Lattie "The Wolf" Murrell by Bengt Olsson
It was early September, the year was 1971, the cotton fields were starting to turn white and it was cooling off after yet another paralyzingly hot West Tennessee summer. The kind of summer that had tempted you to lay in front of the air conditioner, drink beer and watch trash on TV instead of devoting your precious time to going out exploring, trying to find previously unheard of blues singers. This particular Sunday afternoon we - Bill Barth and I - were driving around Fayette County, aimlessly - choosing roads at random - but with a purpose; the purpose being to dig old-style blues players out of their holes...bring them out into the light. few of them were still out there, no doubt about that, but they did not reveal themselves easily. They might still have their old battered guitars and occasionally play and sing around the house, but their communities rarely thought of them as singers or musicians and there were few, if any, occasions that called for their kind of music. Time had moved on.
We stopped at country stores, cafés, private homes, anywhere where we spotted groups of older black men. Asking, probing, hoping to get a positive response and directions to players that might still be capable of making music. At one time Fayette County had been rich blues country. Names like Son Evelina, Red Harvil, Raymond Payne, Johnny Wilson came up. All dead and gone. Fred McDowell was a native of Fayette County. So was "Homesick" James., whose parents - Mary and Plez - were still alive in '71, living deep in the woods near Bruels. Mary used to played guitar lapstyle with a knife, and Plez had played snare drum with local drum and fife bands for years.
A few miles east of Somerville on the fringe of town, at a small house with a big porch, there was some Sunday partying going on. We pulled over to the side, got out of the car and approached our chosen victims to ask the usual questions. Bottles and beer cans quickly disappeared. White folks! What the hell was our business there?! Suspicion. Silence. Hostile stares. Fayette County at that time had a not-so-distant history of racial tension and police brutality. After explaining our reason for intruding, the men warmed up to the point where a half pint bottle and some Schlitz Malt Liquor came out from hiding. We were politely offered a swig. Looking for bluesmen? Someone who can play them o-l-d kind of blues? There was no doubt who we needed to see. No doubt whatsoever! Lattie Murrell was our man! Call him "The Wolf" because of all the Howlin' Wolf songs he played. He usually comes around on weekends to drink and play music - will play and sing for whiskey and beer. Had been there yesterday, so he wasn't likely to come by today. Apparently, he had kind of a loose route he stuck by when he was making his rounds on weekends, drinking, socializing, entertaining his friends with his guitar playing and singing. We were given directions to the place we would be most likely to find him.
Murrell was exactly where our informant thought he would be. Mr. Predictable himself! Half-drunk, feeling good, at peace with the world, his guitar resting beside him. He welcomed us with a nod and a look of curiosity that seemed out of place in his hard, full-of-bone, been-through-it-all kind of face. As soon as he realized we were interested in his music - and Barth had played him a Patton number on his guitar - he warmed up and started playing and singing. "Spoonful", the Howlin' Wolf song. The timing between voice & instrument was impeccable. He never played too much and left plenty empty space in his music. Rapped and knocked on the body of his guitar, stomping his feet hard. Nonchalantly, cigarette in mouth, playing the guitar above his head and behind his back. Totally in control. The man was sensational!
After playing a couple of numbers, Lattie broke a string on his guitar, stopped playing and told us it was time to go. We agreed to drive him home to put a new string on, then go over to another friend's house where he would meet up with some of his buddies, and continue the reveling. The weekend was not over yet. Lattie positioned himself in the front seat of our car and started giving us directions to his home. While driving him home we decided to pick him up again next Saturday at 5 p.m. in order to record him. God, I prayed he would be there! Getting to the house where he lived sent us out on a country road roller coaster ride, and once we reached our destination it was far from what we had expected. I'm sure Lattie was well aware of the effect of surprise his living conditions would have upon us, but he kept his mouth shut and chose not to let on like anything was out of the ordinary.
We entered our destination, Lattie's home, through an arched gateway. Hundreds of acres of land with hog pens galore and God knows how many grazing cattle. And the kind of modern ranch-house one is used to seeing in television soap-operas. Big enough to house a family tree. Lattie and the white land-owner and hog-farmer (possibly named Erroll Cunningham) had grown up and played together during childhood, and now the farmer had taken Lattie under his wing, employing him as maintenance man, gardener, chauffeur and what have you. Lattie occasionally accompanied his boss on business trips and had made at least one trip to Europe -didn't like the food and coffee! So here he was, living on the ranch premises in a basement apartment, immaculately clean with red wall-to-wall carpeting, plush sofa and chairs, pool table, a bar, framed fireplace in one corner. But Lattie seemed oddly uncomfortable in his playboy-like environment. He seemed to get smaller, confined - didn't quite go with the wallpaper. I didn't ask, but was under the impression he hadn't lived there very long. He put a new string on his guitar, went to the bathroom and then we were back out the door. We had been there less than five minutes.
Lattie was not what you would call the talkative kind. At first glance he seemed world-weary, guarded and private with scarred skin and soul, a no bullshit kind of an attitude. There was no pretense whatsoever about the man. It was nothing to be taken personal - just the way he was. A "Yassuh" wouldn't fit his mouth right. He had the defiant kind of attitude that could easily get a black man into trouble in a place like Fayette County. My friend, German blues traveler Axel Kustner who visited with Lattie some seven years later told me about how Lattie at one time had gone into a country store buying chewing gum and cigarettes, keeping Axel and some of his buddies waiting outside. While in there the white shop-keeper asked Lattie "Who's that with you (referring to Axel)?" Lattie answered dryly "That's my li'l brother from Europe" and then added sarcastically with a grain of vindictiveness "But that's none of your business no-how!".
I only met Lattie twice and the circumstances were not suitable for pulling his brain about his past on either occasion. But Axel tried. In spite of having a good relationship with Lattie, Axel found it difficult to get under Lattie's skin and get information about his past. "Really I don't know 'cause I'm too old to think way back there. See I'm an ole man." End of subject. And, really, why should Lattie open up and tell his life-story to a white boy from overseas, Li'l Brother or no Li'l Brother?
A friend of Lattie's remarked confidentially to Axel that at one time Lattie had done some hard time in the penitentiary, a fact that may account for his guarded attitude. He used to be a gambler and a drinker - still was at the age of 60 plus -and I have little difficulty imagining him with weapon in hand and making use of it if sufficiently provoked.
We know very, very little about Lottie's early years. The Social Security Death Index shows that he was born Lottie (not Lattie) Murrell, on Feb 23, 1910, but I'll take the liberty of referring to him as "Lattie" throughout my liner notes. He told Axel Kustner he was born in 1903.... He is absent in the 1910-1930 census counts, but there are records of an older Lattie Murrell living in the same area. Exactly what the connection is between the two we will probably never know, but I feel positive there is one. Lattie or Lottie Murrell are not household names.
The 1910 Fayette County census lists one Lottie Murrell (wife Linnie Lee), born about 1880, black, farmer, living together wife Linnie Lee, no children.
The 1918 World War Draft Registration Card provides us with more information about the older Mr Murrell: Lattie (note spelling) Murrell, residence Hickory Withe (roughly 10 miles west of Somerville), Fayette County, born Feb 3, 1874 - nearest relative Linnie Lee Murrell, Eade, Shelby County. Linnie Lee probably took the kids and went to her mother in Eade until Lattie returned - just an educated guess.
In the 1920 census records Lattie & Linnie Lee are accounted for 5 children, but none named Lottie or Lattie. 1930 census - Lattie & Linnie Lee now have worked their way up to 9 children, still no Lottie or Lattie.
We know no more about Lattie's early influences. Supposedly he saw Charley Patton at a 3-day Oakland, Tennessee picnic in the thirties - maybe he picked up some of his percussive guitar ideas - his way of rapping on the guitar - from Patton, what do I know? Lattie was no stranger to Memphis fast life. Beale Street and South Memphis; he went there regularly throughout the 1930's. No doubt he was exposed to the Memphis Jug Band, Frank Stokes, Little Buddy Doyle and an abundance of other bluesmen (and the occasional woman), but I have no idea what other musicians - if any - he was involved with. Maybe good-timing came first and music second? But certainly there were times when Lattie took the opportunity to make extra street-money from his musical skills when the opportunity presented itself, especially when he was traveling. And it does seem like Lattie did his share of traveling. Axel says he spent a substantial amount of time around Macon, Georgia. And Lattie pointed out that, "I never did like no hoboin' ! I rode everything but a donkey!" And that's all we know about Lattie's early life... Basically nothing.
Move forward in time to the late forties... By now Mayor Crump's repeated crackdowns on Memphis vice had resulted in a permanent closing-down of clubs and gambling houses in the Beale Street section, South Memphis and other black neighborhoods, creating a vacuum in Memphis' life of pleasure that had to be filled. There just had to be a place where you could go and gamble, dance and good-time on weekends, without major interference from the law. And West Memphis, Arkansas, on the other side of the Mississippi River, was there, ready to take advantage of the opportunity. West Memphis was a small town. In the early forties it had a population of some 3500 people - and a steeping police force that was about to be given the opportunity of a lifetime...
So action - cards, craps, corn liquor and music - moved across the river on the Harahan Bridge. West Memphis law in the late forties and throughout the fifties was Southern corruption, perfected into a fine art. Corrupt to the core, and blatantly openly so. Follow the basic rules, make your payoffs, bow down to local authority and you're free to run your business. In West Memphis there was no law but West Memphis law. The Harahan Bridge was now probably the drunkenest bridge in existence.
Up along the highway there were white clubs and honky-tonks like The Plantation Inn and The Cotton Club. Side-streets, from Eight to Twelfth Street, were homes of cafes, clubs, "hotels", a few private homes. All black. There was gambling and entertainment on all streets, especially on 8th and 11th street. A crude, rural Las Vegas, attracting gamblers from all over. The Little Brown Jug, The Be Bop Hall, Miss Annie's and the Tennessee House were but a few of the most popular places. Dice tables and card games in every dive - with a new brand of electric, distorted blues providing entertainment. Howling Wolf, B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson 2, James Cotton, Joe Hill Louis, Little Junior Parker... There was so much going on! It was the revolution of a sound and Howling Wolf and his band - The House Rockers - were rulers of the West Memphis sound, capable of making your hair stand straight up and your blood boil.
Lattie had a taste for music, liquor and gambling, and made frequent visits to West Memphis. I don't know to what extent Lattie was musically involved while in West Memphis - to my knowledge he never played electric guitar. Maybe he would occasionally play in the smaller joints. Your guess is as good as mine?
We do know however that he developed early friendships with two of the local music scene's most important players; Joe Hill Louis and Howling Wolf. Wolf lived in a hotel on Eleventh Street at the time and spent a generous amount of his time in and around town. Lattie loved Wolf's music, he and Wolf got along fine, and thus he managed to get the music straight from the source before Wolf had even started recording (in 1948). He adopted numerous Wolf songs to his own style and brought them back to Somerville, where he eventually earned the nickname "Wolf". Name a Howling Wolf song and the odds were in your favor that Lattie could play it.
Lattie was a walking rural Fayette County jukebox. As he was making his weekend rounds his audience requested a variety of blues and r&b songs - sometimes the jukebox obliged, sometimes it sneered. B.B. King's "Rock Me Baby", John Lee Hooker boogies, Muddy Waters by the dozen, Jimmy Rogers' "That's Alright", Big Joe Williams "Baby Please Don't Go". A version of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" with lyrics like "Tell your Ma, tell your Pa, take your black ass back to Arkansas. Go get Sally, go get Sue, take that black gal down to the barbecue." He put his own stamp on Sonny Boy "John Lee" Williamson's "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl", and even the done-to-death "John Henry" came out sounding different and alive. And then there were the Wolf songs - his trademark. Lattie's version of "Spoonful" was his most requested song. As far as Lattie was concerned it was a showpiece that was worthy of being rewarded with half a pint every time he performed it.
Axel Kustner, who first saw Lattie in 1978, remarked that Lattie never seems to perform a song same twice: "He constantly makes up verses about people he knows and what goes on around him, and he mixes these with other traditional blues stanzas. It's his big strength as a blues man."
Come the agreed upon day of recording, we felt a bit apprehensive driving west to Somerville on Highway 64. Would Lattie be there, and if he was, would he feel comfortable recording in his present, elegantly lifeless environment? We need not have worried. When we got there Lattie was waiting outside - dressed in his casual weekend best - ready to go, having made arrangements to do the recording "over at a friend's place". He mentioned that he had to pick up his "boss", who was returning from a business trip, at the local airport around 11 p.m. It should still give us sufficient recording time and as a possible bonus Lattie's driving obligations shou'dd keep him reasonably sober.
We arrived at Lattie's friend's place after a 20-minute drive. The house was a wooden shotgun-like building, located directly off a "major" road, possibly Highway 76, and there were 4-5 cars parked outside. Lattie had chosen our recording location with care - it was the home and pick-up site of a local bootlegger! Lattie knew how to pick them! The bootlegger and his wife were expecting us and greeted us with smiles, but there were looks of astonishment and bewilderment among a couple of customers, who made quick Saturday-night purchases and equally quick get-aways. The bootlegger must have had a smooth arrangement worked out with the sheriff and seemed perfectly at ease. Business was being taken care of openly and the bootlegger and his wife showed no apprehension of having us there to attract extra attention.
I set up my recording equipment - a portable UHER and two mike stands - in the middle of the front-room, while Bill played some blues on his guitar and Lattie gathered inspiration from half a pint of moonshine. Newly arrived customers lingered on to see what the hell was going on. The bootlegger's wife was frying up fish in the kitchen and selling it by the plate. Business had started picking up when Lattie put down his glass, picked up his guitar and declared he was ready to record ("Turn that thing on white folks!"). I wasn't prepared, missed the beginning of the first song, "When A Gal Cross The Bottom", and at the same time almost had one of the microphones knocked over by an unsteady customer, who was immediately taken out into the kitchen by the bootlegger's wife for a lecture, and who walked out of there less of a man than when he walked in. The song, played knife-style, was one of the first songs Lattie remembers learning from older Fayette County bluesmen. A beautiful song, where Lattie lets the guitar ring and do much of the talking. So - after listening to the first version (it was apparent Lattie liked what he heard) - we had no choice but to do another take. It varied slightly from the first version, the playing was harder-edged and the lyrics differed some. The solid non-creaking wooden floor proved ideal for picking up Lattie's foot-stomping. Imagine the music being recorded outside with dull flat earth under his feet - not quite the same experience!
People who had originally come by only to pick up some moonshine, and who had no specific "Saturday night obligations", lingered on and around 7pm there must have been a good dozen cars parked outside. What was going on at the bootlegger's was as good entertainment as they would be likely to find anywhere nearby that night.
"Everybody quiet now!" Some recording was being done, and there was no room for some loud-mouthed motherfucker to disturb the going-ons. The bootlegger's place had temporarily been turned into a recording studio. There was a recording machine and two microphones, wasn't there?! Who knows, some of the songs might end on Fayette County jukeboxes. So everybody hush! Next was Lattie's version of Howling Wolf's "Spoonful", which he'd turned inside and out to fit his style. Everything in place, total control and played with an air of studied arrogance. His "howl" doesn't come across as menacing as the "real" Wolf's. It's more like a baby-wolf with a choke-chain, a cross between a yelp and a growl...
And then Sonny Boy "John Lee" Williamson's classic "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl", which at the time it was released back in '38 was a huge seller in the South. Again Lattie had remodeled the song, played with it to make it his own. Beating on the guitar, juggling with it, throwing in a couple of verses from Memphis Minnie's 1941 recording of "Me And My Chauffeur". In the mid-1930's a young Sonny Boy used to be a regular visitor to Brownsville in neighboring Haywood County, where he would play with Sleepy John Estes and others. Hammie Nixon knew Lattie well from "way back" when Lattie would visit the Brownsville area and it is more than likely that our hero ran into Sonny Boy at one time or another.
A home-made backwoods version of Howling Wolf's "Howlin' In The Moonlight" with Lattie's patented choked howl, sucking his lips, doing some clowning, but never letting it get in the way of his music. And then, when the song was finished; "Turn that (on) white folk". Which I did. Time for a break and a few hefty pulls from the bottle. It now seemed beyond doubt that Lattie did not - and probably never had -intend to pick up his boss at the airport that night, and when I dutifully reminded him he said something to the effect of "He can make own motherfuckin' way back". So much for that.
"Blues For Mattie Mae" - still hanging in there. The liquor is starting to take a stronger hold on Lattie, but it doesn't yet show in the music. Some excellent guitar playing here. The song's origin may well be a Charles Brown song. Big City R&B transformed into frontporch blues.
At this stage a man, about 35 years old and still in his work clothes, had come in to make his purchase. When Lattie put the guitar aside for a moment, the man walked up and grabbed the it. Lattie mumbled something and gave the younger man a look of discontent. The man had balls! His name was William Floyd Davis and lived somewhere in the country west of Somerville. And then he started playing. First a couple of verses from a slow blues "That's my short number" he smiled. Then something called "The Capt'n", a fast number with some amazing guitar riffs. And then "Why Did I Have To Leave Cairo?", pretty much in the same vein. The guy played in an aggressively "raggy" style that belied his age and was atypical of the southwest Tennessee region. Just walked in the door, snatched the guitar from Lattie and started playing and singing like that! Not bad.
Cairo, by the way, refers to Cairo, Illinois, a city with a special place in black history, located on the Southern tip of Illinois where The Mississippi River meets The Ohio River, the perfect location at the time when rivers were America's highways. In the 1800's Cairo's location attracted numerous investors, who were eager not to miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime. Banks, offices, hotels, theatres and saloons were built. Broad streets to make room for horses and buggies (and eventually automobiles), and in the middle ran streetcar tracks. However, when the railroad took over as the main mean of transportation the city started going into a slow, steady decline, even though Cairo had now developed into a railroad center, and was where you changed trains on the Illinois Central Line to southern or northern destinations (primarily Chicago). Cairo played an important role during the black migrations north, starting at the time of World War 1 and culminating during the forties. Cairo was located north of the Mason-Dixie line, and when you reached Cairo you were theoretically home free, relieved of the restrictions of a black man living in the South. The town had attracted a large black population since its riverboat days, but the conditions they were living under - north of the Mason-Dixon line or not - were more akin to traditional Southern values than the Promised Landof the North, and in 1967 Cairo finally exploded with race riots tearing an already troubled city apart.
When my wife and I stopped in Cairo in January 2005 we were greeted by a ghost-town with little left but bitter memories and crushed dreams of grandeur. Burnt out skeletons from the riot were still standing, once grand hotels, banks, saloons, bowling alleys, federal buildings and majestic homes were boarded up, beyond repair, left to their fate; a city without a future.
Back at the bootlegger's Lattie decided to give it one last go, one more song -maybe in retaliation to William Floyd's intrusion - with a loose version of "Catfish Blues", borrowing from Muddy Waters' "Rolling Stone" and "Still A Fool". But the focus had drifted away from Lattie and his music, and he was competing for attention with background chatter, laughter, bragging and some serious drinking. He had done his bit ("Alright, that's it!"). Now it was time to relax. For all of us! I was feeling comfortable with beer and whiskey, and turned the tape recorder on now and then to catch some of the Saturday night anarchy, and Barth had picked up his guitar and seemed to be enjoying himself. That's him accompanying whoever-he-was on a version of "Rock Me Baby" that leaves a bit to be desired, but offers quite an amazing falsetto. Everybody's good and drunk now - a man asks if he can borrow the guitar, makes sure I got the recorder turned on, then tears into a few verses of "Getting That Stuff" with verses like "The old folks was fuckin' and the baby was cryin'". William Floyd Davis had decided to hang around - check out his "jivestick" about one " Miss Anna-Belle Jones". Lattie gave us a taste of the old Titanic toast, featuring black folk-hero Shine.
Letting the tape recorder keep running I ended up with a falling-down-drunk version of Jimmy Rogers' "That's Alright". Then Barth started playing "Bottle It Up And Go", a song everyone - and I mean everyone! - instantly recognized. Different people were almost fighting to take turns singing a verse, as the song developed into a jug band like chaos. Great stuff. And again, love that falsetto!
Shortly thereafter someone pointed out that it was past midnight, and that Saturday night had turned into Sunday morning. All sinners awake! Time to make the switch from the devil to the Lord. A gospel quartet was hastily being organized (possibly by William Floyd Davis), the result of which is included here for your listening pleasure. But not everyone got instant Sunday morning religion. One man must have managed at least ten "motherfuckers" per minute. Some more singing, toasts, rhymes and insults were caught on tape before I ran out of tape. We hung around a while longer. There were arguments, threats and near-violence among a couple of the remaining customers. Lattie had retired to a backroom, courtesy of the bootlegger's. It was time to go home.
We drove cautiously back to Memphis on Highway 64 - late, late at night, sky black as Coca-Cola, hardly any traffic - and had just come around a curve when we were flagged down by the local sheriff and his assistant. I knew Bill had a couple of joints on him, I spoke with a dialect from a part of the world that few in Fayette County even knew existed, and we were drunk! Not good odds. The sheriff asked Bill to get out of the car in a surprisingly friendly way, but in doing so Bill caught his foot on the doorstep and fell flat on his face. I will say to his credit that he collected himself admiringly fast though. As it turned out the sheriff had had a flat tire and was missing a wrench, which we - as good citizens - lent him. Spare-tire in place he told us to drive on. "You be sure to drive real careful now. Not everyone might understand why boys like to have a little fun on Saturday night." He was giving us a break!
Later that fall I was working for Steve Rice, a white farmer in Henning, Tn., and played the tape for him. His comment was, "You must have been crazy to mix in with a bunch of drunken niggers like that! You're lucky to get out of there alive!"
I met Lattie briefly once more, in February 1974, when me and Barth helped put together a documentary for a New York film team (the footage now rests in the archives of Memphis' Center Of Southern Folklore). Lattie did his version of "John Henry" and collected his pay. The film crew - two New York City couples - kept calling him "Mister". Before we left, Lattie took me aside and asked, somewhat puzzled and suspicious, why would they do such a thing?
Axel met Lattie on a few occasions later on, and recorded him a number of songs by him, some of which were issued on German L+R Records. He tells an about an interesting episode where Lattie was playing his guitar, when a friend of his broke off a pencil-thin branch of a tree and started beating it on the neck of Lattie's guitar while Lattie kept playing. Axel also made me laugh when he told about an occasion on which he and Lattie were standing outside a store when a delivery truck drove up, and Lattie started spelling out the letters on the side of the truck with the comment "I can't read too well, but I can spell like hell!"
According to the Social Security Index Lattie died in February 1993, his last residence being 37203 Nashville Street, Henderson, Tennessee.