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Grady & Hazel Cole & The Little Tramp
IN 1877 WHITE, SMITH & COMPANY OF BOSTON published in sheet music form a song entitled Only A Tramp! that was composed by Dr. Addison D. Crabtre. The first verse of the song tells about a night watchman finding, dead on the street, a tramp who, according to a coroner, had died of starvation. In typical Victorian fashion, the composer waxes didactic in the second verse and asks the listener, "If Jesus was here and asked at your door/A place to rest in, and food from your store/As once he thus wander'd with poverty's stamp/Would you turn Him away as only a tramp?" The chorus tells us that
He's somebody's darling, somebody's son,
One suspects that the late gospel singer and songwriter Grady Cole was familiar with Dr. Crabtre's song. Dorothy Horstman, in her book, Sing Your Heart Out Country Boy, states that Cole's composition, The Tramp On The Street, was "patterned after" Crabtre's song. The title and chorus of the country gospel classic,which was made famous by Cole during the late 1930s and 1940s, bear a strong resemblance to the earlier song. The only substantive difference between Cole's chorus and Crabtre's chorus occurs in the last line, in which Cole writes, "He was left there to die like a tramp on the street."
Although Cole may have been inspired by Crabtre's composition, he took the idea and made it into a quite different song. Instead of the anonymous tramp in Crabtre's first verse, Cole, in his first verse speaks of the Biblical Lazarus who was left to "die like a tramp on the street." Cole's second verse summarizes the death of Jesus on the cross and concludes with the statement that he, too, was left to "die like a tramp on the street." Cole's third verse closely parallels the last half of Crabtre's second verse by asking the listener how he would respond if Jesus should "come and knock on your door and ask you to give the crumbs from your floor."
Cole concludes his song with a second chorus that refers to Jesus as "King of the Jews" and names Mary as the mother who "rocked her darling to sleep."
The Tramp On the Street was first recorded by Grady Cole and his wife Hazel in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1939 for RCA Victor. It was released as Bluebird 8262. It has since appeared on records by more than twenty artists, including such diverse stylists as Molly O'Day, Joan Baez, The Lewis Family, Rose Maddox, Patsy Montana, Peter, Paul and Mary; the Sego Brothers and Naomi, the Staple Singers, and Hank Williams.
One of the best known recordings was the one by Molly O'Day. According to country music historians Ivan Tribe and John Morris, O'Day learned the song from Hank Williams. Tribe and Morris also state that virtually all later recorded versions seem related to the O'Day rendition,which is sung to a different tune from that of the Coles.
Grady Cole was born on August 26,1909, near LaFayette, a northwest Georgia town with a population at the time of about 1500. After graduating from high school at nearby Trion, he moved to Rome, Georgia, where he worked in a textile mill for a living and studied and performed music as a hobby and second source of income. One of Cole's co-workers at the textile mill was a young lady named Hazel Key, who had been born and reared in Blue Ridge, Georgia. Cole and Key were married on August 18, 1930.
By the time Cole was married, he had taught himself music theory and how to play the guitar. In 1925, at the age of 16, he wrote the first of the more than 500 songs that he would compose during his lifetime. Cole once wrote that most of his early songs were "gospel hymns" and that many of them were published in gospel song books.
Upon her marriage, Hazel Cole became not only a wife but also her husband's singing partner as well. She also learned to play bass fiddle to help fill out the instrumental accompaniment to their harmonizing. At first they sang together for their own pleasure and to entertain their friends. Hazel once recalled that on summer evenings while singing on the front porch of their home in Rome, they attracted large audiences from among their friends and neighbors. Even then a large percentage of the Coles' repertoire consisted of songs that Grady had written.
In 1934, according to Grady, he and Hazel "began their career in music in a big way." This was the year they started singing on radio station WRGA in Rome. Grady once wrote in one of the several song books he compiled that he and Hazel featured their "own songs on the air and soon became WRGA's most popular artists." Their program was billed as the WRGA Studio Revue. Grady wrote that they "worked just about every school auditorium, theater, church, and club house, with return engagements, within a radius of 100 miles around."
The Coles made their recording debut in 1939 with RCA Victor. Twenty-five of their songs were recorded for the Bluebird label. They included the gospel songs, I'm on My Way to a Holy Land, You Can Be a Millionaire with Me, The Tramp on the Street, and such secular songs as What a Change One Day Can Make and Shattered Love. According to their son, Jack, the Coles' second and last recording session took place around 1950 for the Gilt Edge label. He says that among the songs recorded at that time were There'll Never Be Another Like Jesus, l'11 Take the Bible, I'll Follow Jesus All the Way, and I'm Getting Ready for Heaven.
In the early Forties the Coles moved from Rome to Atlanta, where their lifestyle was a continuation of what it had been in Rome. They worked in a textile mill, sang on the radio, and made personal appearances. Their radio home in Atlanta was WGST. The station's managers once stated that the Cole family drew "more fan mail than any other group ever featured over this station over such a period of time." By this time the second of their two children, Jackie, who was born in 1933, was part of their act. (Their older son, Billy, did not take part in his parents' music career.) In addition to singing trio numbers with his parents, Jackie sang solos suitable to his age and endeared himself to a public that found performances by talented children irresistible. During his teen years, Jackie sang lead in the trio to Hazel's alto and Grady's baritone.
During their career the Coles sang on radio stations in Gadsend, Alabama; Dalton, Georgia; Nashville, Tennessee; and Knoxville, Tennessee. In Knoxville in the mid-Forties the Coles were hired by Lowell Blanchard to appear on the Tennessee Barn Dance and on a daily program heard on WNOX. The Coles were heard by means of transcriptions on many other stations. At one time, according to Grady, one of their transcribed shows was heard on 73 stations. They also appeared with Lost John and his Allied Kentuckians on a transcribed program that reportedly was carried by more than 144 radio stations.
In the late 40s Grady and Hazel Cole returned to Georgia and set up residence in East Point, a suburb on Atlanta's south side. They became involved in church and evangelistic work and for a while sang with a local evangelist who conducted street meetings and preached from court house squares on Saturday afternoons in the small towns surrounding Atlanta.
Jackie stopped performing with his parents around 1951. In 1957 he was called to the Baptist ministry where he has since served. He has pastored churches in north Georgia and Tennessee.
Grady and Hazel stopped performing in the early 1950s. Hazel took a job in an Atlanta textile mill and later became a welfare caseworker with Economic Opportunity Atlanta. Grady continued to teach music and write songs. Jack states that at least 75 percent of his father's compositions were based on gospel themes. He says that Grady was deeply concerned about spiritual things and was inspired by the regret that he had not pleased the Lord. "Everything had to be quiet when he was writing songs," Jack says. "He had to get in a place all by himself. He would spend hours writing songs. He had perfect pitch and was very sensitive to a foul note." Hazel, too, recalls her husband's dedication to his music. "He wrote every day," she once told a newspaper reporter. "That's all he would do. It was his life."
Grady Cole died in 1981. Since her husband's death, Hazel has lived at various times near one or the other of her sons in north Georgia.
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