“Paper to Pixels” Project Reveals Surprising Nuggets of Local History

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

For the last few weeks, the Knox County Public Library’s “Paper to Pixels” project has made a couple of decades of News Sentinel articles and ads available to us via the library’s website. Lots of interesting details of Knoxville’s cultural history are coming to light, especially in a generally underdocumented era before World War II.

The 1922-1941 span of available material covers an era we’ve known mainly through personal memories and some biographers’ research, a fertile era in the development of a new form of popular music not yet known as country, and some interesting moments in the histories of other forms, like jazz.

I can’t stay away. Following are some highlights of what’s keeping me up late at night.

***

Roy Acuff is the guy who made country music a national phenomenon, who created Nashville as Music City, first as a charismatic performer, then as a canny publisher and recording executive.

For six or seven years in the 1930s, he was all over Knoxville, with his bands the Three Rolling Stones, then the Tennessee Crackerjacks, then the Crazy Tennesseans. He was broadcasting on both WNOX and WROL, and playing his first live shows, from the Tennessee Theatre to the roadhouses on the new highways. He developed the songs that became his first recordings here, during that period that’s suddenly available to researchers.

In retrospect he was probably the most culturally influential person living in Knoxville in the 1930s.

In the News Sentinel archives he shows up a lot, sure enough. But if we were to judge him by local news articles, Roy Acuff was mainly known as an athlete. Extremely competitive, he was a champion in football, basketball, and baseball, beginning in high school. Dozens of articles, in fact most of those that come up in a “Roy Acuff” search, describe his feats as an end for the Central High Bobcats on the gridiron. He was, by a 1923 account, “a deadly tackler.”

The paper also reports him as a guy who gets in trouble. In August 1928, he was injured when his “roadster” collided with that of an Indiana tourist at Broadway and 5th. In November 1929, Acuff was arrested at a football game at Caswell Park. He was pouring liquor into a pop bottle. At the time, liquor was illegal in America.

In July 1930, Roy Acuff showed up at St. Mary’s Hospital with a bullet in his arm. He’d had a spat with M.T. Gaultney at the Green Lantern Tea Room. That incident is not in his biographies.

In January 1931, Acuff was arrested for assaulting Wee Willie Daniels at a tourist camp. In November 1932, he was indicted, along with a few others, for “gaming.”

At the same time, though, Acuff was an active member of a committee to “clean and improve” Fountain City Park. He was a complicated fellow.

Fortunately for his reputation, he was exploring another hobby, but it was less interesting to the News Sentinel than all the other stuff he’d done. He was listed a couple of times in the ’20s as a vocalist for an upcoming Central High minstrel show. Other than that, I couldn’t find a single mention of him as a musician in a written story. Only an advertisement from 1936, touting “Roy Acuff and Band” doing a Friday night show at the Silver Slipper on Clinton Pike.

However, his band the Crazy Tennesseans was a sudden phenomenon in Knoxville in early 1936. I didn’t realize how big it was, sometimes as many as “14 ace fiddlers, harmonica players, and guitar players.”

Crowds for the Crazy Tennesseans overflowed one venue after another. Acuff is identifiable, but unidentified, in a group picture of nine Crazy Tennesseans that February. In early March 1936, they drew an audience of 1,500 to the Market Hall, eliciting the caption “Does the crowd like their particular brand of carefree singing and playing? Evidently!”

There was a liberating anarchy about early country music that people loved, and maybe needed.

In those days, the most popular individual local performer, by far, was comedian/singer Archie Campbell, both by his own name and by his comic character, “Grand Pappy.” But the first actual written news article mentioning Acuff, by name, as a country musician (at least that I’ve found so far), was not about his becoming part of the Grand Ole Opry in 1938—but that he was featured in a 1940 movie about the Opry. The short article was headlined “Local Boy Makes Good.” By then, of course, he was a Nashvillian for life.

***

I almost wish The Knoxville Sessions, the most amazing local music-history event of the century so far, had been delayed a few months, so that the authors of the book about the 1929-30 Vocalion recordings at the St. James Hotel could have used this resource to fill in some missing pieces in the lives of some essentially mysterious performers.

Leola Manning has been the voice that jumps out most remarkably on the box set, especially to music scholars who know it only from the six songs she recorded at the St. James Hotel, but not much is known about the East Knoxville cafeteria worker’s blues career after they turned off the microphones on Wall Avenue.

The archives offer only a little, but something: an ad for “Leola Manning and Her Gang” performing at Negro Day of the Columbia Radio and Electric Show at a tobacco warehouse on McCalla Avenue, just past Winona: “Leola sings blues with the orchestra.” That was in September 1930, five months after her last St. James recordings. A crowd of 3,000 was expected.

It doesn’t say much, but does suggest her fame within the black community, fleeting as it was. She was known by her first name. And it’s interesting that she was identified as a blues performer, which is how scholars describe her style today, even though she disliked the term.

Charlie Oaks, remembered by some scholars as the first professional country musician—he made records in New York, in 1925—kind of evaporates around 1930, and little is known of his later life.

The little reporting we have of influential local musicians comes mainly by way of a guy who never claimed to be an arts critic. Bert Vincent was a roving columnist, and described everything interesting he encountered in his “Strolling” column.

Thanks to Vincent’s habits, Oaks shows up once, late in his career. In 1935, Vincent wrote, “Blind Charlie Oaks and his blind wife [Alice], who five years ago sang and plucked a guitar on Market Square until they seemed like fixtures,” apparently left Knoxville for the Carolinas around 1930, but returned, on the far side of middle age, to play for a few more nickels on Market Square.

His younger counterpart was George Reneau, “the Blind Minstrel of the Smoky Mountains,” who sometimes performed more marketable versions of Oaks’ songs. He seems to have been just a little better known to reporters, but sometimes as a subject of pity.

He made records, and in 1925 Vocalion hailed Reneau as “the Blind Minstrel of the Smoky Mountains” in a big display advertisement.

Hardly more than a year later, the same recording star faced “begging charges.” Pop-music careers rose and fell even faster in the ’20s than they do today. The charges were, fortunately, dismissed. A few months later, Reneau, perhaps rehabilitated, was entertaining the Kiwanis Club, and a few months after that, playing piano and singing “old-time favorites.”

***

The archive is also a new way, if an imperfect one, to track some legends about traveling jazz performers.

I tried to use it to confirm some shows we know happened, like Duke Ellington’s show at the Market House Auditorium in the early 1930s. Ellington himself recalled it in an interview. But it didn’t show up in my searches. Neither does Ida Cox’s known shows at the Gem. Or several other legendary Gem shows featuring Bessie Smith or Billie Holliday.

Jazz shows were only rarely described by reporters. The Knoxville newspaperman of the 1930s who paid most attention to popular music was Malcolm Miller, who wrote for the Journal, so his work’s not indexed yet. Another young guy, Richard Davis Golden, wrote occasionally about jazz for KNS for just a couple of years, then joined the Army. In October 1939, he interviewed bandleader Gene Krupa during a show at Whittle Springs Hotel.

We know about most shows only by advertising—and moreover advertising just for shows that had enough crossover appeal that white people might be interested. Advertising was aimed mainly at the white audience, always noting that a “white section” was reserved at these shows.

Such was the case for legend Earl “Fatha” Hines, perhaps the greatest jazz pianist of his day. I was surprised to learn he performed in Knoxville several times. When Hines and his orchestra played at Neal’s Savoy on University Avenue in 1941 (a nightclub in the downtown section of Mechanicsville actually run by a woman named Maggie Cansler), a reporter recalled he’d done a full week-long stand at the Riviera Theatre, which was usually whites only, around 1930. Hines performed to a mixed crowd at the black-oriented Gem Theatre in March 1934. The Gem was at Vine, near Central, erased in the 1960s by urban renewal and now the approximate site of the dog park.

Noble Sissle, Broadway composer and a godfather of mainstream jazz (“I’m Just Wild About Harry”), was at the same venue just two weeks later. That may have been a great month for jazz. Or it may have been a typical month at the Gem, and we know about it only because the management had decided to experiment with advertising to the white newspaper-reading public that month.

There are several references to a jazz dance club I’d heard about, but never nailed down. It was on a street called Charles Place, or Charles Street, that may have been a glorified alley between Central and State, near Union. The venue went by several names, including Bert Hodgson’s Auditorium, a name startling to students of local history. Bert Hodgson was a local songwriter prominent in the 1920s, who was the nephew of English-born novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Andy Kirk and his orchestra were there in June, 1939, with major jazz singer Mary Lou Williams, as well as June Richmond and short-lived swing star Pha Terrell. Count Basie and his orchestra performed there five months later.

Erskine Hawkins, famous for his tune “Tuxedo Junction,” played there in July 1940, when it was billed as the Charles Street Auditorium. During his visit, he even signed records at Miller’s mezzanine level the next day.

The legendary Fats Waller was there the following March, performing a 9:30 p.m. show, about two years before his unexpected death.

In June 1941, the extremely successful R&B/pop quartet known as The Ink Spots were at Hodgson’s.

I found a reference to Frank Sinatra singing with the Tommy Dorsey orchestra at UT the same year. A frustrating account, because the bandleader and his 25-year-old singer are barely mentioned. Even though they were both pretty big stars by then, Sinatra for “I’ll Never Smile Again” and several other hits, the article is mainly about what the female attendees at the dance were wearing.

But for me the mother lode was the answer to a jazz-geek question I asked in a column about three years ago. A recent documentary, The Savoy King: Chick Webb and the Music that Changed America, brought out the Harlem drummer/bandleader’s place as a major influence in jazz, but also included a surprise. Disabled by childhood tuberculosis of the spine, Webb didn’t tour as much as some contemporaries, and he particularly avoided the segregated South. However, the documentary noted that he came to Knoxville at least once. In my column, I requested memories, knowing it was probably too late. I heard no clues about it.

In fact Webb may have been here as many as three times, all the same year, 1937. He performed at UT’s once-famous Nahheeyayli Dance, probably at Alumni Hall, and apparently at another UT dance before that, both broadcast locally on WNOX.

For New Year’s Eve, you’d think one of America’s most famous bandleaders would already be booked at the Savoy. But that night he played Knoxville’s Chilhowee Park. And he brought with him his 20-year-old singer, who was just becoming famous in New York. Her name was Ella Fitzgerald.

It was advertised as a very big deal, but no after-the-fact account lets us know how many people came or what they played or how they sounded.

It was in the park’s auditorium, in the ornate old 1910 exposition building; it burned down six months later.

Chick Webb died about a year after that. But Fitzgerald’s singing career lasted more than half a century. We can assume she carried memories of that show.

Anyway, have a look at these expansive digital archives. At the public library’s website, knoxlib.org, search for “From Paper to Pixels Campaign,” click on the “explore every issue” link, and follow directions. You may lose some sleep.

Addendum:

The Knox County Public Library’s “From Paper to Pixels” project, astonishingly wonderful as it is, has not been formally completed, and the years surveyed 1922 to 1941, though they’re marked as done on the website, likely still include some gaps. Therefore no omissions in the coverage of the Knoxville News, the Knoxville Sentinel, and the Knoxville News-Sentinel of that era should be inferred. Many more years of indexing will soon be added, and the library will make an announcement as soon as they are sure the entire archive is complete. 

Jack Neely
Contributing Editor & Writer | jack@knoxhistoryproject.org |

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

Share this Post