ARTIST
SONG
ALBUM
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.

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ARTIST
SONG
ALBUM
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.

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ARTIST
SONG
ALBUM
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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ARTIST
SONG
ALBUM
Blind BlakeWest Coast BluesThe Best of Blind Blake
Blind BlakeDry Bone ShuffleThe Best of Blind Blake
Blind BlakeCome on Boys Let's Do That Messin' AroundThe Best of Blind Blake
William Moore Ragtime Millionaire Ragtime Blues Guitar 1927-30
William Moore Barbershop RagRagtime Blues Guitar 1927-30
Blind BlakeHe's In The Jailhouse NowThe Best of Blind Blake
Blind BlakeHey Hey Daddy BluesAll The Published Sides
Blind BlakeSea Board StompThe Best of Blind Blake
Bayless RoseJamestown ExhibitionRagtime Blues Guitar 1927-30
Bayless RoseBlack Dog BluesRagtime Blues Guitar 1927-30
Blind BlakeIce Man Blues
The Best of Blind Blake
Blind BlakeWabash Rag The Best of Blind Blake
Blind Willie McTellGeorgia RagAtlanta Blues
Blind Willie McTellAtlanta StrutAtlanta Blues
Buddy MossJoy RagAtlanta Blues
Blind BlakeSouthern Rag The Best of Blind Blake
Blind BlakeHookworm BluesAll The Published Sides
Tarter and GrayUnknown BluesSouth Carolina Rag
Willie WalkerSouth Carolina RagSouth Carolina Rag
Blind BlakeGeorgia BoundThe Best of Blind Blake
Blind BlakeHastings StThe Best of Blind Blake
Buddy Boy HawkinsA RagBuddy Boy Hawkins And His Buddies
Kitty Gray & Her Wampus Cats w/ Oscar WoodsBaton Rouge RagTexas Slide Guitars: Oscar Woods & Black Ace
Blind Boy FullerRag Mama RagBlind Boy Fuller Remastered 1935-1938
Blind Boy FullerMama Let Me Lay It On You Blind Boy Fuller Remastered 1935-1938
Blind Blake Chump Man BluesThe Best of Blind Blake
Blind Blake Blind Arthur's BreakdownThe Best of Blind Blake
Rev. Gary Davis I'm Throwin' Up My HandsReverend Gary Davis 1935-1949
Rev. Gary Davis I Belong To The Band - Hallelujah!Reverend Gary Davis 1935-1949
Blind BlakeDiddie Wa DiddieAll The Published Sides
Blind BlakeToo Tight Blues, No. 2 The Best of Blind Blake

Show Notes:

The syncopated music that its black originators called “ragtime” was developed as a piano music in the last decade of the 19th Century, about the same time that the blues were also taking shape. Ragtime entered the American folk consciousness, both white and black; in the Eastern states, particularly, it became a vital component in the sound of blues music. The Piedmont way of picking was ideal for dancing, had a generally faster rhythm, syncopated tempo and came from ragtime with the guitarists attempting to reproduce the complicated piano sounds to the guitar. Of all the ragtime styled guitarists, Blind Blake is still regarded as the unrivaled master of ragtime blues fingerpicking. On today's show we spotlight the music of Blind Blake as well as some of his ragtime guitar playing peers such as Blind Boy Fuller, Rev. Gary Davis, William Moore, Blind Willie McTell and others.

Besides his music and session details, not much is known of Blind Blake. So who was Blind Blake? Despite his popularity and much investigation, he remains a shadowy figure. As to his name,  Bruce Bastin notes that "on occasion he is named Arthur Phelps, but copyright submissions on behalf of Chicago Music for his Paramount recordings give his name as Arthur Blake. They state his name in a variety of manners: Blind Blake ("Blake's Worried Blues"), Arthur (Blind) Blake ("Bootleg Whiskey" and "Goodbye Mama Moan"), Blind Arthur Blake ("Cold Hearted Mama Blues"), and simply Arthur Blake ("Detroit Bound")." During the recording "Papa Charlie And Blind Blake Talk About It," Papa Charlie Jackson asks him, "What is your right name?" Blake responds, "My name is Arthur Blake.".” On his death certificate, which turned up in 2011, Blake’s place of birth was listed as Newport News, Virginia, and 1896 was entered as his “date of birth.” “Mayo Williams, the Paramount scout, says that Blind Blake was sent up from Jacksonville by a dealer,” reports blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow.

Blake made his first records for Paramount during the summer of 1926, playing solo guitar behind Leola B. Wilson. He made his debut under his own name a few months late with "Early Morning Blues b/w West Coast Blues." He cut several more 78's by year's end. Less than six months after his entry into the record biz, Blake was playing behind the great Ma Rainey on several records.

TheChicago Defender advertisement declares: "Early Morning Blues" is the first record of this new exclusive Paramount artist, Blind Blake. Blake, who hails from Jacksonville, Florida, is known up and down the coast as a wizard at picking his piano-sounding guitar. His 'talking guitar' they call it, and when you hear him sing and play you'll know why Blind Blake is going to be one of the most talked about Blues artist in music." The Paramount Book of the Blues (issued in 1924 and 1927 with photographs and short bios to promote Paramount recording artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Ma Rainey) had the following bio: "We have all heard expressions of people 'singing in the rain' or 'laughing in the face of adversity,' but we never saw such a good example of it, until we came upon the history of Blind Blake. Born in Jacksonville, in sunny Florida, he seemed to absorb some of the sunny atmosphere–disregarding the fact that nature had cruelly denied him a vision of outer things. He could not see the things that others saw–but he had a better gift. A gift of an inner vision, that allowed him to see things more beautiful. The pictures that he alone could see made him long to express them in some way–so he turned to music. He studied long and earnestly–listening to talented pianists and guitar players, and began to gradually draw out harmonious tunes to fit every mood. Now that he is recording exclusively for Paramount, the public has the benefit of his talent, and agrees, as one body, that he has an unexplainable gift of making one laugh or cry as he feels, and sweet chords and tones that come from his talking guitar express a feeling of his mood."

1927 saw the release of fourteen sides including backing Gus Cannon on several sides. He waxed celebrated numbers that year including “Dry Bone Shuffle”, “Southern Rag”, “Wabash Rag”, “Sea Board Stomp” and “He's In The Jailhouse Now” among others. During the spring of 1928 Blind Blake cut his most ambitious records featuring jazz artists Jimmy Bertrand and Johnny Dodds.

Blind Blake was at the height of his powers on August 17, 1929, at what was to be his last great session. During the course of that Saturday, he recorded several of his most enduring songs: "Georgia Bound", "Hastings St.", a duet with pianist Charlie Spand, and "Diddie Wa Diddie."

Paramount boldly promoted his skills in their ads: "He accompanies himself with that snappy guitar playing, like only Blind Blake can do," read copy for "Bad Feeling Blues." The company claimed that "Blind Blake and his trusty guitar do themselves proud" on "Rumblin' & Ramblin' Boa Constrictor Blues," while "Wabash Rag" was "aided by his happy guitar." Woody Mann stated, that "playing with a terrific flair for improvisation…he is at once subtle and ornate." And as Tony Russell sums up: "Blind Blake's most remarkable achievement as a recording artist was that in a career lasting almost six years, in which he made about 80 sides, he was never reduced, whether by slipping skill, waning inspiration or the single-mindedness of record company executives, from a multifaceted musician to a formulaic blues player."

After Paramount folded in 1932, Blake never recorded again. His death certificate was discovered in 2011 by a team of astute researchers and published in Blues & Rhythm magazine issue #263, their research suggests that Blake spent the last two or three years of his life living at 1844 B North 10th Street in the Bronzeville section of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with his wife Beatrice McGee Blake, whom he’d married around 1931. His death certificate lists his profession as “unemployed musician,” and his date of death was entered as December 1, 1934. The cause was Pulmonary tuberculosis.

Blind Blake’s records no doubt astonished and influenced other blues guitarists, such as William Moore, who patterned his Paramount 78 of “Old Country Rock” on “West Coast Blues.” A resident of Tappahannock, Virginia, Moore recorded sixteen sides for Paramount Record Company in 1928. Featured today are "Ragtime Millionaire" and "Barbershop Rag."

Virtually nothing is know of Bayless Rose who cut four issued sides in June 1930 , with several sides left unissued. Perhaps the only source for information on Bayless Rose is an article by Christopher King in 78 Quarterly #12. He interviewed Dick Justice's daughter, and she remembered her daddy hanging out with a guitar player named 'Bailey Rose' back in the '30s. She described Bailey Rose as 'the man who sounded the most like daddy', and said he was a railroad worker who traveled thru WV, OH & IN. She said he was 'quite a bit older than daddy. He taught [daddy] how to play Old Black Dog and Brown Gal. When asked whether Bailey Rose was black, she denied that he was, tho she said "he was kind of foreign-looking, though". She elaborated, saying "he was sort of short with dark, curly hair but with darker skin, sort of like an Arab". She again denied he was black. After discussion of the parallels between Rose's and Justice's repertoires, King offers the theory that he was a melungeon.

Tarter and Gay are a duo from the western tip of Virginia. They made one great record in 1928, "Brownie Blues b/w Unknown Blues." The two played in the rough coal camps of southwestern Virginia as well as for black and white dances throughout northeastern Tennessee. After the recording session they continued performing until Stephen Tarter's death around 1935. Gay all but gave up music and passed in 1983. Gay was interviewed in the 70's by Kip Lornell who published article o the duo  in Living Blues and Juke Blues magazines.

Little is known of Willie Walker who was born in South Carolina in 1896 and was playing in a string band with Gary Davis as early as 1911. Among his contemporaries like Pink Anderson, Gary Davis and Josh White, he was considered to be the finest guitarist in the region. He recorded only two sides in 1930 for Columbia, "South Carolina Rag b/w Dupree Blues."

The Reverend Gary Davis was one of the two most renowned practitioners of the East Coast school of ragtime guitar; 35 years later, despite two decades spent playing on the streets of Harlem in New York, he was still one of the giants in his field and an inspiration to dozens of modern guitarist/singers including Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, and Jorma Kaukonen, Larry Johnson, David Bromberg, and Ry Cooder, who studied with Davis. In South Carolina, when Davis was a young man, the acknowledged guitar master was Blind Willie Walker, who played incredibly accurately and very fast, much like Blind Blake. Davis picked up several tunes up from Walker no doubt expanding his skills and repertoire. By his own admission, Davis ‘was scared o’ no guitarist’ by the time he was 30 years old. Davis, never generous with praise, stated "I ain't heard anybody on record yet beat Blind Blake on the guitar. I like Blake because he plays right sporty."

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ARTIST
SONG
ALBUM
Thomas ShawBaby Be A Boy Child Named Him After MeBlind Lemon's Buddy
Thomas ShawStop In The ValleyBlind Lemon's Buddy
Blind Lemon Jefferson Long Lonesome BluesThe Best Of
Blind Lemon Jefferson One Dime Blues The Best Of
Thomas ShawAll Out And DownBorn In Texas
Thomas ShawBroke And Ain't Got A DimeBlind Lemon's Buddy
Funny Papa SmithHowling Wolf Blues - No. 1The Original Howling Wolf 1930-31
Funny Papa SmithHoney BluesThe Original Howling Wolf 1930-31
Thomas Shaw Last Year Was A Mighty Fine YearBorn In Texas
Thomas Shaw Ella Speed Blind Lemon's Buddy
Blind Willie JohnsonLord I Can't Just Keep From CryingThe Complete Blind Willie Johnson
Blind Willie JohnsonIf I Had My Way I'd Tear The Building Down
The Complete Blind Willie Johnson
Thomas Shaw Just Can't Keep From Crying Blind Lemon's Buddy
Thomas Shaw Worried BluesBorn In Texas
Ramblin' ThomasSo LonesomeCountry Blues Bottleneck Guitar Classics 1926-1937
Willie LaneToo Many Women BluesRural Blues Vol. 1 1934-1956
Thomas ShawMatchbox Blues Blind Lemon's Buddy
Thomas ShawHowling Wolf Blues Blind Lemon's Buddy
Smokey Hogg Penitentiary Blues Pt. 1Good Morning Little School Girl
Mance Lipscomb Ella Speed Texas Sharecropper & Songster
Thomas Shaw Prowling Ground HogBlind Lemon's Buddy
Thomas Shaw She's My Gal Do Lord Remember Me
Funny Papa Smith County Jail BluesThe Original Howling Wolf 1930-31
Funny Papa Smith Fool's BluesThe Original Howling Wolf 1930-31
Thomas ShawJack of DiamondsSan Diego Blues Jam
Blind Lemon Jefferson Match Box BluesThe Best Of
Blind Lemon Jefferson Jack O' Diamond Blues The Best Of
Thomas ShawDedicated To My FriendsDo Lord Remember Me

Show Notes:

Read Liner Notes

Thomas Shaw came to the attention of the blues world in the late 1960's when he walked into Lou Curtis' Folk Arts Rare Records shop in San Diego looking for guitar strings. Shaw was from Brennam, Texas and had learned to play guitar in the late 1920's from Blind Lemon Jefferson. He was a walking library of Texas blues, having played with Ramblin’ Thomas, J.T. “Funny Papa” Smith, Texas Alexander, and Willie “Little Brother” Lane. He also played some with a very young Mance Lipscomb. In the early 70's Curtis wrote articles about Shaw for Living Blues and Blues Unlimited magazines and Shaw's discovery garnered interest from record companies. Frank Scott came down and recorded Shaw for Advent Records in the backroom of Curtis' store. The same year saw the release of the, now long out-of-print, record on the Blue Goose label with a final record cut in 1973 for the Blue Beacon label in Holland when Shaw toured Europe. A few scattered sides appeared on anthologies before his passing in 1977. Today's show not only spotlights a batch of great sides by Shaw, but we also spin sides from many of the great Texas bluesman that he knew and played with like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Funny Papa Smith, Blind Willie Johnson, Smokey Hogg, Mance Lipscomb, Willie Lane and Ramblin' Thomas.

Thomas Shaw only spent five years on the Texas house party circuit, leaving for San Diego in 1934, yet met an astonishing number of Texas blues legends. He was born in Brenham, Texas in 1908, a farming community between Austin and Houston. His was a musical family; his father played harmonica, guitar and accordion and Shaw learned acapella versions of spirituals on his father's knee. His uncle Fred Rogers headed up a family string band and his cousins, Willie and Bertie, were first rate blues guitarists. His older brother Leon played piano and his brother Louis played harmonica. "They played old time blues music, what you call the root of the music. 'Ella Speed', 'Take Mew Back Baby', 'See See Rider'. 'Alabama Bound', all of them songs was popular then."

Shaw first played harmonica before picking up guitar in the early 20's. The first song he mastered was “Out And Down”, a ragtime song that was played locally by his brother Louis and later recorded as “One Dime Blues” by Blind Lemon Jefferson. Shaw had already been enthralled by Jefferson's early recordings of “Long Lonesome Blues” and “Matchbox Blues” when he met Jefferson on the town square of Waco in 1926 or 1927. “I followed all around that evening there, and then I started talkin' to him, and naturally me being a kid he's askin' me different things: 'You like the way I play this guitar?' I told him 'I love it!' …Say: 'How would you lie to do it?' I say: 'I sure wish I could do it!' He says: 'Well you can.' I say: 'I don't know.' He says: 'Yes, you can …go and find you a guitar.' .'..When you hear (of) me in town, you come where I am.' At Blind Jefferson's urging he bought himself a guitar and learned Jefferson's “Long Lonesome Blues”. He learned many of Jefferson's song from a combination of listening to the records and hearing him in person.

In 1925 Blind Lemon Jefferson was discovered by a Paramount recording scout and taken to Chicago to make his first records either in December 1925 or January 1926. Though he was not the first country blues singer/guitarist, or the first to make commercial recordings, Jefferson was the first to attain a national audience. Jefferson’s first session produced "I Want To Be Like Jesus In My Heart" b/w "All I Want Is That Pure Religion" using the name Deacon L.J. Bates. It was the second session, however, that made Jefferson a star. "Got The Blues" b/w "Long Lonesome Blues" hadn't been on sale long in the spring of 1926 when Paramount asked him to record it again because of the huge demand for the record. This was unheard of for a male blues artist. Prior to Jefferson the blues had been recorded primarily by women backed by piano or bands. Tony Russell describes Jefferson's impact: "Jefferson offered instead blues sung by a man playing guitar – playing it, moreover, with a busyness and variety that showed up many of those pianists and bands as turgid and ordinary. The discovery that there was an audience for Jefferson's type of blues revolutionized the music business: within a few years female singers were out of favor and virtually all the trading in the 'race' market (jazz aside) was in men with guitars."

In the towns of Moody and nearby Temple, Shaw met Blind Willie Johnson whom he learned “Lord I Just Can't Keep From Crying.” " My father and Blind Willie Johnson used to work together, they both composed songs. My daddy would write 'em and make 'em into ballets and they'd sell 'em for fifteen cents a copy."  After spending a year in his mother's home of Brenham in the late 20's, Shaw began traveling as an itinerant cotton picker. It was in 1929 that he started playing for parties on the weekends. On one of these trips in the town of Vernon he ran into Ramblin' Thomas at a party where the two were goaded into a guitar contest which Shaw claims to have won. "The people went wild, I guess, 'cause I was a kid …what they really went wild over, me bein' able to play some of Blind Lemon Jefferson"s stuff …" Most Texas bluesman, he said, nvere played Jeffereson's songs. While living in Fort Worth in 1929 he played again with Thomas and met Willie Lane (who he knew only as Little Brother) at a house party.

Willard "Ramblin" Thomas was born around 1900, probably in Texas but possibly in Louisiana. Very little is known about him except that he recorded eighteen tracks for Paramount and Victor between 1928 and 1932. Willie Lane was a Texas blues guitarist who recorded five sides in 1949 and displays the influences of Ramblin' Thomas and J.T. "Funny Papa" Smith respectively on "Prowlin' Ground Hog" and "Howling Wolf Blues." In fact, he had accompanied Smith during a 1935 recording session for Vocalion, the results never being released, under the moniker "Little Brother."

Around 1930 Shaw met J.T. “Funny Papa” Smith. Shaw and Smith went on to play weekend house parties, each devising second guitar parts behind the others' vocal and leads. Smith promised to include Shaw in on of his recording sessions in 1931 but Smith was hauled off to face a murder charge and never returned to the area. Smith was a minstrel who wandered about the panhandle region, performing at fairs, fish fries, dances and other community events (often in the company of figures including Tom Shaw, Texas Alexander and Bernice Edwards.Between 1930 and 1931 he had recorded some twenty issued sides. Evidently Smith's commercial billing as "Funny Paper Smith" was a gaffe on the part of record company officials. When Texas bluesman Thomas Shaw met him in Wickoffs, Oklahoma, the name "Funny Papa Smith" was plainly stitched on his stovepipe hat and the work-overalls he customarily wore as the overseer of a local plantation. He was better known simply as Howling Wolf", the title of his debut recording. "That's the one that made him famous," Shaw said of the song.

Shaw's belated debut was recorded in 1969 or 70 and issued in 1972 on the Blue Goose label, titled Blind Lemon's Buddy. Subsequent albums included Born In Texas issued in 1972 on Advent then later on Testament, and Do Lord Remember Me released in 1973 on the Blues Beacon label (recorded in a Holland studio with one cut recorded live at Bajes Blues Club in Amsterdam). Tow other cuts appeared on the compilation San Diego Blues Jam issued in 1974 on Advent then later on Testament and four cuts that appear on the Ultimate Blues Collection Volume 3 on Ziggy Christmann's Ornament label. As Shaw noted of his recording career, it should have happened forty years earlier: “I was a guitar player then, brother …didn't nobody run into me-wanna mess with me. No sir …But I just can't play now.” He remains proudest of his ability to recreate the sound of Blind Lemon, saying of the style “ I went through hell and high water to get it.”

Sources:

-Liner notes to Blind Lemon's Buddy by Stephen Calt

-From The Vaults… Thomas Shaw Interview by Guido van Rijn (Blues & Rhythm #193, October 2004)

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