“Blues for Oklahoma”: VIRGEL BOZMAN, O.T. and Hot Rod Records (1949-1952)

The story of Khoury’s Recordings starts in 1949 with a man named John Hardin “Virgel” Bozman. He was a rustic singer/guitarist (born in Oklahoma) and part-time comedian who sometimes billed himself, with tongue-in-cheek, as “The Arkansas Sinatra“. He seemingly was also a house painter. He  had apparently been a staple on the San Antonio country and western music scene for some time.  Virgel Bozman was an eccentric Texas bandleader who became fascinated by Cajun music. He had already recorded a Hillbilly record for Bill Quinn, « Griding for my darling » (Gold Star 1324), which was virtually impossible to locate even when it was new. A 1945 contract for Bozman exists, so he may have had an unknown release on Quinn’s earlier Gulf label, or the sides could have become the later Gold Star release. Bozman revamped his band as the Oklahoma Tornadoes in 1947 with new musicians of the caliber of Cajun fiddler Floyd LeBlanc. Together they came up with a viable French-English novelty « La Prison ». Somehow Quinn failed to see the potential of the song and buried it on the flipside of « The hokey pokey » – a piece of pure corn by the Gold Star Trio. But the song still caught on as it was flipped over on the juke boxes in several regions, and copies show up today with mint « A » sides and plowed « B » sides. With the right promotion, the record had the ingredients to become at least a regional hit in the Hillbilly market. Bozman was not deterred and began to feature Cajun music more prominently, although he himself could not speak French outside the words that were scribbled on paper for « La Prison ».

from l.ro r.: Floyd LeBlanc, Iry LeJeune,Bennie Hess (at mike), Virgel Bozman; 1947-48

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 While stationed at a San Antonio military base near the end of WWII, Cajun fiddler Floyd Leblanc befriended Bozman. Together, they had joined Bennie Hess’ Oklahoma Tornados country hillbilly band as a guitar player but Virgil also dabbled in his own material as well. In mid 1948, Floyd had helped Iry Lejeune record two tunes with the band on Hess’ label “Opera” and they had him touring with the group for quite some time in 1948. Cajun music was well on it’s way back and while selling cow horns in Lake Charles, Virgil ended up moving from Texas to Louisiana in order to record it.

The O.T. Years

Then came George Khoury, a Turkish-American businessman from Lake Charles and record store owner.  In 1947, as an owner of a record shop, he noticed a lack of Cajun music being recorded in south Louisiana and decided to open a business to compete with Ed Shuler’s Goldband Records and J. D. “Jay” Miller’s Fais-Do-Do and Feature labels. His base of operations was just around the corner from Ed’s on Railroad Ave in Lake Charles. 

Khoury never had his own studio, however; he would rent out other studios and press the records in other places.  He had his record shop in Lake Charles and many agree he helped Virgil finance his new record label “O.T. Recordings”, named after Hess’ band.  Together, Virgil would try to find new talent for producing records and Khoury would sell the records in his shop. Even his “O.T.” logo resembled a cattle brand. According to author John Broven:

« Khoury was [Virgel’s] sponsor, so to speak, because he didn’t have that much money. He was a good salesman, he had a lot of gab because being a cowhorn salesman he had to have a lot of gab. »

Like Bennie Hess, Bozman stories abound, including his siphoning gasoline out of customer’s cars while they were at the Hilltop Club near his home and at one point driving an old car without a floor. He woud often play the fool’s role in the band as the traditionally required comedian. He was also a fine Hillbilly artist in his own right (« Blues for Oklahoma », O. T. 109) and obviously loved South Louisiana music, working hard to make a success of his labels. By the outset of 1949, the enthusiastic Bozman actually moved his wife and five children to 349-A Route 1 at Westlake in South Louisiana and set up is own OT ‘Hits of Louisiana’ label to tap into the market directly.

Virgil kicked off his label with his own recordings, which were a hillbilly tune “Tell Me If You Love Me” and a Cajun tune “The Cameron Waltz” (#101). The rare Oklahoma Tornadoes record is shrouded in mystery that reflects his initial indecision. The two songs were first recorded in English by Bozman but were cancelled and instead released with uncredited French vocals. The singer’s identity is still subject to much speculation.

Tell me if you love me

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The Cameron waltz”

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Later he issued another Hillbilly bopper, « Blues for Oklahoma » (# 109) [strident mandolin over a loping rhythm] and the more Western swing tinged « Troubles, troubles » (# 112). His B-sides are average little boppers.

“Blues for Oklahoma”

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Don’t let it grieve your little heart”(OT 109)

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“Troubles, troubles”

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For each mistake you pay“(OT 112)

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But he knew he needed other groups. It would be Eddie Shuler that would help Bozman get his first major outside recording artist. Eddie Shuler, a record producer in Lake Charles, had been approached by Cajun accordion player Nathan Abshire to record on his label after seeing the success of Iry Lejeune’s recordings. Eddie Shuler, who worked for the KPLC radio station, was too busy with the promotion of Iry LeJeune and put Nathan’s band in touch with businessman Virgil Bozman.  Also, Virgil had been familiar with Nathan’s music since Floyd had played in Nathan’s band years before. Virgil had noticed how Eddie Shuler produced his records for Goldband. According to Eddie Shuler, Bozman’s recording methods were very strange. He recalled:

« He kept the pot boiling by selling cowhorns (the famous Longhorns) and it is how he landed in Lake Charles one day. He discovered fast how I managed to get artists recorded by a third person and he decided to follow my steps. He arrived at the station studio, gave a bottle of booze to the sound engineer, asked him to cut an acetate, left with it and got it pressed somewhere else.

He sold cow horns. In fact, I still have one of his cow horns over the entrance to my door there that he gave me back at that time. I let him sing on my radio show. Anyway, he went then and teamed up with George Khoury and then he went out and found Nathan Abshire. »

 

Pine Grove Blues Success and Aftermath

Nathan Abshire, 1972

Abshire ’50s

In May of 1949, Virgil gathered Nathan Abshire with Earl Demary ‘s backup band in the KPLC studio, located inside the Majestic Hotel in Lake Charles, to cut 8 tracks; the first of which was the legendary “Pine Grove Blues” for the O.T. label (#102). It was a loose interpretation of an old blues tune called “In The Pines”. His Pine Grove Boys band included Roy Broussard and Ernest Thibodeaux on vocals, Earl Demary or Ernest Thibodeaux on guitar, Atlas Fruge on lap steel, Jim Baker on bass guitar, Oziet Kegley on drums, and either Will Kegley or Wilson Granger on fiddle. The flipside contained a less-than-impressive “Kaplan Waltz” based on Angelas Lejeune’s 1929 recording of “Pointe Noir”. Since most Cajun 78s usually reached a pressing figure of 500, it was a big hit, pressing around 3,200 copies of the single. Virgil sold boxfulls of “Pine Grove Blues” from the back of a large hearse.

Pine grove blues

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However, Virgil kicked the label off with a string of tunes containing a discography of Cajun songs such as Nathan’s cover of Leo Soileau’s “Grand Mamou” (#106), “Lake Charles Two Step“(#106), “New Orleans Waltz” (# 110), “Hathaway Waltz” (# 111), a re-recording of his pre-war “French Blues” (# 110), and an improved swingy version of his first hit called “Pine Grove Boogie” (#111). At one point that year, Virgil and Khoury convinced the hit artist of the area, Harry Choates, to wax a record, trying to capitalize on his fame giving it “Jole Blon’s Gone” (#107) and the obscure “Lake Charles Waltz” (#107). Neither Nathan nor Harry could recreate the success of the Pine Grove Blues O.T. recording. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

French blues

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Pine grove boogie

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Harry Choates, “Jole Blon’s gone

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Other musicians Virgil managed to get were Cleo Harves [Blues] and Jerry Barlow on his listings. (# 103, # 105). The label would eventually move to San Antonio, run by James Bryant and Bennie Hess (former partners at Bill Quinn’s Gold Star records), however, by the end of 1949, O.T. suddenly dried up.

He released his last 4 recordings he was holding onto, outsourcing the pressings by mailing his masters to Stephen Shaw and George Weitlauf in Cincinatti, OH. The records contained Nathan performing covers of the Breaux tune “Step It Fast” (# 114) and a rendition of Harry Choates’s famous Jole Blon hit called “Jolie, Petite Juilette” [sic](# 114). The other one labeled as Sandy Austin was the stage name for Abe Manuel when he and his brother Joe played Corpus Christi in 1950. They recorded “Scrambled Eggs” and a Joe Falcon cover called ” Madame Saustain” (# 113). The O.T. label only produced 14 records that are known to exist.

Step it fast

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Jolie, petite Juilette

Circle C Band circa 52

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Virgel got gone further launching the short-lived Hot Rod label, and issuing his own music : « Way down here in Mississipi »/ »Won’t you care », changing for the occasion the name of his backing band, « The Circle C Boys »

Way down here in Mssissipi

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Won’t you care

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(also named the Circle « C » Band, with Carrol Sammons as leader and guitar player), an outfit of San Antonio, TX. Other issues were by Nathan Abshire (# 103, « Chere Te Mon »), Ernest Thibodeaux [as “Tipidoe » by English writers!] for « Jennings to step » recorded probably in Crowley, La.. Wilson Granger (mostly fiddler on all Hot Rod issues) and Tan Benoit (Cajun recordings) for: « Bayou chico waltz » and « Iowa two step » cut either in Crowley or Jennings in 1951-52.

Ernest TipidoeJennings two step” (Hot Rod 105)

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Wilson GrangerBayou Chico waltz” (Hot Rod 101)

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Tan BenoitIowa two step
(Hot Rod 101)

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Harmon Boazeman

Both Hot Rod [not to be confused with the California R&B outfit] and O.T. disappeared after 1952, as Virgel Bozman, who without doubt made easier the pot boiling by selling cow horns. Harmon Boazeman (not in any form related to Virgel) joined the Circle C Band in 1952 and cut in 1956 « No love in you » for Sarg.

 

Sources : the main sources were the abundant and precise notes of Dave Sax for ‘Cajun honky tonk – The Khoury recordings volume 2‘ ; also Chris Strachwitz for the « Nathan Abshire – « French blues » CD. These notes were freely adapted (and sometimes simply recopied). Many personal pictures do come from the accompanying booklets : I am working on the assumption that not many a reader owns those two CDs. Also I was inspired by the feature written on Khoury’s Records by Wade Falcon, available in this site or in his fine “earlycajunmusic.blogspot.fr” blogsite. Thanks to him. And this feature woud have been far incomplete (Hot Rod and O.T. Records) without the aid of the invaluable Ronald Keppner – million thanks go to him. Remaining pictures from 78rpm-world (45worlds.com). The picture of Nathan Abshire (’50s) comes from “Louisiana Music”, a booklet by Lyle Ferbrache and Andrew Brown. Thanks to them. Some help from “JoDee”, thanks to  her!