Before we start, the answer is 131 sides. Roosevelt Sykes issued 131 sides on 66 singles between 1929 and 1942. One side was by another artist.
On May 29, 2022, an Arkansas blues historian shared these pictures on Twitter:
They are from the Heroes of the Blues card set by R. Crumb (texts by Stephen Calt).
Here’s a quote on blues pianist Roosevelt Sykes from the card above: “He […] produced nearly 125 sides between 1929 and 1942”. Hm. The cards are neat, but the person tweeting these images asked a very good question: What are we to make of the statement that Sykes recorded “nearly 125 sides”. I mean, this is obviously a clunky way to phrase it, right? (“Beethoven wrote nearly ten symphonies”).
I couldn’t sleep at night because of this, let’s look into it.
To clear up something half-obvious: a side in this context refers to one song on one side of a single disc. Singles were usually double-sided.
So how many sides by Sykes are there, from the beginnings (1929) to the end of the period mentioned on the Crumb-card (1942)? To find out, I first looked into what’s available nowadays. For this, it’s usually best to take a look at the series put out by the Document label. I then cross-referenced this with Stefan Wirz’ online-discography and the professional discography Blues and Gospel Records: 1890–1943 by Robert Dixon and John Godrich (Dixon/Godrich) to see what had been issued at the time, but might not be available today. Of course, I also wanted to know what had not been issued back then, but is issued now. Let’s see.
The Document-series: 125 sides
The Document-series of Roosevelt Sykes’ complete recordings in chronological order feature 165 tracks total from 1929 until 1943 (it’s the first seven volumes). 4 of these tracks (the last four on Vol. 7) were recorded in 1943, so the series features 161 tracks total from 1929 until 1942. 30 of these 161 tracks are credited to other artists, meaning the series features 131 tracks credited to Sykes for said period, 1929 until 1942.
Now, 4 of these 131 tracks appearing on the Document-CDs were never issued before, so they don’t belong among Sykes’ issued sides from the time. This takes the amount of sides published up until 1942 down and leaves us with 127 tracks on the Document-CDs as originally published sides.
However, two song titles, “Essie Mae Blues” and “Dirty Mother for You”, appear twice. The reason being that Sykes recorded numerous songs in nearly identical takes, for example “Essie Mae Blues”, matrix number 67469-A and 67469-B. This was common practice, of course. Sometimes, both takes were used as master takes for distributed singles, treated interchangeably, as identical tracks (which they assumably were, in the grander scheme of things and material music business). So a single would either feature take A or take B but have the same catalogue number, as the takes are virtually non-distinguishable. This is only problematic insofar as the Document-series in one of those cases gives you both of these near-identical takes as two individual tracks, while these were not, in fact, takes issued as different singles. They were used for the same single with the same catalogue number.
So subtract these two takes, and we arrive at 125 sides actually issued on singles findable on the Document-series.
Dixon/Godrich-discography: 131 sides
As the Document-series is neither necessarily complete, nor an indication of what had been issued nor what had been unissued at the time, let’s look at the catalogue-numbers culled from a professional discography.
The discography Dixon/Godrich lists 158 individual matrix-number-entries for this period. 25 of these are listed as originally unissued and can be subtracted, suggesting 133 sides issued.
However, commonly the discography lists the “identical takes” used for the same single (as described) above under one entry, like this: “67469-A-B”. This means both takes A and B had been used for the single of this catalogue number. The discography then skips this habit for the two takes of “Eight Ball Blues”, wich each get an entry (67466-A, and 67466-B, respectively), and for “Dirty Mother for You”. For the latter, actually three takes were used interchangeably for the single, and these three takes receive two entries. So there’s two entries for “Eight Ball Blues” and for “Dirty Mother for You” where there arguably should be only one for each. We deduct these entries, and this gets us to: 131 sides for actually issued singles.
Stefan Wirz’ discography: 131 sides
So far, so good. To use a further control mechanism, Stefan Wirz’ unique single-discography mentions 66 singles (132 sides) for this period, and since there is only one side by Sykes on Champion 50071 (the other side is credited to Jimmie LaRue), this gives us 131 sides.
(Technical note: Wirz lists the single Decca 7874 twice, so deduct those, and we arrive at 129. Yet since Wirz’ list in turn omits the two sides on Decca 7252 (“Driving Wheel Blues” / “Barrelhouse Man”), we can add them, and are back at 131 as the originally published sides credited to Sykes for the period 1929–1942.)
What the Document-series misses
The Document-series misses six tracks in total that are listed in the discographies (this makes sense: 125 + 6 = 131). 4 sides indicated in the discography by Dixon/Godrich as originally published do not appear on the Document-CD: A doubled-sided single that was never actually found, and two B-sides that simply weren’t reissued on CD.
This brings the number up to 129 originally published titles. And lastly, both the Dixon/Godrich-discography and the Wirz’-discography list the single Champion 16558, “Steady Grinding” / “I Can’t to Save My Life”, which also does not appear on the Document-series (presumably because it is credited to “Sykes & Johnson”, as in Mary Johnson). But I follow the discographies to include it: We’re back at 131 originally issued titles, 125 of which are nowadays available on Document.
How many sides where there, now?
131 sides. Well, we sort of reverse-engineered this by seeing what’s available nowadays on CD and then filling in the holes with discographical information about matrix-numbers, different takes, issued and unissed sides et cetera.
The whole thing gets a lot easier if we don’t ask about how many sides he recorded, but instead just count the different catalogue numbers of the published singles with different song titles on them. The answer is, as should be obvious by now, 66 singles, 131 sides of which are credited to Roosevelt Sykes from 1929 to 1942. (This disregards all his sideman work, but that was the premise).
Crumb’s “nearly 125 sides”
Now let’s try to make sense of the statement on the Crumb-card: Roosevelt Sykes recorded “nearly 125 sides”… what the hell is that supposed to mean? Why this oddest of phrases, as opposed to “about 125 sides” or “at least 124 sides” or something sufficiently vague? Here go my thoughts: The cards were made in 1980, before the Document-series, before the CD-era. So all expert Stephen Calt, who wrote the bios, had to go on were discographies, LP-compilations and, well, the real sides.
Here is my iffy guess: We established that Sykes had initially issued 131 sides. Sykes used a number of pseudonyms during his career. The most contested of these was “Dobby Bragg”. By 1980, it was already assumed that Dobby Bragg is Roosevelt Sykes, but it was not completely settled and uncontested in all corners of the galaxy. 8 sides are credited to Bragg (2 of which were lost to history, never found). So assuming they didn’t count the sides by Bragg, we end up at 123 sides credited to Sykes. Then give or take some confusion about attribution: Do we count the sides credited to Sykes & Johnson? Yes, we do. (But remember, the Document-series doesn’t). Then there’s another single credited only to Johnson, with Sykes accompanying her. Should we count that one, too? Because that would add two sides…
That would make it… well, nearly 125 sides.
I don’t know, but this is as far as this got me. I would have liked to take a look at the Dixon/Godrich edition from 1969 (the one available to Crumb and Calt in 1980), to see if there was less information available, less sides noted, or anything. But it isn’t available where I live.
I get so sad and emotional about these things. I get up, make coffee, and I just see the brown bubbles come up and disappear. I stand there, I get back pains.
For more info on Roosevelt Sykes‘ discography, check the list I made for his output here.