By 1937, the banjo boom of the 1920s was a distant memory. The tenor banjo was being supplanted by the guitar in the popular music of the day, and this trend combined with the onset of the Great Depression had caused banjo sales to decline sharply.
Gibson’s response was to dramatically overhaul its banjo line. All existing Mastertone models were discontinued with the exception of style 3, which was reduced in price from $100 to $75 and renamed style 75. The other Mastertones were replaced by the new top-tension models, trumpeted in the 1937 Gibson catalog as “the alarm clock that is going to wake up new possibilities in banjo playing”.
The top-tensions were innovative in a number of ways. The most obvious was their namesake head-tightening design; players no longer had to remove the resonator to make the frequent tension adjustments necessitated by calfskin heads, since the brackets were adjusted from the top of the pot rather than the bottom. Top-tensions also featured distinctive resonators which were flat on the inside but carved with a pronounced hump on the back. Other features of these radical new banjos were an easily adjustable armrest which could quickly be moved out of the way for head adjustment, radiused fingerboards, and bold Art Deco looks with large, geometric inlay patterns and a more guitarlike peghead shape. For present-day players, one of the most important features of these top-tensions is the fact that they were the only prewar Gibson banjos on which flathead tone rings were standard regardless of neck configuration.
This is a rare original five-string top-tension Mastertone, and is actually a combination of parts from all three top-tension models. As banjo production tapered off, it was not unusual for banjos to be assembled out of parts that happened to be on hand at the factory, even if they were mismatched. The pot of this banjo is walnut and conforms to style 12 specifications; the maple neck with slashed bowtie inlays would typically be seen on an RB-7 (style 7 banjos are seen with both a bowtie-motif peghead inlay and the fleur-de-lis peghead inlay seen here). The armrest is the engraved type found on style 18 banjos, but is not gold-plated.
Owner Craig Korth relates the history of this instrument:
“The banjo was ordered through a furniture store in Galax, Virginia in 1941. . . It was then purchased by a fellow who owned it until 1971. It went through a couple of owners until Sonny Osborne acquired it. In 1984 Sammy Shelor bought the banjo from Sonny and it was his main instrument for 17 years, when I purchased it. This information was given to me by Sammy, and he said he played on over 40 albums. . . the tuners have been changed.
I play in a bluegrass band and I’m surprised at how many people recognize the banjo as having been Sammy’s. It is a wonderful sounding instrument with a very rich, clear tone. I played at a festival this weekend and Ben Eldridge from the Seldom Scene said the banjo has a very distinct, unique sound. I feel very fortunate to be able to play it and have fallen in love with it.”
AUGUST 2008 UPDATE: Ken Landreth has provided a more detailed history of this banjo:
Earl Smith bought Gibson RB-12 with neck #E2791-3 and pot #651-3 at Porter’s Furniture Store in Galax, Virginia. (Porter’s Furniture Store was on Main Street and I think the Stringbean Coffee Shop is now in that location). Porter’s Furniture was a Gibson and Martin dealer all the way up to its demise in the early 70s. This photo was taken at WAIR radio station in Winston-Salem in the mid-1940s (best guess by relatives is 1948) and the other folks in the photo are all from the Galax area: Earl Smith (banjo), Everett ‘Buck’ Lundy (fiddle), Kelly Lundy (bass), Virgil Cummings (guitar on left), and Oscar Vaughn (guitar on right). The Lundy brothers were sons of Emmett Lundy, a fiddler well documented by Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress. Sometime around 1950, this banjo was returned to Porter’s Furniture for reasons no one knows…Smith continued to play banjo around Galax, but used less expensive instruments which suggests that there may have been fiscal reasons for return of the instrument, but that is pure speculation. The banjo was sold a second time by Porter Furniture Company in the early 1950s, this time to Stuart Carrico of Fries, VA. Carrico kept the banjo until Wayne Henderson bought/traded for it on behalf of George Gruhn…and you know the rest of the story. I have a recording of about twenty tunes of Carrico when he owned the banjo–he was a strong clawhammer player–but none have surfaced of Earl Smith yet. This was also the banjo that Raymond Swinney used (borrowed) during the 1950s when he recorded the two sides with Glen Neaves and the Grayson County Boys. Raymond Swinney was the person who taught both Larry Richardson and Ted Lundy to play three-finger banjo.
This photo came from Katherine Cummings Wilson, a daughter of Virgil Cummings who lives in Woodlawn, Virginia. There is one other copy of the photo in better shape in the possession of Earl Smith’s daughter (Martha Murray of Baywood, Virginia).
Photos courtesy of Craig Korth and Ken Landreth.