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).
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”