Skeets Tolbert and his Gentleman of Swing (1944)

A figure almost forgotten today is clarinetist, alto saxophonist arranger and singer Campbell “Skeets” Tolbert (1909–2000).

Skeets  Tolbert (center)

According to his Wikipedia entry, Tolbert grew up in Lincolntown, North Carolina and first recorded with Dave Taylor’s Dixie Orchestra (Leslie Johnakins who later became known as Machito’s baritone saxophonist was in that band then).

In 1934 Tolbert moved to New York City, where he played with Charlie Alexander before joining the house band at the Savoy Ballroom.

In 1936 he played with Fats Waller, then joined a band fronted by Olympic athlete Jesse Owens in 1937. Shortly afterwards he joined Snub Mosley’s band and took control of it after Mosley’s departure. Freddie Green, Kenny Clarke, Red Richards, Otis Hicks, Carl Smith and Lem Johnson all played in the band, which first recorded in 1939 under the name  Skeets Tolbert’s Gentlemen of Swing.

It is said that his sales were poor when he was recording with his Gentleman of Swing for Decca from 1939 to 1942. Nonetheless the company recorded 40 sides with Tolbert. MCA who came to own Decca never bothered to reissue Tolbert’s 78s and fans of fine jump band music had to acquire obscure LPs drawn from 78 records of varying condition to get a taste of Skeetz style that settles somewhere between Johnny Hodges and  Louis Jordan. It was only in 1997 and 1998 that french company Chrono(lo)gical Classics issued to CDs worth of Tolbert’s wonderful jive music.

After his Decca recordings we meet Tolbert again in 1944 when his group was doing playback on four tracks (one of them featuring singer Lupe Carterio) for a “Soundies” movie production. These four tracks have appeared and disappeared on youtube over time. But never were all to be seen at the same time. So I decided to edit them all into one clip (which admittedly did not turn out as nice as it was supposed to).

Unfortunately it is not known (at least to me) who the members of Tolbert’s band are on this clip. You will see and hear them play “‘Tis You Babe”, “No No Baby”, “Blitzkrieg Bombardier”, and “Corn Pone”

Again following Wikipedia, Tolbert completed studies at Columbia University in 1946 and broke up the group to take a job in Charlotte, North Carolina as a high school music teacher. He became a faculty member at Texas Southern University in Houston in 1948. Later in his life Tolbert worked for the American Federation of Musicians and owned a music store. The Wikipedia article about Tolbert is based on Howard Rye’s article about Tolbert in Grove Jazz online. It is a shame that no more is known about such a musically interesting figure  and very good to know he was filmed.
So enjoy!

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One Response to “Skeets Tolbert and his Gentleman of Swing (1944)”

  1. Thanks for the work on Skeets Tolbert, nice job.
    Thanks also for having the link on your site, Youtube
    didn’t cooperate directly using Linux/Firefox.

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