ACA Recording Studios, Houston, Texas, April 14, 1953. Sonny Boy Williamson, harmonica and vocals; Willie Love, piano; Buck Hinson, bass; Rusty Alford, drums; Lester Williams, guitar; R. Lillie, sax.S...
ACA Recording Studios, Houston, Texas, April 14, 1953. Sonny Boy Williamson, harmonica and vocals; Willie Love, piano; Buck Hinson, bass; Rusty Alford, drums; Lester Williams, guitar; R. Lillie, sax.State Furniture Co., Jackson, Mississippi, October 24, 1953. Sonny Boy, harmonica and vocals; David Campbell, piano; Herman Fowlkes, bass; Oneal Hudson, drums; James Williams, guitar; Bernard Williams, sax.Ammons Studio, Jackson, Mississippi, March 23, 1953. Willie Love, piano and vocals; unknown, bass; Oneal Hudson, drums, Willie Kyles, Carlton Wells or Bernard Williams, saxes (2); Joe Willie Wilkens, guitar, "Lonesome World Blues" only. Cedars of Lebanon Club, Jackson, Mississippi, December 1,1951. Willie Love, piano and vocals; T.J. Green, bass; unknown, drums; Little Milton Campbell, guitar. Scott's Radio Service, Jackson, Mississippi, April 7, 1951. Willie Love, piano and vocals: Alex Wallace, drums; Lonnie Holmes, guitar; Otis Green, sax. Diamond Recording Studios, Jackson, Mississippi, November 2, 1954. Sonny Boy Williamson, harmonica and vocals; David Campbell, piano; Johnny Morgan, bass; Junior Blackman, drums; J. V. Turner, guitar.
Since the earliest years ofthe century, Nelson Street has served the black community ofGreenville, Mississippi as its social and commercial mainstream. Itsmany cafes, saloons, barbershops, juke joints and dives have playedhost to some of the best musicians in the Delta. It was here in 1942that Aleck "Rice" Miller, one of the most extraordinary of all bluesartists, first met and gigged with Willie Love, Jr., a Greenvilleresident whose rolling, swinging piano playing kept him in steadydemand on Nelson Street and beyond. Both men could deliver strong vocal blues, mixing onginal verseswith traditional themes and moving dance rhythms to the delight oftheir audiences at such nightclubs as the Silver Dollar Cafe and theCasa Blanca. "Rice" Miller was becoming more widely known as SonnyBoy Williamson of KFFA's King Biscuit Time radio show out of Helena,Arkansas, which broadcast throughout the Delta daily at 12:45 p.m.commencing in 1941. Max Moore, owner of the Interstate Grocery Co.,the show's sponsor, had suggested the subterfuge of using theWilliamson tag in an attempt to capitalize on the fame of John LeeWilliamson, another great harmonica-playing blues singer whoseBluebird recordings had been selling widely throughout the Southsince 1937. Miller, who had no great ambitions past the immediategoals of maintaining steady bookings in the area and hence a bankrollfor his various appetites, played along with the deception and becamefamous as the second Sonny Boy, occasionally performing hisnamesake's compositions on the air. But it was his own strikinglyoriginal stylings that endeared him to listeners everywhere andassured him of a permanent slot as star of the King Biscuit Timewhenever he was in Helena. Roosevelt Briggs, born in Greenville in 1931, was something of aprodigy on the mouthharp when he met Willie Love and his band onNelson Street in the mid-forties. As he remembered it, "They all hungout on Nelson Street. Sometimes my mama and daddy would not knowwhere I'd be at, and I'd be around there on Nelson Street. They wasall friendly guys. They'd give me a little money, you know. They'dput me up on the stage. The place would be full, both colored andwhite would go in there. They'd be more surprised that I could blow aharmonica, 'cause I was so young." But when Sonny Boy was in town,young Roosevelt sat and listened. "Sonny Boy'd be clownin' and put ona big show!" From their first gig together on Nelson Street in 1942, whichprobably occurred when Sonny Boy chanced to enter a club where Williewas playing, it was apparent that personally and musically they wenea great combination. They both favored the hard-drinking, gamblingand rambling life of the bluesman. Willie's piano and singing styleowed a lot to the great Tennessee-born recording star Leroy Can, buthe added further elements of infectious boogie woogie in his lefthand, a more rough-hewn vocal attack and a lyrical gift that was allhis own. His right hand echoed the modes of the field hollers andearly blues that he had heard as a boy and fieldhand around Duncan,Mississippi, where he was born in 19O6, the first son of Willie Love,Sr. and Anna Sheardeforee. He could sing slow, wistful blues like"Falling Rain" and boisterous boogies like "Take It Easy, Baby" withequal conviction. Or he could play beautifully restrainedaccompaniments to Sonny Boy, whose propulsive bursts of rhythm onharp would drive an entire band forward as he sang laconic scraps ofthe purest blues poetry in a warm, worldwise voice that could rangefrom pleading urgency to mordant bemusement in an inspired flash.Sonny Boy's talent was special, and he knew it. The Good Lord give me a good taint Ain't got to go driftin' fromhand to hand - "I'm Not Beggin' Nobody" Sonny Boy was totally at ease in his God-given role as anentertainer. Playing and singing and pking, he danced his way acrossendless streetcorners, through juke joints and fish fnes, fromflatbed trucks, tenant shacks on the river banks, the stages ofnightclubs or black movie theatres, over radio waves to thousands ofDelta listeners, and ultimately into the Jackson studios of TrumpetRecords. Shortly after Lillian Shedd McMurry, her brother Milton Shedd, andtheir friend Curtis Dossed tracked down Sonny Boy in Belzoni andsigned him to an exclusive recording contract in 1959, a remarkableseries of sessions commenced. Sonny Boy introduced Willie and theircohorts to Lillian, who had just started the Tnumpet label with herhusband Willard. Their recordings, featuring the pair with many oftheir most frequent playing partners from King Biscuit Time, NelsonStreet and the jukes of the South, provide a priceless glimpse of thereal sound of the blues as they were heard on and off the airthroughout the Delta around midcentury, as played by some of the mostpopular musicians of the time. Sonny Boy's first release on Trumpet, "Eyesight To The Blind/Crazy'Bout You Baby," was an immediate he across the South in 1951.Willie's first, the uptempo boogie "Take It Easy, Baby," backed onTrumpet 137 with the sinuous Little Car BltgJesZ featured the wildand woody sounds of His Three Aces, a generic title for hisever-shifting roster of sidemen. With the steamy, raucous saxophoneexclamations of Otis Green, the ro-cksolid drumming of Alex Wallace,and Lonnie Holmes' boogie bass figures on guitar, the disc capturedperfectly the compelling dance-oriented sound of the Delta jukes andsold nearly as well as "Eyesight To The Blind." Thus encouraged,Lillian called each artist back to the studios for two more sessionsthat year, recording in all 16 vocals by Sonny Boy and 12 by Willie.She had gathered enough material to maintain a steady stream ofreleases by both through 1952 and concentrated that year on promotingTrumpet Records through her Record Mart on North Farish Street inJackson. As she recalled, "We had three hours of radio time a day on WRBCwith Woodson Wall, 'the Ole Hep Cat,' which was easily the mostlistened-to show in Jackson. We advertised fine package deals, playedthe records, had guest artists, and sent out mail order catalogues ofrecords in our shop. Also, we furnished records to jockeys on WSLI,WJXN, and WOKJ and paid for some extra programs. All this amounted tolots of sales and The Record Mart was the biggest record shop southof Nashville." Records like Sonny Boy's "Nine Below Zero," Mighty Long Time,"which featured former Ink Spots' bass singer Clip Givens' incrediblyvibrant imitation of a bull fiddle, and Willie's "Nelson StreetBlues/V-8 Ford," with teenage guitar prodigy Little Milton Campbellwere solid hits in 1952, with the latter disc rated top in Billboardand a predictably huge success in Greenville. Willie had had his ownradio spot on Greenville's WGVM for 30 minutes every morning in thelate forties, featuring Sonny Boy, Elmore James, and Joe WillieWilkins when they were in town. He thus reciprocated an arrangementthat had begun with his own stints as a sideman on Sonny's KingBiscuit Time broadcasts. Willie later followed Sonny Boy to WestMemphis and broadcast over KWEM, sponsored by the Broadway FurnitureStore. The new releases and Ate ongoing radio shows pushed firepair's popularity to new levels. "The radio station in Greenville wore out at least 20 copies ofNelson Street Blues," as Lillian recalled. The song is a richlydetailed paean to the people, places, and spirit of the street.Willie guides us on a walking tour, passing through The Tails 'n' TieShoe Shine Parlor, The Deluxe Barbershop, The Sharp Shop, across therailroad tracks to The Snow White Laundry, and finaily into TheSilver Dollar Cafe, one of his favorite haunts and steady gigs, wherewe can imagine his friend and propietor Arthur setting up the drinksas Willie pays fine blues. As with most of his tunes from this time,a main ingredient is the intention, as Willie puts it in hischarmingly turned phrase, to "laugh and have a lot of fun." This2-sided hit, along with Fatling Fain and Feed My Body To The Fishes,was recorded in Jackson at The Cedars of Lebanon nightclub during amarathon session that lasted three days and two nights and produced42 cuts, eight of which became hits. Engineer Bill Holford hadtraveled from Houston with portable equipment to catch the sounds.T.J. Green's booming bass dominates the rhythm section while Campbellpunctuates Love's vocals with concentric lead guitar figures ofremarkable clarity and definition. One reason for Sonny and Willie's great regional popularity wasthe fact that they spoke of and to the most basic feelings andconcerns of their people. On a purely personal level, and in atranspersonal tribal sense, the images and references in their Iyricsserved to unify and strengthen the community spirit of the workingclass black. When Willie sang, "So many good people, they wore a balland chain/That's the reason I'm down, boys, in spirit and my lifedon't seem the same," every black listener could readily identify awhole complex of shared emotions and memories. Again, Sonny Boy'sconstant assertions of pride and self-respect, his brash confidence,relish for earthiest pleasures, his capacity for wonder, allsuggested positive outlets for a community still in the throes ofcasting off the whole host of oppressions inherited from slaverydays. "I Ain't Beggin' Nobody," "She Brought Life Back To The Dead,Eyesight To The Blind" -- they were truly themes for a people to riseup and dance to. Early in 1953 Lillian decided to do new sessions with her twoblues mainstays and after unsatisfactory attempts in Jackson thatwinter booked studio time for them at ACA in Houston, where she hopedthe prowess of engineer Bill Holford would help to produce some newhits. So it was with high hopes that Lillian presented Sonny andWillie with roundtrip trainfare and expenses to Houston early thatApril. "Sonny Boy and Willie were real close friends," sheremembered. They used to jam together and have fun. They rode theCity of New Orleans train from Jackson to New Orleans and then theSouthern Pacific to Houston. I was told and even heard from some ofthe railroad people before Sonny and Willie got home, that theyentertained everybody on the trains all the way to Houston, clowning,dancing, and singing. They did these crazy little skits, like the TwoBlack Crows. Sonny Boy would blow that harmonica, and Willie wouldbeat time with his hands, his feet, and dancing. I've seen 'em somany times in my studio that I know what they were doing on thetrains. Sonny Boy would play the harp and say, 'Willie, do you knowwhat your spinal column is?' And Willie would stand up by the piano,dancing in unison with Sonny whim they played their instruments, andsay, 'No, Sonny, I don't know what my spinal column is.' Sonny says,'Well, I'll tell you what your spinal column is: your head sits onone end and you sits on the other!' They they would laugh and danceall over the floor in unison and then do more...some dialogue wasslightly risque but never filthy. It was a scream...big Sonny andlittle Willie with his spats on. It was so piously funny you justcouldn't believe it!" The pair arrived in Houston in high spirits, secured hotelaccommodations and caught a cab to the ACA studios. They may havebeen slightly surprised to find among the session musicians assembledby Holford two young white men, bassist Buck Hinson and drummer RustyAlford. But the two seasoned studio players knew the blues; Hinson'ssurging bass lines and Alford's tasteful percussion complement Sonnyand Willie nicely. Another highlight is the interplay between Sonny'sharp and the guitar of Lester Williams. The popular veteran of theHouston club scene had been voted the local "King of the Blues" byThe Houston Courier just the year previous; his clean, spare leadlines, frequently lurking a fraction behind the beat, are very muchin the Texas tradition that came down from Blind Lemon Jeffersonthrough T-Bone Walker. The sound achieved at this session stands asthe most fully realized of Sonny Boy's attempts to create afull-blown "orchestra" on records, an ambition he had voicedfrequently to McMurry. The expense account for the two days includeda meager $1.50 for lunches as compared to nearly $10 for whiskey.Thus stimulated, the group melded a wondrously sonorous series ofhead arrangements that showcase Sonny Boy's harp and vocals,preserved with perfection by Holford. From this session emergedSonny's masterpiece, "She's Crazy," a blues about the train called"The City of New Orleans" that they had ridden the day before, therocker "Sonny's Rhythm," with Buck Hinson's driving bass and Sonny'sglass-shattering rendition of high C, and a tribute to LillianMcMurry herself, "309." (309 was the number on North Farish Streetwhere Lillian's Record Mart, and eventually her studio, werelocated.) Willie Love was sick and dying from the effects of acutealcoholism, and his songs "Worried Blues" and "Lonesome World Blues,"recorded in Jackson shortly before the Houston trip, seem to expressa spiraling gloom. The old exuberance is gone, replaced by a deepblue mood as he cries soulfully: Well, I start to go to Memphis but I didn't know my mind Seemslike everybody wanna mistreat me all the time And I believe, Ibelieve I'll leave this town Seem like nobody, nobody wants me 'round- "Lonesome World Blues" Willie Love passed away in Jackson on August 19, 1953 after abrief struggle with pneumonia and kidney failure at Baptist Hospital."I tried to warn Willie about drinking too much," recalled Lillian,"but he didn't listen. He got sick and had to go to the hospital. Wepaid our private doctor to care for him and catheterize him or he'dhave burst. The day he died I went to see him and he said, 'MissLillian, you and Mr. Willard were better to me than my own people.' "Indeed, Willie's family had him buried in a potter's field afterfailing to invite the McMurrys to the funeral at Collins FuneralHome, just a block up North Farish from 309, for which Trumpet hadpaid the expenses. Sonny Boy was around 50 years old and had already seen a lot ofbluesmen come and go by the time his good buddy Willie Love was laidto rest. For him, another year of recording for Trumpet lay ahead.The arch and intimate "Keep It To Yourself" reveals a sly,insinuating sound that contrasts sharply with the raw early Jacksonsessions. The comic proposition of "Shuckin' Mama," the proud,autobiographical "Ain't Beggin' Nobody," and the fundamental juke jam"Clownin' With The World" all suggest that Sonny's talent as arecording artist had come into full flower. Lillian McMurry had come quite a ways, too; she was nowengineering her own tracks in Trumpet's own Diamond Studio, newlybuilt in the back of The Recond Mart. The fullbodied presence of"Clownin' With The World," recorded there in late 1954, with Sonny'sreedy low D riffs and Junior Blackman's pulsating drumming, repletewith fanciful fills, indicates that she was in the process ofmastering yet another aspect of the recording business. Sadly,Trumpet Records would soon sink from view, a victim of the commercialrevolution in the music industry caused by the advent of rock 'n'roll. Sonny Boy would eventually travel north to Chicago to begin abegin a long series of outstanding, frequently brilliant sessions forChess Records that would culminate in worldwide recognition. But hisfriendship with Willie Love, and the fine collaborations they hadcreated playing and singing, dancing and jiving together for over 10years throughout the Homeland of the Blues, would not be forgotten. -- Marc Ryan