Kid Ory’s Legendary
by Floyd Levin
This is the saga of two pioneer companies who were jointly responsible for establishing an important milestone along jazz’s long journey. Together, they conceived the first recordings of authentic black New Orleans jazz — and, in so doing, created a controversy that continues to shroud the true genesis of those very rare records that Kid Ory made in Santa Monica, California in 1922 — or was it 1921? Were they recorded for the Nordskog label — or for the Sunshine Label? This story reveals many of the long-hidden facts about the arcane recordings, but will the enigma that surrounds the missing information ever be solved?
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THE details of this obscure segment of jazz history, as disclosed here, were gathered over a period of 40 years. They stem from conversations and interviews I conducted with most of the participants in that pivotal recording session. Appropriately, much of the material was provided by Benjamin “Reb” Spikes, one of the principal protagonists in this drama, and from the personal files of Arne A. Nordskog, the founder of the recording firm that bore his name.
The Ory records originally appeared on the black Nordskog label imprinted in gold with the slogan “Established in 1921 — First on The Pacific Coast”. But according to some of my information, that label has actually been hidden since its initial appearance 70 years ago! This nearly forgotten event occurred before King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band was heard on record — earlier than Jelly Roll Morton’s famed piano solos — and four years prior to the appearance of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five classics on Okeh. Surprisingly, the fabled Ory records were produced far from the nation’s cultural hubs, in southern California, then a provincial outland separated by several thousand miles from the music centres of the country.
Before emigrating to California in 1918, Reb Spikes and his brother, Johnny, were active in the music business in their hometown, Muskogee, Oklahoma. They operated an open air playhouse, The Pastime Theatre, where they employed many of the early travelling jazz bands and blues singers.
“In 1911,” Reb told me in an interview published in Jazz Journal in December 1951, “Jelly Roll Morton drifted into town and he played at our theater — we paid him $100.00 a week, a huge fee in those days! He decided to join the McCabes Troubadours, a travelling minstrel show, doing a black-face comedy act. He convinced my brother and me to go with him as part of the act. Jelly didn’t hire on as a musician . . . the show’s band had a pianist. Before long, he displayed his ability . . . and soon took over the piano stool! When the Troubadours came back through Oklahoma, Johnny and I left the show. By that time, Jelly was their star!”
In 1919, a year after moving to Los Angeles, they opened The Spikes Brothers Music Store at 1703 Central Avenue. The store soon was the city’s centre of black musical activity. Eventually, the brothers became involved in every phase of the entertainment business. Their Dreamland Cafe on 4th Street became a Mecca for local musicians. When the Spikes brothers opened their Wayside Amusement Park, they sent for Jelly Roll Morton who became the musical director and star performer. Morton engaged Kid Ory, the then 31-year-old trombonist, who had led one of the prominent bands in New Orleans, to appear at the Wayside Cafe with his Creole Orchestra.
Explaining how the early Ory records were made, Reb Spikes recalled: “Back in those days, our store was the only place in Los Angeles where recordings by black artists could be purchased. As a result, we did a huge record business! The early blues recordings were quite risqué for that time. Wealthy Hollywood people would drive up in long limousines and send their chauffeurs in to ask for “dirty records”. When the local distributor received a shipment of Mamie Smith or Ma Rainey records, we’d take the entire lot . . . a few hours later, they’d be gone! We were selling as many as 100 copies a day of Alberta Hunter’s Black Swan recording of a song Johnny and I had recently written, Someday Sweetheart. We decided to make our own records to sell in the store. Kid Ory had accepted an offer to appear with his band in Oakland at The Creole Café. We asked him to come back to Los Angeles to make the records for us. We wanted him to accompany two local blues singers, Roberta Dudley and Ruth Lee, singing some of our tunes that we had just published. Ory complained that his band would not be heard enough so we suggested he do a few instrumentals including Society Blues, and his own tune, Ory’s Creole Trombone. He recorded it again five years later with Louis Armstrong.”
The Nordskog facility in Santa Monica in 1921
All the recordings were made at the new Nordskog facility in Santa Monica, a dozen miles west of Los Angeles, just a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean. The original building still stood in 1992. Only some decorative urns had been removed from the building’s parapets. The Nordskog space was occupied by a shoe repair shop and a veterinarian’s clinic. When I visited the site, none of the occupants of the building or the neighbours were aware of the historical significance of the property — and none had previously been questioned in that regard. Apparently the building had changed hands several times since the Nordskog period. The present owner and the previous owner were contacted; neither was able to provide any pertinent information.
Arne Andrae Nordskog, a son of Norwegian settlers, pioneered much of Los Angeles’s classical music activity for many years. He began as a singer in his birthplace, Story City, Iowa, and joined the Seattle Grand Opera Company in 1914. Two years later, Nordskog was the leading tenor with the Knickerbocker Light Opera Company in Los Angeles. By 1921, at the age of 36 he had become general manager of a series of concerts at the recently inaugurated Hollywood Bowl. Nordskog opened his recording studio, the first on the West Coast, that same year. Initially, his goal was to preserve the sounds of the classical artists he was introducing to Hollywood Bowl audiences. The recording equipment was designed and built by Nordskog’s father-in-law Frank Lockwood, who had no previous recording experience. He constructed large wooden horns that transmitted the sound to a vibrating needle. As Lockwood turned the mechanism by hand, the needle cut grooves into a thick rotating wax disc. The wax underwent two electro-plating operations that produced the nickel stamper from which the records were pressed — also by hand. The stamping operation was launched shortly after the Kid Ory records were produced. Documents in Nordskog’s files indicate that the six hydraulic presses were capable of turning out a million records a year. Unfortunately, there are no statistics to establish the quantity that were actually pressed.
Reb Spikes, recalling the recording session, said: “Nordskog had some recording equipment out in Santa Monica and we arranged for him to cut the masters. The Ory band was assembled in a small room and they played into tapered square boxes. There was one for each of the horns. The piano and drums were placed close together. Mutt Carey’s cornet recorded the strongest — he was probably closest to the horns. Mutt was very popular around here. It was as much his band as Ory’s. We billed the group as Ory’s Creole Orchestra at Wayside Park because people kept asking to hear the band play Ory’s Creole Trombone.”
Jelly Roll Morton’s brother-in-law, Dink Johnson, played clarinet on the Nordskog session. He had a clear recollection of the date when I spoke to him in a barber shop in Santa Barbara, California in 1950:
“I came out from New Orleans with Freddy Keppard’s Creole Orchestra in 1919 and decided to remain in Los Angeles. I had a chance to play clarinet with Jelly at Paradise Gardens at 12th and Central. I was actually a drummer you know. I had always wanted to play the clarinet since hearing Larry Shields with The Original Dixieland Jazz Band. So I borrowed a horn from the Spikes Brothers store and practised every day trying to sound like Shields. Wade Waley (Whaley) was Ory’s regular player. He and Buddy Petit came out here back in 1911, and Waley (Whaley) stayed. Something prevented him from making the recording in Santa Monica and Ory asked me to substitute. Freddy Washington was on piano. He was from Houston and had just joined the band. He replaced Manuel Manetta who went back to New Orleans to join Celestin’s Tuxedo Orchestra.”
One of the songs recorded that day by Roberta Dudley, Dink Johnson’s Krooked Blues, was composed in collaboration with the Spikes Brothers who published the tune. It was recorded the following year by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.
Bassist Ed Montudie Garland, (interviewed in Jazz Journal from June 1979 onwards) for many years the sole survivor of the original Ory band, came to California in 1921 on a tour with King Oliver. Jelly Roll Morton had engaged the Oliver band to appear at the Spikes’s Wayside Park Cafe. Reb Spikes remembered that the pianist Lil Hardin had to return to Chicago and Morton played with the band during the Wayside engagement. In one of my few conversations with Johnny Spikes, he suggested that a recording of this band might have taken place. I have never been able to find any evidence of this. When the Oliver band left Los Angeles, Ed Garland stayed to join Kid Ory. He resumed a relationship that had begun a decade earlier with Kid Ory’s Brown Skin Babies at Pete Lala’s 25 Club in New Orleans. His resonant string bass was heard in the Ory band for the next 40 years. “They didn’t know how to record the bass in those days,” Garland often said. “There wasn’t room for me near one of those large horns. Ben Borders’s drums were too loud and you can’t hear the bass!” Nevertheless, when I introduced him nightly to European audiences attending our Night In New Orleans concerts, we played an excerpt from Ory’s Creole Trombone. Garland, then in his eighties, was greeted with tumultuous cheers as I helped him onto the stage in England, Belgium, Holland, Italy and Germany.
Reb Spikes continued: “There were no processing or pressing plants on the Coast at that time. We had the records made back east by The Standard Music Roll Company who operated The Arto Pressing Company in Orange, New Jersey. They went out of business the following year. We lost several masters going through the hot desert. The heat melted the wax and they had to be discarded. One of the masters that melted was Froggie Moore, one of Jelly’s tunes we were planning to publish. We almost lost Ory’s Creole Trombone. The wax did crack — you can hear the click on every pressing.” (Ed Garland confirmed the loss of masters in the desert heat. He told me that an original blues he had written for the Ory band was recorded but never appeared on record — apparently damaged en route to the processing plant. He was unable to recall the title.)
“For some reason,” said Spikes, “Nordskog put his label on our records. He called Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra The Seven Pods Of Pepper . . . he had no business doing this — they were our property! We had contracted for 5,000 pressings that should have had our Sunshine label. We had to paste our label over his. They had to be oversize and almost covered the last grooves! All of the records were sold in our store except for a small amount we shipped to Chicago . . . we had placed a small ad in a Chicago paper and received a few mail orders — but every copy passed over the counter of our shop. When the 5,000 were gone, we did not order any more.”
Collectors who have obtained some of those rare records are usually aware of the double labelling. The black and orange Sunshine label, emblazoned with a glowing sunset behind a California mission, has usually been eroded by time, exposing fragments of the Nordskog label that is beneath. In many cases, the entire Sunshine label has disappeared and only the original Nordskog nameplate exists. These rarities are still eagerly sought by collectors. Their original retail price was 75 cents. At auction, the original records have brought bids of $350.00 (around £205.00) and more.
Eight years after my interview with Reb Spikes was published in Jazz Journal, a comprehensive article about Andres Nordskog appeared in the May 1959 issue of the now defunct Jazz Monthly in London. The authors, John Bentley and Ralph W. Miller, presented an entirely different version of the Nordskog/Sunshine debacle:
“The Spikes Brothers, who had a music store in the Negro district on Central Avenue in Los Angeles, arranged for Kid Ory’s Band (then known as Spikes’ Pods Of Pepper) to make the recordings at The Nordskog Laboratories in Santa Monica. They were released under the Nordskog label to merchants throughout the world, with the Spikes Brothers ordering a great number for sale in their own store where they sold like hot cakes to the Negro trade. When Spikes failed to pay for the Nordskog records they had received, Nordskog filed suit in Superior Court in Los Angeles and obtained judgment which was only paid in part. Kid Ory, also having a grievance, broke with the Spikes Brothers and obtained a quantity of his own recordings and pasted his own label, Sunshine Records, over the Nordskog label and called it Kid Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra.”
Recently, while examining Nordskog’s voluminous files, I came across his personal memo to John Bentley dated November 22, 1958, six months prior to the publication of the Jazz Monthly article. Apparently the memo was Bentley’s and Miller’s source for the details quoted above; it narrated the events exactly as they appear in their article. Nordskog’s implication that Kid Ory pasted his own Sunshine label on the records seems implausible since the label bears the bold imprint: ‘Manuf. by Spikes Brothers Phonograph Record Co. Inc. Los Angeles.’
Whenever I spoke to Kid Ory about the famed recordings, he was very reluctant to provide any information. He did tell me, with embarrassment, that a prank had been played on him at the Nordskog session. “This was my first recording and I didn’t know what I was supposed to wear. Tudi (Ed Garland) told me that tuxedos were in order, so I showed up in a tux and a stiff shirt. We were all very nervous, I remember. No one seemed to notice the full dress.” Although I had a very close relationship with Ory, any additional questions were always met with suspicion and evoked very little response. He would always say: “What are you gonna do — write a book about me?” (Perhaps I might one day; my files are bursting with material about him.)
The Nordskog memo confirms that Arto Company had pressed the records prior to Nordskog’s acquisition of his own stamping equipment. It states: ‘When Arto went into bankruptcy in 1923, it had in its possession eighty sets of Nordskog Records’ masters, mothers, and stampers . . . A claim was filed in the sum of $20,000 for the loss of those sets. Apparently the salvaging of Arto assets did not justify the payment of such a claim, so Nordskog got nothing.’ One can only speculate on the material those 80 masters contained. Did they include the original tune Ed Garland wrote for the session, or the missing Froggie Moore?
There is a further revelation in the 1958 Nordskog memo. Apparently Arto and Nordskog had agreed in 1921 to exchange material for release on their respective labels. At the time, Arto was issuing records by the blues singer Lucille Hagamin (Hegamin), and soon launched the recording career of The Original Memphis Five (Phil Napoleon, Miff Mole, Jimmy Lytell, Frank Signorelli and Jack Roth). The memo indicates that Arto also had many ‘trade secret’ recordings by bands ‘consisting of first chair musicians in prominent New York orchestras under contract with Victor and other leading recording companies . . . who made the records being released by Arto and Nordskog.’ Since Arto had access to all of the West Coast material, did any of the Ory sides ever appear on the Arto label? Is it possible that the mythical Morton-Oliver session was issued by Arto? It appears unlikely, since none of these items have surfaced to date. However, the possibility exists!
The Nordskog catalogue, dated November 1922, lists the Ruth Lee and Roberta Dudley titles as: Vocal — Spikes Orchestra (the actual record labels merely state: Orchestral Acc). Ory’s Creole Trombone and Society Blues are credited to Seven Pods Of Pepper Orchestra. The catalogue also lists Eva Tanguay (The ‘I Don’t Care Girl’), Herb Weidoeft’s Famous Orchestra, The Hollywood Syncopators, The Big Bear Melody Boys, The Catalina Social Seven Orchestra, and Abe Lyman’s Ambassador Orchestra. (Brian Rust’s Jazz Records contains no Lyman listings prior to 1923). A search of the Nordskog files failed to disclose the personnel of these California groups.
The modest catalogue could not have consumed the pressing capacity of a million records per year as Nordskog’s files boasted. Is it possible that he did release some of those ‘trade secret’ recordings from the Arto masters? I have a copy of a purchase order to the Nordskog Phonograph Co dated October 31, 1922 from M. B. Armstrong Music Co in Oklahoma City. They were ordering 50 copies of Teddy Bear Blues — which does not appear in the catalogue. This is a further indication of Nordskog’s expanded capacity just prior to his bankruptcy. (A marginal pencilled notation on the M. B. Armstrong order computes the invoice amount at the wholesale price of 45 cents each!).
The Nordskog Record Company was in existence only from 1921 to 1923; however, Arne Nordskog remained extremely active in many fields for the next 35 years. He became a very successful author, newspaper publisher, public activist, and banking system expert. Nordskog was responsible for the US government consolidating its gold reserves in Fort Knox. He also ran as a vice-presidential candidate on The Liberty Party’s unsuccessful opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. Apparently Nordskog kept in contact with Kid Ory over the years. His files included a clipping from The Los Angeles Herald Express dated August 11, 1951. An article announcing Ory’s forthcoming appearance at The Beverly Cavern mentions the early recordings and indicates that Nordskog would be present at the opening. Nordskog died in 1957.
I had the opportunity to meet Robert Arne Nordskog (died July 1992), the son of the pioneer record producer, several years ago when The Hollywood Bowl Museum honoured Nordskog senior and displayed some of his original recording equipment as part of the museum’s opening exhibit, Sound Waves.
Although he was a young boy at the time of his father’s brief recording activity, Robert Nordskog had clear recollections of the period. He was able, thanks to vivid memories of related events, to definitely establish the year of the Ory recordings as 1921, not 1922 as most discographies indicate. Nordskog speaks glowingly of his father’s varied career and is prideful of the many accomplishments attributed to him. He was visibly disturbed when he read my 1951 Jazz Journal story about The Spikes Brothers. He had no previous knowledge about Reb Spikes’s claim that the Ory records were intended to be issued on Spikes’s Sunshine label. Vehemently defending his father’s integrity, Nordskog told me: “I know, by 1922, my father had extended himself financially — probably from his heavy investment in the pressing equipment. This could have occurred during the period when the Nordskog records were still being processed in the east. He soon went into bankruptcy.” It was Robert Nordskog’s contention that perhaps the New Jersey pressing plant was responsible for the mislabelling. Possibly, he suggested, they might have pressed the copies to sell as payment for a Nordskog debt. Since both the Arto Pressing Company and Nordskog ceased operations the following year, the full explanation will probably never be known.
For decades, the very obscure Nordskog and Sunshine records were almost forgotten. Eventually, collectors learned about those hermetic aural documentaries of authentic New Orleans jazz. They have long pondered the perplexing mystery of the dual labelling. To add to the confusion, the problem was compounded in 1951 when Nordskog reissued the Kid Ory and Eva Tanguay records on a replica of his original label. Kid Ory reportedly sold one of the Sunshine records to Paradox Industries for $90.00. Ory’s Creole Trombone and Society Blues soon appeared on the Paradox label. About six years later, the same pairing was issued by Hip, a Hollywood label that was briefly available when 45rpm records were coming into popularity. Twenty-eight years after the historic Nordskog session, the Ory records were reissued on a collector’s label in England. Sinclair Traill (founder of Jazz Journal) writing in London’s Melody Maker (November 13, 1949) said: ‘The band generates fine swing. These ideas have lost little over the years and remain fine historic examples of genuine New Orleans jazz.’
I have just replayed my treasured old 78rpm Sunshine records. A careful listening confirms Traill’s astute appraisal. The Nordskog stock numbers, embossed in the shellac, are different from the numbers printed on the Sunshine label. No matrix numbers are in evidence.
I am extremely grateful for the valuable use of the original Nordskog files. They were generously made available to me by Robert A. Nordskog and his grandson Michael Nordskog, who is currently collating the thousands of documents that outline much of his great-grandfather’s colourful career. The original Nordskog recording equipment, some of the old wax and metal discs, and a considerable number of the rare pressings, still exist. Until his recent death, Robert Nordskog kept them on display in a small exhibit in one of his industrial buildings in a Los Angeles suburb. The attractive exhibit included original Nordskog contracts, stock certificates, early publicity photos, and much more. While this interesting little museum is no longer open to the public, the Nordskog family is currently arranging for this valuable material to become a permanent exhibit in a prestigious archival institution.
At this point, the true explanation of the Nordskog/Sunshine label controversy remains a mystery. Thanks to the foresight of The Spikes Brothers, the musicianship of the Kid Ory band, and the technical prowess of Arne Nordskog, the earliest sounds of true New Orleans jazz have at least been preserved. This cumulative effort will always rank as one of jazz’s most memorable achievements. Hopefully, further research will eventually reveal the full details of this intriguing segment of recorded jazz history.
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Nordskog / Sunshine discography
Mutt Carey, c / Kid Ory, tb / Dink Johnson, cl / Fred Washington, p / Ed Garland, sb / Ben Borders, dr.
Recorded at Nordskog Laboratories — Santa Monica, Calif. June 1921
When You’re Alone Blues / Krooked Blues
Nordskog No. 3007 — Roberta Dudley, Orchestral Acc.
Sunshine No. 3001 — Roberta Dudley and Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra
That Sweet Something Dear / Maybe Some Day
Nordskog No. 3008 — Ruth Lee, Orchestral Acc.
Sunshine No. 3002 — Ruth Lee, Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra
Ory’s Creole Trombone / Society Blues *
Nordskog No. 3009 — Spikes Seven Pods of Pepper
Nordskog No. 5001 — Kid Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra (Re-issue 9/1/51)
Sunshine No. 3003 — Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra
* Also appeared on reissues: Paradox 3, Hip HI-290-1, Jazz Collector L-33, Assoc. Francaise des Collectionneurs de Disques du Jazz A-032, and countless private labels.
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The above article was published in the Jazz Journal International magazine, dated July 1993, Vol. 46, No. 7, pages 6—10.
Note: See also the article titled: The Spikes Brothers — A Los Angeles Saga by Floyd Levin, which was published in the Jazz Journal magazine, dated December 1951, Vol. 4, No. 12, pages 12—14.
Note: See also Brian Goggin’s essay of Benjamin F. Spikes accompanied by his WWI Draft Registration Card.
Note: See also Brian Goggin’s essay of John Curry Spikes accompanied by his WWI Draft Registration Card.
Note: See also Hal Smith’s essay of Bennie B. Borders accompanied by his WWI Draft Registration Card.