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Riley Puckett Biography

George Riley Puckett, 7 May 1894, near Alpharetta, Georgia, USA, d. 13 July 1946, East Point, Georgia, USA. Owing to the accidental use of overly strong medication to treat a minor eye infection, he was blinded as a baby. In 1912, after graduating from the Georgia Academy for the Blind in Macon, where he first learned to play the banjo and piano, he sought the life of a musician and moved to Atlanta. He appeared at the Georgia Old Time Fiddler’s Convention in 1916, drawing good reviews as ‘the blind banjoist’. He also took to playing the guitar and singing and worked local dances and busked on the streets. In 1922, he made his radio debut on WSB as a special guest with the Hometown Band - a local band led by fiddler Clayton McMichen. The programmes of the powerful WSB could be heard across most of the USA and Puckett’s performance attracted attention. He was a fine singer and listeners were also greatly impressed by his excellent yodelling. In 1923, he, McMichen and Gid Tanner began to play together as the Skillet Lickers. Puckett made his first recordings in New York in March 1924, when he and Tanner became the first hillbilly artists to appear on Columbia Records. He recorded solo numbers such as ‘The Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane’ and ‘Rock All My Babies To Sleep’. By yodelling on the latter, he probably became the first hillbilly singer to yodel on record - preceding the blue yodels of Jimmie Rodgers by three years (it has never been established just where he first learned this art). He was badly injured in a car crash in 1925 and subsequently married his nurse (they had one daughter, Blanche, but later parted). His recordings proved so popular that, by the end of the year, only the recordings of Vernon Dalhart received more orders among Columbia artists. The Skillet Lickers, who underwent various changes in line-up during their existence, made their first recordings in 1926 and proved very successful. Their 1927 recording of ‘A Corn Licker Still In Georgia’ very quickly sold a quarter of a million copies.

During the years that Puckett played with the Skillet Lickers, he still made solo concert and recording appearances. When, because of the Depression, the Skillet Lickers disbanded in 1931, he was still much in demand as a solo artist. They re-formed briefly in 1934, when he and Tanner recorded together for the last time (Tanner tired of the music business and returned to chicken farming). During the 30s and early 40s, Puckett travelled extensively making personal appearances, and for some time he also had his own very popular tent show, which toured the Midwest, Texas, Oklahoma and the southern states. He was featured on various radio stations and at times ran his own bands. In 1945, he was a regular member of theTennessee Barn Dance on WNOX Knoxville, where he appeared with the Delmore Brothers, Chet Atkins and Sam And Kirk McGee. After leaving Columbia in 1934, he made recordings for RCA-Victor Records and Decca Records. His final recordings were made for RCA in 1941, in a session that included the pop-orientated ‘Where The Shy Little Violets Grow’ and Carson Jay Robison’s ‘Railroad Boomer’.

The undoubted secret of Puckett’s success, quite apart from his instrumental abilities, was his large repertoire. He could sing (and play) equally well any songs ranging from old-time folk ballads such as ‘Old Black Joe’ and ‘John Henry’ (his 1924 version is in all probability the first time the song was recorded) through to vaudeville numbers such as ‘Wait Till The Sun Shines, Nellie’ and ‘Red Sails In The Sunset’. His fine banjo playing included standards such as ‘Cripple Creek’ and ‘O Susanna’ and his unique guitar style, with its very fast, thumb-played bass string runs, has been equalled by very few other guitarists, one exception being another blind musician, Doc Watson. Prior to his untimely death in 1946, he was appearing regularly on WACA Atlanta, with a band called the Stone Mountain Boys. A boil on his neck caused blood poisoning and though he was rushed to hospital, it was too late and he died on 13 July. One of the pallbearers at his funeral was his old associate Gid Tanner. It seems ironic that, as with his blindness, the correct treatment at the appropriate time could no doubt have effected a proper cure. Puckett is one of country music’s most interesting and talented but, unfortunately, now overlooked characters.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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