Ollie Shepard

Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1 (1937-39)

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Singer and pianist Ollie Shepard recorded 54 songs during his most sustained period of studio activity, beginning in 1937 and ending in 1942. In 1996, the Document label reissued all but nine of these performances on two CDs as his Complete Recorded Works. The first volume presents 22 sides dating from October 1937 to April 1939, all originally released on the Decca label. Everything heard on this disc was issued under the heading of Ollie Shepard & His Kentucky Boys. No one has come forward with an explanation for this band name, and one theory treats it as a clue as to Shepard's place of origin, for next to nothing is known of this artist's personal history. The 1937 sessions featured Louisiana-born alto saxophonist Edgar Saucier, who by the early '50s would be working with New Orleans trumpeter Lee Collins in Calumet City, IL and San Francisco, CA. Another New Orleans native, guitarist Lonnie Johnson sat in on tracks 11, 12, and 16. In March 1938, Shepard expanded the group to a sextet with Frankie Newton blowing trumpet, Robert Carroll playing tenor sax, and Teddy Bunn handling the guitar. This little group swung like the Harlem Hamfats, Tampa Red's Chicago Five, or Jimmie Gordon's Vip Vop Band. The final two tracks document the very beginning of an historic date that brought in swing saxophone legend Chu Berry and pianist Sammy Price. One aspect of Shepard's persona needs to be illuminated and even celebrated. Unlike almost all of his contemporaries in blues or in jazz for that matter, this man rarely sang lyrics that were cruel, shaming, or misogynistic. "She Walks Like a Kangaroo," for example, if put forward by anyone else, would have taken on all kinds of unpleasant overtones. Shepard's marsupial-gaited woman receives nothing but praise from him, and several other examples of his mild-mannered approach make for pleasant listening. "Pee Wee Pee Wee" and "Brown Skin Woman" exude a friendliness and admiration for the female of the species that is all too uncommon among blues singers in the '30s. Although topics range through alcohol consumption and heartbreak, many of these blues are really love songs in disguise, even the gently lustful "Frankenstein Blues," with its intimate references to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

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