A Scattered History of the Blues Vol.5: Guitar and Piano Duos

guitar piano duos v5

I’ll be travelling overseas for the next few days so posts may be few and infrequent.  But before I leave I wanted to share instalment number 5 of the Washerman’s Dog Scattered History of the Blues.

The focus in this collection is on guitar and piano duos with most of the music making coming from Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr. If you’re a close reader of this blog you’ll remember Mr Blackwell from Volume 3, where he was highlighted as one of the important blues guitarists who influenced the Chicago electric scene.  Here is a bit of a blurb from the Blues Trail website on this dynamic duo.

Leroy Carr was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1905 where his father worked at the Vanderbilt University. When Leroy was quite young his parents separated and his mother moved the family to Indianapolis. He taught himself how to play the piano at an early age and when he left school he joined the army. After his stint in the service, he got married,  and began work as a bootlegger when Prohibition was at its height. By the mid 1920’s, he was able to quit the bootleg industry and earn his living playing piano. Unfortunately by then he had developed a tremendous liking for whiskey and was probably an alcoholic by the late 1920’s.

 

Scrapper” Blackwell was born in Syracuse, South Carolina in 1903 and he claimed to be of Cherokee descent, a claim that his appearance tended to support. When he was very young, his family moved to Indianapolis, where he spent most of his life. Little is known of Blackwell’s early life, partly because he retired in the mid-30s before blues became a subject of serious writing, and partly because he possessed a very quiet , reserved personality.  He was largely self-taught as a guitarist and besides becoming a successful illicit liquor producer in the 1920’s, he played guitar at dances and rent parties around Indianapolis to supplement his income. Inevitably his path soon crossed with that of Leroy Carr, given their common interests of music and moonshine. However Blackwell didn’t consider himself a professional musician until Carr persuaded him to record with him in a 1928 session for Vocalion. During that first session, the duo recorded “How Long How Long Blues”. The song was a huge nationwide hit and established Carr and Blackwell as the biggest male blues recording stars from 1928 until Carr’s death in 1935. In addition, the duo’s success lead to Blackwell recording with Tommie Bradley, Chippie Hill, Georgia Tom Dorsey, and on his own. In his first solo session, in 1928, Blackwell recorded one of his own compositions, “Kokomo Blues”, which was a moderate hit in the Midwest. It was later “reworked” by another former bootlegger, Kokomo Arnold, under the name “Original Old Kokomo Blues”, which Robert Johnson subsequently “reworked” into “Sweet Home Chicago”.

 

Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr

Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr

They were very popular in Indianapolis, and also performed regularly in nearby cities, primarily Chicago, Louisville, Cincinnati, and Carr’s hometown of Nashville. Of course, Carr and Blackwell continued to record together; and as good as Blackwell’s work is without Carr, his best work came in their collaborations. Carr’s subdued, introspective singing and bass-oriented piano playing allowed Scrapper’s virtuoso guitar playing the freedom it sought.  In all Carr and Blackwell recorded 114 songs together. In early 1935, Carr and Blackwell went into the studio together for what would be the last time. The last song that Carr recorded was a solo number, the prophetic “Six Cold Feet in the Ground.” A few weeks later Carr’s alcoholism unfortunately took its toll and he died aged just 30. Blackwell was very depressed by the death of his partner and friend and he first quit recording and then gave up music altogether, becoming a manual labourer at an asphalt plant in Indianapolis. He was all but forgotten until 1958, when he was “rediscovered” and he recorded again, his skills largely undiminished by his long break. The blues were just beginning to catch on with white audiences, particularly the older, “country” blues from the 1920’s and 30’s. Unfortunately Blackwell himself died prematurely in 1962 when he was shot in an alley in Indianapolis, possibly during a mugging, and before he had a chance to receive the recognition he deserved from an emerging new college-educated white audience.

Other musical partnerships featured on this record are less well known but include big name guitarists or pianists recorded with an opposite number: Jack Dupree with Jesse Ellory; Memphis Slim with Big Bill Broonzy; Lonnie Johnson with several ivory ticklers and so on.

Again, this is seminal American blues and though the recordings are not the best the music they capture is essential.

Track Listing:

Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr

01 How Long Has That Evening Train Been Gone – 1932

02 Midnight Hour Blues – 1932

03 Blues Before Sunrise – 1934

04 When The Sun Goes Down – 1935

05 Going Back Home – 1935

06 Stormy Night Blues – 1934

07 I Believe I’ll Make A Change – 1934

08 My Old Pal – 1935 [Scrapper Blackwell and Dot Rice]

09 Lonesome Bedroom Blues – 1937 [Curtis Jones & Willie B. James]

10 Worried Life Blues – 1941 [Tampa Red & Big Maceo]

11 I’m So Worried – 1945 [Tampa Red & Big Maceo]

12 Mercy Mama Blues – 1945 [Tampa Red & Big Maceo]

13 Ashes In My Whiskey – 1935 [Walter Davis & Henry Townsend]

14 West Coast Blues – 1937 [Walter Davis & Robert Lee McCoy]

15 Oh! Me, Oh! My, Blues – 1947 [Walter Davis & Leonard Caston]

16 Hasting Street – 1929 [Blind Blake & Charlie Spand]

17 Come On Mama – 1929 [Georgia Tom Dorsey & Tampa Red]

18 All By Myself – 1941 [Big Bill Bronzy & Memphis Slim]

19 What More Can A Man Do? – 1938 [Peetie Wheatstraw & Lonnie Johnson]

20 She’s My Mary – 1939 [Lonnie Johnson & Joshua Altheimer]

21 Flyright Baby – 1942 [Lonnie Johnson & Blind John Davis]

22 Big Woman Blues – 1941 [Johnny Temple & Horace Malcolm]

23 Sundown Blues – 1941 [Johnny Temple & Horace Malcolm]

24 Shady Lane – 1941 [Champion Jack Dupree & Jesse Ellory]

++**

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