I started this year banging on about 2014 being the 100th anniversary of the first ever recorded blues, W.C. Handy’s brassy instrumental, “The Memphis Blues”, cut in New York on 15 July 1914, by the Victor label’s house band. These days, it sounds more like old New Orleans jazz than blues, but old New Orleans jass back in 1914 was yet to be defined (and marketed) as jazz and still thought of as gut-bucket blues.
Like London buses, you wait a million years for a blues to get recorded, then three come along at once. In blues’ case, they were three versions of the same tune. Columbia’s house band recorded the second version of “The Memphis Blues” on 24 July 1914.
|Charles Prince’s Band, pictured here recording in 1914 with vaudevillian Ed
Morton. Prince’s Band was Columbia’s house band. As you can see, they
didn’t record in a studio but a laboratory. The second blues ever recorded
was cut in this room by this band in July 1914.
The second blues ever recorded, this was another brassy instrumental, like the first one, again recorded in New York by an all-white band.
The third version of “The Memphis Blues” was also recorded in the Big Apple by an all-white band, in this case the New York Philharmonic no less, but this time there was a vocalist. The date was 2 October 1914 – 100 years ago today. The singer was Morton Harvey, a 28-year old white vaudeville star from Nebraska, and here, for those interested in hearing the first ever recorded blues vocal, is the link.
Born in Omaha in 1886, Harvey remembered that landmark recording session in a 1954 letter to a friend.
“Though the orchestra that accompanied me was composed of symphonic players, it wasn’t their fault that they didn’t get a ‘blues’ quality into the record”, he wrote. “The ‘blues’ style of singing and playing, which became so familiar later, was just about to be born.
|Morton Harvey: the first blues vocalist ever recorded.
Even the dance records of ‘The Memphis Blues’ made during that period were played as straight one-steps.
However, there were a few good old-fashioned ‘trombone smears’ in the orchestral effects of my ‘Memphis Blues’ record.” In 1916, Harvey recorded “I’ve Got the Army Blues” and “Tennessee Blues” as Gene Rogers. It wouldn’t be until 1917, that the first African Americans were recorded playing the blues – in London under the leadership of Jamaican Dan Kildare (see ‘the world’s first black bluesrecording’ post of 21 December 2013 and archives of 4 January and 14 June 2014).
In a nod to the future, Morton Harvey was billed for a while as “The Rolling Stone”.
And in a nod to my future, why not earn my undying gratitude by purchasing my How
Blues Evolved ebooks on the following links. As you’ll see, they’re priced intentionally
low. In fact, they’re going for a song. Perhaps I need to put the price up.
Better still get the two ebooks combined plus heaps of additional info in my paperback, America’s Gift on the following link: