by Bert Thompson
SAM CHARTERS’ WASHBOARD JAZZ BAND PLAYS THE CLASSIC 1920’S
JAZZ OF CLARENCE WILLIAMS (Merry Makers Record Company MMRC-CD-
33). Playing time: 39 m. 01 s.
Cushion Foot Stomp; Log Cabin Blues; [Unidentified tune]; Have You Ever Felt
That Way?*; Spanish Shawl†º; Walk That Broad; Breeze†*; Nervous Breakdown†;
Church Street Sobbin’ Blues; Shake It Downº; Sweet Emmaline; Red River Bluesº;
Candy Lips .
Personnel: Dick Oxtot, cornet; Bob Mielke, trombone†; Earl Scheelar, clarinet; Bill
Erickson, piano; Walter Yost, tuba, 2nd cornetº; Jerry Fredgren, tubaº; Sam Charters,
washboard and banjo; Pete Allen, vocals*.
Recorded Earl Scheelar’s house, Lafayette, California , Dec. 1957 and Jan. 1958.
Although recorded in a home, these sessions turned out well because the man doing
the recording, Stan Page, was using a “professional Ampex recorder,” according to
Earl Scheelar’s notes. The playing time is rather short, unfortunately, but that is all
that was available from these sessions. It is a small miracle that they even survived.
The original tapes were held by Stan Page, but his home was destroyed in 1991 in
the Oakland Hills fire, a devastating one, as many of us will remember, in which
almost 4,000 houses and apartment buildings went up in the conflagration and 25
people lost their lives. As luck would have it, Scheelar had made a copy of the tapes
and only recently came across them.
Sam Charters, the leader here, is better known, perhaps, as author of more than a
dozen books, including one that will be familiar to some traditional jazz buffs, Jazz
New Orleans (1885-1963): An Index to the Negro Musicians of New Orleans (1963),
although his primary interest is in blues music, particularly rural blues. He was
instrumental in reviving and enlarging the career of famed blues singer Sam
Lightnin' Hopkins, and in 1991 his book The Country Blues was inducted into the
Blues Hall of Fame as one of the "Classics of Blues Literature."
Charters also dabbled in performing the music itself, studying jazz clarinet under
the tutelage of George Lewis, and later taking up banjo and washboard, both of
which he plays on this recording. The other musicians are well-known in the San
Francisco Bay Area, several of them leading bands at one time or another. Charters
decided to get them all together for a recording session, hoping to interest one of the
major labels in an LP, but no luck there. So the tapes languished for these fifty-odd
years until Scheelar’s rediscovery of them.
All of the identified tunes on this CD were recorded by one or other of the Clarence
Williams groups. It might be that the tune on the third track (“Unidentified”) was
also recorded by Williams, but since I don’t have the complete Williams recorded
oeuvre in my collection, I can’t determine this. Several people have opined that the
mystery tune sounds of more recent vintage than the others. (Whatever its
provenance, if you can name it and send Ted Shafer of Merry Makers Record
Company a note with the title, he will, he says on the tray insert, refund your
purchase price. As of the time of writing, no one has come forward with the name
of the tune.) A glance at the tune list shows that, other than perhaps Breeze, these
are not tunes one hears at the average jazz gig.
As the CD’s title (as well as the name of the group, which echoes the “Clarence
Williams’ Washboard Band”) intimates, this group’s performances are much in the
vein of the Williams’ treatments, especially perhaps those of the Clarence Williams
Blue Five. Happily the group does manage to capture much of the spirit of the
Williams’ groups; however, they are not mere copyists. Apart from one or two
uncertain moments from Dick Oxtot, the performances are solid and the musicians
acquit themselves well. It is a joy to hear again some of the late Walt Yost’s fine
tuba work, as well as to hear from others who are also no longer with us: Dick Oxtot,
Bill Erickson, and Pete Allen.
My usual caveat re the adhesive label pertains here. The CD is available from
Merry Makers Record Company, 926 Beechwood Circle, Suisun City, CA 94585, toll-
free number in the U.S. 1-866-563-4433.