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Author Topic: Memphis Jug Band Singers  (Read 612 times)

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Offline arlotone

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Memphis Jug Band Singers
« on: November 16, 2016, 01:15:38 AM »
I've been trying to identify the singers on every Memphis Jug Band record. I have Blues & Gospel Records, 4th Edition, but it often lists multiple singers without distinguishing between lead and backup, and it includes some errors. It's been a fun project, and I can now recognize each singer's style fairly easily, although it is more difficult to identify speech or pick apart multiple voices singing together.

Anyway, here's what I've come up with. If you have any feedback, or skepticism about my conclusions, please post below and I'll update the list as needed. Here are the songs, in the order in which they were recorded, and grouped by recording date:


Sun Brimmer's Blues: Will Weldon
Stingy Woman Blues: Will Weldon
Memphis Jug Blues: Will Shade with Will Weldon (low harmony and speech) and Ben Ramey (high harmony)
Newport News Blues: Will Shade with Will Weldon (speech)

Sometimes I Think I Love You: Will Shade with Will Weldon (speech)
Sunshine Blues: Will Weldon
Memphis Boy Blues: Will Shade with Will Weldon (low harmony) and Ben Ramey (high harmony)
I'm Looking for the Bully of the Town: Will Shade, Will Weldon and Ben Ramey (they all sing together and I can't tell which is which)

I Packed My Suitcase, Started to the Train: Will Shade and Jennie Mae Clayton with Vol Stevens (faint speech)
State of Tennessee Blues: Will Shade and Jennie Mae Clayton
Bob Lee Junior Blues: Jennie Mae Clayton
Kansas City Blues: Will Shade with Will Weldon (low harmony and speech), Ben Ramey (high harmony) and Vol Stevens (faint speech)

Beale Street Mess Around: Vol Stevens with Will Weldon (speech)
I'll See You In the Spring, When the Birds Begin to Sing: Vol Stevens with Will Weldon (speech)
Turpentine Blues: Will Weldon with Vol Stevens (speech)
Hitch Me to Your Buggy, and Drive Me Like a Mule: Will Weldon with Vol Stevens (speech)
Vol Stevens Blues: Vol Stevens
Baby Got the Rickets: Vol Stevens

Snitchin' Gambler Blues: Will Shade
Evergreen Money Blues: Will Shade

Coal Oil Blues: Vol Stevens with Will Weldon (quieter speech)
Papa Long Blues: Vol Stevens with Will Weldon (quieter speech)
Peaches in the Springtime: Will Shade with Will Weldon (low harmony and speech) and Ben Ramey (high harmony and speech)
She Stays Out All Night Long: Will Shade with Will Weldon (speech) and Vol Stevens (speech)

Lindberg Hop: Jab Jones with Ben Ramey (speech)
Sugar Pudding: Charlie Burse with Will Shade (low harmony and speech), Jab Jones (low harmony) and Vol Stevens (high harmony)
A Black Woman is Like a Black Snake: Charlie Burse with Ben Ramey (harmony)
On the Road Again: Jab Jones with Charlie Burse (low harmony and speech) and Ben Ramey (high harmony)

Whitewash Station Blues: Jab Jones with Charlie Burse (low harmony) and Ben Ramey (high harmony)
Stealin' Stealin': Jab Jones with Ben Ramey (harmony)
Jug Band Waltz: (no singing)
Mississippi River Waltz: (no singing)

Better Leave That Stuff Alone: Will Shade
She Stabbed Me With an Ice-Pick: Will Shade

I Can't Stand It: Will Shade with Ben Ramey (responses)
What's the Matter: Will Shade with Ben Ramey (louder harmony), Charlie Burse (quieter harmony) and maybe Milton Roby (harmony)

Dirty Butter: Minnie Wallace with Will Shade (harmony)
The Old Folks Started It: Minnie Wallace

Won't You Be Kind To Me: Hattie Hart
You Wouldn't, Would You, Papa: Hattie Hart

Pay Day Blues (unreleased): Hattie Hart
Feed Your Friend with a Long Handled Spoon: Will Shade
I Can Beat You Plenty: Will Shade with Ben Ramey (louder harmony), Charlie Burse (quieter harmony) and maybe Milton Roby (harmony)

Taking Your Place: Will Shade
Tired of You Driving Me: Ben Ramey

Memphis Yo Yo Blues: Hattie Hart
K.C. Moan: Tewee Blackman with Will Shade (low harmony), Charlie Burse (middle harmony) and Ben Ramey (high harmony)
I Whipped My Woman with a Single Tree: Will Shade with Charlie Burse (low harmony and louder speech), Ben Ramey (low harmony) and Charlie Nickerson (quieter harmony and quieter speech)

Tapping That Thing (unreleased): Jab Jones
Brickeys Holdover Blues (unreleased): Jab Jones

Everybody's Talking About Sadie Green: Charlie Nickerson with Ben Ramey (speech)

Oh Ambulance Man: Hattie Hart with Will Shade (harmony)
Cocaine Habit Blues: Hattie Hart with Charlie Burse (low harmony) and Ben Ramey (high harmony and speech)

Jim Strainer Blues: Will Shade
Cave Man Blues: Charlie Nickerson with Will Shade (speech)
Fourth Street Mess Around: Charlie Nickerson with Will Shade (harmony) and Ben Ramey (harmony)
It Won't Act Right: Will Shade with Charlie Nickerson (high harmony), Charlie Burse (middle harmony) and Ben Ramey (faint harmony)

Bumble Bee Blues: Memphis Minnie
Meningitis Blues: Memphis Minnie

Aunt Caroline Dyer Blues: Will Shade with Charlie Burse (speech)
Stonewall Blues: Will Shade

Spider's Nest Blues: Hattie Hart
Papa's Got Your Water On: Hattie Hart and Will Shade
Going Back to Memphis: Charlie Nickerson with Will Shade (low harmony), Charlie Burse (middle harmony) and Ben Ramey (high harmony and speech)

He's In the Jailhouse Now: Charlie Nickerson with Vol Stevens (harmony, speech)

Got a Letter From My Darlin': Ben Ramey with Will Shade (low harmony), Charlie Burse (middle harmony and speech during verses) and Charlie Nickerson (high harmony and speech during solos)
Round and Round: Charlie Nickerson with Ben Ramey (harmony)
You May Leave but This Will Bring You Back: Charlie Nickerson with Vol Stevens (harmony)

Move That Thing: Charlie Nickerson with Will Weldon (low harmony) and Vol Stevens (high harmony)
You Got Me Rollin': Charlie Nickerson with Will Shade (harmony)

You Got to Have That Thing: Vol Stevens with Will Shade (low harmony), Charlie Burse (middle harmony) and unknown (high harmony)
Bottle It Up and Go: Charlie Burse with Vol Stevens (harmony)
Tappin' That Thing: Charlie Burse with Vol Stevens (harmony)
I Got Good Taters: Charlie Burse
Little Green Slippers (unreissued): Charlie Burse maybe with Will Shade (harmony)
Fishin' in the Dark (unreissued): Charlie Burse with Will Shade (harmony)
My Love is Cold (unreissued): Jab Jones
Poor Jab Blues (unreissued): Jab Jones
Get It From Behind (unreissued): Jab Jones
Come Along Little Children: Jab Jones with Charlie Burse (low harmony) and Vol Stevens (high harmony)
Get It From the Front (unreissued): Will Shade
She Done Sold It Out (unreissued): Will Shade

Mary Anna Cut Off: Jab Jones with Charlie Burse (speech)
My Love is Cold: Jab Jones with Charlie Burse (speech)
Jazzbo Stomp: Charlie Burse (speech)
Gator Wobble: Charlie Burse (speech)
Poor Jab's Blues (unreleased): Jab Jones
Tear It Down, Bed Slats and All: Will Shade with Charlie Burse (high harmony and speech) and Jab Jones (low harmony)

Boodie Bum Bum: Will Shade with Charlie Burse (speech)
Take Your Fingers Off It: Charlie Burse with Will Shade (harmony and speech)
Little Green Slippers: Charlie Burse with Will Shade (scatting)
Fishin' In the Dark: Charlie Burse with Will Shade (scatting)
Bottle It Up and Go: Charlie Burse with Will Shade (harmony)
Insane Crazy Blues: Charlie Burse with Will Shade (scatting)
I Got Good Potatoes (unreleased): Charlie Burse
What's the Matter With the Well (unreleased): Charlie Burse
She Done Sold It Out: Will Shade with Charlie Burse (speech)

Memphis Shakedown: Will Shade (scatting and speech) and Charlie Burse (scatting and speech)
Gonna Cut It Tonight (unreleased): (unknown, maybe instrumental)
Rukus Juice and Chittlin': Will Shade (scatting and speech) and Charlie Burse (scatting and speech)
My Business Ain't Right: Will Shade (scatting and speech) and Charlie Burse (scatting and speech)
Jug Band Quartette: Will Shade with Jab Jones (harmony) and Charlie Burse (speech)


Miscellaneous Notes:

- Ben Ramey was a stalwart of the band, but only had two lead vocals, "Tired of You Driving Me" and "Got a Letter from My Darling." He had a distinctive high harmony style, but also sang some lower parts, like on "Round and Round." He also had some of the most memorable spoken lines, like "I say, oh now, sugar baby" in "Lindberg Hop" and "let's all take a whiff on Hattie, now" in "Cocaine Habit Blues."

- Jab Jones was another long-time member who sang some of the band's best-known songs: "Stealin' Stealin'," "On the Road Again" and "Whitewash Station," including the rap sections in the latter two. He left his usual gruff tone for an uncharacteristic high harmony on "Jug Band Quartette."

- Tewee Blackman only played on two tracks, but they were good ones, including the load vocal on his composition, "K.C. Moan."

- The harmonies on "What's the Matter" and "I Can Beat You Plenty" might include  the fiddler, Milton Roby, instead of or in addition to Ben Ramey. On "What's the Matter," at 1:01, there are two little toots on the kazoo, which would disqualify Ben Ramey, or maybe that's just distortion. The fiddle drops out on some but not all of the choruses. Considering the arrangment of the band around the microphone, the volume of the kazoo more closely matches the volume of the harmony singers. On "I Can Beat You Plenty," the fiddle drops out on all the choruses. The volume of the kazoo and fiddle both seem too quiet compared to the volume of the harmony singers, but Ramey's kazoo often ended up quieter than his voice.

- The outro of "It Won't Act Right" is Burse "roof, roof", Shade "row, row", Ramey "go on outta here, Too Sweet" and Nickerson "dog won't act right." Too Sweet was the name of Shade's dog.
« Last Edit: October 01, 2017, 02:00:18 PM by arlotone »

Offline arlotone

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Re: Memphis Jug Band Singers
« Reply #1 on: November 25, 2016, 02:15:24 PM »
I'm having second thoughts about the lead singer for "Stealin' Stealin'" and would welcome any feedback. This is one of the few songs where B&GR specifically identifies the lead singer as Jab Jones. The jug and kazoo both stop whenever the lead singer is singing. However, the tone of the lead singer here is a bit different from Jones's voice on "On the Road Again" and "Whitewash Station Blues," recorded the same week. And it's not totally clear, but it sounds like the jug overlaps the lead singer on the first word after the solos at 1:40 and 2:40.

I don't believe Ben Ramey is the lead singer, because his kzaoo definitely overlaps the first "s" of the first word the lead singer sings. I believe Ramey is the high harmony voice that enters a beat later, which would match the high harmony parts he sings on many other songs.

Since Will Shade is playing harmonica all the way through, that leaves only Vol Stevens and Charlie Burse of the people who were credited for this session. Stevens's mandolin is only on the first song of this session, but he could have stayed to sing on this one. And given the musical similarity of "Stealin'" to "Coal Oil Blues," which Stevens sang lead on six months earlier, it's tempting to believe he sang lead here, too. However, his voice had a more pinched, shouty tone when he sang lead on "Coal Oil," "Papa Long" and "Vol Stevens Blues."

Things brings us to Charlie Burse, who is hard to judge because he never sang a lead vocal on his own until "It Won't Act Right" almost two years later. However, I believe he was the main singer on "Sugar Pudding" and "A Black Woman Is Like a Black Snake," recorded the same week as "Stealin'," and the first backup singer (the talkier one) on "Whitewash Station," recorded the same day. As far as one can pick out his voice on these recordings, the vocal tone does seem similar to "Stealin'." On the 1932 and later recordings, Burse had a more unique, easily identifiable style, but I don't think he developed that until after 1930, because it's not evident on the numerous songs he sang lead or backup on through 1930.

One more factor pointing to Burse is that his vocal in "It Won't Act Right" shows a similar pronunciation of R's as the singer of "Stealin'." So in "Stealin'" we have "coycle 'round the sun," and in "It Won't Act Right" we have "it ain't wuthwhile to use it," "bumped my head on the flo," and "pull off a toyble stunt." Vol Stevens pronounces R's comparatively clearly in "Coal Oil Blues," with "woke up early this morning" -- although waking up "oily" would have been appropriate for that song  ;).

Bottom line, I think the credit should go to Burse, although arguments could be made for Stevens or Jones. Please take a listen and tell me what you think!

Offline arlotone

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Re: Memphis Jug Band Singers
« Reply #2 on: February 11, 2017, 04:31:16 PM »
I've gotten some feedback disagreeing with my Charlie Burse "Stealin'" conclusion above. Unfortunately it hasn't addressed any of the evidence I've proposed, but I'll go ahead and add some more info for consideration.

The main argument against Burse is that he has a distinctive vocal style that isn't present on this recording. It's true that Burse's style on, say, "Fishin' In the Dark" in 1934 is as easily recognizable as Charlie Nickerson on "Cave Man Blues." But this style isn't audible on any recordings before 1932, and Burse surely sang on recordings earlier than that. For example, we know he's one of the two singers in "A Black Woman is Like a Black Snake" because there were only three people on the track and the harmonica plays during the singing. By similar process of elimination, we know he sang on "What's the Matter," "I Can Beat You Plenty," "K.C. Moan" and others. And I believe he took the lead vocal on "It Won't Act Right," with Nickerson taking a harmony part and Ramey playing kazoo during the singing. On none of these songs is Burse's distinctive style from 1932 onwards audible. He must have developed that style between 1930 and 1932. In fact, his version of "Tappin' That Thing" from 1932 sounds like a bridge between his earlier and later styles ... you can recognize it as Burse, but it doesn't particularly stand out against earlier Memphis Jug Band songs.

Another argument is that Ben Ramey sang lead on "Stealin'" because the voice sounds like Ramey. I thought the overlap of kazoo and vocal on the first word of the song was enough to disqualify Ramey, so I would encourage anyone making this argument to listen to the recording and try to hear that. It goes by quickly, so I made an excerpt and slowed it down to half speed. The "s" in the lead singer's word "stealin'" starts while the kazoo is still playing, then the second singer joins in after the kazoo stops:

http://www.arlotone.com/downloads/misc/stealin_cropped_slowed.mp3

This is more obvious on take 1 of the song, which was released on the Frog CD "Memphis Jug Band Vol. 4":

http://www.arlotone.com/downloads/misc/stealin_1_cropped_slowed.mp3

In case you're still not hearing it, I'll continue with a comparison of Ramey's voice to the lead singer of "Stealin'":

The only song where Ramey sings lead, and alone, so you can clearly hear his voice, is "Tired Of You Driving Me." On this song, he has a fairly stiff delivery and a fairly nasal tone. This stiff delivery is also evident on his speech in other songs, like the famous "I say, oh now, sugar baby" in "Lindberg Hop," or the intro of "Everybody's Talking About Sadie Green," where we know Ramey is the second speaker because Nickerson addresses him by name. This contrasts with the vocal tone on "Stealin'," which is a little more guttural, and relatively relaxed.

The other commonly heard vocal style of Ramey is the high, floating harmony part used in "Memphis Jug Blues," "Memphis Boy Blues" and "Peaches in the Springtime." We know Ramey sings the high part on those songs because the other two singers are distinctively Will Shade and Will Weldon, and the fourth player, Charlie Polk, plays jug during the singing. Comparing the high harmony part on these songs to the high harmony part on "Stealin'" makes Ramey the obvious choice for that part, rather than the lead part.

At the same time, comparing the lead vocal of "It Won't Act Right" to the lead vocal of "Stealin'" also seems like a reasonable match. It's not a great comparison because "It Won't Act Right" is a quicker and bouncier song, but the vocal styles of both are punchy without being stiff, and full without having the growl of Will Shade or Jab Jones. In fact, one can imagine this style evolving into the distinctive Burse style of later years, which has the same clear tone and punchy delivery underneath a heavy layer of moxie.

Admittedly, the styles of Burse and Ramey are about as similar as any two members of the band at this point in their recording history, but this slight difference in style plus all the other evidence proposed above sets the bar pretty high, I think, to argue that it's Ramey or anyone else.
« Last Edit: March 02, 2017, 07:23:36 PM by arlotone »

Offline arlotone

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Re: Memphis Jug Band Singers
« Reply #3 on: October 01, 2017, 02:03:14 PM »
I've been leaning toward Will Shade as the lead singer for "It Won't Act Right." I had originally thought he sang the low, growling part on the scat sections, but since this part doesn't overlap the lead part, it's possible he sang both. He typically has a more gruff tone, but you can hear a similarly clearer tone on "She Stabbed Me With an Ice Pick." This affects some of my comments above about Burse and "Stealin'," but I think Burse is still the most likely lead singer on that song.

 


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