Sunday, November 15, 2015

Character Studies--Vess L. Ossman(1868-1923)

"I am the banjo king! Ruby Brooks could get hanged and I wouldn't give a rap!"
is what Vess Ossman thought of his banjo competitor Ruby Brooks. 

Ossman was truly one of the more complicated personalities of the early recording business, with not only a convoluted studio presence, but also a tangled personal life. He made hundreds of records, with thousands of takes before the end of the 'round era in 1898, and worked for every active record company in his day, from 1893 to 1917. His skill on the banjo kept him employed everywhere, both in the studios, and on all the stages and vaudeville houses. 

Vess was a complicated man. He had a personal life that no one at the studios but Fred Hylands  and Frank Banta knew about(as the pianists always heard everyone's stories). He had a very productive relationship with his wife Eunice, who sometimes came in to Columbia to see and hear him make a few of those thousands of records. She and him were madly in love, and clearly by how they acted toward each other, this was certainly true. Those few staff members who were actually invited to his home were sure to remember his family life, and also his home.  He had eight children in all with his wife, but many of them died young or were miscarriages. This fact got some of the staff members curious, and therefore, some rumours were spread. Before he was a recording fiend, he was winning all the banjo competitions, and out getting into odd trouble. In 1890, he disappeared with a 15-year-old girl(who would later be his wife), and returned to the stage scene in mid-1891 with his pregnant wife, who miscarried a month or so later. That was always mysterious to the staff members, especially Frank Banta, as Banta had started working with Ossman not too long after all of this happened. In 1893, he teamed with Frank Banta, who was an up-and-coming young pianist and bandleader, who found Ossman to be a pretty reasonable match with his piano style. Ossman and Banta were an act by 1894, with Banta as his official accompanist. This is where Banta first gets his job at Edison. Ossman was rather tall, unexpectedly so in some ways, as he had very long hands, long slim legs, and a face that was a true mixture of German and Irish. He had all the prettiest aspects of both nationalities, with that very photogenic face of his, he must have loved getting his picture taken. Being Ossman's accompanist was a real pain, as he was always very specific of what the pianist should play, and how they ought to play it, without playing too much. This was easy for Banta, but when Ossman began working with Hylands, there was certainly some conflict. Ossman and Hylands made for an unexpectedly great duo, even if Hylands was always calling for attention behind the star of the performance, no matter who it was at front. Ossman and Hylands' egos must have just fused together perfectly. When Ossman walked into any studio, he was in charge, no matter what the accompanist would say. Ossman owned the room, even if the engineers would have to move things around like they always did, he would still speak out against them often.  He would take the most specific and longest time to get his banjo tuned up, he wanted everything to be perfect always, and it started with him getting tuned up. If a string would break, all hell would break loose. It was bad luck among the singers and accompanists to be in the room with Ossman when he broke a string. It didn't help that it was either very warm or cold in the North Eastern seasons, as well as it being humid. He would explode when he broke a string, or someone wasn't cooperative with him, and it was not a pretty sight to see from a distance. He was rough, and how he would eat up anyone he was yelling at. His temper was terrible, he really let the Irish temper of his out, and all the staff members knew of this very well. Sometimes they would want to laugh, but couldn't, because he would blacken their eyes for sure, and maybe crack some bones if he had the nerve. Ossman hated people who bossed him around, which were very few people not surprisingly. He worked with the Dudley brothers from 1904 to 1907, and that was an interesting experience for both Vess, and also the Dudley's. Ossman had never worked in a group of musicians before, and having to share the profits and fame with two other people was hard for him. He did not like having to share his success with the Dudley's, even if he enjoyed them as people. Ossman working as an accompanist was never a good idea, as he was always the star, just like Fred Hylands' logic. After the Dudley brothers split with Vess in 1907, he took a bit of a dive in popularity, and he decreased. His popularity decreased significant amounts each year after 1908, even though he was still continuing to get engagements everywhere. By 1912, it was really Fred Van Eps who had taken Vess' place in the recording business, which angered Vess greatly, as for years he had built a a hatred for Van Eps, but it was inevitable that Van Eps would eventually take his spot. Van Eps was really in many ways a better banjoist, but the king of them all was Fred Bacon, the man who had been on the scene all along, but hid in the shadows for years from all the nasty competition. Ossman went on tours after 1916, after he formed his own band, and was getting engagements. He was not to be found in New York after 1917, as the record companies dropped him in that year. He was still getting "gigs" out in the mid-west, as that was where he died, and where his son, Vess Jr., died as well. He was on tour when he suffered a heart attack in early December of 1923, he was later brought to St. Louis, where his son was living at the time. Even if "the Banjo King" wasn't the kindest individual, he was still great at what he did, and was called that for a reason. 

For some interesting sounds, here are a few of Vess' records.

Here is his wonderfully done version of "Whistling Rufus" with Fred Hylands, from December of 1899:
Here is his fantastic"Sounds from Africa" from 1898, with Fred Hylands:
Here is his "Salome Intermezzo" with Fred Hylands, from 1901:
(Listen closely to the piano at around 1:50 in that minor part! SO HOT! Those fifths are really audible!)
This next one is one of many Victors where Ossman announced himself as "The Banjo King", here is his and Fred Hylands' version of Leslie Stuart's "Tell Me Pretty Maiden", from 1901:

And to close off here is Ossman and Len Spencer's wonderful take of "Hot Time in the Old Town" from late 1897:
Ossman was begging for attention behind Spencer always.

I hope you enjoyed this! Getting ready for the West Coast Ragtime festival has really been consuming my time lately! 

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