When I started listening to the blues in the mid 80's, I had a pretty substantial learning curve. I really wasn't familiar with any blues artists other than the ones I'd heard or seen on TV back then, and that was limited to B.B. King and maybe Muddy Waters.....two very formidable artists, but certainly not the whole story by any means. Of course, I also listened to the Blues Brothers, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and others, but my range of pure blues knowledge was limited to those guys and any influences that they cited in interviews I happened to read.
As I began picking up the occasional blues recording at local record stores and via mail order (Thank you, Roundup Records and Downhome Music), I was able to close the gaps pretty quickly, mixing a few old recordings with some new ones. What was interesting about the new recordings was that many of the musicians playing on them also played on a number of the older recordings I was picking up.
|(L to R): Roy Gaines, Grady Gaines, Clarence Hollimon|
One such example was one of my favorite Black Top Records releases, from Grady Gaines and the Texas Upsetters (Full Gain). On the cover were three artists I had never heard of......Roy Gaines, Grady Gaines, and a guitarist named Clarence Hollimon. I really dug Hollimon's guitar work. He didn't overplay or overwhelm artists he was backing. His solos were crisp, economical, always complementary. He was as good playing jazz guitar as he was playing the blues, and despite his small and wiry stature (which probably earned him his nickname, "Gristle," also the title for one of his great instrumental tracks) and understated manner and style, his playing really stood out in a field of giants.
Over Hollimon's lengthy career, he played with Bobby "Blue" Bland, Junior Parker, O.V. Wright, Charles Brown, Joe Hinton, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers, the original Jazz Crusaders, and numerous other artists dating back to 1954, when he dropped out of high school to play guitar with the Bill Harvey Orchestra. While with Harvey, he backed the likes of Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Big Mama Thornton on road tours. This led to his tenure with Duke and Peacock Records (1957 - 1962) in Houston as a session guitarist. During that period, he played behind Bland, Parker, Wright, and many other soul, blues, and gospel artists.
Although I had listened to some of Hollimon's Black Top recordings by this time, with Gaines and James "Thunderbird" Davis, I wasn't aware of his earlier work with Duke and Peacock, but some of these tracks, especially Bland's "You Got Me Where You Want Me," really grabbed me when I first heard them and when I was able to find out who was playing that guitar, I discovered that it was Hollimon. Even though it was a great fit at the time it was recorded, you could hear that it was definitely a more modern approach, too. Hollimon figured that he played on about 90% of Bland's recordings between 1957 and 1962.
|Clarence Hollimon and Carol Fran|
In 1983, Hollimon married Carol Fran, a singer who recorded in the 60's for Excello Records. Even though Hollimon and Fran had known each other since the 50's, courting briefly while touring together, but eventually they parted ways. They had not seen each other for many years before their paths crossed again in 1982. They married the next year and the partnership, Fran & Hollimon, was born. By the late 80's, Hollimon was recording with Black Top, first as a session guitarist, then with Fran, who he affectionately called "Blabs, teaming on three releases for Black Top, as part of the Gulf Coast Blues Volume 1 anthology, and on a pair of their own releases, Soul Sensation and See There!
Fran and Hollimon had incredible chemistry, like they had been playing together for decades. Fran's big sassy vocals were the perfect match for Hollimon's understated picking. The first time I heard them together was on the Gulf Coast Blues compilation, where they were featured on a pair of tracks, including a remake of one of Fran's Excello sides, "Emmitt Lee," one of the best songs on the disc. Fran's passionate vocal and Hollimon's smoldering lead make this one a standout.
Hot on the heels of Gulf Coast Blues came the duo's debut recording for Black Top, Soul Sensation. I wrote about this album on a previous Black Top post, and it is one of the most enjoyable blues discs of the 90's. Both of them were just on fire for this set, like they were making up for lost time. "Gristle" was one of Hollimon's standout, displaying his amazing versatility, and "I Needs To Be Be'd With" showed just how well they worked together. Fran just delivered an awesome, playful but sexy vocal and Hollimon just burns it up. Hollimon even took a turn behind the mic for "Box With The Hole In The Middle," a cool autobiographical track that sums him up pretty well.
Perhaps my favorite Hollimon moment on this disc is an amazing instrumental that was dedicated to his wife. "Blues For Carol" sums up everything that was great about Hollimon's style. He says more in this nearly four minute track than many guitarists say in an entire career.....a really inspired tune. Of course, the inspiration could have been the subject of the title....the love of his life. Whatever, it's some mighty fine blues guitar.
Fran and Hollimon would go on to release two more albums, the excellent follow-up for Black Top, See There!, and a later release for JSP Records in the U.K., It's About Time. Hollimon also continue to play on other albums, notably the Grady Gaines' second Black Top release, Horn of Plenty, and some standout work on Jimmy "Mr. T99" Nelson's 1999 comeback disc for Bullseye Blues, Rockin' and Shoutin' The Blues.
Hollimon died in Houston on April 23rd, Easter Sunday, 2000, not long after It's About Time was released. He was only 62 years old and his death left a huge void in the Houston music scene. His death left a huge void in the Houston music scene. Carol Fran continued to record and perform following his death, but suffered a stroke in 2007. She has rebounded somewhat from this setback, even appearing on the Louisiana Swamp Stomp benefit CD that came out in 2010.
Clarence Hollimon may be the best guitarist you've never heard of. If you're a blues fan, the odds are very good that you have heard him though. His nearly fifty-year body of work is blues guitar at its finest.