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Author Topic: Jimmie Gordon  (Read 1459 times)

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Offline dj

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Jimmie Gordon
« on: July 13, 2006, 02:49:55 PM »
Bunker Hill kindly sent the scan of the article posted below to me.  I'm posting it here in hopes that it may be of interest to some readers.  About half the songs mentioned in the article are on the Gordon CD recently added to the Juke.

Blues Masters Of The 30?s Jimmie Gordon

Up to now, in this series, I have discussed artists who can reasonably be called individualists. The playing of Charlie McCoy once you are accustomed to its sound - makes a strong and singular impression; the vocal styles of Joe Pullum and J. T. Smith, and in addition the compositional skills of the latter, distinguish their performances at all times. Now this does not accord with at least one popular opinion about the blues of the '30s - namely, that they ironed out quirks of delivery and instrumental execution, and reduced the blues paintbox, so to speak, to a set of primary colours. It is true that the form of blues-composition altered, and that many singers in the '30s relied greatly upon the work of others; but, rather surprisingly, this did not always prove a bad thing. One can trace songs that were recorded by several artists around the same time, but find it peculiarly difficult to say that one of those versions is conspicuously better than the rest. Often, indeed, one finds that the original - which is to say, usually, the first-recorded - version is equalled or surpassed by another; and the best treatment is not always the one put down by the best-known or most highly regarded artist. The role of the copyist is an ambivalent one - and in any case we do not normally know enough about the period to be sure that our beliefs about originality and imitation are well founded.

For one thing, the blues scene of the '30s in, say, Chicago is extraordinarily complicated by the behaviour of the dominant record-companies and the audiences they served. Looking at contemporary advertisements, one often finds that the important element is the song-title; the man or woman who has sung it is named in small type, or indeed ignored completely. That suggests - and hypothetical estimates of sales, based on the commonness of records, rather confirm that the blues audience was frequently attracted to the song rather than the singer. When the customer came to buy a record, he may have purchased Bumble Bee Slim's version rather than Leroy Carr's without making any conscious selection; Slim's Bluebird or Decca may simply have been easier to get than Carr's Vocalion. He may not even have known that Carr had a version on the market. Anyone who has worked in a record-store knows that most customers are not avid readers of the trade press. It's known, too, that black record-buyers often asked for current releases not by identifying the singers but by citing lines from the songs. In such a situation the store-owner could sell whichever version of a blues hit he chose to recommend; and his advice might well have been influenced by the different rates of retailer's profit on different labels - or by a special relationship with one company - or just by personal preference.

Clearing up some of these problems would, among other things, help us to understand the considerable popularity of Jimmie Gordon, who in almost seven years recorded 61 issued titles for Decca, most of which appear to have sold nicely. For Gordon was more than usually prone to pick up previously-recorded material, and he plundered the repertoire of such singers as Leroy Carr and Walter Davis with gay abandon. Carr, of course, was a Vocalion artist and Davis a Bluebird one, so Gordon's motive - or his recording director?s is clear. The interesting thing is that Gordon's versions seem to have outsold some of his contemporaries'; were Decca better at distribution? Moreover and this is where the whole 'copyist' business becomes really problematical - his handling of other people's compositions was sometimes very successful in artistic terms. To improve on Whistlin' Rufus's Sweet jelly rollin' was perhaps an easy task; to give satisfactory accounts of Carr's Mean mistreater mama and Memphis Slim's Beer drinking woman was no small achievement. (Incidentally, who wrote the latter song? Slim's record has Joe Williams as composer; Gordon's has Gordon.) No doubt Mean mistreatin' blues (De 7020) is much enhanced by the impressive piano-guitar interplay of Chuck Segar and Charlie McCoy (yes, McCoy again - we shall meet him often in Gordon's work), but the vocal approach, which is quite unlike Carr's, sets a convincing mood.

Among his other cover versions are Jacksonville and Think you need a shot from Walter Davis, Big four whistle blues (Carr), I'd rather drink muddy water (Bumble Bee Slim though actually Carr recorded it first), Lonesome bedroom blues (Curtis Jones), Soon this morning (presumably Charlie Spand), L&V blues (Walter Davis again, I suppose), and doubtless others.

Of course there were times when Gordon sang original material, and then he tended to produce truly admirable performances. The mournful delivery and measured tempo of Drive me away (Ch 50057, De 7334) - which has McCoy on guitar and actually sounds very like McCoy's '34/5 recordings - give it a pathetic quality that is still vivid, while Graveyard blues (Ch 50075, De 7301), though tonally reminiscent of Bumble Bee Slim, is overall a comparably individual piece. Little red dress (Ch 50075, De 7301), from the same period, is quite different - an easy-going bawdy song, delivered with gusto and splendidly accompanied by Segar at the top of his form. It closes with Gordon scatting in Ink Spots fashion, and it's interesting to recall at this point that that famous quartet made an excellent recording of Oh Red, the major hit of the Harlem Hamfats - a band that frequently provided Gordon's session-musicians.

Gordon had a soft-edged voice, best suited to sad numbers like Mother blues (De 7250) or the reflective Lookin' for the blues (De 7865) but also adaptable to the jive blues of the late '30s, on which, like Johnny Temple and Peetie Wheatstraw, he sometimes received the support of jazz accompanists: Joe Bishop, Pete Brown, Sam Price, and others. The 1938 She's doin' it now (De 7474) contrives, in a way, to look backwards at Blind Blake - for the tune is more or less that of That'll never happen no more - and forward to Cecil Gant, whose jazzy inflections it presages. Another odd - though doubtless unconscious cross-reference is in Get your mind out of the gutter (De 7611), which incorporates the first stanza (more or less) of Winston Holmes and Charlie Turner's Skinner!

This mixture of melancholy blues and spirited good-time music was characteristic of the urban singers of the '30s; from the Jimmie Gordon of Graveyard blues and She's doin' it now it is but a short step to, say, the Casey Bill of Christmas time blues and Round and round, or the Tampa Red of Black angel blues and Let's get drunk and truck, Equally typically - and like both Casey Bill and Tampa Red - Jimmie Gordon did a social-comment number, Don't take away my P.W.A. (De 7230).

I went to the poll and voted,
and I know I voted the right way,
Now I'm praying to you, Mr President,
please keep the P.W.A.

This seems to refer clearly enough to Roosevelt's re-election to a second Presidential term in November 1936. As it happens, though, Gordon's record was cut almost five weeks before polling day. A Decca gamble? It paid off.

As for Gordon's personal history, we can say little. He may have been based in St. Louis - one Decca label gives him the nickname "Peetie Wheatstraw's Brother" or Louisville. He is known to have played piano, and it may be his work on the 1941 session from which Lookin' for the blues and Beer drinking woman came.

He joined Bumble Bee Slim on record once or twice, and they may have worked together outside the studio, though it's more likely that they were competitors on the club circuit. He often had a Vip Vop Band on his records, but this wasn't a stable unit and probably didn't work with him in public. However, we needn't presume that he went out with just a pianist and a guitarist; studio groups were probably smaller than club ones for economic reasons. Nevertheless, he does not appear to be remembered by either Chicago or St. Louis musicians. He is said to have recorded after World War II, but I've never been able to find out when, where or what. It's quite possible that he is still alive. As for reissues, the only recognition that he has yet had was in the German Brunswick EP series, 'This Is The Blues'. Hans Herder then called him a singer "der nur wenigen Blues-Collectors ein Begriff ist"; a decade later he is no better known.   TONY RUSSELL

(From Jazz & Blues June/July 1971 p.29)


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