Wilmer Watts

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WILMER WATTS (from http://www.oldhatrecords.com)

Wilmer WattsAnother well-known musician employed in Gaston County cotton mills was singer and banjo player Wilmer Wesley Watts (1897-1943), who worked as a loom fixer at the Climax Spinning Company in Belmont and performed with several local stringbands during the mid-to-late 1920s.

Born in 1897, Watts was originally from Mount Tabor (now Tabor City), a market town in Columbus County, in the southeastern corner of North Carolina. He developed a serious interest in music as a child, and, although he never learned to read music, he did play several stringed instruments, including the fiddle, banjo, guitar, steel guitar, and autoharp, as well as the harmonica, drum, and even the musical saw. He became so musically proficient, in fact, that he sometimes performed as a one-man band, playing five instruments at once.

Around 1931, according to family members, Watts won first prize with his act in a contest at a Mount Holly theater.  Uncle Dave Macon reportedly served as one of the contest judges. Watts was an avid fan of hillbilly music, and owned a cylinder talking machine and later a disc phonograph on which he enjoyed listening to the latest records of Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmie Davis, and his favorite, Roy Acuff.

Around 1921, after settling in Belmont, Watts immersed himself in the local music scene, and by 1926, he and a steel guitarist and singer named Frank Wilson, with whom he worked at the Climax Mill, were teaming up to entertain their fellow millhands at Gaston County social gatherings. Research by Bob Carlin reveals that Wilson was born in Chinquapin, in Rockingham County, North Carolina, and that his full name was Percy Alphonso “Frank” Wilson (1900-?).  Like Wilmer Watts, Wilson was a talented multi-instrumentalist.

As a child, Wilson took music lessons and learned to read musical notation, and, later as an adult, he sometimes taught piano, violin, and guitar out of his home. Although trained as a barber, he spent much of his early adulthood working in textile mills in Alamance County, North Carolina, before settling in Belmont, where he met Wilmer Watts, with whom he made eight duets for Paramount in 1927 under the name “Watts and Wilson.” How Watts and Wilson came to record has been lost to history, but in the winter of 1927, the duo traveled to Chicago, where they made their first recording, a vocal duet of The Sporting Cowboy, accompanied by banjo and guitar, in either January or February 1927 for Paramount.

This single side went unissued, but the duo must have impressed Paramount officials. Some two to three months later, in April 1927, Watts and Wilson returned to Paramount’s recording studios in Chicago, this time accompanied by another Belmont millhand, singer and guitarist Charles H. Freshour (1900-1959), who also worked at the Climax Mill.

Born in 1900 in the city of Newport, in the mountains of western Tennessee, Freshour learned to play guitar around the age of nine, according to his family, from a local black street singer. Like Watts, Freshour was adept on a number of stringed instruments, but preferred the guitar, and according to his family, he also wrote several songs, including The Aderholt Murder, Bonnie Bess, The Fate of Rhoda Sweetin, and Walk Right in Belmont.

At their April 1927 session in Chicago, Watts and Wilson, accompanied by Freshour on guitar, waxed seven selections, one of which, Walk Right in Belmont, is a reworking of Midnight Special, an extensively recorded prison song from African American tradition that Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter popularized in the 1940s. Freshour, who reportedly wrote Walk Right in Belmont, probably sings lead on this recording. Paramount released Walk Right in Belmont in its new “Old Time Tunes” series, credited only to “Watts and Wilson,” and on the auxiliary Broadway label, under the artist pseudonym of “Weaver and Wiggins.”

Shortly after this session, Frank Wilson moved to Burlington, North Carolina, 120 miles to the northeast. Between 1928 and 1929, he went on to tour and record more than twenty sides with several other hillbilly stringbands, including the acclaimed vaudeville troupes H. M. Barnes and His Blue Ridge Ramblers and the Hill Billies/Al Hopkins and His Buckle Busters. And although he made his first recordings with a Gaston County stringband, Wilson is best remembered today for his association with the Charlie Bowman-Roe Brothers musical circle, based in East Tennessee and southwest Virginia, whose members performed at various times with both of these vaudeville stringbands.

Cotton Mill Blues LabelAfter Wilson left the area around 1927, Watts organized a stringband trio called the Gastonia Serenaders, with Freshour and another Belmont textile worker, steel guitarist Palmer Rhyne, whom he had met while playing at a local dance.

Harvey Palmer Rhyne (1904-1967) was born in Gaston County in 1904, probably in McAdenville, where his father worked as a weaver at one of the town’s three McAden Mills.

In late October 1929, the band, now renamed Wilmer Watts and the Lonely Eagles (apparently a reference to aviator Charles Lindbergh’s famous nickname), waxed sixteen sides during a marathon two-day session for Paramount in New York City. Been on the Job Too Long is a garbled version of the African American murder ballad better known as Duncan and Brady, which was based upon an actual event, the 1880 shooting death of an Irish policeman by a black bartender in St. Louis, Missouri.

Bonnie Bess, a sentimental ballad about a railroad engineer’s daughter, is based upon an anonymous poem, “The Night Express,” which appeared in the November 1893 issue of the Locomotive Engineers’ Monthly Journal. Charles Freshour, whose family claimed he wrote the song, probably set the poem to music. In April 1927, Watts and Wilson had recorded an earlier version of this song as The Night Express, and its retitling probably represents Watts and the Lonely Eagles’ efforts to skirt the fact that Paramount already had this prior recording of the song in its hillbilly catalog.

She’s A Hard Boiled Rose, a song about a tough, gold-digging “dame,” derives from the 1924 Tin Pan Alley number, Hard Boiled Rose, written by Al Dubin, Jimmie McHugh, and Irwin Dash, and perhaps best remembered as the theme song for stripper Gypsy Lee Rose. At this session, Wilmer Watts and the Lonely Eagles also waxed two traditional ballads: Sleepy Desert, a tale of star-crossed lovers, better known as The Drowsy Sleeper, and found on other prewar hillbilly records under the more common titles Oh Molly Dear and Katie Dear; and Working for My Sally, another narrative song, this one about unrequited love, more commonly known as Joe Bowers.

Like David McCarn, Watts and his stringband also recorded an occupational song, Cotton Mill Blues, based on George D. Stutts’s poem “A Factory Rhyme,” originally published in his chapbook, Picked Up Here and There (1900). As with The Night Express/Bonnie Bess, Freshour was probably the one responsible for transforming this textile mill poem by Stutts, who worked at Crown Mills in Greensboro, North Carolina, into a song. On this record, Watts and the band confront the social stigma attached to Carolina Piedmont mill workers, complaining that “uptown people” call them “trash” and the “ignorant factory set.”

Although Watts played at least eight instruments and in the only known photograph of him he is holding a fiddle, he apparently played only the banjo on his commercially released sides. He is commonly assumed to have sung lead on all of the Lonely Eagles sides, but a comparison of these records reveals that at least two different singers, probably Watts and Freshour, handled the lead vocals. Released during the depths of the Great Depression, on a label that lacked a national distribution network, Wilmer Watts and the Lonely Eagles’ records sold poorly, and today are exceedingly rare, with only one or two copies of some of them known to exist. On them nonetheless can be found what old-time music historian Norm Cohen calls “several outstanding musical gems.”

Shortly after his recorded career ended in 1929, Watts and his family moved to Horry County, South Carolina, where he earned a living as a tenant farmer for a time. Throughout much of the rest of the 1930s, Watts continued working as a loom fixer in the mills in Belmont and Bessemer City, and, fifty miles to the northwest, in Hickory through the Great Depression.

Watts also continued to play music, including occasionally as a one-man band. During the mid-1930s, while living in Bessemer City and working at the Bessemer Cotton Mill, Watts organized the Watts Gospel Singers with his oldest daughters. The group performed in churches, at revivals, and even on street corners, and for a couple of years in the late 1930s, even performed on two regular radio shows, with an early morning program at 5:30 A.M. on WSPA in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and an evening program at 5:00 P.M. on WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Around 1939, however, Watts was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and his illness forced him to retire from mill work and music making. He and his family moved to St. Pauls, in Robeson County, North Carolina, where he operated a gas station until his death in 1943 at the age of forty-seven. Following their father’s death in 1943, Watts’s daughters, eventually joined by one of their husbands, continued performing as the Watts Gospel Singers and later as the Watts Gospel Quartet into at least the 1960s.

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One Response to “Wilmer Watts”

  1. Stephen Hopkins Says:

    Very interesting material on Wilmer Watts and his life. I have long wanted, ever since first hearing “Been on the Job too Long” to find out more about his banjo style, certainly not clawhammer. Sounds like either two or three finger pre-bluegrass, yet I’ve never seen him given any credit as a bluegrass influence.

    Stephen Hopkins

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