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ROLLIN SMITH

 

1899 – 1985?

 

This web-page will have to be extensively revised, because Rollin Clayton Jr., a cousin of Rollin Smith, emailed in May 2013, the following, and it is our intention to ask him to tell us what he would like to appear on this page, in addition to the few basic facts already present, as a tribute to this very capable musician,  entertainer, and latterly one who worked for the benefit of his local community.

 

Hi Norman
Once again my name is Rollin, named after my cousin. I am also a musician (jazz & blues). Anyway, Rollin Smith died I believe in 1985 in New York City. He lived in Harlem and I would visit him often. We use to talk about his friends and peers. Once he wanted to introduce me to Sonny Greer, the Duke Ellington drummer, but Mr. Greer was not feeling well. I have memorabilia of my cousin. I have contracts from the years 1983 and 1984. His employment was with the New York City Cultural Affairs. He would do concerts for seniors. Rollin came back to Akron, Oh in the early 70's. But was unsuccessful in finding work. So, he left in 1973 going to Montreal. I am not sure how long he stayed in Montreal, but he ended up in New York. It was a sad cold winter day when my father and I drove to New York to handle Rollin's affairs. However, I took two suit cases of memorabilia (pictures, letters, music). In the works is a children's book on my cousin. I am also a child therapist and I feel some can benefit from his story. Rollin was successful because he felt he could do it.
Rollin.

 

 

 

A much-travelled Musician & Entertainer.

 

rollinsmith

 

One day in about 1976 my aged car wallowed slowly back from the wilds of Worcestershire towards Birmingham, overloaded with about 1,000 78 rpm records. These had been acquired at very modest cost, which was just as well, because on close examination of them later, only three were worth keeping.

 

The label of one of these you see below.

 

parlophoner3470

 

The disc has been soaked in water at some time, but only the label was washed out. The disc itself was in tolerable condition. It illustrates the gloriously slapdash Parlophone printing of the time (1927). At best, their printing was always smudgy, but this label has been punched out wildly off centre, as though nobody was especially bothered, even though the expensive Parlophone ‘R-’ series, with their rich purple labels, was the prestige series of their catalogue.

 

When played, the disc sounded like a cover of the famous duo Layton & Johnstone, African American singers who were extremely popular in England at the time. With rather more ‘zip’, to be sure! But it was obviously recorded in Paris about 1927; even then, I knew that the ‘Ki-’ series of master numbers belonged to French Odeon.

 

As the tune was a good one, performed with verve and panache, and the disc was obviously an obscure item, I filed it away.

 

Oh, by the way; would you like to hear it? No problem! Just click on the above label for an mp3 of the side!

 

Some years later, poring over Brian Rust’s ‘Jazz Records’, I noticed a Rollin Smith listed on saxophone with Johnny Dunn’s band on American Columbia in New York ~ 1923. It just had to be the same man. This fragment was remembered, but little more happened; except that during a ’phone conversation with discographer Arthur Badrock, who was at the time compiling a list of the Parlophone 3000 series, I mentioned I had this item, which turned out to be a blank in his listing. This further confirmed that the disc was rare, as he had relatively few blanks in the R-3000 prefixes.

 

Time passed until June 1995, when, in the very last issue of Storyville (No.162) a short but fascinating article by Morton Clausen on Rollin Smith told us that he had been working in Denmark in the early years of WW2, and of the difficulties he experienced either in getting to Greece to visit his wife, or later, even to get back to ‘home’ in the U.S.A. Among various valuable details was that Smith was born in Akron, Ohio, 23rd July 1899. He did eventually get back to the U.S., via Finland, leaving around 10th August 1940. He returned to Denmark ‘several times’ in the post-War years.

 

(In an addendum to the article, Laurie Wright referred to an item in the Baltimore ‘Afro-American’ (a newspaper) of 10th November 1928 which reported that Smith was working at the Capitol, Montmartre (Paris), and had gone to Europe as a saxophonist ‘but had been encouraged to sing more by those who heard him’. Additionally, he was reported as having recorded for Odeon in Paris and Berlin. Paris recordings we know about, but not – as yet – about anything in Berlin.)

 

Then came the Internet.

 

In 2002, on the 78-list, there was a query from Matthew Orwat, who had found a copy of Victor 22930, by Rollin Smith’s Melodians, and sought information about the artist. I dug out the Parlophone, and many emails followed.

 

victor22930

Han Enderman

 

Bill Dean-Myatt kindly furnished the details of the Paris session, which are as follows: 

 

ROLLIN SMITH

Vocal accomp. by Pietro Zepilli (alias Pierre Zepilli) (pno),  B. Desvernay (voc-1)

Paris, 30th. March 1927.

 

Ki-1327-2             Bless her little heart  -1                                  Odeon 165166, Parlophone R-3470

Ki-1328-1             Let's misbehave                                               Odeon 165167

Ki-1329-1             The man I love -1                                            Odeon 165166, Parlophone R-3537

Ki-1330-2             Argentine -1                                                     Odeon 165167, Parlophone R-3470

 

Joe Moore also kindly extracted the details from the Victor sides, which are:

 

Hollis Smith (sic) and his Melodians. Male quintet with piano and guitar played by one of them.

New York, 27th January 1932.

 

71282-1                Some Of These Days                                       Rejected

71283-1                I Ain't Got Nobody                                          Rejected

 

New York, 15th February 1932.

 

71282-2                Some Of These Days                                       Vic 22930

71283-2                I Ain’t Got Nobody                                          Vic 22930

71857-1                St Louis Blues                                                  Rejected

71858-1                Somebody Stole My Gal                                 Rejected

 

Though the session is entered in the files as ‘Hollis’, Matthew Orwat confirmed that the label of his Vi 22930 indeed read ‘Rollin’, as he had first stated. This is underlined by the label scan of the disc kindly furnished by Han Enderman. So here is a guy who first recorded in 1922, then went to Europe, recorded again in Paris in 1927, went back to America at least once, then back to Europe to be in Denmark during the time of the German occupation of that country. Then back to the U.S.A., and so on several more times after the War. In addition, his wife lived in Greece, and he hoped to get engagements in Bulgaria and Turkey if he could get transit through Germany in 1940.

 

All this information was assembled into a short web page in 2002, and uploaded. It concluded with a request that more information would be welcome.

 

Imagine my delight, when in October 2004, an email arrived from Åge Skjelborg of Norway, who, as a student, had befriended Rollin Smith in Denmark in 1953.

 

Åge kindly wrote the following article for this page.

 

 

 

 

 

Life is what happens to you when you make other plans (John Lennon)

 

A MUSICAL LESSON FOR LIFE.

 

A short encounter with a forgotten, gifted musician.

 

Firstly, a little of myself. Growing up in Aarhus, the capital of Jutland, Denmark, together with my little sister, my father was a master painter (both a house painter and an artist) and had his own company. In her earlier years my mother happened to be a professional pianist, so in my childhood I was raised with nearly all kinds of piano music from the very start around 1942 during WWII.

 

ageMany Danish musicians like Svend Asmussen and Leo Mathiesen had to learn the latest international dance music by listening to radio transmissions from England and The American Forces Network. This was often a real and severe problem because of the German transmitters, making it nearly quite impossible to get in radio stations, without the awful jamming, made deliberately by the German Occupants. Never mind.

 

Secondly, the following information is of course primarily about Rollin Smith, not of little me, but I cannot quite leave out the deep impression he made on me and my elementary piano playing for the rest of my life.

 

Just play, man, as you feel. Do not ask others, especially not dull music teachers, how to do things, he said. But that was exactly how he appeared to me: as a music teacher, but in quite another way, of course. I liked very much to play by heart and therefore I was a really grateful listener and short-term pupil without having to pay any fee at all for all the great lessons of his! 

 

My left hand, he said, should be nearly all, second to none, the most important of our two human hands. After having showed me how to make blue notes and broken chords with the left hand, he said that from now on I could do pretty well anything I wanted to on the smiling white keys. When I was improvising, my attention should be on making the melody (Why, I asked stupidly, because my left hand was already handling the harmony part of the melody itself, was his answer); the left hand could be used for what he called counterpoint where two separate melodies could be heard or made at the same time. This he called chord progression. Practice is important in the context of enjoyment, that is, it should not be by rote, as he himself put it. With the left hand to support it, the human voice was to him the best instrument of the world, was his personal visionary expression.

 

He sometimes referred to, played and sung the famous, legendary and now classical movie tune, AS TIME GOES BY. Maybe he saw himself in the same role and situation as the pianist in this movie, having problems from time to time with the bloody Nazis. He was as you may remember married and lived away from his wife for shorter or longer periods of time.

 

Of course I cannot remember all what he told me or played. But I especially noticed tunes like On A Clear Day (partly singing, with small breaks in the piano). And, as I mentioned before, As Time Goes By (with his own special singing performance), a few piano blues and Opus One. By the way, he was amused when I played some jazzified mazurkas by Fr. Chopin trying to cross the - at that particular time - often narrow borders of various music genres. Just carry on, man, feel free, was his comment. I preferred A flat to all other keys but he warned me not to play in that same key, and of course I followed his good, friendly advice. It helped a lot that Rollin too taught me the many other, different chords and keys so I gradually got out of my own ‘swamp’.

 

The wire recorder had not yet been followed by the tape recorder so I was amazed by the high quality of the sound of his songs and animated piano playing.

 

As a youngster I did not reflect at all over Rollin’s particular music style, presumably because I did not yet have enough music or musicians to compare him with.

 

I did not know that he played the saxophone too, quite new to me. But I am not at all surprised!

 

As far as I remember, we spend more than four intense weeks together in the summer of 1953, in each others jolly company, mostly evenings and nights when I was off duty on the hotel Landsoldaten, in the city of Fredericia, situated in the southeastern part of Jutland. As a university student I was employed as a part-time, assisting commissionaire in what one may call acting as a substitute in a vacant summer-job.

 

As Rollin himself said, he would very much like to establish a music school in Denmark and he surely did prove his serious involvement in music teaching to me during our jam sessions. So I was the lucky guy, so to speak. He travelled much and suddenly he had gone like a bird of passage. ‘My skin is all too thin for the cold Scandinavian winters.’ Therefore he usually spent winter times way down south.

 

Finally, he mentioned that he had had a short engagement in Aarhus, at The Blue Bird, a well known piano-bar but I am sorry to say that I may not be able to verify this specific information of his further on.

 

Still remember the “blue” mood in the shadowy, dusky piano bar and its many mixed, exotic smells and of course especially the pretty girl behind the bar! I still remember Rollin as a very generous, open-minded and warm person.

 

All this is to the best of my recollection, based on both memory and written sources of my own.

 

A few years after, musicians like Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan invaded our young, sensitive and hungry minds in the mid 1950s; but the style of gifted artists like Rollin and Fats Waller survived some time after. But I have never forgotten my short encounter with Rollin Smith.

 

I will try to get hold of some newspaper clippings, telling about Rollin’s various stays in Denmark.

 

You are most welcome to edit or do whatever you want with my enclosed information written in a rather incomplete English.

 

Åge Skjelborg.

 

(In fact, nothing has been edited out, and no significant changes made to Åges excellent English! He also provided Rollin Smith’s autograph, which we gratefully include here. Thank you very much for all your time and trouble in sharing your knowledge with us, Åge! NF)

 

autograph

 

 

 

UPDATES:

 

On 4th February 2005, Åge further told me that he had discovered the date when Rollin Smith died. As we have noted, he was born in Akron, Ohio, U.S.A. on 23rd July 1899, and died in Indiana (U.S.A.) 8th September 1969. Apparently the name ‘Rollin’ or ‘Rollen’ was not registered. His name was in fact Roland Smith, and ‘Rollin’ was presumably a nickname or stage name.  Thank you again, Åge.

 

On 26th May 2005, Neil Godfrey kindly wrote pointing out that both sides of a Roland Smith record had recently been featured as ‘Record Of The Week’ on a website devoted to vocal groups. There is also another photograph – alas of poor quality – and a fascinating newspaper clipping from December 1937 which informs us that Rollin Smith had just opened on the British vaudeville stage, with a contract for two years! This is the first knowledge that he came to the U.K. Besides hearing the sides, made for Perfect in 1932 (‘Kickin’ The Gong Around’ and ‘Tiger Rag’), you can also see the record label on the site. Many thanks, Neil. To go there, click on:

http://www.group-harmony.com/Kickin.htm

 

polyphonX51737

Han Enderman; ÅgeSkjelborg

 

In mid- and late 2008, Han Enderman and Åge both sent scans of a ‘new’ Rollin Smith record, this time a relatively recent one: Polyphon X-51737, autographed by Rollin Smith. I don’t have a date for this at the present, but it looks very much 1950s. The other side is HDK-3816 ‘Heav’n – Heav’n’ (I Got A Robe) with the same label credits. The scan here is by courtesy of Åge Skjelborg, and the details of the other side are by courtesy of Han Enderman.

 

columbiaa3839

 

While we’re back on the subject of Rollin Smith’s records, we might as well dig out an early one, seen above. It was recorded 14th February 1923, and Rust’s ‘Jazz Records’ tells us that Smith is present on this Dunn side, as one of two reedmen. Herschel Brassfield (who probably arranged this) plays clarinet, soprano & alto saxes, and Rollin Smith is listed as tenor sax. Can you hear him? Click on the label to hear the side. What a contrast it must make to the disc on the left! I wonder if we might be able to get an mp3 of ‘Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho’?

 

In early October 2008, the well-known Jazz Researcher Björn Englund kindly wrote:  “As for Rollin' Smith, he also visited Sweden at least once (in 1953) performing at National (better known as "Nalen"). He claimed to have played with Duke Ellington in the 1920's and he also reviewed Swedish jazz records for a daily newspaper.”

 

In late 2012 we heard from a cousin of Rollin Smith, who stated that his death-date, 1969, given above, was very incorrect, and that Smith had finally returned to the USA and worked in the capacity of adviser and curator in a state cultural department. He died in the 1980s. We invited him to send further information, which has now arrived, resulting in the necessity of a revision of this page, referred to at the top of it.

 

On 4th February 2013, Brian Hills was checking a U.S. Regal he has, and looking on-line found this web-page, and kindly sent label scans of U.S. Regal 216, which is a parallel issue to the Perfect record mentioned above. I checked the Abrams Files; this Regal does not occur there, but the same coupling on Banner 32360 is listed, and the recording date 7th January 1932 is given. Also, ‘Loveless Love’ by the same group was issued on Banner 32385. This was recorded 1st March 1932. The discography of Rollin Smith is growing!

 

Img366     Img367

                                                                                                                          Brian Hills                                                                           Brian Hills

 

Well, that’s about it for now! But who knows, with information being so widespread these days via the ’net, maybe other information will be forthcoming on Rollin Smith? If you have any, please email jazz@normanfield.com, and let us know. You will of course be given full credit.

 

 

 

 

Revised 4th February 2013.

Revised 22nd June 2013.