Entries tagged with “Bluebird records”.


ARTISTSONGALBUM
Robert NighthawkG-ManProwling With The Nighthawk
Sonny Boy Williamson I Blue Bird BluesThe Original Sonny Boy Williamson I Vol. 1
Big Joe WilliamsRootin' Ground HogBig Joe Williams and the Stars of Mississippi Blues
Little Brother MontgomerySanta Fe BluesLittle Brother Montgomery 1930-1936
Sonny Boy NelsonLow DownMississippi Blues Vol. 3 - Catfish Blues
Bo CarterThe Ins And Outs Of My GirlBo Carter Vol. 4 1936-1938
Robert NighthawkProwling NighthawkProwling With The Nighthawk
Sonny Boy Williamson IJackson BluesThe Original Sonny Boy Williamson I Vol. 1
Walter Davis Good GalWalter Davis Vol. 3 1937-1938
Sonny Boy NelsonLong Tall Woman
Mississippi Blues Vol. 3 - Catfish Blues
Mississippi MatildaHard Working WomanMississippi Blues Vol. 3 - Catfish Blues
Robert HillLumber-Yard BluesNever Let The Same Bee Sting You Twice
Walter DavisFifth AvenueWalter Davis Vol. 3 1937-1938
Big Joe WilliamsBrother JamesBig Joe Williams and the Stars of Mississippi Blues
Sonny Boy Williamson I Got The Bottle Up And GoneThe Original Sonny Boy Williamson I Vol. 1
Little Brother MontgomeryThe First Time I Met You Little Brother Montgomery 1930-1936
Bo Carter Bo Carter's AdviceBo Carter Vol. 4 1936-1938
Sonny Boy NelsonPony BluesMississippi Blues Vol. 3 - Catfish Blues
Chatman Brothers (Lonnie And Sam)Jumping Out BluesMississippi Sheiks Vol. 4 1934-1936
Chatman Brothers (Lonnie And Sam)If You Don't Want Me Please Don't Dog Me 'RoundMississippi Sheiks Vol. 4 1934-1936
Bo Carter All Around Man - Part 2Bo Carter Vol. 4 1936-1938
Bo Carter Pussy Cat BluesBo Carter Vol. 4 1936-1938
Bo Carter Your Biscuits Are Not Big Enough For MeBo Carter Vol. 4 1936-1938
Sonnyboy Williamson ISugar Mama Blues The Original Sonny Boy Williamson I Vol. 1
Sonnyboy Williamson IGood Morning School GirlThe Original Sonny Boy Williamson I Vol. 1
Tommy Griffin On My Way BluesCountry Blues Collector's Items 1930-1941
Walter VincsonRats Been On My CheeseRats Been On My Cheese
Annie Turner Black Pony BluesLittle Brother Montgomery 1930-1954
Annie Turner Workhouse BluesLittle Brother Montgomery 1930-1954
Little Brother MontgomeryA. & V. Railroad Blues Little Brother Montgomery 1930-1936Remastered
Mississippi Matilda Happy Home BluesMississippi Blues Vol. 3 - Catfish Blues
Sonny Boy NelsonStreet Walkin'Mississippi Blues Vol. 3 - Catfish Blues
Robert HillTell Me What's Wrong With YouNever Let The Same Bee Sting You Twice
Little Brother MontgomeryWest Texas BluesLittle Brother Montgomery 1930-1936
Little Brother MontgomeryLouisiana Blues, Pt. 2Little Brother Montgomery 1930-1936
Little Brother MontgomeryFarish Street JiveLittle Brother Montgomery 1930-1936

Show Notes:

Today's show is the first installment spotlighting great recording sessions. Today we select two sessions conducted by the Victor (issued on Bluebird) label roughly a year-and-a-half apart, one in Chicago and one in New Orleans. In the pre-war era the record companies used mobile recording units to visit southern cities and capture the music of regional performers. For example, between 1927-1930 Atlanta was visited seventeen times, Memphis eleven times, Dallas eight times, New Orleans seven times and so on. During and after the Depression field trips dropped off precipitously. We play recordings today from remarkable field sessions cut by Louisiana and Mississippi artists on October 15-16, 1936 at the St. Charles Hotel, New Orleans. Dozens of titles were cut by Lonnie and Sam Chatmon, Bo Carter, Eugene Powell (as Sonny Boy Nelson), his wife Matilda Powell (as Mississippi Matilda), Walter Vincson, Little Brother Montgomery, Annie Turner and Tommy Griffin. The other session we spotlight was conducted in Chicago on May 5, 1937 resulting in two-dozen sides by Sonny Boy Williamson I and Robert Lee McCoy (Robert Nighthawk) who were making their recording debuts, plus sides by Big Joe Williams and Walter Davis.

Big Joe Williams: Rootin' Ground Hog 78Henry Townsend recalled driving Sonny Boy Williamson I, Robert Nighthawk, Walter Davis and Big Joe Williams to Aurora, Illinois, in his 1930 A Model Ford for their 1937 sessions: "I transferred them to Aurora, Illinois. There was about eight or nine of us …we stacked them in the car like sardines." This led to a marathon recording session resulting in six songs by Nighthawk (as Robert Lee McCoy), six by Sonny Boy Williamson I, four by Big Joe Williams and eight sides by Walter Davis. It was Sonny Boy's songs, especially, "Good Morning Little School Girl", "Bluebird Blues" and "Sugar Mama Blues" which were the biggest hits. Sonny Boy would go on to cut more than 120 sides in all for RCA from 1937 to 1947.

Robert Nighthawk cut six sides at this session all of which were released at the time. The popularity of the song "Prowling Night-Hawk" was the basis for his changing his surname in the early 40's. At the time of these recordings he was going by Robert Lee McCoy.

Walter Davis was among the most prolific blues performers to emerge from the pre-war St. Louis scene, cutting over 150 sides between 1930 and 1952. Davis enjoyed a fair amount of success before a stroke prompted him to move from music to the ministry during the early '50s.

Over two days on October 15-16, 1936 Bluebird conducted sessions at the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans. Little Brother Montgomery cut eighteen sides plus backed singer Annie Turner on her four numbers (two were unissued), Sonny Boy Nelson (Eugene Powell) cut six sides under his own name as well as backing Robert Hill, who cut ten sides, and his wife Mississippi Matilda on her three sides. In addition Bo Carter cut ten sides, the Chatman brothers (Lonnie and Sam) cut twelve sides, Tommy Griffin cut a dozen sides and Walter Vincson  (as Walter Jacobs) cut two sides. As John Godrich and Howard Rye wrote in Recording The Blues: "The New Orleans session in 1936 was Victor's last substantial race field recording; in subsequent years they recorded a fair number of gospel quartets in he field, but only one or two unimportant blues singers."

Eugene Powell was born in Utica, Mississippi, December 23, 1908. He started playing the guitar at age eight. His mother ran a juke house so he grew up around music. He took the name "Sonny Boy Nelson" after his step father. His early experiences around Hollandale were with Robert Nighthawk, Robert Hill, and the great blues instrumentalist Richard "Hacksaw" Harney. In 1936 Eugene and wife "Mississippi Matilda" along with Willie "Brother" Harris traveled with the Chatmon Brothers to New Orleans to record for the Bluebird label. Bo Carter acted as agent for Nelson and Hill and received a fifth of the royalties for setting the session up.

In the 1930's Matilda Powell married musician Eugene Powell. She recorded four songs at the 1936 session, one of them, "Peel Your Banana",  went unissued. In 1952, Matilda separated from Eugene, and moved to Chicago taking their one son and five daughters with her.

Interviews with Eugene Powell by Brett Bonner and Robert Eagle elicited that Robert  Hill was from Sumrall, Mississippi, near Hattiesburg, and that in Hollandale he worked with guitarist Will Hadley. Paul Oliver noted that his harmonica playing was reminiscent of Jazz Gillum.

In late 1930, Little Brother Montgomery made his debut backing Minnie Hicks and on two songs, Irene Scruggs on four and recorded “No Special Rider blues” and "Vicksburg Blues" for Paramount. He cut four more sides for Bluebird in 1935. His next recording opportunity was in October 1936 in New Orleans where he waxed a remarkable eighteen  song session. As Chris Smith writes he was "adept at blues, jazz, stride, boogie and pop which he synthesized into a personal style that ranged easily from the bopping earthiness of "Frisco Hi-Ball" to the pearl-stringing elegance of "Shreveport Farewell." His high voice and bleating vibrato are unmistakable, especially on his signature piece, "Vicksburg Blues", a polyrhythmic showcase for his acute but never pedantic timing. It's also an example of Brother's poetry of geography; many of his songs, and even the titles of his instrumentals, are rich evocations of places he knew and the railroads that carried him between them."

Nothing is known of fifteen year-old Annie Turner who cut four sides (two unissued) at this session backed by Little Brother on piano and Walter Vincson on guitar. As Chris Smith wrote: "…Turner projects a smoldering sensuality, triumphing over her low volume dicey pitch with help from Montgomery and Vincson's wonderfully attentive accompaniment."

Sonny Boy Nelson: Low Down 78

Working in various configurations, Walter Vincson and Lonnie, Bo, and Sam Chatmon performed and recorded as the Mississippi Sheiks, a name inspired by a popular 1921 Rudolph Valentino film, The Sheik. A propulsive fiddler, Lonnie managed the band, while Bo, a strong, confident singer and gifted guitarist, became its biggest star. Bo made his recording debut in 1928, backing Alec Johnson. Carter soon was recording as a solo artist and became one of the dominant blues recording acts of the 1930's, recording over 100 sides. He also played with and managed the family group, the Mississippi Sheiks, and several other acts in the area. Bo Carter specialized in double entendre songs, recording dozens of risqué songs like "Banana in Your Fruit Basket," "Pin in Your Cushion", "Your Biscuits Are Big Enough for Me", "The Ins And Outs Of My Girl", the latter two featured today. Carter's brothers, Lonnie and Sam, recorded as the Chatman Brothers, cutting twelve sides at this same session.

Walter Vinson rarely worked as a solo act, seemingly much more at home in duets and trios; towards that end, during the 1920's he worked with Charlie McCoy, Rubin Lacy and Son Spand before forming the Mississippi Sheiks. He cut two songs at this 1936 sessions in the company of pianist Harry Chatman. The year before pianist Harry Chatman cut ten songs under his won name across three sessions, two in New Orleans and a final one in Jackson, Mississippi.

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
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."

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
Lonnie JohnsonNew Orleans Blues Chris Albertson's Apt. 1959
Chris Albertson InterviewMeeting Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonInstrumentalChris Albertson's Apt. 1959
Lonnie JohnsonAway Down In The Alley BluesA Life in Music Selected Sides 1925-1953
Lonnie JohnsonBlue Ghost BluesLonnie Johnson Vol. 1 1937-1940
Lonnie JohnsonUncle NedA Life in Music Selected Sides 1925-1953
Lonnie Johnson & Clara SmithWhat Makes You Act Like ThatClara Smith Vol. 6 1930-1932
Lonnie Johnson & Victoria SpiveyI've Got Men All Over This Town Woman Blues
Lonnie Johnson & Otis SpannClementine BluesBlues Masters Vol. 4
Lonnie Johnson & Otis SpannSwingin with LonnieBlues Masters Vol. 4
Lonnie JohnsonWoke Up With the Blues in My FingersThe Original Guitar Wizard
Lonnie Johnson & Louis ArmstrongI'm Not RoughHot Fives and Sevens
Lonnie JohnsonI Know It's LoveLonnie Johnson 1948-1949
Lonnie JohnsonCareless LoveWHAT FM 1960
Chris Albertson InterviewPerforming Again
Lonnie JohnsonI Want To Talk To YouWHAT FM 1960
Lonnie Johnson I Don't Hurt AnymoreBlues By Lonnie Johnson,
Lonnie Johnson St. Louis Blues Blues & Ballads
Chris Albertson InterviewElmer Snowden
Lonnie Johnson & Eddie LangMidnight Call BluesLonnie Johnson Vol. 5 1929-1930
Lonnie Johnson Crowing Rooster BluesHe's A Jelly Roll Baker
Lonnie Johnson Mr. Johnson's SwingLonnie Johnson Vol. 1 1937-1940
Lonnie JohnsonInstrumentalChris Albertson's Apt. 1959
Chris Albertson InterviewRipped Off
Lonnie JohnsonBig Leg WomanChris Albertson's Apt. 1959
Lonnie Johnson Me And My Crazy SelfMe And My Crazy Self
Chris Albertson InterviewLonnie The Artist
Lonnie Johnson Another Night to Cry The American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1966

Show Notes:

lonnie Johnson 1935
Lonnie Johnson, circa 1935
 

Two days before his birthday, we once again turn our attention to the amazing legacy of Lonnie Johnson. This is our third show devoted to Lonnie, the last time we chatted with Dean Alger who is working on a biography of Lonnie. Today's show features a wide range of recordings Lonnie made between the 1920's through the 1960's. In addition we chat with Chris Albertson who was instrumental in Lonnie's comeback and produced several of his comeback records. Chris was also gracious enough to let me play some tapes of Lonnie that have never been released commercially. These recordings first appeared on Chris' terrific blog after languishing in Chris's closet for some fifty years. The good news is that Chris has more tapes of Lonnie that he plans on making available. I've written extensively about Lonnie in previous posts so this time out the I'll be writing primarily about today's recordings.

Throughout the show we spin some of the tapes that Chris recorded. One tape was recorded in his apartment and the other at the radio station where Chris was a disc jockey. Chris wrote: "These performances by Elmer Snowden and Lonnie Johnson took place in my Philadelphia apartment in 1959. I recorded them on my Ferrograph tape machine, which I still have. This was the tape I took to Bob Weinstock, the one that led to the Prestige albums." Back in the 50's Chris was a disc jockey at WHAT-FM—a Philadelphia station that offered jazz around the clock, seven days a week . After meeting Lonnie and Elmer, he wrote on his blog: "I also asked my newfound friends to appear live on my Sunday afternoon WHAT show, and they did that on several occasions. That was fifty years ago, but—and who says miracles don't happen—some of my airchecks have survived in the recesses of a closet. …I finally found out how to add audio to this blog, so here is an excerpt form Sunday, April 10, 1960."

Chicago Defender Ad, June 7, 1930

Despite not recording for most of the 50's and doing little performing, Lonnie is in marvelous from delivering gorgeous numbers like "New Orleans Blues", eventually issued on Blues, Ballads, and Jumpin' Jazz, Vol. 2 which didn't come out to the 90's although it was recorded at the 1960 with Elmer Snowden that resulted in the Blues & Ballads album, and "Careless Love" which Lonnie first recorded in 1928 and again in 1948 for King. There's also some fine instrumentals and a song Lonnie calls "I Want To Talk To You."

Chris produced three of Lonnie's Bluesville albums: Blues By Lonnie Johnson, Blues & Ballads and Idle Hours which featured Victoria Spivey. As Chris wrote in the liner notes to Johnson’s Bluesville debut: "I was interviewing Elmer Snowden on my radio show when I played an old record by Lonnie which I followed up with the remark: 'I wonder whatever happened to Lonnie Johnson?' Elmer replied: 'I saw him in the Supermarket the other day'. A listener then called up and said that he worked with Lonnie at the hotel so I finally contacted him, brought him to my apartment and had him play for me. Having recorded his playing and singing and realizing that he was as good as ever I took the tapes to Prestige and Lonnie was on his way again." From his Bluesville period we spin the elegant "I Don't Hurt Anymore" from his Bluesville debut, Blues By Lonnie Johnson, with fine support by tenor saxophonist Hal Singer, pianist Claude Hopkins, bassist Wendell Marshall and drummer Bobby Donaldson plus a swinging version of "St. Louis Blues" with Elmer Snowden from the album Blues & Ballads. As mentioned, Chris produced Idle Hours with Victoria Spivey but I prefer her 1961 Bluesville album, Woman Blues!, produced by Spivey's long time companion Len Kunstadt. Lonnie and Victoria sound like they're having lost of fun on this album as can be heard on our selection, the humorous "I Get Men All Over This Town." This tune reminds me of the great duets of the 20's and 30's by Vaudeville veterans like Butterbeans and Susie and Coot Grant and Wesley Wilson.

In 1963 Lonnie toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival. From that date we spin Lonnie (wonderfully introduced by Sonny Boy Williamson II) delivering a magnificent rendition of "Another Night To Cry." Along with Lonnie, Victoria Spivey was the only other one on the tour who started their careers in the 1920's (Johnson in 1925 and Victoria in 1926). If you read interviews of blues musicians who grew up in the 20's and 30's, time and time again Lonnie is mentioned as one of the artists admired the most. I imagine that those on the tour like Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, Big Joe Williams and Sonny Boy remembered well when Lonnie was a star. Also on tour was pianist Otis Spann who may have too young to recall Lonnie's heyday but probably was familiar with his King records of the 40's, quite a few of which were big sellers. While the tour was in Copenhagen the two recorded a superb session together issued on the Storyville label. The two make a great team as heard on our selections, "Clementine" and the aptly titled "Swinging With Lonnie."

"I Know It's Love" and "Me And My Crazy Self" come form Lonnie's prolific and commercially successful stint with the King label which ran from 1947 through 1952.  Johnson’s place in blues history would have been immortalized if even if he had never recorded past the 1930's. It certainly would have made blues critics life easier who generally tend to dismiss Johnson’s later recordings. When Johnson signed with King in 1947 his music and music in general was changing. By 1947 he had switched to electric guitar, was incorporating more ballads into his repertoire while the music was in transition from blues to R&B. It is true that Johnson reworked several of his earlier songs and perhaps over relied on a few signature guitar phrases during this period. Still, while many were unprepared for the changing musical times, Johnson seamlessly sailed into the new era not only achieving commercial success but also cutting music of a consistently high artistic caliber. "I Know It's Love" is a good example of the period, an infectious bluesy pop number that features some knockout guitar playing while "Me And My Crazy Self" is a beautifully sung blues ballad that anticipates a style that he displayed prominently throughout his 60's recordings.

Of course we spin many classics from Lonnie's early period including landmark instrumentals like "Woke Up With the Blues in My Fingers", "Away Sown In The Alley Blues" and "Midnight Call Blues", one of several remarkable duets with Eddie Lang. More guitar fireworks can be found in "Uncle Ned, Don't Use Your Head" and "Mr. Johnson's Swing" ("Want all you people to listen while my guitar sings"). Johnson had a way of painting a vivid portrait in song which can be heard in featured songs like "Crowing Rooster Blues" from 1941 (originally cut in 1928 and as "Working Man's Blues" in 1947) and "Blue Ghost Blues" from 1938 (originally cut in 1927 and reworked in 1947 as "Blue Ghost Has Got Me") a vivid, haunting ode to loneliness.

In the early years Lonnie appeared prominently on the records of other Okeh artist such as Clara Smith, Victoria Spivey, Texas Alexander, Peetie Wheatstraw, Johnnie Temple and many others as well as performing with jazz icons Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Johnson cut two fine duets with Clara Smith in 1930 and we spotlight the playful "What Makes You Act Like That" which showcases some fabulous fret work from Lonnie. It's a shame they didn't record more together. Lonnie was so technically sophisticated, that on his best records, he seems to be operating on different plane than his blues contemporaries. Evidence of this can be heard in the handful of recordings he made with Duke (songs like "Misty Mornin'", "The Mooche" and "Hot and Bothered") and our featured number, "I'm Not Rough" with Louis Armstrong (Lonnie also appears on "Hotter Than That", and "Savoy Blues").

Lonnie passed in 1970 and I wanted to close with a eulogy Victoria Spivey wrote for Guitar Player magazine: "Lonnie Johnson was the greatest blues guitar man in the business-and what a beautiful blues ballad singer he was too! Everywhere I turn, I hear him in T-Bone Walker, B.B. and Albert King, Muddy Waters, and the younger fellows like Buddy Guy. And of course, all the white kids are playing Lonnie, most of them thinking they're being influenced by B.B. What I like about B.B. and T-Bone is that they all give Lonnie the credit for it…I say to Lonnie: Join the heavenly Gabriel as you used to play with the earthly Gabriel, Louis Armstrong."

Related Articles (word docs):

-Lonnie Johnson talks To Valerie Wilmer (Jazz Journal, 1963)

-The Return Of Lonnie Johnson By Steve Voce (Jazz Journal, 1963)

-Lonnie Johnson In Cincinnati by Gary Fortine (78 Quarterly 10, 1999)

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
Big Maceo Worried Life Blues Big Maceo Vol. 1 (1941-1945)
Big Maceo Ramblin’ Blues Big Maceo Vol. 1 (1941-1945)
Big Maceo County Jail Blues Big Maceo Vol. 1 (1941-1945)
Tampa Red She's Love Crazy Tampa Red Vol. 12 (1941-1945)
Tampa Red Let Me Play With Your Poodle Tampa Red Vol. 12 (1941-1945)
Tampa Red She Want to Sell My Monkey Tampa Red Vol. 12 (1941-1945)
Big Maceo Tuff Luck Blues Big Maceo Vol. 1 (1941-1945)
Big Maceo I Got The Blues Big Maceo Vol. 1 (1941-1945)
Big Maceo Poor Kelly Blues Big Maceo Vol. 1 (1941-1945)
Tampa Red Better Leave My Gal Alone Tampa Red Vol. 13 (1945-1947)
Tampa Red Mercy Mama Tampa Red Vol. 12 (1941-1945)
Big Maceo I'm So Worried Big Maceo Vol. 1 (1941-1945)
Big Maceo Kid Man Blues Big Maceo Vol. 1 (1941-1945)
Big Maceo Macy Special (Flying Boogie) Big Maceo Vol. 2 (1945-1950)
John & Grace Brim Strange Man Blues John Brim 1950-1953
John & Grace Brim Mean Man BluesJohn Brim 1950-1953
Big Maceo Come On Home Big Maceo Vol. 2 (1945-1950)
Big Maceo Texas Stomp Big Maceo Vol. 2 (1945-1950)
Big Maceo Detroit Jump Big Maceo Vol. 2 (1945-1950)
Big Bill Broonzy Cell No. 13 Blues Big Bill Broonzy Vol. 12 (1945-1947)
Jazz Gillum Look On Yonder Wall Jazz Gillum Vol. 4 (1946-1949)
Sonny Boy Williamson Early In The Morning The Original Sonny Boy Williamson Vol. 2
Big Maceo Winter Time Blues Big Maceo Vol. 2 (1945-1950)
Big Maceo Won't Be A Fool No More Big Maceo Vol. 2 (1945-1950)
Big Maceo Chicago Breakdown Big Maceo Vol. 2 (1945-1950)
Eddie Boyd Blue Monday Blues Eddie Boyd 1947-1950
Eddie Boyd Chicago Is Just That Way Eddie Boyd 1947-1950
Big Maceo Maceo's 32-20 Big Maceo Vol. 2 (1945-1950)
Big Maceo Broke And Hungry Blues Big Maceo Vol. 2 (1945-1950)
Big Maceo Do You Remember Big Maceo Vol. 2 (1945-1950)
Little Johnny Jones Early In The Morning Tampa Red Vol. 14 (1949-1951)
Little Johnny Jones Worried Life BluesLive in Chicago with Billy Boy Arnold

Show Notes:

Blues writer Chris Smith wrote the following about Big Maceo: “On both slow blues and boogies, Big Maceo played powerful, sometimes challengingly chromatic bass figures and anvil-sparkling right-hand flourishes and solos. He could be a jovial singer, but more typical were husky, plaintive, fatalistic accounts of trouble with women and the law.  …His playing and Tampa Red’s amplified guitar foreshadow the sound of postwar Chicago.” Maceo had a profound influence on postwar Chicago piano despite a relativley sparse discography; his short career spanned the years 1941 through 1950, where he recorded just over three dozen sides as well as backing partner Tampa Red on eighteen sides and providing session work behind Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jazz Gillum and John & Grace Brim. On today's program we spotlight Maceo's finest sides plus his superlative session work behind some of Chicago's biggest stars as well as spinning tracks by Eddie Boyd and Little Johnnie Jones, two men who worked and were influenced by Maceo.

Big Maceo

It's worth quoting Mike Rowe in full who wrote in his seminal book, named after one of  Maceo's most celebrated numbers, Chicago Breakdown (later retitled Chicago Blues): “Unlike other pianists, he did not let his musical knowledge impair his blues feeling; he played nothing but the blues. He would have been referred to slightingly by Blind John Davis as one of the 'double-time guys' for his thunderous piano style, which sounded as though the whole 245 lbs of his frame was transmitted directly through his finger- tips, so powerful was the sound of hammered treble figures over a rock-steady eight-to-the-bar bass. The directness and energy of his piano playing, with little light or shade, contrasted perfectly with his singing, his smoky-brown voice investing the songs with a depth unequaled by most of his contemporaries. His songs were mostly his own, frequently 16-bars. with always interesting lyrics. Texas Blues, County Jail Blues and the beautiful Poor Kelly Blues were fine songs but he is best remembered for the superb and much recorded Worried Life Blues, his first record. It borrowed the verse from Sleepy John Estes' Someday, Baby but the rest of it was Maceo's. … Sometimes he used traditional themes, like Big Road Blues or his version of 44 Blues (an almost mandatory piece for a pianist), which was titled Maceo's 32-20. Even Maceo's music, heavy and unrelenting from his first session in June 1941, increased in power in the early postwar years, when he recorded the romping and very exciting Kid Man Blues, instrumentals with vocal comments like Texas Stomp and Detroit Jump, fine blues like Winter Time Blues, and the ultimate in his piano art, the classic Chicago Breakdown, a boogie-woogie solo of enormous power and drive. Sadly this 1945 recording was the last that Maceo made at the height of his powers; he was paralyzed from a stroke in mid-1946, and, though he recovered, never again did he play with the same authority. Big Maceo's place in the development of the Chicago piano blues is vitally important; taking over from the late Josh Altheimer, his influence can be traced through his successors, Little Johnnie Jones, Henry Gray and Otis Spann. ”

Hattie Spruel was an ambitious woman and first met Maceo when she hired him to play for parties in her home. They were soon married and Hattie went to work to make a name for her new husband. The couple moved to Chicago in 1941, where she made the acquaintance of prominent guitarists Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red. She introduced them to Maceo and the two were impressed with his skills. They brought him to the attention of RCA's  producer, Lester Melrose, and within just a few weeks Maceo was recording for the famed Bluebird label.The first session would prove to be extremely fruitful for Merriweather. He recorded a total of 14 sides, with the first single becoming the most important of his career: "Worried Life Blues". At the conclusion of the war, Melrose immediately brought his stable of blues artists back to the studio. Maceo resumed his work with Tampa Red.

During these years, Maceo moved back to Detroit, but made frequent return trips to Chicago where he would perform with both Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy on the city's South Side. Through the 1940's Tampa remained a prime seller among black audiences with hits like “Let Me Play With Your Poodle” and “She Wants To Sell My Monkey.” During his Bluebird stint, between 1934 and 1953, he recorded over 200 sides. Big Maceo teamed up with him for for a while, and after Maceo suffered a stroke, Sunnyland Slim filled in until Maceo’s protege  Johnnie Jones took over on piano. Maceo backs Tampa on the above numbers as well as many memorable one like "She's Love Crazy", ""Mercy Mama" and "Better Leave My Gal Alone" among others.

Outside of his own recordings and those backing Tampa Red, Maceo backed Big Bill Broonzy, Jazz Gillum and Sonny Boy Williamson on notable sessions. Maceo backed Broonzy on back-to-back sessions in February 1945. Twelve sides were cut with several unissued, he backed Jazz Gillum on a six song session the following year, including playing on the original version of “Look On Yonder Wall” and backed Sonny Boy Williamson in October 1945 on a four song session with Tampa Red.

Unfortunately, Big Maceo's career was cut short after he suffered a stroke in 1946 that left him almost completely paralyzed on his right side. Over the next few years, he would attempt to record several more times despite his handicap, and still remained a fine singer. Occasionally other pianists would play while he sang, and other pursuits found him sharing the keyboards with a second performer working the right side of the piano for him. Among the artists who filled this role would be Eddie Boyd in 1947 for sides done for Victor and Johnny Jones in 1949 for Specialty. Another pianist to occupy this spot would be Otis Spann, who idolized Big Maceo. He would also sometimes fill in for the elder musician for gigs whenever Maceo was unable to perform. Big Maceo retired from playing in 1949 following yet another stroke. Poor health and a lifetime of heavy drinking eventually led to a fatal heart attack. He died on February 23, 1953 in Chicago. His body was returned to his home in Detroit for burial five days later.

Maceo's protege Johnny Jones blew into the windy city from Mississippi in 1946 and already new his way around the 88’s. He was first influenced by Big Maceo and followed him into Tampa Red’s group in 1947 after Maceo was stricken by a stroke. As mentioned above he even helped play right hand for the elder man on a few tunes. Jones played piano behind Tampa for RCA Victor between 1949-1953. In addition to his piano duties he also helped out vocally even singing lead on Tampa's 1951 version of "Early in the Morning" which we spotlight on today's program. Jones also played the clubs with Tampa often working at the Peacock and C&T clubs. Jones later came to prominence backing Elmore James through the 50’s as well as cutting a handful of fine sides under his own name. Luckily Jones was captured at length just before his death. He was caught on tape in 1963 where he was working with Billy Boy Arnold in a Chicago folk club called the Fickle Pickle run by Michael Bloomfield. Norman Dayron recorded Johnny on portable equipment which has been released on the Alligator record titled Johnny Jones with Billy Boy Arnold. From that recording we close our show with Jones delivering a superb rendition of Maceo's "Worried Life Blues." Sadly Jones died from lung cancer in 1964, shortly after his fortieth birthday.

Little Johnnie Jones

John Brim picked up his early guitar licks from the 78s of Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy before venturing first to Indianapolis in 1941 and Chicago four years later. He met his wife Grace in 1947; fortuitously, she was a capable drummer who played on several of his records. In fact, she was the vocalist on a 1950 single for Detroit-based Fortune Records that signaled the beginning of his recording career. Those numbers "Strange Man b/w Mean Man Blues" are featured today and sport the piano of Big Maceo. One other track from this session was unreleased.

Eddie Boyd migrated up to Memphis where he began to play the piano and 1n 1941, Boyd settled in made it to Chicago. In Chicago fell in with the Bluebird label and producer Lester Melrose. He backed harp legend Sonny Boy Williamson on his 1945 classic "Elevator Woman," also accompanying Bluebird stars Jazz Gillum, Tampa Red and Big Maceo on a four-song 1947 date when Maceo was unable to play piano due to a stroke. Melrose produced Boyd's own 1947 recording debut for RCA as well; the pianist stayed with Victor through 1949.

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
Washboard SamGoing Back To ArkansasWashboard Sam Vol. 4 1939-40
Washboard SamDigging My Potatoes No. 2Washboard Sam Vol. 4 1939-40
Washboard SamTraveling ManWashboard Sam Vol. 5 1940-41
Jazz GillumKey To The HighwayJazz Gillum Vol. 2 1938-41
Jazz GillumWhiskey Headed BuddiesJazz Gillum Vol. 3 1941-46
Jazz GillumLook on Yonder WallJazz Gillum Vol. 4 1946-49
Sonny Boy WilliamsonI Been Dealing With The DevilSonny Boy Williamson Vol.3 1939-41
Sonny Boy WilliamsonJivin' The BluesSonny Boy Williamson Vol.3 1939-41
Sonny Boy WilliamsonShe Was A DreamerSonny Boy Williamson Vol.4 1941-45
Sonny Boy WilliamsonI'm Gonna Catch You SoonSonny Boy Williamson Vol.4 1941-45
Washboard SamEvery Tub Stands On Its Own BottomWashboard Sam Vol. 5 1940-41
Washboard SamLife Is Just A BookWashboard Sam Vol. 5 1940-41
Washboard SamDown At The Bad Man's HallWashboard Sam Vol. 5 1940-41
Jazz GillumThe Blues What AmJazz Gillum Vol. 4 1946-49
Jazz GillumLook What You Are TodayJazz Gillum Vol. 4 1946-49
Jazz GillumGonna Be Some ShootingJazz Gillum Vol. 4 1946-49
Sonny Boy WilliamsonI Have Got To GoSonny Boy Williamson Vol.4 1941-45
Sonny Boy WilliamsonG.M. & O. BluesSonny Boy Williamson Vol.4 1941-45
Sonny Boy WilliamsonSonny Boy's JumpSonny Boy Williamson Vol.4 1941-45
Washboard SamI'm Not The LadWashboard Sam Vol. 6 1941-42
Washboard SamMy Feet Jumped SaltyWashboard Sam Vol. 6 1941-42
Washboard SamFlying Crow BluesWashboard Sam Vol. 6 1941-42
Jazz GillumRoll Dem BonesJazz Gillum Vol. 4 1946-49
Jazz GillumGonna Take My RapJazz Gillum Vol. 4 1946-49
Jazz GillumYou Got to Run Me DownJazz Gillum Vol. 4 1946-49
Sonny Boy WilliamsonStop Breaking DownSonny Boy Williamson Vol.5 1945-47
Sonny Boy WilliamsonElevator WomanSonny Boy Williamson Vol.5 1945-47
Sonny Boy WilliamsonYou're An Old LadySonny Boy Williamson Vol.5 1945-47
Washboard SamGet Down BrotherWashboard Sam Vol. 7 1942-49
Washboard SamRiver Hip MamaWashboard Sam Vol. 7 1942-49
Washboard SamRed River Dam BluesWashboard Sam Vol. 7 1942-49
Washboard SamSoap And Water BluesWashboard Sam Vol. 7 1942-49
Sonny Boy WilliamsonHoodoo HoodooSonny Boy Williamson Vol.5 1945-47
Sonny Boy WilliamsonWonderful TimeSonny Boy Williamson Vol.5 1945-47
Sonny Boy WilliamsonMellow Chick SwingSonny Boy Williamson Vol.5 1945-47

Show notes:

As blues historian Paul Oliver noted, artists like Jazz Gillum, Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson, Washboard Sam and Sonny Boy Williamson, were "playing in the brash, confident manner of Chicago which had been developing through the 'thirties." Sam Charters characterized the sound as the "Bluebird Beat" or more unkindly as the "Melrose Mess" by Mike Rowe in his pioneering book Chicago Blues. As Rowe notes "it was a white businessman, Lester Melrose, who was really responsible for shaping the Chicago sound of the late 30's and 40's." Melrose had said "From March 1934 to February 1951 I recorded at least 90 percent of all rhythm-and-blues talent for RCA Victor and Columbia Records…" As Rowe further explains: "But Melrose had more than a large stable of blues artists under his control. Since only a few of them had regular accompanists most of them would play on each others records and thus Melrose has a completely self-contained unit… …The final stage of this musical incest was completed when they started recording each others songs." The result was a consistent, sometime cookie cutter sound, although the best artists would consistently transcend these limitations. The "Bluebird Sound" anticipated the Chicago blues of the post-war era featuring tight, smooth small band arrangements that were filled out with piano, bass drums and often clarinet or saxophone. Today's show spotlights three Bluebird artists who were a force on the 1940's Chicago scene: Washboard Sam, Sonny Boy Williamson I and Jazz Gillum.

WASHBOARD-SAM-1931Washboard Sam recorded hundreds of records between 1935 and 1949 for the bluebird label, usually with backing by guitarist Big Bill Broonzy. Out of all the washboard players of the era, Sam was the most popular, which was due not only to his washboard talent, but also his skills as a highly imaginative songwriter and powerful, expressive vocalist. As an accompanist, Washboard Sam not only played with Broonzy, but also backed bluesmen like Bukka White, Memphis Slim, and Jazz Gillum. Sam added a phonograph turntable and a couple of cowbells to his washboard for added tone and his washboard playing is consistently driving and swinging. Washboard Sam (born Robert Brown) was the illegitimate son of Frank Broonzy, who also fathered Big Bill Broonzy. Sam was raised in Arkansas, working on a farm. He moved to Memphis in the early '20s to play the blues. While in Memphis, he met Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon and the trio played street corners, collecting tips from passerby's. In 1932, Sam moved to Chicago. Initially he played for tips, but soon he began performing regularly with Big Bill Broonzy. Within a few years, Sam was supporting Broonzy on the guitarist's Bluebird recordings. Soon, he was supporting a number of different musicians on their recording sessions, including pianist Memphis Slim, bassist Ransom Knowling, and a handful of saxophone players, who all recorded for Bluebird. In 1935, Sam began recording for both Bluebird and Vocalion Records. Throughout the rest of the '30s and the '40s, Sam was one of the most popular Chicago bluesmen, selling plenty of records and playing to packed audiences in the Chicago clubs. In 1953, Washboard Sam recorded a session for Chess Records and then retired. In the early '60s, Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim tried to persuade Sam to return to the stage to capitalize on the blues revival. Initially, he refused, but in 1963 began performing concerts in clubs and coffeehouses in Chicago; he even played a handful of dates in Europe in early 1964. He cut his last sides in 1964 before passing in 1966.

Jazz Gillum is usually treated with indifference among blues critics, looked upon as a rather generic performer who typified the mainstream Chicago blues style of the 1930's and 40's. While there's some truth to this, Gillum's recordings were consistently entertaining throughout his sixteen-year recording career punctuated with a fair number of exceptional sides. Gillum was by no means a harmonica virtuoso but he was a very expressive, easygoing singer who penned a number of evocative songs backed by some of the era's best blues musicians. Gillum recorded 100 sides between 1934-49 as a leader in addition to session work with Big Bill Broonzy, Curtis Jones and the State Street Boys. Many of his records were characterized by strongly rhythmic support, credit for which must go largely to Big Bill Broonzy and later guitarist Willie Lacey. William McKinley Gillum was born in Indianola, Mississippi (B.B. King's birthplace as well) on September 11, 1904. He soon learned to play the harmonica. By 1918 he had a job in a drugstore in Greenwood, Mississippi and could often been seen on the streets playing music for tips. Five years later he migrated to Chicago. There he met guitarist Big Bill Broonzy and the two started working club dates around the city as a duo and would soon form an enduring recording partnership. Gillum made his recording debut for the Bluebird label in 1934 with "Early In The Morning" b/w "Harmonica Stomp." The records evidently didn't sell and Gillum didn't record again for two years. Gillum's recordings were very much in the Bluebird mold yet he often rose above the production line sound to record a fair number of high quality blues. Between 1934-1942 Gillum recorded 70 sides, every session featuring the fret work of Big Bill Broonzy. Gillum's most celebrated song during this period was "Key To The Highway" which he cut on May 9, 1940. Both Broonzy and Gillum claimed authorship of the song which was an enduring source of bitterness for Gillum. During World War II, there was a shortage of shellac and J.C. Patrillo, President of the American Federation of Musicians ordered a ban on all recordings. Gillum joined the Army in 1942 and served until 1945. Gillum resumed recording that year and in 1946 cut "Look On Yonder Wall" one of his most famous recordings. Starting in 1946 the brilliant William Lacey took over the guitar chores and his terrific electric work really adds a spark to Gillum's later recordings. Gillum made his last issued recordings as leader on January 25, 1949. Gillum would record once more on a 1961 date with Memphis Slim and Arbee Stidham. On March 29, 1966, during an argument, Gillum was shot in the head and was pronounced dead on arrival at Garfield Park Hospital in Chicago.

Jazz GillumEasily the most important harmonica player of the pre-war era, John Lee Williamson almost single-handedly made the harmonica a major instrument, leading the way for the amazing innovations of Little Walter and others who followed. Already a harp virtuoso in his teens, he learned from Hammie Nixon and Noah Lewis and ran with Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell before settling in Chicago in 1934. Sonny Boy signed to Bluebird in 1937. He recorded prolifically for Victor both as a leader and behind others in the vast Melrose stable (including Robert Lee McCoy and Big Joe Williams, who in turn played on some of Williamson's sides). Sonny Boy cut more than 120 sides in all for RCA from 1937 to 1947. John Lee was popular enough that by the 1940s, another blues harp player, Aleck/Alex "Rice" Miller, who was based in Helena, Arkansas, began also using the name Sonny Boy Williamson. His first recording session was supported by the great Big Joe Williams, at the beginning of his distinguished career playing delta blues guitar. After this session Sonny Boy alternated between guitar and piano backups, occasionally using both at the same session. His most frequent accompanists were Big Bill Broonzy and the record company's "house" piano player Blind John Davis. Other famous accompanists over the years were Eddie Boyd, Yank Rachel, Big Maceo and Willie Dixon. But some say the best accompanist was Joshua Altheimer, a piano player who played on the seven numbers of a 1940 session and then died the next year. Writer Pete Welding noted that the only significant difference between Big Joe Williams and Sonny Boy and those of say Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf is the matter of electric amplification. Othewise all the ingredients are the same: guitar, harp, bass and drums. He continues, "Big Joe and John Lee stand as vital, connecting links between the older Mississippi style and those of the postwar years." Sonny Boy Williamson wouldn't live to reap any appreciable rewards from his inventions. He died at the age of 34, while at the zenith of his popularity (his romping "Shake That Boogie" was a national R&B hit in 1947 on Victor), from a violent bludgeoning about the head that occurred during an apparent mugging on the South side. "Better Cut That Out," another storming rocker later appropriated by Junior Wells, became a posthumous hit for Williamson in late 1948. Williamson's style had a profund influence on those who followed including Billy Boy Arnold, Junior Wells, Little Walter, and Snooky Pryor among many others.

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