Monday, August 21, 2017

The "Gospel Blues" of "Bishop" Joe Perry Tillis

(b. July 29, 1919 - d. November 3,  2004)

Photograph © Axel Kustner 1990

One of the last generation of performers in the rural African American musical tradition of the "gospel blues," Tillis died  at the age of 85. He first attracted attention as an itinerant musician more than 60 years ago when he performed with B
lind Willie Johnson.

Born in Talladega County, Alabama and raised in Coffee County, near the town of Elba, his family worked as sharecroppers, which meant that he also worked on the farm beginning in his youth. His father, however, found relief from the acerbic nature of farm labor in music and religion. Often hosting Saturday-night fish fries on his farm, complete with blues accompaniment, he found balance in attendance at the local Pentecostal church

Tillis took up music when he was 14; his first instrument was a ukulele. Having saved for months for an acoustic guitar, he took his instrument to the streets, while still working on the family farm. Before long, however, he discovered that playing the music coming out of the regional blues tradition--a pastiche of styles that flourished across the South--paid better. Tillis sang and played slide guitar. "I always did play alone," he later told an interviewer. "I never did like no band. If I went off and things didn't go good, nobody would know it but me." 

Tillis travelled all over the country as a musician, initially hitchhiking or riding freight trains. The reason he never got recognition from the largely white audiences who have embraced blues music since the 1960s is that he refused to record.

"I never did want no records much," he said. "There just wasn't enough in it. See, I could get out there with my guitar, I played the blues and I'd get out there in a club or some building and make myself $2000 a week. I couldn't get that on records."

Out on the road, Tillis often encountered some of the more recognizable artists, such as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker.

In the late 1940s, Tillis drove trucks for a local firm, but had to retire after the onset of blindness in 1954. He focused on playing blues again and employed a neighbor to drive him around the country until 1967, when a religious conversion returned him to the church.

Instead of giving up music, he turned his talents to making gospel music at Our Saviour Jesus Holiness Pentecostal Church in Samson, Alabama. In 1970 he began playing electric slide-guitar to accompany his hymns and preaching. Never ordained, he adopted the title "Bishop" and until recently gave services on the first and third Sundays of every month.

It was his "gospel blues" style--similar to that of Leon Pinson and Elder Roma Wilson, that drew the attention of folklorists, In the end, Tillis allowed some both European and American musicologists commit his virtually extinct rural form of music to tape.

He was survived by his third wife, daughter, son and several stepchildren.

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