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The King Oliver band heads for Frisco

Text is from an unpublished copyrighted manuscript

Lil Hardin had not yet met Louis Armstrong when she joined King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in Chicago. She was still very young and new to the entertainment world and all that it brings with it. Here she talks recalls the days before the band made its historic trip to California. A subsequent post will contain her California memories. I hope you find this interesting and don't hesitate to post a comment. (The above photo was taken during the band's San Francisco engagement. Click on it for a better look)

Ollie Powers, Billy Ledman and Ralph Delaney were working with us at the Dreamland and Snow Fisher, the greatest of all the cakewalking dancers, often came in and broke up the house. Olive Hickman, a singer from Denver, Colorado, came to work with us later on. She was a nice-looking mulatto girl with a high soprano voice. She sang with such keys and she could be heard above all the noise in the room. It was her singing that inspired me to write My Heart Will Always Lead Me Back To You, a ballad that Louis later recorded, cutting the title so that it is now known simply as My Heart. It was a beautiful ballad in waltz tempo and I can't say that I like it as much in the form that was recorded by Louis. I also wrote Sweet Lovin’ Man while I was at the Dreamland, and Alberta Hunter sang that one for me.

No matter how smoothly things were going, somewhere a problem would always creep in. Johnny, my boyfriend, was my biggest problem. He was very possessive and wouldn’t allow anyone to even take me to a show. Everyone thought this was a shame and people began to tell me things about him that I hadn’t known. It turned out that he not only had as many prostitutes is the other pimps around there, but he also had a wife and three children! When I heard that, I immediately began to figure out some way of getting from under this guy.

I couldn’t tell Decie for she would have made a scene and then there would have been serious trouble. I must admit that Johnny was just what I needed at the beginning, but by now I knew my way around and all the education that I had gotten from the musicians had just about given me all the answers. In a way, I think my romantic life was ruined forever in those days. I never really believed what any man said, probably because I was in constant contact with older people and I saw all the different methods that men used to get women, and how they discarded them soon after getting them. The musicians used to say that they pitied the man that married me, probably because they didn't think I'd be an understanding wife. Nearly all of them had back-door romances and some of them were even keeping two households going. I remember one time asking Joe about his love for his wife, and when he indignantly replied that he loved his wife, I asked him how he could have an outside woman, rent a house for her, and lead such a double life. He just laughed and said that I didn't understand. Dewey and Ed Garland weren’t as gullible, they both had prostitutes and thought that guys like Joe were crazy.

Things were really in the groove at Dreamland when we got an offer to go to San Francisco and play for six months at the Pergola Ballroom at 949 Market Street. Joe accepted the offer and now I had to figure out how to go without Decie and Johnny being able to figure out where I was going, or for how long. I finally told them both that we were going to New York to make some records, and I told the guys in the band to tell the same story. I was a nervous wreck those last two weeks before we left, but Johnny Dodds was the most worried of all the guys in the band. He told Joe that he was a fool to think that I could pull such a stunt, but I made it. On May 30, 1921 we left for San Francisco and I was one happy and relieved gal when the train finally pulled out.

Johnny and Joe brought their wives along on the two women snored so loud on the train that no one else got much sleep. When we arrived in Frisco, we were met by a misty penetrating cold that froze our very livers. You never heard such mumbling and complaining about the weather. Joe yelled, “Sunny California, hell, this must be Alaska,” and all of them made a beeline for the store to buy warm coats, having left their heavy coats in Chicago, because we were going to “sunny” California. Well, it never got warm or sunny enough for me, I stayed cold all the time and had to sleep with a hot water bottle at my feet. I also bought a camel hair coat and an oil stove for my room, but the real trouble was that I was anemic and had poor blood circulation.

After a few weeks I was sure that I had TB, and so I went to a doctor to be examined for an awful pain in my chest. This pain turned out to be nothing but a form of indigestion and the doctor prescribed toast, stale bread, and lots of fruit and vegetables from then on.

Lil talks about the band's stay in San Francisco in the September 4, 2009 post—Lil Hardin's Memories.


  1. Hey Chris,
    I'm just getting onto your blog--and your good stories are thick as thieves! Many thanks for sharing them all. The current stuff on Lil with Oliver at Dreamland is precious and priceless--esp about Joe having second "wife" in Chi and putting her up. We knew he fooled around of course, but the "housing" part is news, far as I'm concerned. Also that Joe brought Stella to California--heretofore unrevealed. You've got to wonder how much she knew about his philandering....I'm sure you've heard the Tulane oral history taken with her and Armstrong in NOLA, long after JKO had died. To my memory, she came across feeling that he was a good man and that she loved him.

    All best, and I appreciate your work,

    Peter Gerler

  2. If my memory serves me right: Satchmo met Stella Oliver in New Orleans as late as in 1965, probably the last time that they met. Best wishes Per Oldaeus.

  3. Hello, Chris, may I add another little information most collectors do not know. Johnny Dodds then was married to Bessie 'Sweetie' Munson and their first child, John 2nd, was born in California. John II was as soldier in WW II in Germany, after leaving the army he became an insurance manager.