Johnny Woods & Fred McDowellMy Jack Don't Need No WaterBlow My Blues Away Vol. 1
Johnny Woods & Fred McDowellStanding At The Back DoorEight Years Ramblin
Johnny Woods & Fred McDowellShake Em'' On DownMississippi Delta Blues Jam In Memphis, Vol. 1
Mable HilleryIt's so Hard to be a NiggerIt's so Hard to be a Nigger
Mable HilleryBow Legged RoosterIt's so Hard to be a Nigger
Lattie Murrell SpoonfulLive At The Bootleggers
Lattie Murrell I Got A Gal Cross The Bottom Living Country Blues: Vol. 4 Tennessee Blues
Eugene Powell Worried BluesThe Roots of It All: Acoustic Blues Vol. 4
Eugene Powell Pony Blues (Santa Fe)Blues At Home Vol. 3
Mable HilleryUp the Road So NastyIt's so Hard to be a Nigger
Mable HilleryLonesome RoadIt's so Hard to be a Nigger
Mable HilleryMr. President It's so Hard to be a Nigger
Johnny Woods & Fred McDowellI Be's Troubled The George Mitchell Collection Vols 1 - 45
Johnny Woods & Fred McDowellLong Haired DoneyMama Says I'm Crazy
Johnny WoodsThree O'clock In The Morning45
Mable Hillery & John HunterThat's All RightJohn's Island, South Carolina: Its People & Songs
Mable Hillery & Skip JamesMary, Don't You Weep
Mable Hillery & Bill FarrowTrouble in Mind
Lattie MurrellBlues For Mattie MaeOn The Road Again
Lattie MurrellWolf's At Your DoorWolf's At The Door
Eugene PowellPoor Boy Blues (Take 3)Blues At Home Vol. 3
Eugene PowellMeet Me In The BottomBlues At Home Vol. 3
Eugene Powell & Sam ChatmonHow Long Delta Blues Festival '79
Johnny Woods Going Up the Country So Many Cold Mornings
Johnny WoodsSo Many Cold MorningsSo Many Cold Mornings
Johnny WoodsShe's Loving Another ManGoing Down South
Lattie MurrellCatfish BluesLive At The Bootleggers
Lattie MurrellTrouble Late Last Night Living Country Blues: Vol. 10 Country Boogie
Mable HilleryHow Long This Train Been Gone
Mable Hillery & Mississippi John HurtSalty Dog
Mable Hillery & All Star GroupBye Bye BabyBlues Masters DVD

Show Notes:

Johnny Woods
Johnny Wood, Olive Branch, Mississippi, 1972
(Photo by Tom Pomposello)

Today's show is part of a semi-regular feature I call Forgotten Blues Heroes that spotlights great, but little remembered blues artists that don't really fit into my weekly themed shows. Today's recordings are mainly from the 60's and 70's and showcase artists who recorded sparingly, and in many cases the recordings are long-out-of-print, originally issued on small specialty labels. We hear from several fine down-home bluesmen including harmonica blower Johnny Woods who recorded mostly as an accompanist to better known players, Lattie Murrell who left behind just a handful of field recordings and Eugene Powell, the only artist to record in the pre-war era and was under recorded in later years. Mable Hillery is the outlier here, a terrific singer who worked as part of the Georgia Sea Island Singers before striking out on her own, in a brief but impressive career.

Johnny Woods was born in a small Mississippi town called Looxahoma, just west of Mississippi Highway 35. His harmonica playing first gained notoriety in the 1960s as a duet partner with fellow blues revival discovery guitarist/singer Mississippi Fred McDowell. They recorded together first for George Mitchell in 1967, for Chris Strachwitz's Arhoolie Records, Swingmaster and in 1972 for  Oblivion Records. Stylistically, Woods' music sprang from the same North Mississippi Fife and drum blues band tradition as McDowell's. However, personal problems kept him rooted in the Delta, primarily working as a farm hand and sharecropper. After McDowell's death in July 1973, Woods faded away until George Mitchell paired him again with another late Mitchell Mississippi Delta discovery, R. L. Burnside, himself a McDowell disciple. Together they recorded the Swingmaster album and video, Going Down South. Woods died in Olive Branch, Mississippi in 1990.

Lattie Murrell
Lottie Murrell, Somerville, Tennessee, September 1978
(Photo by Axel Küstner)

Regarding Lottie Murrell, Axel Küstner wrote: "Down in Somerville, about 25 miles South of Brownsville, there is Lottie Murrell. Looking every inch THE Country Blues man ('Cat Diesel Power" cap, overalls, cowboy boots, with a battered guitar, complete to the half pint whiskey bottle in his backpocket) he rides around with his buddies on weekends, playing his guitar and drinking beer and whiskey. He never plays a song the same way twice and constantly makes up new verses about people he knows and what is happening around him. In Somerville he is called 'Wolf' because he is best known for his versions of Howlin' Wolf tunes." Murell was first recorded by Begnt Olsson in 1971 in Sommerville, TN. These recordings were first issued on compilations on the Flyright label. Siegfried A. Christmann and Axel Küstner recorded him in 1980, tracks appeared on the Living Country Blues series.

Raised on a Delta plantation in Lombardy, Mississippi, Eugene Powell began playing guitar at age seven. His family relocated to Murphy, Mississippi, near Hollandale, and Powell associated with area musicians Sam and Lonnie Chatmon and Bo Carter. Powell ran his own juke joint and played with many musicians traveling through the area in the early 1930s, including Robert Nighthawk, Houston Stackhouse, and Richard ‘‘Hacksaw’’ Harney. Through arrangements made by Carter, Powell made six recordings for the Bluebird label in 1936 under the pseudonym Sonny Boy Nelson, and accompanied wife Mississippi Matilda and harmonica player Robert Hill on numerous others. Powell moved to Greenville in the 1940s and played with several bands until the early 1950s, when he separated from his wife. He remained largely musically inactive until 1972 when he performed at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. Powell made few recordings during the following twenty years, with only the Italian LP Police in Mississippi Blues on Albatros. This has been reissued recently with additional songs as Blues At Home Vol. 3. A few other recordings appeared on anthologies. He rarely performed in public during the remaining years of his life, but often welcomed blues fans and musicians from around the world into his home. Eugene Powell died of a brain hemorrhage caused by a fall at age eighty-nine.

Mabel Hillery
Read Liner Notes

Mable Hillery, born July 22, 1929 in La Grange, Troupe County, just southwest of Atlanta, Georgia. She married Will Adams in 1950 and moved to Brunswick, Georgia, near St Simons in the Georgia Sea Islands, about 1960. In 1961 she, joined the Georgia Sea Islanders. Between 1961 and 1965 she toured the college circuit of campuses, coffee houses, church basements, and festivals, from Berkeley to Philadelphia, from the Ash Grove in Los Angeles to the Café à Go-Go in New York City. In 1966, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto produced a film, Blues Special, for its TV series, Festival. Highlights from those sessions have been released on Blues Masters, a DVD whose performers include Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Willie Dixon, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Otis Spann, Sunnyland Slim, and Mable Hillery. In the late 60s, Mable often performed on Johns Island with the Sea Island Singers, and from 1966 through 1975, she sang throughout the South, not only on college campuses but in prisons as well. In 1968, after touring in England, where Mable did TV and concert dates and made an album for the record label Xtra.Other tracks by Hillery appear alongside the Georgia Sea Island Singers and on various anthologies. Hillery, 46 years of age, died of a heart attack, at St. Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan, on  April 27.

Big Chief EllisDices, DicesRub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Big Chief EllisBig Chief's BluesRub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Dan Pickett Baby How LongShake That Thing! - East Coast Blues 1935-1953
Dan Pickett 99 1/2 Won't DoShake That Thing! - East Coast Blues 1935-1953
John LeeDown At The DepotRural Blues Vol. 1 1934-1956
John LeeAlabama Boogie Rural Blues Vol. 1 1934-1956
Rich AmersonBlack WomanNegro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 1
Joe BrownMama Don't Tear My ClothesNegro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 1
Red Willie SmithKansas City BluesNegro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 1
Robert McCoyGone Mother BluesBye Bye Baby
Robert McCoyBye Bye BabyBye Bye Baby
Horace SprottSmoked Like LightningMusic from the South Vol. 2
Philip Ramsey and Horace SprottI Feel Good Now, Baby Music from the South Vol. 5
Albert Macon & Robert ThomasDon't Nothing Hurt Me But My Back and SideGeorge Mitchell Collection Vol. 2
Albert Macon & Robert ThomasMean Old FriscoUnissued Recording by Axel Künster
Perry Tillis Kennedy MoanOn The Road Again
David Johnson Let The Nation Be FreeSouthern Comfort Country
Davie Lee Meet Me in the Bottoms Negro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 6
Vera HallBlack WomanClassic Blues from Smithsonian
J.W. WarrenRabbit On A LogLife Ain't Worth Livin'
J.W. WarrenHoboing Into HollywoodUnissued Recording by Axel Künster
Wild Child Butler Axe and the WindMr. Dixon's workshop
Jerry McCainEast of the SunStrange Kind Of Feelin'
East York School (Ala.) I'm Goin' Up North Negro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 1
Willie Turner Now Your Man Done GoneNegro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 1
Enoch Brown Complaint Call Negro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 1
Moochie ReevesKey To The HighwayThe Rural Blues: A Study Of The Vocal And Instrumental Resources
Mobile Strugglers Memphis BluesAlabama Black Country Dance Bands 1924-1949
Johnie LewisBaby, Listen to Me HowlAlabama Slide Guitar
Johnie LewisYou Gonna Miss MeAlabama Slide Guitar
Lonzie ThomasDragaround No. 1The George Mitchell Collection Volumes 1-45
Jimmy Lee HarrisDon't The Moon Look Lonesome #1 George Mitchell Collection Vol. 5
Eddie HodgeSitting On Top of The WorldThe George Mitchell Collection Vols. 1-45
John Lee Blind's Blues Rural Blues Vol. 1 1934-1956
Dan Pickett Ride to a Funeral in a V-8 Shake That Thing! - East Coast Blues 1935-1953

Show Notes:

John LeeBlues writer Chris Smith noted that “Alabama attracted many folklorists, from John Lomax on down, seeking the oldest styles of black music in a state which long had a reputation for backwardness, poverty and racism. …Despite flourishing gospel quartet and piano traditions, the state’s blues are comparatively under-represented on 'race' records.” And as Paul Oliver underscored: "…Alabama was largely neglected by the location recording units and even by the talent scouts…." In the post-war era the recording companies no longer recorded on location and most folklorists focused on nearby Mississippi rather than Alabama. Still, several fine Alabama artists made commercial records in the immediate post-war era including pianist Big Chief Ellis and exceptional guitarists such as Dan Pickett who cut records for Gotham in 1949 and John Lee who recorded for Federal in 1951. In later years a pair of harmonica players made their mark, Jerry McCain beginning in the 1950's and Wild Child Butler in the 60's. Some notable field recordings were made in the post-war era including recordings in the 1950's by Harold Courlander, Fredric Ramsey and Sam Charters. Begnt Olsson did some recording in Alabama in the 70's while  George Mitchell recorded several fine Alabama bluesmen in the 80's. Axel Küstner did some field recordings in the 90's and 2000's which have not been issued. I want to thank him for giving me permission to play a couple of these unissued  sides.

Those who made commercial recordings made their recordings out of state including Big Chief Ellis, Dan Pickett and John Lee. A self-taught player, Big Chief Ellis performed at house parties and dances during the 1920's. He traveled extensively for several years, working mostly in non-musical jobs. After a three-year army stint from 1939–1942, Ellis settled in New York. He started recording for Lenox in 1945, and also did sessions for Sittin' In and Capitol in the 1940's and 50's, playing with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee for Capitol. Though Ellis reduced his performance schedule after moving from New York to Washington D.C., his career got a final boost in the early 1970's. He recorded for Trix and appeared at several folk and blues festivals until his death in 1977.

Negro Folk Music of Alabama Vol.1 Negro Folk Music of Alabama Vol. 3
Read Liner Notes (PDF) Read Liner Notes (PDF)

Dan Pickett did one recording session for the Philadelphia-based Gotham label in 1949. His real name was James Founty who was born in Pike County, Alabama on August 31, 1907. Five singles were issued by the label while the rest of the titles weren't unearthed until four decades later (with some alternate takes of some issued titles to boot). He passed away in Boaz, Alabama on August 16, 1967, a few days short of his 60th birthday. Decades after his death, Pickett a biographical mystery. Blues researcher Axel Küstner went to Alabama in 1993 to see what he could dig up. He found Founty's surviving family, obtained the only known photograph that shows Founty and was able to piece together some information on his life. Künster published a two page teaser about the trip in Juke Blues where he wrote: "Until the whole story is published in Juke Blues, I'll just tell you this much: [Founty was] a classic rambler in the best blues tradition…"Künster wrote that over fifteen years ago and still no full article has been written. In 2010 John Jeremiah Sullivam wrote an article on Pickett for The Oxford American that published the Pickett photo, transcribed an interview with Künster and provided a bit more information on Pickett's life.

Alabama bluesman, John Lee was born May 24, 1915, in Lowdnes County, AL. He learned his distinctive knife slide guitar style from his uncle, Ellie Lee, and spent the 1930s playing jukes and house parties before settling in Montgomery in 1945. Federal's Ralph Bass auditioned him there, and impressed with what he heard, recorded five sides in 1951: "Down At The Depot", "Baby Please Don't Go", "Alabama Boogie", "Baby Blues" and "Blind's Blues." Two unreleased sides, "In My Father's House" and "Slappin' The Boogie" were issued a few years back on the JSP compilation Devil's Jump: Indie Label Blues 1946-1957. By 1960 John Lee had retired from active performing. It was blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow who tracked him down in 1973 after a three year search. Wardlow wrote his story in Blues Unlimited in 1975 (Down at the Depot: The Story of John Lee). He recorded the album Down At The Depot for Rounder Records in the early 70's. During his comeback John Lee performed at Boston's Down East Festival and the National Folk Festival in Washington.

The "Mobile Strugglers" on the porch with neighbors, Mobile, Alabama, Sunday afternoon, July 18, 1954. Left to right: Moochie Reeves, Ollie Crenshaw, Tyler Jackson. From the book A Language of Song by Sam Charters.


There has been some good field work done in Alabama, although it pales in comparison to nearby states such as Georgia and especially Mississippi. On his travels and through research grants, Harold Courlander pursued his interest in ethnohistory and folklore by collecting stories, making recordings, and writing books and articles about a variety of African cultures. The result of his travels and studies was the publication of more than thirty-five books and many sound recordings. Courlander also took numerous field trips to the south, recording folk music in the 1940s and 1950s. From 1947–1960, he served as a general editor of Ethnic Folkways Library and recorded more than 30 albums of music from different cultures. In 1950, he did field recordings in Alabama which resulted in the six album series, Negro Folk Music of Alabama for the Folkways label.

Music from the South, Vol. 2
Read Liner Notes (PDF)

Another Folkways researcher was Frederic Ramsey. Perhaps his greatest discovery was Horace Sprott. Alabama songster and harmonica player Horace Sprott was born February 2, 1890, the son of former slave Bessie Ford, and his surname was taken from the Sprott Plantation where he was born. Ramsey encountered Sprott in Marion, AL, in 1954, and recorded him in seven sessions held in April and May of that year. Ramsey recorded in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana under a Guggenheim grant with the results issued on the ten album series, Music from the South released on Folkways.Two albums of the series were solely devoted to Sprott's recordings.

Sam Charters recorded Alabama artists Moochie Reeves and the Mobile Strugglers for Folkways. The Mobile Strugglers first recorded for Bill Russell's American Music label in 1949 and were recorded again by Sam Charters in 1954. Charters recorded one song by Moochie Reeves in Mobile, Alabama in 1954 of which he wrote: "The recording was done in a back-yard in Mobile, Alabama, late in the afternoon, with dozens of neighbors dancing to the music away from the microphone and the children keeping carefully quiet so they could sit behind the musicians' chairs while they were playing. It captures much of the easy going style of these small instrumental groups playing the rural blues." The song was issued on the Folkways anthology The Rural Blues: A Study Of The Vocal And Instrumental Resources and the compilation The Country Blues Vol. 2 which sports Reeves ' photo on the cover.

George Mitchell recorded prolifically in the field and did some recordings in Alabama. Among those he recorded from the state were J.W. Warren, Albert Macon & Robert Thomas, Jimmy Lee Harris, Lonzie Thomas and Eddie Hodge. One of he J.W. Warren cuts and one of the  Albert Macon & Robert Thomas featured today are unissued recordings made by Axel Küstner and used by permission (got late word from Axel that "Mean Old Frisco", featured today, has been issued on the recent Bear Family compilation, The Roots Of It All Acoustic Blues Vol. 4)

Bengt Olsson who first came to the United States in 1969, first to Chicago and then to Memphis were he made some recordings. Olsson was back in 1971, where he made recordings in Memphis and Alabama. He recorded several talented artists including Lum Guffin (his album Walking Victrola was issued on Flyright), Lattie Murrell, David Johnson and Bishop Perry Tillis, the latter two recorded in Alabama. Olsson record Tillis and Johnson (they were neighbors) in Coffee County, Alabama after randomly picking the place on the map. In addition to the Lum Guffin record, Olsson's recordings have been issued on three compilations on the Flyright label.

Albert Macon & Robert ThomasA couple of other artists worth mentioning are Robert McCoy and Johnie Lewis. McCoy was born in 1912 in Aliceville, AL but raised on Birmingham's North Side and by 1927 was a well-known local artist. Between March 3rd and April 7th 1937, ARC Company sent a mobile recording unit on a field trip firstly to visit Hot Springs, Arkansas and, then to Birmingham, Alabama in search of new talent. Sometime between 18th and 24th March the unit arrived in Birmingham and, over a two week period set about recording a number of gospel and blues musicians. Among those were Charlie Campbell, Guitar Slim and James Sherrill (Peanut The Kidnapper) all of whom were backed by the piano of Robert McCoy who did not record under his own name. In 1963 McCoy was recorded by Pat Cather, a teenaged Birmingham blues fan. Cather issued two albums on his Vulcan label: Barrelhouse Blues And Jook Piano and Blues And Boogie Classics. Some of these recordings were reissued on Delmark several years back.

Johnie Lewis was born on a farm near Eufaula, Alabama but spent much of his life playing at various small clubs around Chicago. He was recorded in Chicago in 1970 and 1971 resulting in the album Alabama Slide Guitar issued on Arhoolie.

Long John HunterStrange Feeling Ooh Wee Pretty Baby
Long John HunterSo Long Ooh Wee Pretty Baby
Long John HunterBorder Town Blues Ooh Wee Pretty Baby
Earl Thomas Sugar Girl Blues Piano Blues Vol. 6 1933-1938
George HannahAlley Rat Blues Piano Blues Vol. Vol. 3 1924-c.1940's
Kingfish" Bill TomlinMean and Unkind BluesBarrelhouse Piano Blues and Stomps 1929-1933
Peg Leg' Ben Abney Way Down In TownPiano Blues Vol. 6 1933-1938
Jim Bunkley Segregation BluesJim Bunkley & George Henry Bussey: George Mitchell Collection
Jim Bunkley Blues Came From TexasJim Bunkley & George Henry Bussey: George Mitchell Collection
George Henry Bussey Blues Around My BedJim Bunkley & George Henry Bussey: George Mitchell Collection
L.C. GreenRemember Way BackJuicy Harmonica Vol. 3
Hop WilsonI Ain't Got No WomanSteel Guitar Flash
Blue Smitty Cryin'Drop Down Mama
Joe Houston Shuckin'Combo Records Vol. 3: Central Ave Scene 51-57
Joe Houston Jumpin' The BluesTexas Blues Vol. 2: Rock Awhile
Joe Houston Houston ShuffleRockin' At The Drive-In
Edmonia HendersonWho's Gonna Do Your LovingLovie Austin 1924-26
Ford & Ford Skeeg-A-Lee BluesLovie Austin 1924-26
Lovie Austin & Her Blues Serenaders Lovie Austin 1924-26Lovie Austin 1924-26
The Florida Kid I'm Going Back On The FarmGoing Back On The Farm: Bues In Chicago 1940-1942
Carolina SlimAin't It SadRub a Little Boogie: New York Blues 1945-56
Will Ezell & Slim Tarpley Alabama HustlerWill Ezell 1927-1931
Will Ezell Playing The DozenWill Ezell 1927-1931
Clarence GarlowJumping For JoyHouston Jump 1946-51
Elmore NixonMarried Woman BluesHouston Might Be Heaven
Mojo WatsonI Kept On TryingBlues Guitar Blasters, Vol. 1
Ida Cox Wild Women Don't Have The BluesThe Essential
Alberta Hunter With Lovie Austin And Her Blues Serenaders Downhearted Blues Alberta Hunter with Lovie Austin and Her Blues Serenaders
Ollis Martin Police And High Sheriff Come Ridin' HomeEssential Alabama Blues 1926-1952
J.B. Smith Poor Boy, Number TwoNo More Good Time in the World for Me

Show Notes:

Long John HunterThe past few months have seen numerous deaths in the blues community including several collectors and researchers such as Don Kent, George Paulus, Mack McCormick and Steve LaVere plus musicians such as Otis Clay, Long John Hunter and Joe Houston. Today we pay tribute to the latter two gentlemen as well as spotlighting artists such as L.C. McKinley, several pianists including Lovie Austin, some fine field recordings plus lots more.

Long John Hunter died on January 4th at the age of 84.  Hunter made his debut in 1954 with a single for Don Robey's Houston-based Duke label, "She Used to Be My Woman b/w Crazy Baby," which preceded his move to El Paso in 1957. He found employment playing at the Lobby Club in Juárez, Mexico where he remained there for over thirteen years. Hunter's recording output was slim, a few obscure singles waxed from 1961 to 1963 for the tiny Yucca logo out of Alamogordo, New Mexico. His 1992 full-length debut for Spindletop, Ride With Me, was the first step in gaining him greater recognition. A pair of albums released later in the decade for Alligator, Border Town Legend (1996) and Swinging from the Rafters (1997), exposed him to wider audience. His last album was released in 2009. Back in the 90's Norton issued a collection of his early singles, Ooh Wee Pretty Baby!.

Tenor sax man Joe Houston passed on Dec. 28th at the age of 89. Born July 11, 1926, in Bastrop, Texas, as a teenager  Houston was hired by Chicago bandleader King Kolax. He subsequently worked the road with the likes of Savannah Churchill, Wynonie Harris, Big Joe Turner, Amos Milburn, even a young Little Richard. In 1949, inspired by the sudden outbreak of honking sax hitmakers such as Big Jay McNeely, Paul Williams and Hal Singer, Houston switched from alto to tenor sax and developed a supercharged, aggressive new sound. After Los Angeles’ Modern Records leased his 1951 “Blow Joe Blow” from Texas indie Macy, Houston moved to L.A., where he spent the rest of his life and career. Houston became a staple on the Central Avenue club circuit, playing on innumerable shows, dances, record dates and frequent coast-to-coast tours. He cut a slew of instrumentals for Modern, Crown and a dozen other labels. He scored his only two chart hit singles in 1952 with "Worry, Worry, Worry", and "Hard Time Baby" both of which peaked at #10 on Billboard's R&B singles chart. If you're looking for Houston's vintage recordings the Ace label has issued two excellent collections: Blows Crazy and Rockin' At The Drive In.

Joe Houston
Joe Houston

We feature two sets by pianist/bandleader Lovie Austin today. Austin was the house musical director for Paramount in the the early 1920's. In 1923, Lovie Austin decided to make Chicago her home, and she lived and worked there for the rest of her life. Her early career was in vaudeville, where she played piano and performed in variety acts. Accompanying blues singers was Lovie's specialty, and she can be heard on recordings by Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter and others. She led her own excellent band, the Blues Serenaders, which usually included trumpeters Tommy Ladnier, Bob Shoffner, Natty Dominique, or Shirley Clay on cornet, Kid Ory or Albert Wynn on trombone, and Jimmy O'Bryant or Johnny Dodds on clarinet, along with banjo and occasional drums. The band recorded for Paramount between 1923 and 1926. Austin's skills as songwriter can be heard in the classic "Down Hearted Blues", a tune she co-wrote with Alberta Hunter. Singer Bessie Smith turned the song into a hit in 1923. In 1961 she recorded Alberta Hunter with Lovie Austin's Blues Serenaders, as part of Riverside's Living Legends series. She passed away in Chicago in 1972.

We play several other fine, if obscure, piano players today including  a pair by Will Ezell plus sides by Peg Leg Ben Abney, George Hannah, "Kingfish" Bill Tomlin and Earl Thomas. Born in Texas, pianist Ezell played in the jukes around Shreveport before moving to Detroit and Chicago. He was a frequent accompanist for Paramount Records and even took Paramount’s star, Blind Lemon Jefferson's body back to Texas for burial. Ezell cut sixteen sides for the label between 1927 and 1929 and backed artists such as Lucille Bogan, Elzadie Robinson, Bertha Henderson, Blind Roosevelt Graves and others. The other pianists left behind just a handful of sides and little or no biographical information. Abney cut six sides in Charlotte, NC on June 22, 1936. In his song, "Way Down in Town," he sings "Way Down in Polack Town," which echoes Jabo Williams' 1932 number "Polock Blues." The reference also shows up in songs by Clifford Gibson and Big Joe Williams. Polack Town was a name given to a black section of St. Louis. Hannah recorded for Vocalion in 1926 and Paramount in 1929 and 1930, "Kingfish" Bill Tomlin cut four sides for Paramount in 1930, while Earl Thomas left behind four sides for Decca in 1936.

L.C. McKinley relocated to Chicago in 1941 and began playing professionally around 1947.  In the early 1950's, McKinley was a regular performer at the 708 Club, where he variously topped the bill or played accompaniment in the first half of 1954 with the Ernest Cotton Trio. He began a working association with Eddie Boyd in the early 1950's and, in 1952, McKinley and Cotton backed Boyd on the latter's recording of "Five Long Years." McKinley backed Boyd on several other sides as well as backing Curtis Jones during this period. In 1953 he recorded for Parrot Records, although his work was not released, he signed to States Records in 1954,  in 1955, hooked up with Vee-Jay Records and in 1959 he cut sides for Bea & Baby Records. McKinley made his last recordings in 1964. He died in Chicago in January 1970, aged 51.

J.B. Smith: No More Good Time in the World for MeWe hear some fine field recordings by Jim Bunkley, George Henry Bussey and J.B. Smith. Both Jim Bunkley and George Henry Bussey were from Georgia and were recorded in the field in 1969 by George Mitchell. As Mitchell wrote in the liner notes: "Sadly, this album is a memorial to Jim Bunkley. He was killed in a head-on collision on a rainy day in October, 1970. I learned of his death about a month later when I visited his home to tell him his recordings were going to be issued." The recordings by Bunkley and Bussey were first issued on a shared album on the Revival label then subsequently on Rounder and most recently by Fat Possum. 50 years ago, Bruce Jackson first went to Ramsey State Farm in Rosharon, Texas, to record the unaccompanied songs of J.B. Smith, an inmate serving 45 years there for the murder of his wife. He returned the following June in 1966 to record more, and that year John Fahey’s Takoma Records released an LP, Ever Since I Have Been A Man Full Grown. No More Good Time In the World For Me, is a recent new two-disc set from Atlanta’s Dust-to-Digital issued last year, which includes the original LP plus 15 more sides. Maybe the reissue of the year?

Robert Johnson Come On In My KitchenThe Centennial Collection
Robert Johnson Ramblin' On My MindThe Centennial Collection
Manny NicholsForgive MeRural Blues Vol. 1
Nathaniel TerryI Don't Know WhyRural Blues Vol. 1
Lightnin' Hopkins & Thunder SmithCan't Do Like You Used To Rural Blues Vol. 1
Bukka White Black Crepe BluesBig Daddy
Bukka White Gibson Hill Big Daddy
Lafayette "Thing" ThomasI Had A DreamOakland Blues
L.C. RobinsonTrain Time BluesOakland Blues
Dave Alexander Love Is Just For Fools Oakland Blues
Joe Willie Wilkins It's Too Bad45
Coy “Hot Shot” WilliamsFreight Train Blues45
Jimmy DeBerry & Walter HortonHard Hearted WomanEasy
Jimmy DeBerry & Walter HortonEverybody's Fishin'Back
Shakey Jake People, PeopleFurther On Up The Road
Sunnyland SlimPut Me In The Alley Slim's Got His Thing Goin' On
Country JimPhillipine BluesRural Blues Vol. 2,
Bill "Boogie Bill" WebbLove Me MamaRural Blues Vol. 2,
Papa George Lightfoot Wine, Women, WhiskeyRural Blues Vol. 2,
Sonny Boy NelsonPony Blues Memphis Blues Caravan Vol I
Furry LewisBlues , "Mother" StoryMemphis Blues Caravan Vol I
Houston StackhouseCrying Won't Help YouTreasury of Field Recordings Vol. 1
Papa George Lightfoot I Heard Somebody CryingGoin' Back to the Natchez Trace
Papa George Lightfoot Goin' Down That Muddy RoadGoin' Back to the Natchez Trace
George “Harmonica” Smith West Helena WomanBlues With a Feeling
George “Harmonica” Smith Mellow Down EasyBlues With a Feeling
George “Harmonica” Smith Too LateBlues With a Feeling
Robert JohnsonFrom Four Until LateThe Centennial Collection
Robert JohnsonHell Hound On My TrailThe Centennial Collection

Show Notes:

Stephen C. LaVere & Willie Coffee, source: Blues & Rhythm 153
From Robert Mugge's film Hellhounds on my Trail

When I heard that Steve LaVere died I had mixed emotions. Like many in the blues community, LaVere's appropriation of Robert Johnson's estate and his litigious nature when it came to any unauthorized use of Johnson's image and music, left a bad taste in my mouth. On the other hand LaVere did devote his life to the music as a producer, researcher and promoter and I don't don't doubt his sincerity to the music. That should count for something. With that in mind today's show is not exactly a tribute but more a recognition of a lifetime spent devoted to the blues.

Stephen C. LaVere died Dec. 27th at the age of 72 in his home in Greenwood, Mississippi. For good or bad, LaVere will be forever linked to Robert Johnson. In the early 70's LaVere entered into a legal agreement with Johnson's half sister Carrie Thompson which transferred the rights to Johnson's photos, songs and other memorabilia to LaVere. Thompson received fifty percent and LaVere the other half. LaVere was given the two known photos of Johnson. A third photo was in the possession of researcher Mack McCormick who also passed away recently. LaVere was instrumental in Sony's Robert Johnson box set in 1990 which sold a million copies and making LaVere quite a bit of money as well as earning him a Grammy. Eventually, Claude Johnson, Johnson's son, was named sole heir. LaVere moved to Greenwood, MS in 2001 to open the Johnson inspired Greenwood Blues Heritage Museum and Gallery. LaVere's interest in blues goes back to the 1960' when he did reissues for Liberty Records including a pair of collections of Imperial Recordings that were influential. Later in the 60's he produced a series of excellent blues records with Pete Welding for World Pacific. In the late 60's also tracked down and recorded legendary harp man Papa George Lightfoot. LaVere also promoted local musicians, ran a record store in Memphis, photographed blues musicians, and wrote a number of liner notes and articles in various blues magazines. LaVere was one of the founders of the Memphis Blues Caravan tour in the 70's, and produced/recorded a number of Memphis musicians including Bukka White, Joe Willie Wilkins, Walter Horton and Jimmy DeBerry.  LaVere's business operations were run through his Delta Haze Corporation, which as the website states, "is engaged in the preservation and promotion of traditional American blues." Most recently LaVere contributed research and previously unseen photos to Bear Family's mammoth Sun Records box set.

Robert Johnson Box SetIt's ironic that Mack McCormick passed just about a month before LaVere. Both men's lives were shaped by Robert Johnson although that obsession led them down different paths. In 1972 as a Smithsonian field researcher, McCormick, who had been on Johnson’s trail for more than a decade, located Johnson’s two half-sisters and came away with not only photos of Johnson and members of his family but, reportedly, first publication rights as well. McCormick, who had a reputation as an inspired researcher and an excellent writer, had gone as far as to travel to Mississippi on the Rolling Store, a bus that had been converted into a canteen for sharecroppers—and, in a 1976 Rolling Stone piece, he told writer Peter Guralnick that he had even tracked down and interviewed Johnson’s killer. McCormick intended to write about this and other revelations in a book about Johnson that he had tentatively titled Biography of a Phantom. In 1977 McCormick's said the manuscript was 12 chapters and a 150,000 words. In a 2002 profile by Michael Hall in Texas Monthly, McCormick revealed that he suffers from crippling “manic-depressive illness,” and that he had abandoned his Johnson book. “It ain’t happening anymore,” he told Hall. “I lost interest.”

Robert Johnson did not leave a will when he died in 1938 at 27. He was destitute, but his estate later made millions. In 1990, Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings was finally released by Sony and eventually went gold. LaVere was listed as a producer, and the biographical essay published in the boxed set’s accompanying booklet carried his byline (LaVere also wrote the notes and produced the follow-up 2011 collection, The Complete Recordings: The Centennial Collection). When Mack McCormick heard about LaVere’s deal, he contacted Columbia and notified the label that his agreement with Johnson’s half-sisters preceded LaVere’s. Columbia put the anthology on hold for 15 years. In the mid 70's  LaVere had discovered, that Johnson's songs were not public domain, and any surviving family members were entitled to royalties. At the time, he could only find Robert's half sister, Carrie Thompson, who was living in Maryland. She agreed to hire LaVere as the agent for the Robert Johnson Estate. As Frank Digiacomo wrote in Vanity Fair: "It put a nice chunk of change in LaVere’s pocket, and it also cemented his status as the gatekeeper to all things Robert Johnson. In that role he soon became known for litigious ways." Eventually Johnson's estate was awarded to his son, Claude Johnson in 1998.

As for the man himself, Tony Russell wrote perceptively of Robert Johnson: "To see Johnson clearly the reader needs to steer a steady course between fanatics and debunkers, understanding the context of his music – the undeniable influence of [Son] House and Lonnie Johnson, his many allusions to records that were around him when he was learning his trade – but at the same time recognizing the skill with which he synthesized those elements, and the wholly individual character of much of his finished work. In particular, Johnson deserve to be acknowledged as the master of the complete blues: the song conceived as a dramatic whole rather than am arbitrary sequence of scenes, of verses casually pinned to a formulaic accompaniment. Th emotional architecture of a performance like 'Come On In My Kitchen', the tender erotic plea echoed by tremulous slide guitar, or of 'Hellhound On My Trail', a distraught, fragmented reconsideration of Skip James's 'Devil Got My Woman', the intricate interdependence of voice and guitar in 'Walkin' Blues' and 'Preachin' Blues' – all this attests to a concept of blues composition that was beyond the scope of many of Johnson's contemporaries."

Joe Willie Wilkins 45LaVere was employed in 1968 as reissue coordinator for the Liberty label. He produced the influential albums Rural Blues Vol. 1 & 2 which collected sides from the vaults of the New Orleans based Imperial label. These have since been reissued on CD by the BGO label. LaVere also produced records around this time for World Pacific. LaVere and Pete Welding produced a series of four albums  in the late 60's in a series entitled BLUESMAKERS for that label. Some of these have not been reissued on CD. The albums were Shakey Jake's Further On Up the Road, George “Harmonica” Smith's Blues With a Felling – A Tribute to Little Walter, Sunnyland Slim's Slim's Got His Thing Goin' On and the anthology Oakland Blues featuring sides by Lafayette Thomas, Dave Alexander and L.C. Robinson.

Thanks to a handful of terrific 1950's sides, the name of Papa Lightfoot was revered by 1960's blues enthusiasts. LaVere tracked him down in Natchez, MS cutting an album for Vault in 1969 (since reissued by the Ace label). His comeback was short-lived and he died in 1971. He cut sessions for Peacock in 1949 (unissued), Sultan in 1950, and Aladdin in 1952 preceded an amazing 1954 date for Imperial in New Orleans. His final pre-rediscovery sides were cut for Savoy in 1955.

LaVere lived in Memphis for a time and was involved in promoting and recording several musicians from the area including  producing Bukka White's last album, Big Daddy, in 1974 of which he was nominated for a Grammy, recording the first sides by Joe Willie Wilkins under his own name and  conceived the Memphis Blues Caravan, a traveling revue of blues veterans. The albums  Memphis Blues Caravan Vol I & II feature artists who performed in the revue. In 1973 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. He passed March 28, 1979 in Memphis.

Coy "Hot Shot" Love got his one moment of glory in the recording studio on January 8, 1954, when he entered Sam Phillips' Sun Studios to record "Wolf Call Boogie" b/w "Harmonica Jam," backed by Mose Vinson at the piano, Pat Hare on guitar, Kenneth Banks on bass, and Houston Stokes on the drums. Love did cut one more 45 recorded  by George Paulus of Barrelhouse Records at LaVere's Record Shop in Memphis in mid August 1973. The songs are "Hot Shot Boogie, Foxchase Boogie b/w Freight Train Blues" issued as a 45 under the  Mr. Bo Weevil imprint.

In the 50's Jimmy DeBerry cut some sides with Walter Horton for Sun. In 1972 producer LaVere reunited DeBerry and Horton for sessions designed to recreate their earlier partnership. Two albums worth of material, Easy and Back were issued on the Crosscut label.

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Steve LaVere Bibliography (excerpted from A Blues Bibliography Second Edition by Robert Ford)

LaVere, Steve. Papa George Lightfoot: Natchez Trace. USA: Vault LP 130, 1969

LaVere, Stephen C. “Alexander George: Papa Lightfoot!” Blues Unlimited no. 68 (Dec 1969): 12.

LaVere, Steve. “Schoolboy Cleve!” Blues Unlimited no. 69 (Jan 1970): 22.

Napier, Simon A.; LaVere, Steve; Curtiss, Lou.“Thomas Shaw.” Blues Unlimited no. 75 (Sep 1970): 14.

Leadbitter, Mike; LaVere, Steve. “Mike’s Blues: Papa Lightfoot.” Blues Unlimited no. 81 (Apr 1971): 18.

LaVere, Steve. The Memphis Blues Again. USA: Adelphi AD-1009-S, c1971

Eagle, Bob; LaVere, Steve. “Hard Working Woman: Mississippi Matilda: Matilda Witherspoon.” Living Blues no. 8 (Spring 1972): 7.

LaVere, Steve. “Papa Lightfoot.” Living Blues no. 13 (Summer 1973): 6.

LaVere, Steve. “Memphis Minnie.” Blues-Link no. 2 (Oct/Nov 1973): 31–32.

LaVere, Steve. Bukka White: Big Daddy. USA: Biograph BLP 12049, 1974.

Slaven, Neil. "From Channel 4 Till Late: (Or Where Do We Go from LaVere?)." Blues & Rhythm no. 70 (Jun 1992): 22.

LaVere, Stephen C. Memphis Blues Caravan. Vol. 1. & 2 USA: Memphis Archives MA7008-7009, 1994.


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