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Author Topic: Blues Masters Of The 30ís : Charlie McCoy  (Read 2689 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Blues Masters Of The 30ís : Charlie McCoy
« on: May 05, 2009, 12:14:17 PM »
As mentioned elsewhere here's Tony Russell's feature on Charlie McCoy. The usual caveats concerning knowledge and research "then" and "now" apply.

Blues Masters Of The 30ís
Charlie McCoy
(Jazz & Blues, May 1971, p29-30)

The blues of the '30s was essentially small group music, and any company dealing in it had to maintain a reserve of competent accompanying musicians  session men. Sometimes these were artists who had made it on their own terms, like Big Bill; more often they were men and women   who, though they might have recorded under their own names quite often, hadn't and looked as if they never would set the music world on fire. Such a figure was Charlie McCoy, who played guitar and mandolin on certainly fifty, possibly a hundred sessions between 1928 and 1944, and was thus one of the most prolific accompanists in blues history.

Charlie McCoy came from Jackson, Mississippi, where he was exposed, as he grew up, to the music of Tommy Johnson, Rubin Lacy, Ishman Bracey, Son Spand, the Mississippi Sheiks, and who knows what other players. Younger than either Johnson or Lacy they were born in c.1896 and 1901 respectively; lie between 1905 and 1910   he nevertheless acquired, and that quickly, the reputation of being Jackson's foremost string musician, equally adept on guitar, banjo and mandolin. At that time, Rubin Lacy has said, he wasn't much of a singer, but for 'seconding' he was the best around. And it was he who, on Ishman Bracey's recommendation, went to Memphis in February 1928 to accompany Johnson, Bracey and Rosie Mac Moore on their celebrated Victor recordings. (Roots's Johnson/ Bracey LP (RL 330) testifies to his remarkable powers as a guitarist.) In the next three years he recorded extensively, often in a stringband with Bo Carter and Walter Vincson ('Chatman's Mississippi Hot Footers'), playing mandolin or banjo and sometimes singing second parts. His mandolin playing was showcased on the Mississippi Mud Steppers recordings of 1930; Jackson Stomp was more or less Cow Cow Blues, and he made it again at the same session, adding a vocal part and calling it That lonesome train took my baby away (RBF RF¨14). On the same day he proved his versatility by playing four waltzes and singing the sentimental Always In Love With You and I've Been Blue Ever Since You Went Away; a few days later, he sang duets with Bo Carter in The Northern Starvers Are Returning Home and Mississippi I'm Longing For You, extraordinary songs (both to the tune of Corinne Corinna) which stood out against the mass migration to the north. His ability to handle material of these kinds dance music, sentimental songs and topical pieces   was to stand him in good stead later.

Charlie McCoy moved north himself about 1931; he recorded in Chicago in January of that year, as one of the Mississippi Blacksnakes. He turns up next in New York, early in '32, singing a topical song, Times Ain't What They Used To Be.

Now tell me, people, what in this world is we goin' to do?
We haven't got no money and we can't find no work to do.

He also recorded a catchy, if melancholy, little song called Too Long. The Mississippi Sheiks had used it about four months before; Bo Carter took credit as composer, but it sounds more like Charlie McCoy's (or Vincson's) work. By this time McCoy had acquired the characteristic vocal inflections of the '30s blues-singer; his voice still lacked character, but it had lost the sharp edges, and he 'sold' his songs better.

At this time he also recorded, apparently for the first time, with his brother Joe. Joe McCoy (who was born about 1900) had of course been busy enough, assisting his colourful wife Memphis Minnie on her many records. As a guitarist he seems not to have been his brother's equal, but it is hard to tell; just how much he contributes to Memphis Minnie's records is unclear. "Joe McCoy," said Big Bill, "had a way of playing a guitar not like his brother or his cousin" - but that was all he said. Joe's marriage was not in good state at this time, and by the summer of 1934 it must have been falling apart. Thus, when Decca started recording for their new race series - the 7000s - in August, Joe was available to record on his own or with his brother.

Decca opened their new series with seven band records, by the Alabama Jug Band and the Georgia Washboard Stompers; 7007, the first blues issue, had Jimmie Gordon on one side and Peetie Wheatstraw on the other. Charlie McCoy played guitar on both sides; Joe was on 7008; and 7009 united the brothers, having Joe's Meat Cutter Blues (Mamlish S-3801) on one side and Charlie's Baltimore blues on the other - the two men playing guitar duets on both. Baltimore Blues, to the tune of Kokomo Blues, suggests that Charlie may have been in that city around 1932/3. Lastly, 7010 featured a Jackson acquaintance of the McCoys, Willie 'Poor Boy' Lofton. Decca had begun well, for Joe and Charlie.

From summer 1934 to summer 1935 Charlie recorded with Gordon and Wheatstraw again, with Joe (as 'Georgia Pine Boy' and '"Bill" Wilber' and 'Mississippi Mudder'), probably with Bumble Bee Slim and Springback James. He also cut two fine blues of his own for Decca, Motherless and fatherless blues and Please Baby, and an equally good one which was issued on Champion, One In A Hundred. (Please and Hundred are still attributed by Godrich and Dixon to Joe McCoy, but a single hearing of the 9/1/35 session should prove my point.) Hundred - an unusual blues tune - has Charlie playing with a steel, as does the measured and very moving Motherless And Fatherless, perhaps his most satisfying performance on record. A few months later he seconded an old Jackson acquaintance, Johnnie Temple, on his first recording session. He had played with him in Chicago before, but in rather different circumstances; as a string trio, Charlie (Mandolin), Temple (guitar) and Joe McCoy (guitar) were favourites of certain prominent gangsters, for whom they played many a polka and Italian song.

1936 was a particularly successful year. Leading a small group which recorded as 'Papa Charlie's Boys', McCoy cut four sides in April in which his vigorous mandolin playing - much developed since the Hot Footers days - was well caught by the Victor engineer. One of the songs was Too long again, but somewhat changed since '32. These were the last recordings he made under his name; a fortnight later he started to record with a group that was to require his services for at least two years - the Harlem Hamfats.

The Hamfats were a tough and tight little band - and in that era of tough, tight little bands they were one of the biggest attractions. They were crude at times, but in a gutbucket manner that must have endeared them to the blues audience up from the south. And they had as their main singer an undeniable bluesman, Joe McCoy. Singing was probably all Joe did do in the group; a guitar is rarely audible on their records, and Charlie plays mandolin on every Hamfats track I know. Very good mandolin, too; he sets up a sinewy, bouncy rhythm, breaking every now and then into chiming arpeggios. Typical solos are heard in Southern Blues, Hamfat Swing and Growling Dog.

Perhaps the Hamfats followed a hint offered by Tampa Red; he made some Bluebird records with his Chicago Five a couple of weeks before their first session. One of these records was Let's get drunk and truck, which the Hamfats soon covered for Decca; it was sung, for once, by Charlie. It appears to be the only vocal opportunity the group gave him.

Also in '36 Charlie accompanied Red Nelson, Big Bill, Casey Bill and Johnnie Temple. With Temple he cut the very popular Louise Louise Blues (Coral CP58), his distinctive, acid guitar phrasing suiting very well the singer's melancholy and rather aged-sounding delivery. In the following year he was heard with Frankie Jaxon and Rosetta Howard - for both were accompanied by the Hamfats at their Decca sessions - and with Temple, Casey Bill, Frank Tannehill and possibly Jimmie Gordon. At this time Decca and Vocalion used a large number of session guitarists, and it is not always easy to distinguish McCoy's work. Charley Jordan was around; Big Bill and Willie B. James could sound a little like Charlie McCoy; even Teddy Bunn and Lonnie Johnson played, at times, in a way which can confuse researchers three or four decades later. On mandolin, no doubt, Charlie was identifiable enough, and his work is evident on '38/9 records by Curtis Jones, Monkey Joe and Mattie Hardy. He was, in short, much in demand for session work, to add colour and to ensure an even level of musicianship. Not all his accompaniments are better than routine; but few of them are less.

So it went, through the '30s. Towards the end of the decade Charlie McCoy seems to have recorded less often, and I can trace no 1940 work, but there was a fine session with Sonny Boy Williamson at the end of '41, I Have Got To Go featuring a fluid solo. In that year and the next there were sessions with his brother ('Big Joe and His Rhythm'); after the Petrillo ban there was one more, in December 1944 with the same group. As far as I can tell, it was Charlie's last studio date; and indeed, according to Johnnie Temple, he died in 1945   but Big Bill put it in '51, the year of his brother's death.

What Charlie McCoy achieved, with stylists like Scrapper Blackwell and Big Bill, was the development of an approach to guitar playing as an element of the small¨
group sound. As piano and string bass - to say nothing of brass and reed instruments -assumed larger roles in the urban blues band, the guitarists had to retain their individual voices without hampering their fellow musicians. Many of the pianists with whom McCoy worked were solid, dependable but unflashy performers, and lie could make himself fairly prominent, but the trio settings of the earlier Johnnie Temple and Jimmie Gordon records did not dictate the shape of the blues band for long, and by the end of the '30s a guitarist needed to amplify his box if he was to dominate a group. Willie Lacey and George Barnes and Big Bill did so; perhaps Charlie McCoy declined to take the step. No doubt he had earned a good deal of money from his dozens of studio dates, but scarcely enough - unless he was a remarkably careful saver - to enable him to retire.

But he had had a longer run than most, and made more of it than many. Back in 1928, at his first accompanying job, Rosie Mae Moore called out to him "play it, Mr. Charlie, a long time and a heap of it". He followed her advice to the letter.

TONY RUSSELL

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Blues Masters Of The 30ís : Charlie McCoy
« Reply #1 on: May 05, 2009, 02:33:04 PM »
Many thanks for that, BH. Good to read. Do I detect a slight preference in the piece for later Charlie McCoy? Says a big fan of the earlier stuff. Although, while those two later tracks as Papa Charlie's Boys have a somewhat uptown sound, listening again, the mandolin work sure is great. He takes two choruses in a row for both the solos on Let My Peaches Be. Nice.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Blues Masters Of The 30ís : Charlie McCoy
« Reply #2 on: May 05, 2009, 10:41:52 PM »
Do I detect a slight preference in the piece for later Charlie McCoy?
Tony was using as source material the then available reissues on LP and the various 78s he had in his collection.

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Blues Masters Of The 30ís : Charlie McCoy
« Reply #3 on: May 06, 2009, 07:02:40 AM »
There are more tracks to add to the Mandolin Listening list thanks to this article as well, which points out his mandolin session work on sides by Curtis Jones, Monkey Joe and Mattie Hardy. I have heard the Monkey Joe tracks, but not the others.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Blues Masters Of The 30ís : Charlie McCoy
« Reply #4 on: May 06, 2009, 10:53:47 AM »
There are more tracks to add to the Mandolin Listening list thanks to this article as well, which points out his mandolin session work on sides by Curtis Jones, Monkey Joe and Mattie Hardy. I have heard the Monkey Joe tracks, but not the others.
There's a couple of Curtis Jones items bearing the "prob. Charlie McCoy" attribution, one of which is "Palace Blues". Interestingly, this is the second take of the song, the first was not released and there's no mandolin present. Perhaps Melrose, or whoever, decided it needed a mandolin player for the second take. Who knows...

I attempted to attach an mp3 (2.5mb) but the weenie system was having none of it and told me to bog-off.  :(

Offline frankie

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Re: Blues Masters Of The 30ís : Charlie McCoy
« Reply #5 on: September 02, 2009, 02:47:09 PM »
It almost seems like Charlie's playing got looser and more improvisational as he went further in his recording career, although I have to say that overall, I like the music less.  You can't fault his playing, though...  fantastic.