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Saturday, 6 November 2010


By Dave Sax

“Zooming The World With Hits”

So proclaimed the attractively designed scarlet label together with our Bennie’s favourite little fib: “Manufactured by Jet Record Co., Hollywood, Calif.” dnd the usual “Full Range”. By Jet 1920 the Hollywood, Calif. Part of the label had been blanked out.

So it is at Jet that we return to keep the promise made in Hillbilly Researcher No. 28 [hey – we didn’t say when] and resume our coverage as we reach the second phase of Bennie Hess’ record labels. We left Hess as his once promising Opera label took a nose dive in 1951 after Billboard had reviewed the last known release in March. His label had once shown great promise and he as an artist had signed with Mercury in 1948. His two releases sold well in a number of markets but Mercury soon lost interest when he bootlegged the second record on his own label. A repentant Hess has often recalled his mistake as the moment that took away success when he was on ‘the brink of stardom’.

He had first started in the record business as one of Bill Quinn’s partners in the Gulf label in 1945 before Quinn went out to greater success with his own Gold Star label. Hess then briefly recorded for Black & White before starting Opera. The 1948 recording ban actually benefited him as did the resurgence of interest in French Cajun Music in the area of South Louisiana. His recording of the Iry LeJeune’s “Love Bridge Waltz” resulted in the first good selling Cajun accordion record since the latter days of the 20s. At this point the area had only two local labels but they were barely in operation. J. D. Miller’s Fais Do Do label was in remission and Eddie Shuler’s Goldband label was purely a vanity venture for his own band with one or two releases a year. Opera put out a series of fine fiddle Cajun records by Floyd LeBlanc and Charlie Broussard and achieved the distribution to get the records out there to Cajun homes and juke boxes.

In a sense a victim of his own success, Virgel Bozman had by 1949 signed up Floyd LeBlanc for his new OT label while Eddie Shuler at the same time created a Folk Star label for the express purpose of recording Iry LeJeune. As seen from our listing, Opera made no apparentl effort to develop new artists, instead becoming purely an outlet for Bennie’s own releases, which become increasingly scarce after his Mercury firing. There was one exception with fiddler C. F. Pevoto at # 1021 before the label ended with its final Hess release.

We also included Bennie’s Oked label, being aware of three releases and at least one gap. Nothing new has since been discovered that I am aware of. The first at # 1153 started the secondary number system that would become more evident with the Jet label listing. It seems likely that we estimated the time period of Oked incorrectly, not difficult to do seeing as the label is virtually non-existant, and that it almost certainly followed Opera. 1153 was a lush affair (“A Master Voice Recording”) but 1155 is on plain white paper not too different from the cheap labels seen on a number of records from around the 1952 period. The latter record has Pevoto again together with Bennie masquerading as Buddy Page on the flipside.

The last Oked we know of is of Bennie Leaders on a new series at Oked 1050, both sides being R&B covers. “Hey Miss Fannie” was recorded by The Clovers in August 1952 which probably places Leaders’ early example of Cat Music at around the end of the year. This appears to be a one-off and we can assume that the 1153 series had already ended by this time. Unless there is another label or series of which we know nothing, Bennie then took more than a 2 year pause before joining forces with Leo Holmes to start Jet in around May 1955. The label starts at a number 1914 with a secondary number (10) and featured our man in fine updated Jimmie Rodgers format but the label soon expanded to become his first truly professionally orientated label. He recorded his old pal Shelly Lee Alley for his final record but also put out releases by local talent like George Chambers, Houston Slim, Sleepy Skidmore and Doyle Jones.

It appears that in the early stages the 78 rpms were often pressed first and that Jet later went to ACA for 45 rpm masters [no extra charge for the swish]. Hess and Holmes worked around the practice of releasing a batch of records, with one by Hess featured each time. For the second batch, the Hess at 1920 sold pretty well and is one of his finest records sung in current Hillbilly Music style but the others sunk without trace. Indeed the existence of one is only proven by a Billboard mention. For the next batch 4 releases were planned and mastered by ACA, headed up by good releases by Harvey Chambers and, of course, Hess. Chambers sold pretty well but he was not too popular when he insisted on publishing his songs with Acuff-Rose and getting paid [gasp]. He encountered the same problem when he recorded a superb record for Eddie Shuler as Hopeless Homer the next year. Shuler told this writer that he only released him because the session was simply so good. But he refrained from doing so again and heard a couple of years later that Chambers had passed away.

One other record probably escaped as Jet 1925 but we cannot be sure if it was the planned coupling by Gorden Clark or that by one Dixie Evans. A Google search turns up a white burlesque dancer who performed for black audiences and we wonder. . . . Maybe the partners were still a little encouraged because two releases at least showed up on the radar screen because they soon shelled out for a block of masters from ACA {masters 3266 to 3276), with ACA showing the client as Oked or Oked/Jet. There were no less than 3 Hess couplings including the wonderful but impossible “Country Style Boogie” and an even rarer Christmas record timed for the 1955 holidays as # 1929. This is presumed to be the last record. A record by Doyle Jones, his future partner in Spade Records, was also released and maybe something appeared on Jet 1928. If so it was either another recorded effort by Ms. Jones or the third record by Hess himself. All will become clear in the listing.

Jet is the most collectable label for Hillbilly fans but the records didn’t even zoom around Houston and represent a total business failure, while Jet instantly became forgotten history in the 5 cent bins. The time period and a general fall in sales for Hillbilly Music didn’t help and there is no doubt that they were just a little too ambitious. Having to press on two speeds for much of the time couldn’t have helped either and distribution seems to have been limited to Pappy Daily Distributors. No small amount of cash must have been paid out on recording and paying ACA for stampers but the space of time between that work being done and the records getting on to the market shows an obvious shortage of cash flow. It is clear that a number of completed masters never got pressed at all. Holmes must have been deterred but Hess remained as hopeful as ever as he joined forces with Doyle Jones and adapted to the times by signing Vern Pullens and Ray Doggett. We will catch up with Spade, his most famous Endeavour, next time.

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