I’ve belatedly come across Eric Clapton’s Facebook tribute to B.B. King where Eric says, “This music (blues) is almost a thing of the past now. There are not many left who play it in the pure way B.B. King did”. This is just so sad. Just to rub salt into the wounds, let me explain how two years ago I was banging on about 2014 being the 100th anniversary of the FIRST blues tune EVER recorded. Fittingly, this was the illustrious W.C. Handy’s “The Memphis Blues”, Memphis being the city, of course, where B.B. King made his name.
Unfortunately, this epoch-making track’s centenary slipped by totally unnoticed. I didn’t see one mention of it in the media or even in the blues community.
The Memphis Blues was a brassy instrumental, recorded in New York by the Victor record label’s all-white house band, on July 15 1914. It’s not my idea of how blues should stack up but, hey, it was the first and should be treated with respect.
Heard by today’s ears, The Memphis Blues sounds more like old New Orleans jazz than blues – except there was no such thing as New Orleans jazz back in 1914. Jazz was yet to be defined as a genre, let alone named as jazz. Such raucous instrumentals were still thought of as gut-bucket blues.
You can equate the early days of the blues to the old cliché about London buses. You wait forever for one to come along, then three arrive at once. In blues’ case, after 4.54 billion years of no blues recordings, three separate blues recordings, all of the same tune no less, all came along in three short months in 1914.
The effect, on the record-buying public, of Victor’s initial recording, must have been considerable. Just nine days later, virtually a carbon copy of the track was recorded by another all-white orchestra. This was by the Columbia label’s house band, a second brassy instrumental version The Memphis Blues, recorded on July 24 1914.
But it’s the third version, the third blues record ever made, that we’re interested in today – the first ever blues record with vocals. Before I tell you anything about the artist, perhaps have a listen first.
Again, like the first two blues records, this version of The Memphis Blues was recorded in New York by an all-white band. In this case, the band was the New York Philharmonic no less, and this time there was a vocalist. The singer was Morton Harvey, a 28-year old white vaudeville star from Nebraska. The date was October 2 1914, 102 years ago this month. The record was released early in 1915, at the height of World War One in Europe as it happens. As Eric Clapton said, this music is almost a thing of the past. Let’s not let it die, music lovers. Born in Omaha in 1886, Morton Harvey remembered that landmark recording session in a 1954 letter to a friend.
“The ‘blues’ style of singing and playing, which became so familiar later, was just about to be born.”
Blues proper wouldn’t born in America, though, for another six years. it was a different story in London however, where the first African Americans were recorded playing blues in 1917. Watch this space for details.
That’s W.C. Handy’s Orchestra on the cover if you haven’t guessed. It didn’t seem right to put the New York Philharmonic up there.