Friday, August 4, 2023

Black Prairie Blues

A couple of years ago, I started tracking down some information about the blues that originated on the eastern side of Mississippi.  I had gone up toward West Point with the intention of checking out the Howlin' Wolf Museum, along with the statue near the middle of town next to the Blues Marker.  Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get in the museum that weekend, so I planned to revisit it in the future since my daughter and her husband reside in Tupelo.

I posted about my visit up that way and got some feedback from a few people, who took the time to enlighten me on just how much great blues music came from northeastern Mississippi and northwestern Alabama.  I am still in the process of digging into this huge source of music that I had previously took for granted and I hope to, in a future post, provide more information for those unfamiliar.....I just don't want to do it until I feel like I've got it covered pretty well.

In the meantime, my birthday was a couple of months ago, and we decided to visit my daughter and son-in-law in Tupelo.  While we were going that way, I decided to see about visiting the museum as we passed by.  Since I tried to visit previously, the museum has moved to a larger building and is now called the Black Prairie Blues Museum.  I was able to get on Facebook, track down the contact information for the museum, and get in touch with Jeremy Klutts, who oversees the museum.  

The museum is a work in progress, the contents are mostly upstairs while the lower floor is used for events and occasional performances.  There's a stage and room for a couple of hundred in the audience.  There's also art on display from art students at nearby Mississippi State University that captures the spirit of the blues.


Since the museum was formerly centered around Howlin' Wolf, the bulk of items in the museum focuses on the Wolf......lots of photos, album cover displays and a few guitars donated by Hubert Sumlin and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, among others.  There were a few pictures of other artists interspersed.....Willie King, Big Joe Williams, etc.. as I said, it's a work in progress, the museum and the building, but when it is finished it will be a nice stop for blues fans in the area.  In the meantime, you can contact them at their Facebook page if you're traveling through and they will be glad to give you a tour.

There's a lot more blues history in the Black Prairie region than one would imagine.  In addition to the Howlin' Wolf Blues Marker and statue at West Point, there's also a marker in Crawford to the south for Big Joe Williams, which we posted about previously, and a marker in Macon (several miles south of Crawford) recognizing the Black Prairie Blues.  In addition to Wolf, Williams, and Willie King, this region was the home of Bukka White, Albert King, Lucille Bogan, Jesse Fortune, and the Houston Harrington family.  Harrington was a fiddler from the Macon area who migrated to Chicago, eventually setting up a recording studio and a record label (Atomic-H) and steering his family, which included Eddy Clearwater, Carey Bell, Lurrie Bell, and Steve Bell, to careers in the blues.

Howlin' Wolf statue in West Point, MS

Black Prairie Blues marker in Macon, MS

And that's just a taste of what originated in this area of Mississippi and Alabama (we haven't even made it to Alabama yet).  We will dig deeper into the artists from the Black Prairie Blues region in the near future, so keep checking back with us!

Friday, April 21, 2023

Big Joe Williams - Nine-String Guitar Master


A while back, I picked up a collection of Big Joe Williams' early recordings from 1945 - 1961 on Jasmine Records.  I had previously owned some of his recordings on Arhoolie not long after I started listening to the blues (on cassette) and even though I really enjoyed those sides, I had not ever revisited his work, other than the occasional appearance on an anthology set here and particular reason for that, just never got around to it.  

Over the years, I've read stories about him.  I liked Dick Waterman's reminiscences in his book Between Midnight and Day:  The Last Unpublished Blues Archive (which I highly recommend for the stories and Waterman's accompanying pictures), but what really got my attention was Mike Bloomfield's book Me and Big Joe, which recounted some of the late guitarist's harrowing adventures with the blues legend.  From that point, I decided to backtrack and learn a little more about Williams and it's an interesting story.

Williams was born in 1903 near Crawford, MS, which is located about halfway between Meridian and Tupelo on the eastern side of the state (also birthplace of NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice and former NBA player Clarence Weatherspoon).  He started playing as a youth on street corners, bars, alleys, work camps, etc.......ending up with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels revue and actually recording with the Birmingham Jug Band in 1930.  He ended up in St. Louis a few years later, where he recorded with Bluebird Records, as a front man and backing others such as Sonny Boy Williamson I and Robert Nighthawk.  It was while he was with Bluebird that he recorded "Baby, Please Don't Go" and "Crawlin' Kingsnake," both of which have become blues standards and have been recorded by hundreds of other acts in blues and rock.  Williams recorded frequently over the next five decades for a variety of labels....Vocalion, Okeh, Paramount, Prestige, Delmark, Arhoolie, and others.  

He played a nine-string guitar of his own design, and had a highly percussive style of playing similar to other pre-war Delta guitarists, beating on the box, neck, popping the strings and really giving his playing a distinctive style.  Blues historian Barry Lee Peterson witnessed Williams performing one night and described his electric model of the nine-string as being played through "a small ramshackle amp with a pie plate nailed to it and a beer can dangling against that.  When he played, everything rattled but Big Joe himself.  The total effect of this incredible apparatus produced the most buzzing, sizzling, African-sounding music I have ever heard."  As great and unique as he was as a guitarist, he was an equally talented songwriter and vocalist.  Based on Bloomfield's book and other descriptions, he could be rather cantankerous as well, but there's no question he was a well-respected bluesman throughout his career.

Williams eventually returned to the area where he was born, where he passed away in late 1982.  He was buried in a private cemetery near Crawford.  He had a headstone which was paid for by friends and fellow musicians collected at Antone's in Austin.  The Mt Zion Memorial Fund eventually got the headstone erected in October of 1994.  One of his last nine-string guitars can be viewed at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale.

Although I was aware that Williams was born in Crawford.....while working about twenty-five years ago, I had to stop in the Crawford City Hall and noticed a picture of him on the wall...... I don't guess it ever occurred to me that he might have been buried in the area.  Granted, I only got into visiting grave sites in the past few years, but I finally realized that he was buried nearby, only about 80 miles from where I live between Crawford and Starkville.

A few weekends ago, I ended up with some time on my hands and thought, what the heck, I'll just see if I can find Big Joe Williams' grave, so I punched in the coordinates and was soon on my way.  It was a fairly pleasant drive....I was familiar with most, but not all of it.  There's a nice lake (Bluff Lake) located about ten miles from the gravesite on the Noxubee Wildlife Refuge.  When I got to the location, Williams' headstone was easy to find.  In fact, it was the only headstone visible.  I was told that there are other graves at the site, but I didn't see any other headstones.  It really looked like a pasture with one solitary headstone present.

The town of Crawford is a few miles to the east, just off US 45 Alternate.  There's not much there these days, but there is a Mississippi Blues Trail marker near the Town Hall which is dedicated to Williams.  Crawford is a few miles south of West Point (birthplace of Howlin' Wolf) and a little over an hour south of Tupelo (birthplace of Elvis Presley).

However, I opted to go south that day because about ten miles south of Crawford, where US 45 Alternate and US 45 meet, is the town of Brooksville, home of the Ole Country Bakery, which is worth a stop if you're hungry for breakfast or lunch.  People drive from all around in Mississippi and Alabama to sample their delicious pastries, pies, loaf bread, sweet bread, sandwiches, soups, and salads.  Whenever I work in the area, I'm going to make a stop there, and I did that day as well.  You can't miss it if you're driving through Brooksville....just look for a wood-frame building with a lot of cars and trucks parked around it.

If you are in the area and you are a blues fan, it's worth the trip to visit Big Joe Williams' final resting place.  It's not hard to get there at all, the roads are good, and there are some other cool places to visit while you're in the area.  Meanwhile, here are a couple of great albums to get started with Williams.

The Original Ramblin' Bluesman 1945-1961 (Jasmine Records):  This 2 CD set includes tracks Williams recorded for the Chicago, Columbia, Bullet, Trumpet, Specialty, Vee Jay, and Folkways labels, plus previously unissued tracks for Cobra Records and eight songs never heard before on CD that Williams recorded with pianist Erwin Helfer in Chicago that were released as 2 EPs by Collector Records in London.  Not a bad track in the bunch.

Shake Your Boogie (Arhoolie Records):  This CD collects two great 60's albums Williams recorded for the label.  Charlie Musselwhite plays harmonica on some of the tracks.  Combined with the above set, this could be all the Big Joe Williams you might need for your collection, but I do encourage you to check out his 60's recordings for Testament and Delmark because they're just as strong.  All of his recordings are worth a listen.

Friday, January 13, 2023

In Memoriam: 2022 Blues Deaths

Friday Blues Fix pays tribute to those blues people who passed away in 2022.  It seems like we lost a lot of folks this year, not just in the blues, but with the blues, there are so many older artists who are still performing and making vital music at what might be considered an advanced age by some, so in a way it could be expected.  That doesn't mean we have to like it one bit, though.  It's sad to see artists you've followed for so long pass away. 

These are all the names I was able to come up with that passed away this year.  If you know of any others, please let me know in the comments and I will add them to this list as we go.

Classie Ray Ballou, Jr. (67) – blues/zydeco bass player (Boozoo Chavis)

Howard Grimes (80) drummer (Stax Records, Hi Records)

Sam Lay (86) drummer (Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, James Cotton, Bob Dylan, Paul Butterfield, etc…)

Milton Hopkins (88) – guitarist (Grady Gaines, Bobby Bland, B.B. King, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, etc…..)

Elijah Newsome (83) – Greenwood, MS bluesman

Charles K. “Guitar Charlie” Rickard (75) – Greenville, MS guitarist (Booba Barnes, Lil’ Dave Thompson, T-Model Ford)

Charles Lee “Delta Blues Hogg” Hayes (79) – Wisconsin bluesman

Jimmy Johnson (93) – Chicago bluesman

Syl Johnson (85) – Chicago blues and soul man

David “Guitar Shorty” Kearney (82) – blues guitarist

Barbara Morrison (72) – jazz/blues singer

Dennis Walker (79) – songwriter/producer/bass player

Millage Gilbert (83) – Kansas City bluesman

Kris Schnebelen (41) – drummer (Trampled Under Foot)

Classie Ballou, Sr. (84) – blues/zydeco guitarist

Pete Lowry (81) – blues scholar/writer/educator, founder of Trix Records)

Grana Louise Smith (69) – Chicago blues singer

Red Kelly, The Soul Detective (67) – blues/soul researcher (

Greg “Slim Lively” Johnson (60) – Cascade Blues Association president, I.B.C. and BMA M.C.

Richard Molina (72) – guitarist/bandleader

Deborah McCrary (67) – singer (McCrary Sisters)

Lola Gulley (57) – Atlanta’s “Queen of the Blues”

Terry Delafose (60) – zydeco bass player drummer (John Delafose and the Eunice Playboys, Geno Delafose and French Rocking Boogie)

Bobby O’Jay (68) – WDIA DJ

Paul Garon (80) – Blues author/scholar, co-founder of Living Blues magazine

David “Chainsaw” Dupont (66) – Chicago blues guitarist

Sonny Sitgraves (84) – drummer (Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Johnny Littlejohn)

James “Chicken Scratch” Johnson (82) – guitarist (Slim Harpo)

Grandpa Elliot Small (77) – New Orleans singer/harmonica player

Walter "Wolfman" Washington (79) - New Orleans blues and soul singer/guitarist

Paul T. Kwami (70) – Fisk Jubilee Singers member/director

Andy Story (78) – New York bluesman

Jim Davis (71) - New York tenor sax player (Brad Vickers, Paul Oscher, Steve Lucky, Gas House Gorillas)

Hardrick Rivers (65) – Louisiana sax player

Harpdog Brown (59) – Canadian harmonica player/singer

Doug Jay (58) – Harp Player (Doug Jay and the Blue Jays)

Jim Stewart (92) – Co-founder of Stax Records

Christine McVie (79) – English singer/keyboardist (Chicken Shack/Fleetwood Mac)

Marty Sammon (45) – Chicago keyboardist (Buddy Guy)

Kim Simmonds (75) – guitarist/vocalist (Savoy Brown)

Willie J Campbell (65) – bass player (James Harman, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Mannish Boys)

Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson (83) – Chicago singer/guitarist


Friday, December 30, 2022

Friday Blues Fix's Top 20 Albums for 2022

Well, it's been a while since we've posted here, but the end of the year is as good time as any for us to go through FBF's Top 20 releases for 2022.  In a few weeks, the January issue of Blues Bytes will present their reviewers' Top 10 for the year, so, if you care, you'll be able to see which of these 20 made my Top 10.  This was a pretty good year for new releases, a mix of new, exciting talented artists and a lot of veterans who showed that they still have a lot of fuel in the tank.  

Check out my favorites (listed in alphabetical order) and see how many are on your lists, and please share yours in the Comments if you're so inclined.

Friday Blues Fix's Top 20 for 2022

Rick Berthod - Tribute to Peter Green:  Nevada-based guitarist Berthod does a great job interpreting this tunes that the underrated British guitarist recorded with the early, blues-based edition of Fleetwood Mac.  He remains faithful to the originals, but adds enough of his own sound to keep things fresh.  Like any good tribute album, this will please longtime fans of Green, lead newcomers to check out the original works, and encourage them to check out more of Berthod's impressive catalog, too.

Chris Canas - Detroit (Third Street Cigar Records):  The Motor City's "Prince of the Blues" made the finals of the 2020 I.B.C.'s and this release shows what the fuss was all about.  A powerful vocalist and guitarist and a good songwriter, this album (his eighth) really serves as his mission statement.....he's here to play his brand of blues, - contemporary blues with flourishes of  rock, soul, funk, even reggae - his way.  I think listeners will be perfectly fine with that.

The Dig 3 - It always puts a hop in my step to see a new album of old-school blues played well, or in this case, extremely well.  Andrew Duncanson of Kilborn Alley Blues Band teams up with harp master Ronnie Shellist and multi-instrumentalist Gerry Hundt on this superb set of original tunes that pays tribute to the great blues tunes and artists of yesteryear.  Part of the reason this set works so well is the sheer love and enthusiasm these guys have for every tune.

Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters - Mercy Me (Stony Plain Records):  This is Earl's 28th album and one of his best, with support from his outstanding band and several guest stars.  Evenly split between originals and covers, Earl's guitar work continues to dazzle, on both electric and acoustic, while Diane Blue continues to be one of the best vocalist currently practicing.  It's hard to go wrong with any Ronnie Earl release, but this one is near the top of the list.

The Love Light Orchestra - Leave The Light On (Nola Blue Records):  I have a soft spot for the great sounds of Memphis blues and R&B of the 50's and 60's, and so do the members of The Love Light Orchestra, a nine-piece band of Memphis-area musicians fronted by vocalist John Nemeth, a master of the soul and blues genre whose voice is tailor-made for this sound.  Their second release is made up of nearly all original tunes that seem to be pulled from a 50's/60's-era jukebox and the performances will put goose bumps on your goose bumps.

Trudy Lynn - Golden Girl (Nola Blue Records):  Over 25 years ago, I met a guy from Houston on the old Blues Access bulletin board.  He turned me on to a lot of great music from the Houston area that I had previously not heard, including Ms. Trudy Lynn.  What an amazing singer and talent, and she's backed by an incredible set of musicians on this excellent set.  Ms. Trudy just rips through this set and leaves you waiting breathlessly for her next one.

John Mayall - The Sun Is Shining Down (Forty Below Records):  The King of British Blues stepped back from touring in late 2021, but he's still recording, releasing this album earlier this year.  There are several guest guitarists on this set, including Melvin Taylor, Mike Campbell, and Marcus King, but he's got the phenomenal Carolyn Wonderland playing guitar throughout the session, the latest addition to his band.  Mayall recently turned 89, but he sounds like he's got a few more great albums left in him.

Delbert McClinton - Outdated Emotion (Hot Shot Records/Thirty Tigers):  McClinton also retired from touring last year, but he also continues to record.  His 27th studio release is a collection of songs by artists who influenced him over his 65+year career, and it's a ton of fun.  Most listeners will know the songs here from Lloyd Price, Jimmy Reed, Hank Williams, Little Richard, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, plus a few McClinton tracks as well, and they will be singing along having nearly as much fun as McClinton and the band probably did.

Larry McCray - Blues Without You (KTBA Records):  I've been a fan of McCray's since I heard his 1991 debut.  He's had pretty rough luck since the late 90's - most of his releases are out of print and his later recordings are hard to track down, but he's continued to play and perform.  Fortunately, he connected with Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith and they produced this fantastic comeback, which may be the best example of McCray's artistry to date, covering blues, soul, and rock in equal measures.  That thunderous voice and guitar work is as strong as it was 30 years ago and hopefully, this is the beginning of a better streak of luck for this underappreciated blues man.

Yates McKendree - Buchanan Lane (Qualified Records):  While you listen to this album, and you really should, keep in mind that this young man is 21 years old.  McKendree, the son of piano player Kevin McKendree, has released a most impressive album of originals and covers with nods to B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, and Guitar Slim, to just name a few.  A talented singer and guitarist, this young man has a bright future and so does the blues world.

Mississippi Heat - Madeleine (Van der Linden Recordings):  Harp master Pierre Lacocque and his associates (including vocalists Inetta Visor and Daneshia Hamilton, guitarists Giles Corey and Michael Dotson) are joined by a host of guest artists (Carl Weathersby, Lurrie Bell, Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith, and Johnny Iguana, among others) on this typically excellent set of original tunes.....a true collaborative effort and one of the band's best ever.

John Nemeth - May Be The Last Time (Nola Blue Records):  Nemeth's second appearance on this list finds the singer teaming with Kid Andersen, Elvin Bishop, and Alabama Mike for a stunning session recorded at Greaseland.  Nemeth is facing a long recovery from cancer surgery that required reconstruction of his lower jaw and could prevent him from singing and playing harmonica in the future.  Nemeth sounds awesome on these tracks, both vocally and on harp, and the supporting cast is fabulous as well.  Proceeds from the sales of this album are going toward Nemeth's numerous medical bills, so there's even more incentive to give this one a listen, besides the fact that it's an excellent release.

The Phantom Blues Band - Blues For Breakfast (Little Village Foundation):  One of the finest modern blues bands turned out a winner with this year's release, a wide-ranging set of blues and soul covers with guest appearances from Ruthie Foster, Bonnie Raitt, Curtis Salgado, and Kelly Finnigan, whose late father, Mike, was a member (and also appears on one track).  These guys have backed nearly everybody that's anybody in the blues world and it's nice that they get to have the spotlight for themselves for a change.

John Primer - Hard Times (Blues House Productions):  Primer has gone from one of the genre's young talents to one of the seasoned veterans of the scene since I started listening to the blues.  His latest album is a well-crafted set of traditional and contemporary Chicago blues recorded with his Real Deal Blues Band and a guest appearance from Primer's daughter, Aliya.  Primer continues to be a force of nature on the Windy City blues scene.

Jose Ramirez - Major League Blues (Delmark Records):  Ramirez is definitely in the big leagues after releasing this marvelous album, his Delmark debut.  The Costa Rican blues man is joined by the late Jimmy Johnson on what would be his final recording and the Delmark All-Star Band on this stellar set.  Ramirez is one of the finest blues guitarist and vocalist currently practicing and this set is just outstanding.

Silent Partners - Changing Times (Little Village Foundation):  In the late 80's, guitarist Mel Brown, drummer Tony Coleman, and bassist Russell Jackson released a fine album that was a forgotten gem.  Sadly, Brown passed away in 2009, but Coleman and Jackson added Memphis guitarist Jonathan Ellison for the sequel.  He proves to be a worthy successor as guitarist and vocalist.  Hopefully, the new trio won't wait another 30 years for their next collaboration.

Angela Strehli - Ace of Blues (New West/Antone's Records):  This one brought a big smile to my face.  I've always enjoyed Ms. Strehli's powerful vocals on her albums.  It's been a while since I've heard anything and this release really hit the spot, as she pays tribute to the songs and musicians who were such an influence throughout her long career.  It's a great set of tunes, most of them you'll know, and she and the band have a blast performing them.  The liner notes are wonderful, too, loaded with pictures and Strehli's comments about each song and artist.

Demetria Taylor - Doin' What I'm Supposed To Do (Delmark Records):  Taylor is the daughter of the late Chicago blues legend Eddie Taylor.  Ms. Taylor toiled on this album for two and a half years, dealing with family losses and the pandemic, but it was well worth the wait.  She has a smooth, refined vocal delivery that is downright refreshing and she is comfortable singing blues, soul, and R&B.  She's also backed by a powerhouse band, including Mike Wheeler, Billy Flynn, and Carlos Showers on guitar.

The Texas Horns - Everybody Let's Roll (Blue Heart Records):  Mark "Kaz" Kazanoff, John Mills, and Al Gomez return with their third great set of horn-driven blues numbers.  They're supported by an all-star cast of guest artists, including Jimmie Vaughan, Anson Funderburgh, Caroline Wonderland, Johnny Moeller, Mike Flanigin, Marcia Ball, Mike Zito, and Guy Forsyth, to name just a few.  This is a well-rounded set of tunes that reminded me a lot of the old Black Top Records releases of the 80's and 90's (several of these artists are alumni of the much-missed label).  

Dylan Triplett - Who Is He? (VizzTone Records):  Last, but certainly not least on my list is this superb release from another 21-year-old, St. Louis vocalist Dylan Triplett.  He comes from a musical family and has been singing over half of his life.  He has a confidence and maturity of someone twenty years older.  This set includes songs from Lonnie Brooks, Jimmy McCracklin, and Marvin Gaye, plus an amazing interpretation of Miles Davis' "All Blues," plus appearances from Christone "Kingfish" Ingram and members of the Phantom Blues Band (bassist Larry Fulcher produced).  Triplett is another great young artist making the future of the blues look even brighter.

Well, that's my Top 20.  I would love to see yours, so please post in the Comments if you feel so inclined.

I have to apologize for the lack of posting this year.  It's been a tough year, especially the last few months, but hopefully 2023 will be a better year for everyone.  Happy New Year to all!