Wednesday, May 3, 2017

He Lived and Died the Blues: Jackson's Sonny Boy

He Lived and Died the Blues:
Jackson's Sonny Boy took his Music to the Top
By Mary S. Reed - Jackson (TN) Sun - 1990

Part of the blues died one June 1948 night when Jackson's Sonny Boy Williamson was beaten to death on a Chicago street. A friend said it was because of 50 cents in the famous musician's pocket: A woman had given Sonny Boy the money to play the blues for her. Then her man beat it out of Sonny Boy when he wouldn't give the money back.

It would have been like Sonny Boy to sing about that 50 cents the next day. For Sonny Boy Williamson could wail his blues on a two-bit harp like no one before him. By the time the violence and poverty of his world caught up with him that night, the harmonica — and the blues — would never be the same.

"He was the single most influential blues harmonica player of his day and possibly of all time," said David Evans, Memphis State University blues expert. Few in his hometown of Jackson remember Sonny Boy or know of his fame, said T.W. Utley, Sonny Boy's younger brother, who lives within a few miles of the musician's birthplace and grave.

Sonny Boy's 25-cent harmonica and down-and-out songs became his ticket out of Madison County's cotton fields in the 1920s. But in the end, he couldn't escape the South's poverty. His body lies in a rural Madison County grave marked only by a rusting, metal marker — the kind the funeral homes stick in the ground until money buys a grave-stone.

A faded piece of paper stuck behind dirty glass on that marker gives his name: John Lee Williamson. His age: 34. The day he died: June 1, 1948. "Now, I want to bury my body, way down in Jackson, Tennessee," Sonny Boy would sing while his feet shuffled the two-step and his right hand cupped the harmonica to his mouth.

The handsome Sonny Boy — always friendly, smiling and setting up the whiskey-loving house with drinks — could hold an audience like any good preacher offering hope from everyday troubles.

Sonny Boy turned the harmonica into a lead instrument when others were using it for background music. He went from singing to playing so effortlessly that it was hard to tell where his voice stopped and the harmonica began.

"He inspired so many imitators, he was like the Michael Jackson of his day in the blues community,- said Jim O'Neal, founder of Living Blues Magazine. 

In taverns and tourist-filled clubs where they still sing the increasingly popular blues, Sonny Boy's influence is felt whenever a harmonica is played or a singer pulls out one of Sonny Boy's songs from his bag of tricks, said Bob Shatkin, who teaches the harmonica in Brooklyn and has been playing it for 35 years.

“He’s a hero.”

The more he plays, Shatkin said, the more he appreciates Sonny Boy's skills.

"Every harp (harmonica) player owes him a debt. He's a hero. Even 41 years after his death, he's still thought of by musicians in Chicago as wonderful." Sonny Boy was born March 30, 1914, near Britton Lane in south-west Madison County, with the blues in his blood and a need to go places.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Still a Great Delta Blues Singer

Still a Great Delta Blues Singer
By Lawrence Cohn
The story below is Copyright 1968, Saturday Review Inc.

"Son" (Eddie) House lives a leisurely life now at his Greig Street home.  Resting from a trip to Philadelphia to see friends, and to New York to tape the forthcoming show, the musician said he'll be going to Chicago in February to participate in the Chicago Folk Festival.  Meanwhile, his principal occupation is correspondence with many fans who heard him on a European trip last year. That trip was followed by a tour of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, However it is principally the fans of Germany, Austria and England with whom House corresponds.

He is a great deal older now. Perhaps his hands can't behave exactly as he would have them. But he is still the great Mississippi delta blues singer and guitarist, whose handful of old recordings has kept his memory and reputation surviving for these many years.

Along with two or three other artists, his name has be-come a synonym for the r o u g h, intensely emotional delta blues style. He is, in many ways, the most important and significant blues artist to have been "rediscovered" as a result of the cur-rent intensified interest in the blues and the important re-cording artists of the 1920s and 1930s.
His discovery by three young enthusiasts—Dick Waterman, Nick Perls, and Phil Spiro—Is a story by it-self and, in short, is a tale of a search that covered 16 states and 4,000 miles, all of which resulted in locating "Son" House living in Rochester, N.Y., far removed from Mississippi.

"Son" House is an artist of almost incredible forcefulness and stature. His is a ferocious, almost violent, instrumental attack accentuated by the sliding of a steel tube, which he wears on one of the finger's of his fretting hand, along the strings of his steel-bodied National guitar.

His singing is dramatic, and he is still, to many, the finest blues singer of all. In performance, his eyes are closed, head reared back, and he gasps as he builds his song to a fever-pitched emotional level. He has the quality of becoming so totally immersed in his artistry that, by all indicatons, it appears that each song is a complete catharsis in itself.  He is an emotional experience, and no other blues artist active today appears to be capable of conveying these qualities to his listeners.

In a sense he is a paradox. He is the man whose very name stands for the harshness and abrasive qualities of which the Mississippi blues consist. But despite this, his initial external influences were experienced outside of Mississippi. And, to heighten the curiosity, he began to play the guitar when he was a grown man—rather than as a boy.

His outward personality appears to be nothing short of a complete reversal of his musical approach. He is not, by any means, a very forceful person, and the word "shy" would most appropriately describe him.

Eddie James House Jr. — "Son" — was born outside of Clarksdale, Miss., on March 21, 1902. At age of three or four his family moved to New Orleans, La., where he remained for about 20 years.

"I remember Louis Arm-strong in 1917 or '18; he was already a big man. The singers were a little different in New Orleans. They sang mostly ballads and not blues."

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Grave of Nehemiah "Skip" James

For Blues Great, Buried Here, Fame is Eternal
It was Fleeting, However, While Skip James Was Alive
By Derrick Nunnally - Philadelphia Inquirer - Oct 2009

Skip James' grave at Merlon Memorial Park, above, still
draws fans 40 years after his death. James, who married a
Philadelphia woman, spent much of his career in obscurity.
For all of Philadelphia's rich history across the American musical spectrum, from jazz to rock and rap, land-marks of blues history are thin on the region's ground.

But beneath the soil of a hillside Bala Cynwyd cemetery is the incongruous resting place of an enigmatic Mississippi bluesman, buried 40 years ago today, which has grown quietly into a pilgrim-age site for a stream of blues listeners.

They come in tribute to Skip James, whose searing falsetto, spryly fingerpicked guitar playing, and unorthodox, Thelonious Monk-like piano style won a cult following after just two days of recording in 1931.

"We get people here from New York, Connecticut, California, and of all age groups, to visit Mr. James," said Rita White, Merlon Memorial Park's corporate officer. "He does get a lot of recognition." It was not always thus for the mysterious, pioneering singer.

After his mid-Depression recordings did not lead to instant stardom, he disappeared from the music scene for 33 years before three fans tracked him down in a Delta hospital during the 19605 blues revival.

Then, after playing to the largest audiences of his life, he fell in love with another bluesman's niece, and moved to West Philadelphia to join her in a home bought for them by Eric Clapton.

The couple's low-rise granite stone in Merlon Memorial Park says nothing of James' musical life and calls him only Nehemiah James, his little-used birth name. A plaque outside the graveyard honors another musical resident, the minstrel performer James A. Bland, who composed "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny."

So every few weeks, clusters of James devotees walk into White's office and ask if they've found the right place — if a son of Bentonia, Miss., who became a titan of the blues really ended up being laid to rest in the Philadelphia suburbs.

"I had no idea that it was so close," said Owen Weekley of Titusville, N.J., who posted a picture from his 2002 visit to James' grave on his Web site.

Weekley, 59, and an old college friend have made a hobby of cataloging the graves of blues legends. About 250 people a day stop by their Web page, Weekley said, with many reporting back after their own trips.

"Since you can't go see these people in concert anywhere," Weekley said, "about all you can do is go to their graveside and say thank you."

James wavered between fame and obscurity. During the decades before his rediscovery, those won over by his 1931 recordings — made in a furniture factory in Grafton, Wis. — had little way to know if he was alive or dead. When he was found in a hospital bed in Tunica, Miss., James barely remembered how to play the guitar.

Gaunt and weary, he re-learned a few songs in time to become an instant star of the 1964 Newport Folk Festival.

Dick Waterman in 1971
"He made magic in less than 15 minutes," Dick Waterman, a writer and photographer active in the blues scene of the time, said yesterday. "He came out of the void. He came out of the scratchy 1931 [records], and people were openmouthed."

Waterman, who had helped rediscover bluesman Son House, believed James' impact would be far-reaching, and made sure to photograph the first note James played from the festival stage. Nearly four decades later, the picture became an official icon promoting the national 2003 "Year of the Blues" celebration.

But James' career stalled soon after the festival. The next year, Waterman took over as his manager, though James' eclectic technique and rivalries with other musicians made him a hard sell for some venues.

"He could be elite and regal and rude and cutting," Water-man said, "but Skip was such a mysterious and charismatic figure."

In 1965, James made his Philadelphia debut at the Second Fret coffeehouse at 19th and Sansom Streets, where he and a contemporary, Mississippi John Hurt, became regular acts. James left his new home of Washington, where he was being treated for genital cancer, for Philadelphia, where Hurt's niece Lorenzo lived. They married and lived at 509 N. 55th St., a house bought by Clapton, whose band Cream turned James' "I'm So Glad" into a rock hit.

James never achieved that level of stardom. Though talented and influential — per-formers from Bonnie Raitt to Beck have covered his songs — James sometimes lectured about religion to his friends and audiences, whose numbers dwindled as a result.

"He was pretty much hurt by the world to have such a personality," Fred Bolden, 58, a cousin of Lorenzo James', recalled this week. "You had to know how to handle him."

Philadelphia's transplanted blues legend died of cancer Oct. 3, 1969, and his wife followed eight years later.

Their tombstone, though unadorned, is an improvement on the unmarked resting places of many other blues titans. Even the great Bessie Smith, buried in Sharon Hill, did not have a tombstone after her 1937 death until Janis Joplin helped pay for one in 1970.

Bentonia Blues Trail Marker Dedicated

Skip James Blues Trail Marker Dedicated
By Jason Patterson - Yazoo Herald - September 2008
Jimmy "Duck" Holmes performs Skip James
songs in front of the Mississippi Blues Trail
Marker bearing James' name following
the dedication of the marker in Bentonia. 
There are a number of people around the world who probably couldn’t find Bentonia on a map, yet they have a vivid picture of the place in their minds. They feel intimately connected with the town because of the Bentonia Blues, a unique style of music embraced by blues fans worldwide.

In 1967 one of those fans was none other than British music legend Eric Clapton, who had recorded Bentonia native Skip James' "I'm So Glad" with Cream. Clapton was considered by many to be the hottest guitar player around and had sold countless albums, but he still seemed in awe of one of his musical heroes when he met Skip James in New York City. Dick Waterman, the late James' former manager, recalled that meeting Thursday during a dedication of a Mississippi Blues Trail historic marker in James' honor.

"Eric was terribly nervous," Waterman said. "He was absolutely transfixed to be in the presence of one of his all-time icons. There was a guitar in the room and Eric refused to play in the presence of Skip James. Skip took the guitar, looked at Eric and said, 'Alright white boy, this is how the song goes."'

Waterman remembered James as a talented musician who was extremely intelligent, but also aloof. "

A misconception about bluesmen is that they don't read, they don't write, they're poor and they were lucky enough to learn a chord or two and then got lucky again and made a record," Waterman said. "I want to tell you that Skip James was very different from that. He was a very literate man. His handwriting was beautiful."

Waterman said James wasn't always an easy man to get along with, however.

Dick Waterman, Skip James' former manager, 
holds a photograph of James performing live
for the first time in about 30 years during 
comeback performance in the 60s. "This man was
stepping out of the unknown," he said. "He took
his guitar and I wanted to capture the moment." 
"He was a proud man. He was very vain, and he had a tremendous ego," he said. "He didn't have a lot of friends and he didn't suffer fools very well. If you were stupid around Skip James, he was going to tell you that you were being stupid. He had a strong mind and was an independent thinker. He didn't make friends easily because he didn't want friends. He was a strong-minded individual."

Waterman said James never exhibited any false modesty about his music either. "He had great pride in his ability," he said.

"He was good and he knew he was good. He didn't mind telling you he was good."

Waterman another thing James was always proud of was his origins.

"He was proud to be from Mississippi.  The state had its problems and he knew it, but wherever he traveled he was always proud to say he was from Mississippi."

Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, who is considered by many to be the last living musician to play the authentic Bentonia Blues, said Skip James created a different style of music.

"Bentonia offers something to the world that is unique," Holmes said. "You can thank Skip James for that."

Holmes said the thing that made musicians like James and Bentonia bluesman Jack Owens great was that it came from their hearts.

"Most of the music the old guys played was about things they experienced," Holmes said. "That's why there's something missing from some of the newer blues musicians even though they can really play their guitars. It's got to come from inside."

Nehemiah "Skip" James (1902-1969) was raised on the Woodbine Plantation in Bentonia. He learned to play guitar and piano at a young age.

James recorded during the 1930s before disappearing from the music scene entirely for three decades. He made a successful comeback in 1964 and performed until his death in 1969.

Tanja Smith, director of the Convention and Visitor's Bureau, said the crowd that attended Thursday's dedication was larger than expected.  The Skip James marker joins one dedicated to the Blue Front Cafe as the second Mississippi Blues Trail Marker in Bentonia. The Mississippi Blues Trail will feature over 120 historic markers and interpretive sites upon completion and is expected to be a significant tourism destination.

Van Foster, District 1 supervisor, said he is pleased to see that James' legacy will endure.

"We will always be proud of what the blues means to Bentonia, to Yazoo County and to Mississippi," Foster said.