The Opera Label

© Robert Pruter, Robert L. Campbell, and Tom Kelly

Last revision: March 7, 2016


St. Louis Jimmy,
From the collection of George Paulus

Revision note. We have updated our coverage of the last Opera release, by King Kolax.


Joe Brown and friends at the Club DeLisa
Joe Brown (center) and friends at the Club DeLisa, around 1948 when he was running Opera Records. Courtesy of Mike Brown. From left: Naomi Gutierrez, Elizabeth, Joe Brown, Bob Flowers, Mary.

Opera Records was one of the smaller Chicago independents. It ran for a brief time, probably just a year (from the fall of 1947 to the fall of 1948). The label was the first effort by the indefatigable Joe Brown, who in later years came out with a considerably more successful JOB operation. (We are talking in relative terms here, as JOB was still a mom and pop outfit.) Opera probably had the same co-founders as JOB, Brown and James Burke Oden (bluesman St. Louis Jimmy). The fledgling company may have operated out of the same Southside residence, 4008 South Ellis Avenue, which was reported in 1954 for Brown's JOB label. With his Opera enterprise, Brown recorded a mixture of artists—club pianists, jazz combos, and deep bluesmen. His later JOB label would concentrate on Southern-style bar-band blues artists.

Joe Brown was born in Wagoner, Oklahoma, of African-American and Cherokee Indian parentage. His date of birth was June 16, 1904, according to Jim O'Neal. Joe Brown's son Mike (in a telephone conversation on March 27, 2009) has confirmed that the 1904 date is correct, not the 1897 date given by other writers, including Mike Rowe. Joe Brown was the second of three children, with an older sister born in 1901 and a younger brother born in 1914. We do not know when Joe Brown first came to Chicago. Brown was already in his mid-40s and had probably been settled in Chicago for some time when began his career in the recording business. Neither Rowe, in his classic book Chicago Breakdown, nor O'Neal in his obit in Living Blues, give much in the way of biographical information. According to his son Mike (conversation of May 8, 2009), Joe Brown was a boxer for a time during his youth; he also invested in two gas stations (one of them was located on 55th Street) that were operated by his brother Lawrence. He was almost certainly involved in a number of other business ventures.

Opera labels show no publisher (Opera 5, by "Delta Joe," cites no composers either). Obviously, like the proprietors of Aristocrat and Chess in the early years, Brown did not appreciate the value of music publishing. Later he would partner with Bud Brandom to form Lawn Music Publishers.

We have been able to trace five releases on Opera: two by Byllye Williams, and one each by St. Louis Jimmy, Sunnyland Slim (working under the name Delta Joe), and King Kolax and His Combo. Opera, like innumerable small operations, was what we call an "A and B" label: except with the St. Louis Jimmy record, the matrix numbers were merely the release number with an attached A or B depending on which side the owner wanted to plug. Consequently, we have no clue as to the recording studio Brown used. In 1948, he would have had the same basic choices as other small-label proprietors in Chicago: Egmont Sonderling's United Broadcasting Studios or Bill Putnam's Universal Recording.


Byllye Williams,
From the collection of Robert L. Campbell

Op1. Byllye Williams with Keynote Kombo / Billye Williams | The Blues Girl^

Byllye Williams (voc, p) with Ray "Bill" Douglas (cl -1, as); Roy "Buck" Douglas (ts); Sylvester Hickman (b); unidentified (d).

Chicago, probably late 1947
OP1 Disgusted Woman Blues (Williams) -1
Opera Op-1, Savoy 5554
CP-100-2 Disgusted Blues (Williams)^
Acorn 310-B^
OP2 Good Luck Old Boy (Williams) -1
Opera Op-2, Savoy 5554
CP-101 Hep Hep Blues
unissued
CP-102-2 Hard Hearted Man (Williams)^
Acorn 310-A^
CP-103 Anything That's Part of You
unissued

Byllye Williams, the daughter of a minister, was born Byllye Elizabeth Blassengame in Dowagiac, Michigan, on April 13, 1922. Her family had moved there from Chicago and returned to the city probably in the late 1920s. She joined Local 208 of the Musicians Union in Chicago on November 4, 1940. At the time, she gave her name as Byllye B. Williams (which could be a stage name).

Williams first attracted notice in the spring of 1941 performing at Fay's Rose Bowl (655 East 43rd—she was described as "famous blues singer") and then at the Piccadilly Inn (3652 Indiana—she was billed as "sensational torch singer" and "one of the city's leading vocalists"). On February 19, 1942, her contract with Tin Pan Alley, a Loop establishment, was accepted and filed by Musicians Union Local 208. She was back at Tin Pan Alley for an "indefinite" engagement starting in September (contracted accepted and filed on the 17th). Later that fall she was performing nightly at Don's Den (528 East 43rd St), owned by former grid star, Don Simmons (her contract with Simmons was posted on November 5). The Defender ran her picture and in the caption described Williams as "one of the city's finest pianists and song stylists." During much of 1943 she played at the Piccadilly Inn and Don's Den. She also appeared at the Sunny Side Club (contract accepted and filed August 19, 1943); however, she was back at Don's Den in October (contract posted on October 21). On June 1, 1944, she posted a 1-week contract at the Show Tap; on July 20, she posted a contract for 8 weeks at Millie's Cocktail Lounge; her contract was extended on August 3 and again October 19. On November 16, she posted a 4-week contract at the Flame Lounge (3020 Indiana). Thereafter, until her sessions for Opera, she performed at such nighteries as The Flame, the Casablanca Lounge (3901 South Parkway), Cafe de Society, and the 708 Club (708 East 47th).

She was at the height of her visibility in 1948, when Opera released these sides on her. Blues Records 1943-1970, Volume Two, compiled by Mike Leadbitter, Leslie Fancourt, and Paul Pelletier (LFP), lists a recording date of October 15, 1948, but this cannot possibly be correct. It is the date that Savoy mastered sides from this session for release.


Billye Williams,
From the Otto Flückiger collection

Billboard on November 6, 1948, reported that Savoy had purchased six "race" masters from Opera. Acorn was a subsidiary of Savoy, set up with disguised ownership in order to put out releases (like those of John Lee Hooker under various pseudonyms) that might prompt legal action. On the Savoy and Acorn labels Byllye became "Billye." On Acorn she was billed as "Billye Williams - The Blues Girl." The Acorn release of "Disgusted Blues" used a different take from the original Opera release. It is a hair faster than the take used on Opera, timing in at 3:11 instead of 3:26; Byllye plays a piano introduction not included in the original; and Bill Douglas plays alto sax instead of clarinet. On the Acorn take, Byllye sings the line "I want a great big 45 / To blow out your dirty brains — 'Cause you ain't no good" twice; on the Opera take it appears only at the end of the piece.


Billye Williams,
From the Otto Flückiger collection

Furthermore, the March 6, 1948 Chicago Defender carried an advertisement for the Four Star Lounge (224 East 61st Street) that featured Byllye Williams, identifying her as the "Recording Artist of 'Disgusted Woman Blues'." In other words, she had recorded the song by this date; the mention does not constitute proof that Opera Op-1/2 had been released. More importantly, it tells us that these recordings were almost certainly done in late 1947, before the Musicians Union recording ban went into effect on January 1, 1948.

Another Opera 2 label scan (from a copy without center hole damage) can be seen on Mike Kredinac's Web site, Mike's Pix. Though we have a photo of the Op-1 side in our archives, the label damage is too extensive to warrant displaying it here. We can confirm that the original title was "Disgusted Woman Blues" (the take released on Acorn was called "Disgusted Blues"). The session listings are derived from LFP; however, they did not recognize that two different takes of "Disgusted" were issued. The labels to both sides of Opera Op-1/2 attribute the arrangements to "B. Douglas"; whether that was Bill or Buck we of course haven't the foggiest.


Bill Martin's band with Bill Searcy et al., Club Reno, Kansas City, 1939
The Bill Martin band at Club Reno, 1939, from the photo archives of the Kansas City Star. From the left: Prince Albert, trumpet; Bill Searcy, piano; Paul Gunther, drums; Lowell Pointer, bass; Bill Martin, trumpet; Curtyse Foster, tenor sax; Buck Douglas, tenor sax; Bill Douglas, alto sax; and Chrystianna Buckner, vocals. See the Club Kaycee site at http://www.umkc.edu/orgs/kcjazz/jazzspot/clubreno.htm.

Ray "Bill" and Roy "Buck" Douglas look like brothers in the two photos we have seen of them (in 1945 or 1946, they were members of a Bill Martin band, as can be seen on our Hy-Tone page). Their names suggest they were identical twins, though this needs to be confirmed. They were based in Kansas City before coming to Chicago; a 1939 photo, taken at Club Reno in KC, shows both Douglas brothers on the bandstand with three other KC-based musicians who migrated to Chicago during World War II: Bill Searcy, Lowell Pointer, and Bill Martin. Searcy and Pointer would work for a time with Tom Archia; Bill Martin enjoyed several years of steady employment as a bandleader, turning out four singles for Hy-Tone and later recording for the Decca subsidiary Coral.

Buck, a tenor saxophonist in the Coleman Hawkins tradition, had acquired a little recording experience before Opera started up. He had cut for Hy-Tone on Bill Martin's two sessions in May and September 1946, and for RCA Victor in a New Orleans-style band led by trombonist Preston Jackson (October 31, 1946). In September 1948 or February 1949, he would cut at least two sides for the Square Deal label, a tiny enterprise of which he was part-owner (see Appendix).

Local 208's contract lists show Bill Douglas as the bandleader of record in the clubs during this period. So far as we know, this session was the first appearance on record for Bill Douglas' reedy Swing-era clarinet.


Op2. Byllye Williams Trio

Byllye Williams (voc, p) with Adam Lambert (eg); Sylvester Hickman (b).

Chicago, probably late 1947
OP-3-A The New Bleeding Heart Blues
Opera 3
OP-3-B Daddy Please Do
Opera 3

Like the previous release, this record was probably recorded before the ban kicked in. Chris Bentley in Blues & Rhythm described "The New Bleeding Heart Blues" as "passible small combo blues of the sort cut by Mayo Williams immediately post WW II," and dismissed "Daddy Please Do" as a song in the Billie Holiday vein.

We derived the personnel from LFP; presumably they used label copy on this very rare 78—we've never seen it—as their source of information.

Byllye Williams subsequently recorded for another small Chicago label, Theron. Her first session, cut toward the end of 1950, produced a classic in "Hangover Blues." In October 1953, she sang on a session by Leon Washington's All Stars; by this time, she had adopted the name Byllye Jet Williams, which she used consisently thereafter. She worked steadily through March 1958, when she was sidelined by cancer. Byllye Williams died on November 4, 1958; she was 36 years old.


St. Louis Jimmy,
From the collection of Tom Kelly

Op3. St. Louis Jimmy and Rhythm Accomp.

St. Louis Jimmy (voc) with Roosevelt Sykes (p); Lamont "Guitar Pete" Franklin (eg); poss. Alfred Elkins (b).

Chicago, December 1947

HY40CF Coming Up Fast (St. Louis Jimmy)
Opera 4A
HY41


HY42


HY43ODR One Doggone Reason (St. Louis Jimmy)
Opera 4B

St. Louis Jimmy was born James Burke Oden on June 26, 1903, in Nashville, Tennessee. He moved to St. Louis in 1917, where he performed and picked up his name. Along with Roosevelt Sykes, he moved to Chicago in 1932. Oden recorded regularly during the 1930s and 1940s, scoring a big blues hit with "Going Down Slow" for Bluebird in 1941. Although he played piano himself, Oden usually just sang on his records and left the keyboard chores to more proficient performers like Roosevelt Sykes. After World War II he also began appearing on sessions with Sunnyland Slim, who we had previously thought might be the pianist on St. Louis Jimmy's Opera release. According to John Newman, however, Roosevelt Sykes accompanied him on this occasion.

Our information about the matrix and release numbers is derived from a copy in Tom Kelly's collection. LFP leave out the "O" in HY43ODR. The matrix numbers strongly suggest that these sides were recorded at the tail end of Freddie Williams and Nathan Rothner's Hy-Tone operation. The last known release on Hy-Tone was 38; on some of his releases the company used the HY prefix and release number as the mastering number. Hy-Tone ceased recording at the end of December 1947, and, while it continued to put out releases in 1948, the company was faltering and would become inactive in the fall of that year. Wanting to ensured that his sides were released, Oden probably purchased them and brought them in among his assets for the Opera label.

Our dating of the session is speculative, but as Hy-Tone 38 by Sunnyland Slim, the last known release on that label's main series, was probably cut in December 1947, we will assume that this session followed that one. The guitarist plays with a slide on "One Doggone Reason"; St. Louis Jimmy can be heard addressing him as "Pete" during an instrumental break for the piano and the guitar on the same number. Newman identifies him as Lamont Franklin, aka Guitar Pete. The playing of the bassist is solid and unspectacular and I would guess that a likely candidate is Alfred Elkins (John Newman, email of August 21, 2006). Franklin showed up on an October 1952 session for JOB that included John Brim, Ernest Cotton, and Sunyland Slim; perhaps Joe Brown remembered his work from this session?

St. Louis Jimmy recorded one subsequent session for Brown in 1949 for the JOB label, which gave rise to one release; the session was subsequently unloaded to Apollo. A second session, featuring a singer named Mildred Richards, used one of his tunes. He appears to have dumped his ownership share in JOB in 1950, since he did not record for that label again. Other labels that put out St. Louis Jimmy product from 1948-1949 recording sessions were Aristocrat, Mercury, Miracle, and Savoy.


Delta Joe,
From the collection of Tom Kelly

Op4. Delta Joe with accompaniment

Delta Joe [Sunnyland Slim] (voc, p); Leroy Foster (eg).

Chicago, 1947 or 1948
OP8A Roll, Tumble, and Slip
Opera 5A, Chance 1115, Muskadine 1, Muskadine M 100, XTRA [Br] 1133, Classics 5013 [CD]
OP8B Train Time
Opera 5B, Chance 1115, Nighthawk LP 102, Classics 5013 [CD]

Deep blues pianist and singer Sunnyland Slim must have recorded under the Delta Joe pseudonym out of some concern over breaching another record label's contract. The previous year he had cut two sessions for Hy-Tone, two sessions for Aristocrat, and two more for RCA Victor (these last under another pseudonym, "Doctor Clayton's Buddy"). In May 1949, he would cut a celebrated session for Tempo-Tone.

Slim was born Albert Luandrew on September 5, 1906, in Vance, Mississippi. He moved to Chicago in the early 1940s, made an appearance as a vocalist on a Jump Jackson session for Specialty in September 1946, and followed with his first recordings as a leader in August or September 1947, for Hy-Tone and Aristocrat. By the time he made these sides for Joe Brown he could be found on the doorstep of every label in Chicago.

In 1952, the Delta Joe sides were picked up by Art Sheridan (who had periodic business dealings with Joe Brown) and released on his Chance label. "Roll, Tumble, and Slip" was retitled "I Cried" and "Train Time" was retitled "4 O'Clock Blues."

Muskadine 1, Muskadine M 100, and XTRA 1133 were LPs released c. 1969, in 1971, and in 1973; all were titled On the Road Again: An Anthology of Chicago Blues 1947-1954. We don't know whether the Chance or the Opera released was dubbed, but the Opera title was retained. Nighthawk LP 102, Chicago Slickers 1948-1953, was released in 1976; it may have relied on a dub of Chance 1115 but used the original title from Opera. Classics 5013, Sunnyland Slim 1947-1948, is a reissue compilation from 2001.

Our thanks to Tom Kelly for the correct matrix numbers; they have been listed as 5A and 5B in the past. It's possible that these sides were recorded later than the next two, by King Kolax, and the release series was subsequently shuffled, but we have no way to be sure.


Delta Joe,
From the collection of Tom Kelly

King Kolax,
From the collection of Robert Javors

Op5. King Kolax and his combo | Blues Vocal King Kolax

King Kolax (voc; tp-1); Johnny Thompson (ts); Willie Jones (p); unidentified (b); unidentified (d).

Chicago, before October 1948
OP5 Back Door Blues
Opera 6A
OP6 Straight Woman Blues
Opera 6B

Although he had been in the band business since 1936, this is just the second session that King Kolax made under his own name (more correctly, his performing name). He was born William Little in Kansas City, November 6, 1912, and grew up in Chicago. Through much of the 1940s Kolax-led big bands (after the middle of 1947, small combos) were touring nationwide and performing regularly in Chicago clubs. One of Kolax's 1939 bands included a fellow from Kansas City named Charlie Parker; John Coltrane sat in the saxophone section of Kolax's last big band, in the first half of 1947. Just when the Opera session was done is unclear. Kolax's last big band, his 17 Knights, recorded four sides in Los Angeles for Miltone in February 1947 (leading to two releases so rare that we don't even know their numbers with certainty), and fell apart in May 1947; he spent part of the fall of that year on the road with a package show. Most likely his Opera single was recorded—clandestinely on account of the second Petrillo ban—in July 1948 or even later.

Thanks to collector Robert Javors for information on an item that's extraordinarily rare even by Opera standards. There are two known copies, making it nearly rare as King Kolax's Miltone. The single was previously known to have been issued, but no details could be found in the published sources. We surmise it was released just shortly before Joe Brown decided to throw in the towel on the label.


King Kolax,
From the collection of Robert Javors

The tenor saxophonist is prominent on both sides (including solos). Drummer Vernel Fournier played in Kolax's last big band (1947) and in a Chicago-based combo with Kolax (1948-1949, beginning after this session. He told us that saxophonist sounds a bit like Joe Houston (who was the tenor soloist in Kolax's last big band), but concluded that the tenorist is Johnny Thompson. (Houston is not known to have spent much time in Chicago, or to have stayed with Kolax after the big band broke up. Thompson, on the other hand, was a Chicago native.) The pianist, who is featured on "Straight Woman Blues," is a heavy blues player (also given to muttering during his solos); on hearing a dub of Robert Javors' copy, Vernel Fournier immediately identified him as the "piano wrecker," Willie Jones (1920 - 1977). Judging from these sides, King Kolax, who would handle vocals on some of his later recordings, could have made it as a stand-up R&B singer.


After Opera

Opera was Joe Brown's first foray into the record business. It was commercially unsuccessful. All surviving Opera 78s are extremely rare, which means that both distribution and sales eluded him. In October of 1948 he sold Savoy six masters, probably all Byllye Williams sides, then dropped out of the business for a time to recoup and regroup. The item on the Savoy purchase, dated October 30, 1948 was the only mention Opera would ever get in Billboard ("Savoy, Regent in Catalog Buying Spree," November 6, 1948, p. 19)

In August 1949, Brown and Jimmy Burke Oden formed the JOB label, which reportedly was a transposition of his bluesman partner's initials: JBO. The new label would record not only Oden but also King Kolax (who was once again featured as a blues singer) and Sunnyland Slim (who appeared on many sessions in the early 1950s and, it was said, also had a piece of the firm during that period). Jimmy Oden bailed pretty quickly, after most of the label's first session, on which he was featured, was sold to Regal. Brown, however, persevered, and after another couple of false starts in 1950 began recording and releasing material regularly from 1951 to 1954. Thereafter, the label operated in fits and starts for two more decades. Joe Brown sold most of the JOB masters to Jewel in 1972 but did not shut down JOB entirely until 1974; we do not know whether Opera masters were included in the 1972 sale, but we have not encountered any in Jewel's reissue programs or their successors.

For the rest of the Joe Brown story, see our page on the JOB operation. Brown was also a partner, with Eli Toscano, in the Abco operation during 1956, Brown died in 1976, and St. Louis Jimmy died in 1977. King Kolax died in 1991 after serving many years as an official in the Musicians Union, and Sunnyland Slim, who remained active in music at an advanced age, died in 1995.


The main sources we used in compiling our profile of Opera included a Joe Brown obit written by Jim O'Neal for Living Blues 26 (March-April 1976); a profile on Joe Brown written by Mike Rowe in Chicago Breakdown (London: Eddison Books, 1973); an obit on Joe Brown by Mike Rowe for Blues Unlimited 119 (May-June 1976); Robert Campbell's conversation with Mike Brown (March 27, 2009); the Opera listing compiled by Bob McGrath in The R&B Indies (West Vancouver, B.C.: Eyeball, 2000); and artist discographical information from Blues Records 1943-1970 (London: Record Information Series, 1987 and 1994).

Operas are extremely elusive. We're still looking for a copy of Opera 3, while we know of three copies of Opera 1/2, two of Opera 4, one of Opera 5—and two of Opera 6.


Byllye Williams,
You take Operas as you find them. From the collection of Robert L. Campbell.

Appendix. The Square Deal Label

Perhaps around the time Joe Brown decided to sell off his Byllye Williams masters and close Opera down, Buck Douglas recorded for a new label called Square Deal. Or maybe it was a few months later. In any event, the formation of the label was announced on February 26, 1949, in the Chicago Defender column "What the Cats Do while the Squares Are Asleep." Square Deal was owned by Buck Douglas, Frank Lewis, and Jack Cooley. Of Buck's partners in the venture, Jack Cooley was well established on the South Side scene as a drummer, vocalist, and singing waiter; Lewis was a full-time businessman.


Jack Cooley,
This elusive release comes from the collection of George Paulus.

Supposedly the first release was going to be "Caldonia's [sic] Sister" b/w "Douglas Boogie." (Well, they got one out of two... The coupling was really another vocal by Cooley, "What's So Fine about It.") On March 5, the cats vs. squares column declared that Square Deal "has two new discs soon to be released," but just one coupling was identified by name—the same one that had been referred to on February 26. In the March 19 column, the two releases were said to be coming out "this week." The April 2 edition of the column claims three 78s for the company but the only new title mentioned is "I'm a Man," which turned out to be Square Deal 302B.


Buck Douglas,
From the collection of Tom Kelly

Square1. Jack Cooley & Orch. | Vocal: Jack Cooley*/ Buck Douglas and Orch. | Vocal: Jack Cooley% / Buck Douglas & Orch.

Roy "Buck" Douglas (ts); unidentified (p); unidentified (b); Jack Cooley (voc*, d).

United Broadcasting Studio, Chicago, prob. September 1948

UB9205 Caledonia's Sister (Cooley)*
Square Deal 301A
UB9206 What's So Fine about It*
Square Deal 301B
UB9207 Douglas Boogie (Douglas)
Square Deal 302A
UB9208 I'm a Man (Cooley)%
Square Deal 302B

Our documentation for Square Deal 302 is derived from copies of that 78 in the collections of Dani Gugolz and Tom Kelly. An MR monogram is incised into the trailoff area on both sides of the 78.


Jack Cooley,
From the collection of Tom Kelly

Square Deal 301, with Jack Cooley as the headliner, was also released in March 1949, and that "Caledonia's Sister" was indeed one of the titles. A copy of this single, which for some reason is even scarcer than 302, is in the collection of the late George Paulus.

The UB 9200 matrix numbers are most likely from September 1948, but we know that 4 sides by Doc Evans and Muggsy Spanier were recorded for Jazz Ltd. in February 1949 and given matrix numbers (9181 through 9184) that were out of sequence. So a date shortly before the February 26 announcement can't be ruled out.

In 1953, Frank Evans was featured in a Hamm's Beer ad in the Chicago Defender, one in a series that profiled local entrepreneurs. Some sources (such as Bob McGrath's two volumes on The R&B Indies) have dated the Square Deal releases to 1953 on the strength this information. But if Square Deal was still running in 1953, it was no longer doing any active recording. We know of no other sessions on the label besides the one listed above.

A little later, Buck Douglas would serve on Local 208's Examining Board (1950-1951). After that the brothers Douglas seem to have dropped off the Chicago scene; we don't know whether they returned to Kansas City or moved elswhere.

For more on Jack Cooley, who was a regular on the Chicago club scene between 1944 and 1960, and ran his own C&G label for a little while in 1950, see our Premium page.


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