Blind Roosevelt "Unmarked" Graves

Roosevelt and Uaroy Graves' "Woke Up This Morning with my Mind on Jesus" is one of the most joyful religious performances ever recorded and a wonderful companion piece to "I'll Be Rested". Roosevelt accompanies the brothers out of Spanish tuning and sings lead, while Uaroy plays tambourine and sings the response lines. The brothers' hair's breadth timing of their vocal parts is wonderful to hear, and the sort of counter-punching of Uaroy's vocal responses can make you laugh out loud.

DeWayne Moore, director MZMF
Jonathan Hilbun, project investigator

Lee Moise Roosevelt Graves was a recording artist and guitarist who mixed secular and sacred material during his career. His claim to fame is that he is accorded by many as being the artist to make the earliest rock and roll recording. Very few biographical details of Roosevelt Graves' early life are known. He was born in Jones County near Leland, Mississippi in the first decade of the twentieth century. He and his brother Uaroy began playing juke joints in the early 1920s, and in 1929 they cut a number of sides, 'rocking and reeling' spirituals, for Paramount, which all appeared under Blind Roosevelt's name. The records also feature pianist Will Ezell.

The Graves brothers often performed on Front Street in Laurel, and the duo proved so popular that the audience at times blocked the road. Most of the time the brothers posted up in front of Lott’s Furniture Store, one of several similar stores in cities all across south Mississippi.  The owner was Reuben Lott, a native of southwest Alabama who attended college at North Manchester, Indiana.  He enjoyed the large crowds that gathered to hear the musicians, because larger numbers of people in front of the store often translated into large numbers of people who entered the store and bought furniture.  The performances of the Graves brothers in front of Lott’s sometimes attracted the attention of the local police, who might either intervene and break up the crowd, or put some money in the tin cup and listen a while. By the end of the day, however, the brothers had usually filled the cup full of coins and dumped it out many times.

The late L.C. Ulmer studiously observed blues 
and gospel legend Roosevelt Graves in
Hattiesburg, and he recalled many of the 
songs that Graves performed at parties.
In 1936 Paramount Records talent scout and Jackson furniture store owner H C Speir, who had been responsible for their 1929 recordings, located the Graves Brothers performing in a church in McComb, Mississippi, and arranged for them to do a second recording session in Hattiesburg. To play piano in the Hattiesburg session, Speir chose Cooney Vaughn, an influential live performer in Hattiesburg. They called the new combo the MISSISSIPPI JOOK BAND. The combination of Vaughn's uninhibited piano style with the religious feeling and musical versatility of the Graves Brothers resulted in what was described as the beginnings of a new type of music, rock and roll. With Roosevelt Graves singing vocals and playing guitar, brother Uaroy Graves on tambourine and kazoo, and Vaughn on piano they recorded a number of songs, amongst which were the notable, "Barbecue Bust" and "Dangerous Woman" both featuring fully formed rock and roll guitar riffs and a stomping rock and roll beat. The Mississippi Jook Band continued to perform for while during the late 1930's but then broke up. Piano player Cooney Vaughn performed weekly on radio station WCOC in Meridian prior to World War II.

In 1937, Roosevelt Graves married a woman named Mary, who subsequently relocated her husband to West Memphis, Arkansas, specifically the small community of Hulbert near the Mighty Mississippi River. He stayed in the Memphis area for a couple of years, but he and his wife moved to 730 West Natchez Street in Jackson, MS in 1939. In 1941, however, he lived at 719 West Natchez Avenue with his brother (who is listed as Evan Graves—both are “musician”) but Mary lived way over at 711 South Jefferson Street. Alex van der Tuuk suggests that Graves may have performed with two horn players, a guitarist and a bassist in the early 1940s. 

Sometime in the 1940s, he moved back to Laurel with Mary. She died in the early 1950s, and Uaroy died in the late 1950s. Roosevelt, meanwhile, wound up in Hattiesburg, where he hooked up with a blind woman named Elizabeth. She took him home to Gulfport, where they supposedly got married. In his last years, he joined the Baptist Church and sang in a male quartet. Someone even saw him perform in Chicago around 1962 at Maxwell Street Market. He was in Gulfport, however, on December 15, when he suffered a heart attack. He died fifteen days later, and he was buried on January 6, 1963 in an unmarked grave in Mississippi City Cemetery.