Biography by Patrick Towell
Y.Z. Hamilton. Until now, a name that has been like dust on the Bible. One of Alabama's hottest fiddlers of the 20s and 30s, Y.Z. was truly a master of the fiddle. His untimely death in 1936 was a major blow to his legacy, though it was faintly kept alive in the memories of those that had a chance to see and hear him play, remembering his virtuosity, humour, and status as Alabama's champion fiddler.
Thanks to Alabama author, historian, and Old Time musician Joyce Cauthen, some of the folks that retained his memory were interviewed, and then written down, to form the first solid biography of Y.Z., which can be found in her book ''With Fiddle And Well Rosined Bow: A History Of Old-Time Fiddling In Alabama. This crucial resource contains the A to Y.Z. on Alabama fiddling, and documents a wealth of 20th century Alabama fiddlers, including Charlie Stripling, and Joe Lee, the man from whom Lowe Stokes learned the characteristics of his distinctive fiddling.
According to State records, Y.Z. was born on November 28, 1888, in Clay County Alabama, to Dr. Cicero J. and Sallie Hamilton. Little is known about Y.Z.'s early years. The Hamiltons had relocated to Anniston by 1900, and are documented in the Federal Census as living in Ward.
In 1910, Y.Z. was living in Gadsden, making his living as a theatre musician, and boarding with some pipe moulders. He eventually became a moulder himself, working at shops in Birmingham, Gadsden, and Holt. Soon after he married Mollie Tucker, and they had 4 children; Sadie, Y.Z. Jr, Billy Joe, and James. During the 1st World War, Y.Z. had filled out a draft card, and was listed as having 4 fingers cut off, which is evident in one of 3 photos of him. It didn't affect him musically, as he was also skilled at playing the guitar, and Ragtime on the piano. Later in life, Y.Z. owned a false hand, most likely for going out in public, and for photos.
On September 11, 1920, Y.Z. placed second to Henry Ford, of McFall Alabama, in a fiddler's contest held at the Lyric Theater in Anniston. Five years later, he would take first prize at a Birmingham Convention, sponsored by the Nathan Bedford Forrest Klan. He defeated Georgia's own Earl Johnson and Ahaz Gray that day, and was soon after referred to by many of his peers, fiddlin' convention attendees, and newspapers as Alabama's Champion Fiddler. During his lifetime, Y.Z. was twice crowned All-Southern Champion. Many competed against him, and lost. Two of his tunes, "50 Years Ago Waltz" and "Special Breakdown" were forever cemented in the minds of those that heard him play.
In January of 1927, Y.Z. traveled to Chicago to record his two most famous tunes, which were released on Paramount 33186/Herwin 75542. In July and August of that year, he was recording once again, this time for Gennett Records, at their field studio in Birmingham. His accompanying group was dubbed ''Hamilton's Harmonian's'' by the label, and consisted of Frank Nichols on second fiddle. Art Frazier on tenor banjo and backing vocals, and U.S. Representative Luther Patrick on guitar. Most of the sides from this summer session were rejected by the company. Thankfully, out of the 11 sides, 4 were issued, including Old Sefus Brown, which features Y.Z. singing the lead vocals, Because He Was Only A Tramp, with Art Frazier taking the lead, and two of Luther Patrick's country poems, read by Luther himself, and backed by Y.Z., with Frank Nichols on guitar. The two poems were ''Cornbread'', and ''Grandfather's Liver Ain't What It Used To Was''.
By the early-mid thirties, Y.Z. was living in Holt, working for the Central Foundry as a moulder. He made money on the side, playing in a group called Uncle Bud & His Boll Weevils. The group was popular in Anniston, Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, playing on the radio, at local fiddlers conventions, theaters, and dances. Y.Z. was the highlight of the group, and had his own solo act, both fiddling and enacting a humorous portrayal of an old, simple bumpkin. In 1934, The Boll Weevils placed 1st in the Band Category at the Georgia Old Time Fiddlers Convention.
1936 found Y.Z. and his family back in Birmingham, at 4245 Second Ave South, he was listed in the directory as a musician. On the afternoon of Sunday, June 28, Y.Z. was crossing the intersection of 2nd Ave South and 41st St South when he was struck by Hubert Ingram. He was thrown 74 feet, and suffered a fractured skull. He was taken to the Hillman Hospital in Birmingham, where he died the following day, at the Hillman Hospital in Birmingham. He was buried in an unmarked grave at the Union Hill Cemetery, in Lipscomb.
Y.Z. Hamilton can be heard on the CD Alabama Stringbands 1924-1937 (Document Records DOCD 8032)