Thursday, June 9, 2016

Jelly Roll Morton didn't record this song and never said he did.

   In the midcentury revival of early jazz, record companies marketed discoveries like Leadbelly and rediscoveries like Jelly Roll Morton and they weren't much interested in establishing the factual history of American music. But the commercial music industry is where much of our knowledge of music history comes from, so like it or not, our music history is mostly the result of industry hype and  fan opinions. For example, an early 1920s recording of clever jazz that would probably have been ignored by jazz music intelligentsia became an expensive collectable when it was said to have been a recording by the great Jelly Roll Morton.

  The earliest recording companies understood St. Louis to be a proven producer of popular ballads and ragtime music and the Okeh label had established strong connections in St. Louis for scouting talent and facilities to record the great jazz and blues of the city. At one of these sessions a recording was made of the St. Louis Levee Band playing a song titled, Soap Suds by a composer named Martin. And that’s all that is known about this record.

  It's certain that all of the recordings for four days in in May, 1926 were by St. Louis musicians except for a traveling evangelist preacher named Charlie Butler and Julian Holloway, his piano player who happened to be in town at the time.

  Victoria Spivey, Cora Perkins, Frankie Half Pint Jackson, Ed Wood, (accompanied by De Lloyd Barnes, Pierce Gist,), Lonnie Johnson, Steadyroll Johnson, The Searcy Trio (Deloise Searcy, Clifford King, Edgar Green), Powell's Jazz Monarchs (William Calloway, Floyd Casey, Isaac Jefferson, George Lightfoot, Jimmy Powell), Trimp's Ambassador Bell Hops Orchestra (Freddie Laufketter, Vernon Brown, Art Gruner, Ernie Jung, George Pedigo, Nadel Patrick, Carl Maus,) Alma Rotter, the St. Louis Levee Band, Gebruder Peters, and A W Adams are St. Louis artists.

  After St. Louis, the Okeh recording team went to Chicago to make recordings there.

Jelly Roll's story

  Jelly Roll Morton visited St. Louis after leaving New Orleans and before going to the West coast in the early part of the century. He recorded a number of hits through the 1920s. During the years before and after the May 1926 St. Louis recording sessions, Morton was in Chicago making records. From 1923 to 1928 he was under contract with Melrose Brothers Publishing and except for one trip to Gennett Records in Indiana, all of Morton’s recordings from 1924 to 1927 were in Chicago. In 1930, he recorded a song that he titled Fickle Fay Creep. Some say it's similar to Soap Suds.

  Morton was long past his prime in 1938 when Alan Lomax at Smithsonian Folkways Records in Washington D.C. found him in a small club there and recorded him talking about and playing many of his songs. He also discussed his versions of other people's songs and credited the composers of the original songs, but he did not say Fickle Fay Creep was a cover or his version of any other song.

  Along with the renewed interest in his stories came opportunities for Morton. A fan named Roy J. Carew, partnered with Morton and established the Tempo-Music Publishing Company in the late 1930's to ensure copyright on all of Morton's works that might not have been registered or had lapsed.

  Carew worked on the Morton catalog and copyrights long after Morton died in 1941. The recording of Fickle Fay Creep, like most of Morton's songs, had been copyrighted when it was made, and Carew quietly copyrighted Soap Suds to Morton in 1949. Shortly afterward, Lomax’s book, Mister Jelly Roll was published which established the legend of Jelly Roll Morton as the "inventor of jazz."
Jazz History Research in the 1950s

  The early phonograph record industry had to invent the sales industry for their product in the first decades of the 20th century and promotion, hype and gimmicks were the new tools. Decades later in the 1950s, record collectors created a market for old 78 rpm records and the value for certain copies were mostly determined by rarity and the tastes of the collectors and the writers in magazines and newsletters devoted to jazz music. It was a different kind of marketing and promotion than the record labels used decades earlier but it worked in creating demand and market prices.

  Carew used these music fanzines to float his claim that the St. Louis Levee Band was actually Jelly Roll Morton.

  John Randolph replied to Carew in Jazz Report magazine that it was known around town that the
St. Louis Levee Band were members of Bennie Washington’s Six Aces. This information only appears in this rare issue of Jazz Report.

  So there's the story and it’s clear that Jelly Roll Morton had no involvement in the St. Louis recording session, the St. Louis Levee Band, or the song Soap Suds - and he never claimed that he did.

  Of course, Morton was very much aware of the important ragtime and jazz that was happening in
St. Louis. In the book, Conversation With The Blues by Paul Oliver, 1960, St. Louis ragtime legend Charles Thompson recalled one of Morton’s visits to the city:

"Jelly Roll Morton spent the winter here in St. Louis in 1911 before he went to New York and he was a very apt musician, very quick to catch up almost anything. I think when he went to New York he took all the ragtime player's music ... along with him."

  Morton’s cover versions of songs by the famous St. Louis musicians like Scott Joplin, Gene Rodemich, Artie Matthews and R Q Dickerson are all credited to the original artists on the record label. And some of Morton’s songs are tunes that he merely retitled like his cover of the old Missouri song, Funky Butt, that he called Buddy Bolden’s Blues. But Morton never claimed to have written the song Soap Suds or having made the recording. All the same, because of Carew’s copyright effort, Soap Suds is officially listed as a Morton creation - which thus made Soap Suds a cover version of the original song,  Fickle Fay Creep, even though Fickle Fay Creep was made four years after Soap Suds! Today, nearly all sources list the Soap Suds recording as Morton with unknown band members.

The Under-hyped St. Louis jazz.

  The true story is that a St. Louis band recorded Soap Suds. Morton had heard the tune when he was in St. Louis and recorded a song like it years later with the title, Fickle Fay Creep.  Certainly if Soap Suds was his, Morton would surely have his name on it or he would have claimed it as his in his later years.

  Jazz history seems to have followed the word of the record collectors on matters like this, but had research on the mystery record continued unhindered, the investigation could have looked for more information about the St. Louis Levee Band musicians and Bennie Washington’s Six Aces and maybe evidence of a song called Soap Suds in the music history of St. Louis.

  In the 1890’s there was an old fiddle tune known around the St. Louis area as Soap Suds Under the Fence (also as Soap Suds Over the Fence.)

  An 1896 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch tells of a dance at Stolle's Hall (where Johnny would later cheat on poor Frankie) and the music that was played that night: reels, cotillions, mazourkas, and double-shuffles. And the song, Soap Suds under the Fence.

  This information shows that the Soap Suds song was not just a rural fiddle tune but it had been adapted to popular dance music. A metamorphosis such as this is a significant indication that Soap Suds was going through a process common to other great songs of American music and being adapted to current popular trends.

  Although it’s been over 100 years and it seems there would be few clues to be found, there was discovered a 1905 sheet music ad for a St. Louis department store that lists the local hit song, Soap Suds.

  These clues may or may not be the sources of the song that was played by the St. Louis Levee band in 1926, but they were never investigated. John Randolph’s information that the recording was by St. Louis artists was forgone. No interviews with Bennie Washington remain and the recording of Compton Avenue Blues in 1925 was the only recording his popular band had made as the Six Aces.

  American jazz history contains little knowledge of the legendary St. Louis talent pool of early jazz and blues musicians who worked in different combinations and under different names. For example, St. Louis’ Floyd Campbell and Bennie Washington were drummers who organized and led bands. Washington started his own band after leaving the group that became the Missourians. It appears that the St. Louis Levee Band cut Soap Suds after drummer Earl Martin took over the band and before they became part of Harvey Lankford's High Hatters. Martin also later worked with St. Louis bandleader George Hudson and one of the city’s great trumpet legends, Clark Terry.

  Morton's recordings and career were revived for those last few years of his life and after his death the prices on his records rose. St. Louis artists were regulars in the studios of all the major labels well before the 1920s and well after. The thirty or so St. Louis artists in these 1926 sessions were selected and sought by the Okeh record company due to their popularity and salability. Most were called back later for more hit selling records and some, like Lonnie Johnson and Victoria Spivey became superstars. But lacking the recording industry's branding and the secondhand collector's whims, most of the songs from those 1926 sessions sell for about $25 each, none over $100. Promotion and marketing can affect prices but we would like to believe that our appreciation of art is not subject to crass manipulation, yet a couple of years ago, a copy of the St. Louis Levee Band's record sold for $1,276.

  It seems wrong when commercial interests determine value but it isn't. But it does become harmful when it affects our understanding of our true history. And in this case it appears that it did because questions about the St. Louis Levee Band, the song, or the composer named Martin were not asked anymore after the answer was said to be Jelly Roll Morton.

  American music history is missing much of St. Louis’ music history because of the lack of preservation of the city's history. But perhaps what this investigation demonstrates most importantly is that true history is not completely lost yet but is waiting for us to realize it.

Kevin Belford, 2016.


Discography of OKeh Records 1918-1934, Laird &Rust, Praeger, 2004.

Black Recording Artists 1877-1926 An Annotated Discography, Gibbs, McFarland, 2012.

Jelly Roll Morton discography, Albert J McCarthy, The Record Changer, May 1944.

Guides to Special Collections in the Music Division of the Library of Congress, Jelly Roll Morton Collection, 1992, :

Mister Jelly Roll, Jelly Roll Morton Inventor Of Jazz, Alan Lomax, Grosset &; Dunlap, 1950.

Jelly Roll Morton, Martin Williams, Barnes and Company, NY, 1962.

Transcript Of The 1938 Library Of Congress recordings of Jelly Roll Morton, Rounder Records, 1993.

The Preoccupations Of Mr. Lomax, Inventor Of The Inventor Of Jazz, Katy E. Martin, University of Kansas Dissertation, 2008.

A Preliminary Chronology of the Early Career of Ferd "Jelly Roll" Morton, Lawrence Gushee, American Music, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Winter, 1985), University of Illinois Press.

Jelly Roll Morton – Plagiarist?, Björn Englund; and
Further notes on Jelly Roll Morton: Jelly Roll and the Melrose Brothers, Englund and Berresford;
Vintage Jazz Mart, VJM 139,

Jelly Roll Morton Music Roll Recordings; Roy J. Carew articles; Library of Congress Narrative; Monrovia Souns Studio, 1999,

Jelly Roll discography,

Conversation With The Blues, Paul Oliver, 1960.

Jazz Report, September 1953; February 1955.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 18, 1895; November, 15, 1905.

The Sedalia Democrat, October 12, 1926.

St. Louis Argus, 1915 - 1926,


In the book, City of Gabriels, (Owsley, Reedy Press, 2006,) it isn't noted where this information comes from but, Bennie Washington's name is “Benny” and the St. Louis Levee Band is called "The Old St. Louis Levee Band with Jelly Roll Martin (sic)."

Although Okeh company has no information of the group, the St. Louis Sheldon, in the educational downloads available to schools since 2009, claims that the St. Louis Levee Band was Jelly Roll Martin with the preacher and his piano man: "Note: spelled Jelly Roll Martin on record label. Charlie Butler (STL) Charlie Butler (vcl-1, speech-2) Julian Holloway."

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