BETTYE LAVETTE, SYL JOHNSON, VICTORIA SPIVEY, EDDIE BOYD,
GEORGE “HARMONICA” SMITH, BILLY BRANCH, AND RALPH PEER WILL BE CELEBRATED AS NEW BLUES HALL OF FAMERS ON MAY 6, 2020
Landmark recordings by B.B. King, Ruth Brown, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Willie Brown, Bertha “Chippie” Hill, and Howlin’ Wolf will also receive Hall of Fame recognition at the Blues Foundation’s jubilant ceremony in Memphis.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The 14 honorees of The Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame’s 41st class encompass nearly a century of music, spanning from 1920s stars Victoria Spivey and Bertha “Chippie” Hill to contemporary luminaries Bettye LaVette, Syl Johnson, and Billy Branch. This year’s inductees in the Blues Hall of Fame’s five categories — Performers, Non-Performing Individuals, Classics of Blues Literature, Classics of Blues Recording (Song), and Classics of Blues Recording (Album) — also vividly demonstrate how the blues intersects with a broad variety of American music styles: soul, funk, country, R&B, and rock ’n’ roll.
The new Blues Hall of Fame performers aren’t just exceptional musicians, but they also are educators, innovators, entrepreneurs, and activists determined to leave their mark on the world.
Piano-man Eddie Boyd scored several hits in the early ’50s (most notably “Five Long Years”) for Chess Records, but the outspoken Mississippi-born Chicago bluesman, dismayed over racial injustice and record business chicanery, left America in the mid-’60s for Europe, where his career prospered for several decades. Harmonica ace Billy Branch, part of the “New Generation of Chicago Blues,” is a multiple Blues Music Award winner who also has taught hundreds of blues classes around the globe and is a two-time recipient of the Keeping the Blues Alive Award in Education. Powerhouse singer Bettye LaVette finally achieved her much-deserved acclaim in the new millennium after several decades of struggles within the industry, garnering many honors — including several Blues Music Awards — and performing at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration celebration.
Victoria Spivey may be best known to general music fans for including a young Bob Dylan on a 1962 recording session; however, her unparalleled 50-year career began with her breakout tune, “Black Snake Blues,” and included her roles as songwriter, manager, bandleader and label owner. Guitarist Syl Johnson (brother of Blues Hall of Famer Jimmy Johnson) starred in Chicago’s soul scene during the ’60s and ’70s. His funky, often politically charged blues-fueled tunes (like “Different Strokes” and “Is It Because I’m Black”) have made him a favorite for sampling among hip-hop artists. The enigmatic George “Harmonica” Smith, who played with legends like Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton and Big Joe Turner, has been widely hailed by blues aficionados and musicians as one of the premier blues harmonicists, and influenced a generation of west coast harp players.
The revolutionary producer Ralph Peer, 2020’s honoree in the Individual (Business, Media & Academic) category, is most associated for his formative recordings in the country music field, but he first did pioneering work in the blues world (including co-producing the Mamie Smith historic 1920 “Crazy Blues” session). Entering the Blues Hall of Fame as a Classic of Blues Literature is Earl Hooker, Blues Master, the insightful biography of the blues guitar giant (and 2013 Hall of Fame inductee) written by French writer/producer/translator, and American roots music authority, Sebastian Danchin.
Howlin’ Wolf: The Chess Box is 2020’s Classic of Blues Recording: Album, the latest BHOF honor for the seminal bluesman. There are five Classic of Blues Recording: Singles receiving Hall of Fame induction: Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s original recording of “That’s All Right (Mama),” later made famous by Elvis Presley; Bertha “Chippie” Hill’s 1926 hit version of the oft-recorded “Trouble in Mind”; “Future Blues,”an exemplary example of Pattonesque blues by early-Delta bluesman Willie Brown, and two tunes from the early ’50s — “3 O’Clock Blues,” B.B. King’s first breakout song and No. 1 R&B hit in 1952, and Ruth Brown’s remarkable rendition of “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” 1953’s best-selling R&B record.
The Blues Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, held in conjunction with Blues Music Awards Week, will occur on Wednesday, May 6, 2020 at the Halloran Centre at the Orpheum (225 S. Main St., Memphis). A cocktail reception honoring the BHOF inductees and Blue Music Awards nominees will begin at 5:30 p.m., with the formal inductions commencing at 6:30 p.m. in the Halloran Theater. Tickets, which include the ceremony and reception admission, are $75 each and will be available starting on Tuesday, January 7, as will Blues Music Awards tickets.
Coinciding with the Induction Ceremony, the Blues Hall of Fame Museum will showcase a number of special items representing each of the Hall’s new inductees. These artifacts will be on display for public viewing beginning the week of the BHOF inductions and will remain enshrined in the museum throughout the next 12 months. The Blues Hall of Fame Museum, built through the ardent support and generosity of blues fans, embodies all four elements 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.
Museum visitors are able to explore permanent and traveling exhibits as well as individualized galleries that showcase an unmatched selection of album covers, photographs, historic awards, unique art, musical instruments, costumes, and other one-of-a-kind memorabilia. Interactive displays allow guests to hear the music, watch videos, and read the stories about each of the Blues Hall of Fame’s over 400 inductees.
The museum (421 S. Main St.) is open 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and 1–5 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is $10 for adults and $8 for students with ID; free for children 12 and younger and for Blues Foundation members. Membership is available for as a little as $25 per person; to join click here.
ABOUT THE INDUCTEES
Eddie Boyd, a proud, outspoken artist, channeled the injustices and mistreatment he experienced and witnessed into memorable songs that embodied the heartaches and outrage of the blues. During his years singing and playing piano in the Southern United States, Chicago, and Europe, he learned how to entertain audiences with more upbeat blues as well, but his legacy is more widely hailed for the themes of hard times and troubled affairs in his three chart hits, “Five Long Years,” “24 Hours,” and “Third Degree.”
Born November 25, 1914, on Frank Moore’s plantation near Stovall, Mississippi, Boyd was childhood friends with Muddy Waters. He worked the cottonfields when he had to, but after learning enough piano he began traveling the route of Highway 61 from the Mississippi Delta through Memphis, Arkansas, and Missouri playing at boarding houses and nightspots, and worked with a band in Memphis for a few years. In 1941 he headed for Chicago, where he hooked up with Big Maceo, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, and others. He made his first records for RCA Victor in 1947 but his classic hit “Five Long Years” came with a much smaller label, J.O.B., in 1952. Two hits followed on Chess Records in 1953, but his relationship with the company was contentious, and he never had another hit despite coming up with more fine material on singles for Chess, Bea & Baby, and other labels.
Finding a welcoming atmosphere in Europe when touring with the 1965 American Folk Blues Festival, Boyd decided to stay and leave behind his battles with American racism and record business practices. He lived and performed in several countries, finally settling in Helsinki, Finland, where he was a vital force in generating interest in the blues. He recorded over a dozen albums for European labels, and collections of his vintage Chicago sides were also compiled in Europe and Japan; the only albums of his work ever issued in the U.S. were reissues of the foreign releases, including some historic sides with Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac. He visited the U.S. on occasion and although he believed America had improved, he continued to live with his wife in Helsinki, where he died on July 13, 1994.
A belle of the blues with a head for business and a visceral gift as a songwriter, Victoria Spivey enjoyed a long career that took her from the role of ingenue to that of queen mother. Along the way she was a theater pianist, movie star, comedienne, bandleader, manager, church organist, record label owner, historian, and an inspiration to Bob Dylan and many others. Spivey was born on October 15, 1906, (or November 12 in one official document) in Houston, Texas, where her father and brothers had a string band. Two of her sisters, Addie (“Sweet Peas”) and Elton (“The Za Zu Girl”) became blues recording artists, but Victoria’s talent stood out, and the family sent her to St. Louis to pursue a singing career like her lifelong friend from Houston, Sippie Wallace. Spivey hit it big with her first record, the risqué “Black Snake Blues,” in 1926 and wrote many more songs for herself and other artists. “Blues Is My Business” would become her motto, and she started taking care of matters early on by suing her publisher for royalties in 1928.
“T.B. Blues,” another popular record, was one of her many stark, moaning blues on OKeh, Victor, Vocalion, and Decca to employ grim, somber, or deathly themes. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lead Belly, John Lee Hooker, and many others recorded her songs. “You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now,” written with her husband, trumpeter Rubin Floyd, was a duet with Lonnie Johnson, later covered by B.B. King. Spivey’s sessions included stellar accompanists Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Tampa Red, and many others. She earned lasting fame playing “Missy” in the historic all-black 1929 film Hallelujah! She also led an orchestra and became wife and manager to famous tap dancer Billy Adams. Like her idol Ida Cox, she continued to work theaters and nightclubs during and after the Great Depression, which put many other blues women out of business.
After living in Moberly, Missouri with her sister Addie and their mother, she moved to Chicago and then New York, buying a home in Brooklyn. In the 1950s she sang at jazz clubs and played in church but only embarked on a career comeback in the 1960s with the support of jazz and blues buff Len Kunstadt, who became her companion and manager of the label they launched, Spivey Records. In 1961 Spivey also recorded for Prestige Bluesville. With her regal reputation and friendships in the blues world, “Queen Vee” was able to entice many legendary blues figures to record for her label, at the same time nurturing up-and-coming talent including Bob Dylan, who recorded with her and Big Joe Williams on March 2, 1962. Dylan made no secret of his affection for Spivey, and a photo of the pair adorns the back cover of his New Morning album. The Spivey Records catalog includes music by the Muddy Waters band, Willie Dixon, Otis Spann, Lonnie Johnson, Roosevelt Sykes, Sonny Boy Williamson, and many more.
Spivey remained a coy, charismatic performer, touring Europe with the 1963 American Folk Blues Festival, playing the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival, the Philadelphia Folk Festival and others, gracing various documentaries, and continuing to appear in New York until shortly before her death from a hemorrhage on October 3, 1976. As befitting her professional endeavors, collections of her business and personal papers and memorabilia are archived at Emory University and the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies.
Billy Branch, once hailed as a leader of “the New Generation of Chicago Blues,” now finds himself a respected elder of the scene following many of his idols into the Blues Hall of Fame. One of the premier harmonica players in the blues, he is also an avid spokesman for the music and the culture and history it represents, dedicated to passing the legacy on to future generations.
Branch has carried the torch for the blues with a band called the Sons of Blues (S.O.B.’s), a group that originally indeed featured sons of blues musicians—except, ironically, Billy Branch. Born at the Great Lakes Naval Station hospital north of Chicago on October 3, 1951, Branch grew up in Los Angeles and returned to Chicago to attend the city campus of the University of Illinois. When he attended the city’s 1969 blues festival in Grant Park, his passion for the blues was ignited. Picking up blues licks on his harp and sitting in at blues bars, he approached blues maestro Willie Dixon and was hired for a session. The first public recognition of his talent came in 1975 when he was denied the prize at a legendary harmonica contest staged (and judged by) Little Mack Simmons, who declared himself the winner. The Sons of Blues came together in 1977 as a part of the New Generation of Chicago Blues package assembled for the Berlin Jazz Festival by Living Blues magazine and hosted by Dixon. In Chicago, Branch worked with pianist Jimmy Walker and others and continued to learn by watching Carey Bell, Big Walter Horton, and Junior Wells. He soon replaced Bell to go on tour with Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues All Stars while also regrouping the Sons of Blues. In addition to putting the blues world on notice with their spirit and talent, it became part of their mission to attract younger African-American audiences at South Side clubs with their fresh approach to the blues.
Meanwhile, in 1978 Branch began teaching in the Illinois Arts Council’s Blues in the Schools program, and has since conducted hundreds of blues classes around the country and overseas, instructing students not only about musical technique but about the roots and cultural importance of the blues, just as he had learned from Willie Dixon. Either on his own or with the Sons of Blues or other artists, he has recorded albums for Red Beans, Verve, Blind Pig, Alligator and other labels, continuing to grow as an artist and songwriter, and he is the most in-demand harmonica player for blues sessions in Chicago. A two-time recipient of the Keeping the Blues Alive Award in Education, Branch has shared top billing on three winning Blues Music Awards albums, including Harp Attack!, a 1990 collaboration with James Cotton, Junior Wells and Carey Bell spotlighting Branch as “The New Kid on the Block.”
Bettye LaVette had a hit singing blues as a teenager on her first record, “My Man” on Atlantic in 1962, and though her repertoire has evolved into one of the most eclectic imaginable, blues audiences have embraced the depth and passion of her performances, no matter what she may sing. No one puts more of herself into her songs with such soul-baring drama than Bettye LaVette.
However LaVette may identify herself as a song interpreter, her life story could certainly be turned into a series of blues songs. Her autobiography, A Woman Like Me, begins with a pimp dangling her over the ledge of a 20-story building and brazenly recounts her years of struggles, catastrophes, and dashed hopes, pulling no punches about herself or anyone else. Onstage she exudes the same brash boldness.
Born Betty Jo Haskins in Muskegon, Michigan, on January 29, 1946, she was raised briefly in Pontiac and mostly in Detroit in a house where her parents sold corn liquor to a clientele that included R&B and gospel singers. She adopted the name Betty LaVett when she first recorded, later modifying the billing to Bettye LaVette. An introduction to singer, producer, and songwriter Johnnie Mae Matthews led to the hit recording of Matthews’ song “My Man,” and despite cutting many more records over the years, some of them (“Let Me Down Easy” in particular) regarded as soul classics, LaVette never enjoyed another Top Ten record. Some 45s generated chart action, but spurts of success ended in misfortune or in lack of interest or promotion by record labels, and LaVette sometimes had to take other jobs or find local club gigs to support herself. Joining the cast of the Broadway musical Bubbling Brown Sugar kept her going for several years.
LaVette’s perseverance into the new millennium finally set her on the road to widespread acclaim. Soul and blues aficionados not only sought out her old records but discovered that as a live performer she was even more exciting—even stunning. One such LaVette devotee, Kevin Kiley, brought her not only continuing support, but also wedded bliss. European labels issued a live CD and rescued a Muscle Shoals album that had been kept in the can by Atlantic. A U.S. album on Blues Express netted her a Handy Award from the Blues Foundation in 2004, and she subsequently was voted best female artist in both the contemporary blues and soul blues categories in the Blues Music Awards. Her unique adaptations of songs from country singers, British rock groups, Bob Dylan and other sources on albums for ANTI-, Cherry Red and Verve earned GRAMMY nominations in the fields of R&B, Americana, and blues. Rosebud Agency bookings, blues and soul festival appearances, performances at the Kennedy Center and the inauguration celebration for President Obama, and television guest spots brought her profile into well-deserved prominence at last.
Syl Johnson parlayed a background steeped in blues and a streetwise sensibility for soul and funk into a hitmaking career that turned even more profitable when hip-hop artists began sampling his vintage records. Johnson, who joins his older brother Jimmy in the Blues Hall of Fame, was born into a blues family in rural Benton County, Mississippi, on July 1, 1936. Their surname was Thompson, but when Syl recorded under the name Johnson in Chicago in 1959, Jimmy followed suit. Their brothers Mac and Grundy and their father Sam Thompson also played.
After moving to Chicago, Syl befriended a young Magic Sam and brother Mac became Sam’s regular bass player. Johnson’s guitar playing came to the attention of fellow 2020 Blues Hall of Fame inductee Eddie Boyd, who hired Syl to play in his band. Johnson also teamed with Billy Boy Arnold and played on recording sessions with him in 1956 and 1957. The Blues Discography also lists him on sessions with Elmore James, Junior Wells and Harmonica George Robinson, and Johnson recalls playing in a five-guitar lineup with Jimmy Reed in the studio. Johnson secured his own contract with Federal Records in 1959 and waxed several blues and R&B singles for Federal and other labels, finally hitting pay dirt in 1967 with a funky play on a popular catchphrase, “Come On Sock It to Me” on the Twilight label. In keeping with the times, “Different Strokes” and “Dresses Too Short” also hit the R&B charts. In a more serious, socially conscious mode, the classic “Is It Because I’m Black” and “Concrete Reservation” joined his Billboard hit list, which came to encompass 19 singles on Twilight, Twinight, Hi, Boardwalk and his own Shama imprint. The biggest hit was “Take Me to the River,” produced by Hi Records’ Willie Mitchell in Memphis.
One of the top stars on Chicago’s soul scene during the 1960s and ‘70s, Johnson embraced his blues roots in the ‘80s beginning with the LP Brings Out the Blues in Me—inspired, he says, by the request of Japanese fans. His last hit, “Ms. Fine Brown Frame,” was recorded with James Cotton’s Blues Band, and Buddy Guy’s brother Phil accompanied him on sessions in Chicago and in France, where Johnson cut the LP Suicide Blues. Mixing his soul, blues, and funk, he recorded for blues-oriented labels Delmark and Antone’s and began playing more guitar and harmonica at blues clubs and festivals while also launching a chain of seafood restaurants which soon took up most of his time but eventually failed. He and Jimmy—whose musical path had likewise taken him from blues to soul and back—recorded together on the 2001 CD Two Johnsons Are Better Than One.
Meanwhile, many hip-hop stars had been picking up on Johnson’s 1960s work, especially “Different Strokes,” which has been sampled several dozen times. The resulting income—some of it by litigation—allowed Johnson a comfortable lifestyle he never earned through his own record sales and performance fees. A new wave of enthusiasm for Johnson greeted the release of a 2010 box set of his early recordings from the Numero Group, and the Johnson legacy has continued as his daughter Syleena has recorded hits of her own.
George “Harmonica” Smith is often rated by hardcore blues fans and musicians in the top tier of harmonicists ever to play the blues—not as widely known as others who have entered the Blues Hall of Fame before him, but in the same league. A master of the traditional 10-hole diatonic blues harp, Smith was also celebrated for his superior skills on the larger chromatic harmonica. Smith played with the Muddy Waters band at different times, recorded with some of the leading names in blues, and mentored a corps of young disciples in California including William Clarke, Rod Piazza, and Doug MacLeod.
Smith learned harmonica from his mother, Jessie Smith, and began traveling to play with older musicians and on the street, learning pop standards and swing tunes as well as blues. His published biographies offer conflicting details due in part to the fact that none of them reveal his real name, which he gave as Allen George Washington when he applied for a Social Security card in 1939, citing his birthplace as Barton, Phillips County, Arkansas, and the date as April 5, 1921 – (In various bios he was born in Helena, Arkansas, or Cairo, Illinois, in 1924). The fact that he recorded under different names, including Little Walter Jr., Harmonica King, and George Allen, and said he also performed as Big Walter, further obscured his identity. He joined the Kansas City musicians’ union as George Washington in 1955 but when his first records came out that year, he was Little George Smith—yet he was not a little man, either.
His family lived in the Missouri bootheel and Southern Illinois after leaving Arkansas, but his rambles took him back to his parents’ home state of Mississippi, where he sang with a spiritual group in Jackson and played harmonica in Itta Bena and other towns. The first band he joined in Chicago was Otis Rush’s, and his first recording session was with Otis Spann in 1954. His first stint with Muddy Waters ended when he decided to go on his own in 1955. He found work in Kansas City, where he recorded for the RPM label and attracted enough attention for Universal Attractions to book him on an R&B package tour with other artists, including Champion Jack Dupree. Some of his finest recorded work came on a session with Dupree in 1955. He ended up in Los Angeles and recorded more singles under his various stage names and eventually created a following in a city not previously known for harmonica players. Though he did not lack in originality either in style or songwriting, he was called on to do a set of Little Walter tunes for his first album in 1968, backed primarily by the Muddy Waters band (which he had rejoined in 1966, only to resign so he could take care of his large family at home). Thereafter his albums, most recorded in L.A., Europe, or Japan, focused on his own music, and the renown of George “Harmonica” Smith continued to grow even without the benefit of hit recordings. He also played on sessions with Lowell Fulson, Sunnyland Slim, Little Johnny Taylor, Big Mama Thornton, Big Joe Turner, Eddie Taylor, Jimmy Witherspoon and others. Despite heart trouble and financial struggles, he never gave up, and recorded his final album in Tempe, Arizona, just a few months before his death on October 2, 1983.
Individual (Business, Academic, Media & Production):
Ralph Peer is universally recognized as the foremost champion of roots music during the early days of the American recording industry. He is well known for his role in country music (then called hillbilly music) and was the first person to record Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and many more. However, Peer was recording blues prior to (and during) his country ventures. In fact, he participated in Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” session in 1920, which is acknowledged as the catalyst for record companies to launch “race music” catalogs of African-American blues, jazz, and gospel music. In fact, he is among those credited with coining the now long-retired term “race music” — a phrase which initially symbolized pride within the African American community. For OKeh Records, or, later, Victor Records, Peer recorded the Memphis Jug Band, Tommy Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes, Gus Cannon, Memphis Minnie, Alberta Hunter, Sippie Wallace, Victoria Spivey, and blues guitar pioneer Sylvester Weaver. While instrumental in devising the concept of blues, hillbilly, and other genres, Peer, ever the businessman, shifted his attention to pop music in later years because he knew it had greater monetary potential.
Classic of Blues Recording: Album
Howlin’ Wolf: The Chess Box (MCA/Chess box, 1991)
MCA released several outstanding compilations of classic blues and R&B sides from the Chess Records catalog in The Chess Box series. The Howlin’ Wolf box (Chess CH5-9332) is the second in the series to win Blues Hall of Fame recognition, following the selection of the Muddy Waters set. It is also the sixth Hall of Fame compilation by Wolf (Chester Burnett) and in fact is loaded with songs also issued on the previous five along with some previously unreleased gems. It kicks off with the seminal 1951 recording of “Moanin’ at Midnight” and proceeds chronologically through 1973, with the performances time and again bristling with the raw power and primal force that only Wolf possessed. Released on a five-LP vinyl set or as three cassette or CDs, the 71 tracks in the box include some insightful and entertaining spoken snippets from Wolf, recalling, among his stories, how angry he once was that he could not escape the nickname Howlin’ Wolf.
Classic of Blues Recording: Singles
“That’s All Right (Mama)” – Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (RCA Victor, 1946)
Big Boy Crudup’s infectious down-home jump “That’s All Right,” an infectious down-home jump often called “That’s All Right Mama,” was a historic record not only for Crudup but for Elvis Presley. Recorded on September 6, 1946, in Chicago and released as a 78rpm single in 1947 (RCA Victor 20-2205), the track became one of the first blues 7-inch singles when RCA Victor introduced the 45rpm record in 1949 (release number 50-0000). Elvis then covered it on his first record for Sun in 1954. Not so coincidentally, the executive who soon signed Elvis to RCA, Steve Sholes, had also produced Crudup’s Chicago session.
“Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” – Ruth Brown (Atlantic, 1952)
The best-selling R&B record of 1953, “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” (Atlantic 986) racked up over 400,000 sales, according to Billboard magazine. The third of five Ruth Brown’s No. 1 R&B hits, “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” was also the first to cross over into the pop charts. The writers credited for the song, Johnny Wallace and Herb Lance, reportedly told Atlantic producer Herb Abramson, that the idea came from a street singer in Atlanta (possibly Blind Willie McTell, who recorded a Blind Lemon Jefferson song, “One Dime Blues,” with the line “Mama, don’t treat your daughter mean”). On December 9, 1952, Abramson tried the song at different tempos to finally arrive at the hit, highlighted by Brown’s squeals amidst her spirited vocal delivery (despite her initial objections to the song) and the insistent rhythm of Mickey Baker’s guitar riffing and Connie Kay’s drumbeat.
“Trouble in Mind” – Bertha “Chippie” Hill (OKeh, 1926)
The oft-recorded Richard M. Jones composition “Trouble In Mind” was first waxed in 1924 by Thelma La Vizzo, but it was Bertha “Chippie” Hill who made the classic version in Chicago on February 23, 1926, OKeh 8312, that paved the way for many to follow with their own renditions. Accompanied by Jones on piano and Louis Armstrong, who plays the introductory stanza on cornet, Hill sings three verses of misery and despair. But the first verse, repeated again at the end, is one of the enduring anthems of the blues as hope for the future even in the darkest of times: “Trouble in mind, I’m blue, but I won’t be always, the sun gonna shine in my back door some day.”
“Future Blues” – Willie Brown (Paramount, 1930)
Willie Brown may be best known in blues lore as a sidekick to the legends of Delta blues–Charley Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson—but he was regarded as a top-notch guitarist and could have achieved more fame had he been offered more opportunities to record on his own. “Future Blues,” one of the handful of sides he made as a singer, was recorded at Paramount’s Grafton, Wisconsin, studio in the summer of 1930, when Brown traveled to Grafton with Patton and House and accompanied them on a few songs as well. An exemplary Delta blues with some now-familiar verses, “Future Blues” might be called Pattonesque in its rhythm and rough vocal timbre. And, just as Patton reworked blues from Ma Rainey and other singers, so did Brown: “Future Blues” opens with verses from Rainey’s “Last Minute Blues,” composed by Thomas A. Dorsey. While not a big seller, the record (originally Paramount 13090) had an extended life when it was rereleased on the Champion label, and Paramount also slotted it on its Broadway subsidiary under the pseudonym Billy Harper.
“3 O’Clock Blues” – B.B. King (RPM, 1951)
“3 O’Clock Blues” (RPM 339) was B.B. King’s breakthrough record, becoming a No. 1 R&B hit in 1952 after none of his first seven records ever hit the national charts. It was the first record to amply capture the emerging brilliance of both his singing and guitar playing talents which audiences across the country soon discovered as he embarked on a nonstop touring career. King had been recording for the Bihari brothers’ RPM label at Sam Phillips’ studio in Memphis, but after the Biharis fell out with Phillips, they had to find a new place to record. They set up their portable equipment at the black YMCA in Memphis, and with the valued support of Ike Turner on piano, King turned in a classic reworking of the mournful blues that had already been a hit for Lowell Fulson in 1948.
Classic of Blues Literature
Earl Hooker, Blues Master, by Sebastian Danchin
(University Press of Mississippi, 2001)
French writer, producer, and translator Sebastian Danchin, who played guitar with blues bands in Chicago in the 1970s, was a few years too late to spend time with Earl Hooker, who had died of tuberculosis in 1970. But Danchin was living in musicians’ homes on the South Side, gleaning invaluable insights through the friendships he made. Musicians who knew the colorful Hooker always had stories to tell, whether about his awesome guitar skills, his incessant traveling, or his penchant for pilfering equipment. They provided plenty of material in Danchin’s quest to document the story of a Mississippi-born virtuoso not widely known to the public but hailed as the best by countless fellow musicians, including B.B. King. Earl, a cousin of the more famous John Lee Hooker, was, Danchin writes, the “epitome of the modern itinerant bluesman.” His biography is incisive, first-rate and to the point, just as Earl Hooker’s artistry was.