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 Bill Reese / Banjo Bill Reese 

Cleveland,  Late 40’s - 1958


Although Banjo Bill Reese only spent a mere 4 or 5 years in Cleveland, he managed to put out more records and recordings then most musicians who spent their whole life playing out in Cleveland Club, therefor he should have a mention here on Buckeyebeat.

Born James Howard Reese in Birmingham Alabama May 22nd, 1917. According to his daughter Brenda, he got his nickname “Banjo Bill” from his family. When he was a child, his Aunt bought him a Ukulele which he quickly fell in love with. After the mastering of the Uke, he then got a Banjo and learned how to play that. His family and friends started calling him Banjo Bill and it stuck. He continued as Banjo Bill even though he switched to playing guitar. He also played upright bass and piano.

Not much is known about Banjo Bills playing days in the Birmingham music clubs. What we do know is this firsthand memory on Banjo Bill by Frank “Doc Williams as printed in the book by author Burgin Matthews.

I got to play with a fellow named Banjo Bill. He was an excellent guitarist. Nobody ever remembers Banjo Bill, but he made his own equipment, his own guitar, and he had it all electrified. His amplifier was made from wood--the only time I ran into another one of those was playing with Howlin’ Wolf; he had his own homemade box, like Banjo Bill.

            I remember, when Banjo would turn that amplifier on up, it sounded like somebody sticking a nickel in a jukebox. It would go ploop! and I knew we were about to play.

            He called me to play with him at some white establishment, a little club or something out there on the highway. A lot of times the over-the-mountain group would come and patronize these blues players. They liked authenticity. They would have a blues player at the Birmingham Country Club or something--for the college students--and Banjo was on that circuit. He played the guitar, never a banjo. I don’t know why they called him “Banjo Bill”--that must have been before my time, that he played the banjo.

            If he would get a job, say, at Mountain Brook Country Club or one of the big places where they wanted “Tennessee Waltz” or “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise,” he hired me, because I had gotten to where I could play those songs. He wouldn’t know those kinds of things. He’d just say, “Play it,” and he’d turn on his amplifier and play behind you. You’d play “Stardust”--it had no relationship to what he was playing--but people would even clap for it. He advertised that any song you want, he could play it.

            One outstanding thing about him that really stuck out was that he paid better than anybody else: it wasn’t but a few dollars difference, but that was a difference when he handed you five dollars. For a little fellow, that was a lot of money, man. In fact, this was admirable about him: he would get tips and he would halve the tips with you--most bandleaders put it in their pocket. And he would always thank you for playing with him.

            He would pick you up at home, like Theo would do. He evidently dressed decently, because Mama wouldn’t let me go with anybody that looked shabby. He’d say what time he’d get you back, maybe eleven o’clock or something, and you’d go with Banjo Bill. He had a decent car, and he’d bring you back home.

            He lived over on what they called Vice Hills. Some people still call it that. When you go up there, if it’s raining and muddy, you can’t get back down from Vice Hills. You go way up high; if you keep going, you get to a little peak and you can’t turn around, it gets so close up there. You had a lot of musicians--the blues players, the ear players, the house party players--that were in North Birmingham, and they lived on Vice Hills. Particularly piano players. That’s where Banjo Bill lived, and that’s where Robert McCoy lived, who I played with later; that’s where Frank Hines, the piano player, and so many of them lived. In fact, Avery Parrish, the great pianist who wrote “After Hours” for Erskine Hawkins, lived in that area. North Birmingham was known mostly for its musicians and its blues players.

            Banjo would call a singer that was pretty popular, Sammy Mayo. Sammy was a little youngster, not much older than I was. I don’t think they went there together, but eventually Banjo went to Cleveland and Sammy migrated to Cleveland, too. I’m quite sure that they played in some of those blues places out there.”

Undoubtedly Banjo Bill knew many of the well-known musicians playing the fertile clubs in town. One was Sonny Blount (Sun Ra). They were friends and when Bill moved his family to Chicago, Sun Ra would visit with Bill at his house frequently.


Sometime in the late 40’s he moved his family to Cleveland. It is at this time that Banjo Bill’s flurry of recording started. According to his daughter Brenda his first recording released were 4 sides done for Excello Records as a member of Del Thorne and her Trio. Like Bill, Dell migrated to Ohio also, she from San Antonio via Springfield Ohio they recorded some good Jump Blues numbers in 1952 and 53.  Down South in Birmingham / I Let Him Love Me came first in 1952 and Fly Chick Blues / Goof Train was issued a year later. Most likely they were recorded at the same session.

Somewhere along the way he meet Shelley Haims and Irving Leif. They used Bill’s band to back up The Spartans, a local vocal group. At this time Bill’s bands name was Banjo Bill Reese and his Rhythm Kings. I do not see any show dates for 1954 at all in the Call and Post though he must have been playing the club scene at that time.


1955 turned out to be a prolific year of recording for Banjo Bill. Through his contact with Shelley Haims, he became what would be Shelley Haims' and Irving Leif’s go to backing band for most of the releases put out in 1955. Irving Lief was the Manager or Owner of the Flame Lounge which opened in Early 1955. They would advertise Talent Nights with the winner getting a recording contract with Sterling Records. Banjo Bill has the House band for the Flame for all of 1955, so he became the band that played on most of the recording sessions. Not only did he release his own record on Sterling in 1955, he also backed up the Coronets, and Tommy Malone on Sterling recordings. Several other Sterling label acetates exist that more then likely Bill and his band are playing on.


Also recorded in 1955 was the teaming of Bill and Tommy Malone on the Pennant Label based out of Birmingham. Again, there is a strong Shelley Haims connection with this release. Although the record was not found in the Haims archives, the Womack Brothers release as along with a unreleased Womack Brothers acetate. Richmond Lowe, who owned the Richtone label in Akron in the 40’s became the representative for the Vulcan / Pennant operation for NE Ohio. More then likely Shelly and Irving leased the sides by the Womack Brothers and Banjo Bill to Pennant. Other NE Ohio natives that put out records that same year through Vulcan and Pennant were Duke Jenkins and Ethel Boswell.

After 1955 it seems that the recording and club scene appearances slowed down for Banjo Bill. Only 4 or 5 more mentions in the Call and Post for Bill Between 1956 and 1958. He was playing Club Congo in 1956, a mention of him in 1957 billed as Bill Reese and his Sputnik Band, and two mentions playing the Glow Room in 1958 with Tommy Malone and Georgia Lane.


Bill’s last recordings in Cleveland was The Rhythm Rockers in April of 1958. He recorded 4 songs with Shelley Haims and Perry Stevens. Two songs which they backed up William “Cool Papa” Jarvis - "Yeah Yeah Baby" and "Workin Man", and two instro’s "Strut and Stroll" and "Breakdown".

Sometime late 1958 Banjo Bill and Family moved to Chicago to be closer to his in-laws family. He continued to play and record in the Chicago area for many years. Tommy Malone came out a few times to record for the Ebony label and Bill’s Chicago band backed him up. He also backed up Bonnie “Bombshell” Lee and recorded at least one 45 on his own for the Ebony label. He played with many of the notable Chicago Blues and Jazz musicians, including Left Guitar Bates and a stint as the bass player for Nate Williams Ink Spots that toured the nation. After Bill moved to Chicago and Before Sun Ra left for New York, Sun Ra tried on multiple occasions to get his old friend Bill to join his group. As relayed by Brenda, “Daddy would always decline and say I don’t know nothing about that space music…”


Although Bill only made Cleveland his home for a few short years, he made the most of it through his recording output!

Story and research by Matt Baker

Discography (Cleveland)
Del Thorne and her Trio – (Bill On Bass)
I Let Him Love Me / Down South In Birmingham – Excello 2006 (1952)
Fly Chick Blues / Goof Train – Excello 2017 (1953)

Banjo Bill and his Rhythm Kings
The Spartans – Lost / Faith, Hope And Charity – Capri  - (1954)

Banjo Bill Reese and his Orchestra
Tommy Malone – It’s Been So Long Baby / I’m Wading In Deep Water – Sterling 901, (1954), Decca 29442, (1955)

Bill Reese and His Rhythm Kings (Billy Nightingale - Vocals)
I Want To Thank You Darling / Baby Keep Moving – Sterling 902 – (1955)

Bill Reese and His Rhythm Kings (Tommy Malone - Vocals)
Whiskey Ol Whiskey / I Gotta Find My Baby – Pennant 334 – (1955)

Bill Reese Quintet and the Coronets
The Little Boy / Don’t Deprive Me – Sterling 903 – (1955)

Bill Reese Credited On Guitar
Don Howard – Nothin To Do / Believe In Me – Mercury 70765  - (1955)

Banjo Bill Backing, but uncredited on record.
Coronets – I Love You More / Crime Doesn’t Pay – Groove 0114 – (1955)
Coronets – Hush / The Bible Tells Me So – Groove 0116 – (1955)

Banjo Bill Unreleased Recordings
Jump With Shelley / Shuffle Alley  - Banjo Bill– Acetate – (1955)
I Love My Baby – Bill Reese with Billy Nightingale Vocals – Acetate (1955)
Wheeling and Dealing – Coronets – Banjo Bill Backing – Acetate – (1955)
Yeah Yeah Baby / Workin Man – William “Cool Papa” Jarvis – Bill Reese - Rhythm Rockers - Tape (1958)
Strut and Stroll / Breakdown - Bill Reese and the Rhythm Rockers - Tape (1958)

Chicago Recordings
Tommie “Blind Tom” Malone – Cow Cow Shake / Worried Life – Ebony MMF- 1055 – (196?)
 ( Backed by “Bill” Reese and his Ebony Studio Recording Band)
Bonnie “Bombshell” Lee – Fast Life / My Man’s Coming Home Tonight – Ebony MMF – 1050 – (196?)
 ( Backed by Reese’s Ebony Recording Band)
Bonnie “Bombshell” Lee – Fast Life / Black Is Beautiful Ebony MMF – 1015 – (196?)
( Backed by Jimmy Jazz Reece)
Jimmy Jazz Reese – Tightline / Keep A Knockin – Ebony 1065  - (196?)