George Holmes’ Ink Spots with Colorado’s Joel Cowan
(NOTE: To date – as of December, 2017 – we have identified the following musicians who apparently performed as part of the Denver based Ink Spots:
- George Holmes
- Joel Cowan
- Lew Young
- Jim Watson
- Herman McCoy
- Leon “Rags” Ragsdale
- Lloyd Washington
- John Pettit
When I first spotted this LP about 15 years ago, I was amazed to see such a famous name on Denver’s independent Band Box record label. Since that time I never could find any information relating to this group, until recently. I located the comprehensive Ink Spot Evolution web site, one of the more impressive and through histories I have come across. I learned that the very first Ink Spot group was headed up by Jerry Daniels. He was joined by Deek Watson, Hoppy Jones and Charles Fuqua and the year was about 1932. This lineup stayed together until about 1936. The photo above is from the Ink Spot Evolution – George Holmes’ Ink Spots group lineup number 5.
After that – the history is tangled and amazing. Over time there were over 300 members of some variation of The Ink Spots. One of the more famous members, Bill Kenny replaced Jerry Daniels from the original group. The Ink Spots were signed by Decca records and recorded many sides – and with the advent of the national record charts in 1940 – scored their first big hit with “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano” b/w “What Can I Do”. This record rose to number 4 on the charts. The lineup above with Kenny remained in tact for the most part during their early charting days.
Enter George Holmes
Many accuse the various groups of Ink Spots as being “impostors”. But in reality – many had some links to other Ink Spot groups and many were fine performers. In all – there were about 190 groups called “The Ink Spots.” Just visit the Evolution web site and plan to spend some time there.
For the George Holmes “Band Box” lineup – we turn to Blog author and Ink Spot expert Casey Austin who states that the lineup was Denver’s own Joel Cowan, Louis “Lew” Young, George Holmes, Jim Watson and “Rags” Ragsdale. This corresponds to the signatures on a copy of their LP reported by a site visitor as “George Holmes, Jim Wat?, Lew Young, ‘Rags’ Ragsdale, and J? Cowan”. (Shown below left-to-right are Joel Cowan, Louis “Lew” Young & Jim Watson. Bottom L to R: Herman McCoy and George Holmes)
The Ink Spot “likeness” on the Band Box LP cover very nearly is a replication of a promotional photo of the same line-up – an image which I am attempting to purchase for display.
Cowan and Watson released an LP on the Band Box subsidiary label “Spicy” which is listed and illustrated on this site. Two versions of that LP were put out. Joel Cowan appeared locally back in the 1960’s as a “bawdy” duo at Denver’s “Tropics” night club. This would probably parallel the arrival of the Ink Spot lineup that entered into the Band Box studio in about 1961 or 1962.
A local musician from a progressive Denver rock group – “Umbra”, Steve Faulkner, was a good friend and co-worker with Cowan at Simmons Music store in Denver during the 1970’s. And Faulkner does recall Cowan telling him about performing with a lineup of Ink Spots here in Denver.
Cowan attended college in the 1940’s in Columbia, South Carolina meeting up with Wilbert Allen “Al” Russell and the two began playing together in a band. They would reunite more than once – and played together in the mid 1940’s appearing in Los Angeles in the 1950’s and play out west as The Al “Stomps” Russell Trio.
George’s Holmes’ connection with the past included performing with original members Deek Watson and Charlie Fuqua. George passed away in the 1990’s but the group carried on approaching the 21st Century. The photo on the left depicts a slightly later line-up than the one most likely to have recorded on Band Box.
The lead singer for the Orioles – Sonny Til, (“Crying in the Chapel”, “It’s Too Soon to Know”, and “Tell Me So”) was a member for a time with the George Holmes’ Ink Spots as well – in the mid 1960’s and later again in 1976. Sonny was not a member of the group when they released their Band Box LP. How they came to land on the Band Box label is unknown. They released no Band Box singles. The session is quite a mystery for there are no revealing liner notes on this LP – but a fun mystery just the same!
Band Box family member Terri Hale (granddaughter of founder Vicky Morosan) vaguely did recall hearing about the Ink Spots when they were in Denver, as did Saints guitarist Dave Barhite. He remembers seeing the group in the Denver area most likely at a night club around the time they release their Band Box LP.
And we learn below from Cowan’s daughter, Judy, that George Holmes were related either by blood or as in-laws with Holmes being an uncle to Judy.
From Interview with Denver drummer Steve Faulkner from 1960’s band Umbra:
Steve’s journeys through the local music scene put him in touch with Joel Cowan a local jazz musician who worked with the likes of Nat King Cole, The Ink Spots and Patti Page. Cowan would join up with Chicago musician on Denver’s Band Box group releasing a LP on the Spicy Label titled “Party Time” (shown below). Cowan and Faulkner would become good friends and worked together for a time Simmon’s Music on Broadway in downtown Denver.
Comment on March 15th, 2016: From PMJ:
“I lived in Denver as a young man (1964-65) and took bass guitar lessons at a music store on South Broadway. Mr Cowan was my teacher. Saturday mornings, 9am! I knew NOTHING except I really wanted to learn the bass. He was very mellow, extremely patient. Told me he had played with the Ink Spots, which meant nothing to me at the time I am embarrassed to admit. He would show me a run on the bass, then pick up his guitar and play along. I was mesmerized. And each week he gently taught me a few more things. He made a huge impression that has stayed with me to this day. That I remember his name, can hear his voice and see his face 50 years later speaks volumes about him. A family tragedy meant I left Denver rather hurriedly and I didn’t even get to say goodbye.
Finding this site and info about him all these years later is both amazing and strangely comforting. Thank you.”
Comments in October, 2016 from Ink Spot Historian Austin Casey:
“I’m always doing research so I’m sure there’s a lot more I’ll learn about George Holmes, but I thought you’d be interested to know that he was born in Denver. That probably explains the Band Box LP. Just thought you’d like to know. I’ll let you know if I find out more info relevant to your webpage.”
Comment from Joel Cowan’s Daughter Judy Cowan Thomas – April, 2017:
“I am George Holmes Niece and Joel Cowan Daughter yes I have many memories of them practicing in our Living room I still have material and instruments of my fathers Uncle George was not born in Denver but was born in .Colorado so Talented was my family I have pictures of my father with Nat King Cole I loved them deeply….”
Comment from Joel Cowan’s Son -April, 2017:
“That was my dad and everybody calls me Joel Jr. I’m a saxophone player my daddy got me started on guitar when I was about four years old but I switched to the Reed instruments.
He got me a clarinet when I was six and I moved going to the Reed instruments after that. My favorite is the baritone sax which I still play to this day.
When you talk about the Tropics, my dad on that club when I was little he used to take me to five points where he played which is responsible for me getting into the Navy Band.
I played my first gig with him at Fitzsimons Officer’s Club. I played Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on my clarinet. When the spotlights hit me I knew what I was going to do with the rest of my life. One more thing, he was one of the first black musicians to play in Japan.
I miss my dad very much to this day.
PS: I forgot one last thing for you good people my dad also played with Nat King Cole when he had a trio.”
November 2017 – Information from Charlie Burrell Biography: (Denver Musician)
“We moved into this place (in East Denver) called The Band Box Lounge. I took my trio in there with a songstress named Helen Stuart. The trio comprised of a piano player named “Rags” Leon Ragsdale, a good piano player and a swinger. And he was a little alky. that was alright – I kept him in line, I nurtured him. I picked him up and delivered him home from the job for a couple of years.”
And then he goes on to say that he (Burrell) worked with Rags at another lounge in downtown Denver called the Piano Lounge which was owned by the Finer Arts label owner Morey Bernstein – another Denver character who is very hard to locate information on. They were rounded out in that trio with a drummer who also “tapped danced” named Curly Russell.
Burrell: “We moved into this place (in East Denver) called The Band Box Lounge. I took my trio in there with a songstress named Helen Stuart. The trio comprised of a piano player named ‘Rags’ Leon Ragsdale, a good piano player and a swinger. And he was a little alky. that was alright – I kept him in line, I nurtured him. I picked him up and delivered him home from the job for a couple of years.”
Update: From Lisa Wheeler – December, 2017: “I recently obtained a copy of the Band Box album and flipped it over and saw four autographs. I wanted to make sure you had this as it pretty much confirms the lineup. There are four autographs and of course five members. The signatures are: George Holmes. Joel Cowan, Lloyd Washington, and John Pettit
(Note: is not signed by Lee Young, or Rags Ragsdale).
And this from Austin Casey regarding this grouping of Denver Ink Spots – December, 2017: “Lloyd Washington was a lead tenor from Louisiana that Chas Fuqua hired when he took his group (including George Holmes) to Australia in 1963. Washington sang with a few other groups over the years too. Here’s a photo of Washington with a Holmes group. Not sure of the years… I can do more research when I get home and look for Pettit. I’m familiar with the name for sure. In this photo Holmes is far right and Washington is 2nd from left. “
Austin Casey provided these items January, 2018 relating to the Denver-related Ink Spots:
This is Denver’s Leon “Rags” Ragsdale playing in Butte Montana way back in 1957
And this is also 1957 in Butte with Leon Ragsdale joining up with fellow Denverite and Band Box Ink Spot Joel Cowan with his “Brown Notes” – Paul Dennis and Jimmy Robinson.
This is also 1957 but this time performing solo in Great Falls, Montana:
Here’s Joel Cowan once again working as part of the Al “Stomp” Russell Trio in an ad for excelsior records – Al Russell top and William “Doc Basso” Joseph on bass fiddle (right)
The Russell Trio in San Diego, California
Band Box 1002 – Yesterday and Today
Joel Cowan’s Ebony Five/ Joel Cowan and Dale Smith
Cowan’s Ebony Five included famed Denver drummer Shelley Rhym who fronted his own groups and was very much connected with national musicians such as Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan. Another member was Charlie Burrell on stand up bass – Burrell is being inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame by virtue of his jazz playing but also as a result of his barrier breaking position as the first “contracted” black musician in the U.S. on a major symphony (in this case both The Denver Symphony and then the San Francisco Symphony.
45 – Jade 100 – Guitar Boogie b/w Cabaret
The Real McCoys
This was George Holmes with Jim Watson and Joel Cowan
45 – Pico 523 – “Gonna Take a Chance” b/w “I Must Forget About You”
Following images come from “YouTube” regarding the possible participation of a “Rags” Ragsdale on this session. The “Colorado Club” appears to have been a Mack, Colorado restaurant which is now closed. Mack, Colorado is located on Colorado’s Western Slope – west of Fruita, Colorado along the I-70 corridor.
“Rags Ragsdale had one of the most distinctive voices ever heard on the Western Slope. He had country, bluegrass, and gospel roots. He was a great entertainer and songwriter. I had the pleasure of knowing Rags for many years, and worked and visited with him often just before he passed. He is a legend around these parts.”
“January 23, 2000, dozens of musicians converged in Mack, Colorado at the Colorado Club for a musicians party. This is a small portion of that jam session with the Hall-Of-Famers: Rags Ragsdale, Jake Smith, Keith Fowler, Kenny Decker, and Ron Church.”