Sun 28 Dec 2008
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.
James 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 was 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
Roosevelt 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.
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)