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Booze and blues go hand in hand for Broonzy, Dorsey and Alderson

The popular ‘artistic aide’ helped plenty of Paramount artists loosen up for sessions, including Harum Scarum, for its raucus recording of ‘Alabama Scratch.’

By Mike Greenblatt

Harum Scarum —the trio comprised of Big Bill Broonzy, Georgia Tom Dorsey and Mozelle Alderson — sound like they’re having one whale of a time on the two-part “Alabama Scratch.”

Recorded in Grafton, Wis., for Paramount in January 1931, the record (Paramount 13054) is a chaotic free-for-all: “Everybody get hot now! It’s tight like that! Work it out now! Now come in everybody now and pull off your shoes! Let’s have a stinkin’ good time.” But if you think for a minute that all that raucous energy is courtesy of a big plate of cookies, I’ve got some Pat Boone albums you might like for your collection.

“Unlike RCA and Columbia, Paramount was a kind of a loose place to record,” said John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records. “And, yes, they did have alcohol available. They didn’t exactly encourage the singers to get so blasted drunk they couldn’t perform, but they did allow them to drink a little bit before making the record to loosen them up and make their songs flow a little bit more. On this one, it did result in a relaxed and a wild kind of performance, as if it was a real party.”

Harum Scarum Alabama Scratch

There are only two known copies of “Alabama Scratch” in existence. And Tefteller owns both. One is battered beyond comparison. The other was cleaned and used for the CD accompanying the 2013 Blues Images calendar. Obscure for decades, the “Alabama Scratch” recordings were rescued from the dust bin by Tefteller.

“I don’t think it had ever been reissued anywhere,” he says. “I cannot say for sure if there’s another copy out there somewhere. There certainly could be. But it hasn’t surfaced in the 83 years since it was recorded. If a clean one ever turned up, I’d buy it! It wouldn’t go for that much money, since most people wouldn’t know what it was. I’d guess about $3,000.”

The piano and guitar playing are exemplary — a real barn-burner — but the artists don’t sing. They crack wise, tell jokes and exhort each other on to heights of palpable party histrionics, laughing and cackling along the way. You could just picture them slapping their knees in joyous abandon.

“The problem in their rockin’ and a’ stompin’,” admits Tefteller, “is that you can’t really understand half of what they’re saying! It may have had something to do with how their microphones were set up, how heavy their dialect was or how much whiskey they actually consumed. Broonzy did a number of records like that. Sometimes these kinds of records use rudimentary double-entendre lyrics, but I thought this one was a little more interesting, thus worth rescuing and putting it back out there on a CD.”

Broonzy (1893-1958) was the star attraction of the trio. Born in Mississippi to sharecropper parents who descended from slaves, Broonzy wrote the enduring blues song “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” toured in Memphis Minnie’s band and established himself at Bluebird Records as composer and player on hundreds of sessions for himself and other singers. His fame grew to the point where he performed at one of Columbia talent scout John Hammond’s prestigious “Spirituals To Swing” concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1939. (The story goes that Hammond was looking for Robert Johnson but learned he had died.) Legendary writer Studs Terkel sought out Broonzy for a series of shows that boosted his appeal. Broonzy ultimately found himself in Paris recording and living the life where he was toasted by the elite and got to enjoy the fruits of his talent. Late in life, he also turned to folk music, his icon status resulting in two European documentary movies about his life. He wrote an autobiography (“Big Bill Blues”) but soon learned he had throat cancer. He died at the age of 65 at the height of his international fame.

Georgia Tom Dorsey (1899-1993) quit singing the blues early in his career to enjoy a long life in service to God.

Although Mozelle Alderson (no known dates of birth or death) was a featured vocalist for The Hokum Boys, most of her career was spent singing backup on tours and recordings for other artists. She recorded under the names Jane Lucas, Kansas City Kitty, Hannah May, Thelma Holmes and Mae Belle Lee. And she sure did know how to have a stinkin’ good time! GM