Illustration by Gary Price
Edward Otha South was born in Louisiana, Missouri, on November 27, 1904. His family relocated to Chicago while Eddie was a child, and there his prodigious musical ability was discovered and encouraged. He received classical instruction on the violin, first with a private tutor and later at the Chicago College of Music as a pupil of Russian-born violinist Petrowitsch Bissing.
Despite his mastery of the classical repertoire for the violin, Eddie South realized that, as a black man, he would not be accorded due recognition for his virtuosic talent. Luckily, his exceptional musicianship was more than welcome in vaudeville, in jazz, and in what used to be called “light classics.” He toured vaudeville with cornetist Freddie Keppard and violinist Juice Wilson. He worked with Charles Elgar’s Creole Orchestra, and from 1923 until 1927 directed Jimmy Wade’s band. In 1927 he was first violinist in Erskine Tate’s sixteen-piece theater orchestra.
1927 was also the year that South formed and recorded with the Alabamians, so-named from Chicago’s Club Alabam where the band was based. Eddie’s music already had an exotic and sophisticated flair, as his first sessions produced hot jazz versions of “La Rosita” and “Waters of Minnetonka.” A tour of Europe from 1928 through 1931 gave South exposure to Hungarian and Roma (Gypsy) music; upon his return to the States, his first record was a hot
arrangement of the Jenő Hubay piece “Hejre Kati,” which became his signature tune. He recorded sporadically for Victor, but made a series of 16 radio transcriptions in Los Angeles for Cheloni-Skin Rejuvenator. (The whole series has amazingly survived and has been issued as a 3-CD set on Jazz Oracle.)
Much of Eddie South’s music prefigures the Hot Club of France sound. It’s no coincidence that his 1937 Paris sessions with Django Reinhardt, Stéphane Grappelli, and Michel Warlop remain his most highly regarded jazz recordings. An additional series of radio transcriptions from 1944 display his stunning mastery of jazz violin.
Eddie South continued to perform and record into the 1950s, and died on April 25, 1962. In the view of biographer Anthony Barnett, Eddie South’s “reputation rests secure in any genre as the greatest of all formally-educated Black violinists of the first half of the twentieth century—and beyond.” —Andy Senior
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