The Mystery of Zulus Ball

By Russ Shor

 

In the fall of 1923 King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band returned to the Gennett Studios in Richmond, Indiana for a followup session to their April date that produced such classics as Canal Street Blues, Dippermouth Blues, Chimes Blues, Froggie Moore (a type of New Orleans meat stew for those wondering about the name) and others. Some of the discs sold fairly well – especially Dippermouth – so it would seem natural that they’d be invited back.

However, Oliver’s second Gennett session produced the rarest jazz record in existence and one of the most enduring mysteries in the history of the music. Of the six sides recorded that day; only Alligator Hop and Krooked Blues appears to have been officially issued on Gennett 5274. Zulus Ball and Workingman’s Blues was scheduled for issue on Ge 5275 as was That Sweet Something Dear and If you Want My Heart on Ge 5276.

In the years that followed, collectors looking for Oliver’s classics would never turn up a copy of Sweet Something/If You Want My Heart.

The lone copy of Zulus Ball to ever surface was discovered by a West Coast collector, Monte Ballou, in 1944 in while rummaging in an Alabama Salvation Army store. Ballou held the disc until 1974 when, after lengthy correspondence, he sold it to New York collector Bernie Klatzko. Bernie, who died in mid-November, wrote VJM recently to say he owned the disc for five years before selling it to Dutch collector Max Vreede, with dealer Robert Altshuler acting as the middle man for the transaction. Max Vreede died nearly 10 years ago and the disc remained in his study until last March when VJM editor Russ Shor and film archivist Joe Lauro purchased it.

In the intervening years rumors of a second, lesser condition, copy bubbled up periodically. The rumors persisted largely because the transfers used for the Biltmore and Tempo 78 reissues sound much worse than the condition of the extant copy. Playing Zulus Ball with a relatively thick stylus (3.5 mil – which is still smaller than the 1940s equipment used for those dubbings) brings out the same blast and distortion that is on those reissues. However, using a small conical, 2.5 mil stylus, Zulus Ball and Workingman play beautifully with the exception of a rough start on each side.

So now for the mystery. Why was Zulus Ball and its session mate scheduled for release, but apparently never done so? And if Gennett embargoed both Ge 5275 and 5276, why did one copy manage to surface? Perhaps it slipped through the recall process. The company files exist – that’s how we have the issue numbers and the information that another side, Someday Sweetheart, was rejected outright. But no word on why these sides were embargoed.

There are many reasons why companies declined to issue records back then: technical problems (not the case with Zulus Ball/Workingman); poor sales potential (Oliver was already a proven seller) or sub-standard performances (these are two of Oliver’s better sides). More possible were copyright disputes with music publishers prevented issue (however he recorded Working Man a few weeks later for Okeh.) Most likely was that Gennett executives took a dim view of the series of sides Oliver made for Okeh in June with a lot more publicity than the Richmond label gave him and decided to write the King out of their catalog. But this is only speculation. Why a lone copy of Zulus Ball survived will probably remain a mystery forever.

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