Henry James Townsend (1909): The last surviving Paramount recording artist PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 23 January 2006 00:00
Henry James Townsend (1909): The last surviving Paramount recording artist
 
By Alex van der Tuuk. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

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Introduction:

When I first became interested in Paramount records, at the relatively old age of 29, I soon found out that Henry Townsend at that time (1993) was one of the last surviving so-called pre-war blues recording artists, and at that time, the last surviving one who recorded for Paramount’s 12000/13000 “race” series. By then, his two known recorded titles for Paramount, Doctor Oh Doctor and Jack Of Diamonds Georgia Rub (issued on Pm 13097) were not even discovered. He was known to have recorded the titles in the Grafton, Wisconsin recording studio in 1930. Sixty-five years after the event, the record was unearthed in the Chattanooga, TN, area and was offered for a minimum bid of $ 2,000 in Doug Seroff’s auction. When questioned about his Paramount days, he only recalled Doctor Oh Doctor. The other title drew a total blank, until a tape copy of the record was provided to him to listen to.

As I became more interested in Paramount’s history, I was eager to get more details about his recording days at Grafton. In January 1998, two months before I decided to start writing a book on the subject, I finally wrote a letter to Mr. Townsend. His address was supplied by the editor of Block Magazine, Rien Wisse.

Via Joel Slotnikoff I got a reply, scribbled on his 78 Auction # 10 of 1998: “I spoke to Henry Townsend. What you seek from him will be in his book, and he won’t supply you that info unless he is paid”. I seem to remember that I asked Joel to name his price, but no reply. Point taken, end of that line. Or so I thought.

The next year, Bill Greensmith’s biography on Henry Townsend appeared and I heard from Leo Bruin, who recorded Townsend in the 1980s for his Swingmaster record label, that he video-taped him, but there wasn’t much new information that could be used for my book.
 
 
Although realizing that Townsend did not have eternal life, I was wary to make the phone call, warned by people that he was not too cooperative in answering questions. I tried to get in touch with him via a close circle of friends who knew him. This would have been in August 2005. By November 5, I finally made the call.

During that first 20-minute-call we had to hang up on two occasions, because of the bad connection. After I introduced myself and made my purpose clear for calling, we started talking. That is: I questioned, he answered in short sentences, like he was testing me. I must admit, I was not well-prepared for an extensive interview. He probably would not have allowed me, since he called it quits after 20 minutes. He said: “I usually don’t do this kind of thing, you caught me in a good mood”. However, he agreed to let me call him back the next week and do some more talking.

The following is a resume of these phone calls.

Henry Townsend in Grafton:

According to Townsend, pianist Roosevelt Sykes was responsible for getting him a recording session for Paramount. Besides being a recording artist, Sykes acted as talent scout in Saint Louis, MO. Townsend remembered they drove by car direct to Grafton, Wisconsin, a trip which took them a day. He took his own guitar with him. Jessie Johnson, who ran the DeLuxe Shop in Saint Louis, and acted as talent scout for record companies, may have accompanied him on the trip as well. When they arrived in Grafton, they were boarded in a local hotel. He thought it was a one-story building.

The studio was located in an “old chair manufacturing building”, as he recalled. About the recording equipment he said it “wasn’t nothing special, a set up thing with multiple microphones, standard equipment”. The studio was equipped with a upright baby grand piano. When the studio was occupied by other artists, they stayed in the studio, practicing. Sometimes they had to wait, because an artist ruined a recording, or another take had to be made. Townsend remembered he made several takes due to mistakes.
He stayed overnight at the hotel, practicing and after recording the next day, he returned to Saint Louis.

Besides Roosevelt Sykes (whose recorded output was issued under pseudonym of Dobby Bragg), others recorded during the same session, including Bee Turner (he didn’t know the artist, he met him/her for the first time), Jaydee Short and Charlie McFadden. “McFadden had one eye. He wore a patch”. He played piano and did the vocals. Townsend saw him around Saint Louis and claimed he didn’t know him too well.

He remembered other artists from Saint Louis. Alice Moore (Little Alice from Saint Louis) played in most of the clubs. She was mainly accompanied by pianists, like Roosevelt Sykes and Henry Brown on these dates. Henry Spaulding had a barbershop or beauty parlor shop. He mostly played clubs with his guitar, but on occasion may have played on the porch of his barbershop (Spaulding died in 1938).

He didn’t know about “Hi” Henry Brown, although he knew the name, but he explicitly mentioned that he should not be confused with Henry Brown, the piano player. “Hi” Henry Brown recorded Nut Factory Blues on March 17, 1932 for Vocalion (Vo 1692). There seems to have been a nut factory in Saint Louis.

[note: The 1930 U. S. Census lists the occupation of a Rosalee Peeples as “picker, Nut Factory”. Rosalee, aged 21 and married at 21 was living with one Robert Peeples at 2611 Franklin Ave. Robert Peeples was listed as negro, aged 29 years and worked as “Porter, Tobacco Factory`. A Robert Peeples recorded for Paramount as well in Grafton, but was not recalled by Townsend.]
 
photo by by Dianna Trombino Mestman
photo by by Dianna Trombino Mestman
 
Performing in Grafton, again?

Today, Henry Townsend still performs at age 96. He gets many calls to perform, but only plays at five or six of them, based on expected crowd. Small jobs he hardly will do. If the money is good, he will be there. Sometimes he plays solo, on other occasions he will bring an accompanist or play a trio.

When I told him that the Grafton Jaycees are preparing a blues festival in the village where he made his Paramount recordings, and asked him if he would be willing to play there, he asked how many people were to be expected. After hearing the number he agreed on performing, if the money was right. He would take care of his own transportation by car. Hopefully, Mr. Townsend will be able to make it on September 23, 2006 at Grafton´s First Blues Festival.

Suggested reading: A Blues Life – Henry Townsend as told to Bill Greensmith
University of Illinois Press, 1999
ISBN 0-252-02526-1

Alex van der Tuuk
Monday, 23 January 2006
 
 
 
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