ARTISTSONGALBUM
Robert Johnson Come On In My KitchenThe Centennial Collection
Robert Johnson Ramblin' On My MindThe Centennial Collection
Manny NicholsForgive MeRural Blues Vol. 1
Nathaniel TerryI Don't Know WhyRural Blues Vol. 1
Lightnin' Hopkins & Thunder SmithCan't Do Like You Used To Rural Blues Vol. 1
Bukka White Black Crepe BluesBig Daddy
Bukka White Gibson Hill Big Daddy
Lafayette "Thing" ThomasI Had A DreamOakland Blues
L.C. RobinsonTrain Time BluesOakland Blues
Dave Alexander Love Is Just For Fools Oakland Blues
Joe Willie Wilkins It's Too Bad45
Coy “Hot Shot” WilliamsFreight Train Blues45
Jimmy DeBerry & Walter HortonHard Hearted WomanEasy
Jimmy DeBerry & Walter HortonEverybody's Fishin'Back
Shakey Jake People, PeopleFurther On Up The Road
Sunnyland SlimPut Me In The Alley Slim's Got His Thing Goin' On
Country JimPhillipine BluesRural Blues Vol. 2,
Bill "Boogie Bill" WebbLove Me MamaRural Blues Vol. 2,
Papa George Lightfoot Wine, Women, WhiskeyRural Blues Vol. 2,
Sonny Boy NelsonPony Blues Memphis Blues Caravan Vol I
Furry LewisBlues , "Mother" StoryMemphis Blues Caravan Vol I
Houston StackhouseCrying Won't Help YouTreasury of Field Recordings Vol. 1
Papa George Lightfoot I Heard Somebody CryingGoin' Back to the Natchez Trace
Papa George Lightfoot Goin' Down That Muddy RoadGoin' Back to the Natchez Trace
George “Harmonica” Smith West Helena WomanBlues With a Feeling
George “Harmonica” Smith Mellow Down EasyBlues With a Feeling
George “Harmonica” Smith Too LateBlues With a Feeling
Robert JohnsonFrom Four Until LateThe Centennial Collection
Robert JohnsonHell Hound On My TrailThe Centennial Collection

Show Notes:

Stephen C. LaVere & Willie Coffee, source: Blues & Rhythm 153
From Robert Mugge's film Hellhounds on my Trail

When I heard that Steve LaVere died I had mixed emotions. Like many in the blues community, LaVere's appropriation of Robert Johnson's estate and his litigious nature when it came to any unauthorized use of Johnson's image and music, left a bad taste in my mouth. On the other hand LaVere did devote his life to the music as a producer, researcher and promoter and I don't don't doubt his sincerity to the music. That should count for something. With that in mind today's show is not exactly a tribute but more a recognition of a lifetime spent devoted to the blues.

Stephen C. LaVere died Dec. 27th at the age of 72 in his home in Greenwood, Mississippi. For good or bad, LaVere will be forever linked to Robert Johnson. In the early 70's LaVere entered into a legal agreement with Johnson's half sister Carrie Thompson which transferred the rights to Johnson's photos, songs and other memorabilia to LaVere. Thompson received fifty percent and LaVere the other half. LaVere was given the two known photos of Johnson. A third photo was in the possession of researcher Mack McCormick who also passed away recently. LaVere was instrumental in Sony's Robert Johnson box set in 1990 which sold a million copies and making LaVere quite a bit of money as well as earning him a Grammy. Eventually, Claude Johnson, Johnson's son, was named sole heir. LaVere moved to Greenwood, MS in 2001 to open the Johnson inspired Greenwood Blues Heritage Museum and Gallery. LaVere's interest in blues goes back to the 1960' when he did reissues for Liberty Records including a pair of collections of Imperial Recordings that were influential. Later in the 60's he produced a series of excellent blues records with Pete Welding for World Pacific. In the late 60's also tracked down and recorded legendary harp man Papa George Lightfoot. LaVere also promoted local musicians, ran a record store in Memphis, photographed blues musicians, and wrote a number of liner notes and articles in various blues magazines. LaVere was one of the founders of the Memphis Blues Caravan tour in the 70's, and produced/recorded a number of Memphis musicians including Bukka White, Joe Willie Wilkins, Walter Horton and Jimmy DeBerry.  LaVere's business operations were run through his Delta Haze Corporation, which as the website states, "is engaged in the preservation and promotion of traditional American blues." Most recently LaVere contributed research and previously unseen photos to Bear Family's mammoth Sun Records box set.

Robert Johnson Box SetIt's ironic that Mack McCormick passed just about a month before LaVere. Both men's lives were shaped by Robert Johnson although that obsession led them down different paths. In 1972 as a Smithsonian field researcher, McCormick, who had been on Johnson’s trail for more than a decade, located Johnson’s two half-sisters and came away with not only photos of Johnson and members of his family but, reportedly, first publication rights as well. McCormick, who had a reputation as an inspired researcher and an excellent writer, had gone as far as to travel to Mississippi on the Rolling Store, a bus that had been converted into a canteen for sharecroppers—and, in a 1976 Rolling Stone piece, he told writer Peter Guralnick that he had even tracked down and interviewed Johnson’s killer. McCormick intended to write about this and other revelations in a book about Johnson that he had tentatively titled Biography of a Phantom. In 1977 McCormick's said the manuscript was 12 chapters and a 150,000 words. In a 2002 profile by Michael Hall in Texas Monthly, McCormick revealed that he suffers from crippling “manic-depressive illness,” and that he had abandoned his Johnson book. “It ain’t happening anymore,” he told Hall. “I lost interest.”

Robert Johnson did not leave a will when he died in 1938 at 27. He was destitute, but his estate later made millions. In 1990, Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings was finally released by Sony and eventually went gold. LaVere was listed as a producer, and the biographical essay published in the boxed set’s accompanying booklet carried his byline (LaVere also wrote the notes and produced the follow-up 2011 collection, The Complete Recordings: The Centennial Collection). When Mack McCormick heard about LaVere’s deal, he contacted Columbia and notified the label that his agreement with Johnson’s half-sisters preceded LaVere’s. Columbia put the anthology on hold for 15 years. In the mid 70's  LaVere had discovered, that Johnson's songs were not public domain, and any surviving family members were entitled to royalties. At the time, he could only find Robert's half sister, Carrie Thompson, who was living in Maryland. She agreed to hire LaVere as the agent for the Robert Johnson Estate. As Frank Digiacomo wrote in Vanity Fair: "It put a nice chunk of change in LaVere’s pocket, and it also cemented his status as the gatekeeper to all things Robert Johnson. In that role he soon became known for litigious ways." Eventually Johnson's estate was awarded to his son, Claude Johnson in 1998.

As for the man himself, Tony Russell wrote perceptively of Robert Johnson: "To see Johnson clearly the reader needs to steer a steady course between fanatics and debunkers, understanding the context of his music – the undeniable influence of [Son] House and Lonnie Johnson, his many allusions to records that were around him when he was learning his trade – but at the same time recognizing the skill with which he synthesized those elements, and the wholly individual character of much of his finished work. In particular, Johnson deserve to be acknowledged as the master of the complete blues: the song conceived as a dramatic whole rather than am arbitrary sequence of scenes, of verses casually pinned to a formulaic accompaniment. Th emotional architecture of a performance like 'Come On In My Kitchen', the tender erotic plea echoed by tremulous slide guitar, or of 'Hellhound On My Trail', a distraught, fragmented reconsideration of Skip James's 'Devil Got My Woman', the intricate interdependence of voice and guitar in 'Walkin' Blues' and 'Preachin' Blues' – all this attests to a concept of blues composition that was beyond the scope of many of Johnson's contemporaries."

Joe Willie Wilkins 45LaVere was employed in 1968 as reissue coordinator for the Liberty label. He produced the influential albums Rural Blues Vol. 1 & 2 which collected sides from the vaults of the New Orleans based Imperial label. These have since been reissued on CD by the BGO label. LaVere also produced records around this time for World Pacific. LaVere and Pete Welding produced a series of four albums  in the late 60's in a series entitled BLUESMAKERS for that label. Some of these have not been reissued on CD. The albums were Shakey Jake's Further On Up the Road, George “Harmonica” Smith's Blues With a Felling – A Tribute to Little Walter, Sunnyland Slim's Slim's Got His Thing Goin' On and the anthology Oakland Blues featuring sides by Lafayette Thomas, Dave Alexander and L.C. Robinson.

Thanks to a handful of terrific 1950's sides, the name of Papa Lightfoot was revered by 1960's blues enthusiasts. LaVere tracked him down in Natchez, MS cutting an album for Vault in 1969 (since reissued by the Ace label). His comeback was short-lived and he died in 1971. He cut sessions for Peacock in 1949 (unissued), Sultan in 1950, and Aladdin in 1952 preceded an amazing 1954 date for Imperial in New Orleans. His final pre-rediscovery sides were cut for Savoy in 1955.

LaVere lived in Memphis for a time and was involved in promoting and recording several musicians from the area including  producing Bukka White's last album, Big Daddy, in 1974 of which he was nominated for a Grammy, recording the first sides by Joe Willie Wilkins under his own name and  conceived the Memphis Blues Caravan, a traveling revue of blues veterans. The albums  Memphis Blues Caravan Vol I & II feature artists who performed in the revue. In 1973 LaVere’s Mimosa label released Wilkins’s first recordings under his own name, a 45, “It's Too Bad b/w Mr. Downchild.” A full-length album titled Joe Willie Wilkins & His King Biscuit Boys was released by Adamo that included some live performances and studio recordings. In 1976 Wilkins also played the Monterrey Jazz Festival and appeared in the BBC Television series The Devil’s Music: A History of the Blues. He passed March 28, 1979 in Memphis.

Coy "Hot Shot" Love got his one moment of glory in the recording studio on January 8, 1954, when he entered Sam Phillips' Sun Studios to record "Wolf Call Boogie" b/w "Harmonica Jam," backed by Mose Vinson at the piano, Pat Hare on guitar, Kenneth Banks on bass, and Houston Stokes on the drums. Love did cut one more 45 recorded  by George Paulus of Barrelhouse Records at LaVere's Record Shop in Memphis in mid August 1973. The songs are "Hot Shot Boogie, Foxchase Boogie b/w Freight Train Blues" issued as a 45 under the  Mr. Bo Weevil imprint.

In the 50's Jimmy DeBerry cut some sides with Walter Horton for Sun. In 1972 producer LaVere reunited DeBerry and Horton for sessions designed to recreate their earlier partnership. Two albums worth of material, Easy and Back were issued on the Crosscut label.

Related Articles

Steve LaVere Bibliography (excerpted from A Blues Bibliography Second Edition by Robert Ford)

LaVere, Steve. Papa George Lightfoot: Natchez Trace. USA: Vault LP 130, 1969

LaVere, Stephen C. “Alexander George: Papa Lightfoot!” Blues Unlimited no. 68 (Dec 1969): 12.

LaVere, Steve. “Schoolboy Cleve!” Blues Unlimited no. 69 (Jan 1970): 22.

Napier, Simon A.; LaVere, Steve; Curtiss, Lou.“Thomas Shaw.” Blues Unlimited no. 75 (Sep 1970): 14.

Leadbitter, Mike; LaVere, Steve. “Mike’s Blues: Papa Lightfoot.” Blues Unlimited no. 81 (Apr 1971): 18.

LaVere, Steve. The Memphis Blues Again. USA: Adelphi AD-1009-S, c1971

Eagle, Bob; LaVere, Steve. “Hard Working Woman: Mississippi Matilda: Matilda Witherspoon.” Living Blues no. 8 (Spring 1972): 7.

LaVere, Steve. “Papa Lightfoot.” Living Blues no. 13 (Summer 1973): 6.

LaVere, Steve. “Memphis Minnie.” Blues-Link no. 2 (Oct/Nov 1973): 31–32.

LaVere, Steve. Bukka White: Big Daddy. USA: Biograph BLP 12049, 1974.

Slaven, Neil. "From Channel 4 Till Late: (Or Where Do We Go from LaVere?)." Blues & Rhythm no. 70 (Jun 1992): 22.

LaVere, Stephen C. Memphis Blues Caravan. Vol. 1. & 2 USA: Memphis Archives MA7008-7009, 1994.

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