For a quarter of a century, perhaps more, Teddy Wilson was unmatched as solo pianist, accompanist, and ensemble inspiration. Consistently inventive, reliable without being stale, he seems now both traditional and forward-looking, swinging and harmonically inventive, his melodic lines clear and memorable. And it is our good fortune that he worked and recorded with three of the great star-legends of the period, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, and Mildred Bailey, in addition to recordings under his own name. To me, his great period begins with his 1933 work with Louis Armstrong and Benny Carter and gradually tapers off by the end of the Verve recordings — although he could still play magnificently.
He had many opportunities to record, not simply because of his splendid improvisations. Because Wilson was personally responsible — a quiet, businesslike man — you could count on him showing up on time, being prepared, being sober — no small collection of virtues. And he had a champion in John Hammond, who perhaps recognized not only the astonishing musician but a fellow patrician, a courtly intellectual. Thus, between 1935 and 1942, Hammond helped to get Wilson recorded often as soloist and leader for the ARC labels (Columbia, Vocalion, Okeh, Brunswick) and he was of course recording with Goodman for Victor and on Decca with Putney Dandridge and Bob Howard.
Wilson’s most famous sides are frequently reissued — think of MISS BROWN TO YOU and BODY AND SOUL with Billie and Benny, respectively, but many glorious ones are overlooked. Mosaic Records, the jazz benefactor, will be issuing a seven-CD set of Wilson’s recordings — leaving aside the ones made with Holiday — under his own name for the ARC family of labels between 1934 and 1942: details below. “Under his own name” is important here, because a few sideman sessions had to be omitted, some because they appeared on other Mosaic sets (Mildred Bailey, Chu Berry) and others because they don’t fit the premise of the set.
Two are glorious and worth searching out: I know Chick Bullock is scorned by some, but his sessions with Wilson’s band backing him are priceless, as are the sides made with Eddy Howard as the star (consider this personnel: Wilson, Bill Coleman, Bud Freeman, Benny Morton, Ed Hall, Charlie Christian . . . . ). The Bullock sides are on a Retrieval CD; the Howard ones on Neatwork or Classics. I’ve also heard the “safety” disc from the Howard session, which has the singer having trouble with WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS. It may have emerged on the Sony Charlie Christian box set.
But two sessions led by the elusive Redd Evans “and his Billy Boys” have never been reissued. JAZZ LIVES to the rescue! — although the sonic quality is flawed. (The Customer Service Department is out back; form a single line.)
Redd Evans (1912-72) was most famous as a lyricist, whose hits included “Rosie the Riveter,” “There! I’ve Said It Again.” “Let Me Off Uptown,” “No Moon at All,” “Don’t Go to Strangers,” “American Beauty Rose,” “The Frim Fram Sauce,” and “If Love Is Good to Me.” He was also a singer and he may have been a better-than-competent ocarina player, possibly at one time a member of the Horace Heidt dance orchestra. But for me, Evans is fascinating because of the rare 1939 recordings with Wilson, and, in one instance, Buster Bailey.
I know that Evans was born in Mississippi, but how deep his “hillbilly” roots went is hard to discern. On IN THE BAGGAGE COACH AHEAD, where Mother’s coffin is part of the lyric, he sounds seriously influenced by Jerry Colonna. THEY CUT DOWN THE OLD PINE TREE is yet another example of morbidity in swing, a “country” song written by people whose idea of “the country” might well have been a day trip to Long Island, Edward Eliscu and either David or Milt Raskin. “Brown” could have been a dozen people, so I leave that to you.
I am certain that John Hammond was involved in these recordings, and although their initial affect may seem strange, they are another reason to be grateful to Hammond for his limitless ambitions. For one thing, even though Wilson’s name is not on the label, Evans calls out to him on one side, and he is unmistakable. The sessions, also, were made when Wilson had left Goodman to lead his own band, which was an aesthetic success but not a financial one, so they may have been Hammond’s way of helping Wilson make money and re-establish an identity that had been subsumed with Goodman.
Too, Hammond was always looking for ways to merge his jazz stars with more popular artists — perhaps hoping for what we would now call a “crossover” hit that would give him even more freedom to record his improvisers. Think of the Glenn Hardman date with Lester Young, Freddie Green, and Jo Jones — perhaps a sideways glance at the sides Milt Herth was making for Decca with Willie “the Lion” Smith, Teddy Bunn, and O’Neil Spencer. Had Hammond known of the 1938 Pinky Tomlin Decca sides, which pair a “countrified” singer with a hot band — one of the issued sides being RED WING? Pairing Wilson — and other African-American musicians — with Evans would not only be crossing genres but also gently eroding race barriers. Perhaps the people who enjoyed Western Swing would find this side appealing, as well.
Evans made a few vocal sides with Charlie Barnet in 1945, but his 1939 sides are of most interest here, documented by Tom Lord:
Redd Evans (vcl) acc by tp, ts, g, Buster Bailey (cl) Teddy Wilson (p) unknown (b) J.C. Heard (d). New York, April 17, 1939.
W24381 They cut down the old pine tree Voc 4836
W24382 Red wing –
W24383-B Carry me back to the lone prairie 4920
W24384-A Red River Valley –
Redd Evans And His Billy Boys : Willis Kelly (tp) Floyd Brady (tb) Reggie Merrill (as) Clark Galehouse (ts) Teddy Wilson (p) Al Casey (g) Al Hall (b) Cozy Cole (d) Redd Evans, “Hot Sweet Potato” (vcl). New York, August 11, 1939.
25189-1 Milenberg joys (re vcl) Voc 5173
25190-1 In the baggage coach ahead (re vcl) –
25191-1,2 Am I blue ? (re,hsp vcl) (unissued)
25192-1,2 When it’s springtime in the Rockies (hsp vcl) –
I find the personnel above intriguing, because it mixes players from Wilson’s band — the rhythm section and Floyd Brady — with “studio” players: Galehouse shows up on a Quintones session, Merrill on an Alec Wilder date. Willis Kelly, anyone?
I’ve never seen a copy of MILENBERG / BAGGAGE, but I was delighted to find a worn copy of RED WING / OLD PINE TREE on eBay. Again, I advise that my method of getting the sounds to you is at best odd, but it will have to do until the Real Thing Comes Along.
Wilson is immediately recognizable — admire his neat modulations out and in to Evans’ vocal key, the way he shines through the ensemble also. Whoever the ocarina player is, I like his work immensely, and the unidentified trumpeter has certainly listened to Roy Eldridge. The tune — with its memorably odd lyrics — bears some small melodic resemblance to WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG, MAGGIE. Was it written tongue-in-cheek (rather like the story told about SONNY BOY) as a collection of down-home cliches?
RED WING is more familiar — an ancient campfire favorite, with connections to Robert Schumann and Kerry Mills, eventually to Woody Guthrie — and this recording is thirty seconds shorter, but it has the pleasure of a chorus split between Wilson and Buster Bailey, which is no small gift. I’ll take it on faith that the drummer is J.C. Heard, who was part of Wilson’s orchestra, and the record pleases me, even though the subject is sad indeed, the Native American maiden weeping over her dead lover night after night:
And here are the two other sides from April 1939, in a format that may or may not work for you (if it doesn’t, I invite you to Google “Redd Evans and his Billy Boys” and find them on your own).
A few words about the Mosaic set — seven discs, expected at the end of this year. As always, the Mosaic boxes are often highlighted for the previously unknown and unheard music they contain, which leads some value-minded collectors to sniff, “Only seven unissued sides? Why, that costs $ – – – a side!” I can’t tell anyone how to apportion their money, but Mosaic issues, to me, always expose the larger picture: hearing familiar sides in a context not available previously; hearing the chronological development of an artist’s work, as far as it can be documented in visits to the recording studio. I will say that the set begins with the May 22, 1934 piano solo SOMEBODY LOVES ME and ends with the July 31, 1942 B FLAT SWING, both in two takes. In between, there are previously unheard band sides, and a 1942 trio date with Al Hall and J.C. Heard that was issued in part — but now we have the whole thing, more than two dozen performances, because Bill Savory was the recording engineer for Columbia.
I have been fascinated by Wilson since the late Sixties, and one of the thrills of my college-student life was getting his autograph at a suburban shopping center concert. Of course I sought out the Billie and Mildred sets on Columbia, and then graduated into the deep territory that only Collectors know. But I do not have all of the issued sides on this Mosaic set, and I have (or had) the Meritt Record Society lps, the three-disc French Columbia Wilson box set, the Masters of Jazz CDs . . . and so on. So this will be a set to treasure.
And this is true: in today’s mail, I received a traffic ticket from a red-light camera (the county I live in loves such things) that will cost me more than the Wilson set. And paying that fine will give much less pleasure than listening to Teddy in his prime.
Come to a full stop. But not for Mosaic Records.
May your happiness increase!