Tuesday, October 11, 2016

"Harry Choates Special" - Harry Choates

In one of many instrumentals Harry Choates recorded in his life, he put together a smooth bluesy number for his group to perform which he later entitled "Harry Choates Special" (#1330).  Recorded in Houston, Texas by Bill Quinn at his recording studio in 1947, it featured several of his seasoned band members such as Esmond Pursley on guitar, Joe Manuel on banjo, Pee Wee Lyons on steel, B.D.Williams on bass, Curzy Roy on drums and, Johnnie Manuel on piano.  Gold Star sessions continued throughout 1947 and early 1948.  Either right before or just after the breakup of the original Rhythm Boys, Harry had recorded one of his showstoppers.5  According to author Tim Knight:
His "Harry Choates Special" in B-flat was an amazing performance.  The influence of Cliff Brunner was obvious.4
Johnnie Ruth Manuel,
Harry Choates
Choates is really at the peak of his powers on this amazing performance as he madly saws away at sixteenth notes, chaotic but controlled.  Central Texas fiddle great Bill Dessens, says that: 
Harry Choates Special is a far, far cry from Jole Blon--just real fine fiddle work. His Cliff Bruner influence was only too obvious...which showed in some of his plunking of strings and running fast scales from low to very high, as well as other bow action.5 

The piano solo is one of the few recorded by their pianist and wife of Joe Manuel, Johnnie Ruth Manuel.  Sometimes listed as "Johnnie Mae", she was born Johnnie Ruth Smyrl in 1927 to a family around Rankin, Texas and moved to San Angelo, Texas as a child.   By 1940, she was playing the piano which she learned from her grandmother who played in church.   After her father, a tenant farmer, moved to Lake Charles in search of work, she met Joe Manuel and they got married.2,3  

Clarion News
Aug 14, 1947

Joe knew Harry and his talent from playing together in Leo Soileau's group in the 30s and by 1946, they teamed up for his famous "Jole Blon" recording.  The following recording session, Joe convinced Harry to have Johnnie play piano in the group. 

Ronald Ray "Pee Wee" Lyons
Occasionally, Harry calls out Ronald Ray "Pee Wee" Lyons on steel guitar for a solo. He probably already know of the Manuels since they too were from Lake Charles.   The song features a fantastic chance for listeners to hear his abilities with the group.  After Harry's band broke up, he continued playing with Eddie Shuler's Reveliers in Lake Charles.  He even sang with Eddie on his recording "Help Us Oh Lord" in 1952. 

According to Shuler:
He was a real good musician. He’d let his fingernails grow, and they was just like the steel picks you used to pick the strings with on the steel guitar. It didn’t seem to bother him.1

  1. http://wired-for-sound.blogspot.com/2011_11_24_archive.html
  2. Johnnie Ruth Smyrl 1940 US Census
  3. Upton County, Texas Births
  4. Poor Hobo: The Tragic Life of Harry Choates, a Cajun Legend by Tim Knight
  5. Devil In The Bayou - The Gold Star Recordings.  Liner notes by Andrew Brown.
Harry Choates ‎– The Fiddle King Of Cajun Swing (Arhoolie, 1982, 1993)


  1. Hadn't heard this one in a while . . . fine soloing all around, nice jazzy piano break from Johnnie Ruth, and Mr Lyons really goes to town on the steel. "Yeah!"

    1. Hello there. My name is Tabatha and I'm asking if anyone has any information on pee wee Lyons which is my grandfather as I called him pawpaw. I was his first born granddaughter which I spent everyday with him from when I was about 5 that I can remember in 1977 til he passed. I am trying to put together a little history book for myself as he is still thought about dearly everyday. Thanks to all I can be reached at tbertrand515@hotmail.com

  2. Hello there, my name is Tabatha and my grandpa was the steel player as I called him pawpaw. Being I was his first born granddaughter we were close. Spent everyday with him from 1977 when I was 5 til he passed. If anyone has any information or paperwork from his days I would really appreciate it. Thanks, you can contact me at tbertrand515@hotmail.com.


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