THE DOZENS: KING OLIVER by Peter Gerler

Joseph “King” Oliver helped deliver polyphonic ensemble swing from the New Orleans backwater. Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band played as an organism—a Hydra of seven heads connected to one heart. The King wanted each of his players to serve as a “band man, and a band man only.” No solo could upstage the group—it would have violated some law of physics. Nor was it possible, during those multi-cultured Crescent City days and nights, for swing to evolve apart from the group. There was just too much antiphonal dynamic.

”King

             King Oliver, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Like the complement of early Crescent City jazz, Joe Oliver’s music came from the plantation, the sanctified church, brass band parades, bandstand concerts, and the low-down, red-light district honky-tonks where the men blew hard until dawn and sometimes didn’t go home for weeks. It was a combination of ragtime, marches, and the talking blues—Oliver’s strong suit. As Oliver’s compatriot Mutt Carey remembered, “Joe could make his horn sound like a holy-roller meeting.”

Mixed with his crying, blues-based delivery, Oliver’s well-rehearsed, laid-back romping sound put him in the pantheon of early jazzmen. And it was his musical intent that undoubtedly drew a young Louis “Dipper” Armstrong to his door and took Louis in turn to the ends of the globe.

Oliver’s recording career lasted from 1923 into 1931. The first four years—with the Creole Band, and then with his larger Dixie Syncopators—produced his strongest sides. Then his gums and teeth started going. But even towards the end, as sideman Glyn Paque remembered, when he played the “real slow, dragging blues … audiences would go wild.”

Here are twelve of Joe “King” Oliver’s finest moments.


King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band: Canal Street Blues

Track

Canal Street Blues

Group

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band

CD

Off The Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings (Archeophone OTR-MM6-C2)

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Musicians:

Joe 'King' Oliver (cornet), Louis Armstrong (cornet), Honoré Dutrey (trombone), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Lil Hardin (piano), Baby Dodds (drums),

William M. Johnson (banjo)

.

Composed by Joseph Oliver & Louis Armstrong

.

Recorded: Richmond, Indiana, April 5, 1923

Albumcoverkingoliver-offtherecord-complete1923jazzbandrecordings

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Having left New Orleans in 1918, King Oliver played mostly around Chicago—with a year in California—for four years. Then in 1923, after he had brought Louis Armstrong up from New Orleans, he took his Creole Band into an April 5 wax-cylinder recording session at Gennett Studios in Richmond, Indiana. They played into a big horn, and the engineer mixed the sound by moving the players closer to or farther from the horn. After nine months of these sessions, the band had produced some 37 sides—the first significant recorded body of black New Orleans jazz. It would change the shape of American music.

"Canal Street Blues," from the April 5 session, is the parade song of your dreams. In New Orleans, the parade beat drives the music: real parades, where uniformed men carrying horns would march in the heat for six to eight hours, standing up, swinging, big second lines trailing.

In this, the classic New Orleans jazz ensemble, the Creole Band drives through the heat and plays with fire streaming off their backsides. The piano-banjo-drum rhythm section, with the future Mrs. Louis Armstrong on keys, beats as if they're driving a herd—and there was one, on the dance floor. The simple, 3-note motif conjures a waving flag. Dutrey blows into the music from behind, pushing its resonance. In true New Orleans style, the clarinet takes the big solo. Enter the final ensemble, where Louis tops Oliver's lead with a "perfect" fifth and joins him in a one-bar duet break at the end, with trombone sneaking in on beats 3 and 4. Laissez les bon temps roulez!

Reviewer: Peter Gerler


King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band: Chimes Blues

Track

Chimes Blues

Group

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band

CD

Off the Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings (Archeophone OTR-MM6-C2)

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Musicians:

Joe 'King' Oliver (cornet), Louis Armstrong (cornet), Honoré Dutrey (trombone), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Lil Hardin (piano), Baby Dodds (drums),

William M. Johnson (banjo)

.

Composed by Joseph Oliver

.

Recorded: Richmond, Indiana, April 5, 1923

Albumcoverkingoliver-offtherecord-complete1923jazzbandrecordings

Rating: 86/100 (learn more)

This medium-tempo piece sounds like a jazz band playing around a china vase. It follows a winding garden path through two straight ensemble blues choruses, then four more (two of them stop-time) around Lil Hardin's chamberesque piano, until it finds the main attraction: Louis Armstrong's first ever recorded solo.

Hardin, the only non-New Orleanian in the group, had received classical training. She could sound more "legit" than the other band members, who had come up "ragging" the music. But it is Armstrong who saves the day—opening the door to the china shop like a bull that just happened by. The beauty of the Oliver band—and many of the Crescent City bands—was that it could play arranged passages as though they were improvising. Armstrong walks away with the cake, swinging like nobody ever had. When you heard Louis on "Chimes Blues," Gary Giddins has commented, "You heard the future."

Although the piece fails to stand as one of Oliver's great compositions, it brings out his bluesy concept. Five years later, he reconceived it as "Mournful Serenade," which Jelly Roll Morton recorded to great effect.

Reviewer: Peter Gerler


King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band: Dippermouth Blues

Track

Dippermouth Blues

Group

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band

CD

Off The Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings (Archeophone OTR-MM6-C2)

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Musicians:

Joe 'King' Oliver (cornet), Louis Armstrong (cornet), Honoré Dutrey (trombone), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Lil Hardin (piano), Baby Dodds (drums),

William M. Johnson (banjo)

.

Composed by Joseph Oliver & Louis Armstrong

.

Recorded: Richmond, Indiana, April 6, 1923

Albumcoverkingoliver-offtherecord-complete1923jazzbandrecordings

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

"Dippermouth Blues," from the second day of the original Gennett sessions, opens with a 4-bar diminished lead, then takes us on a gallivanting two-chorus ride over the hills, driven by a one-bar ostinato motor. As with any good motor, the parts diligently repeat their functions - as do the trombone and clarinet here, providing support for the lead cornet. The ensemble takes us to a stop-time clarinet solo. While seeming to "toot" along, Johnny Dodds - without slurring - hangs in tempo and in groove. He was known to take his music seriously.

Following another ensemble, we're into the centerpiece: King Oliver's famed three-chorus muted cornet solo. He comes in bawling and goes out rocking. Oliver's blues was the essence of his playing, and it shapes this tune. It was said he could carry a conversation using only his "talking" horn. Here, amidst the swing, he is a lone voice crying to be heard. Over a decade later, in "Sugarfoot Stomp," the Benny Goodman Orchestra still copied Oliver's "Dippermouth" solo.

Reviewer: Peter Gerler


King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band: Snake Rag

Track

Snake Rag

Group

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band

CD

Off The Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings (Archeophone OTR-MM6-C2)

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Musicians:

Joe 'King' Oliver (cornet), Louis Armstrong (cornet), Honoré Dutrey (trombone), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Lil Hardin (piano), Baby Dodds (drums),

William M. Johnson (banjo)

.

Composed by Joseph Oliver

.

Recorded: Richmond, Indiana, April 6, 1923

Albumcoverkingoliver-offtherecord-complete1923jazzbandrecordings

Rating: 91/100 (learn more)

American jazz had forebears in minstrelsy and vaudeville, and the Creole Band's bassist/banjoist Bill Johnson had recently spent five years with the Original Creole Orchestra, touring the country in stage shows. You can hear the vaudeville flavor throughout "Snake Rag," most notably in the repeated two-cornet descending wobble/trombone slide. It follows the amusing vein found in the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's "Livery Stable Blues," recorded six years prior. As Oliver's friend and 1930s sideman Paul Barnes recalled, "All great musicians are comedians and entertainers. King Oliver was that way too."

More than one source has observed that on all these sides, Oliver's creative playing lagged behind the mark he set in New Orleans a decade earlier. But the legendary Johnny St. Cyr, who came up with Oliver and often played with him, said the best record of Oliver's style—"the real Oliver of New Orleans"—is this Okeh version of "Snake Rag," where "Oliver makes trick breaks, animal noises," as St. Cyr. These breaks loom after 2:00, when the horns' steam pressure rises, then pop up at 2:13 and 2:49, where the Oliver/ Armstrong 2-bar duet breaks recall crows cawing and swans trumpeting, respectively. Note the continuous ensemble play. As the drummer, Baby Dodds, wrote, "We worked hard to make music, and we played music to make people like it."

Reviewer: Peter Gerler


King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band: Jazzin' Babies Blues

Track

Jazzin' Babies Blues

Group

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band

CD

Off The Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings (Archeophone OTR-MM6-C2)

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Musicians:

Joe 'King' Oliver (cornet), Louis Armstrong (cornet), Honoré Dutrey (trombone), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Lil Hardin (piano), Baby Dodds (drums),

Arthur “Bud” Scott (banjo)

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Composed by Richard M. Jones

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Recorded: Chicago, Illinois, June 23, 1923

Albumcoverkingoliver-offtherecord-complete1923jazzbandrecordings

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Joe Oliver had so much power that he must have been born to play with a mute. According to Jelly Roll Morton, Oliver started putting bottles into his horn to tone himself down. But even with that impediment, he could come out screaming. He does so here, on an enduring composition by Richard M. Jones, a New Orleans accomplice who took part in arranging the Creole Band's Gennett sessions.

This tune resembles the New Orleans Rhythm Kings' "Tin Roof Blues," which the NORK had recorded three months earlier. Some proof exists that both tunes came out of a folk strain floating around New Orleans before everyone started moving to and recording around Chicago. There, Jones himself recorded the tune on solo piano just three weeks before this June 23, 1923 Okeh Creole Band date.

Oliver had brought in Bud Scott on banjo, and Scott drives the band like John Henry driving railroad spikes. The sound is informed by Johnny Dodds's exploratory clarinet work and by Oliver's slurred phrasing, which keeps the fire lit. His explosive muted cornet solo on the fourth chorus lets us know he has something to say beyond what's written on the sheet.

Reviewer: Peter Gerler


King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band: Riverside Blues

Track

Riverside Blues

Group

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band

CD

Off The Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings (Archeophone OTR-MM6-C2)

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Musicians:

Joe 'King' Oliver (cornet), Louis Armstrong (cornet), Honoré Dutrey (trombone), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Lil Hardin (piano), Johnny St. Cyr (banjo), Baby Dodds (drums),

Charlie Jackson (bass saxophone)

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Composed by Thomas A. Dorsey & Richard M. Jones

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Recorded: Richmond, Indiana, October 26, 1923

Albumcoverkingoliver-offtherecord-complete1923jazzbandrecordings

Rating: 99/100 (learn more)

A work of joy and salvation, this stirring piece sets the stage with four funereal minor-key measures, then emerges into a triumphant relative major, where it stays for the duration. As with "Jazzin' Babies Blues," it comes from the mind of Richard M. Jones, who also wrote "Trouble in Mind." It was on a New Orleans gig with Jones that King Oliver out-blew Freddie Keppard and made his first mark. Writing credit here also goes to Thomas A. Dorsey, who would compose "Peace in the Valley" (covered by Elvis Presley) and become known as the "father of gospel."

In fact, with the dirge-like beginning, the whole piece recalls a gospel service. Two staunch blues choruses, with everybody participating, give way to successive stop-time segments where individual players get to testify as "church members" say Amen behind them. With Charlie Jackson added on bass saxophone, the pounding voicings make you want to bow your head.

Armstrong takes the last testament, his cornet seeming to herald the arrival of a king. His anticipated entrances seem to say that, at the ripe old age of 22, he understood the entire plight of mankind. Perhaps this is why he became known to all of mankind.

Reviewer: Peter Gerler


Sippie Wallace (featuring King Oliver): Every Dog Has His Day

Track

Every Dog Has His Day

Artist

Sippie Wallace (vocals)

CD

Sippie Wallace, Complete Recorded Works, Vol. I (Document Records DOCO-5399)

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Musicians:

Sippie Wallace (vocals), Joe 'King' Oliver (cornet), Hersal Thomas (piano).

Composed by Sippie Wallace

.

Recorded: Chicago, Illinois, February 24, 1925

Albumcoversippiewallace-volume1-1923-1925

Rating: 89/100 (learn more)

After Louis Armstrong had come and gone from King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, and after the band had collapsed, Oliver branched out. He brought an expanded group—the Dixie Syncopators—into Chicago's Plantation Café. He also recorded with the first of many blues vocalists he would accompany over the next five years.

Blues shouter Sippie Wallace (born Beulah Thomas) came up singing in the Baptist Church and in Texas tent shows. On the arms of her two musical brothers, George W. and Hersal Thomas, she moved into 19-teens New Orleans. Brother George gigged in the Storyville red-light district, where he apparently met Joe Oliver. Ten years later in Chicago, George Thomas likely brought Oliver into this session with his sister, now married and renamed Sippie Wallace—the "Texas Nightingale." Along with Oliver, brother Hersal accompanied Sippie on piano.

The recording is worn and scratched. But perhaps due to the ease between sister-brother Sippie and Hersal, or perhaps because Oliver still has most of his teeth (he would later lose them), his blues accompaniment here is dramatic, thoughtful and lyrical—among the finest of his recordings in this genre. His approach often sounds like that of Armstrong, who would cut similar sides with Bessie Smith.

In the 1970s and '80s, Sippie Wallace toured and recorded with Bonnie Raitt, whom she had inspired to start singing the blues.

Reviewer: Peter Gerler


King Oliver's Jazz Band: Snag It

Track

Snag It

Group

King Oliver's Jazz Band

CD

Sugar Foot Stomp (Frog UK)

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Musicians:

Joe 'King' Oliver (cornet), Kid Ory (trombone), Albert Nicholas (soprano sax, clarinet), Barney Bigard (tenor sax),

Bob Shoffner (trumpet), Billy Paige (alto sax, clarinet), Luis Russell or Richard M. Jones (piano), Bud Scott (banjo), Bert Cobb (Sousaphone), Paul Barbarin (drums)

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Composed by Joseph Oliver

.

Recorded: Chicago, Illinois, March 11, 1926

Albumcoverkingoliver-sugarfootstomp

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Once New Orleans musicians started moving to Chicago in the 19-teens, South Side club owners began losing interest in their local players. "Snag It" shows us why. Driven by King Oliver's first "big" band—the 10-piece Dixie Syncopators—the 12-bar track moves like a train. To fill his crew, Oliver had brought in the best of his Crescent City cohort, including Ory, Bigard, Nicholas, Russell, Scott, and Barbarin. We also find Richard M. Jones doing the short vocal.

Under Oliver's opening cornet lead, soprano, alto, tenor and trombone hold a side conversation. Rather than distract, it fuels. The band moves into a bluesy, muted trombone solo, then a Latinesque stop-time soprano soliloquy. (Jelly Roll Morton taught us of the "Spanish Tinge" in jazz, and we hear it here.) Now comes Jones's vocal, a shining Oliver cornet break, two call-and-response ensemble choruses—and the train steams into the station.

Reviewer: Peter Gerler


King Oliver and his Dixie Syncopators: Wa Wa Wa

Track

Wa Wa Wa

Group

King Oliver and his Dixie Syncopators

CD

Sugar Foot Stomp (Frog UK)

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Musicians:

Joe 'King' Oliver (cornet), Kid Ory (trombone), Albert Nicholas (alto sax, clarinet), Barney Bigard (tenor sax),

Bob Shoffner (trumpet), Billy Paige (alto sax, clarinet), Luis Russell (piano), Bud Scott (banjo), Bert Cobb (Sousaphone), Paul Barbarin (drums)

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Composed by Morton Schaeffer

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Recorded: Chicago, Illinois, May 29, 1926

Albumcoverkingoliver-sugarfootstomp

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Most observers agree that Joe Oliver was among the first brass men (if not the first) to change his sound by sticking bottles, cans, kazoos, or what have you into the bell of his cornet. Colleagues testified that by doing so, he could actually carry on a conversation through "talking horn" effects. Fifty years later, electric guitarists would emulate Oliver's genius using wah-wah pedals.

This dramatic composition, "Wa Wa Wa," showcases King Oliver's "talking" cornet. It also exemplifies how, with the onset of larger bands, New Orleans polyphonic ensemble play began stratifying into sections. It began slowly; at first, sections overlapped, maintaining some of the terrific Crescent City polyphony. The effect shows up here, especially in the last refrains.

Two horn choruses kick off the piece, the second with a repeated fourth-beat cymbal response from Barbarin. Cornet takes stage front for chorus #3; we're not sure whether it is Oliver or his second cornet Bob Shoffner. Note the horn's swing phrasing. But there's more.

Following two more choruses, one with an Ory "hat" trombone break, the final stratified ensembles blow into town. In the end, the band becomes a three-headed hydra—saxes and cornets swapping bars (boys running through woods tossing a ball), the clarinet weaving through them. It comes to a final head with Oliver's famed wah-wah break of repeated quarter-note yowls. Aside from his three choruses in "Dippermouth Blues" and certain other Creole Band breaks, this may rank as the most emphatic of his recorded solos.

Reviewer: Peter Gerler


King Oliver and his Dixie Syncopators: Farewell Blues

Track

Farewell Blues

Group

King Oliver and his Dixie Syncopators

CD

Farewell Blues (Frog UK)

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Musicians:

Joe 'King' Oliver (cornet),

unidentified second cornetist, James Archey (trombone), possibly Omer Simeon (clarinet), possibly Paul Barnes and Barney Bigard (saxes), unknown piano, possibly Lawson Buford (tuba), possibly Paul Barbarin (drums)

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Composed by Elmer Schoebel, Paul Mares & Leon Rappolo

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Recorded: New York, November 18, 1927

Albumcoverkingoliver-farewellblues

Rating: 99/100 (learn more)

Despite all the acclaim for King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band and its historic issue of 37 sides, this cover of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings' "Farewell Blues" may rank as my all-time Oliver favorite. The NORK had recorded it five years earlier, also at Gennett Studios. Their white band was known to emulate the African-Americans—particularly Oliver—and they often succeeded. Listen to their composition "Angry" and their romping "Sobbin' Blues," both recorded the same day in August 1923.

But here the Dixie Syncopators take the NORK's hopping tempo and cut it 18% (by my metronomic measurement) down to size, giving the feel of a huge riverboat rolling. I like to call the effect "long-wave swing," where the piece as a whole swings—rather than any one section, segment or instrument. Note the final two coming-together choruses, with the clarinet rising on the second. Although they play from a printed score, this band ain't goin' nowhere, since they're already there and screaming for glory.

Reviewer: Peter Gerler


King Oliver and his Dixie Syncopators: Slow and Steady

Track

Slow and Steady

Group

King Oliver and his Dixie Syncopators

CD

Farewell Blues (Frog UK)

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Musicians:

Joe 'King' Oliver (cornet), Louis Metcalf (trumpet), J.C. Higginbotham (trombone),

Charlie Holmes (alto & soprano saxes), possibly Teddy Hill (tenor sax), Luis Russell (piano), Will Johnson (banjo or guitar), William “Bass” Moore (tuba), Paul Barbarin (drums)

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Composed by Oliver & Delaney

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Recorded: New York, NY, November 14, 1928

Albumcoverkingoliver-farewellblues

Rating: 86/100 (learn more)

This sweet, bluesy melody, coming a year after "Farewell Blues," reveals the King Oliver band becoming yet more arranged and less polyphonic, with unison horn choruses beginning and ending the tune. In between emerge three solos, including a sparkly, muted-trumpet turn by Louis Metcalf. He had been recording with Ellington for two years, on such originals as "East St. Louis Toodle-O" and "Black and Tan Fantasy." Oliver admired him and, now that Joe's teeth and gums were failing, began using Metcalf (and others) to assume his lead and/or solo work.

Metcalf does so here and, interestingly, goes for the leader's wah-wah approach—even though with Ellington he had been a bit straighter. On the other hand, how could Metcalf have avoided the approach, when Bubber Miley had been in his face (with Ellington), and Miley had picked up his growling style from Oliver!

The ensembles have an elastic feel here. The trombone/reed section echoes the lead trumpet—just a millisecond behind—as though they're playing the same song, yet a different song. Everybody's got something to say! Yet overall, when compared with Ellington's concurrent recordings, Oliver's sound appears weakening. Away from New Orleans, he was a fish out of water.

Reviewer: Peter Gerler


King Oliver and his Orchestra: Sweet Like This

Track

Sweet Like This

Group

King Oliver and his Orchestra

CD

King Oliver and his Orchestra 1929-1930 (JSP Records)

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Musicians:

Joe 'King' Oliver (trumpet),

Dave Nelson (trumpet), Jimmy Archey (trombone), Bobby Holmes (clarinet), Glyn Paque (alto sax), possibly Charles Frazier (tenor sax), Don Frye (piano), Arthur Taylor (banjo), Clinton Walker (tuba), Edmund Jones (drums)

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Composed by Joseph Oliver & Dave Nelson

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Recorded: New York, October 8, 1929

Albumcoverkingoliverandhisorchestra-1929-1930

Rating: 89/100 (learn more)

Recorded at the threshold of the Great Depression and the 1930s, this melancholy tune seems to presage King Oliver's demise (he would die destitute in Savannah in 1938) and mourn the passing of the New Orleans "big noise." The comfortable, laid-back pulse foreshadows the piano-bass-drum ballad swing of the 1950s and onward. Its layout features four successive horn solos—alto, trombone, open trumpet (Nelson), and muted trumpet (an expressive Oliver). Yet the piece overall is a "sweet" arrangement, and that's where American music was going.

The next year, Oliver would take his band on the road, where it would essentially stay until the end of his life, stranded, broke, run out of town, continually falling apart. The King was losing his teeth, so when audiences requested that he play his recorded solos, he had to turn them down. Yet the band always appeared dressed to the nines. Joe's sidemen reported that he never missed a gig and could still play with great range and power. In the end, he wrote to his beloved sister Victoria, "I'm still out of work…. But I've got a lot to thank God for. Because I eat and sleep…. Look like every time one door close, the Good Lord open another…."

Reviewer: Peter Gerler


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