Papa Charlie Jackson was the first commercially successful male blues singer. A relaxed, confident crooner and seasoned 6-string stylist, he launched his recording career in 1924 and became one of Paramount’s more popular artists, releasing 33 discs by 1930. His classic versions of “Salty Dog,” “Shake That Thing,” “Alabama Bound,” and “Spoonful” set the template for many covers that followed. Playing fingerstyle or with a flatpick, Papa Charlie conjured a strong, staccato attack on his big guitar-banjo. His unstoppable rhythms were perfectly suited for dancing, and along with his label mate Blind Lemon Jefferson, he was one of the first bluesmen to flatpick solos on record.
Even during his prime, Papa Charlie’s old-time approach must have seemed an anachronism. But as with Jim Jackson, Gus Cannon, Charley Patton, Henry Thomas, Lead Belly, and other recording artists born in the 1880s or earlier, his non-blues records struck a resonant chord among listeners and provide us with examples of what African American music sounded like before the turn of the century. Jackson had a special affinity with ragtime and minstrel fare, and it’s likely he toured with medicine and minstrel shows before World War I.
By the early 1920s, he was reportedly giving guitar lessons, working clubs, and playing for tips along Chicago’s Maxwell Street, where he probably played ragtime. Composer Thomas A. Dorsey, who recorded blues as Georgia Tom, explained to Living Blues that when he arrived in Chicago in 1919, “There wasn’t much blues then. It was ragtime. Ragtime. See, you didn’t have the blues singers. The blues wasn’t recognized much until the blues singers got a break, till they got a chance [to record], see. And then the blues began to spread. Blues singers came in by the score. They had had them before, but they had no place to sing them, to exhibit what they had. And when they started to making these records of blues singers, that’s all we needed.”
The Paramount Book of Blues, a strangely punctuated 1926 promotional booklet, gave this insight into Papa Charlie Jackson:
“From the ancient – historical city of New Orleans, came Charlie Jackson – a witty – cheerful – kind hearted man – who, with his joyous sounding voice and his banjo, sang and strummed his way into the hearts of thousands of people. When he first contracted to sing and play for Paramount – many pessimistic persons laughed, and said they were certain no one wanted to hear comedy songs sung by a man strumming a banjo. But it wasn’t long before they realized how wrong they were. Charlie and his records took the entire country by storm, and now – people like nothing better than to come home after a tiring and busy day and play his records. His hearty voice and gay, harmonious strumming on the banjo, causes their cares and worries to dwindle away, and gives them a careful frame of mind, and makes life one sweet song.”
Decked in a fashionable three-piece suit, Papa Charlie stared calmly into the lens for the promotional photograph that accompanied the write-up. An inscrutable, serious-looking man with a dimpled chin and long, tapering fingers, he held an unusual 6-string guitar-banjo. Years ago, I asked Norman Blake, the esteemed bluegrass flatpicker, to describe the instrument: “Papa Charlie’s holding a Gibson GB, for ‘guitar-banjo,’ and I have one from 1921. This particular model is a very primitive open-back with a huge fourteen-inch head – I call mine ’Goliath.’ It has a regular old-style Gibson laminated guitar neck with sort of a moccasin-type headstock rather than the snake-head variety. The three-on-a-plate tuners are like those on the old Gibson guitars, and it also has a short trapeze-type tailpiece and a white ivoroid pickguard that mounts and slides on a rod.
“The instrument is soft-sounding compared to what you generally think of as being in the banjo family. This is probably because the sound is spread out by that big head. When Papa Charlie just strums rhythm chords on some things, he gets kind of a funky, sloshy sound, and I like his general looseness.” Despite labels and ads listing him as playing ukulele or “blues banjo,” he usually recorded with his guitar-banjo or a standard acoustic guitar.
The Paramount Book of Blues also included sheet music with vocal and piano lines and often inaccurate lyric transcriptions for a few of his songs. “Shake That Thing,” “Salty Dog,” and “Alabama Bound” listed Charlie Jackson as the songwriter, while on “Up the Way Bound” he shared credit with Lillian Brown.
Most of Jackson’s sessions were held in Chicago. He made his first recordings, “Papa’s Lawdy Lawdy Blues” and “Airy Man Blues,” circa August 1924. His guitar-banjo in standard A=440 guitar tuning, Papa Charlie played his debut selection in the key of E. But despite its title, winsome humming, and plaintive refrains of “Lawdy Lord, Lawdy Lord, Lawd, Lawd, Lawd,” the tune is more of an eight-bar vaudeville number than a traditional blues. Fast, danceable, and expertly fingerpicked, “Airy Man Blues” mixed eight- and twelve-bar structures and is a direct precursor of Taj Mahal’s “Fishin’ Blues.” The song’s lyrics, which mention Chicago’s State Street, suggest that the record’s correct title should probably have been “Hairy Man Blues.”
Paramount announced the release with an August 23, 1924, ad in the Chicago Defender, a Chicago-based African-American newspaper that was carried coast-to-coast by railroad porters. “Well, Sir,” read the copy, “here he is at last! Papa Charlie Jackson – the famous blues-singing-guitar-playing man.” Promoting Papa Charlie’s “Original Lawdy, Lawdy Blues,” the ad went on to incorrectly proclaim Jackson the “only man living who sings, self-accompanied, for blues records.” (Five months earlier, an OKeh field unit in Atlanta had recorded Ed Andrews, a rough-hewn country bluesman who accompanied himself on guitar. Two months after that, Johnny Watson had recorded as Daddy Stovepipe, accompanying himself on a guitar and harmonica, and Sam Jones, a self-styled one-man-band who called himself Stovepipe No. 1, played his first session.) The first Papa Charlie Jackson ad also assured readers “that this man Charlie can sing and play the blues even better than a woman can.” Meanwhile, the fine print listed titles by Trixie Smith, Ida Cox, Anna Lee Chisholm, and Ma Rainey.
Warm and humorous, Papa Charlie’s follow-up release, the ragtimey, eight-bar “Salty Dog Blues,” made him a recording star. The song conveyed the sly perspective of an “outside man”:
“Now, the scaredest I ever been in my life
Uncle Bud like to caught me kissin’ his wife,
Salty dog, you salty dog . . .”
As the recording progressed, Jackson’s chugging banjo rhythm sped up, perhaps the result of natural excitement or an engineer’s nod that time was running out. On its flip side, “Salt Lake City Blues,” Papa Charlie’s capped his first recording of a standard 12-bar blues with a lovely solo.
Old-time New Orleans musicians from Buddy Bolden’s era recalled hearing far filthier versions of “Salty Dog Blues” long before Papa Charlie’s recording. And more versions followed Papa Charlie’s solo recording of the tune. In May 1926 Clara Smith recorded an inoffensive version for Columbia. Two months later, Papa Charlie Jackson made a great band version with Freddie Keppard’s Jazz Cardinals featuring Johnny Dodds on clarinet. The session may have been a reunion of sorts, since Keppard, Dodds, and Jackson all hailed from New Orleans. The performance concluded with a rousing aside of “Papa Charlie done sung that song!” Originally released as Paramount 12399, The Keppard version of “Salty Dog” was reissued by other labels during the ensuing years, including a version on American Music and an interesting 1941 pressing issued by the United Hot Clubs of America.
White country musicians picked up on Jackson’s songs as well. In 1927, Opry star Kirk McGee did close covers of “Salty Dog Blues and “Salt Lake City Blues” on Vocalion. “It was natural that Sam and Kirk McGhee, who used to play with Uncle Dave Macon back in the old days, were borrowing some of Papa Charlie’s stuff,” says Norman Blake. “Because Papa Charlie flatpicked, he crossed the line towards hillbilly or country. He recorded during that good era when there wasn’t exactly a distinction between black and white music and the musicians all kind of sounded the same when they played the mandolin, banjos, and fiddles.”
Jackson’s unusual guitar-banjo sound brought him session work backing other blues artists. It’s believed he accompanied warm and soulful Lottie Beaman on the October ’24 Paramount session for “Mama Can’t Lose” with Jimmy Blythe on piano. This performance came out Paramount 12235 credited to Lottie’s real name, and on Silvertone 3545 credited to “Jennie Brooks.” During April ’25 Jackson joined Ida Cox, one of the great first-generation classic blues singers, on her two-part “Mister Man,” playing guitar-banjo and adding vocals. Jackson rejoined Miss Cox in September for “How Long Daddy, How Long,” playing sparse, quickly damped accompaniment to her elegant voice.
At the first of his own 1925 sessions, in January, Jackson reworked his “Lawdy, Lawd” motif in “The Cat Got the Measles,” a Murphy-Smiley composition that gathered traditional verses. He injected a sure-handed low-register guitar-banjo solo into the suggestive “I Got What It Takes but It Breaks My Heart to Give It Away.” Jackson’s follow-up session a month later produced a memorable cover of the eight-bar “Shave ’Em Dry,” which had already been recorded by Ma Rainey. Its flip side, his original “Coffee Pot Blues,” was set to the familiar “Sliding Delta” melody. While not nearly as salaciously funny as the novelty version recorded a decade later by Lucille Bogan, Jackson’s “Shave ’Em Dry” did hint of the risqué:
“Now just one thing, can’t understand,
Why a bow-legged woman likes a knock-kneed man
Mama can I holler, Daddy won’t you shave ’em dry”
In May ’25, Papa Charlie Jackson struck pay dirt with his biggest hit record, “Shake That Thing.” Decades later, Thomas A. Dorsey credited the 78 with inaugurating the 1920s hokum craze. After a novel stop-time solo, Jackson sang:
“Now Grandpa Johnson grabbed sister Kate
He shook her just like you shake the jelly from a plate
You gonna shake that thing,
Aw, shake that thing,
I’m getting sick and tired of telling you to shake that thing”
The success of Jackson’s “Salty Dog Blues” and “Shake That Thing” reportedly convinced Mayo Williams to scout and record Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, and other bluesmen. By year’s end, “Shake That Thing” had been covered by Eva Taylor for OKeh and Ethel Waters for Columbia. Within a few months, there were new versions out by Viola McCoy on Vocalion and by Jackson’s label mates Viola Bartlette and Jimmie Bryant’s Famous Original Washboard Band.
Jackson kept churning out records, usually producing one complete 78 per session. Around May ’25 Papa Charlie and a talented unknown second banjoist recorded his sprightly “I’m Alabama Bound,” which was melodically similar to Charley Patton’s later recording of “Elder Green Blues,” and a nicely fingerpicked original called “Drop That Sack.” His sound was better captured at the August session for “Hot Papa Blues” and “Take Me Back Blues,” with its memorable low-string solo presaging the guitar work on Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 78s. Later that month, Jackson took a noteworthy chord solo in the pimp tale “Mama Don’t Allow It (And She Ain’t Gonna Have It Here).”
In September ’25 Jackson made the first known recording of “All I Want Is a Spoonful.” The song was reputed to be sexually graphic – scandalously so – in its folk form, so Papa Charlie’s version was considerably cleansed:
That’s the last time – don’t you burn that rice,
Because all I want, honey babe, is just a spoonful, spoonful
“You can brown your gravy, fry your steak,
Sweet mama don’t make no mistake,
’Cause all I want, honey babe, is just a spoonful, spoonful”
Its release was backed with the picturesque “Maxwell Street Blues,” in which a man pleads for the release of his trick-turning gal.
During December 1925, Jackson trudged across Chicago’s bleak winter landscape to record his wistful “I’m Going Where the Chilly Winds Don’t Blow.” He didn’t follow his own advice, though, since he produced two more 78s in January ’26, including an original guitar boogie, “Jackson’s Blues.” At the December session Jackson also played a standard 6-string guitar on two takes of “Texas Blues,” playing dexterous chord voicings on the treble strings. His easy-rolling fingerpicking recalled Blind Blake, while one of the verses resurfaced a few years later in Blind Willie McTell’s masterful “Travelin’ Blues.”
Over the next year and a half, Jackson recorded only eight songs. His smooth, string-bending guitar performance on “Up the Way Bound” was similar to Robert Wilkins’ style and perhaps gives credence to the rumor that Papa Charlie may have spent some time living in Memphis. An unidentified second banjoist with a fabulous tremolo joined him at the May ’27 session for his original compositions “She Belongs to Me Blues”/“Coal Man Blues,” reportedly the first electrically recorded Papa Charlie Jackson 78.
Jackson’s next 1927 studio date teamed him with Lucille Bogan for “War Time Man Blues” and “Jim Tampa Blues.” The sides capture a warm rapport, with Papa Charlie making asides and turning in a crackerjack performance on his guitar-banjo. During his “War Time Man Blues” break, Lucille encouraged him: “Oh, play it, Papa Charlie, play it! Whoop that thing!” He laced “Jim Tampa Blues” with flatpicked chords, strong bass lines, and a fiery double-time break.
Papa Charlie was back playing solo later that summer when he cut “Skoodle Um Skoo,” a lighthearted dance tune in the vein of “Shake That Thing” and some of Blind Blake’s repertoire. Backed by another original, “Sheik of Displaines Street,” the 78 sold well, with “Skoodle Um Skoo” inspiring covers by Big Bill Broonzy and Seth Richard, who played 12-string and kazoo on his version. Charlie himself recut the song in ’34.
By the end of 1927 Jackson had cut three more titles under his own name. His original composition “Look Out Papa Don’t Tear Your Pants” was a curious mix of Hawaiian music, ragtime syncopation, and risqué blues, all wrapped up in a bravura flatpicking performance. Jackson delivered the pimp imagery of its flip side, the rollicking foot-stomper “Baby Don’t You Be So Mean,” with falsetto flourishes. Around November ’27, he played guitar on the pop tune “Bright Eyes.” Perhaps the influence of Blind Lemon’s guitar approach resonates in the session’s other side, “Blue Monday Morning Blues.”
During January ’28, Papa Charlie Jackson delivered strong vocal performances on “I’m Looking for a Woman Who Knows How to Treat Me Right,” backed with a countrified reading of “Long Gone Lost John.” During “Long Gone Lost John” Jackson sings, “Now if anybody should ask you who composed this song, tell ’em Papa Charlie Jackson, then idle on.” But the song had already been published in 1920 as “Long Gone (From Bowling Green)” by W.C. Handy and lyricist Chris Smith. It was probably based on an old Kentucky folk song about a black jail trusty who was set free to test the efficiency of a pack of bloodhounds. In Jackson’s version, Long John fashions a pair of shoes with heels on both ends and makes it to town, where he visits his “brown” and knocks down a policeman before making a clean getaway to the Gulf of Mexico. The 78 came out stateside, as well as in England and Austria.
Jackson focused on hokumy shtick on his summer and fall ’28 releases. The seductive “Ash Tray Blues” was backed with “No Need of Knockin’ on the Blind,” which details the Boccaccio-like goings-on in the marriage of an 82-year-old to a woman sixty years his junior. “I Like to Love My Baby” emphasized Jackson’s rhythmic prowess and good-time scat-singing, while “Baby – Papa Needs His Lovin’” recycled tried-and-true motifs.
Backed by “Good Doing Papa Blues,” his “Lexington Kentucky Blues” was advertised in the Chicago Defender, December ’28, with a drawing of Jackson on a sideshow stage playing banjo for a hoochy-koochy dancer. “‘Papa Charlie’ Jackson went down to the great Kentucky State Fair last summer,” claimed the copy, “and he must have had a wonderful time. All kinds of experiences, and he sings about what he did and what he saw in this ’Lexington Kentucky Blues,’ as he plays a mean banjo accompaniment.”
During October, Jackson joined Ma Rainey on the first of a pair of minstrel-style duets. Derived from Victoria Spivey’s popular “T.B. Blues,” “Ma and Pa Poorhouse Blues” began with an exchange in which listeners hear how Papa Charlie had to pawn his big guitar-banjo and somebody stole Ma’s bus. Learning they’re both broke, the singers decide to go to the poorhouse together. Perhaps there was some truth to the lyrics, because at this and a few subsequent sessions, Papa Charlie played an acoustic guitar rather than his distinctive Gibson GB.
Ma Rainey made her final recording a few months later, playing a man-hungry woman to Papa Charlie’s interested “big-kid man” in “Big Feeling Blues.” Soon afterwards, Paramount canceled Ma’s contract. By then, sighed a Paramount exec, Ma Rainey’s “down-home material had gone out of fashion,” and she was considered too set in her ways to change. For a while Paramount continued to support Papa Charlie’s 78s with catchy ads. The copy for “Jungle Man Blues,” recorded at the end of ’28, read like the script of a two-reel cliff-hanger: “As he sings this ’Jungle Man Blues,’ he grabs the wild cat by the collar, looks the panther right in the eye, and asks the tiger what he has to say. Look at him – a rattle snake watch chain and a scorpion for a fob! ‘Papa Charlie’ Jackson, aided by his trusty banjo, sings this wild one on Paramount 12721.”
In January ’29 Jackson played the part of Dentist Jackson on Hattie McDaniel’s two-part “Dentist Chair Blues.” (This is the same Hattie McDainel who, in 1939, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind.) During his follow-up recordings, Papa Charlie recycled previous material. For the lazy “Hot Papa Blues No. 2,” he replaced the original version’s flashy guitar-banjo runs with stock guitar accompaniment. He recast “Take Me Back Blues No. 2” as a slow-paced guitar blues. Paramount’s ad for “Hot Papa Blues, No. 2” was far more enthusiastic than the performance, depicting a dapper Papa Charlie strutting in front of a gang of flappers being held back by a police officer. “No wonder they all fall for him!” explained the copy. “He’s just a red-hot papa in a class all by himself, and it takes a cop or two to hold the mamas back when he struts down the avenue. ‘Papa Charlie’ Jackson sure knows how to sing and play this kind of blues.” He also played guitar on the hokumy “We Can’t Buy It No More.”
That fall Jackson was sent to Paramount’s new recording facility in Grafton, Wisconsin, to record “‘Taint What You Got but How You Do It”/“Forgotten Blues” and “Papa Do Do Do Blues”/“I’ll Be Gone Babe.” He then yucked it up with his label mate on the two-part “Papa Charlie and Blind Blake Talk About It.” Their guitar-banjo and guitar blended together nicely, and the emphasis was clearly on having a good time. The musicians exchanged good-natured banter, scat-sang together, and stepped out on their instruments, with Jackson playing a memorable muted solo over Blake’s accomplished big-band-style comping. 78 Quarterly magazine listed this 78 as Papa Charlie’s rarest Paramount, with only about a half-dozen known copies in the possession of collectors.
In a subsequent cross-promotional effort, Paramount featured a segment of Papa Charlie’s “Shake That Thing” on its two-part Paramount All Stars’ “Hometown Skiffle,” advertised in February 1930 as a “descriptive novelty featuring Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Will Ezell, Charlie Spand, The Hokum Boys, Papa Charlie Jackson.” Papa Charlie would supply only one additional release for the label that had made him famous, the lackluster “You Got That Wrong”/“Self Experience,” recorded on guitar in May ’30.
With the onset of the Depression, Thomas A. Dorsey observed in Living Blues, “The blues ran out – it collapsed. The blues singers, they had nothing to do. It seemed like the whole thing changed around, and wasn’t no work for anybody and they began to lose contact with each other. The record companies, they started publicizing some other types of music, see. This started to happen about 1929, 1930. There was just a slump on the record business.”
Papa Charlie’s next studio appearance, in June ’34, was as a sideman on Big Bill Broonzy’s “At the Break of Day”/“I Want to Go Home,” issued by Bluebird. Afterwards, he reportedly backed Big Boy Edwards and Amos “Bumblebee Slim” Easton on sessions. Jackson recorded his final pair of issued 78s in November ’34. Upbeat and very well-recorded, his new cover of “Skoodle-Um-Skoo,” with its effective by-the-bridge banjo strums, was paired with the trucking “What’s That Thing She’s Shaking.” The less-fancy “If I Got What You Want”/“You Put It In, I’ll Take It Out” – actually a song about money – came out on OKeh and Vocalion. “Towards the end of his career,” Sam Charters described in The Country Blues, “Jackson was used to cover hits by other singers. He was a tall, awkward man, unable to read or write. To record a new song he had to have someone sitting behind him whispering the words into his ear, just as many of the blind singers did.”
Big Bill Broonzy, who claimed to have studied guitar with Jackson in the early ’20s, sat alongside him on March 8, 1935, when he made his final three records for ARC, which never issued them. Within a few years, it’s believed, Papa Charlie Jackson was dead. “Twenty-some years ago I came across an old black jazz musician from Chicago,” researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow told me in the early 1990s, “and he said Papa Charlie Jackson committed suicide by jumping in the Chicago River in the late ’30s.”
During the 1950s, Papa Charlie’s “Salty Dog” with Freddy Keppard was reissued on anthologies of New Orleans and classic jazz music. His other 78s began showing up on blues anthologies beginning in 1960. In 1964, Heritage issued an album with a side each dedicated to Jackson and his label-mate Blind Blake. Eight years later, Yazoo Records and Biograph both issued albums devoted entirely to Papa Charlie Jackson. During the 1990s, his entire catalog was re-released by Document Records. To see a fabulous illustrated discography of Papa Charlie Jackson releases from 1924 through today, visit http://www.wirz.de/music/jackpfrm.htm . And for more on Paramount recording artists and the 1920s blues scene, see our articles on Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Ma Rainey.
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© 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.