Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Unmarked & Whisky-Soaked Career of Barrelhouse Pianist Willie Love

The Unmarked & Whisky-Soaked Career of 
Barrelhouse Pianist Willie Love

The Greenwood Commonwealth, Feb 27, 1929.

Duncan, Mississippi, a tiny town, just South of Clarksdale on Highway 61, was wiped out by a tornado in 1929.  

It was here that Willie Love was born, the son of Willie Love Sr. and Anna King, on November 4th, 1906. He was raised as a field-hand, but nothing whatsoever can be discovered about his early life or the influences and events that inspired him to become a musician. It is highly probable, however, that he, like so many of his contemporaries, did not leave his plantation home until he was at least 30, for he is not remembered by those active before the Second World War.

1910 US Census - Duncan, MS
Whatever the case, he was a proficient blues pianist, specializing in slow numbers of the Leroy Carr-Roosevelt Sykes variety in 1938, when he bobbed up on the scene, for the first remembered time, as a member of the Tunica-based Silver Kings Band, led by drummer Barber Parker. This was the band in the area at the time, but Willie'd quit by 1940 to work solo as house-pianist for gambling joints in the vicinity of Indianola, before drifting into Greenville, a town that became a permanent base until his death.

It was in Greenville that he befriended Sonny Boy Williamson (Alex 'Rice' Miller) and from 1942 onwards was a regular visitor to Helena, across the Mississippi River, to broadcast with the King Biscuit Boys or gig in the locality. This gained him a measure of recognition and he was quick to form his own combo, The Three Aces, drawing on the Silver Kings Band for personnel. With men like Barber Parker or guitarist G P Jackson he travelled around the Delta during the mid-forties, becoming a very popular attraction at juke-joints and plantation dances.

By 1946 he'd found regular employment in Greenville itself and has been described by Burl Carson, a long-time resident of the town, as, 'The best piano player in this town then. A little more uptown (in sound): a little more classy.' Willie played his classy blues in more respectable clubs like the Casa Blanca or took weekend jobs in the country at Lake Village, Arkansas: Arcola, where he performed at the Harlem Club; Drew, with its Matinee and '49' clubs; Leland and Belzoni. Little Bill, a guitarist from Lake Villages, Charley Booker and bassist Willie Dotson were all regular accompanists.

Willie Love in the 1940s
Station WGVM opened up in Greenville during 1948 and Willie, sponsored by local businessmen, went on the air for 30 minutes every morning. The show was hosted by disco-jockey Eddie Williams and Charley Booker, Elmore James and Rice Miller made appearances when in the area. The programme greatly added to Willie's reputation, but he left Greenville within a year to help Rice form a new band in West Memphis.

He found employment with station KWEM at West Memphis in 1949 and began to broadcast with his Aces, advertising the Broadway Furniture Store. Joe Willie Wilkins, Rice, Oliver Sain (drums), Willie Nix and Forrest City Joe all worked with him at one time or another and he even married Sain's mother, becoming the 17-year-old's step-father. Willie, like most of the others, lived at the 'Williamson' home and would leave from there in the evenings to fill bookings in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas.

Willie Love’s prodigious thirst had earned him the status of both legendary boozer and physical wreck. Around to 1948, Love had married the mother of a teenaged aspiring drummer by the name of Oliver Sain, and the three lived together in Greenville for a time. In an interview with Steve LaVere, Sain, who later took up tenor sax and arranging for Little Milton Campbell (among others), recalled gigging with his step-father around West Memphis in the late 1940s, along with Sonny Boy Williamson and Herman Parker, a young vocalist/harp player who styled himself as Sonny Boy Junior—and eventually simply Junior Parker. Sain recalled that both love and Williamson embodied the classic traits of old-time bluesmen, drinking and womanizing to the hilt. Once, when Sain and Parker were having difficulty collecting their sidemen's wages after such a gig, Sain approached Sonny Boy with his concerns: 'I went to Sonny Boy to complain about the fact that a lot of times, when you finish a job, Sonny Boy and Willie had already drunk up the money, days ago, man! The club owner says. 'There's no money, they come and got yours, too!' So I went to Sonny Boy and was explainin' to him and I said. 'Man you know, I'm finding that when y.all drink like that, we don't wind up making anything, Junior and I don’t, because we don't drink.' So he said, 'Well, I guess y’all gonna have to start drinking!”

He had a good thing going but was quick to leave West Memphis after Rice's sudden departure, asking Willie Nix to look after his radio spot. Willie returned to Greenville and settled down with his wife at 236 North Street. He managed to pick-up where he'd left off and began to play Nelson Street jukes like the Silver Dollar Cafe. By late 1950 he'd met and teamed up with Rice again and was taken off to Jackson to meet Lilian McMurry of the newly-formed Trumpet label. At first, he recorded as a sidesman only, but, on April 7th, 1951, went into Jackson with his own combo—Otis Green (sax), Lonnie Holmes (guitar), and Alex Wallace (drums)—to cut his initial sides. One of these, 'Take It Easy Baby', an uptown-jump number, indicated that the Aces were bang-up-to-date with their material.

It was back to the studio in July, but Willie's best recordings were made during a mammoth December session with Bill Holford of ACA handling production. The sensitive guitar work of Joe Willie Wilkins did much to help 'Nelson Street Blues', a personal tribute to Greenville's 'action' strip, become a well-remembered success and, perhaps, Willie's most famous number, but each of the eight titles cut on that occasion is a mini-masterpiece with excellent lyrics.

Willie had always been a heavy drinker, in the best blues traditions, and it was at this stage that his kidneys began to play up, causing him a great deal of pain. He was also having personal problems, probably because he spent so much time away from home and sometime in 1952 his wife left Greenville for St Louis. He quickly followed, even making a trip to Detroit to gig with Baby Boy Warren, an old friend, but was sick and unhappy and by January 1953 was back in Jackson on his own.

By late July 1953, Willie's condition had seriously worsened, and he was drinking all the more to try to kill the pain in his failing kidneys. Lillian soon learned of his crisis. One day outside the Record Mart she came upon her old friend 'Slim,’ (Bobo Thomas). sitting on the curb, crying. He was grieving for his idol Willie, who he said was suffering terribly. The McMurrys quickly dispatched their family physician to check on Love, and he was ordered to report to the Baptist Hospital in Jackson for treatment. 

Lillian recalled, “I’d tried to warn Willie about drinking too much, but he just wouldn't listen. We paid our private doctor to care for him and catheterize him or he'd have burst. At first, we really thought Willie would get well." But years of constant gigging, partying, and juicing had caught up with the forty-six-year-old bluesman. Lillian remembered that his final Jackson session at Ammons's had been a disappointment, and felt that his health was the problem. The March session had produced "Worded Blues" and "Lonesome World Blues," both masterful performances from a purely aesthetic standpoint. The overpowering sense of gloom and doom disappointed the producer, for she always had related better to the happier, upbeat elements. In "Lonesome World Blues" he sang
I start to go to Memphis
But I didn't know in my mind
Seems like everybody wanna mistreat me all the time
And I believe, l believe I’ll go back home
Seem like everybody everybody wanna do me wrong
On August 19, Lillian went to see Willie at the hospital. She found him in the last throes of his struggle, but he found the strength to express his gratitude to his benefactress. "Miss Lillian," he said, "you and M. Willard were better to me than my own people." By 9 p.m. that night, Willie Love's trials were over.

The McMurrys sadly arranged for funeral services to be held at Collins Funeral Home at 418 North Farish. Willie was laid out in an open casket in his sharpest suit, surrounded by flowers and friends. He had been a beloved symbol of good music and good times to the Mississippi blues community, and the funeral was crowded with cronies like Sonny Boy, "Slim," Little Milton, and others who came to pay respects and share a last glimpse of their fallen buddy. No doubt some few of his old lovers came in black dresses, and no doubt his lines, "Give my body to the fishes, my soul to the Lord above," were recalled. DRC paid the expenses for the funeral, minister's fee, and burial, and regretfully closed the books on one of the greatest barrelhouse piano players of the era. The legacy of his Trumpet recordings preserves the memory of the quick little man with the white spats and lively patter, who could dance and play circles around his blues, but was at last consumed by them.

Though Willie Love had friends around at his funeral, he was quickly forgotten after his burial in Jackson's Elmwood Cemetery. In the 1970s, a few researchers managed to glean the few facts that make up this biography. Hopefully, someone else may be able to dig up more about his life and eventually turn in a story that really does him a justice.

Although the records for the funeral home that buried Love in Elmwood Cemetery sit in the Amistad Archives in New Orleans, a tiny stone was bought in 2017 and not placed on the grave. Believing it was going to get stolen due to its extremely small size, which one man can easily carry away, it could not be left on site. Rather than purchase a heavy stone and search the records to make sure the location was not within them, they bought the tiny stone, took it home, and simply claimed to have found his grave. Also a purported good faith search for the family came up empty.  They took a really nice promotional photograph though in which they look amazing.  In the end, however, 

Willie Love's grave remains unmarked. Maybe someday someone will dedicate a memorial that really does him justice.