Collateral Works

Liner Notes

BLUE STEELE
From "Blue Steele and His Orchestra: The King of Rhythm" (1927-1930)
Vintage Music Productions 0101 (CD)

Personal accounts, from musicians who played with him, describe Blue Steele as a very talented musician with an erratic and frequently dangerous temperament. This has been attributed to a shrapnel injury which he suffered during World War I. As a result, a metal plate was put in his head (a fact that may, in part, explain his choice of pseudonym). Over the years that followed, the aberrance of his behavior ranged from the oddly comical to the homicidal. Indeed, sometime during the 1940s, he is said to have murdered an IRS agent, in Atlanta, for "no apparent reason." If true, such an account represents a singular extreme, even by Blue Steele's standards. More typical are the accounts that describe the mad bandleader, in nothing but his skivvies, chasing the more hapless of his sidemen through the lobby of a hotel. Other stories tell of musicians being assaulted with their own instruments. Apparently, Blue Steele had a special fondness for pounding on the bell of a horn, while the unsuspecting musician was still playing it.

Aside from the obvious effect on embouchure, such forms of censure and other irascible tendencies explain why many of his musicians felt compelled to sneak away, in the middle of the night, rather than brave the predictable danger of giving notice in a more traditional manner. This is undoubtedly what Pat Davis, Frank Martinez, Joe Hall and Gene Gifford were thinking, in September 1929, when they snuck away to join the Casa Loma Orchestra. While understandable, their departure was untimely. For Gene Gifford was just days from making his first recordings with Blue Steele. He had been with the band for more than a year and a half, a period that must have been seminal in the development of his arranging style. Given his influence on the Casa Loma sound, it would have been interesting to hear him play with Blue Steele. Nevertheless, we can assume that at least some of the arrangements, of September 1929, were Gifford's.

Whatever may be said of his temper and the ill fortune that it brought him, it is undeniable that Blue Steele had an ear for talent. His bands featured many fine musicians who would later make a name for themselves in other, well-known bands. In addition to Pat Davis, Frank Martinez, Joe Hall and Gene Gifford, the Blue Steele band boasted another future standout of the Casa Loma Orchestra, Kenny Sargent. Other notables included Sonny Clapp (tb), who would record with Slim Lamar and, later, lead his own band; Jack Echolls (cl), who was to play and record with Phil Harris; Frank Myers (cl, as), who would record with Jack Jenney; Red Rountree (bj, g), who would record with the California Ramblers; and Cookie Trantham (bb), who recorded with Ray Miller.

Prior to starting a band of his own, in 1925, Blue Steele played with other bands, including Watson's Bell Hops. He also recorded with Mart Britt and His Orchestra, in 1928. His first engagement, as a professional bandleader, came in 1925, at Tarpon Springs, Florida. This band played throughout the southern and eastern U.S., from the latter half of the 1920s to the 1930s. In 1941, he took a band to Mexico City, where he performed regularly on XEW radio. Around 1958, he led a band called the Rhythm Rebels, which included pianist and composer, Elmer Schoebel.

Blue Steele was born Eugene Staples, in Arkansas, March 11, 1893. He died July 1, 1971.

~ Jeff Hopkins
January 2002

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