Friday, May 14, 2021

Lonnie Pitchford - All Around Man

Lonnie Pitchford (Photo by Lauri Lawson)

I'm not sure when I first heard Lonnie Pitchford....I'm sure I read about him before I ever heard him play.  I think the first music I heard was on the soundtrack to the movie Deep Blues in the early 90's.  It was only a couple of songs, but there were pretty impressive.  I had heard that he was recognized as one of the best, if not the best, interpreters of Robert Johnson's music, but he had recorded next to nothing, so I didn't exactly have a good frame of reference on my part.  I later found three songs on a Robert Johnson tribute that Columbia released around the same time, but that was about it at the time.

 

Pitchford was from Lexington, Mississippi, about an hour's drive from Jackson.  He was a protege' of Robert Lockwood, Jr. (Robert Johnson's stepson), who taught the youngster how to play in Johnson's style (Lockwood was one of the few students Johnson taught directly).  also learned from other Delta artists such as Johnny Shines and Eugene Powell (a.k.a. Sonny Boy Nelson), among others.  I heard all of this when I first started reading about the blues, when it was sometimes easier to read about musicians than to actually hear them.  

Unfortunately, I never got to see Pitchford perform live, but I did see him on Deep Blues and on some documentaries that I was able to see on Public Television (Mississippi always featured a lot of blues programming in February for Black History Month).  He was quite amazing to watch, but I wanted to hear more recordings but they were just too few and far between and, truthfully, I think more product would have benefitted him greatly and allowed him to be heard by a bigger audience.

 


Fortunately, Rooster Blues Records remedied that problem somewhat by releasing Pitchford's first, and only, album All Around Man in 1994.  When I heard about it, I just had to have it and made the three-hour journey to Clarksdale to the Stackhouse Records store and bought a copy first chance I got.  

Never has an album had a more appropriate title.  Pitchford was a skilled carpenter as well as being a skilled musician.  As a musician, he played acoustic, electric, lead, and rhythm guitar, bass, and piano.  He also was a master of the diddley bow, the one stringed guitar that he first learned at the age of five.  He plays all of these instruments on this album.

Pitchford offers acoustic blues (via guitar and diddley bow), electric blues, a bit of Hill Country, jazz, funk, and urban blues......playing some of his own songs as well as songs by Robert Johnson, Bo Carter (the title track), Willie Dixon, Robert Lockwood, Jr., Donny Hathaway, Bobby Hebb, Muddy Waters, and even a song by Elmore James, which James only recorded as an instrumental!    He even plays piano on one track, but for sure the guitar work is the most compelling aspect of his artistry.  He also has a nice, warm vocal style that's suited to a variety of styles. 

   

All Around Man is an amazing album that shows Pitchford was comfortable in a variety of musical settings.  At the time it was released, some critics said it was too busy and unsettled and jumped around too much.  However, at the time it was released, no one was aware that Lonnie Pitchford would be dead in four years.  True, Pitchford did live a hard life, similar to many of his influences, and some may have been surprised that he lived 43 years, but most fans and critics figured he'd have more opportunities to record and future releases would be more focused on one musical path.  Sadly, that was not to be, but All Around Man does effectively capture the width and breadth of his talent.

In addition to All Around Man, Pitchford has tracks on several anthologies, including the Deep Blues soundtrack, the Columbia Robert Johnson tribute (Roots of Rhythm & Blues:  A Tribute To The Robert Johnson Era), and the Living Country Blues collection on Evidence Records, and a few other albums that are pretty hard to find (actually, all of these are out of print except for the Columbia album, but can be found on the internet).  Unfortunately, Pitchford's lack of touring (mostly limited to the southern part of the country) led to a lack of recording opportunities, but what he did record is well worth seeking out.

Lonnie Pitchford died in November, 1998 of complications from AIDS.  He was survived by a wife and daughter and is buried in Holmes County, Mississippi in the Newport Baptist Church cemetery near Ebenezer.  His headstone, which features a diddley bow on the side of the marker, was paid for by John Fogerty and Rooster Blues Records via the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund.  His grave is very close to the grave of Elmore James.  If you're in the neighborhood, about an hour north of Jackson just off I-55, it's a very nice, peaceful area and well worth a visit.


Diddley Bow string was missing when I visited the gravesite last summer.

  

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