1940’s Blues


ARTISTSONGALBUM
Blind Willie McTellDark Night BluesThe Classic Years 1927-1940
Blind Willie McTellLoving Talking BluesBest Of
Blind Willie McTellMama, Let Me Scoop For YouBest Of
Seth RichardsLonley Seth BluesRare Country Blues Vol. 1 1928-1937
Seth RichardsSkoodeldum BluesRare Country Blues Vol. 1 1928-1937
Ed Andrews Time Ain't Gonna Make Me Stay A Richer Tradition
Julius Daniels Ninety-Nine Year BluesWhen The Sun Goes Down
Willie BakerNo No BluesCharley Lincoln 1927-1930 & Willie Baker 1929
George CarterGhost Woman BluesBlues Images Vol. 11
George CarterWeeping Willow BluesBlues Images Vol. 11
Freddie SpruellMilk Cow BluesMississippi Blues Vol.2 1926-1935
Charlie KyleKyle's Worried BluesRare Country Blues Vol. 1 1928-1937
Uncle Bud WalkerStand Up Suitcase BlueMississippi Moaners
Charlie HicksDepot BluesCharley Lincoln 1927-1930 & Willie Baker 1929
Charlie HicksMama, Don't Rush MeCharley Lincoln 1927-1930 & Willie Baker 1929
Too Tight HenryThe Way I Do Rare Country Blues Vol. 3 1928-1936
Too Tight HenryCharleston Contest pt 1 Rare Country Blues Vol. 3 1928-1936
Barbecue BobHow Long Pretty MamaThe Essential
Barbecue BobBarbecue BluesChocolate To The Bone
Barbecue BobGoing Up The CountryChocolate To The Bone
Winston Holmes & Charlie TurnerKansas City Dog WalkKansas City Blues 1924-1929
Louis LaskyHow You Want Your Rollin' DoneBlues Images Vol. 3
John Byrd & Washboard WalterBilly Goat BluesRare Country Blues Vol. 2 1929-1943
John Byrd & Washboard WalterOld Timbrook BluesRare Country Blues Vol. 2 1929-1943
Mae Glover & John ByrdI Ain't Givin' Nobody NoneI Can't Be Satisfied Vol. 1
Leadbelly The Bourgeois BluesLeadbelly: Important Recordings 1934-49
Leadbelly New York CityLeadbelly: Important Recordings 1934-49
Leadbelly Noted Rider BluesThe Remaining LOCR Vol. 5 1938-1942
Blind Willie McTellSearching The Desert Blues Best Of
Barbecue BobCalifornia BluesChocolate To The Bone
Lonnie Johnson & Eddie LangMidnight Call Blues Lonnie Johnson Vol. 5 1929-1930
Lonnie JohnsonUncle Ned, Don't Use Your HeadLonnie Johnson Vol. 7 1931-1932

Show Notes:

Kings of the Twelve StringToday's show was inspired by a query from a listener who asked me about an album called Kings of the Twelve String. The album was in the catalog of the Piedmont, Gryphon, and Chesapeake labels in the 1960's and was then reissued twice by Flyright, first in 1973 and then again in 1978. I have the latter copy on Flyright and there was apparently a twelve page booklet which unfortunately my copy does not have. So on today's program we spotlight some great 12-string blues performances from the pre-war era, featuring several tracks from the Kings of the Twelve String album.

In the he 19th and early 20th century twelve-strings were regarded as “novelty” instruments. It was not till the 1920's and the 1930's that 12-string guitars became a major part of blues and folk music, where their sound made them ideal as solo accompaniment for vocalists such as Lead Belly and Blind Willie McTell. According to Charles K. Wolfe and Kip Lornell in The Life And Legend Of Leadbelly: "The twelve-string in general was introduced into the United States from Mexico and Latin America, which had a long and complex history of double-stringed instruments. By 1900 a company a company called Lyon and Healy was producing them for sale in the states, and a 1928 catalog listed five different models under various brand names." The first recording of a male country blues singer seems to have been by a twelve-string guitarist called Ed Andrews who was recorded for Okeh in Atlanta in March or April 1924. However, in the history of the blues, artists who played the 12-string as their primary instrument were relatively few. For some reason Atlanta was the home of several 12-string players including Blind Willie, Barbecue Bob, Charlie Hicks, Julius Daniels, Willie Baker and George Carter. Other 12-string players featured today include Freddie Spruell, Uncle Bud Walker, Too Tight Henry, John Byrd and some exceptional performances by Lonnie Johnson among others.

Today we play several sides by Blind Willie McTell and the music of his fellow Atlanta bluesmen, just about all who were inspired by McTell. Like Memphis, Atlanta was a staging post for musicians on their way to all points. It’s not surprising then that the first country blues musician, Ed Andrews, was recorded there in 1924. The company that recorded him, Okeh, barbecue bob 2was one of many to send their engineers to Southern cities to record local talent. Companies like Victor, Columbia, Vocalion and Brunswick made at least yearly visits until the depression. McTell was born in Thomson, Georgia, near Augusta, and raised near Statesboro. He played a standard six-string acoustic until the mid-'20s, and never entirely abandoned the instrument, but from the beginning of his recording career, he used a 12-string acoustic in the studio almost exclusively. He was A major figure with a local following in Atlanta from the 1920's onward, he recorded dozens of sides throughout the 1930s' under a multitude of names — all the better to juggle "exclusive" relationships with many different record labels at once — including Blind Willie, Blind Sammie, Hot Shot Willie, and Georgia Bill, as a backup musician to Ruth Mary Willis. Willie's recording career began in late 1927 with two sessions for Victor records, eight sides including "Statesboro Blues." He recorded prolifically through the 1930's a did a session for the Library of Congress in 1940 under the supervision of John Lomax. The newly founded Atlantic Records took an interest in Willie and cut 15 songs with him in Atlanta during 1949. The one single released from these sessions, however, didn't sell, and most of those recordings remained unheard for more than 20 years after they were made. In 1950, along with his friend Curley Weaver, he cut sides for Regal. McTell cut his final sides for record store owner Ed Rhodes in 1956, who had begun taping local bluesmen at his shop in Atlanta in the hope of releasing some of it. These turned out to be the only tapes he saved, out of all he'd recorded.

Barbecue Bob was the name given by Columbia Records talent scout Don Hornsby to Atlanta blues singer Robert Hicks. Hicks is widely credited as being the singer who more than any helped to popularize Atlanta blues in its formative period. Born to a family of sharecroppers in Walnut Grove, GA, Robert Hicks and his brother, Charley "Lincoln" Hicks relocated with them to Newton County. There the Hicks brothers came in contact with Savannah "Dip" Weaver and her son, Curley Weaver. With the Weavers, the Hicks boys learned to play guitar and sing. Robert Hicks was the first of this group to "break out"; Hicks' first Columbia record, "Barbecue Blues," recorded in Atlanta on March 25, 1927 and was a big hit. Over the next three years he made 62 sides for Columbia. Hicks died in 1931 of pneumonia. He was only 29. His brother, Charley, cut a total of twelve sides between 1927 and 1930.

Among the other Atlanta artists featured are Willie Baker, George Carter, Julius Daniels and Ed Andrews. Baker was a contemporary of the Hicks brothers and cut nine sides in 1929.  He was remembered to play around Patterson, Georgia, and it is possible that he saw Robert Hicks play in a medicine show in Waycross, Georgia. Other than tOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAhat, nothing further is known. Nothing is known of George Carter other then he cut four sides for Paramount in 1929. Bruce Bastin related that when Edward "Snap" Hill, a boyhood friend of Curley Weaver and the Hicks brothers was played a tape of one of Georg Carter's songs it prompted him to say: "He's from Atlanta" although he knew nothing about him. Julius Daniels cut eight songs for Victor at two sessions in 1927. The aforementioned Ed Andrews left behind two songs in 1924, "Barrel House Blues b/w Time Ain't Gonna Make Me Stay."

Unlike Atlanta there were few Mississippi artist who recorded on the 12-string. Among those featured today are Uncle Bud Walker, Freddie Spruell and transplanted Mississippian John Byrd. Walker cut one 78, "Look Here Mama Blues" b/w "Stand Up Suitcase Blues", recorded on July 30, 1928, in Atlanta, GA, and released by OKeh Records. Freddie Spruell recorded ten tracks for OKeh, Paramount, and Bluebird between 1926 and 1935. Spruell could well be considered the first Delta blues performer to record when he cut "Milk Cow Blues" in Chicago on June 25, 1926. Spruell also backs Washboard Sam on "Ocean Blues b/w Y.M.V. Blues", Sam's 1935 debut recording for Bluebird. Spreull's Social Security file indicates he was born on December 28, 1893, and although he is generally considered a Mississippi bluesman, it appears he moved to Chicago with his parents as a small boy, and his ties to the Delta are more stylistic than geographical.

John Byrd was born in Mississippi around the 1890's era. At some time in his youth he relocated to Louisville, Kentucky. It may have been in Louisville where he became friends with "Washboard" Walter Taylor. He made his debut recordings in 1929 as a solo gospel artist cutting one record for Gennett as "Rev. George Jones and his Congregation". That record was issued but during the same period other recordings by him or as a member of "Washboard Walter's Trio" were unissued. Byrd and Taylor moved on to Paramount Records where Byrd cut his only solo 78 in 1930. He also found session work as a guitarist backing singer Mae Glover.

According to Charles K. Wolfe and Kip Lornell in The Life And Legend Of Leadbelly: "Sometime during his wanderings – probably late in 1910, when he was living near Dallas – Huddie acquired his first twelve-string guitar." Leadbelly told may tales of how he picked up the instrument. One of the less fanciful stories is recounted in the book: 'I saw one of those old 12-string Stellas sitting in the window of a Dallas store. The year before I heard a man play it in one of those traveling medicine shows where they sold a cure-all for fifty cent a a bottle.' Captivated by the loud, ringing sound of the instrument, Leadbelly  had spent the rest of the night hanging around the medicine show tent listening to the man play. Shortly, thereafter, when he finally saw one of the twelve-strings for sale; 'the price of the guitar was $12', he recalled, 'I had to have it.'"

v20658b4Others featured artists include Seth Richards, Charlie Kyle, Too Tight Henry, Louis Lasky, Winston Holmes and Charlie Turner and Lonnie Johnson. Seth Richards recorded a couple tracks under his real name in 1928, which would be his last recordings until he recorded as Skoodle Dum Doo and Sheffield in 1943. Kyle was said to have been from Texas and may have traveled to Memphis in 1928 along with female blues singers Bessie Tucker and Ida Mae Mack to record. Six of his songs were recorded, only four were issued resulting in two 78's. Born in Georgia in 1899 'Too Tight' toured extensively during the 1920's as with both Blind Blake and Blind Lemon Jefferson. In Memphis he worked with Jed Davenport. He was considered at the time as a master of the 6 and 12-string guitar. He recorded one 78 in 1928 and one in 1930. In the early 1940's he became a popular and regular performer on a Memphis based radio show. Lasky cut fives sides in 1935 as well as backing Anna Lee Chisholm, Big Bill, Memphis Minnie and Washboard Sam. It's been suggested he was a influence on Big Bill's guitar style. Nothing is known about Lasky's background but his style suggests a older musician. Turner played rack harmonica and guitar, and was an accomplished player of blues and ragtime and Holmes sang, and played guitar. Holmes backed Kansas singer Lottie Kimbrough at a 1926 session and cut six sides with Charlie Turner at a 1928 session. 12-string guitar was not Lonnie's primary instrument but he did play it on his historic duets with Eddie Lang ("Midnight Call Blues" – my favorite of the duets and a the favorite of Lonnie biographer Dean Alger) and to dazzling effect on his 1931 classic, "Uncle Ned, Don't Use Your Head", both featured today.

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
Doctor Clayton Roaming GamblerDoctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Doctor Clayton Black Snake Blues Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Doctor Clayton '41 BluesDoctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Robert Junior Lockwood & Sunnyland Slim Doctor Clayton And MeConversation With The Blues
Doctor Clayton Pearl Harbor Blues Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Walter BrownConfessin' the Blues Walter Brown 1945-1947
Doctor Clayton Confessin' the Blues Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Doctor Clayton Doctor Clayton BluesDoctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Doctor ClaytonWatch Out Mama Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Doctor ClaytonCheating And Lying Blues Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Robert Nighthawk Cheating And Lying Blues And This Is Free
Pat Hare I'm Gonna Murder My Baby Mystery Train
Doctor Clayton Gotta Find My Baby Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Pete Franklin I Gotta Find My BabyGuitar Pete´s Blues
B.B KingGotta Find My BabyThe Vintage Years
Doctor Clayton Honey Stealin' Blues Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Doctor Clayton My Own Blues Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Doctor Clayton On the Killin’ Floor Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Willie Mabon I'm Hungry I Blueskvarter Vol. 1
Doctor Clayton Moonshine Woman Blues Doctor Clayton: 1935-1942
Doctor Clayton Moonshine Man Blues Doctor Clayton: 1935-1942
B.B KingThe Woman I LoveThe Vintage Years
Doctor Clayton Ain't No Business We Can Do Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Doctor Clayton Angels In Harlem Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Little Son Willis Harlem Blues Down Home Blues Classics: California & The West Coast
Larry Davis Angels In HoustonAngels In Houston
Doctor Clayton I Need My BabyDoctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
B.B KingWalking Doctor BillThe Vintage Years
Doctor Clayton Copper Coloured MamaDoctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Doctor Clayton Ain't Gonna Drink No More Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Doctor Clayton Root Doctor Blues Doctor Clayton: Angels In Harlem
Willie 'Long Time' Smith My Buddy Doctor Clayton Doctor Clayton & His Buddies 1946-1947

Show Notes: 


My buddy my buddy Doctor Clayton, he has been here and gone
But you know he waved his hand, and told me to carry on
We used to drink gin, beer and whiskey, and walk together all night long
But now he has passed away, and told me to carry on

(Willie "Long Time" Smith, My Buddy Dr. Clayton, 1947)

Doctor Clayton

Over 60 years after his untimely death the exceptional singer and masterful songwriter known as Doctor Clayton is little spoken of today. Clayton worked strictly as a vocalist (by some accounts he could play piano and ukulele), employing an impressive falsetto technique, later refined into a powerful, swooping style that was instantly recognizable. In addition he was an unparalleled songwriter, writing mostly original material with a rare wit, intelligence and social awareness. Clayton's vocal style was widely emulated and a number of his songs became blues standards. Despite the high esteem he was held in by fellow blues artists and his popularity during his lifetime Clayton's fine blues recordings remain largely ignored. On today's show we spotlight some of his best numbers and play covers by his many admirers. The title of today's show comes from the 1941 number "Slick Man Blues."

As Chris Smith wrote: "…Clayton was an artist of genuine stature and originality, and as a result a star in black entertainment circles. Sunnyland Slim, his piano player for a number of years on club dates, recalls that he toured extensively in a bus which featured his distinctly bespectacled, grinning face on its side, and was always welcomed by club owners for his crowd pulling abilities. …What makes Doctor Clayton's work so striking is that his singing was far more powerful, more passionate, and at the same time more humorous, than many of his fellow Bluebird artists."

Further, he noted,"Clayton, let us remember, was immediately disadvantageous, in the terms of American society, by being black, and thus having his horizons forcibly narrowed by institutionalized racism. …He created in his songs a fantasy world of success in the terms of the ghetto, as a gambler, pimp and master of success with women (though he also evinced (incredibly enough) a wry appreciation of the realities of life). He was also handicapped on the personal level, by his alcoholism and a lack of self-preservation; his projection in song of himself as a hustler supreme is thus even more poignant by virtue of the fact that he was quite incapable of attaining success even in the demeaning terms which were all that white America allowed blacks to consider."

Peter Joe Clayton was born April 19, 1898 in Georgia, by most reports, although claimed he was born in Africa and that he moved to St. Louis with his parents. In St. Louis he married and had four children, was employed as a factory worker and started his singing career. In 1937 tragedy struck when a fire burned down his house, killing his wife and children. He began drinking and living recklessly, a pattern that continued throughout his life. In his book Big Bill Blues Big Bill Broonzy reminisced about Clayton with obvious fondness: "Doctor Clayton was a good hearted boy. He wouldn't get a room, he wore tennis shoes in winter time and slept on pool tables and in alleys and basements, anywhere he could, because all the money he made from singing he would drink it up, or lose it in some kind of game." He certainly cut and odd figure usually sporting strange hats and oversized glasses sans the lenses. Robert Lockwood recalls coming back from St. Louis after recording with Clayton to find him in a sorry state of affairs: "When I got back here, Doctor Clayton didn't have no shoes! What happened was, after the recording session, the Doctor had taken the money he had made and bought everybody drinks and food at the club that night. …And when Doctor Clayton passed out, they stole his money and everything he had. They took his shoes off, took his coat. And when he woke up, he didn't have shit." Many of Clayton's songs deal with tough times and 1942's "On The Killing Floor" (the theme was used in Howlin' Wolf's 1964 song "Killing Floor" and Willie Mabon's "I'm Hungry" uses some lines from the song) seems to echo his reckless lifestyle:

"Please give me a match to light this short that I found
I know it looks bad for me, picking tobacco off the ground
I was in my prime not so very long ago
But high priced whiskey and woman done put me on the killin' floor
Lord it's zero weather and I ain't got a lousy dime
I'm walking from door to door and I can't find a friend of mine"

From the same session was another down-and-out tale, "Ain't No Business We Can Do":

I went down to Eli, got my suit out of pawn
Took the last little change I had left, and put some new shoes on
I took a real slow stroll, right down the avenue
A high yeller asked me, could she go 'long too
I said, "Hey good-lookin' have you got any cash on you?
'Cos if you broke like me, ain't no business we can do"

Prices goin' up every day, all kind of meat is too high
If you ain't rich or got a good job, neckbones is all you could buy
The best friend you got, will even tell you a lie
And let me tell you buddy, you better keep some kinda cash on you
'Cos when you broke, outdoors and hungry ain't no business you can do

But according to his sometime partner Blind John Davis there was another side to Clayton: "He was a brilliant fellow. He went to 52nd grade in school and he could sing opera, he could sing semi-classics, he could sing the blues and everything."

Clayton moved to Chicago with partner Robert Lockwood to pursue his musical career with the aid of Charley Jordan who had connections with the Columbia and Decca labels. Clayton was supposed to record for Decca but ended up hooking up with Lester Melrose of Bluebird. As Lockwood related later: "Doctor Clayton started singin', and Melrose had a baby. …He had to have Doctor Clayton! Yeah! Lester Melrose heard Doctor Clayton sing, and he went crazy." It has been suggested that a 1930 78 by Jesse Clayton, "Neckbone Blues b/w Station House Blues" may mask the first recording by Doctor Clayton.

He first recordings we are sure of were for Bluebird in 1935 cutting six sides, four of which went unissued, and he didn't record again until 1941. Between 1941-1942 he recorded four sessions for Bluebird and Okeh backed by pianist Blind John Davis with guitarist Robert Lockwood and bassist Ransom Knowling on some sides. Knowling also plays tuba on some sides as Clayton alternatley exhorts him to "Kill yourself, Mr.Ransom", "Blow your horn, Mr.Ransom", and "Toot your horn, Mr. Ransom". This period included many memorable sides including wartime numbers like "'41 Blues" and "Pearl Harbor Blues" (cut three months after the attack). In "'41 Blues" Clayton offers his solution to end hostilities:

War is raging in Europe, up on the water, land and in the air
If Uncle Sam don't be careful, we'll all soon be right back over there
This whole war would soon be over if Uncle Sam would use my plan
Let me sneak in Hitler's bedroom with my razor in my hand"

In "Pearl Harbor Blues" he had this to say:

"On December the seventh, nineteen hundred and forty one
The Japanese flew over Pearl Harbor, dropping bombs by the ton
This Japanese is so ungrateful, just like a stray dog on the street
Well he bite the hand that feeds em', soon as he get enough to feed

Doctor ClaytonClayton's "'41 Blues" was covered by Jazz Gillum as "Wartime Blues" recorded just two days before Pearl Harbor. Other numbers during this period include the oft covered "Cheating And Lying Blues" and "Gotta Find My Baby" plus memorable sides like "Watch Out Mama", "Moonshine Woman Blues" (covered by B.B. King in 1959 as "The Woman I Love" with an overdubbed version charting in 1968) and "Ain't No Business We Can Do." Slide guitarist Robert Nighthawk was recorded playing "Cheating And Lying Blues" in 1964 live on Maxwell Street which also combined the lyrics form "Ain't No Business We Can Do" and Pat Hare's 1954 "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby" was a direct descendant of "Cheating And Lying Blues" ("I'm gonna murder my baby if she don't stop cheating and lying/Well I'd rather be in the penitentiary than to be worried out of my mind").

After these sessions the Petrillo ban put a temporary ban on recording activity and Clayton was out of the studio for several years. Clayton got off to a bad start for a February 1946 session when all four numbers were rejected. His next session was in August 1946 with a small group led by "Baby Doo" Caston with all six sides issued. These sessions included the oft-covered "Angels in Harlem" (covered by Smokey Hogg and by Larry Davis as "Angels In Houston" and by Little Son Willis as "Harlem Blues"), "Hold That Train Conductor" (covered by B.B. King in 1961) and "I Need My Baby" (covered by Smokey Hogg in 1951 as "Walking Dr. Bill" and by B.B. King under the same title as Hogg's in 1960 and hitting number 23 on the R&B charts), "Root Doctor" and perhaps ironically "Aint Gonna Drink No More." Also cut during this period was "Copper Colored Mama" which King covered as "The Woman I Love" in 1954. "Root Doctor" was probably Clayton's theme song, and according to Sunnyland Slim, much bawdier when performed live. The song was a cover of Walter Davis' 1935 "Root Man Blues."

Clayton’s records were steady sellers and he regularly appeared at Chicago clubs such as Sylvios working with Robert Lockwood and Sunnyland Slim and toured widely. Attesting to this popularity was Sunnyland Slim who recorded as "Doctor Clayton's Buddy" on his debut 1947 session and Willie Long Time Smith who in 1947 recorded the tribute, "My Buddy Doctor Clayton" written by Lester Melrose. Clayton died on January 7th 1947 in Chicago, of pulmonary tuberculosis at Chicago's Cook County Hospital. According to Big Bill only ten people attended Clayton's funeral including himself and Tampa Red. Echoes of his vocal style survived in the music Professor Longhair, Jimmy Witherspoon and particularly early B.B. King. King covered several of Clayton's compositions and offered this praise: "Well, Doctor Clayton was the man that I used to idolize; just about everything he did I used to sing along with it for hours."

Related Reading:

-I'm A First Class Root Doctor (Talking Blues 5, 6, 7 by Chris Smith, 1977) [PDF]

-Ain't Gonna Drink No More (Blues & Rhythm 24 by Tony Burke, 1986) [PDF]

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
Skip James Devil Got My WomanComplete 1931 Recordings
Skip James Cypress Grove BluesComplete 1931 Recordings
Skip James Little Cow And Calf Is Gonna Die BluesComplete 1931 Recordings
David 'Honeyboy' Edwards Roamin' and Ramblin' BluesDelta Bluesman
David 'Honeyboy' Edwards Water Coast BluesDelta Bluesman
David 'Honeyboy' Edwards Spread My Raincoat DownDelta Bluesman
Skip James Hard Time Killin' Floor BluesComplete 1931 Recordings
Skip James Drunken SpreeComplete 1931 Recordings
Skip James Cherry Ball BluesComplete 1931 Recordings
Muddy Waters Country Blues (Number One)Muddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings
Muddy Waters I Be's TroubledMuddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings
Muddy Waters RosalieMuddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings
Skip James Illinois BluesComplete 1931 Recordings
Skip James How Long BluesComplete 1931 Recordings
Skip James 22-20 BluesComplete 1931 Recordings
Fiddlin' Joe Martin Fo' Clock Blues Walking Blues
Fiddlin' Joe Martin Going to Fishing Walking Blues
Muddy Waters You Got To Take Sick And Die Some Of These DaysMuddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings
Muddy Waters Ramblin' Kid BluesMuddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings
Robert Lockwood Little Boy BlueWindy City Blues
Robert Lockwood Black Spider BluesWindy City Blues
Skip James Hard Luck ChildComplete 1931 Recordings
Skip James If You Haven't Any Hay Get On Down The RoadComplete 1931 Recordings
Skip James Cherry Ball BluesComplete 1931 Recordings
David 'Honeyboy' Edwards Hellatakin' BluesDelta Bluesman
David 'Honeyboy' Edwards Wind Howlin' BluesDelta Bluesman
David 'Honeyboy' Edwards The Army BluesDelta Bluesman
Skip James I'm So Glad Complete 1931 Recordings
Skip James Special Rider BluesComplete 1931 Recordings
Muddy Waters Take a Walk With MeMuddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings
Muddy Waters I Be Bound To Write To You (First Version)Muddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings
Robert Lockwood Take a Little Walk with MeWindy City Blues
Robert Lockwood I'm Gonna Train My BabyWindy City Blues

Show Notes:

Today's show is the fifth in a series of shows devoted to great early Mississippi blues artists. The bulk of the artists are relatively well known and on today's show we capture the recordings they made at the start of their career.  Mississippi produced some of the most powerful blues singers and guitarists of the 1920's and 1930's although one could say that the intense interest in Mississippi has taken the spotlight away from other regions that have equally notable blues traditions. Today we feature early recordings by Skip James, Fiddlin' Joe Martin, Honeyboy Edwards, Muddy Waters and Robert Lockwood. The earliest recordings come from the remarkable 1931 session by Skip James while all the other recordings are from the early 40's. The sides by Fiddlin' Joe Martin, Honeyboy Edwards and Muddy Waters are from field recordings made by Alan Lomax while the Robert Lockwood sides were his first commercial recordings for Bluebird.

Skip James
The only photograph of Skip James in his youth


Skip  James
grew up at the Woodbine Plantation in Bentonia, Mississippi and as a youth learned to play both guitar and piano. The music of Skip James and fellow Bentonia guitarists such as Henry Stuckey and Jack Owens is often characterized as a genre unto itself. The distinctive approach is notable for its ethereal sounds, open minor guitar tunings, gloomy themes, falsetto vocals, and songs that bemoan the work of the devil. Stuckey learned one of the tunings from Caribbean soldiers while serving in France during World War I, and said that he taught it to James, who went on to become the most famous of Bentonia's musicians. Inspired by Stuckey, James began playing guitar as a child, and later learned to play organ. In his teens James began working on construction and logging projects across the mid-South, and sharpened his piano skills playing at work camp “barrelhouses.” In 1924 James returned to Bentonia, where he earned his living as a sharecropper, gambler and bootlegger, in addition to performing locally with Stuckey.

James traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin, for his historic 1931 session for Paramount Records, which included thirteen songs on guitar and five on piano. He was sent to Paramount by talent scout H.C. Speir who was impressed by James' audition, “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” alluded to the Great Depression, while the gun-themed “22-20 Blues” provided the model for Robert Johnson's “32-20 Blues,” and the haunting “Devil Got My Woman” was the likely inspiration for Johnson's “Hell Hound on My Trail.” As Tony Russell wrote of this session: "It would be difficult to hear them without some sense of awe, even if they were not quit as good as we might wish, but they are, in fact awesome in their singularity and aching beauty."

James’s records sold poorly, and later in 1931 he moved to Dallas, where he served as a minister and led a gospel group. He later stayed in Birmingham, Alabama, and in Hattiesburg and Meridian, Mississippi, occasionally returning to Bentonia. He returned to Bentonia in 1948 and sometimes played for locals at the newly opened Blue Front Cafe, although he did not earn his living as a musician. He later lived in Memphis and Tunica County, where he was located in 1964 by blues enthusiasts who persuaded him to begin performing again.  After his rediscovery James relocated to Washington, D. C., and then to Philadelphia to play folk and blues festivals and clubs. He recorded several albums and gained new renown from the rock group Cream’s 1966 cover of his song “I'm So Glad,” but the somber quality of much of his music and his insistence on artistic integrity over entertainment value limited his popular appeal. James died in Philadelphia on October 3, 1969.

Muddy Waters & Son Sims

I corresponded with record collector John Tefteller recently who had this to say regarding the rarity of James' 78's: "As far as Skip James Paramount's: There are about 20-25 that have survived, if you include the Champion release and 15 or less if you leave that one out. They are some of the rarest and most desirable 78 rpm records of all time. There are a couple of them for which only one or two copies in playable condition exist. Rarest one has to be "Hard Time Killin' Floor" with "Cherry Ball" a close second. Think about those numbers 15-25 copies TOTAL, that are still known to exist in this world. They are the stuff every collectors dreams are made of!"

Over eight decades Honeyboy Edwards knew or played with virtually every major figure including Charley Patton, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. He was probably best known, though, as the last living link to Robert Johnson. The two traveled together, performing on street corners and at picnics, dances and fish fries during the 1930s. Edwards had earlier apprenticed with Big Joe Williams. Unlike Williams and many of his other peers, however, Edwards did not record commercially until after World War II.

Field recordings he made for the Library of Congress under the supervision of the folklorist Alan Lomax in 1942 are the only documents of Edwards’s music from his years in the Delta. In an interview with Mary K. Lee he recalled his first recordings: "He recorded me in 1942 on a Monday in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He drove up to the house in a brand new '42 Hudson and I was there with my auntie. She had never seen no white folk with a big car like that, in '42. She said, "That man has a big car." He asked her, "David Edwards lived here?" She said, "I don't know. He stays here sometime." But she's scared to tell him yeah. He said, "Well I just want him to do some recording. I want him to make records for me and everything. I'm from Washington. D.C., from the Library of Congress and I want him to record for me." She then said, "Let me see if he's around here anywhere." She said, "There's a man out there in a big car." And I said, "That's the one I've been saying I expected. Tell him I'm here." She said, "Yeah, he's in here asleep. He'll be out in a few minutes though." I got up, put on my clothes and went out to the car. We went to Clarksdale, Mississippi on highways 49 and 61. I rented a room in a house there and he rented a place in a school for the recording. We started recording about eleven, but a storm came up around a little before twelve and broke up the recording. We had to stop mid-way in the recording. Came up like a tornado. We stopped for about an hour and when it blew over we started the recording again and got through the session. He gave me twenty dollars and that was more money than I had in a long time. At that time that was a lot of money. He'd recorded Muddy Waters and Son House the same week before he got to me. He was getting most of the black blues that he could find down through there then.."

Honeyboy Edwards
Silent color film  footage of David “Honeyboy” Edwards, shot by Alan Lomax for the Music Division in 1942

Commercial prospects for Edwards were scant, however — a 1951 78 for Artist Record Co., "Build a Cave" (as Mr. Honey), and four 1953 sides for Chess that laid unissued until "Drop Down Mama" turned up 17 years later on an anthology constituted the bulk of his early recorded legacy, although Edwards was in Chicago from the mid-'50s on.

The Muddy Waters recordings featured today were made as part of a joint field recording trip sponsored by the Library of Congress and Fisk University, whose John Work accompanied Alan Lomax on his trip and whose voice can be heard on portions of the interviews with Muddy. The songs that were recorded in the two sessions (in the summers of 1941 and 1942) were not all issued by the Library of Congress at the time. Lomax said "I was the editor of the first five-album set, and my opion of Muddy was so good that we included TWO of his songs. I think he was the only person – I couldn't make up my mind which of his two blues was the best, so we put them both in."

In the summer of 1941, Lomax went to Stovall, Mississippi on behalf of the Library of Congress to record various country blues musicians including a young Muddy Waters. "He brought his stuff down and recorded me right in my house," Muddy recalled in Rolling Stone, "and when he played back the first song I sounded just like anybody's records. Man, you don't know how I felt that Saturday afternoon when I heard that voice and it was my own voice. Later on he sent me two copies of the pressing and a check for twenty bucks, and I carried that record up to the corner and put it on the jukebox. Just played it and played it and said, 'I can do it, I can do it.'"Lomax came back in July 1942 to record Muddy again. The Library of Congress sessions were eventually released as Down On Stovall's Plantation on the Testament label.The complete recordings were re-issued on CD as Muddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings by Chess.

Fiddlin' Joe Martin learned guitar and trombone as a boy, later adding mandolin and bass fiddle. He switched to washboard and drums in the 40s after damaging his hands in a fire. He worked with many Delta blues singers, including Charley Patton, Willie ‘Hambone’ Newbern, Johnnie Temple, Memphis Minnie, Willie Brown and Son House, recording with the last two for the Library of Congress in 1941. Martin played drums for Howlin’ Wolf until Wolf moved north, but his most eRobert Lockwood: Take A Little Walk With Menduring association was with Woodrow Adams; he appeared on all Adams’ recordings, and they worked Mississippi juke joints together until Martin’s death. Martin also appears on the anthology High Water Blues, recordings made between 1965 and 1970, mainly in Louisiana and Mississippi by folklorist David Evans.

Born in 1915, Robert Lockwood was one of the last living links to Robert Johnson. When Lockwood's mother became romantically involved with Johnson in Helena, AR, Lockwood suddenly gained a role model and a close friend – so close that Lockwood considered himself Johnson's stepson. Robert Jr. learned how to play guitar very quickly with Johnson's help. By age 15, Lockwood was playing professionally at parties in the Helena area. He often played with his quasi-stepfather figure Robert Johnson as well as with Sonny Boy Williamson II and Johnny Shines. Lockwood played at fish fries, juke joints, and street corners throughout the Mississippi Delta in the 1930s. Lockwood played with Sonny Boy Williamson II in the Clarksdale, Mississippi area in 1938 and 1939. He also played with Howlin' Wolf and others in Memphis, Tennessee around 1938. From 1939 to 1940 he split his time playing in St. Louis, Missouri, Chicago, Illinois and Helena.

On July 1st 1941, Lockwood made his first recordings with Doctor Clayton for the Bluebird label in Aurora, Illinois and on July 30th he recorded the four songs which were released as the first two 78s under his own name: "Little Boy Blue" b/w Take A Little Walk With Me" (Bluebird B-8820) and "I'm Gonna Train My Baby b/w "Black Spider Blues" (Bluebird B-8877). These songs remained in his repertoire throughout his career. Also in 1941, Lockwood and Williamson began their influential performances on the daily King Biscuit Time radio program on KFFA in Helena. Lockwood would not get back on record again until 1951.

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
Bukka WhiteI Am In The Heavenly WayBukka White: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940
Bukka WhiteThe Panama LimitedBukka White: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940
Bukka WhiteSic 'Em Dogs OnBukka White: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940
Freddie SpruellMilk Cow BluesMississippi Blues Vol.2 1926-1935
Freddie SpruellMuddy Water BluesMississippi Blues Vol.2 1926-1935
Freddie Spruell4A HighwayMississippi Blues Vol.2 1926-1935
Lucious Curtis & Willie FordHigh Lonesome HillMississippi - the Blues Lineage
Lucious Curtis & Willie FordTimes Is Getting HardDeep River Of Song - Mississippi: Saints & Sinners
Lucious Curtis & Willie FordFarmin' Man BluesMississippi River Blues: Library Of Congress Field Recordings Vol. 1
Bukka WhiteWhen Can I Change My ClothesBukka White: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940
Bukka WhitePinebluff ArkansasBukka White: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940
Bukka WhiteShake 'Em On DownBukka White: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940
Lucious Curtis & Willie FordMississippi River BluesMississippi River Blues: Library Of Congress Field Recordings Vol. 1
Lucious Curtis & Willie FordLonesome Highway BluesMississippi River Blues: Library Of Congress Field Recordings Vol. 1
Freddie SpruellTom Cat BluesThe Paramount Masters
Freddie SpruellLow-Down Mississippi Bottom ManThe Paramount Masters
Lucious Curtis & Willie FordPaydayMississippi - the Blues Lineage
Lucious Curtis & Willie FordStagolee Alan Lomax: Blues Songbook
Kid BaileyRowdy BluesMasters of the Delta Blues: Friends of Charlie Patton
Kid BaileyMississippi Bottom BluesScreamin' & Hollerin' The Blues
Willie BrownFuture BluesScreamin' & Hollerin' The Blues
Willie BrownM&O BluesBlues Images Vol. 3
Willie BrownMake Me A Pallet On The FloorScreamin' & Hollerin' The Blues
Freddie Spruell Mr. Freddie's Kokomo BluesMississippi Blues Vol.2 1926-1935
Freddie Spruell Let's Go RidingMississippi Blues Vol.2 1926-1935
Bukka WhiteSleepy Man BluesBukka White: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940
Bukka WhiteParchman Farm BluesBukka White: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940
Bukka WhiteFixin' To Die BluesBukka White: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940
Willie FordPaydayMississippi River Blues: Library Of Congress Field Recordings Vol. 1
Lucious Curtis & Willie FordStagolee Mississippi River Blues: Library Of Congress Field Recordings Vol. 1
Willie FordSanta Field BluesMississippi River Blues: Library Of Congress Field Recordings Vol. 1
Bukka WhiteAberdeen Mississippi BluesBukka White: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940
Bukka WhiteBukka's Jitterbug SwingBukka White: The Vintage Recordings 1930-1940

Show Notes:

TBukka Whiteoday's show is the third in a series of shows devoted to great early Mississippi blues artists, most little remembered today. Mississippi produced some of the most powerful blues singers and guitarists of the 1920's and 1930's although one could say that the intense interest in Mississippi has taken the spotlight away from other regions that have equally notable blues traditions. In the past I've devoted shows to Charlie Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson but I realized that there was still several major figures I hadn't featured in depth like Bukka White, Skip James, Sam Collins and Mississippi John Hurt. I'll be spotlighting these artists alongside several fine lesser known Mississippi artists. At a later date I'll be spotlighting the rediscovery records by some of these artists. Today's shows spans the years 1926 through 1941 featuring records by Bukka White, Freddie Spruell, Lucious Curtis and partner Willie Ford, Willie Brown and Kid Bailey.

Along with Son House and Skip James, Bukka White was one of the major Mississippi bluesmen to be re-discovered during the great blues revival of the 1960’s. His early recordings made between 1930 and 1940 are among the most creative and powerful blues ever recorded. As Keith Briggs wrote in the notes to Document's Bukka White: Aberdeen Mississippi Blues: "Booker’s unique sound was a combination of solid, rocking, rhythms interspersed with vigorous guitar breaks, his ability as a bottleneck slide guitarist and his gritty, heavy voice. He favored the steel bodied National guitar as it’s volume allowed him to be audible over the noise of a good-time crowd. His songs were almost always personal and are among the most creative and descriptive to found on blues records."

White said he was born about five miles south of Houston, Mississippi. Various documents list his birth date between 1900 and 1909, but census data suggests 1904. His father John White, a multi-instrumentalist who performed at local gatherings, gave him his first guitar and other local musicians taught him his signature bottleneck slide technique. Recording agent Ralph Lembo of Itta Bena arranged for White to record his first blues and gospel songs in 1930 in Memphis. Victor only saw fit to release four of the 14 songs Bukka White recorded that day. It is very likely that it is Memphis Minnie, listed as “Miss Minnie”, who lends her voice to two of the Victor titles. Low-Down Mississippi Bottom Man

In 1937 White recorded a minor hit, “Shake ‘Em On Down,” in Chicago, but that year he was also sentenced for a shooting incident to Parchman Penitentiary, where John Lomax of the Library of Congress recorded him. It was as "Washington Barrelhouse White" that White recorded two numbers for John and Alan Lomax at Parchman Farm in 1939. After his release White recorded twelve of his best-known songs at a Chicago session in 1940. Among the songs he recorded on that occasion were "Parchman Farm Blues", "Good Gin Blues," "Bukka's Jitterbug Swing," "Aberdeen, Mississippi Blues," and "Fixin' to Die Blues," all classic numbers.

During the war White settled in Memphis and worked at a defense plant. Bob Dylan recorded "Fixin' to Die Blues" on his 1961 debut Columbia album, and at the time no one in the music business knew who Bukka White was. Two California-based blues enthusiasts, John Fahey and Ed Denson in 1963 addressed a letter to "Bukka White (Old Blues Singer), c/o General Delivery, Aberdeen, Mississippi." By chance, one of White's relatives was working in the Post Office in Aberdeen, and forwarded the letter to White in Memphis. Things moved quickly from there and  by the end of 1963 Bukka White was already recording on contract with Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie. After he began to tour and record again in the 1960's White, still a skilled and energetic performer, became a popular figure on the folk music circuit and traveled as far as Mexico and Europe. He passed in 1977.

Freddie Spruell recorded ten tracks for OKeh, Paramount, and Bluebird between 1926 and 1935. Spreull could well be considered the first Delta blues performer to record when he cut "Milk Cow Blues" in Chicago on June 25, 1926. He recorded two more sides in 1928, including "Tom Cat Blues," and five tracks (under the name Mr. Freddie) on April 12, 1935, a session that yielded perhaps his best song, the rag-inspired "Let's Go Riding," which featured second guitar from Carl Martin. Spruell also backs Washboard Sam on "Ocean Blues b/w Y.M.V. Blues", Sam's d 1935 debut recording for Bluebird. The only known copy of this record recently turned up. Spreull's Social Security file indicates he was born on December 28, 1893, and although he is generally considered a Mississippi bluesman, it appears he moved to Chicago with his parents as a small boy, and his ties to the Delta are more stylistic than geographical.

M&O Blues

Little is known for certain of the man whom Robert Johnson called "my friend-boy, Willie Brown" ("Cross Road Blues"). Brown is heard with Patton on the Paramount sessions of 1930 and cut "M & O Blues and" and "Future Blues" at that date. Brown's "Kickin' In My Sleep Blues" b/w "Window Blues" (Paramount 13001) and "Grandma Blues" b/w "Sorry Blues" (Paramount 13099) have yet to surface. As Dan Beaumont wrote in  Preachin' the Blues:  The Life and Times of Son House: "“M&O Blues” and “Future Blues,” are based respectively on Patton’s “Pony Blues” and “Maggie,” and show Patton’s enduring influence on Brown, which, by and by, would be another channel for Patton’s influence on House." In 1941 Alan Lomax recorded Brown with Son House, Fiddlin' Joe Martin and Leroy Williams. Brown played second guitar on three performances by the whole band, and recorded one solo, "Make Me A Pallet On The Floor." Brown died in Tunica, Mississippi in 1952 at the age of 52.

Nothing is known of Kid Bailey outside of his lone 78 "Mississippi Bottom Blues b/w Rowdy Blues." These were recorded on September 25, 1929 at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. Research by Dr. David Evans, professor of music at Memphis State University, has concluded that Kid Bailey may have been a pseudonym for Willie Brown. Son House on hearing this recording instantly recognized his partner Willie Brown. Others dispute that Brown and Bailey are the same person. Gayle Dean Wardlow has said that he "found 5 different source who all saw Kid Bailey in person in Mississippi–3 of them on taped interviews including [Ishman] Bracey who saw him across the river from Jackson and talked to him in person." It seems Wardlow changed his view because in The Life And Music Of Charle Patton he and his co-author, Stephen Calt, point out that  no one interviewed in the post-war period ever knew Kid Bailey well enough to know his real name or where he was from. When Gayle Dean Wardlow and Stephen Calt were doing research in Mississippi in the 1960's, these were some of the reactions when Kid Bailey's "Rowdy Blues" was played:

Rowdy BluesMandy Wigham:  "That sounds just like Willie…  Ain't Willie makin' music on there?  I think that's Willie makin' music."

Elizabeth Moore:  "Him (meaning Willie Brown) and Son could both make that introduction on their music…  sounds like that music and that voice – pretty close there if it ain't him (Brown)."

Confusingly Wardlow also had the following memory from Moore: "Elizabeth Moore who lived in Tunica County on a plantation near Robinsonville and knew Willie Brown and Son House and Robert saw Kid and Willie Brown playing together there in a juke in Robinsonville for a few weeks together. Willie told her they had made a record together but she doubted it as she never saw it. Willie only called him "Kid." Brown is the second guitar but sounds like the lead on "Rowdy Blues" but is barely audible on the other side. That's the connection. She made those comments after she listened to the Kid Bailey record. She said that's Willie's music and it sounded like the way he played– "Rowdy Blues". She also saw Willie and Robert together on many occasions playing together. Bailey played mainly from Leland over to Moorhead and was raised up near Leland at the Triplett community just outside Leland on Highway 82. Booker Miller saw him in Moorhead. But he was only called Kid Bailey–probably a childhood nickname."

In October 1940 John Lomax and his wife came to Natchez, Mississippi from Baton Rouge to look for musicians to record. During that trip they recorded Lucious Curtis, Willie Ford and George Bolwdin. Between Curtis and Ford ten songs were recorded. "'Like I foretold you, I ain't much of a player.'" When Lucious Curtis was there, Willie "followed after" him, but he did it skillfully, watching the leader carefully." So reads the first paragraph of John Lomax's notes for the recording session. He wen on to write that "Lucious Curtis is a honky-tonk, guitar picking Negro, living on a precarious income from pick-ups at dance halls. His 'complementer" Willie Ford has a regular job at a big saw mill but had a 'sad-day' off."Curtis claimed to have made commercial records with Bo Carter but this can't be verifed.

Related Reading:

-"…Ramblin' (Blues Revue Quarterly 8, Spring 1993, p14-17) [PDF]

-Death of a Delta giant (Melody Maker of July, 1971)  [PDF]

-Mississippi Bottom Blues (Mamlish S-3802,  notes byDon Kent & Mike Stewart, 1973) [PDF]

-Willie Brown: Fare Thee Well (Bernard Klatzko, 78 Quarterly no. 2, 1968, 47–50.) [PDF]

-Mississippi River Blues: Library Of Congress Field Recordings Vol. 1 (Flyright-Matchbox SDM 230, notes by John Cowly, 1973) [PDF]

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
Jazz GillumRoll Dem Bones Bill ''Jazz'' Gillum Vol. 4 1946-49
Jazz GillumThe Blues What Am Bill ''Jazz'' Gillum Vol. 4 1946-49
Tampa RedPlease Mr. DoctorTampa Red Vol. 15 1951-1953
Tampa RedShe's DynamiteTampa Red Vol. 14 1949-1951
Big Bill BroonzyLeavin' DayRockin' In Chicago 1949-53
Big Bill BroonzyRambling BillThe War & Postwar Years 1945-49
Washboard SamYou Can't Make The GradeRockin' My Blues Away
Washboard SamRamblin' With That WomanWashboard Sam Vol. 7 1942-1949
Washboard SamShe's Just My SizeWashboard Sam Vol. 7 1942-1949
Sonny Boy WilliamsonWonderful TimeThe Original Sonny Boy Williamson Vol. 2
Sonny Boy WilliamsonPolly Put Your Kettle OnThe Original Sonny Boy Williamson Vol. 2
Sonny Boy WilliamsonApple Tree SwingThe Original Sonny Boy Williamson Vol. 2
Lonnie JohnsonMe And My Crazy SelfThe Original Guitar Wizard
Lonnie JohnsonNothin' Clicken' ChickenLonnie Johnson 1949
Lonnie JohnsonCan't Sleep AnymoreLonnie Johnson 1949-1952
Jazz GillumGonna Take My Rap Bill ''Jazz'' Gillum Vol. 4 1946-49
Jazz GillumLook What You Are Today Bill ''Jazz'' Gillum Vol. 4 1946-49
Big Bill BroonzyOld Man BluesThe War & Postwar Years 1945-49
Big Bill Broonzy I Can't WriteThe War & Postwar Years 1945-49
Tampa RedGot A Mind To Leave This TownTampa Red Vol. 15 1951-1953
Tampa RedBig Stars Falling BluesTampa Red Vol. 15 1951-1953
Jazz GillumTake One More Chance with Me Bill ''Jazz'' Gillum Vol. 4 1946-49
Jazz GillumHand Reader Blues Bill ''Jazz'' Gillum Vol. 4 1946-49
Jazz GillumYou Got to Run Me Down Bill ''Jazz'' Gillum Vol. 4 1946-49
Lonnie Johnson It Was All In VainThe Original Guitar Wizard
Lonnie Johnson I Know It's LoveLonnie Johnson 1949-1952
Sonny Boy WilliamsonBetter Cut That OutThe Original Sonny Boy Williamson Vol. 2
Sonny Boy WilliamsonMellow Chick SwingThe Original Sonny Boy Williamson Vol. 2
Tampa Red EvalenaTampa Red Vol. 15 1951-1953
Tampa Red Rambler's BluesTampa Red Vol. 15 1951-1953
Big Bill BroonzyBig Bill's BoogieThe War & Postwar Years 1945-49
Big Bill BroonzyStop Lying WomanThe War & Postwar Years 1945-49
Washboard SamSoap And Water BluesRockin' My Blues Away
Washboard SamI Just Couldn't Help ItWashboard Sam Vol. 7 1942-1949

Show Notes:

Jazz GillumAs blues historian Paul Oliver noted, artists like Jazz Gillum, Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson, Washboard Sam and Sonny Boy Williamson, were "playing in the brash, confident manner of Chicago which had been developing through the 'thirties." Sam Charters characterized the sound as the "Bluebird Beat" or more unkindly as the "Melrose Mess" by Mike Rowe in his pioneering book Chicago Blues. As Rowe notes "it was a white businessman, Lester Melrose, who was really responsible for shaping the Chicago sound of the late 30's and 40's." Melrose had said "From March 1934 to February 1951 I recorded at least 90 percent of all rhythm-and-blues talent for RCA Victor and Columbia Records…" As Rowe further explains: "But Melrose had more than a large stable of blues artists under his control. Since only a few of them had regular accompanists most of them would play on each others records and thus Melrose has a completely self-contained unit… …The final stage of this musical incest was completed when they started recording each others songs." The result was a consistent, sometime cookie cutter sound, although the best artists would consistently transcend these limitations. The "Bluebird Sound" anticipated the Chicago blues of the post-war era featuring tight, smooth small band arrangements that were filled out with piano, bass drums and often clarinet or saxophone. I've always been a fan of the late period recordings by today's featured artists, in some cases a neglected or overlooked period, and today we spotlight recordings made between 1946 and 1953 which shows how their music evolved and how their sound led  to the rise of the electric Chicago blues sound of the 50's and the emergence of R&B..

Jazz Gillum is usually treated with indifference among blues critics, looked upon as a rather generic performer who typified the mainstream Chicago blues style of the 1930's and 40's. While there's some truth to this, Gillum's recordings were consistently entertaining throughout his sixteen-year recording career punctuated with a fair number of exceptional sides. Gillum was by no means a harmonica virtuoso but he was a very expressive, easygoing singer who penned a number of evocative songs backed by some of the era's best blues musicians. Gillum recorded 100 sides between 1934-49 as a leader in addition to session work with Big Bill Broonzy, Curtis Jones and the State Street Boys. Many of his records were characterized by strongly rhythmic support, credit for which must go largely to Big Bill Broonzy and later guitarist Willie Lacey.Washboard Sam

William McKinley Gillum was born in Indianola, Mississippi (B.B. King's birthplace as well) on September 11, 1904. He soon learned to play the harmonica. By 1918 he had a job in a drugstore in Greenwood, Mississippi and could often been seen on the streets playing music for tips. Five years later he migrated to Chicago. There he met guitarist Big Bill Broonzy and the two started working club dates around the city as a duo and would soon form an enduring recording partnership. Gillum made his recording debut for the Bluebird label in 1934 with "Early In The Morning" b/w "Harmonica Stomp." The records evidently didn't sell and Gillum didn't record again for two years. Gillum's recordings were very much in the Bluebird mold yet he often rose above the production line sound to record a fair number of high quality blues. Between 1934-1942 Gillum recorded 70 sides, every session featuring the fret work of Big Bill Broonzy. Gillum's most celebrated song during this period was "Key To The Highway" which he cut on May 9, 1940. Both Broonzy and Gillum claimed authorship of the song which was an enduring source of bitterness for Gillum. During World War II, there was a shortage of shellac and J.C. Patrillo, President of the American Federation of Musicians ordered a ban on all recordings. Gillum joined the Army in 1942 and served until 1945.

Gillum resumed recording in 1945 and in 1946 cut "Look On Yonder Wall" one of his most famous recordings. Starting in 1946 the brilliant William Lacey took over the guitar chores and his terrific electric work really adds a spark to Gillum's later recordings. Gillum made his last issued recordings as leader on January 25, 1949. Gillum would record once more on a 1961 date with Memphis Slim and Arbee Stidham. On March 29, 1966, during an argument, Gillum was shot in the head and was pronounced dead on arrival at Garfield Park Hospital in Chicago.

Washboard Sam recorded hundreds of records between 1935 and 1949 for the bluebird label, usually with backing by guitarist Big Bill Broonzy. Out of all the washboard players of the era, Sam was the most popular, which was due not only to his washboard talent, but also his skills as a highly imaginative songwriter and powerful, expressive vocalist. As an accompanist, Washboard Sam not only played with Broonzy, but also backed bluesmen like Bukka White, Memphis Slim, and Jazz Gillum. Sam added a phonograph turntable and a couple of cowbells to his washboard for added tone and his washboard playing is consistently driving and swinging.

Washboard Sam (born Robert Brown) was the illegitimate son of Frank Broonzy, who also fathered Big Bill Broonzy. Sam was raised in Arkansas, working on a farm. He moved to Memphis in the early '20s to play the blues. While in Memphis, he met Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon and the trio played street corners, collecting tips from passerby's. In 1932, Sam moved to Chicago. Initially he played for tips, but soon he began performing regularly with Big Bill Broonzy. Within a few years, Sam was supporting Broonzy on the guitarist's Bluebird recordings. Soon, he was supporting a number of different musicians on their recording sessions, including pianist Memphis Slim, bassist Ransom Knowling, and a handful of saxophone players, who all recorded for Bluebird. In 1935, Sam began recording for both Bluebird and Vocalion Records. Throughout the rest of the '30s and the '40s, Sam was one of the most popular Chicago bluesmen, selling plenty of records and playing to packed audiences in the Chicago clubs. In 1953, Washboard Sam recorded a session for Chess Records and then retired. In the early '60s, Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim tried to persuade Sam to return to the stage to capitalize on the blues revival. Initially, he refused, but in 1963 began performing concerts in clubs and coffeehouses in Chicago; he even played a handful of dates in Europe in early 1964. He cut his last sides in 1964 before passing in 1966.

Sonny Boy Williamson I
Sonny Boy Williamson I

Easily the most important harmonica player of the pre-war era, John Lee Williamson almost single-handedly made the harmonica a major instrument, leading the way for the amazing innovations of Little Walter and others who followed. Already a harp virtuoso in his teens, he learned from Hammie Nixon and Noah Lewis and ran with Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell before settling in Chicago in 1934. Sonny Boy signed to Bluebird in 1937. He recorded prolifically for Victor both as a leader and behind others in the vast Melrose stable (including Robert Lee McCoy and Big Joe Williams, who in turn played on some of Williamson's sides). Sonny Boy cut more than 120 sides in all for RCA from 1937 to 1947. John Lee was popular enough that by the 1940s, another blues harp player, Aleck/Alex "Rice" Miller, who was based in Helena, Arkansas, began also using the name Sonny Boy Williamson.

His first recording session was supported by the great Big Joe Williams, at the beginning of his distinguished career playing delta blues guitar. After this session Sonny Boy alternated between guitar and piano backups, occasionally using both at the same session. His most frequent accompanists were Big Bill Broonzy and the record company's "house" piano player Blind John Davis. Other famous accompanists over the years were Eddie Boyd, Yank Rachel, Big Maceo and Willie Dixon. But some say the best accompanist was Joshua Altheimer, a piano player who played on the seven numbers of a 1940 session and then died the next year. Writer Pete Welding noted that the only significant difference between Big Joe Williams and Sonny Boy and those of say Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf is the matter of electric amplification. Othewise all the ingredients are the same: guitar, harp, bass and drums. He continues, "Big Joe and John Lee stand as vital, connecting links between the older Mississippi style and those of the postwar years." Sonny Boy Williamson wouldn't live to reap any appreciable rewards from his inventions. He died at the age of 34, while at the zenith of his popularity (his romping "Shake That Boogie" was a national R&B hit in 1947 on Victor), from a violent bludgeoning about the head that occurred during an apparent mugging on the South side. "Better Cut That Out," another storming rocker later appropriated by Junior Wells, became a posthumous hit for Williamson in late 1948. Williamson's style had a profound influence on those who followed including Billy Boy Arnold, Junior Wells, Little Walter, and Snooky Pryor among many others.

Lonnie Johnson's place in blues history would have been immortalized if even if he had never recorded past the 1930's. It certainly would have made blues critics life easier who generally tend to dismiss Johnson's later recordings. Unfortunately, for them, Johnson persisted hooking up with the King label in the late 1940's, enjoying the biggest commercial success of his career and after a fallow period in the 1950's made a full fledged comeback in the 1960's before passing in 1970.

In latter years Lonnie Johnson couldn't win with blues or jazz fans. In the 1960's the blues and folk audience looked away in embarrassment when he sang "How Deep Is the Ocean," "My Mother's Eyes," or "Red Sails in the Sunset." The jazz crowd dismissed him as a relic. Supposedly Duke Ellington, with whom Johnson recorded with in 1928, declined to appear with this "old blues guy" when he guest-starred with Ellington's band at Town Hall in 1961. The New York Daily News caught the flavor of the moment with the headline "The Janitor Meets the Duke." As singer Barbara Dane noted: "…He was a very sophisticated player in a moment when the world was looking for the rough and earthy Delta players."

Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie Johnson

Today we spotlight sides waxed during Johnson's stint with King records which ran from 1947 through 1952 and resulted in close to seventy issued sides. When Johnson signed with King in 1947 his music and music in general was changing. By 1947 he had switched to electric guitar, was incorporating more ballads into his repertoire while the music was in transition from blues to R&B. It is true that Johnson reworked several of his earlier songs and perhaps over relied on a few signature guitar phrases during this period. Still, while many were unprepared for the changing musical times, Johnson seamlessly sailed into the new era not only achieving commercial success but also cutting music of a consistently high artistic caliber.

We featured some 1951 recordings which are complimented by tenor saxophonists Ray Felder and Wilbur "Red" Prysock: "It Was All in Vain" and "Me and My Crazy Self" are sublime blues ballads featuring some of Johnson's best vocal performances plus some nice guitar and tenor echoing off each other beautifully. Johnson concluded his King stint with a four song session in June 1952. Here Johnson is backed by trumpet, three tough saxes, and a kicking rhythm section headed by pianist Todd Rhodes. Backed by a wailing, full bodied band Johnson croons mightily on "I'm Guilty", "You Can't Buy Love" and the soaring "Can't Sleep Any More" the only number on which he solos for any length.

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