Riley Puckett Biography- 1924
On March 7, 1924 Riley Puckett, accompanied by "Gid" Tanner, traveled to Columbia Records' New York City studios, where he cut his first sides, including a cover of Fiddlin' John Carson's "The Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane," and "Steamboat Bill." Another song, "Rock All Our Babies to Sleep," was the first-ever appearance of yodeling on a country record. Puckett’s excellent singing voice and virtuoso guitar playing quickly made him Columbia’s recording star and by 1925 only Vernon Dalhart sold more records.
Born George Riley Puckett on May 7, 1894, in Alpharetta, GA, he was blinded at the age of three months by receiving the wrong medication for a minor eye ailment. He attended the Macon School for the Blind, where he learned to read Braille and began playing the banjo at age twelve, followed by the guitar. His thumb pick style of playing bass-note runs between chord changes would be innovative and copied by generations of country musicians including Joe Miller and later Lester Flatt.
Riley became a favorite by 1917 at the Georgia Old-Time Fiddler’s Convention. Perhaps because he was not a fiddler, Puckett is not often mentioned in newspaper accounts of Atlanta fiddlers’ conventions. His name in connection with these events first appears in print in 1916 when we read in the Journal the brief statement that “the blind banjoist” was “ready for the big doings” at the fourth annual Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention. Puckett’s last documented appearance at the Atlanta fiddlers’ convention was the one held in March 1934 when he won first prize in the banjo contest.
Puckett debuted with Clayton McMichen on radio station WSB Atlanta in 1922. He soon became one of the station’s most popular performers, played with Fiddlin’ John Carson and began appearing as a soloist. In November 1922 Riley covered Carson’s “Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane,” backed by mandolinist Ted Hawkins between numbers by a dance orchestra.
The next year, he joined with Hawkins and fiddler Lowe Stokes to form the Hometown Boys, where his smooth vocal style and yodeling abilities earned the group a devoted following among WSB listeners, who began calling the singer "the Ball Mountain Caruso."
After the success of Fiddlin’ John Carson with Okeh, Columbia sent a representative to Atlanta looking for other old-time (hillbilly) southern music performers. After discovering Gid Tanner, a local fiddler and chicken farmer, they invited him to NYC on March 7, 1924 to record. [For a detailed biography of Gid Tanner; see: Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers p. ] Tanner brought Puckett with him to sing and play guitar. The eleven songs they waxed for Columbia sold well establishing Puckett as a rising star at Columbia. They were invited back and in September 1924 cut more sides with Riley playing banjo this time.
In 1925, Columbia introduced their 15000-D Hillbilly Series and Puckett recorded, among others, "Oh Susannah" and "You'll Never Miss Your Mother Till She's Gone." A year later, he joined the Skillet Lickers, which also featured Gid Tanner and Clayton McMichen, and remained with the group through 1931 when they broke up. In 1927, he also joined high tenor Hugh Cross for the very first recording entitled the "Red River Valley." The duo went on to cut two more sessions together, generating songs included in this book like "Gonna Raise a Ruckus Tonight" (released under the name Alabama Barnstormers on Regal labels).
In an interview with Mike Seegar, Frank Walker, head of Columbia’s “Old Familiar Tunes” division, related this account of The Red River Valley: “There was a thing up my neck of the woods called Mohawk Valley. There was a tune we played called Bright Mohawk Valley. I loved the tune and taught it to Riley Puckett. Riley played it and sang it and we made a record called Bright Mohawk Valley. We didn’t sell many records but it didn’t bother me cause I loved the song. I thought it over and figured that maybe it was because the Mohawk River wasn’t well known. There was a river in Arkansas named the Red River. So why couldn’t I change the Mohawk River to the Red River? Which we did. Riley recorded it over again and it became one of the biggest selling country music records ever made.”
Red River Valley painting by Richard Matteson
Though “The Red River Valley” was one of Puckett’s biggest hits it was recorded as “The Bright Sherman Valley” first but not by Puckett and Riley never recorded the song under the common title “Bright Mohawk Valley.” Walker’s claim that he titled the song is typical of many claims about the origin of many early country songs like “The Prisoner’s Song,” “Wreck of the Old 97” and “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Another early hit for Puckett was “Ida Red” later covered by Bob Wills. When he performed solo Puckett would bill himself as “King of the Hillbillies.” Whether he recorded or appeared with other groups, he would usually receive equal billing.
Joins Skillet Lickers- 1926
On April 27, 1926 the Skillet Lickers, Country Music’s first supergroup, cut their first Records. Billed as “Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers with Riley Puckett” the Georgia groups consisted of Riley playing guitar and singing lead (sometime sharing lead), Gid Tanner singing and playing fiddle; Clayton McMichen playing fiddle; Bert Layne playing fiddle and Fate Norris playing banjo. [For a detailed biography of the other Skillet Lickers see: “Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers”]
Their recordings were an immediate hit and for the next five years they recorded together frequently. After they spilt up in 1931 they regrouped for one last session for Bluebird in 1934 which yielded the hit, “Down Yonder.” [For a discography see: Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers- Discography]
While the onset of the Depression in 1929 did not crush Puckett's career, as it did to so many of his contemporaries, it did force him to cut back his recording schedule. His version of “My Carolina Home” with Clayton McMichen and Lowe Stokes on fiddles became another of his top sellers in 1931. They recorded fiddle tunes and songs sometimes as McMichen’s Melody Men or with McMichen taking the alias Bob Nichols. According to recording partner McMichen, “Riley proved the people wanted to hear singing. And if he didn’t sing on a record it didn’t sell much.”
After the the Skillet Lickers broke up, Puckett performed briefly with McMichen's Georgia Wildcats. In 1934, the Skillet Lickers regrouped briefly to record for Bluebird and Puckett also signed on with Bert Layne's Mountaineers. In addition, he recorded a number of duets with Red Jones on the Decca label, including "I Only Want a Buddy, Not a Sweetheart" and "Puckett’s Blues."
By 1936, he was touring with former Mainer Mountaineer "Daddy" John Love and also performed again with Bert Layne. After organizing his own tent show to tour throughout the South, he returned to New York to record duets with Red Jones including "Alttoona Train Wreck," "Take Me Back to My Carolina Home," and "The Broken Engagement." Puckett did not record again until 1940, when he cut the pop-oriented "Oh, Johnny, Oh," "Little Sir Echo," and "South of the Border." In 1941, he entered the studio one last time, performing "How Come You Do Me Like You Do," "Railroad Blues," and "Peach Picking Time in Georgia." Puckett continued performing on radio with the Stone Mountain Boys until 1946, when on July 14 he died from blood poisoning when a boil on his neck became severely infected.
Recordings: The Riley Puckett recordings include his duets with Bob Nichols (an alias for Clayton McMichen), Gid Tanner, Hugh Cross, Colon Jones, Red Jones, Arthur Tanner, Ted Hawkins and Charles Smith. Some of his duet recordings feature additional musicians. His recordings with the Skillet Lickers are listed under Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers.
Alphabetical Riley Puckett Recordings: "A" Rag; Back on the Texas Plains; Alabama Gal; All Bound Down In Prison; All Bound ‘Round With The Mason Dixon Line; Altoona Freight Wreck; Arkansas Sheik; Always Think Of Mother; Away Out On The Mountain; Back On The Texas Plains; Back To My Home In Smokey Mountain; Beaver Cap; Bill Johnson; Billy In The Low Ground; Black Eyed Susie; Blue Ridge Mountain Blues; Blue Yodel; Bile Dem Cabbage Down; Boots and Saddle; Boston Buglar; Breeze; Bring Back My Blue Eyed Boy; Broken Engagement; Burglar Man; Bury Me ‘Neath The Willow Tree; Can’t Put That Monkey On My Back; Careless Love; Caroline Sunshine Girl; Carolina Moon; Cat Came Back; Chain Gang Blues; Chilly Winds; Cindy; Clover Blossoms; Come, Be My Rainbow; Come Back Pal Of Mine; Curly Headed Baby; Dance All Night With A Bottle In Your Hand; Dark Town Strutters Ball; Darkey's Wail; Dear Old Dixieland; Devilish Mary; Dissatisfied; Dixie; Done Gone; Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down; Don’t Try It For It Can’t Be Done; Don’t You Remember The Time; Down By The Mississippi Shore; Down By The Old Mill Stream; Down In Arkansas; Dream Train; Drunkard’s Dream; East Bound Train; Everybody Works But Father; Farmer’s Daughter; Fire On The Mountain; Four Day Blues; Franky And Johnny; Freight Wreck at Altoona (Altoona Freight Wreck); Fuzzy Rag; Gather The Flowers; Get Out And Get Under The Moon; George Collins; Giddyap Napoleon (Wal I Swan); Gulf Coast Blues; Hello Central Give Me Heaven; How Come You Do You Me Like You Do; I Get The Blues When It Rains; I Only Want a Buddy, Not a Sweetheart; I Told Them All about You; I Want To Wander In The Cumberland Mountains; I Wish I Was Single Again; I’ll Never Get Drunk Anymore; I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen; I'm Drifting Back To Dreamland; I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles; I'm Getting Ready to Go; I’m Going To Georgia; I’m Going Where The Chilly Winds Don’t Blow; I’m Up In The Air About Mary; Ida Red; In A Little Garden; In A Little Gypsy Tea Room; In The Good Old Summer Time; In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree; Isle Of Capri; It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie; It’s Simple (Sinful) To Flirt; Jack And Joe; Jesse James; Jordan Is a Hard Road to Travel (Other Side of Jordan); Just As The Sun Went Down; Just As We Used To Do; Just Break The News To Mother; K. C. Railroad; Knoxville Girl; Let Me Call You Sweetheart; Let My Peaches Be; Let The Rest Of The World Go By; Little Brown Jug; Little Maumee; Little Log Cabin In The Lane; Little Sir Echo; Liza Jane; Long Tongue Woman; Longest Train; Lost Love; Ma He’s Making Eyes At Me; Maggie Walker Blues (Ramblin' Boy); M-O-T-H-E-R; Ma He’s Making Eyes At Me; Mama Don't Allow; Margie; McKinley (White House Blues); Moonlight On The Colorado; Moonlight Shadows and You; Moonshiner's Dream; My Blue Ridge Mountain Queen; My Buddy; My Carolina Home; My Isle of Golden Dreams; My Old Kentucky Home; My Old Mule; My Poodle Dog; My Puppy Bud; New “Givin’ Everything Away”; ‘Neath The Old Apple Tree; Nine Hundred Miles; Nobody’s Business If I Do; Oh, Johnny, Oh; Oh Susannah; Old Apple Tree; Old Black Joe; Old Fashioned Locket; Old Joe Clark; Old Maid’s Brown Ferry Blues; Old Molly Hare; Old Spinning Wheel; Ole Faithful; On Tanner’s Farm; On The Other Side Of Jordan; Orphan Girl; Paddy Won't You Drink Some (Good Old) Cider; Paw’s Old Mule; Peach Pickin' Time In Georgia; Playmates; Poor Boy; Preacher and The Bear; Puckett Blues; Put My Little Shoes Away; Put On An Old Pair Of Shoes; Ragged But Right; Railroad Bill; Railroad Boomer; Ramblin’ Boy; Red River Valley; Red Sails In The Sunset; Riley’s Henhouse Door; Ring Waltz; Redwing; Renfro Valley Home; Rock-A-Bye Baby; Roll Back The Carpet; Rye Straw; Sally Goodwin; Sally Johnson; Sante Fe Folks Fiesta; Saurkraut; Saxophone Waltz; Send Back My Wedding Ring; Short Life Of Trouble; Silver Threads Among The Gold; Sleep, Baby, Sleep; Slim Gal; Somebody's Waiting For Me; Somewhere In Old Wyoming; South Of The Border; Spanish Cavalier; South Of The Border; Steamboat Bill; Swanee River; Take Me Back To My Boots and Saddle; Take Me Back To My Carolina Home; That Old Irish Mother Of Mine; There’s A Hard Time Coming; There’s More Pretty Girls Than One; Though You’re Not Satisfied With Me; Tie Me To Your Apron Strings; Till We Meet Again; To Wed You In The Golden Summertime; Trail Of The Lonesome Pine; Twenty-one Years; Uncle Bud; Underneath The Mellow Moon; Wait Till The Sun Shines Nellie; Waitin' for the Evening Mail; Waiting For A Train; Wal I Swan; Walking My Baby Back Home; Way Out There; We'll Sow Righteous Seed For The Reaper; Wednesday Night Waltz; What’s The Reason; When I Grow Too Old To Dream; When I Had But Fifty Cents; When I'm Gone You'll Soon Forget Me; When Irish Eyes are Smiling; When I Had But Fifteen Cents; When I’m Back In Tennessee; When It’s Peach Pickin’ Time In Georgia; When The Maple Leaves Are Falling; When You And I Were Young Maggie; When You’re Gone I Won’t Forget; Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight; Where the Shy Little Violets Grow; Whistle And Blow Your Blues Away; Who Broke the Lock (Riley's Hen House Door); Whoa Mule; Will You Ever Think Of Me; Won't You Come Over To My House; You’d Be Surprised; You'll Never Miss Your Mother Till She's Gone
Hugh Cross and Riley Puckett: Call Me Back Pal O’ Mine; Clover Blossoms; Go Feather Your Nest; Gonna Raise Ruckus Tonight; I’m Going To Settle Down; My Wild Irish Rose; Red River Valley; Smiles; Tell Me; Tuck Me To Sleep; When You Wore A Tulip; Where The Morning Glories Grow;
Oscar Ford (Lowe Stokes, Bert Layne, Riley Puckett) Columbia 1930: Farmer’s Dream; Georgia is my Home; Girl I Love In Tennessee; Little Nan; Me And My Gal; Race Between a Ford and Chevrolet; Riding In A Chevrolet Six; Sweetest Girl In Town;
Oscar Ford & Riley Puckett: Henry Ford’s Model A; Married Life Blues