Carey Bell, Harrington took his place in the lineage of Chicago blues harp masters in the 1970s, exuberantly following in the footsteps of his mentors Big Walter Horton and Little Walter Jacobs. In addition to recording noteworthy albums of his own, he became Chicago’s go-to harmonica player for blues sessions, valued for his creative solo flights and the ease with which he adapted to any song put before him. Bell made is first studio recordings backing guitar virtuoso Earl Hooker in November 1968 and over the next three decades he played on more than 100 different sessions, either as the featured artist or backing Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Louisiana Red, Jimmy Rogers, Eddy Clearwater and many others. He duetted on some with Big Walter Horton and other harp masters and joined James Cotton, Junior Wells and Billy Branch for a historic Harp Attack! album on Alligator. His good-natured, often playful live performances could generate even more excitement when he had the chance to extend his melodic explorations on both on the 10-hole diatonic harmonica and the larger chromatic instrument.
Born Cary (sic) Harrington in Macon, Mississippi, on November 14, 1936, he began playing harmonica as a child and by the time he was in his teens he had come under the wing of veteran pianist Lovie Lee in the nearby city of Meridian. Lee took a young band including his “adopted stepson” Bell to Chicago in the mid-1950s and over the years they wove their talents into the Windy City blues fabric while holding down other jobs to make a living. Guitarist Honeyboy Edwards also guided the young Bell, playing with him and introducing him to both Little Walter and Big Walter. Edwards also showed Bell some runs on the bass, an instrument Bell learned to play with expertise. Bell also worked with Johnny Young, Eddie Taylor, ad others and was recorded in a street performance with Robert Nighthawk at the Maxwell Street market in 1964. Earl Hooker hired Bell for a tour to play bass, and then harmonica when he learned how well Bell could play. After his recording session with Hooker for Arhoolie, Bell played on a Sleepy John Estes session for Delmark and waxed his own Delmark debut LP, Carey Bell’s Blues Harp, in 1969.
His career immediately shifted into high gear with regular club gigs, festivals and tours, including several junkets to Europe. Muddy Waters brought Bell into his band, as did Howlin’ Wolf briefly, followed by a stint with Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues All Stars, in between his own gigs and sessions. Albums of his work, some co-billed with his son Lurrie Bell, a phenom himself, appeared on ABC BluesWay, Alligator, Blind Pig, Wolf, Rooster Blues, L+R, Blues South West, JSP and other labels in the U.S. and several other countries. His Alligator CD Good Luck Man won a W.C. Handy Award in 1998, the same year he was elected Traditional Male Blues Artist of the Year, following several previous nominations.
Among his other accomplishments he sired a brood of blues-playing sons including Lurrie, Steve (now playing harp in classic Carey Bell style in John Primer’s band), Tyson and James. He had moved to North Carolina and lived with Willie Dixon’s daughter Patricia before entering a Chicago hospital where he died of pneumonia and renal failure on May 6, 2007. A diabetic, Bell had suffered a stroke in 2006 but the joy of making music never left him and he recorded tracks for his final CD onstage in a wheelchair.
Junior Kimbrough, after years of holding forth in the juke joints and house parties of the Mississippi hills, Junior Kimbrough became a nationally renowned blues icon known both for his unique idiosyncratic style and for his role as potentate at his own juke, Junior’s Place, where visitors from far and wide mingled with the party crowd of Marshall County. Kimbrough called his music cotton patch blues or cotton patch soul blues, a custom maintained by his family of musicians, and like other Hill Country blues variants, its foundation lay in a raw, insistent groove. The Kimbrough style—not as hotly energized as the rocking rhythms of his friend R.L. Burnside or an early influence, Mississippi Fred McDowell — employed a droning, hypnotic roll that won him followings among both blues fans and devotees of trance and alternative rock.
David Kimbrough Jr. was born in Hudsonville, Mississippi, on July 28, 1930, He grew up in a musical family which included his father (his most formative influence) and several siblings and sang in a gospel group before assembling his own blues band.
Rockabilly legend Charlie Feathers, a longtime friend from Hudsonville, helped Kimbrough secure his first record release, a single on the Philwood label in Memphis in 1966. Another Memphis session for Goldwax was shelved until the sides appeared on a First Recordings collection in 2009. Likewise, a 1969 recording with Feathers and 1980s album for the University of Memphis’ High Water imprint remained unissued until Kimbrough’s later fame prompted their release. High Water did issue a 1982 Kimbrough single which revealed the sound he had developed with his group, the Soul Blues Boys.
It was not until his performance of his signature tune “All Night Long” in the documentary Deep Blues and several albums for the Fat Possum label in the 1990s that his fame truly spread. He played festivals in America and Europe but did not tour frequently. Instead, his audience (including some famous rock stars) came to him, especially at his juke joint in Chulahoma where he also recorded some of his CDs. His bands typically included some of his sons and younger members of the Burnside family (who once lived next door). His music was perpetuated by his sons David Malone (1965-2019), Kinney Malone and Robert Kimbrough and grandson Cameron Kimbrough, and his songs have been covered by the Black Keys, Iggy Pop & the Stooges, Daft Punk, the North Mississippi Allstars and others. Kimbrough died of a heart attack in Holly Springs Memorial Hospital on January 17,1998. His legacy is celebrated annually in the area at the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Soul Blues Festival.
His headstone bears the memorable quote from Charlie Feathers, “Junior Kimbrough is the beginning and end of all music.”
Snooky Pryor, was one of the pioneers of the classic Chicago blues of the post-World War II era, a byproduct of the migratory wave of musicians from Mississippi and the Deep South who changed the sound of the city with their electrified update of Delta blues. After playing a bugle (and harmonica) through a P.A. system while serving in the war, Pryor bought a P.A. system with speakers in Chicago and became one of the first harp players to amplify his sound with electricity.
Pryor made some historic recordings for several Chicago labels, including Boogie (Snooky and Moody’s Boogie), a predecessor to Little Walter’s massive hit Juke, and Judgment Day (later revived by British rockers the Pretty Things and Eric Clapton), but none sold well enough to make the charts. He had some success in the city’s nightclubs but finally dropped off the scene in the 1960s, disillusioned with the music business. Rumors and questions about his whereabouts puzzled blues fans and researchers for years. Some thought he had turned to preaching or to Islam. Neither was true, although he was the son a preacher who forbade “devil music” (the blues) in the home, and he could quote the Bible at length.
But on a phone call one night in 1971, guitarist Homesick James told Living Blues magazine that he had an old friend with him: “You know Snooky Pryor?” Pryor and his family had moved to Ullin in southern Illinois, where he was working as a carpenter. An article in the magazine led to a musical revival for Pryor, who resumed his recording career and went on to play concerts, clubs and festivals to an enthusiastic new generation of international blues aficionados. He picked up where he had left off, singing and playing the same spirited kind of blues he had perfected in the 1950s, eschewing the influences of subsequent soul, funk and rock music trends that changed the approach of many others in Chicago.
Born in rural Quitman County, Mississippi, near Lambert and Denton, on September 15, 1919 (not 1921 as he usually said), James Edward Pryor took up harmonica and the blues in spite of his father’s rules. A childhood friend was future Chicago legend Jimmy Rogers, who was then nicknamed Snooky. Bluesman Floyd Jones later dubbed Pryor as Snooky (pronounced to rhyme with “nuke” rather than “nook”) in Chicago. Pryor left home as a teenager and traveled through Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, and Illinois, finally settling in Chicago, where his musical partners included Floyd and Moody Jones, Homesick James, Johnny Young and Eddie Taylor. His first Chicago recordings for Planet, J.O.B., Parrot and Vee-Jay have all been reissued on CD and LP.
After his 1960s hiatus he cut his first album on the Today label, followed by a slew of others in the U.S., Europe and Canada for Big Bear, Blind Pig, Antone’s, Wolf, Electro-Fi and other companies. Though he made occasional Chicago appearances and worked for a while with Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues All Stars, he continued to reside in Ullin, where he trained his sons Earl and Richard (“Rip Lee”) to play. Rip Lee has continued to perform in the venerated style of his father, who died in a Cape Girardeau, Missouri, hospital, on October 18, 2006.
Fenton Robinson, practiced an erudite brand of blues hailed by musicians, critics and discerning audiences around the world, but rarely enjoyed the kind of wide public acclaim enjoyed by many high energy, hard-rocking blues performers. As Alligator Records’ Bruce Iglauer wrote, “In a world of barroom entertainers Fenton Robinson was a serious musician who is best appreciated with greater concentration than his audience usually gave him.”
Robinson relocated to different cities several times trying to find his niche and had his moments of success and satisfaction, as a performer, songwriter and teacher. His 1967 masterwork “Somebody Loan Me a Dime” failed the hit the national charts but scored in Chicago, enough so that Robinson was recruited to compete with B.B. and Albert King, Bobby Bland and other heavyweights in a “Battle for King of the Blues” show at the Regal Theater in 1968. A 1969 rendition by Boz Scaggs with Duane Allman on guitar was the first of many cover versions. Robinson did the first waxing of the often-recorded standard “As the Years Go Passing By,” which he said was written by Peppermint Harris. “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” an Alligator album track, also inspired covers.
Born in Leflore County in the Mississippi Delta on September 23, 1935 (or a little before, according to various documents), Robinson began performing as a teenager in Memphis, where he teamed with guitarist Charles McGowan. He and McGowan moved to Little Rock and briefly to St. Louis. Robinson made his first records for the Meteor label in Memphis and Duke Records in Houston, playing with a harder electric attack than on his later Chicago records when he had developed a nimble, fleet-fingered technique influenced by T-Bone Walker’s style and by formal music studies. In addition to “As the Years Go (Passing) By,” his 1950s records (all credited to Fention Robinson) included “Tennessee Woman,” “The Freeze (made famous by Albert Collins) and, on a session backing Little Rock cohort Larry Davis, “Texas Flood” (later popularized by Stevie Ray Vaughan).
Robinson moved to Chicago in 1961 and established himself on the club scene, backing Junior Wells, Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2, Otis Rush and others and working his own gigs on the strength of singles he recorded for USA, Giant and Palos that showcased both his progressive guitar work and sensitive, soulful vocals. HIs debut LP on Nashville’s Sound Stage 7 label captured his talent as a vocalist but allotted little room for his guitar. His upward trajectory was blunted after a 1969 auto accident which eventually landed him in prison, but a letter-writing campaign from blues fans helped him earn an early release. He was based in Chicago in the 1970s, aside from a stay in Santa Cruz, California, where he landed after partnering on tour with Charlie Musselwhite. He recorded two critically acclaimed albums for Alligator, including the Blues Hall of Fame LP I Hear Some Blues Downstairs.
But his career in Chicago stagnated and he decided to move back to Little Rock, where he had been well received on return visits. Springfield, Illinois, where he had earlier taught blues in the schools, was his next residence, followed by Rockford, Illinois. Although he toured across the country and overseas, made further high-quality recordings, and was widely admired, high-echelon blues stardom eluded him. A philosophical thinker, serious reader and progressive musician, Robinson embraced the Islamic faith in the 1970s and once went under the name Fenton Lee Shabazz. A Japanese reissue LP honored him with the title The Mellow Blues Genius, and a British album designated him Mellow Fellow. He passed away from cancer in Rockford on November 25, 1997.
Josh White, transitioned from a career as a traditional Piedmont blues artist to emerge as a unique and integral voice in the burgeoning folk music world of the 1940s, and in so doing played a seminal role in introducing new audiences to the blues. White was outspoken in his songs of protest against racism and injustice, a revolutionary tactic among blues singers of his era who had to couch such sentiments in code or hidden meanings in their lyrics. His induction into the Blues Hall of Fame and concurrent honors as Folk Alliance International’s 2023 Lifetime Achievement memorial award recipient are finally shining the spotlight on an icon whose many contributions have too often been forgotten or overlooked in the years since his death in 1969.
Born in Greenville, South Carolina, on February 11, 1914, White sang in church as a youngster and got an extended taste of the road by traveling as a guide (or “lead boy”) for blind street singers. John Henry “Big Man” Arnold, his main local employer, also hired him out to other blind men and White claimed to have led Blind Lemon Jefferson and dozens of others. He also told of suffering beatings and witnessing a lynching. In 1928 he was in Chicago playing guitar behind Blind Joe Taggart on a session for Paramount Records. After returning to Greenville, he headed to New York City and launched his own recording career in 1932, chosen as one of a select crew of blues artists who were able to record prolifically in the Depression years. His blues and gospel records for the A.R.C. label group, many of them solo, some with accompanists including Leroy Carr and Walter Roland, were variously credited to Joshua White, Pinewood Tom, and Joshua White (The Singing Christian).
An invitation to appear in a 1940 Broadway play, John Henry, in 1940, served as an entrée into a whole new realm of musical, theatrical, social, intellectual and political circles. White adroitly adapted his act to project folk authenticity with a sophisticated touch. His records, previously marketed to African Americans, changed accordingly to appeal to a predominantly white following. While he always drew on his blues and gospel repertoire, he also incorporated Tin Pan Alley hits, pop tunes, work songs, and folk ballads from various sources. His most popular number, “One Meat Ball,” recorded for Asch Records in 1944, was a bigger hit when covered by the Andrews Sisters, and many listeners heard “House of the Rising Sun” for the first time through White. More momentously, he began addressing segregation, workers’ rights, lynching and other controversial issues in songs such as “Defense Factory Blues,” “Uncle Sam Says,” and “Jim Crow Train” (written in collaboration with Harlem poet Waring Cuney), and “Strange Fruit,” the haunting vision of lynching first made famous by Billie Holiday, on Keynote and other labels. The resultant commotion drew the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who met with White and became the first of three chief executives (prior to Kennedy and Johnson) to invite White to appear at presidential functions. Eleanor Roosevelt also became one of White’s closest confidantes. His other compatriots included Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Alan Lomax, Burl Ives, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Celebrated for his suave stage presence, supple guitar work, engaging showmanship, proper diction and sexual magnetism (plus offstage escapades), he appeared at cabarets, folk gatherings, and political events, on radio and TV shows, and in plays and feature films. In 1950 he broke new ground taking the blues to England, France and Scandinavia, traveling on a goodwill tour with Eleanor Roosevelt.
However, his protest songs and leftist associations led to a blacklisting during the McCarthy anti-Communist era and he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950. For a while work became harder to find in the U.S. but receptive audiences in England and other countries enabled him to keep performing and he toured and recorded prolifically.
In 1949 his Ballads and Blues on Decca was, according to some researchers, the first blues record to be released in a newly introduced format – the 33 rpm LP. His Strange Fruit LP on Mercury followed in 1950. He also recorded for Columbia, ABC-Paramount, Blue Note, Elektra, Vanguard and labels in France, the U.K., Italy and Denmark. While in England, he came out with a book, The Josh White Guitar Method, followed in the U.S. by The Josh White Song Book. White remained a popular figure on the folk scene although his finances began to decline along with his health. Testimonies to his impact upon upcoming musicians, including the first wave off British blues rockers, are legion. He died during heart surgery in Manhasset, New York, on September 5, 1969.
Salutes to White’s legacy have included a children’s book, The Glory Road: The Story of Josh White in 1982, a U.S. postage stamp with his image in 1998, an incisive biography by Elijah Wald, Josh White: Society Blues, in 2000, a “Cultural Heroes” bust sculpted from clay shown in several museums, a three-panel statue in his hometown of Greenville unveiled in 2021, and this year’s Folk Alliance and Blues Hall of Fame honors. His music has lived on through his children, especially Josh White Jr., who has been a folk musician virtually all of his life ever since appearing onstage with White at Café Society as a four-year-old.
The belated recognition from the blues community has been attributed to the view that the polished act that served White so well in folk concerts and cabarets has not fit well with recent generations’ preferences in the blues. As Elijah Wald wrote in Living Blues back in 2001: “He did more than any artist until B.B. King to make the blues singer a recognized cultural icon, and his rediscovery as a seminal musical giant and a unique American voice is long overdue.”