Tuesday, March 20, 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 17, 2018

In Search of the Blues: R. L. Burnside

Rafael Alvarez - Baltimore Sun - 1993

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

T.J. Wheeler

Tough audience, those little nippers.

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

Au contraire, mon frere.

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Requiem for Furry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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