More Oliver Confusion! Who Shouted "Play That Thing"?

After a record-setting month in January, I burnt myself out by the end of the month and needed a week to catch up on the book and my wife (now 30 weeks pregnant!). I’m ready to dive in again, with an entry on “Little Joe” and a look at another one of Armstrong’s 1959 tour dates coming up in the next few days. But first, I return to the “Canal Street Blues” personnel or, as the worldwide media is now referring to it: Canal-Gate.

To refresh your memory: when I did the "Canal Street Blues" blog a couple of week’s ago, I used David Sager and Doug Benson's Off The Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings as my primary source. In his notes, Sager writes about bassist Bill Johnson playing banjo on those earliest King Oliver sessions and that was good enough for me. Of course, I should have consulted Willems's All of Me Armstrong discography to see if he had differing information. Willems lists Bud Scott as the banjo player on the date and added this note, which relies heavily on Irakli de Davrichewy's notes to the Masters of Jazz CD Louis Armstrong, Volume 1 1923:

"Note: The dates of the first sessions are clearly confirmed by Gennett studio files, but, other than the name of the band, no further information is given. The personnel have thus had to be established from aural evidence, with the only real doubt revolving around the identity of the banjo player, generally listed as Bill Johnson. True, on certain band photographs Johnson can be seen holding a four-string banjo rather than a string-bass. Yet interestingly, careful listening to the various recordings involved, especially Canal Street Blues, reveals the presence of a six-string banjo tuned like a guitar. Certainly, the boomingly low notes of a double-bass or bass drum could not technically be absorbed by the recording equipment of the time."

"Johnson was supposedly on this tour, but he was unable to record. Based on the evidence of photos and the audible absence of a double-bass, it seemed logical to attribute the banjo part to Bill Johnson. But despite scrupulously detailed examination of discographies, I have been unable to unearth no single recording on which Johnson plays either four or six-string banjo. Moreover, Johnny St. Cyr, who was with Oliver and who later played with Johnson, has stated (Jazz Finder, December 1948) that he never saw Johnson play any other instrument than double-bass. Bud Scott is known to have arrived in the band early spring of 1923 (Record Changer interview, September 1947) and since there is a distinct similarity between the playing here and that of Scott on later recordings, I opt (always with very little hesitation) for Scott as banjo on the King's first recordings."

A few days later, trumpeter and New Orleans jazz expert Chis Tyle wrote in to say, "I was just reading down the page on your blog re: Bill Johnson on banjo w/Oliver. IMO, it's either St. Cyr or Scott, and it's a six-string banjo, definitely. I've always thought that Johnson holding a banjo in a photo is rather flimsy evidence to suggest he was playing it on the recording - that and the fact there's no evidence he actually played it! (Although it's possible, since his family had a string band in Mississippi...) But my vote is for Bud Scott, since he worked with Oliver later."

The evidence was looking pretty clear that it wasn’t Johnson so I had to write Sager himself and get his take on the matter. He wrote. “I have heard the arguments against Johnson, for instance the fact that he is pictured w a tenor banjo and that the banjo on ‘Canal’ is a plectrum...or is it vice versa.  It makes sense to attribute it to St. Cyr, except that Johnson was consistently named by Louis and Lil and I think Baby too, as being on the records.  But the clincher is his voice!”

Hmmm, intrigued yet? Here’s Sager’s explanation: “Johnson recorded frequently later in the decade and was quite vocal on his recordings, jiving away ala Frankie Half Pint Jaxon.  The reissue set on Dust to Digital, "How Low Can You Go" captures many of his sides where his speaking voice can be heard.  He is even addressed at one point by one of the other players.  This voice matches perfectly the one heard shouting ‘Oh play that thing’ on the Gennett ‘Dipper.’  The voice on the Okeh ‘Dipper’ belongs to another. So, I'll go along attributing the Gennetts to Mr. Bill and listening respectfully to those in dissent.”

A couple of days later, David wrote back to assure me that he didn’t have any “solid information” that it was Johnson, but he was sticking with his hunch about Johnson’s voice. He wrote, “Now aside from the voice that shouts ‘Oh play that thing’ the only evidence that it is Johnson is based on whatever was told to discographers by Armstrong.  And wasn't it Louis who pointed out that the Dippermouth break was supposed to be played by the clarinet and then named Bill Johnson? “

I did some quick research and though Louis mentioned Bill Johnson a lot in his writings (see Thomas Brothers’s essential volume Louis Armstrong In His Own Words), it was always as a bassist. However I did find this passage in The Baby Dodds Story, as told by the drummer himself: “On one number I was caught very unsettled. That was ‘Dippermouth Blues. I was to play a solo and I forgot my part. But the band was very alert and Bill Johnson hollered ‘Play that thing!’ That was an on-the-spot substitution for the solo part which I forgot. And that shows how alert we were to one another in the Oliver band. The technician asked us if that was supposed to be there and we said no. However, he wanted to keep it in anyway and ever since then eery outfit uses that same trick, all because I forgot my part.”

So there’s another vote for Johnson, taken directly from someone who was there. But back to Sager’s point about Johnson’s voice. To illustrate it, David sent me a wonderfully rocking cut from 1928 of the Dixie Four doing “Kentucky Stomp.” Johnson plays bass but also does a lot talking and as David wrote me, “Here is the first of the Dixie Four recordings with Bill Johnson who apparently announces ‘Here I go!’ just before taking the lead.  I think it sounds like the distinctive shout on the Gennett Dippermouth, no?” To give “Kentucky Stomp” a listen, click here.

Got that in your head? That’s Bill Johnson’s voice, 100%. Now, thanks to the wonders of computer editing, let’s go back and listen to to who shouted “Oh, play that thing” on the April 6, 1923 Gennett version of “Dipper Mouth Blues,” recorded the day after “Canal Street Blues.” Here’s the Gennett break:

About two-and-a-half months later, Oliver remade “Dipper Mouth” for OKeh, this time with Bud Scott on banjo. If you’ve been paying attention, some people feel that it was Scott, not Johnson on the first “Dipper Mouth.” The OKeh version is definitely Scott so give it a listen and compare the two voices:

23 years later, Armstrong recreated “Dipper Mouth” for the film New Orleans with, you guessed it, Bud Scott back on guitar. Here’s how Scott sounded in 1946:

And if you want to SEE Scott take the break, here’s a poor quality video of that same performance from the film New Orleans:

Hmmm, so what do you think? I have to admit that most logical signs point to Johnson not being on the date but I do think the two 1923 “Dipper Mouth” breaks feature two distinct voices (Scott’s being gruffer) and the voice on the original does sound like the Johnson yelling “Here I go” on that version of “Kentucky Stomp.” I’m going to refrain from making a 100% authoritative decision but I’d love to hear from you, my loyal readers. You’ve heard the arguments of both sides and you’ve a bunch of voice examples. What do you think? Leave a comment below and let’s settle this once and for all! (That’ll never happen but it makes for a fun debate!)


Anonymous said…
Ricky -- first off, your blog rocks! Thanks a million for writing it. Now, as far as the question: how about this: what if both Johnson and Bud Scott are on the recording? Even though the recording apparatus wasn't capable of recoding bass well, Johnson could have been playing anyway. It certainly didn't stop Montudie Garland with Ory in 1922 and Simon Marrero with Celestin in 1925. Thanks to some of the talented folks like Dave Sager and Mr. Benson, we're finally getting to hear some of the early bassists on recordings -- maybe Bill's bass is lurking somewhere in the grooves!
Keep up the good work! Yeah Daddy!
jhproctor said…
As the person who first mentioned the song, I will state my original thought. I thought the 1966 version was great. Looking forward to the book
Steve Cournane said…
Thanks for your work her, yes it would seem that the voices could be different, shame we cannot hear the pronunciation on the earlier recordings, because Scott on the later videos certainly pronounces thing as ting. Of course he may have changed this later on as a kind of affected voice. The only way to prove this would be to use a voice spectrum analysis . I am sure someone will do it one day for the kicks .
Steve Cournane said…
Thanks for your work her, yes it would seem that the voices could be different, shame we cannot hear the pronunciation on the earlier recordings, because Scott on the later videos certainly pronounces thing as ting. Of course he may have changed this later on as a kind of affected voice. The only way to prove this would be to use a voice spectrum analysis . I am sure someone will do it one day for the kicks .
Andrew said…
I forgot the website where someone had posted a 1/2 dozen or so clips on bands doing the "Oh Play That Thing" break - this included the Fletcher Henderson version among them. Does anyone have the link - if it still exists?

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