Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Christmas Cooke

"You Send Me" Daniel Wolff's definitive biography of Sam Cooke begins the second chapter with a description of the birth of Samuel Cook and his delivery "by a midwife in Clarksdale at 2:10 in the afternoon on January 22, 1931."

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recording debut, a fact that Wolff writes did not sit well with producer Art Rupe who didn't know Harris had been replaced by a kid.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".

Wolff writes:

"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

A Christmas Staple

They called him "pops", out of respect. But he was born Roebuck Staples near Winona, Mississippi on a plantation with 13 older brothers and sisters. When he was eight, his family moved to the more affluent Dockery Plantation where he was influenced by the great delta blues guitarists Charley Patton and Son House.

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.

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.
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.

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

Christmas With A Milkman

William Ferris was a 30-year-old man when this photo was taken back in 1972. By that time he already was a veteran blues researcher and scholar.

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

Santa Claus is Back In Town

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

Merry Christmas, Pretty Baby

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.

(Click to hear Pinetop Perkins' Merry Christmas Baby)

(Click to hear Ike & Tina Turner's Merry Christmas Baby)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Blues For Christmas

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

Bawdy BB The Back Door Santa

Surely the most recognizable blues musician alive in the world today has to be B.B. King. The man from Itta Bena, Mississippi has said that as a young man he would sing gospel songs on the street corner in Indianola and the passersby would applaud or shake his hand and tell him how wonderful it was to hear such songs. But they didn't drop any coins into his hat.

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,
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.
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.

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

Bo Knows Santa Claus

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)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sonny Boy and Santa Claus

Seeing as how we just missed posting anything about the birthday of Glendora's own Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller Dec. 5, 1897) and beginning with Bobby Lounge we're starting to post Christmas songs, I'd like to try and rectify the inexcusable ommission of Sonny Boy with a seasonal post and a tip of the bowler hat dedicated to the King of the Harmonica.

Sonny Boy recorded "Santa Claus" in April, 1960 and he sounds a little bit like Howlin' Wolf. Kind of funny 'cause it was Sonny Boy who taught Wolf how to play harmonica. But then you could argue that Sonny Boy taught the world.

Merry Christmas, baby. Many more songs to follow.

(Click here to hear Sonny Boy's Santa Claus)

FYI: The term "Santa Claus" is often used in blues and gospel to mean the Christmas gift, not Mr. Claus himself.

The lyrics:
My baby went shoppin yesterday,
Said, "I'm gonna buy what you need for Santa Claus."
My baby went shoppin yesterday,
Said, "I'm gonna buy what you need for Santa Claus."
"I'm gonna take mine with me,"
"But I'll leave yours in my dresser drawer."
So, that started me to ramblin,
Lookin in all of my baby's dresser drawers.
Wow, that started me to ramblin,
Lookin all in my baby's dresser drawers.
Tryin to find out,
What did she bought me for Santa Claus.
When I pulled out the bottom dresser drawer,
The landlady got mad and called the law.
When I pulled out the bottom dresser drawer,
The landlady got mad and called the law.
I was just tryin to find,
What did she bought me for Santa Claus.
The police walked in and jarred me on the shoulder,
"What you doing with your hand in that woman's dresser drawer?"
I hand the police a letter my baby wrote me,
Showin where I should find my Santa Claus.
I just kept on pullin out all of my baby's dresser drawers.
I walked out and left the police and the landlady arguin,
Said, "Look at the man done pull out all the lady's dresser drawers."
Yes, I walked out and left the police and the landlady arguin,
Said, "Look at the man done pull out all the lady's dresser drawers."
But he said, "I got the letter and show the judge."
"The boy just tryin to find his Santa Claus."
Oh yeah.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

It Aint Gene Autry

McComb's playful piano pumper Bobby Lounge (aka Dub Brock) never met an unusal character he couldn't relate to or sing about with soul. Such is the case with Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Back when Gene Autry sang about the classic caribou in 1949 it was a quaint tale about how our individual characteristics, no matter how different they may be, are strengths rather than weaknesses, if only the world allowed us to use them correctly.

Put Bobby Lounge behind the piano and Rudolph not only rocks, he gains even more underdog strength and respectable coolness.

NPR has taken note of the Lounge act before with a 2006 feature story on All Things Considered called "Wild Man of Jazz Fest." Most recently the public radio network shone a light on Lounge back in October when they chose Lounge's version of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer as the NPR Song of the Day. (Click here to listen)

Said writer Marc Silver:

A pianist hammers out a jaunty intro that sounds familiar, yet seems hard to place. There are octave runs and an insistent bass line, as well as repeated chords that conjure up "Heart and Soul." Wait, could it be? It sure could, as Bobby Lounge begins yelping like Jerry Lee Lewis and singing words that everyone knows by heart: "Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer / Ow, he had a shiny nose..."

Silver goes on to explain the not so subtle differences between the Gene Autry and Bobby Lounge versions:

In case you were wondering, "Lord, they loved that boy" is not part of the original lyric. Nor is the scat-filled ending, as Lounge growls and howls a "Shab a dap" denouement as bright as Rudy's shiny schnoz.

Lounge recorded Rudolph for his latest CD "Somethin's Wrong". It aint Gene Autry. And there's nothing wrong with that.

(Read the full article here.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Rolling Out The Red Carpet In Rolling Fork

Today Muddy Waters recieved his blues marker in Rolling Fork as the birthplace of McKinley A. Morganfield. Eleanor Barkhorn writes about the big day in yesterday's Delta Democrat:
“We're just so excited to have this tangible evidence of Muddy Waters here in Rolling Fork,” said Meg Cooper, coordinator for the Mississippi Lower Delta Partnership, who spearheaded efforts to bring the blues marker to Rolling Fork.

Cooper said international tourists flock to Rolling Fork, searching for signs of Waters, who was born McKinley Morganfield in 1913 and lived in the Delta until the 1940s, before moving to Chicago.

That's fine, except, Muddy was not born in Rolling Fork.

Muddy Waters biographer Robert Gordon was on hand for the ceremony, so nobody's trying to fool tourists. Because the first page in Gordon's biography of Muddy details where Muddy was born and why so many wrongly believe it to be Rolling Fork. Apparently the marker will explain that while Muddy often said he was born in Rolling Fork, he actually was born in neighboring Issaquena County at a place called Jug's Corner and Rolling Fork was the nearest post office. Here's an excerpt of an interview with Muddy's brother Robert Morganfield for Robert Gordon's 2002 documentary "Can't Be Satisfied", a companion to the biography of the same name.
If you really want to see where Muddy Waters was born, Click here to see unused video and interviews from Robert Gordon's American Masters documentary on Muddy Waters.

And if you really want to find out how it really wasn't Alan Lomax who "discovered" Muddy Waters, then read Gordon's bio. Here's what music writer and historian Dave Marsh had to say about it following Lomax's death in 2002:

Lomax's obit made the front page mainly because he "discovered" Son House and Muddy Waters. But in Can't Be Satisfied, his new Muddy Waters biography, Robert Gordon shows that Lomax's discoveries weren't the serendipitous events the great white hunter portrayed. Lomax was led to House and then Waters by the great Negro scholar, John Work III of Fisk University. Gordon even shows Lomax plagiarizing Work, and not on a minor point. (See page 51) In his book, Lomax offers precisely one sentence about Work. He eliminated Work from his second Mississippi trip. He also burned Muddy Waters for the $20 he promised for making the records.

Click here to read the full Marsh article.

Yes, they rolled out the red carpet today for Muddy Waters in Rolling Fork. Hopefully, it's a really long carpet that stretches all the way to Jug's Corner. Like the $20 Lomax never paid him, Muddy deserves it, and so much more.

Click to see the PBS American Masters Muddy Waters page.

Click here to hear a young Muddy sing "Country Blues" as recorded by Alan Lomax on the Stovall Plantation.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Mannish Boy

The earliest known photograph of Muddy Waters is with his first true love; the first recording he ever made. It would be a beautiful and lasting relationship, Muddy and blues records. He would of course become one of the most influential musicians ever to strike a chord.

Hollywood is late in telling the Muddy Waters story with the release this weekend of "Cadillac Records", but music writers have been telling his story for decades. Still, it took a long time for a proper biography to emerge.

"Muddy Waters usually told people that he was born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi," begins Robert Gordon's 2002 biography of Muddy called "Can't Be Satisfied".

He continues:
Rolling Fork is where the train stopped, where Muddy's family would get their mail and do their shopping. Rolling Fork was on the map. But Muddy's actual birthplace is to the west and north of there, in the next county over -- Issaquena, pronounced "Essaquena," the initial "e" the only thing soft in this hard land."

On Wednesday, December 3rd at 10:30 a.m., Rolling Fork once again will be called the birthplace of Muddy Waters, this time by the state of Mississippi with another historic marker along the growing blues trail. Waters already has a marker in his name in Clarksdale, six miles from where he grew up at the Stovall Plantation, where he lived and worked and learned to play the delta blues by watching and listening to his idol Son House.

Later, Gordon writes inaccuracies in Muddy's life story were not uncommon, sometimes with Muddy acting as the innacurate source:

"Although his parents never married, the child was given his father's last name: McKinley A. Morganfield. In years to come, after he moved to Chicago, Muddy usually told people he was born in 1915, oddly shaving only two years off his age (if his goal was to appear younger for the entertainment field). He thus became a man born in a year he wasn't born in, from a town where he wasn't born, carrying a name he wasn't born with."

That nickname, Muddy Waters, was given to him by his grandmother, Della Grant. And that is the name that today the world remembers him by. Whether the world remembers that he actually was born a county away from Rolling Fork, at a bend in the road next to the Cottonwood Plantation in an area known as Jug's Corner is of little consequence. Robert Johnson, after all, lays claim to three burial sites. Giving Muddy two birth sites is the least the blues world can do.

Click to hear Robert Gordon October 3, 2002 interview on NPR.

Click to hear Muddy's "Mannish Boy"