Dallas was an early hotbed for influential blues legends
Dallas was an early hotbed for influential blues legends
May 21st, 2010
By TED GIOIA
Dallas boasts a rich blues tradition, and the city served as a launching pad for major talent in the early 20th century.
The first country blues star, Blind Lemon Jefferson, developed his skills as a street singer in Deep Ellum. Here he often performed alongside Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, who also would become a recording star with a worldwide following. In fact, blues was so closely associated with the local scene that the very first published blues sheet music published in the genre was aptly titled â€œDallas Blues.â€
A professional recording studio once housed at 508 Park Ave. was one of the few outside Los Angeles , New York and Chicago in the 1930s. Robert Johnson made his last record at the Brunswick offices there.
Dallas developed its own blues talent, but just as often attracted performers from elsewhere in the state or other regions of the U.S. The establishment of a modern train system in Texas in the late 19th century and the growing demand for music in Deep Ellum and other parts of the metropolitan area made Dallas a popular destination for blues performers and other entertainers.
Bessie Smith , Ma Rainey and other early blues stars would invariably include Dallas as a stop on their tours, while homegrown Texas talent, such as Mance Lipscomb, Little Hat Jones, Texas Alexander and T-Bone Walker also gravitated to the city and its opportunities.
Henry Ford had set up a factory in Deep Ellum for making Model Tâ€™s in 1913, and the growing prosperity fueled demand for live music. By 1920, about around a dozen nightclubs and cafes had opened, and entertainment, both legal and illegal, flourished in the area.
â€œIt is the one spot in the city that needs no daylight savings time,â€ the Dallas Gazette wrote of Deep Ellum in the 1930s, â€œbecause there is no bedtime.â€
Talent scouting in Dallas
In the 1920s, record companies discovered the commercial potential for recording blues artists outside the major music industry cities of New York and Chicago. These labels would mount field trips to various cities, and Dallas proved to be a significant source of talent over the years.
The visiting record producers would conduct sessions at radio stations WFAA, WRR and KLIF or set up in a hotel or warehouse. Texas performers, more than those from any other part of the country, spurred the growing national demand for traditional blues records.
Columbia recorded Blind Willie Johnson in Dallas in 1927 and 1928, and these tracks continue to attract a devoted following more than 80 years later. The gospel-blues song â€œDark Was the Night, Cold Was the Groundâ€ from this session was later selected as one of the 27 examples of music sent deep into outer space on the 1977 Voyager spacecraft in 1977. Guitarist Ry Cooder has praised it as â€œthe most soulful, transcendent piece in all of American music.â€
But the breakthrough for Texas blues came with Blind Lemon Jefferson, who early in his career had played for passers-by on Elm Street in Deep Ellum. Jefferson was the biggest-selling blues musician of the late 1920s, and the first major star to play traditional blues with just guitar accompaniment â€” quite a change from the more polished blues bands that had recorded in New York earlier in the decade.
Even today, little is known about the life and times of this legendary musician, and different accounts have been given of Jeffersonâ€™s rise to fame. The most commonly told story relates how Dallas record retailer R.T. Ashford noticed the blind singer performing on the streets and alerted Paramount Records. Sales of the resulting records were spectacular.
Although precise figures were not kept, Jeffersonâ€™s popularity can be gauged by his need to return to the studio to record his hit songs again, since the masters that pressed the discs had worn out from overuse.
In 1929, another Texas legend, T-Bone Walker, made his recording debut, performing â€œWichita Falls Bluesâ€ and â€œTrinity River Bluesâ€ for Columbia. Walker hailed from Linden, Texas, but developed his skills among the street bands of Dallas in the 1920s. Like Leadbelly, Walker would not find widespread acceptance until the 1940s, but his music provides a link between the traditions of the early Texas blues scene and the later electric blues sound that would be assimilated by rock â€™nâ€™ rollers during the second half of the 20th century.
The Great Depression put an end to the glory days of traditional blues, as record labels cut back sharply on their releases â€” U.S. record sales fell 90 percent between 1927 and 1932. But Texas blues faced even tougher prospects. A few weeks after the stock market crash, Blind Lemon Jefferson died at age 36. The cause of death is disputed â€” different accounts tell of a heart attack, a robbery that left him fatally wounded or of his freezing to death in a blizzard.
Around this same time, Leadbelly was sentenced to prison for attempted homicide. Blues in Dallas had such a low profile in during this period that the great Delta blues musician Skip James could settle in Plano in the early 1930s and attract no attention. Many fans, who later tried to follow Jamesâ€™ trail, simply assumed he had died.
Rich heritage lingers
Yet the tradition established in Dallas during the early days set the stage for many later successes. When Robert Johnson made his last record in 1937, the session â€” arguably the most famous in the history of blues music â€” took place in Dallas. The professional recording setup at the Brunswick offices at 508 Park Avenue stood out as one of the few permanent studios to be found outside Los Angeles, New York and Chicago during this period, and this investment had no doubt been made because of the considerable musical talent found in the Dallas area.
Other cities, such as Memphis, Tenn., or Clarksdale, Miss., may have done a better job of marketing blues history as part of their tourism campaigns.
But Dallas possesses a blues heritage that can rival these other locations. The songs of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson and the other musicians who played and recorded in the city still attract listeners, and the local tradition reverberates in the sounds of countless blues bands today.