December 20, 2017
Booker T Washington White, aka Bukka White, was many things. Like most African Americans born into the oppressive, Jim Crow era in the Mississippi Delta, he grew up sharecropping and picking cotton for plantation owners. He also drove mule teams. Bukka was a wandering Delta nomad, a professional boxer, a preacher, he played professional baseball in the Negro Leauges, and he even spent time working on a chain-gang. But, he’s best known for playing the blues.
His first instrument was the fiddle. He’d play for community dances on the plantation. History tells us that while performing at the Dockery Plantation, Bukka met Charlie Patton, Father of The Delta Blues, who became his friend and mentor. He soon graduated to guitar, mastered the bottleneck, and developed a completely unique sound of his own.
Before long, he was touring the south and recording as “Washington White, The Singing Preacher.” Some of these early sides feature Memphis Minnie singing with Bukka. Bukka relocated to Memphis and in the early 40’s invited his nephew, Riley B King to come up from Itta Benna, MS to live with him. Riley, of course, became BB King, King of the Blues.
In the early 60’s, white, folk artist Bob Dylan recorded White’s song, Fixin’ To Die Blues for his debut album and it introduced him to a global audience. Bukka became a major part of the 60’s blues revival, performing to audiences around the world.
In 1990, Bukka White was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
This is his story.
December 6, 2017
We continue the series with Bessie Smith, the Empress of The Blues.
Bessie Smith wasn’t born into royalty. She had to work her way up. But, she had the talent and she most certainly had the determination to overcome her humble origins.
At 9 years of age, Bessie was orphaned and earning money for food by singing with her older brother on street corners in Chattanooga, TN. He ran away to pursue a better life with a vaudeville troupe, but he eventually returned to get her when she was 18. Bessie auditioned to be a singer, but was assigned the role of a dancer because the troupe already had a star vocalist: blues legend Ma Rainey.
But it worked out very well for Bessie. Ma liked her and she helped Bessie get her act together. She showed Bessie how to work crowds and put on a show. After embarking on her own, Bessie Smith became the biggest star on the black theater circuit and she grew to become one of the biggest stars in the world. Some even say that her ventures into other mediums such as Broadway and film, coupled with her controversial romances and tumultuous private life, became the blueprint for the modern rockstar.
Bessie has 3 songs in the Grammy Hall of Fame. "Down Hearted Blues" is included in the Songs of The Century by the Recording Industry of America and was inducted in the RnR Hall of Fame as one of the 500 songs that shaped RnR.
Bessie Smith was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980. Since then she has been inducted into the Big Band Hall of Fame, The RnR Hall of Fame, received a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and has also been inducted in to the Jazz Hall of Fame.
This is her story.
November 29, 2017
Charlie Patton was the very first bluesman to record and popularize the blues. Born in 1891 in Bolton, MS (in the southern part of the state), Charlie and his family relocated to Dockery Farms around 1900, looking for opportunity and a better way of life. The towns in the northern delta were less established and in need of labor - as a result, black workers were treated better on the northern plantations than those in the southern, more established part of the state.
At Dockery, his family worked hard and achieved success - his father was named foreman of the plantation. But farm work was never much in the plan for Charley Patton - he was born to entertain. While he lived on or around Dockery his entire life, he never bought in to the farming lifestyle. But, he did play the blues far and wide. He became the first in-demand blues artist. He was a regional superstar. A celebrity. His recorded works became hit records found on phonographs throughout the Delta.
Charlie recorded 57 songs between 1929 and 1934, which left a legacy that has impacted musicians from Led Zepplin to Bob Dylan to the White Stripes. His most famous songs include Pony Blues, Spoonful Blues, and High Water Everywhere.
Unfortunately, like many bluesmen, Patton’s life was short - he died in 1934 at age 43. We can only guess what we would have accomplished in his life. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980.
This is his story.
November 15, 2017
If Bessie Smith is the acknowledged “Queen of the Blues,” then Gertrude “Ma” Rainey is the undisputed “Mother of the Blues.” Or, as one historian famously said, “If there was another woman who sang the blues before Rainey, nobody remembered hearing her.”
Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett in, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia. She made her performing debut at the age of 14 in a local theatre show. In her late teens, she married and soon found herself touring with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. She quickly became a star and the troupe began featuring Rainey singing blues music. Those performances would precede the blues boom by almost two decades and would make Rainey the first woman to incorporate blues into vaudeville, minstrel and tent shows.
In 1923 Rainey signed with Paramount Records.Paramount marketed her extensively, calling her the “Mother of the Blues,”
When the blues faded from popularity in the Thirties, the earthy Ma Rainey returned to her Georgia hometown, where she ran two theaters. Ma Rainey died from a from a heart attack on December 22, 1939.
Ma Rainey was inducted into the Blue Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1990, the same year she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In 2004 “See, See Rider” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
This is her story.
November 1, 2017
Born into in rural, baptist Mississippi in 1902, Son House felt called to be a preacher at the young age of 15.
But it just wasn't meant to be. As he matured into adulthood, he developed an affinity for alcohol. It proved to be a strange mix of ideals.
The one evening, while drinking and gambling with friends, House tried his hand at singing the blues. The die was cast. The preacher’s booming voice filled the room, the bottleneck guitar answered, and a bluesman was born.
Son House became the touring partner of Willie Brown and Charlie Patton, the father of the Delta Blues. The three played all over the Mississippi Delta and influenced countless musicians, including a young Robert Johnson.
Son House became one of the most important figures of the folk revival in the 60’s. As one of the last living links to Patton and Johnson, he found himself surrounded by admirers and in demand around the world on the festival and coffeehouse circuit. To an entire generation of blues lovers, Son House was the blues.
This is his story.
October 18, 2017
Honeyboy Edwards was Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen.
Born to a poor, but very musical family, his early life consisted of hard labor in the fields. His prodigious talents soon took him away from all that, and his life became a journey through the pages of blues history.
Edwards was Robert Johnson’s close friend and travelling companion. In fact, he was with Johnson the night he was poisoned and died in 1938.
Honeyboy Edwards called many of the first generation of bluesmen both friends and collaborators. He played with Charlie Patton, Tommie Johnson, and Johnny Shines. He later played guitar behind John Lee Hooker, Big Joe Williams, and Muddy Waters.
Edwards believed in the blues and he believed in doing things without all the flash. He was humble, understated, and consistently great at working alongside the superstars of the delta blues for 8, long decades.
This is his story
October 4, 2017
Ray Charles, blind since the age of 7 and orphaned at 14, did blues, jazz, and gospel as well as anyone before or since.
And, by doing them all together at once, he pioneered what we soon came to recognize as Soul.
That’s right. Ray Charles is the father of that whole genre.
Furthermore, he took these forms of Black American music, mingled them just enough with contemporary pop sounds and had massive crossover success. Ray Charles was one of the very first African American artists to be granted full, creative control of his career by a major record label.
Ray Charles had a nickname. Some say it was given to him by Sinatra himself. However he got it, it stuck, and people referred to him as "The Genius."
Pretty appropriate, don’t you think?
This is his story.
September 20, 2017
Fats Domino was born into a musical, French Creole family in the Lower 9th in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1928. His first language was Creole French.
His talents blossomed early. His musical gifts, along with with his laid back and easygoing demeanor, created a lot of demand - everybody wanted to work with Fats.
He had his first hit by the time he was 21, and he invented New Orleans-style rock n roll with it. That 1949 hit for Imperial Records - "The Fat Man" - sold over a million copies by 1953 and is considered the first rock n roll record to achieve that feat. A succession of hits soon followed: "Aint that a Shame", "Blueberry Hill", and "I’m Walkin’".
By the end of his career, Fats Domino had sold more records than any other 1950’s rocker except for Elvis Presley.
September 6, 2017
Gatemouth Brown once said of Don Robey, “He pulled off something in America that no one else ever pulled off. We had the only world-renowned black recording company.”
That “recording company” included the legendary Peacock and Duke record labels, boasting stars like Johnny Ace, Bobby Blue Bland, Little Richard, and Big Mama Thornton. It also included chains of retail record stores, pressing plants, print shops, a booking agency, and a circuit of nightclubs. It was a giant musical eco-system all under Don Robey's ruthless thumb.
Don Robey launched the careers of countless stars and shaped the business side of rhythm and blues music for generations.
This is his story.
August 23, 2017
We continue the series with the “world’s oldest teenager,” Rufus Thomas.
Rufus Thomas contained multitudes, as they say. His talents and the personality behind those talents knew no bounds.
Rufus’ professional career began at the age of six taking small roles in theatrical productions on Beale Street. As a teeneager he starred on the vaudeville and minstrel show circuits that criss-crossed the south. He was a singer, a dancer, a comedian, a radio DJ… and what’s truly incredible is that he excelled at all of those things.
From Beale Street to Sun Records to superstardom at Stax. Vaudeville, blues, rock n roll, soul. Even funk! Rufus did it all.