William H. Huff - Pharmacist, Lawyer, Poet - Paramount Songwriter!
by Alex van der Tuuk

Introduction

The name of William Henry Huff is not a familiar one in blues and gospel discographies, nor in jazz discographies. Yet, this name turns up on occasion, as a composer of mostly gospel material during the 1925 – 1950s period. The first reference to this name was found on a copy of a royalty agreement, dated April 14, 1925, between Huff and the Chicago Music Publishing Company, a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company (WCC). The Wisconsin Chair Company is a well known name in connection with one of its many other subsidiaries, the New York Recording Laboratories, which produced Paramount records.

Comparing the similarities of Huff’s signature with that of Mayo "Ink" Williams, Paramount’s unofficial recording manager for Chicago recording sessions during the 1920s, and because of their resemblance I assumed William Henry Huff was a pseudonym to cover up Williams’ activities, e.g.: copyrighting material that was not his. I suggested this in an article on Chicago recordings for the New York Recording Laboratories ("Wabash Rag: Paramount’s Chicago Studios"; Blues & Rhythm, issue 131, page 6, 1998).

However, I was wrong. Huff appeared to have been a remarkable self-made African-American man, especially considering the timeframe he lived in. This article is dedicated to an almost completely forgotten song writer.

Copyrights and Composer Credits

The earliest reference to Huff was found at the Library of Congress for a song called Love Lifted Me. The original copyright was listed in 1911 and was renewed in 1940. The song was recorded by Rev. Leora Ross and was issued on Okeh 8541 in 1928. Label information credits Rev. Leora Ross as the composer1, whereas the song was copyrighted at the Library of Congress under the name of William Henry Huff (1948 -?), the latter probably grandson to Huff. The song was revised in 1979.

William Henry Huff’s name, which appeared on the above mentioned royalty statement from 1925, shared composer credits with pianist James Blythe (1899-1931), recording artist and house pianist for the Paramount label at Chicago recording sessions during this period. Blythe both recorded on his own right and as accompanist to mostly vaudeville blues singers. Both Blythe and Huff signed the royalty agreement of April 14, 1925 for the title World’s Jazz Crazy And So Am I. Huff wrote the words for this song. The song was listed for copyright at the Library of Congress on March 23, 1925. Paramount artist Trixie Smith recorded the song (matrix number 2063) for Paramount’s 12000/13000 "race" series in New York City around March 19252. The song was issued on Paramount 12262 as The World’s Jazz Crazy And So Am I. Credits for the song were listed as "William Henry Huff and James Blythe" on some copies the record (Not on mine it isn’t– as can be seen in the accompanying photograph, some copies credit the composer to Trixie Smith – MB), whilst some pressings do not bear any composer credits. The record was advertised for the first time in the Chicago Defender of May 2, 19253. A related tune was recorded by the Richmond Starlight Quartette as Gone Jazz Crazy on QRS 7028.

Blythe and Huff shared composer credits on another occasion. This time, their combined efforts were found on the record label of Paramount 12360, a recording by Priscilla Stewart. It Must Be Hard, a song recorded in Chicago c. April 1926 (matrix number 2534), lists them as "W. H. Huff and J. Blythe" on the record label. Blythe accompanied Stewart on piano during this recording session. Advertisements for the record first appeared in the Chicago Defender of May 22, 19264.

Another song in the Paramount "race" series bears composer credits of William Henry Huff: Paramount 12314, by the Sunset Four Jubilee Quartette with the title When I Come Out Of The Wilderness (matrix number 2203)5.

Two other titles, listed under Huff’s name, were found on a list of 700 titles, which were registered for copyright at the Library of Congress by the Chicago Music Publishing Company: I’m Gonna Do All I Can For My Lord and Jesus Lay Your Head In The Window. The songs were credited to Henry Huff and William Henry Huff respectively. The date of registration is listed as September 10, 1926. The songs were recorded in New York City by the Norfolk Jubilee Quartette (matrix numbers 2396 and 2397 respectively) c. January 1926 and issued on Paramount 123566. The songs bear no composer credits on the label. Advertisements for the record first appeared in the Chicago Defender of May 8, 19267. I’m Gonna Do All I Can For My Lord or a rudimentary version of it, was recorded by the Pace Jubilee Singers in 1928. It was issued on Victor V-38019.

Another song, The Preacher Must Get Some Sometime (matrix L-609, a Grafton, Wisconsin recording) bears composer credits as "Robinson-Huff" on the record label of Paramount 13028. The title was issued by Rob Robinson and Meade Lux Lewis8.

The above evidence indicates that William Henry Huff worked for the New York Recording Laboratories or the Chicago Music Publishing Company during the 1925-1930 period, or at least found a way through these organizations to get some of his compositions issued on records. Huff’s connection with Paramount seems to have stopped at this point, although he did not stop writing songs. At the Library of Congress a reference to a book by Huff was found, containing 14 songs (including Jehovah Locked The Lion’s Jaw). The book was published by H & H Music Co. A year of publication was not listed. Irene Jackson’s Afro-American Religious Music – A Bibliography and A Catalogue of Gospel Music (page 134; Greenwood Press) lists "Huff" as the composer of Yes I Know You Gonna Talk About Me. The song was published by the H and H Music Publ. in 1948; the company’s address was listed as 520 East 35th Street, Chicago, Ill (sic).

Two other songs were registered at the Library of Congress on February 28, 1951: Watch For Me One Hour and Who Built The Ark?. The latter song was recorded by the Norfolk Jubilee Four in early July 1921 (issued on OKeh 4400)9. According to Doug Seroff this song is reminiscent of spiritual parodies of the late 19th Century10. In the Fall of 1893 the Unique Quartette recorded the earliest version of this song for Edison on a 2-minute brown wax cylinder.

The initials of the publishing company might lead to the conclusion that the initials equalled the names of "Huff And Huff", and that there may have been a connection between this publishing company and William Henry Huff.

So who was William Henry Huff?

Biography

William Henry Huff was born in Oglethorpe, Georgia on May 27, 1887. One of six children, his father, George Huff, was a shoemaker and a country preacher while his mother, Susan, was a farm worker. Young William Henry was given his elementary education in a rundown cabin schoolhouse in Oglethorpe County.

Stimulated to seek further knowledge, Huff left home in his early 20s and made the journey to Greensboro, GA, where he entered the Georgia Normal and Industrial Institute. Afterward, he enrolled at Knox Institute at Athens where in 1908 he graduated. It was after this that he moved north to join his family, which had already preceded him, and settled in Chicago, where he met and married Lola Mae Ridgeway. Lola Mae was born in Illinois in 1894, according to the Social Security Death Index. The 1930 U. S. Census, however, lists her as 31 years of age, which would mean she was born in 1899. The couple probably married around 1914, as Lola was listed in the 1930 Census report as having married at the age of 15 years.

Here in Chicago, Huff studied at the National Medical University, from which he graduated in 1910 and got a job as a helper in a chemical laboratory that had a large mail order house. Saving sufficient money, the young pharmacist opened his own drug store on Chicago’s South Side and rapidly climbed as a community worker and businessman between 1915 and 1929. A research request for addresses for Huff was granted to me by the Chicago Public Library Reference Team. The 1920 Chicago Telephone Directories listed Huff living at 4037 Prairie Avenue. By 1930, according to the Census report, Huff’s occupation was druggist, owning a drug store. M. Marie Booth Foster in her book ‘Southern Black Creative Writers, 1829-1953’ lists his occupation not only as a pharmacist, but also as a real estate and insurance broker.

In 1923 the Wisconsin Chair Company incorporated a publishing company for the songs they issued on their Paramount records. Offices were set up at the Overton Hygienic Building at the corner of 36th and South State Street, where Mayo Williams and his secretary, Aletha Dickerson, transcribed the lyrics on so-called lead sheets in order to register the songs at the Library of Congress. During its first six months several titles were leased to the Mills Brothers, Irving and Jack, to exploit the material for them. Mills did exploit the material, but for their own purpose. The WCC then changed the company’s name into Chicago Music Publishing Company (CMPC) in 1924.

Williams needed songwriters and arrangers in order to have new material for the recording program of Paramount’s 12000 (later 13000) series. One of the first to help out was pianist Thomas A. Dorsey, who saw some of his early songs recorded in 1923. One of the transcribers of the material was Kid Austin, a virtually unknown pianist, but highly regarded by Williams. In 1930 or 1931 Kid Austin was listed as pianist with Van Lare’s Orchestra from Milwaukee, Wisconsin under the management of Frank Brown11. It is possible that William Huff took a job at the office of the CMPC around 1925 to write songs for the artists, sometimes in conjunction with others, like James Blythe, who arranged the music for their combined efforts. Huff probably remained active for the company until late 1930 as a sideline while running his drugstore. The onset of the Depression hit Huff’s business hard and forced him to close his drug store.

In 1930 Huff and his wife Lola Mae resided at 435 East 48th Place as lodgers, with their four children: Jeanne (15), Irvela (or Irvella, 13), Doris (12) and William Jr (10). The household head was William O. Browne, aged 44, and was listed as "Singer, Music (Church)". His wife, Della R. Browne, aged 43, was listed as "Singer, Music (Church)". One Sarah B. Wilson, 28 and single, was listed as Lodger and her occupation was "Pianist and teacher, Music School".

During the 1930s Huff lived at 5706 South Wabash Avenue and moved to 535 East 34th Place by 1941. In the 1930s he started to study law at Chicago’s Law School. In order to put himself through law school, Huff got a job as a janitor in a near-by hospital and used the money to pay his tuition and support himself. He graduated in 1933. He started practising law in Indiana after being admitted to the Bar in 1936. Around this time he was in the middle of a divorce and remarried in about 1937, to Katherine Williams. A daughter, Anne Suzette Huff, was born in 1939. When asked about her father’s activities during the 1920s, she said that her father never discussed these things12.

During the 1940s, the family lived at 520 E. 35th Street, the address where the H and H Music Publishing Company was located. In 1942 he opened his own office in Chicago after he received his doctor of law degree from the John Marshall Law School. The Chicago Telephone Directories of 1946 list Huff`B4s occupation as "lawyer". His occupation may have been helpful in copyrighting his songs and setting up the publishing company, which may have occurred around 1948. According to his grandson, Gerald Ladner, Huff in fact owned the H and H Music Company13.

Huff studied the works of the masters in music and literature, spending hours reading the works of the great musicians and poets. By the late 1940s, Huff started writing poems and "songs for solo voice with piano accompaniment" (see list at the end of the article). He saw his work published in 1949 (Sowing and Reaping, and other Poems), 1951 (From Deep Within, Poems) and 1960 (I`B4m Glad I`B4m Who I Am; From A Plow to a Palace). A fourth book (Low Ground Of Sorrow) is listed under his name, but no publishing date has been found.

In the 1950s William Henry Huff acted as a extradition lawyer, meaning that when a black fugitive person, who was accused of a crime, even if that person was not involved, Huff made sure that he was not sent back to the local authorities14. He saved more than 100 African Americans from being extradited.

Huff started working for the U.S. Supreme Court and got involved at an early stage with the Emmett Till case in 1955. Emmett "Bobo" Till was a 14-year old Chicago kid, who went to small Mississippi town of Money to visit an uncle. During his stay there, he was dared by friends to make a remark to a white female shopkeeper, after bragging about having "had" white ladies. The consequences were grim: the woman’s husband and his half brother abducted Till, mercilessly beat and shot him, then threw his weighted body into the Tallahatchie River. Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, then started taking legal action against the husband and the half brother and Huff became involved, before the case was given to another. According to an article in the June 1959 issue of Sepia magazine, Huff dropped the case like a hot potato, when he found out it was a racket. According to other sources, Huff at that time was a NAACP attorney who represented Mamie Bradley after Emmett Till was murdered. He later terminated his services with her when the NAACP ended its sponsorship of Mrs. Bradley’s speaking tour (www.emmetttillmurder.com). In 1962, Bob Dylan wrote and recorded a protest song about Till’s death.

Remaining active as a lawyer through the 1950s and 1960s, he again changed office to 6532 South Cottage Grove, according to the 1963/1964 Chicago Telephone Directories, while residing at 9329 South Park Avenue. The Social Security Death Index lists a November 1963 date for his death.

What happened to the H and H Music Publishing Company is unknown. No listings for the company were found in the 1948 and 1960 editions of the Certified List of Domestic and Foreign Corporations in the State of Illinois.

William Henry Huff, Jr.

Huff's son, William Jr., was found listed in the Chicago Federation of Musicians, Local 208. From official documents, at file at the Chicago Public Library, including a copy of his death certificate and his musicians’ union membership card, the following information comes to light15.

Huff Jr. was born on June 20, 1919 in Chicago. On July 21, 1943 he joined Local 208 and was listed as playing piano. His mother was listed as beneficiary, not his father! According to Gerald Ladner, grandson to Huff Sr., he got divorced and remarried, with Katherine Williams. Ladner is grandson from this second marriage.

Several cards were on file for the 1952/1965 period, listing odd jobs. The earliest reference was a club date at the Pearson Hotel for December 31, 1954. Other jobs that were listed, including ones at the Domino Club (1958), the Sunset Terrace (1960) and at McCormick Plaza (1964). The 1959 Sepia article lists Huff Jr. as jazz pianist and composer, at that time playing with the Johnny Pate Trio and having previously played with the Stuff Smith Trio. Huff lived at several addresses. Being a composer explains the name of the H and H Music Publishing Company. His original address appears to have been 4048 Forestville Avenue, then moving to 2921 South Michigan Avenue.

By 1963, Huff Jr. Lived with his sister Jeanne Christmas at 5755 South LaSalle Street, until his death on June 20, 1968. At the age of 48 years, he died of uremia, while being hospitalized for a week. He was buried on June 24 at Lincoln Cemetery in Worth, Illinois. His death certificate listed his occupation as "Musician" while working at a "Nite Club". His mother Lola Mae Huff died in 1982. His three sisters all died in the 1990s.

As early as 1979, some of William Henry Huff Sr.'s songs were renewed or re-arranged by Bill or William Huff, his grandson. So far, he has not been traced.

A list of songs composed by William Henry Huff during the 1940s and 1950s

Wave On, Old Glory, Wave On (Chicago: W. H. Huff, 1943)

War Mother’s Song (Chicago: W. H. Huff, 1943)

Didn’t Our Hearts Burn Within? (Chicago: H & H Music Co., 1948)

Yes, I Know You Gonna Talk About Me (Chicago: H & H Music Co., 1948)

Sinners Do Not Let This Harvest Pass (Chicago: H & H Music Co., 1949)16

I Have A Noble Work To Do (H & H Music Co., 1949)

Who Built The Ark (H & H Music Co., 1951)17

Thanks to Anne Suzette Huff; Bob Eagle for census information; Konrad Nowakowski; Gerald F. Ladner; Chicago Public Library reference team; Paul Swinton for supplying information on Library of Congress listings by the Chicago Music Publishing Company; professor James Elkins; Alan Young and Dick Spottswood

Consulted works

M. Marie Booth Foster: Southern Black Creative Writers, 1829-1953 (Greenwood Press, 1988).

Sepia magazine: From Druggist To Famous Poetical Lawyer (June 1959, pages 48 – 52.

 

Notes

1 Laurie Wright: OKeh Race Records 8000 Series (Storyville, 2001), page 130.

2 Dixon, Godrich, Rye: Blues and Gospel Records 1890 -1943 (Oxford, 1997): page 838.

3 Max E. Vreede: Paramount 12000/13000 Series (Storyville, 1971).

4 Vreede.

5 Vreede.

6 Dixon, Godrich and Rye: page 684.

7 Vreede.

8 Vreede.

9 Dixon, Godrich and Rye: page 683.

10 Letter to author, March 4, 2002.

11 Franz Hoffman: Jazz Advertised, Volume 4 – Out Of The Chicago Defender (1980): page 274b.

12 Telephone conversation with Anne Suzette Huff, August 30, 2005.

13 Email from Gerald F. Ladner, August 29, 2005.

14 Telephone conversation with Anne Suzette Huff, August 30, 2005.

15 Letter from Chicago Public Library, January 16, 2004. Of documents on file on Huff Jr., copies were kindly supplied.

16 The earliest recorded reference to this song was found issued on Paramount 12520 as Sinner Don’t Let Dis Harvest Pass, recorded by Ernia May Cunningham with the Famous Jubilee Singers circa August 1927.

17 Who Built The Ark is the same as The Old Ark’s A-Moving by Seven Foot Dilly and A.A. Gray, issued on Vocalion 5458. Alma Lillie Hubbard recorded a version of the song in Grafton, WI in 1930 (L-394-1). It was issued on Paramount 13041.

 

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