Saturday, February 13, 2016

Stuff Smith And His Onyx Club Boys

Streetview, West 52nd street, NYC (1947) (William P. Gottlieb collection)
The Onyx Club was a jazz club located on West 52nd Street in New York City. The Onyx Club opened in 1927 at 35 West 52nd Street as a speakeasy. In February of 1934, after the end of prohibition, the Onyx Club became an authorized club in a new location — 72 West 52nd Street. The Onyx featured musicians that included the Spirits of Rhythm and Art Tatum, who then was the regular intermission pianist. It burned down in 1935, but was rebuilt and reopened July 13, 1935 with Red McKenzie, Stuff Smith, Jonah Jones, John Kirby, Maxine Sullivan, and others. (info excerpted from Wikipedia)
Stuff Smith outside the Onyx Club (YouTube still photo)
Violinist and vocalist Stuff Smith had come to New York early 1930s after having toured and recorded with the Texas based Alphonso Trent and his Orchestra. In 1935, he was discovered by saxophonist and empresario Dick Stabile, who booked Smith to play at the Onyx Club with his regular ensemble. In 1936, Smith signed a contract with Vocalion that labeled the band as Stuff Smith and his Onyx Club Boys.
Stuff Smith a.h. Onyx Club Boys (1936)
The initial formation of The Onyx Club Boys consisted of: Stuff Smith (v,voc), Jonah Jones (tp), Raymond Smith (p), Bobby Bennett (g), Mack Walker (b) and John Washington (d). This sextet recorded four sides for Vocalion on February 11, 1936, among them was Smith's I'se A Muggin'

I'se A Muggin' was in two parts, the inserted audio video only covers the first. The text is non-sense, if you are unfamiliar with the slang and jive talking associated with Harlem's 'tea parties', another word for social gatherings involving the consume of narcotics, i.e. marihuana (reefer), a customary habit among jazz musicians at the time. There was in fact a whole catalog of songs at the time associated with the consume of narcotics, often referred to as reefer songs, and Stuff Smith and his Onyx Club Boys also contributed to this catalog with another song, You'se A Viper that was a hit with the reefer smoking public

A viper is another word for a person addicted to smoking reefer (a marijuana cigarette). As mentioned, the song became a hit for The Onyx Club Boys, it was recorded at the second session for Vocalion on March 13, 1936. The sextet had now a change of personnel, as Raymond Smith was replaced by James Sherman (p) and John Washington was replaced by Cozy Cole (d). This formation of The Onyx Club Boys recorded twelve sides for Vocalion at four sessions from March to August 1936. The flip-side of You'se A Viper also recorded March 13, 1936 was the sextet's version of the standard After You've Gone - a tune, which Smith had recorded with Alphonso Trent and his Orchestra in 1930 (- Trent's version is available here)

On July 1st 1936 the Onyx Club Boys and Stuff Smith recorded three tunes, among them was a version of It Ain't Right 

Also from the July 1st session was a recording of yet another popular song, Old Joe's Hittin' The Jug

On August 21 1936 The Onyx Club Boys recorded another song associated with the catalog of reefer songs - Here Comes The Man With The Jive

There were no new recordings by the ensemble until May 1937. Now the sextet had been extended to a septet by adding Buster Bailey (cl); piano player James Sherman further was replaced by Clyde Hart. This formation of The Onyx Club Boys recorded four sides for Brunswick/Decca on May 4, 1937, among them the instrumental Upstairs - a hot swinging tune featuring great solos by Jones, Hart and Smith

Another tune recorded at the same session, which in fact was the last session labeled as Stuff Smith and his Onyx Club Boys, was dedicated to the Onyx Club. The title of the tune was Onyx Club Spree, which was recorded in two versions (takes)

The recordings of Stuff Smith and His Onyx Club Boys 1936-37 belong to the core of small band swing contributions of the 1930s, the leader's violin playing was among the foremost examples of swing violin at the same high level as i.e. Stephane Grappelli. Later Stuff Smith would continue his career in other combinations, but that's another story.

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