About The Artist
Note: Portions from Mr. Tribe's 1981 article in the JEMF Quarterly were included in this article.
Frank Welling and John McGhee were a Huntington, West Virginia team who made numerous recordings-usually together, but sometimes solo or with others-in the 1927-1932 era. In Huntington, they performed a variety of music including Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and Hawaiian music. After the recording business was crippled by the Great Depression, Welling moved to Charleston as an announcer and sometime performer at WCHS. As Tony Russell said recording over 200 sides for four companies, they "were major league record stars in the old-time market."
Neither Welling nor McGhee were Huntington natives although both lived in that river city from an early age. McGhee was born in the Lincoln County village of Griffithsville while Welling was born on the opposite side of the Ohio River in Rome Township in Lawrence County, Ohio. Exactly how they met cannot be determined with certainty, but John McGhee's daughter Anna thinks they worked together in a Knights of Pythias minstrel show as early as 1917. Thereafter, they performed in a variety of amateur theatricals in and around Huntington. Somewhere along the line, Welling became enthralled with the Hawaiian guitar and seemingly even traveled in vaudeville with such a group ironically called Domingo's Filipino Serenaders.
By the time Welling and McGhee began the recording phase of their career, McGhee usually played a regular guitar and harmonica singing with a strong bass voice while Welling favored a Hawaiian style guitar and a lead voice. Hymns and other sacred songs were their main forte, but they also did numerous Victorian sentimental songs. Their repertoire was laced with a few humor-oriented numbers including those that concerned Prohibition like "Sweet Adeline at the Still" and "Old Kentucky Dew" (respective parodies of "Sweet Adeline" and "Darling Nellie Gray"). A few topical numbers (e. g. "North Carolina Textile Strike") and fiddle tunes on harmonica (e. g. "Beech Fork Special") were also among their recordings.
Sometimes other musicians assisted them on recordings. One was John McGhee's daughter Alma (B: September 3, 1913 — D: January 18, 1973) when they became the Welling and McGhee Trio. Another was when Welling's wife, Thelma (B: January 3, 1907 — D: June 16, 1994) joined as The Welling Trio. In one instance when they had sessions scheduled too close together in 1928, McGhee took Tom Cogar as a duet partner to the Gennett studio in Richmond, Indiana while Welling took Bill Shannon to the Paramount studio in Chicago. In ordinary circumstances back in Huntington, Cogar and Shannon worked with Welling and McGhee in a quartet. On two other occasions Miller Wikel, a McGhee relative, went with them and recorded a few songs on his own.
One of the problems in researching John McGhee and Frank Welling is the pevalence of pseudonyms on their many recordings. Gennett releases used their real names, but since their budget label Champion usually sold more copies, they were known as the Hutchins Brothers, or if Alma McGhee was also on them, they were the Hutchins Trio. Later Champion releases used their real names, but by 1931-1932 few records were selling. Contrary to some claims, this was not so much to avoid paying royalties, but since budget labels sold for less (35 cents for a Champion vs. 75 cents for a Gennett), their royalties were less. They were even lower for records on Supertone and Superior where the names became Harper & Turner or Harper & Hall. In at least one instance McGhee became Roy Deal and Welling became Joe Summers (on opposite sides of Conquerer 7273; later Conquerer releases were from American Record Corp. masters).
Information currently available on McGhee and Welling record sales is fragmentary, yet just enough information exists to be somewhat ambivalent. While some comparative figures suggest that their discs sold fewer than those of other Calaway discoveries like Cliff Carlisle and Martin and Roberts, other comparisons hint that they may well have held their own. In five quarterly periods, Welling and McGhee 's best sellers for ARC were "Picture on the Wall" / "Where is My Mama" which sold 4,792 records, followed by "There is Sunshine in My Soul" / "Haven of Rest" with 4,288. By contrast, Carlisle's cover of the Jimmie Rodgers's song "Desert Blues" / "Birmingham Jail No. 2" sold 11,329 copies in nine quarters. However, if one compares sales for the same periods for which figures are available, Welling and McGhee's number one record sold 1,082 more copies. Welling and McGhee's best single quarter was 1,350 sales of Conqueror 7978. "The Old Account" / "Sweeping Through the Gates," in the first three months of 1934, hardly compares with Martin and Roberts' "Ninety-Nine Years" /"Prisoner #999" which sold 4,818 in the same quarter with 2,977 of them on Conqueror 7967. In the final analysis, until more sales data are uncovered, one must simply assume that those companies marketing McGhee and Welling must have been encouraged or they would not have persisted in continuing to record and release their material. Also, one needs to recall that in those Depression years, all recordings sold poorly. As Norm Cohen points out, Charlie Poole's classic of "Milwaukee Blues'V'One Moonlight Night" sold only 800 copies. Even combined Victor and Montgomery Ward sales of Jimmie Rodgers's "Old Love Letters" / "Somewhere Down Below the Dixon Line" totaled only 5,400. Recordings simply did not sell well during the Great Depression. (Material on ARC record sales from microprints of W. R. Calaway Collection at the John Edwards Memorial Foundation, University of California, Los Angeles, California; comparative data on sales come from Norm Cohen, Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), pp. 33-34; and Johnny Bond, The Recordings of Jimmie Rodgers: An Annotated Discography (Los Angeles: John Edwards Memorial Foundation, 1978), p. vi.)
The Depression hit the chief sources of income for old-time musicians very hard, but McGhee and Welling kept trying longer than many of them. John Max McGhee remembers selling records for a dime each, going door to door and hauling them in his coaster wagon. He did this in order to make extra money to go to the movies . John and Frank did their final session together in August 1932, for Starr, and Welling went back again the following April with WSAZ staff pianist Harry Sayre and cut his final session with a different type of accompaniment.
Paramount's Broadway releases used the name Frank Wilkins & John Moore. Some of McGhee's later releases used the name Billy Whoop. The Welling & McGhee Trio was the Christian Harmony Singers augmented by an organist, while the Dixie Sacred Trio is simply the Welling & McGhee Trio. Less complicated was the tendency of Gennett, Brunswick and Vocalion to place McGhee's name first while Paramount and the American Record Corporation labels (Perfect, Melotone, Banner, Oriole, Romeo) used Welling's name first.
Frank and John made their last recordings together for Champion in August. Frank did two sessions for that label in 1932-1933, but sales were poor Welling also recorded in 1932-33 with teenager Richard Cox. Afterwards, McGhee remained in Huntington until he died in 1945. Welling was in Charleston by 1937 where he became best known as a solo vocalist and announcer. After he died Thelma moved to California and lived into the 1980's.
Both McGhee children have fond memories of those childhood days when "Dad and Frank" would go away to make records and return with gifts for them. They have a few of the original discs and a pile of Gennett test pressings as mementoes of those times and possess an increasing awareness of the role played by John McGhee, Frank Welling, and their friends in the early years of the development of both country and gospel music. Some years ago, Mrs. Schrule tried to interest West Virginia folklorist, the late Patrick Gainer, in researching her father's historical role, but to no avail. However, they, like most others—including myself until recently — lacked an awareness that McGhee and Welling had made more records than any other country musicians except for Vernon Dalhart, Riley Puckett , and the Martin and Roberts conglomeration in that first decade of hillbilly commercialization.
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