Nobody Knows Old Naptown Like I Do – Blues From Indianapolis

Jeff Harris, Big Road Blues Show, July 17, 2011
Read Duncan Scheidt’s Liner Notes

Indianapolis, Indiana had a vibrant blues scene both in the pre-war and postwar era, although the city’s blues artists have been captured spottily on record. The most important blues artist to emerge from the city was Leroy Carr, one of the most popular blues artists of the 30’s. Carr was born in Tennessee but move to Indianapolis, at a young age. It was there that he picked up the piano, influenced by many of the barrelhouse players on the city’s west side. Carr eventually hooked up with guitarist Scrapper Blackwell who appears on the bulk of Carr’s recordings as well as making sides under his own name.  Indeed, by all accounts, the city was a good piano town going back to the turn of the century when ragtime players were abundant. In the blues er many good piano players  got on record including Montana Taylor, Jesse Crump and strong evidence that Herve Duerson and Turner Parrish where also based in the city.  Guitarist Bill Gaither and his piano partner George “Honey” Hill were also based in Indianapolis. Gaither moved back and forth between there and his native Louisville. Gaither cut well over a hundred sides for Decca and OKeh between 1931 and 1941. Pianist Champion Jack Dupree settled in the city in 1940, cutting four sessions between 1940 and 1941 in the company of fellow Indianapolis musicians. Also in the pre-war era were recorded singers Nina Reeves, who cut “Indiana Avenue Blues” at her first session backed by Jesse Crump and Lulu Jackson. Bumble Bee Slim also settled in the city in 1928 and spent a few years there before heading to Chicago and a very successful recording career.

In the post-war era Scrapper Blackwell was rediscovered and had a short but productive comeback. Several other fine blues artists were in Scrapper’s orbit; there was Shirley Griffith who moved to the city in 1928 and became friendly with Scrapper and Carr, Pete Franklin’ whose mother was good friend with Leroy Carr (he roomed at their house shortly before he passed in 1935), Jesse Ellery who appeared on Jack Dupree’s first sessions and singer Brooks Berry who met Scrapper shortly after she moved to Indianapolis and recorded one album together. Other artists included Yank Rachell who moved to the city in 1958 and did some touring with Shirley Griffith and J.T. Adams who came up from Kentucky and became a faithful partner to Griffith. The city also became the adopted home of Leroy “Lefty” Bates after he’d left Chicago and where John Brim first landed in the early 40’s when he left Kentucky.

Naptown is the nickname for Indianapolis and appears in a number of blues songs. The name Naptown was given to Indianapolis in the early 1900’s with Indianapolis often referred to as a ghost-town with nothing to do. Indianapolis was known to shutdown the city early leaving very few places to go at night. The fact the word “nap” can be found in “Indianapolis” only made the name more suitable.

As Duncan Scheidt wrote in the notes to Columbia’s Blues Before Sunrise album: “Up and down Indiana Avenue the black and tan spots flourished. The Golden West, an upstairs club, was the most famous of all, and featured the team of Crump and Reeves and pianist Montana Taylor. Other places were the Paradise, run by Raymond”Dee” Davis, and the Blackstone, which was such a rough joint it terrified the fugitive ban robber John Dillinger, who was secretly taken there by some local friends for an evening out. Neighborhood taverns such as Boultons’ at 17th and Northwestern and Ran Butler’s place at 15th and Northwestern were the favorite haunts of the local blues men. Every Monday night was Blue Monday and you could find all the barrelhouse, boogie and blues pianists you would want at one place or the other.” Mr. Scheidt was kind enough to let me chat with him recently but unfortunately there was a problem with the audio and I’m unable to air the interview.

Art Rosenbaum was involved in producing several albums for Bluesville in the early 1960’s including records by Indianapolis artists such as Scrapper Blackwell, Pete Franklin, Shirley Griffith, J.T.Adams and Brooks Berry. The following is taken from his notes:

Read Art Rosenbaum’s Liner Notes

“Indianapolis sprawls in the middle of the flat Hoosier farmlands, with streets radiating in all directions from what John Gunter called the second ugliest monument in the U.S. halfway between Louisville, on the edge of the South, and Chicago. One of the spokes, running north-west, the direction of Chicago, is Indiana Avenue, the ‘sport street’ of the black population. One might begin to characterize their city’s blues from the town’s location as a way-station between south and north, between rural and urban – guitar Pete Franklin told me it was ‘far enough north to have the feelin’, far enough north to play it right, get the changes right.’

Indianapolis, Indiana is a good blues town, and in the sprawling neighborhoods of the Northwest side live many fine singers and instrumentalists who carry on the old blues traditions in that Midwestern city. There are singer like Scrapper Blackwell, Little Bill Gaither, Jesse Ellry, Clyde Robinson, and Guitar Pete, longtime residents who accompany their songs on the guitar in the distinctive ‘Indianapolis style’, Scrapper’s refinement of the old Naptown picking played by men of the generation before him. There are piano players who prefer the lonesome blues of Leroy Carr to any others and who can point out the house near Fall Creek on Northwestern Avenue where Indianapolis’ greatest blues singer died more then twenty-seven years ago. There are immigrants up from the border states of Kentucky and Tennessee where, in Guitar Pete’s opinion, the best blues musicians come from. …Most of the Indianapolis blues singers know one another, and some of the southern singers have blended their primitive, emotional music with the more relaxed, wistful, and musically sophisticated Indianapolis blues. On the other hand, many of the older styles, local and southern, can still be heard in a fairly pure state. Blues singing has not been very remunerative for some time in Indianapolis and singers have not had the commercial pressures to keep up with the times that they might have been subjected to, say, in Chicago. The rhythm and blues bands with loud electric guitar, saxophone, and drums were never popular in Indianapolis as elsewhere.”

As reissue producer and collector Francis Smith wrote of Leroy Carr, “He, perhaps more than any other single artist, was responsible for transforming the rural blues patterns of the ’20s into the more city-oriented blues of the ’30’s.” Carr met guitarist Scrapper Blackwell in Indianapolis in 1928 and the duo began performing together. Shortly afterward they were recording for Vocalion, releasing “How Long How Long Blues” before the year was finished. The song was an instant, surprise hit. For the next seven years, Carr and Blackwell would record a number of classic songs for Vocalion, including “Midnight Hour Blues,” “Blues Before Sunrise,” “Hurry Down Sunshine,” “When The Sun Goes Down,” and many others. Writer Elijah Wald wrote the following about Carr: “Carr was the most influential male blues singer and songwriter of the first half of the 20th century, but he was nothing like the current stereotype of an early bluesman. An understated pianist with a gentle, expressive voice, he was known for his natty suits and lived most of his life in Indianapolis. His first record, “How Long — How Long Blues,” in 1928, had an effect as revolutionary as Bing Crosby’s pop crooning, and for similar reasons. Previous blues stars, whether vaudevillians like Bessie Smith or street singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson, had needed huge voices to project their music, but with the help of new microphone and recording technologies, Carr sounded like a cool city dude carrying on a conversation with a few close friends. …Carr sang over the solid beat of his piano and the biting guitar of his constant partner Francis (Scrapper) Blackwell. The outcome was a hip, urban club style that signaled a new era in popular music.”

Montana Taylor 1951
photo by Jasper Woods

Little is know about pianists Herve Duerson and Turner Parrish but census records link both men to Indianapolis. This census information was uncovered by David Costa who posted his findings on the Blindman’s Blues Forum. Duerson recorded four superb ragtime-influenced piano solos for Gennett in Richmond, Indiana in 1929 including  “Naptown Special”, as well as recording accompaniments for various other people, such as Teddy Moss. Researcher Bob Hall states that he was remembered as a pianist with the DuValle Brothers Band in Indianapolis in the late 20’s. A WWI draft card and a marriage record both link him to the city. Parrish recorded eight songs for Gennett/Champion in Richmond, Indiana at three different sessions, from 1929 to 1933. He covered Leroy Carr’s “My Own Lonesome Blues” and “Fore Day Rider” at his 1932 session although the record has never been found. He also backed up Teddy Moss in 1929, at the same session as Herve Duerson. Census records show him living in Indianapolis in 1920 and passing there in 1966.

Montana Taylor was born in Butte, Montana, where his father owned a club. The family moved to Chicago and then Indianapolis, where Taylor learned piano around 1919. Taylor cut his teeth playing in local joints like the Hole In the Wall, Goosie Lee’s, Rock House and the Golden West Cafe. By 1929 he was back in Chicago, where he recorded a few tracks for Vocalion Records, including “Indiana Avenue Stomp” and “Detroit Rocks”. Later he moved to Cleveland, Ohio in 1936. He then disappeared from the public record for some years, during which he may have given up playing piano. However, in 1946 he was rediscovered by jazz fan Rudi Blesh, and was recorded both solo and as the accompanist to Bertha “Chippie” Hill. His final recordings were from a 1948 radio broadcast. Taylor died in 1954. Late Cleveland photographer Jasper Wood took the last know photograph of Taylor in 1951 and wrote: “You leave his small place, barely furnished where sometimes he sits in deep bitterness, not then able to play his heart out because his soul is tied in knots, and you know … that despite his extreme ‘scuffling’ for a living, he will every once in a while make music fit for kings.”

Jesse Crump was born in Dallas and came to Indianapolis in 1923. He played at the Golden West Cafe on Indiana Ave. and recorded “Mr. Crump’s Rag b/w Golden West Blues” in 1923 for Gennett. As he recollected:”Lots of good piano players around Indianapolis when I was there. I can remember Russell Smith, Russell Williams, Frank Hines and Hanby … don’t remember the rest of his name. That was a good town for piano players when I was at the Golden West.” He also backed singers Nina Reeves and Billie McKenzie, later moving to Chicago to record and tour with Ida Cox.   He wrote many of the Ida Cox tunes, including “Death Letter Blues”, “Black Crepe Blues”, “Cherry Pickin’ Blues”, and Last Mile Blues.”

Blues guitarist Bill Gaither cut well over a hundred sides for Decca and OKeh between 1931 and 1941. Gaither was close to the blues pianist Leroy Carr, and following Carr’s death in 1935, he recorded under the moniker Leroy’s Buddy for a time. A fine guitarist who possessed a warm, expressive voice, Gaither was also at times a gifted and inventive lyricist. He was often partnered with pianist George “Honey” Hill, and the duo patterned themselves after Carr and his guitarist, Scrapper Blackwell. Among Gaither’s many sides were tributes to Carr such as  “Life of Leroy Carr” and “After the Sun’s Gone Down.” In 1940 Gaither returned to Louisville where he ran a radio repair shop. Army service overseas in 1942-1945 left him with a nervous condition that prevented him from making music. He went back to Indianapolis where he worked in a cafe. He died in 1970. No information has been uncovered by Honey Hill who back Gaither on the bulk of his records, cut one solo piano record under his own name, “Boogie Woogie b/w Set ‘Em”, and backed Frank Busby and Bumble Bee Slim on record.

Sometime in the early 30’s Champion Jack Dupree left New Orleans and eventually found his way to Indianapolis where he found work at the Cotton Club (named after the famous one in Harlem) who’s resident bluesman was Leroy Carr. Although he died only months after their meeting he nevertheless had a profound impact on Dupree’s playing. In November 1941 he cut two Carr numbers, ‘Shady Lane b/w Hurry Down Sunshine” but they were unreleased at the time. On these early sessions local musicians including bassist Wilson Swain, guitarist Jesse Ellery and and on one 1940 track, “Gambling Man Blues”, Bill Gaither appears on guitar. After Carr’s death he decide to make Indianapolis his base from wherehe frequently traveled to Chicago to play house parties with musicians like Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy. By the close of the thirties he was a large enough attraction to merit the job of M.C. and headliner at the Cotton Club where, in early 1940, he was seen by Lester Melrose who signed him up to record for Okeh in Chicago. The result was two-dozen recordings for the label through 1941. His Indianapolis residency ended when he was drafted at the end of 1941 and after his discharge he settled in New York.

Guitarist Jesse Ellery recorded legacy rest solely wth his backing of Champion Jack Dupree at his first sessions and the last by Bill Gaither. John Brim remembered him fondly: “‘Cause I been knowing Jack Dupree, …since ’41.  …’Cause he used to play the midnight shows every week and jesse Ellery’d play guitar-he was a very good guitar player. …He played jazz and the blues, and I think Jesse come up under Scrapper some, but veterans like him and Pete Franklin could play anything-“Body and Soul”, “I Surrender Dear”-anything, not just blues, all the way ’round.”

John Tyler Adams was born in Western Kentucky and it was his father who started him out on guitar. In 1941 he went up North, eventually settling in Indianapolis. Adams became good friends with Shirley Griffith and at the time of his first recordings had been playing together for fifteen years. Adams recorded just one album, Indiana Ave. Blues (1964) on Bluesville with Griffith with other sides appearing on the album Indianapolis Jump issued on Flyright.

Read Art Rosenbaum’s Liner Notes

Scrapper Blackwell began working with pianist Leroy Carr, whom he met in Indianapolis in the mid-1920’s. Carr convinced Blackwell to record with him for the Vocalion label in 1928; the result was “How Long, How Long Blues”, the biggest blues hit of that year. Blackwell also made solo recordings for Vocalion, including “Kokomo Blues” which was transformed into “Old Kokomo Blues” by Kokomo Arnold before being redone as “Sweet Home Chicago” by Robert Johnson. Blackwell cut just over two-dozen sides under his own name between 1928 and 1935. Blackwell and Carr toured throughout the American Midwest and South between 1928 and 1935 as stars of the blues scene, recording over 100 sides. Blackwell’s last recording session with Carr was in February 1935 for the Bluebird label. The recording session ended bitterly, as both musicians left the studio mid-session and on bad terms, stemming from payment disputes. Two months later Blackwell received a phone call informing him of Carr’s death due to heavy drinking and nephritis. Blackwell soon recorded a tribute to his musical partner of seven years (“My Old Pal Blues”) which concludes today’s program. He backed several other artists on record including Georgia Tom, Bumble Bee Slim, Black Bottom McPhail and Josh White among several others. He retired from the music industry not long after Carr’s death. He returned to music in the late 1950’s where he was recorded first in 1958 and was next recorded by Duncan P. Schiedt in 1959 and 1960. These latter recordings were issued on the British 77 label as Blues Before Sunrise. Art Rosenbaum recorded him in 1962 for the Prestige/Bluesville label resulting in his finest latter day recording, the album Mr. Scrapper’s Blues which certainly ranks as one of the greatest blues revival records of the 60’s. In 1963 Rosenbaum recorded him again for Bluesville, this time with singer Brooks Berry resulting in the marvelous My Heart Struck Sorrow that has yet to be issued on CD. Sadly Blackwell was shot and killed during a mugging in an Indianapolis alley in 1962. He was 59 years old.

Shirley Griffith was a deeply expressive singer and guitarist who learned first hand from Tommy Johnson as a teenager in Mississippi. Griffith missed his opportunity to record as a young man but recorded three superb albums: Indiana Ave. Blues (1964, with partner J.T. Adams), Saturday Blues (1965), both recorded by Art Rosenbaum for Bluesville, and Mississippi Blues(1973) cut for Blue Goose. Unfortunately all three albums have yet to be reissued on CD. In 1928 Griffith’s friend and mentor, Tommy Johnson, offered to help him get started but, by his own account, he was too “wild and reckless” in those days. In 1928 he moved to Indianapolis where he became friendly with Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr. It was Art Rosenbaum who was responsible for getting Griffith on record. “I recall one August afternoon”, he wrote in the notes to Saturday Blues, “shortly after these recordings were made; Shirley sat in Scrapper Blackwell’s furnished room singing the “Bye Bye Blues” with such intensity that everyone present was deeply moved, though they had all heard him sing it many times before. Scrapper was playing , too, and the little room swelled with sound. When they finished there was a moment of awkward silence. Finally Shirley smiled and said: ‘The blues’ll kill you. And make you live, too.” Griffith achieved modest notice touring clubs with Yank Rachell in 1968, performed at the first Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969 and appeared at the Notre Dame Blues Festival in South Bend, Indiana in 1971.

Read Art Rosenbaum’s Liner Notes

Pete Franklin’s mother was good friend with Leroy Carr, who roomed at their house shortly before he passed in 1935. Pete Franklin eventually became proficient on piano and guitar. After getting discharged from the war Franklin found his way to Chicago where he backed St. Louis Jimmy on a 1947 record and made his debut under his own name for Victor in 1949 waxing “Casey Brown Blues b/w Down Behind The Rise.” In the late 1940’s and early 50’s he backed Jazz Gillum, John Brim and Sunnyland Slim. Art Rosenbaum recorded Franklin in 1961 which resulted in the Bluesville album Guitar Pete’s Blues. A few other recordings appear on the album Indianapolis Jump. Regarding his style John Brim offered the following: “Yeah, he’d play his style-and Jesse Ellery’s. Play his style and ideas that he put a little more in it than Scrapper did.”

Read the article at SundayBlues.org