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The Fiddler Tommy Malboeuf

Posted by brooklynbanjoboy on Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Good Morning.  I hope that 2021 is treating you right so far. 


While I was working on the manuscript about Jim Scancarelli, I ended up chasing leads about his fiddling partner in the band "Sanitary Cafe," Tommy Malboeuf.


After word about my forthcoming book about Jim Scancarelli got around - now in the hands of the publisher, with an expected date of publication late this year - I was asked to do a 2000 word essay for Fiddler Magazine about Tommy, and a 7000 word essay for Old Time Herald - still in the works.  


But then, several former students, fellow musicians, old friends - and Jim Scancarelli - just seemed to have so much more to say about Tommy, and that convinced me to try to develop a book-length writing project on Tommy. 


So, I'm wondering whether there are any old-time musicians or bluegrassers out there in Facebook land who might be able to help me.


I thought it might help to start with what I know about Tommy, and then to lay out what I don't know, what I'd like to know. 




Thomas "Tommy" Owen Malboeuf (1933 - 2014) was adopted as an infant by Carl and Jean Malbouef.  Jim Scancarelli recalled that Tommy's biological father was a guitar picker named Bill Hendricks. 


Tommy attended high school in Troutman, North Carolina, and enlisted in the Navy in the early 1950's, right out of high school.  He married 16-year old Bonnie Lamberth in 1952.


He served aboard the USS Intrepid and the USS Bairoko.  As a Seaman in 1954, he participated in Operation Castle - the atomic tests at Eniwetok Proving Ground in the Marshall Islands conducted by the Army, Navy, Air Force, and the Atomic Energy Commission.


His enlistment ended in the late 1950s.  After his time in uniform, Tommy found intermittent employment surveying and operating heavy equipment, but for the most part he made his way by getting paid for fiddling, performing and recording with various bands, and fiddling on cuts on commercial recordings.


Tommy Malboeuf played fiddle with the Border Mountain Boys and recorded the LP "Bluegrass on the Mountain" with them in 1969.


In the early 1970s, Tommy was the fiddle player with A.L. Wood's band, the Smokey Ridge Boys.


Jim Scancarelli, who met Tommy in the mid-1960s at Union Grove, formed the bluegrass band called Sanitary Cafe in the late 1980s.  They recorded one CD in 1991. 


Tommy recorded "Twin Fiddles" on Jim Scancarelli's label, Old Oblivion, in 1996. 


Tommy also recorded "Leprechaun."  Tommy Malboeuf, TM-10055.  Recorded by Dewey Farmer, Kannapolis, North Carolina.  No date.


Tommy later recorded on the Old Oblivion label a product called "Tommy Malboeuf: Orange Blossom Special."  He used the sixth "Old Oblivion" product number (OO-6) that was assigned to the project originated by the musician Thom Case, but the recording work was never completed.  Actually, Jim did not know that until 2020 when I found a copy of the recording and brought it to his attention. 


Sometime in the early 1990s Jim Scancarelli borrowed a video camera and hauled it to Tommy's place in Troutman, North Carolina, where Jim shot an instructional video of Tommy playing 18 tunes, including several Tommy had written himself.  That video was never produced commercially.  Tommy's son David sent me a digital copy of the video. 






I'm not exactly sure where and when Tommy learned to fiddle.  The one son of Tommy's with whom I am in contact did not have a specific memory of that fact either.  


At least one photo suggested that he played bass fiddle while in the USN.  I don't have a date or place for that photo, but it was probably from the late 1950s. 


Photos in that series, possibly taken with a video camera during his USN days, suggest he knew how to play banjo, too. 


Did he play banjo?  And did he play guitar?  One musician said TM, in the early 1970s, taught him how to back up a fiddler on guitar.


Tommy in the late 1950s played fiddle with folks in and around Statesville, North Carolina in those days. 


Any recollections about his music making buddies in those days, or his bands?     


Did you ever hear of a band called The Leonards, out of Galax, VA, or nearby?  Jim seemed to think that Tommy may have played with them. 


When Tommy played fiddle in various bands , did he have a day job and do you happen to know what it was?  You confirmed he worked with A.L. Wood on survey projects.  Did he ever sell insurance? 


Some people, including at least two former students, describe Tommy as a bluegrass fiddler, but Jim Scancarelli makes clear he was equally at home with old-time fiddle tunes. 


Do you remember any elder fiddlers to whom he was drawn?  Whose music he emulated? 


Do you recall any specific tunes that Tommy reached for on the fiddle that were his favorites? 


Now, I have been a banjo player since the 1960s - or, perhaps more accurately, I've been a guy whose owned several banjos, and who can take the thing out of the case without injuring myself - I'm no musician, but I play some.  Clawhammer mostly.  Last year, I started trying to learn fiddle.


In short, I'm not a musician, but I need to ask:


how would you describe Tommy's fiddle style, or his technique?  Was he rough or polished, conventional in the way he held the bow, or undisciplined?  Was he a careful fiddler, or was he just someone who ripped music from the fiddle any which way? 


He seemed drawn to waltzes, and he seemed - as Jim Scancarelli observed - happy playing twin fiddles.  He seemed also to enjoy playing fiddle harmony as much as melody lead.  Does any of that ring true to you?


Tommy, Jim said, played with the fury of Scotty Stoneman.  He had power, and he was creative, especially in the fiddle backup work he did.  He could play a 3/4 tune on his fiddle and make it sound as though an orchestra was playing it. 


Was he an improviser or did he stick with the conventional melodic core of tunes.


Now, I may be asking the wrong questions, so I'd appreciate any help you can give me on this.  If you think of something I should know, that I've not asked about, I'd appreciate the help!


And I thank you kindly for your attention. 


I've talked to A.L. Wood, Ruth Wheery, Leon Marlowe, and through cutouts I've communicated with Dewey Farmer and Ronnie Miller.  Still hunting for more names.  If you happen to think of others with whom I should speak, I'd be glad for that info. 


Stay well.  Make great music. 


Very Respectfully, 


Lew Stern


3 comments on “The Fiddler Tommy Malboeuf”

SingnStrings Says:
Saturday, August 28, 2021 @9:04:27 AM

I knew "Red" Tommy and learned to play fiddle from him. I first met Red at a flea market in Lexington, N.C.. For many years, he used to come to the Cook Shack restaurant, owned by Miles and Pal Ireland in Union Grove, NC every Sat. a.m. where musicians would meet and take turns playing favorite tunes. Some of Red's favorites were Jerusalem Ridge, Kentucky Waltz (which I would play with him), Dusty Miller (I also loved to play that one), Wheel Horse, and others that his best pal Kenny Baker would play. I had the distinct honor and pleasure of meeting and playing fiddle with Red and Jim Scancarelli at Red's home during the making of Red's instructional video. What a blast! Red had a one-of-a-kind style and could improvise with the best of them. He was best known for his sliding, double stop notes that made it sound like there were two fiddles playing harmony. His original pieces, written in his head and then recorded, were brilliant. There was at least one musician (possibly Dewey Farmer, or someone in Union Grove who also recorded his music named Clay Lunsford or J.P. VanHoy) who actually used computer programming to print out what Red was playing on one of his original songs -- They were blown away by the composition! Wouldn't we all love to see and hear this? Red asked me to record several songs on his "Orange Blossom Special" CD that was recorded in Union Grove. I consider myself so blessed to have known Red, and I truly miss those Saturday mornings! @SingnStrings

brooklynbanjoboy Says:
Saturday, August 28, 2021 @4:00:39 PM

Stephanie. Thanks for your helpful, interesting comments/recollections about Tommy Malboeuf. I wonder whether you'd care to share any details of your lessons with Tommy - tunes taught, how he approached teaching students, etc? I'd be very interested. Take care, stay well. Lew Stern

brooklynbanjoboy Says:
Tuesday, August 31, 2021 @3:37:34 AM

Thanks, Samuel.

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