Over 36 years ago, when preparing my King Oliver Discography for the WKCR broadcast “The King Oliver Festival”, I came to a realization that a genuine key and chronology to understanding King Oliver’s dental problems and its impact on his playing lay in his discography. All of his records from the first (released April 5, 1923) through 1928 reveal a decline in range, stamina, and execution. Then, for a full year (Fall 1928 to Fall 1929), King Oliver does not play a single note on record - and that is true even though Oliver records as a leader several times during this period. But following that period, King Oliver resumes playing on his recordings and actually plays his highest notes on his last records, made from late 1929 into 1931.
My interpretation was that Oliver’s dental problems were already present when he began recording, and became even more apparent over the next five years. At that point, King Oliver replaced his diseased teeth with false teeth, and spent a year learning how to play cornet with them. After that, Oliver – as recalled by many of his musicians – played better than before.
The one fly in the ointment was the Blind Willie Dunn’s Gin Bottle Four session listed for either April or May 1929. How could Oliver play when he couldn’t play? Furthermore, the playing on the Blind Willie Dunn’s Gin Bottle Four recording is more secure than Oliver’s troubled embouchure in 1928 would have allowed.
In 1976, I explained the anomaly with a suggestion that the dating of the Blind Willie Dunn’s Gin Bottle Four was wrong, that it probably was later in 1929; or, alternatively, that the date was correct, that Oliver was trying out his playing with false teeth, and, noting some insecurity of embouchure, chose to delay for a few months his formal (read: pertaining to his own records) return to the studio.
A third hypothesis was that King Oliver was not the player on the Blind Willie Dunn’s Gin Bottle Four session. That turns out to be the solution.
While the actual Blind Willie Dunn’s Gin Bottle Four session is dated either April 30, 1929 or May 1, 1929, it is documented that Tommy Dorsey – a consummate trombonist but known to also play the trumpet – recorded twice in the same studio on the same day(s).
Tommy Dorsey recorded a couple of tunes with Joe Venuti (“I’m In Seventh Heaven” and “Little Pal”) and with Smith Ballew (“Evangeline” and “Honey”) on the same day (stated to be May 1, 1929). Could Tommy Dorsey, therefore, be on the Blind Willie Dunn’s Gin Bottle Four session, and might he be the trumpeter that was presumed to be King Oliver on cornet?
The answer is yes, and the proof comes from two places.
The strongest and most surprising supportive evidence came from Tommy Dorsey himself. In no fewer than three instances, Dorsey – who died November 28, 1956 – identified himself as the player on the Blind Willie Dunn’s Gin Bottle Four session.
Almost as supportive is the observation by Dorsey Brothers discographer Robert Stockdale, that one of the titles on the Blind Willie Dunn’s Gin Bottle Four session, “Blue Blood Blues”, has a very similar passage to that played by Tommy Dorsey on “You Can’t Cheat A Cheater”, cut just a week earlier.
Tommy Dorsey, NOT King Oliver, is the trumpeter on the Blind Willie Dunn’s Gin Bottle Four session!!
1. King Oliver’s chops were in continuous deterioration from his first records on April 5, 1923 through 1928.
2. In 1928, Oliver had his remaining teeth pulled, and, after a gap that lasted until early Fall 1929–a time during which Oliver was relearning to play with his false teeth–he resumed playing. The King evidences greater facility in the upper register on his final recordings (Fall 1929 – Spring 1931).
3. In the period Fall 1928 - Fall 1929, King Oliver recorded as a leader BUT DID NOT PLAY.
4. There is no primary documentation proving that the time frame in question–Fall 1928 until Fall 1929–was actually the period when Oliver had his last teeth pulled, was fitted with false teeth, retrained himself, and then resumed playing. However, this dental episode did occur, and the aforementioned period is the most likely time during which it occurred.
5. I observed in 1976 that the particulars of King Oliver’s known recordings supported the assertion that this dental transition in Oliver’s playing career came between Fall 1928 and Fall 1929.
6. The problem was the Blind Willie Dunn’s Gin Bottle Four session listed for either April 30 or May 1, 1929. How could Oliver play when he couldn’t play? Furthermore, the playing on the Blind Willie Dunn’s session is more secure than Oliver’s troubled embouchure in 1928 would have allowed.
7. In 1976, for the WKCR broadcast “The King Oliver Festival” that was on air August 21-23, 1976, I explained that either the date is wrong, or the listing of King Oliver is incorrect, or Oliver was actually ready to play again by late Spring 1929.
8. From my broadcaster’s log of the King Oliver Festival, WKCR published my King Oliver Discography that fall that explained all of the above in greater detail.
9. I remember that I was met with much more resistance in taking this session out of the Oliver discography than to a challenge of the dates attached to OKeh Records’ master numbers. At the time, nobody suggested a different player for the Blind Willie Dunn’s session.
10. I feel far more comfortable in 2012 than I did in 1976 in challenging Oliver’s presence on the session. That’s because of documentation that suggests a viable candidate (Tommy Dorsey on trumpet) as King Oliver’s replacement on the Blind Willie Dunn’s Gin Bottle Four session that produced “Jet Black Blues” & “Blue Blood Blues”.