Skeets Tolbert

1931-1940

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As a boy in Charlotte, NC, Campbell A. Tolbert acquired the nickname "Skeets," which was short for "Mosquito." Proficient on the alto saxophone -- his sound has been compared to that of Johnny Hodges, Louis Jordan, and Pete Brown -- Tolbert made his first recordings with Taylor's Dixie Orchestra, and listeners are fortunate to have two recordings from 1931 as examples of his tenure with this grand old "territory band." Harry Prather blows fine tuba and the vocalists are excellent. Tolbert made his way to New York shortly thereafter and gigged with Fats Waller. He soon formed his own Gentlemen of Swing, a tight little group that performed in Greenwich Village and on 52nd Street rather than uptown in Harlem. In addition to Tolbert's homie Harry Prather -- now playing the upright string bass -- this band had trumpeter Carl "Tatti" Smith, famous for having participated in the very first recordings ever made by Lester Young. That historical 1936 "Smith-Jones, Inc." session was also Count Basie's first date as a leader. Another strong player is tenor saxophonist Lem Johnson, who struts his stuff nicely on "Bouncing Rhythm" and sings bawdy lyrics during "The Stuff's Out." Johnson's vocal on "Railroad Blues" is relatively sobering, as is Clarence Easter's delivery on "Harlem Ain't What It Used to Be," a slow, serious evocation of economic hardship, strained living conditions, and an apparent need for rent control. Yet most of the material heard here was meant to entertain and amuse. "Papa's in Bed with His Britches On" is possibly even better than Una Mae Carlisle's version, recorded six months later. "W.P.A.," a send-up of the Works Progress Administration programs of the late '30s, makes fun of the entire concept with references to being lazy and the refrain "I'm so tired...but I can't get fired." Still and all, the most useful tunes here are the solid instrumentals like "Swing Out" and "Jumpin' Jack." This disc also contains a handful of sides which represent the recording debut of pianist and vocalist Charles "Red" Richards

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