Historic recordings by Ma Rainey, B.B. King, Joe Turner, Bo Diddley, Albert King, and Booker T. & the MG’s will also be recognized with
Hall of Fame induction.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — On May 9, The Blues Foundation will celebrate the 39th class of Blues Hall of Fame inductees in a ceremony taking place at the Halloran Centre for the Performing Arts and Education in Memphis, Tennessee. This year, there will be 13 illustrious honorees, representing all five of the Hall of Fame’s categories: Performers, Non-Performing Individuals, Classic of Blues Literature, Classic of Blues Recording (Song) and Classic of Blues Recording (Album).
The 2018 class of performers covers nearly a century of music making. The inductees include Mamie Smith, the 1920s singer who has been hailed as the first “Queen of the Blues,” and Georgia Tom Dorsey, the blues pianist and songwriter who was Ma Rainey’s accompanist in the 1920s and later Tampa Red’s musical partner. The golden age of Chicago blues is represented by renowned band The Aces (featuring Louis Myers, Dave Myers, and Fred Below) and the legendary drummer Sam Lay. The late Roebuck “Pops” Staples will be joining his daughter Mavis, a 2017 inductee, in the Blues Hall of Fame.
B.B. King’s 1967 album Blues Is King is this year’s Classic of Blues Recording Album entrant, while the five classic blues recordings feature Ma Rainey’s “See See Rider Blues,” Albert King’s “Cross Cut Saw,” Joe Turner’s “Roll ‘Em Pete,” Booker T. & the MG’s“Green Onions,” and Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man,” the B side to “Bo Diddley,” which was inducted last year as a Classic of Blues Recording.
The year’s honoree in the Non-Performer category is Al Benson, the disc jockey, promoter, and music entrepreneur who was the long-time powerbroker of the Chicago blues scene. The 2018 pick for the Classic of Blues Literature is I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy, the authoritative 2011 biography written by Bob Riesman.
May 9’s Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony will kick off at the Halloran Centre (225 South Main Street, Memphis) at 5:30 p.m. with a cocktail reception, which will be followed by formal inductions at 6:30 p.m. More music magic continues the next evening, May 10, when the Blues Foundation presents the 39th Annual Blues Music Awards at Memphis’ Cook Convention Center. Both events are open to the public and tickets are now on sale at THIS LINK. The Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony Tickets cost $75 per person; Blues Music Award tickets are $150 per person.
As part of the Induction Ceremony, the Blues Hall of Fame Museum is securing special items representing each of the new inductees, and those artifacts will be installed and available for viewing beginning May 9.
Since opening in May, 2015, the Museum has been a treasure for both serious blues fans and casual visitors. Offering intriguing exhibits (including traveling exhibits that rotate every four months) and in-depth history, the museum educates and entertains visitors with all that is blues culture, while 10 individualized galleries feature interactive touchscreen displays along with three master databases where they can hear the music, watch videos, and read the stories about each of the Hall of Fame’s over 400 inductees. Additionally, each gallery displays an array of cool items: album covers, photographs, historic awards, unique art, musical instruments, costumes, and other one-of-a-kind memorabilia such as R.L. Burnside’s guitar, Koko Taylor’s dress, Otis Spann’s piano, Eddy Clearwater’s Indian Headdress, and Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica.
The Blues Hall of Fame Museum was built through the generosity and support of blues fans so that it would serve all four components of the Blues Foundation’s mission: preserving blues heritage, celebrating blues recording and performance, expanding awareness of the blues genre, and ensuring the future of the music. The Museum (421 S. Main St., Memphis) is open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sundays, 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Admission for adults is $10; students with ID are $8. Entry is free for children under 12 and for Blues Foundation members. To become a member, visit www.blues.org and click on Join Now, for as little as $25 per person.
ABOUT THE INDUCTEES:
Roebuck “Pops” Staples
Roebuck “Pops” Staples, one of the foremost figures in American gospel music as a singer, guitarist, and patriarch of the Staple Singers family group, was a blues performer in his younger days, and his blues-drenched guitar work was a constant trademark of the Staple Singers’ gospel sound. Staples traced his style back to the hymns and spirituals he learned from his grandfather and the blues he heard in Mississippi. Roebuck and his older brother Sears, the last two of fourteen Staples children, were named after the Chicago mail-order company that numbered many rural African-Americans among its millions of customers, including many who ordered guitars by mail. Another Staples brother, David, played blues guitar before becoming a preacher, and a famous relative born years later was Oprah Winfrey, whose great-grandmother was Roebuck’s aunt, Ella Staples.
Staples was born on a farm near Winona, Mississippi, on December 28, 1914. The family moved around, ending up at the famous Dockery plantation—longtime home of Delta blues king Charley Patton—around 1923. Inspired by Patton and Howlin’ Wolf (a Patton devotee who often performed in the nearby town of Drew), Staples took up guitar and began frequenting local juke house parties, but also sang in church and at local gospel gatherings, sometimes with the Golden Trumpets. Although he chose to stay on the gospel path, he remained a lifelong blues fan and was a friend to many blues singers, from Wolf and Muddy Waters to Albert and B.B. King.
Staples’ children Cleotha and Pervis were born at Dockery, followed by Yvonne, Mavis, and Cynthia after the family moved to Chicago. Staples put the guitar aside for several years while he worked meatpacking, factory, and construction jobs to support his brood, although he sang locally with the Trumpet Jubilees. The success of their 1956 recording “Uncloudy Day” enabled Pops, Pervis, and Cleotha to quit their day jobs to become full-time singers. Pops and Pervis had been lead vocalists when the group began, but Mavis’ powerful voice soon took center stage. Under Pops’ guidance, the Staple Singers not only earned the title “the first family of gospel music,” but also developed followings among blues, soul, folk, rock, and jazz audiences with their inspirational “message songs.”
The Staple Singers’ Vee-Jay 45 “Too Close,” featuring Pops’ down-home guitar, was recorded live at a concert in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1960 by legendary WROX blues and gospel DJ and promoter Early Wright. Revenant Records later included it on the award-winning box set The Worlds of Charley Patton. Staples was heard to play Patton’s blues note-for-note at home or backstage, but would not perform the songs onstage.
Although he professed not to be a blues singer, Staples did collaborate with guitarists Albert King and Steve Cropper on the Stax album Jammed Together, and he won a Grammy in the Contemporary Blues category in 1994 for his final CD, Father Father. “It’s just my way of playing,” he explained. “I can’t get away from it—it’s gonna have a little touch of blues.” The Rhythm & Blues Foundation honored Staples with a Pioneer Award in 1992, and in 1998 he was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts. The Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Pops died on December 19, 2000. His daughter Mavis was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2017.
Sam Lay joins his main influence, Fred Below of the Aces, as the first Chicago blues drummers elected to the Blues Hall of Fame. Lay is one of the rare blues drummers to earn crossover fame in the rock world, beginning with his work with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and others, but his résumé is loaded with blues credentials both before and after he played on the Butterfield band’s historic debut album in 1965. He is the fourth member of the band to enter the Blues Hall of Fame, following Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, and Elvin Bishop.
Lay says his drumming trademark, the double shuffle, is based on the double-time rhythms of the hand-clapping and tambourines he heard in church in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was born on March 20. 1935. He began performing with bands after moving to Cleveland, and arrived in Chicago when recruited by harmonica wizard Little Walter. Lay left Walter’s combo to begin a long stint with Howlin’ Wolf’s band, playing on the Blues Hall of Fame classics “Killing Floor” and “I Ain’t Superstitious.” Lay recalls that he only switched bands again when Paul Butterfield offered him a pay raise—to play Chicago clubs for $20 a night. During his tenure with Butterfield he also accompanied Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and on one studio session for the Highway 61 Revisited album. Lay’s time with Butterfield was cut short when an illness landed him in the hospital in late 1965, and he joined James Cotton’s new band and later began a long association with the Siegel-Schwall Band. As his own name was established, he launched a career leading a band while continuing to lay down the beat for many others in the studio, in Chicago clubs, and on the road. In the ’60s he played with Muddy Waters, Butterfield, and others on the historic Fathers and Sons concert and album, recorded in the studio with Cotton, and accompanied Magic Sam, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Wolf on shows that were taped and later released on LP or CD.
Lay sang “Got My Mojo Working” on the Paul Butterfield Blues Band album and followed that with four 1966 tracks on the Testament LP Goin’ to Chicago and his first full album, Sam Lay in Bluesland, for Blue Thumb, in 1969. Later albums appeared on Appaloosa, Telarc, Evidence, and other labels in the U.S. and Europe, and Lay added to his discography by drumming on sessions by the Bob Riedy Blues Band, Wild Child Butler, Johnny Littlejohn, Carey Bell, Eddy Clearwater, Siegel-Schwall, Mojo Buford, Jimmy D. Lane, Hubert Sumlin, Rockin’ Johnny, Sunnyland Slim, Barrelhouse Chuck, Eomot Rasun, Easy Baby, Bonnie Lee, Mississippi Heat, Kenny Neal, Byther Smith, Taj Mahal, and others. His Sam Lay Blues Revival Band toured the U.S. and Canada, with Butler, Littlejohn, Jimmy Rogers, Eddie Taylor, and others featured in the revue. Lay also developed a talent as a down-home blues guitar player.
In addition to his musical skills, Lay earned a reputation for his cordiality and for the silent home movies he shot in the Chicago clubs, capturing rare footage of Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and others. He was elected to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1992.
Mamie Smith, the first true queen of the blues, created a sensation with the phenomenal success of her 1920 recording of “Crazy Blues” and her extravagant stage shows. Not only did she help pioneer a new trend that led to the creation of what was called the “race record” market for African-American buyers, but she also validated the blues, which was not regarded as a valuable commodity in certain musical circles. Her following cut across racial lines, and she broke new ground by taking blues into uncharted territories—a reviewer in Anaconda, Montana, in 1923, for instance, gushed: “Nothing of the kind has ever been seen or heard here before. . . . Mamie Smith is a riot of whirling color, twinkling feet and jazz melodies.”
Smith’s training in the theater and vaudeville prepared her to emerge on the blues circuit with a formidable act for other divas to challenge. Her blues had polish, her wardrobe was lavish, and her troupes of dancers, singers, and comedians brought press notices such as “the cleanest and most wholesome colored attraction now touring” and “high-class dancing and clean-cut comedy.” Her flamboyance carried over into a luxurious lifestyle afforded by the sudden wealth she amassed. She bought three houses in New York, complete with fine accoutrements, servants, and, one visitor noted, “rugs on the floor as thick as mattresses.”
Smith continued to record until 1931 for OKeh and other labels, scoring early hits with “Dangerous Blues,” “Lonesome Mama,” a reissue of her first release, “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down,” and others. Her popularity as a recording artist was soon eclipsed by other women such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, but she remained a major attraction on the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA) circuit. In a retrospective piece in 1955, Floyd G. Snelson wrote in the Chicago Defender: “Mamie carried thousand dollar bills in her money belt. She bought gilt securities, and a farm in the South. All of this went with the crash of 1929 and the poor gal lived off charity and friends until her death.” This was somewhat at odds with how Snelson described her in 1939: “Mamie is hale and hearty and looks the picture of health, having lost many fortunes during her eventful career. . . . She’s a grand gal if you ask me!” While the 1930s were lean years in the business, Mamie’s management continued to feed the press with stories of her touring in “a blaze of glory” and headlines such as “Mamie Smith is Still the South’s Favorite Singer” in 1934 and afterward. From 1939 to 1942 Mamie revived a film career which began with Jail House Blues in 1929, appearing in movies such as Sunday Sinners, Paradise in Harlem, and Murder on Lenox Avenue. She was reportedly married to promoter and film producer Jack Goldberg at one point.
Some details of her life remain sketchy, and there is still debate about her birth and death dates. The 1939 Chicago Defender article offered some important details, stating that she was born Mamie Robinson in Cincinnati on September 19, 1890, and began performing at the age of ten. The 1890 citation is in line with her age as entered in the census and mentioned in obituaries. Sheldon Harris, author of Blues Who’s Who, published information he obtained from a Mamie Smith death certificate that listed her dates of birth (May 26, 1883) and death (September 16, 1946), but he noted that both dates were unconfirmed (the certificate turned out to be for a different Mamie Smith). He listed other possible death dates and, based on a report from a New York columnist in Pittsburgh’s African-American paper the Courier, one of them was correct: October 30, 1946.
The former blues queen was buried without a headstone. Singer Victoria Spivey, an admirer and rival, helped put together a tribute to her memory at New York’s Celebrity Club in 1964 to raise money for a monument, and a headstone was reportedly sent from Germany. Finally, after a new campaign by Michael Cala, a headstone was dedicated in 2014, engraved with the unconfirmed dates quoted in Blues Who’s Who.
Georgia Tom Dorsey
Thomas A. Dorsey was famed as the “Father of Gospel Music,” but earlier in his career he was “Georgia Tom,” a Chicago blues pianist, Ma Rainey accompanist, partner of Tampa Red, and composer of the some of the most humorous and risqué songs of the 1920s and early ’30s.
Dorsey was born July 1, 1899, in Villa Rica, Georgia, and developed his piano-playing skills as a teenager in Atlanta, where he was known as “Barrelhouse Tom.” He moved to Chicago in 1916 and began playing with local groups, and started traveling with Ma Rainey’s troupe in the 1920s. Dorsey learned to write, arrange, and publish songs, and by 1923 his compositions were being recorded for the Paramount label by Alberta Hunter and others. He collaborated with Tampa Red from 1928 to 1932, and their Vocalion recording of “It’s Tight Like That” became one of the biggest hits of the era. In need of a name that could be paired with Tampa Red’s, Tom Dorsey became Georgia Tom. Dorsey also had a number of releases of his own, in addition to recording with Ma Rainey, Memphis Minnie, Jim Jackson, the Hokum Boys, and others. With his many roles, he could be viewed as the Willie Dixon of his particular era of Chicago blues.
Dorsey was also writing gospel songs at the same time, and eventually left the blues to devote himself to gospel. He did not record much as a gospel singer, but launched a lucrative career as a music publisher and wrote two famous gospel songs, “Precious Lord,” inspired by the tragic deaths of his wife and day-old child, and “Peace in the Valley.” One of the keys to gospel, a more modern style than the old spirituals and hymns, Dorsey said, was the infusion of “the feeling and the pathos and the moans and the blues . . . that got me over.”
Dorsey directed choirs at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, in addition to organizing national gospel conventions and operating his publishing business. He died on January 23, 1993. Dorsey never condemned the blues, and told Living Blues magazine in 1975: “There’s just as great a message in the blues as it is in gospel. It depends on the position in which the individual is in.”
The Aces (Louis Myers, Dave Myers, and Fred Below)
Brothers Louis and Dave Myers and their longtime friend Fred Below (pronounced BEE-low) formed the Three Aces, one of Chicago’s premier blues combos, in the early 1950s. Also known as the Three Dukes, the Four Aces (when they hooked up with Junior Wells), the Jukes (when they teamed with Little Walter), or more often just the Aces, the band was in demand to play behind various singers, but also could deliver top-notch blues with Louis Myers taking a lead role.
The Myers brothers and their older harmonica-player sibling Bob were born into a musical family in the country near Byhalia, Mississippi—Louis on September 18, 1929, and Dave on October 30, 1927. They moved to Chicago 1941. Louis had started playing guitar in Mississippi and took it up again in Chicago, followed by Dave, who later switched to electric bass. They played with other blues artists on the South Side and on their own, without a drummer until Below joined. Below, who was born in Chicago on September 6, 1926, brought experience from playing in high school and U.S. Army bands and studying at a percussion school. Trained in jazz, he found the blues difficult at first but before long he had developed his own backbeat style, which set the standard for generations of blues drummers to come.
The group first recorded in 1952, backing Little Walter on “Mean Old World” and other numbers for Checker, a subsidiary of Chess Records in Chicago. Other sessions, club dates, and tours with Walter followed. The foursome toured widely as one of the country’s most popular and energetic young blues acts. Although Louis and Dave played with Junior Wells before Walter, they recorded with Wells only in 1953. Louis and Below also recorded with him 1954. All three Aces later backed Wells on a live recording in Boston.
As a unit the Aces were not a constant presence on the blues scene, although the individual members stayed busy in town or on the road. In testament to their prowess as an all-purpose band, the Aces backed Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, Koko Taylor, Lightnin’ Slim, Jimmy Dawkins, and others at the 1972 Montreux Jazz Festival, in addition to doing their own set, and all the proceedings were recorded, resulting in several albums. They also recorded behind Jimmy Reed, Roosevelt Sykes, Billy Boy Arnold, Louis Jordan, Jimmy Rogers, Robert Lockwood Jr., Eddie Taylor, and numerous others in the U.S., Europe, or Japan. As the Aces, they recorded albums of their own for three French labels and a few tracks on various compilations. Louis Myers, heralded primarily for his skills on guitar, also possessed a potent harmonica attack and was featured on an instrumental single for the Abco label in Chicago in 1956. He later recorded albums on Advent, JSP, and Earwig. Both Louis and Dave also recorded a few songs for the Wolf label, and Dave concluded his recording career with a CD for Black Top in 1996.
Below was a prolific session drummer, providing the beat for dozens of other Chicago blues artists from 1952 through 1979, including Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, and Koko Taylor. Louis and Dave, together or individually, added further session credits to the collective discography, recording with John Lee Hooker, Earl Hooker, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, and others. Below, also a photographer, had one number he liked to sing, “Route 66,” introduced by “a one, a two, a you know what to do,” and his renditions were recorded as a bonus on various sessions.
The Aces’ Blues Hall of Fame induction would have been welcomed by the genial Below and likely viewed as a vindication by the Myers brothers, who were known to many for voicing conspiracy theories about the lack of respect and opportunities offered them. Below died on August 13, 1988, followed by Louis on September 4, 1994, and Dave on September 3, 2001.
INDIVIDUAL (BUSINESS, PRODUCTION, MEDIA, or ACADEMIC)
In the heyday of Chicago blues, no one had more say about which records became hits or which products and businesses got advertised to the Windy City’s huge African-American population than the powerful disc jockey, promoter, and music entrepreneur Al Benson. A college-educated Jackson, Mississippi, native, Benson delighted his target radio audience, especially those who had also migrated from the Deep South, with his blues playlist and down-home patter, famed for his blatant and sometimes intentional disregard for schoolbook English and proper pronunciation. He worked with a label named after his on-air moniker, Old Swingmaster, and owned several others, including Parrot, Blue Lake, Crash, Mica, and The Blues.
Benson, whose legal name was Arthur Leaner, was born June 30, 1908. He sang with the Leaner family band as a youngster and held an assortment of jobs, from working on the railroad to presenting shows at the Alamo Theater in Jackson, his nephew Ernie Leaner recalled. In Chicago he was a probation officer, political worker, and pastor of his own church. His radio career started on WGES with a religious program, but blues, R&B, and jazz became his forte. He became so popular that in 1948 he was elected “Mayor of Bronzeville,” an honorary title bestowed upon South Side community leaders by vote of readers of the Chicago Defender newspaper and others. Brokering his position at the station, he built a lucrative business among advertisers, record labels, and distributors, all of whom paid him to put their products on the air during an era of lax radio regulations. He expanded his empire to include a broadcasting studio in his home, a television show, record shops, a nightclub, concert promotion, and record labels, while nephews George and Ernie Leaner founded United Record Distributors, further strengthening the family’s hold on the black music industry in Chicago. Complaints ensued from competing record shops, DJs, and labels, along with allegations of illegal activities, but Benson prevailed and ruled the roost for years with a less than beneficent hand. His loyal listeners supported him, however, as did the crowds for the big blues and R&B shows he promoted at the Regal Theater, and his success led WGES to transform into a black-oriented station with several Benson protégés hosting shows. Among the records named in tribute to him were Duke Ellington’s “Bensonality” (1952) and Lionel Hampton’s “Benson’s Boogie” (1949). On his labels Benson released 78s or 45s by Albert King, Snooky Pryor, Willie Mabon, J.B. Lenoir, Sunnyland Slim, Jody Williams, Magic Sam, and many more. Benson’s influence declined after WGES was sold in 1962 and payola came under fire, but he stayed in the radio and record business for several years. In 1974 he was saluted both by a three-day tribute from the record industry and by a resolution in the Illinois House of Representatives. He died in Three Oaks, Michigan, on September 6, 1978.
CLASSICS OF BLUES LITERATURE
I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy, by Bob Riesman
One of the most definitive blues biographies ever written, I Feel So Good (University of Chicago Press, 2011) is also one of the most revelatory. Following a trail that led from Chicago to Holland to a church in Arkansas and an introduction to Broonzy’s grandnieces, author Bob Riesman learned that Broonzy had reinvented himself in name, birth date and birthplace, and many other details he gave of his life. Lee Conley Bradley (Broonzy’s real name) was “capable of exquisitely contradictory behavior,” Riesman writes, but whatever misdirection Big Bill orchestrated was only a creative piece of his towering persona and did nothing to lessen his importance as a premier blues artist, influence, mentor, and spokesman in America and in Europe, all extensively documented in I Feel So Good. With the induction of I Feel So Good, Broonzy becomes the first artist to be the subject of two books in the Blues Hall of Fame. His own story, Big Bill Blues, published in 1955, was inducted in 1990 and can be appreciated in a new light thanks to Riesman’s investigations and analyses.
CLASSICS OF BLUES RECORDING: ALBUM
B.B. King: Blues Is King (ABC BluesWay, 1967)
Blues Is King is the third B.B. King album selected for the Blues Hall of Fame, following Live at the Regal and Live in Cook County Jail. All three were recorded live in Chicago for the ABC label group. Neither King nor ABC was ever based in Chicago, but the capital city of the blues may have been home to B.B.’s strongest fan base. King was in Chicago at least six different times in 1966, and on November 5 he recorded the bulk of Blues Is King live at The Club (formerly the Club DeLisa and later the Burning Spear) at 5523 South State Street. Twelve days later he was back in town to record more tunes, including one track, “Waitin’ on You,” that became the opening track on the album. The Club was a large, historic African-American showcase nightclub managed by WVON DJs Pervis Spann (a Blues Hall of Fame inductee) and E. Rodney Jones, and in this club setting the crowd response spurred an inspired performance by King and his band (Bobby Forte, Duke Jethro, Sonny Freeman, Kenneth Sands, and Louis Satterfield). In addition to his biting, incisive guitar phrasing and impassioned vocals, the song selection is a bonus, as it includes gems that were not the greatest hits that filled so many of King’s later sets.
Although the Regal and Cook County Jail albums sold far better and achieved classic status first, many aficionados rate Blues Is King, which failed to even reach the charts, as B.B.’s best. Produced by Johnny Pate and B.B.’s manager Lou Zito, it was the first release on ABC’s new BluesWay imprint in 1967. Listeners who know King only through his later performances as the grandfatherly ambassador of the blues can get a taste of the king on fire at his peak on Blues Is King, when he was shouting, “I’ve got so many women, baby, till they’re standing in line.”
CLASSICS OF BLUES RECORDING: SINGLES
“See See Rider Blues” – Ma Rainey (Paramount, 1924)
The original rendition of “See See Rider,” which became a standard recorded by countless artists in many genres, was a low-moaning version by the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey, in October 1924 in New York City. Her accompanying Georgia Jazz Band on this occasion starred Louis Armstrong on cornet, joined by horn men Buster Bailey and Charlie Green, with Fletcher Henderson on piano and Charlie Dixon on banjo. Rainey and Lena Arant were credited as co-writers of the song, which was originally advertised as the B side of a Paramount single, “Jealous Hearted Blues,” in 1925. Its longevity was established not only by reissues of two takes of the Paramount recording, but by hit singles (some of them titled “C.C. Rider”) on the Billboard charts by Wee Bea Booze, Chuck Willis, LaVern Baker, Bobby Powell, the Animals, and Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels (in a medley with “Jenny Take a Ride”), not to mention the many other versions by blues, soul, jazz, pop, country and rock performers. The cover versions generally omitted the introductory verse of Rainey’s song and were also played with either a lighter feel or a more rocking approach. The meaning of “rider” has long been debated, with definitions ranging from an unfaithful lover to a dynamic sexual partner to a traveling preacher or judge, but when Willis’ Atlantic single hit the charts in 1957, the African-American press reported that some radio stations had banned it after learning that it meant “a dirty old low-down pimp.”
“I’m a Man” – Bo Diddley (Checker, 1955)
“I’m a Man,” the first song recorded by Bo Diddley in 1955, became the flip side of his debut single, the eponymous “Bo Diddley,” which was selected as a Blues Hall of Fame classic in 2017. While the infectious “Bo Diddley” was the primary hit, the bold, brash blues declaration “I’m a Man” also made it onto the charts. According to Cash Box magazine’s regional reports, “I’m a Man” actually charted higher at some points than “Bo Diddley” in some Southern markets, including Memphis. Bo’s band on the Chicago session included Billy Boy Arnold, Otis Spann, Jerome Arnold, Willie Dixon, and Clifton James. Bo’s theme gained new life when Muddy Waters recorded a very similar follow-up, “Manish Boy.”
“Roll ’Em Pete” – Joe Turner (Vocalion, 1938)
The exuberant “Roll ’Em Pete” was the first studio recording of Big Joe Turner’s powerful pipes and Pete Johnson’s rollicking boogie-woogie piano. Recorded in New York City on December 30, 1938, a week after the Kansas City duo’s appearance at the historic From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall, “Roll ’Em Pete” became an enduring classic. Turner later claimed that rock ’n’ roll was nothing more than the boogie-woogie and blues he and Johnson trademarked in K.C., and it’s certainly not much of a jump from “Roll ’Em Pete” to 1950s rockers like Turner’s “Shake Rattle and Roll” or Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire.”
“Green Onions” – Booker T. & the MG’s (Stax/Volt, 1962)
A No. 1 R&B hit which also reached No. 3 on the pop charts in an era of hit instrumentals, “Green Onions” embodied a simple but memorable 12-bar blues groove laid down by session musicians Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Lewie Steinberg, and Al Jackson at the Stax studio in Memphis. Neither the tune nor the band had a name when they recorded it; various stories circulate but Jones has said that bassist Steinberg suggested “Funky Onions.” When the 45 came out on Stax’s Volt subsidiary and subsequently on the hit Stax re-pressing, it was “Green Onions” by Booker T. & the MG’s.
“Cross Cut Saw” – Albert King (Stax, 1966)
“Cross Cut Saw,” one of Albert King’ early chart hits, was a song with a complicated evolution. Originally a down-home Delta blues recorded in 1941 by Tommy McClennan and Tony Hollins, it was earlier claimed by Lucious Curtis, a bluesman who recorded for John Lomax and the Library of Congress in Natchez in 1940. Curtis declined to record the song for Lomax’s documentary purposes, asserting that it had potential as a commercial hit. Many years later, it turned out he was right, although he never received credit for it. In the meantime it was recorded as a slow B.B. King-style 45 by a Memphis group, the Binghampton Blues Boys, led by Wilroy Sanders. In the Stax studio on November 2, 1966, drummer-producer Al Jackson reworked it again for Albert King, infusing it with a snappy Latin beat, and King’s version became a standard in the repertoire of countless blues bands. A 1974 Stax version by King introduced yet another arrangement. (All the Stax versions gave writer credit to R.G. Ford, owner of a label that released the Binghampton Blues Boys 45.) By one account, the song came to Albert via WDIA DJ A.C. “Moohah” Williams. But King, who said in an unpublished Living Blues interview that he had never heard the song, gave fellow Stax artist William Bell credit for bringing it to him; Bell in turn gives the primary credit to Jackson, and according to Stax historian Rob Bowman, Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper of the MG’s agree. Bell says Stax was looking for another “wood song” to follow up Eddie Floyd’s monster hit of 1966, “Knock on Wood,” and the line “I can cut your wood so easy for you” made “Cross Cut Saw” a perfect choice.
About The Blues Foundation: This world-renowned, Memphis-based organization holds a mission to preserve blues heritage, celebrate blues recording and performance, expand worldwide awareness of the blues, and ensure the future of this uniquely American art form. Founded in 1980, the Blues Foundation has over 4,000 individual members and close to 200 affiliated blues societies representing another 50,000 fans and professionals around the world. Its signature honors and events — the Blues Music Awards, International Blues Challenge, and Keeping the Blues Alive Awards — make it the international hub of blues music. Its HART Fund provides the blues community with medical assistance for musicians in need, while Blues in the Schools programs and Generation Blues Scholarships expose new generations to blues music. Throughout the year, the Foundation staff serves the global blues community with answers, information, and news.
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For more information regarding The Blues Foundation’s 39th Blues Music Awards, please contact Conqueroo:
Cary Baker • (323) 656-1600 • [email protected]
Wendy Brynford-Jones • (818) 762-7063 • [email protected]