Almost 17 years ago, following the death of my father-in-law, I came across a small metal box containing a couple dozen 78’s. Along with several hits of the ‘40’s, there were a number of instrumental folk, pop and traditional songs, played by string bands, some of which were labeled as to the type of dance they contained. My wife told me that her father had been a square dance caller, and that these were some of his records.
It was hard to reconcile my memories of the man with the concept of either square dancing or calling square dances. I also didn’t expect too much of these records: my experience with square dance records up until that point had been that they tended to be fairly soulless sounding 45’s, featuring bands playing arrangement of pop and country hits, sometimes with the calls right on the record, with cutesy rewrites of the lyrics to fit in all the calls, and performances for which “phoned in” would be too high of a compliment.
These 78’s, though, were a revelation. While not all of them were great, none were bad, and nearly all of them had a wonderful sound which reflected a passion for making music. Chief among these were a few records by someone named Harley Luse, with groups variously identified as His Orchestra and as The Blue Ridge Mountain Boys. Best of all was a record which has gone on to be one of my all time favorites, and which I offered up before in a tribute to Citizen Kafka, last year, a rendition of the song “Spanish Cavalier”.
While this is, on the surface, a simple performance of a simple tune, both the lovely, wistful melody and the achingly beautiful performance by the entire group are never far from my mind, and all these years later. I still haven’t gotten close to having enough of it, and have on many, many occasions, sat down at the piano to attempt to recreate this performance with friends on guitar, violin and bass. I love the style of the leader (on violin), the variations played by the bassist (especially the walking style heard near the end), and the little musical embellishments thrown in by the pianist - even the fact that the second chord is sometimes A minor, and sometimes C major. The interaction of the entire group is just wonderful.
Ever since, I’ve been on the lookout for records by Harley Luse, and aside from a few that seem to be fairly common, they tend to be quite hard to find, and even after all this time, I’ve come across only a handful beyond the ones we inherited. They range from sweetly wonderful (such as a version of “Narcissus” to just so-so (such as a fairly rote performance of “She‘ll Be Comin‘ ‘Round the Mountain“), and contain a wide variety of dance styles. All are worth a listen, assuming one enjoys this sort of thing. I’m surprised with the volume and range of what’s been re-issued in the CD era, that none of these have been deemed worthy.
So who was Harley Luse? I have almost no idea - these records were made in Los Angeles and Hollywood, and IMDBshows him to have been a performer in about a dozen movies, mostly uncredited at the time, typically playing the accordion in a group. Since none of his records feature accordion, my best guess is that he is the pianist on these records, although piano is not always a featured instrument (I’m not even sure it’s there on some of them). Also, it seems a bit odd to think that the credited group leader would be on one of the backing instruments. So maybe he also played violin? If anyone out there knows more about Harley Luse, I’d love to hear about him.
Here are most of the Harley Luse records I’ve found (there are a few I can't locate right now), starting with the flip side of “Spanish Cavalier” and credited as they were on their individual labels:
Finally, here are both sides of another record that I found in that metal box. These are not by Harley Luse, but this record was my other favorite from my father-in-law's collection, and it is along the same lines. The performances here a quite a bit clunkier, and go on considerably longer, but there is a charm to both of these songs and performances, credited to Big Jim De Voone, which I also really love, and they go along nicely with the above collection: