Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Classic Recording Sessions - On This Date (6/16)

The Blue Sky Boys - 74 years ago (1st session)
Tuesday, June 16, 1936
Charlotte, NC
Bill Bolick: vocal, mandolin; Earl Bolick: vocal, guitar.
Producer: Eli Oberstein

Today marks the 74th anniversary of the debut recordings by Earl & Bill Bolick, the Blue Sky Boys. I'm a big fan of country brother duets, and as much as I love the Monroe Brothers and Delmore Brothers, I'd have to say that my favorite brother act of the '30s has to be the Blue Sky Boys. The Monroes and Delmores played faster and were hotter instrumentalists, but that thing that makes the blending of siblings so sublime seems to be in particular abundance when it comes to the Bolick Brothers. They have such a sweet sound, and that sound went on to influence two of the greatest brother acts of the '50s: Charlie & Ira Louvin, and Don & Phil Everly.

Charles K. Wolfe in his chapter on the Blue Sky Boys from his book Classic Country: Legends of Country Music has the following to say about the session recorded today:

It was a late spring morning on June 16, 1936, in Charlotte, North Carolina, Two teenage boys sat reading a newspaper in a waiting room in the old Southern Radio Building on South Tryon Street. Inside, engineers from the Victor recording company had draped the walls with heavy curtains to create a temporary recording studio. A big moon-faced man named Eli Oberstein was in charge, and he was making records for Victor’s new Bluebird label – a cut-rate record subsidiary that featured blues and country music, and sold in those Depression-era times for 35 cents apiece. He had recently discovered that Charlotte was a good location to find both kinds of talent – he had already recorded hit acts like Mainer’s Mountaineers and the Monroe Brothers there – and now he was racing through another marathon session, cutting as many as twenty or twenty-five masters in a day, and hoping that lightning would strike again.

The two teenagers in the waiting room were named Bill and Earl Bolick. They were from Hickory, North Carolina, and though they were only eighteen (Bill) and sixteen (Earl), they had been playing on radio stations in Asheville and Atlanta for a year. It was an age of duet harmony singing, and groups like the Monroe Brothers (Bill and Charlie), the Callahan Brothers, and the Delmore Brothers were winning radio fans throughout the South. Soon the Bolicks too had begun attracting fans, and while they were at Atlanta’s WGST an offer had come to record for Bluebird. Now that they were here, though, there seemed to be some confusion.

One hour dragged into two, and then three, and still nobody had spoken to the boys. Finally Oberstein brushed through the room and noticed Earl reading his newspaper. “What do you think this is, a reading room?” he snapped. “I don’t care what it is,” Earl snapped back. Oberstein then asked them what they thought they were doing there, and seemed surprised when they said their names were Bolick and they had been told to come and make records. “We understood that you had broken up,” he said. He had given their spot to somebody else. “You’re the boys who copy the Monroe Brothers, aren’t you?” he said. Again the brothers protested; they had replaced the Monroe Brothers on WGST, but they had never even heard them, let alone copied them. “Being that you’re here, I’ll give you an audition,” Oberstein finally said.

Oberstein went back into the little room that he had rigged up as a control room, and the brothers unpacked their guitar and mandolin. They checked their tuning, and then began singing into the big carbon microphone.

There’s a sunny side, where no ills betide,

On the road that we must go,

There are pleasant vales, verdant hills and dales,

Where flowers ever grow.

After a few more lines of “On The Sunny Side Of Life,” Obserstein was running out of his control room. “That’s enough,” he said. “That’s good. That’s nothing like the Monroes. It’s very different, and I think we’ll just go ahead and record you.” By now it was afternoon, and the boys began recording the material they had worked up for the session – all songs that were proven favorites with radio fans, and songs that, the boys felt, were new to records. In addition to “Sunny Side Of Life,” they did nine other pieces, ranging from old Victorian loves songs to prison songs like “I’m Just Here To Get My Baby Out Of Jail.” Of the ten songs preserved that afternoon, five were gospel tunes; the resulting Bluebird records were to write a new chapter in the history of country gospel music.

After the session, Eli Oberstein debated about what name to use for his new discovery. “At that time there were a lot of brothers recording,” recalls Bill. “So he suggested we use another name besides the Bolick Brothers. Eli and I sat down and kicked it around and came up with the name Blue Sky Boys, mainly because we were from the western part of the state, which was known as the Land of the Blue Sky.” Thus was born the name that for many came to stand for the very essence of old-time brother duet harmony singing – the Blue Sky Boys.

What a fabulous start to a recording career! I love these recordings, and I hope you enjoy them too...


BarrieB said...

Another great listen, thanx.

Harlan Taylor said...

Thanks for another great post.

This may be another example of where an artist's first recordings were their best. That's not to say that the rest of their music is deficient in some way. To the contrary, the Blue Sky Boys, as you point out, are one of the greatest brother duets of all time. It is more a statement about how fantastic this first session was and the songs they recorded. Wolfe's special treatment of this session in his book is evidence of the importance of this session.

Sunny Side of Life is one of the greatest songs in the history of recorded music.


Don said...

I agree this is a terrific recording session. The music is laidback and sweet. The closest I've heard to this sound is the Everly Brothers album, "Songs Our Daddy Taught Us." The Everlys also sang "I'm Just Here To Get My Baby Out Of Jail", an old favorite of mine, and I'm pleased to hear it here by the Blue Sky Boys.

It's a good story about the teenage beginnings of the duet, and it makes me want to get a copy of Charles K. Wolfe's book.

Thanks for the fascinating post.

jim said...

As usual I really appreciated the comments on the session. Makes the music even more enjoyable.