THE MYSTERIES OF JANUARY 17, 1936, or WHO WAS CHEECH?

If it please Your Honor, Exhibit A:

And Exhibit B:

Those are two unassuming-looking sides of a Decca “sunburst” label 78 disc.  Fine music with small mysteries attached, and no one around to tell the tale(s).  This 78 is not easy to find these days but it seems to have been a popular issue: I have had two copies, the first a (now-vanished) sunburst, the second (near me as I write) a later Decca reissue.  It was also issued on UK Decca.

This group, not a working band, recorded only these two sides in the New York Decca studios on January 17, 1936.  The personnel was Pee Wee Erwin, trumpet; Joe Marsala, clarinet; Frank Signorelli, piano; Carmen Mastren, guitar; Artie Shapiro, string bass; Stan King, drums.  Erwin and Mastren would work with Tommy Dorsey in early 1937, but at the time Erwin was in New York with the young Benny Goodman band before it went to Chicago; the rest of this group might have been together on Fifty-Second Street with Manone or Louis Prima, or freelancing in other record or radio studios.

Marsala and Mastren had been in the Decca studios for another small-group date, apparently organized by Wingy Manone, in whose recording groups they were working consistently for Bluebird — “the Delta Four,” with Roy Eldridge and Sid Weiss making up a quartet, also completing only two sides, FAREWELL BLUES and SWINGIN’ ON THAT FAMOUS DOOR, on December 20, 1935.  Signorelli and Mastren had done a date at Decca with Bunny Berigan as “Bob Terry’s Orchestra” on the 15th; Signorelli, King, and possibly Mastren were in the Decca studios on the 20th with Red McKenzie.

What or who brought these musicians together is one of the mysteries.  It could  have been that one of the six got a call from someone at Decca, perhaps Bob Stephens, saying, “We need a small band tomorrow in the studios at 11.  No more than six, and for scale,” and whoever picked up the phone or got the message at Hurley’s (the bar-gathering place before Jim and Andy’s) talked to other musicians down the bar or made some phone calls.

One more small gush of data: the Six Blue Chips were a late-morning or afternoon assemblage: blues singer Georgia White (piano, vocal, with unknown bass) recorded three sides earlier in the day, and Mike Riley (of THE MUSIC GOES ‘ROUND AND ‘ROUND fame or infamy) recorded four sides later. American Decca, still quite a new company, was busy recording music and selling discs at lower prices than, say, Victor, as shown by three disparate sessions in one day.

Note the absence of composer credits, something unusual on Decca recordings of current pop tunes, but seen often on their recordings of “hilbilly” music, where the company could pretend that there were no people owed royalties.  It suggests even more that this was a hurry-up session, or perhaps someone’s idea to add to the Delta Four (whose labels do have composer credits).

Incidentally, the reason that all this prose is speculative is because no one connected with the session seemed to remember it or wrote about it.  If King, Shapiro, and Signorelli were ever interviewed, I haven’t encountered it.  I met Carmen Mastren once — on either Lloyd Rauch’s or Dave Weiner’s radio show — and at the time did not know of this recording.  He was very kind . . . and I don’t know where the V-Disc he autographed for me went.

The most likely candidate for an informed recollection would have been Pee Wee Erwin, who told his life story to Warren Vache, Sr., over four hundred pages, in what would be published as THIS HORN FOR HIRE.  But although Vache mentions this disc in an appendix, it seems as if that discography was assembled after Erwin’s death. Pee Wee mentions meeting Bob Stephens in the very early Thirties (when Stephens was a trumpet player) but nothing of substance is offered about the date or the other musicians.  One of the sad surprises of that biography is that Pee Wee had a substantial alcohol problem, which might have erased his memory of casual record dates.

None of this would matter if the music wasn’t delightful. Here it is:

STEEL ROOF, of course, steals from TIN ROOF BLUES, but it took me decades to realize this.  The side begins with a familiar — to some of us painfully familiar — piano introduction, with which Frank Froeba began all of the Dick Robertson sides, much loved because of the opportunity they offer to hear a young Bobby Hackett.  I’m always struck by the ease with which everyone plays this medium-slow blues, and how readily identifiable their sounds are, including King’s idiosyncratic but telling accents.  Erwin runs parallel to Bunny, but with his own sound; how lovely to hear Mastren out in the open, and Marsala always charms — even though this is “a slow blues,” he is charmingly optimistic.  The solos and closing ensemble have deep roots in the past: Oliver, Noone, Lang or Lonnie Johnson, but it’s clearly 1936, not a decade earlier.  And what a pleasant surprise to find that same piano passage used to wind down the performance — with the punchline being a King bass drum accent.  Unpretentious and completely effective.

Then, the reverse, with its elusive title: was Cheech someone who cheated or were they describing the process of cheating him (or her)?

There really isn’t much to CHEECH — it sounds like two or three familiar cadences taped together to make a chorus, but the overall effect is jolly, with the wonderful emphasis that the great improvisers placed on individual sound.  The record seems over before it’s through, but I hear Marsala’s luminescence and Mastren taking a trip into the land of what I first associated with McDonough, but Nick Rossi, who can play, suggests it is much more like Lang.  (I know the game of “sounds like” is silly, but I wonder how much Carmen had absorbed of Teddy Bunn and Lonnie Johnson as well?)

How these sides came to be remains mysterious, but they are little slices of Swing Street life, captured forever.  These discs, incidentally, come to us through the generosity of “Cliff,” whom I’ve been unable to identify further, but who has a wonderful YouTube channel, cdbpdx — full of now-rare 78 discs.

May your happiness increase!

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2 responses to “THE MYSTERIES OF JANUARY 17, 1936, or WHO WAS CHEECH?

  1. ericwhittington

    perfectly wonderful side A… will get to side B after, um, side A!

  2. Richard Salvucci

    Cheech is Italian slang for Frank. If that helps

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