Electric Violins and Jazz Violinists 1930s-1950s

by Anthony Barnett

Some conclusions and questions contained in this article correct erroneous assumptions made in previous writings elsewhere - AB


Stuff Smith and Anthony Barnett

Stuff Smith and the National Dobro VioLectric

The earliest documented efforts to amplify the jazz violin electrically were those of Stuff Smith and drummer A. G. Godley in the Alphonso Trent Orchestra in 1928. The previous year R. F. Starzl had introduced his Giant Tone Radio Violin, with a pickup fitted in the f hole of a normal violin. Purpose-built electric violins can be dated to the turn of that decade. The skeletal frame Makhonine violin may have been the first to be demonstrated, in Paris in 1930. Smith and Godley's experiment was unsuccessful and Smith resorted to the horned Stroh violin:

"I always had a problem before I had an amplifier [. . .] I used to cut off my bridges to make the violin louder, and I would get the band to play soft so I could be heard. The Trent band used to play waltzes real sweet. A. G. Godley and I tried to make an electric amplifier, but, when we got through, the guts of the amplifier were as big as a room. We had everything in it and it would pick up what I was playing, but only a tiny sound would come out. At first, I used to use a violin with a horn."

As Smith told Stanley Dance in a 1965 Down Beat interview (possibly taken a year or two earlier) reprinted in The World of Swing (New York, 1974; repr. New York 1979). Smith did not use the Stroh exclusively, though he recorded on it with Trent at least in 1928. A recently discovered photo of the Trent Orchestra depicts Smith holding his conventional violin, with his Stroh violin and his Stroh bass standing beside him. This photo is presented, with an article by the present writer, in Taking Off: Musical Journeys in the Southwest and Beyond, no. 2 (Carthage, TX, Pine Grove Press, 2006).

Smith was introduced to the conventionally shaped open-body National Dobro Vio-Lectric at New York City's Onyx Club by a female representative of the Chicago company. In all likelihood she was Loma Cooper, a light concert violinist who also ran a violin repair shop in Chicago, where she kept guard dogs named Stuff Smith and Fritz Kreisler. (On one occasion they truly found themselves in the doghouse for failing to stop a break-in.) Smith told Dance:

Stuff Smith, Loma Cooper, Evelyn Kaye endorse the National Dobro VioLectric, Down Beat, August 1938

"I didn't get the amplifier until I was at the Onyx [. . .] There was a girl from Chicago, a classical violinist, who was working for a company trying to sell electrical violins. She came to the Onyx and got me to try one. I fell in love with it, because Jonah [Jones] and Cozy Cole were playing awful loud in those days and I used to have to hug the mike. But when I got this thing, I said to myself, 'Oh, oh, this is it, man!'"

In Valerie Wilmer's 1967 interview for Jazz Beat, reprinted in Pure at Heart 2 (Lewes, 2002), Smith's enthusiasm for the instrument is a little more tempered:

"Stuff started using a proper amplifier in the late 1930s but before then he would cut his bridge between the A and the D strings to increase the instrument's volume. 'The old fiddlers used to slit it down like that. Another thing they used to do was get rattlesnakes' tails and dry 'em out and put 'em in the violin. That made a kind of vibration.' The violinist was given his first electric instrument by the manufacturing company in exchange for publicizing the combination. 'It sounded all right but it was just a little too metallic [. . .] So I started using a mute. I cocked my mute between the D and the G instead of between the E, A, and the D and the G-the full mute. I just used half of my mute to get the kind of tone I wanted. Before they gave me an amplifier, though, I had often thought of building something similar.'"

Smith, Loma Cooper, and Evelyn Kay (of predatory Phil Spitalny's all-women orchestra; Kay eventually married Spitalny) endorsed the Vio-Lectric in a composite ad in Down Beat (August 1938). Smith again endorsed it in an ad in Down Beat (15 November 1939) where it is called the Vio-Electric, which is probably just a mistake. In National Dobro's 1938 catalogue, and the 1940 catalogue in which Smith and Cooper are featured in separate endorsements, it is the Vio-Lectric and VioLectric, not the Vio-Electric. We must assume that this is the conventionally shaped electric instrument that appears in many late 1930s photos of Smith and with which he may have recorded from, say, 1938. Though not necessarily: a careful analysis of his late 1930s recordings is needed to try to determine on which sessions he may have first changed from acoustic to electric violin and whether, even after changing, he went electric on all such sessions. There are contemporary photos in which he is holding one of his acoustic violins. An oft-reproduced photo of Smith with a National Dobro amplifier in front of the Onyx Club also includes a billboard displaying a Charles Peterson photo of Smith's orchestra c. March 1937. It is quite possible that the billboard was still in use a while after personnel changes but it does raise the question whether Smith was using the Vio-Lectric as early as 1937. According to a perfunctory overview of electrical bowed strings in New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (many of the dates, for example, are imprecise) J. Dopyera of National Dobro developed the instrument in 1936. However, electric violin historian Ben Heaney claims its true inventor was F. H. Kislingbury, known to be an "assignor to E. E. Dopyera". Kislingbury filed drawings with the US Patent Office 26 July 1937. The patent was granted 29 August 1939.

But what of the 1940s? Smith lost two electric violins in a fire at the Three Deuces club, Chicago, 1 January 1940 (reported in Downbeat magazine, 15 January 1940). If his Vio-Lectric was among those lost, it was replaced with a different instrument. A Charles Peterson photo from Hickory House, New York, March 1940, clearly shows Smith with a conventional violin with a pickup near the bridge. Unlike the Vio-Lectric, there is no belly control dial. Is it an amplification set-up by National or another manufacturer, whether personalized specifically for Smith or not? Presumably, from this point on, if not even earlier, this was Smith's preferred method of amplification. But it is not his strapped on DeArmand of the late 1940s or early 1950s onwards. "You know Stuff Smith played a DeArmand. It was the best before Barcus-Berry." Johnny Gimble told Stacy Phillips in Western Swing Fiddle (New York, 1994). In this field, Kevin Coffey relates that Smith admirers Buddy Ray and Dickie Jones were recording with electrically amplified violins in the Village Boys by 1941. "This was unusual for the time and quite deliberate in their seeking a particular sound." It is believed they were using their normal violins with attached pickups. Texas fiddler Bob Kendrick, professionally known as Bob Skyles, appears to have rigged his own electric pickup device as early as 1936. By the 1950s many country fiddlers were using the DeArmand. It must be the DeArmand that is visible is most photos of Smith from the 1950s onwards. But he did not use it exclusively.

A video is extant of Smith's kinescoped Los Angeles television performance on Stars of Jazz, 26 March 1958, which shows him playing a conventionally shaped open-body purpose-built electric violin. It is not his National Dobro of the 1930s, which appears to have had only one built-in control on the belly near the tailpiece. (Kislingbury's patent drawings show a second control on one side's center bout; its presence or absence on production models cannot be determined from known photos.) This time the instrument has two built-in belly controls either side of the tailpiece. Country violinist Bus Boyk, in a telephone conversation with the present writer, is adamant that he saw, and spoke with, Smith playing a white electric National violin in a Las Vegas West Side (Black district) club with stage dancers in 1957 or 1958. The Stars of Jazz instrument does indeed appear to be white; despite poor definition lighting that has lightened Smith's face, the controls are dark on what seems to be a light-colored instrument, not an overlit dark instrument. The same instrument appears on the red-hued covers of two Smith Verve LPs where it appears dark on one and light on the other. The photos are certainly not related to the sessions themselves. Date wise, the instrument cannot be present on Have Violin, Will Swing, and it is unlikely to be present on Cat on a Hot Fiddle. (Smith's session photo on the cover of Verve LP Stuff Smith shows his DeArmand pickup.) Ben Heaney offers this opinion: "I think it is probably a later version of the National instrument. R. and E. E. Dopera [aka Dopyera] filed for a patent on 8 September 1959, granted 11 April 1961, for what is a slight variation of Kislingbury's 1939 patent. The control difference is that there is no center bout dial on the Dopyera, only a single belly dial. As there aren't any patent drawings similar to Smith's 1958 instrument with two belly dials, his may be a one-off development model."

Smith's single guest title from this telecast, on which, it has to be said, he is somewhat hampered by an inappropriate rhythm section from the Red Nichols' orchestra, was released on LP Calliope CAL3006 Sessions Live. (An earlier appearance on Stars of Jazz, 2 December 1957, is extant only as audio, also released, though without Smith's final sign-off performance, on LP Calliope CAL3016 Sessions Live.) Why was Smith not playing his favorite violin of the period, Big Red with attached DeArmand, at least at the time of the 1958 show? Mrs Arlene Smith reported in the Smith bio-discography Desert Sands (Lewes, 1995) that Big Red was stolen and not recovered for many months. Did the 1958 Stars of Jazz performance and Bus Boyk's Las Vegas sighting take place during this period of loss? It would certainly explain things. A video of some of Smith's four appearances on Art Ford Jazz Party telecasts from Newark, NJ, later that year appear to show Smith playing Big Red, as does an extant video of a performance with Ella Fitzgerald and Jazz at the Philharmonic in Amsterdam, 5 May 1957.

There are few studio or concert recordings of Smith from the 1940s onwards on which he plays acoustic violin, though there are many such private recordings, many of which have been released. However, a 1946 photo of Smith with Dizzy Gillespie at the Apollo shows him hugging the mike with an acoustic instrument. Exceptionally, he can be heard playing acoustic on unauthorized releases from a 1965 Paris concert, alongside Big Joe Turner, Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, Kenny Clarke, among others. An amplifier promised by the organizers failed to materialize.

Smith is known to have disliked electric violins that were not conventionally shaped (i.e. solid-body, stick-like, or skeletal) but he may have owned at least one. According to his grandson Leroy Smith, in a 1995 telephone conversation with the present writer, there exists among Smith's effects a yellow electric violin without f holes. It is not clear whether this is a solid-body or open-body instrument. It is not the white instrument of Stars of Jazz, which has f holes. And here is a mystery: in 1999 an electric violin, with traditional violin outline design but totally skeletal, was offered for sale in Copenhagen. It bears a plaque reading Stuff Smith that, although not in signature form, has led to speculation that the violin belonged to Smith. It says it was built by A. Baux, Toulon [France]. No one who was in Smith's close company during his last two and a half years in Europe (he was based in Denmark from where he traveled frequently throughout Europe) remembers such an instrument. Did an admiring maker present it to him only for him to dispose of it quickly? Was it skeletally modeled after Big Red, with or without Smith's knowledge. Did its first owner know Smith or his music and simply wish to honor him? Or is the whole attribution spurious: A. Baux, Toulon? A bow, violon [Fr.]? [Baux is a recognized French surname but: allow your writer this!]

(to be continued)

Copyright Anthony Barnett 2006


Anthony Barnett has published bio-discographies of Stuff Smith, Desert Sands/Up Jumped the Devil; and Eddie South, Black Gypsy. He edits Fable Bulletin: Violin Improvisation Studies, an online update facility to printed volumes of the bulletin and books. He is a contributor to the latest editions of New Grove Dictionary of Jazz and Music and Musicians.

Since 2002 he has issued previously unreleased and other rare recordings by a wealth of historic jazz violinists on his AB Fable label. During the late 1960s and 1970s, in particular, he worked as a percussionist with John Tchicai's Cadentia Nova Danica, and performed occasionally in concert with Derek Bailey, Don Cherry, Mbizo Dyani, Evan Parker, Leo Smith.

AB Fable website is http://www.abar.net

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