The Music Blog: The Legend and the Myth

You can imagine the day, what it was like. There was a knock on the door of a Dallas hotel room. The door opened and a white man peered out into the hall where a black man stood, slight of build, dressed stylish, dapper even. There was likely a cigarette dangling from the young black man’s mouth and he carried an old battered guitar case. The white man greeted the stranger and invited him in.

“You can set up over there Robert,” the white man said, pointing to a corner where a chair sat in front of a microphone.

The black man takes his coat off, drapes it over the chair back, but not before pulling the whiskey bottle from the inside pocket. The black man, Robert, sets it down on the floor beside the case, opens the case and pulls out a battered brown topped guitar that is obviously well cared for besides the hard use, like the case that carried it. The case, guitar and Robert the black man have seen a lot of miles together more miles than the white man has likely ever traveled but almost all of them in the state of Mississippi. He sits facing the corner. This was not because of shyness but for acoustic reasons.

When the white man tells him to play he does and it likely causes the white man to briefly raise an eyebrow. It sounds like there could be two guitars in there but its only one. Or maybe the white man has no reaction because over the past weeks and months he has had many black men come into play and all of them could play but this kid was good. When the session is over the black man packs his things and leaves. He will not record again and will be dead soon after.

You can see this happening. You can see it in your mind. It’s been reenacted before on countless movies and documentaries although no one really knows what happened as the participants are long dead. Robert Johnson had that kind of life; a life of myth and legend and most blues historians most important jobs is to discern between what was real and what wasn’t real. I wonder sometimes if this was pure marketing genius on Johnson’s part or whether it was just the life he led. Some call Robert Johnson the greatest blues man ever. He is certainly one of the greatest guitarists of any genre on the planet. For the record he is number 4 on my list right behind my big 3: Hooker, Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. He would likely be higher except for one of those mysteries. He has less than 30 songs, that’s all. Yes he died at a young age but there were opportunities to record. He could have stayed in Dallas and recorded more. Despite the amazing number of compilation packages out there it’s the same songs, enough to fit onto one or 2 cd’s. Blind Lemon Jefferson who was blind and had to walk from East Texas to Dallas to record has over a 100 songs he recorded. Johnson’s life is a mystery and to understand what you can of him you have to go through his life step by step.

He was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. His father was actually a relatively well-off landowner but he was soon run out of Mississippi by a lynch mob and there is no recorded reason why. It could have been that he was black and that was reason enough but more likely he was well-off and so considered uppity. Johnson lived with him for some time in Memphis but was soon back with his mother on the Abbay and Leatherman plantation. Robert saw early on the hard work of the plantation employee, with little pay and little hope but there were not opportunities for blacks in Mississippi and Johnson always wanted something better. It was not surprising that Johnson decided he wanted to be a bluesman. There were many wandering bluesmen around playing the circuit all vying for spots in the big clubs. Many of these men could be found playing in cities on corners for nickels and dimes hoping to draw interest to get on a stage in the evening. Johnson began his career on these corners playing for nickels and dimes. Johnson might have continued this way and have never been known for anything, living and dying earning a few nickels and dimes but something happened that changed his life. Robert Johnson fell in love.

He was only 16 years old, she even younger. He may or may have not gotten her pregnant but Johnson left music on the corners behind and went to work on a plantation where his new wife worked. Her family was deeply religious and did not approve of Johnson because of his love of blues music which they considered devil music. Johnson worked hard doing the work he had never wanted to do. Such would have been his life had fate not intervened again. Johnson had acquired a guitar either bought or given to him and was teaching himself to play although spare time was limited. His wife naturally wanted to be with her family for the birth of their child and as she grew closer she took a train to her parents where she could be better cared for. Johnson saw her to the train with the promise that he would make his way soon after to be there for the birth of their child. Johnson saw a perfect time to play a little music while he made his way there for the birth. While he was drinking and playing for nickels and dimes his wife went into labor early and with great difficulty. Johnson arrived late but he was greeted with her grieving angry parents. Where had he been they accused? They saw the guitar he carried and showed their disappointment and displeasure. Johnson’s wife died, as did their child. Robert buried them both and then left never returning to the plantation life.

Now here’s the thing. Did it happen? There are certainly some questions about this important event but most of these are just because the rest of his life are full of these events that either did or didn’t happen. I believe it did and Johnson wrote one of the great blues songs ever Love in Vain about the loss.

So Johnson went back to the blues, traveling the routes other blues men traveled trying to squeak out a living. At night he would show up at juke joints and beg other blues men to allow him to play with them but he was an atrocious musician and was frequently ridiculed and laughed at. He especially hounded the bluesman Son House and tried to learn guitar techniques from watching. Later Johnson’s family would tell researchers that Johnson had given up all normal life to play the music of the devil which is what they called secular music. This was also known as selling your soul to the devil. Now Johnson was not alone in this. Many religious black men and women considered any musician to have done the same.

It was likely a Saturday night somewhere near Robinsonville, Mississippi at a crowded juke joint. Robert Johnson arrived carrying a battered guitar case or maybe just his guitar. He had not been around of late and some believed he had finally given up on the nonsense dream that he was some sort of bluesman. Johnson did his usual begging the musicians and singers for a chance to come up on stage with him. They laughed at him probably slapped him on the back. Son House may have been playing that night. Stories vary as to what Johnson did or didn’t do. Some say that he took the stage on his own without permission during a break and began playing. Other stories say that a musician dropped out mid performance due to illness or drink and Johnson replaced him without permission. Who knows? This is Robert Johnson we are talking about. Johnson began playing no matter which story you believe. He may have even gotten permission out of persistence alone. He was dapperly dressed and maybe that helped persuade someone. Regardless from the first notes all eyes were on him. This kid who had not been able to play much before was now the best musician in the house. Johnson’s transformation was not explainable, was magical, maybe even supernatural. It did not take long before the rumor began circulating that Johnson had gone to the crossroads and made a deal with the devil. It seemed the best explanation. In African American culture the crossroads is where you went to make a deal with the devil. People believed that Robert Johnson had done this. Johnson made the most of these rumors by writing songs attributing his skill to that deal: Crossroads Blues, Me and the Devil Blues, Hell Hounds on My Tail. Johnson knew exactly how to market himself and knew enough not to have every song he wrote about this, just enough.

So if Johnson didn’t make a deal how did he get so good? He worked and worked and practiced and worked and learned. He watched and he had a teacher. It is very clear from Johnson’s style that he had watched Son House and likely learned a lot by watching and practicing. One thing about Johnson is that there are only 2 known pictures of Johnson and one is still in dispute but he had huge hands slender hands for a man that was actually slight of build. There is a wiry strength in them which is easy to see. It’s also likely that Johnson was taught a lot by one Ike Zimmrtman who believed that spirits helped him with his guitar playing and that because of that he was often found late at night playing in cemeteries which is likely where Johnson found him.

Johnson worked the circuit, playing before shows at local barber shops to draw interest and then playing to larger audiences in the juke joints at night. He was a known womanizer and had women who he lived with up and down the juke joint trails. Somewhere around 1936 Johnson sought out a talent scout in Jackson, Mississippi who got him ultimately in contact with Don Law and Johnson traveled to San Antonio, Texas for his first recording session. Johnson later traveled to Dallas, Texas for his more famous session, where he recorded his darker moodier songs such as Crossroad Blues, and Me and the Devil Blues. Johnson recorded only 29 songs. Whether he would have recorded anymore is a question many ask. Yet Robert had one more bit of myth coming.

Robert Johnson died on August 16, 1938 near Greenwood, Mississippi. There was no announcement he simply disappeared as black men and women did in those days, His death certificate indicates no cause of death. It was not until 30 years later when a musicologist reviewing his life began to dig deeper. As with most of his life his death is surrounded in mystery and myth. Some say he was poisoned, and others that he was shot by a jealous husband. It was suspected he had congenital syphilis and this may have been a contributing factor of his death. Some say that he just died of pneumonia like many did. Stories gave different accounts of what may have happened before his death. Johnson was at a local juke joint and was flirting with a known married woman. He was offered an open bottle of whiskey which Sonny Boy Williamson knocked from his hand as Johnson had always warned him against drinking anything that had already been opened. Johnson was angry and told Williamson to never do that again. Another bottle was given to him and Johnson drank it. He later complained of feeling ill and was helped out and to a nearby home. It was said that he had been poisoned with strychnine which he recovered from but that weakened him and that he died of pneumonia. The original stories of his death indicate that he may have been found by the side of a road. Even his death is difficult to determine as you weed through the myths and the facts which are sparse. One of the stories which has gained more and more credibility is that Johnson had gone to a local plantation to perform over a few days and that he had grown sick there and eventually died and was buried near there.

Even Johnson’s burial location is a mystery. Black men died and were buied, many in unmarked graves without fanfare. There are three possible burial sites noted on the Mississippi Blues Trail around the Greenwood area. All three of these sites are as credible as the next. Who knows which grave Johnson is buried in or whether he is buried in any of the three? Even his burial is shrouded in mystery. There is little known about his life, or his death and so it’s subject to stories. Johnson didn’t seem to garner many close friends. He wanted to play music and be with a different woman whenever and wherever he could.

Robert Johnson was a unique talent. He recorded only 29 songs and that’s all we have left besides a couple of pictures one of which is in dispute. There are a million stories of did he or didn’t he and even his death is did the devil come take his soul. Johnson has such a unique style, even sometimes adding a seventh string to give his guitar a different sound. There are times when it sounds as if he has an entire band playing with him and it’s hard to believe that the recording is just Johnson and his guitar. Maybe the devil was playing alongside of him, or maybe he wasn’t.

Mike out

The Music Blog: Captain Fantastic

In my earliest years, formative years, one of my first musical loves was Elton John. I loved his voice, loved his music, all the early stuff. I even borrowed two albums from my sister that she had and if you walked into my room at any given time I was either listening to Chicago or listening to Elton John. The best thing about those two bands was how acceptable they were to my parents. They didn’t scrutinize the music and they heard the songs on the radio. So there were no conflicts other than me trying to steal my sister’s records. She had the songs Daniel and Your song two songs I still love to this day. Luckily I have the albums now, not my sister’s but my own. No worries my sketchiness remains as I did steal several other records of hers that remain in my collection.

Elton remained more or less a constant in my musical experience until the album Jump Up when I decided that buying more of his records was simply a waste of my time and money. It had been a process anyway. As a kid the first blow to my Elton John world was the horrible duet done with Kiki Dee that was played on the radio constantly. I hated it then still hate it now. It was a huge turn off and back then I was a lot less forgiving than I am now. Now I recognize artists are not always going to do things you love. In 1982 Elton John released Jump Up. It is simply not a good album and it features the hit song Empty Garden which is a tribute to John Lennon. Now truthfully I do not know if they were friends but it would seem an odd pairing. Elton talked about John as if they were the best of friends. Maybe they were but it just seemed to my 19 year old mind that it was bullshit and the song has always seemed contrived, false. It puts me off and for a long time I would remain steadfastly anti-Elton with the exception of the early well-loved albums that meant so much to me. In 1997 Elton made another bad decision that he is actually quite revered for. Now Elton was friends with Princess Diana so it made perfect sense that he would want to perform a song for her honoring her life. Yet he chose to not write something new, instead butchering a well-loved song Candle in the Wind which was about Marilyn Monroe. It was bad form to me, one it compared Diana with Marilyn and it seemed the easy way out.

Now let’s be clear this is not a bashing of Elton John blog, just the opposite. Over time my positions have softened greatly on the artist. He will always be Captain Fantastic to me. I still absolutely adore his early albums, Tumbleweed Connection, Honky Chateau, Don’t Shoot Me I am Only the Piano Player. I will even add Goodbye Yellowbrick Road although it’s not my favorite album. I just think it’s over produced and too focused on hit songs. I much prefer Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy with one of the most awesome acoustic songs ever. In fact I always wanted to learn to play the guitar and had dreams that I would play that song for some girl someday. My love of music doesn’t really translate though to playing a musical instrument although I still have hopes of putting together a death metal Glockenspiel band. Hey the music world NEEDS that. We might even cover a Zappa song. Wait what? Yea no. No Zappa. EVER.

One album has over the course of my life steadily risen to have more importance than any other Elton John album. Of course it’s an early album. It is firmly entrenched in my top ten albums of all time and the title track to me is one of the ten greatest songs ever written and simply stunning. Now that’s just my opinion. Side 1 of that album is the greatest pop album side ever. Notice I said pop. The greatest rock side of any album, again my opinion, is side 1 of Aerosmith Rocks. The album is Madman Across the Water. With the songs Tiny Dancer, Levon, Razor Face and the title track I get goosebumps when I get ready to play it. It is absolutely wonderful and so much of Elton John’s early music is stripped down, not as over produced as later efforts. I think the album Tumbleweed Connection is actually edgy as hell considering how early that album was in his career and being released in 1970.

Artists grow though and if they are very lucky they are successful. The need to be edgy, coupled with less of a need to constantly have new material ready softens artists. For many artists their best album will be their first. Those are the songs they played the longest before recording, they know the best and they have worked out the kinks. Many songs later in an artist’s career will get discarded because they simply don’t have the opportunity to work out the glitches and kinks in live settings. They never get an audience response. It’s hard though for any artist in any genre to stay relevant and popular for 50 years. When you look at Elton’s discography too you see how prolific he actually was. Long after establishing enormous success Elton continued to churn out about an album a year and for his entire career you don’t see huge gaps between albums. To me that is very phenomenal and indicates just how much Elton loves to play and how important it is to him. Elton will be cherished as one of those artists who is almost universally loved. There are not many artists I listened to when I was the age of ten that still impact me well into my 50’s. For that, well done Elton.

Mike out

 

The Music Blog: The King of Pop

I feel thankful that I got to grow up as a kid in the 70’s where we played outside until the street lights came on, explored creeks, shot off fireworks, threw water balloons at cars and at each other, played kickball or touch football in the street, spit or rubbed dirt into our scrapes. I think it was a great time to be young, to be a child.

The music was great too. There was something for everyone. There were rock gods and bands that would see us through high school and beyond. There were concerts later, lots of concerts. There were variety shows and everyone seemed to have one or be on one. There was Motown; the Temptations, The Four Tops and sigh, Diana Ross and the Supremes. There were teen idols and two hit making family acts that seemed to be in competition with each other, one white and one black. There were the Osmonds and there was the Jackson Five. People bantered about who was better. For me it was never a question. There was always something creepy about the Osmonds, all those teeth I think. I loved the Jackson Five. At one time I had or we had 45’s of a lot of this music but over the years they were lost. Always there was Michael Jackson at the center of things.

Long before he was the King of Pop he just seemed like this fun kid who could really sing and dance. Most of his career is overshadowed by later allegations of inappropriate behavior with children. The question of did he or didn’t he still seem to plague him long after his death. Regardless his career and legacy and even his financial status was forever tarnished. If he did it, then that was a small price to pay for the damage done. If he didn’t then it was way too much. As a star and especially a star of that magnitude then you might say that thems the breaks, that’s the price of fame, that’s the cost of being the King of Weird. I don’t know of another artist more demonized for any number of reasons including buying the rights to the Beatles music and then refusing to sell them to Paul McCartney, for buying or at least wanting to buy the bones of the Elephant man, for his bizarre Neverland house that he built, for wanting to be or acting like Peter Pan the boy who never grew up, for the plastic surgeries, for the drastic change in his appearance, the fascination with Diana Ross, the strange desire to change his complexion from black to white and the stranger stories to explain it all away. He will be remembered for holding his baby off of a balcony and not seeming to understand why people were so concerned. The weirdness made the allegations of wrong doing more believable. Through it all with all of that scrutiny he is one artist I would have never wanted to be even for a single day. He always had to be on and how could anyone be normal with that sort of scrutiny. For all the success I find his life tragic and sad.

I grew up loving him and then became so disillusioned with him because of the weirdness and the allegations that it was hard for me to acknowledge that I had ever liked him at all. Maybe as a social worker I just refused to give him any benefit of the doubt. Yet his situation was anything but normal, it didn’t fit into a nice space that anyone could really understand. His death has softened me, surprised me so much that I went from quiet shock to tears. Whatever he did or didn’t do is beyond him now, beyond any of us whoever judged him which pretty much includes everyone. You can still believe one way or the other yet at the end of the day it won’t and can’t change a single thing. So what do we have left? Well, he was the King of Pop and he got that title for a reason. I thought Off the Wall one of the coolest albums ever, a grown up Michael. The relationship with Quincey Jones worked and I like that album as well as I like any album he ever did including the next one Thriller. It always was interesting to me that the Jacksons came out with Victory at the same time as Michael with Thriller. It would prove to be problematic for Michael as he had already committed to the Victory tour but Thriller soon outstripped both the Jacksons’ tour and the album. Yet Michael didn’t allow his success to overshadow his brothers on that tour. What those two albums did was give Michael Jackson one iconic epic moment when both the Jacksons and Michael performed at Motown’s 25th Anniversary show. I remember that like yesterday and sure I watched more for Diana Ross than I did for the Jacksons. I expected Michael would perform something older, but he didn’t. Instead he introduced the world to four things: 1) What an amazing dancer he was, my my my, 2) the Glove, 3) Billie Jean which is still my favorite Jackson song and 4) the Moonwalk. I remember shouting, I remember screaming and I am quite sure I said something to the extent of what the hell was that. It didn’t look real, it didn’t look possible and seemed to defy physics. It was iconic and it was genius. I bought Thriller the week after that. The great thing is that you can youtube that moment and I bet it will still give you chills.

I don’t necessarily think that Thriller has held up well with time or the follow up Bad, but that doesn’t define an artist. Michael always found a way to be changing not just his appearance but musically as well. Every time you thought he was down and out he would come back with something else. To me there is only one artist that had the pressure that Jackson had to always be on and that was Elvis. He lived his life in a fishbowl, as a spectacle. It’s hard to imagine him at home relaxing in a pair of jeans no make-up, no costumes no weird, yet I am sure he did relax at home. Yet he seems to have always been in an outfit made for the stage, like a personal uniform. People will argue about who the greatest front man is, I even had a blog recognizing what a wonderful front man Fred Schneider of the B-52’s is. I would not normally include a solo artist in that category. Michael though was more than a solo artist. He was the leader of the Jackson 5 and no matter how young he was you just could not keep your eyes off of him. Going back to the Motown 25th Anniversary show performing with the Jackson 5 no matter how he deflected to his brothers they just paled in his shadow. And any time he was with a group of performers such as We are the World he was front and center.

Look ultimately you have to make your own decisions about whether he was or was not some evil pedophile, and sexual predator. No matter what you think you can’t change what did or didn’t happen and if you believe as most that there is something after death then he has had to answer a judgment much greater than anything you can do. Personally I think he was taken advantage of, by different kinds of predators all looking for paydays but again that’s neither here nor there. My judgment means little. To me he was iconic, the King of Pop, an electrifying performer who I grew up watching. At least once a year I pull up the youtube video of Billie Jean at the Motown Anniversary show and I still get chills. That is what the blog is about, about a performer far and above most.

Mike out

The Music Blog: The Voice

Chester Burnett Born June 10, 1910 Died January 10, 1976

The Voice

I wrote earlier that in my opinion there are 3 bluesmen who stand alone at the top, 3 greats impossible to really rank from that point so they are 1a, 1b, and 1c. For the longest time Burnett was my clear number 1. He was the artist who gave me my real love of blues music and I think he is the most talented of the three greats and maybe just maybe he does deserve to be clearly back ay number 1. Maybe by the time I finish this blog he will be.

Most won’t know him by his name, most will only know him by his artist name, but that name will be almost universally known. Like most blues names the origin is a bit of a mystery. Burnett himself gave different versions on how he became known. One story has it that his grandfather told him stories about the wild wolves in the area and of course threatened him with them, he told Chester about how they howled and that stuck with him. Another story has Jimmy Rogers giving him the moniker and Chester once said when he discovered that he couldn’t yodel that howling seemed to work for him so he became Howlin’ Wolf. Howlin’ Wolf was the greatest blues singer ever, hands down. From his earliest performances it was said about him that shows were so good so raucous that he his voice alone could make the floor shake that he sang with his entire soul and that at a Howlin’ Wolf performance you would be equally thrilled and scared out of your wits by the man. He was large over 6’3” and always weighed around 300 pounds. He has a song where he proclaims he was 300 pounds of joy and another line says he was built for comfort and not for speed. Yet he was a gentle giant, soft spoken but he could be tough. I saw an old clip once from the late 60’s on some documentary or other and there were a group of old bluesmen gathered around and they were talking about their early days. The stories were great but from one man Son House there was clearly some underlying bitterness and it was directed at Holwin’ Wolf who just took these jibes and jabs in stride until finally he had enough and he ripped in to Son House who backed down so quickly that you knew Howlin’ Wolf had a reputation.  For the rest of the interview Son House didn’t have much to say but Howlin’ Wolf went back to that soft spoken demeanor like nothing had happened. That moment has always stayed with me. You had to be tough to work the old juke joints where Howlin’ Wolf started.

Howlin’ Wolf could also do more than just sing. He was an excellent musician and could play guitar and harmonica. Now some of the reason why he stopped playing guitar is that later his guitarist was Hubert Sumlin who I think is the greatest blues guitarist to ever walk the planet. He grew up however surrounded by blues greats and like Robert Johnson loved Charley Patton one of the early greats, a prolific songwriter and recording artist. Patton was also known for his showmanship and he took an early interest in Howlin’ Wolf teaching him to play the guitar which is pretty amazing in its own right. If you are not sure just how cool that was imagine growing up next to someone like George Harrison and having George love you so much that he gave you personal lessons on how to play the guitar. That’s some guitar instructor. Patton also was known for the way he twirled his guitar played behind his back or over his head and all of these tricks he taught Howlin’ Wolf. Later when Howlin’ Wolf wanted to learn the harmonica Sonny Boy Williamson II taught him how. If you don’t know who Williamson is, well he is also in my top 10 all time bluesmen and might be the greatest harmonica player ever. So Howlin’ Wolf was a master musician because he was taught by greats but he was always known for the voice.

Howlin’ Wolf went on to form two amazing partnerships. When Willie Dixon wrote a song for Muddy Waters that was recorded at Chess Records Howlin Wolf asked Dixon why he had never written a song for him. Dixon was one of the most important figures in Blues music because he owned and operated Chess Records a recording studio for and managed by black men. Dixon was a tremendous song writer and performer in his own right. He went on to write many more than just one song for Howlin’ Wolf. The other important relationship Howlin’ Wolf formed was with his guitarist Hubert Sumlin who again in my opinion is the greatest blues guitarists ever. Sumlin was always understated which seemed to work amazingly with Howlin’ Wolf’s big voice but in many ways he set the standard for the way both rock and roll and blues guitar developed from the 60’s on.

There is a great story which says a lot about Sumlin and even more about Howlin’ Wolf. Before his death with his health failing a group of famous and successful English rockers who had grown up listening to the blues and had done much to bring its popularity to all-time highs in the United States invited Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to London to record with them. These sessions were mostly driven by Eric Clapton and became known as the London Sessions. Now Clapton had made a mistake in the mid 60’s with a young black guitarist who was in England to start a band and jumpstart his career. He was hanging around and one night he asked Clapton if he could come on stage and play. Clapton being God and all said sure. Jimi Hendrix introduced himself to the world and humbled Eric Clapton by playing Killing Floor a Howlin’ Wolf song that Clapton did not believe could be played live. Yet Howlin’ Wolf always played the song live, he had Sumlin who created the original riff playing guitar for him. Clapton wanted no guitarist to be around him who was better so he set a stipulation on Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters that these rich English rockers could not afford to bring the two bluesmen’s bands over so only Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters could be accommodated. It was total bullshit, Clapton alone could have afforded it. Neither Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy particularly liked this but they did agree. Howlin’ Wolf had serious healthcare issues with his heart and kidneys and both of these men wanted to earn money for their families so they went. During the Howlin’ Wolf sessions they were trying to play one of his standards and failing badly so Howlin’ Wolf kept stopping them, trying to give them instruction on what he was looking for. He was a kind generous soul and he was trying to be nice. It would have been great to have gotten his impressions of the ego driven Clapton but he had a lesson for Clapton. You can tell by the way Clapton speaks during the session that he believes he is the best guitarist there. Howlin’ Wolf had told them how it should sound and then backs away gently by telling them how they should play how it feels to them. This now is one of my criticisms of white people especially Englishmen playing the blues because they don’t know how it should feel because they cannot relate where the song came from. Clapton makes the suggestion that Howlin’ Wolf should show them how to play it. Howlin’ Wolf says he can’t play in a sort of aw shucks man moment but remember who taught him. Howlin’ Wolf had spent years in the 30’s and 40’s playing juke joints and playing guitar with every trick Charley Patton had ever shown him. He didn’t play guitar later because he didn’t need to and could focus on singing. So he picks up a guitar and a slide and plays exactly what these Englishmen couldn’t. It is so sublime and Eric Clapton had nothing to say.

Howlin’ Wolf died shortly after the London Sessions. He went in for kidney surgery and died of complications a few days later. He was survived by his wife who he had married in the early early days and her two daughters who he loved and cared for as his own until the day he died. Howlin’ Wolf had always made money in the business and his wife managed their finances. He always paid his musicians very well and even provided health coverage for them. He was one of the good people to ever walk the earth, giving music to us all. His first two albums Moaning in the Moonlight and his self-titled first album which became known as the Rocking Chair album for its cover are absolute blues masterpieces. Listen and its pretty easy to see why I have him rated as the greatest blues singer of all time and one of the three greatest bluesmen ever.

Mike out

The Music Blog: Lightning Strikes

Samuel John Hopkins born March 15, 1912-died January 30, 1982

Lightning

In the blues world people used the term to describe someone really fast. Lonnie Johnson was one of the first bluesmen to be called a Lightnin’ Boy. Somehow others escaped the moniker. Robert Johnson was an absolute virtuoso but was never called Lightnin’ at least that anyone knows about. Who knows with Robert Johnson, right?

Samuel Hopkins was called Lightning but maybe not for the reason outlined above. Was he a virtuoso? Absolutely he was. Was he fast, fast as anyone? Oh yes he was. Rolling Stone Magazine has him rated in the top 100 guitarists of all time. He was born in Texas and as a child the blues music was all around. He met Blind Lemon Jefferson when he was only a child and announced then and there that the blues was in him. So he learned the guitar at an early age and as he grew and developed he was the only guitarist that Jefferson wanted or allowed to play with him. Hopkins was skilled and as he got older he made two attempts to make it as a blues performer in Houston. On his second attempt he was discovered by Aladdin records and traveled to Los Angeles where he recorded with a pianist Wilson Smith. It was there an Aladdin executive dubbed Hopkins Lightning and Smith Thunder in an attempt to make them more attractive to listen to. He recorded more and then returned to Houston and afterwards rarely traveled away from Texas until 1959 when he went to Carnegie Hall and from there Hopkins was introduced to the world.

I discovered Lightning Hopkins pretty late in my blues journey. That is somewhat surprising given how high he is on my list of all time blues artists. It’s also not surprising as there are hundreds of blues artists. Don’t even get me started with those with Blind in their name and who actually was and who wasn’t really blind. A friend gave me his complete Aladdin recordings and that introduced me. I loved him instantly and every time he comes around on my playlist enjoy him a little more.

Hopkins music is tremendous and like John Lee Hooker he was a tremendous storyteller and concert performer playing many large folk festivals. He later toured the world. Sadly he died of cancer at the age of 62 in Houston. Hopkins closely resembled the old school blues performers who often would come on stage alone and play in such a way that one man sounded like a band. He is truly a virtuoso talent. He has great songs and is a really good singer. He is rated number 5 on my all-time list of bluesmen and he is well worth listening to in an exploration of the blues.

Mike out

The Music Blog: The Storyteller

I have listened to a lot of blues over the course of my life especially in the last 25 to 30 years. When it comes to the blues there are basically 2 schools or styles and as you dive in you will hear people reference Delta Blues and Chicago Blues. Of course there are also a group of yahoos who talk about Texas Blues and point to artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Listen I would like SRV a lot more if people quit referencing him as a blues man because he isn’t. He plays rock and roll and like most rock and roll it’s infused with blues riffs and rhythms but that doesn’t make it the blues. Sorry it’s just not. Now personally I have never understood why there has to be a distinction between Chicago and the Delta. They are connected, without the Delta there really isn’t a Chicago style as that’s where the influence was. Blues men travelled up to Chicago for bigger crowds, more money, more opportunity and the Blues took hold. This is also why Memphis became such a hot spot for the blues. Hey there are songs about Highway 49 which went north.

Now in my opinion there are three greats, three bluesmen who stand so far apart from the rest who had so much more influence than the rest that they stand alone. There are many others who come close but fall somewhere in line behind these three. Each of the three is distinct from one another as they can be. All three were born in the Delta. All three played and contributed to that Chicago style. For the longest time, the ranking of these three was clear to me, there was a 1 a 2 and a 3, close but that’s how I viewed them. My number 1 was the greatest blues singer to ever walk the planet but the more I listened to the other 2 the more I realized that there was room for someone else. So I changed that ranking and another was my number 1 for a while and then the third guy had a turn. Finally I came to the conclusion that I could not rank them so now they are 1a, 1b, and 1c.

Today’s subject is maybe the one guy that universally is loved. He just had that way with people, a great story teller, a tremendous musician and of the 3 I think links blues and rock better than the others. He was electric.

He was born in 1917 although the year of his birth is in question, in Tallahatchie County Mississippi. He was the son of a sharecropper He was the youngest of 11 children. The only music allowed in the home was religious music until 1921 when his parents separated and his mother married a blues singer William Moore who introduced him to the blues. He would always credit Moore with the development of his playing style, the one chord style that was prevalent in the region. A sister’s boyfriend gave him his first guitar. This man, Tony Hollins was also credited with developing his style of play. He never forgot those two men and always gave them credit.

He left home at the ripe old age of 14 years old and claims to have never seen his parents again. He moved to Memphis where he began playing on the famed Beale Street. During World War II he moved to Detroit to work at the Ford Motor Company. After the war, he began playing in the Detroit clubs and realized that people were having a hard time hearing him. He bought his first electric guitar shortly after. In 1949 Modern Records released a demo he had recorded. At the time he was working as a janitor in Detroit. The song Boogie Chillin’ became a small hit and introduced the world to John Lee Hooker.

If you have never really heard John Lee Hooker’s music then it’s a good time to start. Over the years people have discovered my love of the blues. I have been asked to put together cd’s for people and to make suggestions on where to start, who to listen to. I used to give people the path I took, Holiday, Bessie Smith and then Robert Johnson. Holiday is a tremendous singer, I think the best of all time and she is great to listen to whether you are interested in jazz or the blues anyway but her music is not really symbolic or representative of classic Delta Blues. Smith is difficult to listen to, her music is old and it sounds tinny, most of its just her and a piano and she can turn people off in a hurry. Robert Johnson is amazing but he has few recorded songs, 28 to be exact and many of those are just different takes. He also can be difficult to listen to, to hear his words and good luck figuring out what he was doing on the guitar. He often added a 7th string. Nowadays when people ask me I tell them to listen to john Lee Hooker. You can hear the influences to rock and roll in his music. He had that wonderful unique style. To me it always sounds like he is starting in the middle of a song, that’s his style unique to him and blues boogie will get you moving. Mostly it’s that wonderful deep mellow voice. Yes I would start with John Lee then it doesn’t matter who you listen to as everyone will have to compare to him.

Hooker recorded a lot of music. He did not get paid royalties and so he hustled and worked for it. He often would record the same song early in his career under different names and provide a different version or take on the song every time.

In the 60’s blues music became very popular because of the rock and roll artists who loved it and claimed its influence. Many blues legends joined forces to make money playing with the white rock stars many of them English white rock stars. Yet Hooker had always played with anyone who wanted to play with him. In 1970 he recorded with Canned Heat. He just enjoyed playing. He also always seemed a lot less bitter than some of his contemporaries, his music not suffering as much from the highs and lows of blues popularity. One of his big songs was Boom Boom which he recorded a couple of times. Of all the blues artists out there I have always found Hooker the most likeable. He was great at telling stories and for him it was just part of the gig. He was a prolific song wirter and while many other blues artists were content to play many blues standards most of the songs Hooker sang were original songs that he wrote. He had that great delivery and sometimes he would actually talk through a song telling a story rather than sing words like the song House Rent Blues and in the background he is just playing away. He has slow songs like The Waterfront and up tempo songs like One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer all done in his unique style.

Hooker died in his sleep in Los Angeles in his home at peace with the workd.

So there you have it. In my opinion, Hooker is one of the three greatest bluesmen ever. Stick around because a second one is really close by.

Mike out

The Music Blog: Eleanora Fagan

Eleanora Fagan born April 7, 1915, died July 17, 1959.

If you don’t know who she is, then that’s certainly alright. I will introduce you to her. She was an incredible woman.

You might even be surprised, or learn something but If I could have a wish it would be that this particular blog entry makes you think.

I know there are a fair chunk of you that know my feelings on what blues music is and what it is not. I think I can even hear a few of you groan. If you don’t you can go back to that previous blog on the blues and read up and then come back to this one or you will get enough maybe from this one to know and hopefully to understand through the eyes of my friend Eleanora.

Sometimes it is very hard to understand things that happened long ago because your context is the here and now. Blues performers walked or hoboed from juke joint to juke joint to play. Now the people who attended these shows didn’t want to go and hear a bunch of sad songs about the lives they lived. They didn’t want to hear about loss, about hopelessness. They lived that every day. Blues performers played blues songs for sure as well as dance numbers and sing a-longs. Their job was to keep the crowd dancing, keep them buying hooch. The more they did that the more they got paid.

The reason why I am writing that is that when you learn who this blog is about well your first thought might be, wow is that person a blues performer. You might even think they were a jazz performer. In fact if you said that this person was the greatest jazz singer ever I wouldn’t argue. Jazz though, especially back in the 30’s and 40’s had many blues elements in the songs and jazz bands played many popular blues numbers.  No I am quite sure in my heart that the person I am writing about is the greatest singer of all time, male or female any genre you want to select, including the blues.

You see, that’s one of my problems. I simply don’t understand why some people only listen to one type of music. I am part of a blues fan group and I am shocked at how limited they are. They literally listen to what they think is the blues all day every day. Now first most of them love a bunch of white people pretending to be blues artists and that’s all they are, pretenders. I have no problem with someone loving the blues, but that music has been stolen from black culture without understanding at all where and why it derived. It is listened to and played by white people including Englishmen who don’t have a clue what the music means. They couldn’t.

Take young Eleanora. Her father abandoned her mother upon learning she was pregnant. He was an itinerant jazz performer riding circuits trying to make a living trying to make a name for himself. Eleanora’s mother worked the trains and she was mostly raised by her mother’s half-sister in Baltimore. She was truant a lot and spent time with the nuns at reform school. Her mother came in and out of her life. When she was 11 a neighbor attempted to rape her but was caught. Her mother then moved to Harlem. At 14 Eleanora went to live with her mother only to find that she was a prostitute and so soon was Eleanora. They were arrested and spent time in a workhouse.

By the age of 17 Eleanora knew she wanted to be a singer and began singing in nightclubs around Harlem. She created a professional name for herself Billie from the actress Billie Dove who she admired and Halliday after her father. She later changed that to Holiday. At 19 she recorded her first songs. And so you can see by the age of 19 years old, how much had happened in her life. She didn’t sing the blues as much as she was the blues.

Early in her singing career Holiday ran into her father. It was inevitable really as they were both playing the clubs. They reconciled and reconnected which has always astonished me. Holiday began to get noticed more and more, Count Basie noticed her and she was soon singing in his orchestra. Later she sang for a white orchestra leader Artie Shaw and his predominantly white orchestra. Shaw was good to her but the times were not. She would sing for mostly white audiences and then return to hotels where she was forced to use the kitchen entrance and the service elevator so as not to upset white patrons. Yea she knew the blues. If you want to know what was happening in the blues world, mostly nothing. It was the same as it had been musicians traveling from town to town recording a little or a lot depending on the artist and playing for juke joints mostly in the south or in Chicago. Jim Crow still ruled the land and to understand where the blues came from you have to understand, empathize and even cry for Emmit Till, for little girls blown up in a church in Alabama, for the lynching that still took place, for the hundred of atrocities committed simply because of the color of a person’s skin.

At the height of her career, Holliday made over 250,000 dollars in a three year span. She didn’t receive royalties but instead was paid upfront per recording. She did well for herself outperforming and out earning many white contemporary artists. But she wasn’t white. Holiday discovered narcotics, heroin, and drank to excess. Later the alcohol use would destroy her beautiful voice and she was arrested for narcotics and went to prison. It is doubtful a white artist of her stature would have done so. Billie Holiday was the blues. When she heard a song from a poem written by a Jewish man she wanted to sing it even though she knew the subject matter was so controversial that it possibly could ruin her career. Her father had died after being turned away from a hospital because he was colored. Yes, Billie Holiday wanted and needed to sing Strange Fruit. When it was played live all the lights would turn down and she would not sing until everyone was quiet and still. She wanted the words to hit home, she needed them to know and understand what it meant to have the blues. A solitary light would shine on only her face and when the song was over the light would go out and when the lights came back up Billie Holiday would be off stage. It was a powerful message. Her label would not record the song so she found another label that would. She had courage too.

She spent nearly two years in prison for possession of narcotics and when she was released she could only sing concert halls as she lost her cabaret card. She drank more and late recordings cannot hide the damage done. Yet she still drew huge crowds to hear her sing. But she couldn’t stop drinking and was hospitalized with cirrhosis. She improved and was discharged her doctors imploring her to quit drinking. She tried but relapsed, tried again and couldn’t stop. Of course nowadays she would have rehab options but then nothing except to dry out. She tried, she certainly did not want to die. She got sick again, inevitably and was hospitalized and she died.

Eleanora was just 44 years old. She lived the blues and she died the same way.

Somewhere in my mid 20’s I decided that loving music so much meant that I should branch out and learn a bit more. I wanted to learn about the blues and I read a lot about the blues before I ever listened to a blues song. From those earliest days my understanding of what was and what wasn’t formed. I also read many things about Jim Crow and sharecropping. I read a lot about the civil rights movement which I had already done but now did even more of and I began the process of selecting which artist I wanted to begin with. Sometimes great choices are made without any real idea why you made them. Even though I knew she was more singer than what a traditional blues artist was I selected Billie Holiday and a collection called the Quintessential Billie Holiday. I fell in love with her voice. I always want to be in a quiet place when I listen to her. There is so much sadness, so much forlorn about her delivery. Yes, Billie knew the blues. Many of her songs are jazz standards but many like Bessie Smith before her, like her contemporary Ella Fitzgerald were every bit the blues song. I can’t give you songs. If you don’t know her music then find some and listen, really listen to the words of her song but more importantly how she delivers that song. She is the best.

You did good Eleanora, you did great.

Mike out