Friday, April 27, 2012

We Juke Up In Here! - Ten Questions With Jeff Konkel and Roger Stolle

(L to R) Jeff Konkel, Willie Seaberry (owner of Po' Monkey's), Roger Stolle (photo by Lou Bopp)

We blues fans owe a huge debt to Jeff Konkel (Broke and Hungry Records) and Roger Stolle (Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art) for their tireless efforts at documenting the still fertile Mississippi Delta blues scene.  For several years now, these guys have recorded artists that a lot of us would never have had the privilege of hearing otherwise.....artists like Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, Big George Brock, The Mississippi Marvel, Odell Harris, Pat Thomas, Wesley Jefferson and Terry "Big T" Williams.  In addition, several others have been featured in a pair of important documentaries (M for Mississippi and the new release, We Juke Up in Here, co-produced by Konkel, Stolle, Lou Bopp, and Damien Blalock).  These musicians, and others like them, are STILL living in the Delta, making mighty fine music, and now they have the opportunity to reach even more folks, thanks to Jeff and Roger.

We Juke Up in Here is a look at the current state of the juke joint in Mississippi.  It features a couple of artists from the previous movie (Holmes and the ever-ebullient Terry "Harmonica" Bean) and introduces us to some exciting new (to us) musicians, Anthony "Big A" Sherrod, Louis "Gearshifter" Youngblood," Robert Lee "Lil' Poochie" Watson, Elmo Williams, and Hezekiah Early, that know how to rock the  juke joint.  However, the centerpiece of the movie is Red Paden, the owner of the world famous Red's Lounge in Clarksdale.  Paden offers up a healthy dose of his wisdom, wit, and philosophy, and also gives an unvarnished, unblinking view of what it's like to operate a juke joint in the Mississippi Delta.  This is must-viewing for blues fans.....great music, great stories, great musicians

Jeff Konkel and Roger Stolle, both veterans of our Ten Questions With....department, sat down again this week with FBF to answer Ten Questions about We Juke Up in Here.  Thanks to both of them for their time.

Friday Blues Fix:  When did the idea to make We Juke Up in Here come to y’all?

Jeff Konkel:  Once our earlier film M For Mississippi was released, we tossed around all kinds of ideas for a follow-up film. We knew there were still a lot of stories to tell about today’s Delta blues scene.  We Juke Up in Here is really the combination of a couple of film ideas. At one point we considered doing a relatively simple concert film capturing a weekend of performances at Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale. At the same time we talked about doing a larger, more ambitious film about the state of juke joints in the Delta. What we ended up with was a film that married both ideas. While we explore the larger juke joint culture across the region, We Juke Up in Here is anchored by performances at Red’s Lounge and driven by the voice of the juke’s owner, Red Paden.

Roger Stolle:  Jeff and I started talking about this film as a nameless project during the making of M for Mississippi. While touring various venues and talking with the owners and musicians, the topic of Mississippi’s disappearing juke joint tradition kept coming up. It’s a topic that has only come more to the forefront since then. We’re literally down to just a handful of live music juke joints at this point. We wanted to celebrate the history and culture while also shining a light on the remaining spots around the Delta where you can still go jukin’ on a good Saturday night.

(L to R) Jeff Konkel, Damien Blaylock, Lou Bopp, Roger Stolle (Photo by Lou Bopp)

FBF:  Can you tell us a little about the movie-making process…..fill us in on what you guys do behind the camera and what were Damien Blaylock, Bill Abel, and Lou Bopp’s roles?

RS:  Sure. In our co-director/co-producer roles, Jeff and I share a number of key responsibilities: Movie concept (from pre-production thesis to narrative technique to final story), project fundraising (from seed money to backing sponsors to pre-sale execution), production schedule (from initial conversations to specific film shoots to final product deadline), creative team (from hiring production team to arranging location venues to booking musicians/interviews), story narration (from on-screen roles to off-screen voiceovers to behind-the-scenes facilitation), packaging design (from choosing photography to art direction to copywriting/proofing), marketing and promotion (from press releases to print ads to interviews like this), international distribution (from location-based premieres distribution to film festival submissions to DVD/CD retail) and so on. Jeff and I have worked on this project non-stop since we initiated production last June. Damien Blaylock is our lead cameraman, hands-on editor and co-director/co-producer. Lou Bopp was our second cameraman, still photographer and co-producer. And we hired Bill Abel to record and mix some of the film sessions last summer. Making a film/music project is an expensive, time-intensive process… but it is also very rewarding when you see the final product.

FBF:  What was different from M for Mississippi about making this one…..what did you do differently this time around?

JK:  In a lot of ways, the two movies are very different, but hopefully they retain many of the same strengths. Some of the obvious differences have to do with how the movie was shot. For starters, M For Mississippi was shot over the course of just one week with a single camera. We Juke Up in Here was shot over the course of six months and we incorporated a second camera into the shoot. I think those factors really enhance the pacing of the new film and allowed us to incorporate some really beautiful shots into the movie. From a narrative perspective, Roger and I made a real effort to stay out of the way of our interview subjects this time around and to let them tell their own stories.

RS:  While M for Mississippi was essentially a road-trip movie that visited various “real-deal” bluesmen where they live and play in the Delta – letting the musicians tell the stories – We Juke Up in Here starts with a series of unspoken questions that we try to answer through various interviews with juke owners and musicians as well as on-screen experiences. What is a juke joint? What makes it special as a venue? What is the current state of live blues at Delta jukes? Is there a future? Jeff and I tried very hard not to overtly answer these questions ourselves. We try to leave that to the folks in the trenches. The other big difference between the films is that Jeff and I scheduled M for Mississippi as a one-week film shoot; for this project, we scheduled half a year of long weekends and conference calls. It was a different story, so we chose a different way to capture it.

Red Paden (photo by Lou Bopp)

FBF:  The centerpiece of the movie is Red Paden, his Clarksdale juke joint, and his wit and wisdom (“This game is for life!”).  What was it like filming this movie with Red?

RS:  Difficult! No, not really. Here’s the thing. Red Paden is a proud, experienced, (at times) defiant juke joint owner. In his world, there really did used to be a lot of gamblin’, moonshinein’, womanizin’, cuttin’ and shootin’. It may not be like that in modern times, but he learned through decades of hard-fought trial and error that the best defense is a good offence. He’s got to be tough at the door and ready to react at a moment’s notice. He’s got to be tight lipped and only say what needs to be said. He has to be careful. Plus, at the end of the day, he needs to be able to make some money to keep the whole show going. As a result of these things, even though we’ve known Red for years, it really did take much of the summer to earn his trust enough to get at the philosophies and stories behind his infamous sayings such as, “The game is for life!” When all is said and done, Red Paden is an intelligent, hardworking man. He knows what time it is – what’s what. He may operate in the shadows (in sunglasses, no less), but he doesn’t miss much. The key was to get him to talk about it – to share not only his wit but also his wisdom.

JK:  I have to say that Red was much more patient with us than we expected! He’s a great guy, but he doesn’t suffer fools lightly, so there are times when we had to walk on eggshells to get him to open up to us. We’ve known Red for years and have had a lot of great conversations with him over that period, but putting a camera in someone’s face really changes the dynamic. We spent months trying to nail him down for this movie and to get him to talk candidly on film about his experiences as a juke joint owner. He gave us a few nice kernels of insight along the way, but it wasn’t until the final night of the film shoot that he really opened up and spoke from the heart. Much of his commentary in the film comes from that final interview.

FBF:  A regular line in the movie seems to be “Ain’t nothin’ like it used to be,” which seems to be a familiar refrain from most of the principals in the film.  After finishing this movie, are either of you optimistic at all about the future of live blues music in the juke joint setting?

JK:  The harsh reality is that juke joint culture is in decline and that the decline is speeding up. There’s no guarantee that any of these venues will be around tomorrow, yet alone a decade from now. Having said that, we did see some exciting developments during the making of this film. A good example is the Blue Front Café in Bentonia. I’ve been visiting the juke on a pretty regular basis for about seven years, and I have never seen it as packed with locals as it was on the night we filmed our segment there. Live music has become a rarity there, so to see its owner, bluesman Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, making an effort to bring it back is pretty exciting. Whether or not he can sustain an audience over the long run is an open question, but it was pretty exciting to see so many Bentonians come juke at the Blue Front!

RS:  Look, we can document and promote juke joints all we want, and if we’re lucky, maybe we can even help the culture hang around a bit longer. But, the truth is this: juke joints, juke owners and the musical veterans who play them are all archaic – anachronistic, really. There’s no reasonable reason why these places and characters should still exist over a decade into the 21st Century. They are from a less competitive time and place where there wasn’t 24/7 entertainment as near as the closest cell phone or casino. Just as older, traditional Mississippi blues players are dying out so are the juke joint proprietors and customers. We live in a homogenized society. Such “they broke the mold” characters as these have an increasingly small space to work in. All of that said… please see the movie, and we’ll let y’all be the judge.

Roosevelt Roberts, Jr. at the Blue Front Cafe (photo by Lou Bopp)

FBF:  Were there any surprises (pleasant or unpleasant) that you encountered while making this movie?

RS:  Everything takes longer and costs more than you think on big projects like this! That said, we had tremendous support from our film sponsors – not to mention the juke owners, musicians and customers. A lot of folks wanted this story to be told. That may not come as a total surprise, but until you actually jump off the ledge with an undertaking like this, you don’t really know if anybody is going to be there to catch you. The good news is that someone was, and we truly appreciate it.

JK:  Biggest surprise for me? Robert Lee “Lil’ Poochie” Watson. We had heard great things about him and had seen some tantalizing evidence of his talent, but we were just blown away by his performance in the film. We took a big chance by including him, and he really delivered. One of the reasons we make movies like this is to help these artists further their careers. Lil’ Poochie is just one of many artists in the film who deserves to be better known.

The Blue Front Cafe (photo by Lou Bopp)

FBF:  Can you tell us about your favorite scenes in the movie?

JK:  The Blue Front segment I mentioned earlier is a real highlight to me. It’s just beautifully shot by Damien and Lou. They really captured the wild fun of a juke joint on a good night. I also especially love the closing scene. I think it nicely encapsulates where things stand in the Delta’s juke joint tradition. And then, of course, there are all of the amazing performances by the musicians. Too many to count!

RS:  That’s a hard question, really. There were so many special moments – both in front and behind the camera. Two things that immediately stand out to me: Touring the ruins of Red Paden’s old Red Wine juke joint. That was cool for me, personally, since Red had told me about that place for years. (Also, you might notice that I never walk into the tall grass. Jeff was smart enough to wear jeans that day. I was not. Those are some chigger-infested grasses out there!) The second scene that stands out to me is our visit to the Blue Front Café. Honestly, we wanted to tell the story of the juke joint owner who wants to bring live blues back to his silenced juke, but we were uncertain whether this would be a positive story or a depressing one. As it turns out, most of the town showed up that night, so it was absolutely amazing – like stepping back in time. Our faces hurt from smiling so much in one evening. The coolest thing is that we now have all of this and more captured on film. For today, that means a little more promotion for what is still going on. For tomorrow, it gives us a lasting document of “the way things were.” It’s a win-win. 

Louis "Gearshifter" Youngblood at Red's (photo by Lou Bopp)

FBF:  I think you’ve unearthed a future star in Louis “Gearshifter” Youngblood.  Are there any other outstanding musicians in the Mississippi area that for one reason or another didn’t make it into the movie?

RS:  There are still many wonderful blues musicians working in the Mississippi area. We’ve showcased many of them in M for Mississippi and We Juke Up in Here, for sure, but there are always more. Gearshifter is a personal favorite of ours, and he was actually on one of the early “potential artists” lists for M for Mississippi. We are so glad he made it into this film. He’s a heck of a nice guy, a tremendous musician and an entertaining performer. We really wanted to get Big Jack Johnson and maybe even Odell Harris into the latest film as well, but Big Jack sadly passed on last year and Odell just didn’t want to be found! It’s a crazy scene here; that’s all I can really say.

JK:  Gearshifter is fantastic. He’s a really special musician and just a hell of a nice guy. We were really happy to include him in the film. As for other worthwhile musicians in the Delta? Absolutely! Hopefully we’ll have a chance to keep profiling great musicians in future film and recording projects. 

FBF:  What future projects are in the works for you guys?

JK:  Sleep is the project I’m most thinking about right now! Putting together this movie and soundtrack has truly been a 24/7 effort over the past year. We’ll spend the next year promoting the film and trying to get it seen by a wider audience, but in the meantime, we have several other ideas percolating for future projects.

RS:  Right now, we are concentrating on the release and promotion of the new We Juke Up in Here film and music project as well as some international touring with both the movie and some of the artists from it. But… we are ALWAYS talking about the next big project! There are still plenty of stories to be told here and music to be unearthed. The challenge is that the clock is ticking. Folks can check out our current projects at and… and watch for updates.

Terry "Harmonica" Bean at Red's (photo by Lou Bopp)

FBF:  What is your greatest all-time “Juke Joint Moment”?

JK:  One of the greatest nights of my life took place at Green’s Lounge in Memphis in October 1997. It was my first exposure to a real juke joint and it was absolutely enthralling. The Fieldstones were playing that night and the late Wilroy Sanders on guitar and vocals just blew me away. I walked out of Green’s that night a changed man, committed to spending as much time in juke joints as I could after that. Little did I know that they were already nearing extinction at that point. Green’s Lounge burned to the ground a week later.

RS:  Read the introduction to my blues book Hidden History of Mississippi Blues (The History Press) for my “greatest…moment.” My fateful visit to Junior Kimbrough’s old juke joint a decade and a half ago in many ways led to everything else I’ve been involved with – from my Cat Head blues store to the latest movie.  A great night in a real-deal, live music juke joint can literally change your life. For the love of blues, if you are reading this and haven’t spent a sweaty night in a Delta juke… don’t wait. Check out a Red’s Lounge or whatever juke you can find RIGHT NOW while you still can. Need help finding one? Check out my Music Calendar at (Also, we hold our annual Juke Joint Festival every April here in Clarksdale, Mississippi – Hope to see you there.) 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Blues on the Tube

I got to see We Juke Up In Here! over the weekend (if you haven't seen, you must) and we will be discussing it in depth in a couple of weeks, along with a couple of other DVD's I've recently seen.  In the past, we've discussed a few blues documentaries that are among my favorites (Deep Blues, Last of the Mississippi Jukes, M for Mississippi, the American Folk Blues Festival series, etc....), but there are many more of these movies available for viewing, some that cover performances, some that serve as biographies, some that help to familiarize viewers with previously unknown or seldom-heard artists.  This week, Friday Blues Fix will look at a few of our favorites.  Please keep in mind that this is by no means a comprehensive other words, if you don't see your favorite on here, there's a good chance I haven't seen it yet, so feel free to mention your favorites in the Comments section below if you don't see it here.

Muddy Waters:  Messin' with the Blues - For starters, this title is a bit misleading.  If you read the smaller print below the title, you will see "With Buddy Guy & Junior Wells."  When I picked this up on VHS in the early 90's, when it was available from Rhino Video, the trio actually split the bill, with all three appearing on the cover.  This video was taken during Guy and Wells' classic 1974 show at the Montreux Jazz Festival, which was also the setting for the pair's CD, Drinkin' TNT & Smokin' Dynamite.  In fact, Waters only appears for the last three or four songs.

Junior Wells is in great form, blasting through "Messin' with the Kid," and then taking his sweet time with a classic take on "Hoodoo Man Blues."  Buddy Guy gets a vocal turn as well with two of his old favorites, "Ten Years Ago" and "When You See The Tears From My Eyes."  His guitar work is exquisite on all of these tracks, with very little of the Hendrixian influences that he often came to depend on too much in future years.  Waters comes out for the final tracks, which will please all his fans.  He seems particularly inspired on new versions of "Hoochie Coochie Man," "Mannish Boy," "The Same Thing," and the rousing closer, "Got My Mojo Working."

The backing band is pretty darn good, too, with Pinetop Perkins (looking very youthful in his mid 50's) manning the keys and Rolling Stone Bill Wyman on bass.  I can't remember the other two band members....I think it was Terry Taylor on guitar and maybe Dallas Taylor on drums), but they did a nice job backing the trio and laying down that steady rhythm.  This is not what you would call an essential set, but it's a nice, steady set that is worth hearing from start to finish.  I like it because it's a nice glimpse of Guy and Wells working together as front men and their respectful backing of Waters, who really impressed me with his regal confidence.  If you can find this one, you will enjoy it.

I think I've shown this clip before (Guy and Wells, from the movie, doing "Messin' with the Kid"), but it's one of my favorites of the two of them and captures their exuberant spirit and intensity perfectly.

Bobby Rush:  Live at Ground Zero Blues Club:  Believe it or not, before I got this DVD/CD set, I had never seen Bobby Rush perform.  Oh, sure I had heard about him and heard his songs on the radio, but I had never seen the man himself in person.  Let me just say this....all the talk you've maybe heard over the years, about what a great performer and showman he is and how he can hold the audience in the palm of his's all true and the only proof you will ever need is this DVD.

Performing with a TIGHT band (which includes current soul blues sensation Stevie J playing some searing lead guitar) and his usual dancing ladies of varying shapes and sizes, Rush nearly tears the roof off the sucker as he romps through a mix of his classic tunes ("Sue," "I Ain't Studdin' You," "What's Good For The Goose," "Chicken Heads") and a great mix of new tunes and covers.

The set was originally released as a DVD/CD set, but is now widely available as a DVD only.  The DVD is really what you need though because as good as Rush is on the audio side, you definitely need the video side to really capture what he's all about.  Still going strong today well into his mid 70's, Rush is probably one of the most underrated bluesman of his time, but those who do know him love him.  If you're not familiar with him, take the time to check him out for yourself.

The Search For Robert Johnson:  John Hammond, Jr. hosts this informative documentary about the legendary Delta bluesman.  Hammond interviews two of Johnson's fellow travelers (Johnny Shines and Honeyboy Edwards, who shows the house where he claims Johnson died), one of his old girlfriends who claims she knows where he's buried, and there's also commentary by Keith Richards and Eric Clapton, and Johnson expert Robert "Mack" McCormick.

There's also an interview with Claud Johnson, who claimed to be Johnson's son (and was later proved to be in the courts in 1998).  However, the most poignant moment of the film comes when Hammond interviews Willie Mae Powell, another former girlfriend.  Johnson calls out for her on the song, "Love In Vain."  When Hammond plays the record for her....she's hearing it for the first time.....she is visibly surprised and moved by it.

This movie came out in the early 90's, around the time that Johnson's sides were repackaged into the best-selling box set and his popularity was as great as it had ever been.  There was a lot of new information that was revealed in this movie, most of which is now common knowledge for a lot of blues fans.  Still, it's worth seeing.  Hammond does a great job as host...he plays many of Johnson's songs and even gets into an old-fashioned "head cutting" with Shines.

Journey Through the Blues:  The Son Seals Story:  I received this in the mail for review and had no idea it was coming.  What a nice surprise....Son Seals is one of my favorite blues men with his raw, visceral guitar and roaring vocals.  This 2007 DVD serves as a video biography for Seals and features interviews with his son, Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, Steven Seagal, Dr. John, Bruce Iglauer, and Seals himself.

Although I love this DVD, there are a couple of minor's a little short and there's only a few performances throughout that have sound.  Part of the DVD's extras are three live performances from Seals at various stages of his career.  While they are all great, it would have been great to have more.  Maybe more will be uncovered in the near future.  Anyway, this is a very informative film that sheds new light on one of the modern era's icons.

Luther Allison - Songs From The Road or Live in Paradise:  I'm listing both of these because Live in Paradise is probably THE Allison DVD to get, but it's out of print and pretty hard to find without refinancing your house or something.  Songs From The Road does have its's an exceptional performance, it's well-filmed, the sound is fantastic, and there's a 20 minute interview with Allison and an excerpt from an upcoming documentary included.....but the concert on DVD is only seven songs and about 50 minutes long, where the performance on Live in Paradise is over 2 1/2 hours long.

Songs From The Road is a set recorded in Montreal just a couple of days before Allison was diagnosed with cancer, but you'd never be able to tell Allison was sick based on his performance.  The reason for the brevity of the performance is because the concert was edited to fit an hour format on CBC.  The good thing is that the CD that comes with the DVD contains all the music from the performance, so you do get the entire show, and what a show it was!

Live in Paradise was recorded in the Spring before Allison's death and is an awe-inspiring performance.  Allison's boundless energy and intensity never lets up for a moment during the show.  This is by far the best video capturing Allison in his element, but due to the potential financial considerations, there's not a thing wrong with settling for Songs From The Road.  Luther Allison never gave anything less than 100% on any performance.

That's all for now.  We will revisit this topic in the near future.  FBF would love to hear what some of your favorite blues DVDs are.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Baby, Don't You Wanna Go?

There are a lot of things happening in the Land Where The Blues Began this weekend that you really need to know about, but first....

On Monday night, our local community college's concert band, the Collegians, gave their annual Spring concert.  While these shows are usually well-received and well-attended every year, this year's show was extra special because Tom Carson, the college's band director and musical guiding light for thousands of students over the past 30 years is retiring.  Mr. Carson has been battling esophageal cancer with a vengeance since last summer, and is doing very well.....well enough to lead and play guitar with the Collegians once again this Spring, just like every other Spring since he came to the college in 1982.

Part of the Collegians' show always includes special guests and this year's show was loaded, but the coolest part to me was when a group consisting of several Collegians alum (including Mr. Carson's three kids, all past or present Collegians themselves) paid tribute to one of the oldest blues songs around.  You've probably heard it once or twice......"Sweet Home Chicago."

Robert Johnson is usually credited with composing the song, and he recorded it during his first session in 1936, but like many blues songs, it consists of lyrics "borrowed" from other older songs.  The melody of the song is similar to several early blues songs, Roosevelt Sykes' "Honey Dripper Blues," and Walter Davis' "Red Cross Blues," with the main instrument being piano.  "Kokomo Blues," as originally conceived by 30's guitarist Scrapper Blackwell, also adopts this melody, but using guitar as the main instrument.  This is the version that Johnson adapted for his song.

Other performers....Madlyn Davis, Jabo Williams, and Kokomo Arnold, to name a few......added their own personal twists to the song in the meantime, including the counting verses ("one and one is two / two and two is four") that are such a part of the song today.  Their version referred to Kokomo, Indiana (near Blackwell's base in Indianapolis), not Chicago.  Another version by Papa Charlie McCoy from around the same time changed the locale to Baltimore.  Check out the similarities on Kokomo Arnold's "Old Original Kokomo Blues."

When Johnson performed the song, he changed it to Chicago and that version is the one that stuck.  However, instead of the now-familiar line "Back to that same old place," he used the line "Back to the land of California."  Why?  There have been lots of theories....Johnson was confused geographically (doubtful)....he was making a cross-country journey from California to Des Moines (also mentioned in one of the older stanzas) to Chicago....there's a California Avenue that stretches through the Windy City,....etc...  Possibly, Johnson envisioned California as a sort of paradise destination and used it to describe Chicago.  Whatever the reason, we will probably never know for sure why it was used, and the line has long been replaced for the most part by "Back to that same old place."

"Sweet Home Chicago" has to be one of the most covered and performed song in the blues.  My favorite, and one of the best versions is by Magic Sam, but other well-known versions have been done by Earl Hooker, Honeyboy Edwards, the Blues Brothers (the Magic Sam-styled version from their movie), and Buddy Guy.  It was the last song Stevie Ray Vaughan ever played (at his Alpine Valley Music Theatre concert with Guy, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, and Vaughan's brother Jimmie just before his fatal helicopter crash).  It was even performed at the White House a few weeks ago.  Here are a few different takes on "Sweet Home Chicago" for you to enjoy, courtesy of Magic Sam, Earl Hooker, Buddy Guy, Freddie King, and the audio from the Alpine Valley version with the Vaughan brothers, Clapton, Guy, and Cray.

It was nice to hear the Collegians play the song, and it's a great and wonderful thing that these young folks have an instructor who will mix a few blues songs into their repertoire.  Mr. Carson told me a few weeks ago, "Without the blues, you don't have any of the other music that they listen to."  He's certainly done his part to get the word out about the blues to a lot of college students over the years, and, thank goodness, he is not planning on stopping any time soon.

Now....if you're free this weekend, there are several big events going on in Clarksdale, MS that you need to know about.

This weekend, We Juke Up in Here! Mississippi's Juke Joint Culture at the Crossroads (featured at Friday Blues Fix back in December) has its theatrical premiere in Clarksdale, as part of the annual Juke Joint Festival.  The premiere will be tonight at the Delta Cinema (11 Third Street).  The festivities begin at 5:30 pm, but the movie starts rolling at 7:00 pm.  Admission to the movie is FREE.  Friends, you can't beat that with a stick.  Trust me.....if you liked M for Mississippi, you will LOVE We Juke Up in Here!  If you can't make the journey to the festival this weekend (see below for more details) , you can go to their website and order the DVD and soundtrack for a very nice price.

2012 Poster by Christen Barnard

Clarksdale's ninth annual  Juke Joint Festival started yesterday and runs through Sunday.  You can visit their site for more details.  There are going to be some outstanding acts performing this weekend (including Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, Terry "Harmonica" Bean, Cedell Davis, Little G Weevil, Pat Thomas, Fingers Taylor, Eddie Cusic, L.C. Ulmer, Davis Coen, R.L.Boyce, T-Model Ford, Robert "Wolfman" Belfour, Earnest Roy, Jr., Adam Gussow, Elam McKnight and Bob Bogdal, Fiona Boyes, and dozens more), with a dozen or more stages throughout town on Saturday during the day, and a full load of acts (including Eddie C. Campbell, Rev. Peyton's Big Damn Band, Lightnin' Malcolm, Coen, Big George Brock, Belfour, Jason Turner, Terry "Big T" Williams, and the Daddy Mack Blues Band) in the numerous Clarksdale clubs that night.  Then, on Sunday, the Cat Head Mini Blues Fest kicks off, with Peyton, Belfour, Brock, Robert "Bilbo" Walker, and Watermelon Slim providing the music.

Blues fans, if this weekend in Clarksdale doesn't light your fire, your wood must be wet.  Come on out and see how they play the blues in Mississippi.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Blues Legends - Little Walter

Little Walter
Before Little Walter arrived on the music scene, the harmonica was a humble little instrument, pretty basic in its presentation and style, basically serving as support behind guitar and/or piano for the most part.  Although he may not have been the first to amplify the harmonica, he took the instrument in directions previously unimaginable.  He transformed the harmonica into an almost-saxophone like presence on hundreds of blues recordings.  No one had ever heard anyone play the harmonica like Little Walter when he started.  Today, it's hard to find a harmonica player who wasn't influenced by him.

Little Walter was born Marion Walter Jacobs in Marksville, Louisiana on May 1, 1930.  At the age of 12, he quit school and took to the road, playing harmonica and guitar on the streets of New Orleans, Memphis, Helena, Arkansas, and St. Louis, learning from masters like Sonny Boy Williamson II, Honeyboy Edwards, Big Bill Broonzy, and Sunnyland Slim.

Jacobs ended up in Chicago, where he grew frustrated that his harmonica was being constantly drowned out by the much louder electric guitars.  The youngster began cupping a small microphone in his hands with his harmonica and plugging into a guitar amp or a P.A. so he could compete.  Although other harp players (Williamson, Snooky Pryor) had previously adopted this method, mainly to increase volume, Little Walter took it to another level with his creativity and virtuosity, taking the harmonica into a totally different instrument.

Early 50's Promo Shot
He first recorded in 1947, for Ora-Nelle Records ("I Just Keep Loving Her").  Like many harmonica players of that era, his playing owed a debt to the first Sonny Boy Williamson (John Lee Williamson), the most influential player of his time.  In 1948, Little Walter joined forces with Muddy Waters and Baby Face Leroy Foster.  The group was known as the Headhunters, as they would visit most of the Southside Chicago clubs, climb on stage, and "cut the heads" of whoever was performing there that night.   By 1950, Walter was appearing on Waters' recordings for Chess, although playing unamplified harmonica. From the beginning, his presence was felt on every Waters recording he participated in, as he played around, over, and through everything.  He finally was allowed to "plug in" on 1951's "Country Boy."

In 1952, Walter recorded as a bandleader for Chess subsidiary Checker Records, with the Aces (brothers Louis and David Myers on guitars and the great Fred Below on drums).  The song, "Juke" became the first, and only harmonica-driven instrumental to hit #1 on the R&B charts.

Walter continued with Muddy Waters until a few days after a performance at Club Zanzibar one night.  A fan requested an extra rendition of "Juke" at a performance and, as incentive, put a coin in front of Waters, guitarist Jimmy Rogers, and Walter.  The fan gave Waters and Rogers each a quarter, and Walter, the composer and driving force behind the song, a dime.

A frustrated Little Walter left Waters (though he continued to record with him) and formed his own group, the Night Cats (named after "Juke"'s original title, "Your Cat Will Play") and charted 15 hits on the R&B charts, a level of success that topped Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and most other blues artists of the day.  With songs like "My Babe," "Mean Old World," "Blues With A Feeling," "Off The Wall," "Sad Hours," "You Better Watch Yourself," and "Last Night," Walter was a regular visitor to the charts for the rest of the 1950's.  Most of his singles featured a vocal on one side and an instrumental on the other.  In addition to the Myers brothers and Below, Walter was sometimes accompanied by Robert Lockwood, Jr. or Luther Tucker on guitar, Otis Spann on piano, and Willie Dixon on bass.  All in all, not a bad set of musicians to see when you walk into the studio to record, is it?

On Maxwell Street, 1960's
By 1959, changing tastes in music knocked most blues artists off the charts.  By that time, Walter has fallen deeply into the spell of alcoholism, becoming known for missing performances and recording dates.  He seemed to age thirty years during the sixties and his performances suffered greatly.  He had a notoriously short temper, which also caused him much grief during this time.

It was that bad temper that eventually led to his demise.  In 1968, he was in a street fight one night during a crap game, while taking a break during a performance.  The effects of that fight, though not known for sure (there was a claim cited in Living Blues years ago that he was hit in the head with a hammer during the altercation) apparently led to his death.  He seemed to be okay after the fight, though he complained of a headache, but that night Little Walter died in his sleep at a girlfriend's house, at the age of 37.

Not a very noble end for the most influential harmonica players of all time, but Little Walter pretty much set the template for modern blues and blues/rock harmonica players.  It's hard to imagine what the blues would sound like today if there had not been a Little Walter.

Selected Discography

One of the first blues recordings I ever bought was The Best of Little Walter, released by Chess in 1958.  It was probably a part of any blues harmonica player's collection in the late 50's and 60's.  It featured a dozen of his biggest songs and is probably one of the most essential blues recordings ever.  If you're just getting started listening to this great artists, this is the disc to start with.  Trust me, it won't be your last Little Walter album.

His Best, released in 1997 as part of Chess' 50th anniversary celebration, includes ten of the songs on The Best of Little Walter, plus ten more great tunes.  This is now the essential single disc set of Little Walter and is easier to find than its predecessor, but you probably still will want to hear more.

The Essential Little Walter is a two-disc set that covers his entire career, from 1952's "Juke" to 1967's "Dead Presidents."  It has all the classic sides, instrumental and vocal, and should be all a blues fan should ever need, but in case you still want more........

The Complete Chess Masters 1950 - 1967 include EVERYTHING Little Walter recorded for Chess Records, alternate takes and all.  This set would be for the completists in the know who you are, the diehards who love to plow through alternate takes and even Walter's lesser-quality 60's output.  Not the place to start, but maybe a good way to get the whole picture if you're interested.

Another keeper is The Blues World of Little Walter, which features Walter's pre-Chess output in the late 40's and early 50's.  It's worth hearing for the raucous version of "Rollin' and Tumblin'," offered up by Walter, Muddy Waters, and Baby Face Leroy.