string beans

I suppose every genre of music has its own original superstar. The Blues is no exception. You have to go all the way back to the turn of the century to discover the “original blues” (the 12-bar blues) superstar of his time and vaudeville professional who performed the latest blues songs. He was what Elvis was to rockabilly or what Michael Jackson was to pop music. He not only had singing and playing talent but he could bust moves on stage that had never been seen before, or maybe ever since. On top of all that, he was a hilarious comedian with a stunning appearance. In a word, he lit up vaudeville stages like no other performer. His name? String Beans. W.C. Handy represented the respectful blues of those times the scholars say, but String Beans “personified the unadulterated, pure instinct of the blues.”

His real name was Butler May (1894-1917) and got his nickname because he was tall and skinny. “May was not recognized by his contemporaries as the first great piano blues man or the first blues king,” maintain Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff in The Original Blues (2017), “but it was only because there was nobody to compare him to.” As explained in the book review on the jive-talk.com website, String Beans could have been a chart topper in those days had there been any such a thing as music charts. “His ‘Get You a Kitchen Mechanic’ and ‘Alabama Bound’ became theater and black vaudeville hits…The sheet music to ‘Alabama Bound’ (1909) shows the first appearance of the generic term ‘blues’ in print.”

“Jelly Roll” Morton (1890-1941) an American ragtime and early jazz pianist, bandleader and composer, once described String Beans as the greatest comedian he ever saw or heard. In an interview with folklorist Alan Lomax, Morton described May as, “over six feet tall, very slender with big liver lips, and light complexioned. His shoes were enormous and he wore trousers impossible to get over his feet without a shoehorn. He always had a big diamond in his front tooth. He was the first guy I ever saw with a diamond in his mouth, and I guess, I got the idea for my diamond from him.”

The athletic String Beans’ pre-WWI vaudeville acts wowed audiences. Writer W.L. James, who saw String Beans perform around 1914, said of him: “As he attacks the piano, String Bean’s head starts to nod, his shoulders shake, and his body begins to quiver. Slowly, he sinks to the floor of the stage. Before he submerges, he is executing the Snake Hips …shouting the blues and, as he hits the deck still playing the piano, performing a horizontal grind which would make today’s rock and roll dancers seem like staid citizens.” (Wikipedia)

In 1910, Alabama native May formed a personal and professional relationship with New Orleans-born Sweetie Matthews. They married, and performed regularly together in Benbow’s company. In 1911, they played in Chicago at the Monogram theater, one of the top black vaudeville venues in the city, and, according to writers Abbott and Seroff, “opened the floodgates for other Southern acts, and ensured a prominent place for the blues in American entertainment.”

The couple became known all over black America at the time. “Although their relationship was punctuated by occasional acrimonious separations during which May performed with other partners, String Beans and Sweetie toured together intermittently until the end of 1915. Earlier that year, they debuted in New York City, at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem, later returning for an unprecedented three-week engagement there. As a husband and wife team, they directly inspired Butterbeans ans Susie [an African American comedy duo], and May was also credited as an inspiration by Ethel Waters,” explains Wikipedia.

String Beans passed away at the young age of 23 in November 1917, in Jacksonville, Florida, from a broken neck. It is believed that his death was the result of a botched initiation ceremony at a Freemasonry lodge, after a rope was put round his neck. He was paralyzed and died a week later. At his peak String Beans was highest paid Negro showman in America and, infamously, the most suggestive. May left no copyrighted sheet music or records. Other writers and academics, such as Marshall and Jean Stearns in 1966, have described Butler May, as “an early Ray Charles.”

Butterbeans and Susie perform “Hot Dog”

little walter

The guitar remains the most popular instrument accompanying blues artists, but firmly in second place has to be the venerable blues harmonica. Oddly, it is rarely mentioned in the foreground of blues literature. Even odder is the near total absence of great harmonica players in this literature despite the fact that this musical instrument has been a vital part of blues and R&B music for decades, not to mention some rock songs as well. What is perhaps not in dispute: the greatest harmonica player of all was Little Walter, from Louisiana, who revolutionized the way harmonicas were played. Contemporary musicians claimed that Walter could make the small, handheld instrument sound like a bevy of horns playing simultaneously.

“He was born Marion Walter Jacobs on May 1st, 1930 in Marksville, Louisiana and raised in Rapides Parish, Louisiana, where he first learned to play the harmonica. After quitting school by the age of 12, Jacobs left rural Louisiana and travelled around working odd jobs and busking [playing music in the street or another public place for voluntary donations] on the streets of New Orleans, Memphis, Helena, Arkansas and St. Louis. He honed his musical skills on harmonica and guitar performing with much older bluesmen such as Sonny Boy Williamson II, Sunnyland Slim, Honeyboy Edwards and others,” claims Chloe Richardson in an article for the American Blues Scene website. 

By the time Little Walter arrived in Chicago (1945), the blues had been electrified by Muddy Waters and other bluesmen plying their trade in the Windy City. Walter found that his harmonica sound was literally getting drowned out, so he electrified his instrument as well by cupping his hands around the harmonica while holding a microphone next to it. He was then no longer playing in the background but was competing with electrified guitars in the foreground. His amplifiers were being pushed to their electronic limits. Madison Deniro wrote a small biographical piece on Little Walter stating that “He was the first musician of any kind to purposely use electronic distortion.”

Walter’s sound was ahead of its time and more up-tempo than what the rest of the Chicago blues had to offer at the time. “As a harmonica player he was rhythmically freer, and a lot less unvarying than most blues harpists of his time,” states americanbluesscene.com. And like most blues players in Chicago in the 1950s, Walter was trying to get a recording contract with Chess Records, the local-based recording company, as portrayed in the biopic “Cadillac Records.” Actor Columbus Short played Little Walter in that 2008 movie.

Another film called “Blue Midnight” is a complete biography of the famous harmonica player. In that film, many blues players pay homage to Little Walter. One of the players featured in the film was Jr. Wells, who said “There will never be another Little Walter. Never.”

Walter finally hit the big time in 1952 with the smash hit “Juke.” The song remains the only harmonica instrumental ever to hit number one on Billboard. To this day “Juke” is the most successful track of any artist on the Chess label. Walter had fourteen top-ten hits on the Billboard R&B charts between ’52 and ’58, including two number one hits, the later hit being “My Babe” in 1955.

“Little Walter stood out and made his way to the top, yet his musical triumphs couldn’t save him from himself,” states americanbluesscene.com. “Despite his successes, Walter was an alcoholic who lived life to the maximum. Known for being hot-headed and quick-tempered, Walter was a regular brawler. He was subjected to numerous beatings throughout his life, leaving his face and body bruised, battered, and scarred.” Walter continually pushed his body to its limit, which ultimately resulted in his premature death due to “coronary thrombosis” at 37. The greatest harmonica player to ever blow the blues died in his sleep on February 15th, 1968, following a bar fight in the South Side of Chicago. The exact circumstances surrounding his death remain a mystery.

Wikipedia’s tribute: “The music journalist Bill Dahl described Little Walter as ‘king of all post-war blues harpists,’ who ‘took the humble mouth organ in dazzling amplified directions that were unimaginable prior to his ascendancy.’ His legacy has been enormous: he is widely credited by blues historians as the artist primarily responsible for establishing the standard vocabulary for modern blues and blues rock harmonica players.”

It is said that the price of harmonicas skyrocketed after Little Walter’s passing.

Little Walter plays and sings “My Babe”

the devil’s instrument

The guitar can arguably be called one of the world’s most versatile musical instruments. A big problem for early blues players wanting to play it, however, was the cost of buying one. Up until the late 19th century, the guitar had been considered affordable for members of the American middle class (and above), but not for poorer African American musicians whose blues style was a perfect match for the instrument. Black blues players had no choice but make their own guitars, many fashioned from old wooden cigar boxes and broomsticks (for the neck). Only with the introduction of the Sears mail order catalogues in 1893 did guitars and all other instruments become more easily affordable.

When the Portuguese first sailed to the Hawaiian islands in the 18th century, they took guitars as gifts for the royal family there, but they never taught the islanders how to tune their gifts. The Hawaiian way of tuning produced the now-famous slack key guitar style that we currently associate with the sound of Hawaii. The 1880s saw another innovation to the Hawaiian guitar style, a way of playing that would later strongly influence the emergence of the American blues.

In Hawaii around 1885, an Oahu schoolboy, Joseph Kekuku (1874-1932), picked up a metal bolt on a railway track near Honolulu; and made music by sliding the bolt over the gut strings of his Portuguese guitar, thus producing the first steel (slide) guitar sound. “In 1904 at the age of 30, Joseph left Hawaii and would never return. He started in the United States by performing in vaudeville theaters from coast to coast. His group was called ‘Kekuku’s Hawaiian Quintet’,” states Wikipedia.” “In 1919, Kekuku left the U.S. for an eight-year tour of Europe traveling with ‘The Bird of Paradise’ show. His show was so popular that it became a film in 1932 and again in 1951, though Kekuku was not in either film.”

Many blues historians and musicologists have pondered the mystery of just how (and when) the blues was influenced by the wailing sounds of an accompanying slide guitar. Some attribute the sound as coming from the “diddly bow,” a crude guitar fashioned from discarded junk materials that was used by early bluesmen who did not have enough money to buy a real guitar. Author John W. Troutman begs to disagree. He argues in Southern Cultures that the musical technique popularized in the Mississippi Delta came from traveling Native Hawaiian musicians. “Tracing the proliferation of their playing style, writes Troutman, a historian at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and weekend steel guitarist, once again underlines just how many ethnic and racial groups have shaped southern culture.”

No matter where you stand on this argument, almost everybody can agree on one thing: the steel guitar produces a sound that can pierce the soul of a listener. “There is something so special to see a brilliant guitarist with his eyes shut, his head flung back, wringing the plaintive notes of pain and anguish from his guitar. It’s playing that uplifts us, enriches us and makes us feel good. It’s for every occasion and as long as people play the guitar, some of them will play the blues,” opines Richard Havens in the udiscovermusic.com blog.

But not everyone says “amen” to these statements, especially some African American non-musicians and churchgoers during the early years of blues development. “What we now call blues was the often intimidating, frightening music heard in the darkest of places; in evil places like brothels and sleazy drinking dens. Blues was the devil’s music, many African Americans felt. If blues was mentioned at all, it was with distaste. The guitar, in particular, was seen by many blacks as the devil’s instrument. Most successful black artists would have felt blues to be undignified and beneath them. They had too much self-respect to perform or listen to the music that dare not speak its name,” writes blues historian Paul Merry in How the Blues Evolved (volume one).

Maybe so, but listen to what B.B. King, often called “The King of the Blues” has to say: “I call myself a blues singer, but you ain’t never heard me call myself a blues guitar man. I’m trying to get people to see that we are our brother’s keeper. Red, white, black, brown or yellow, rich or poor, we all have the blues.”

About Joseph Kekuku: