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The Cats & The Fiddle

The Cats & the Fiddle were one of dozens of harmony vocal groups to spring up in the wake of the success of the Mills Brothers. They endured longer than many of their pre-World War II rivals, both as a performing and recording unit and also as an influence on others who came after them, mostly by virtue of their style being so far out in front of the competition; yet they never charted a record in their dozen years of recording, and the biggest success that their founder ever saw on record was as a member of Louis Jordan's Tympany Five, and rather late in the day for that group as well. Leader/founder Austin Powell (lead vocals, guitar), who'd been leading groups as far back as high school in the mid-'30s, first put the Cats & the Fiddle together in 1937. Powell, Jimmy Henderson (tenor, tiple), Chuck Barksdale (bass vocals, upright bass), and Ernie Price (tenor, guitar, tiple) got together a quartet that was built on harmony vocals, but was also completely self-contained instrumentally, needing no further support on record or on-stage -- in that sense, the Cats & the Fiddle were very unusual and also offered a fuller and more complex, challenging sound than many of their rivals. The group spent a couple of years taking any work they could get, including weddings, proms, and graduation parties. They also got minor supporting (almost more like "extra") roles in a couple of Hollywood movies, including Too Hot to Handle (1938) and Going Places (1939), before they'd ever recorded a note for commercial release. In the late spring of 1939, the Cats & the Fiddle were discovered by producer/agent Lester Melrose, who got them signed to Victor Records' Bluebird imprint, for which they recorded some 42 sides, making their debut in August of 1939 with "Nuts to You" b/w "Killin' Jive."

If anything, the Cats & the Fiddle were ahead of their time, producing a bolder form of R&B than critics were prepared to accept at the time, such as "That's All I Mean to You," which likely would have slotted in perfectly a decade later, but in 1940 just seemed like style-less noise with a swing beat. They potentially offered a sound very different from the smooth model of the Mills Brothers, but found precious few positive notices to encourage them, though audiences at their performances were won over. The group's most successful early tune was "I Miss You," sung by Jimmy Henderson and released in the spring of 1940; their biggest seller up to that time, it was a success that Henderson would never enjoy -- he was hospitalized with meningitis soon after the single's release and died late in 1940. His initial successor was tenor Herbie Miles, who'd previously sung with Powell in his high school group the Harlem Harmony Hounds, but he was gone by the end of 1940, replaced by Tiny Grimes on tenor vocal and guitar, who lasted with them for two years, up to a gig in Los Angeles, after which he elected to stay on the West Coast while the group headed east to appear at the Apollo Theater. Meanwhile, bass singer/player Chuck Barksdale died in 1941, to be replaced by George Steinback. When Grimes left in 1942, his successor was Mifflin "Peewee" Branford, but his arrival coincided with a temporary end to their recording activities, mostly owing to the first of several recording bans instituted by the Musicians Union. Austin Powell was drafted in 1943 and absent for over two years, during which he was replaced by Hank Haslett, who lasted until 1945, when he was succeeded by ex-group member Herbie Miles, who this time stepped into Powell's lead spot. The group resumed recording in early 1946 for the Manor Records label and its affiliated Regis and Arco labels, first taking another crack at "I Miss You So" (with Ernie Price singing lead), which soon found itself up against an RCA Victor reissue of the original, as well as "Life's Too Short," with two new tunes for good measure. In the spring of that year, Austin Powell rejoined the lineup and Branford left. The group also sang and played backup to singer June Davis during their two years with Manor Records. Another membership change came in the summer of 1947 when Herbie Miles left and was succeeded by Emitt Slay, who lasted a short time before being succeeded by the group's first female member, Shirley Moore, along with tenor and conga player Johnny Davis, which expanded the group to a quintet. Moore's arrival marked the most profound change in the group's sound since Austin Powell's being drafted, her voice adding a new timbre to their music, whether she sang backup or lead, as in the case of the singles "Honey Honey Honey" and "That's What I Thought You Said," among the last of the group's Manor recordings, issued in 1948. The group's next stop was Gotham Records, the legendary Philadelphia-based label founded by Ivin Ballen, where they issued two singles in 1949 and 1950 -- by the time the second Gotham single was out, Moore had been succeeded by Doris Knighton. Their fortunes seemed to take a decided upward turn that year when the group got three singles out on the Decca label, but by the middle of 1950 the group had effectively disbanded. Austin Powell reassembled a lineup with Jimmy Davis, Stanley Gaines (bass vocals, bass), Beryl Booker (piano), and singer/drummer Dottie Smith. At various times, and with a somewhat floating membership, the group recorded and performed as Austin Powell & the Cats & the Fiddle and the Austin Powell Quintet, for Decca and Atlantic. Powell later joined the James Quintet, while in 1952 Ernie Price organized a new version of the Cats & the Fiddle. Meanwhile, Powell passed through various other outfits, including several combos built around Timmie Rogers (often in tandem with Dottie Smith), but by 1955 he was part of a new Cats & the Fiddle, configured as a more traditional vocal/instrumental combo, with Big Nick Nicholas on saxophone, Freddy Jefferson at the ivories,

Hector Ford on bass, Sonny Oliver on drums, and Powell on lead vocals and guitar. This group evidently saw some success in live performance but never recorded, and Powell next turned up with Nicholas as part of an act called Tic & Toc. He and Oliver, along with Dottie Smith, were subsequently a part of the late-'50s version of Louis Jordan's Tympany Five during the time of that act's stay on the Mercury label, before he resumed leadership of his own group in 1958. Powell and the other surviving, active members of the group had left professional music by the 1960s, amid the further changes that overtook the public's taste. ~ Bruce Eder
full bio

Selected Discography

x

Track List: Dope & Glory

Disc 1

1. Sendin' The Vipers

2. Viper's Drag

3. When I Get Low I Get High

4. I'm Gonna Get High

8. Knockin' Myself Out

9. Reefer Man?

11. Here Comes The Man With The Jive

12. If You're A Viper

13. Texas Tea Party

15. Jack I'm Mellow

16. Sweet Marihuana Brown

18. Weed Smoker's Dream

19. The 'G' Man Got The 'T' Man

20. All The Jive Is Gone

21. Stuff Is Here

22. Weed

23. Knockin' Myself Out

25. Save The Roach For Me

Disc 2

1. Killin' Jive

3. Sweet Sue, Just You

6. Golden Leaf Strut

11. Jive Man Blues

14. Mellow Stuff

15. Minor Goes A Muggin'

16. Reefer Man

18. Dopey Joe

20. Don't Credit My Stuff

21. A Vipers Moan

23. Smoking Reefers

25. Willie The Weeper

x

Track List: Marijuana Madness

1. Reefer Man

3. Here Comes The Man With The Jive

5. The Stuff Is Here

6. Sweet Marijuana Brown

7. Viper Mad

8. "G" Man Got The "T" Man

9. All The Jive Is Gone

10. Feelin' High And Happy

12. Weed

13. Save The Roach For Me

14. Knockin' Myself Out

15. Jack, I'm Mellow

16. You'se A Viper

17. Dope Head Blues

18. Ol' Man River (Smoke A Little Tea)

19. Mellow Stuff

20. Killin' Jive

21. They Raided The Joint

22. Texas Tea Party

23. Lotus Blossom

x

Track List: Vocal Groups: Classic Doo Wop

Disc 1

4. Swing Is The Thing

6. I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water

7. If I Didn't Care

9. Whispering Grass

11. That's The Rhythm

12. I Like Pie, I Like Cake

13. Milk Shake Stand

15. The Blues Can Jump

17. Hoe Cake, Hominy And Sassafras Tea

20. Write Me A Letter

21. Around About Midnite

23. It's Too Soon To Know

Disc 2

1. Too Much Of A Little Bit

3. Lemon Squeezing Daddy

5. My Baby's Gone

6. How Could You

8. Will You Be Mine

10. Make Me Thrill Again

11. Mary Jo

12. Ting-A-Ling

13. Stormy Weather

14. Eyesight To The Blind

15. The Glory Of Love

17. Good Googa Mooga

18. Just Walking In The Rain

20. Money Honey

21. Gee

22. I Found Out

23. A Sunday Kind Of Love

24. Get With It

Disc 3

1. Be Bop Wino

2. Feel So Good

3. Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite

5. Tell Me

6. Big Leg Mama

8. Is It A Dream

11. Hearts Of Stone

12. Baby Let Me Bang Your Box

13. The Stars Are Out Tonight

15. Gloria

16. Riot In Cell Block No.9

17. Oop Shoop

18. Grief By Day, Grief By Night

19. What Do You Do

20. Mary Lee

23. Buick '59

24. Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)

25. Newly Wed

Disc 4

1. Smokey Joe's Cafe

2. You Didn't Learn It At Home

3. Witchcraft

4. Chop Chop Boom

5. Rollin' Stone

6. No No Cherry

7. My Angel

9. The Door Is Still Open

10. That's Your Mistake

11. Baby Let's Play House

12. Be Bop Baby

14. Hug A Little, Kiss A Little

16. When You Dance

17. At My Front Door

18. Lonely Nights

19. Red Hots And Chili Mac

20. Bye Bye

21. A Story Untold

22. Don't Play No Mambo

23. Peace And Contentment

24. Nobody Knows

26. The Great Pretender

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