In the mid to late 1920s, once the major record companies discovered that there was an appetite with the record buying public for Blues -- and when you consider the popularity of artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Country Blues in particular -- they set off for destinations such as Memphis, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Dallas, in search of new talent and the next big hit. One of their regular stops on the circuit was San Antonio, which saw field recording units arrive as early as 1928, when sessions were held on Lonnie Johnson and Texas Alexander -- two big stars in the OKeh catalog back in those days.
Typically, they would set up shop at a local hotel -- the Peabody in Memphis was one popular recording spot, for instance -- with the Blue Bonnet Hotel and the Texas Hotel being two establishments utilized by the folks at RCA Victor and their Bluebird subsidiary while in San Antonio. Another advantage was the fact that a piano could be found there -- almost a necessity, when you consider the rich tradition of Piano Blues in Texas during the pre-war years.
Vocalist Joe Pullum and pianist Robert Cooper were paired up in the studio for their initial sessions, in 1934 and 1935, resulting in a big hit for Pullum, with "Black Gal, What Makes Your Head So Hard?" It made him a household name in Houston, with regular appearances on the radio.
Some of the other keyboardists being featured on tonight's program weren't quite so lucky, however. Alfoncy Harris may be the same person who recorded with Blind Willie McTell towards the end of 1929, while Big Boy Knox -- based solely on the lyrics to his song "Texas Blues" -- might very well have originally come to Houston by way of Louisiana. Andy Boy (his actual given name) was recalled as one of the top piano men in Galveston, but after recording eight titles of his own, as well as accompanying Joe Pullum and Walter "Cowboy" Washington (the latter recalled as a real-life cowpoke who frequented the sea-front taverns of Galveston), he fell off the radar screen, last rumored to have headed north in the 1950s for greener musical pastures in Kansas City.
Pianists like Son Becky worked the well-established "Barrelhouse Piano Circuit" from his original hometown of Wharton, Texas (a short trip down U.S. Route 59, on the way towards Victoria), on up through Houston, and into the Texarkana area as well, while Frank Tannehill (ten titles recorded for ARC and Bluebird) was thought to have been based in Dallas. Connie "Pinetop" Burks and Black Boy Shine (real name: Harold Holiday) were both apparently based in Houston, with "Dog House Blues" a tribute to a local 4th Ward Houston hangout that served soup and sandwiches to out of work piano players, during the lean, hard years of the Great Depression. And as a bonus, if you were lucky enough to catch one of the stray rabbits hopping through the nearby vacant lots, they'd cook it and fix it for you (be sure to listen for the reference in his song).
One person in particular, however, managed to outshadow almost every other musician on the program tonight. Robert Johnson, who was called to San Antonio to make his recording debut during Thanksgiving week, 1936, didn't return to Mississippi until he'd waxed almost two dozen sides. By any measure, it was an auspicious beginning, leaving the company impressed enough to recall him the following summer for another session -- this time in Dallas, which would turn out to be his last.
As the 1930s wound to a close and the 1940s began, the major labels likewise began winding down the field trips that had seen them recording such rich and varied talent. The American Record Corporation made two final trips to Dallas -- one in the summer of 1939, the other in May 1940, while Decca, a relative late-comer to the game that had never recorded much in the field anyway, made one trip to Dallas in April 1941. RCA Victor, along with their Bluebird subsidiary, made two trips in 1941, one to Dallas in April and one to Atlanta in October. With World War II looming on the horizon, things were changing. Never again would a major company send field recording units on trips to faraway cities for weeks or even months at a time, making the Blues that were recorded in San Antonio during the late 1920s and 1930s -- and the rich legacy of Texas Piano Blues -- the product of a bygone, forgotten era.
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