Peg Leg Howell

New Jelly Roll Blues (MP3)

Beaver Slide Rag (MP3)

In our weekly survey of the blues ads that appeared in the Chicago Defender newspaper we turn our attention to Atlanta and two records cut by Columbia a couple of weeks apart in 1927. "New Jelly Roll Blues" b/w "Beaver Slide Rag" was recorded by  Peg Leg Howell And His Gang on  April 8, 1927 and "Barbecue Blues" b/w "Cloudy Sky Blues" was recorded by Barbecue Bob on March 25th. Howell was advertised in the Chicago Defender eight times between 1927 and 1929 while Barbecue Bob was advertised in 1927 and again in 1930 with his brother Charlie Hicks.

Like Memphis, Atlanta was a staging post for musicians on their way to all points. It’s not surprising then that the first country blues musician, Ed Andrews, was recorded there in 1924. The company that recorded him, Okeh, was one of many to send their engineers to Southern cities to record local talent. Companies like Victor, Columbia, Vocalion and Brunswick made at least yearly visits until the depression. Among the bluesmen to record in Atalanta in the 1920's, the first to arrive in the city was Joshua Barnes Powell, known as Peg Leg because of a shooting accident in 1916. "I got shot by my brother-in-law", he told George Mitchell, "he got mad at me and shot me." Howell was born in 1888 and his music gives us a window into what the blues sounded like before it was formally called blues. He arrived in the city in 1923 and was recorded by Columbia in November 1926. His first session featured Howell solo and are certainly appealing but it's the rough, exciting stringband music he recorded with His Gang that really grabs attention. The gang consisted of Henry Williams on guitar and the infectious alley fiddle of Eddie Anthony. Unfortunately the trio only made a handful of recordings as Williams apparently died in jail in January 1930 while serving time for vagrancy and Anthony passed in 1934, after which Howell gave up music. Howell lost his other leg to diabetes in 1952 and in 1963 was located in Atlanta by  by blues enthusiasts Jack Boozer, Roger Brown and George Mitchell. He recorded an album on April 11, 1963 and died shortly after. I haven't heard the recording but I've been reliably told that it's rather difficult listening which is the reason, I'm sure, it has never been reissued.

Better to remember Howell in his prime as he and his pals deliver the infectious "New Jelly Roll Blues" with the driving violin of Anthony who also provides the second vocal. As if one couldn't guess what Howell and the boys were singing about the accompanying ad makes things explicitly clear! The flip, "Beaver Slide Rag", is a showcase for Anthony's wailing gutbucket violin. Williams and Anthony recorded together without Howell on "Georgia Crawl" b/w "Lonesome Blues" on April 19, 1928. In addition Anthony recorded as Macon Ed with the mysterious Tampa Joe. They cut eight sides in 1930.

Barbecue Bob

Barbecue Blues (MP3)

Cloudy Sky Blues (MP3)

Within a year or so of Howell's arrival in Atlanta, Robert Hicks came to the city. He learned guitar, as did his older brother Charlie, and their friend Curley Weaver from the latter's mother Savannah Weaver.  Hicks earned his sobriquet from his day job as the chef of a barbecue restaurant and Columbia photographed him for their publicity material in his work apron.  As Barbecue Bob he became the most heavily recorded Atlanta bluesman of the 1920's with his records selling steadily for Columbia until his untimely death in 1931. He recorded over fifty issued sides between 1927 and 1930, hitting big at his second session with "Mississippi Heavy Water blues." The song was so well known it was even mentioned by the preacher at his funeral. After the song's success, Hicks was recorded every time Columbia came through Atlanta with a mobile unit, resulting in two sessions every year plus a few others on the side. Tony Russell describes what made Hicks' style so unique and appealing: "The big sound of the 12-string guitar made its full impact only on electrical recordings and if Barbecue Bob was not the first player to profit from that innovation he was certainly the first to do so on a national… The thunder of his bass notes and strummed lower strings was pierced by darts of lightning as he touched the high strings, often with slide. Accurate recording also brought out the warmth and friendliness of his singing, which suggests a man of sunny self-confidence…"

According to Robert M.W. Dixon John Godrich in their book Recording The Blues, 10, 850 copies of "Barbecue Blues" b/w "Cloudy Sky Blues" were pressed. " Intial sales were so good that Hicks was called to New York in the middle of June to record 8 more numbers, and when Columbia returned to Atlanta in November they not only recorded a further 8 selections by Barbecue Bob, but also 6 by his brother Charley Lincoln, who sang the same sort of songs in very much the same style." The Chicago Defender ad uses the barbecue theme in the text and illustration which, like many of these ads, is not exactly politically correct.

Jimmy McCracklen
Jimmy McCracklin, 2008 Pocono Blues Festival

The term blues legend is too loosely thrown around, seemingly applied to any artist who's had some measure of longevity in the blues world without regard to the actual content of their recordings. Jimmy McCracklin is a blues legend and I've been fan ever since I bought a collection of his 1950's sides over twenty years ago called Blast 'Em Dead!. The fact that McCracklin was headlining the 17th annual Pocono Blues Festival was all I needed to hear to make the four hour trek to this year's festival. The Pocono Blues Festival has become one of the country's premiere blues festivals through it's diversity of acts and its commitment to blues, not blues-rock or rock bands that play blues which make up the line-up of far too many so called blues festivals.

Over the years I've played McCracklin often on my radio program and two years ago I decided to give him a call and he was gracious enough to chat with me about his lengthy career (interview below). In his heyday, from the late 1940's through the 1960's, he led one of the toughest, hardest rocking blues bands on the West Coast. He was a prolific and witty composer, a fine singer/pianist and was a real pioneer in defining the soul-blues style made so popular by Little Milton, Bobby Bland and others. With a pair of excellent records in the 1990's for Bullseye he achieved some wider exposure although during his hit making days he remained something of a neglected figure with a stature that seems to have always been higher in the black community.

McCracklin shared the bill with Sugar Pie DeSanto, warming up the stage for her on a too short set. Now, I would have loved to see McCracklin in his prime but at age 87 he didn't disappoint. He remains a vigorous singer who still knows how to put across a song and electrify a crowd. Wearing a bright red suit and matching tie McCracklin delivered the goods on classics like "Think" and one of his biggest hits "The Walk."

Sugar Pie DeSanto
Sugar Pie DeSanto, 2008 Pocono Blues Festival

I've never been as big a fan of Sugar Pie DeSanto although I recall picking up the LP Down in the Basement: The Chess Years around the same time as I picked up the McCracklin record. In fact I still have the record complete with $3.99 sticker! DeSanto's music was a saucy blend of blues and soul and she always sounded like a real firecracker. Well at age 72 she's still a firecracker and delivered the festival's wildest show hands down. DeSanto was simply mesmerizing and still full of unbridled sexual energy as she was only too happy to display. Among the highlights were a ripping version of her classic "In The Basement" which she originally recorded as a duet with Etta James and a fine version of the bluesy "Hello San Francisco" which is perhaps my favorite number by her. The song was dedicated to her late husband who she recently lost in a fire. The show stopper was when she brought a friend of ours on stage for a little dancing before taking running leap, wrapping her legs around him and riding him around the stage! Thankfully it's all on video.

Unlike some other blues festivals which have a bit of a slapped together feel, the Pocono Blues Festival always feels well conceived and thought out which is probably the reason I didn't see one act that wasn't worthwhile. Among the other highlights were superb sets by Bobby Rush who did an outstanding solo set in the small tent. Rush played harmonica and guitar, told some colorful stories and absolutely captivated the audience with his charm and enthusiasm. Also in the small tent was Byther Smith who delivered two tough sets of Chicago blues backed by a very good backing band who was playing with Smith for the first time. The sets were heavy on covers but delivered with such grit that it didn't really matter although it was nice to hear his "Runnin' To New Orleans" from his fine Smitty's Blues release from a few years back. Smith has a new CD and DVD from Delmark. Also memorable were the acoustic duo of guitarist Michael Roach and Johnny Mars who play almost exclusively in Europe and a high energy set by Lurrie Bell who seems to get better and better each time I see him.

For a more in depth review of this year's Pocono Blues Festival make sure to read Doc's Pocono Mountains – Home of The Blues article.

Jimmy McCracklin Feature/Interview (Aired 9/10/06, 1 hr 1 min, RealAudio)



Show Notes:

St. Louis was an early center for ragtime around the turn of the century. With its ragtime background St. Louis was a Mecca for blues pianists like Speckled Red and Henry Brown, Sylvester Palmer, Roosevelt Sykes, Peetie Wheatstraw, Barrelhouse Buck McFarland and Wesley Wallace among others. According to Peter J. Silvester, who wrote A Left Hand Like God: A History of Boogie-Woogie: "The St. Louis style of
boogie-woogie s generally economical in its treble phrasing and is played with sparse chorded basses, two distinct features which can be heard in the work of Walter Davis, James "Stump" Johnson, Henry Brown and others." Many of the St. Louis pianists came from elsewhere and eventually wound up playing piano in the brothels and gambling joints on Morgan Street. Known as "Deep Morgan" it was a rough place populated by gamblers, pimps, prostitutes and bootleggers.

Henry Brown learned to play the piano from the "professors" of the notorious Deep Morgan section of St. Louis. One of them went by the name of "Blackmouth," another was named Joe (or Tom) Cross. As Brown remembered him, "he was a real old time blues player and he'd stomp ‘em down to the bricks." "Deep Morgan Blues" was one of his signature pieces. Brown worked clubs such as the Blue Flame Club, the 9-0-5 Club, Jim's Place and Katy Red's, from the twenties into the 30's. He recorded for Brunswick with Ike Rogers and Mary Johnson in 1929, for Paramount in ‘29 and ‘30. He served in the army in the early 40's, then formed his own quartet to work occasional local gigs in St. Louis area from the 50's, and worked the Becky Thatcher riverboat in 1965. In addition to his pre-war recordings, he was recorded by Paul Oliver in 1960, by Sam Charters with Edith Johnson in 1961 and by Adelphi in 1969.

Stump Johnson told Paul Oliver in 1960: "I had learned to play the blues by just hangin' roun' the pool room where they have an ole piano, just pickin' it up for myself." Arthur Satherly, a talent scout for QRS, discovered Stump playing at his brother Jesse's music store on Market St. In 1929. "The Duck's Yas Yas" on QRS became a hit, James recorded three more versions of it, and it was covered in ‘29 by Tampa Red, and several others. His last pre-war recordings were made in Chicago in 1933 for Bluebird, in the company of Dorathea Trowbridge, J.D. Short and Aaron Sparks.

Singer/pianist Walter Davis was among the most prolific blues performers to emerge from the pre-war St. Louis scene, cutting over 150 sides between 1930 and 1952. Davis hit big right out of the gate as he related to Paul Oliver: "My first recording was "M and O Blues" and "My Baby's Gone" and a few months later why it came out and it was a success, it was a great hit. I had my picture put in the Chicago Defender, The Pittsburgh Courier and other local papers and naturally I became pretty famous." He first attracted attention upon relocating to St. Louis during the mid-1920s, and soon made the first of his many recordings for the Victor label. Despite its abundance, his work – much of it recorded in conjunction with guitarist Henry Townsend – was solid but unspectacular, eclipsed by the likes of associates including Roosevelt Sykes and Peetie Wheatstraw; still, he enjoyed a fair amount of success before a stroke prompted him to move from music to the ministry during the early 1950's. Davis was still preaching at the time of his death on October 22, 1963.

Aaron and Marion (he changed his name to Milton in 1929) were twins born to Ruth and Sullie Gant in Tupelo, Mississippi. The brothers cut four sessions, the first for Victor and the other three for Bluebird, between 1932 and 1935. Milton cut two songs for Decca in 1934 under the name Flyin' Lindberg. Aaron backed a number of St. Louis artists at their second session: Elisabeth Washington, Tecumseh McDowell, Dorotha Trowbridge, James "Stump" Johnson and Charlie McFadden. They were the first to record versions of "Everyday I Have The Blues" and "61 Highway."

Pianist Speckled Red (born Rufus Perryman) 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. After Red's second set of sessions failed to sell, the pianist spent the next few years without a contract — he simply played local Memphis clubs. 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. In 1954, he was rediscovered by a number of blues aficionados and record label owners. By 1956, he had recorded several songs for the Tone record label and began a tour of America and Europe. In 1956-57 recorded for Delmark and in 1960 made some recordings for Folkways. By this time, Red's increasing age was causing him to cut back the number of concerts he gave. For the rest of the '60s, he only performed occasionally. He died in 1973.

Nicknamed "Porkchop", Green was one of the finest St. Louis stylists, and the admitted greatest single influence on Roosevelt Sykes. "Train No. 44" recorded with Sykes was a personal variant of the "Vicksburg Blues" theme, Green's version of "44 Blues" earned him Little Brother Montgomery's undying bitterness for recording it first. Brother, who helped develop the theme and taught it to Green, speaks of him as "that tailor" (Green's profession in Vicksburg) rather than as a musician."

Sykes began playing while growing up in Helena. At age 15, he hit the road, developing his rowdy barrelhouse style around the blues-fertile St. Louis area. Sykes began recording in 1929 for OKeh and was signed to four different labels the next year under four different names (he was variously billed as Dobby Bragg, Willie Kelly, and Easy Papa Johnson)! Sykes joined Decca Records in 1935, where his popularity blossomed.

paramount Reissue Program
Paramount Reissue Program 1946

In 1929, Peetie Wheatstraw arrived in East St. Louis. Wheatstraw soon became a popular performer in East St. Louis and his fame quickly spread to Chicago. Wheatstraw began his recording career singing vocal duets with the unknown "Neckbones" (possibly J.D. Short) for ARC on September 13, 1930 and continued recording on his own into the early part of 1931. After an isolated session for Bluebird in September 1931, Wheatstraw returned to ARC, and then moved to Decca in 1934, where the bulk of his best recordings were made. Wheatstraw recorded in every year of the 1930s save 1933, ultimately producing 175 sides in all. He also backed Kokomo Arnold, Bumble Bee Slim and others. He died just short of his 39th birthday in 1941 after a train struck his car. If not for having the good fortune of being "rediscovered" in the late 50's and subsequently making a few comeback recordings, Barrelhouse Buck McFarland would be just a brief footnote in the vast catalogue of pre-war blues artists. McFarland cut his final session for Smithsonian Folkways and an unissued session that was issued a few years back on Delmark. He died shortly afterwards. McFarland was born in Alton, Illinois in 1903 in the same area as two other exceptional piano players, Wesley Wallace and Jabbo Williams, all three of which made names for themselves on the bustling St. Louis blues scene. McFarland got his shot in the recording studio waxing ten sides; two for Paramount in 1929, two for Decca in 1934 and four more for Decca in 1935, which were not issued.

If not for having the good fortune of being "rediscovered" in the late 50's and subsequently making a few comeback recordings, Barrelhouse Buck McFarland would be just a brief footnote in the vast catalogue of pre-war blues artists. McFarland cut his final session for Smithsonian Folkways and an unissued session that was issued a few years back on Delmark. He died shortly afterwards. McFarland was born in Alton, Illinois in 1903 in the same area as two other exceptional piano players, Wesley Wallace and Jabbo Williams, all three of which made names for themselves on the bustling St. Louis blues scene. McFarland got his shot in the recording studio waxing ten sides; two for Paramount in 1929, two for Decca in 1934 and four more for Decca in 1935, which were not issued.

James "Bat The Humming-Bird" Robinson moved to Memphis where he was raised, learned piano and drums from his father as a youth, moved to Chicago about 1922, frequently worked with Bertha "Chippie" Hill, Eppie Moan, Elzadie Robinson and others in local club dates. He worked with Louis Armstrong, moving to St. Louis about 1930. He recorded for the Champion label in 1931. He cut a couple of sides before he passed in 1957.

Joe DeanJoe Dean was one of the few artists actually born in St. Louis, born in the city April 25, 1908. He recorded one 78 for Vocalion, "I'm So Glad I'm Twenty-One Years Old Today" b/w "Mexico Bound Blues", in 1930. He remained musically active on a part-time basis into the 1960's. He eventually became the Rev. Joe Dean and died on June 24 1981. He was interviewed by Mike Rowe for Blues Unlimited magazine.

Sylvester Palmer was, according to Don Kent, "One of the most eccentric of all St. Louis pianists before his untimely death. He is one of the few pianists whose left-hand work can be directly attributed to the influence of Wesley Wallace…The fluidity of his irregular timing is quite amazing." (1) On Document 529 it is suggested that Palmer may have been a pseudonym for Wallace himself. He cut 4 sides for Columbia in 1929. Wesley Wallace cut one 78 for Paramount in 1929 and backed St. Louis singer Bessie Mae Smith on record.

Jabo Williams hailed from Birmingham, Al here he was likely discovered by Paramount in 1932. He also spent time in St. Louis. He cut 8 sides during the depths of the depression all of which are exceedingly rare. Little is known about his background.

Eddie Miller cut 5 songs for Brunswick and ARC between 1929 and 1936. He also backed a number of artists including Ma Rainey, Charlie McFadden, Merline Johnson among others.


I recently wrote an article on the reissue of Mike Shea’s legendary film on Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market, And This Is Free. Barry Mazor wrote an excellent piece on the release for the online version of the Wall Street Journal.

The Spiders
The Spiders

I got word recently that fine the R&B singer Chuck Carbo passed away on July 11th after a lengthy battle with cancer. I first became acquainted with Carbo with the two excellent comeback records he cut for Rounder: Drawers Trouble (1993) and The Barber's Blues (1996). I recall these records getting quite a bit of play on my radio program at the time. I soon tracked down his early recordings with the Spiders, a fabulous New Orleans vocal group who had a string of R&B hits in the 1950's, led by Carbo and his brother Chick. Just about all these sides can be found on Bear Family's 2-CD The Imperial Sessions. After the Spiders Carbo cut a number of 45's, only a few that I'm familiar with, and returned to music after a long absence. Carbo's passing has been well covered and below are links to some of the obituaries.

offBeat Obituary

The Times Picayune Obituary

WWOZ Obituary

I Didn't Want To Do It [Spiders] (MP3)

Love's All I'm Puttin' Down [Spiders] (MP3)

I'm Slipping In [Spiders] (MP3)

21 (3×7=21) [Spiders] (MP3)

Stompin' Everywhere [Chuck Carbo And The Clowns] (MP3)

I Shouldn't But I Do [Chuck Carbo] (MP3)


Roosevelt holts: Presenting The Country Blues

Roosevelt Holts was a country bluesman of considerable skill who in a small way was caught up in the blues boom of the 1960's, finally getting the opportunity to record scattered sides and a couple of LP's in the 1960's and 1970's. Holts, who was born in 1905, likely would have achieved greater recognition if he had gotten the chance to make records in the 1920's and 1930's as David Evans emphasizes in his liner notes: "If he had been able to get to a record studio in the 1930's, his records would now be highly prized collector's items, reissued on albums and talked about by blues fans everywhere. He might have even been "rediscovered" and brought north to the cities for concerts and coffee house engagements before an audience of young whites who were not even born when he recorded his famous numbers." None of this happened of course and Holts toiled in relative obscurity while those who did make records in the early days were rediscovered and achieved adulation among those "young whites." These were men like Son House, Bukka White, Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt to name the bigger stars. There were several artists from the same era who, like Holts, never got that early break but were swept up in the blues revival net and went on to achieve a measure of success such as Mississippi Fred McDowell and Robert Pete Williams.

Why Holts never achieved equitable recognition is unclear but we owe a debt to his patron, folklorist David Evans, who is responsible for just about all of Holts' recordings. It was Evans' investigation into Tommy Johnson in the late 1960’s that brought Holts to light. Evans uncovered and recorded a slew of still active musicians who learned directly from Johnson including Boogie Bill Webb, Arzo Youngblood, Isaac Youngblood, Bubba Brown, Babe Stovall, Houston Stackhouse, Tommy’s brother Mager Johnson and Roosevelt Holts.  K.C. Douglas, Shirley Griffith and Jim Brewer were others who learned directly from Johnson but were recorded by others. As Evans recalled in an interview to Rob Hutten "I followed a trail of musicians connected with Tommy Johnson. Babe had known Tommy slightly and Roosevelt knew him a lot better, and that led to two of Tommy's brothers and any number of other singers that had been associated with Tommy Johnson."

Holts was born in 1905 near Tylertown, Mississippi, and he took up the guitar when he was in his mid-twenties. He started to get serious about music in the late 1930's when he encountered Tommy Johnson. Johnson had married Holts' cousin Rosa Youngblood and moved to Tylertown with her. Around 1937 both men moved to Jackson playing all around town and surrounding towns. During this period he also played with Ishmon Bracey, Johnnie Temple, Bubba Brown, and One Legged Sam Norwood. Holts eventually settled in Bogalusa, Louisiana where Evans recorded him.

Evans began recording Holts in 1965 resulting in two LP's (both out of print): Presenting The Country Blues (Blue Horizon,1966) and Roosevelt Holts and Friends (Arhoolie, 1969-1970) plus the collection The Franklinton Muscatel Society featuring his earliest sides through 1969 which is` available on CD.  In addition selections recorded by Evans appeared on the following anthologies (all out of print): Goin' Up The Country (Decca, 1968), The Legacy of Tommy Johnson (Matchbox, 1972), South Mississippi Blues (Rounder, 1974 ?), Way Back Yonder …Original Country Blues Volume 3 (Albatros, 1979 ?), Giants Of Country Blues Vol. 3 (Wolf, 199?) and a very scarce 45 ("Down The Big Road" b/w "Blues On Mind") cut for the Bluesman label in 1969.

Roosevelt Holts I've heard most of these recordings and I think Presenting The Country Blues is among his best although I know a couple of folks who prefer Roosevelt Holts and Friends which features him on electric guitar. Holts is a fine singer, possessing a strong burnished voice and a rhythmic, delicate guitar style as Evans describes: "Roosevelt's guitar style is one of the most subtle to be found on records, with its delicate touch and rhythmic shifts. He often extends his guitar lines beyond the expected standard patterns to produce greater variety." Lyrically Holts draws on songs he learned as a younger man as well as the vast storehouse of floating blues verses. Among the covers are Leroy Carr's 1928 classic "Prison Bound Blues" and Memphis Minnie's 1930 number "She Put Me Outdoors" although Holts takes it at a much slower tempo. "Prison Bound Blues" was likely picked up from Tommy Johnson who was known to play the number. As for the latter number he may have picked it up through Minnie's husband Joe McCoy who was active on the Jackson scene before he moved to Memphis. Johnnie Temple was also part of the rich Jackson scene and Holts covers his celebrated "Lead Pencil Blues" which Temple cut at his first session in 1935. Of this song Evans writes "this style of guitar playing with its subtle rhythm shifts between duple and triple patterns, is a splendid example  of the type of music then current in Jackson." Holts picked up a number of songs from Tommy Johnson and on this album turns in superb readings of "Big Road Blues" and "Maggie Campbell Blues." Holts also recorded Johnson's "Big Fat Mamma Blues" on a compilation. A couple of Holts' friend appear on this record including Babe Stovall from Tylertown who was the one who introduced Evans to Holts. His second guitar on "Feelin' Sad And Blue" adds some extra rhythmic push to the song with the two complementing each other superbly. Harmonica blower L.H. Lane plays on "The Good Book Teach You" as Holts lays down some fine bottleneck. Apparently the two had known each other for some time and he just popped into the studio for this one song before leaving minutes later. Holts is a good bottleneck player as he also demonstrates on the moving gospel number "I'm Going To Build Right On That Shore" and "Another Mule Kickin' In My Stall."

Unfortunately, outside of one collection, all of Roosevelt Holts' recordings are out of print which I suppose is fitting for an artist that was largely neglected during his lifetime. Hopefully the Blue Horizon label, who are in the midst of an extensive reissue of their catalog, will see fit to re-release Presenting The Country Blues.

Maggie Campbell Blues (MP3)

Feelin' Sad And Blue (MP3)

I'm Going To Build Right On That Shore (MP3)

Another Mule Kickin' In My Stall (MP3)

The Good Book Teach You (MP3)

Big Road Blues (MP3)


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