Not Lee’s Owls, 1924

Back in 2017 I wrote a quick and dirty post about this picture, memorable mostly for the discussion in the comments about the instrument sitting on its side in front of the banjo player, apparently a Chinese lute:

But then after all this time out of the blue last week came another comment from someone I didn’t know named Kevin Coffey:

I am pretty certain that this photo is NOT Lee’s Owls. That certainly is not Lee Chatham on trombone. There are several early photos of the group, in yearbooks and elsewhere (here is a photo of the band from a 1926 Valentine’s Dance https://scholarship.rice.edu/handle/1911/71448 ) and the personnel remained fairly consistent, with some non-Rice ringers and a few guys leaving upon graduation. The above photo appears to be from earlier than 1925 and I wonder if it might depict Eddie’s Syncopators, who are mentioned as predecessors of Lee’s Owls in the 1925 article quoted above (the article above misidentifies Joe Jarrett as a tuba player — he played trumpet).

This was quite surprising, especially considering what was written on the back of the picture:

Still, that comment had the unmistakable air of having been written by someone who knows what he’s talking about. So I wrote him back, and thus began a couple of happy days of working out the solution to the problem of who those guys are were. The credit all belongs to Mr. Coffey, an amateur historian of the best kind, meticulous, knowledgable, motivated by love and curiosity. It was a pleasure to give him what little help I could. Watch him working his way through it and learn a lot about Rice dance bands of the 1920s, an otherwise totally unexplored topic:

October 23:

Have had a go at the photo. After cross referencing the names, including Heyck’s, with faces from yearbooks, etc., I’ve concluded that my initial feeling before I knew that the photo was in some way associated with Joseph Heyck, that it was earlier than the mid-20s was in fact correct — and that it’s not only not Lee’s Owls, but not the Rice Collegians or Eddie’s Syncopatrors, either. I’m not sure if Joe Heyck is even in the photo, which might be why his widow was glad to part with it. His brother Theo might be, but the one person I can ID for certain at this point is the pianist, who is Neal Dargan, a 1922 graduate of Rice who was apparently in the Engineering school with Theo Heyck. And I think the photo probably comes from around that time. WIll keep digging and let you know if anything interesting comes up.
October 24:

I have the answer to the photo mystery. I was right about some things — that it preceded the Rice Collegians and that that is Neal Dargan at the piano — and wrong about others — Joe Heyck is in the photo and it’s from 1924 rather than earlier, as I had thought it might be after identifying Dargan.

Anyway, the photo and description shows up in The Thresher, May 3, 1924, page 3

The band is the Rice Troubadours, a recently organized dance orchestra which had even more recently been expanded from five to eight pieces.

They are, front row, L-R: George Wright, trombone; Joe Taylor, trumpet; Eddie Shearer, banjo; Joe Heyck, saxophone; Charles Pace, saxophone. Rear, L-R: R.T.T Wilbanks, brass bass; Wilmer Fischer, drums; Neal Dargan, piano.

I love it when things come together, when a mystery item can actually be fully documented.

I love it too. And we’re still not quite finished. This is me to him, October 26:

Just fyi, I was going about it in a completely different way. Looking at the picture I wasn’t sure where it was taken, but there were only a limited number of options in Houston in the mid-20s. I’m still not certain but in searching the venues I thought I might find who was playing in them. Based on Neal Dargan’s graduation date I started by going backwards. I didn’t find the Rice Troubadors but I did find something else—the Joy Spreaders!

And Mr. Coffey back to me, also on the 26th:

I did the same thing, also basing it on Neal Dargan’s graduation date. As always happens with any search engine, some important hits slipped through the search and it was only when I did an alternative search (I think the term I used was “dance orchestra”) and started looking a bit after Dargan’s graduation that I bumbled into finding the Troubadours photo in the Thresher. However, as I said, my initial search was similar to yours and I did find numerous references to the Joy Spreaders, from the fall of ’21 into 1924.

My search wasn’t exhaustive and I might have missed some blurbs that listed the personnel of the group, but the only one I found that directly mentioned band members was an early one that listed them as Humason, piano (presumably Lawrence Humason), Campbell on drums (presumably the ubiquitous J.I. Campbell), and Jarrett on saxophone. I didn’t do a cross-reference to find Jarrett’s first name, but I will. I’m assuming that the personnel changed over the next couple of years, with possibly Campbell as the unifying factor, but that’s just a guess. There were programs that the Joy Spreaders were on in 1923, for example, that also featured solo spots by Arthur (Slime) Zucht, piano and W.L. (Lindsey) Hale on saxophone and they may have become members of the Joy Spreaders in that period (both they and Campbell would graduate to subsequent Rice dance/jazz bands after the Joy Spreaders petered out of existence in the first half of 1924.

Did you find any listings for the Joy Spreaders that listed the musicians? It’d be great if a photo surfaced. I haven’t looked to see if any are in the yearbooks of 1922-24 period.

It was fun to see the occasional snide remark here and there about jazz music in the columns (there was a great reference, I think from very early — maybe 1920 — criticizing SMU for using a “third-rate jazz band” as their band at the football games while Rice already had a true marching band (I don’t think SMU got a bonafide and permanent marching band until Cy Barcus came along in about 1924). There was also an opinion piece that criticised the marching band for playing some jazz, saying there should be a clear demarcation and that the jazz should be left dance bands like the Joy Spreaders.

This is so fun.

Bonus: And while we’re talking about fun, I made Mr. Rice History Corner drive me over to see Placido Gomez’s house the other day. It’s tucked in a back corner of the neighborhood and didn’t look occupied but my heart sang when I saw the basketball hoop right in front of it. It’s actually out on the street.

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4 Responses to Not Lee’s Owls, 1924

  1. marmer01 says:

    I have little to add except that it would have been perfectly reasonable for Neal Dargan to have continued to play with these groups after he graduated if he still lived in Houston. There are multiple mentions of the Rice Troubadours, including a copy of that photo in 1924 with the same roster, in Houston newspapers between 1923 and 1929. The leader was apparently “Charles Pace, star drummer of the Rice Owls.”

  2. Steve Lukingbeal, Hanszen ‘76 says:

    Wow, Melissa, you are thorough and far reaching. I thought I was pushing the envelope when I clarified certain Rice events from the early 1970s where I had personal experience. But to clean up the historical record of Rice dance bands from the 1920s, that is a much more admirable achievement. A lot of those people probably are no longer alive. If you are that good, maybe you could go back and figure out whether Abraham Lincoln should be demoted in US history because he was a secret rascist.

    • William A Cooke says:

      Steve, please don’t give President Leebron a reason to go off on another tangent and expand his search for racism at Rice that no longer exists. Students will start demanding that any books that mention Lincoln be removed from the library and burned.

  3. marmer01 says:

    I too found multiple references to the Joy Spreaders from 1921 to 1924. They played approximately once per month for dances and seem to have become the semi-official jazz band for Rice social events. I also found two tantalizing mentions of the Joy Spreaders accompanying a city delegation to Corpus Christi in 1927. They were described as “a local dance orchestra” with no Rice mention. I suspect that by 1923-4 the Joy Spreaders were “aging out” of Rice events and their place may have been taken by the Rice Troubadours, who seem to have been formed from Rice Marching Band members in exactly the same way that the Joy Spreaders were formed in the fall of 1921.

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