Scrapper Blackwell – Complete Recorded Works – 1928 – 1958 – Vol. 1: (1928-1932)
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Scrapper Blackwell Vol 1 1928 – 1932 – Full AlbumFrancis “Scrapper” Blackwell, vocal, guitar. With contributions by; Leroy Carr, piano. Bertha “Chippie” Hill, vocal Teddy Moss, vocal. Jimmy Blythe, piano. Black Bottom McPhail, vocal. Genres; “Country Blues”, Blues Guitar, Blues Guitar/Piano. Informative booklet notes by Howard Rye. Detailed discography.
Scrapper Blackwell’s career and reputation lie under a shadow. Its name is Leroy Carr. As the co-authors of the best-loved piano and guitar duets in blues history, their names are indissolubly linked in most accounts. Blackwell will inevitably be remembered first for his uncanny rapport with the pianist, yet his solo career began at the same time as the duets and he continued to make solo recordings throughout the duo’s life.
The success of the Carr/Blackwell duets kept the pair active. At the beginning of 1929, a couple of stylistic experiments were undertaken which had no successors. Non-Skid Tread sounds as if it was meant to be a contribution to the hokum boom in which Vocalion and its A&R man Mayo Williams were deeply involved, but it has a curiously non-hokum atmosphere. The identity of “The Two Roys” has inspired much speculation. Perhaps Leroy Carr is one of them but there is no evidence for recent suggestions that the other is trombonist Roy Palmer playing kazoo. Be-Da-Da-Bum, whose TC- matrix number reveals that it was originally a trial recording, is the only Carr/Blackwell duet on which Scrapper takes the vocal. It is a curious piece which starts off with double entendres about cats and drifts off into a collection of unrelated verses. A session on 4 February 1930 brought the guitarist into the studio without Leroy Carr to record two titles under his own name, six under Teddy Moss’s and two with “Robinson’s Knights Of Rest”. Only one of each was issued. His own Springtime Blues has a very melodic style. Moss delivers a wailing vocal with a continuous obbligato by a clarinettist who also appears with the Knights of Rest, who perform in the barrelhouse jazz style of twenties Chicago. The clarinettist mixes a New Orleans blues-style with some tasteless hokum and this has led some to fancy Arnett Nelson, notorious for this mixture, as a candidate. The problem is that this identification leaves no role for “Robinson”, but no one really knows who “Robinson” was anyway. Perhaps there wasn’t a “Robinson”.
On 24 November 1931, and again with Leroy Carr not present, Scrapper recorded his largest group of solo recordings, a fine set of performances. By this time Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell were working extensively in the St. Louis area, but it was to New York City that they went for their only 1932 session, spread over three days in March. They recorded eight duets and then Scrapper recorded four accompaniments to one Black Bottom McPhail, who was thus given the opportunity to compare St. Louis and New York women, which he does on Mix That Thing. Discographers have perhaps been unnecessarily tentative in their attribution of these accompaniments to Blackwell.
Scrapper Blackwell’s “Naptown Blues”There’s a good deal of disagreement about when and where Francis “Scrapper” Blackwell was born, and little information about his upbringing. Some sources list Blackwell’s year of birth as 1903, others as 1904. Most biographies place his birthplace as a town called Syracuse in either North or South Carolina; others cite his birthplace as Indianapolis, the town where he would grow up and spend most of his life. Though biographical details are, again, sketchy, it’s said that Francis Blackwell was one of sixteen children and was nicknamed “Scrapper” by his grandmother after his propensity for scrapping with his many siblings as a child. Blackwell spent his childhood surrounded by music—his father was a fiddler for a country dance band, and Indianapolis’s black community, which was centered around Indiana Avenue, was home to many theaters and performers. As a young boy, Scrapper built a guitar from a cigar box and taught himself to play. By the time he was a teenager, he was working as a musician, playing shows and parties in Indianapolis and Chicago. But in the years leading up to his first recordings, the majority of his income came from producing and distributing moonshine during prohibition. When an English music shop owner, by the last name of Guernsey, encouraged Blackwell to record his songs, Blackwell was reluctant. As Blackwell says in an interview for Jazz Monthly, “I was making’ money then. I was too busy to fool with him. So, he came to me and bought all the alcohol I had. That put me out of business.” At his first recording session, for Vocalion on June 16, 1928, Blackwell recorded two songs: “Kokomo Blues” and “Penal Farm Blues.” On “Kokomo Blues,” Blackwell’s trademarks are already present: we hear the snap of his strings, his single-note melodies, his unusual, weeping chords. “Kokomo Blues” was recorded just a few years later by James Arnold, who took “Kokomo” as his nickname. Later, Robert Johnson would draw heavily from Kokomo Arnold’s version of “Kokomo Blues” for his “Sweet Home Chicago.” Two days later, Blackwell joined a pianist named Leroy Carr—who he met either through the Englishman, Guernsey, or through his career as a producer (and heavy consumer) of moonshine. Evidently, it took some work on Guernsey’s part to convince Blackwell, who could be withdrawn and sometimes volatile, to record with Carr but Carr’s skill as a pianist won Blackwell over, and the two began a friendship and recording partnership. Their first session together produced “How Long – How Long Blues,” where we hear the interplay between Carr’s light touch on the piano with Blackwell’s sharp single string runs and unique voicings. Carr’s vocals are clear, enunciated, and dynamic. As Elijah Wald points out, Carr was one of the first blues singers to make use of the microphone in the same way as pop crooners like Gene Austin (who, Blackwell is quick to note in an interview, sold eight thousand fewer records “in the years he’d been recording” than “How Long – How Long” when it came out). In Wald’s view, Carr’s microphone technique allowed him to eschew the louder vocal styles employed by singers like Bessie Smith; instead, Carr sounded “like a cool city dude carrying on a conversation with a few close friends. “How Long – How Long Blues” was an immediate hit, one of the biggest of the 20s and 30s. Vocalion produced so many copies that the masters wore out, and by December of 1928, Blackwell and Carr took to the studio to record two new versions of the song. “How Long – How Long Blues” quickly became a blues standard, recorded over the years by artists like Lead Belly, Kokomo Arnold, T-Bone Walker, and even jazz artists like Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald. Encouraged by the success of “How Long – How Long Blues,” Blackwell and Carr continued to record together, developing their sophisticated, urban sound on over a hundred sides including hits like “Naptown Blues,” “Corn Licker Blues,” “Xmas In Jail,” and “Blues Before Sunrise.” Blackwell and Carr toured throughout the Midwest and the South, performing and recording extensively in Chicago, as well as in St. Louis and New York. As talented as Leroy Carr was as a pianist and singer, Blackwell’s accompaniment is often the most interesting aspect of the songs produced by their partnership. Because Carr’s piano held down a song’s rhythm, Blackwell was free to focus on picking out melodies on the treble strings, as on a song like “Cruel Woman Blues,” where Blackwell’s solo during the instrumental break pushes the boundaries of the blues in that era, foreshadowing later electric blues soloists. Blackwell rarely sang on records with Leroy Carr, appearing in just a few upbeat duets like “Getting’ All Wet” and “The Dirty Dozen,” as well as in a comedic introduction to “The Depression Blues,” saying to Carr, “boy, what’s the matter with your clothes? Why, you raggeder than a barrel of kraut!” But throughout his time working with Carr, Blackwell recorded almost thirty sides on his own, as well as several recordings accompanying musicians like Georgia Tom Dorsey and Tommie Bradley. Blackwell recorded for Vocalion, as well as for Gennett Records, travelling several times to Gennett’s studio in Richmond, IN. On his own recordings, Blackwell’s technique is incredibly versatile, sliding seamlessly between smooth rolling rhythms and melodic accompaniment to sharp, percussive solo sections. By all accounts, Blackwell lived large during this era, making a considerable living from royalties on his songs with Leroy Carr—including the six different versions of “How Long – How Long” they recorded throughout their career together—and from touring throughout the Midwest and South. Even as the depression put other musicians out of work, Blackwell and Carr continued to record and perform. The two men were both famous drinkers, and Carr’s hard partying finally took its toll: and in April of 1935, Leroy Carr died, suddenly, of nephrosis, caused by years of alcoholism. Blackwell was devastated at Carr’s death. He ceased recording for a few months, before travelling to Chicago in July of the same year to record ten sides with an Indianapolis named Dorothy “Dot” Rice. The quality of Blackwell’s playing does seem, on these first recordings, to have suffered from Leroy Carr’s death—or perhaps Blackwell just couldn’t play as well with a lesser accompanist. As Blackwell sings on “My Old Pal Blues,” “the day of his funeral, I hated to see Leroy’s face / because I know there’s no one could ever take his place.” According to the liner notes to Mr. Blackwell’s Blues, after the Chicago sessions with Dot Rice, Blackwell “stopped making records and retired to a quiet life in Indianapolis. He worked for many years as a manual laborer at the city asphalt plant; only occasionally did he bring out his guitar to play in taverns or at friends’ house parties. [By 1958,] his wife had been dead and he had been out of work for two years, and he was living with relatives.” In 1958, Blackwell met Colin Pomroy, a British gentleman who operated a blues label called Collector Records. Pomroy recorded Blackwell singing four songs, his first since his 1935 sides with Dot Rice. These recordings were shelved and unreleased until after Blackwell’s death, but they reveal Blackwell’s mature talent. His guitar technique is undiminished by age. Instead, higher recording fidelity and longer side lengths allow Blackwell to stretch his long melodic lines—the instrumental blues at the end of the Longtime Blues EP, produced from these sessions, is particularly stunning. Blackwell’s voice, on these recordings with Pomroy, is markedly weaker in volume than in his early recordings, seeming to creak from disuse at the beginning of “Little Girl Blues,” but the emotional effect is stronger on these later works. Later that year, Blackwell was recorded, “live”, by Duncan Schiedt at the 1444 Gallery on Indianapolis’s North Pennsylvania Street, at a concert organized by the Indianapolis Jazz Club. At the concert, Blackwell performed solo, as well as with a local singer named Brooks Berry. Schiedt, who was a founding member of the Indianapolis Jazz Club and was well-regarded as a jazz photographer and historian, also recorded Blackwell for an album, Blues Before Sunrise, released on 77 Records; a British label, run by Doug Dobell. Blackwell’s final recordings were completed with Art Rosenbaum, who went on to become a prolific folklorist and recorder. Blackwell and Rosenbaum met in 1958, when Rosenbaum was only twenty-one. As Rosenbaum recounts in the liner notes for Mr. Blackwell’s Blues, he was sent to Blackwell’s house by an African-American acquaintance who said that she knew a “man who could ‘sing blues and Christian songs’ and could ‘play the guitar so it makes the hair stand up on your neck.’” When Rosenbaum arrived, Blackwell told him that he’d be glad to perform, but that he didn’t have a guitar. In 1959 and 1961, with the support of folklorist Kenneth S. Goldstein, Rosenbaum recorded two albums’ worth of Blackwell’s material for Prestige’s; Bluesville Records’ subsidiary. The first, Mr. Blackwell’s Blues, captures Blackwell alone. Many of the songs collected here can also be found on Blackwell’s performances “live” at the 1444 Gallery and at Duncan Schiedt’s house, but these are the superior versions: Blackwell’s performances are relaxed and intimate, full of emotion. Of particular note are the virtuosic renditions of “’A’ Blues” and “’E’ Blues,” which were two of the last songs Blackwell recorded solo before Leroy Carr’s death. This recording of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” on Mr. Blackwell’s Blues is one of Blackwell’s finest works, made especially poignant in the yawning gap between Blackwell, the young, successful musician, partying in Chicago and Kokomo and Blackwell, the down and out, performing again, after years of obscurity. The second album, recorded by Art Rosenbaum, My Heart Struck Sorrow, documents the duo of Blackwell and Brooks Berry. Berry, who was born in Kentucky, moved to Indianapolis as a teenager and became friends with Blackwell, starting up a performing partnership with him sometime in the 1950s. In the liner notes to My Heart Struck Sorrow, Berry describes her own voice as a “plain, heavy voice,” and this isn’t entirely an unfair description. Her vocal range is limited and she sings with little embellishment and none of Blackwell’s attention to dynamics. Still, her voice is powerful and well-suited to the old blues standards collected on this album. On My Heart Struck Sorrow, the listener hears Blackwell listening, accompanying Berry with great sensitivity and emotion—and in at least moment, murmuring along with Brooks’s singing. My Heart Struck Sorrow ends with a rendition of “How Long – How Long.” Brooks’s voice isn’t a match for Carr’s, but Blackwell’s guitar is as a good as it ever was. Just over a year after his last recording session with Brooks Berry, on October 7th, 1962, Blackwell was shot and killed in an alleyway near his house. There had evidentially been a fight with a neighbor, probably encouraged by the moonshine the two men were drinking. Blackwell’s neighbor was sentenced to ten years in prison, but was granted parole and released in 1964. Blackwell’s story is remarkable—his talent, his meteoric rise to fame, his career’s sharp plummet, and his tragic death. Yet, by all accounts, the city of Indianapolis was teeming with music that, as Blackwell’s did, straddled the stylistic line between North and South, country and urban. We can understand Blackwell’s story as one piece of the story of Indianapolis’s black community and its music scene. In the ten years after Blackwell’s death, the black neighborhood around Indiana Avenue, whose clubs, theaters, record shops, and churches form the backdrop to Blackwell’s career, changed rapidly. As was the case in cities across America, “urban renewal” drove residents from their homes and large-scale demotion for new interstate highways tore through the neighborhoods whose residents had the least power to prevent it. Notes
- For more than 30 years the tape of Francis “Blackwell” Blackwell remained in the archive of its producer, Duncan P. Schiedt. The full tape of the 1444 Gallery concerts was recorded 20th September 1959, 31st March 1960 and 14 April 1960. The complete recordings from this tape, including the ten tracks that appeared on the 77 label, plus a further twelve, previously unissued tracks, appear on Document DOCD-5257 with a thirteenth appearing on DOCD-5411.