"I Miss You So," the signature tune of the Cats And The Fiddle, has become an established standard. Over the years, there have been versions by the 4 Clefs, the Charioteers, the King Cole Trio, Lionel Hampton, the Orioles, Herb Kenny and the Rockets, Faye Wilson, the Red Caps, Lee Andrews, the Mills Brothers, the Miller Sisters, Fats Domino, Paul Anka, and Little Anthony and the Imperials.
Stylistically, the Cats And The Fiddle were quite unique and bore little resemblance to the other established groups of the period. On uptempo sides such as "Gang Busters," there were frenetic scat parts designed to twist the most athletic tongue; ballads such as "Please Don't Leave Me Now" and "I Miss You So" could readily pass for recordings of a later vintage in terms of style; while blues-based numbers such as "I'm Gonna Pull My Hair" sound reminiscent of a New Orleans jam session. Tight harmony prevailed over the instrumental accompaniment on all sides.
Let's start the story of the Cats And The Fiddle in the early 1930s, when a group of Chicago high school students had been inspired to form a group by the success of the Mills Brothers and their simulated instrumentation. Led by Austin Powell, they called themselves the Harlem Harmony Hounds, a name choice not inhibited by the fact that none of them had ever been near Harlem! (But note that "Harmony Hounds" was a very popular name for groups and even bands back then. Austin's group wouldn't be confused with the Ozark Harmony Hounds, the Hoosier Harmony Hounds, or the Harmony Hounds From Purdue, but there were lots of others. They may have added "Harlem" just to differentiate themselves. However, there was a concurrent group of Harmony Hounds whose home base was Harlem! I'm not even sure if that was the same group as "Henry's Harlem Harmony Hounds.") At an amateur show, they'd won a week appearing at the Grand Terrace Cafe, with a then-little-known Count Basie. This led to a daily radio show on Chicago's WCFL, where they entertained in a Mills Brothers vein; the earliest listing I can find for them is in August 1932. In an April 1933 blurb the "Four Harmony Hounds" were identified as Austin Powell, Herbie Miles, Herman Hill, and Lenny Tandy. The article lists them as background entertainment as Prof. Porter Davis explains how to play bridge on a radio program on WSBC! They were still on WCFL at the end of 1934.
On December 31, 1936, Austin Powell was the band singer with Choc Logan and his Twelve Gentlemen Of Swing, performing at Chicago's Savoy Ballroom. Described as a "thrill singer," Austin had been with them for at least six months.
Then, Austin teamed up with three other Chicagoans who were already performing together and looking for a fourth member. Like many other groups of the period, they were a self-contained vocal-instrumental combo. Besides singing lead, Austin Powell played four-stringed tenor guitar (a regular-sized guitar with the neck of a four-stringed banjo attached - most major guitar makers produced these back then); Chuck Barksdale both sang and played bass (although in two movie clips, he doesn't sing at all); Jimmy Henderson was a first tenor and tipple player; and second tenor Ernie Price played both the tipple and the guitar. (The tipple [also spelled 'tiple'] is a ten-stringed instrument which looked and sounded somewhat like a ukulele, but had an extended range. Although used widely for rhythm accompaniment behind early vocal groups, the instrument pretty much became extinct in the early 50s.)
The new group named themselves after a line from the nursery rhyme "Hey Diddle Diddle" that could also be interpreted as jazz slang: the "Cats And The Fiddle." (The "fiddle" represented the stand-up bass, and they were all "hepcats.")
The Cats And The Fiddle spent the next two years playing one-nighters in (mostly) Chicago area clubs. They also appeared at proms, weddings, and graduations. However, there was a blurb in the November 20, 1937 Pittsburgh Courier that placed the Cats And The Fiddle at the Airplane Club Cafe in Denver. The members were named as Ernest Price, Charles Barksdale, James Henderson, Austin Powell, and Bessie Sutton. This is the first I ever knew that there was a woman in the group prior to the late 1940s. I don't know what part she had in the group, or when she came in or left; she's not in any photos. By the time they appeared in movies in 1938 (see below), she was gone.
Let's look a bit closer at this, however. The Courier article said "The Cats and the Fiddle, with [gives their names] as the personnel, are Willis Rogers' added attraction at the Airplane Club Cafe this week." The reason I quoted that is because, in the January 13, 1938 California Eagle, the members were named as "James Henderson, Willis Rogers, Ernest Price, Chas. Barksdale, and Austin Powell" (they will, it said "go far in pictures"). So now we've got Willis Rogers as the owner of the Airplane Club in Denver and Willis Rogers as a member of the group only two months later? Too much of a coincidence. I think that this is just another example of sloppy reporting or sloppy press agent writing. And, of course, that brings into question whether Bessie Sutton was actually a member of the group or something else (there are several possibilities, none of which are particularly interesting). I doubt we'll ever know, but it wasn't until around 1949 that the Cats And The Fiddle formally became a quintet. However, I found another blurb (in the October 30, 1937 Chicago Defender) that called her Bessie Mitchell and said that she was a member, along with the other four. At the time, they were at the Dome Club in Bismarck, North Dakota.
In California, the quartet started to make a name for itself. They had an interesting movie career (even before they recorded), appearing as extras in September 1938's "Too Hot To Handle" (starring Clark Gable and Myrna Loy). They could be seen, although not picked out, as South American "natives." Austin showed me a still from the film and pointed himself out. Next to him, as another "native" extra, was Nat "King" Cole.
Another 1938 cinematic triumph (released in May) was an appearance in a short called "Snow Gets In Your Eyes," starring Virginia Grey and Roger Converse. It's the chair-gripping tale of a ski-jumping contest held inside a department store (don't ask!). The uncredited Cats are on hand (dressed in Tyrolean hats and lederhosen) to provide instrumental and harmony backup behind the Dandridge Sisters (Dorothy Dandridge, Vivian Dandridge, and Etta Jones) for a song called "Harlem Yodel." Some nice scatting is done by two uncredited male singers.
Another May movie was "Two-Gun Man From Harlem," a western starring Herb Jeffries (billed as "Herbert Jeffrey") and the 4 Tones. The Cats backed up Jeffries on "I'm A Happy Cowboy" (although it's the 4 Tones behind him on the 1939 D&S recording). Also, in September 1938, they were in "The Duke Is Tops" (aka "The Bronze Venus"), in which they sang "Killin' Jive." When I watched the clips of these songs, I noticed that bassist Chuck Barksdale didn't sing on either of them. This leads me to wonder if he regularly sang with the group (or, possibly, he just couldn't get the hang of lip-synching).
Then there was 1939's "Going Places" (with Dick Powell, Anita Louise, and Louis Armstrong), in which they appeared as part of the orchestra in the "Mutiny In The Nursery" number. (The Jones Boys Sing Band was also in this film.) They can also be heard on the soundtrack of 1945's "The Clock" (starring Judy Garland and Robert Walker). Finally, they appeared in many short features (such as "Swingtime In The Rockies") and various all-black productions.
At one of the functions they played, they met Victor Records' agent Lester Melrose, who offered to record them on his company's Bluebird subsidiary. Of the ensuing output of 21 discs for the label, all but two appeared on Bluebird's 8000 "race" series.
On June 27, 1939, the Cats And The Fiddle entered Bluebird's Chicago studios (where all of their Bluebird masters would be recorded) and cut ten songs in a marathon session: "Gang Busters," "Chant Of The Rain," "I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water," "Nuts To You," "Killin' Jive," "Thursday Evening Swing," "Killer Diller Man From The South," "We Cats Will Swing For You," "Till The Day I Die," and "Please Don't Leave Me Now." Most of these feature unison singing, but "I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water" and "Please Don't Leave Me Now" are led by Austin Powell.
Bluebird released a steady stream of Cats And The Fiddle recordings: "Nuts To You"/"Killin' Jive" (August 1939), "Gang Busters"/"Please Don't Leave Me Now" (September), "Killer Diller Man From The South"/"Thursday Evening Swing" (November), "We Cats Will Swing For You"/"Till The Day I Die" (December).
The Cats had their second session on December 7, 1939. Not as exhausting as the first, they still churned out eight sides: "Mister Rhythm Man" (led by Austin Powell), "When I Grow Too Old To Dream" (all), "Public Jitterbug No. 1" (all), "That's On, Jack, That's On" (all), "Gone" (all), "Just A Roamer" (Austin Powell), "I Miss You So" (Austin Powell), and "Left With The Thought Of You" (Chuck Barksdale). Note that "I Miss You So," which ended up as the group's signature song, was recorded towards the end of the session, indicating that they had higher hopes for the other tunes.
Here's how stories start. The September 2, 1944 Cleveland Call And Post had an article about the Cats when they were playing the Blue Grass. Ernie Price told the story:
"I Miss You So," probably the most widely acclaimed of all Cats and Fiddle melodies, has a bit of pathos wrapped around it. It came from the pen of James Henderson. About six months after a very serious wreck in California in which Price was hurt externally, having to wear a cast from the ribs down for months, and Henderson was hurt internally, the boys were in Chicago. Henderson's wife was out of town and he told the crew he had a new lyric to teach them. They practiced a couple of days on it. On the Monday preceding the Saturday the group was slated to record "I Miss You So", Henderson died. His internal injuries, which had been diagnosed as not serious, had proved fatal. Price, quiet spokesman of the group, says, "If he had waited a couple of days longer to give us the song, we might never have become popular for that was the song that did it!"
It's truly a story filled with pathos. However, the relevant parts are completely untrue. I don't know about the accident, but the song was recorded on December 7 (a Thursday) and Jimmy Henderson had died on October 24 (a Tuesday, if that even matters). On top of that, Austin Powell told me that Jimmy had died from meningitis. What gets me is that the story is so precise in its details. The truth is sad enough without a press agent having to concoct this elaborate story.
Herbie Miles, a first tenor who had formerly been with Powell's Harmony Hounds, replaced Jimmy Henderson initially,
Bluebird issued "Chant Of The Rain"/"I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water" in April 1940. The company must have seen something in "I Miss You So," since they issued it as the first release from the Cats' second session. In May 1940, it was paired with a great jive tune: "Public Jitterbug No. 1." Just to hedge their bets, though, Bluebird also released "When I Grow Too Old To Dream"/"Left With The Thought Of You" that same month. "Mister Rhythm Man"/"Gone" was right behind them, in June, and August saw the issuance of "That's On, Jack, That's On"/"Just A Roamer."
The Cats And The Fiddle acquired their following, not from their movie appearances, but from their record releases. "I Miss You So" was by far the most successful of these.
At their next session, held on July 31, 1940 they recorded eight tunes: "You're So Fine" (led by Austin Powell), "Nothing" (all), "Hush-A-Bye Love" (Austin Powell), "Swing The Scales" (all), "In The Midst Of A Dream" (Austin Powell), "Hep Cat's Holiday" (all), "That's All I Mean To You" (Austin Powell), and "Pig's Idea" (an instrumental).
The first record released from this session was "Hep Cat's Holiday"/"In The Midst Of A Dream," issued in September 1940. The next was "Nothing"/"That's All I Mean To You," issued in October.
Herbie Miles was only with the Cats for a few months, before leaving in the fall of 1940. His spot was filled by Lloyd "Tiny" Grimes (first tenor and 4-string guitar). While he would go on to become a famed and respected jazz guitarist in the 50s and 60s, Grimes had just started playing guitar at this point. He'd begun his musical career as a pianist in Newport News, Virginia, with a group called Winkin', Blinkin', And Nod (with Luke Jones on bass and Earl Lynch on guitar).
And Bluebird continued to churn them out: "You're So Fine"/"Pig's Idea" in November and "Hush-A-Bye"/"Swing The Scales" in December.
Nine of the thirteen Bluebird records mentioned so far were reissued on the Montgomery Ward label in 1940 and 1941 (see discography). This was a budget reissue label, which didn't have the same production quality standards as Bluebird, so it's difficult to see why Victor allowed it.
The first session with Tiny Grimes was held on January 20, 1941. This produced another eight sides: "I'll Always Love You Just The Same," "I'm Singing (So Help Me)," "One Is Never Too Old To Swing," "Until I Met You," "I'm Gonna Pull My Hair (Let My Wig Fall Down)," "My Darling," "If I Dream Of You," and "Crawlin' Blues." Four of the songs were led by Grimes: "I'll Always Love You Just The Same," "I'm Singing (So Help Me)," and "One Is Never Too Old To Swing." "One Is Never Too Old To Swing" has no separate lead, and Austin Powell led the rest. Some of the tunes (such as "Crawlin' Blues") feature a piano, but this was probably a studio musician.
Bluebird issued "I'll Always Love You Just The Same"/"One Is Never Too Old To Swing" in February 1941; "I'm Gonna Pull My Hair"/"If I Dream Of You" in April; "I'm Singing (So Help Me)"/"My Darling" in May; and "Crawlin' Blues"/"Until I Met You," also in May.
While Austin insisted that Chuck Barksdale passed away in mid-1941, before their final Bluebird sessions in October, the RCA files list him as a member on those sessions. Note that, around this time, a bassist named Chuck Barksdale starts appearing with bands in Los Angeles. And, if that's not the same Chuck Barksdale, a bassist with that name was appearing with Coleman Hawkins' Chicago orchestra in October 1942, when they played the Fox Head Tavern in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Unfortunately, I can't find a single trace of either one in any objective records, nor can I find any death record. I'm not sure what to make of this after all these years; there's a limit to how many bass players named Chuck Barksdale I'm willing to believe existed at the same time.
The final eight songs recorded for Bluebird were laid down in two sessions held a week apart in October 1941. On the tenth, they waxed "I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire," "Blue Skies," "Another Day," and "Stomp Stomp." On the seventeenth, they recorded "Sighing And Crying," "Part Of Me," "Lawdy-Clawdy," and "Life's Too Short." Tiny Grimes is the lead on "Stomp Stomp" and "Sighing And Crying"; Austin Powell is out front on the rest of them.
However it happened (by death or desertion), Chuck Barksdale became the second Cats And The Fiddle casualty, certainly gone by sometime in 1941; he was replaced by bassist George "Mumbles" Steinback. (In spite of this, the Detroit Free Press, in a March 4, 1943 blurb named the Cats as "Charles Barkesdale [sic], Lloyd Grimes, Ernest Price, and Austin Powell")
Bluebird issued one record in each of the next four months: "I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire"/"Blue Skies" in November, "Sighing And Crying"/"Lawdy-Clawdy" in December, "Another Day"/"Stomp Stomp" in January 1942, and "Part Of Me"/"Life's Too Short" in February. By that time, the United States was fighting for its existence in World War 2; recording just wasn't being done in the same volume as previously.
The Cats And The Fiddle closed out 1942 with an appearance at Lou's Germantown, in Philadelphia. In January 1943, they played the Paradise Theater in Detroit along with Pearl Bailey, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, and the Cootie Williams Orchestra. A review of the show said that they really went over big with the audience, especially when they sang "Another Day."
The guys probably didn't know it, but they were a part of history when they played the Garrick in Chicago. As Dinah Washington told it:
It all happened when I was playing piano at the Three Deuces - in 1942. A friend of mine, Martha Davis, took me to the Garrick to hear Billie Holiday. I met Joe Sherman who ran the club. I sang "I Understand" for Joe with the Cats and The Fiddle. He hired me on the spot. He was also the one who had me change my name from Ruth Jones to Dinah Washington.
Sherman hired her to appear in the upstairs lounge of the Garrick, along with the Cats And The Fiddle, who provided backing for her. (Billie Holiday appeared in the more prestigious downstairs venue and Ruth would sneak down to watch her every chance she got.) One night in late December 1942, Lionel Hampton came to see the show and asked her to sing "Sweet Georgia Brown." He instantly asked her to join his band. (It isn't recorded why he had no offer for the Cats.)
Probably in the spring of 1943, Tiny Grimes left the Cats. This is the way he recounted his days with the group, when interviewed by jazz researcher Stanley Dance: "After I'd been playing (guitar) about seven months, I got with the Cats And The Fiddle. They had tipples and guitars ... and they recorded a number called 'Oh, I Miss You So' [sic] on Bluebird that made some noise. I stayed with them a year or two, but I wasn't really getting much experience there. I knew more than anybody else, and they were just playing to accompany their singing. We ended up in Los Angeles. They wanted me to go back to New York with them [probably for their May 28, 1943 Apollo engagement], but they were paying me so cheap, and I said, 'My fare will cost just about what I'm going to make at the Apollo Theatre.' So I decided to stay out there."
Soon afterwards, Grimes became part of the "Art Tatum Trio", along with outstanding bassist Slam Stewart, formerly of Slim & Slam. Pianist Tatum announced the formation of the trio on July 17, 1943. Grimes went on to form the Tiny Grimes Quartet, and then the Tiny Grimes Quintet (with the addition of Charlie "Bird" Parker). After this, Grimes formed the Rockin' Highlanders, featuring vocals by Jalacy (the future Screamin' Jay) Hawkins. Grimes then switched over to jazz guitar, playing with the likes of Duke Ellington, Milt Buckner, Jay McShann, and Earl "Fatha" Hines. Lloyd "Tiny" Grimes died in 1989.
Grimes' place was taken by Mifflin "Pee Wee" Brantford. Around this time, Lester Melrose, who had contracted them for Bluebird, "disappeared" (according to Austin) and the Bluebird label was discontinued. A lack of shellac (needed as a binder in the manufacture of 78 RPM records) and the musician's strike (which began in the summer of 1942) had a great effect on the recording industry.
And then the war took its toll: later in 1943, Austin Powell was drafted. The Cats And The Fiddle kept going, replacing him with Hank Hazlett (also seen as "Haslett", but "Hazlett is correct")
Of course, the effect of these personnel changes was strictly seen in live performances. The musicians' strike of 1942, wartime shortages of shellac, and the drafting of personnel used to run and repair the machinery at record pressing plants are among the reasons why the group cut no new discs for several years. In spite of the gasoline shortage, they toured the nation, from the standard Royal-Howard-Regal-Earle-Apollo Theater circuit to posh supper clubs such as the Beachcomber in Omaha, the J'ai Alai Club in Columbus, the Pioneer Lounge the Three Deuces in Chicago, and the Cave in Vancouver.
There weren't many performance listings for the group, but July 13, 1943 found the Cats and the Fiddle appearing at the New 20th Century in Philadelphia. This was followed, in August, by a stint at the Club Bali in Washington, D.C. In July 1945, they played the Paradise Club in Atlantic City, which had just opened for its 31st summer season. On September 1, they were at the Bar O' Music in Chicago. (When the Cats headed the revue at Club Bali in August 1943, the members were listed as Charles Barksdale, Lloyd Grimes, Ernest Price, and Austin Powell. I don't know where the blurb got the names from, since Barksdale was dead, or otherwise gone, and Grimes had been with the Art Tatum Trio for a couple of months.)
November 9, 1945 found the Cats back at the Bar O' Music. They were still Pee Wee Brantford (tenor and guitar), Ernie Price (second tenor, lead guitar, and tipple), George Steinback (bass and bassist), and Hank Hazlett (tenor and guitar). However, Hank left in late 1945, and former "Cat" Herbie Miles returned.
The group was very popular at the Apollo Theater, appearing there as early as the week of October 4, 1940. Other known appearances were the weeks of January 31, 1941; May 30, 1941; February 20, 1942; September 18, 1942; May 28, 1943; July 7, 1944; November 23, 1945; February 21, 1947; and November 21, 1947.
Also in late 1945, the Cats were approached by someone from the Manor label, and a contract ensued. In January or February 1946, they held their first session for the Manor/Regis/Arco complex. They recorded four tunes, starting with a somewhat lackluster remake of "I Miss You So." The other tunes were: "Romance Without Finance," "Life's Too Short" (another remake) and "My Sugar's Sweet To Me." All leads were by Ernie Price or Herbie Miles, except for "Romance Without Finance," which is the group in unison. I'm not sure how useful Manor master numbers are. "You're So Fine" (released in 1947), has a much lower master number than any of the other tunes they recorded; there are no other Cats masters in that series and it just may have been a clerical error.
The first release was on Manor's Regis subsidiary, in February 1946. It paired "I Miss You So" and "My Sugar's Sweet To Me." The same two tunes also came out on Manor (with the same record number as Regis), probably a year later, since it's mentioned in an ad for a record that was released in August 1947.
When Austin Powell was discharged from the army in April 1946, he wasted no time in rejoining the group, which caused Pee Wee to leave. (Mifflin "Pee Wee" Brantford ended up with the Dozier Boys in the early 50s, and went on to the Sharps and A Flat by the end of that decade.) The Cats were now Austin Powell, Herbie Miles, Ernie Price and George Steinback. In June, Manor issued the other two sides from the first session: "Life's Too Short" and "Romance Without Finance."
During this period, Napoleon "Snaggs" Allen (later with the Blenders) was used as a utility replacement for any member who was unable to make an engagement. Allen never recorded with the group, however. The opposite is true of Allen's pal, Baby Laurence, who recorded occasionally with the group, although he was never a member.
In June 1946, Manor issued their second record: "Life's Too Short"/"Romance Without Finance."
Once Manor had issued the remade version of "I Miss You So," RCA Victor dipped into its vaults and released it too. "I Miss You So," originally on Bluebird, was reissued four times on the parent RCA label: in late 1946 to compete with the Regis release; in 1950 on the RCA 50-0000 series of R&B 45s; in 1951, following the release of the Orioles' version; and finally, on the "Gold Standard Series" in 1955. On all but the 1951 offering, "I Miss You So" was paired with the Four Clefs' instrumental hit, "Dig These Blues."
At their second Manor session, held in July or August 1946, they did three titles, all led by Austin Powell: "I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water," "Please Don't Leave Me Now," and "Shorty's Got To Go." While they were at the studio, they were used as backup to June Davis on "Gin Misery Blues" (which had more than a passing acquaintance with "See See Rider") and "J.D. Blues." (There was probably a third title that remains unreleased, as there's a break in the master numbers.)
In August Manor issued "Please Don't Leave Me Now"/"Shorty's Got To Go" as well as the June Davis cuts. November found the Cats at Sportree's Music Bar in Detroit. "I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water" was released in December 1946, and for some reason had "Walkie Talkie" by the Rudy Richardson Trio on the flip.
Their next session, held around March 1947, produced eight more masters: "That's My Desire" (one of the dozen or so covers of Frankie Laine's smash hit), "When Elephants Roost In Bamboo Trees," "They Don't Understand," "Where Are You," "I'm Stuck With You," "I'm Gonna Pull My Hair," ???? (a break in the numbering series, indicating an unreleased master), and "Darling Can't We Make A Date." They were all led by Austin Powell, except "That's My Desire," which might be Ernie Price.
"That's My Desire" and "When Elephants Roost In Bamboo Trees" were released in March 1947, as were "They Don't Understand"/"I'm Stuck With You." Then in July there was "Where Are You"/"I'm Gonna Pull My Hair," followed by "Darling Can't We Make A Date"/"You're So Fine" in August. It isn't known when "You're So Fine" was recorded, since it's the only Manor song that doesn't fit into the current master number series. The master number seems to be one going back to early 1945, but that was long before the group was recording for Manor. Just another of life's mysteries. [If I had to make a guess, I'd say that "You're So Fine," is the missing master in the March 1947 session. Somehow it ended up with the wrong number.] Note that there were five songs cut for Manor which were remakes of Bluebird tunes: "I Miss You So," "Life's Too Short," "I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water," "I'm Gonna Pull My Hair," and "You're So Fine."
In mid-1947, Herbie Miles left again and was briefly replaced by Emitt Slay, who did no recording with them (but who did manage to make it to a photo that ran with the release of "Darling, Can't We Make A Date" in August). Slay was, in turn, replaced by Shirley Moore.
Shirley Moore's arrival changed the group's overall sound, which was now much more sophisticated stylistically than it had been on the earlier Bluebird discs, with fuller instrumentation and more predominant harmony. Even in the late 40s, the Cats And The Fiddle were ahead of their contemporaries. In January 1948, it was reported that the Cats were now being booked by Joe Marsolais, who had gone out on his own after having been with the William Morris agency.
The last Manor session was held around February 1948, and there were probably six masters cut (there are two missing numbers). Those we know about were: "That's What I Thought You Said," "Honey Honey Honey," "I'm Afraid Of You," and "The New Look Blues." "That's What I Thought You Said" and "I'm Afraid Of You" were led by Austin Powell; the others by Shirley Moore.
However, Shirley didn't stay with the group too long; by April 1948, she was appearing with Bill Johnson & the Musical Notes. To keep the sound they had just crafted, the Cats replaced her with Doris Knighton (formerly of Two Kings And A Queen), who was with them when they played the Tia Juana, in Cleveland, on March 6. Actually, Doris was a natural to be in the group; her husband, Randolph Cotton, was the Cats' valet.
Manor released "Honey Honey Honey"/"I'm Afraid Of You" in February 1948. It took until September for Manor to issue the last two sides: "That's What I Thought You Said"/"The New Look Blues." Johnny Davis, a tenor who also played conga drums, was added as a fifth member sometime in 1948.
In early May, 1949, the group played the Club Regal, in Columbus, Ohio, for three weeks. The songs they were known for, said the May 7 Ohio State News, were: "It's Too Soon To Know", "Cat In The Well", "Just A Lucky So And So", "Happiness Is Just A Thing Called Joe", and "52nd Street Rag". The members at that time were identified as: Austin Powell, Doris Knighton, Ernie Price, and George Steinback. They were also at the Piccadilly Club (on Peshine and Waverly Avenues in Newark) later that month.
On July 7, Austin Powell married Jean Johnson in Philadelphia. At the time, the group was playing Lou's Moravian.
The Cats And The Fiddle then went over to Ivin Ballen's Philadelphia-based Gotham label, where they cut four masters around September 1949: "I'll Never, Never Let You Go," "Do You Love Me," "Start Talking Baby," and "Movin' Out Today." "I'll Never, Never Let You Go" and "Start Talking Baby" were issued in September 1949, the other two in April 1950. The group at this time was Austin Powell, Ernie Price, Doris Knighton, George Steinback, and Johnny Davis. "I'll Never, Never Let You Go" was led by Doris Knighton; the others are probably by Johnny Davis, as the voice is different than any heard before.
The group then cut three masters for Decca on March 27, 1950: "Wine Drinker," "Out In The Cold Again," and "Lover Boy." The first and third of these were issued in May.
However, by June 1950, the entire ensemble had disintegrated. Austin Powell immediately reorganized the group. Only tenor/conga drummer Johnny Davis remained, although it's possible that Ernie Price stayed on for a while. New members were bass/bassist Stanley Gaines; pianist Beryl Booker, who had been with the Toppers (the early incarnation of the Red Caps), and more recently with the Slam Stewart Trio; and Dottie Smith, who had sung and played drums with the Harlemaires, who'd recorded for Atlantic Records in 1948 (most recently with a group called the Craft-Tones, her arrival in the group was trumpeted in a July 1950 Billboard article). By the end of June, they were playing Lou's Moravian in Philadelphia. (The very next act at Lou's seems to have been Doris Knighton, as a soloist.) It looks like Dottie Smith didn't stay all that long since an ad for an appearance in November 1950 shows Powell, Gaines, Davis, Booker, and someone who isn't Dottie Smith. Beryl Booker couldn't have been there all that long either. She was named as a member of the group in August 1950 and still there in November, but back in Ohio with pneumonia in January 1951 (she'd also been sick when with the Toppers).
Actually, it's even more complicated than that. Before she joined the 3 B's & A Honey in 1952, Louisa Lara was with the Cats & The Fiddle in 1950, playing the cocktail drum, having replaced Johnny Davis. The others at the time, she said, were Austin Powell, Beryl Booker, Ernie Price, and George Steinbeck. This has to be mid- to late 1950, since Beryl Booker was only there between August and December.
Stanley Gaines left in December 1950; his replacement was jazz violinist and guitarist Claude "Fiddler" Williams (meaning that the Cats And The Fiddle finally had a fiddler!). Williams had recently been with the 4 Shades Of Rhythm for about a year. The Cats And The Fiddle held another session for Decca, on February 26, 1951. The four songs recorded were: "Wishing Well," "Some Other Spring," "All This Can't Be True," and "Please Consider Me." However, by the time "Some Other Spring" and "All This Can't Be True" were issued in April (with Williams' prominent violin), the name of the group had been changed to the "Austin Powell Quintet" (possibly due to a disagreement between Austin Powell and Ernie Price). At that time, they were appearing at the Cafe Society in New York City. The other two sides were released in September. As the Austin Powell Quintet, they appeared on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts show.
In April 1951, Decca announced that it had signed Austin Powell ("remembered as a member of the Cats And The Fiddle"). It's unclear what that meant, since they'd presumably signed him before the February session. His (unidentified) group was currently booked into the Cafe Society (Greenwich Village). A review of that appearance, in the May 30, 1951 Variety, wasn't particularly favorable. "Arrangements aren't too slick and can use more variety." Also, "Group would be more effective if length of arrangements were trimmed somewhat and more numbers used." Apart from Powell, none of the others was named. They did say that there were two women (piano and drums), two guitarists (one of whom doubled on the electric violin), and a bassist. Other than Claude Williams, I'm not going to try to figure out the others. Since Austin was to take up with the James Quintet in the following year, this incarnation of the Austin Powell Quintet couldn't have lasted much longer.
As long as the Cats And The Fiddle weren't around anymore, Phil Moore and Buster Collins felt free to use the name for a one-shot television show that they were co-producing, The Cats And A Fiddle aired on KTSL (Los Angeles; a CBS affiliate) on June 4, 1951 at 8:00 PM. This half-hour show featured Ginger [Smock] and Her Violin (the "fiddle"), a six-piece all-female combo (I guess these were the "cats"), and Vivian Dandridge.
In September 1951, Decca released the other two masters by the Austin Powell Quintet: "Wishing Well" and "Please Consider Me." The Austin Powell Quintet, whoever they were, played the 400 Casino Jazzland in Albany on Sunday, October 14, 1951. Also on the bill was piano great Meade "Lux" Lewis.
On April 29, 1952, Austin Powell recorded three songs for Atlantic Records, backed by the James Quintet: "What More Can I Ask," "Wrong Again," and "I Surrender Dear." None of these was ever issued. On May 28, they did three more: remakes of "Wrong Again" and "What More Can I Ask," along with "There I Go, There I Go." The remakes must have done the trick: those two masters were released as Atlantic 968 in June (as by Austin Powell and the James Quintet).
May 19 saw the "Austin Powell Quintet" playing the Ebony Club in Cleveland for a week. This was, presumably the James Quintet, but you never know. (There was also a mention of the "Austin Powell Quartet" in July.) May 29 found the Austin Powell Quintet at Grace's Little Club in Atlantic City. They also appeared at the Apollo on June 13 ("Austin Powell New Quintet"). A June 23 ad for Philadelphia's Rendezvous had "Austin Powell & His Band" (along with the Treniers). This gets confusing, because they keep bouncing back and forth between names.
By June 1952, Powell had become a part of the James Quintet. (A late 1951 newspaper blurb identified them as: Charlie Hooser, Eddie Johnson, Danny Johnson, Tommy Harrod, and Buzz Cottman; I have no idea why they were called the "James Quintet." It's possible that Austin replaced Danny Johnson.)
On July 2, Atlantic had the James Quintet back up Ruth Brown on "Have A Good Time." Then, they had a gig at the Hofbrau (Wildwood, New Jersey). In mid-August, the Austin Powell Quintet played the Little Belmont Club in Atlantic City. In September, Austin Powell and the James Quintet were off to Uncle Tom's Plantation (Detroit) and Wally's Paradise (Boston). November saw a blurb about Austin Powell and the "James Boys Quartet" appearing at the Ebony Club in Cleveland for two weeks. Do you get the idea that "Austin Powell and the James Quintet" and the "Austin Powell Quintet" were the same aggregation at this point? On September 19 the James Quintet backed up Lincoln Chase on the unreleased "Every Moment Of My Life." I don't know if Austin Powell was still with them.
Also in 1952, Ernie Price formed his own Cats And The Fiddle group. There are ads in August and September for appearances at the Pioneer Lounge in Manhattan: ("They're Back! The 'I Miss You So' Boys"). August 28 found them at Jackie Robinson Day in Blue Island, Illinois (with the Red Saunders Orchestra, Lurlean Hunter, and a huge cast of performers that I never heard of). Remember that Price and Powell had been together in the Cats And The Fiddle for around thirteen years. There had probably been some dissension between them which had led to the breakup of the "Cats And The Fiddle" and the adoption of the "Austin Powell Quintet" name back in 1951.
In November 1952, Austin Powell And His Band ("Formerly The Cats And The Fiddle") appeared at Irvin Wolf's Rendezvous Room in Philadelphia's Hotel Senator in Philadelphia, along with Joni James and the Jimmy Wisner Trio. I'm not sure if that "band" was the James Quintet, but in June 1953, they were all playing Gleason's Musical Bar in Cleveland.
The June 4, 1953 issue of Jet Magazine reported that Austin Powell and his "four band members" (no names given, not even the name of the group) were caught up in a narcotics arrest in Annapolis, Maryland (the charges were subsequently dropped). (Note, however, that blurbs in Jet are highly suspect.)
August 1953 found Austin Powell appearing at Pep's Musical Bar in Philadelphia. From there, he'd go to the Martinique, in Wildwood, New Jersey. Neither of these engagements mentioned a group. In September, there was a singer named Betty Roché (former vocalist with Earl "Fatha" Hines) with the Austin Powell Quintet. (The blurb left out the unimportant bands she'd also sung with: Duke Ellington, Hot Lips Page, and Charles Brown.)
In October 1953, it was announced that "Austin Powell and the Cats And The Fiddle" had recorded some masters for Aladdin's 7-11 subsidiary. However, nothing was ever released from the session, and it isn't known who was in the group.
By 1954, Austin had teamed up with Dottie Smith again. They were part of the Timmie Rogers Crazy Quilt Musical Revue, which also included trumpeter Jonah Jones, Ford Buck (of "Buck & Bubbles"), Eddie Bonnemere, and tenor saxman George "Big Nick" Nicholas. The revue was active in May, and still going strong in September (spending the summer in Wildwood, New Jersey). As the "Timmie Rogers Orchestra," they released "Teedle Dee Teedle Dum" (vocal by Big Nick Nicholas), backed with "If I Give My Heart To You" (vocal by Austin Powell and Dottie Smith), on Mercury, in August of that year.
A newspaper article in September 1955 trumpets the "comeback" of the Cats And The Fiddle. Consisting of Big Nick Nicholas (sax), Freddie Jefferson (piano), Marvin "Sonny" Oliver (drums), Hector Ford (bass), and Austin Powell (guitar and vocals). They'd been appearing at the Bankers' Club (in West New York, New Jersey) since July, when they'd been held over indefinitely after wowing their audiences during their initial three-week engagement. Before this, Big Nick and Austin Powell had appeared as a duet (they were at the Wells Musical Bar in May 1955). By the time they played the Lodge China (or the China Lodge, depending on the ad) in Haverstraw, New York in December 1955, the members were Austin Powell, Big Nick Nicholas, Sonny Oliver, pianist Linton Garner, and Gene Turner (presumably bass). In November 1956, Austin Powell and his (unnamed) quintet appeared at Luther "Red" Randolph's Shalimar, in Harlem.
In December 1956, Powell was part of Tic and Toc, releasing a single record on RCA's Vik subsidiary: "I'm A Big Boy Now" (vocal: Austin "Tic" Powell), backed with "Jibba Jab" (vocal: Big Nick "Toc" [Nicholas]). George Walker "Big Nick" Nicholas had been, over the years, in the bands of some people you might know: Earl Hines, Tiny Bradshaw, Sabby Lewis, Lucky Millinder, Dizzy Gillespie, and Hot Lips Page.
In 1957, Austin Powell and Dottie Smith joined up with Louis Jordan, as part of the Tympany Five, where Austin would remain for about a year, playing both the guitar and the tenor sax. Dottie played the conga drums, Jordan the alto sax, Jackie Davis the organ, and Sonny Oliver the drums. On March 2, 1957, Austin married Jean Webster in a 4:00 AM ceremony at the house of Dottie Smith; Louis Jordan was the best man.
When Jordan did a session for Mercury on August 28, 1957 (resulting in one single and an LP), Austin was playing the tenor sax, and those five were augmented by Irving Ashby on guitar and Billy Hadnott on bass. By the time of Jordan's next Mercury session in April 1958, Powell was gone.
June 1958 found the Austin Powell Trio at the Thunderbird, in Hempstead, Long Island, New York. Also on the bill were Big Miller, Ruby Johnson, and MC Manhattan Paul.
The last mention of Austin Powell was reported in the March 30, 1959 Billboard, when he was fronting his own "hot combo" at the Town Hall in Brooklyn with Len Garner and the ursine crew: Jack "The Bear" Parker on drums and Teddy "Mr. Bear" McRae on sax. Wait, one more: he was at the 5000 Club in Brooklyn in September 1961.
Ernie Price put together another Cats And The Fiddle in Chicago, around 1958. The only other known member was bassist and vocalist Steve Trimble. They stayed together until Ernie's death two years later, in October 1960. There's a possibility that the other members were Ernie's brothers, William and James. (Ernie's obituary in the October 15, 1960 Pittsburgh Courier said "... worked numerous South Side night spots with two other brothers." He had three: William, James, and Elwood, but only William and James lived in Chicago.)
In the 70s, when I interviewed him, Austin Powell had a bar called, appropriately enough, "A.P.'s" in Queens. He passed away on August 30, 1983.
By the time the Orioles and the Ravens were reaching their peaks, the Cats And The Fiddle were no longer an influential group in the music scene. But in the early 40s it would be difficult to find better practitioners of jive music. Although mostly remembered now for "I Miss You So," many other sides done by them are equally outstanding and deserving of recognition by today's fans of vocal group recordings.
Discography courtesy of Ferdie Gonzalez. Special thanks to John Stewart.
8216 Nuts To You/Killin' Jive - 8/39
8248 Gang Busters/Please Don't Leave Me Now - 9/39
10484 Killer Diller Man From The South/Thursday Evening Swing - 11/39
10547 We Cats Will Swing For You/Till The Day I Die - 12/39
8402 Chant Of The Rain/I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water - 4/40
8429 I Miss You So/Public Jitterbug No. 1 - 5/40
8443 When I Grow Too Old To Dream/Left With The Thought Of You - 5/40
8465 Mister Rhythm Man/Gone - 6/40
8489 That's On, Jack, That's On/Just A Roamer - 8/40
8519 Hep Cats Holiday/In The Midst Of A Dream - 9/40
8535 Nothing/That's All I Mean To You - 10/40
8560 You're So Fine/Pig's Idea - 11/40
8585 Hush-A-Bye Love/Swing The Scales - 12/40
8639 I'll Always Love You Just The Same/One Is Never Too Old To Swing - 2/41
8665 If I Dream Of You/I'm Gonna Pull My Hair - 4/41
8685 I'm Singing (So Help Me)/My Darling - 5/41
8705 Crawlin' Blues/Until I Met You - 5/41
8847 I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire/Blue Skies - 11/41
8870 Lawdy-Clawdy/Sighing And Crying - 12/41
8902 Another Day/Stomp Stomp - 1/42
8932 Part Of me/Life's Too Short - 2/42
MONTGOMERY WARD (Bluebird masters, leased from Victor)
8519 Killer Diller Man From The South/Thursday Evening Swing - 1940
8520 We Cats Will Swing For You/Till The Day I Die - 1940
8521 Chant Of The Rain/I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water - 1940
8767 I Miss You So/Public Jitterbug No. 1 - 1940
8768 When I Grow Too Old To Dream/Left With The Thought Of You - 1940
8769 Mister Rhythm Man/Gone - 1940
8770 That's On, Jack, That's On/Just A Roamer - 1940
8904 You're So Fine/Pig's Idea - 1941
8905 Hush-A-Bye Love/Swing The Scales - 1941
REGIS (subsidiary of Manor)
6000 I Miss You So/My Sugar's Sweet To Me - 2/46
1023 Life's Too Short/Romance Without Finance - 6/46
1037 Please Don't Leave Me Now/Shorty's Got To Go - 8/46
1038 J.D Blues/Gin Misery Blues [backing June Davis] - 8/46
1045 I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water/[Walkie Talkie - Rudy Richardson Trio] - 12/46
RCA VICTOR (Bluebird reissues)
20-2072 I Miss You So/[Dig These Blues - 4 Clefs] - 12/46
1064 That's My Desire/When Elephants Roost In Bamboo Trees - 3/47
1067 They Don't Understand/I'm Stuck With You - 3/47
1078 Where Are You/I'm Gonna Pull My Hair - 7/47
1086 You're So Fine/Darling Can't We Make A Date - 8/47
6000 I Miss You So/My Sugar's Sweet To Me - ca. mid-47
RCA VICTOR (Bluebird reissues)
20-2794 Gang Busters/Please Don't Leave Me Now - 1/48
20-2795 Chant Of The Rain/I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water - 1/48
1112 Honey Honey Honey/I'm Afraid Of You - 2/48
1140 That's What I Thought You Said/The New Look Blues - 9/48
RCA VICTOR (Bluebird reissues)
20-3260 If I Dream Of You/I'm Gonna Pull My Hair - 12/48
197 I'll Never, Never Let You Go/Start Talking, Baby - 9/49
239 Do You Love Me/Movin' Out Today - 4/50
ARCO (Manor reissues)
1265 I Miss You So/My Sugar's Sweet To Me - 1950
RCA VICTOR (Bluebird reissues)
50-0077 I Miss You So/[Dig These Blues - 4 Clefs] - 1950
48151 Wine Drinker/Lover Boy - 5/50
DECCA (as the "Austin Powell Quintet")
48206 Some Other Spring/All This Can't Be True - 4/51
48251 Wishing Well/Please Consider Me - 9/51
RCA VICTOR (Bluebird reissues)
47-4393 I Miss You So/Another Day - 11/51
447-0077 I Miss You So/[Dig These Blues - 4 Clefs] - 1955
ATLANTIC (Austin Powell and the James Quintet)
968 Wrong Again/What More Can I Ask - 6/52
ATLANTIC (Ruth Brown, backed up by the James Quintet)
973 Have A Good Time/[Daddy Daddy - Ruth Brown] - 8/52
UNRELEASED ATLANTIC BY AUSTIN POWELL AND THE JAMES QUINTET
What More Can I Ask (recorded 4/29/52)
Wrong (recorded 4/29/52)
I Surrender Dear (recorded 4/29/52)
There I Go, There I Go (recorded 5/28/52)
Every Moment Of My Life (recorded 9/19/52) - James Quintet backing Lincoln Chase
MERCURY (Timmie Rogers Orchestra)
70451 If I Give My Heart To You (vocal: Austin Powell & Dottie Smith)/[Teedle Dee Teedle Dum (vocal: Big Nick Nicholas)] - 8/54
VIK (Tic & Toc)
0248 I'm A Big Boy Now (vocal: Austin "Tic" Powell)/[Jibba Jab (vocal: Big Nick "Toc")] - 12/56
MERCURY (tenor sax in Louis Jordan's orchestra)
71206 I Never Had A Chance/I've Found My Peace Of Mind - 1957
20331 Man, We're Wailin' - 1957
Saturday Night Fish Fry
The Nearness Of You
I've Found My Peace Of Mind
I Never Had A Chance
Got My Mo-Jo Working
A Man Ain't A Man
I Hadn't Anyone Till You