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Howard Armstrong's Return

A jazz-age bluesman's homecoming to the city where he started

by Jack Neely

This Saturday is the unveiling of the Knoxville Music Mural on Jackson Avenue. Represented on the mural are more than 30 Knoxvillians who made a mark nationally.

One of the most interesting figures in the entire mural is one of the earliest. His name is Howard Armstrong. Before Roy Acuff learned to play the fiddle, Armstrong was one of the most colorful figures on the Knoxville music scene. A fiddler and mandolinist, he performed all around town in the 1920s and made his first recordings with the Tennessee Chocolate Drops at the old St. James Hotel in April, 1930.

Forty years later, Armstrong and his old group—reformed as Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong—toured America and recorded again, reintroducing their fiercely individualistic style of blues, influenced by jazz, old-time country, and Hawaiian music. Armstrong was always the outgoing one, the slender, energetic man in a pencil-thin mustache and suave beret, the one swapping between mandolin and fiddle.

As it happens, Mr. Armstrong, who's a lot better looking than most of his contemporaries, is going to be here in town for the unveiling.

There's no one in American music like Howard Armstrong. The son of a mandolinist and ironworker, Armstrong picked up his dad's instrument when he was young, and later learned violin. He and his three brothers played together. The Armstrong Brothers once played a command performance for opera star Grace Moore at Jellico's Glenmorgan Hotel, where Armstrong's father also worked, as a waiter. Moore was delighted.

He also learned Italian. "In Tennessee we didn't have too much mixing of the races," he says, over the phone, from his home in Boston. "But all the little black kids and the little white kids played together like little rabbits." One of his best friends in LaFollette was Giuseppi Lobertini, son of an Italian immigrant who worked in the marble industry. "At nine, my Italian grammar was better than my English, in a way."

At 14, Armstrong began spending his summers down the road in Knoxville, playing with a local bandleader named Blind Roland Martin. They played streetcorners for nickels and dimes. "We played Vine and Central. We played Park City, and South Knoxville—we played in Vestal. You know where that is, I bet.

"We played a conglomerate of just about everything," he says. "As soon as a new tune came out, we had it by the tail.

"For the farmers that would come in on Jackson Avenue, we'd be playing a lot of country music. For the general run of black people, you know what we played. We played the blues. Upper-crust blacks and white people didn't care so much for the blues. They'd tolerate Memphis blues and St. Louis blues, but just those low-down, dirty blues, we couldn't play that for them.

"We called it jazz, country, whatever would come along." He makes it sound ordinary, and in Knoxville in the 1920s, maybe it was ordinary to hear a mandolin in a jazz song or a fiddle in a blues song. It doesn't sound ordinary today, when string-band jazz is nearly as rare as brass bluegrass. Armstrong was playing jazz fiddle here before Grappelli met Reinhardt.

In Knoxville, Armstrong met Blind Roland's half-brother Carl Martin, a guitarist and bassist. Martin and Armstrong started their own band.

"Vine Street was the Big Gut," Armstrong says. "That's what I called it. Think of Broadway in New York. Vine Street was the black Broadway of Knoxville, Tennessee. There were poolrooms, pawnshops, barber shops—we even played barber shops, wherever. On Vine Street were guys who worked and guys who loafed, and all the gay ladies.

"Jewish people ran the pawn shops. They'd give blowouts and things, and we'd do the music. And we'd do foreign songs, Polish music, Jewish music."

Armstrong's listed as a "musician" in the city directories of the '20s, but he also made a living as a signpainter and muralist, painting walls "up and down Vine Street."

"Carl had a bad habit of gambling," Armstong says. "The older guys who could really gamble would take advantage of him. He kept his instrument in the pawn shop," he laughs. "And mine, too." Pawn shop owners would let the musicians borrow them, especially for pawn shop performances. Sometimes they'd redeem their instruments by performing with them.

"We played weddings, fish fries, chitlin struts," he says. (He adds, with some regret, that it's hard to find good chitlins in Boston.) He also recalls playing some nightclubs, like the Hollywood, and Smitty's, on East Vine.

He and Martin met another young man named Ted Bogan, a guitarist and banjo player from South Carolina who was in town with an itinerant troupe, Dr. Mine's Medicine Show. Armstong says Bogan was tired of the road. The three got together with bassist Bill Ballenger and called themselves the Four Keys; with a few more musicians, they were the Tennessee Chocolate Drops.

When they heard a recording company was cutting 78s at the St. James Hotel on Wall Ave., they signed up. As the Chocolate Drops, they made several recordings, including "Knox County Stomp," and a cover, "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out."

The St. James was "just another white hotel," Armstrong says. "Blacks couldn't get a room in there. But they let us play there."

One of the first songs they recorded is still known as the "Vine Street Drag," but Armstrong says that name was a mistake. "The man, he printed the music wrong," he says. "Vine Street Drag. We didn't know what a 'drag' was! It was supposed to be Vine Street Rag. It was very common to play rags, music left over from the Gay '90s, you know."

The 78s were distributed nationally, and are still available through collectors. But Armstrong and his colleagues never got a nickel from them. He says the recording company skipped town with their work.

They played live on WROL in its Cumberland Avenue studios, a rarity for a black band. Only years later would WROL become legendary for its role in launching several country-music careers. Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong's first broadcasts may be WROL's earliest claim to fame. Armstrong recalls the broadcasts but says, "it was just another job."

Armstrong thinks it was in 1932 or '33 that he and his bandmates moved to Chicago. For a few years, he did very well, "skiffling," he says. "Pulling doors, some call it." He and his band mates would walk into a joint unannounced and start playing. Hundreds of other black blues musicians had the same idea in the '30s; Armstrong and his cohorts had an easier time of it than other bluesmen in immigrant-packed Chicago, largely because he could sing in Italian; they also picked up German and Polish. They became instantly popular in the immigrant neighborhoods, as patrons were astonished to hear American blues in old-country tongues.

After several years in Chicago, Armstrong somehow wound up in Hawaii, playing for local bands, and working in the shipyards of Pearl Harbor. He says he was there that day in 1941 "when Tojo came."

He doesn't much like to talk about it. "Don't let anybody tell you there's any glory in war," he says. "I had enough of it right there." He returned to Chicago, and later worked for Chrysler in Detroit. Years later, Armstrong reunited with his old pals Carl and Ted and formed Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong, which toured and made several recordings, some of which are still available on the Flying Fish label.

Martin and Bogan are both gone, but Armstrong, now somewhere past 90, is looking forward to coming home for a weekend, visiting places he knew in Knoxville and LaFollette. But most of the part of Vine Street he remembers as the Big Gut, the Black Broadway, is gone with few traces, obliterated by Summit Hill Drive, which replaced it, except without the buildings and the street life and the music—a major oversight on the part of city planners.

June 15, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 24
© 2000 Metro Pulse