Friday, October 16, 2020

Memphis Blues Caravan: "Rolling Through The Night"

by Arne Brogger, organizer and road manager of the Memphis Blues Caravan in the 1970s, blog post, "The Straight Oil From The Can: Tales from the Memphis Blues Caravan and other Stories,October 2009)

Buddy Guy has quite a different backstage
experience than artists on the Caravan...
Sometimes, when contiguous dates couldn't be routed, we were forced to make a 'hop' of several hundred miles to the next engagement. These were largely done overnight so that arrival would put us in at least six or seven hours before showtime. Generally, these overnight adventures were the exception. But we were not the Rolling Stones. We couldn't pick and choose which dates we would play. We took what we were given and made the best of it.

On nights such as these, we would leave directly after the show and rack up a couple hundred miles before stopping for a late snack. Of course, 'Snack' was a total misnomer for what happened at the hands of the Caravan members in a diner. These guys could eat.

One night we played Marion, Il, a town situated in the southern part of the state. The following night we were playing Charlottesville, VA, some 800 miles away. Leaving Marion at about 11:00, we eventually pulled into a truck stop in northern Kentucky called the Cross Keys. It was close to 1:00 AM. The establishment lay at the branch of Interstates 24 and 64. Ten miles before we arrived, the CB in the bus crackled with female voices promising all manner of delights. Each lady had a 'handle' descriptive of the services provided and was actively soliciting congress with truckers inbound to the Cross Keys. The interest level on the bus increased with each mile.

The Cross Keys was huge. It held about four acres of 18 wheelers - parked one after the other. The whole scene was illuminated by mercury vapor lamps perched high atop poles scattered about. The air was gray with diesel exhaust. And hopping from cab to cab were the hookers.

We pulled up to the front and walked single file into the restaurant portion of the complex. Heads, covered in Peterbilt, Mack, and Freightliner hats, turned as we made our way. Conversation stopped. For a moment, I felt like we were from Mars and had just made landing on some strange, bizarre planet. Slowly, we settled into booths and tables. Conversation resumed, heads turned back to coffee, biscuits, and gravy, or whatever. A waitress approached, "What kin ah gitcha, hon...?" she said to Furry, sitting at the head of a table.

We ate. And ate. 
We drank coffee. 
We paid the check. 
We left.

Walking back to the bus, past the hookers flitting from cab to cab, I was about to board when one of the ladies hopped down from a cab-over-Pete parked next to us. As the driver closed the door, I noticed what was written on its side, "Sawyer Transport". And underneath, in italic script, "Truckin' For Jesus."

Stomachs full and back on the bus, we high-balled out of the Cross Keys, disappearing into the eastbound darkness. Our next stop would be somewhere past the Smokey Mountains in the first rays of dawn.

The post-show adrenalin had pretty much dissipated and the hearty fare began to have a sedative effect. By twos and threes, the members ambled off to their respective bunks and fell asleep. Aside from myself, Furry and Red were the last two left conscious in the forward lounge. Furry was the first to drop and announced that he's like to stretch out. I helped him back to his bunk. Red sat slumped in a Captain's Chair, his great stomach taut against his T-shirt. Coe College it read. He wore it everywhere. With his hat still on his head, he closed his eyes and snoozed quietly. It was 2:40 AM.

I climbed into the jump seat above and behind the driver. Looking down, I could see the soft green glow of the instrument lights and ahead, through the broad front window of the Silver Eagle, our headlights pushed down the Interstate. I asked the driver how he was doing. "Just fine..." Did he ever get tired on these long overnight runs? "Nope. Driving is what I do."

Okay...

The radio was tuned to KAAY out of Little Rock or, alternatively, to KDKA, the nation's first commercial radio station, out of Pittsburgh. These were the days of Clear Channel AM radio and the two-megawatt giants came in like a local station. As a young man in Minneapolis, driving my father home formwork on winter nights, we would listen to KDKA's National News at 5:00 PM. And in the mid '50s, XERF, nominally out of Del Rio, TX (but really out of Ciudad Chilla, Mexico) would blast 100,000 watts of Rock 'n Roll to eager young ears in the Heartland.

Music played on the radio.
The driver and I listened in silence.

After a time, I slid out of the jump seat and stood in the stairwell leaning hands-on-chin against the Silver Eagle's broad, padded dashboard. Half a moon shown in the southern sky and the dark fields rolled on, reflected in a faint silver luminescence. America passed under my feet. Mile after mile. Vast didn't come close. Years later at various times, I would tell newly arrived British musicians, as they made ready to embark on a first US tour, "Gentleman, you are about to have a new appreciation of the word 'distance.'"

The music from the radio played not just in our ears that night. It played in the ears of the thousands who listened, busy with business that kept them up as the hours passed. It was a tie that bound all; familiar, comfortable, entertaining. The music spoke to some, stirred memories or emotions in others, and assured the rest that they were not alone. American music, sailing through the night air.

And here they were - a bus-load of dinosaurs. Country Bluesmen, the last living relics and purveyors of one of America's greatest musical traditions. Shining the light, declining the bushel. On their way to the next gig, just 800 miles down the road.

Memphis Blues Caravan: " A Day In The Life"

by Arne Brogger, organizer and road manager of the Memphis Blues Caravan in the 1970s, blog post, "The Straight Oil From The Can: Tales from the Memphis Blues Caravan and other Stories," October 2009)

The Memphis Blues Caravan show flyer
The Caravan was, in many respects, a party on wheels. It consisted of a group of co-conspirators who both enjoyed each others' company (for the most part) and shared a commonality of experience unique to a very small group - i.e. they were American Blues singers.

The day would begin with breakfast, usually a hearty affair heavy on the fried side of the menu. This would occur anytime between 5:00 and 9:00 AM depending on when we had a 'bus call'. The 'bus call' was previously agreed upon time signaling the departure of the bus for the next gig. This call was inviolate and could not be missed. With very few exceptions, it was never a problem - most of the Caravan members were early risers regardless of when they got to bed the night before.

After check out and settled on the bus, the Caravan fell into a routine. Each member sat in their respective seat in the lounge of the bus (by the second date, each had claimed a favorite) and entertained each other as the miles rolled past.

One of the favorite pastimes was to play "the dozens" a rhyming put-down game where one member tried to top the other with a well-aimed jibe or an answer back in kind. The origin of the name of this game was something I wondered about over the years. Anyone I asked, including members of the Caravan, had no idea. The response to a casual insult was many times a curt "don't do me no dozens..." It wasn't until years later that I would learn where the term originated.

In the antebellum South, when slaves became old or enfeebled or otherwise damaged (they were chattel), they were put in groups of 12 and sold as a lot at auction. Being 'in the dozens' was a situation to be avoided at all costs and carried with it a sense of shame. In modern-day, it had been softened to indicate mere discomfort at being "one-upped" by someone else. The king of dozens was, as mentioned earlier, Sleepy John Estes, the poet of the Blues.

At about 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon the call would go up to stop at a 'chicken store' to get some lunch. Simultaneously there would be a request to stop at the 'whiskey store' for fortification against the chill of the coming evening. The party had begun.

On reaching the gig, our first stop was the hotel. Check-in was always an experience, both from the reaction of the desk staff to the process of getting everyone sorted out and into their respective rooms. Red and Furry were 'roomies' as were the drummer and bass player from Joe Willie's band. Old partners for years, John and Hammy bunked together as did Stack and Joe Willie. Bukka and Clarence Nelson (Joe Willie's guitar player) had single rooms, as they desired.

The Memphis Blues Caravan show flyer
After everyone was in their respective rooms, I would go over to the venue, Sound and lighting had to be checked out to be sure contract rider demands for production were met. I would also meet with the producer to see if there was any last-minute press that had to be done (this was in pre-cell phone days when none of this could be accomplished en route, as it can today). Soon it was time for a soundcheck. This would require the presence of Joe Willie's rhythm section - Joe Willie and Stackhouse, who were 'stars', didn't have to involve themselves with these details. Drums were set and mic'ed, lighting cues were discussed, the band would run through a couple of tunes to set levels and any last-minute details were attended to. All this was usually finished about an hour before "doors" (when doors were opened and ticket holders were let into the house). As the auditorium filled, I went back to the hotel to round up performers and head back to the venue. We usually arrived about ten or fifteen minutes before showtime.

Some promoters felt this was a bit too close for comfort but they never had cause for concern. The Caravan never missed a curtain time. If we were supposed to hit at 8:00, we hit at 8:00.

The 'opener' for the Caravan was always Piano Red. He took great pleasure in his constant reminders to the rest of the group that it was he who had the hardest job of the lot. He also suggested that any enthusiastic response that the rest of the Caravan might receive was due largely to the warm carpet that his performance spread for them. He was, more often than not, at least partly correct. Bukka White followed next, then Furry Lewis. No one wanted to follow furry.

Lillie Mae Glover, known to 

Beale Street patrons as Ma Rainey #2.

After Furry's set, we generally had an intermission and then opened back up with Sleepy John Estes and Hammy Nixon. They were followed, in many instances, by Ma Rainey (Lilly Mae Glover) backed by Joe Willie's band. Joe Willie and Stackhouse joined the band next and at the end of their set, went into 'The Saints' and were joined on stage by everyone in the Caravan.

After the show, it was party time in earnest. Backstage was usually clogged with people, a great many with guitars in hand, asking questions about everything from tuning techniques to the brand of whiskey preferred by respective performers. It was at this time that I had to be on my guard as well-intentioned youngsters badgered the performers with questions. The problem came when a few would try to cut one or two of the performers from the pack (usually Furry and/or Bukka) and spirit them away to some house or apartment for an after-hours songfest. Both performers were always game for an adventure of this sort but I had learned from experience that this meant trouble.

Though probably well-intentioned, the hosts of these clandestine get-a-ways did not have the best interests of the performers at heart. Fueled by copious amounts of booze and God knows what else, these get-togethers had the potential for real havoc. We didn't need any trouble, "a thousand miles away from home, standing in the rain..."

After the backstage shenanigans, we went back to the hotel and usually gather in one another's rooms. The guitar would get passed from hand to hand, the bottle of Jack Daniels would slowly drain and by 1:00 or 1:30 AM, it was lights out.

The next morning we got up and did it all over again.

Alcohol & Violence - "...knowing that most things break"

by Arne Brogger, organizer and road manager of the Memphis Blues Caravan in the 1970s, (blog post, "The Straight Oil From The Can: Tales from the Memphis Blues Caravan and other Stories,"  October 2009)

"For soon amid the silver loneliness
Of night he lifted up his voice and sang,
Secure, with only two moons listening,
Until the whole harmonious landscape rang --"

Booker (Bukka) Washington White
(Click HERE to listen to his "Vaseline Head Woman")
Alcohol and violence were a constant in the lives of virtually every member of the Caravan. It was not unique to them, it was a byproduct of one other constant, poverty. If your life circumstances are shitty, alcohol provides an escape from those circumstances. Not that all poor people drink - or drink to excess. Far from it. The problem is, when some people drink, shit happens. And usually, it's not the shit that people want. Believe me, I know. Enough said.

Booze and music have always been co-ingredients in a roaring good time. Musicians have had a firm grasp on the power of the interplay between those two elements as well as an appreciation for the transformative escape provided by both. From the old song lyric, "If the river was whiskey and I was a diving duck, I'd dive to the bottom and never would come up" to the modern song title, "There Stands The Glass" - it's the same lick. Alcohol takes us someplace else. Away from where we are. Music does the same. Together, they can be a veritable magic carpet. But sometimes that carpet lands on the wrong side of the wall.

Bukka White was the only member of the Caravan to have served time in a State Penitentiary. None of the members, however, were unfamiliar with jails or the police. Bukka's crime was manslaughter and he would lager confide that his visit to Parchman wasn't his only experience behind bars. He had spent time also in the Shelby County Jail in Memphis for a similar crime. He never gave a definitive figure on the number of men he had killed. It was at least two, possibly more. He claimed that each incident was in self-defense and that he 'hated to do it.' Was he, or his victim, sober when these things happened? Probably not.

John 'Piano Red' Williams also had brushes with the law. While he never admitted to having been arrested, his conversation was rife with recollections of violent encounters. I remember one exchange, in particular, sitting with Red at the dining room table in my house in Minneapolis, where red was engaged in one of his winding stories of stream-of-consciousness descriptions of incidents experienced during his 80 or so years.

At this telling, he described an encounter with a 'devilish rascal' who had crossed him (hmmm, was anyone having a drink?). Their exchange escalated into a full-blown confrontation, forcing Red to pick up an ax handle. At this point in the story, he asked if I knew how to 'han'el' someone through the use of such a weapon.

"Ah, no..."

Pleasant and friendly, Red continued in his innocent-sounding, high-pitched voice:

"Well, first you him in the one arm. Him sharp, comin' down at an angle. You break they arm. Then you him on the other side, and break they other arm." Red paused, making sure that his lesson was getting through, perhaps expecting a question. "Then you take the axe han'el," he continued, in the same sweet voice, "and you hits 'em in they haid."

Joe Willie Wilkins circa 1977
Joe Willie Wilkins, a pacific and gentle soul, told me of a call he got from Muddy Waters in the late '50s informing him that he (Muddy) was sending his guitar player at the time, Pat Hare, back to Memphis. The instructions were that Joe was to arrange for Pat to 'lay low' for a while and not return to Chicago until he was sent for by Muddy. Pat had recorded for Sun Records in its early years and released a side ominously titled "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby" (re-released on Rhino in 1990). A few years later, in a jealous drunken rage, he killed a woman in Chicago and was under investigation for the crime, prompting the call from Muddy. Joe related that this was not the first time such a thing had happened to Pat Hare.

Hare's name was familiar to me as I remember reading an account of his crimes in the local paper years after his Memphis visit. Auburn 'Pat' Hare killed a woman in Minneapolis under similar circumstances. He also killed a policeman sent to investigate. Hare was roaring drunk at the time. Joe Willie allowed as Pat, sober, was a quiet and unassuming guy. Drunk, he was a homicidal maniac.

Auburn 'Pat' Hare died in Minnesota's Stillwater State Penitentiary in 1980. Had alcohol not taken him there, who knows where or when he would have died.

Whiskey and fried chicken fueled the Caravan in its years on the road. From management to performers, Jack and Jim were constant companions. Looking back through the haze, it's a wonder nothing more serious occurred than a pulled knife and some threatening words (both courtesy of Furry, but more of that later).

No injuries, no cops, no blood.
With a nod to E. A. & Mr. Flood...

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Blues and the Soul of a Man - A Blues Blog about Skip James

By Jeff Harris, February 23, 2020

Jeff Harris's radio show on February 23, 2020 focused on the music of Skip James, and the inspiration came from a new book issued by Stefan Grossman titled Blues and the Soul of Man: An Autobiography of Nehemiah “Skip” James. 

The book is James's story in his own words culled from interviews done between 1964 and 1969 by Stephen Calt, who spent countless hours with the Bentonia native, with the intent of compiling an autobiography; instead, Calt published the flawed and controversial, I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues. What Stefan Grossman did is take the raw interviews and shaped it into a compelling narrative, stripping away much of the subjective embellishments, and outright false story Calt pushes forward. On his radio program, Harris spins a batch of James's legendary 1931 recordings as well as some fine performances from the 1960s. In addition, he airs his interview with Grossman,.


Skip James grew up at the Woodbine Plantation in Bentonia, Mississippi and as a youth learned to play both guitar and piano. The music of Skip James and fellow Bentonia guitarists such as Henry Stuckey and Jack Owens is often characterized as a genre unto itself. Notable for its ethereal sounds, open minor guitar tunings, gloomy themes, falsetto vocals, and songs that bemoan the work of the devil. Stuckey learned one of the tunings from Caribbean soldiers while serving in France during World War I, and said that he taught it to James, who went on to become the most famous of Bentonia’s musicians. Inspired by Stuckey, James began playing guitar as a child, and later learned to play organ.

In his teens James began working on construction and logging projects across the mid-South, and sharpened his piano skills playing at work camp barrelhouses. In 1924 James returned to Bentonia, where he earned his living as a sharecropper, gambler and bootlegger, in addition to performing locally with Stuckey. James traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin, for his historic 1931 session for Paramount Records, which included thirteen songs on guitar and five on piano. He was sent to Paramount by talent scout H.C. Speir who was impressed by James’ audition. “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” alluded to the Great Depression, while the gun-themed “22-20 Blues” provided the model for Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues,” and the haunting “Devil Got My Woman” was the likely inspiration for Johnson’s “Hell Hound on My Trail.” According to Calt, James received only $40 for his 1931 recordings, and he soon quit the music business, bitterly declaring it a “barrel of crabs.”

As far as Skip James Paramounts, collector John Tefteller told me: “There are about 20-25 that have survived, if you include the Champion release and 15 or less if you leave that one out. They are some of the rarest and most desirable 78 rpm records of all time. There are a couple of them for which only one or two copies in playable condition exist.” James’s records sold poorly, and later in 1931 he moved to Dallas, where he served as a minister and led a gospel group. He later stayed in Birmingham, Alabama, and in Hattiesburg and Meridian, Mississippi, occasionally returning to Bentonia. He returned to Bentonia in 1948 and sometimes played for locals at the newly opened Blue Front Cafe, although he did not earn his living as a musician.

The first resissue of Skip James was in the 40’s when John Steiner pressed a 78 from from Paramount test-pressings. One Side was Skip’s “Little Cow And Calf Is Gonna Die Blues” (Paramount 13085) and the other side was “Fat Mamma Blues” by Jabo Williams. (Paramount 13130). This is the first country blues to be reissued for the white collector’s market. In 1962 Skip’s “Devil Got My Woman” was reissued on the compilation Really! The Country Blues. Regarding Skip, the notes contained the following: “No details. Said to have been from Louisiana. Was proficient on both guitar and piano. Present whereabouts unknown.” The idea that he came from Louisiana came from his song “If You Haven’t Got Any Hay, Get On Down The Road”: “If I go to Louisiana mama Lord they’ll, hang me for sure.” It was Gayle Dean Wardlow who first found concrete information on James from Johnny Temple. “Yeah, I knew Skippy,” Temple said, “I learned guitar from him.” He also learned that James was from Bentonia, halfway between Jackson and Yazoo City. Wardlow headed down there and picked up a few scraps of information but no one had seen him for ten years. Temple had last seen him in 1960 or 1961 in West Memphis.

In later years skip lived in Memphis and Tunica County, where he was located in 1964 by blues enthusiasts who persuaded him to begin performing again. In 1964, blues fans John Fahey, Bill Barth, and Henry Vestine found him in a hospital in Tunica, Mississippi. On that same day Son House was located in Rochester, New York. On the same day as James and House were re-discovered civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan and local police. Newsweek covered both rediscoveries in one story, rhapsodizing, “These two were the only great country blues singers still lost. No one knew whether they were alive or dead….The search for these old-time bluesmen has always had a note of urgency about it. Theirs was our finest and oldest native-born music, the blues, country-style, pure and personal, always one Negro and a guitar lamenting misery, injustice, but still saying yes to life.” 

In the introduction to Blues and the Soul of Man, Eddie Dean writes: “The bedridden James seemed to expect the sudden appearance of these fans; in fact, he seemed perturbed that they hadn’t come sooner to pay him homage. …A few days later, the hospital discharged him, after the pilgrims had paid not only James’ medical bills, but also the money he owed his landlord. At his sharecropper’s shack, James picked up the borrowed guitar and began playing his old songs, which he hadn’t performed in years. He was rusty, but he still clearly retained his talent.”

After his rediscovery James relocated to Washington, D. C., and then to Philadelphia to play folk and blues festivals and clubs. In Washington he stayed for a time with Dick Spotswood. “He really stood out from the mass of humanity,” says Spottswood. “If he had been raised in different circumstances and had some level of academic training, he could have been an original thinker in any number of fields. He had that brooding, inquisitive intellect that was never content to leave things unchallenged. I could have easily seen him teaching physics or philosophy. …I don’t think he had a lot more use for git-along Southern blacks than he did for the white oppressors,” says Spottswood. “He didn’t suffer fools or take no kind of shit.”

A few days after arriving in Washington, James went further north, this time to the Newport Folk Festival, for his first major performance since his rediscovery. Of his performance, Peter Gurnalack wrote: “Skip James appeared, looking gaunt and a little hesitant, his eyes unfocused and wearing a black suit and a wide-brimmed flat-topped preacher’s hat that gave him as unearthly an appearance as his records had led us to suspect he had….As the first notes floated across the field, as the voice soared over us, the piercing falsetto set against the harsh cross-tuning of the guitar, there was a note of almost breathless expectation in the air. It seemed inappropriate somehow that this strange haunting sound which had existed ’til now only as a barely audible dub from a scratched 78 should be reclaimed so casually on an overcast summer’s day at Newport. …As the song came to an end, the field exploded with cheers and whistles.” James would go on to recorded several albums and gained new renown and royalties from the rock group Cream’s 1966 cover of his song “I’m So Glad,” but the somber quality of much of his music and his insistence on artistic integrity over entertainment value limited his popular appeal. “We had expected that we had another John Hurt on our hands,” recalls Ed Denson, another member of the Washington blues circle. “And in terms of public acceptance, that was not true, and that was too bad.” James died in Philadelphia on October 3, 1969.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Donate to Help Maintain Blues Memorials



1) Online: Donate to new marker projects
or the upkeep of our existing memorials,




Please include any instructions for a 
particular project or memorial AND 

Please provide an address to receive commemorative blues items from our vault


2) Send us some mail:

4021 Pleasant Gate Lane, Columbia, TN 38401 

or

702 Santee St. Apt. 1210
Prairie View, TX 77445
2








Saturday, August 22, 2020

Cora Fluker Drops Bombs on the Devil

By Bill Nichols

Your sons and daughters shall prophesy
Your old men shall dream dreams
Your young men shall see visions
Joel 2:28

Photo: Bill Steber
Just as the Lord God spoke to the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, so He peered one day over the undulating hills of Lauderdale County, Mississippi, into a whistle-stop town called Marion and found Cora Fluker.

They understood each other perfectly, Mrs. Fluker and God, and they struck a deal. She would sing His praises to the world and, though the fruits of material wealth would escape her through the whole of her life, He would fill her heart with the poetry of inspiration and give her soul a voice molded from the stuff of angels.

Both parties have honored the agreement more or less, and two-score years later, down a red clay-inlaid road six-tenths of a mile from downtown Marion in a house and church built of discarded wood and broken dreams, Cora Fluker sings on, witnessing to a faith that has become her only anchor in a voyage through poverty and despair.

I look in the East in the middle of the morning
I see God in the clouds
He's going to hear me crying

A small sample of the words of Cora Fluker, unlikely prophet, just singin' about her God to anybody who'll take the time to listen.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

The Campaign to Mark the Grave of Harmonicist Noah Lewis

Gus Cannon, Ashley Thompson, and Noah Lewis
Project Researchers: Jim Lill and Shawn Pitts


 


Noah Lewis was born in Henning, Tennessee, and he learned to play the harmonica as a child. He moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in his early teens, where he met Gus Cannon in 1907. By that time he was already a respected original stylist on the harmonica, noted for his liquid tone and breath control, which allowed him to generate enormous volume from the instrument. By then he was also noted for his ability to play two harmonicas at once – one with his mouth and one with his nose, a trick he probably taught to Big Walter Horton, who recorded briefly as a teenager with the Memphis Jug Band some 20 years later. Lewis developed unusual levels of breath control and volume from playing in string bands and brass marching bands on the streets of Memphis.

At their meeting in 1907, Lewis introduced Cannon to the 13-year-old guitarist and singer Ashley Thompson, with whom Lewis had been playing in the streets of Ripley and Memphis for some time, and the three of them worked together over the next 20 years whenever Cannon was in Memphis and not away working medicine and tent shows. When Will Shade's Memphis Jugband recorded and became popular in the late 1920s, Cannon added a coal-oil can on a rack around his neck and renamed the trio (Cannon, Lewis, and Thompson) Cannon's Jug Stompers.

British Blues Royalty Remembers His Time with Howlin' Wolf


By Dave William Kelly 2012

[Born 13 March 1947, David William Kelly is a British blues singer, guitarist, and composer, who has been active on the British blues music scene since the 1960s. He has performed with the John Dummer Blues Band, Tramp, The Blues Band, and his own Dave Kelly Band. His sister, Jo Ann Kelly, was also a blues singer, and she and Dave participated in many musical projects together.]

First Impressions

In 1967 I was the lead singer & slide guitarist with The John Dummer Blues Band. We were a working band schlepping up and down motorways of the UK & Europe, earning a living, never going to make a fortune but a group of young men doing what they wanted to do and mostly having fun.

Dave Kelly: vocals & slide guitar

John Dummer: drums

Iain ’Thump’ Thompson: bass guitar

Adrian ‘Putty’ Pietryga; lead guitar

Bob Hall: piano occasionally at gigs near London (Bob was studying to be a lawyer).

Looking back I guess we were never going to set the world alight, but we’d always work. We were reasonably accomplished musicians, and not too expensive, also we knew and loved the blues. We were perfect for backing visiting US artists. We later made two tours with John Lee Hooker, and at one time were offered Slim Harpo, but that one never materialized. When our management company rang and asked if we’d heard of Howlin Wolf and would we like to back him, we all jumped at the chance.

The agents who brought these bluesmen over had been in the business a long time, they recognized a fashion or the latest craze and jumped on the bandwagon. I’m sure they, we’ll call them the R T Agency, didn’t have clue who Wolf was or his standing in the blues, other than checking out and a bit of research to see who they could bring over. I remember hearing a story from a promoter who did know his stuff being given a ‘shopping list’ over the phone of artists the agency proposed bringing over.


Agent: "And how much would you be prepared to pay for Sonny Boy Williamson?“

Promoter: "Oh I’d give you a thousand pounds a night for him!"

Agent [ getting excited ] "Really? I’ll get him for you."

Promoter: "You’ll be lucky – he’s been dead three years."

And in some cases that still didn’t stop the agent. I recall there were three West Indian Bluebeat acts simultaneously doing the clubs all purporting to be the same artist.

Anyway this was the real Wolf. The management did the deal – whatever it was, - we were all on wages anyway so it didn’t affect our income, and we were to be Howlin Wolf’s backing band for three weeks around the UK. In actual fact we (our management) never got paid for the tour, luckily Wolf had been paid in advance.

The R T Agency went bankrupt owing us all the fees, apparently, in a court case our management was given custody of his office furniture in lieu of payment. It didn’t affect the band as we were on wages from the management company anyway. Either way Ollie & Tommie Vaughan from the county shires lost some money, which they could probably afford. They went on to become the top presenters and arrangers of upper-class discos during the Debs season, Juliana’s discotheques made a lot of money – nice guys. Hi Ollie & Tommy if you read this.

We were to meet Wolf the day before the first show. A room above a pub had been booked for rehearsal, we set the gear up and awaited the arrival of the great man.

He strolled in with another guy who turned out to be RT’s representative and ‘tour manager’. Wolf was not unfriendly but slightly aloof at first. He was a very commanding figure, well over six feet tall, big build, 300lbs of heavenly joy. And that voice! After introductions and hands being shaken, with ours disappearing into his giant paws, thankfully he wasn’t a ‘bone crusher’ or we wouldn’t be able to play afterward.

“OK lets see what you can do” he said. We’d expected him to call a few songs for rehearsal and that we’d be there all evening getting them right, but he didn’t appear to want to play anything with us at first. We played him a few songs, he nodded and declared that we knew our stuff. “I can see by the way you hold your guitars that you’re musicians “ One of the songs we played in our audition was ‘Dust My Broom’, he said he wanted to do that one in the set. He then took out some harps and blew through the mic directly into the PA system – what a sound. Inside that enormous chest was an equally large pair of lungs. I bet his harps didn’t last very long. We suggested trying a few songs, Smokestack Lightnin being one we really wanted to do, and we knew his stuff pretty well, but he just played a few bars of a twelve-bar, told us to follow him, what to look for, breaks, stops etc and told Tony [JohnDummer] to really hit the backbeat on the snare. That was it, the whole ‘rehearsal’ had taken about one hour. Wolf and Ian the tour manager disappeared downstairs, into Ian’s car leaving us slightly surprised and I was a bit worried as the first gig was the next day, I think it was in Sunderland, 200 miles away in the northeast of England. Well if Wolf wasn’t worried who were we to complain? I didn’t realize it at the time, but he’d just paid us a great compliment.

Baptism by Fire

We drove up in the van to Sunderland, Wolf went with Ian in his car and we met up at the gig in a college gym. The sound was awful, but the crowd was there to see Wolf and just the fact that he was there was enough. I don’t recall exactly what set we played with him at that first show other than it was mainly twelve-bar shuffles and the odd slow blues, no Smokestack, no Killing Floor, no Shake For Me, no Just Like I Treat You, no Going Down Slow, no Spoonful, no Forty Four – just forty-five minutes and off. I remember feeling a bit disappointed and that if I’d been a punter/fan come to see the great man I would have felt a bit shortchanged. Not that Wolf didn’t perform well or put everything into it – he did, but just from the choice of material, not hearing all those classics. However this was early days, we were still feeling each other out, getting a modus operandi. Things definitely got better.

After the show, Wolf gave me some change and told me to go to the bar and get him a whiskey. In 1968 spirits were very expensive in the UK with all the government tax and also served in very small measures, also I’m not sure if Wolf was up to pace yet with the English money, but when I returned with the pathetic single measure of whiskey hardly covering a quarter of an inch in the bottom of the glass and very little change he glared at me said “You been drinking this? Don’t fool with me boy” I assured him that I had carried the glass directly from the bar, hadn’t spilled or drunk any of it, it was just that that’s how they serve whiskey in England, also that I wouldn’t dare ‘fool with him.’ He seemed to accept the explanation and when Ian appeared and confirmed that the pathetic measure was the English way he just laughed that laugh and muttered about getting a hip flask.

I don’t recall all the venues we played over those three weeks or the exact chronology of the ones I do remember but very soon after the start of the tour a couple of guys would be at almost every gig, no matter how far apart We knew they were there because during our own forty-minute set before Wolf came on they would heckle us by every so often shouting out CHESTER (Wolf's real first name). We eventually met them and took them backstage to meet Wolf and they laid off us a bit in our set after that.

It was early in the tour that I suggested to Wolf that we [the band] start his set with a fast shuffle, like one of his early Memphis recordings with Willie Johnson on guitar, Willie Steel playing drums and Ike Turner at the piano. Wolf would stand in the wings whilst over the shuffle I tell the crowd that

“The Wolf is in Your Town – do you wanna see The Wolf ? are you READY for The Wolf?, REALLY READY?” We tried it and it worked very well, getting the crowd up and shouting in response so that the place really erupted as I finally shouted: “Here comes THE WOLF, the great HOWLIN WOLF”. He then walked on stage, blowing his harp to tremendous noise from the crowd. And then things got hotter.

One Saturday night early in the tour we played The University College[I think] London, right in the center of the West End. The place was heaving with about a thousand people in the audience, packed into the hall, there was no room to move, sardines. Wolf connected with the atmosphere immediately and took the gig by the scruff of the neck from the moment he boarded the stage. This was the best gig of the tour. He played for nearly two hours, he used every inch of his body to get his songs across, he howled at the moon, he got on all fours, rolled on his back he rolled his eyes, he worked and worked, and the audience knew they’d been worked over. He was the Tail Dragger, but those tracks were never wiped out, anyone there that night would remember that performance for the rest of their lives – or they got a hole in their soul. Wolf was exhausted, and understandably the next couple of gigs were a bit of an anticlimax but for that one show THANK YOU WOLF FOREVER.

By then the set had expanded and more favorites were appearing. I suppose as we got to know each other and learned to have confidence in what could be achieved, how far we could go out on a limb and mutual trust that we’d all get back safely and together at the end of the song. Wolf was enjoying our company and we certainly enjoyed his. He dispensed with the tour manager and liked to travel with us in the van – a classic rock and roll van, a six-wheel Ford Transit with two rows of bench seats, a bulkhead divider with the amps and the now laughably small PA system in the back, and very probably a nasty smell. He liked to sit in the front and on the way home after a gig would sit next to Chris the roady who was driving and say, “I’m gonna watch you boy, I’ll keep you awake, you start to nod I’m gonna blow my harp. We’d be dozing in the back and sure enough loud wailing harp would disturb our slumber – Wolf thought Chris, or Squoit as he’d call him, was getting tired.

During those hours on the road, we all had various conversations with him, some individual, some open to all. He told us he’d been in the UK during the war, he told us he’d met Charlie Patton. “Man what a voice – he was only as big as my prick but he had a great voice”. He told us that Sonny Boy Williamson was his brother in law and had taught Wolf some harp. Also about his club in Chicago, and how he loved Jimmy Reed, but Jimmy would like “too much juice” and sometimes would play Ain’t That Lovin You Baby over and over, until eventually Wolf would have to threaten not to pay him to get him to move on. He did a very funny impression of Jimmy talking whilst in his cups. We talked about the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and other happenings in the States. He expressed certain opinions but didn’t seem to be particularly interested in politics or he wasn’t prepared to expand his thoughts with us.

He was getting bored and lonely sitting in his hotel room in central London, ironically named The White House, I lent him my old Harmony Sovereign guitar to play in his room, which he accidentally trod on, he was so apologetic, but it wasn’t my best guitar. I taped it up on the side of the body where it had split. It was still playable and I pointed out to him that forever I would be able to show off this guitar and say ‘This was played and broken by the great Howlin Wolf’ He laughed but I don’t think that he realized that I was serious.

He said we should come up to the hotel and he’d teach us music theory. He’d paid someone to teach it to him, but he’d teach us for free. We didn’t get to learn much music theory, but he did play Little Red Rooster for us on the as yet intact Harmony.

Trying to explain that although the song went to the D [if in A] quite quickly the slide part played an A on the 12th fret. We played it a few times but I don’t think we ever managed to totally nail the exact feel of the classic recorded version, and as you can see from my explanation of his lesson, I never did get that theory thing together either.

Road Stories

One lunchtime we stopped at a pub for our usual refreshment and a game of darts. This was the late sixties but there was still some animosity toward longhaired weirdo’s as we were perceived in some quarters. There was a crowd of construction workers in the pub who’d just finished for the week and we're getting a bit cut. A few comments were thrown over in our direction, I don’t know if we were taking too long on the dartboard or was it longhaired weirdo’s with a six feet six Black man in their pub.

There was some whispering and a couple of them went out to the car park. When we eventually left we found they’d deflated one of our tires – ho ho very funny. One of the guys came out to go to the toilet which was across the car park, he was obviously very drunk and staggering He came over and slurred ‘Sorry about the tire’, then asked who we were and who was the big guy? We told him he was blues singer called Howlin Wolf – his response - ‘What THE HOWLIN WOLF – I’ve met Howlin Wolf?’ , [very drunk & emotional]. He staggered back into the pub and returned with a couple of his mates and a foot pump. He made them pump up our tire whilst he sobbed Howlin Wolf, I’ve met Howlin Wolf, we’ve let down Howlin fucking Wolf’s fucking tires – oh no!

Most of the audiences were kids about our ages, the early twenties, with the odd older person who would have had the few records of Wolf released in the UK in the late fifties. We played at the Cliffs Ballroom in Bournemouth and that night standing right in front of the stage there was a fellow in his forties, dressed up in the fashion of his youth, a Teddy Boy. In the nineteen fifties the first signs of youthful rebellion in Britain were manifested in The Teddy Boys, so-called because they took their style from the Edwardian era. Long drape jackets with velvet collars, drainpipe trousers, large suede shoes nicknamed brothel creepers, bootlace tie, all topped off with pompadour/Tony Curtis hairdo. In austere post-war Britain, these popinjays caused outrage and uproar in the press, etc and so they duly obliged by ripping up cinema seats during the first screenings of Rock Around The Clock and The Girl Can’t Help It. They were made for Rock & Roll, Rock & Roll was made for them. This chap obviously felt that having Howlin Wolf come to Bournemouth justified getting the old suit out of the closet. He loved the concert and I searched him out after the show as I thought he deserved to come and meet The Wolf, he was knocked out to meet his hero and Wolf chatted to him for some time. Oh, by the way, this Teddy Boy was now a bank manager.

On one trip with Wolf in the van with us we had a couple of shows in the north, the tour manager had long disappeared – well if Wolf wanted to travel in a smelly van why pay a driver and car hire no doubt thought the lovely Mr. T. They also had stopped booking hotels for Wolf apart from the London base. Our roady Chris Sladdin

Came from near Lincoln in the northeast. He lived in London having come down for college but his parents still lived in a nice semi-detached house on the edge of the town. It made sense to stay in the area and Chris’ parents were away on holiday, so we headed off to their house after the show. Wolf was given the master bedroom whilst we spread ourselves around the house for the night. Wolf’s comment was “ I didn’t know you had a nice house like this – I thought you were a hippy” The next day was Sunday and Chris said we’d go down to the Ferry Boat Inn on the river for Sunday Lunch. So the five long-haired weirdo's and the six-foot-six inches African American headed to the very genteel middle-class pub for Sunday lunch. Wolf was a bit nervous, he was comfortable with us, but then we were musicians. This pub was very middle class and very white. He was soon put at rest, Chris knew the landlord as a Rotary Club pal of his Dad. He told him all about the tour and how famous Wolf was and the landlord marched across the pub, shook Wolf by the hand and said Good Morning Mr. Wolf we’re very proud to ‘ave you in our pub. I ‘ope this lot are looking after you well – would you like a whiskey?

During the tour, my sister Jo-Ann, I and the band had organized a concert at our regular Sunday afternoon blues session at the Studio 51, Ken Colyer’s Jazz Club. These sessions were started about seven years earlier by another group of young longhaired wierdo’s with no regular gig, called The Rolling Stones. Jo-Ann took me down there one Sunday in the early sixties. It cost 3 shillings entrance [15 pence UK or 10 cents US in today’s money] and the Stones played three 45 minute sets between 2.00 and 5.00pm.

A friend suggested that we [The Dummer Band] resurrect these sessions when we were looking for somewhere to play. After we left they continued well into the seventies with various other outfits.

However, this particular concert was a benefit to raise money for one of our heroes who were not in the best of health and living in a nursing home in Memphis. The great Memphis Minnie. We had promises from John Mayall, Mick Taylor, Alexis Korner,

Paul Kossof & Andy Fraser from Free, plus all the usual suspects that they would turn up and play for nothing to raise money for Minnie. We told Wolf about it and he said he’d try to get down. Bob Hall was running a reel to reel, recording the whole afternoon and I remember Jo Ann and I were singing with a collection of massed musicians behind us, when on the tape for no apparent reason the audience erupted. Yes, Wolf had just walked in and made his way to the front of the stage. He got up and played three or four numbers to a spellbound audience before wandering out into the London evening and presumably a cab back to his hotel.

We raised £150 for Minnie. It doesn’t sound much these days but I know it helped her in back in Memphis. We sent the money to a Memphis Jazz Buff who organized a presentation with some press and a boogie piano player. I have a tape of the event with Minnie managing a slightly strangled sounding ‘Thankya’ The only drag about our event is that the tape of the whole afternoon, including Wolf’s performance, has disappeared.

There were not shows every night and I guess nights off would hang heavy on Wolf’s shoulders. None of us had houses at the time, I lived in a one room bed sit with my girlfriend at that time, but I know Bob Hall, who was older than the rest of us, and by then married, invited Wolf to dinner at his home. Toward the end of the tour Wolf was obviously getting homesick, but what better to inspire a blues singer. One night in Leicester he sang the most moving spine-tingling version of ‘Did I Hurt Your Feelings, I Didn’t Mean To Do You No Wrong’. Over the tour he had on occasions told us that we played too loud, but he was generally happy with where and what we played. However on this particular performance he’d gone out into the audience of young students, he had them sit on the floor whilst he on one knee pleaded the song to his wife, who I know he’d phoned earlier in the day. He just waived his hand back at us onstage meaning ‘down’ any lick or fill attempted by any of us was met with that glare. We obeyed, got quieter and quieter, played less and less whilst the master gave a master-class in blues feeling, less is more. I was shaking at the end of that song, I had been privileged to be involved in a magical moment, some girls in the audience had tears in their eyes. (I have now re-reading this) I’ve seen some greats, but I’ve never seen a performance like that before or since. THANK YOU WOLF.

Bad Vibes

Only two really. One night we played the 10pm slot at The Flamingo Club in Soho London. The Flamingo Club was mainly a soul venue or West Indian Ska/Bluebeat gig, depending on who was booked or who the DJ was for the all-night disco after the live act. We had been booked on a Ska/Bluebeat night so the place was heaving with cool hip young West Indians. Wolf was definitely up for it, this was the first black venue we’d played. Of course, these hip young dudes were there for the disco, they’d never heard of Howlin Wolf and couldn’t care less about the Blues. We came off stage and Wolf laid into us, that we’d played badly and let him down, witness the lack of response from the audience. The one show where he played to what he called ‘my people’ and it had failed. I said Wolf they’re not ‘your people’ they’re West Indians and they don’t know blues music, they’ve come for the Ska later on. Then first time he ever got angry with us, he glared at me, face in my face and said: “ Don’t tell me how to play to coons, I’m a coon myself.” I was shocked at his terminology also a bit scared at having 300lbs of heavenly joy turn into 300lbs of angry Wolf. I left the dressing room and got on with the load out. As I’d expected all was fine the next day and the topic wasn’t raised again.

Earlier in the tour, we played at The Speakeasy Club in central London. This was where the ‘In Crowd’ hung out, journalists, musicians, faces, aristocrats, liggers, jammers, and poseurs, etc. You had to be ‘someone’ to get in there. The night we played it many musos were in, Lowell Fulson was in town and came and said hi to Wolf. The first set went OK, Lowell got up and played guitar on a couple of numbers, some young black guitar wiz kid got up and started to wail and fill every hole and even some places which weren’t holes with about 100 notes per minute. Fulson turned around and shouted in his ear ”Shut up, it’s his [Wolf’s] song, not yours”. Thankfully the guy was shamed into getting off the stage. We took a break and I don’t know if Wolf had too many whiskeys bought for him by the admiring back slapping punters, but it was obvious something was wrong at the start of the second set. From bad to worse, Wolf decided he was going to play guitar. He turned round to me and beckoned me closer “Gimme your guitar son” I thought it wasn’t a good idea and said something like “Are you sure Wolf ?” He began to lose it so I complied, not wishing to have a row on stage. As I handed it over I said it’s in Open E tuning “You don’t have to tell me what tuning it’s in he growled” and then sat down and proceeded to play standard chords on a guitar in open tuning. This did not make for cool music. I felt for my colleagues up there on stage trying to decide which key to follow in, they did their best, trying to turn his amp down, trying to hold it together in some way but it was a lost cause.

Ian the tour manager was still on the scene at that time and I saw him sitting up on some higher seats back in the gloom. I jumped up next to him and said “Ian get him off. He’s blowing it” Ian said I think he’s really cool, the music is grooving. I pleaded “Ian it’s not grooving it’s a shambles” then he replied, “Please go away, leave me alone I’m not Ian and I’m tripping”. – Poor guy, maybe that was the best way to hear that particular set, oh and he was quite right – it wasn’t Ian.

Predictably in the music press, the debacle was reported, - what a shame that these visiting artists are given young inexperienced bands who can’t back them properly and ruin their music, etc. etc. That one hurt. I have since been told that Peter Green was in the audience and was arguing on our behalf with a couple of DJ’s. He’d understood the situation.

Later

I was playing a show in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2001 and a guy came up to me afterward and said he’d seen me in The Dummer Band in 1969 backing Howlin Wolf at The Free Trade Hall Manchester. Yes, great times I responded. I said what a pleasure and honor it had been to play with him, my only regret was that I had no photos of the tour. I suppose when you’re young you think it goes on forever like this and record taking photographically doesn’t enter your head. He said he didn’t have any photos, but he wanted to know if I would like a CD of the concert? Gobsmacked! Remember this was 1969 – no mini-disk, even before cassettes. He’d taken his reel to reel into the venue, plugged it into the wall socket and sat there with his mic held high above his head. Thankfully stewards in those days were not aware of copyright, bootlegs, etc. and he got the whole set with Wolf. He’s cleaned the recording up a bit and the large hall has a large reverb, but you can still hear most of what you want to hear.

Hearing that music again brought it all flooding back. This concert was near the end of the tour, but we still never knew what Wolf was going to play next. He often started a number and we’d fall in at appropriate times. He starts the concert playing the riff on his harp to Somebody Walking In My Home, the band come in then Wolf sings Smokestack Lightnin over the other riff – it’s great. Then onto Dust My Broom. When I first heard the CD I was surprised how straight I played the slide riff, and the music took me back thirty-two years (now 50) to the second night of the tour and Wolf saying to me “When we play Dust My Broom you just play that Elmore piece, don’ play nuttin’ else, jus’ that riff” OK Wolf –lesson one, less is more.

We played an eight-bar in the vein of ‘It Hurts Me Too’ and it wasn’t totally apparent what the sequence was from the harp intro, so for a while, I’m following Wolf with the slide whilst the other guy's soldier on with a twelve-bar, but it soon gets together. I listened to this CD in awe and not without some pride as Wolf gives me more and more solo choruses shouting encouragement “ Play it son” “Get the feeling” etc.

We played Spoonful……..…….

Freddy King had been brought over by the same agency and had been backed by some friends of ours called Killing Floor, who numbered Rod De‘Ath on drums and Lou Martin on piano, later to join Rory Gallagher. The backstage banter and rivalry between Freddy and Wolf was entertaining. I got the impression that Freddy had at some time been in Wolf’s band. I don’t think he ever recorded with Wolf and I may have misunderstood, however it was agreed that Freddy would come out and play with us behind Wolf on the final encore of the night. Wolf counted in a slow blues, Freddy started with the most beautiful, tasteful, emotional intro, Wolf shouts to him “Get it again”, so Freddy starts another sequence, about eight bars in Wolf starts a fresh sequence on the harp, Freddy immediately drops in at the top of the sequence, the performance is good, Wolf and Freddy in friendly but apparent rivalry. The music continues and just getting geared up for a searing heart-wrenching solo from Freddy when the song fades. I rang the guy and asked if he’d send me the rest of the music – he couldn’t. His machine had run out of tape halfway through the finale. Oh well.

After the show both artists and bands went for a meal, Freddy proclaimed that he’d buy the drinks if Wolf paid for the food, Freddy thought this arrangement was very amusing, Wolf later told me that he’d was aware that he’d been taken a bit but he went along with the arrangement as he had more money than Freddy anyway. Later, sitting down next to him, he made the comment, “anyway I’m better looking than him, what kind of figure is that for a man? Look he’s got tits, man he should wear a brassiere.” This comment finished with him leaning over grabbing my knee whilst shaking with laughter which would start somewhere in his stomach and then build up through his whole body till he and anyone in the vicinity was also swept up in the joke.

What was truly gratifying about hearing us actually playing with Wolf all those years ago, particularly in light of The Speakeasy disaster, is how very good we were at backing him. I can’t think of anyone who could have done a better job, under the circumstances.

Synchronicity

Soon after receiving the CD I heard from another fan that he had photos of that tour and have now received some visual documentation – God we were young!

Then I was sent a video containing Wolf with the sublime Hubert Sumlin on lead guitar playing on the American Festival of the Blues in Germany 1964. Wolf steals the show. His ability to dig deep into his soul and tap into that vein of emotion and then produce it out through his voice, no, through his whole being is a wonderful, beautiful talent

Wolf was a gentle giant, but not to be messed with, he took a paternal interest in his young backing group, ‘don’t smoke that shit – it’ll kill ya’. He was in some ways naive but also a sophisticated man, complex, a bit like the rest of us I guess. I am extremely proud and grateful to have been associated with such a master.

Finally, I had a tax inspection recently. The inspector who looked to be in his early sixties came to my house peered through my accounts, asked the usual questions, then lightened up a bit. “What sort of music do you play then ?” When I replied ‘blues’ he said “What like Howlin Wolf ?” The inspection went very well.