the blues mafia

The Muddywood guitar. The design replicates the route of the Mississippi River.

Writers, performers and other professional presenters often create idealistic images of the past or even images of things that never existed at all. In the case of the blues, such presenters and opinion leaders have been dubbed “the blues mafia” by musician and academic Tom Attah in a 2013 essay called “Feels Like Going Home: Mythologising the Story of the Blues.” Attah was particularly referring to the 1960s rediscovery of the American blues by teenaged baby boomers in the United States and Europe searching for “authentic” blues players from the past, i.e. an aging black guitar-playing bluesman previously gone undiscovered. When attending performances of such players, boomers often expected to see an old black man in tattered clothes playing his guitar and belting out a blues ballad. This “mafia’s” expectations of authenticity then drove producers and event organizers to fulfill this image in real life.

This phenomenon was also apparent in the pre-WWII era. Take bluesman Big Bill Broonzy (1893-1958), for example. This large blues player from the Chicago blues scene of the 1930s and 1940s was also known for his fancy clothes. When he performed at a Carnegie Hall concert called “From Spirituals to Swing” in December 1938, however, he was asked to take off his suit and don overalls to convince the audience that he was indeed “the living embodiment of an untutored folk musician.” Broonzy complied and kept the “mask” going when he toured Europe in the 1950s, influencing such budding rock musicians there like John Lennon, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. If the rustic image was what American and European audiences wanted, Big Bill was more than happy to provide it.

The blues mafia works in other, more curious ways, as well. Take the case of the Texas blues band ZZ Top, which later turned to rock and roll. They are the band with long beards and a cool touring car. “ZZ Top (pronounced ‘zee zee top’) is an American rock band from Houston, Texas, formed in 1969. The group consists of founder Billy Gibbons (guitar, lead vocals), Dusty Hill (bass, vocals) and Frank Beard (drums, percussion). Initially rooted in blues, ZZ Top’s style has evolved throughout their career, with a signature sound based on Gibbons’ blues guitar style and Hill and Beard’s rhythm section. Their lyrics, often embellished with sexual innuendo, focus on their Texas roots and humor. Popular for their live performances, the group has staged several elaborate tours,” explains Wikipedia.

Actually, not everyone in the band is from Houston, but all are bona-fide Texans. One of the band’s greatest hits was “La Grange” about a house of ill repute (now closed) in that small Texas town, best known for its portrayal in the 1982 movie “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” starring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton. The nondescript farmhouse with no advertising sign was also called the “Chicken Ranch.” After a series of features by the flamboyant KTRK-TV reporter Marvin Zindler (1921-2007) that shed light on the Chicken Ranch’s operation, authorities finally closed the place in 1973. The Texas brothel had been operating since 1905.

So what’s the blues connection? ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, number 32 on Rolling Stone’s “Top 100 Guitarists,” decided in the late 1990s to pay homage to one of the blues’ greatest performers, Muddy Waters, by creating a special guitar from the remaining timber of Muddy’s old shack on the Stovall Plantation in  Mississippi. “It was humble beginnings for what really is an offering to the Delta Blues Museum [in Clarksdale]. The guitar can be a focal point for modern blues musicians to pay homage to the museum, which has been doing a fine job of preserving this art form we now know as American music,” writes Gibbons on the official ZZ Top website. There were actually two guitars made, both called “Muddywood,” one for the museum and the other that Gibbons uses on tour.

This is not life imitating art, or vice-versa. It is the exact opposite of what the blues mafia represents. It is a great guitarist offering an authentic gift to blues posterity.

“Rather than paint the instrument blue, we decided against that because it was just too corny. The Mississippi River paint scheme was applied to the instrument as a symbol of the power of what the river has come to be known and interpreted as. Certainly, it was the Mississippi River that gave the initial rise to the Delta, which of course became the fertile ground for the invention of the blues. The museum guitar is really the ‘player.’ There was just something about it upon completion. It not only sounded great, but it played like melted butter,” Billy said in an interview in 2012 with The Billy F. Gibbons Appreciation Society.

The Muddywood guitar was unveiled in 1998 at the Delta Blues Museum, and currently sits in a corner of the restored cabin where Muddy once lived. What, then, can be a greater representation of the heyday of American blues than a guitar made from the 150 year old wood of an old slave shack?

Hardly a blues mafia creation, Muddywood is an authentic contribution to blues history.

ZZ Top plays “Blue Jean Blues”

was hendrix murdered?

To say that the 1960s and 1970s in the United States were revolutionary would be an understatement. The 1960s were punctuated with shocking assassinations: President John F. Kennedy (November 1963), Malcolm X (February 1965), Martin Luther King Jr. (April 1968), and JFK’s brother Robert Kennedy (June 1968). The next decade started in 1970 with sensational drug overdoses among musicians – Alan Wilson in September and Janis Joplin in October. Janis passed away in California from an obvious overdose, but Jimi Hendrix (1942-70) died on September 18, 1970, in London under much more mysterious circumstances. Although reported as a drug overdose, the exact cause of Hendrix’s death has been debated on both sides of the pond for decades.

Subsequent research has strongly suggested that Hendrix was murdered by his manager, who allegedly confessed to the killing. The coroner in the Hendrix case, Gavin Thurston, had listed the cause of death as “barbiturate overdose” and that Jimi had asphyxiated himself by drowning in his own vomit. We now know that Hendrix had drowned because his lungs (and stomach) were filled with red wine, meaning that someone had forced the wine into Jimi, causing his death. How do we know this? It’s in the autopsy report that when Jimi’s body was opened red wine gushed from his lungs and stomach, even though there was very little alcohol in his blood. So why did the coroner write a different cause of death on the death certificate?

According to a May 2009 report in the British tabloid Sunday Mail by Sadie Gray, “One of Jimi Hendrix’s roadies named James ‘Tappy’ Wright claimed that Hendrix’s manager, Michael Jeffery (1933-73), drunkenly confessed to killing him by stuffing pills into his mouth and washing them down with several bottles of red wine because he feared Hendrix intended to dump him for a new manager.” Jimi’s contract with Jeffery was due to expire on December 1, 1970.

Getting dumped for a new manager is a weak excuse for murder, but were there other circumstances involved? In a 2009 (republished in 2010) book called Rock Roadie, author Wright says Jeffery told him in 1971 that Hendrix had been “worth more to him dead than alive” as he had taken out a life insurance policy on the musician worth $2m (about £1.2m at the time), with himself as the beneficiary. Or was it possible that Wright recalled the conversation he had with Jeffery decades earlier in order to sell more copies of his book?

“I can remember this as if it were yesterday,” said Tappy, sitting in London’s Groucho club in 2018, remembering the night that Jeffery [apparently] confessed to Hendrix’s murder. “As we are talking, Mike began to get very agitated and pale. ‘I had no bloody choice, I had to do it’. ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘You know exactly what I’m talking about. It was either that or I’d be broke or dead’,” writes Harry Shapiro in “How Jimi Hendrix Died” in in 2018.

A former undercover operative for British army intelligence and MI6 officer in Egypt, the Russian-speaking Jeffery was also the manager for Eric Burdon’s band called the Animals. According to a documentary called “Jimi Hendrix: The last 24 Hours,” Jeffery also had mafia connections and owed the mob a lot of money. If his income from Hendrix was cut off, Jeffery knew he would indeed be a dead man. Also, Jimi had learned that Jeffery was channeling some 80% of Jimi’s income into his secret offshore bank account. Jimi had filed a lawsuit against Jeffery and was scheduled to appear in court the morning after he died. Coincidence? Maybe, but common sense seems to suggest otherwise.

Was it also coincidence that Jimi’s girlfriends with intimate knowledge of Jimi’s activities died mysterious deaths shortly after Jimi’s passing? Devon Wilson, one of Jimi’s closest black girlfriends for many years, died in 1971 from a fall from an eighth floor window in London’s Chelsea Hotel. Why did newspapers and other media around the world report that Jimi had died due to a heroin overdose when it was common knowledge among those who knew Jimi well that he never touched that particular drug? And finally why did Monika Dannemann (Jimi’s German ice-skating girlfriend who said she was with Jimi when he died) contradict herself in the official inquest, first saying she was there when Jimi died and then saying she wasn’t? The two-man medical team that recovered Jimi’s body stated years later that no one was with the deceased singer at that time and that he had been dead for some seven hours when they arrived, according to the above-listed documentary. Dannemann (1945-96) was found dead in her gas-filled car in an apparent suicide in 1996, just before she was slated to testify on the details of Jimi’s death, causing many to believe this incident also involved foul play.

Mike Jeffery died three years after Hendrix; he was 39 years old. Flying back from the Spanish island of Majorca, his Iberian Airways DC-9 flight was in a mid-air collision over France. There were no survivors. “Mike was terrified of flying and was in the habit of making several reservations at once and then choosing his flight at the last minute to escape the fates. But on 5th March 1973 his luck ran out and the full story behind his shocking confession died with him,” continued Tappy.

A laundry list of coincidences…

Accidental death, suicide or murder? There is evidence to support all three theories, but this writer believes the third theory holds the most water. Why? Because after Jimi got involved with the Black Panther movement in the late 1960s, he appeared on the FBI’s radar. Finally made public in 1976, FBI documents showed that Jimi Hendrix had been listed by FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover as a “target.” This meant that Jimi’s elimination suited the interests of Jeffery especially, the FBI and the mob (it mostly controlled the music industry at that time).

Rolling Stone magazine puts Jimi Hendrix as number one on its list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. The blues guitarist turned electronic alchemist will forever be remembered for his smash hits such as “Hey Joe,” “Purple Haze,” “Voodoo Chile,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Foxy Lady” and many others. Just think what Jimi could have achieved had he lived longer. Perhaps Jimi knew what was coming when he told a friend in 1969: “I will not live to see 28.” He was right, Jimi became another member of the “27 Club.”

Jimi Hendrix plays the National Anthem for 500,000 fans at Woodstock on August 15-18, 1969 in Bethel, New York, probably the pinnacle of his career:

the “Z” Factor

Ike Zimmerman

One of the most endearing legends of blues music is the tale that Robert Johnson (1911-38), arguably the best blues guitarist ever, met the devil one midnight in the early 1930s at the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The devil supposedly tuned Johnson’s guitar and handed it back on the condition that the young guitar player would one day provide his soul to the fallen angel. That day came sooner than later, as Johnson died from poisoning at the age of 27, thus becoming the first member of the “27 club” (musicians dying at that age such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, and many others). A black blues player selling his soul to the devil to acquire an incredible skill on the guitar is indeed a sexy, enticing, and even spooky story, but is also about as unbelievable and unoriginal as it gets, in my humble opinion. However, defenders of this wild Faustian-style story ask the inevitable question: how else could a kid who could only bang on a guitar at local jukes come back a year and a half later as a master guitarist unmatched by the greatest blues players of the time? I believe there is an alternate, and much more believable explanation, that I like to call the “Z” (Zimmerman) factor.

Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman (1907-67; sometimes spelled Zinnerman) was born in Grady, Alabama. He married Ruth Sellers in the late 1920s, and lived with her and their children near Beauregard, Mississippi. “He played guitar and harmonica in local juke joints, often practicing at night in local cemeteries where he would not disturb others. He became known for his guitar skills, and gave guitar lessons. Robert Johnson, who had been born in nearby Hazlehurst, came back to the area, probably around 1931, and sought out Zimmerman with the intention of improving his finger-picking and bottleneck guitar skills,” explains Wikipedia. “R.L.” as he was then known, not only sought out Zimmerman, but took up residence in his home. The two would practice guitar playing in a local cemetery at midnight so as to absorb the spirits of deceased blues players buried there. Zimmerman would tell his young apprentice: “If you play badly, don’t worry because you won’t get any complaints.”

Bruce Conforth PhD, a musician and professor at the University of Michigan, writing in an article entitled “Ike Zimmerman: The X in Robert Johnson’s Crossroads” states that it is “…highly likely that he [Zimmerman] never knew, or understood, the influence he had on Johnson, and by extension, on the history of blues music, and ultimately rock and roll. Virtually every blues guitarist following Johnson owes something to his style: Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Robert Lockwood, Honeyboy Edwards, Johnny Shines, and countless others. And these artists helped give birth to rhythm and blues and rock and roll artists like Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and every rock/blues band that ever played. Whether Zimmerman was ground zero for all this will not even be speculated by this author, but clearly, Ike Zimmerman’s guitar expertise and influence far exceeded his own life and work. He is the X factor in Robert Johnson’s crossroads.” Unfortunately, Ike never made any recordings and gave up playing the blues in his later life, in favor of becoming a preacher.

So-called deals with the devil date back hundreds, if not thousands of years. For example, Italian violinist Niccolo Paginini [1782-1840] was called “The Devil’s Violinist” as people thought he had sold his soul to Beelzebub. One of Robert Johnson’s biographers even claimed that the devil myth in the blues was attributed to the wrong Johnson. “Whilst many claim that it was Robert Johnson who began the legend of selling one’s soul to the devil to play the blues, one of his biographers, Tom Graves, stated in 2008 that this story actually originated with Tommy Johnson [1896-1956], and was later ascribed to Robert [no relation],” states

There is no doubt that Robert Johnson’s musical style later influenced a great many guitarists. In his autobiography Clapton, Eric writes that the bluesman who impressed him the most was Robert Johnson. “At first the music almost repelled me, it was so intense, and this man made no attempt to sugarcoat what he was trying to say, or play. It was hard-core, more than anything I had ever heard. After a few listenings I realized that, on some level, I had found the master, and that following this man’s example would be my life work,” Clapton wrote. “I tried to copy Johnson, but his style of simultaneously playing a disjointed bass line on the low strings, rhythm on the middle strings, and lead on the treble strings while singing at the same time was impossible to even imagine.”

Clapton puts his finger on exactly how Johnson’s playing was so different and unique. Only a handful of pictures still exist of the real Robert Johnson, but one clearly shows that he had extremely long fingers. No doubt these long appendages allowed him to grip the neck of the guitar better than others and strum many strings with the other hand at the same time. R.L. added a seventh string to his six-string guitar so that when he played it sounded like two or three guitars playing in unison. People who heard Johnson playing live said it even sounded like an orchestra on stage. Others said Johnson played the guitar like it was a piano. With these advantages, it is no wonder Johnson won a reputation as a great blues guitarist, maybe the greatest ever. No mythical tales at play, just superior technique backed by years of hard study with a master guitarist.

Wikipedia summarizes Johnson’s posthumous achievements thusly: “Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its first induction ceremony, in 1986, as an early influence on rock and roll. He was awarded a posthumous Grammy Award in 1991 for The Complete Recordings, a 1990 compilation album [41 songs]. His single ‘Cross Country Blues’ was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998, and he was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. In 2003, David Fricke ranked Johnson fifth in Rolling Stone magazine’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” 

Robert Johnson sings “Crossroad Blues”

communism and the blues

The success of the 1917 Russian revolution and the subsequent execution of all members of the Czar’s family sent shock waves around the world, especially in the capitalist United States. The first red scare in August 1919 was launched and a crackdown on practically all leftist organizations and labor unions occurred as a fear spread throughout America that a Bolshevist revolution was about to happen worldwide. An odd side to this red scare was the widespread belief that Russian communists were trying to infiltrate black communities to start their revolution with black Americans, who had been suppressed for some 400 years. Following the stock market crash of 1929, and the subsequent collapse of job opportunities for many American blacks, the suspicion grew that Russian communists were targeting this segment of America. The blues, the music of black America, became suspect as well.  

“The only support for blacks in the South in the 1930s was the [American] Communist Party. There was a great symbiosis between blacks and the communists. In an official meeting of the Communist Party in 1936, the American Communist Party recognized the blues as the voice of the proletarian blacks,” stated blues historian Sam Charters, author of The Country Blues, in a BBC documentary called “Blues America: Woke Up This Morning” Part 1. 

In fact, the 1929 stock market crash propelled the United States into the greatest and longest depression in its history, which continued until the start of WWII. While the economy tanked, millions of Americans found themselves unemployed, especially if they happened to be black. Sympathy for leftist ideas and movements was on the rise during the Depression, most prominently in large cities that had previously been the centers of capitalist industrialization, such as New York City. Blacks living in the Big Apple began to see communism in a different light. One of those communists was a wealthy black music promoter named John Hammond, who was a big fan of the blues musician Robert Johnson.

“During the Depression, America’s pre‐eminent African American community, Harlem, underwent a profound political transformation, emerging as a center of the left‐wing ‘Popular Front’ social movement. Many of Harlem’s residents, especially among the community’s intelligentsia, found themselves attracted to the left‐wing milieu centered around the Communist Party. By the late 1930s, Communist‐led organizations in Harlem and elsewhere were frequently featuring jazz bands at their social functions and benefits. It was in this context that many musicians, including several of the most prominent jazz musicians and bandleaders of the Swing Era, became actively engaged in the left‐wing milieu of the 1930s and 1940s,” states an article in Jazz Perspectives (Vol. 3, 2009).

The second red scare started in the late 1940s after a communist revolution succeeded in China, with the clear implication that an alignment between Chinese and Russian communism would pose an international threat to capitalism. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), chaired by Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, cracked down on anything or anyone holding either communist or socialistic views. Actors in Hollywood and even singers were blacklisted and hauled before this committee, which saw “reds under every bed.”

One red songster singled out by the HUAC was folk singer Pete Seeger (1919-2014), a self-proclaimed communist and admirer of Joseph Stalin in his pre-WWII views. Seeger joined the American Communist Party (CPUSA) in 1936 but left in 1949. He refused to appear before HUAC in 1955 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison for contempt of Congress, later overturned by an appeals court.

What was Pete’s connection to the blues? Pete Seeger was one of the earliest backers of Bob Dylan and was responsible for urging [Columbia] A&R man John Hammond, the black Harlem Renaissance financier and blues lover, to produce Dylan’s first LP on Columbia. Seeger also invited Dylan to perform at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, of which Seeger was a board member. Dylan was heavily criticized for plugging in and going electric at the festival, a no-no in the eyes (and ears) of blues and folk music purists such as Alan Lomax.

Bob Dylan, who was influenced by such blues masters as Mance Lipscomb of Navasota, Texas, also held deeply liberal views. These opinions were reflected in his very satirical 1962 song called “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues.” Some of the lyrics of this song go like this:

“Now we all agree with Hitler’s views
Although he killed six million Jews
It don’t matter too much that he was a Fascist
At least you can’t say he was a Communist!
That’s to say like if you got a cold you take a shot of malaria.”

Mance, who passed in 1976, probably looked down and smiled when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 2016 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Bob Dylan sings “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues.”