10 Unsung Blues Heroes

It was a bad year for blues, with the passing of the great B.B. King and the continued popularity of wankers like Joe Bonamassa.

Why do I keep coming back to the form? Because it’s filled with overlooked and under-appreciated artists (like the ones below) who remind us that the best blues is all about expressing basic human emotion in very direct, honest and personal terms. In other words, you’ve got your purveyors of truth, and your slingers of shit… Take your pick.

Lenoir

Painting of Lenoir by Marquis de Coco Nut

He wrote a bona-fide blues hit (Mama, Talk to Your Daughter) and is a member of the Blues Hall of Fame, but J.B. Lenoir flew well under the radar screen from his first performances in the early 1940s to his untimely death in 1967. That might’ve been due to the highly charged political content of songs such as Vietnam Blues, Alabama March and Eisenhower Blues. Director Martin Scorsese gave the artist some much-needed exposure through the documentary series The Blues and an accompanying Lenoir CD. But that didn’t make him a household name… even in households that worship Muddy and Wolf. Could have something to do with that high-pitched, almost feminine voice – kind of soothing, but a little unsettling too. Eisenhower Blues

We could argue whether barrelhouse piano player Roosevelt Sykes qualifies as obscure. He recorded prolifically for the Okeh, Decca and Bluebird labels during the Thirties and often is recognized as a major influence on virtually every blues-based piano-pounder who followed. But like other “elder statesmen” who were more informed by swing and hot jazz, he fell out of style in the Fifties when Muddy Waters, Little Walter and John Lee Hooker started plugging in and cranking up their more aggressive take on urban blues. Still, I can’t help but smile when this tune pops up on my Apple-branded random music generator: Stop Her Poppa

Johnny ShinesFirst Columbia sat on his recordings, then Chess wouldn’t release his stuff either. After a session for the J.O.B. label met the same fate, a dejected Johnny Shines went back to his previous job working construction. But then someone from Vanguard found him in a Chicago blues club in 1966, which led to a slot on the label’s popular LP series Chicago/The Blues/Today! Thanks to those recordings and the various blues revivals that followed, Shines had more gigs than he could handle for the rest of his life. But you could spend a few months listening to Bluesville on XM before you hear one of his songs. Here’s one of my favorites, recorded for the Testament label in 1966: Two Trains Runnin’

Even the Sixties blues revival couldn’t save Robert Nighthawk from a lifetime of relative obscurity. And the only one to blame for that is the artist himself. According to a Nighthawk-centric website, his associates described him as “restless, taciturn and stubborn”… he led a nomadic existence and was curiously absent from Chicago during most of the glory years of the 1950s (preferring to spend his time in St. Louis, Clarksdale, his hometown of Helena and many points in between)… he had a habit of skipping out after gigs without paying his bandmates… and, as fellow bluesman Henry Townsend remarked, “You sure couldn’t dance off his blues – boy, they were as draggiest as they get!” But draggy is a very good thing when it comes to the wonderfully eloquent and electrified slide of Robert Nighthawk, who was captured live on Chicago’s Maxwell Street in 1964 by filmmaker Mike Shea in his documentary And This Is Free (see clip below, with lots of dancers). Here’s a track he recorded in 1949 for the Aristocrat label (which became Chess the following year) as “Nighthawks,” with Ernest Lane on piano and Willie Dixon on bass: Anna Lee

We heaped a fair amount of praise on Earl Hooker in our post on the Great American Blues Instrumental. But that didn’t do much to raise his profile, so we’ll try again by asking the obvious question: Why didn’t this stunning guitarist get the recognition he deserved? For one thing, his playing was more proficient and far-ranging than many of his peers (he probably could’ve made a living playing lap-steel in Nashville). And musical diversity isn’t always rewarded or appreciated in the blues community, which can be very parochial. Unfortunately, that also makes it difficult to find great comps like Blue Guitar: The Chief/Age/U.S.A. Sessions (1960-1963)… Here’s a taste: Blue Guitar

big maybelle

R. Crumb blues trading card

I don’t have much else to say about Big Maybelle beyond what I already shared here. I think she qualifies as “unsung,” since she’s not as well-known as Big Mama Thornton (whose own career was eclipsed by Elvis when he found a way to tame her snarling original version of Hound Dog). But I’m a little partial to Maybelle – especially her Okeh recordings from 1952 to 1955. Her voice has so much power and heft (that’s right… big woman, big sound) on these cuts. You can almost picture the session players – even hard-boiled veterans like guitarist and former child gangster Mickey Baker – soiling themselves in fear. Think of all the advances made in recording technology over the past 60 years… None of them can improve on this: One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show

You could argue that virtually every artist in the swamp-blues category is underrated – and that’s especially true with Lightnin’ Slim. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better “best of” than the out-of-print Slim comp Rollin’ Stone. Combine the primitivist recording techniques of one J.D. “Jay” Miller (is that a snare or a cardboard box?) with Slim’s menacing voice and whacked-out material like this tune… If you don’t dig it, I’ve got nothing else for you here. It’s Mighty Crazy

guitar slim

Illustration by Grego (mojohand.com)

Without Guitar Slim (known to his parents as Eddie Jones), there wouldn’t be a Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix or a whole slew of New Orleans R&B. A young “pre-Brother” Ray produced Guitar Slim’s regional hit The Things That I Used To Do, which helped shape the Crescent City sound during the mid-Fifties. And the wild guitarist’s fondness for distortion and shtick (he’d play fiery leads while being carried out of a juke joint on an assistant’s shoulders with a couple hundred feet of cord trailing behind them) certainly had a big impact on Hendrix. Let’s not forget he was a powerhouse singer who seemed to draw inspiration from both the church and the depths of hell. Did all that bring him fame and fortune? Of course not… Alcohol killed him at 32. But at least he made our list. Certainly All

It’s easy to think of guitarist Jimmy Rogers as one of the many talented sidemen who worked their way through Muddy Waters’ classic bands of the Fifties and Sixties. But he also left behind a very solid (and much-overlooked) body of work under his own name. I always liked his casually soulful singing and steady-rolling grooves, heard to great effect on his signature song, Walking By Myself. He also benefited from having some of Chicago’s best (usually Muddy’s band, without Muddy) play on his recordings – blues giants such as Little Walter, Otis Spann, Big Walter Horton, Willie Dixon, Fred Below… I would’ve paid to hear these guys play nursery rhymes. Rogers toured and recorded into the Nineties, often backed by more contemporary artists including Rod Piazza, Kim Wilson and Ronnie Earl. Here’s a prime cut from 1990 featuring Wilson on harp and Pinetop Perkins on piano: You’re Sweet

James HarmanI think the real reason I came up with this bogus theme was to share a little love for James Harman. Although he’s often associated with hard-swinging, West Coast blues, he’s actually a native of Anniston, Alabama, and made his first recordings in Atlanta at the age of 18. His voice is a thing of beauty, steeped in the gospel of his boyhood church choir. He’s also one of the tastiest harp players on the planet – no flash, no wasted notes… just the stuff that matters. And he infuses most of his songs with a healthy dose of wit, as you can tell from titles like Blue Stretchmark Tattoo and Last Clean Shirt. I’m especially fond of two Harman releases: Extra Napkins and Two Sides to Every Story. The former features another unsung hero, blues/swing guitarist (and Muddy sideman) Hollywood Fats, who died of a heroin overdose at the ridiculously young age of 32. The latter album is a little less greasy but includes this funky gem, a personal favorite (for more on Harman, including a sample of his 2015 release Bonetime, check here): My Little Girl

As promised – Robert Nighthawk, live on Maxwell Street…

Big Maybelle live at the Newport Jazz Festival, 1958…

You’ve probably heard about 50 lame-ass bar bands play this song… Well, here’s a superb acoustic take by Johnny Shines:

11 thoughts on “10 Unsung Blues Heroes

  • Owen, 09 November 9:41 am

    Superb. Thx. Trust all well

  • admin, 09 November 11:23 am

    Thanks man. I feel much better now that I have this post out of my system.

  • Mayor of Melonville, 09 November 4:46 pm

    Good stuff. I like this song from Robert Nighthawk in the Maxwell Street video, which I’m sure you have heard.
    .https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0K4qJfa9qLc

  • Blaine, 09 November 6:28 pm

    Great playlist!

  • Alan Balfour, 12 November 10:39 am

    Way back when I scanned this for some reason . May or may not be of interest…..
    ——————————————————
    Johnny Shines
    Mike Rowe
    (Blues Unlimited 37 Oct 1966 (pages 3-5)

    When we called on Johnny Shines at his home, he had taken the day off work in order to play for us. A very powerfully built man, he works for a construction firm and lives with his second wife. They’ve only been married a year and live in a flat out on South Woodlawn, one of the better Negro suburbs on the South Side.

    Johnny doesn’t have a guitar at the moment and we had to hire one for the afternoon. Despite his lack of practice, and the fact that it wasn’t the greatest guitar in the world, he played some thrilling music including traditional numbers like “l Cried”. He played in four tunings which he described as “Natural”, “E Natural”, “Crossed Note” and “Spanish”.

    Johnny Shines was born in Memphis on April 25th, 1915, into a family with some musical tradition. Both his brother and his uncle played guitar while two cousins played “bones” in church! Johnny first started playing in 1932 and first of all learned “Bumble Bee Blues” and “Milk Cow Blues”. His main influences were Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, Scrapper Blackwell and Charlie Patton. Quickly his style developed and he first attracted attention when Howlin’ Wolf was playing a date for Will Weillers. In the interval Johnny picked up Wolf’s guitar and played to the acclaim of the audience and Wolf s astonishment! By 1933-34, Johnny had become proficient enough to turn professional and he played around Memphis with other artists of that time. Those he remembers include Ted Owen, Willie Tango, Willie Bee Borum, “Honey Boy” Albert Shaw, Calvin Frazier (a cousin to Johnny, who now lives in Detroit) and, of course, Robert Johnson. Robert he met in 1934 and guessed he was about 22 or 23 at the time, just older than himself. With Robert, he travelled through Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri until 1937, playing together and sometimes opposite each other. If there were two dances in the same area and they couldn’t both be hired by the same man Robert would work one dance and Johnny the other. Robert he described as “the greatest and a crowd pleaser in every way, and of the similarity in their styles he said “Yes, we had similar styles. You see we both liked the same artists. That way we were a mixture of Blind Lemon, Lonnie Johnson, Scrapper Blackwell and Charlie Patton!”

    Johnny moved to Chicago on September 25th, 1941 and remembers playing first at “Frost s Corner”. His first recordings were made for Lester Melrose in 1944 and he remembers cutting six numbers (These would presumably be the unissued Columbia sides, though the date for these is given as 1946 and four sides only are listed). About this time he was leading a trio including the mysterious “Porkchops” and a boy called “Spoon”; they played out of town at Robbins, Illinois. For the first night he was paid only 3 dollars, having been promised 20 to 30 dollars! Not unnaturally he decided to quit. “I told him if that was all he could afford to pay me he obviously needed it more himself!” However, the promoter managed to persuade Johnny to get a five-piece band together with trumpet, piano, bass, guitar and drums for the next week and he booked them for 35 dollars a night. Johnny kept his group and they played at Robbins through 1943 to 1945 when the pianist was killed in a car crash while returning from Wisconsin. This broke up the band and Johnny opted out for a less hectic way of life.

    His JOB recordings were made in 1953 and until recently he hadn’t recorded with anyone else, but said he had been used as a sideman on dates by Snooky Pryor (with Moody Jones) for JOB, Homesick James and Arbee Stidham. The very few records under Johnny’s name can be explained by a disagreement with Al Benson that effectively finished his recording career. Apparently Benson was so influential in Chicago at the time that anyone who fell foul of him found it virtually impossible to get a contract. In spite of this Johnny was still fairly active well into the ‘fifties and played through 1956/ 57 with Sonny Boy Williamson. Since then he has become more and more disillusioned with the music business and plays only occasionally for informal functions within his social circle.

    In the evenings he has a sideline as a freelance photographer working the clubs where Wolf, Muddy and sometimes B.B. King and Lowell Fulson are playing. Physically very impressive he has a natural dignity plus a serious and intelligent approach which immediately commands one’s respect. As he says, he has not quite retired and modestly adds, “I never have given up the idea of being good at the business.” With his rediscovery and new recordings for Pete Welding and Sam Charters there has been a certain amount of pressure on him to take up music again as a living but he is fully aware of the remoteness of financial success and no doubt his earlier experiences have engendered in him a great deal of caution. Perhaps he senses that his is a more solo talent, while he himself would prefer to work with a group. However, with his wife and eldest daughter encouraging him one gets the impression that if he ever does turn professional again it will be a well thought out venture and one worthy of all our support. And if he doesn’t well, it will be our loss.

  • admin, 12 November 1:49 pm

    Thanks Alan… This is great. This article appeared in Blues Unlimited only four months after the Testament album was recorded in 1966, so it might’ve been part of someone’s efforts to help promote it. Scrapper Blackwell is another unsung blues hero — I love his recordings with pianist Leroy Carr.

  • Alan Balfour, 13 November 9:44 am

    FWIW here’s Stefan Wirz’s chronological Shines discography http://www.wirz.de/music/shinefrm.htm

  • Nik Drake, 14 November 8:26 am

    I love those Scrapper records with Leroy Carr too, Papa Wants A Cookie being one of my favourite novelty songs. I think they had a funny dynamic with Blackwell being the Oscar the Grouch to Leroy’s Fancy Dan (they probably loved to hate each other). I like that solo acoustic record Scrapper did in the 60s (maybe late 50s??) too.

    Great post man, wasn’t expecting a lot when I saw that James Harman album cover (he looks the spitting image of naff British Elvis worshiper Shakin’ Stevens) but that’s a disgustingly good groove.

    A couple of other under appreciated chaps I’d like to throw in the ring: Baby Face Leroy Foster…the wordless, moaning Rollin’ and Tumblin’ is insanely good and those early Chicago records are really alive.

    Robert Pete Williams: Been listening to this song, It’s a Wild Life on repeat. It’s got such a weird shimmying African sounding guitat part. I first heard him on a Live at Newpot comp with this stomping boogie number with “exotic” timing. It made everything else on it sound tame. Not an easy listen sometimes and a bit of a hard sell but I love him.

    Pissing it down in London as usual. Over and out!

  • admin, 14 November 11:51 am

    Funny, right after I finished this post I thought about Robert Pete Williams: “Damn, should’ve put him on the list!” He’s amazing. Rollin’ & Tumblin’ is the only tune I have by Baby Face, but it doesn’t get much better than that, right? (can’t lose with Little Walter on harp and Muddy on slide). Hey, I had a Shakin’ Stevens album back in the Eighties, a comp of his Epic stuff. Not sure who plays guitar, but that shit rocks!

  • Steve626, 25 November 5:30 pm

    What a wonderful post, as well as a great collection of some of my favorite blues performers. As I’ve gotten deeper into the blues, it’s the lesser known performers that I gravitate to. What can you say about Robert Nighthawk or Earl Hooker, not to mention my main man James Harman. You wondered why Earl Hooker wasn’t better known – I read a biography of Earl and apparently he was a secretive, jealous and difficult person, and seemed to always sabotage himself. Then he had to go and pass away just as he was poised for another run at fame. That tendency to self sabotage reminds me of Mike Bloomfield, not that he was secretive or jealous, just difficult. Thanks again for your post and spreading the word a out these superior artists!

  • admin, 25 November 7:19 pm

    Thanks much Steve. It’s tough enough trying to make a living playing music. Must’ve been twice as hard for these first- and second-generation blues legends, who either toured like dogs or took any shit gig they could get in Chicago.

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