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Bluesman Gus Cannon racked up a few aliases back in the day

He's no international man of mystery, but Gus Cannon and his alter-ego, Banjo Joe, were double agents of sorts at the Paramount and Victor record labels.

By Susan Sliwicki

In today's world where entertainers are all about “branding” and selling merchandise, the concept of performing with multiple identities typically only crops up in relation to Charlie Sheen, Gary Busey and the mentally ill (which are not necessarily mutually exclusive).

Banjo Joe Madison Street Rag b/w Jonestown Blues

Courtesy Blues Images.

Back in the day, it was par for the course for blues musicians like Gus Cannon to rack up a few aliases. In Cannon’s case, his alter ego, Banjo Joe, made the rounds at Paramount in November 1927, cranking out “Jonestown Blues,” “Poor Boy,

Long Ways From Home” and “Madison Street Rag.” Cannon’s Jug Stompers followed at Victor in January 1928, yielding the tunes “Big Railroad Blues,” “Heartbreak Blues” and, yep, “Madison Street Rag.”

“The reason they changed their names constantly is because when you signed a recording contract with a record company, you were signing an exclusive right for that company to issue your music,” said John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records. “These guys were not being paid a whole lot to do those records. And what they’d do is say, ‘I’m Banjo Joe over here, and I’m Gus Cannon over here, and therefore, I can get royalties from Paramount and royalties from Victor.”

Banjo Joe

Dossier for Gus Cannon, aka Banjo Joe. Born Sept. 12, 1883, in Red Banks, Miss. Died Oct. 15, 1979, in Memphis, Tenn. Training: Self-taught musician who learned to play on an instrument made from a frying pan and raccoon skin. Special skills: Could play a five-string banjo and jug simultaneously. Known associates: Performed duets with Blind Blake; worked with Noah Lewis and Furry Lewis. Career: Continued to perform well into the 1970s until shortly before his death. Source: Photo courtesy Blues Images.

While he’s never heard of any lawsuits between Paramount and Victor regarding artist overlap, Tefteller finds it hard to believe the record companies of the day just ignored the situation.

“Had they been paying attention, they would’ve realized real quickly that each of them were violating the other’s copyrights. It would’ve been a mess,” he said. “But it doesn’t occur with the white performers of the day. You don’t find Al Jolson or Bing Crosby or somebody like that jumping labels all over the place and recording under different names.”

Regardless of the name under which he recorded, Cannon left behind great blues music that influenced others. Some lyrics from Cannon’s “Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home” found their way into Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Matchbox Blues,” which had been performed by Carl Perkins and Paul McCartney, Tefteller said.

“All his stuff is very good. I like all of the Gus Cannon records; I can’t think of one I don’t like,” he said. “They’re not all very similar; they do vary quite a bit.”

Tefteller describes “Madison Street Rag” as “a great instrumental piece with some interesting talking in it.” We think it sounds like it would fit right into a setlist for modern-day blues guitarist George Thorogood.

Because Cannon only recorded three Paramounts but recorded “a bunch” of Victors, the Paramounts are considered more collectible, simply because there are fewer around.

“All of the Paramounts by him rarely show up for sale, and if they do, they’re pretty well worn. The particular one I have a real nice copy of, I think it cost me about $2,000, and that was some years back.”

You can probably find a beat-up copy of “Madison Street Rag” for $200 to $300, but a nice one will cost about 10 times more, he said. Of course, there are only about 20 copies of “Madison Street Rag” out there, so scoring one isn’t exactly a cake walk. Two takes were issued for “Madison Street Rag,” and some records feature take two, while others feature take four, Tefteller said. The master number off to the runoff grooves with either 20145-2, which is more common, or 20145-4, he said.