Roba Stanley Biography- 1924
On August 26, 1924 in Atlanta at same studio Fiddlin’ John Carson recorded one year before, Roba Stanley waxed her first session of songs for Okeh. Dubbed the “First Sweetheart of Country Music” Roba’s career would be a short one, ending the following year after she got married and moved to Miami.
At her first session she played with her father in a string band named the Stanley Trio, did a few solo songs [Tony Russell lists only duets] and also played duets with William (Bill) Patterson, a family friend who played guitar and sang. Roba described the experience in an interview with Charles Wolfe: “There was this one big old room high upstairs in this old building. We sang into this big horn and they had this big old piece of wax turning, just like a record, cutting groves into the wax. I remember we had to get close to the horn. It was pretty hard work.”
The first record made at the session was her father singing “Nellie Gray” a parody of Stephen Foster’s “Darling Nellie Gray.” She next sang a duet with her father, “Whoa Mule” with unusual lyrics: “The saddest time I wonder/My heart is filled with woe/With all my grief I ponder/ What I do and do not know.” After this Ralph Peer asked Roba to do two sides on her own; “Devilish Mary” and “Mister Chicken” which Roba sang and played guitar with Bill Patterson playing harmonica. Roba remembered that “Devilish Mary” was her best selling song in the local markets after the records were released.
Miss Stanley’s voice was “was strong and clear and deeper than many of the women trying to record at that time (Bumgargner and Davis). It was ideally suited to the acoustic of the time and had a North Georgia arch that no city singer could fake.” [Pickin’ On Peachtree]
Roba Stanley was one of the first female Country singers to have performed on the radio. Her regular performances on Atlanta’s WSB lead to her being described as the first "Sweetheart" of Country Music. Back in 1924 Country Music was called “old timey” or “mountain music” and in 1925 would become known as “hillbilly music” in part through Okeh’s Ralph Peer, who organized Roba’s sessions.
Born in 1910 she gave her age as 16 for the session when in fact she was only 14. Her musical prowess was developed by her father, Robert (Rob) Morland Stanley, was an accomplished fiddler who had won the fiddle competition at Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers Convention in 1920. Rob is first mentioned as winning second prize in the large fiddler’s contest in Lawrenceville on July 4, 1912. It is likely he performed in the Atlanta contests, which began in 1913.
Rob was as good friend of Fiddlin’ John Carson, who frequently stopped by their house in Lawrenceville. Roba said in her interview in 1977 that on a few occasions she had played with the “famous John Carson.” There is an account of Rob’s 1920 victory in the Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers Convention in 1920:
“R.M. Stanley one of the oldest fiddlers attending the annual convention of the Old-Time Fiddler’s Association of Georgia won the state championship at the final session Thurdsay. Mr. Stanley, white-haired and wrinkled, played “We will follow Jesus” when his turn came to take the chair. Fiddlin’ John Carson presiding, stated that since the death of his son in the World War Mr. Stanley played nothing but sacred music. He was awarded the championship by unanimous vote.”
Apparently there were complaints by other fiddlers that Stanley played a religious song, which was not a traditionally accepted choice, and Carson placated them with his true story about Shirley Stanley’s death, however Rob played a variety of music not just religious songs. Stanley won first place above two excellent fiddlers: Anita Wheeler, who would become a two time champion and Ahaz Gray one of the finest traditional fiddlers in America.
The Stanleys performed with a number of other Georgia musicians, including the renowned Gid Tanner. One of Roba's songs "Devilish Mary" became one of the most famous numbers by Gid's Skillet Lickers years later.
The Stanley house had become a mecca for musicians in the Atlanta area, which was the center of early Country Music world in the 1920s. Roba was exposed to old-time fiddle music at an early age and soon learned the guitar and the songs her father knew. By 1923 Roba was accompanying her father at square dances. They debuted on WSB radio in early 1924. It was her radio exposure as well as her father’s reputation that led to the recording invitation by Ralph Peer, who through his associate Polk Brockman, had discovered Fiddlin’ John Carson on the same radio station the year before. Brockman had heard Roba sing with the Stanleys (Roba, Bill Patterson and her father Rob Stanley) and at a political rally and contacted Peer about them.
After the session it seemed like Roba was on the verge of becoming another star like Carson. After her records were released they attracted the attention of Henry Whitter, who recorded the first unofficial Country session for Okeh in March 1923. He wrote to Robert Stanley and asked if he could come to Dacula, Georgia and play with the Stanley Trio. For Whitter this was another opportunity to advance his recording career. He no doubt thought he could do more recording with the group and that they might back up his songs.
“He was trying to make a living with his music,” Roba recalled in an interview with Charles Wolfe done in the 1976-77 when she lived in Gainesville, Florida. The encounter with Whitter would lead to another recording session with Okeh in July, 1925. Whitter played a second guitar and harmonica at that session and Roba sang and played guitar. She recorded a localized version of “Railroad Bill” and her version of “Frankie and Johnny (Frankie and Alvin)" but the song she would be identified with “Single Life,” was the gem of that session.
Do not care for pretty little things
Always felt like dancin’
Streets all lines with one dollar bills
The girls all sweet and dainty.
CHORUS: Single Life is a happy life,
Single life is lovely!
I am single and no man's wife,
And no man shall control me.
Ironically, in the fall of 1925 Roba met a man from Miami and abruptly decided to get married. “It was love at first sight,” she said. “I just quit everything and got married. My parents were concern because of the age I was, but then they liked Mr. Baldwin a lot.”
After they married the couple moved back to Miami and Roba, after a few months, gave up her music. “My husband didn’t like for me to play out in public much. There was no way to keep recording; they were in Georgia and I was in Miami.” She had three children, gave away her guitar to her nephews, and the musical part of her life over.
In the late 1970’s she went to Nashville, took a tour and was saluted from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.
Roba passed away in 1986, an obscure figure in early country music history.
Songs Recorded by Roba Stanley: All Night Long (Richmond Blues); Devilish Mary; Little Frankie (Frankie and Alvin); Mister Chicken; Old Maid Blues; Nellie Gray; Railroad Bill; Single Life; Whoa Mule;