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Album Review

The Spirits of Rhythm were to the 1930s what the Cats & the Fiddle were to the 1940s. Both groups relied upon well-organized, carefully harmonized scat singing and a flurry of adroitly picked tiples and guitar. What the Spirits had going for them was the great Leo "Scat" Watson (1898-1950), drummer, tiple tickler, and one of the most interesting scat singers of all time. Teddy Bunn was their guitarist, and may be heard playing and singing throughout the entire CD. The recordings made in 1933 are exceptionally fine. Two delightful versions of "I Got Rhythm" are matched with "Rhythm," an original by Wilbur Daniels. "I've Got the World on a String" cuts off abruptly during a reprise of the vocal chorus, as they ran out of room on the recording platter. The session of December 6, 1933, introduces bassist Wilson Myers. "I'll Be Ready When the Great Day Comes" is something like a spiritual with humorous overtones: "Didn't the good book say that Cain slew Abel? Hit him in the head with the leg of a table!" Johnny Mercer's "My Old Man" belongs in a special category of cruel songs poking fun at fathers. This picturesque ditty predicts that the parent in question will end up in a garbage can: "Put a bottle of gin there and he'll get in there." The first seven tracks are so satisfying that it's a bit of a jolt when Red McKenzie is featured as lead vocalist on the session of September 11, 1934. Whose idea was it to foist this character onto the Spirits? His wobbly chortling sounds a bit incongruous with such hip backing. The expert picking and scatting come as a relief, after which McKenzie's reprise sounds foolish. He should have confined himself to his famous paper and comb, which would have sounded wonderfully weird with this band. As it is, he sounds about as hip as, say, Nelson Eddy. Three days later, the Spirits were back without McKenzie but with the addition of percussionist and vocalist Virgil Scroggins. "Junk Man" is good fun, and Watson sings a snatch of the old vaudeville number "Horses, Horses," a riff he'd quoted on tiple during a solo on "I Got Rhythm" the previous year. Mercer's lightweight Sherlock Holmes routine is peculiar enough for entertainment purposes, but "That's What I Hate About You" is too closely modeled after a record made several years earlier by Jack Teagarden and Fats Waller. Waller fans who are aware of the original might actually resent the close cover. Now the chronology leaps ahead seven years. Ella Logan's piping vocal with the Spirits on "Tipperary" and "From Monday On" are cute enough, but the two instrumentals from the same session allow us to concentrate on the presence of bassist Wellman Braud and the fine drumming of Watson. "We've Got the Blues" contains a premonition of "Caldonia," and we learn that cement is the reason her head is so hard. The final six sides to appear under this band's name involved only Watson and Bunn from the original group. This 1945 ensemble contains no tiples whatsoever. Leonard Feather is sitting in on piano, Ulysses Livingstone operates a second guitar, and Red Callender is the bassist, while Georgie Vann sings the blues and plays the drums. Here we get a fine dose of Watson's fully developed singing style. No doubt Waller would have approved of "Honey-Sock-Me-on-the-Nose." Watson's throaty interjections on "She Ain't No Saint" sound slightly deranged. Irving Berlin's "Coquette" becomes a smorgasbord centering on "Chicken Croquette." Watson was working with Slim Gaillard during these years, and this last number sounds a lot like something Slim would have dished up.


Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '30s, '40s

There are several different genres of string bands, coming out of the varied yet sometimes overlapping worlds of country, blues, and jazz. Of the ensembles coming from the latter persuasion, one that is considered one of the most important was the Spirits of Rhythm. A string band, in case there is any confusion, is basically a group where the accompaniment to singing, if there is any, is provided by stringed instruments. Sometimes joining forces from outside the stringed instrument family are various...
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1933-1945, The Spirits of Rhythm
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