“One night, I was playin’ the blues in Mississippi, singin’, ‘How many more years, baby, you gonna dog me around,’ ” he said in the Bergen Record interview. “This fella comes up to me; he thought I was after his wife. He put a .45 up to my nose and he said, ‘If you play that again, I’ll blow your brains out.’ “So it’s a good thing I didn’t start to playin’ the blues when I was younger. If I did, I might not be around today.”
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Friday, May 8, 2009
The Mississippi Blues Trail officially crossed state lines today at the Rock 'n' Soul Museum at the Fed Ex Forum on Beale Street in Memphis. Local Fox 13 station covered the event with this news story.
photo courtesy Merete Eide
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Fred McDowell lived in Tennessee until he was nearly forty. But as proof that a man can accomplish a lot after his thirtieth birthday, McDowell moved to Mississippi, played the hell out of a blues slide guitar, and attracted the art form's most famous (some say notorious) talent scout to his front door.
Until then, Fred McDowell played guitar only for himself and his friends. He played old style blues. Delta blues. Mississippi blues. When Alan Lomax came back through the deep south in 1959 looking for bluesmen that other archivists had overlooked in previous visits, he was astonished to find Mississippi Fred McDowell living in Como and pumping gas.
McDowell had undeniable musical talent, but unlike decades worth of other delta blues musicians, McDowell stayed on the farm and did not drive north on Highway 61 to make records. At least not until Lomax coaxed him into a recording studio. Fred continued farming and playing for tips until Chris Strachwitz went looking for Fred in 1964 and recorded "Fred McDowell. Volume 1 and Volume 2" on Arhoolie. Things really took off after those recordings and McDowell became a sensation in the blues/folk revival of the early 1960's.
Music author Ted Gioia writes about McDowell in "Delta Blues", (see earlier post here) his recent history of the music:
"He moved to Memphis around the time he turned twenty-one, and finally settled in Como, Mississippi, in the early 1940's. But his music was infused with the free-spirited intensity of the Delta tradition, even if his geographical connections to that heart of the region are weak ones at best, and his name is usually one of the first mentioned by blues fans when the conversation turns to the subject of their favorite Delta guitarists."
McDowell's famous fans include Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and Grammy winner Bonnie Raitt. McDowell gave a young Raitt Delta slide guitar lessons. The Stones covered McDowell's "You Gotta Move" on their "Sticky Fingers" album.
On Thursday afternoon, Bonnie Raitt will return to Como to honor her friend and mentor as the state gives McDowell a plaque on the Mississippi Blues Trail.(read Jackson Clarion Ledger story here)
Rev. John Wilkins, Alex Thomas, Bonnie Raitt, Hubert Sumlin photo by Melanie Young
McDowell's musical success came late in life. He toured frequently but always came back home to Mississippi. Gioia writes about McDowell's final days:
"McDowell stopped touring in November of 1971, when stomach pains forced him to cancel his performances and seek medical treatment. Although he told many people that he suffered from an ulcer, the real diagnosis was stomach cancer, and despite surgery, doctors were unable to halt it's spread. He died on July 3, 1972 at the Baptist Hospital, and was buried -- not on Highway 61 -- but at the Hammond Hill Baptist Church, between Como and Senatobia, Mississippi. He was reportedly laid to rest wearing a silver lame' suit, given to him by the Rolling Stones. But the adulation fo the famous did little to prevent the guitarist's name being misspelled (McDewell) on the simple gravestone, an error that persisted many years before steps were taken to erect a more respectable tribute to one of Mississippi's greatest musical talents. On this new memorial, we find again that a lyric -- drawn from McDowell's best known composition -- served as a fitting epitaph.
You may be high,
You may be low.
You may be rich, child,
You may be poor.
But when the Lord gets ready,
You got to move.
Click to hear "You Gotta Move."
Saturday, May 2, 2009
General Motors announced this past week that after the end of this year they no longer will produce Pontiacs. The muscular, gas-guzzling, V-8 vehicles have long been immortalized in songs, perhaps none better than by Glendora's Sonny Boy Williamson II.
"Pontiac Blues", Recorded August 5, 1951 on Farish Street at Trumpet Records in Jackson, Mississippi, was an homage to Trumpet Records owner Lillian McMurry's new Pontiac convertible. It was a chrome laden black Silver streak, that according to author Marc W. Ryan in his book Trumpet Records "embodied all the luxury and stylish mobility that he (Sonny Boy) craved."
Ryan goes on to tell us:
He would try to wheedle a ride in the sparkling beauty, but Lillian didn't often trust the freewheeling bluesman behind the wheel. "When I used to let him drive it," she recalled, "man, he really thought he was uptown. Sonny Boy still had a pride that a lot of musicians don't have." That pride was showing when, in keeping with the prevailing vogue of using flashy automobiles as lyrical themes, he proclaimed: "Mmmm, I found out what my baby likes. That's a while lotta lovin' and a straight-eight Pontiac.
If they play only one song at Pontiac's public funeral, they could do a whole lot worse than blaring out the harmonica sounds of Sonny Boy Williamson's fitting 1951 epitaph "Pontiac Blues"
Sunday, February 8, 2009
Born in Belzoni in 1931, Pinetop is 95 years old. Should he win, he will be the oldest person to win a Grammy. George Burns also won the award at age 95. But George 95 years and one month old. Pinetop was born 95 years and seven months ago.
National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" recently wrote this about Pinetop's Grammy chances:
The Grammys are often contests for young talent, but this year, Perkins — the year's oldest Grammy nominee — is one to watch. It's not just a sentimental choice; on the album, Perkins collaborates with fellow blues veteran B.B. King on guitar.
You can read the full story here, and hear some music from Pinetop's Grammy nominated album.
Pinetop won a lifetime Grammy Award in 2005 and a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album last year.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
But that's not the only celebration going on today. Tupelo also gets it's second blues marker on the historical Mississippi blues trail. The first one was placed last year on this day at the Elvis Presley birthplace museum, noting Elvis' debt to and love for blues music. The second Tupelo marker also honors Elvis in a roundabout way. It's as 399 East Main St and commemorates the neighborhood of Shake Rag. Elvis and his family lived close to the segregated African American community for a very short time.
Elaine Dundy describes the community as a nice place to live in her biography "Elvis and Gladys."
"Living in Mulberry Alley and then moving to 1010 North Green Street, the Presleys were living on the edge of Tupelo's blacks section, Shakerag. This was a community of house servants, cooks, and nurses -- as well, if not better, off than the Presleys -- who worked for Tupelo's wealthier families. A self-contained, well-mannered community, they had their own stores and their own Sanctified Church, which was a tent with one side rolled up."A submitted report in the Hatiesburg American gives a brief description of the musical history:
By the 1920s blues and jazz flowed freely from performers at Shake Rag restaurants, cafes, and house parties, and later from jukeboxes, while the sounds of gospel music filled the churches. The neighborhood was leveled and its residents relocated during an urban renewal project initiated in the late 1960s.A far different, and far less flattering portrait is drawn from Albert Goldman's controversial biography of Elvis:
Though Elvis is always associated with Tupelo, he lived in the city less than three years. According to the Myth, those years were spent in a horrid black slum known by the pungently Dickensian name of Shakerag. Though the ordeal of living in a black slum is something every true fan is supposed to grieve over, at the same time -- by the paradox of felix culpa, the fortunate fall -- this descent to the depths is regarded as the source of Elvis's extraordinary mastery of the black musical idiom, to say nothing of all the jivey dance steps he cut. As always, the Myth is mistaken. Elvis did live in a slum, but it was not the notorious black slum in the northwest quarter of the city; it was on the east side of town on Commerce Street, where the shopping mall stands today. The family did not remain long at this address; they moved several times, their next house being in Mobile Alley a narrow lane that ran at right angles to the railroad tracks near the fairgrounds. Finally they wound up in the northeast quarter near the slaughterhouse on North Green Street. All of these neighborhoods were white, all were poor and ugly.Goldman seems to take quite an interest in embarrassing Presley in his book, which was published after Presley's death. It was and remains roundly rejected by fans the world over as innaccurate. But there's no disputing that Presley and his family had hard times in Tupelo and left town under the threat of police action.
Goldman, of course, writes about how the Presleys left Tupelo:
In September 1948, the Presleys packed up their few belongings in a decrepit 1937 Plymouth and took off for Memphis. Elvis said in later years that they were broke and that Vernon was hoping to find a job in the big city. The move -- made abruptly after the school year had commenced and surrounded subsequently with a cloud of secrecy -- suggests some fresh misfortune was about to descend upon the family, which they averted by flight. The Tupelo police told the compilers of All About Elvis that Vernon Presley had been caught selling moonshine and was given two weeks to get out of town.Despite what Goldman writes about Presley's ties to Tupelo being tenuous, Presley returned to Tupelo at the height of his new found fame in 1956 for his "Homecoming" concert then came back in 1957 for a second show. Both shows took place near his old house at the Fairgrounds. Elvis took more with him to Memphis than what he put in a box in the old Plymouth. He told a reporter for the Charlotte Observer in June, 1956, he took along a love of blues music.
"The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I'm doin' now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in the shanties and juke joints and nobody paid it no mind 'til I goose it up. I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I'd be a music man like nobody ever saw."Most, if not all, Elvis fans know that his first single on Sun records of course was "That's All Right, Mama" an Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup song, something he learned to love in Tupelo.
(Click to hear Elvis Presley sing That's All Right Mama)
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Wolff goes on to describe Clarksdale of the early 1930's:
"Out of these elements -- a large colored population, a little spending money, the exhaustion of picking cotton and the exhilaration of cheap whiskey -- came a music historians have called the Delta Blues. Legendary practioners like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and Skip James were drawn -- like the Reverend Cook (Samuel's father) -- to the relative prosperity of Clarksdale. Here they traded lyrics and played all night dances, till the music reached a zenith of moaning double-entendres, secret protest, and contagious gut-bucket beats."The twin of the delta blues, Wolff notes, was the church song: the spiritual. And the two were not to be crossed.
The Reverend Cook left his Clarksdale church at 2303 7th Street and hoboed up to Chicago with just thirty-five cents in his pocket. After finding work in the Chicago stockyards, he came back for his family.
This was how Sam Cooke (he added an e to his name after turning professional) made it to Chicago and the Soul Stirrers where on December 1, 1950 he replaced gospel legend R.H. Harris as lead singer. In March 1951 at 20-years-old a nervous Sam Cooke made his professional recording debut, a fact that Wolff writes did not sit well with producer Art Rupe who didn't know Harris had been replaced by a kid.
"Can he sing?" Rupe wanted to know.
"Yes sir, he can sing," Rupe was told.
"Okay" a disappointed Rupe replied angrily, "I'll allow you one mistake."
It was a decision Art Rupe of Specialty Records never regretted. There was no mistake.
Sam Cooke sang lead on eleven songs during that first session including "Peace in the Valley" and what would become the hit of the session, and Sam's breakout gospel song "Jesus Gave Me Water".
"The Sweet Mississippi accent he got from his parents dwells on each syllable and calls for attention. The third time through the chorus, Sam lets the group start and, by coming in a beat later, kicks up the excitement. And when he sings "I want to let His praises swell," Sam's voice does just that. If Art Rupe didn't know he had a hit here, he wasn't listening."Rupe was listening. So were thousands of impressed gospel fans who made "Jesus Gave Me Water" more popular than anthing R.H. Harris had ever recorded with the quartet. More than five decades later, as another Christmas approaches, we're still moved by the spirit in Sam Cooke's voice. And we're still listening.
(Click to hear Jesus Gave Me Water by The Soul Stirrers)
(Click to hear The Soul Stirrers sing Peace in the Valley)
Monday, December 22, 2008
Roebuck Staples remembers it like this:
I was raised on the Will Dockery place from the time I was eight till I got to be 20 years old. Charley Patton stayed on what we called the Lower Dockery place, and we stayed on the Upper Dockery.Like so many Delta bluesmen would do, Roebuck Staples left Mississippi for Chicago when he was 20. But Roebuck did not follow the blues path. He went the other direction, toward gospel.
He was one of my great persons that inspired me to try to play guitar. He was really a great man.
At first I was too small to go hear him on a Saturday night. But on Saturday afternoons, everybody would go into town, and those fellows like Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf would be playin' on the streets, standin' by the railroad tracks, people pitchin' 'em nickels and dimes, white and black people both.
The train came through town maybe once that afternoon, and when it was time, everybody would gather around, just to see that train pull up. They'd play around there, before and after the train came, and announce where they'd be that night, and that's where the crowd would go.
They'd have a plank nailed across the door to the kitchen, and be selling fish and chitlins, with dancin' in the front room, gamblin' in the side room, and maybe two or three gas or coal-oil lamps on the mantelpiece in front of the mirror, powerful lights.
It was different people's houses--no clubs or nothin'. And I finally grew up to play.
Pops, with his children, Cleotha, Mavis, and Purvis became the Staple signers, recording for several Chicago record labels. One of their songs recorded in 1955 was "This May Be My Last Time," later recorded by the Rolling Stones.
The Staple Singers recorded an album of Christmas songs in 1962 called "The 25th Day of December". That's where they recorded "The Last Month of the Year".
The last month of the year has special significance in the Staples family. Pops was born in the last month of the year, on December 28th. He died in the last month of the year as well, December 19, eight years ago.
(Click to hear The Last Month of the Year)
(Click to hear This May Be My Last Time by the Staple Singers)
Saturday, December 20, 2008
Ferris discovered blues as a teenager in Vicksburg, Mississippi. For the next forty plus years he photographed, recorded, and filmed blues and blues artists in his home state. Some of his best work can be found in the book Blues From The Delta.
In a soon to be released retrospective of his career, a new book called Mississippi Blues: Voices and Roots , Ferris explains:
...what led a privileged, white Mississippian to work with black musicians in the 1960s. Drawn to the Civil Rights Movement as an undergraduate student, I recorded the voices and music of black musicians whose lives I felt were missing in American and southern history. These artists spoke and sang about violence, about suffering, about love with an eloquence that resonated in my ear. They taught me about worlds that were both at my doorstep and far removed from my own experience.What began as a fascination with the delta blues culture evolved to become his life's calling.
Ferris and Judy Peiser co-founded the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis, Tennessee and, with Charles Reagan Wilson, the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. He and Wilson are co-editors of The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. The book earned them a nomination for the Pulitzer.
Along with other blues researchers Mack McCormick, Jim O'Neal and Gayle Dean Wardlow, Ferris helped put blues music and culture into context for the rest of the world.
You can see some of what William Ferris saw in his documentary films like Give My Poor Heart Ease. This and other of his documentaries can be viewed on line at the Folkstreams website , and with the release of his new book, for the first time they also will be available on DVD.
There are some who question why we are so willing to applaud those who "discover" the artist as much as the artist himself. They call it celebrating the milkman, instead of the milk.
William Ferris' work has put a lot of milk on a lot of tables for over 40 years. And for that we should be thankful. One person who believes that is Dick Gordon of American Public Radio. Gordon's show is called "The Story." He spoke with Ferris last Christmas about blues Christmas music as William Ferris did what he does best, he told stories. And they played a lot of great blues music.
The interview is still available online, so if you want to spend a little of your Christmas with the milkman, you can. And you even get some free milk to go along with it.
(Click here to hear Dick Gordon interview William Ferris about Blues Christmas music)
(Click to hear NPR story on Folkstreams)
Friday, December 19, 2008
It's not easy being King.
In September 1957 Elvis Presley went into a Hollywood recording studio to cut a Christmas album. After three days in the studio, he ran out of material. But still he needed one more song. So Rock and Roll Hall of Fame songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller (Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock, Smokey Joe's Cafe) went away together and quickly came back with a classic double-entendre blues number for Elvis called "Santa Claus is Back in Town."
It would become the last song of the session, and very nearly the last song ever to feature Elvis' original sidemen, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black.
As Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick tells in "Last Train to Memphis" the band had been promised they could make some extra money by cutting some instrumentals for an album with the remaining studio time. But when they were instead suddenly denied the opportunity, both men wrote a letter of resignation and quit in disgust. They had to be pretty angry in order to leave the biggest selling music act in the world.
Elvis at first wished them luck in finding new jobs, but eventually offered each a $50 raise. They each declined. A few weeks later on September 27 when Elvis played a second (and final) homecoming concert in his hometown of Tupelo, Scotty and Bill were nowhere to be seen. In their places for the first time ever, Hank Garland played guitar and Chuck Wiginton was on bass. They played well, but one week later Elvis relented and hired Scotty and Bill back on a per diem basis.
It was a rough year for Elvis. In December he got a letter from Uncle Sam informing him that he'd just been drafted. For the King of Rock and Roll, it would be a blue Christmas.
(Click to hear Elvis sing Santa Claus is Back in Town)
(Click to hear Elvis sing Blue Christmas)
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
How might music history be different if Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins wasn't such a nice guy? Born in Belzoni, Ms. in 1913, the affable piano man got his start playing the keyboards for Robert Nighthawk's KFFA radio show in 1943. Then a short time later Sonny Boy Williamson offered Pinetop more money to play with him on the King Biscuit Flower Hour. Pinetop's boogie woogie piano style was in high demand then and would be for many decades to come.
When Otis Spann left Muddy Waters in 1969 to go out on his own, Muddy didn't have to look long for a replacement, he wanted the man with the old-school Delta style, Pinetop Perkins. Pinetop contributed to Muddy's sound for the next ten years.
But it was back at a dance in Moorehead in the 40's when Pinetop was flying high as Sonny Boy's boogie woogie right hand man that a single act of generosity perhaps turned out to be his greatest contribution to music. As Robert Palmer tells it in his essential blues history "Deep Blues" Pinetop befriended a precocious kid from Clarksdale who idolized the piano star and wanted to learn to how to play that boogie woogie piano. The kid was Ike Turner.
Pinetop didn't have to take the time to give some kid free music lessons, but he did. And they took. Ike of course went on to become quite a good musician and while still a teenager wrote and recorded in 1951 what is largely regarded as the first rock and roll song "Rocket 88" with his saxophone player Jackie Brenston on lead vocals at Sun Studio with Sam Phillips. Phillips leased the song to Chess Records in Chicago, it hit number one and Phillips used the money to start his own record label, Sun Records.
Music fans the world over would be indebted for years to come.
Most remember Ike today because he went on to have a successful career with another lead singer, Anna Mae Bullock, whom he married and gave the stage name Tina Turner.
At 95, Pinetop still has that boogie woogie going on. He records and tours and is now considered an elder statesman of the blues. Ike died a year ago this month.
Both men recorded the classic 1947 Charles Brown song "Merry Christmas Baby."
Turner's 1964 arrangement is soulful and intense, as you might expect. Perkins' version from just a few years ago is laid back and cool, just like the man. Both draw from a piano style learned years before in the Mississippi Delta.
They take different stylistic paths, but both the teacher and the student eventually arrive at the same location, just like they did back in Moorehead in the early 40's. Merry Christmas, baby.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Born in 1917 near Clarksdale, John Lee Hooker had 10 older brothers and sisters. His first instrument was an inner tube nailed to the barn. His first father was not musically inclined. Luckily, his mother then married a man who was. Hooker's step-father, William Moore was a guitar player. William Moore played fish fries and parties, sometimes joining blues legends Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake. William Moore also taught young John Lee how to play the blues.
It was a lesson that lasted a lifetime.
John Lee ran away from his Clarksdale home at either 14 or 15 to play the blues in Memphis. He wound up working as a movie usher, but also working with Robert Nighthawk. Then he moved to Cinncinnati to live with relatives. For the next ten years John Lee sang gospel and worked a variety of manual labor jobs.
But it wasn't enough to hold him, after a stint in the army, he settled in Detroit, working at a receiving hospital and later at Dodge and Comco Steel (possibly also as a janitor at the Chrysler car plant). Through it all, however he paid the rent, John Lee never put down his guitar. He played in clubs, but it took a little luck before John Lee got to really boogie.
Someone with connections to a local record distributor heard him playing at a house party, noticed that he was very good, and in 1948 John Lee Hooker recorded his first hit record, the classic "Boogie Chillen." It was in a style he learned long ago from his step-father back in Clarksdale.
"Blues for Christmas" isn't a boogie tune. it's far from it. "Blues for Christmas" is a laid back drinking blues with a jazzy feel augmented by Bob Thurman on piano, Jimmy Miller on trumpet and Johnny Hooks on tenor saxophone. Hooker wrote and recorded it in Detroit in 1954.
William Moore never got to hear this or any other John Lee Hooker record. He died before his step-son got to Detroit.
(Click to hear John Lee Hooker's Blues for Christmas)
Click here for John Lee Hooker Tribute Page
Monday, December 15, 2008
When he went across the street to sing blues songs, that's when he made his money. Playing the blues paid better than gospel. And it sure paid better than sharecropping.
The blues are what took Riley King out of Indianola to Memphis. And the blues are what made B.B. King an international star. Along with his obvious talent as a blues singer and guitarist is B.B.'s image as one of the nicest guys you'd ever want to meet. Regal, just like his name, but folksy at the same time.
But don't be fooled. B.B. knows how to get down and dirty with the blues. Even at Christmastime.
Take for example, "Back Door Santa," a song written in 1968 by Clarence Carter, which obviously is molded after Vicksburg native Willie Dixon's classic "Back Door Man" from a decade earlier.
Back Door Santa Lyrics:
They call me back door Santa,B.B. King recorded "Back Door Santa" in 2001 for an album called "Christmas Celebration of Hope." All the money went to the charity "City of Hope," a world-renowned biomedical research and treatment center for people with HIV/AIDS and cancer.
I make my runs about the break of day,
They call me back door Santa,
I make my runs about the break of day.
I make all the ladies happy,
while the men are out to play.
Well I ain't like old Saint Nick,
he don't come but once a year
Well I ain't like old Saint Nick,
he don't come but once a year.
But I'll come runnin' with my presents,
every time you call me dear.
Sure, he could have recorded a nice gospel album for the charity. But you know what? The blues pay better.
To enjoy B.B. King's "Back Door Santa", click here.
Saturday, December 13, 2008
He was born Armenter Chatmon to former slaves in 1893 at a plantation between Bolton and Edwards, Mississippi. Both his mother and father sang and played music. But it was "Bo" who made the family famous. Well, Bo and his half brother Charley Patton.
As Bo Carter he made over 100 blues or "race" records in the 1930's. Many of those records were as a solo artist. But he also sang and recorded with his brothers in a group they called the "Mississippi Sheiks." They were a famous string band and their "Sitting On Top of the World" is in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
As a solo artist in 1928, Bo was the first to record the blues standard "Corinne, Corinna." But music historians mostly remember Bo as the man who sang bawdy blues songs like "Let Me Put My Banana in Your Fruit Basket" and "Your Biscuits Are Big Enough For Me".
Bo obviously didn't know subtlety.
Even in his 1938 Christmas song, when he sings, "when I get to using your Santa Claus, wanna use him different ways. I wanna use your Santa Claus baby both night and day," you what Bo's talking about, and it aint a fat man in a red suit.
So here's a little gift, mama, that Bo Carter wants to stuff into your Christmas stocking tonight.
(click here to hear Bo Carter's Santa Claus)