Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Phil Baxter, 1925 co-composer of Gambler's Blues (aka St. James Infirmary)

Phil Baxter was a pianist and band leader in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a prolific song-writer. Among his better known compositions are the rather risque "Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas" (recorded by a host of musicians from Phil Harris to Louis Armstrong), "Piccolo Pete" and the follow-up, "Harmonica Harry" (both were major novelty hits for Ted Weems and his orchestra), as well as "A Faded Summer Love" (which was a hit for Bing Crosby in 1931).
Phil Baxter

Baxter and Carl Moore published "Gambler's Blues" in 1925. Four years earlier Baxter and Moore toured together as a duo.They would ride the train from town to town and perform skits and music, with Moore on drums, Baxter at the piano. Eventually Baxter settled in Kansas City where, leading a band at the El Torreon ballroom, he displaced the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks as Kansas City's favourite dance orchestra. Moore created his own band; with a mixture of sophisticated dance arrangements and down-home humour, he was a popular entertainer.

Baxter was unable to perform after 1933 because of arthritis in his hands. On the verge of his leaving for Texas, the Kansas City Journal-Post ran a long article about Baxter which included this comment: "Baxter has had some litigation over the authorship of one song, which has been in circulation as 'St. James Infirmary,' but which he said he composed long ago and called 'Gambler's Blues.' He said he published it privately in Texas years ago, and that a New York publisher picked it up." That New York publisher was undoubtedly Gotham Music, whose president was Irving Mills (aka Joe Primrose).

(In 1924, a year before Moore/Baxter published "Gambler's Blues," Carl Sandburg published a book of "traditional" American songs containing a very similar piece, "Those Gambler's Blues.")

I Went Down to St. James Infirmary includes a brief biography of Baxter. Information about him is not easy to find. Recordings of his can still be discovered on CD and on streaming services, in compilations with titles like volume 2 of Jazz the World Forgot, or Texas and Tennessee Territory Bands. If anyone has information about Phil I would love to hear from you. Baxter's friend, Cliff Halliburton, wrote a biography, but I have been unable to find it and suspect it was never published.

Phil Baxter's band with his 1929 composition "I Ain't Got No Gal Now."

Original recording of Phil Baxter's 1928 "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas."
Baxter's published version has seven verses, so this is a bit abbreviated.


Original recording of Phil Baxter's and Carl Moore's "Gambler's Blues"
(aka "St James Infirmary") 1927 - recorded one year before Louis Armstrong's
"St. James Infirmary" and two years after Moore/Baxter published it.


Louis Armstrong's original 1928 "St. James Infirmary." He recorded the song at
least twice more.
Inquiries into the early years of SJI