1960’s Blues


Show Notes:

For today's show we continue with our ongoing series I call Forgotten Blues Heroes. For this installment we spotlight four great Mississippi bluesmen who didn't get the opportunity to record until the 1960's: James Brewer, Shirley Griffith, Roosevelt Holts and Houston Stackhouse. All these gentlemen were old enough to have been recorded earlier but opportunity passed them by until the blues revival of the 1960's. In addition to the resurrection of the legendary artists of the past like Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka White and Skip James there were a slew of older artists uncovered who got a chance to make some recordings. Unlike those who recorded back in the 1920's and 30's for the commercial record companies and black consumers, those who recorded in the 1960's were being recorded primarily for a a new found white audience with the records issued usually on tiny specialist labels. The benefit wasn't in sales of records so much as it was the fact that these recordings would be an entry way into the festival and coffeehouse circuit. Unfortunately many of these small labels never lasted into the CD era and hence many great albums remain long out of print. The bulk of today's recordings fall into that category and it seems only Houston Stackhouse is lucky enough to have just about all of his recordings available on CD. In upcoming installments of this series I plan on spotlighting other who made their debuts in the 1960's and 70's such as James "Son" Thomas, Sam Chatmon, Scott Dunbar, Joe Callicott, Bill Williams, Babe Stovall and Frank Hovington to name a few.

Jim Brewer - Tough LuckJames Brewer was born in Brookhaven, Mississippi on October 3rd 1920 and moved to Chicago in the 1940's where he spent the latter part of his life busking and performing both blues and religious songs at blues and folk festivals, on Chicago's Maxwell Street and other venues. While playing on the streets of Brookhaven in the 1930's he learned most of the religious songs that he continued to perform throughout his life. His father told him he could make more money playing blues and as he grew older he started performing at parties having learned his repertoire from records.  Following the death of his mother the family moved to Chicago where he eventually found his way to Maxwell Street. in the early 1950's he settled in St. Louis playing streetcars and taverns and also joined a washboard band for a spell. By the mid-50's he was back in Chicago where he married his wife Fannie. Brewer's new mother-in-law bought him an electric guitar and amplfier. Returning to Maxwell Street he devoted himself exclusively to religious music. In 1962, however, he was offered an opportunity to play blues at a concert at Northwestern University and also began a regular gig at the No Exit Cafe which lasted for two decades. He went on to play major festivals and clubs in the United States, Canada and Europe. He was recorded by Swedish Radio in 1964, cut sides for the Heritage label and Testament plus cut the full-length albums Jim Brewer (Philo, 1974) and Tough Luck (Earwig, 1983).

Born in 1907 near Brandon, Mississippi Shirley Griffith was certainly old enough to have made records in the 1920’s and 30’s and in fact had at least two opportunities to do so. In 1928 his friend and mentor, Tommy Johnson, offered to help him get started but, by his own account, he was too "wild and reckless" in those days. In 1928 he moved to Indianapolis where he became friendly with Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr. In 1935 Carr offered to take Griffith to New York for a recording session but Carr died suddenly and the trip was never made. It was Art Rosenbaum who was responsible for getting Griffith on record and who also precipitated the comeback of Scrapper Blackwell. Rosenbaum produced Griffith’s Bluesville albums. "I recall one August afternoon", he wrote in the notes to Saturday Blues, "shortly after these recordings were made; Shirley sat in Scrapper Blackwell’s furnished room singing the 'Bye Bye Blues' with such intensity that everyone present was deeply moved, though they had all heard him sing it many times before. Scrapper wasShirley Griffith - Mississippi Blues playing , too, and the little room swelled with sound. When they finished there was a moment of awkward silence. Finally Shirley smiled and said: ‘The blues'll kill you. And make you live, too.’"

Writing about another older musician who only recorded late in life, Tony Russell had this to say: “Through this streaked glass one can discern the outlines of a younger, quicker musician who unfortunately never recorded.” It would have been interesting to hear how Griffith sounded when he was younger but it’s hard to imagine him sounding much better than on these late recordings. His singing is superb on these recordings; warm, controlled and expressive, often drawing out his phrases in a relaxed, easy manner. His guitar playing is subtle, melodic and gently propulsive and contains hidden depths upon repeated listening.

Shirley Griffith missed his opportunity to record as a young man but recorded three superb albums: Indiana Ave. Blues (Bluesville, 1964, with partner J.T. Adams), Saturday Blues (Bluesville, 1965) and Mississippi Blues (Blue Goose, 1973). In addition some field recordings from the early 1960's were issued on the Flyright album Indianapolis Jumps. The fact that all these albums are out of print goes a ways in understanding why Griffith remains so little known. He also didn't benefit all that much from the renewed blues interest of the 1960's; he never achieving the acclaim of late discovered artists like Mississippi Fred McDowell, the critical appreciation of a Robert Pete Williams or the excitement surrounding rediscovered legends like Son House, Skip James or Mississippi John Hurt. He did achieve modest notice touring clubs with Yank Rachell in 1968, performed at the first Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969 and appeared at the Notre Dame Blues Festival in South Bend, Indiana in 1971. Griffith passed away in 1974

Presenting The Country BluesRoosevelt Holts was a country bluesman of considerable skill who in a small way was caught up in the blues boom of the 1960's, finally getting the opportunity to record scattered sides and a couple of LP's in the 1960's and 1970's. Holts, who was born in 1905, likely would have achieved greater recognition if he had gotten the chance to make records in the 1920's and 1930's as David Evans emphasized: "If he had been able to get to a record studio in the 1930's, his records would now be highly prized collector's items, reissued on albums and talked about by blues fans everywhere. He might have even been "rediscovered" and brought north to the cities for concerts and coffee house engagements before an audience of young whites who were not even born when he recorded his famous numbers." Holts was born in 1905 near Tylertown, Mississippi, and he took up the guitar when he was in his mid-twenties. He started to get serious about music in the late 1930's when he encountered Tommy Johnson. Folklorist David Evans began recording Holts in 1965 resulting in two LP's (both out of print): Presenting The Country Blues (Blue Horizon,1966) and Roosevelt Holts and Friends (Arhoolie, 1969-1970) plus the collection The Franklinton Muscatel Society featuring his earliest sides through 1969 which is available on CD.  In addition selections recorded by Evans appeared on the following anthologies (all out of print): Goin' Up The Country (Decca, 1968), The Legacy of Tommy Johnson (Matchbox, 1972), South Mississippi Blues (Rounder, 1974 ?), Way Back Yonder …Original Country Blues Volume 3 (Albatros, 1979 ?), Giants Of Country Blues Vol. 3 (Wolf, 199?) and a very scarce 45 ("Down The Big Road" b/w "Blues On Mind") cut for the Bluesman label in 1969.

Houston Stackhouse
Houston Stackhouse

Stackhouse's family moved to Crystal Springs, Mississippi in the mid-1920's, where he learned songs from Tommy Johnson and his brothers and took up guitar. In the early 1930's, he moved to Hollandale, Mississippi where his cousin, Robert Lee McCullum (later known as Robert Nighthawk) lived. It was Houston who taught Robert Nighthawk how to play the bottleneck guitar. In 1946, Houston moved to Helena, Arkansas where he played with Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) on The King Biscuit Time show, on KFFA Radio. His association with the King Biscuit show and his living in Helena brought him in contact with many of the great blues players. He played with Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Roosevelt Sykes and Earl Hooker. From the late 1940's and up until 1954, Houston worked for the Chrysler Corporation in Helena. He continued to play, but less frequently after he married in the late 1950's. Periodically, he returned to the King Biscuit show. In 1967 he made his first recordings cutting field recordings for George Mitchell and shortly after for David Evans. At the tail end of August 1967 George Mitchell recorded an impromptu combo who called themselves the Blues Rhythm Boys in Dundee, MS, a small town on route 61 roughly halfway between Tunica and Friars Point and just across the river from Helena, AR. The group consisted of Houston Stackhouse, Robert Nighthawk and James "Peck" Curtis. As I wrote in my notes to Prowling With The Nighthawk: "The music harks back to Nighthawk and Stackhouse's early delta days. Tommy Johnson's influence looms large with five of his songs being covered. In a way Nighthawk's life had come full circle; he was once again playing with Stackhouse who taught how to play guitar, Stackhouse in turn learned directly from Tommy Johnson and here were the two old friends performing the songs of Johnson together one final time. Nghthawk died less than two months after these recordings on Nov. 5 1967 of congestive heart failure at the Helena hospital. These 1967 recordings have been justly celebrated and long available, with the Mitchell sides appearing on Arhoolie’s Mississippi Delta Blues- Blow My Blues Away Vol. 1 & 2 and Robert Nighthawk & Houston Stackhouse – Masters of Modern Blues Volume 4 while the Evans recordings are available on  Big Road Blues on the Wolf label. In 1972 Stackhouse recorded Crying Won't Help You for the Adelphi label. He was part of The Memphis Blues Caravan, traveled around the Eastern states, toured Europe in 1970 and played the 1973 Ann Arbor Blues Festival with Joe Willie Wilkins under the name The King Biscuit Boys. He died in 1980

Related Articles: (Word Docs)

Shirley Griffith/Yank Rachell Concert Review by Leo Kunstadt (Record Research 9, 1968)

Snippet from 1941 film Blood of Jesus featuring music of the Black Ace

I am the Black Ace, I'm the boss card in your hand
But I'll play for you mama, if you please let me be your man

So were the words that drifted from the airwaves of station KFJZ out of Fort Worth, Texas in the late 1930's and early 1940's. Following in the long line of dramatic blues persona like Pettie Wheatstraw's High Sheriff From Hell or The Devil's Son-In-Law, Oscar Woods' Lone Wolf or Robert Nighthawk's Prowling Night-Hawk was the Black Ace who's real name was the equally prosaic Babe Kyro Lemon Turner. "I throwed the 'Lemon' away", he told Paul Oliver, "and just used the initials of Babe Kyro – B.K. Turner." During this period the Black Ace was well known, at least among black audiences, in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. He cut two sides for the ARC label in 1936 which were never issued but had better luck the following year cutting six sides for Decca in 1937 all of which were released. It was these sides that would later garner him notice among blues collectors and which led to a fleeting comeback. Comeback is probably not the right word as Turner had no interest in playing blues full time again although thankfully he was persuaded to record two sessions at his Fort Worth home in 1960 which were issued as The Black Ace on Arhoolie (reissued on CD as Black Ace: I'm The Boss Card In Your Hand which includes his 1937 sides plus a few other tracks that appeared on Arhoolie compilations). He was also captured on film for the 1962 documentary The Blues.

I've long been a fan of the Black Ace but what prompted this article was a 1941film called the The Blood Of Jesus. I've always been intrigued by this film because in every biography of the Black Ace it's noted that he plays a role in the film. I finally got a chance to view this fascinating film (I've uploaded a snippet to YouTube which can be viewed above) but as far as I can tell the Black Ace doesn't actually appear on camera, however we do get to hear a wonderful performance by him which he would later record on the Arhoolie album as "Golden Slipper", an evocative portrait of a good time joint:

Come on mama let's truck on down, to the Golden Slipper and break 'em down
913 on Taylor Street, they got good whiskey and plenty pigmeat
But watcha gonna do, when they break the Golden Slipper up
You won't have no where to go and get drunk and truck
The Golden Slipper bar is the best I know, you go here once you get a woman for sure
You don't want her don't you be no clown, drink your good whiskey and don't break down

They got green river whiskey and the price is right
We ain't gonna fuss and we ain't gonna fight
Get at a table and sit right down, drink good whiskey but we ain't gonna clown
But watcha gonna do, when they break the Golden Slipper up
You won't have no where to go and get drunk and truck

Blood of Jesus PosterRegarding the film I'll quote the Wikipedia entry: "The Blood of Jesus was the first film directed by Spencer Williams, who was one of the few African American directors of the 1940s. Williams began his career in the 1920s as an extra, and was later able to move up into writing scripts for all-black short comedies produced by the Al Christie studio. In 1939, he wrote two screenplays for the race film genre, the Western Harlem Rides the Range and the horror-comedy Son of Ingagi, and he also acted in these films. Williams was invited by Alfred N. Sack, president of the Dallas, Texas-based production/distribution company Sack Amusement Enterprises, to write and direct a series of all-black films that would be released to the U.S. cinemas catering to African American audiences. The Blood of Jesus was produced in Texas on a budget of $5,000. …The Blood of Jesus was screened in cinemas and in black churches.The film's commercial success enabled Williams to direct and write additional feature films for Sack Amusement Enterprises, including two films with religious themes: Brother Martin: Servant of Jesus (1942) and Go Down, Death (1944). For years, The Blood of Jesus was considered a lost film until prints were discovered in the mid-1980s in warehouse in Tyler, Texas."

The Black Ace from the 1962 film The Blues

While the Black Ace recorded little his small body of work is all one needs to fully appreciate a thoroughly unique performer; a man passionate and serious about his blues who played guitar in a masterful, complex and  improvisatory manner, accomplished in a style that few committed to posterity. As Oliver concluded in the notes to the Arhoolie album, he was one "of the few exponents of the flat Hawaiian guitar blues style who have been recorded, Oscar Woods is dead, and Kokomo Arnold – whom Black Ace resembles – has long since retired with no desire to play or sing again. These recordings of a great blues singer have the added importance that they may well be the last to be made of a style of blues which has all but vanished." Oliver elaborates on on Ace's style which he picked up from Oscar "Buddy" Woods but which he had honed to eventually eclipse his older mentor. Using a National steel-bodied Hawaiian guitar he at first "played this with a bottleneck in the traditional manner of the knife and bottleneck blues guitarists, but soon saw the possibilities of extending the range of the instrument by using a small medicine bottle to stop the strings at the frets. Holding this in the left hand and picking the strings finger-pick style but with the guitar placed horizontally, he could block whole cords in 'Sevastpol', tuning or stop individual notes by using both the sides and corners of the bottle. In this way he could play the open strings in a range of keys; and as he developed he devised a number of original tunings and unusual rhythmic patterns."

Black Ace LPHis resulting Arhoolie album is a real gem of the blues revival era all the more remarkable perhaps because he had long retired from blues and, as Oliver writes, his steel-bodied National "was gathering dust in the attic." Ace's remarkable technique is notable throughout although he never indulges in mere technique and even instrumental workouts like "Bad Times Stomp" and the gentle "Ace's Guitar Blues" have the unerring swing of his vocal numbers. Comparing these recordings with his earlier ones shows nary a trace of deterioration as his warm, vibrato heavy vocals deliver fine updates to his older numbers such as "New Triflin' Woman", "I Am The Black Ace" plus examples of his repertoire that were previously unrecorded including the stately "'Fore Day Creep", "Santa Fe Blues", the automotive double entendres of "Hitchhiking Woman" and the bouncy "Your Legs' Too Little." For some reason the moving "Farther Along" has been left off the CD which is a shame but doesn't detract from an album that should find its place in the library of all traditional blues fans. The Back Ace passed on November 7th, 1972 and as far as I can tell his last performance was that in the above mentioned 1962 documentary The Blues.

Bad Times Stomp [1960] (MP3)

'Fore Day Creep [1960] (MP3)

Golden Slipper [1960] (MP3)

Black Ace [1937](MP3)

Trifling Woman [1937] (MP3)

Whiskey and Women [1937] (MP3)

Black Ace Interview With Paul Oliver [1960] (MP3)



Show Notes:

Robert Nighthawk, Maxwell Street 1964

Today's show is called Maxwell Street Blues in tribute to Mike Shea's legendary film on Chicago's Maxwell Street Market, And This Is Free, which at long last has been re-released by Shanachie Records. And This Is Free was filmed over the course of sixteen Sundays on Chicago's Maxwell Street in 1964. The Maxwell Street open air market was a seven- to ten-block area in Chicago that from the 1920s to the middle 1960's played host to various blues musicians — both professional and amateur — who performed right on the street for tips from passerbys. Maxwell Street is an east-west street that intersects with Halsted Street just south of Roosevelt Road. Although there were many fine stationary department stores located in it, the area's most notable feature was its open air market, precursor to the flea market scene in Chicago. One could almost buy anything there, legal and illegal. In need of jobs and quick cash, fledgling entrepreneurs came to Maxwell Street – many say it was the largest open-air market in the country – to earn their livelihood. In 1994, the Maxwell Street Market was moved by the City of Chicago to accommodate expansion of the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was relocated a few blocks east to Canal Street and renamed the New Maxwell Street Market.

Among those who got their start on Maxwell Street were Little Walter, Earl Hooker and Hound Dog Taylor among many others. Those that appear in the film include Robert Nighthawk, Johnny Young, Jim Brewer and Arvella Gray, all of whom were recorded performing live on the street. All the music recorded during the filming was issued domestically in 2000 on the Rooster label on the 3-CD set And This Is Maxwell Street and we will be hearing several of these cuts on today's program. We will also be playing a number of cuts from the Ora Nelle label which was run by Bernard Abrams from his Maxwell Street Radio and Record shop located at 831 Maxwell Street, tracks by Big John Wrencher, Maxwell Street Jimmy, John Lee Granderson and James Brewer (all long time fixtures on the Street) plus some pre-war sides that reference Maxwell Street. In addition we will be playing excerpts from an interview with Gordon Quinn who was the sound engineer on And This Is Free.

Blind James Brewer and Gospel Group, Maxwell Street, 1964, Photo by Paul Oliver

Ira Berkow, who wrote the book Maxwell Street: Survival In A Bazaar, and contributes to the booklet, described Maxwell Street this way: "It was a carnival, it was a bazaar, it was, as some believed and perhaps with some credibility, a thieves' den; it was also home to snake charmers, a horse that could count with a clop of his hoof, an 'Indian chief' in war bonnet and penny loafers, honest businessmen, the ladies of the night (and morning and afternoon), Gypsies, Jews, Italians, Irish, Bohemians, Poles, Russians, Greeks, Latinos, blacks. As well as the birthplace of a number of prominent Americans. And this, more or less, just for starters." Hound Dog Taylor, a veteran of Maxwell Street, had this to say: "You used to get out on Maxwell Street on a Sunday Morning and pick you out a good spot, babe. Dammit, we'd make more money than I ever looked at. Put you out a tub, you know, and put a pasteboard in there, like a newspaper. I'm telling you, Jewtown was Jumpin' like a champ, jumpin' like mad on Sunday morning." Jewtown as the area was also known, was so named because, as Lori Grove writes in her excellent essay Historic Maxwell Street, the "Jewish immigrants were the largest and longest-standing ethnic group in the Maxwell Street neighborhood" who "established the old world marketplace and its reputation as a place where bargains could be found."

Back in 1960 Bjorn Englund and Donad R. Hill documented the blues on Maxwell street by recording some of the street's stalwarts including Arvella Gray, Daddy Stovepipe, king Davis and James Brewer. The recordings were issued in 1962 on the Heritage album Blues From Maxwell Street. The album is long out of print (i don't own this record so if anyone knows where I can get a copy let me know!) but the notes by Paul Oliver are worth quoting as they paint an evocative portrait of an era that has long passed. "At 1330 on South Halsted there is a minor intersection. The corners are crowded with people and temporary halls at anytime, but especially on Sunday, for the narrow road that cuts across Halsted is Maxwell and on Sunday morning the Maxwell Street Market is at its busiest. Maxwell Street is at once a sad an exciting place. The walls are blackened and the paint has peeled off the ill-fitting doors; garbage lies thick in the gutters and the narrow side alleys are littered with the refuse of years. To the West, the street loses its identity in the depressing anonymity of the bleak, poverty-struck roads that cross it; to the East it is an almost impassable market of stalls that suddenly give way to a vast, horizonless plain of mud and rubble and debris where an Expressway will sweep Southwards in the undated future. Amongst the rough-clad women who grope through the piles of discarded clothes and the tough, unsmiling men who pick their way through the wires, cables and electrical parts laid out haphazardly on the trestles – amongst the Blues From Maxwell Streetloiterers, the occasional sightseers and the pickpockets – are the beggars, as many as there are to be found in the shadows of the churches in a Southern Italian town, or along the shrouded streets of an "Arab Quarter." Beggars – but with one striking, exhilarating difference. These are not wheedling seekers after alms with cries of "baksheesh" or "Gawd Bless yer, guv" but proud men, creative artists, singers of the blues who accept the dimes and quarters as tokens of esteem for their paying and singing. If the blues in general has tended to become more sophisticated in recent years Maxwell Street exists as a living storehouse of the folk blues, the blues of the rambling man. And in its few hundred yards is pictured the life story of the blues singer of the streets, from the children who stand wide-eyed to the singers of  their to choice to the young men who are trying their luck and their talent on the critical audience of the market; from the tough music and manner of the street singer of many years to the fading abilities to the old men who have played in the street in all weathers for more years then they can count."

Today's program opens with a pair pf pre-war cuts. Papa Charlie Jackson is known to have busked around Chicago in the early 1920's, playing for tips on Maxwell Street, as well as the city's Westside clubs beginning in 1924. He cut some 70 sides between 1924-1934, most for the Paramount label. His "Mawell Street Blues" shows he was well aquintated with the seedier side of the street:

Because Maxwell Street's so crowded on a Sunday, you can hardly passed through
There's Maxwell Street Market, got Water Street Market too
If you ain't got no money, the women got nothing for you to do
I got the Maxwell Street blues, mama and it just won't pay
Because the Maxwell Street women, going to carry me to my grave
I live six twenty-four Maxwell, mama and I'm taking about you

Little is known about his background. Blind Percy was likely Joe Taggart who recorded mainly gospel but sound more worldly as he too sings about those Maxwell Street women on "Fourteenth Street Blues:"

Fourteenth Street women, don't mean a man no good
Go out and get full of liquor, wake up the whole neighborhood

Today's show features several tracks from the Ora Nelle label which was founded in 1947 by Bernard Abrams who operated Maxwell Street Radio and Record shop located at 831 Maxwell Street. Two 78's were released; "I Just Keep Loving Her" (Ora Nelle 711) and "Money Taking Woman" (Ora Nelle 712). The label's name supposedly came from Walter's girlfriend. These were Walter's first recordings. Additional recordings were made by Jimmy Rogers (also his first), Boll Weavil, Sleepy John Estes, Johnnie Temple which were not released at the time. All of the Ora Nelle recordings can be found on the CD Chicago Boogie 1947 on the P-Vine label, a reissue of an album originally issued on George Paulus' Barrelhouse label in the 1970's. Boll Weevil (Willie McNeal) cut a pair of acetates for the label circa 1947-48, including "Christmas Time Blues" b/w "Thinkin' Blues", and recorded once more in 1956 for another mom and pop label called Club 51.

Maxwell Street Alley BluesOne-Armed harmonica player Big John Wrencher was a recognizable fixture of Maxwell Street. Wrencher was a traveling musician, playing throughout Tennessee and neighboring Arkansas from the late 1940's to the early 1950's. In 1958 Wrencher lost his left arm in a car crash in Memphis. By the early 1960's he had moved North to Chicago and quickly became a regular fixture on Maxwell Street, always working on Sundays from 10:00 a.m. to nearly 3:00 in the afternoon. His first recordings surfaced on a pair of Testament albums from the 1960's, featuring Big John in a sideman role behind Robert Nighthawk. He cut the excellent Maxwell Street Alley Blues (recorded in 1969 and issued in 1978) for the Barrelhouse label (reissued on CD on the P-Vine label) and cut Big John's Boogie for the British Big Bear label in 1975. He also cut a 45 and we play "Memphis To Maxwell Street" from that record. Big John Wrencher passed in 1977.

Nighthawk's performances form the centerpiece of the recordings made on An This Is Maxwell Street. Nighthawk is present on 22 of the 30 selections. Nighthawk really stretches out on some of his old classics including the stunning medley of his two biggest hits "Anna Lee/Sweet Black Angel" as well as a storming reprise of his "Take it Easy Baby" which he first cut in 1937 for Bluebird. Nighthawk shows off his wide repertoire playing Big Joe Turner's "Honey Hush", Dr. Clayton's "Cheating and Lying Blues" and Percy Mayfield's "I Need Love So Bad." In an interview done by Mike Bloomfield, Nighthawk, reflected on what brought him back to Maxwell Street: "Lately I went back to Maxwell St.- I been playing off and on for 24 years now. Most all music more or less starts right off from Maxwell St. and so you wind up going back there. …See it's more hard to play out in the street than it is in a place of business, but you have more fun in the street, looks like. Well, so many things you can see, so many different things going on, I get a kick out of it, I guess."

Arvella Gray

We also play tracks by Maxwell Street stalwarts Arvella Gray, James Brewer, John Lee Granderson and Maxwell Street Jimmy. Arvella Gray made his first recordings in 1960 (released on the Decca and Heritage labels) and in early 1964 he made sides for his own Gray label, selling the 45's on the street. He was also recorded by a team from Swedish Radio the same year. He was regular performer on Maxwell Street on Sundays. Gray's only album, 1972's The Singing Drifter was reissued on the Conjuroo label in 2005. James Brewer aka Blind James Brewer ("My mother didn't name me ‘Blind', she named me ‘Jim'") was born in Brookhaven, Mississippi, moved to Chicago in the 1940s spending the latter part of his life busking and performing both blues and religious songs at blues and folk festivals, on Chicago's Maxwell Street and other venues. He too was recorded by Swedish Radio, cut sides for the Heritage label, Testament plus cut the full-length albums Jim Brewer for Philo and Tough Luck for Earwig. In addition to the full length Hard Luck John (issued posthumously in 1998), Tennessee bluesman John Lee Granderson cut sides on other Testament compilations with further sides appearing on various anthologies. Among those Granderson played with were Robert Nighthawk, Big Joe Williams and Daddy Stovepipe. Charles Thomas aka Maxwell Street Jimmy, wrote Pete Welding was "one of the finest and most expressive of blues performers who regularly work the street…In his dark, urgent, powerful singing and rhythmically incisive guitar playing are strong, pungent echoes of his youth in the Mississippi delta, that spawning ground of so many great bluesmen." Jimmy recorded little, his best being his lone album, his long out of print self-titled release for Elektra in 1965. Welding's liner notes to the album paint a vivid portrait of Maxwell Street in the 1960's:"Every Sunday morning from late spring to early autumn–whenever, in fact, the weather is warm and clement–the pungent, earthy sound of the traditional blues rings loudly through the streets of Chicago. In the city's bustling open-air Maxwell Street flea market area, where one can haggle for anything form high-button shoes to a winnowing machine, the cries of the hawkers and vendors mingle sharply with the acrid, pain-filled shouts of the blues singer and the fervent moans of the sidewalk evangelist. Through most of contemporary America, street singing is a fast disappearing folk art. Municipal legislation and the compulsory licensing of peddlers have seen to that in most large US cities, and the days of the itinerant sidewalk minstel seem sadly though inevitably numbered. Except, that is, in Chicago. If anything, the art appears to be thriving here. It's tied directly, or course, to the continued flourishing of the Maxwell Street market as a vigorous facet of Chicago culture that has refused to give up the ghost in the face of urban renewal, increasing cultural homogeneity and other aspects of modern 'progress'."

Carrie Robinson, Maxwell Street 1964


Show Notes:

Vee-Jay was one of Chicago's most successful labels. Until the advent of Motown during the early 1960s, it was the country's largest black-owned record company. Four individuals were most responsible for the Vee-Jay, The Chicago Black Musicsuccess of the label: James Bracken and Vivian Carter who founded the company in mid-1953; Vivian's brother, Calvin Carter, who was the principal producer and A&R man; and Ewart Abner, Jr. A fifth individual, Art Sheridan, was a secret partner in the company. Vee-Jay was founded in Gary, Indiana in 1953 by Vivian Carter and James C. Bracken (later that year, Mr. & Mrs. Bracken), who used their first initials for the label's name.  In a short time, Vee-Jay was the most successful black- owned record company in the United States. By 1963, they were charting records faster than some of the major labels. They were the first U.S. company to have the Beatles. In one month alone in early 1964, they sold 2.6 million Beatles singles. Two years later, the company was bankrupt. Early on, Vee-Jay became involved in gospel music and recorded many of the top acts in the field, notably the Staple Singers, the Swan Silvertones, the Original Five Blind Boys, and the Highway QC's. Early jazz performers included Tommy Dean, Turk Kincheloe, and Julian Dash. But Vee-Jay established itself as a hitmaker with doowop groups and blues singers. The biggest groups were the Spaniels, the El Dorados, and the Dells, but the label could boast a host of lesser names, such as the Magnificents, the Kool Gents, and the Rhythm Aces. Vee-Jay in 1955 considerably expanded its stable of blues acts, adding Eddie Taylor (as a reward for his stellar accompaniment to Jimmy Reed), L. C. McKinley, Billy Boy Arnold, Morris Pejoe, Billy "The Kid" Emerson, and the great John Lee Hooker.

The bulk of today's tracks come from several fine box sets: Vee Jay, The Chicago Black Music (P-Vine), The Definitive Collection (Shout Factory), Jimmy Reed: The Vee-Jay Years (Charley) and John Lee Hooker The Vee-Jay Years (Charley). The 4-CD P-Vine collection is probably the best collection from a blues standpoint while the Shout Factory 4-CD is more of an overall view. Both Charley sets are 6-CD collections that contain everything Hooker and Reed cut for Vee-Jay. Below is some background on today's artists.

Jimmy Reed was Vee-Jay's second signing. He was born Mathis James Reed on September 6, 1925, on a Just Jimmy Reedplantation near Dunleith, Mississippi. Reed moved to Chicago in 1943, and after service in the Navy during World War II settled in Gary, Indiana. The first session in June 1953 produced no hits, but "Roll And Rhumba" (Vee-Jay 100) sold enough under both Vee-Jay and Chance imprints to keep the fledgling company interested. A second session near or at the end of the year produced Reed's first national hit, "You Don't Have to Go," which upon release in early 1955 lasted 10 weeks and went to #5 on the Billboard R&B chart. The key ingredient in the Jimmy Reed sound was the addition of guitarist Eddie Taylor who provided a firm drive to the songs. Reed soon emerged as one of the biggest blues acts in the country.

Bluesman Eddie Taylor was born in Benoit, Mississippi, on January 29, 1923. As a youngster he took up guitar. In 1943, he moved to Memphis, and worked in the Beale Street clubs. In 1949 Taylor moved to Chicago, initially playing in Maxwell Street but then moving into the clubs. In 1953 he began working with Jimmy Reed, who was a childhood friend in the Delta. His guitar work played a large role in the success of Jimmy Reed's records. Taylor also appeared on the February 1954 sessions with Floyd Jones and Sunnyland Slim and in January 1955, Vee-Jay rewarded Taylor by giving him another chance to record numbers of his own.

John Lee Hooker signed with Vee-Jay in 1955, experiencing his breakthrough session for in March 1956. There with guitarist Eddie Taylor, bassist George Washington, and drummer Tom Whitehead, he laid down one of the strongest sessions of his career. Even though "Dimples" did not make the Billboard national R&B chart, it was a genuine national hit, getting played on radio stations across the country. Hooker remained with Vee-Jay until 1964, recording a load of LPs, and producing a notable pop hit, "Boom Boom," in 1962.

Harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold first began performing on 47th Street with Bo Diddley's street band. He made his first recording in 1953 for the highly obscure Cool label." After Bo Diddley was signed to Chess in February 1955, Arnold recorded a couple of his own numbers at the end of the first Bo Diddley session, buThe Big Soult Leonard Chess did not seem interested in releasing them. So Arnold went to Vee-Jay, where he recorded his great number, "I Wish You Would" (this was really the same tune that Bo Diddley recorded on his second session as "Diddley Daddy"). The session took place on May 5, 1955; his supporting band included Henry Gray (piano), Jody Williams (electric guitar), Milton Rector (on the then-novel electric bass), and Earl Phillips (drums).

Pianist Tommy Dean was born in Franklin, Louisiana, on September 6, 1909, and grew up in Beaumont, Texas. By the time he reached adulthood he was a full-time musician. During much of the 1930s he worked in carnivals and circuses, then near the end of the decade was hired by the Eddie Randle Band in St. Louis. He eventually left Randle and formed his own band, and by 1945 was working the clubs in Chicago. Before he joined Vee-Jay, Tommy Dean recorded for Town & Country in St. Louis, and Miracle, Chance, and States in Chicago. His band for Vee-Jay included Joe Buckner a blues singer who was born in St. Louis in 1924.

Soulful blues singer Billy "the Kid" Emerson was born William Robert Emerson in Tarpon Springs, Florida, on December 21, 1929. His first recordings were made with Sun Records in Memphis in 1954-55, when he cut "Red Hot," which subsequently became a rockabilly staple. In 1955, Emerson joined Vee-Jay Records.

A T-Bone Walker disciple, guitarist L. C. McKinley, was born on 22 October 1918, in Winona, Mississippi, but had relocated to Chicago by 1941. In the early 1950s he was a regular headliner at the famed 708 Club; in 1951 and 1952, he recorded as a sideman with pianist Eddie Boyd for JOB, appearing on Boyd's biggest hit, "Five Long Years." He first recorded as a leader in 1953 for the Parrot label, but label owner Al Benson chose not to release his session. He probably also did some further session work during this period. The guitarist's next session under his name was with States, in 1954. The following year, he recorded two sessions for Vee-Jay.

Vee-Jay: The Early Years

Vee-Jay Records: The Official Website

The Vee-Jay Story


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