Saturday, April 6, 2019

“The Great Untold Story” of the Hill Country Blues

By T. DeWayne Moore

"I was talking to someone about Bobby Ray who had never met him recently, and they said, "Oh yeah, Charlie Freeman said he was a wild man!" Coming from Charlie Freeman that says a lot!"

- Chris Wimmer, 2017



“He was a wild man,” in the opinion of Mississippi folklorist Bill Ferris. Then again, Watson might have seemed tame compared to a lot of other folks running around the hill country of North Mississippi in the late 1960s, several of whom--as muleskinner and auctioneer Ray Lum put it—were “wild as shithouse rats.” This group of musicians, artists, writers, and blues enthusiasts “would do anything,” Ferris believed, “and Bobby Ray [Watson] was one of ‘em.”[1] The melodic and sometimes cacophonous experiences of North Mississippi musician Bobby Ray Watson may indeed be some of the greatest untold stories in the musical history of North Mississippi and Memphis during the late 1960s and 1970s.[2] Not only did he seek out and study under the “blues masters,” Watson also established friendships with such blues guitarists as Joe Calicott and Fred McDowell. In addition, Watson often carried Holly Springs blues singer R.L. Burnside to perform and record at the Memphis studio of famed session guitarist Roland Janes, who recalled he also carried a duffel bag, more often than not, stuffed full of homegrown marijuana and a couple quarts of corn liquor. The resultant music of the adulterated duo produced a strange, hybrid sound, which, according to one observer, was the result of “crazy hillbillies and crazy black guys” with recreational drugs, musical creativity, security and freedom of expression. The different personalities and musical energies of the two North Mississippians in the studio of Roland Janes, indeed, proved a “crazy combination!”[3]

Bobby Ray and Jack Owens
In addition to his associations to blues artists, Watson served as an important early organizer and producer of blues festivals and other events. It all started at a hippie hangout in Memphis called the Bitter Lemon, which booked older blues musicians and attracted an audience of “vintage Southern beatniks,” including world class photographer Bill Eggleston, musician Jim Dickinson, poet, writer, and intellectual Randall Lyon, musician Dan Penn, writer Stanley Booth, and musicologist Bill Barth, who Watson considered one the “greatest delta blues players” of the blues revival. He found a home among all these kindred spirits and members of the Memphis County Blues Society (MCBS), which organized a series of country blues/rock festivals at the Overton Park Shell from 1966 to 1970. By developing and maintaining friendships with several folk and blues musicians, such as Sam Chatmon and Big Joe Williams, he was the natural choice for talent manager, coordinator, and stage manager for the first Mississippi Delta Blues Festival at Freedom Village in 1978. He subsequently founded the Mississippi Country Blues Society, which put on several blues concerts around Jackson. In 1979, Governor Cliff Finch made him an honorary ambassador of goodwill for the state as well as appointed the versatile songwriter as one of the “colonels” on his staff, attaching to him a durable moniker that continues to precede his name to this very day, particularly in the South. 
The Colonel, as we sometimes refer to him, was born on October 17, 1943, and he grew up in the rural home of his grandparents in Pleasant Hill, Mississippi. Though his grandfather played the mandolin and his grandmother played the piano, Watson credited his uncles with introducing him to the blues and rock ‘n roll, initially over the radio, and later through the records of such native Mississippians as Big Joe Williams and John Lee Hooker. Having developed into an emotionally powerful singer in his teens, Watson was the lead singer of a high school band called Bobby Ray and the Rapscallions. He also later fronted a second, six-piece group of Rapscallions in Memphis, which performed at some venues in the city and further south in Desoto County, Mississippi.[4]

After graduating from Olive Branch High School in 1961, Watson attended Northwest Jr. College in Senatobia (MS) and Memphis State University until the summer of 1963, when he enrolled at the University of Mississippi. Having completed two years of coursework towards his Bachelors of Arts degree, Watson decided to try his luck as a “self-employed musician” in New Orleans, where he met Babe Stovall, who performed in the cafes and on the streets in the French Quarter. Watson recalled that Stovall, on occasion, played the guitar on the back of his neck while hollering so loud that everyone in the immediate vicinity could hear him. Stovall and his playing partner Slim Harpo, in particular, spurred his interest in the old timers and their music.[5] For thirteen straight weeks, Watson sang lead vocals for a band, the Pirates, in its own regular show, which featured the occasional guest vocalist, such as the soulful Aaron Neville, a “juicy baritone” by the name of Benny Spellman, or the amazing Earnest Kador, better known as Ernie K. Doe.[6]

In 1965, Watson moved to California to check out the vibrant music scene on the West Coast. He auditioned for a host bands over the next couple of years, but none of them quite fit his own, personal style and musical vision. Landing the city of Moorpark, Watson was eventually forced to work construction to earn a living, which limited the amount of time and energy remaining each day to cultivate his musical talent. As he continued to struggle into 1968, Watson realized that the West Coast scene was not conducive to his general well-being, and he returned to Pleasant Hill, where he built a new house on his grandparent’s farm.[7]

Back in Mississippi, he initiated a search for old blues records that so developed into a diligent search for older musicians, some of whom had performed on the radio and even recorded in the twenties and thirties. He realized that some of the old blues singers were still alive and got into the habit of asking older folks about folks who still lived in the hill country and played old music, particularly the blues. He soon procured several leads and started “tracking ‘em down…like a bloodhound.” It took little time, in fact, for Watson to make the fortuitous discovery of a harmonica player steeped in the hill country blues of North Mississippi. While driving one day in the pouring rain, he noticed a man and a woman walking down the side of the road near Pleasant Hill Cemetery. Watson stopped and picked up the couple, who lived right down the road from his grandmother, and when he asked if they knew any local musicians, the two smiling and drenched travelers, hill country harmonica master Johnny Woods and his wife Verlena, informed Watson of their own considerable musical abilities.[8] Watson’s chance encounter with the Woods’ not only encouraged his expectant quest for other musicians, but it also brought together the musicians and allowed for the blossoming of a lasting friendship.

Watson’s friendships with the elder statesmen of the hill country blues allowed him to serve as the bridge for many Memphis musicians to the cultural blues traditions of African Americans. His status as a cultivator of marijuana also proved an asset around the city. For example, Memphis musicians Jim Dickinson and Charlie Freeman ran out of pot one night while tripping blue mescaline so they called up the Colonel, who subsequently pulled onto the scene with a “bale” of his finest green. Watson always carried large quantities of, what he called, “Delta Delight.” As they sat on Dickinson’s screened-in porch and watched the sun rise over his neighbor's pasture, the conversation eventually turned into a discussion of “primitive country blues.” Freeman had never really understood what everybody saw in such artists as Furry Lewis. “He's just a nice old black guy that can't play anymore,” the uninitiated guitarist stated before admitting, “I don't get it.” His admission led to his introduction to the blues of Fred McDowell. Watson showed Freeman the light that morning, and a few hours later Dickinson was on the phone listening to Freeman’s musical awakening. "OK. I get it. This guy is the real thing,” he admitted, “I understand the blues in a whole new way.” Watson no doubt shepherded many ignorant young guitarists through a cultural awakening. As a young Kenny Brown would later experience as well, Charlie Freeman sat and listened to the master musician sing the hill country blues well into the night, and Watson, of course, was right there nodding his head; no doubt the immense compassion of McDowell and Watson was reflected that morning, on that porch, when everything seemed so good and right. It gave a new meaning to the term “Delta Delight," that is, at least for the rest of us.[9]

Watson was not only a frequent visitor to home of McDowell, he also developed a particularly strong bond with Joe and Doll Calicott, both of whom he considered his “best friends.” His relationship with Calicott, perhaps more than any other musician, instilled within him the desire “to save his music” as well as the music of other, older artists. Yet, Watson also wanted to ensure that his older blues artist friends be “paid fairly and given credit for their works.” Despite his appreciation for the work of folklorists to preserve the music of black folk artists and blues musicians, he vehemently believed that black artists had not received ample compensation for their intellectual property. Most of Watson’s own field recordings and interviews, in fact, remain unpublished and locked away in the “Colonel Bobby Ray Watson Archives.”[10] His unshakable convictions about redressing past wrongdoings, and his natural ability to develop bonds of kinship with not only the musicians, but also their families served the Pleasant Hill native well in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Fred McDowell and Bobby Ray
Following the death of Joe Callicott in 1969, Watson took up the duties of mentoring Kenny Brown, an aspiring young North Mississippi musician, who had lived across the street from late blues singer. He showed Brown how to play bottleneck guitar and introduced him to blues legend Fred McDowell at the one of the Memphis Country Blues Festivals. Watson even provided Brown a unique opportunity to play with harmonica player Johnny Woods.[11] After the passing of several of his older, musician friends, Watson not only carried on their musical traditions, but he also carried around the pain of losing his close friends. 

He continued to perform and record over the next few years. In 1972, Jim Dickinson invited Johnny Woods and the Colonel to Ardent Studios in Memphis, where they recorded a song titled “Shake Your Boogie.” It appears on a compilation album called It Came From Memphis Vol. 2, a digital audio companion to a book of the same name written by Robert Gordon. Watson, in addition, performed on two tracks included in Jim Dickinson’s Delta Experimental Projects Compilation; the first, “Holy Spirit,” features a host of excellent musicians, such Hammie Nixon, Sleepy John Estes, Lee Baker, and Ry Cooder. Watson played with Johnny and Verlena Woods on “Ol’ Man Mose,” which is shorter, yet a similar take on “Shake Your Boogie.” He also became friends with Brenda Patterson, a backup singer for Ry Cooder, who invited Watson to play harmonica on one song, “End of the Road” and sing background vocals on her 1973 self-titled album Brenda Patterson (Playboy 109). 

The Colonel spent the next several years working as a casual for Roadway Express, tracking down elder musicians in his free time, and performing at various clubs in the state capital of Jackson. The live music scene in Jackson attracted folks from as far off as Memphis and New Orleans to venues such as Poets and Widow Watsons. Singer/songwriter George Allen, as well as a lot of musicians from the Delta, performed and patronized the late 1970s Jackson club scene, where he met Pascagoula-native Elizabeth Thompson (most folks call her Libby Rae) who had recently moved to town to study and become a dental hygienist.[12] One evening, a friend came and picked up twenty-three-year-old Libby Rae to go hear some local music, and in the back seat of the car sat the thirty-five-year-old a transient musician hailing from the rolling hills of northern Mississippi. I think it’s safe to say Libby Rae was smitten with the Colonel, and that a most magical musical journey began in earnest that night in early 1977. 

Bobby Ray Watson
and Libby Thompson circa 1978
It was not long before the couple started traveling the state and visiting all of the elder statesmen of the blues, such as Big Joe Williams, who lived in Crawford, and Jack Owens, of Bentonia. It did not take long for the couple to make searching for musicians in Mississippi a regular adventure, a most intoxicating and romantic tour of legends. By simply driving around to different towns and asking folks if they knew any artists or musicians, the field researchers managed to locate some interesting people. “That’s literally how we found some people…just going to a town, stopping at a station, [and] asking people, ‘Does anybody around here play music?’” The scouting method proved successful on many occasions, as the couple usually tracked down some folks, who, even if they did not play anymore, “reminisced about the times they did.” On other occasions, they located “some cool folk artists,” one of whom lived in a small wooden house and produced her artwork using colored pencils. Another interesting individual built mechanical motorized robots that moved around in his front yard.[13]

After less than a year of travelling around the state with him, Libby Thompson had developed a rapport with the last living member of a legendary musical family, Sam Chatmon, son of fiddler Henderson Chatmon, of the Mississippi Sheiks, a popular string band that included his brothers Armenter (his brothers called him Bo) and Alonzo (Lonnie) Chatmon as well as Walter Vinson. Sam’s career in the recording industry had come to an end in the early 1930s, and he settled down to farming in Hollandale in the mid-1930s, bought a house and a half acre, and only played at local parties until his “re-discovery” in the early 1960s.[14] The couple visited him often at his home, and Libby started taking informal lessons from her chosen mentor. Chatmon did not mind her hanging around in the least; indeed, a pretty young female student was very welcome to come to learn for the elder Sheik.

The friendly relationships that the Colonel had developed with musicians in Mississippi made him a valuable asset not only to aspiring musicians but also to promoters. In December 1977, hoping to procure a paid apprenticeship grant to study under Chatmon, the couple traveled to Memphis to attend the quarterly meeting of the Folk Arts Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The panel of nationally recognized folklorists and community arts leaders met in largely closed sessions, but they also held some open meetings for the public, in which Bess Lomax Hawes, the director of the Folk Arts Program, discussed the new guidelines for folk arts projects in radio, film, and videotape. Hawes, however, had no affinity for apprenticeship grants, preferring to fund projects that impacted communities as opposed to individuals.[15] Though Libby Rae would never receive a grant-funded apprenticeship with Chatmon, it was not a wasted trip. The couple’s appearance allowed for a fortuitous meeting with Karen Shalong Morgan, the founding director of the Delta Arts Project, a cultural education initiative of the non-profit Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE). Morgan had come to the panel hoping to make connections with knowledgeable individuals, such as Center for Southern Folklore (CSF) director Bill Ferris and ethnomusicologist David Evans. She recognized how fortuitous it was to meet the Colonel, however, and she immediately recruited them both to help coordinate the 1978 Delta Blues Festival. In essence, she hired the couple to “round up the musicians, get the contracts signed,” arrange for transportation and attend to the artists’ needs at the festival.[16] One brevity in Living Blues magazine notes that folklorists Alan Lomax, Worth Long and Bobby Ray Watson acted as masters of ceremonies.[17]

Almost immediately after the Delta Blues Festival in late October, the couple founded the Mississippi Country Blues Society (MsCBS) with their friends Ron Easley and Harriet Fitts. The MsCBS, in the main, organized concerts for Big Joe Williams, Sam Chatmon, Roosevelt Sykes, and Frank Frost & the Jelly Roll Kings at C.W. Goodnights and the old Fireman’s Lodge on the Barnett Reservoir near Jackson. The MsCBS only staged a handful of events before it faded from the scene. Libby Rae had, before long, completed her training as a dental hygienist, and her father Perry Augustus Thompson, himself a long established and affluent dentist in Pascagoula, beckoned her home to work in his office.[18] Even though the couple got married with the best of intentions, the almost magical musical aesthetic that seemed to encapsulate their relationship eventually turned into resentment, and the fairy tale ended in the 1980s. In 1986, the Colonel again enrolled at the University of Mississippi. This time, he studied under Bill Ferris at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture (CSSC). One document in the Blues Archive at the university library describes the Colonel’s “brown bag” presentation for the CSSC, which in a way served as a farewell to his home state—titled “Blues of a Different Color.” “Long before Ole Miss developed its own curriculum on the southern culture,” Watson had been “traveling around Memphis and through Mississippi” conducting field recordings and learning from master musicians. He drew upon his previous work and delivered interpretations of their music for the brown bag. He was also working on a book about his experiences.[19]

It was at this point “the music stopped” for a while. Watson went back to school and became a registered radiologic technologist. After working in the medical field for only a few months in Opelousas, Louisiana, he accepted another job in the same position in San Francisco, California. The newly-acquired professional skills of the Colonel offered a radically different sort of work environment, and his musical instruments remained in their cases as he adjusted to life of the West Coast. He did not, however, let them collect too much dust. Before long, he started playing guitar and writing music again. At one jam session in the Vista Club, he met the musicians who eventually formed the band, NXQS. Watson certainly did not miss a beat as a musician, and the band hit the practice room hard. 

Soon they started to receive some recognition in the Bay Area, particularly due to the group’s young female vocalist, Twanna Melby, who, in fact, was the long lost daughter of Clarksdale, Mississippi-native talent scout and popular musician Ike Turner. For almost thirty years, Melby had shied away from the notion of finally meeting her father and his famous former wife, Tina Turner. In the early 1990s, however, Turner was serving a four-year sentence in a San Luis Obispo prison on cocaine charges when he developed a relationship with his estranged daughter, who learned about her father’s troubled life from newspaper articles and her mother, Pat Richard. By getting clean and exhibiting good behavior, Turner was paroled after eighteen months and released into the custody of Melby, who allowed her father to live at her home. [20] On the day of his release, Turner admitted that he was nervous: “All the time I’ve been in jail I’ve been saying to myself when I get out I’m going to make some great music and re-establish my career…and now I got to do it.”[21] His daughter’s band NXQS was doing quite well, in fact, until Turner’s release from prison, but in short order the band broke up. 

Watson and Turner, however, made an immediate connection and soon became fast friends, offering the Colonel a rare opportunity to work with a legendary songwriter. Thus, the drug-free, yet still struggling, former band leader of the Kings of Rhythm lived with Watson at his house for over a year. The two men made music from sunup till sundown. “Ike was a workaholic,” Watson recalled, but “he worked me to my best ever.”[22] Looking to reassemble his life and music career, Turner put together a 14-piece ensemble called The Ike Turner Revue, and he handed the singing duties over to Watson. It would have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most people, but it was only the most recent collaborative effort of the Pleasant Hill native with an unrecognized music legend from Mississippi. The group played their first gig at Jimmy’s in Oakland on New Year’s Eve. Watson and Turner also performed at Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland, Larry Blake’s Blues Club in Berkeley, as well as the Strand in Los Angeles. The group split up not too long after the release of the unflattering film, What’s Love Got To Do With It, however, and Watson parted ways with the infamous Ike Turner.[23]

The incessant practice sessions with Turner and his featured role in the Ike Turner Revue served to reinvigorate his libidinal passion for more traditional music, which lived deep down inside of the Colonel, in a place where his early musical kinships remained as alive and vivid as they were on the day he played with Jack Owens at his small home in Bentonia. In the summer of 1994, he played at clubs in Napa and Vacaville as well as fronted a band called the Rhythm Sticks at the Blues & Brew Festival in Fairfield. Watson told one local journalist he could play the “electric stuff,” but his favorite was “acoustic, bottleneck blues,” a style which, he believed, required real life experience to possess or convey any true meaning. He felt that he transmitted clear, mostly unambiguous, messages through his music. “Blues is communication,” he concluded, “It’s how I talk to people.”[24] Watson continues to perform around Sacramento on occasion as a special guest with The Used Blues Band, but he had also remarried and simply enjoyed living with the love of his life. 

In the summer of 2014, I started to track down the Colonel after locating very little evidence of “the great untold story” mentioned by Memphis producer Jim Dickinson. It took several months to find an accurate phone number, and several more months to get him to agree to an interview. Eventually, I learned of his desire to perform once again in the hill country of north Mississippi, and I secured him a plane ticket, a hotel room, and a slot the following summer on the bill at the Oxford Blues Festival on the campus of the University of Mississippi. He readily accepted the offer and even flew home early to see his family before the festival. Once he got situated onstage, he delivered an amazing set that including the Mississippi Sheiks’ classic “Sitting on Top of the World,” “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” and his old original tune “(I Gotta Have My) Sugar.” After demonstrating that he had not lost any of his chops whatsoever, he invited local blues singer Joyce Jones onstage to sing. The sweltering heat took its toll after over an hour of continuous performance, however, and he waved to crowd standing in the Grove on the campus of the University of Mississippi. Sweat had completely soaked his shirt, I noticed, as he carried his guitar off the stage. He walked over to a waiting vehicle and climbed inside in the air-conditioning as I secured his instrument. The Colonel had come and it was a sweet homecoming indeed. As I shuttled him back to his hotel, he turned to me exasperated and beamishly declared, “Only the strong survive!” 

NOTES

[1] Dr. William Ferris, telephone interview by T. DeWayne Moore, March 14, 2014. 

[2] In the liner notes to It Came from Memphis Vol. 2, a digital audio companion to a book of the same name written by Robert Gordon, Memphis record producer Jim Dickinson contends that Watson “may be the great untold story of Memphis in the late 1960s and 1970s.” 

[3] Andria Lisle and Mike Evans, Waking Up in Memphis (Sanctuary Publishing, 2003), 183. 

[4] Bobby Ray Watson, telephone interview, T. DeWayne Moore, March 30, 2015. 

[5] Ibid. 

[6] John Broven, Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 1978; repr. 2016). 

[7] Bobby Ray Watson, telephone interview, T. DeWayne Moore, March 30, 2015. 

[8] The harmonica playing of Woods first gained notoriety in the late 1960s, when he began to accompany blues guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell, and the duo recorded together first in the 1967 field recordings of George Mitchell; they also provided a few tunes for the compilation King of the Country Blues V2, produced by Chris Strachwitz, of Arhoolie Records, and in 1972, Tom Pomposello and Fred Seibert tracked him down in north Mississippi and recorded Mississippi Harmonica on Oblivion Records. 

Johnny and Verlena Woods appear together in episode five, “Who’s That Comin’—Blues,” of the All You Need Is Love documentary series, released in 1977. 

[9] Jim Dickinson, I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2017), 242. 

[10] Stanley Booth, The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2014), copyright page. 

[11] Sue Watson, “Blues Musician Gets Grant,” The South Reporter Online, Aug 11, 2004. 

[12] Libby Rae Watson, interview by T. DeWayne Moore, September 29, 2013, Dublin, Mississippi. 

[13] Ibid. 

[14] Lou Curtiss, “Sam Chatmon Speaks,” website, San Diego Troubadour, http://sandiegotroubadour.com/2012/09/sam-chatmon/ [accessed April 26, 2015]. 

[15] The meeting was located at the Holiday Inn Central at McLean and Union Street; “Arts Folk Art Panel,” (Memphis, TN) Tri-State Defender, Dec 10, 1977, p.6. 

[16] Libby Rae Watson, interview by T. DeWayne Moore, September 29, 2013, Dublin, Mississippi. 

[17] Hans Pehl, “Greenville, Miss,” Living Blues, Nov 1978. 

[18] Born November 30, 1910, Perry Thompson had already received his education and license to practice dentistry in 1940; 1930 US Census, Citronelle, Mobile, Alabama; Roll: 40; Page: 7A; Enumeration District: 0001; Image: 252.0; FHL microfilm: 23397751940 US Census; Pascagoula, Jackson, Mississippi; Roll: T627_2032; Page: 20A; Enumeration District: 30-5. 

[19] “Watson Brown Bag,” Jan 26, 1987, “Bobby Ray Watson,” subject file, Blues Archives, J.D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi. 

[20] Beth Kleid, “Proud Turner,” The Los Angeles (CA) Times, Sep 4, 1991, F2. 

[21] Chuck Phillips, “Will They Still Like Ike?,” The Los Angeles (CA) Times, Sep 5, 1991, F1. 

[22] Bobby Ray Watson, email to author, April 30, 2015. 

[23] “Ike Turner Tells His Love Story,” The (Palm Springs, CA) Desert Sun, June 14, 1993, B1. 

[24] Brian Hamlin, “Foamy Fairfield Fest Celebrates Suds and Song,” Vacaville (CA) Herald, Sep 16, 1994.

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