The history of early 20th century jazz and pop music teems with dance bands that thrilled audiences in their day and have since become phantom entities with whom a small number of dedicated listeners may commune by studying the surviving recorded evidence. A special category of Territory Bands includes groups of musicians who operated throughout the southern and midwestern United States during the 1920s and '30s. One such dance orchestra was led by Blue Steele, a singer and trombonist who doubled on mellophone. Nearly forgotten for decades after his passing, this colorful character has since been rediscovered by a dedicated team of historians. At the beginning of the 21st century his recordings were digitally remastered and hitherto little known biographic information came to light.
Eugene Staples was born on March 11, 1893 somewhere in the state of Arkansas. Legend has it that he received a serious head wound during the First World War, whereupon his skull was patched with a piece of metal. This is believed to have inspired his nickname and might well have caused recurring instances of erratic and often unpleasant behavior that made him increasingly difficult to work with. He developed his chops during the early '20s by touring as a member of a hot jazz band known as Watson's Bell Hops. The Blue Steele Orchestra was formed during the mid-'20s in Atlanta, GA and quickly caught on with audiences throughout Florida by purveying a danceable blend of sweet and hot jazz-inflected pop music. Their first public appearance was at Tarpon Springs, FL. During the years 1927-1930, the band cut about two dozen records for Victor and achieved a popularity that would gradually wane throughout the '30s. Their theme song was "Coronado Memories." In 1928 Steele sat in and recorded with an orchestra led by singing banjoist Mart Britt.
Steele hired excellent players but few of them remained in the band for very long because of his volatile temperament and somewhat sadistic behavior. Most notoriously he would chastise his brass players by aiming blows at the bell of a horn while it was being played. Small wonder then that trumpeter Frank Martinez, saxophonist Pat Davis, pianist Joe Hall, and arranger Gene Gifford migrated as a unit to the Casa Loma Orchestra. Other fine players who passed through Steele's organization were trombonist Sunny Clapp (later the leader of his own Band O'Sunshine); singer and multi-reed man Kenny Sargent (ultimately one of the stars of the Casa Loma Orchestra); clarinetist Jack Echols (later associated with vocalist Phil Harris); clarinetist and alto saxophonist Frank Myers (who ended up working with Jack Jenny); tuba technician Cookie Trantham, familiar to fans of the Ray Miller Orchestra, and banjoist/guitarist Luke "Red" Rountree, who recorded with the California Ramblers in 1929. Steele often commandeered the microphone and vocalized in a warm and somewhat boisterous manner. Others who are known to have sung with the band were Kay Austin, Mabel Batson, Clyde Davis, George Marks, and Bob Nolan.
In 1941 Steele showed up in Mexico City, where he conducted a 52-member radio symphony orchestra and led various small dance bands. Unfortunately he became ever more prone to brash acts that sometimes culminated in violence. One source claims that he slew an IRS agent in Atlanta during the '40s without any provocation whatsoever. By the end of the '50s he was dominating a Dixieland band called the Rhythm Rebels. One of his bandmates was Elmer Schoebel, cardinal member of the original New Orleans Rhythm Kings. Blue Steele passed away at an undisclosed location on July 7 1971. Blue Steele should not be confused with a Winnipeg-based pop/rock cover band or the British nuclear stand-off missile of the same name.