The Four / Versatile Three

Black String Bands, Vol. 3: 1919-1920

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Here's a treasure trove of rare ragtime, pre-jazz pop, and antiquated dance music recorded in London for the budget Edison Bell Winner label between February 1919 and November 1920 by an Afro-American string band known both as the Versatile Three and the Versatile Four. Popular taste at that time called for sweet vocal harmonies, sentimental waltzes, zippy topical novelties, and danceable ditties. Stylistically, these old records have a lot in common with Noble Sissle's earliest recorded works, an appropriate comparison as Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, James Reese Europe, and the Versatile Three/Versatile Four moved in some of the same professional circles before, during, and immediately following the First World War. The Versatile Four started making records in 1916 (see Document 5623 -- The Earliest Black String Bands, Vol. 2: Dan Kildare); by February 1919 the Versatiles had downsized to from four to three. The first four tracks on this disc heavily feature the singing and banjoline playing of Gus Haston and Anthony Tuck, with piano accompaniment by Charlie Mills. Four sides recorded in September 1919 feature Haston blowing the C-melody saxophone, an instrument he continued to use throughout this period. A dramatic difference in tempo and mood occurs when George Archer plays the drums on "After You've Gone" and "What Do You Mean by Loving Somebody Else When Your Love Belongs to Me?" Back down to three for the session that took place on or around March 11, 1920, Haston, Tuck, and Mills got in step with the prevailing pace of postwar entertainment by working up renditions of "I've Got My Captain Working for Me Now" b/w "And He'd Say 'Ooo-La-La, Wee-Wee'." Beginning in July 1920, the Versatile Four, augmented by drummer Gordon Stretton, inaugurated a season of exclusively instrumental recording. These are perhaps the best records this little group ever made; "Mystery" and "Bo-Bo-Beedle-Um-Bo" are typical of early-'20s dance band music, whereas "The Japanese Sandman," "Whispering," and "The Love Nest" would soon become staples in the rapidly emulsifying jazz and dance band repertoire. The best of these charming old records are quite unlike anything being performed or recorded in the 21st century. The primary instruments throughout all of these recordings are the banjolines. For this reason, parallels could and should be drawn with Vess L. Ossman, Frank Banta, Felix Arndt, Wilbur Sweatman, Harry A. Yerkes, Fred Van Eps, Elmer Snowden, James Reese Europe's Society Orchestra, and Eubie Blake's Shuffle Along Orchestra.