Chicago Blues

John Lee HookerRoad TroubleThe Complete John Lee Hooker Vol. 2
John Lee HookerTalkin' BoogieThe Complete John Lee Hooker Vol. 2
Homesick James Farmer's Blues Chicago Slide Guitar Legend
Homesick James Whiskey Headed Woman Chicago Slide Guitar Legend
Jo-Jo AdamsDidn't I Tell YouJo-Jo Adams 1946-1953
Jo-Jo AdamsI 've Got A Crazy BabyJo-Jo Adams 1946-1953
Sunnyland SlimTrain Time (4 O'Clock Blues)Sunnyland Slim & Pals
Sunnyland SlimRoll, Tumble and Slip (I Cried) Sunnyland Slim & Pals
Little Walter That's Alright Chicago Boogie
Jimmy Reed High Lonesome Jimmy Reed: The Vee-Jay Years
Johnny WilliamsFat Mouth Chance Vintage Blues/R&B Crops Vol. 1
Big Boy SpiresWhich One Do I LoveChance Vintage Blues/R&B Crops Vol. 1
Big Boy SpiresMy Baby Left Me Chance Vintage Blues/R&B Crops Vol. 1
Big Boy SpiresAbout To Lose My MindDown Home Blues Classics Chicago
Homesick James WartimeChicago Slide Guitar Legend
Homesick JamesHomesick BluesChicago Slide Guitar Legend
Homesick JamesThe Woman I LoveChicago Slide Guitar Legend
Tampa RedBBaby Please Don't Throw Me DownTampa Red Vol. 15 1951-1953
Tampa RedPlease Mr. Doctor Tampa Red Vol. 15 1951-1953
Tampa RedBeat That Bop Tampa Red Vol. 15 1951-1953
Homesick JamesLate Hours After MidnightChicago Slide Guitar Legend
Homesick James12th Street StationChicago Blues: The Chance Era
Willie Nix No More LoveDown Home Blues Classics Chicago
Willie NixNervous Wreck Downhome Blues Classics: Chicago
Willie NixJust Can't Stay Downhome Blues Classics: Chicago
Lazy Bill LucasI Had A DreamDown Home Blues Classics: Chicago
Lazy Bill LucasI Can't Eat, Can't SleepChicago Blues: The Chance Era
Lazy Bill LucasShe Got Me Walkin' Down Home Blues Classics: Chicago
J.B. Hutto & His HawksPet Cream ManDown Home Blues Classics: Chicago
J.B. Hutto & His HawksDim LightsDown Home Blues Classics: Chicago
J.B. Hutto & His HawksPrice Of Love Chicago Blues: The Chance Era
J.B. Hutto & His HawksCombination Boogie Down Home Blues Classics: Chicago

Show Notes:

Chance Records was a Chicago-based label founded in 1950 by Art Sheridan. Chance was one of many independent Chicago labels from this period with a slant towards blues; several labels we've spotlighted in previous shows like J.O.B.Mercury, United/States, Aristocrat, Vee-Jay plus a slew of others like Parrot, Opera, Blue Lake, Hy-Tone, Miracle and many others. The bulk of today's notes come from The Red Saunders Research Foundation website, a tremendous repository of information on the Chicago music scene in the post-war era.

Jo Jo Adams Billboard, Nov. 15, 1952

Homesick James Billboard, Feb. 28, 1953

Chance cut 362 known sides from September 1950 through October 1954. In addition, Chance purchased or licensed at least 42 sides. There was one release on its very short-lived tributary Meteor and nine on its later subsidiary Sabre. The bulk of Chance's output was in the R&B field, which reflected the knowledge amassed by the label's founder and owner, Art Sheridan. Sheridan (born July 16, 1925 in Chicago) had been running a distributorship and a pressing plant, where the preponderance of his work was with African-American oriented product. Chance specialized in blues, jazz, doo-wop, and gospel. Among the acts who recorded for Chance were The Flamingos, The Moonglows, Homesick James, J. B. Hutto, Brother John Sellers, and Schoolboy Porter. In addition, Chance released three singles by John Lee Hooker and made a coordinated issue of the first singles by Jimmy Reed and The Spaniels with the brand-new and still tiny Vee-Jay Records. At the beginning of 1953 Chance also formed a brief alliance with J.O.B. label. Sheridan would distribute and market both labels through the distribution channels he established. The company closed down at the end of 1954. Sheridan went on to became one of the financial backers of Vee-Jay. Below is some background on today's artists.

The first tracks to be leased or purchased by the Chance operation were six 1949 recordings by bluesman John Lee Hooker and released by Chance in 1951 and 1952. These were obtained Joe Von Battle in Detroit; featuring just Hooker's vocals and guitar, these were reportedly recorded in the back of Von Battle's record store and they certainly sound like it. They were issued on Chance as by John Lee Booker which I'm sure didn't fool anyone. We kick off today's program with Hooker's "Talkin' Boogie" and "Road Trouble."

Among the first Chicago blues artists the label released were Sunnyland Slim and Little Walter. For more than 50 years Sunnyland Slim rumbled the ivories around the Windy City, playing with virtually every local luminary imaginable and backing the great majority in the studio at one time or another. Today's tracks were originally issued on the Opera label in 1947 then purchased and issued on Chance under the moniker Delta Joe. In 1952 Art Sheridan snapped up two further blues releases from now-defunct Chicago independents. He resuscitated the two sides that Little Walter Jacobs had cut in 1947 for Ora Nelle, with Jimmy Rogers and Othum Brown in the back of a Maxwell Street record shop. As Mike Rowe wrote in seminal Chicago Blues "the record was obviously released in an attempt to cash in on the huge success  that Walter was enjoying with Checker." Both the Sunnyland and the Walter records were released by Chance in 1952.

On June 12, 1952 the company did its first recordings on a downhome bluesman, the bottleneck guitar player and singer James Williamson, who would become known as Homesick James. Williamson was born John William Henderson most likley in 1910, in Somerville, Tennessee. He claimed to have played in the 1930's with blues notables such as Memphis Minnie, Sleepy John Estes and Sonny Boy Williamson I, which may well have been true, and to have recorded in 1939 with the Memphis street singer, Little Buddy Doyle, which almost certainly was not. As the blues writer David Whiteis noted: "He was a bluesman of the old school, through and through – a trickster from his heart." He first moved to Chicago in 1937 and played some local clubs. He returned to Memphis during the war years, but in the early 1950's settled again in Chicago. Williamson played a bit on Maxwell Street, and toured with the Elmore James band. Also during the 1950's he played in the city's clubs, often with the harmonica player Snooky Pryor or with the pianist Lazy Bill Lucas, who accompanied him on his first recordings, "Lonesome Old Train" and "Farmer's Blues", for the Chance label. James cut thirteen sides for Chance including some unissued material. Williamson later recorded for Prestige, Delmark, Earwig, and lastly Icehouse (in 1997). He died December 13, 2006, in Springfield, Missouri.

November 1952 saw a session with flamboyant uptown blues singer Jo Jo Adams, backed by the band of bebop trumpeter Melvin Moore. Of his start, Adams told Living Blues magazine "I started playing the blues when I saw a man standing on the stage and he was getting big money. He had a red pocket hand'chief around his neck and coveralls and I said, 'That's not the way it's supposed to go'. I introduced color to the stage. My tailor-made tails that were 55 inches long – when I spun around you could shoot dice on them!" At the time of his Chance date, Adams and Moore were working at the Flame Show Bar, where the show was billed as "The Jo Jo Show, starring Dr. Jo Jo Adams, Bennie Pittman, Laura Watson, Melvin Moore's Band." Besides singing, Adams served as MC at the Flame. Adams was born in Alabama at an unknown date and died in Chicago in 1988. He broke in at the Club DeLisa and made his first recordings with Floyd Smith's group for the Hy-Tone label in December 1946. He followed up with six sides for Aladdin in 1947, recorded in Los Angeles with the Maxwell Davis band, and 6 more for Aristocrat Aristocrat, which were done in Chicago in 1947 and 1948. He would record just one more session, for Parrot in 1953.

Sheridan began working with Vee-Jay Records in 1953, which had just set up shop and had two releases, one by the the doowop group the Spaniels and one by the bluesman Jimmy Reed. The company was owned by two neophytes, Jimmy Bracken and Vivian Carter, who had no distribution and little knowledge of the business. When the Spaniels' record, "Baby It's You," started generating interest, Chance picked it up for national distribution and it became a top ten R&B record. Reed's "High and Lonesome" b/w "Roll and Rhumba," also saw some local action, and picked up national sales from Chance distribution.

Johnny Williams was born in Alexandria, Louisiana, on May 15, 1906. He was raised first in Houston and then in Belzoni, Mississippi. His uncle played with Charlie Patton, and Williams got to know Patton and other legendary Delta bluesmen. Williams began performing in the late 1920's, arriving in Chicago in 1938. During much of the 1940's Williams played house parties. After World War II, he fell into the Maxwell Street scene, performing most often with Johnny Young. His only recording, cut in 1953, "Silver Haired Woman b/w Fat Mouth" was not released until the 1970s'.

Arthur "Big Boy" Spires cut a handful of brilliant down home sides for Checker and Chance in the 1950's and unissued sides in the 1960's for Testament before arthritis cut his career short. Spires was born in Yazoo City, Mississippi in 1912 and was inspired by local musicians. Spires moved to Chicago in 1943 and in the late 1940's began playing the Southside clubs with Eddie El and Little Earl Dranes. The trio made some demo recordings and Spires was picked up by Chess Records. He first pairing was "Murmur Low b/w One of These Days" which was issued on Checker in 1952. In 1953 he cut a session for Chance resulting in one issued record: "About To Lose My Mind b/w Which One Do I Love." He cut four other Chance sides that were not issued at the time but released decades later on various collections. Around this time he formed his own band called the Rocket Four playing various clubs around town until giving up music around 1959. In 1965 Spires and Johnny Young cut a batch of sides for Testament that went unissued except for "21 Below Zero" which came out on a compilation on the Storyville label. After the Testament session he worked mainly outside music and passed away in 1990

In 1953 Chance cut six sides by veteran Tampa Red. Chance put out the Tampa Red releases as by Jimmy Eager and His Trio, as Tampa was still under contract with RCA Victor at the time. He further disguised his identity by giving all of the guitar work to Lefty Bates. However, the composer credits went to Hudson Whittaker (which was Tampa Red's real name). Chance held the "Jimmy Eager" material for the initial release on its new Sabre label. Bates plays some stunning guitar on these sides but sadly cut little under his own name. For many years he was a stalwart at Chicago blues clubs such as the legendary Theresa’s, and appeared in the second guitar position on many records by blues giants such as Tampa Red, Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker and Buddy Guy. Bates can also be heard doing session work for Chicago labels like Vee-Jay, Chance and Club 51

Willie Nix made his first records in Memphis for RPM in 1951, and cut sides for Chess Records' Checker offshoot in 1952. Sam Philips signed him up as "the Memphis Blues Boy" for Sun in early 1953, as a singing drummer with a band. He landed at Chance in 1954. Chance carried on a heavy recording schedule in October, recording bluesman Willie Nix, guitarist Rudolph Spencer "Rudy" Greene, and Lazy Bill. On October 14th the label recorded "Just Can't Stay" b/w "All by Myself," which saw release in November on Sabre 104. The band consisted of Nix on drums, Eddie Taylor on guitar, Sunnyland Slim on piano, and Snooky Pryor on harmonica. The other two sides from the session were released on Chance 1163 in November 1954.  Rowe describes "Just Can't Stay" as "a brilliant updating of a traditional theme of unrequited love to the urban setting with its images of hustlers, whores, and easy money."

Piano player and vocalist, Lazy Bill Lucas, was born May 29, 1918, in Wynne, Arkansas, and came to Chicago in 1941 where he met Big Joe Williams and toured with John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson in the 40'’s. Lazy Bill also played piano on records by Homesick James, Little Willie Foster, Little Hudson, Snooky Pryor and Jo Jo Williams. He cut "She Got Me Walking b/w I Had A Dream" for Chance in 1953. Two other songs from the same session, "My Baby’s Gone b/w I Can’t Eat, I Can’t Sleep", were not issued until decades later. In 1955 he cut two sides for Excello with the group the Blue Rockers. He moved to Minneapolis in 1962 where he was active for close to two decades. He was the first host of the Lazy Bill Lucas Show on KFAI and cut three LP’s during the late 60's and early 70's. He remained active right up to his death on December 11, 1982. His "I Had A Dream" was an update of Sylvester Weaver's 1927 number "Devil Blues":

I had a dream I was sleeping, found myself way down below (2x)
I couldn't get to heaven, you know the place I had to go

The Devil had me cornered, stuck me with his old pitch fork (2x)
He put me in an oven, had me for roast pork

Lucas was a witty song smith as he further proved in "She Got Me Walking" as he name drops his blues buddies:

I don't want to see Snook, not even Homesick James
The way my baby left me, I really believe he's to blame

We close out with a quartet of tough sides by J.B. Hutto.  Slide guitarist J.B. Hutto was born in Blackville, South Carolina, on April 26, 1926. He came to Chicago with his family in 1949. Hutto had originally sung in a gospel group, and played drums, but after arriving in Chicago he taught himself guitar. He formed his band, the Hawks, with "Earring" George Mayweather on harp, Joe Custom on second guitar, and Eddie "Porkchop" Hines on drums or washboard. Hutto's first sides on Chance, recorded in either January or February, represent an extraordinary debut. One of our selections, "Price of Love", was unissued at the time and made a belated appearance on a Delta Swing LP in the 1970's. Hutto did not get on record again until 1965, when he was picked up by Vanguard for its Chicago Blues compilation series; he went on to make the classic Hawk Squat for Delmark in 1967.

Lil GreenRomance In The DarkLil Green 1940-1941
Lil GreenKnockin' Myself OutLil Green 1940-1941
Lil GreenWhy Don't You Do Right? Lil Green 1940-1941
St. Louis JimmyBack on My Feet, AgainSt. Louis Jimmy Oden Vol. 1 1932-1944
St. Louis JimmyYour Evil WaysLivin' That Wild Life: The Herald-Ember Blues & Gospel Masters Vol. 1
St. Louis JimmyDog House BluesSt. Louis Jimmy Oden Vol. 2 1944-1955
Arthur CrudupIf I Get LuckyArthur Crudup Vol. 1 1941-1946
Arthur CrudupChicago Blues Arthur Crudup Vol. 1 1941-1946
Arthur CrudupKeep Your Arms Around MeArthur Crudup Vol. 1 1941-1946
Merline JohnsonHe Roars Like A LionMerline Johnson Vol. 1 1937-1938
Merline JohnsonSeparation BluesMerline Johnson Vol. 2 1938-1939
Merline JohnsonCrime Don't PayMerline Johnson Vol. 1 1937-1938
Tommy McCLennanWhisky Head Woman The Bluebird Recordings 1939-1941
Tommy McCLennanYou Can Mistreat Me HereThe Bluebird Recordings 1939-1941
Tommy McCLennanBottle It Up And GoThe Bluebird Recordings 1939-1941
Lil GreenI'm A FoolLil Green 1942-1946
Lil GreenMy Mellow ManLil Green 1940-1941
Lil GreenLast Go Round BluesLil Green 1942-1946
St. Louis Jimmy Going Down Slow St. Louis Jimmy Oden Vol. 1 1932-1944
St. Louis Jimmy Florida HurricaneSt. Louis Jimmy Oden Vol. 2 1944-1955
St. Louis Jimmy Hard Work Boogie (Hard Luck Boogie)St. Louis Jimmy Oden Vol. 2 1944-1955
Arthur CrudupCrudup's After Hours BluesArthur Crudup Vol. 2. 1946-1949
Arthur CrudupHand Me Down My Walking CaneArthur Crudup Vol. 2. 1946-1949
Arthur CrudupThat's All Right Arthur Crudup Vol. 2. 1946-1949
Merline JohnsonGot A Man In The 'Bama MinesMerline Johnson Vol. 1 1937-1938
Merline JohnsonBad Whiskey BluesOKeh Chicago Blues
Merline JohnsonYou Can't Shoot Your PistolMerline Johnson Vol. 2 1938-1939
Tommy McCLennanCotton Patch BluesThe Bluebird Recordings 1939-1941
Tommy McCLennanCross Cut SawThe Bluebird Recordings 1939-1941
Tommy McCLennanBoogie Woogie WomanThe Bluebird Recordings 1939-1941
St. Louis JimmyMother's DaySunnyland Slim & His Pals: The Classic Sides
Arthur CrudupIf You Ever Been To GeorgiaArthur Crudup Vol. 4 1952-1954

Show Notes:

Read Notes:  Pt. 1 / Pt. 2 Read Notes:  Pt. 1 / Pt. 2

Today's show is a companion of sorts to a pair we did a couple of years back where we spotlighted popular 30's and 40's artists like Washboard Sam, Jazz Gillum, Sonny Boy Williamson I, Bumble Bee Slim, Bill Gaither, Johnnie Temple, and Doctor Clayton, all stars on the 30's and 40's Chicago blues scene. Today we feature several more  artists from this period, both well known and little remembered; on tap today are female singers Lil Green and Merline Johnson, southern styled artists like Tommy McClennan and Arthur Crudup and the contemplative blues of St. Louis Jimmy.

In spite of the economic depression of the 1930's, blues as a business was slowly but steadily on the upswing. With a wealth of talent available, and more arriving every day to both make and buy records, a few large record companies were regularly recording in Chicago. Brunswick, RCA Victor/Bluebird, Columbia, and others set up offices and studios, and with the influence of professional A&R men and producers (most notably Lester Melrose at Bluebird), certain subcategories and signature sounds began emerging. Particularly notable was the "Bluebird sound. 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. All of today's artists recorded for Bluebird, if only briefly, while Arthur Crudup, Lil Green and Tommy McClennan spent virtually their entire career with the label.

Lil Green is one of those artists that made a big impression on me when I first heard her. I was working at the college radio station at the time when I found a closet filled with unsorted records. Of course I had to go through every one of them and there I uncovered the album Lil Green: Romance In The Dark on the RCA label. That record got plenty of spins and I've been a fan ever since. Also in that closet was another album in that same series, Arthur Crudup: The Father Of Rock And Roll. Both albums boasted a fine selection of tunes, great photos and liner notes Liner notes by Leonard Feather on the Green and Stephen Calt on the Crudup, presented in gatefold sleeves.

Classifying singers like Lil Green are tough as Feather points out: "…she was  not strictly a  bIues Performer. A few of the  tracks  in  this album  are  based  on  the classic 12-bar formula,  but  most of the others are cast in the popular song mold. Lil Green could better be classified as an an entertainer who sang, generally for black audiences, the kind of music that was categorized during the 1940s as rhythm and blues." The following comes from I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy by Bob Reisman: " According to Lil Green, after she had been orphaned at age ten in Clarksdale, Mississippi, she had moved in 1929 to Chicago, where she dropped out of high school. R. H. Harris, the gifted lead singer of the gospel group the Soul Stirrers, reported that she had killed a man in a brawl and been sent to prison for her crime. He remembered visiting the prison so that he could hear her sing in the Sunday services. Her professional career was launched around 1940, when the manager of a Chicago club hired her on the spot after a group of her friends had arranged for a bandleader to call her up from the audience to sing.By May 1940 Green had come to the attention of Lester Melrose, who brought her into the studio to record on the Bluebird label. He assigned a trio of musicians to back her, including Bill, Simeon Henry on piano, and New Orleans veteran Ransom Knowling on bass. That session produced her first hit, "Romance in the Dark," for which writing credit was split between Lil and Bill. The song, often abbreviated to "In the Dark," went on to become a standard and over time entered the repertoire of artists such as Dinah Washington and Nina Simone. Jazz historian Leonard Feather notes that the song "was remarkable in its day for the relatively frank sexuality of its lyrics," in which the singer proudly proclaims that "In the dark I get such a thrill / when he presses his fingertips upon my lips." The song showcased Green’s voice, which Feather described as "salt-and-vinegar," to which it might be added that she was able to sound vulnerable, sexy, and brassy, all in the same three-minute song.Based on the song’s success, Melrose recorded Green several times over the next year. Soon she was the subject of articles in the entertainment section of the Chicago Defender, which indicated that she had become identified as more than a blues singer. It meant that she was getting booked into clubs that catered to black audiences looking for an evening of music that they might identify as jazz or pop music.

The other song with which Green’s name continues to be associated was Joe McCoy’s composition "Why Don’t You Do Right," which she  recorded in April 1941. After the song brought some success to Green,  mostly with black record buyers, Peggy Lee’s later recording became a national hit for the Goodman band, and, in the words of one music historian, 'essentially established Lee as a name vocalist.' While Lil Green’s prominence ultimately fell short of Lee’s, the two hits launched her into star status, and in 1941 she began a two-year period of touring the United States. Appearing with the Tiny Bradshaw Orchestra, Green performed on some of the most prestigious stages in the country, including the Apollo and the Savoy in New York City. During her return visits to Chicago, she played the Regal Theater, where stars like Louis Armstrong and Count Basie appeared when they came to town." As Broonzy noted in his autobiography: "I played for Lil Green for two years as her guitar player. I wrote some songs for her, like "My Mellow Man" and "Country Boy," "Give Your Mama One More Smile" and some more that I fixed up for her. I wasn’t really writing them songs—I just hummed the tune until Henry, the piano player, and the bass player Ransom Knowling, could find the right chords to fit the tune. I hummed to them then she would sing the words that I’d wrote down for her."

"As Bill described it, he, Henry, and Knowling accompanied Green on her first two tours, and then she gradually dropped the three musicians, eventually replacing the small combo with a big band. Bill told of going to performances she gave at the Apollo Theater in the mid-1940s and receiving a warm greeting from her each time: 'It made me feel good to know that she hadn’t forgotten the ones she had started out with.' Green even went so far, in Bill’s account, to invite the trio over for dinner in Chicago, although he noted that 'she would eat most of it herself and then tell us to help ourselves.'  In the years after World War II, Green would still record and tour, but there would be no follow-up hits on the scale of her early successes. She performed occasionally in Chicago clubs in the early 1950's, and her final recording session was in 1951. When she died in 1954, the Defender made no mention of her passing."

As Calt notes: "Between 1941 and 1956 Crudup cut some eighty-odd sides for Victor and estabiished himseif as one of the most successful black performers of the period all without the benefit of stage appearances. (At the height of his popularity he worked the tank towns of Mississippi and Chicago's south side bars). …Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, the son of a guitarist, was born in 1905 at Forest, a small Mississippi farm community set midway between Jackson and Meridian. Although he was roughly contemporary with many of the traditional blues stylists who recorded in the Twenties, he began playing guitar at the relatively advanced age of  thirty-two."

Crudup is probably best known through Elvis Presley who recorded three of Crudup's classics during his heyday: "That's All Right Mama" (Elvis' Sun debut in 1954), "So Glad You're Mine," and "My Baby Left Me." Around 1940, Crudup migrated to Chicago from Mississippi. He was playing for spare change on the streets and living in a packing crate underneath an elevated train track when RCA/Bluebird producer Lester Melrose dropped a few coins in Crudup's hat. Melrose hired Crudup to play a party that 1941 night at Tampa Red's house attended by the cream of Melrose's stable: Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson, Lil Green. By September of 1941, he was himself an RCA artist. Crudup hit the uppermost reaches of the R&B lists during the mid-'40s with "Rock Me Mama," "Who's Been Foolin' You," "Keep Your Arms Around Me," "So Glad You're Mine," and "Ethel Mae." He cut the original "That's All Right" in 1946 backed by his usual rhythm section of bassist Ransom Knowling and drummer Judge Riley, but it wasn't a national hit at the time. Crudup cut prolifically for Victor until 1954. (He had already cut singles in 1952 for Trumpet disguised as Elmer James and for Checker as Percy Lee Crudup). In 1961, Crudup surfaced after a long layoff with an album for Bobby Robinson's Harlem-based Fire logo dominated by remakes of his Bluebird hits. Another lengthy hiatus preceded Delmark boss Bob Koester's following the tip of Big Joe Williams to track him down. He was reunited with Ransom Knowling (Willie Dixon also handled bass duties on some of his sides). Finally, Crudup began to make some decent money, playing various blues and folk festivals for appreciative crowds for a few years prior to his 1974 death.

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1903 James Burke Oden began singing, playing piano and writing songs in his 20's in St. Louis.  Oden moved to St. Louis circa 1917 and by the age of seventeen was working at a barber shop where many blues singers would congregate. He taught himself piano around this time and fell in with pianist Roosevelt Sykes (the two remained frequent musical partners throughout the ensuing decades). Oden's piano playing soon fell by the wayside as he was intimidated by the many talented St Louis piano players. "There was just so many good pianp players on St. Louis in those days," he told Paul Oliver. "Peetie Wheatstraw, Roosevelt Sykes, (James) 'Steady Roll' Johnson and all those guys. But I used to write blues for some of them. My blues come mostly from women and I've had quite a few to give me trouble…and that's the reason why I started out to writing blues. …(Roosevelt Sykes) told me I had a voice for singing and I just started out practicing with him and writing – I never sung no one's number but my own and I been writing songs (ever since)." Chicago eventually became his base of operations although he still traveled the circuit, which included trips back to St. Louis and excursions down to Texas on occasion.  For a short time he operated a blues club in Indianapolis with Memphis Minnie. Oden was also involved in the JOB label. JOB was businessman Joe Brown's second and more lasting venture into the record business, after Opera. When the label opened in August 1949 his partner was Oden, but as the bluesman recorded just one session early in the days of the label, it's suspected that his share was quickly bought out by Brown or someone else.

St. Louis Jimmy Oden  

Oden enjoyed a fairly prolific recording career during the '30's and '40's, appearing on Champion, Bluebird (where he hit with "Goin' Down Slow" in 1941), Columbia, Bullet in 1947, Miracle, Aristocrat (there he cut "Florida Hurricane" in 1948 accompanied by pianist Sunnyland Slim and a young guitarist named Muddy Waters), Mercury, Savoy, and Apollo. Oden described the origins of his classic "Goin' Down Slow" to Paul Oliver: "(it) started from a girl in St. Louis, I see the condition she was in – pregnant, trying to lose a kid, see. And she looked like she was going down slow. I made that remark to my sister and it came in my mind and I started to write it like that." Scattered singles for Duke (with Sykes on piano) and Parrot (a 1955 remake of "Goin' Down Slow") set the stage for Oden's 1960 album debut for Prestige's Bluesville subsidiary (naturally, it included yet another reprise of "Goin' Down Slow").  After a serious road accident in 1957 he devoted himself to writing and placed material with Muddy Waters ("Soon Forgotten" and "Take the Bitter with the Sweet" ), Howlin' Wolf ("What a Woman!") and John Lee Hooker. In 1960 he made an album with Bluesville Records (Goin' Down Slow), and sang on a Candid Records session with Robert Lockwood, Jr. and Otis Spann. Oden made guest appearances as a singer on several other artist's sessions in the 60's, and, had he not withdrawn from the tour, would have made it to Europe as part of the 1968 American folk Blues Festival. He appeared as a guest at the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival and recorded on the soundtrack for the 1970 British film Blues Like Showers Of Rain. Oden passed in 1977. Sadly few came to his funeral outside of Muddy Waters and Sunnyland who came to pay their respects. Tony Russell's assessment is an astute one:  "Oden could never be called an exciting artist, but his lyrics always had both head and heart in their making and he sang them with a craftman's pride in his own good work."

Merline Johnson was one of the most prolific female artists of the 30's, with 70 issued sides, yet little is known about her. The bulk of her recordings were made between 1937 and 1940 with a last, unissued session, in 1947. Blind John Davis said of her: "…Big Bill would have to take her home so his wife could watch her so she wouldn’t go and get drunk. But when she hit that microphone, though, boy, she was on her way." Despite the efforts of her family in Milwaukee to keep her under control, John says, "She’d get to thinkin’ about Chicago, they’d wake up the next morning and Merline'd be in Chicago. She used to call me up and just cuss and laugh. "…She didn’t like good whiskey," Davis laughs. "You could go out there in Jewtown and get moonshine and still hear it foamin’ in the glass. It was still fermenting. She was crazy about it. But she was a nice person." The aunt of R&B vocalist LaVern Baker, Johnson was usually billed as the "The Yas Yas Girl", a bawdy nickname,  although her records weren't all that suggestive.

Johnson didn't have the outsize personality of Memphis Minnie or the vocal abilities of Lil Green yet it's not hard to see why she was so obviously popular among black audiences; she possessed a strong expressive voice, which hinted at toughness and confidence and she delivered her blues in well written songs that dealt frankly with male/female relationships, sex, crime and whiskey. Neil Slaven provides an insightful portrait of her musical style: "The trenchancy of Johnson's singing underlines a hint of masculinity in her performances., more in the delivery than in the content. That impression is enhanced by her clear diction and confident projection. Although she did it sparingly,  she's perhaps the only woman to directly imitate Peetie Wheatstraw …Echoes of Big Bill Broonzy and Jazz Gillum also resound, and Gillum recorded an answer song to her "Got A man In The 'Bamma Mine." She was obviously a cherished member of the Lester Melrose stable, which explains the presence of stalwarts such as Black bob, Joshua Altheimer, Blind John Davis and Broonzy in her backing bands. She flirted with a more jazz-oriented style in the middle of her career, backed by her Rhythm Rascals and Her Jazz Boys, and did a fair imitation (though nothing more) of Billie Holiday in "Fine And Mellow." …Although never achieving  the status of required listening, the Yas Yas Girl's records are of dependable quality and entertaining."

Tommy McClennan is a contradiction; at once wholly individualistic with his powerhouse gravel-throated voice, sprinkled with frequent entertaining spoken asides propelled by an exciting, rudimentary guitar style while on the other hand derivative, with a repertoire mostly drawn from other artists. espite his limited bag of songs, his limited guitar prowess (despite the boastfully titled "I’m a Guitar King"), McClennan made it work through the sheer force of his outsized personality and his intense commitment to his material. McClennan arrived in Chicago in 1939 supposedly through the intervention of Big Bill Broonzy who told Bluebird talent scout Lester Melrose he ought to look him up. His record label, Bluebird, and the record buying public obviously saw something in McClennan as he cut forty sides (at five eight-song sessions), everyone issued at the time, between 1939 and 1942.

McClennan is remembered by bluesmen like Big Joe Williams, Big Bill Broonzy, Jimmy Rogers and most importantly Honeyboy Edwards. Our knowledge of McClennan has been expanded since then with the release of Honeyboy Edwards’ 1997 autobiography, The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing, where he put pen to ink,  recollecting at length about his old friend and partner. "Tommy had a big mouth.  …Tommy played the guitar and gambled, shot dice, played cards. … Tommy, he wasn’t really a guitar picker; he was mostly a frailer, and played a few chords in the key of C, running chords with that big loud voice. …Tommy McClennan and me played both sides of town [Greenwood, MS]. We used to serenade in the white neighborhoods. We’d walk down the street amongst all those old houses, strumming our guitars, and we’d see them curtains fly back and they’d chuck nickels and dimes out in the street for us. We’d play ‘Tight Like That’, little jump-up songs for them. Then we’d go back across the river where we come from, raise hell and drink, holler our asses off all night long, singing the ‘Cotton Patch Blues’ in them shotgun houses in our part of town."

McClennan remained in Chicago and seemed to follow the path of Tommy Johnson, a slave to alcohol who lived long after he recorded but never stepped into a studio again. Honeyboy remembers seeing McClennan singing at Turner's on 40th and Indiana during the late 40's: "He played a little bit and he sang, but he didn’t play too long ‘fore he just …Tommy just dranked so much he just, he couldn't…" Honeyboy encountered his old friend one more time: "One day in 1962 I was down around Twenty-Second street and Clark at a big junkyard. …I went with some boys to sell some scrap iron and who do I see there but Tommy McClennan! Tommy was living out there in a truck trailer made into kind of a house. " Honeyboy tried to look after him but "he studied drinking all the time. …He asked me to take him back to that [hobo] Jungle. I carried him back down there. …Later on I heard he had taken sick, that he was in the hospital. …Tommy died in that hospital in 1962. …That alcohol was what Tommy was living for, but it ate him plumb up."

Big Bill Broonzy Police Station BluesBig Bill Broonzy - All The Classic Sides: 1928-1937
Big Bill Broonzy Grandma's Farm Do That Guitar Rag
Big Bill Broonzy Mississippi River BluesThe Young Big Bill Broonzy
The State Street BoysThe DozenBig Bill Broonzy - All The Classic Sides: 1928-1937
Big Bill Broonzy C & A BluesDo That Guitar Rag
Big Bill BroonzyLooking Up At DownBig Bill Broonzy Vol. 3: The War & Postwar Years
Lil GreenJust Rockin' Why Don't You Do Right
Big Bill BroonzyUnemployment StompBig Bill Broonzy Part 2 1937-40
Washboard Sam Life Is Just A BookWashboard Sam Vol. 6 1941-1942
Washboard Sam Flying Crow Blues Rockin' My Blues Away
Sonny Boy Williamson IMellow Chick SwingThe Original Sonny Boy Williamson Vol. 2
Big Bill Broonzy Keys to the Highway / Black, Brown and WhiteHis Story
Big Bill Broonzy & Georgia TomEagle Riding PapaGeorgia Tom Dorsey: The Essential
Big Bill Broonzy Long Tall MamaThe Young Big Bill Broonzy
Big Bill Broonzy Preachin' the BluesBig Bill Broonzy Part 2 1937-40
Lil GreenWhy Don't You Do Right?Lil Green 1940-1941
Big Bill Broonzy Hey HeyBig Bill Broonzy Vol. 3: The War & Postwar Years
Big Bill Broonzy This TrainThe Big Bill Story
Big Bill Broonzy & Washboard SamRomance Without FinanceBig Bill Broonzy & Washboard Sam

Show Notes:

Today's program is inspired by a new biography of Big Bill Broonzy called I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy by Bob Riesman. Today we spin a cross section of Broonzy sides from the 30's through the 50's and we'll also be chatting and spinning records with the author in the second hour of the show. Last year I spoke with Roger House who authored the Broonzy biography Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy. In Blue Smoke, House put Broonzy's life in a broad context, not only telling Broonzy's life story but using it as a way to tell a much larger story; a history of black America in the first half of the 20th Century, from sharecropping to the Great Migration. In contrast this new biography is a much more detailed, fuller portrait of  Broonzy, stripping away the layers of mystery about Broonzy's life, vividly portraying his life as he moved from the South to Chicago, following his series of groundbreaking tours of Europe and fully succeeds in bringing Big Bill's remarkable life into sharp focus. The second half of today's program features songs selected by the author. During the first half I've selected a varied set of Broonzy tracks, with no duplication from the previous show, plus several numbers backing some of Chicago's top artist like Washboard Sam,  Lil Green and Sonny Boy Williamson I. The bulk of today's notes are taken from the book.

As Riesman writes of Broonzy: "…He had been one of the leaders of the Chicago blues world of the 1930s and ’40s, well before the rise of Chess Records and the figures who made that label deservedly famous. During his trailblazing European tours of the 1950s, he had been an early and powerful inspiration to British musicians such as Eric Clapton and Ray Davies. American artists from Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash identified Bill as an influence, and he had helped to launch folk music revivals in both the United States and Great Britain. As I began to look more closely at Bill’s life and work, it soon became clear that Bill’s legacy included at least two significant areas in addition to his recordings. He had demonstrated through his handwritten autobiography, Big Bill Blues, that his skill with words extended beyond songwriting. From his descriptions of his upbringing in the rural South to his observations on racial injustice, he expressed himself with clarity, insight, and wit. Bill had also served as a mentor to many younger blues musicians, to whom he offered guidance and encouragement. Muddy Waters, in particular, identified him as a role model, saying of Bill: 'Mostly I try to be like him.'"

…Broonzy arrived in Chicago in the early 1920's. Bill’s move to Chicago had thrust him squarely in the midst of one of the country’s most dynamic centers of African American music. Cabarets featuring jazz artists like Jelly Roll Morton had flourished on the South Side since before World War I. Through the 1920s, bands that featured some of the most prominent and creative of the transplanted New Orleans jazz players—Joe "King" Oliver, Sidney Bechet, the young Louis Armstrong—performed in venues such as the Royal Gardens Lincoln Gardens), the Plantation Café, and the Dreamland Café. Vaudeville performers such as Butterbeans and Susie appeared at the Grand Theater at Thirty-first and State, which also was the site of sold-out shows for singer Bessie Smith when her touring schedule brought her to Chicago." By the mid-20's the solo male blues artists rose to prominence with the enormous popularity of Blind Lemon Jefferson. "It was in the midst of this influx of male singer/players that Bill reentered the music business, and he chose his mentor well. 'I didn’t play any for a few years until I met Charlie Jackson in 1924.' …By late 1928 he had found a mentor, mastered a new instrument, located a musical partner, cut two records for a record company with national distribution, and acquired a memorable performing name."

From the 1956 film Low Light, Blue Smoke

"By the mid-1930s, the musical tastes of African American record buyers were changing. Instead of solo performers accompanying themselves on guitar, records increasingly featured ensembles, usually with a piano. …Bill's recording career took off in this era, and his prodigious output was nearly unmatched among blues musicians. From 1934 until 1942, when the combination of a musicians’ union ban and the diversion of shellac to the war effort halted virtually all recording for two years, Bill averaged better than thirteen double-sided 78 rpm records each year as a featured artist. In addition, he played on an average of forty-eight sides each year as a sideman. In other words, for nearly a decade, he averaged one new Big Bill record a month, and he appeared on two more as a studio guitarist. …As 'Big Bill,' he was one of the most productive and popular artists in the business, with a name that was familiar to his audiences and reinforced by his easily recognized singing style. At the same time, he became the first-call studio guitarist for dozens of recording sessions that Lester Melrose organized for several record companies, particularly Bluebird. In that capacity, he was an integral part of the distinctive sound of numerous musicians, including some of the most popular artists of the era. Two artists whose careers were interwoven with Bill’s were Washboard Sam and Jazz Gillum. Bill played guitar on a most every one of the more than 150 recordings that Sam made over a period of twenty years, as well as on many of the sides that Gillum recorded."

We spin several tracks with Broonzy in a supporting role including two superb 1941 sides, "Life Is Just A Book" and "Flying Crow Blues." Broonzy rarely sounded better as a session guitarist then the sides he cut with Washboard Sam, particularly the early 40's sides where he was given plenty of room to lay down some supple, inventive amplified guitar.  Broonzy played on several sessions backing Sonny Boy Williamson I and today we spin "Mellow Chick Swing" from 1947 as Sonny Boy exhorts "take it away Big Bill" where he steps up and put down a fine amplified solo. We also hear Broonzy backing Lil Green on the 1940 gem "Just Rockin'." As Riesman writes: "Bill played an important role in Lil Green’s meteoric rise from obscurity to national headliner in the early 1940s, and he maintained a personal connection with her even after her star faded. …Bill played guitar on all of the sides Green recorded before the 1942 recording ban."

Big Bill Broonzy Performs "Hey Hey"

Riesman notes that Broonzy "was a prolific songwriter, which was a crucial element of the industrial-style production process. Bill’s various estimates of the number of songs that he wrote throughout his career ranged from 250 to 360. In addition to the ones Bill himself sang, other Melrose artists recorded songs that Bill had written. The list included the Yas Yas Girl, Lil Green, and Washboard Sam… …In addition, Melrose was constantly on the lookout for new talent, both to generate records and to increase the stream of royalties flowing into his publishing companies. He relied on a small number of musicians to serve as his eyes and ears in identifying prospective artists. Along with pianist Roosevelt Sykes, Bill was at the top of his list. …few other blues songwriters of his era produced as much material of as consistently high a level of quality as Bill did. If there had been the blues equivalent of a Tin Pan Alley in Chicago in the 1930s and '40s, Bill would have been recognized as one of its most prominent figures."

"In 1946 Bill performed for more white audiences than he ever had before. He still made records that were marketed primarily to African American buyers, and he continued to appear in Chicago clubs where it would have been unusual to see a white face. …After a sustained run of nearly twenty years as one of the most prolific artists in the blues recording world, he was creating a new professional identity. He was increasingly immersed in a world of folk songs that he played on an acoustic guitar, requiring him to assemble and master a very different repertoire than the one he had been performing and recording for decades." In 1951, Broonzy took his first tour of Europe, where he was met with enthusiasm and appreciation. "On his return to Chicago, Bill began a stretch in his career that would last for several years in which he straddled his two audiences, one black and one white. He cut records for predominately African American buyers as both a featured performer and a sideman, releasing sides under band names such as Big Bill and His Rhythm Band, and Big Bill Broonzy & His Fat Four. He continued to appear at the clubs where he was an established name, such as Ruby’s Tavern on the West Side and the Hollywood Rendezvous on the South Side. At the same time, he was becoming a familiar figure to the politically engaged folk-music fans who attended the People’s Songs hootenannies in Chicago."

His appearances in Europe introduced the blues to European audiences and were especially influential in London’s emerging skiffle and rock blues scene. Broonzy’s success also set the stage for later blues artists such as Sonny Boy Williamson II and Muddy Waters to play European venues. Broonzy toured Europe again in 1955 and 1957. As Riesman observers: "Bill had crafted a persona for himself that would bring him international acclaim and steady work for the rest of his career. By highlighting the key elements of his rural origins, his firsthand knowledge of the musical sources of the blues, his membership in a finite and shrinking set of blues singers, and his desire to call attention to musicians whose work he could vouch for, Bill had secured a unique and powerful status."

Listen to the Bob Riesman interview (MP3, 1 hour)

View photos from the book


Robert NighthawkG-ManProwling With The Nighthawk
Walter DavisGood Gal Walter Davis Vol. 2 1935-1937
Big Joe WilliamsBrother JamesBrother James
Sonny Boy Williamson IJackson BluesThe Original Sonny Boy Williamson Vol.1
Sonny Boy Williamson IGot the Bottle Up And GoneThe Original Sonny Boy Williamson Vol.1
Robert Nighthawk Prowling Night HawkProwling With The Nighthawk
Robert Nighthawk Every Day And NightProwling With The Nighthawk
Robert Nighthawk Take It Easy BabyProwling With The Nighthawk
Speckled RedDown On The LeveeSpeckled Red 1929-1938
Sleepy Johns EstesDrop Down (I Don't Feel Welcome Here)Sleepy John Estes Vol. 2 1937-1941
Big Joe & His Washboard BandI'm Through With YouCharlie & Joe McCoy Vol. 2
Robert NighthawkFriar's Point BluesProwling With The Nighthawk
Robert NighthawkSweet Black Angel The Aristocrat Of The Blues
Robert NighthawkReturn Mail BluesThe Aristocrat Of The Blues
Robert NighthawkAnnie Lee Blues (Anna Lee)The Aristocrat Of The Blues
Ernest LaneOn Robert NighthawkThe Aristocrat Of The Blues
Robert NighthawkJackson Town GalThe Aristocrat Of The Bluese
Robert Nighthawk Crying Won't Help YouBricks In My Pillow
Robert Nighthawk Kansas City Bricks In My Pillow
Robert Nighthawk Maggie Campbell Bricks In My Pillow
Robert NighthawkThe Moon Is Rising Bricks in My Pillow
Robert NighthawkYou Missed A Good ManBricks in My Pillow
Robert NighthawkBricks in My PillowBricks in My Pillow
Robert Nighthawk Cheating And Lying BluesAnd This Is Free
Robert NighthawkInterview Pt. 1 (edited)And This Is Free
Johnny YoungThe Sun Is ShiningAnd This Is Free
Gordon Quinn Interview/And This Is Free
Robert NighthawkTake It Easy, Baby And This Is Free
Robert Nighthawk Crowing Rooster BluesMasters Of Modern Blues vol. 4
Robert Nighthawk Interview Pt. 2 (edited)And This Is Free
Robert Nighthawk I'm Gettin' Tired Masters Of Modern Blues vol. 4
Robert Nighthawk Lula Mae Blues Southside Chicago
Houston Stackhouse Cool Water Blues Masters Of Modern Blues vol. 4
George MitchellOn Robert Nighthawk
Houston StackhouseBig Fat MamaMasters Of Modern Blues vol. 4
Robert Nighthawk & the Blues Rhythm BoysYou Call Yourself A CadillacMississippi Delta Blues: Blow My Blues Away Vol. 1

Show Notes:

I've been an admirer of Robert Nighthawk for a long time and many years ago devoted a website to him at a time when I couldn't find that much information on him on the web. The site has grown over the years and includes just about every scrap of information on the man. Over the years I managed to interview several people who knew Nighthawk, including his daughter, his son, drummer Sam Carr, his ex-wife, his one time pianist Ernest Lane plus others. Several years back I had the opportunity to write the booklet for the CD compilation, Prowlin' Wth The Nighthawk, on the Document label. Today's show spans his entire career, from the 1930's when he went by the name Robert Lee McCoy, to the brilliant postwar sides he cut as Robert Nighthawk plus sides accompanying blues greats like Sonny Boy Williamson I, Speckled Red, Big Joe Wiilliams, Houston Stackhouse and others. Along the way we'll also hear interviews with those who knew Nighthawk plus part of a recorded interview with Nighthawk himself. The below notes come from my Nighthawk website and the liner notes from the Document collection.

Ernest Lane, Robert Nighthawk and Nighthawk's wife
Ernest Lane, Robert Nighthawk and Nighthawk's wife
Hazel McCollum circa late 1940's

Robert Nighthawk was one of the blues premier slide guitarists playing with a subtle elegance and a fluid, crystal clear style that was instantly recognizable. Nighthawk influenced a generation of artists including Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Earl Hooker and supposedly Elmore James. In many ways Nighthawk was the archetype of the classic bluesman spending his entire adult life rambling all over the South with frequent trips to the North playing a never ending string of one nighters punctuated by sporadic recording dates. Nighthawk's recording dates brought him only limited success but he remained popular in the South his entire life. It seems that every blues musician of consequence who emerged from the delta from the 30's through the 60's recalls running across Nighthawk. For all his visibility Nighthawk remains a shadowy figure; for one he never stayed in Chicago long enough to establish himself, he was interviewed only briefly and unlike many artists didn't appreciably benefit from the blues boom of the 1960's. Above all it was his ceaseless wandering that likely stopped him from achieving greater fame.

Pianist Walter Davis, who had been recording since 1930, was responsible for getting Nighthawk signed to the Bluebird label. Henry Townsend provided the transportation that transferred them to Aurora, Illinois. The musicians entered the studios on May 5, 1937 for a marathon recording session. Nighthawk cut six sides with backing by Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Joe Williams. The May 5th sessions were also Sonny Boy Williamson's first and Nighthawk and Joe Williams backed him on this legendary session that produced such enduring classics as "Good Morning Little School Girl", "Blue Bird Blues" and "Sugar Mama". In addition Big Joe Williams recorded eight sides under his own name with Nighthawk and Sonny Boy backing him and Nighthawk also backed Walter Davis on an eight-song session. All in all, Nighthawk would back Sonny Boy on 23 sides at three sessions, two sessions in 1937 and one session in 1938.

Nighthawk (known as Robert Lee McCoy during this period) recorded for Bluebird and Decca between 1937 and 1940 both under his own name and as an accompanist. This was Nighthawk's busiest period on record, recording 22 sides for Bluebird in 1937 and 4 sides for Decca in 1940 and many sides as a session musician backing up such artists as Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Joe Williams, Sleepy John Estes and many others. Nighthawk recorded three lengthy sessions at Bluebird's Aurora Illinois studios. All three Bluebird sessions find Nighthawk with different accompanists with the exception of Sonny Boy Williamson who plays harmonica on every session.

Nighthawk had developed a distinctive single string style that is heard to good effect on these sides. He also plays some bottleneck most notably on the opening passages of "G-Man", "Don't Mistreat Your Woman" and "Prowling Night-Hawk." It was this latter song popularity that was the basis for his changing his surname in the early 40's. On June 5, 1940 he stepped into the studio again this time recording four sides for Decca as "Peetie's Boy." The name "Peetie's Boy" likely coming from his association with Peetie Wheatstraw.These represent Nighthawk's last pre-war sessions and produced the beautiful "Friars Point Blues" featuring his finest slide work to date and only a few steps removed from the magnificent slide work he would be famous for in later years.

When Nighthawk stepped into the Aristocrat studios on November 10, 1948 it had been eight years since he last recorded under his own name. In the intervening years his sound had undergone a transformation when he amplified his guitar in the early 1940's and mastered his brilliant slide technique. In 1948, with the help of Muddy Waters, Nighthawk began recording for Aristocrat later to become Chess. "I put him on the label" Waters stated. "Well I taken him to my company, you know and I helped him get on a record. Yeah, I taken him around to Chess, and then Chess heard him play, and he liked it." His session on July 12, 1949 was possibly his best. He waxed five sides that included "Black Angel Blues (Sweet Black Angel)" (based on Lucille Bogan's "Black Angel Blues" from 1930 and covered by Tampa Red in 1934 with the same title) and "Annie Lee Blues (Anna Lee)" based on Tampa Red's "Anna Lou Blues" from 1940. The pairing became a double-sided hit.

In 1951 Nighthawk signed on with United Records. United was founded in 1951 by A&R man Lew Simpkins and his financial partner Leonard Allen. United recorded him on their very first day of sessions and two of United's first five releases were by "Robert Nighthawk & His Nighthawks Band." Robert Nighthawk's complete recordings for the United label are collected on Bricks in My Pillow on the Delmark label. Nighthawk recorded two sessions for United, one on July 12, 1951 and one on October 25, 1952 for its subsidiary States.

While these recordings are more stylistically diverse than his Chess sides they also contained fewer originals. Most of these songs had been in his repertoire for years. Nighthawk originally recorded "Take It Easy Baby" back in 1937 for Bluebird, "The Moon is Rising" was a staple of his King Biscuit shows and was a remake of Ivory Joe Hunter's 1945 hit "Blues At Sunrise" while "Nighthawk Boogie" was his theme song on the broadcasts. "You Missed A Good Man" was another song Nighthawk likely picked up from Tampa Red who recorded it in 1935.

After a long absence Nighthawk returned to Chicago in 1964 and recorded several times including a blistering set taped live on Maxwell St. in conjunction with the filming of Mike Shea's 1964 documentary And This is Free. Maxwell St. was at the heart of Chicago's black ghetto and was a bustling open air market. 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. " 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 1999 the 2-CD set And This Is Maxwell Street was released in Japan on the P-Vine label and issued in 2000 in the US by Rooster Records with an additional CD containing a 44 minute interview of Nighthawk conducted by Mike Bloomfield. The set contains all the original unedited recordings made in conjunction with the film. In addition to Nighthawk there are fine performances by Johnny Young, Big John Wrencher, Blind Arvella Gray, Carey Bell, Big Mojo Elem, James Brewer, Carrie Robinson and Little Arthur King. Nighthawk present on 22 of the 30 selections. In addition to playing some of these sides on today's program, we also hear an interview snippet from Gordon Quinn who was the sound engineer on the documentary.

Robert Nighthawk Maxwell Street
Robert Nighthawk Live On Maxwell Street

Pete Welding had formed Testament Records in the early 1960's as one of the handful of pioneering labels started by blues enthusiasts. He recorded Nighthawk with his partners Johnny Young and John Wrencher on October 14, 1964 cutting seven sides. In 1964 Nighthawk was recorded at a concert at the University of Chicago with Little Walter and Johnny Young. The song Testament sides and some of the concert selection can be found on the CD Masters of Modern Blues Vol. 4 – Robert Nighthawk/Houston Stackhouse. Hightone Records, which has been reissuing the Testament catalog, has come out with Down Home Slide and Down Home Harp which contain four previously unreleased live Nighthawk tracks from this same concert. Welding said of this session that it "resonates in my mind as perhaps the single finest one I was ever privileged to do…This is my favorite Testament session."

In 1964 Nighthawk recorded for Willie Dixon to interest UK promoters with touring lesser-known Chicago artists. These sides were issued on UK Decca in 1966 and issued on the album Blues Southside Chicago album which has not been issued on CD. Nighthawk cut two songs for this session: "Merry Christmas" and "Lula Mae." Today we spin the latter number which was a song originally recorded by Tampa Red in 1944.

Nighthawk credits Houston Stackhouse with teaching him guitar: "I started guitar in 1931…. Guy lived down in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, he, name a Houston Stackhouse, he learned me to play." Stackhouse emphasized: "I learned him how to play guitar, back in the 30's. I'd say, You ain't gon' eat nothin’ till you get these notes right…He done got bad with it then when he come back from Chicago." In 1967 George Mitchell recorded Nighthawk's last sides playing in Houston Stackhouse's combo, mostly playing bass due to declining health. 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. He was buried in Helena's Magnolia cemetery. "He loved Helena,said Sam Carr, "that's the reason I buried him there."

Related Articles (word docs):

Prowling With The Nighthawk Liner Notes Pt. 1 * Liner Notes Pt. 2

A Note On Robert Nighthawk by Don Kent (Blues Unlimited no. 42)


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