George 'Harmonica' SmithTelephone Blues Harmonica Ace
George 'Harmonica' SmithSometimes You Win When You LoseBlowing The Blues
George 'Harmonica' SmithLove LifeHarmonica Ace
Champion Jack DupreeOverhead BluesMe And My Mule
Little Johnny TaylorSomewhere Down The LineThe Galaxy Years
George 'Harmonica' SmithThe Blues Is My Roots West Coast Down Home Harmonica
George 'Harmonica' Smith I Don't KnowBlowing The Blues
George 'Harmonica' SmithAstatic StompNow You Can Talk About Me
Sunnyland Slim Got To Get To My BabySlim's got His Thing Goin' On
Dave AlexanderHighway 59Oakland Blues
Long Gone Miles Gotta Find My Baby Juke Joint Blues
Long Gone Miles Hello JosephineJuke Joint Blues
George 'Harmonica' SmithBlues For Reverend King Of The Blues...
George 'Harmonica' SmithTimes Won't Be Hard AlwaysBlowing The Blues
George 'Harmonica' SmithBlues In The DarkHarmonica Ace
Muddy Waters You Can't Lose What You Ain't Never HadAuthorized Bootleg
Muddy Waters Just To Be With YouThe Lost Tapes
George 'Harmonica' Smith West Helena WomanTribute to Little Walter
George 'Harmonica' Smith Going Down SlowTribute to Little Walter
George 'Harmonica' Smith Too Late Tribute to Little Walter
Otis Spann Down On Sarah Street Down To Earth
Big Mama ThorntonOne Black RatThe Way It Is
Big Joe TurnerNight Time is the Right Time Turns On The Blues
George 'Harmonica' SmithEarly One Monday MorningHarmonica Ace
George 'Harmonica' SmithBlowing The BluesBlowing The Blues
George 'Harmonica' SmithMiss O'Malley's RallyBlowing The Blues
George 'Harmonica' SmithMississippi River BluesThe Complete Blue Horizon Sessions

Show Notes:

George 'Harmonica' Smith was one of the most gifted contemporaries of Little Walter and Big Walter yet has received a fraction of their recognition. He was a powerful, inventive and swinging harmonica player and a superb singer. Likely his recognition would be higher if he wasn't based in L.A. He cut his first records for modern in the mid-50's which achieved some success. For the rest of the 50's and 60's he cut a slew of fine singles for small West Coast labels that didn't do much to raise his profile. By the late 60's he had a cut a couple of LP's and was quite active on record in the early and late 70's, keeping relatively quiet in the middle part of that decade. Smith was fairly active as a session player and today we hear him backing his occasional employer Muddy Waters as well as Champion Jack Dupree, Little Johnny Taylor, Big Mama Thornton, Sunnyland Slim, Luke Miles, Otis Spann and others. Smith had a profound influence on the style of younger west coast harmonica players like Johnny Dyer, Kim Wilson, James Harmon and in particular, Rod Piazza and William Clarke.

Allen George Smith was born on April 22nd , 1924 in Helena, Arkansas to Jessie and George Senior. His guitar and harmonica playing mother was something of a role model in his musical upbringing, helping him master the finer points of the harmonica. Around the age of twelve he was hoboing throughout he delta. During this period he was a semi-professional musician playing picnics and fish fries. With the help of a local musician, Smith continued to work in and out of the music business whilst holding down a Job as a projectionist in the town of Itta Bena. He found a way to utilize the amplifier and speaker taken from, presumably, a disused projector and, to amplify the sound of his harmonica. This makes him one of the pioneers in the amplified harmonica.

At the age of twenty-five Smith moved to Chicago. He got a job working with David and Louis Myers and then hooked up with Otis Rush. Smith and Little Walter became really close during this period. Both played chromatic as their chosen and preferred instrument. Unlike Walter, it was proving difficult for Smith to make a break through. Following the departure of Little Walter from Muddy Waters' band, Smith was to fill the vacated harmonica chair when fill-in Henry Strong was stabbed to death by a jealous girlfriend. For whatever reason, his stint with Waters was short-lived and he never recorded with him. Before leaving Chicago, Smith was involved in a Otis Spann session recorded at the end of 1954 which resulted in "It Must Have Been The Devil b/w Five Spot." Smith plays on the former holding his own among heavyweights B.B. King, Jody Williams, Willie Dixon and Earl Phillips.

In 1954, he was offered a permanent job at the Orchid Room in Kansas City where, early in 1955, Joe Bihari of Modern Records (on a scouting trip) heard Smith, and signed him to Modern. These recording sessions were released under the name Little George Smith, and included classics like "Telephone Blues" and "Blues in the Dark." The relative success of these first recordings, resulted in Smith touring with many of the leading Rhythm & Blues acts of the time. While on the tour, he recorded with Champion Jack Dupree in November of 1955 in Cincinnati, producing "Sharp Harp" and "Overhead Blues", the latter we spin on today's program. Smith's excellent Modern sides are collected on Harmonica Ace: The Modern Masters on the Ace label. This disc is aptly described by note-writer Ray Topping as "a lasting memorial to one of the last great harp players of the postwar blues scene."

After touring in support of his first records the tour closed out on the West Coast and the Bihari brothers took Smith into the studio again, this time to work with saxophonist and arranger Maxwell Davis. Smith settled in Los Angeles for the rest of his life. In the late '50s he recorded for J&M, Lapel, Melker, and Caddy under the names Harmonica King or Little Walter Junior. Smith also worked with Big Mama Thornton on many shows. In 1960, Smith met producer Nat McCoy who owned the Sotoplay and Carolyn labels, and with whom he recorded ten singles under the name of George Allen. The bulk of these sides have been collected on Blowin' The Blues which has been issued on P-Vine, Official and the El Segundo labels. There are some real gems on this collection unfortunately sound quality is not always the best and some of the personnel is unknown. When James Cotton left Muddy Water’s band in 1966 he asked Smith to join him and they worked together for a while, recording for Spivey Records under the title The Bluesmen of the Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Band. Several years back Geffen/Chess issued Authorized Bootleg featuring Smith with Muddy recorded November 4-6, 1966 at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. Smith was captured with the band again in 1971 live at Washington and Oregon University and posthumously issued as The Lost Tapes on Blind Pig. Smith moved to Chicago to play with Waters. As before, it didn’t last, and Smith went back to Los Angeles. But he stayed friends with Muddy, and when Little Walter died two years later, Muddy’s band backed Smith on his highly regarded Tribute to Little Walter album on World Pacific.

Smith also appeared on the World Pacific album by Sunnyland Slim, Slim's Got His Thing Goin' On and the compilation Oakland Blues backing David Alexander and L.C. Robinson. In 1969, Bob Thiele produced an album of Smith on Bluesway, ..Of the Blues, and later made use of Smith as a sideman for his Blues Times label, including sets with T-Bone Walker and Harmonica Slim. Smith also recorded on the two albums Otis Spann recorded for Bluesway. Smith met the young Rod Piazza in the late 60's, and they launched the Southside Blues Band, which toured with Big Mama Thorton . In 1970 British producer Mike Vernon met the band, signed them to a European tour, and changed their name to Bacon Fat. They recorded a couple of albums for Vernon. All this material has been reissued on the 2-CD set George Smith & Bacon Fat: The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions. In 1969 Luke “Long Gone” Miles and Smith recorded a batch of great songs for Kent, the bulk of which went unissued. The same year he backed Big Mama Thornton, Big Joe Turner and was involved in the Super Black Blues jam album with T-Bone Walker, Otis Spann and Big Joe Turner. In 1970 he cut the album No Time For Jive and the same year he backed Big Joe Turner on the Kent album Turns On The Blues. In 1971 Smith cut the album Arkansas Trap. In 1972 he appeared on Eddie Taylor's I Feel So Bad and backed Big Mama Thornton again in 1975 on the album Jail. Through the 70's and early 80's he remained active working on record with Jimmy Witherspoon, Phillip Walker and others.

Around 1977, Smith became friends with William Clarke and they began working together. Their working relationship and friendship continued until Smith died on October 2, 1983. Of Smith, Clarke said: "He had a technique on the chromatic harp where he would play two notes at once, but one octave apart. He would get an organ-type sound by doing this. George really knew how to make his notes count by not playing too much and taking his time by letting the music unfold easily. He could also swing like crazy and was a first-class entertainer. …I have never heard George play a song the same way twice. He was very creative and played directly from his heart. He admired all great musicians but had his own sound and style. He was a true original. Mr. Smith would always give 100-percent on-stage whether or not there were 1 or 1,000 people listening. This was his performing style, always." His last studio album was Boogie'n With George produced by protege Rod Piazza.

Read Liner Notes

Tom Townsley describes Smith's technique in the following manner: "He often approached his soIos by using his tongue-blocked octave technique to imitate hom section riffs (as opposed to copying the single notes of a soloist). This gave his playing incredible power. He also knew how to coax a variety of tonal shadings and subtle pitch variations out of a single note by combining bends and microphone manipulation. He built suspense by phrasing his attack just behind the beat. As a result, his tunes swung relentlessly."

Robert Nighthawk w/ Ernest LaneMy Sweet Lovin' WomanProwling With The Nighthawk
Ernest LaneLittle Girl, Little Girl The Modern Downhome Blues Sessions Vol. 1
Ernest LaneNeed My Help45
Ernest LaneLane ShuffleThe Blues Is Back!
Charlie PattonJim Lee Blues Part 1The Best Of
Clifford Gibson Whiskey Moan BluesClifford Gibson 1929-1931
Little Caesar Tried To Reason With You Baby Your On The Hour Man: The Modern, Dolphin And Downey Recordings 1952-1960
Mary Johnson Never Too LateLadies Sing The Blues
Little L. BoydDrinking BluesJuicy Harmonica Vol. 3
Robert Henry Old Battle AxJuicy Harmonica Vol. 2
Willie Nix Just One Mistake Juicy Harmonica Vol. 2
Alec SewardI Made A Mistake In LoveCreepin' Blues
Alec SewardSweet Woman
Creepin' Blues
Sonny Boy Williamson Nine Below Zero American Folk Blues Festival 1963
Floyd JonesPlayhouseFloyd Jones 1948-1953
Harmonica SlimYou Better Believe ItJuicy Harmonica
Johnny LittlejohnWhat In The World Kings Of The Slide Guitar
Hound Dog TaylorSittin Here AloneBlues Rarities: Rare And Unissued Recordings
L.C. Williams All Through My DreamsLet's Have Some Fun: The Freedom R&B Story
Mable FranklinUnhappy WomanStompin' Vol. 9
Billy BizorTell Me Where You Stayed Last NightBlowing My Blues Away
Whispering SmithEverybody Needs Love Over Easy
Ranie BurnetteLonseome Moon BluesGoing Down South
Johnny WoodsGoing Up the CountryGoing Down South
Tommie BradleyPlease Don't Act That WayTommie Bradley - James Cole Groups 1928-1932
Joe McCoyThe World Is A Hard Place To Live InThe McCoy Brothers Vol. 1 1934-1936
Big Joe WilliamsHouse Lady Blues Big Joe Williams and the Stars of Mississippi Blues
Joe Thompson Careless LoveFamily Tradition
Joe Thompson Georgia BuckFamily Tradition
Joe Thompson Donna's Got A Rambling MindFamily Tradition

Show Notes:

We open the show on a sad note with the passing of pianist Ernest Lane. Usually when I talk about these guys there's not a personal connection but not so with Ernest. I probably first spoke with him close to ten years ago when I was writing the notes to the CD Prowling With The Nighthawk a collection of classic sides by Robert Nighthawk, a few of which featured Ernest. I talked with him several times over the years and got to hang out with him a bit when he began collaborating with my friend Steve Grills. In 2004 Ernest issued his belated debut, The Blues Is Back!, and I promptly interviewed him on my Bad Dog Blues radio show and had him back in the studio in 2008. In 2010 Steve put out the excellent  After Hours featuring Ernest which I was happy to write the notes for. Last year Ernest was the cover story for a Juke Blues profile and will be featured in the next  issue of Living Blues. I suspect that most are unfamiliar with Ernest so I'll give a brief outline.

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

Ernest has had his own bands throughout the years although he's probably best known for his work with folks like Robert Nighthawk, Earl Hooker and his life long pal Ike Turner. Unfortunately Ernest hasn't gotten in the studio all that often; he cut his first record under his own name for Blues & Rhythm in 1952 (an off shoot of Modern), "What's Wrong Baby" b/w "Little Girl, Little Girl", plus a pair of singles in L.A. in the early sixties, "What Kind Of Love" b/w "Sliced Apples" for M.J.C. and "What's That You Got" b/w "Need My Help" for Sony. Ernest wasn't even aware that the Blues & Rhythm sides were issued but does recall the session which was setup by Ike Turner who was acting as a talent scout for Modern. As for his session work, Ernest appears on on the July 1949 Robert Nighhawk session and it was either him or Sunnyland Slim on the September 1948 session. The titles include: "Down The Line", "Handsome Lover", "Return Mail Blues", "My Sweet Lovin' Mama", "She Knows How To Love A Man", "Black Angel Blues ( Sweet Black Angel)", "Anna Lee Blues (Anna Lee)", "Return Mail Blues" and "Sugar Papa." Ernest played for a spell with Jimmy Nolen and appears on the following 1959 session for Fidelity: "Swingin' Peter Gunn Pt. 1", Swingin' Peter Gunn Pt. 2" and "Blues After Hours." In 1961 Nolen's band, with Ernest, backed George "Harmonica" Smith on a session for Sotoplay: "Sometimes You Win When You Lose", "Come On Home", "You Can't Undo What's Been Done" and "Rope That Twist." Ernest also recalls playing on the Earl Hooker's 1969 album Sweet Black Angel even though Ike Turner is listed as the pianist. In 1969 he did some studio work with Canned Heat which can be found on The USA Sessions – Classic Recordings from 1969. 1969 was also the year he toured with the Monkees whom he backed as a member of Sam & The Goodtimers. More recently he's appeared on records by Eddie Clearwater and Ike Turner. In the early 1980's he cut a session for Rooster Records but only one 45 was issued, "Doggin' No More" b/w "Little Girl." After he cut his album debut, The Blues Is Back!, he followed it up with Born With The Blues and 72 Miles from Memphis.

Quit a number of harp players are featured on today's mix show plus our usual mix of prime pre-war blues, a set of Houston blues and twin spins by Alec Seward and we close with trio of sides by recently departed fiddler Joe Thompson.

We spin one of my favorite Charlie Patton songs today, "Jim Lee Blues Pt. 1." I'm not sure exactly what it is with this song that I find so striking, it's not one often cited when talking about Patton's best, yet I find it incredibly compelling. Patton's vocals on this are magnificent. The 2-part  number celebrates a Mississippi river boat that plied between Vicksburg and Memphis. There were no known copies until about 1990 when blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow went to John Steiner's (he bought Paramount Records in the late 40's) house in Milwaukee, armed with some rare Jazz 78's that he knew Steiner would find hard to resist. He told Steiner that he could have the Jazz 78's if he, Wardlow, could search through Steiner's collection of Paramount's and select whatever he wanted in trade. Steiner agreed and in the collection Wardlow found the E+ copy of "Jim Lee No.1." Record collector John Tefteller bought it from Wardlow in 2002 and told me "it is going to remain in my collection for a very long time." Around that time, 2002, another copy that was clean but badly cracked showed up in Virginia. That copy is currently owned by researcher Kip Lornell. Hands down the best sounding version of the song can be found on Yazoo's Patton collection, Best Of, which to my ears is the best mastered Patton collection to date. As with many Patton songs, there are passages that are tough to decipher but the below transcription (I found this on YouTube of all places) comes very close.

I went away up the river, some forty mile or mo'
I think I heard that big Jim Lee blow

She blow so lonesome, like she wasn' gon' blow no mo'
It blowed just like my baby gettin' on board

I'm a po' old boy and a long way from home
An' she's callin' me to leave my plumb good home

My mama is dead an' my father well could be
I ain' got nobody to feel an' care for me

If you don' want me, jus' give me your han'
Mmm, I'll get a woman sweet as you can a man

I got a (key on a) wheeler, got a (bowser) on the plow (?)
Got a plumb good man bringing down the Johnson bayou (?)

I lay my head in a 'ceitful woman's arms
An' she lay her nappy head in mine

When I got arrested, what do you reckon was my fine?
Say, they give all coons 'leven twenty nine

(Big boys n' shines) don't pay me no mind
Cause I (do) not let no coons in (mine)

Well that big Jim Lee, keep a-backin' up an' down
She sand bar struck, man and she water bound

Billy Bizor with his cousin Lightnin' Hopkins
at ACA Studios Houston 1968

Lots of good harp blowers today including heavyweights like Little Walter and Walter Horton, Whispering Smith, Johnny Woods, Harmonica Slim and Bill Bizor among others. Walter Horton blows up a storm on Willie Nix's "Just One Mistake" cut for Sun in 1952 while Little Walter is in prime form on Floyd Jones' "Playhouse" from the same year. Jones was right there when the postwar Chicago blues hit its stride, cutting a batch of great records with harpist Snooky Pryor for Marvel in 1947, pianist Sunnyland Slim for Tempo Tone the next year (where he cut his classic "Hard Times"), JOB and Chess in 1952-53, and Vee-Jay in 1955.

Whispering Smith came late to the Swamp blues scene, cutting his first singles for Excello in 1963-64 and backing Silas Hogan on records during the same period. He made more records in the 70's appearing on the Swamp Blues LP for Blue Horizon and cutting the album Over Easy in 1971 also for Blue Horizon. During this period he played in Europe appearing as part of the American Folk Blues Festival and at the Montreux Blues Festival. He passed in 1984.

Johnny Woods was born in a small Mississippi town called Looxahoma and his harmonica playing first gained notoriety in the 1960's as a duet partner Mississippi Fred McDowell. They recorded together first for George Mitchell in 1967 and then on scattered sides issued on Arhoolie. After McDowell's death in July 1973, Woods faded away until George Mitchell paired him again with R. L. Burnside. Together they appear on the Swingmaster albums, Going Down South and So Many Cold Mornings. Woods passed in 1990.

Born in Centerville, Texas in 1917, Billy Bizor dwelled in almost total obscurity prior to the 1960's. In the early 60's he backed his cousin Lightnin' Hopkins on several recordings. Between 1968 and 1969, Bizor cut his only solo session in Houston with producer Roy Ames which was eventually issued as Blowing My Blues Away, the end result went unreleased for several years; tragically, Bizor himself never saw the recordings come to light, passing April 4, 1969.

In addition to Bizor, we hear from Houston based artists L.C. Williams, Mabel Franklin and D.C. Bender. Williams was a singer/tap dancer who also occasionally drummed behind Lightnin' Hopkins. He arrived in Houston in 1945 and was one of the many characters who hung around in Lightning’s orbit sitting on stoops drinking beer and wine, shooting the breeze with passers-by. He made his first record in 1947 with Hopkins on piano and guitar. Hopkins plays guitar on a four-song session for Gold Star in 1948 with Williams making some final sides for Eddie’s and Freedom between 1948-1950. He died in Houston of TB in 1960.

Mabel Franklin cut a few  singles in 1965 and 1967 in Houston backed by D.C. Bender on guitar who really cuts loose on our track, "Unhappy Woman." Bender was an active session guitarist on the Houston scene, cutting just a few sides under his own name, but backing artists such as Franklin, Big Son Tillis, Calvin Johnson and others.

One of the more elusive records I've finally hunted down is Alec Seward's Creepin' Blues released by Bluesville in 1965 and never issued on CD. Seward was born in Charles City County, Virginia and relocated to New York in 1942 where he befriended Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. He met Louis Hayes and the duo performed variously named as the Blues Servant Boys, Guitar Slim and Jelly Belly, or The Back Porch Boys. The duo recorded sides in 1944 and another batch in 1947. During the 1940's and 1950's Seward played and recorded with Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, McGhee and Terry. Creepin' Blues (with harmonica accompaniment by Larry Johnson) is a terrific album and today we spotlight two fine cuts. Later in the decade Seward worked in concert and at folk-blues festivals. He died at the age of 70, in New York in May 1972.

Fiddler Joe Thompson died on Feb. 20th at the age of 93. Born December 9, 1918 in Orange County, North Carolina, Joe Thompson grew up in a family where fiddle and banjo music was heard on nights and weekends after farm work was completed. Joe’s father and uncle played fiddle and banjo and were sought after by neighbors, both African American and white, to provide music for local square dances. Joe has received many honors since the 1970s, when he began performing his music outside of his home community. Kip Lornell, then a graduate student in ethnomusicology, heard him perform in 1973 and urged them to look into performing at folk music festivals that were springing up. In 1989 Joe and Odell recorded Music for Global Village Music and Joe was featured on the album Family Tradition, released by Rounder Records in 2000. Folklorist Alan Lomax included the three Thompsons' in his American Patchwork documentary film series. His music is also included on various anthologies. The Carolina Chocolate Drops became Thompson’s most well known protégés, learning from him at his home in Mebane and eventually recording and performing with him at festivals like Merlefest and even local dances.

Mercy Dee WaltonLonesome Cabin BluesMasterly Texas Blues 1949-1955
Mercy Dee WaltonG.I. Fever (Baba-Du-Lay-Fever)Masterly Texas Blues 1949-1955
Sidney MaidenEclipse Of The SunThe Bob Geddins Blues Legacy
Sidney MaidenWorking WomanDown South Blues 1952-1962:
Blues Anthology Vol. 4
K.C. Douglas Mercury BoogieThe Bob Geddins Blues Legacy
K.C. Douglas Had I Money Deadbeat Guitar And The Mississippi Blues
K.C. Douglas Lonely BluesJook Joint Blues
Guitar Slim GreenAlla BluesHollywood Blues: Classic West Coast Blues 1947-1953
Guitar Slim GreenTricky Woman BluesHollywood Blues: Classic West Coast Blues 1947-1953
Guitar Slim GreenBaby I Love You
West Coast Down Home Blues
Mercy Dee WaltonTravelin' Alone BluesMasterly Texas Blues 1949-1955
Mercy Dee WaltonEmpty Life Masterly Texas Blues 1949-1955
Mercy Dee WaltonRoamin' BluesMasterly Texas Blues 1949-1955
Sidney MaidenUp The River BluesDown South Blues 1952-1962:
Blues Anthology Vol. 4
Sidney MaidenHand Me Down BabyThe Legendary Dig Masters Vol. 2
K.C. DouglasBig Road BluesBig Road Blues
K.C. DouglasHowling BluesBig Road Blues
Guitar Slim Green Shake em' UpJericho Alley Blues Flash
Guitar Slim Green Jericho Alley Jericho Alley Blues Flash
Mercy Dee WaltonOne Room Country ShackOne Room Country Shack
Mercy Dee WaltonDark Muddy Bottom One Room Country Shack
Mercy Dee WaltonHave You Ever Been Out in the Country Troublesome Mind
Sidney MaidenChicago BluesI Have to Paint My Face: Mississippi Blues, 1960
Sidney MaidenSan Quentin BluesTrouble An' Blues
Sidney MaidenTell Me, SomebodyTrouble An' Blues
K.C. DouglasCanned Heat BluesBig Road Blues
K.C. DouglasBroke HeartK.C.'s Blues
K.C. DouglasWake Up, Workin' WomanK.C.'s Blues
Guitar Slim GreenMy Woman Done Quit MeThe Legendary Dig Masters Vol. 2
Guitar Slim GreenYou Make Me Feel So GoodStone Down Blues
Mercy Dee WaltonStrugglin' With The BluesOne Room Country Shack
Mercy Dee WaltonEighth Wonder of the WorldTroublesome Mind
Mercy Dee WaltonBetty JeanTroublesome Mind

Show Notes:

Sidney Maiden, K.C. Douglas, Mercy Dee Walton
source: Blues Link 5 (1974), p. 17; photographer: Chris Strachwitz

This week's show spotlights a quartet of fine down home southern blues artists who migrated to California and cut some stellar recordings from the late 1940's through the 1970's. Today we spin a batch of great recordings by Mercy Dee Walton, K.C. Douglas, Sidney Maiden and Guitar Slim Green. All of these artists worked together to some degree; Douglas and Maiden made their debut together, appearing on each others records in the late 40's and again in the 60's. Both men appeared on some sides by Mercy Dee Walton while Maiden and Green appeared on record together. In addition Douglas, Maiden and Walton all benefited from the patronage of Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie records who recorded all three artists. Outside of Walton, who had two R&B hits, none of these artists enjoyed much success, often having to hold down day jobs, but the music they cut certainly stands the test of time.

Mercy Dee Walton was born in Waco, Texas on August 30, 1915. His parents worked on farms in the bottomlands of the Brazos River, and Mercy Dee was destined for a similar life when at the age of thirteen he began to learn to play the piano, inspired by the music he heard at local house parties. The greatest influence on him was the unrecorded Delois Maxey, but other (equally unrecorded) Texas pianists also made some contribution: Son Brewster from Waco, Pinetop Shorty, Willy Woodson, Sonny Vee and "Big Hand" Joe Thomas in Fort Worth, Son Putney in Dallas, and Bob Jackson in Marlin—all little more than names now—and the Grey Ghost who emerged from obscurity only after Mercy Dee's death to make several noteworthy recordings.

In the late 1930's Mercy Dee moved to California, where he worked on farms up and down the Central Valley while performing in local bars and clubs for the region's black farmworkers. In 1949 he recorded for the Fresno-based Spire label and had an immediate hit with "Lonesome Cabin Blues," which reached Number 7 on the R&B charts. This success attracted the attention of the larger Los Angeles–based Imperial label, which signed him and recorded two sessions of twelve titles in 1950. By 1952 he was recording for Specialty, another Los Angeles label. His first track for them, "One Room Country Shack," was a hit in 1953, reaching Number 8 on the R&B charts.

Mercy Dee's chart success led made him a nationally-known artist, and he worked with various package shows touring the country. But his two other Specialty issues were less successful and he was dropped by the label. A recording for the small Rhythm label in 1954 had little impact, but in 1955 he recorded for the Flair label, part of the Modern Records stable in Los Angeles. These recordings were much more in the R&B style but did nothing to restore Walton's career. He returned to his earlier situation of supplementing his earnings from music with agricultural work and settled in the Stockton, California, area.

In 1961 Mercy Dee came to the attention of Chris Strachwitz, owner of the Arhoolie label. A series of sessions that year with sympathetic backing by guitarist K. C. Douglas, harmonica player Sidney Maiden, and drummer Otis Cherry produced albums on the Arhoolie and Bluesville labels. Soon afterwards Walton suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in hospital in Murphys, California, on December 2, 1962.

Despite originally hailing from the Mississippi-Tennessee border just 50 miles from Memphis, K.C. Douglas was to become one of the last great rural blues guitarists of the post-war West Coast blues scene. Douglas grew up on a Mississippi farm and on acquiring a guitar in 1936, he began learning the fundamentals of the instrument from his uncle. However, it was a meeting later that year with idol Tommy Johnson in Jackson, Mississippi, that convinced Douglas that his future was as a blues performer. Johnson taught him the secrets of his guitar technique, and the two busked together on street corners and at parties.

By the end of the war years, Douglas had moved to California to work in the Kaiser naval shipyard as a government recruit. He soon became a central figure on the San Francisco/Oakland blues scene, and formed a band called the Lumberjacks in 1947. He became a fixture in the Bay Area clubs. Douglas' debut recordings were issued on the local Downtown label in 1948, and in 1949 he had a minor hit with "Mercury Boogie", subsequently renamed "Mercury Blues". The recording featured harmonica player Sidney Maiden, and Douglas accompanied his heartfelt vocal on a guitar loaned to him by Lowell Fulson. The Ford Motor Company bought the rights to the song in 1998.

The album Deadbeat Guitar And The Mississippi Blues (subtitled Street corner blues 'bout women and automobiles) states that this material was "collected" by Sam Eskin in Oakland in 1952. The album was issued possibly in 1954 or maybe 1956 which would make it one of the earliest blues records issued that wasn't a reissue of older material. As for Eskin, he was a folklorist who made field recordings between 1939 and 1969 and during this period made many cross-country trips from New York to California where he recorded American folk music.

Douglas continued to work as a laborer throughout the '50s and '60s, using music to supplement his income. By now a prolific songwriter, he recorded additional material for Arhoolie owner Chris Strachwitz in 1960-63. Some sides by Douglas with pal Sidney Maiden, appeared on the excellent compilation I Have To Paint My Face issued in 1960. Other material recorded by Strachwitz in 1961 was issued as two albums on the Bluesville label: Big Road Blues, his finest recording, and K.C.'s Blues. Douglas also backed bluesman Mercy Dee at about this time. Douglas went on to record for Fantasy towards the end of the 60's, but did not reach the height of his fame until 1970, when he appeared at the Berkeley Blues Festival. His final recordings were again recorded by Strachwitz in 1973 and 1974. In the 90's Arhoolie issued the CD Mercury Boogie collecting all the recordings from theses lengthy sessions. Douglas succumbed to a fatal heart attack in October 1975 at Berkeley. His body was taken back to Mississippi for burial at Pleasant Green Cemetery.

Sidney Maiden front cover of Bluesville 1035 (Photographer Chris Strachwitz)

Sidney Maiden was born in 1923 in Mansfield, LA. Maiden drifted to the West Coast and in 1945 where he met K.C. Douglas. The played quite a bit around Richmond, California which at the time was a booming ship-building community. During this time they cut their first records for the small Down-Town label. The songs were "Mercury Boogie" sung by Douglas and "Eclipse of The Sun" sung by Maiden. After the recordings were made Maiden moved to Fresno where he remained on and off until his death.

Throughout the 50's Maiden recorded a number of fine sides: eight sides for Imperial in 1952 (only two were issued at the time), a few sides for Flash in 1955 and a record for Johnny Otis' Dig label in 1957 issued as Sidney Maiden – Slim Green and The Cats From Fresno. Maiden, along with friend K.C. Douglas were recorded in 1960 by Chris Strachwitz with assistance from Mr. and Mrs. Paul Oliver. Strachwitz recorded both men again in 1961.The results were issued under Maiden's name as the album Trouble An' Blues issued on the Bluesville label. The same year Maiden backed Mercy Dee Walton on his Bluesville album A Pity And A Shame. Maiden never recorded again after these recordings, drifting off into obscurity. His death date is unknown.

Read Liner Notes

Norman G. Green was born in Bryant, Texas on July 25, 1920. His family moved to Oklahoma when he was in youth where he learned guitar and started playing at local functions. In 1947 he moved to Los Angeles. He made his first records in 1948 backing J.D. Nicholson. He made his debut recordings as R. Green & Turner for a label owned by J.R. Fulbright. Fulbright claimed to have found Green in Christian, Oklahoma "him and a crossed-eyed woman who played harp, came here together. I discovered him playing at an old country supper." Green recalled meeting Fullbright at his Los Angeles club, the Jungle Room. "Alla Blues" was a retread of "Tin Pan Alley" first recorded by Curtis Jones in 1941. Green said that he and Turner wrote it and that Robert Geddins stole it from him. Green & Turner's version would become some kind of West Coast national anthem:

I said fifth street alley, it's a dangerous place
They'll catch you down there, throw dirt all in your face
Fith street alley, blues just won't let me be

The song was soon revived under the original title by West Coast artists Jimmy Wilson and Rage Agee and by Johnny Fuller and James Reed as "Roughest Place In Town." The same year he waxed the excellent "Baby I Love You b/w Tricky Woman Blues" for Murray with the latter sung by drummer Junior Hampton. After his late 1940's recordings Green didn't record again for a nearly a decade waxing 45's for small labels such as Dig, Canton and in the 60's for Geenote, Solid Soul & Universal up until 1968. In the 50's he also backed Louis Jackson & Junior Hampton and Sidney Maiden. In 1970 he teamed up with Johnny Otis & his son son Shuggie to record a only full length album for Kent titled Stone Down Blues. The Kent recordings would be his last under his name. He died in Los Angeles on September 28, 1975.

Furry Lewis John Henry (The Steel Driving Man)Masters of Memphis Blues
Furry Lewis Black Gyspy BluesMasters of Memphis Blues
Furry Lewis Creeper's BluesMasters of Memphis Blues
Charlie McCoyIt Ain't No Good - Part 1Charlie McCoy 1928-1932
Charlie McCoyLast Time BluesCharlie McCoy 1928-1932
Speckled RedHouse Dance Blues Speckled Red 1929-1938
Speckled RedThe Dirty Dozen Speckled Red 1929-1938
Speckled RedWilkins Street Stomp Speckled Red 1929-1938
Walter VincsonYour Friends Gonna Use It Too - Part 1Walter Vincson 1928 1941
Walter VincsonOvertime BluesWalter Vincson 1928 1941
Garfield AkersCottonfield Blues (Pt. 1)
Mississippi Masters
Garfield AkersCottonfield Blues (Pt. 2)Mississippi Masters
Robert WilkinsThat's No Way To Get AlongMasters of Memphis Blues
Robert WilkinsAlabama BluesMasters of Memphis Blues
Robert WilkinsLong Train BluesMasters of Memphis Blues
Robert WilkinsFalling Down BluesMasters of Memphis Blues
Jenny PopeWhiskey Drinkin' BluesMen Are Like Street Cars
Jed DavenportHow Long, How Long BluesMemphis Shakedown
Joe CallicottFare Thee Well BluesFare Thee Well Blues
Joe CallicottTraveling Mama BluesBroke, Black And Blue
Madelyn JamesStinging Stake BluesMemphis Blues 1927-1938
Madelyn James Long Time BluesMemphis Blues 1927-1938
Tommy GriffinMistreatment BluesCountry Blues Collectors' Items
Tommy GriffinBell Tolling BluesCountry Blues Collectors' Items
Mattie DelaneyDown The Big Road BluesMississippi Masters
Mattie DelaneyTallahatchie River BluesMississippi Masters
Garfield AkersDough Roller BluesMississippi Masters
Garfield AkersJumpin' & Shoutin' BluesBroke, Black And Blue
Memphis Minnie & Joe McCoyMister Tango Blues Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe Vol. 1 1929-1930
Memphis Minnie & Joe McCoyWhat Fault You Find of Me - Part 1 Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe Vol. 1 1929-1930
Memphis Minnie & Joe McCoyCan I Do It For You Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe Vol. 1 1929-1930
Memphis Minnie & Joe McCoyI Called You This Morning Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe Vol. 1 1929-1930
Jim ThompkinsBedside BluesBroke, Black And Blue

Show Notes:

Today's show is the second installment spotlighting great recording sessions. In the first installment we spotlighted two sessions conducted by the Victor  label roughly a year-and-a-half apart, one in Chicago and one in New Orleans. Today we select four recording sessions by Brunswick cut in Memphis: two sessions on Sept. 22nd and 23 in 1929 and two sessions on February 20 and 21st in 1930. The Sept. 22 and 23rd, 1929 sessions were recorded at the Peabody Hotel. "The Mississippi Delta begins on the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends at Catfish Row in Vicksburg", David Cohn wrote in 1935. By the time the race market was picking up in popularity nearly every major recording company either made field trips to Memphis or attracted Memphis artists to their Northern studios. The records recorded at these sessions were issued on the Brunswick and Vocalion labels. Those recorded included great performances by Furry Lewis,Charlie McCoy, Speckled Red, Walter Vincson, Garfield Akers, Robert Wilkins, Jed Davenport,Jenny Pope, Joe Callicott, Madlyn James, Tommy Griffin, Mattie Delaney, Jim Thompkins, Garfield Akers, Memphis Minnie and Joe McCoy.

Furry Lewis was born in Greenwood, MS and moved with his mother and two sisters to Brinley Avenue in Memphis when he was a youngster. Before he was ten he had fashioned a guitar from a cigar box and screen wire. His first guitar was supposedly given to him by W.C. Handy, a Martin that he used for decades. Lewis played around Beale Street in speakeasies, taverns, dance halls and house parties and worked the countryside at suppers, frolics and fish fries. In 1925 he got together with Will Shade, Dewey Thomas and Hambone Lewis to form an early version of the Memphis Jug Band and like Jim Jackson took to traveling with medicine shows. Vocalion talent scouts saw both men in 1927 but it was Lewis who went to Chicago first in April where he cut six sides. He and Jackson went up together in October the same year where Jackson cut his famous "Kansas City Blues" with Lewis cutting seven numbers including the unissued "Casey Jones." Just under a year later Victor recorded eight more titles by Lewis in Memphis and Vocalion brought him in the studio one last time in 1929, cutting four songs at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis.

Brothers Charlie and Joe McCoy were close to the Chatmans, who hailed from nearby Bolton, and recorded as the popular Mississippi Sheiks. The McCoys and the Chatmans often played together and like many Jackson area musicians, ther were influenced in varying degrees by Tommy Johnson. In addition to the Chatmons and Johnson, Jackson, in the 1920’s was a city with a vibrant blues scene, teeming with artists such as Walter Vincson, Ishman Bracey, Johnnie Temple, Skip James and Rube Lacey. Joe McCoy recorded under various pseudonyms; Georgia Pine Boy, Hallelujah Joe, Big Joe McCoy and His Washboard Band, and The Mississippi Mudder among others. During his time with Memphis Minnie he took the lead on several memorable numbers, most famously “When The Levee Breaks." After Joe and Minnie separated Joe occupied himself in small bands, singing with the Harlem Hamfats, working as a songwriter and working with his brother Charlie. Joe McCoy died of heart disease in Chicago, only a few months before his brother Charlie.

Charlie McCoy ranked among the great blues accompanists of his era and his accomplished mandolin and guitar work can be heard on numerous recordings in a wide variety of settings from the late 1920's through the early 40's. His sides under his own name prove he could hold his own as a lead artist but he seemed most at home enhancing other artists' records.

According to the authors of Memphis Minnie's biography she was "a wild youngster who never took to the farming life and she ran away from home at an early age. Her first guitar had been a Christmas present given to her in 1905 …She began to run away to Memphis' Beale Street with some regularity. Guitarists Frank Stokes and Furry Lewis…both provided advice and inspiration to Minnie in her early days in Memphis. Minnie's duets with Kansas Joe drew as much inspiration from the guitar teamwork of Frank Stokes and Dan Sane, who recorded as the Beale Street Sheiks, as from her own early 'partnership' with Willie Brown." Robert Wilkins also recalled Minnie from these days. Her marriage and recording debut came in 1929, to and with Kansas Joe McCoy, when a Columbia Records talent scout heard them playing in a Beale Street barbershop in their distinctive 'Memphis style.' By around 1929 both Minnie and Joe were playing stell bodied National guitars. As Joe Calicott recalled. Between 1929 and 1934 Minnie and Joe cut around one hundred sides together.

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. Vinson cut three sides at the Sept. 22, 1929 session: "Your Friends Gonna Use It Too – Part 1 & Part 2" and "Overtime blues."

Pianist Speckled Red was born in Monroe, LA, but he made his reputation as part of the St. Louis and Memphis blues scenes of the '20s and '30s. In 1929, he cut his first recording sessions. One song from these sessions, "The Dirty Dozens," was released on Brunswick and became a hit in late 1929. In 1938, he cut a few sides for Bluebird. In the early '40s, Red moved to St. Louis, where he played local clubs and bars for the next decade and a half. Charlie O'Brien, a St. Louis policeman and something of a blues aficionado "rediscovered" Speckled Red on December 14, 1954, who subsequently was signed to Delmark Records as their first blues artist. Several recordings were made in 1956 and 1957 for Tone, Delmark, Folkways, and Storyville record labels.

Garfield Akers recorded just four sides. His most well-known song was his debut, "Cottonfield Blues", a duet with friend and longtime collaborator Joe Callicott on second guitar. Akers lived in Hernando, Mississippi most of his life, working as a sharecropper and performing during off-hours at local house parties and dances. He toured with Frank Stokes on the Doc Watts Medicine Show. Akers was reportedly active on the south Memphis circuit throughout the 1930's. Akers and Callicott played together for more than twenty years, parting in the mid-1940's. Blues historian Don Kent praised "Cottonfield Blues," saying "only a handful of guitar duets in all blues match the incredible drive, intricate rhythms and ferocious intensity."

Gayle Wardlow explained in his article, Garfield Akers and Mississippi Joe Callicott: From the Hernando Cotton Fields: "In the fall of 1929 Brunswick/Vocalion Records made its initial field trip to Memphis to record talent for its Vocalion 1000 and Brunswick 7000 Race series. The session at the Peabody Hotel was highlighted by the first recorded appearances of Garfield Akers, Mattie Delaney, and Kid Bailey, concomitantly with veterans Memphis Minnie and Tampa Red. Callicott recorded his lone 78, "Fare Thee Well Blues/Traveling Mama Blues", for Brunswick in 1930 at a second session in Memphis where Akers also recorded again ("Dough Roller Blues/Jumpin' and Shoutin'"). Callicott made a brief comeback, lasting from the summer of 1967 through the summer of 1968; he recorded sides in the field for George Mitchell, sides at the 1968 Memphis Country Blues Festival and sides for Blue Horizon in 1968 all of which have made it onto CD.

Mattie Delaney cut just one 78: "Down The Big Road Blues b/w Tallahatchie River Blues" for Vocalion on February 21, 1930 in Memphis, TN. Her name evoked no response from Son House or from any Delta resident when researcher Gayle Wardlow made a tri-county search of those towns which boarder the Tallahatchie. Supposedly she was born Mattie Doyle in Tchula, MS 1905. Wardlow was the one who discovered the record: "But the prize was Mattie Delaney doing "Tallahatchie River Blues" (Vocalion 1480), a song that refers to a river flood in the Delta. My copy of this 1930 disc was the only one known to surface. I learned this from New York collectors eager for me to trade it away. " According to collector John Tefteller there are about five copies known to exist. Tefteller paid $3,000 for his copy which he says isn’t horrible but sure isn’t mint, either. He expects a like-new copy would draw $6,000 to $8,000/

Robert Wilkins was another prominent Memphis bluesman who, like Lewis, was originally born in Mississippi but made his fame in Memphis. Wilkins' early performing life included touring with small vaudeville and minstrel shows. In 1928, he met Ralph Peer of the Victor label and was invited to cut four songs. Vocalion recorded eight new songs the following year. In 1935 he cut four more sides for Vocalion and shortly afterwards joined the Church of God in Christ and became a minister. Wilkins was rediscovered in the 1960's and performed and recorded gospel material along with the blues. In 1964 he recorded the wonderful Memphis Gospel Singer for the Piedmont label which unfortunately has not been issued on CD.

Little is know about several of today's artists, all of whom recorded sparingly: Jenny Pope, Jed Davenport, Madelyn James, Tommy Griffin and Jim Thompkins. Pope was married to Will Shade leader of the famous Memphis Jug Band. Pope cut six sides at three sessions in 1929 and 1930. She may have recorded with the Memphis Jug Band under the name Jennie Clayton. Jed Davenport came from a tent show and medicine show background. Davenport cut around a dozen sides as leader between 1929-30. Madelyn James Cut one 78 at this February 20, 1930 session with one song possibly featuring Shade on jug. Tommy Griffin Griffin cut sixteen sides at two sessions in 1930 and 1936 for Vocalion and Bluebird. Jim Thompkin (credited in the Brunswick ledger as Peg Leg Jim Thompkins) cut two songs at this same session, “Bedside Blues” and “Down Fall Blues”, the latter never issued. When issued on 78 the flipside of “Bedside Blues” was "We Got To Get That Thing Fixed" by Speckled Red.

Lightnin' SlimBad LuckIt's Mighty Crazy
Schoolboy CleveI'm HimThe Legendary Jay Miller Sessions Vol. 5
Slim HarpoThis Ain't No Place For MeThe Legendary Jay Miller Sessions Vol. 4
Lightnin' SlimTrip To Chicago The Legendary Jay Miller Sessions Vol. 12
Lazy Lester Whoa Now I Hear You Knockin'!: The Excello Singles
Boogie JakeI Don't Know Why The Legendary Jay Miller Sessions Vol. 42
Lightnin' SlimTom Cat BluesIt's Mighty Crazy
Slim HarpoI'm A King Bee The Excello Singles Anthology
Lazy LesterSugar Coated Love I Hear You Knockin'!: The Excello Singles
Jimmy DotsonI Wanna Know The Legendary Jay Miller Sessions Vol. 3
Slim Harpo Don't Start Cryin' Now
The Excello Singles Anthology
Tabby ThomasHoodoo PartyThe Excello Story,Vol. 4: 1961-1975
Jimmy Anderson Naggin'The Excello Story,Vol. 4: 1961-1975
Sylvester BuckleyMumblin' Blues The Legendary Jay Miller Sessions Vol. 2
Lazy LesterA Word About Women I Hear You Knockin'!: The Excello Singles
Silas HoganI'm Going In The Valley Trouble: The Excello Recordings
Silas HoganDry Chemical BluesSwamp Blues
Arthur 'Guitar' KellyHow Can I Stay When All I Have Is GoneSwamp Blues
Clarence EdwardsCooling BoardSwamp Blues
Whisperin' Smith I Tried So Hard The Real Excello R&B
Jimmy Anderson It's Half Past Midnight The Legendary Jay Miller Sessions Vol. 42
Silas Hogan Every Saturday NightTrouble: The Excello Recordings
Whisperin' SmithCryin' Blues The Real Excello R&B
Silas HoganDark Clounds Rollin'Trouble: The Excello Recordings
Jimmy AndersonRats And Roaches On Your MindDeep Harmonica Blues
Henry GrayShowers Of RainSwamp Blues
Whispering SmithCold Black MareSwamp Blues
Lazy lesterPoor Boy BluesThe Legendary Jay Miller Sessions Vol. 16
Slim HarpoTip On In (Part 1) The Excello Singles Anthology
Silas HoganHoo Doo Man Blues Live In Baton Rouge At The Speakeasy
Guitar KellyI Got A Funny FeelingLouisiana Blues
Henry GrayCold ChillsLouisiana Blues

Show Notes:

Read Liner Notes

Jay Miller operated a small studio and record label (Feature) out in Crowley, Louisiana. He had been recording some regional music in the early fifties when he first heard Lightnin’ Slim at WXOK in Baton Rouge. Miller has said that Lightnin’s music “did something to me”, and he recorded Lightnin’s “Bad Luck” in the Spring of 1954.There was no way Miller could keep up with the demand for the record, and he hooked up with Ernie Young and worked out a deal that would lease the material he was recording back in Crowley to Excello Records for release and distribution. Soon Miller’s studio became ground zero for the sound known as “swamp-blues.” One of the regions Miller tapped into was the fertile Baton Rouge blues scene eighty miles to the East. Today we feature many of the great Baton Rouge artists Miller recorded including Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Silas Hogan, Whisperin' Smith, Jimmy Anderson and several others.

Lightnin' Slim recorded for 12 years as an Excello artist, from 1954 to 1965, starting out originally on Miller's Feature label. Slim was born with the name Otis Hicks in St. Louis, MO, on March 13, 1913. After 13 years of living on a farm outside of the city, the Hicks family moved to Louisiana, first settling in St. Francisville where he took to the guitar.In 1946 he moved to Baton Rouge, playing on weekends in local ghetto bars, and started to make a name for himself on the local circuit. At the beginning of the 50's he was working with harmonica player Schoolboy Cleve in tow, Lightnin' and Schoolboy working club dates and broadcasting over the radio together. While riding on a bus sometime in the mid-'50s, Lazy Lester met guitarist Lightnin' Slim, who was searching for his AWOL harpist. The two's styles meshed seamlessly, and Lester became Slim's harpist of choice.  As the late '60s found Lightnin' Slim working and living in Detroit, a second career blossomed as European blues audiences brought him over to tour, and he also started working the American festival and hippie ballroom circuit with Slim Harpo as a double act. When Harpo died unexpectedly in 1970, Lightnin' went on alone, recording sporadically, while performing as part of the American Blues Legends tour until his death in 1974.

Read Liner Notes

In the large stable of blues talent that Jay Miller recorded for Excello, no one enjoyed more mainstream success than Slim Harpo. Researcher/Writer Bruce Bastin writes: "Slim Harpo was one of the finest bluesmen to achieve recognition from Jay Miller's recordings in Crowley, Louisiana and although he gained greater success after he had left Miller, he never made records of the same quality." He had been playing full-time as a musician since the late 1940's, calling himself Harmonica Slim and frequently playing around Baton Rouge with Lightning Slim.

Miller had used a number of harmonica players to back Lightning Slim and late in 1955 Lightning brought with him his own man, Harmonica Slim (Slim Harpo), for a session. Harpo’s first record, “I’m A King Bee”, became a double-sided R&B hit in 1957. Even bigger was “Rainin’ in My Heart,” which made the Billboard Top 40 pop charts in the summer of 1961. In the wake of the Rolling Stones covering “I’m a King Bee” on their first album, Slim had the biggest hit of his career in 1966 with “Baby, Scratch My Back” which made Billboard’s Top 20 pop charts. Follow-ups “Tip on In” and “Tee-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu,” were both R&B charters.

By the end of the 60’s Harpo contacted Lightnin’ Slim, who was now residing outside of Detroit, MI. The two reunited and formed a band, touring together as a sort of blues mini-package to appreciative white rock audiences until the end of the decade. The New Year beckoned with a tour of Europe (his first ever) all firmed up, and a recording session scheduled when he arrived in London. Sadly he died suddenly of a heart attack on January 31, 1970.

As Jay Miller recalled, "One day Lightnin' Slim walked into my studio to cut a record session, accompanied by a tall, slender young stranger, introduced to me as Leslie Johnson …I learned that Lightnin' had met Leslie on a bus to Crowley, but had not heard him sing or play. Having a few minutes before the session, I put Leslie in the studio and the rest of us went into the control room to listen. When I turned on the equipment and signaled him to begin, I was surprised by what I heard. It was so much more than what I expected. I was immediately convinced that this was an artist of great potential."

Lazy Lester recorded first in 1957 and fifteen Excello releases ensued over the next nine years until Miller found Lester too unreliable to use. Miller found that Lester was equally talented on guitar and drums, and he became a stalwart of Miller's session bands. Lester appeared on Miller-produced songs by Lightnin' Slim, Slim Harpo, Katie Webster, Lonesome Sundown and artists as varied as Nathan Abshire and Johnny Lano.

Lightnin' Slim

In 1962, at the ripe old age of 51, Silas Hogan was introduced by Slim Harpo to producer Jay Miller and his recording career finally began in earnest. Hogan recorded for Excello from 1962 to early 1965, seeing the last of his single releases issued late that year. As Ray Templeton wrote: "Outside of the big four – Lightning Slim, Lazy Lester, Lonesome Sundown and Slim Harpo – Silas Hogan is the most important of the downhome blues artists Jay Miller recorded, whether you measure importance in numbers of singles issued (Hogan had eight releases on Excello) or in terms of quality and consistency." Regarding his musical background, Hogan said: "…I'd been living in the country, there was some old people there picking guitar. And that's how I learned, following them. …They were real bluesmen, the old way-back stuff. When we were playing back yonder, we were playing them house parties, they didn't have as many juke joints as they have now. …I played all night for  for seventy-five cents." After performing with Guitar Kelly he started gaining prominence in the Baton Rouge are when he formed the Rhythm Ramblers in 1956. Also in the group was harmonica man Sylvester Buckley (Buckley recorded four sides circa 1962/63 for Jay Miller that were unissued). Buckley laid down sympathetic support on several of Hogan's Excello releases while Whispering Smith played harmonica on several others.

Jimmy Dotson was a small part of an active Baton Rouge blues scene of the 1950’s. Dotson cut sessions for Miller circa 1957 through 1960. Dotson said: "The Baton Rouge blues scene in the '50s was nice, we had a following, we played from club to club. I played drums for Lightnin' Slim for a while and with Slim it fluctuated, I was a kind of utility musician. If they needed a drummer I'd go play drums, if they needed a bass player, a guitar … I couldn't play any too good on any of them but I could fit in. But they had a tremendous following, Lightnin' Slim and Slim Harpo. They would go from club to club, sometimes we would play Sunday afternoon somewhere back over North Baton Rouge in the park area from two o'clock to six and the place would be full of people. OK then we would go across the river (to Port Allen) and they'd just line up in cars and follow us across the river! It was fantastic, it really was."

Tabby Thomas is one of the best known blues musicians in Baton Rouge, and had, since the late 1970's, operated his own blues club there, Tabby's Blues Box. He was born in the city on January 5th, 1929. Thomas probably spans a longer recording history with Jay Miller than anyone else. He cut in 1954 for Miller's Feature label and cut a final session for Miller in 1980. His Feature disc didn't sell too well but he returned to make a number of discs there in the 1960's including his best-known number, "Hoodoo Party", a small southern hit in 1962.

Whisperin' Smith cut four singles for Excello in 1963-64 and backing Silas Hogan on records during the same period. He was introduced to Jay Miller by Lightnin' Slim. Smith was born in Mississippi and settled in Baton Rouge in 1957. He made more records in the 70's appearing on the Swamp Blues LP for Blue Horizon and cutting the album Over Easy in 1971 also for Blue Horizon. During this period he played in Europe appearing as part of the American Folk Blues Festival and at the Montreux Blues Festival.As John Broven noted: "Smith's best moments came when he played behind Lightnin' Slim in Europe. With arms flailing, body weaving, and legs ducking, his performance was animation itself, a throwback to the country dance juke joint workouts of yesteryear." Smith passed in 1984.

Slim Harpo

Harmonica player Jimmy Anderson modeled his sound on Jimmy Reed and cut all his sessions for Miller circa 1962 and 1964. As John Broven wrote: "Jimmy Anderson, a younger artist from Baton Rouge, was too much in jimmy Reed's shadow to succeed." Anderson quit recording In 1964, feeling that he was being gypped out of royalties. He continued to play for a few years , taking up the guitar, but when he appeared at the 1991 Utrecht Blues Estafette, Jimmy had been out of music for 20 years.

We spotlight several tracks from the album Swamp Blues, a fine sampling of the vibrant blues scene in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in the summer of 1970. It was originally issued as a double LP in 1970 and has been reissued on CD by the Ace label. Recorded over the course of four hot August days, the sessions were produced by R&B monthly editor and Blue Horizon boss Mike Vernon. Swamp Blues isn't technically an Excello Records product, but many of the veteran blues artists included had strong ties to the label. Featured artists include Whispering Smith, Silas Hogan, Arthur "Guitar" Kelley', Clarence Edwards and Henry Gray.

Another swamp blues revival session was recorded in April of 1970,in Baton Rouge by Terry Pattison and Chris Strachwitz just a few months before the Swamp Blues session recorded for Blue Horizon. Pattison was actually instrumental in the above mentioned Swamp Blues session as well. Issued as Louisiana Blues on the Arhoolie label, the set features the same artists as well: Whispering Smith, Silas Hogan, Arthur "Guitar" Kelley',  Clarence Edwards and Henry Gray.

The same artists were also featured on the long out-of-print LP, Blues Live In Baton Rouge At The Speakeasy issued on Excello. Excello was still issuing records through the mid-70's. The album was recorded circa 1972 live at The Speak-Easy in Baton Rouge. From this album we spin Silas Hogan delivering a fine rendition of "Hoo Doo Blues."

Read Liner Notes: Pt. 1 - Pt. 2Pt. 3Pt. 4

Henry Gray was originally born in Alsen, Louisiana, outside of Baton Rouge. Gray became a stalwart of the Chicago blues scene, playing behind Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter before embarking on a twelve year stint with Howlin' Wolf. In 1968 he returned to Alsen to take care of his ailing father. He began playing the with a group called the Cats in local juke joints and made regular appearances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.  Outside of recording the above sessions, he didn't record again until 1977.

The Baton Rouge scene chugged along after these early 1970's sessions; artists like Lightnin' Slim and Whisperin' Smith continued to record sporadically in the 70's (Smith made his final single in 1983), Tabby Thomas recorded Baton Rouge artists for own label in the 70's and his popular juke joint, Tabby's Blues Box operated until 2004 and was a showcase for local players. Throughout the 90's Raful Neal remained active, performing and recording until passing in 2004. Nine of Neal's 11 children inherited his blues-playing prowess and play professionally, most famously Kenny Neal. Lazy Lester and Henry Gray have cut several albums over the years and both still remain active.

Related Items:

-Mike Vernon's Blues Super Session At Baton Rouge (Sounds, Oct 10, 1970, p.32)


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