In Transition : The Cats & The Fiddle©2007JCMarion


In the late thirties in the city of Chicago, there was a vocal and instrumental group that was something of a rage with high school age kids in the Black neighborhoods. The name of this band was the Harlem Harmony Hounds. The lead vocalist for this group waqs named Austin Powell. He had dreams of stardom in the musial world having had this small taste of success. Nearby there was a trio comprised of Chuck Barksdale, Jimmy Henderson, and Ernie Price, and they were searching around the area for a lead singer to comprise a vocal quartet. Powell met up with the other three soon enough and plans were made to pool their talents together. The new group was christened The Cats & The Fiddle, a most unusual name. They sang with the usual nod to the style of the Mills Brothers while trying to give a bit of their own sound to the new group.

Some of the members of the group had some experience on local Chicago radio and so the newly formed group did have some area recognition. They were soon seen and heard by Lester Melrose who was a midwest talent scout and sometime A & R man for Victor Records. He had been finding Black talent in the Chicago area for the company's Bluebird subsidiary label as they would soon launch a "race" catalog aimed at the growing Black population of the city of Chicago. In the late nineteen thirties the group appeared on screen in the motion pictures "Snow Gets In Your Eyes" and "Going Places" which also featured Louis Armstrong. The group sings "Jeepers Creepers" an ode to a horse of the same name in the film.

In late 1939 The Cats & The Fiddle entered the studio to record for Bluebird. The first release was "Nuts To You" / "Killing Jive" on #8216. Four other singles followed for Bluebird, none of which made much of an impression on record buyers. But the sixth release by the label of "Public Jitterbug #1" and "I Miss You So" on #8429 was the one that put the group into the public's conciousness. Jimmy Henderson was the composer of the song and also its vocalist. Tragically Henderson would pass away from ill health before the end of 1940, and so never knew of the success of his beautiful song. Henderson's spot was taken over by Herbie Miles, and then Lloyd "Tiny" Grimes who would go on to great fame in the jazz field in subsequent years. The first record with Grimes was Bluebird #8639 - "I'll Always Love You Just The Same" / "One Is Never Too Old To Swing". In 1941 Chuck Barksdale also passed away. By 1943 Bluebird had ceased to exist and some of the group's members were in military service.

By 1945 the group consisted of Herbie Miles, Miff Branford, Ernie Price, and George Steinbeck. They still featured the tipple, a guitar-like instrument with ten strings, string bass, and guitars. They recorded for the New Jersey based independent label Manor Records. They began with a remake of "I Miss You So" on #20-2072 in December of 1946. In 1947 the group did a creditable cover of Frankie Laine's pop hit "That's My Desire"on Manor # 1064. In 1948 the group presented their first female member Shirley Moore, who was succeeded by Doris Knighton. Moore sings vocals on "Honey Honey Honey" / "I'm Afraid Of You" on Manor #1112. The group cut a couple of sides for Philadelphia's Gotham label and also had some of their earlier sides reissued by RCA Victor.

In early 1950 the Cats & The Fiddle remained a good draw on the club circuit. They had a good run at Pep's in Philadelphia followed by a stint at the Baltimore Comedy Club. In the summer the group once again sports a different line up-this time with two females. Beryl Booker formerly with Slam Stewart replaces Doris Knighton, and vocalist Dotty Smith also joins the group. Smith had been a member of the cast on Philadelphia radio's young talent show and a member of The Harlemaires group. Stanley Gaines, bass player also joins the group that summer as the band settles in at The Click Club in Philadelphia. Austin Powell and Ernie Price remain with the group. By the end of the year Gaines had left the group.

In 1951 Decca Records signs Austin Powell to a recording contract as a solo performer. The Cays & The Fiddle play an extended engagement in July at New York's Cafe Society. The name of the group was soon changed to the Austin Powell Five. In June of 1952 Atlantic signs Powell to the label. By the fall of 1953 Austin Powell is once again with a group known as The Cats & The Fiddle. During the latter part of the year they continued to play club dates in the greater Philadelphia area (Trenton, Atlantic City, etc.). The group also records some tunes for the 7-11 label in Los Angeles. In the summer of 1954 Austin Powell (without the group) did q week at New York's Apollo Theater with Timmie Rogers, Roy Hamilton, and others. Powell then teamed up "Big Nick" Nicholas, tenor sax player and vocalist on a new version of The Cats & The Fiddle. The group played club dates in the Northeast, but was no longer a recording act that had much sales potential. The last attempt by Austin Powell was part of a vocal duo with Nicholas called Tic & Toc. They had one release for RCA Victor on their Vik subsidiary # 0248, with the band of Howard Biggs. The tunes were "Jibba Jab" and Powell's vocal on "I'm A Big Boy Now".

Austin Powell had a career of more than twenty years with many different versions of the pioneering group The Cats & The Fiddle. Their signature tune "I Miss You So" will always be known and performed as a great American pop song. There have been many, many versions of the song, especially one back in the mid nineteen fifties by Chris Connor the great jazz singer. The Cats & The Fiddle had a long and varied history and we are fortunate that this history has been preserved on cd recordings. A good in depth overview is "We Cats Will Swing For You" on Living Era. There are 27 tracks and present a good selection of tunes by the gruop. There are two collections that offer a more complete audio history of the group. One in three volumes (16 tracks on each cd) also called "We Cats Will Sing For You" and is released by Fabulous. 1939-1940, 1940-1941, and 1941-1948 are the years covered on each volume. A somewhat more complete recording history is offered by Germany's Dee-Jay label. Volume 1 is "Killing Jive" covering 1939-1940 (26 tracks). Volume 2 is "Hep Cats Swing" covering 1941-1946 (25 tracks), and volume 3 is "Start Jive Talking" on which 1947-1950 is covered (20 tracks). The Cats & The Fiddle were one of the "table setter" groups that came out of the late 30s-early40s, true transition performers that all those who followed owe a debt of gratitude for their pioneering effort.

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