Sylvester Weaver: The First Blues Guitarist on Record

 

Author: Jas Obrecht

During the early 1920s, OKeh Records called him “The Man with the Talking Guitar” and claimed “he certainly plays ’em strong on his big mean, blue guitar.” Meet Sylvester Weaver, the first blues guitarist on record. Weaver found his place in history on October 24, 1923, when he fingerpicked simple, lonesome-sounding accompaniment to vaudeville singer Sara Martin’s “Longing for Daddy Blues,” and then picked up the tempo for the descending bass runs and more ambitious chords of “I’ve Got to Go and Leave My Daddy Behind.” In the process, Weaver became the first guitarist to back a blues singer on record. Nine days later, Weaver became the first guitarist to record a blues instrumental, waxing “Guitar Blues” and “Guitar Rag.” The original 78 release, OKeh 8109, credited both Martin and Weaver as composers.

 

“Guitar Blues,” a slow, simple instrumental, interspersed slide melodies with sparse, sliding chords. Weaver’s rollicking “Guitar Rag” proved to be a far more significant recording. Playing with gusto in Vastopol tuning, Weaver conjured traces of ragtime and Hawaiian music in his memorable melodies. The song had wings. Weaver re-cut “Guitar Rag” in 1927 with stronger bass lines and a new middle section. This version influenced many white musicians and spawned an enduring Western swing hit, Bob Wills’ 1936 “Steel Guitar Rag” featuring steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe. The song’s been a country staple ever since. It’s also resonated through bluesmen such as Earl Hooker, the great Chicago slider who learned it while playing in an Iowa hillbilly band and recorded it at least three times.

Sylvester Weaver was born on July 25, 1896, in the Smoketown neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky. His father, Walter Weaver, had migrated there from Mississippi during the 1880s. Some parts of this historic neighborhood inLouisville’s industrial section were little more than sooty tracks of ghetto tenements, but Smoketown was also home to many businesses owned by middle-class and professional African Americans. Weaver’s first wife was Anna Myers, and he served briefly in the Army during World War I. After 1918 he worked as a day laborer and made nightly rounds of Smoketown saloons and speakeasies, performing as a solo guitarist and with a jug band. He was active in the church throughout his life, and according to friends who knew him during the early 1920s, didn’t see a conflict between playing blues music and being a churchgoer.

While Weaver holds the distinction of being the first blues guitarist on record, he was not the first to play blues guitar. Bandleader W.C. Handy wrote of hearing this form of music twenty years earlier in the Mississippi Delta’s Tutwiler train station. As Handy described in his 1941 autobiography Father of The Blues, “As I nodded in the railroad station while waiting for a train that had been delayed nine hours, life suddenly took me by the shoulder and awakened me with a start. A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly. ‘Goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog.’ The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.” It’s likely that Weaver, too, used the Hawaiian lap-style guitar technique for playing slide.

 

When he was finished recording his original “Guitar Rag,” Weaver accompanied Sara Martin again, fingerpicking slideless guitar on “Roamin’ Blues” and “Goodbye Blues.” At the time, Martin was already an established star, having released nearly two dozen 78s accompanied by top-flight accompanists such as Fats Waller, Clarence Williams, Sidney Bechet, and W.C. Handy’s Orchestra. Apparently the first records featuring blues guitar sold well. An OKeh advertisement proclaimed: “Sara Martin discovered the clever idea of making recordings with a guitar accompaniment, and the first records of this kind put out have made remarkable impressions in all parts of the country. Sylvester Weaver plays his guitar in a highly original manner, which consists chiefly of sliding a knife up and down the strings while he picks with the other hand. His guitar solos, No. 8109, are having wide sales.” Sales of Sara Martin’s “Roamin’ Blues” were also strong: A delighted Ralph S. Peer of General Phonograph Corp. wrote a letter to Sara Martin informing her that “‘Roamin’ Blues’ with guitar accompaniment is the biggest seller you have had since [1922’s] ‘Sugar Blues.’ It might be well for you to rearrange your act so that this is your feature number using guitar accompaniment. It seems to me that this would make a wonderful encore number to be used very near the end of your act.” [Most of the Sara Martin tracks mentioned in this article can be heard here: http://www.redhotjazz.com/martin.html .]

 

Soon other blues divas began featuring guitar accompaniment. By January 1924, Bessie Smith, Clara Smith, and Virginia Liston had recorded with guitarists – Weaver may, in fact, be the guitarist on Liston’s “Jail House Blues.” Ida Cox and Ma Rainey followed suit a couple of months later. OKeh Records, naturally, paired Martin and Weaver at several follow-up sessions. In March 1924, the duo recorded three 78s in Atlanta. Weaver played rudimentary banjo on “Everybody’s Got the Blues” and “My Man Blues,” and easygoing guitar on “Pleading Blues,” “Every Woman Needs a Man,” “Got to Leave My Home Blues,” and “Poor Me Blues.” In May, Weaver backed Martin in New York City on “If I Don’t Find My Brown I Won’t Be Back at All.” The 78’s flipside, which I’ve never heard, reportedly has Martin performing a variation of the song set to Clarence Williams’ piano accompaniment. Around the same time, Weaver recorded four more guitar instrumentals – “Weaver’s Blues,” “Smoketown Strut,” “Mixing Them Up in C,” and “I’m Busy and You Can’t Come In.” Played without a slide on a slightly out-of-tune guitar, these rudimentary, ragtime-influenced tunes provide early examples of string-bending.

 

Weaver went on tour after these sessions. British blues historian Paul Oliver writes that when Lonnie Johnson saw him with Sara Martin in 1925, “Johnson was very impressed by Weaver’s guitar playing – in fact he very seldom spoke about anyone else’s work, but Weaver obviously (in person anyway) was someone he respected.” There are enough similarities in Weaver and Johnson’s guitar approach and women-as-trouble lyrics to suggest that Weaver exerted an influence on the younger Johnson.

In mid-March 1925, Weaver accompanied Sara Martin at a session in St. Louis that found them working alongside violinist E.L. Coleman and banjo man Charles Washington. In addition to playing on Martin’s “Can’t Find Nobody to Do Like My Old Daddy Do,” “I’m Sorry Blues,” “Daddy, Ease This Pain of Mine,” “Strange Lovin’ Blues,” and “I Can Always Tell When a Man Is Treatin’ Me Cool,” Weaver played muted slide guitar on Coleman’s mournful and effective “Steel String Blues.”

Helen Humes

Throughout this period, Weaver continued to work in Louisville’s Smoketown section, where he lived at 727 Fenzer Street. For a while he labored as a packer for a clothing manufacturer. When he and his wife moved to an apartment house in a wealthier section of town, he became a janitor. On occasion he worked as a talent scout. Helen Humes, who began recording in 1927, claimed that Weaver discovered her singing in Louisville and recommended her to the label. In a 1980 letter to Guido van Rijn, producer of Agram’s Sylvester Weaver – Smoketown Strut album, Miss Humes added: “When I made my second session in New York, my mother let me go with Mr. and Mrs. Weaver. He used to play the T.O.B.A. circuit and travelled the South. He was very well-known down there. I’ve never heard no one say a bad thing about Mr. Weaver. All his Smoketown friends adored him. He was so nice + friendly and everybody in Ky. adored him.”

 

After a two-year hiatus, Weaver resurrected his recording career in April 1927. As part of Martin-Weaver-Withers, his trio with Sara Martin and her husband, Hayes B. Withers, he provided vocal and guitar accompaniment to the moving spiritual sides “Where Shall I Be?” and “I Am Happy in Jesus.” He also backed Martin on the blues songs “Gonna Ramble Blues” and “Teasing Brown Blues,” which came out credited to Sally Roberts. The label, which gave Weaver prime billing, advertised “Teasing Brown Blues” as “the best ‘scare’ record OKeh has had in a long, long time.” Weaver then recorded two of his own vocal-guitar blues, singing “True Love Blues” and “Poor Boy Blues” with a strong, world-weary voice. Once again, his guitar tuning sounds imprecise. Weaver next re-cut “Guitar Rag,” his finest guitar performance on record. On OKeh 8480, this new version was paired with his 6-string banjo instrumental “Damfino Stump.” At the same session he also cut the ragtimey “Six String Banjo Piece,” a stronger performance than “Damfino Stump” that was withheld from release.

In August 1927, Weaver participated in his final session with Sara Martin, playing slide on the mournfully slow “Loving Is What I Crave” and straight guitar accompaniment on the somnambulistic “On’ry Blues.” They ended their partnership with the Sally Roberts-credited “Useless Blues” and “Black Hearse Blues.” On his own, Weaver cut four new songs. The so-sad “Dad’s Blues” – “I almost cursed the day that my baby boy was born” – came out backed with the equally downhearted “What Makes a Man Blue”:

“I’d rather be dead, laid in my lonesome grave,

I’d rather be dead, laid in my lonesome grave,

[Than] Have a monkey woman taking me to be her slave”

He stayed on the theme of betrayal for “Can’t Be Trusted Blues,” which was issued paired with “Penitentiary Bound Blues”:

“Thought I was going to the workhouse, my heart was filled with strife,

Thought I was going to the workhouse, my heart was filled with strife,

But I’m going to the penitentiary, the judge sentenced me for life”

 

OKeh turned up the drama for their ad for this release, depicting a mournful minstrel-style convict wearing a ball and chain. The text read, “Low boomed moans, tired sad tones creep deeper and deeper in your heart and hold you to the spell of . . . Penitentiary Bound Blues.”

Just when it seemed Sylvester Weaver was destined to fade away into obscurity, he re-emerged recharged in a guitar duo with Walter Beasley, who was reportedly from Louisville. In August 1927 they made their first recording. The beautiful but unreleased-at-the-time “Soft Steel Piston” featured Beasley playing rhythm beneath Weaver’s jaunty slide melody. The duo reconvened in a New York studio in November 1927. They began on the 26th with “Chittlin Rag Blues,” with Weaver sliding solos and singing with a strong voice:

“They served you whiskey strong as nitroglycerine,

They served you whiskey just as strong as nitroglycerine,

And when you drink it, makes you feel so doggone mean”

As soon as they finished this, Weaver and Beasley backed Helen Humes – a fine singer – on “Cross-Eyed Blues” and “Garlic Blues,” with Weaver playing adept slide while Beasley added bass lines and pluck-and-strum rhythms.

The next day, Weaver and Beasley kicked off the session with “Railroad Porter Blues,” during which Weaver sang of passengers referring to the subject of the song as “rastus” – a demeaning term even then – and ended the song with the verse:

“Poor railroad porter, hates to leave his wife at home,  

Poor railroad porter, hates to leave his wife at home,

’Cause she starts to cheating just as soon as he is gone”

Ouch. The song’s flip side, the penitentiary-themed “Rock Pile Blues,” was set to a slow, stately pace reminiscent of the classic blueswomen of the early 1920s. Recorded at the same time, Weaver and Beasley’s picturesque “Me and My Tapeworm” – “I’m a greedy glutton, eat fifty times a day” – was deemed unworthy of release.

 

As the session on the 27th progressed, Weaver and Beasley cut the “Devil Blues” and “Polecat Blues,” which has a superior 12-bar slide section. Then Helen Humes was ushered into the studio for three songs with two-guitar accompaniment: “Alligator Blues,” “Nappy Headed Blues,” and “Race Horse Blues.” Weaver and Beasley finished session with two guitar duets, the loose, good-time “Bottleneck Blues,” with its propulsive bass slides, and W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” OKeh credited this 78 to “Weaver and Beasley.”

On November 30th, the duo recorded four Walter Beasley releases. Beasley, about whom little is known, was a rougher-sounding singer than Weaver but effective nonetheless. His version of “Georgia Crawl” featured a line familiar to Cream fans – “When you lose your money, honey, don’t lose your mind,” while “Southern Man Blues” borrowed from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Match Box Blues,” released earlier that year. Weaver made the most of his role as second guitarist, interspersing searing slide with nicely fingerpicked straight guitar. The duo concluded the day with Weaver’s baby-you-gonna-die “Black Spider Blues.” Neither man recorded again.

 

The following January, Weaver received this message from OKeh’s T.G. Rockwell: “We are putting through a contract covering your selection ‘Black Spider Blues.’ I will arrange to have this copyrighted for you. We are putting it through on a basis of one-half cent less ten percent per selection. It is our intention to spend considerable money advertising this record throughout the country and it is impossible for us to give you any other contract on it.” The ad for “Black Spider Blues” showed a woman sprinting from an oversized snake and spider, with the copy, “A Rattlesnake is dangerous, but a Black Spider is worser still.”

Why didn’t Sylvester Weaver record again? “After 1927,” points out Pen Bogert, author of Hidden History: The Story of Blues in Louisville, “Sylvester Weaver hardly played guitar at all.” This detail helps explain why many blues researchers were stumped trying to find people in Smokeville who knew him as a musician. Around 1929, while still living in Smoketown, Weaver became a chauffeur and butler for a wealthy Louisville family, a position he held for the rest of his life. He remarried in 1943. “Black and white,” continues Pen, “people who knew Weaver said he was admired and respected in Smoketown. When asked to characterize him, they all used expressions like ‘very good gentlemen,’ ‘a neat dresser,’ ‘just a fine guy.’ I get the impression he was a careful, somewhat conservative man, and this shows in his music!” Weaver was residing at 2001 Old Shepardville Road in Louisville when he fell victim to carcinoma of the tongue onApril 4, 1960. Thirty-two years later, Bogert’s KYANA Blues Society erected a headstone on his grave.

In 1976 blues researcher Paul Garon located Sylvester’s second wife, Dorothy, who claimed she’d never heard him play. She pulled out Weaver’s 78 collection and the music items from his old scrapbook. The records were no great shakes – four of Sylvester’s own, three with Sara Martin, five or six other blues. The scrapbook, though, was another matter. Weaver saved telegrams, letters, ads, newspaper clippings, and royalty statements from publisher Clarence Williams. (An assortment appears in Living Blues No. 52.)

A 1926 royalty statement.

According to the documents, Weaver’s famous 78 of “Guitar Blues”/“Guitar Rag” brought him less than $50 in composer royalties, and Jim O’Neal figures about 5,438 copies of the disc were sold. “OKeh apparently paid Weaver $25 per side for ‘recording work’ on the songs he wrote and recorded,” O’Neal detailed in Living Blues. “This sum may have been paid either as an advance on royalties or in addition to the less than one-half cent per side composer’s royalties. While Weaver obviously never achieved riches through recording, it should be noted that he was paid substantially more in both recording fees and royalties than were many famous blues artists in the ’30s and ’40s, when payments of $5 to $15 per side and royalties of 15 percent of one cent per record were common.”

Among the scrapbook items was a tantalizing ad in the Chicago Defender announcing a spectacular benefit for a musicians local, held at the Coliseum on June 12, 1926. The “Cabaret and Style Show” starred Sara Martin, Clarence Williams, Shelton Brooks, Sylvester Weaver, Chippie Hill, Lonnie Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Butterbeans and Susie, and others. Besides a fashion show, giveaways, a Charleston contest, a radio broadcast, the “taking of moving pictures,” and the “fifteen hottest dance orchestras,” the ad promised that “famous race stars will show how OKeh race records are recorded.” All for an admission of $1.10!

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