Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Grave of Leo "Bud" Welch



Calhoun County Bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch passed away December 19, 2017 at the age of 85. His funeral service was Saturday, Dec. 23 at 11 a.m. at Jackson Chapel MB Church in Bruce.

Welch achieved international success in the last few years of his life and received numerous honors, including a prominent place on the Mississippi Blues Trail marker in Bruce. He played music ever since picking up his first guitar at age 12.

“I love all types of music – country, gospel, rock and of course the blues,” Welch said during a 2015 interview while sitting in his one-room home near the Piggly Wiggly in Bruce.
During his more than 60 years of playing, Welch sat in with blues legends John Lee Hooker, Elmore James and B.B. King.  “I always admired B.B. and the way he plays his guitar,” Welch said. “I love the way he chords the strings.”

Welch never tried to emulate any of the blues legends he admired, instead relying on his own self-taught method.  “I just play like I play,” Welch said. “I’m not trying to be anybody else.”

Born in Sabougla, Welch taught himself to play on his cousin R.C. Welch’s guitar.

“Whenever he would leave, me and his brother Orlando would go over and get his guitar and take turns playing,” Welch said.
The earliest songs he recalled playing were “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Navajo Trail.”

“I remember seeing Roy Rogers playing ‘Navajo Trail’ in a movie so I started playing around with it,” he said.

His first time on stage was for programs at Sabougla Grammar School, but he was truly noticed during a school performance in Pittsboro.
“We were playing up there when those people started going wild over the little boy playing guitar,” Welch said. “They were pointing at me and just going wild.”

He fell in love with the blues at a young age and began playing wherever he could, such as Otis McCain’s 3-day picnic in the Horsepen Community. He played around Grenada and landed a regular appearance on WNAG radio with Alfred Harris and the Joy Jumpers.
Other places he recalled performing were the Cotton Bowl and The Blue Flame in Carroll County.

He moved to Bruce as a teen and played frequently around the local cafes where people would provide him change.
“People would drop nickels, dimes and quarters in my pockets and even in the hole in my guitar,” Welch said. “I’d get home and have to shake all the money out of my guitar.”

He would play in a number of bands over the years including “The Rising Soul Band” with Rev. Tommie Daniel of Bruce; “The Spirituals” with Raymond “Slick” Tillman, Grady Gladney, James Foster and others; and the “Sabougla Voices” with Zoila and Betty Tucker, Marty Conley and Lovie Lipsey.

Welch continued to play most every Sunday in a church somewhere throughout his life. He most often played at his home church in Sabougla on the first and third Sundays of each month and at Double Springs in Webster County on the other Sundays.

He also hosted a show on W7BN each week entitled “Black Gospel Express.”

Up into his 80s, Welch never slowed down, playing as much as ever traveling deep into the Mississippi Delta weekly to play at clubs such as Ground Zero, Hambone’s and Reds.

“I still love playing the blues, and there’s a lot of people interested in the blues now that didn’t used to be,” Welch said. “Lot of the times I play there’s a lot more white people in the audience than black people.”

Welch can also play the harmonica and fiddle, but prefers the sound of his electric guitar for a few reasons. One is because it’s easier for him to hear after suffering some hearing loss from 30 years of cutting timber.

“I love gospel but I really enjoy playing those old blues songs, too,” he said. “People still love them. The blues are just a history of life. They make people feel good.”

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Family Values, Roadhouse Blues at Junior's

Larry Nager - The Commercial Appeal - September 1994



It's business as usual at Junior's, a little country roadhouse 10 miles out Miss. 4 near Holly Springs. As Sunday afternoon turns to evening, a few old men sit inside, nursing their Budweisers and comparing various ailments; out in the parking lot, young men drink malt liquor and discuss cars and girls.

But as the sun sets over the dusty, kudzu-covered countryside, talk turns to the blues, and the action moves inside as the proprietor rises out of his duct tape-covered chair and haltingly makes his way across the cement floor to the band area.

The jukebox, which has spent the afternoon pouring hard blues and Southern soul out of its shredded speaker, is silenced, and Junior Kimbrough, 64, picks up his Gibson electric guitar and tunes it to his liking. Two of his sons, David Jr. and Kenny, both in their 20s, dutifully take their places at the bass and drums.

At Junior's there's no such thing as a blues revival. Here, the blues is alive and well and being passed on to a new generation. At 29, David says he's the oldest of Junior's numerous children, many of whom play with their own blues bands or back up their father, who has become something of an international celebrity thanks to his appearance in the Robert Palmer/ Robert Mugge film, Deep Blues.




Despite its unprepossessing appearance, Junior's has become an important stop on the worldwide blues circuit, as fans come from as far away as Japan and England to pay their $2 cover charge and get a dose of the real thing. A recent Sunday night even brought a group of Russian blues lovers to the wood-paneled juke joint lit up by Chinese lanterns, Christmas lights and its namesake's powerful Delta blues.



The center of all that attention seems singularly unimpressed by it all. ``I'm thinkin' about quittin','' Junior says casually as he chain smokes Kools early in the evening. ``I done got too old to play now.''

A stroke in 1976 may have slowed him down, but the popularity of Deep Blues has kept him on the road, playing concerts and festivals throughout the States and Europe. And when he gets going, his hands moving over his guitar strings as he plays the hypnotic, single-chord style of blues that has become his trademark, there's no stopping him.

``Pull your clothes off baby,'' Kimbrough jauntily shouts into the microphone, a cigarette dangling beneath the remnants of his pencil mustache. At his side, David and Kenny pick up the repetitive riff, driving it home as the growing crowd, mostly locals in their 20s and 30, pack the dance floor in front of the band.

"It's a family thing,'' says Kimbrough's son Larry Washington, who runs the club. ``We're all like one big family.'' The extended family includes the Burnsides, the children of Kimbrough's Deep Blues co-star R. L. Burnside.

Gary Burnside, 17, plays with both his father and Kimbrough. "I like rap, but I'm mostly into blues,'' he says with a grin. "I just like playing it. I've been overseas to Italy and everything.'' He also plays with a band that includes John `JoJo' Hermann, keyboardist for the rock band Widespread Panic, when Hermann is off the road and at home in nearby Oxford.

Widespread Panic's members are fans of Kimbrough's; their new album, "Ain't Life Grand,'' includes Junior, based on a Kimbrough riff and credited to the bluesman. Kimbrough appreciates the honor but quickly adds, ``I didn't get nothin' out of it yet.''

When not playing bass with his father, David Kimbrough Jr. can be found fronting his own group as David Malone, so as not to be confused with the better-known Junior.

Kimbrough/Malone has lived the classic Mississippi bluesman's life, having spent seven years in Parchman Farm State Prison on burglary and drug charges. But he says music has helped him straighten out his life.

He has recorded ``I've Got the Dog in Me,'' an album he says his father's record company, Fat Possum, is shopping to the major labels.

In this photo, entertainment attorney Portuondo Zapata
(aka Larry "The Feverdog" Hoffman) poses for his last
known photo before his murder, contracted by the Dixie Mafia.
He's proud to carry on his father's tradition. ``I respect my dad,'' he said solemnly. ``He de man. But I'm the son.

"My father's old, but with him we've got a backbone in the family. If my father passes on, we've got people who can carry it on, my brothers and myself.''

And carry it on they do. As the night wears on and Junior gets tired, he passes his guitar to Duwayne Burnside, while a young white guitarist sporting a shiny new Stratocaster slides in to play rhythm. David Jr. anchors the band on bass as Duwayne plays in a single-string style more modern than Junior's. But the sound is still pure Delta, and the churning, dancing crowd keeps right on moving as the blues continue rolling out into the Mississippi night.

Getting There: Junior's is open on Sunday nights only and the music starts around 9 p.m. From Memphis, take U.S. 78 to the Miss. 7 exit in Holly Springs. Take a right and follow 7 to Miss. 4. Take a right and go 10.2 miles on 4, and you'll see Junior's just off the road on the right. There's no sign, but the parking lot should be full of cars.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Blues Waters Run Deep in Son of the Delta

By Parry Gettelman - The Orlando Sentinel - Jan 1998

Most younger blues fans were introduced to the music through rock 'n' roll radio. Blues-rock artists such as Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and Stevie Ray Vaughan eventually led them back to the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and then maybe even further back to early pioneers such as Robert Johnson, Son House and Charlie Patton. 

Growing up near Clarksdale. Miss., however, Jas. (a k a Jimbo) Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers heard the original versions of songs like "Love in Vain" before hearing the super-star covers. Through the radio and his father's record collection, he developed an early love of Patton, Johnson, Jimmie Rogers, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly and other giants. 

But although he can't remember a time when he wasn't steeping in the blues, Mathus grew up not realizing that he had a personal acquaintance with Charlie Patton's daughter and sole heir. Mathus knew Rosetta Patton Brown only as the kind lady who started working for his aunt and uncle when his younger cousin, William Hardin, was born, and who baby-sat William and Jimbo. 

Charlie Patton was the first great star of the Delta blues and an influence on Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker and many others. However, he had died way back in 1934, and his daughter never thought to mention him to any-one in Mathus' family.

"I don't even know how many people in her community knew," Mathus said from Carr-boro, N.C., where he and his blues side project, the Knock-down Society, were rehearsing for a tour that brings them to Orlando's Sapphire Supper co Club Monday. 

Mathus finally learned about Brown's illustrious heritage 6 through a group of Japanese blues fans who came to the U.S. on a pilgrimage.

"They are really fascinated with blues, rock 'n' roll and Elvis, all this kind of stuff," Mathus said. "A lot of the more adventurous tourists venture down to the Delta and go to different places, like Muddy Waters' birthplace, Charlie Patton's grave, Sonny Boy Williamson's birthplace and different spots in Clarksdale, this kind of thing." 

Brown was still living in Patton's old house, the one she was raised in, and the tourists came to pay homage, an interpreter in tow, Mathus said. "She let them up on the porch, and she said they smiled and bowed and sat around and grinned a little while," Mathus said. "She said they were real nice — and they brought her a royalty check from this Japanese label." The visit did not go unremarked. "Word just got around that Rosetta's daddy's famous, and then it got around who it was," Mathus said. 

Mathus didn't spend too much time in contemplation of Brown's parentage at first. She was just a member of his own extended family, whom he continued to visit whenever he was home in Mississippi. But after she suffered a stroke two years ago and became unable to work, he started thinking about how she had never received any U.S. royalties from her father's work. And he decided to make an album to help get her some money. "I was in a position to help her, and since I knew her, I asked if it was all right, and she thought it would be great. So we did it." Mathus left Carrboro, where the Squirrel Nut Zippers are based, for Clarksdale, his old stomping grounds and home of the Rooster Blues label. 

He put together a band, the Knock-down Society, that included Zippers bassist Stu Cole, former Blind Melon drummer Glenn Graham, Rebirth Brass Band founder Wolf Anderson, veteran jazz musician Jack Fine and Luther and Cody Dickinson, sons of noted musician-producer Jim Dickinson and erstwhile members of Gut-. bucket. The Knockdown Soci-ety also recorded some tracks in New Orleans. The Society's lineup was somewhat flexible, especially in Clarksdale. "We were sitting out in my grandmother's carport rehearsing, and we ended up having a big party out there," Mathus recalled, letting loose with a long chuckle. "We had a bunch of people driving by, and of course, in Clarksdale, there's not that much else to do. So they saw signs of life and started flocking around." The resulting Songs for Rosetta includes some of the tunes Patton used to do, some traditional blues numbers and some Mathus originals. Brown was pleased with the album, Mathus said, although not excited per se. 

"She's pretty mellow," he explained. "She doesn't get excited too much — she was born in 1917." Brown isn't really a blues fan, but she likes singing in the church, Mathus said. "She said one time she likes playing and singing almost as much as preaching. But preaching was first," he recalled. In fact, Mathus said, Brown told him her father never played the blues when he played around his daughter —only gospel tunes. He didn't live with the family after separating from his wife but used to come visit and bring them money when he was playing in the area. The original tunes were all written with this project in mind, Mathus said. They wouldn't work for the Zippers, in any case, because he considers that strictly a jazz-influenced group. (And their old-timey jazz has proven surprisingly commercial with their second album nearing platinum status). 

The Knockdown Society is more wide-ranging, and the live show will include everything from country blues to electric blues to R&B, he said. The touring version of the Knockdown Society includes fellow Zipper Cole, Greg Humphries of Hobex ("he's got this great voice!") and the Dickin-son brothers, whose latest band, the North Mississipi All-Stars, will open the bill with their hill-country style blues (a la R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and Mississippi Fred McDowell). Also in the lineup is Mathus' neighbor, mandolin player Hawkeye Jordan, who made his recording debut at 50 on Songs for Rosetta

"This is his first tour. He is real excited," Mathus said. "But he's always excited!" Actually, Mathus himself is plenty excited. He doesn't expect to make much money, taking an eight-piece band on the road, but he's glad to have the chance to do this during a three-month hiatus from the Zippers' busy schedule. "It's going to be great, a once-in-a-lifetime thing to all get together and do this," Mathus enthused. "It's going to be really good. The poster says 'a musical jubilee,' and I think that probably sounds about right."

'Slash-and-Drone' Blues is Hill Country Blues

By Pop Music Critic J. D. Considine - The Baltimore Sun - February 1993

Because bluesman R. L. Burnside hails from a small town in north Mississippi, a lot of listeners automatically assume that his music is an example of the Delta blues -- the legendary strain that produced Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Elmore James.

This doesn't really bother Burnside -- ``I kind of feel like the blues is just the blues, you know?'' he says, good-naturedly -- but he does try to put people straight on the subject. ``This country hill blues,'' he explains over the phone from his home near Holly Springs, Miss. ``You don't have to live in the Delta to play the blues.''

Neither do the country blues Burnside perpetuates sound much like the Delta variety. As critic Robert Palmer put it in the film ``Deep Blues,'' music in the Mississippi hill country ``hasn't changed as much as the music in the Delta. It's really stayed very much the same for generation after generation.''

Burnside is a perfect example of how that north Mississippi sound has been preserved. A self-taught guitarist, he learned the blues in much the same way his idols did -- by listening and observing.

``I watched other people, that's how I learned,'' he says. ``I watched Fred McDowell in his lifetime and a lot of them guys like Muddy Waters, those guys.

``I tried a harmonica and stuff, and I played picnic drums, I do that, too. But I like the guitar better.''

No wonder. Burnside is among the bluesmen featured in ``Deep Blues,'' and anyone who has seen the film or heard the ` soundtrack album undoubtedly remembers Burnside's churning, hypnotic rendition of ``Jumper on the Line.'' It's a solo performance, just voice and guitar, but there's no mistaking the deep, trance-like pulse.

Palmer describes Burnside's style as ``slash-and-drone,'' and rightly so, since Burnside generates more groove with his unaccompanied strum than many drums-and-bass rhythm sections do. Hearing him in this context (which is how he'll be performing at the Walters on Saturday), he seems like the sort of performer who'd have no need whatsoever for a band.

As it turns out, though, Burnside does have a band -- a group called the Sound Machine, consisting of his sons and son-in-law. 

``They like the blues,'' he says of his children. ``We do some ourselves that we make up, and we do some by other people -- just change the lyrics on it or something on it.''

At the moment, Burnside is working on material for his next album, a studio session to be produced by Palmer.

Writing a blues song, he says, is in many ways more challenging than learning how to play the blues.

``It's kind of hard,'' he says. ``Let's say you'd be sitting around, and things come to you, and you just try 'em and see what it sounds like. And you keep doing it till you get it to where you would like it.

``But that's kind of hard to learn,'' he adds. ``It takes me a good while to get it.''

AFFECTION FOR DELTA BLUES RUNS DEEP

By Larry Nager - The Commercial Appeal - November 1, 1992

Robert Palmer is responsible for what could be the slowest media blitz in publishing history.

In today's age of packaging, when it seems every book about music comes with a CD and matching film or video, Palmer's ''Deep Blues'' package has been 11 years in the making.

In 1981, Palmer explored the music of Memphis and the Delta in his book Deep Blues. A decade later, in 1991, the Deep Blues film, directed by noted documentarian Robert Mugge, debuted. Now, his ''Deep Blues'' CD is finally arriving in stores.

There's even a ''Deep Blues'' tour, as the Delta juke-joint musicians from the film follow it as it opens around the country, playing clubs in various cities. There's no Memphis showing, but Friday and Saturday, Roosevelt 'Booba' Barnes will be at Doe's Band Box on Beale.

Palmer, 47, is best known as the former pop music critic for The New York Times from 1976 to 1987, when he decided he'd had enough of New York and returned to his Mid-South roots. He recently left Olive Branch, Miss., for his hometown of Little Rock, where he lives in a small cabin outside of town.

But though he grew up across the river, his love of the blues developed in Memphis, as Palmer helped produce the Memphis Blues Festival from 1966 to 1969.

By 1969, the festival had grown to three days, attracting such rock luminaries as Johnny Winter, who agreed to play for just $50 simply to be part of the event. Palmer recalled proudly that while the rockers were paid $50, ''we paid the older blues singers a lot more.''

The event was covered by Rolling Stone, Blue Horizon Records of England recorded it and the blues helped put Memphis on the map once again.

But when Palmer returned to Memphis in 1988, he found Beale changed. The film presents Palmer on Beale criticizing the state of Memphis blues.

''I feel sort of funny about that,'' Palmer admitted in his gentle Southern drawl. ''Because what ended up getting edited in the movie seems like a real put-down and it wasn't really intended to be. I spent my growing up years around here. In 1965, I worked for Chips Moman in American Studios, and Beale Street then was the old Beale Street. The point I was trying to make was there was a neighborhood there and they bulldozed it out of existence.

''And I do think that at the point the movie was being made it seemed to me there wasn't really as much of a black blues presence as there is now. It seems to have developed quite a bit.''

Backing up Palmer's words is the fact that Barnes and other Delta bluesmen are frequent performers at Beale clubs and festivals.

Palmer's rock connections have helped him spread the blues to such superstars as U2, when Bono and bassist Adam Clayton took a driving tour of the States and Palmer brought them to Junior Kimbrough's North Mississippi juke joint. Another blues fan, former Eurythmic Dave Stewart, got the Deep Blues film project off the ground and offered the ''Deep Blues'' album a home. The soundtrack was remixed at Stewart's home studio and is being released through Stewart's label, Anxious, distributed by Atlantic.

It's a soundtrack in name only, said Palmer, as only eight of the 15 songs on the CD appear in the movie. The rest, he added, are alternate, superior takes or just different songs entirely. The disc features Lonnie Pitchford, R. L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Big Jack Johnson, Frank Frost, Jessie Mae Hemphill and the duo of Jack Owens and Bud Spires.

''My favorite thing of these Deep Blues-es is definitely the soundtrack CD,'' Palmer said. ''I was able to work on recording that music on a level of technology and expertise that a rock star can command, and I think that's real important.

''I have a real problem with the way a lot of blues records sound these days. I have more of a real raw-edged funky-sounding, fatback grit sort of thing in my mind. To me, it often comes out of the studios seeming very sort of cold. It's not on fire the way the music is in the juke joints, and the whole point to me of the movie and the CD is to try to capture what actually goes on with that music on its home territory, local clubs and front porches.''

Palmer has recently released another film project, The World According to John Coltrane, a tribute to the life and work of the revolutionary jazz saxophonist who died in 1967. It includes such rare footage as performances of Naima and My Favorite Things taken from a Belgian TV show. Released in Japan and Europe, it has yet to be seen in the United States.

Palmer, who began his musical career playing clarinet and flute with the arty rock band the Insect Trust, hopes to trade his word processor for the recording studio, at least for now.

He has a production deal with the new Mississippi blues label Fat Possum, owned by Peter Lee, editor of Living Blues magazine. A Kimbrough album is scheduled for release this month; Palmer will produce a Burnside set next spring. He's also been working on ''Blues Master'' reissues on Rhino, one on Delta blues, the other on Elmore James. And there's even an Insect Trust reissue in the works at Rhino.

But Palmer's first love remains the blues that he helped promote in Memphis when he was barely out of his teens.

''The blues I'm really devoted to is the kind of blues that gets played in a juke joint on Saturday night, and that music has always really been pretty much on the fringe. And really, the thing that makes me happiest about this whole thing, the artists in that movie, most of them were pretty much on the poverty line when we shot that movie in 1990, and today, they're just gigging like crazy.'' 

With the growth of the blues in the Delta and the proliferation of such home-grown festivals as the Memphis Blues Festival, the Beale Street Music Festival; the Helena, Ark., King Biscuit Festival; Greenville, Miss., Delta Blues Festival and the new Robert Johnson Memorial Festival in Greenwood, Miss., Palmer says the current blues revival is the biggest ever.

''There seems to be just a lot of interest across the board in the music,'' he asserted. ''There are people like Robert Cray, who's a pop star, and then these people like R. L. Burnside or Junior Kimbrough, who are working and actually getting out to a wider audience now.''

The music of the latter, the real folk blues played within the Delta communities for the members of those communities, was thought to be on the way to extinction. But Palmer says it's alive and well.

''Everybody's been saying that that's going to die out or it is dying out or it did die. I've been hearing people say that since 1960, right?

''But it doesn't show any signs of dying out. R. L. Burnside has seven sons who all play guitar or bass and they're going to be graduating to their own bands.''

And, as goes the deep blues, so goes Deep Blues. The film is turning out to be a surprise hit, Palmer said.

''I had figured maybe a week in this city and that city and then maybe HBO and then into videocassette. But uh-uh; it's still going fairly strong in theatrical bookings. It's going into 20 cities in the next couple of months.''

Saturday, March 17, 2018

In Search of the Blues: R. L. Burnside

Rafael Alvarez - Baltimore Sun - 1993

Holly Springs,Miss. -- TWO or three times a month, the phone rings in R.L. Burnside's little farmhouse on Highway 4; calls from strangers asking if they can stop by to talk about the blues.

The last time Mr. Burnside's phone jumped with a curious ring, the callers were pilgrims from Baltimore.

``Sure, I remember you,'' said the 66-year-old guitarist who learned his lessons by watching Mississippi Fred McDowell and Muddy Waters. ``Come on over.''

I had met Rural Burnside once before, when he played at the Cat's Eye Pub on Thames Street in May 1986. Back then he had said: ``I think the blues are beginning to come back a little bit.''

Maybe. Hopes for a blues revival flutter beneath the chaos of mainstream music every six or seven years. As they come and go, artists like Mr. Burnside endure, hauling the blues around the world for those who care to listen.

Rule Burnside will be bringing the blues back to Baltimore when he plays the gilded juke joint known as the Walters Art Gallery tomorrow at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10.

Since Mr. Burnside's last visit to the jewel at the head of the Patapsco, his music has grown stronger, while year after year his peers have been dying in twos and threes.

When I interviewed Albert King on his 68th birthday in New York City last April, we talked about the death of bluesman Johnny Shines, one of those rare blue birds who actually traveled and played with the fabled Robert Johnson.

Around the wood-burning stove in the living room of R.L. Burnside's two-story white frame farmhouse, we discussed the December death of King. 

``I saw Albert two weeks before he died, in Memphis on Beale Street,'' said Mr. Burnside. ``I go up there to sit in with my son Dwayne sometimes. He plays at B.B.'s [B.B. King's] club. Sometimes we all jam. Albert was there and he looked healthy. I had talked to him that Wednesday night, but Friday he said something about his heart. His breath was short. He told Dwayne to get him an Alka Seltzer,'' Burnside said. ``And the next Monday he died.''

Asked to identify what was special about Albert King's music, Mr. Burnside said: ``He could sing the blues good and he was a good guitar player.''

As is Mr. Burnside, who plays both electric and acoustic guitar and counts Albert's ``Born Under a Bad Sign,'' popularized in the hippie era by Cream, in his repertoire.

The great fun of seeking out bluesmen in their own backyards is asking if they would play a song or two.

``I'd rather not,'' Mr. Burnside said, smiling and picking up his guitar.

He is a classic Delta style guitarist in the tradition of Robert Johnson and Fred McDowell, whom R.L. honors as his mentor. He lived in the electric blues of Chicago for a few years in the 1950s, where he picked up slide guitar by watching Muddy Waters. But, ``I like the old-time blues best.''

The old-time blues is what my friend and I got as he launched into ``Jumper on the Line,'' a song he performed in the ` documentary ``Deep Blues,'' which was shown earlier this month at the Orpheum Cinema in Fells Point.

Now what do you think a title like ``Jumper on the Line'' means?

I thought maybe it was about fishing. It is, sort of.

Mr. Burnside, eyes wide in the joy of making others happy, sang out in a high voice: ``See my jumper, Lord, oh hangin' on the line. . . yes, I see my jumper, oh lord, a hangin' on the line. . .

``When I see my jumper, you know there's somethin' on my mind. . .''

Call it espionage of the heart. In blues lore, if a married woman hangs her housecoat or ``jumper'' out on the clothesline, it's a sign to her lover that the coast is clear.

R.L. had some competition from a TV set in another room, and several of his 12 children came and went. A few were working on a derelict Ford Pinto in the front yard. His wife Alice sat beside him, rubbing her temples as her man showed off the way he earns a living.

Mr. Burnside played three songs before quitting, picking the notes with the nail of his right index finger and strumming chords with his thumb.

Once in a while, as he sat on the sofa across from a big blue and red poster of a Paris blues festival with his name on it, Mr. Burnside banged on the wooden guitar as though it were a drum.

There was one more thing I wanted to give this generous man before leaving, but first I had to see if the gift was appropriate.

I wanted to know what R.L. Burnside, a former sharecropper whose music is a direct link to the most primal of American art, thought of Elvis Presley, another Magnolia State native who is accused of stealing that art.

As I posed the question, there was music spinning in my head: Elvis hits interpreted by the late Albert King on an album with the eerie title ``Blues for Elvis.''

``I like Elvis, yeah man, yeah,'' he said. ``I think Elvis helped the black people. I believe it now; I sure enough do.''

And so the image of R.L. Burnside that stayed with me, as I backed out of his front yard to drive to the grave of Elmore James an hour's drive south, is that of a grinning man in a red flannel shirt and work pants.

And he's holding up a sheet of Elvis stamps from Baltimore's Gough Street post office.

It seems there is no room for resentment in R.L. Burnside's blues.

``I never figured it would come to this,'' he said. ``Me -- a poor man growing up on a farm, playing music all over the world. I never thought I would go the places I've been. . . the blues have helped me a heap. I've been lucky there.'' Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Sun and Evening Sun.

WHEELER SINGING BLUES IN SCHOOLS (1990)


By PAUL DELLA VALLE - Worcester Telegram & Gazette (MA) - November 6, 1990


I said hope, heroes and the blues. Those are three things, people, everybody can use."

T.J. Wheeler

Tough audience, those little nippers.

Not that the preschoolers, kindergartners and first-graders at Jacob Hiatt Magnet School didn't enjoy bluesman T.J. Wheeler's gravel-voiced rendition of Muddy Water's "The Blues Had A Baby (And They Named It Rock 'n' Roll)" last Friday.

Au contraire, mon frere.

The kids at Hiatt got into the music so much that every time Wheeler plucked one string on his National steel guitar, they'd start clapping. They'd clap on the one beat. They'd clap on the two. They'd even clap on the two and a half . . .

"Hey," Wheeler, a big amiable guy who sports a mustache and goatee under his brown fedora, said into his microphone. "Clap on the two and the four."

MAKES THEM HAPPY

No chance. Heck, some kids were clapping three, four times on each beat. But Wheeler didn't mind, not a bit. If the blues made them happy, well, that's what the blues are all about.

"Lots of people just feel the blues is a sad, sad thing," Wheeler told the children. "But the blues really can be a friend. It's been my best friend for a long time."

Wheeler, who lives in Hampton Falls, N.H., has been playing the blues for more than 20 years. He thinks traditional country blues - the root of most American music - is worth saving. Ben and Jerry, the Vermont ice cream moguls, agree. They are helping pay for Wheeler to drive to inner-city and poor rural schools all the way down to the Mississippi Delta to teach children about the blues. The ice-creamers' grant won't finance the whole trip, so Wheeler is picking up gigs in each town. He played at Gilrein's, right down Main Street from Jacob Hiatt, on Friday night.

FIRST STOP

Wheeler's booking agent, Randy Labbe of Worcester's Deluge Entertainment, said the response from club owners, city officials and schools has been phenomenal. "It seems like they were just waiting for something like this," Labbe said. Worcester was the first stop on Wheeler's three-week tour. His itinerary will take him from Cleveland to Detroit then down through the Midwest to the Delta area. The highlight of the tour will be Sonny Boy Williamson Day in Tutwiler, Miss., on Nov. 24.

Rice Miller, a k a Sonny Boy Williamson II, died in 1965. If you're a blues fan, you know Sonny Boy was a true great, a man who, in the words of author Studs Terkel, "plays the harmonica, sings through, over, and around it." His songs - "All My Love In Vain," "One Way Out" "Nine Below Zero" "Your Funeral and My Trial" - were short stories set to a one-four-five change. He was a bridge between the Delta and Chicago blues styles, a bridge between blues and rock 'n' roll. Two years before his death, Sonny Boy cut a live album with the Yardbirds and Eric Clapton.

PAUPER'S GRAVE

He's a blues giant, but Sonny Boy is buried in a pauper's grave, a hard-to-find, poison ivy-covered plot in the woods of Tutwiler. He's not the only blues hero to die poor. Most did.

It just doesn't seem right. Wheeler, who 15 years ago hitchhiked to the Delta to learn from aging greats like Furry Lewis and Sleepy John Estes, figures there's a debt to be paid.

"Most of them are gone now and one thing they asked me is to help keep the music alive, don't mimic, don't copy note for note, but just take the essence and be yourself with it," Wheeler said between programs at the Hiatt school. "Ensuring their memory to future generations is what I'm doing this trip for."

Wheeler, 38, grew up near Seattle. When he was 17, he went to see Delta blues legend Son House. House blew him away. Wheeler put down his electric guitar, picked up an acoustic, and learned the songs of Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Estes and Lewis. When he was 23, he hitched south.

"I felt it wasn't enough just to sit around in suburbia listening to old records," he said. "While friends of mine were going to school at music universities, I decided it was more important for my career in blues to go down and learn from some of the people who had actually lived them."

Wheeler has done blues workshops in schools for about 10 years. He has a way with kids, telling them to hush when they get rowdy, drawing them in by imitating a train when he plays "Casey Jones" or asking them to sing along on his own "Hope, Heroes and the Blues."

He doesn't just sing and play. He talked to the kids Friday about saying no to drugs and about feeling good about themselves and their heritages. Their heroes may be different today but . . .

"All of that music that Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson make," Wheeler told them. "That came out of the blues."

At the end of the first program, Wheeler started to tell the kids a treat was coming - ice cream bars that Ben and Jerry's had provided. Unfortunately, Principal Tony Caputo had to whisper to Wheeler that the ice cream would actually be served on Monday.

Wheeler sighed, rolled his eyes and leaned into the microphone.

"Well," he said. "Ain't that the blues."


Requiem for Furry

BY AMANDA SHARP - (MEMPHIS, TN:) Commercial Appeal - 1981
On August 14, 1981, Furry Lewis suffered severe burns in a fire at his duplex. He remained in the hospital, falling into a coma in September. After being in a coma for five days, he died of heart failure less than a week later at the City of Memphis Hospital. “Like a man in a blues song,” journalist William Thomas informed, “he was broke and his guitar was in the pawn shop” when he died.

Walter 'Furry' Lewis, a wooden-legged Memphis street sweeper who helped keep country blues alive, went to his grave with a brand-new suit, a clean shirt and the tears of his mourners on his casket.

'He would have loved it,' said Harry Godwin, a blues historian and good friend of the 88-year-old bottleneck guitarist.

Lewis, who once told an interviewer that 'You just live as long as you can and you die when you can't help it,' succumbed Monday to a heart attack as he was recovering from burns received in a fire at his ramshackle apartment.

About 200 people crowded into the J.C. Oates & Son funeral home to see him off. 
They passed the casket one-by-one, many in tears, to see him wearing clothes he rarely could afford in life. Over the funeral home's sound system his gruff recorded voice sang his old songs -- 'Good Morning Blues,' 'Take Your Time, Baby' 'Judge Boushe', 'Pearlee Blues' and 'Brownsville Blues.'

Ranged behind the casket for the service, two guitarists, a pianist and a harmonica -- harp to the bluesman -- player churned out 'The Old Rugged Cross' and 'When I Lay My Burden Down,' and sent the casket out to the hearse with 'When the Saints Go Marching In.'

Those who knew him took turns speaking -- of his legendary generosity, the music he passed on to them, and his hard times.

'Furry would give you his right eye if he thought it would make you see better,' said one woman. A young girl sprinkled rose petals on the casket.

'It was tough, it was hard, and that's what he sang about,' said a musician named Vic Conwill bitterly. 'He sang the blues, and he had every right to sing the blues.

'When Furry Lewis got down, nobody cared 'til right now,' said Conwill. 'Look at all these people -- big deal, and you can take that to the bank.'

The Rev. James Ramey, the associate pastor of Greater Middle Baptist Church, delivered a remarkable eulogy. Noting the 44 years Lewis spent working for the city as a street sweeper, Ramy announced that 'from this sweeping of his city's streets, Memphis received many 'Cleanest City' awards.'

'Thank God for this legend who went about doing good under adverse circumstances,' Ramey said. 'He exhibited to us that we can make it if we try.' 



Exactly how Lewis had 'made it' was hard to understand. Toothless, in ill health, he often had to hock his guitar for food money. 

Born in Mississippi, he was the last surviving member of the great W.C. Handy's band. He played across the United States and Europe. He played himself in two movies, 'W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings' with Burt Reynolds and 'This Is Elvis,' the semi-documentary on the rock 'n' roll legend. 

But he lived, and died, a poor man -- in part because when he had it, he spent it on his friends. Arne Brogger, an agent, told of the time Lewis was on the road with the Memphis Blues Caravan, which included Bukka White and Sleepy John Estes, and the group stopped for lunch. 

'Well, the bill came and old Furry slapped down a $50 bill. 'This one's on me,' he said,' recounted Brogger. When he was asked why, Furry replied, ''Well the way I figure it, maybe someone will buy me a lunch someday.''



Furry Lewis was buried on September 16, 1981. Musician Sid Selvidge informed that the ceremony was not “real elaborate,” because “the family wanted to pay for it without a lot of outside help.” Selvidge joined Lee Baker and Lindsay Butler in singing some hymns, such as “Lay My Burden Down” and “Glory, Glory Hallelujah.”


Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Jessie's Mae Backyard Babydoll Blues (1996)

Leon Morris - Sydney Morning Herald, The (Australia) - October 12, 1996 
Jessie Mae Hemphill being the essence of the hill country in 1996
Down in the Delta, there's a whole lotta weepin' and wailin' going on as the sounds of the Deep South enjoy a home-grown resurgence.

Earlier this year, the remnants of the wooden shack in which bluesman Muddy Waters once lived were removed, log by log, from the Stovall Plantation in Coahoma County, Mississippi. The spot is just a short drive from the crossroads of highways 49 and 61, where legend has it Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his blues guitar skills.

After careful restoration, the shack will begin a five-year promotional tour around the fast-growing American chain of music theme clubs The House of Blues, before being returned to its original site.

The crossroads of highways 49 and 61 mark the entrance to the town of Clarksdale, signposting the town's reputation as the home of the blues. But Clarksdale itself has been slow to cotton on. About 18 months ago, the head of Clarksdale's local tourism authority snarled at a northern interloper with plans to turn Clarksdale's disused railway station into a blues tourism attraction, "What makes you think that people are going to pay to see a black man play the guitar?"

Now, however, the county tourism authority has received a Federal government grant to renovate the station and the interloper holds the exclusive liquor licence for a performance, tourism and shopping theme complex to be called Bluesland. The blues, it seems, has come a long way.

The small number of (mostly) men who brought Mississippi blues from its Deep South origins were the descendants of African slaves whose freedom was illusory.

Their musical response to the hardship and alienation of exploitative share-

cropping and overt, institutional racism had largely been ignored, until a resurgence of interest in the blues was triggered by the British invasion of rock musicians, notably the Rolling Stones, in the '60s.

In hindsight it is difficult to exaggerate the impact the blues has had on contemporary culture. Quite simply, without the blues there would be no rock'n'roll.

Jim Dickinson, a white, Memphis-based musician who participated in what he calls the "cultural collision" between black and white music-makers in the '50s and '60s that created what we now know as rockabilly, soul and rock, challenges us to "imagine the world without rock'n'roll".

One of Clarksdale's leading contemporary blues musicians, Arthneice Jones, simply says, "The blues had a baby and they called it rock'n'roll." Or in the words of Robert Gordon, a writer and filmmaker on Memphis music, rock'n'roll is simply "the failed attempt of white people with a country background trying to play the blues".

Dickinson traces a neat musical history back to the African origins of slavery. "An African work song is not a complaint - it is a celebration of life. Add to that slavery, the four beat of Anglo Saxon ballad form, and it becomes a complaint of the human condition - it's the blues. You take that back across the line to a teenage white kid who puts a four beat at the bottom of it, and its rock'n'roll."

Clarksdale, Mississippi is an obvious starting point in trying to understand the blues - where it came from and what it means today.  Clarksdale is in the heartland of what is known as the Mississippi Delta. Not a delta at all, it is, in fact, the floodplains of the mighty Mississippi River - the richest farming land in the United States.

The Delta is said to run from the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis south to Vicksburg, where the American Civil War was won and lost. It is about 320 km long and 110 km wide, bounded to the east by the hill country around Greenwood and to the west by the Yazoo River, which snakes south to Vicksburg.

Driving into the Delta from any direction is like stepping backwards into a world strangely familiar from the documentary and news footage of the American civil rights movement. The grey and dusty furrows of the cotton fields that stretch in every direction speak of the desolation and despair of rural poverty - a reminder of slavery and share-cropping in the not too distant past.

The promise of cotton abloom on these same fields speaks of the life of plenty on the "other side of the tracks", where suburban and rural mansions boast their wealth - seemingly oblivious to the neighboring poverty. Tragically, rural hardship now meets the symptoms of urban-style disaffection: crime, crack and teenage pregnancy are on the rise.




Arthneice Jones knows what it is like to live on the wrong side of the tracks. He lives on a Clarksdale street that is broken by a now derelict railway line. To drive from the town side of the street to the side on which Jones lives requires a detour of at least six blocks.

The railway line that marks this separation is the same railway line that carried Muddy Waters north to Chicago in 1943. lt is the same railway line that carried hundreds of thousands of southern blacks north after World War I - a desperate bid to escape the racism of the Deep South - in the single largest internal migration of people in American history.

Jones represents a generation of blues-men indebted to their blues ancestors but doing what blues has always done - moved with the times.

He is just as likely to be cooking up

a party with driving soul music as reaching down into the depths of the blues tradition to experiment with links to jazz and rap.

This is how he describes the origin of the blues: "The black people brought forth the blues through being suppressed; through hard times and denial; through being hated not loved; through being misunderstood as another race in another world where you once were bought and sold. And the same act went on and on for hundreds of years past the time of slavery. They still took advantage of people. We was just a denied people as we are today."

The blues, according to Jones, was "the feeling of expression, to be able to talk back, to speak in another way in a language on our side of town. To blow off steam when you [white people] weren't there. You wasn't going to listen to that nigger music - no way. But it was a form of art being developed right around you for years and years and years that controlled the basic front part of the beat of modern music."

African slaves were first brought to America in 1619. It wasn't until 1862 that the first of a series of constitutional amendments began the process of abolishing slavery. By 1870, slavery was unconstitutional but the misery of southern blacks continued through a cruel and exploitative share-cropping system. Black labourers would farm land and "share" profits with the landowner. The landowner would deduct expenses from the sharecroppers' half so that most black workers earned a pittance or, worse, built up debts to landlords who built plantation houses of overwhelming grandeur.



For the black workers and their families, the enduring "shot-gun" shack - so named because a bullet fired from the front door would pass straight through the simple two-room shack and out the back door - has come to represent their life of hardship and violent oppression.

These days, the ubiquitous trailer home is slowly replacing the shotgun shack as the main housing for the rural poor.

It is in one of these leaking and rickety trailer homes in a desolate trailer park that Jessie Mae Hemphill, one of the great women blues musicians, now languishes.

Jessie Mae Hemphill is the last of the Hemphill blues family. Taught by her grandfather, Sid - one of the legendary greats from the hill country marking the eastern border of the Delta - she came to blues performance late in life but has won three major blues awards for the one album she recorded, She-Wolf.

She recently suffered a stroke at the age of 60 and is partly paralyzed. Most of her possessions were stolen when she was hospitalized with the stroke.

Her single album and the occasional song on an anthology is all that is left of her legacy to the blues. "I'm staying on God's side now," she says. If Hemphill records or performs again it will be in the gospel tradition.

The tension between the blues and the church is a continuing theme in the Deep South. These days the description of the blues as the Devil's music is more directed towards the lifestyle associated with it than the music itself.

The Reverend Willie Morganfield is an accomplished gospel singer with 13 records to his name. He fondly remembers his cousin, Mckinley Morganfield (the legendary Muddy Waters), playing blues on a keg of nails. "There's a thin line between love and hate, same thing with blues and gospel," he says.

Of the Mississippi musicians I spoke to, all of the older musicians and many of the younger ones spoke of their faith in the church as their spiritual guide in the face of hardship and oppression. Of the four old-timers I tracked down, each had stories of physical torment in the cotton fields, and all spoke of the stringent discipline - "whippings" - that characterized parental and penal discipline in their younger years.

In 1900, W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the early leaders of the black civil rights movement talked of the color line in southern America. "A line drawn in black and white and the blood red of violence." Between 1900 and 1930, the 17 counties of the Mississippi Delta averaged a lynching every five-and-a-half months. Of the 539 recorded lynchings in the US between 1882 and 1964, more than one-third occurred in Mississippi.

Willie Foster grew up through these times. At 75, he is the living embodiment of the original blues man. Still playing the warm and soulful harmonica that made him one of Muddy Waters's favorite side-men, he is now almost blind and is confined to a wheelchair. Foster explains the origins of the blues like this: "I wasn't a slave, my parents weren't, but my fore-fore-parents were. We were writing the same book that the slaves were; they just didn't name it slavery. The only thing was you was not bought. I saw enough of it to know."

Foster certainly does know. As he puts it, "I was born in the blues and raised in the blues. I've had all kind of blues from the broke-toenail blues to the last-strand-of-hair-in-my-head blues. As low as I am and tall as I am. In other words, I've had the hungry blues, the hurtin' blues, the hard-workin' blues, the couldn't-go-to-school blues."

Despite a tragic personal history, he maintains a warmth and joy that defies his life story. He personifies the words that introduce the Civil Rights Museum, built around the hotel in Memphis where Martin Luther King was assassinated. "The history of African-Americans in this country is one of tragedy and violence, but it is also one of courage and strength, filled with determination and hope."

In 1921, Foster was born while his mother was working in a cotton field. Tears flow from this blind man's eyes as he recollects the memory of his childhood nearly 70 years before.

"I knew what the blues was when I was seven years old. I didn't have anyone to play with and I decided to ask my Mama why don't she get me a sister or brother? That's when I realized what the blues was all about. She said enough to let me know that I was the causing of it. I was born out across the field and they didn't have time to rush me in and cut my navel string, so it kind of mortified. About six months later, my mother's health began to get bad and she couldn't have any more children ..."

Foster, like most of the old-timers still alive today, knows what it was to work from sun-up to sun-down ploughing rock-hard ground with mule teams that would be worked to death in the stinking heat of the cotton fields.

"Music," he says, "is a thing beginning from a hoe. You chop the grass and it goes ching ching. A man be cutting wood and he go ting ting as he hit the wood and his axe is saying pop pop pop. That's a musical sound."

"The name blues," he explains, "is from 'I'm blue'. We put the "ues" to it when you feelin' down and out. You feel sad and blue and hurting. That puts a burden on your mind and makes you feel blue. The blues is an inspiration to keep you from crying because you're tired."

A few miles away, in the centre of Greenville, lives Eugene Powell, one of the last of the great blues guitar pickers. "The blues," he says, "comes from colored people. Colored peoples wasn't counted with white folk. Nobody seemed to like colored people - do them bad, beat 'em up. The blues is playing your feelings." In his song Suitcase Full of Trouble, Powell sings: I've got a suitcase full of trouble and a trunk full of worries.

Blues ain't nothin' but a worry on my mind.

You be bothered all the time.

Foster, Powell and a handful of other old-timers are all that is left of today's advertising stereotype. The old man playing guitar or harmonica on the front porch is not the same as today's blues men and women because the problems are not the same.

As Arthneice Jones explains: "B.B. King can go in through the front door now. When he first started travelling he had to go in the back door. He can drink out of any water fountain now. You'd have had a colored water fountain and a white water fountain. Music has to be about what goes on in your life. New blues is just new problems."

Jones the poet and songwriter takes over:


All the cotton been picked and the mules been ploughed,

The story been told and laid to the side.

A lot of folks have written about the blues but most of them have lied.

In order to know the truth you must have lived the life and damn near died.


John Ruskey is curator at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi. A musician himself with the Wesley Jefferson Blues Band, he greets thousands of visitors from all parts of the globe coming to Clarksdale to learn and pay their respects to the greats and the music they love.

Ruskey argues that the only way to understand the blues is through its performance. "People dance and actively participate in the making of the music. There's a lot of call back and forth between the musicians and audience. It's kind of a communal moving on - that's the hope of the music."

Ruskey says, "Music is a way of telling your story, of talking to people, telling your feelings. Music is an integral part of life here and is as important as talking is to an English teacher or a computer to a Wall Street banker. Music is found at all weddings, family reunions, community gatherings and the juke joints, in the church with gospel music, riding around in your car, in your home."

Live music performance in the Delta is usually confined to Friday or Saturday nights, with the juke joint tradition living on. The juke joint is usually a run-down building that comes alive as a bar and music venue on weekends.

The most regular juke joints are in Clarksdale and nearby Shelby. The musicians of this region are a close-knit family

and play together at clubs, juke joints and on special occasions.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to a number of blues gigs and a description of just two may help to explain what the blues means as a living, rather than a recorded, tradition.

The opening night of a new club in Clarksdale attracted most local musicians to perform and jam together. Special guest was Terry "Youngblood" Williams, who had been released from the local jail for the evening to play for the first time in three months.

Williams had been jailed for failing to make fine payments on a minor drug charge. He had been arrested by his parole officer when he came off stage from the 1995 Annual Sunflower Festival in Clarksdale. The last time he had picked up a guitar was in February 1996 when he was released to play at a benefit concert.

Referring to his time in jail, Williams told me, "Since I've been in here I've been divorced, I've been spit on, slapped on. Well, I know what the blues is all about now."

Williams plays with a sweetness of sound and deftness of touch that belies his recent experience and underscores the talent of real blues men. When he was joined by his two young sons, the soul of the blues man was poignant. His skill lies in a confidence in his own ability and musical heritage not to show off with the loud and showy licks that characterise many white blues players.

Just as jazz music is largely about knowing when not to play, real blues is all about feeling and expression, and fine blues musicians can create more feeling and sensitivity with one bent note than the flashy affectations of rock musicians and their desperate attempts to demonstrate their arsenal of guitar skills.

Later that same night, 50 km away in the town of Shelby, Robert Walker was playing at the region's most active juke joint, the Do Drop Inn. A cotton grower from Mississippi now growing cotton in California, Walker had returned to Shelby for a family funeral. The Do Drop Inn is a crumbling facade on a run-down corner. On weekends the streets are alive with people and cars. A couple of dollars at the door gains entrance to a long rectangular room lined with large sheets of chipboard covering the floors, walls and low ceiling. In the front half of the room is a bar and pool table, while there is a seating, dance and performance area in the back half of the room.

Walker plays with an intensity that can only be compared to Chuck Berry at his dirtiest. Backed by the irrepressible James "Super Chickan" Johnson on drums and a languid bass player holding down the beat, Walker's playing inspired extraordinary audience reaction from licentious dancing through to respectful homage and interplay. That the blues tradition can live on in places like Shelby and Clarksdale, so very far away from the commercial interpretations that now pass for blues, is a tribute to the continuing creativity and musical talent of Delta musicians.

The endurance and popularity of this musical form which developed as a response to the hardship and deprivations of share-cropping around the turn of the last century owes much to the blues' universal message of joy and sorrow - a message that cuts across racial, cultural and language barriers. Willie Foster simply says, "What's from the heart reaches the heart."

At a time when the blues is being targeted as a mainstream musical product, one wonders whether the Delta's place in blues history will at last be recognised. In the words of Arthneice Jones:



The blues is nothing but a lifestyle,

I'm telling you as simple as it can be.

I didn't choose the blues,

The blues chose me.





Monday, March 5, 2018

Jo Ann Kelly: Memphis Bound

Jo Ann Kelly: Memphis Bound
By Pete Moody - 1988
This article covers her career from the mid-sixties to the hey-day of early success in concert and on record....

Jo Ann Kelly warming up backstage
In 1965, amplified R&B was competing well with both Jazz and Beat music. Acoustic Blues was also successful in competing with unamplified music in Folk clubs, which had strong traditions in English folksong, ballads and poetry. One such club, Bunjies Folk Club and Coffee House was steeped in these traditions but gave the "new music" a chance. An established resident, Les Bridger, was keen for Jo Ann Kelly to perform, and it soon became a regular event, with both Jo and Les doing sets on the same night. Jo's repertoire included numbers by Lil' Green, American standards "It Ain't Necessarily So", "Summertime" and "Saint James' Infirmary".

Les, keen to play twelve string guitar, suggested that Jo "would sound good on one" and introduced her to Watkins of Balham, a music store run by Chris Ayliff. Jo purchased a Framus twelve string, to the immediate delight of Les and, later, to the delight of her new following. Gigs at Bunjies continued until 1970.

Chris Ayliff became a good connection because he knew such folk luminaries of the day as John Renbourne, Bert Jansch and the like. He also introduced Jo to Leadbelly and Jesse Fuller tunes. Fuller's "Working On The Railroad" and Leadbelly's "Black Girl" and "Ella Speed" were added to the repertoire. Jo was also digging deeper into the Swing Shop's stocks with the continuing aid of Bob Glass. It was at the Swing Shop that Jo met Steve Rye. She had previously seen Steve passing her home, playing blues harp while 4 walking along the road.

By 1966 more clubs were featuring blues. In addition to Bunjies, Jo and Les would play at "The Scots Hoose" at Cambridge Circus and "The Hole In the Wall" at Swiss Cottage. They were also offered more residencies at other clubs, so that in any given week, Jo was working most nights.

Jo was one of the first blues artists to be booked for Surbiton Folk Club at The Assembly Halls — at a fee of £6. "Les Cousins" in Greek Street, often frequented by Davy Graham and Alexis Korner, was a regular spot in Jo's working week.


Jo, following the Yardbirds experience, still fancied sitting in with bands and would do so with John. Lee's Groundhogs at any opportunity — "Not too much" Jo recalls "John Cruikshank was not too keen to have me fronting the band... he enjoyed the singing role"

In 1966, the Folk Blues boom took off in towns up and down the country, such as Bristol, Newcastle and Reading, where clubs were run with great success. Jo became a regular act at the Bristol Club, often leaving for the gig immediately after the Sunday afternoon sessions at Lon-don's Studio 51 Club. College and University gigs were also entering the diary and in 1966 too, Jo often sat in with another band — Brett Marvin and the Thunderbolts.

The themes of '66 were continued into 1967, with blues riding high. Dave Kelly joined the ranks of the long-serving John Dummer Blues Band — his first such band venture —and by 1968 the scene had really opened up.

Jo did a radio show with Alexis Korner on the BBC Third Programme in July, guested with Fred McDowell in London's Mayfair Hotel and recorded for Matchbox and Liberty. She performed at the First National Blues Convention in September and a London Blues Society concert in December, both at The Conway Hall. Ron Ede and Mike Gavin, who ran the Bridge House Club at the Elephant and Castle, gave Jo a Wednesday night residency. Among the acts appearing were John Lee Hooker, Big Boy Crudup, Big Joe Williams and Fred. McDowell. Tony McPhee was a frequent visitor, as was Bob Hall, with whom Jo would, on occasion, rekindle the Kelly/Hall duets. It was at the Bridge House that Jo met Nick Perls when Simon Prager brought him round following a session at Bunjies. Nick was looking for talent to record and Simon knew "just the person".

Nick and Jo met up again at the Blues Convention and struck a deal to record an LP. Fourteen sides were recorded in London in March 1969. Nick's idea was to sell to a major label, and Lawrence Cohn signed her to CBS-Epic Records. The album was released in both the UK and the USA. On the strength of the American release, Jo performed at the Memphis Blues Festival in June, working alongside Furry Lewis, Fred McDowell, Bukka White and Sleepy John Estes. Here too, she met up with Johnny Winter.

Jo returned to the UK before Cohn brought her back for more success with gigs at the CBS Convention in Los Angeles in August, the Second Farnham Blues Festival in September, a concert in Oslo and a ten-day Melody Maker tour up and down the UK, commencing at the Albert Hall. Three more Liberty records featured her and with two albums on Immediate's Blues Anytime series, appearances on three albums with her brother ("Tramp", John Dummer's "Cabal" album and Dave Kelly's "Keep It In The Family") 1969 was a hard year to follow.

CBS thought that a Jo Ann Kelly/ Johnny Winter tour would be a commercial success. When Winter had met Jo at Memphis and Los Angeles, he may have "liked what he saw" but once Cohn found out that Winter was going to do a major tour, he had to ask him to consider taking on Jo Ann. Johnny Winter's concept for the tour was that they would open the show together as an acoustic duo, and afterwards, he would plug in. [Moody's contention that each of them "would do an acoustic set, then duet, after which Winter's band would back Johnny with Jo sitting in" is about as absurd as it gets really.]

[Moody further contends that, "when she declined to work with Johnny Winter, Jo Ann lost the opportunity for a second CBS Album, because the company supported Johnny Winter's ideas for a 'rock' album." Jo parted company with CBS, in his view, due to her disappointment with Winter. Lawrence Cohn, however---the record executive who signed Jo to CBS/Epic, released her LP, brought her to the Annual International CBS Convention in Los Angeles, where she was the absolute hit of the event, and set her up to go out on tour with Winter---remembers a quite different series of events altogether. "She started rehearsals with him," Cohn informs, "the plan being that she and Johnny would open up the show as a duo and thereafter Johnny would go electric with his mountain of Marshalls...and then as I had feared, she opted to leave abruptly and return home to UK." Jo never really wanted to be a huge rock star and perform in stadiums to capacity crowds, Cohn explains. "She...was quite content to do pubs and small concerts in Europe." Her departure from CBS/Epic, moreover, "had absolutely nothing to do with Winter." He released Jo from the label, quite simply, because he recognized that "it was the right thing to do."]


The culture was different — Rock had swallowed the Blues in the States and turned heavy. Winter's band sounded alien to Jo's ears. It wasn't what she wanted, so after a four-day stay, Jo declined the offer and returned home.  The remainder of 1970 was a busy time, with gigs throughout the UK, many on the strength of her album, though she took time off for a USA holiday, in upstate New York with Nick Perls. Her music was now spreading into Europe as well as the States. Solo work was still the theme, but not for long...



During 1970, following the CBS Album release, Jo began to see more of 'Life' in the States. She travelled from New York to Memphis — staying at the Peabody Hotel, journeyed to Brownsville, then went into Mississippi to Clarksdale. The trip was a real eye-opener — showing how blacks lived in the South... with deprivation went the added hardship of combatting the heat and humidity —with neither refrigeration nor air conditioning. Homes were simple timber shacks down on the 'Other Side of Town'. Jo's interest in all this roused the suspicion of the local whites — a sad fact that becomes reality for visitors to the Country.