Memphis Blues


ARTISTSONGALBUM
Alfoncy & Bethenea HarrisThat Same CatGeorge Williams & Bessie Brown Vol. 2 1925-1930
Alfoncy & Bethenea HarrisI Don't Care What You SayGeorge Williams & Bessie Brown Vol. 2 1925-1930
Cannon's Jug StompersMinglewood BluesRuckus Juice & Chitlins, Volume 1: The Great Jug Bands
Cannon's Jug StompersBig Railroad BluesRuckus Juice & Chitlins, Volume 1: The Great Jug Bands
Cannon's Jug StompersMadison Street RagBlues Images Vol. 5
Lonnie McIntorshSleep On Mother Sleep OnHow Can I Keep From Singing Vol. 1
Lonnie McIntorshThe Lion and the Tribes of JudahBlind Willie Johnson And The Guitar Evangelists
Frank StokesRight Now BluesBest Of
Frank StokesDowntown BluesBest Of
Frank StokesBedtime Blues Best Of
Frank StokesWhat's The Matter BluesBest Of
Jim JacksonOld Dog BlueJim Jackson Vol. 1 1927-1928
Tommy JohnsonCool Drink Of WaterWhen The Sun Goes Down
Tommy JohnsonBig Road BluesScreamin' & Hollerin' The Blues: The Worlds Of Charley Patton
Rosie Mae MooreStaggering BluesFour Women Blues
Rosie Mae MooreHa Ha BluesFour Women Blues
Rosie Mae MooreSchool Girl BluesFour Women Blues
Rosie Mae MooreStranger BluesFour Women Blues
Ishman Bracey Saturday BluesWhen The Sun Goes Down
Ishman Bracey Left Alone BluesIshman Bracey & Charlie Taylor 1928-1929
Tommy Johnson Bye-Bye BluesScreamin' & Hollerin' The Blues: The Worlds Of Charley Patton
Tommy JohnsonMaggie Campbell BluesScreamin' & Hollerin' The Blues: The Worlds Of Charley Patton
Ishman Bracey Trouble Hearted BluesTommy Johnson And Associates
Ishman Bracey The Four Day Blues Ishman Bracey & Charlie Taylor 1928-1929
Memphis Jug BandPeaches In The SpringtimeMemphis Jug Band Vol. 4 1927-1928 & 1934
Arthur Petties Two Time BluesWhen the Levee Breaks
Arthur Petties Out on Santa Fe Blues When the Levee Breaks
Jim JacksonWhat A TimeJim Jackson Vol. 1 1927-1928
Elder Richard BryantHe Shut The Lion's MouthMemphis Sanctified Jug Bands Vol. 1 1928-1939

Show Notes:

Victor CatalogueToday's show is the fourth installment spotlighting great recording sessions; The first spotlighted two sessions conducted by the Victor label roughly a year-and-a-half apart, one in Chicago and one in New Orleans in 1936 and 1937, the second was conducted by Brunswick in Memphis in 1929 and 1930 and the third  spotlighted sessions recorded in Dallas by Columbia in 1927 and 1928. 1927 was the beginning of a blues boom that would last until 1930; there were just 500 blues and gospel records issued in 1927 and increase of fifty percent from 1926 a trend that would continue until the depression. To feed the demand other record companies conducted exhaustive searches for new talent, which included making trips down south with field recording units.  Between 1927-1930 Atlanta was visited seventeen times, Memphis eleven times, Dallas eight times, New Orleans seven times and so on.

Today we spotlight some great blues and gospel captured by Victor in Memphis in 1928. As Robert Dixon and John Godrich wrote in the seminal Recording The Blues:" Victor was the only company systematically to exploit the gold mine of black talent in and around Memphis. Their second there, in January and February 1928, yielded three times as much material as the initial visit in early '27 – and again black artists outnumbered white hillbilly performers. Besides more titles by the Memphis Jug Band, Victor recorded the Cannon Jug Stompers, Vocalion's popular artist Jim Jackson and a fine group of Mississippi blues singers – Tommy Johnson, Ishman Bracey and Frank Stokes. Stokes was an oldish man, his voice had a pronounced vibrato and his style of singing and guitar playing were distinctly archaic. His Downtown Blues and Bedtime Blues on Victor 21272 sold well and when Victor returned to Memphis in August 1928 they recorded ten further selections by Stokes. The August visit was Victor's most extensive to date. Between Monday August 27th and Monday 24 September they recorded 189 titles, three quarters of them by race artists. All of the singers they had tried out in February were recorded again. The autumn trio to Memphis now became an annual event for Victor – it was here that they recorded most of their race material." Other artists recorded during these sessions included Alfoncy & Bethenea Harris, Lonnie McIntorsh, Rosie Mae Moore, Bessie Tucker, Ida May Mack, Furry Lewis, Robert Wilkins, Charlie Kyle, Elder Richard Bryant, Bethel Quartet and Will Shade.

According to Recording The Blues: "The record industry as a whole had not been in too healthy a state during the early twenties. After the boom year of 1921, in which for the first time 100 million discs were sold, sales declined slowly but steadily. Eventually even Victor began to feel the squeeze – their sales fell from $51 million in 1921 to $44 million in 1923, and then dropped to $20 million in 1925. Something had to be done, and one obvious move was for Victor to begin large scale production of race records, and compete for a market that had been growing an an enormous rate during the period when overall sales had been falling." After a not too promising start, "…Victor hired Ralph Peer who had been largely responsible for building up Okeh's fine race and hillbilly catalogs. Peer realized that Victor was several years too late to be able to get a substantial share of the classic blues market and decided to concentrate his efforts on the country blues field." Victor begin going in the field in a big way in 1927 stopping in Atlanta, Memphis and New Orleans.

Jug bands are synonymous with Memphis and Victor recorded two of the greatest groups: Memphis Jug Band and Cannon's Jug Stompers. The Memphis Jug Band became very popular in Memphis, often playing in Church Park, where Gus Cannon saw them. The Memphis Jug Band first recorded for Victor in February 1927 and over the next four years recorded 57 sides. By 1930 there were seven different jug bands active in Memphis. In 1928 Ralph Peer, who had previously recorded the Memphis Jug Band, returned to Memphis looking for other jug bands to record. Charlie Williamson, the manager of the Palace Theater, recommended Gus. By this time Gus had had a harness made for his jug so that he could wear it around his neck and play banjo at the same time. Gus called up Noah Lewis and Ashley Thompson and on Jan 30 1928 they recorded 4 sides in an old auditorium as Cannon's Jug Stompers. They over two-dozen sides with the group through 1930 for Victor.

As Chris Smith wrote int he notes to Frank Stokes The Complete Victor Recordings 1928-1929: "With nearly forty songs issued on record, some of them in two parts, Frank Stokes was one of the most extensively recorded of the Memphis blues singers of the 1920s; only Jim Jackson's total of recordings is comparable, and many of Jackson's were remakes of 'Kansas City Blues.' Like Jackson, Stokes blends blues with songs from the medicine shows and from the ragtime days of his childhood. Not only was his repertoire one of the most interesting of its time, it was superbly sung, and backed, whether solo, in partnership with Dan Sane, or with Will Batts, by some of the most accomplished and appropriate blues and ragtime playing on record." By most accounts Stokes was already playing the streets of Memphis by the turn of the century, about the same time the blues began to flourish. As a street artist, he needed a broad repertoire of songs and patter palatable to blacks and whites. A medicine show and house party favorite, Stokes was remembered as a consummate entertainer who drew on songs from the 19th and 20th centuries with equal facility.

Born in the 1880’s, Jim Jackson was another experienced medicine show performer and occasional street singer. He had one of the biggest blues hits of the 20’s with his “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues.” Barrelhouse pianist Speckled Red shared the stage with Jim Jackson in 1928 while touring through Mississippi and Alabama with the Red Rose Minstrels & Medicine Show. Red remembered Jackson as "a big fat feller, weighed about 235 pounds. Tall, stately feller too, and he danced, sang, played git-tar, cracked jokes." Jackson's long career with traveling shows began in 1905, and much of his repertoire was rooted in the 19th century. He recorded close to forty sides between 192 and 1930.

Frank Stokes Ad

For someone who recorded so little Tommy Johnson exerted an influence that was unusually  vast and long lasting; after all his recorded output only consists of six issued sides for Victor in 1928 and six issued sides for Paramount in 1929. t was Johnson’s Victor sides that were the most influential and oft covered: “Cool Drink of Water Blues”, “Big Road Blues”, “Bye-Bye Blues”, “Maggie Campbell Blues”, “Canned Heat Blues” and “Big Fat Mama.” Unlike the Paramount records these sold fairly well and were apparently the songs Johnson sang most often in person. As David Evans wrote: “For about thirty years Tommy Johnson was perhaps the most important and influential blues singer in the state of Mississippi.”

Ishman Bracey was born in Byram, about ten miles south of Jackson, in January 1899. He learned guitar from locals Louis Cooper and Lee Jones and moved to Jackson in the late 1920s after encountering Tommy Johnson. Bracey soon became one of the most popular musicians in the Jackson area’s vital blues scene. Bracey’s music came to broader attention after he auditioned for recording agent H. C. Speir, who operated a furniture store on North Farish Street. Speir arranged for Bracey and Tommy Johnson to make their debut recordings at a session for Victor in Memphis in February of 1928. At that session and another for Victor later that year, Bracey was accompanied on guitar and mandolin by Charlie McCoy. Bracey recorded again in 1929 and early 1930 for the Paramount label.

Little is known about Rosie Mae Moore except for the fact that she was Charlie McCoy's girlfriend during the time of her recordings that all took place in 1928. She recorded four sides for Victor in Memphis in the early part of the year. Later in December she recorded four more sides for Brunswick in New Orleans, backed by McCoy as well as Walter Vincson and Bo Chatman of The Mississippi Shieks. On her Brunswick releases she was billed as Mary Butler.

Memphis may be better known for blues but it was an important center for black gospel music. Memphis was the home of the holiness denomination, the Church of God in Christ. Lonnie McIntorsh recorded two sessions in 1928, one in Memphis and one in Chicago and a final unreleased session in 1930. Elder Richard Bryant led churches in Holendale and Moorehead Mississippi. He cut sides for Victor and Okeh at three sessions in 1928.

 

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ARTIST
SONG
ALBUM
Robert WilkinsDo Lord Remember MeProdigal Son
Dick Spotswood Interview
Robert WilkinsThank You, Jesus Prodigal Son
Robert WilkinsFalling Down BluesMemphis Blues Vol. 1 1928-1935
Robert WilkinsIt Just Suits MeProdigal Son
Robert WilkinsOld Jim CanaanMemphis Blues Vol. 1 1928-1935
Robert WilkinsJesus Will Fix It Allright Prodigal Son
Robert WilkinsThat's No Way To Get AlongMemphis Blues Vol. 1 1928-1935
Robert WilkinsProdigal Son Prodigal Son
Robert WilkinsRollin' Stone (Part 1)Memphis Blues Vol. 1 1928-1935
Robert WilkinsI'll Go With Her BluesMemphis Blues Vol. 1 1928-1935
Robert Wilkins Losin' Out BluesMemphis Blues Vol. 1 1928-1935
Frank Stokes & Dane Sane'Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do, Part 1Memphis Masters
Frank Stokes & Dane SaneMr. Crump Don't Like ItMemphis Masters
Frank Stokes & Dane SaneIt's A Good Thing Memphis Masters
Joe CalicottFare Thee Well BluesMississippi Masters: Early American Blues Classics 1927-35
Garfield AkersCottonfield Blues (Pt. 1)ConversatioMississippi Masters: Early American Blues Classics 1927-35
Garfield AkersDough Roller BluesMississippi Masters: Early American Blues Classics 1927-35
Jim JacksonJim Jackson's Kansas City Blues Jim Jackson Vol. 1 1927-1928
Jim JacksonWhat A Time Jim Jackson Vol. 2 1928-1930
Jim JacksonHesitation Blues Jim Jackson Vol. 2 1928-1930
Minnie WallaceThe Cockeyed WorldRuckus Juice & Chitlins, Vol. 2: The Great Jug Bands

Show Notes:

Robert Wilkins: Prodigal Son Robert Wilkins: Memphis Gospel Singer
Read Liner Notes (preview) Read Liner Notes

 

Robert Wilkins cut one of the great albums of the blues revival, Memphis Gospel Singer recorded in 1964 for the Piedmont label and now finally issued issued on CD as Prodigal Son by Bear Family. Around 1964 Dick Spottswood, who had been instrumental in finding Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James a few before, set out to track down Robert Wilkins. After finding Wilkins he brought him up to Washington D.C. to record for his Piedmont label. Spottswood has written an excellent 28 page booklet for the new reissue and today we are joined by Dick as we spotlight this great album and chat about his old friend. We'll also be playing Wilkins' early classic sides: for Victor in 1928, Brunswick in 1929 and Vocalion in 1935. Wilkins was born in Hernando, Mississippi some twenty miles from Memphis and birthplace of an important group of musicians who helped establish Memphis as a major blues center in the 1920's. In addition to Wilkins these included Jim Jackson, Dan Sane, who was the partner of Frank Stokes and Garfield Akers and his partner Joe Calicott. We feature these artists in the second hour.

Wilkins was born south of Memphis in Hernando, Mississippi, in 1895. His father fled the area to avoid prosecution for bootlegging. In 1898 his mother remarried a farmer named Oliver, who helped raise Robert until he was fifteen. His earliest musical memories were of his grandfather's fiddle on the wall and the guitar-playing teenagers who came around at night to serenade his older sisters. "They would be playing in the front yard or on the porch," Wilkins told Pete Welding in Blues Unlimited. "They were dancing in the dust and up on the porches, and like that. Played the 'Buck Time' and all different things. One I never will forget is one called 'The St. Louis Buck.' And they would buck-dance off of that and cut so many different steps." By age nine Robert was playing music on a Jew's harp. Around 1911 after a neighbor broke a guitar over his wife's head, Robert's mother bought the remains of the instrument and had it reassembled for her son. The first song he learned, "I Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down," would remain in his repertoire for a half-century. He claimed tRobert Wilkins: Rolling Stone-Part 1hat watching others play enabled him him to pick his own tunes almost straight away. "The one I learned under, he's the only one I ever saw who picks with two fingers like I do. His name was Aaron Taylor but we all called him 'Buddy. Most of the old tunes I play, that's the way he played them-'Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down.' I got the 'Frisco Train' behind him, I got the 'St. Louis Buck' behind him, and 'Jesse James' behind him, and 'Casey Jones'- all those songs I played behind him. So many of them I can't remember 'cause he could play 'most anything you ever heard on guitar. Within the year Robert was playing at picnics and fish fries and serenading door to door.For white dances he played -"what you call a drag dance" music.

Every autumn Robert would play the traveling medicine shows. He recalled hearing a tenor banjo around 1912, when  Gus Cannon came through. "I played on a stage with him and Jim Jackson," Wilkins told Welding. "They would dance, blacken their face and crack a lot of funny jokes, and play the guitars. Within a few years Wilkins felt he had outstripped all other players in town. "I overran all the old musicians I learned under," he said. "I was mostly the leading songster and blues player there in Hernando."

Robert and his family moved to Memphis in 1915. In the mid·1920's he got a job with the Pullman service., traveling  around the country for three years until he got laid off. He met up with Son Joe Lawlars and then in his words, "I begin to play music for all occasions." He met the Rev. Lonnie McIntorsh on Third and Beale one day and McIntorsh asked if he was interested in making records. The pair went into a furniture store on the corner and Wilkins rehearsed some numbers for the manager. "They loved the music so well and my singing! When the recorder come, they recommended me to him. They set up in an auditorium on Main and Poplar Streets." This was for Victor, when I did 'I Told My Rider' [unissued] and 'Rolling Stone.' That was the one they issued-'Rolling Stone.' The second day they was there I did 'Jail House Blues' and 'I Do Blues.' That was in September, and about the first of November I heard 'Rolling Stone.' The release of "Rolling Stone" opened up musical doors: "We would just bust music all over town-at pig stands, sporting houses while they was having a good time, and all like that," he told Welding. "Hotels-the Claridge, Blackstone, the Medical Arts Building, Peabody just any place. I played for all occasions; they called me for everything."Robert Wilkins: That's No Way To Get along Ad

untitleduntitledIn late September 1929 Wilkins journeyed to the Peabody Hotel to record his classic "That's No Way to Get Along" for Brunswick, as well as "Falling Down Blues," the ragtimey "Alabama Blues," and downhome "Long Train Blues." At his final Brunswick session the following February, he cut "Nashville Stonewall Blues", Police Sergeant Blues", "Get Away Blues" and "I'll Go With Her Blues." Five years elapsed before, as Tim Wilkins, in the company of Son Joe and "Kid Spoons", he recorded five titles for Vocalion, including "New Stock Yard Blues" and "Old Jim Canan's."

The following spring Wilkins gave up playing guitar after witnessing unnerving violence at a house party. "I just hung it on the wall," he explained to Welding. "Said, 'I'm not going to play anymore.' It was just a sudden thing. Look like something appealed to me, and I heard it-said, 'Don't do it anymore.'" He married Ida Mae Harris and devoted himself to helping raise their five sons and two daughters. A family belief holds that in 1942 he promised God that he'd give up playing blues if his wife survived a life-threatening illness. With her recovery, Wilkins kept his promise and turned increasingly towards the church, becoming a minister of the Church pf God in Christ in 1950. The denomination's encouragement of music enabled him to perform gospel songs on electric guitar. While he no longer performed 12-bar blues, he remodeled his old blues arrangements into gospel songs: "Old Jim Canan's" was morphed into "I'm Going Home to My Heavenly King." "That's No Way to Get Along" metamorphosed into an epic retelling of the gospel of Luke entitled "Prodigal Son" while the guitar lines of "I'll Go With Her" echoed in "I'll Go With You."

Around 1964 Dick Spottswood launched a search for Wilkins. "I had gotten a tip that he was in Memphis," Spottswood explains. "I looked in the telephone book and found two Robert Wilkins there. I wrote a letter to each of them saying, 'Hey, if you're the Robert Wilkins who made 'Nashville Stonewall Blues' in the '20s, boy, would we like to hear from you.' A week or two later, the phone rang and the voice said, 'This is Rev. Wilkins.'" Dick arranged for Wilkins to come to Washington, D.C., to record his self-titled debut LP for the Piedmont label. The centerpiece of the album was his epic nine-minute plus "Prodigal Son" famously recorded by the Rolling Stones on their 1968 album  Beggars Banquet. The story goes that Wilkins was properly credited on the original graffiti-laden, bathroom-themed cover, but that credit was lost when the cover art was changed to an invitation-themed design. The credit later was restored in Wilkins’ name, but only after legal action was taken. Four additional songs from the Piedmont session appeared on the Biograph album This Old World's In A Hell Of A Fix and these also appear on the Bear Family reissue. Otherwise, Wilkins' post-war discography is slim with a full-length album released on Gene Rosenthal's Genes imprint in the 90's plus a handful of scattered live and studio sides on several different anthologies.

Robert Wilkins Newport 1964
Rev. Robert Wilkins, Newport, 1964

Rev. Wilkins hit the folk circuit, appearing at Newport in 1964 (two sides appear on Vanguard's Blues At Newport) and the Memphis Country Blues Festival in 1966 and 1968 (three tracks appear on the Blue Horizon record The 1968 Memphis Country Blues Festival). Even after the Rolling Stones covered "Prodigal Son" Wilkins steadfastly refused to play the blues. "No, my conscience won't let me do it," he explained to Pete Welding. "It's something within. My children even, and all of my friends that know me, say: 'It looks like you could just go and play the blues, make two or three records of the blues.' 'If that was me,' they say, 'I wouldn't miss the money.' Well, it looks good, but then I have scripture say: 'What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul?'" Rev. Wilkins never did return to blues and lived into his nineties, passing away on May 30, 1987.

Related Reading:

-Dick Spottswood Interview/Feature (68 min., MP3)

- Rev. Robert Wilkins (Blues Unlimited no. 13, Jul 1964 by Richard K. Spottswood) [PDF]

-Reverend Robert Wilkins: An Interview. Pt. 1. – 6 (Blues Unlimited no. 51-56, 1968 by Pete Welding) [PDF]

Rev. Robert Wilkins (Victrola and 78 Journal no. 11, 1997: 8–13 by Jas Obrecht) [PDF]

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ARTIST
SONG
ALBUM
Gus Cannon Poor Boy A Long Way From HomeMemphis Masters: Early American Blues Classics 1927-34
Gus Cannon InterviewAmerican Skiffle Bands
Blind Blake & Gus CannonHe's In The Jailhouse NowThe Best of Blind Blake
Donald Hill Interview
Gus CannonI Met Mr. Toad Recordings Provided By Don Hill
Gus CannonShow Me The Way To Go HomeRecordings Provided By Don Hill
Gus CannonWalk Right In Recordings Provided By Don Hill
Cannon's Jug StompersMinglewood BluesRuckus Juice & Chitlins, Vol. 1
Cannon's Jug StompersViola Lee BluesWhen The Sun Goes Dow
Cannon's Jug StompersPig Ankle Strut Gus Cannon Vol. 1 1927-1928
Cannon's Jug StompersGoing To Germany Gus Cannon & Noah Lewis Vol. 2 1929-1930
Noah LewisSelling The JellyGus Cannon & Noah Lewis Vol. 2 1929-1930
Gus CannonCan You Blame The Colored ManMasters of the Memphis Blues
Gus CannonInterviewAmerican Skiffle Bands
Gus CannonMy Money Never Runs OutGood for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-37
Cannon's Jug StompersMadison Street BluesBlues Images Vol. 5
Cannon's Jug StompersBig Railroad Blues Ruckus Juice & Chitlins, Vol. 1
Cannon's Jug StompersHeart Breakin' BluesGus Cannon Vol. 1 1927-1928
Cannon's Jug StompersFeather BedBefore The Blues Vol. 3
Memphis Willie B. & Gus CannonSitting Here ThinkingBlues: Music from the Documentary Film
Gus Cannon Make Me A Pallet On Your FloorWalk Right In
Gus Cannon Come On Down To My HouseWalk Right In
Cannon's Jug StompersFourth And BealeGus Cannon & Noah Lewis Vol. 2 1929-1930
Cannon's Jug StompersLast Chance Blues Ruckus Juice & Chitlins Vol. 2
Cannon's Jug StompersWalk Right In When The Sun Goes Down
Gus Cannon Goin' Back (To Memphis, TN)On The Road Again
Gus Cannon Salty DogWalk Right In
Cannon's Jug StompersTired Chicken BluesGus Cannon & Noah Lewis Vol. 2 1929-1930
Cannon's Jug StompersPrison Wall BluesGus Cannon & Noah Lewis Vol. 2 1929-1930
Gus Cannon Walk Right InWalk Right In

Show Notes:

Gus Cannon
Gus Cannon circa 1920

A remarkable musician, Gus Cannon bridged the gap between early blues and the minstrel and the pre-blues that preceded it. His band of the '20's and '30's, Cannon's Jug Stompers, along with contemporaries, The Memphis Jug Band, recorded the finest jug music of the era. On today's program we spin many of the classic Jug Stompers songs, songs Gus cut under his own name, sides he cut with others, a fascinating interview Cannon did in he 50's plus we talk to Don Hill who recorded Cannon in 1961. Much of the information for today's show come from the notes to Cannon's Jug Stompers The Complete Works 1927-1930 (issued first on Herwin then Yazoo) written by  Bengt Olsson. Olsson was a fine writer, an expert on Memphis blues and these notes notes are perhaps the best piece written on Gus Cannon.  A link to the notes is provided below.

Songs Cannon recorded, notably the raggy "Walk Right In," were staples of the folk repertoire decades later, and Cannon himself continued to record and perform into the 1970's. He learned early repertoire in the 1890's from older musicians, notably Mississippian Alec Lee. The early 1900's found him playing around Memphis with songster Jim Jackson and forming a partnership with Noah Lewis, whose harmonica wizardry would be basic to the Jug Stompers' sound. In 1914, Cannon began work with a succession of medicine shows that would continue into the 1940's. His recording career began with Paramount sessions in 1927 cut under the name Banjo Joe and also made sides with Blind Blake. In 1928 he began recording as Cannon's Jug Stompers, cutting over two-dozen sides with the group through 1930 for Victor. He returned in 1956 to make a few recordings for Folkways Records and made some college and coffee house appearances with Furry Lewis and Bukka White. In 1963 the Rooftop Singers had a hit with "Walk Right In" and in the wake of that recorded an album for Stax Records in 1963. He cut a few other scattered sides before his death in 1979.

Cannon's Jug Stompers
Cannon's Jug Stompers circa 1928

Cannon's first instrument was home-made but he soon ran away from home where he played banjo around work camps. "Gus grew up with banjo & fiddle songs – 'John Henry & all that mess' – all around him, as most of his brothers (nine in all & most older than Gus) played an instrument or two & would frequently get together with other musicians in the area." Around the turn of the century Cannon was in Clarksdale where he came under the influence of Alec Lee, 15 year his senior, who played with a knife on songs like "Poor Boy" and "John Henry." "Alec Lee was the first guy I heard playing on a Hawaiian guitar ..used a knife." About two years later Cannon recalled playing down by the Sunflower river. "..I was playing for Saturday night balls – that's when us colored folks had ourselves a time. Man I played the hell out of that banjo for $2.50 a night…" Cannon wasn't playing professionally at this time, still working different day jobs.

Cannon started out with medicine shows like Dr Hangerson's , Dr Stokey's, Dr Willie Lewis' and Dr W.B. Milton. From Virginia to Arkansas, billed as Banjo Joe, he worked for some ten years, 1914 -1928. He was accompanied by Hosea Woods, a longtime friends who could play guitar, violin and cornet and also sang. "I had to have a shot of liqueur before the show. If I didn't it seemed like I couldn't be funny in front of all them people. When I had one it seemed like all them people was one and I would throw up the banjo in the air and really put on a show." In 1916 Cannon moved North of Memphis to Ripley to work on a farm. There he teamed up with local musicians harmonica player Noah Lewis and guitarist Ashley Thompson. The trio played around the area until 1920. They would be reunited when Cannon formed his jug band in Memphis in 1928.

Back in Memphis, Will Shade had started the Memphis Jug Band. They became very popular in Memphis, often playing in Church Park, where Gus saw them. The Madison Rag AdMemphis Jug Band first recorded for Victor in February 1927 and over the next four years recorded 57 sides. By 1930 there were seven different jug bands active in Memphis. In 1928 Ralph Peer from Victor, who had previously recorded the Memphis Jug Band, returned to Memphis looking for other jug bands to record. Charlie Williamson, the manager of the Palace Theater, recommended Gus. By this time Gus had had a harness made for his jug so that he could wear it around his neck and play banjo at the same time. Gus called up Noah Lewis and Ashley Thompson and on Jan 30 1928 they recorded 4 sides in an old auditorium as Cannon's Jug Stompers.

The first recordings did well and in Sept 1928 an additional 10 sides were cut; 4 on Sept. 5 with Avery replacing Thompson, 2 more on Sept. 9 and then 4 more on Sept. 20 with Hosea Woods added on kazoo. The band’s major musician was Noah Lewis who demonstrated remarkable breath control, inventiveness, and mastery of his instrument. Lewis was born in Henning, Tennessee, and raised in the vicinity of Ripley. He played in local string bands and brass bands, and began playing in the Ripley and Memphis areas with Cannon. He cut seven sides under his own name at sessions in 1929 and 1930. Recording as Noah Lewis' Jug Band, he was backed on two numbers by Sleepy John and Yank Rachell with just Estes backing him on two other numbers cut a couple of days apart. Lewis died in poverty of gangrene brought on by frostbite in Ripley, Tennessee, in 1961.  As Cannon recalled: "Lawd, he used to blow the hell outa that harp. He could play two harps at the same time …Y'know he could curl his lips 'round the harp & his nose was just like a fist. Noah, he was full of cocaine all the time – I reckon that's why he could play sou loud and aw, he was good!"

After Cannon's Jug Stompers final sessions in 1930 Cannon would no record again for over two-decades. In 1957 he recorded a few sides for Sam Charters for Folkways which includes an interview which is featured on today's show. The recordings were issued on the album American Skiffle Bands. While recording in the South in the early 1960's, producer, writer Charters was inspired not only by the sound of Furry Lewis’s guitar, but by the patterns of movement in his hands and fingers as he played. Thus Charters decided to make a film that would document aspects of the blues that couldn’t be put on a phonograph record. In the summer of 1962, Charters journeyed through St. Louis, Memphis, Louisiana, and South Carolina to shoot the film The Blues and record this soundtrack. Artists featured in addition to Lewis are J.D. Short, Baby Tate,  Sleepy John Estes and Gus Cannon who performs "Sitting Here Thinking" with Memphis Willie B.

Gus Cannon
Gus Cannon listens to his first record album on Stax
Photo: Bob Williams/The Commercial Appeal files

In 1961 Dave Mangurian and Donald Hall recorded Gus Cannon, Will Shade and Laura Dukes over two days in Memphis. The recordings have been issued as bootlegs on Will Shade & Gus Cannon 1961 (Document) and  Memphis Sessions (1956 – 1961) (Wolf). It turns out that Donald Hill is a Professor at SUNY Oneonta, just a few hours from my house. I got in touch and Donald graciously made some time to talk about recording Gus and his friends over fifty years ago. Mangurian and Hall headed to Memphis after a spending time in Clarksdale where they recorded Wade Walton and spent time in jail on "suspicion" another word for "white outsiders." In Memphis they looked up Memphis Minnie and Son Joe and and managed to record Will Shade, Laura Dukes, and Gus Cannon in Shade's apartment on Fourth Street, just off Beale. "We recorded over two days. The musicians drank a lot as did some of the visitors who heard the music and joined us. We recorded a variety of configurations, including Shade on vocal, washtub bass, harmonica, and guitar; Laura Dukes, vocal and banjo-uke, Gus Cannon on vocal and banjo; and several others that came by to sing a tune or two. …Shade, Cannon and Dukes were real professionals."

In 1963, Cannon's vocals and banjo-playing were accompanied by Will Shade on jug and Milton Roby on washboard for this Stax Record release titled Walk Right In. It appears that he recorded at the Stax studio simply because he lived in the neighborhood. Only 500 copies of this album were pressed. Cannon was also featured in The Devil’s Music—A History of the Blues on BBC TV in 1976. Cannon passed in 1979, obituaries, including that published in Living Blues magazine, gave his age as ninety-six, although some reference sources give birth years of 1883 and 1885.

Related Reading:

-Cannon's Jug Stompers The Complete Works 1927-1930 [PDF] (Liner notes by Begnt Olsson)

 

 

 

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ARTIST
SONG
ALBUM
Walter HortonAin't It A Shame King of the Harmonica Players
Walter HortonI Hate To The Sun Go Down King of the Harmonica Players
Walter HortonThat's Wrong Little MamaKing of the Harmonica Players
Tampa RedEvalena Blues Harmonica Giant: Classic Sides 1951-1956
Johnny ShinesEvening Shuffle (Take 1)Blues Harmonica Giant: Classic Sides 1951-1956
Willie NixTruckin' Little WomanMemphis & The South 1949-1954
Walter HortonBaby I Need Your Love Solo Harp: Private Recordings
J.B. Lenoir Slow Down Woman American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1965
Walter HortonThat Ain't ItAnn Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival Vol. 4
Walter HortonI Need My Baby BluesHave A Good Time…Chicago Blues
Johnny Young & Walter HortonStockyard BluesJohnny Young And His Chicago Blues Band
Walter Horton & Floyd JonesOverseas BluesDo Nothing Till You Hear From Us
Walter Horton & Floyd JonesTalk About Your Daddy Do Nothing Till You Hear From Us
Walter HortonGo Long WomanMouth Harp Maestro
Walter HortonLittle Walter's Boogie Sun Records The Blues Years 1950-1958
Walter HortonWe All Got To Go (Take 3)Blues Harmonica Giant: Classic Sides 1951-1956
Walter HortonHard Hearted WomanBlues Harmonica Giant: Classic Sides 1951-1956
Walter HortonWalking by MyselfBlues Harmonica Giant: Classic Sides 1951-1956
Victoria Spivey &Walter Horton Inter-Mission TasteSpivey's Blues Parade
Otis SpannCan't Do Me No Good The Blue Horizon Story 1965-1970
Sunnyland Slim & Walter HortonBlow Walter BlowSad And Lonesome
Walter Horton & Jimmy DeBerryWorried, Wonderin' And GladBack
Walter Horton & Jimmy DeBerryEverybody's Fishin' Back
Walter Horton Let's Have A Good TimeI Blueskvarter Vol. 2
Walter Horton You Don't Mistreat MeI Blueskvarter Vol. 1
Chicago Blues All StarsLittle Boy BlueLoaded With The Blues
Walter HortonIf It Ain't Me Johnny Shines with Big Walter Horton

Show Notes:

Big Walter Horton: King of the Harmonica PlayersSeveral years back I devoted a show to Walter Horton and Little Walter. I was listening to some of Horton's recordings again recently and thought I would do a sequel, spotlighting material not covered in the first show. Today's show spotlights a number of lesser known, rarer sides Horton recorded under his own name as well as great sides that find him in a supporting role. Horton ranks as one of the greatest blues harmonica artists yet never got quite the same acclaim as contemporaries like Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson II due mostly to the fact that, as a rather shy, quiet individual, he never had much taste for leading his own bands or recording sessions. Horton was much more comfortable in a supporting role and as writer Neal Slavin wrote “was one of the few musicians capable of elevating the slightest material into something approaching a masterpiece.”

Horton was born in Horn Lake, Mississippi, in 1918. Horton got his first harmonica from his father when he five, and won a local talent contest with it. Shortly thereafter his mother moved to Memphis, then a hotbed of blues, and according to blues researcher Samuel Charters, Horton was playing with the Memphis Jug Band by the time he was nine or ten. He also may have recorded with them in 1927 as he himself claimed but many researchers doubt this assertion. During the thirties he played with Robert Johnson, Honeyboy Edwards, and others, and later gave pointers to both Little Walter and Rice Miller. Horton's first verifiable sides were done in 1939 backing guitarist Charlie "Little Buddy" Doyle on sessions for Columbia. Around the same time (according to Horton himself), he began to experiment with amplifying his harmonica, which if accurate may have made him the first to do so.

lWalter Horton & Jimmy DeBerry
Walter Horton & Jimmy DeBerry

In the late forties he went to Chicago, but later returned to Memphis. From 1951 to 1953, Horton recorded as vocalist and harmonica virtuoso backed by small combos, which variously included Joe Willie Wilkins, Pat Hare, Jack Kelly, Joe Hill Louis, Willie Nix, Albert Williams, and others. Singles by ‘‘Mumbles’’ were released on Modern, RPM, and Chess. In Memphis in 1953, Horton and guitarist Jimmy DeBerry recorded the instrumental masterpiece ‘‘Easy’’ (Sun), based on Ivory Joe Hunter’s ‘‘Since I Lost My Baby.’’ Following the success of "Easy," Horton went back to Chicago to play with Eddie Taylor and cut a memorable session backing Tampa Red. But when Junior Wells got drafted, Horton took his place in Muddy Waters' band. It didn't last long, though-Horton showed up drunk at a rehearsal and Muddy fired him. He reunited with Muddy on the 1977 record I'm Ready.

Horton cut his best work as a sideman. Always described as shy and nervous, he preferred this role to that of a bandleader. His playing graces numerous records behind Johnny Shines, Jimmy Rogers, Muddy Waters, Johnny Young, Sunnyland Slim, Otis Rush, Koko Taylor, and others. He also taught a number of younger players, including Charlie Musselwhite and Carey Bell. In 1964, Horton recorded his first full-length album, The Soul of Blues Harmonica, for Chess subsidiary Argo. Two years later, Horton contributed several cuts to Vanguard's classic compilation Chicago/The Blues/Today! Vol. 3.

Horton became a regular on Willie Dixon's Blues All Stars package tours during the 70's, which made their way through America and Europe over the '60s and '70s. He also played the AmericaWalter Horton: The Deep Blues Harmonica Ofn-The-Deep-Blues-Ha-539120n Folk Blues Festival in 1965. In 1973 he cut an album with Carey Bell for Alligator. After that he became a mainstay on the festival circuit, and often played at the open-air market on Chicago's legendary Maxwell Street, along with many other bluesman. In 1977, he joined Johnny Winter and Muddy Waters on Winter's album I'm Ready, and during the same period recorded some material for Blind Pig, which later found release as the albums Fine Cuts and Can't Keep Lovin' You. Horton appeared in the Maxwell Street scene in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers, accompanying John Lee Hooker. He died of heart failure on December 8, 1981.

We spotlight a number of less well known recordings by Horton. Among those are several from the 1970's: King of the Harmonica Players issued on the Delta label and collects sides recorded in 1966 with Johnny Young and in 1970 with Floyd Jones, Do Nothing Till You Hear From Us with Floyd Jones issued on the Magnolia label  in 1975, The Deep Blues Harmonica of Walter Horton issued on JSP and pair of albums issued on Crosscut with Jimmy DeBerry. The Delta album has recently been issued on CD with some additional vintage tracks while the Magnolia album has not been issued on CD. A few years back the JSP label  issued the 3-CD set Big Walter Horton – Blues Harmonica Giant: Classic Sides 1951-1956. The third disc contains tracks issued on the album The Deep Blues Harmonica of Walter Horton likely recorded Jan. 1973 in Cambridge, MA.

Horton recorded some fine material in 1964 that we feature today. Blues Southside Chicago is a collection of Chicago blues recorded by Willie Dixon in 1964 and originally issued on UK Decca and reissued by Flyright in 1976. Additional sides from this session appeared on Have A Good Time – Chicago Blues issued in 1970 on the Sunnyland label which is also out of print. Both LP's feature sides by Horton as leader and in a session role and both albums have not been issued on CD.

Walter Horton & Folyd Jones: Do Nothing Til You Hear From UsJimmy DeBerry and Walter Horton cut two very hard-to-find albums circa 1972-1973 in Memphis called Easy and Back for the Crosscut label. DeBerry cut some material in the pre-war era and some terrific sides for Sun in the 1950's, both solo and with Walter Horton including playing on Horton's classic "Easy." These albums are bit of a mixed bag but there are several fine moments.

In 1964 Olle Helander and Lars Westman of Swedish Radio were on a trip to the US to document blues and jazz in Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans and San Francisco. They reached Chicago May 23rd and recorded Johnny Young accompanied by Slim Willis, Otis Spann and Robert Whitehead. In the afternoon they recorded Walter Horton with Robert Nighthawk. These recordings were aired in the context of radio documentaries with interviews of the artists. Unfortunately Nighthawk and Horton were not interviewed. Most of this material has  been released in excellent sound on the double disc sets I Blueskvarter: Chicago 1964, Vol. 1 and I Blueskvarter: Chicago 1964, Vol. 3 which is the first authorized release of these recordings

We also spotlight several fine live performances including a great performance with Horton backing J.B. Lenoir at the 1965 American Folk Blues Festival, live at the 1973 Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival and a solo performance recorded in Dortmund, West Germany in 1965.

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SONG
ALBUM
Sonny Boy Williamson IIMr. Down ChildCool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Joe Willie WilkinsMr. Down ChildJoe Willie Wilkins & His King Biscuit Boys
Sonny Boy Williamson IICool, Cool BluesCool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Sonny Boy Williamson IIEyesight To The BlindCool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Sonny Boy Williamson IIWest Memphis Blues Cool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Albert WilliamsHoodoo ManSun Records: The Blues Years 1950-1958
Albert WilliamsRhumba ChillenSun Records: The Blues Years 1950-1958
Honeyboy EdwardsSweet Home ChicagoSun Records: The Blues Years 1950-1958
Willie NixSeems Like A Million YearsSun Records: The Blues Years 1950-1958
Willie NixBakershop Boogie Sun Records: The Blues Years 1950-1958
Joe Willie WilkinsMe & The Devil BluesJoe Willie Wilkins & His King Biscuit Boys
Joe Willie WilkinsSad LetterJoe Willie Wilkins & His King Biscuit Boys
Sonny Boy Williamson IIStop Crying Cool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Sonny Boy Williamson IICome Back HomeCool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Sonny Boy Williamson IINine Below ZeroCool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Joe Willie WilkinsWalkin' Blues/Feel Like Goin' HomeJoe Willie Wilkins & His King Biscuit Boys
Joe Willie WilkinsIt's Too BadJoe Willie Wilkins & His King Biscuit Boys
Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup Gotta Find My BabyCool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Willie Love Everybody's Fishing Cool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Sonny Boy Williamson III Cross My HeartCool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Sonny Boy Williamson IIStop NowCool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Sonny Boy Williamson IIPontiac BluesCool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Roosevelt Sykes She's Jailbait Roosevelt Sykes Vol .10 1951-1957
Roosevelt Sykes Sputnik BabyRoosevelt Sykes Vol .10 1951-1957
Houston StackhouseCrying Won't Help YouMemphis Blues Caravan Vol. I
Charlie BookerNew Moonrise BluesMemphis Blues Caravan Vol. II
Sonny Boy Williamson IICat HopCool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Sonny Boy Williamson IIShe Brought Life Back To The DeadCool Cool Blues: The Classic Sides 1951-1954
Houston Stackhouse Cool Drink Of Water The Devil's Music
Houston Stackhouse Mean Red SpiderThe Devil's Music
Joe Willie WilkinsHucklefingerJoe Willie Wilkins & His King Biscuit Boys

Show Notes:

Joe Willie Wilkins
Joe Willie Wilkins, Ann Arbor, 1973. Photo by Sandy Sutherland.

Joe Willie Wilkins spent the majority of his career in the shadows as a session guitarist, playing behind Sonny boy Williamson II, Willie Love, Will Nix among others and off record with bluesmen such as Robert Lockwood Jr., Elmore James, Robert Nighthawk, Walter Horton and others. Through his studio contributions, his time broadcasting on King Biscuit Time on KFFA and out of West Memphis on WDIA, and the sheer number of bluesman he worked with throughout the Delta, Wilkins exerted a sizable influence despite never cutting records under his own name until the 70's. Those who cite him as an influence include Pat Hare, Little Milton, Jimmy Rogers and Brewer Phillips. He stepped out of the shadows in the 70's performing at festivals, making television appearances and a long overdue full-length album. As Luigi Monge wrote in the Encyclopedia of the Blues: “Wilkins incorporated in his playing the intensity of downhome blues, the elegance of jazz, and the power of urban sounds. His achievement transcends the quantity of recordings he left and has more to do with quality and originality.” And as his supporter Jim O'Neal wrote: “One of the greatest blues guitarists Memphis has ever known”-

The only child of Frank Wilkins, an accomplished bottleneck guitarist, Joe Willie became interested in music at a very early age.Wilkinswas born just southwest of Clarksdale in a tiny spot known as Davenport, Mississippi. Wilkins taught himself harmonica and often played with his father at local parties and dances in the Bobo, Mississippi, area, where his family had moved in 1933 to work on a farm. After being taught some fiddle by "Fiddlin’" Sam Harris and accordion by Walter "Pat" Rhodes, Wilkins learned guitar from his father, the members in his band, and phonograph records so well that he was nicknamed "The Walking Seeburg" after a brand of jukebox). His musical education was also enhanced by meeting several musicians around Clarksdale including Muddy Waters, Robert Lockwood and Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller).

After playing in the Mississippi streets and barrelhouses with Sonny Boy Williamson II (Aleck Miller) and Robert Lockwood, Wilkins briefly served in the U.S. Navy. From 1942 he regularly participated with his mentors and other fellow musicians in the famous radio program King Biscuit Time over KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, and with Robert Nighthawk (whose sister he married) in the Bright Star Flour show. At the end of the decade Wilkins often toured the South with a group known as the Four Aces (Sonny Boy Williamson II, Willie Love, Willie Nix). Wilkins moved to West Memphis in 1948 where he played with local musicians and met B.B. King whom broadcast with.

King Biscuit Time

Wilkins first entered a studio as late as 1951, when he played guitar on the first recordings Sonny Boy Williamson II made for Lillian McMurry’s Trumpet Records in Jackson, Mississippi, where Wilkins acted as house guitarist for two years. Wilkins backed Sonny Boy on ten sides in 1951, four sides in 1952 and final three sides in 1953. One of the songs was “Mr. Down Child” a Robert Johnson composition that he never recorded. It was Robert Lockwood who transposed the song and taught it to Sonny Boy who recorded it on December 4th 1951. Lockwood recorded his version in 1973. It seemed to be a favorite of Wilkins' who cut the song as the b-side of his first 45 for the Mimosa label in 1973, another version was cut for Wilkins' debut album and another version appears on the soundtrack fro the BBC TV series The Devil's Music.

During the 50's Wilkins backed several artists at Sun studios including Willie Nix, Honeyboy Edwards and Albert Williams. The Edwards and Williams sides were unissued at the time. Wilkins said he tried a session of his own for the label but lacked confidence and nothing ever materialized.  Nix's "Seems Like A Million Years b/w Baker Shop Boogie" was issued as a 78 by the label. Nix toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels Shows as a dancing comedian in the 30's and during the early '40s, performed on streets and parks around Memphis. In 1947, Nix appeared with Robert Lockwood, Jr. on a Little Rock radio station and subsequently worked with Sonny Boy Williamson II, Willie Love and Joe Willie Wilkins as the Four Aces. Nix joined B.B. King and Joe Hill Louis for appearances on Memphis radio, and worked with The Beale Streeters during the late '40s. He 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, and he later cut sides for the Chance label in Chicago.

Willie Nix & Joe Willie Wilkins
Joe Willie Wilkins & Willie Nix from Blues
Unlimited #120, courtesy Steve La Vere

In 1959 Wilkins' father died and Joe Willie moved from West Memphis to Memphis, where he worked mostly outside music until about 1970. Despite bad health, Wilkins took up guitar again as a result of his wife Carrie’s encouragement and of blues writer and promoter Jim O’Neal’s support, often playing with Houston Stackhouse. Wilkins formed his King Biscuit Boys group featuring the ever present Stackhouse and a changing line up that included harp players Boy Blue and Sonny Blake and guitarist Clarence Nelson. Wilkins made appearances at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, the Memphis River City Blues Festival and worked as part of the Memphis Blues Caravan, a traveling show made up of first generation bluesmen such as Sleepy John Esets, Bukka White, Furry Lewis and others. Performances appear on the albums Memphis Blues Caravan Vol. I & II.

In 1973 Steve LaVere’s Mimosa label released Wilkins’s first recordings under his own name, a 45, “It's Too Bad b/w "Mr. Downchild.” A full-length album titled Joe Willie Wilkins & His King Biscuit Boys was released by Adamo that included some live performances and studio recordings. In 1976 Wilkins also played the Monterrey Jazz Festival and appeared in the BBC Television series The Devil’s Music: A History of the Blues. Wilkins passed March 28, 1979 in Memphis.

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-Joe Willie Wilkins Obituary by Cilla Huggins (Blues Unlimited 134, March/June 1979) [PDF]

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