This Week in Blues History for June 17th

We’re pleased to say that all three volumes of Blues Unlimited: The Complete Radio Show Transcripts have now been published as eBooks! They’re available from Apple BooksBarnes & Noble, and also available in the Kindle Store from Amazon. (and please keep in mind that every dollar from every purchase will help keep an independent voice in blues radio alive and well! And we thank you!)

“This Week in Blues History” aims the spotlight on important recordings, artists, and events from the golden era of the blues. This time, we profile Wynonie Harris, who hit the top of the Billboard Rhythm & Blues charts, this week in 1948.

This Week in Blues History for June 10th

We’re pleased to say that all three volumes of Blues Unlimited: The Complete Radio Show Transcripts have now been published as eBooks! They’re available from Apple BooksBarnes & Noble, and also available in the Kindle Store from Amazon. (and please keep in mind that every dollar from every purchase will help keep an independent voice in blues radio alive and well! And we thank you!)

“This Week in Blues History” aims the spotlight on important recordings, artists, and events from the golden era of the blues. This time, we profile Mississippi blues legend Charley Patton, who made his debut for Paramount Records, this week in 1929.

Join us at the “Mojo Rhythm & Blues Festival” on Bainbridge Island – July 11-14th

We have some exciting news here at Blues Unlimited Radio! Join your pal and mine, Sleepy Boy Hawkins — in the flesh! — for the first ever Bainbridge Island Museum of Art  Mojo Rhythm & Blues Festival. The fun begins on Thursday, July 11th, with live music from Tiffany Wilson & Friends, and continues on Friday, July 12th, with more live music, and a special screening of Mike Shea’s critically acclaimed slice-of-life documentary, And This Is Free.

Mike Shea’s only film is a seldom-seen pioneering cinema-vérité masterpiece, a fundamental historical document of Chicago’s Maxwell Street market as a quintessential public space (the market was dismantled in the 1990s to make room for student housing). Shea, who had been a photojournalist for Life and other magazines, shot the film over 16 Sundays (the market’s busiest day) in 1964, and was often accompanied on the shoot by 21-year old Mike Bloomfield, later of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Dylan’s Highway 61-era band, who knew the street musicians and helped facilitate filming.

And This Is Free features blues and gospel performances by legendary Chicago musicians Robert Nighthawk, Johnny Young, Blind Arvella Gray, Jim & Fannie Brewer, Carrie Robinson and many more.

And This Is Free is one of the greatest documentaries of the 1960s and perhaps the liveliest portrait of American street life ever captured on film. The 50-minute feature will be supplemented by additional rare footage documenting the market and the musicians who played there.

Be sure to stick around on Saturday, July 13th, as Howlin’ Wolf biographer Mark Hoffman and I have a “Blues Listening Party,” presenting some of our favorite performances of all time. What cuts will we choose? Be sure to come and find out!

The festival runs from July 11th through the 14th, and will feature live music, more films (Mark Hoffman will present a feature on Howlin’ Wolf on Saturday the 13th) and a panel discussion with Mark, Jim Basnight, and I on Sunday the 14th, followed by another “Blues Listening Party,” and a presentation by Jim on Sonny Williamson #2. As they say… you don’t wanna miss this!

Bainbridge Island is just a short 35-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle, and is a popular weekend getaway. If you’re coming by boat, the Art Museum is a short walk from the Ferry terminal in downtown Winslow (as the main town on Bainbridge is called by the locals). If you’re going to be in the area, be sure to stop by. I’ll also have copies of the Elmore James bio with me as well!

Note: You may reserve tickets for And This Is Free by clicking on this link — please note that the film screening is free and open to the public.

This Week in Blues History for June 3rd

We’re pleased to say that all three volumes of Blues Unlimited: The Complete Radio Show Transcripts have now been published as eBooks! They’re available from Apple BooksBarnes & Noble, and also available in the Kindle Store from Amazon. (and please keep in mind that every dollar from every purchase will help keep an independent voice in blues radio alive and well! And we thank you!)

“This Week in Blues History” aims the spotlight on important recordings, artists, and events from the golden era of the blues. This time, we profile Tony Hollins, who recorded a blues standard, “Crawlin’ King Snake,” this week in 1941.

Now Available – “Blues Unlimited: The Complete Radio Show Transcripts”

We’re pleased to say that all three volumes of Blues Unlimited: The Complete Radio Show Transcripts have now been published as eBooks! They’re available from Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, and also available in the Kindle Store from Amazon.

As you might be aware, a lot of background research goes into every episode of Blues Unlimited, and the decision was made to make these books available as a resource to fans, students, scholars, radio programmers, and other researchers…. as well as listeners who simply want to know further details about the more than 6,300 musical performances that have previously been featured on Blues Unlimited. Altogether, these three volumes represent more than 1,800 pages of text — containing well over half a million written words! — spread out over the course of more than 200 programs.

A new show is posted every Tuesday, on the home page at Blues Unlimited Radio.

And thanks again to ALL the listeners who pledged their support to make these three volumes possible — we couldn’t have done it without your support!

This Week in Blues History for May 27th

“Blues Unlimited: The Complete Radio Show Transcripts, Volume 3” was the #2 new release at Amazon for Music Reference and was a top ten new release in Music History & Criticism this past weekend! Now available in the Amazon Kindle Store  and from Barnes & Noble.


“This Week in Blues History” aims the spotlight on important recordings, artists, and events from the golden era of the blues. This time, we profile Eddie Boyd, who recorded the only national chart hit for the Chicago-based J.O.B. label, this week in 1952.

This Week in Blues History for May 20th

“Blues Unlimited: The Complete Radio Show Transcripts, Volume 3,” by Steve Franz, will be released on May 24, 2019. It is available for pre-order now in the Amazon Kindle Store  and from Barnes & Noble.

“This Week in Blues History” aims the spotlight on important recordings, artists, and events from the golden era of the blues. This time, we profile Woodrow Adams, who made his recording debut in Memphis, this week in 1952.

Happy Birthday to Son House!

In honor of the birthday of Son House today, we asked Paul Vernon, founder of the “The Real Blues Forum,” if we could re-post this excerpt from his autobiography, Last Swill and Testament (which we highly recommend by the way!). It is an experience, we imagine, that many blues lovers wished they could have had. We hope you enjoy it….


The 100 Club night I recall most vividly was the one on the final day of June 1970 when Son House played to a room more packed and sweaty than I had ever sweltered in before. My previous experience of seeing him live, at Hammersmith in 1967, had been frustrated by my distance from him and his lack of onstage time. On this evening I bought three pints immediately and commandeered a table at the very front of the stage. I had a sturdy bladder in those days. No tarty pre-gig flitting from conversation to conversation for this lad tonight, Son was serious stuff, and I was staking out my territory. I was joined by a couple of regulars, Tony Trent (‘ere, mate, have you ever paused to consider the life of a trainee proctologist?…) and Ray Bolden (“good evening, wankers”), but that night, as far as I was concerned, it was just Son and me.

He was 62 by the time he was rediscovered, and this was almost six years beyond that. We might reasonably have expected him to coast a little. Frankly, he could have just broken wind and left again and I’d still have applauded him simply for being Son House, with all that that meant. Here was the man who played and knocked around with Charley Patton and Willie Brown; here was the man Muddy Waters stood in awe of and was prepared to say so; here was the man who had set foot in the Paramount studios way before most of his audience was born and created a small body of music so powerful that it continues to reverberate throughout the Blues today. Here, in a nutshell, was a pure source of the Blues, a surviving essence. I was sitting six worshipful feet from him.

He clambered slowly onto the stage, taking his time getting seated, and then somebody handed him his guitar, the beat up old National that you see in all the photos and film. With a benign, quizzical smile he looked around him at a sea of expectant, largely white, faces, an audience he had grown used to in his new career. He began to talk and as he did so the buzz from the crowd fell away, shepherded by a shushing that began at the front.

He talked quietly, gently, like a benign grandfather addressing his many offspring on matters of importance. His manner was sweet and retiring, almost shy. He rambled some, but it didn’t matter -this was Son House. Then, having finished what he had to say about the Blues not being about jumping a rabbit and running him a solid mile, but about a man and a woman in love, he struck a chord on his guitar as if to wake it and took off into “Death Letter Blues”, his audience now only a fog as his deep sense of the Blues suddenly and completely overtook him.

He became a different person when he sang and he did it immediately. There was no gentle transition from the quiet speaker to the man possessed by his subject, it was as sudden as a door slammed shut. His whole body moved with the music, he and his guitar inseparable. His eyes were closed and he just wasn’t with us any more, nor was he singing for us. He was somewhere else in his life, singing to himself and for himself, in the deepest recesses of his being. We were simply observers of the complete baring of a soul.

This was not entertainment in the way that J B Hutto or Lightnin’ Slim were. Watching Son House sing the Blues you had to witness it for what it was, a private catharsis made public. When he finished singing he seemed to come out of a trance, a look of surprise on his face. “Oh, yes, I’m back here, of course”. For several minutes he had spiritually left the building, leaving his body to transmit to us, via remote broadcast, what he was experiencing. When he returned, he was exhausted, as if he had just completed a long and arduous journey, which indeed he had.

Then he would do it all again for “Empire State Express” or “Preaching the Blues”. He was the most extraordinarily deep Blues man I ever experienced. Electrifying, in a real sense – being in Son’s presence while he sang made me tingle, it sent involuntary shivers through my body and tears welled in my eyes, as they still do when I visit his recorded and filmed legacy. I saw him several times during that tour, talked to him at length one afternoon at a press reception I simply dared to walk into, and shook his hand on more than one occasion: I needed to do all that, to listen to and talk to and clasp the hand of the man who was, in every sense, the greatest surviving original Blues singer. In doing so, I connected with the deepest of Delta Blues on every level I could. What a privilege.


Pictured: Son House, November 1964. Photo by John Rudoff, M.D.

For more on Son House, including an overview of his career and other recollections by people who knew him and saw him perform, be sure to check out Blues Unlimited #177 – Deep Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Son House.

10 Desert Island Gospel Discs from Bob Eagle — Part 2

We continue with Bob Eagle’s Top Ten list of favorite Gospel Classics….

 

#5: “I Am Bound For The Promised Land”
Before we leave male instrumentalists, let’s wander into black-sounding white territory. King of this genre is Rev. Alfred G. Karnes, from Bedford, Virginia and later in Kentucky, who was a revelation of the 2-record LP set, “In The Spirit.” Karnes’ bass lines remind me irresistibly of Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s “James Alley.”


#4: “I’ll Be Satisfied Then”
The ladies have been neglected so far, but let’s move to Oklahoma’s answer to Mahalia: Sister Jessie Mae Renfro. I always think of this song as one long, incredibly ornamented, sentence. Jessie Mae also made a great version of “Can’t No Grave Hold My Body Down,” with sanctified piano accompaniment.


#3: “Sleep On, Mother”
Back to prewar male groups briefly. Here’s the origin of the ‘clanka lanka’ (link, oh link) refrain, by the Silver Leaf Quartette of Norfolk (1928, William Thatch, lead):


#2: Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down”
Mississippi not only produced blues singers, but also impressive gospel. Here’s a spell-binding song by Bozie Sturdivant, recorded not far from the crossroads (!) in Clarksdale:


#1: “Father I Stretch My Arm To Thee”
From unaccompanied to supremely well-accompanied, we reach, at last, Rev. Killens, a singing preacher, with his congregation as choir. These were fragments of unauthorized recordings, but we’re lucky to hear them – he sought legal advice and was told not to waste his time and money. Originally from Louisiana, he had moved to the Bay Area at the end of the Second War, and many of his constituents ultimately moved with him. I was privileged to meet him at his church in 1972. He was then an old, but impressive man, in failing health and was clearly respected by all who surrounded him.

10 Desert Island Gospel Discs from Bob Eagle — Part 1

Recently, noted author, scholar and blues expert Bob Eagle said he’d put together a list of his favorite Gospel performances…. so without any further ado, here is part one!

 

I really began to get into blues in 1963. Before that, I wasn’t focused. I had heard black gospel such as Mahalia Jackson because I was caught up in the trad jazz craze that had seeped into Australia from the UK. I got into BU [i.e., Blues Unlimited magazine] and the prewar Blues & Gospel Records around 1963, and of course there was some gospel coverage there. But what really got me started on gospel was a Kiwi named Terry Winsor, who sent me tapes of Rev. George W. Killens with his congregation, lining out some old Dr. Watts hymns: they still send cold chills down my spine. And at about that time, “Black Nativity” toured Oz, and I got to meet Prof. Alex Bradford, one of the first gay guys I had met in my then-sheltered existence. His Vee–Jay album LP-5023 is still a favorite.

I know some blues fans don’t like gospel, thinking that it requires belief. But then do we believe we could carry out the threat suggested by Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Your Funeral And My Trial”? This is an all-too-brief introduction to some favorite pieces.

My outright favorites tend to date from about the time I first got interested, or earlier. But in the late 1990s, in a Church of God in Christ in Drew, Mississippi, I heard an evangelist who converted me to tears within minutes. She was Evangelist Arthur Mae Barnes Hampton. She had never recorded but was absolutely stunning. Had she been recorded, she would definitely be near the head of this list. She is indicative of the depth of talent which still exists in the gospel field, and the opportunities there are to still hear wonderful gospel if you know where to look.

These are among the songs which I automatically have to replay over and over when I think of them, or accidentally hear them. I’ve left out Blind Willie Johnson and Charlie Patton, and many other guitar-playing singers, if only because they are guys who readily appeal to blues fans, and may not inspire readers to check out the diversity of sounds available.

#10. “Go Devil Go”
One style that is popular with blues fans is sanctified music associated with the Church of God in Christ, and also the Missionary Baptist Church – stuff like Elder Richard Bryant. Then there’s the sanctified piano associated with Arizona Dranes. Here is a postwar example, by Sister Lillie Mae Littlejohn.


#9: “God’s Creation”
I’ve also left out Sam Cooke’s contributions, because he is so well-known, as is his forbear, Rebert Harris. But one of his sound-alikes really appeals to me: the late James Phelps, of the Gospel Song Birds, who came from Louisiana. The reverse, with its pulsating organ, immediately appeals, but I now prefer the breathtaking lead from James on this one, first heard on an outstanding CD put out by Bruce Bastin’s Heritage label: “Glad I Found The Lord.”


#8: “Freedom After A While”
If female groups are de rigueur, there are still huge numbers of male groups to choose from. A top one which Rick Milne introduced to me is Joiner’s Five Trumpets, from Gary, Indiana. This song features a great bass voice, by either James Campbell or John Ford. The lead voices are probably Lee Sims, George Dowdell or Walter Ford.

 


#7: “Day Passed And Gone”
Sticking with male groups, and incredible voices, we reach the Spirit of Memphis Quartet, with this track featuring the declamatory voice of the late Silas Steele, over probably Earl Malone’s soft tones. The group was led by Jet Bledsoe when I saw them live in Memphis in 1972.


#6: “Preshious Lord” [sic]
Reverting to the guitar-playing prewar-styled singer, it’s hard to ignore Blind Joel Taggart’s amazing postwar demonstration disc of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord”.

https://sundayblues.org/feed/?paged=47

(Note: it’s right at the end of this program. Alternatively it’s on the CD to the Frog Annual #2. It’s also on one of John Tefteller’s Blues Images CDs, probably where the Sunday Blues version came).


And….. a moment to help pay the bills….

Folks, we’re having a fundraiser to help pay for the cost of converting three volumes of the complete transcripts of Blues Unlimited Radio into eBooks. The cost is quite high — each one is about 600 pages — and every dollar raised will go towards that effort. You can donate by clicking on this link. And we thank you!

Book Review: Bitten by the Blues

Review by Robert Pruter — Bitten by the Blues: The Alligator Records Story, by Bruce Iglauer and Patrick A. Roberts

 

Bitten by the Blues: The Alligator Records Story by Bruce Iglauer, the founder and president of Alligator Records, is a memoir written with the assistance of Patrick A. Roberts, a professor at Northern Illinois University.

Iglauer, who I had the pleasure of working with as a fellow member of the Chicago Blues Festival Advisory Committee, has always struck me not only as a passionate fan of blues but also as a thoughtful and knowledgeable observer of blues. This comes through in every line of his memoirs. He explains throughout places in this admirable book on what primarily works with him in blues, that is, the kind recorded by Elmore James, with the searing steel on steel slide guitar and passionate full-throated powerful singing.

Iglauer in his opening chapters discusses his upbringing and his family and how early on begun his interest in first folk music, which led to country blues performers, which by the time he attended college in Wisconsin led him to Chicago electric bar band blues. This was developed in his first forays into Chicago while still a student at Lawrence University and his promotion of blues shows at the school.

Iglauer had intentions of becoming an academic in theater and literature. But after college he settled in Chicago and got a job at Bob Koester’s Delmark Records. His discovery of the raw slide guitarist and singer, Hound Dog Taylor, changed his career path. He tried to persuade Koester to record Hound Dog, but Koester having seen him perform drunk and poorly was not interested. Iglauer decided to record Hound Dog himself, and having attended a few blues recording sessions previously, he knew what to do and what not to do (well not all at once — it was a learning process), and ably produce a fine LP that no one had expected from Hound Dog.

Iglauer gives the whole trajectory of Alligator Records to the present day, discussing each of the artists he recorded, with insight and what he learned and how he had to overcome challenges. Early on he focused or recording mostly on the powerful electric guitarists, and gave it an appealing marketing term, “Genuine House Rockin’ Music,” taken from the name Hound Dog Taylor gave his band, The Houserockers.

Probably the artists he worked with that most encapsulate this music—Hound Dog Taylor (obviously), Son Seals, Fenton Robinson, Lonnie Brooks, Phillip Walker, Magic Slim, Albert Collins, Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials, and Buddy Guy (leased from a French label).

As Alligator grew and expanded its artist stable it also expanded its breath of music beyond Genuine House Rockin’ Music, reflecting that while Iglauer was most enthralled with the electric slide guitar blues he was expansive in his tastes and would record almost any blues style as long as it was good. This variety is evident from the following blues artists that he recorded and put out records on, from Big Walter Horton (blues harpist), Professor Longhair (a New Orleans pianist), Katie Webster (a gospel boogie pianist), and Koko Taylor (a Chicago blues belter), to Cephas and Wiggins (country blues), Saffire—the Uppity Blues Women (an acoustic trio), and Shemekia Copeland (a powerful female singer).

While Iglauer was wholly focused on recording what he felt was “authentic blues” by African American musicians in the first years of his label, he eventually recorded a number of white blues artists, even those who would more properly be characterized as “rock-blues.’ It appears that he was not that big a fan of “rock-blues,” making comments about such artists “playing too fast” or “playing too many notes.” He mentions that many fans of Alligator felt that the label recording “rock-blues” was a “betrayal.” Alligator’s stable of white artists has included Johnny Winter, Roy Buchanan, Lonnie Mack, Dr. John, Delbert McClinton, Siegel-Schwall, Elvin Bishop, Dave Hole, Marcia Ball, and Tinsley Ellis.

I mentioned a lot of recording artist names in the preceding paragraphs, and that is intentional, because Iglauer in Bitten by the Blues has carefully given each of his artists several pages at least, his full accounting of everything that Alligator put out making the book incredibly strong. He gives each artist a little history, how he discovered each one, what it was in their music that he found compelling, how he worked with them to create an album that would represent the quality he demanded for Alligator, how he recorded and produced them in the studio, and how he marketed and sold the artist. Commercial considerations were not always paramount.

Each profile of his work with the artist is amplified with reports of early qualms about an artist, of funny situations, angry disputes, and anguished problems. A repeated problem with many of his artists was that they would come to the recording session with a lack of songs, despite repeated requests from Iglauer to come to the session with a body of music to record. Iglauer was always clear with his artists that he did not want over-recorded songs (like “Sweet Home Chicago”). This sometimes resulted in Iglauer and his often producer partner, Dick Shurman, hunting through their record collections for songs for a recording session scheduled in a day or so.

Iglauer confesses he developed a reputation as a “control freak” because after more than one poor session experience, he insisted on contracts with the artists that required mutual agreement on choice of songs, producer, mixes, sequence, and packaging. So most all recording sessions with Iglauer involved “guidance” for the artist. And this benefited the label commercially and in terms of reputation — producing album after album that were solid and superbly produced.

Alligator thus became the largest record label for blues in the world, and this was no mere accident. His business model involved promotion, publicity, and artist development — making them “campaign fit,” so that they could tour off a record with a working band and with a full booking of dates. He sent out more free records to stores and radio stations than any other blues label. While difficult in the label’s early years, he spent money to make money. Along the way there were stumbles, from self-inflected mistakes (mainly bad guesses) and forces not under his control (the collapse of indie distribution).

Alligator was built on a growing market by mainstream record buyers (meaning white people) for blues, and particularly blues that sounded close to their the rock music that they were first familiar with. In short he recorded blues for white folks. It was not that in his recordings that he had departed in any great degree from what his artists had been recording earlier for their black audiences. Several issues were involved, the black working class from the 1970s on was moving away from the blues, and particularly the kind of blues that turned on fans of Alligator’s “Genuine House Rockin’ Music” body of recordings. Iglauer makes this point in his book,

Also, African American record buyers of blues were traditionally buyers of singles, not LPs; I have been in many working class African American houses during the 1970s and 1980s, and one rarely ever saw an LP, except perhaps a jazz album or a particularly hip LP like Lou Rawls Live.

Because of the centrality of Alligator Records in the blues world from the 1970s on, Bitten with the Blues is essential reading if one wants to understand the blues business in the last half century. With regard to the next half century Iglauer sees a future that is dire, explained in Chapter 18. Alligator has seen a steady decline in sales for the last twenty years, because of the advent of downloading. But in recent years downloading has declined, being replaced by streaming services, While it was difficult for Alligator to survive on the royalty income from downloading services, like iTunes, it is impossible for the company to survive with the microscopic royalties from streaming services, like Spotify. The implication of this situation for the future of Alligator Iglauer leaves unsaid. He doesn’t need to.

Our thanks to Robert Pruter for his kind permission to re-post this article!

Eight from Bob Eagle — Part 4

In our final installment, we reveal blues expert Bob Eagle’s personal all-time favorite live performance….

#1) The Howlin’ Wolf was, by a long stretch, the best performer I’ve ever seen. It was in 1972, only a few years before his death. It was April Fool’s Day 1972 and he was playing on the West Side for his wife Lilly’s birthday. He was hyped-up, to say the least. So downhome, so damned threatening, so sexy (swinging the mike chord around like a gigantic penile extension). For some reason, I recall the covers that he brought up to date — “Country Sugar Mama,” etc. Fortunately I had met Hubert Sumlin that morning, at Letha Jones’ house (Johnnie’s widow), and Hubert kindly introduced me to The Man. Strangely, Hubert was not doing his patented string bending at that time — maybe he wanted the spotlight to fall unequivocally on The Wolf. The man was kind enough to buy this young fan a whiskey and spend a few minutes talking to him. A class act. Unforgettable. And now you know why.

Eight from Bob Eagle — Part 3

We continue as blues expert Bob Eagle recounts his all-time favorite live performances….

#3) My #3 best-ever live performance is quite different. I went to Detroit to meet Luther Huff at his home. I was in the states on a shoestring, aiming to stay as long as I could afford to do so, and therefore I wasn’t able to pay to get Luther’s mandolin out of pawn, but he had his guitar and his kazoo (à la Tommy Johnson). I’m not a musician so I can’t tell you much about it, but it reminded me of Hooker from about 1953-1954 (before Vee-Jay tamed him). I’m convinced now (although how could I know then, before its discovery?) that he performed a version of Tommy’s “I Wonder To Myself.” Just an amazing, under-recorded performer.


#2) Who was my #2 live performer (and, believe me, I’ve seen many)? None other than Fats Domino, in Australia in the 1970s, with an absolutely knockout band led by Dave Bartholomew (maybe, I should say Dave instead of Fats). Amazingly powerful ensemble, assisted by a great selection of well-known and well-performed songs. Those days will, my friends, never return.

And… we’ll reveal Bob’s all-time favorite live performance in our next post!

Eight from Bob Eagle — Part 2

We continue as Bob Eagle recounts his all-time favorite live blues performances….

#6) Performance. Exactly what does that mean? Does a guy singing to you at his kitchen sink qualify? I hope it does, because Roy Brown is next. We were talking at his home, and he told me that “Hard Luck Blues” was his life story. He began singing a cappella — he did not need accompaniment. Although he was initially trying to sing like Sinatra (before 1948), thankfully he found his own voice. And what a voice….


#5) Larry Davis. What a great singer! And, starting as a bass guitarist — which might suggest he had no flair to interpolate time — he turned out to be a great guitarist as well, albeit in the Albert King mold. Larry is my #5. Fenton Robinson gave me his number, but it was awhile before I got to Little Rock. Clearly, Fenton had not called him, as promised (probably thinking, “this Aussie guy will never get to Arkansas”). I called Larry from the Greyhound Bus station, hoping to put him at ease, and after a few sensitive moments, he agreed to come pick me up. He had a rehearsal booked with his band, and we went over there. I asked him to play “Texas Flood,” by the end of which we were both emotional, and in tears. This was before “The Years Go Passing By” — how could this guy record two such different but absolute classics?

(Note: Fenton Robinson plays lead guitar on “Texas Flood”)


#4) #4 and #5 are a toss-up between Fenton Robinson and Larry Davis. I saw Fenton first and so let’s make him #4. When I got to the Bay area, I was told he was shacked up with a white girl in Santa Cruz. I got on the Greyhound and caught up with him (alone) one sunny afternoon. He was really friendly. I told him how much I appreciated “Somebody (Loan Me A Dime).” I was short on resources, so it was either record him or video him — I chose video, although he only had an acoustic guitar with him. He was great, as you can imagine. And he gave me Larry Davis’ phone number….

Eight from Bob Eagle — Part 1

Recently, blues expert Bob Eagle shared a short but sweet list of his all-time favorite performances — that he was lucky enough to witness live in person over the course of his career as a researcher, detective, author, and scholar — not to mention fanatic. The list might surprise you, and thanks to Bob’s kindly permission, we’ll be sharing the results with you (along with the videos he picked to accompany each entry) over the next week or so. Enjoy! –SBH

#8) “Mule” (aka Joe Willie Wilkins) was an amazing human being. I knew him very well for about four (maybe more) months in 1972 and renewed the acquaintance early in 1975. He was a great musician and an uncommonly humble man. God, I miss him, ugly mofo that he was. I first heard him play on Danny Thomas Boulevard, Memphis in 1972, with Houston Stackhouse. A stunning young black girl taught me how to dance to the music (L forward, L back, R forward, R back – I had been trying to do it in waltz time; from there, you can do whatever you fancy). It’s a toss-up for me whether I love Joe more than Eugene Powell. What a conundrum to have to consider….


#7) I’ve nominated Eugene Powell (aka Sonny Boy Nelson) as my next favorite. “Lugene” was an uncommonly moralistic man. His (final) wife had taken care of him when he needed her and he was determined to return the obligation. He was not financially able to employ someone to care for her, so often he turned down invitations to appear at blues festivals. I carried him to the Smithsonian in 1972 and he was magnificent. His downfall was that, fantastic musician that he was, he thought he could not sing (that’s why there’s a Hacksaw Harney CD on the Gene’s label — but not one by Eugene). He was not a Delta musician but from the Loess Plains of Mississippi (and his inspiration, Frank Stokes, only became a Delta performer if he turned south upon leaving the Peabody Hotel – LOL).

 

Elmore James – The Missing Epilogue

Dear Friends and Fans,
Below, you’ll find an article I posted on January 27th, 2018, to the “Real Blues Forum” on Facebook, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Elmore James. Seeing that this would be his 101st anniversary, I thought I would dig it out and re-post it for your enjoyment. The note that follows gives some background context, and explains why it was cut from the final edits made to the book. Enjoy! —SF

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NOTE: Originally, there had been an “Epilogue” (of sorts) to the Elmore book, designed to be a “matching bookend” (if you will) to what I had written in the Foreword. At the advice of one of my proofreaders, who said that reading it made him feel “uncomfortable,” it was jettisoned during the final edits.

In the end, I agreed with the decision to cut it. Primarily because it wasn’t really about Elmore, but about me, and — after having discussed my own personal experience with Elmore at the beginning of the book — didn’t want to re-shift the focus away from the main subject towards the end of the book.

The original text — in spite of my meticulous efforts to preserve and save for posterity all the numerous edits and changes that were made over the course of many months of writing — has been lost forever. I have attempted to recreate it, more than 15 years later, to the best of my ability. Although I am sure that the piece here is much, MUCH longer than the original piece it is intended to replace, I offer it in honor of Elmore’s 100th birthday.

———

It had been an awful year.

The last day of class, December 1987. Edwardsville, Illinois. As I packed up the few remaining things from my studio, and carried them off to the car, I was feeling rather morose. My friends, Vicky and Susan, had arranged to go back to Vicky’s apartment when we were done, and in mutual celebration of a shitty year, we would all share a drink or two. Or — depending upon the level of mutually shared shittiness we were all feeling — maybe three. Afterwards, I would get in my car, and quietly head out of town, and sneak out under what seemed like an appropriate cover of darkness. The journey back home, approximately 50 miles or so, would take a little over an hour, through the back farm roads and byways of west central Illinois.

The decision to continue pursuing a Master of Fine Arts, back in January, had seemed like a good idea at the time. One semester previously spent at Southern Illinois University had been akin to a hell with which I was not quite familiar at that relatively young and tender age. With the same amount of passion I had once revered my undergrad art professors, I loathed and detested the ones at Carbondale. At the end of the semester, a window opened, and I was presented with the opportunity to transfer to SIU’s Edwardsville campus instead. It was not only closer to home, but one of the painting professors and I shared an obvious love of American Roots music (later we would exchange cassette tapes with one another — he gave me folk stuff, I gave him tapes of my favorite blues). It seemed so perfect, so logical. Why, maybe after a semester or two, there would be enough money for my own apartment, and I wouldn’t have to commute from home.

Instead, as I quickly found out, it was like jumping from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. Things were different here. Although a loosely based structure — seemingly free and largely unsupervised — was afforded the grad students, in reality, it was just a facade. In the painting department, you were expected to find your “niche” and stick with it. One person did paintings of vintage 1950s lawn chairs. Another brought to life sci-fi fantasy scenes locked inside his head. Yet another tried to make a career out of painting beautiful women — when he could get someone to pose naked for him, it turns out. And then there was another small group, it seemed, who were ensconced in the place semi-permanently. They had managed to work out a system, of sorts, where they were given a studio space to do their art, work a meager campus job, afford a few beers at the local watering hole — the Stagger Inn (it not only featured the work of several grad students on the walls, but in one corner of the place, I had once found Arlo Guthrie’s signature on something) — all with no hopes of ever graduating. As for myself, I didn’t quite take to the idea of being “boxed into a niche.” My art projects became whatever I felt like doing during any one given week. After a semester of letting me find my own way and doing my own thing, it was made all too clear, in the second semester, that I was “not fitting in.” One professor unequivocally stated that he expected us to suffer for our art (when I shared that bit of logic with my undergraduate painting professor, he had laughed so hard, his head almost came off. Later on, I would find a book entitled, “Paint As You Like And Die Happy.” It’s nice to know I was right, after all).

The coup de grâce had been the marathon “crits” — short for “Critiques” — in which all the fellow painting students would gather around and discuss each other’s work, in what was supposed to be a helpful and mutually shared learning experience involving freely shared feedback, tips, and insights. Instead, it turned into something akin to the Bataan Death March — hour upon hour, at times, of nothing more than thinly veiled vitriol and invectives — without breaks of any kind — until the last student’s work had been gazed upon and duly criticized. For the summer crit, I had simply walked out after 12 hours straight. It was too much, and I told my dad that, who was waiting up for me when I got home. In a rare confrontation, he stopped me as I was descending the stairs to my basement hideaway, and rather pointedly asked me if that’s what I was going to do — just run away from my problems all the time. I told him that whatever it is I came there for, I had not come here for that, and would not subject myself to any further abuse. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t see it as running. There simply wasn’t any good reason left to stay anymore.

Eventually, I lost interest in completing my art projects. I found solace across campus — far away from the studio buildings — in the music library, spending many happy hours listening to John Lee Hooker, Sonny and Brownie, and Lightnin’ Hopkins. On Saturday nights, I was glued to the St. Louis NPR station, as a local scholar, “Baby Face Leroy,” played through his impressive collection of vintage blues records and shared his knowledge with eager listeners like me. “Hawaiian Boogie” was his closing theme song; I made it a point never to miss a show. One day, in the SIU library, I stumbled upon a book by a guy named Mike Rowe — “Chicago Breakdown.” I devoured it, poring over every page and paragraph. When I got to the last section — on Elmore — I was totally engrossed, deciding that the best thing to do was simply read the whole thing over again. Which I did.

While visiting friends in Atlanta, there had been another Elmore revelation of sorts, when I found a copy of “Let’s Cut It,” a freshly minted compilation out of England, courtesy of the good folks at Ace Records. My old college buddies had taken me to their favorite record store, and there it lay waiting for me: 18 more tracks to add to the collection, including yet another version of “Standing At The Crossroads” and the all-out rocker, “Hawaiian Boogie” (among others). When I got back home, I made a cassette copy of my new prized possession. It would be added to my daily commuting soundtrack, along with the Elmore tape I had gotten from Wild Bob earlier in the year, as I went back and forth to school.

One day, while driving home — naturally, I was listening to Elmore James at the time — I shouted out to the nameless cornfields passing by: “I want to be an Ethnomusicologist!” It felt good. I shouted it out again. It felt even better. When I got home, I told my folks. My mom wasn’t sure what it meant. My dad nodded in approval, and said he thought it sounded like a good idea. I started looking for grad schools, and finally settled upon a small little program in Memphis. The school wasn’t sure about my GRE scores, but fortunately, they accepted the Miller Analogies Test, and based on that rather odd twist of fate, I would be starting classes there at the beginning of January, 1988.

I decided not to tell anyone at Edwardsville. It didn’t matter anyway. My one real friend, Tom, with whom I shared a studio space, would surely understand. In a place where everyone was happily ensconced in their own little box, Tom was a free spirit who painted joyful scenes that were inspired by a childhood partly spent in Africa. He moved to the rhythm of his own song and to a beat that no one else heard. Tom worked part time at a convenience store, and one day, after visiting him on my way home — I wound up winning $20 bucks on the state Lottery. It was another stroke of luck, as it just so happened to afford me the opportunity to go and see John Lee Hooker instead — who just happened to be playing THAT night in downtown St. Louis. I sat next to a guy who drove a concrete truck for a living, and who was just as excited as I was to be there. He told me stories of hanging out in the blues clubs of East St. Louis as a young man. I had my camera with me, from photography class, and surreptitiously snapped a photo of Mr. Hooker, without using a flash. Somehow, he had sensed his spirit was being captured, and stared right at my lens, although I have no idea how he knew when the exact moment had come. It was a night that would stay with me for many, many years. And had it not been for Tom urging me to play the numbers that day, I would’ve missed all of it.

I picked up the last box, put it in the back of the car, and closed the hatch. Now it was just time to wait for Vicky and Susan, share a couple drinks, and make a toast to the year from hell that had seemingly been all for naught. It seemed like a good idea as any.

Suddenly, Vicky came out. Something was not right. Tempers had flashed, and she had yelled at her boss. Her student job involved janitorial duties, and on that particular night, was not one she was enjoying all that much. Her boss fired her on the spot. Whatever hopes there might’ve been among the three of us for what happened AFTER the drinks had been consumed, were suddenly dashed. Feeling sullen, we slunk out quietly, and headed downtown to Vicky’s apartment.

We parked on the deserted streets — it was getting late already — and Vicky took us over to a door that led to her upstairs apartment. On the same floor next door to hers, another grad student, Rick, also had his own place.

As Vicki put the key in and opened the door, the sound of something familiar greeted us. It was the sound of an electric guitar.

I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up on end. This wasn’t just ANY electric guitar. It was the sound of Elmore James.

I quickly bolted past Vicky and Susan up the stairs, and knocked on Rick’s door. There he was, blasting Elmore at top volume while he happily played along, his electric guitar plugged into a nearby amp. Since all the businesses downstairs had long since closed for the night and there wasn’t anyone else around, he was free to play as loudly as he wanted, and that’s exactly what he was doing all right. I was absolutely floored. I told him I was going to Memphis “to study all this,” and, in an exercise of great compassion, Rick stopped what he was doing, got out a blank cassette, and made me a copy of the Elmore LP he’d been playing along to — one that I didn’t yet have in my meager collection — right there on the spot.

Susan, looking more sullen now than ever, poked her head in to see what I was doing. Vicky did a little later on. They didn’t really quite understand what to make of it all. For my part, I couldn’t really pretend to care about the drinks anymore, either. Afterall, we were talking about Elmore here — and whatever brief and flickering bit of guilt had crossed my mind for having been the cause of abandoning our plans — it had just as easily dissipated.

Rick handed me the tape and shook my hand. I couldn’t believe my luck. A BRAND NEW Elmore tape to listen to on the way home. I poked my head in to say my goodbyes to Vicki and Susan — just to be polite — and headed down the stairs.

I shuddered a bit as I got in the car, put it in first, and quietly headed for the outskirts of town. It was cold and dark, and the lateness of the hour made it seem all the more so in this moment. My dad used to say that when it got really cold, the snow would “bark” under your feet as you walked. It was one of those nights. There wasn’t much moon, just a few days before Christmas now. There was a little snow left from a dusting we’d had the other day, just enough to give a contrast when you looked out the window into the darkness.

For the last stretch, about 12 miles, I had to get on the interstate. It was my least favorite part of the trip, but suddenly, something told me to stop just before I got on the entrance ramp.

I coasted to a stop, shut off the engine, and got out. In front of me was a corn field, the stubble from the year’s harvest still visible, thanks to the little bit of snow that remained. I sat there and took it all in for a moment. The year flashing through my head. I guess, afterall, it hadn’t been ALL bad. I had been introduced to the music of Elmore James, and that was certainly something, wasn’t it? In a few weeks, I would begin a new journey — this time, heading south — for a city I had been to only once before. I don’t know if you can say, at the age of 23, that you feel like you’re being called to something. But if you could, I guess I felt that I was. I had no idea what lay in store for me, just that it was something I was being compelled to do.

Suddenly, as I stood there, I felt this sense — as if someone were tapping me on the shoulder. Instinctively, I looked up. There, stretched out before me, was the Milky Way, in all its beauty, splendor and glory. Like a little kid, I stared at it — for what seemed like a long, long time — before I finally got back in the car, turned the key, and started towards home.

As I did, the cassette tape of Elmore James sprang to life, his music filling the inside of the car. As I thought about the previous twelve months, a great big smile crept across my face.

It had been a wonderful year.

© 2018 by Steve Franz

The Jinx Blues

Note: The following article was written by Bob Eagle, and originally posted to the “Blues-L” forum in January 2001. Other than a couple of very minor edits, here’s the article as it was originally published.

Here’s some exploratory ramblings on the word “Jinx” and its (possible) connections with the blues/Son House/et al.

JINX is the usual spelling in blues titles for a term which was earlier spelled “Jynx” in English. The term “jinx” has several specialized uses in blues parlance.

The term “jynx” entered the English language via Latin, but in a form effectively unaltered from the Hellenic Greek. The Hellenic “x” ending denotes the singular form, with the plural form (in English) spelled “jynges.” The “x” ending, being pronounced the same as “ks,” has led to the singular term sometimes being spelled “jinks,” probably erroneously.

The Greek word referred to the genus “Jynx,” a genus of birds allied to the woodpecker and known colloquially by the name “wryneck,” because of their ability to turn their head over their shoulder. This meaning had entered English usage by 1649.

However, such birds were used in witchcraft, and hence the term was also used in English, by 1693 (in the plural), to refer to charms, or spells. The term “wryneck” could also refer to a charm worn around the neck.

The term “jynx” was also used before the Christian era in Chaldea (the southern area of modern Iraq) as the name of an order of spiritual intelligences which formed part of the ancient Chaldean philosophy. That usage of the term had entered the English language by 1655.

However, as the glory of Chaldea preceded that of ancient Greece, the Chaldaic usage probably predated the Greek. Presumably the Chaldaic usage passed into Greek lore after Alexander the Great’s conquest of the area. Assuming that the Greek usage is connected with the Chaldaic usage, the wryneck may possibly have been regarded as a personification of the Chaldaic spiritual intelligences, and therefore took their name. In turn, that could explain the bird’s use in witchcraft, and why the term came to refer to a charm or spell.

Blues parlance does contain some examples of usage common to the usage of the term in white society, where a “jinx” is a person (or, less frequently, an inanimate object) whose presence brings bad luck, whether by some intrinsic lack of luck or by action.

Examples are: Ora Brown’s JINX BLUES (Paramount #12481, recorded c. May 1927); and Augustus (Track Horse) Haggerty’s I FEEL THAT OLD BLACK WOMAN IS A JINX ON ME (Library of Congress, recorded November 20th, 1934).

The term is also used in blues in the white sense, “to hex.” It is interesting that the meanings of “hex” include (as a verb) “to practice witchcraft (upon);” and “to bewitch;” and (as a noun) to mean a “witch;” and a “magic spell.”

It is also used in blues in the sense of a “hex,” used as a noun: for example, Gabriel Brown’s THE JINX IS ON ME (Gennett #5023, recorded May 2nd, 1945)

But also, as used in blues lyrics, “jinx” has some specialist meanings.

One principal meaning of “jinx” in blues usage is to denote a spirit of superhuman powers and (usually) mischievous bent, almost akin to a lesser devil. Compare its usage, with the meaning being obscured by bizarre syntax, by Charley Patton in his SCREAMIN’ AND HOLLERIN’ THE BLUES (Paramount #12805, recorded June 14th, 1929), most copies of which are credited as being performed by his persona, THE MASKED MARVEL:

“(If) I woke up in the mornin’, jinx all ’round your bed; (twice)
Turned my face to the wall and I didn’t have a word to say.”

In REVENUE MAN BLUES (Vocalion #02931, recorded January 31st, 1934) he sings:

“I wake up every mornin’ with a jinx all around my bed; (twice)
(spoken: “You know I’ll have them jinx hereafter”)
“I have been a good provider but I believe I have been misled.”

Other examples of the use of “jinx” in blues occur in:

Tampa Red’s JINX DOCTOR BLUES (Vocalion #1596, recorded January 28th, 1931);

Buddy Moss’ JINX MAN BLUES (Banner #33432, recorded August 9th, 1934);

Kokomo Arnold’s OLD BLACK CAT BLUES (JINX BLUES) (DECCA #7050, recorded January 15th, 1935);

Casey Bill (Weldon)’s JINX BLUES (Vocalion #03496, recorded September 3rd, 1936);

Red Nelson’s WHO PUT THESE JINX ON ME? (DECCA #7256, recorded September 9th, 1936);

Black Boy Shine’s GAMBLIN’ JINX BLUES (Vocalion #03687, recorded June 15th, 1937);

Son House’s JINX BLUES, Numbers 1 & 2 (Library of Congress, recorded July 17th, 1942);

Johnny Temple’s JINKS LEE BLUES (BLUEBIRD #B-8913, recorded September 11th, 1941);

Big Joe Williams’ JINX BLUES (Storyville LP #SLP 163, recorded October 16th, 1963) and JINX BLUES (Milestone LP #3001, recorded during 1964).

Son House’s JINX BLUES, NUMBER 1 and JINX BLUES, NUMBER 2 (Library of Congress, recorded 1942) share virtually only the title verse in common with each other, that verse being augmented by a number of floating verses which generally describe the lonesome feelings of the rejected lover. House’s songs employ the melody and, in the case of JINX BLUES, NUMBER 2, a verse from Willie Brown’s FUTURE BLUES.

Ignoring small variations, Son House’s title verse runs:

“I woke up this morning with the jinx all around, jinx all around, around my bed; (twice)
You know, I thought about you now baby, and it like to kill me dead.”

Taking into account the sense of the augmenting verses, House is using the word “jinx” primarily to mean evil spirits, unless “jinx” is intended to convey an enveloping blanket of gloomy thoughts. The word “it” seems to refer to his reaction to his thoughts, rather than to “the jinx.” Several of House’s augmenting verses describe “the blues” in terms of it being a feeling rather than as a personification of evil.

Taking up again the Chaldaic notion of a “spiritual intelligence,” one possible explanation for the above blues usage for “jinx” is found in the notion of the two inner “voices” sometimes used in popular stories to highlight an inner personal conflict: one voice, the conscience, is intent upon influencing the person to be “good,” while the other wants to lead the person into error or mischief.

The notion is similar to the Latin term, “genius,” which originally referred to either of the two opposed, but personal, spirits or angels which were presumed to “attend” each individual.

However, the personalization may derive from an African concept similar to the “genie” of Arabic lore, or the “genius” of classical text. In the case of “genius,” each person was regarded as being possessed of a good and an evil genius that struggled for control of the soul and the mind. The terms “jinx” or “the blues” may represent the evil genius within the individual.

In Arabic, there is a term “jinnee” (sometimes “djinn” or “jinn”) which described a spirit at a level lower than that of the angels. Solid evidence is lacking, but the Arabic word may be related to the Latin word “genius.” The modern notion of a “genie” appears to have come into English as a result of the French adaptation of the Arabic.

Therefore it is suggested that the above blues usage of “jinx” refers to the more sinister of the pair of spirits seen as attending the blues performer. It is suggested that a person regarding himself as the victim of bad luck or misfortune would usually feel that the more sinister spirit was continually attending him.

Despite the fact that Charley Patton, in his REVENUE MAN BLUES, sings “a jinx,” the context of both Patton’s quoted songs, and the title of Red Nelson’s song, and the title verse of House’s songs, is that there is more than one jinx, as is illustrated by Patton’s reference to “them jinx” and by Nelson’s reference to “these jinx.” Possibly the word should, after all, be transcribed as “jinks,” rather than “jinx.” As an extension of that notion, it is possible that, in black usage, the term “jinx” is related to the verb used in Scots dialects, “to jink,” which means to trick, or to dodge or move elusively. In the context of modern contact sports, its usage is to mean to trick the opposition by nimble movement. This usage may be related to the idea of “high jinks,” referring to boisterousness or merry-making.

It is also faintly possible that the use of “jink” as meaning “to play a trick upon” some body, was applied to the situation where fate plays a trick upon someone, leaving that person feeling dejected or “blue.”

The term “jinx” is sometimes used interchangeably for the term THE BLUES. An example of the use of the latter term to refer to spirits occurs in Coot Grant’s HEY DADDY BLUES (King Jazz unreleased/ Storyville (Dutch) LP #SLP 153, recorded September 18th, 1947).

We Like Mike – Part 2

Every episode of Blues Unlimited always has a dedication to Mike Leadbitter and Simon Napier at the end. There’s a reason for that — because it’s our way of paying tribute to two passionate blues lovers who changed the shape of blues literature — and research — with their pioneering publication, Blues Unlimited magazine.

We recently asked some folks who knew Mike “back in the day” to write a few lines in his honor, and here’s what they had to say.


From John Broven:
For a man who died 44 years ago at the age of only 32, Mike Leadbitter continues to have a huge impact on blues, R&B and Cajun music research.  Operating in a world where there was no internet or Google and little academic interest, his work has more than stood the test of time. For example, in recently updating my 1983 book, South to Louisiana, I found myself regularly consulting his publications and, of course, Blues Unlimited magazine. The accuracy of his research, especially his discographical masterpiece Blues Records 1943-1970, is astonishing. I am proud to have known him as a school friend and beyond, and to be mentored by him. Cheers, Mike!

Note: The first edition of Blues Records was published in 1968. The second edition, which came out after Mike’s death, expanded the coverage to 1970.

From Gayle Dean Wardlow:
Mike Leadbitter was my first contact at BU as early as 1965 when I did an article on H. C. Speir. Mike was the researcher and Simon the business part of the magazine. Later I combined my research on Elmore James from his brother in Canton, Mississippi and Johnnie Temple — and Mike and I did the first in-depth article on Elmore as co-authors. Later BU published my stories on Blind Joe (Reynolds) Sheppard and King Solomon Hill (Joe Holmes) where I added additional information from Holmes’ wife and friends in the Sibley/Minden area of Louisiana. I also did one on the Two Willie Browns. Mike and I thought alike on research and he and Simon even visited me in Mississippi when they did a 1970s trip to Houston. He always sent me a letter of thanks for my articles and supported the ones that sometimes created controversy or differing opinions. Without BU there was no other place to publish new research, especially after 78 Quarterly folded after two issues in the late 1960s.

Pictured (above): Leadbitter and Wardlow’s ground-breaking article on Elmore James, from BU #91 (May 1972); (below): BU #147 (Spring 1986).

Finally, our last tribute comes from Bob Eagle:

I first came across Mike when I purchased some early Blues Unlimited issues from Tony Standish in 1964. Issue #12 was the current issue, and I managed to get all the previous issues from Tony as well. By issue #15 (September 1964), I was the Australian agent, Tony having happily relinquished that task. Graeme Flanagan replaced me as Australian agent at issue #64 (1969). I had been admitted to practice as a lawyer in 1969, and was trying to publish my own magazine, Alley Music, and the BU agency fell by the wayside. However, I remained friendly with both Mike and Simon Napier, and caught up with both men when I visited England in January 1972. I first actually met Mike at the Eddie Burns concert at the 100 Club on 18 January, along with Mike Rowe (whom I just caught up with this past September), John Broven, Robin Gosden and others, including (as I recently rediscovered) Michael Prince. I met Mike again the following day at his work, and we caught up several more times before I left for the States early in February, including the obligatory visit to Bexhill-on-Sea. At Bexhill, I met and stayed with Simon and Diana (and was thrilled to see Diana again recently but saddened by how sick she was). I remember Mike successfully drinking me under the table on several occasions. I was introduced to the English habit of pubs closing in mid-afternoon, and the equally English habit of finding other pubs that remained open illicitly. I caught up with Mike again in early August 1972, enjoying a Chinese meal together, and on 4 August we went to the Marquee together, to see Johnny Mars and the hilarious local band, Brewer’s Droop. I then returned home to Australia and a job in law, after 8 months of immersing myself in blues. I had, in the intervening months, sent articles for publication in Blues Unlimited, while also fulfilling obligations I felt for Jim and Amy O’Neal at Living Blues.

Michael Andrew Leadbitter was born in Simla, India on 12 March 1942, and was raised at Bexhill-on-Sea. He and Simon began Blues Unlimited in 1963 and Mike remained its publisher after Simon’s 1973 “retirement,” until his own demise. Mike toured the United States in 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970 and 1973, and compiled Blues Records: 1943-1966 with Neil Slaven. Mike’s enthusiasm for the music, and for life in general, knew no bounds. It was with great sadness that blues enthusiasts like me heard of his death on 16 November 1974 from tubercular meningitis, contracted during his last visit to the States. He was survived by his widow, Rose.

Originally published in 1968, Mike Leadbitter was working on a greatly expanded book-length edition of Delta Country Blues at the time of his death.

 


Thanks to our contributors, John Broven, Gayle Dean Wardlow, and Bob Eagle who sent in their remembrances. At some point in the future, we’ll have a “Part 3” of this tribute (sort of) — that tells the story of an intriguing blues mystery, of which Mike Leadbitter played a part (Sorry! No spoiler alerts…. yet!)

Link for Part One

The “Blues LP Advertisement” Project — Part 3

Not that anyone was waiting on pins and needles, necessarily…. but…. we’ve been a bit behind these past couple weeks. So, without any further ado, here’s the final installment in our series, which sprang to life as a series of advertisements that were inspired by (or were theme and variation on) existing blues LP covers.

These ones, however, are a bit different, in that their inspiration comes from elsewhere. The first one might take a moment, simply because the inside reference isn’t necessarily a blues one, but here’s a link in case you need a little help jogging your memory.

 

The next one, quite frankly, never came out quite to our satisfaction. Although we liked the idea of centering it around Lightnin’ Slim’s famous rallying cry (“Well, blow your harmonica, son!”), and thought the subtlety of having a picture of Son-ny Terry was a nice touch — after seven different versions and various color schemes, we gave up. It is making its first (and last) public appearance in this post.

 

Finally, that brings us to our very last ad. And quite frankly, it is our favorite. The inspiration struck after finding a picture of Son House on the internet, in which someone had added radiating sunbeams to the background, creating an image that one might interpret in a couple of different ways (religious, of course, being one of them). And, since Charley Patton has often been referred to as the “father” of Delta blues, we thought it all fit perfectly together. Although we don’t know who did the photo-shopped Son House picture, the drawing of Patton is by legendary cartoonist and illustrator, R. Crumb (just to give credit where credit is due!) The words, of course, will probably be familiar to anyone who ever spent a Sunday morning in the pew of a church.

That’s it for now! Our next post will be part two of our tribute to Mike Leadbitter, Simon Napier, and Blues Unlimited magazine.

We Like Mike

Once upon a time in a little English seaside town, there lived a boy who loved music. Not just any music, but a particular kind of music. One that came from a far away land, way across the ocean….

Chances are, unless you’re the kind of blues fanatic who obsessively reads liners notes, bibliographies, and footnotes, you might’ve missed an anniversary this past week. On November 16th, 1974, the blues world lost one of its most passionate and tireless champions. A young British writer and researcher, named Michael Andrew Leadbitter. He was born in India, but grew up in the town of Bexhill-on-Sea, in Southeast England.

In a memorial written at the time of his death, John Broven says that he first met Mike in grammar school, in 1953. It wasn’t until four years later, in 1957, that they became friends — apparently talking about the rock ‘n’ roll hits of the day that captured their imaginations — by Elvis, Bill Haley, and Fats Domino. By the age of 16, Mike’s “formal” education was done. In his memorial, Broven hints at a persona that was a bit of rebel (“it was the age of James Dean, the Beat Era,” he writes), which was complimented by a seemingly natural curiosity and a photographic memory. “You could almost say,” says Broven, that “he was born to be a researcher.”

Broven says he lost touch with Mike after school let out, in the summer of 1958. A couple of years later, when their paths crossed again, Mike introduced him to Simon Napier, who Broven says he knew “just as one of the ‘big boys’ at grammar school.” Simon, often described as the one who handled the business end of Blues Unlimited, was three years Mike’s senior, having been born in Manchester, England, in 1939 — moving with his parents to Bexhill-on-Sea when he was fourteen. Napier later wrote about his future business partner and co-editor:

I first met Mike in 1955: he was intrigued by the fact that that I preferred Nappy Brown’s “It’s Really You” to the hit side, “Don’t Be Angry.” Some time later, he accosted me as I biked home with a treasured 78 of Chuck Berry’s “Down Bound Train” (in those days, 45s didn’t appear till weeks later; couldn’t wait), and invited himself home to hear it! A long and firm friendship was born — even then he was abstracting data from Jazz Journal’s list of recent U.S. releases, poring over R&B mags, compiling label lists and wondering who the hell Tippo Lite was; cursing over the fact that Ray Charles was winning Billboard Triple Crowns without a U.K. release, and tuning in faithfully to AFN’s [Armed Forces Network] Negro music shows to find out what the Cues, the Jacks, Google Eyes August, and Joe Hunter were doing. I was still fairly mainstream, digging Fatha Fats Domino and the Fontaine Sisters simultaneously, acquiring the definitive Hank Williams collection and standing in the Dominion cheering Bill Haley to the rafters….

In 1962, Napier and Leadbitter founded the “Blues Appreciation Society.” A year later, in April 1963, they launched Blues Unlimited magazine. The initial print run was 200 copies, which, according to several accounts, sold out almost immediately. Napier settled in as the editor, and would go on to hand-type the first 100 (or so) issues of the magazine, which at first, was just a simple mimeographed affair. By issue number five, Mike was listed as “R&B Editor,” and by 1965, was named co-editor. Between the two of them, Napier’s love of prewar blues meshed perfectly with Mike’s expertise on the postwar era. Where the two of them “met in the middle” (so to speak), was a mutual admiration for the music of Elmore James. Although Mike typically handled the LP reviews of ’40s and ’50s reissues, and Simon usually the earlier stuff, it’s a rare treat to see Napier, in the pages of Blues Unlimited, wax poetic about the slide guitar legend they both loved and respected so highly.

Going back to those very first issues — now, rare collector’s items — it’s nothing short of amazing to behold just how much both Mike and Simon knew at the time. Although today, information is taken relatively for granted in the “easy access” of the internet era, back in those days, if you wanted to find something out, you had to either dig, or know where to look for it. Fortunately, as the Blues Revival of the 1960s unfolded, Mike Leadbitter would be at one of the most unique junctures of the blues universe. Thanks to the magazine, information filtered in from all corners of the globe, and Mike — who, along with his photographic memory and natural curiosity, also apparently had the ability to collate vast amounts of data — took advantage of his unique position, and made full use of it, in his capacity as one of the magazine’s editors. [By the way… Mike also possessed a considerable knowledge of Cajun music; how he managed to accomplish that is a bit of a mystery!]

In the pages of Blues Unlimited, Mike and Simon constantly encouraged people to go out and talk to the artists, musicians, and producers who made the music — that were still around and could be interviewed. An early piece on boogie woogie legend Pete Johnson was particularly heart-breaking (“Pete Johnson – Today,” Blues Unlimited 8, January 1964). James Wertheim, a twenty year-old college student, befriended Johnson, and sent in an article. He described how this beloved piano giant still received letters from fans all over the world, yet was living humbly in Buffalo, New York, in ill-health, and scraping by on fourteen dollars a month — which was all that remained from his Social Security check after his rent had been paid (Wertheim goes on to mention that small royalty checks and donations from fans managed to find their way to him occasionally; according to one source, after the article appeared, Johnson became a member of ASCAP, which helped him to receive royalties on a more regular basis). This would be just one of several such “causes” that Blues Unlimited would bring to light, thanks to the platform the magazine afforded, and also, thanks to their readers (who in some cases, such as Juke Boy Bonner, sent in donations so he could get into a studio and record a new single).

Although Mike and Simon’s reviews and articles tended towards the positive and supportive end of the spectrum (one astute reader complained that it would take some £300 a year to purchase all the LPs that were earmarked as “essential” — almost $4,500 today, adjusted for inflation), Mike, in particular, was not afraid to tell the truth, as he saw it. In a rather excoriating review of the book Robert Johnson by Sam Charters, Leadbitter takes the revered author to task, in part, for publishing information gleaned from the pages of Blues Unlimited without giving due credit, and padding the book with lyric transcriptions and “vivid descriptions of crumbling Delta towns, dusty roads and sticky red mud.” He goes on to say, “I personally like and admire Sam Charters and can’t understand why he produced this bullshit for me to review.” What follows next reveals a key insight into Mike’s personality:

Perhaps [Charters] wanted to get his oar in before Steve LaVere and (reputedly) Mack McCormick get their interviews and pics in print. Who knows? Whatever, it’s about time that we got some of the facts about Johnson from those who know. I’ve never been one to sit on vital data just for kicks or money and I rather resent those who do. Blues, like science, is best served by those who share the fruits of their research….

After celebrating their tenth year anniversary, in the Spring of 1973, it was announced that Simon Napier would be stepping down. Assuming the reigns with issue 103, in the fall of 1973, Mike Leadbitter became the sole editor. With the magazine sporting a fresh new look, it seemed that a path was set, and the future assured. Mike became busier than ever, working for Hanover Books in London, writing articles and liner notes, working on a new book, making corrections to his magnum opus, Blues Records, and still — in his part time — making sure that Blues Unlimited was regularly published, according to schedule.

Starting the next year, however, troubling reports started filtering in. “This issue was somehow put together during a long bout of ’flu and even as I write this I have a feeling that it may finally appear a little later than usual. If it does, please forgive me,” he wrote in issue number 107 (April/May 1974). In his next editorial, little seemed changed:

By the time it was decided that I had an unspecified (?) ‘virus’ and not ’flu, BU 107 was already way behind schedule and your once chubby editor lost two stone [i.e., almost 30 pounds]. In spite of aching head and trembling limbs (no lie), I began work on this issue, to get it out on time, before seeing proofs of the previous one….

In issue 109 (August/September 1974), Mike’s health issues were starting to sound ominous:

Sorry to turn this into a health bulletin again, but London’s clinics and hospitals are rapidly disturbing my life. After nearly six months of treating me for everything but, they’ve at last decided that my continuing  illness is being caused by an infection of the lungs. In spite of the dark hints about TB and the like, they’re still not very sure about what I’m suffering from and I really don’t know what they plan next. Any sort of confinement in hospital, be it only for further investigation, would play havoc with BU’s timetable, and I’d like to warn you that there may be delays over issues or other odd happenings.

“It was… clear to his friends that he was taking on too much work for his own good,” John Broven wrote in his tribute. “He was becoming run-down healthwise…. We all thought he was getting better during the summer but in early October came the sad news that he was critically ill in hospital with meningitis. He never recovered.”

The next issue, number 111 (December 1974/January 1975), announced the tragic details of his passing:

“Michael Andrew Leadbitter,” wrote Simon Napier, “…died of meningitis in London’s Brook Hospital, on the evening of Saturday, November 16th, 1974. He was 32 years old, and a leading light since 1963 in the revival of interest and study of blues.” Of the many unfinished things Mike left behind, was a manuscript he’d been working on, about the blues musicians of Mississippi. Simply called The Delta Blues Book, John Broven reported reading an early version of it in 1974, and referred to it even then as a masterpiece. Forty-four years later, blues fans still hope, and await its publication.

In 1975, Blues Unlimited magazine was re-organized under a new editorial team, spearheaded by the capable hands of John Broven, Bill Greensmith, Mike Rowe, Neil Slaven, and Bez Turner. It would soldier on, for another twelve years, with additional editorial members coming in, and others going on to new things.

In 1987, Blues Unlimited published its last issue. In the previous years, its appearance had become more and more sporadic, and the challenges of publication (never an easy thing, mind you) — now with one third of the three-man editorial team living overseas — was just too much burden to bear. As suddenly as it had appeared, Blues Unlimited simply faded away. Although planned to be a special on Detroit blues, issue number 150 never hit the newsstands.

Simon Napier and Mike Leadbitter were tireless champions of the unsung, the unheralded, and the unknown — always making sure, of course, that the “known” folks received some coverage too. And although the magazine never had (as far as we know, anyway) a “formal” editorial policy, if they had an informal one, it would be this: that there is no such thing as a blues artist who is unimportant. During those early days, it’s hard to know whether or not they had a grasp of the magnitude of the work they were doing. With the benefit of hindsight, what they achieved was nothing short of remarkable — a priceless archive of articles, interviews, concert reports, photographs, news happenings, and contemporary record reviews, that, by today’s standards, is simply irreplaceable. In each and every page of Blues Unlimited, their love and passion for the music, and the artists that made it — was always front and center.

After Blues Unlimited, Simon Napier went on to run the family antiques business, and in partnership with Robin Gosden and Bruce Bastin, launched the highly respected Flyright record label, which encompassed a mail order department, a distributorship and publishing business, and a retail record shop. He was actively involved in the community of Bexhill, helping to umpire stoolball matches (“a unique Sussex game,” writes John Broven), lingering over games of chess, lending a hand in the local musical theatre, and eventually becoming President of the Bexhill Chamber of Commerce. Simon Napier died in his sleep on December 1st, 1990, at his home in Cooden, a suburb of Bexhill-on-Sea, where Blues Unlimited magazine was first published. He was 51 years old.

In 2015, the blues community welcomed the publication of Blues Unlimited — Essential Interviews from the Original Blues Magazine, edited by Bill Greensmith, Mike Rowe, and Mark Camarigg, and published by the University of Illinois Press. The project had long been a vision of Greensmith’s, and after many years, finally saw the light of day — a testament to the legacy of the world’s first English language blues magazine, and the two men who helped pioneer modern blues journalism.

…We have lost a cornerstone, not only of BU, but of the whole blues world, musician and enthusiast alike. It wouldn’t be too extravagant a claim to say that he has almost single-handedly raised the standard of blues journalism far beyond the vagaries that we all thought so fascinating in the first days of BU. Many others of greater or lesser renown have done much of the research work that was fundamental to an understanding of the development of blues styles and tracing the musicians and their careers. But it was Mike who by amassing an encyclopedic knowledge of names, dates and recording information, was able to ask the right questions at the right time, and by so doing, illuminate a previously unsolvable mystery. As his knowledge and writing skill developed, his articles and interviews became models of factual accuracy and background detail.

— Neil Slaven, from a tribute in Blues Unlimited 111.


Over the next week or so, we will publish some reminiscences from those who knew and worked with Mike Leadbitter at Blues Unlimited. Stay tuned for that….

P.S. We were told a long time ago — by a source we regard as highly reliable — that a group of English gentleman gathered yearly on the anniversary of Mike Leadbitter’s death, and proudly drank copious amounts of beer in his honor. We hope that somewhere, the tradition still continues.

P.P.S. Although we’ve currently lost track of its whereabouts, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s recipe for home made corn liquor is ensconced somewhere in the pages of one issue of Blues Unlimited magazine. If we run across it, we’ll let you know….

Link for Part Two