important labor movement victories in St. Louis. Although this historic incident was certainly well known to the public at the time, it seems that it is mostly forgotten today.

  Devil At The Confluence tells the story of Hi Henry Brown, one of the first protest musicians, and his blues songs of St. Louis during the Depression. In 1932, St Louis bluesmen Brown and Charley Jordan recorded Nut Factory Blues, a song about the sub-standard pay for women workers at a pecan shelling factory in the city. In the midst of the Great Depression, women workers were hired for manual labor jobs at wages of pennies per day. And with most men out of work, this was desperately needed income for many families.

  The song described the hard conditions and may very well have solidified the worker's resolve because in May of 1933, fourteen hundred women workers went on strike against the Funsten Nut company in Deep Morgan (near where the City Museum is today.) After eight days they won and doubled their wages, but more importantly, the demonstration represented a very important triumph for the American labor movement.

  By offering raises only for the white workers, Funsten management had tried to break the strike by inciting racial conflict. A ploy of this kind was successfully used in the 1917 East St Louis, Illinois riots over a decade earlier, but this time the workers remained unified. They were successful and their victory had a tremendous effect in St. Louis in bringing other workers to action such as the clothing workers and ladies’ garment workers.

  It's very rare that such a blatant protest blues song was recorded in the 1930s, and it could only have been done in St. Louis. This was well before Woody Guthrie began recording songs and the idea of music as activism - a man finding wrong in the world and using his songs for social justice - was something very unique. Hi Henry Brown's blues music was part-documentary and part-call for action, and like the best of the St. Louis blues, it was about how hopelessness is negated by hope.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Stagger Lee's house

   There are a lot of things said about Lee Shelton. A lot of really sensational things that people made up. That's what being legendary is, I suppose, the made-up stuff is more well known than the real stuff. But Shelton was a real man living in St. Louis around the turn of the century. He wasn't a gang boss, nor involved in prostitution, and he didn't own a nightclub.

  And Lee Shelton never owned a house. He lived by the day or by the month in tenement houses in St. Louis. One such place was 914 North Twelfth street, where he was living in December of 1895. That's the address that the police had for him when they arrested him for the murder of Billy Lyons and that's what the St. Louis Globe Democrat newspaper printed the next day, December 26, 1895.

  But just about everytime someone writes about Shelton's shooting of Lyons they say the house at 911 North Twelfth street is Stagger Lee's house. But that's the wrong address. 

The mistake first appeared around 2002 when someone transcribed the newspaper story into a Usenet posting. The number could be misread as 911, but if you look up the microfilm copy it's obviously 914.

   Then in 2004, a book titled, Stagolee Shot Billy by Cecil Brown, used the wrong address from Usenet. Then a comic book titled, Stagger Lee, repeated the error from Brown's book. And since then the wrong address has been reposted too many times to count.*

   The building standing today at 911 N. 12th street looks pretty old, but the 1895 fire insurance map shows that there was no 911 address at that time. Across the street, the even-numbered side, is where the tenement house stood where Lee Shelton had rented a room.

   The song of Stagger Lee is mostly made up by people over the years and that's how it became a great American folktale. And the folktale is an important part of St. Louis' music legacy - a long history of very important contributions to American culture. But sadly, the city has few landmarks left standing to show for it. 

"Ledgendary" shouldn't mean that all the real stuff is gone and only the made-up stuff remains, but sometimes it seems like that's what we're doing.

* (Some repostings on the web of the wrong address found in Brown's book):

A number of published books copied the error including True Crime: Missouri, and Wicked St. Louis,
and the wrong address was repeated by the St Louis Police Veteran's Association: