All posts by Glenn Davis

what’s in a name?

While driving from Arkansas to Texas, country singer Harold Lloyd Jenkins (1933-93) had a light-bulb moment. He had just pulled out of the town of Conway, Arkansas and was on his way to Twitty, Texas. Bingo! His new stage name would be Conway Twitty. The new name turned his career around and the singer went on to fame and fortune, especially his singing duets with country songbird Loretta Lynn such as “After the Fire is Gone.” The same thing happened to British pop singer Arnold George Dorsey, later known as Englebert Humperdink (the name of the 19th century composer who created the opera form of “Hansel and Gretel”). After changing his stage name to Humperdink, Dorsey made it big in 1967 with his smash hit “Release Me (and Let Me Love Again).” Many other hits followed.

How many people know that the 1970s pop duo called Steely Dan was actually named after a dildo that was mentioned in a 1959 novel by American writer William S. Burroughs called The Naked Lunch? What about the name of the rock group Jefferson Airplane, later updated to Jefferson Starship? Here, Jefferson is an homage to Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929), an early blues pioneer from Texas. Mississippi Delta blues legend McKinley Morganfield (1913-83), otherwise known as Muddy Waters, got his nickname from his mother who used to chide her young son for playing in mud puddles. The name stuck to him, like the Mississippi mud from those puddles.

Sometimes stage names or nom de plumes can have a more practical function as well. “In the age when media such as television was not yet strong and the internet was non-existent, the use of a catchy nickname that could be easily remembered and therefore spread easily was the ultimate promotional tool,” writes Cynthia Betubuza in Musicmaker.org. “This was a method used by artists such as Guitar Gabriel and Muddy Waters. Also, piggy-backing off of and tweaking the nicknames of already known performers allowed for newer artists to use some of that buzz for themselves.”

Before musicians had illegal downloads to complain about, the pioneering blues artists faced even more daunting problems. Imagine recording a million-selling single and only getting paid $100 for it, while your contract forbids you from recording for anybody else. “That in a nutshell is why a handful of blues greats  did so much recording under assumed names. When it was harder to get a fair shake from your label, it was at least easier to get around your contract with a series of blues nicknames,” explains Brett Milano in a 2019 article “The Blues by Any Other Name: The Secrets Behind Blues Nicknames” in udiscovermusic.com.

Mississippi Delta bluesman John Lee Hooker was the king of that tactic. He was one of the most prolific artists in blues history, which is probably why he managed to be paid well in his early heyday. “It wasn’t unusual then for bluesmen to get a flat fee, so if the record wound up selling a million – as Hooker did with ‘Boogie Chillen’ in 1949 and ‘I’m In The Mood’ two years later – it wasn’t the artist who profited. The slight upside was that there were no big-time legal departments to come after him when he used pseudonyms as transparent as John Lee Booker and John Lee Cooker, two of the many that he adopted after that success,” continues Milano. “Sometimes he simply took another bluesman’s name; a couple singles on King were issued as by Johnny Williams. Recording for at least a half-dozen labels, he was also Poor John, Texas Slim, Boogie Man, Little Pork Chops and Lord knows who else.”

One of the most well-known nicknames in blues history belonged to Texas bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins (1912-82). His recording career began in 1946 when a music producer, Lola Ann Cullum, took him and a piano player, Wilson “Thunder” Smith, to Los Angeles to record for the Aladdin label, owned by the Mesner brothers. Hopkins had wanted to bring Alger “Texas” Alexander, whom he always referred to as his cousin. However, Cullum, who was described as a stylish, sophisticated African-American woman married to a prominent dentist, rejected this idea because the rough-hewn Alexander had served time in prison. Hopkins insisted on bringing Smith, however, and apparently that’s how he got his nickname. An Aladdin producer exclaimed, “If you’re ‘Thunder,’ you must be ‘Lightnin’!”

The name stuck. Hopkins, of course, told other versions of the story, especially tales about him being struck by lightning, for which there is no record or proof. But like any great storyteller, the bluesman from Houston (he was born in Centerville) never let the facts get in the way of telling a good story.

Lightnin’ Hopkins sings “Woke Up This Morning”

can blues sing the whites?

An age-old question concerns authenticity in blues music. More specifically, can white people authentically sing and play the blues? Are we hearing “real blues” from white singers or simply a blues performance? Is it morally all right for singers or players to “borrow” an original song without getting permission or paying royalties? Some sources go even further, arguing that blues music and its performance by white players and singers is a subtle form of social stratification, or even an expression of guilt for “stealing” the music in the first place.

“Once music is not understood in its historical and emotional context, it is no longer a work of art, but a commodity. I would go one step further and argue that the historical commoditization of blues perpetuated racial stratification,” theorizes an article in FYImusic news.com in July 2017.

Extending that argument, could one accurately state that the reason the blues became so international so quickly (after WWII) is that it really did become a commodity being sold on the world market? Do young white performers today sing “Hound Dog” thinking they are paying tribute to Elvis Presley and know nothing about (black) Big Mama Thornton, the original blues performer of that song? What about blues singers in Australia, Germany or Japan, for example?

Former Rolling Stones  bass player Bill Wyman was asked whether Whites could sing or play the blues and his reply was unequivocal – “If they [white performers] try really hard.”

Author Charles Keil is a bit more stoical, and diplomatic. He writes in his 1966 book Urban Blues: “The blues has probably always been about whites learning from blacks, blacks learning from whites — the mutual effort to laugh and sing and cry away the pains of American racism expressed in the metaphor of love gone sour.”

Eric Clapton was not the only English guitar player (or singer) to emulate the black bluesmen of the American South. That “copying” or “borrowing” became a major element of the British Invasion of the 1960s. If one did not know better, and closed his or her eyes when hearing Eric Burdon’s version of the “House of the Rising Sun,” one might think Burdon was black.

On the other hand, maybe Muddy Waters was right after all: white performers can play the blues but they can’t sing it. Perhaps Muddy had British guitar legend Eric Clapton (his friend) in mind when he said that. The British Blues boom that had its origins in the early 1960s with the Rolling Stones  and John Mayall  was one of the main factors that prompted this philosophical question.

Clapton, who had been in the Yardbirds, another blues-influenced band, before he joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, later forming Cream and who had a solo career steeped in the blues has done more than most to demonstrate that White men really can play the blues,” states writer Richard Havers in udiscovermusic.com.

Simply asking this musical question reeks of an underlying sarcasm, almost begging for a musical parody. It wasn’t long before one appeared.

“Can Blue Men Sing The Whites (or are they hypocrites?)” was a parody song by The Bonzo Dog Band that was released in November of 1968, the same month as the Beatles’Album White  Album, that poked fun at the recent Blues trend on the charts, points out the website Beatlesebooks.com. 
The Bonzo’s parody on white men playing the blues came half a decade after the British Blues boom had begun. The Rolling Stones were at the forefront of what was a very London centric phenomenon – white boys interested in the music of the Mississippi Delta and the electric blues of Chicago. Some lyrics of the song go like this:
“Well, I think I’ll get a massage, maybe lose a little fat
So I’ll have to go downtown in my brand new Cadillac
My valet comes and dresses me, I light a big cigar
Because I like to look like Nimrod when I’m riding in my car
Can blue men sing the whites
Or are they hypocrites for singing, woo, woo, wooh?”
If you really want to get down to the nitty-gritty level, just ask a comedian. When (white) comedian George Carlin was asked the question, he said: “In the first place, white people have got no business playing the blues at all, under no circumstances, ever, ever, ever. White people give the blues, they don’t get the blues. What do they have to be blue about anyway – Banana Republic ran out of khakis? The expresso machine is jammed? Hootie and the Blowfish are breaking up? These fat, balding, overweight, over-aged, out-of-shape, middle-aged white men jump on stage and start blowing into a harmonica; it’s a @%*$! sacrilege.”
Carlin was trying to get laughs, but he knew that white people can suffer just as much as black blues singers can. Take the tragic case of Janis Joplin, for instance. This white blues singer fell victim to mocking attacks all her short life and that pain is clearly present in her music. I believe her song “Cry, Cry Baby” equals any black blues song in terms of pain in the music.
Maybe Muddy Waters was either being sanctimonious or expressing jealousy when he said white people can’t sing the blues. Whatever the case, this debate will no doubt rage on.  
 “Can Blue Men Sing the Whites” by the Bonzo Dog Band
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_iPAUplrdI

can blues survive the virus?

As the coronavirus ravages the United States (and other countries), one has to wonder what will happen to the live music scene, including the blues, after the danger has subsided. Right now, there is little or no demand for such performers, but the question remains whether the previous demand will bounce back. The only real comparison we have is the great Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19, which killed some 675,000 persons in the United States and about 50 million worldwide. Demand for live music shows did bounce back quickly in those days (1919), but that was before radio and television provided home entertainment via the air waves. Radio had been invented then, but was confiscated by the U.S. military during WWI. Television was not available commercially until after WWII.

So, will live blues performers, for example, be able to bounce back this time? We now have the Internet, but not every singer or player is wired enough to take advantage of this new medium. Players jumping from live gig to gig will be especially hard hit. If bars and other venues stay closed for months, what will happen to live entertainment? Will continuous stay-at-home restrictions destroy the industry?

“The situation has decimated live music. Shows cancelled everywhere and for everyone. And for once we’re all in the same boat. We as self-employed people, are powerless and really the last on the list of economic priorities. Sadly, that’s just the nature of the beast. It’s a case of buying bread or going to a gig. One can only hope that some have followed the old saying ‘putting something away for a rainy day’ that will help some of us to cope until we’re able to work again,” says singer and actress Ruby Turner in the Blues Matters online journal. “Once the initial shock of this now crippling pandemic virus has sunk in, we now have to deal with the fact we’re out of work for the foreseeable future. Everything cancelled or postponed. Sadly, there’s nothing we can do but try to be optimistic in the hope work can be rescheduled when this crisis ends.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the only threat to the continued existence of blues music, however. Some problems are as built in as a blue note. “As the blues is not mainstream, blues artists record with boutique recording studios and have little budget to promote their work. The opportunities to perform live are also fewer today with blues fans more geographically dispersed,” opines a 2015 article in the Wall Street International magazine called “Blues in the Digital Age.”

In the golden age of the blues during the 1920s, live shows were in high demand since going out to a live show or listening to a blues recording on a Victrola (a wind-up phonograph) were the only ways to enjoy the music. Not so now as there are many other genres and sub-genres of music competing for the public’s ear over a virtual plethora of media.

Traditional blues, as we know it, died a slow death after the great stock market crash of 1929, but enjoyed a surprise revival in the 1950s and 1960s with the rise of blues-based rock and roll, especially after the British Invasion. “For blues fans, those decisions [to listen or not] are greatly influenced by the music of the masters. Recordings of B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters continue to be heard everywhere. The guitar challenges of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix are still the standards by which guitarists are measured,” claims the Wall Street International article. “But local radio is no longer what the listener turns to when they want some blues, with the exception of some local blues programs. Today specialized digital radios provide blues music 24 hours a day through the Internet. The result seems to be that the blues fan has become a fan of the blues as a whole rather than of specific blues artists.”

What will happen to the blues in the near or distant future is anybody’s guess. Singers of bands that profited from the fusion of the blues and rock may have some hints, however. “The blues is like a planet. It’s an enormous topic. You can’t ignore the impact that it has had and continues to have on the whole musical culture. It’s a tree that everyone is swinging from. Without it, I don’t know where I would be. It’s indelible and indispensable,” explained rocker Tom Waits.

Perhaps the best closing argument of all is by the late Chicago bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon who once said: “Blues is the roots and the other music is the fruits. It’s better keeping the roots alive, because it means better fruits from now on. The blues are the roots of all American music. As long as American music survives, so will the blues.”

And like a tree that’s planted by the water, the blues will not be moved. But let’s just hope the blues doesn’t die, again.

The Influenza Blues (1919)

rabbit foot minstrels

Slavery was officially abolished in the United States in 1863 by then President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (and later passing of the 13th Amendment), but slave-like conditions persisted for African Americans living in the South for many decades longer. Since former slaves had little or no experience other than field work, many turned to tenant farming, which Texas-based blues songster Mance Lipscomb (1895-1976) described as “slavery under another name.”

After working a six-day week from dawn to dusk in the fields, black laborers were thirsty for some form of entertainment. Local jukes and churches provided platforms for singing the blues and spirituals, but “big-time” entertainment came in the form of traveling tent shows that could afford to hire well-known singers and comedians. These shows were particularly active during the spring cotton-harvesting season when workers were paid and that money was burning holes in the pockets of these hard-working farm hands.

The largest such show was the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, known colloquially as “The Foots.” It was a long-running minstrel and variety troupe that toured as a tent show in the American South between 1900 and the late 1950s, established by the African-American  entrepreneur Pat Chappelle. “The Foots provided a basis for the careers of many leading African-American musicians and entertainers, including Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Bessie Smith, Louis Jordan and Charles Neville,” explains Wikipedia. The last-named Neville (1938-2018) was the second oldest brother and horn (saxophone) man in the Neville Brothers band of New Orleans. 

The Rabbit’s Foot Company was bought in 1912 by Fred Swift Wolcott (1882–1967), a white farmer originally from Michigan. Each spring, black musicians and entertainers from around the country assembled in Port Gibson, Mississippi to create a musical, comedy, and variety show to perform under canvas. In his 1998 book The Story of the Blues, the late British historian and musicologist Paul Oliver wrote:

“The ‘Foots’ travelled in two cars and had an 80ft x 110ft tent which was raised by the roustabouts and canvassmen, while a brass band would parade in town to advertise the coming of the show…The stage would be of boards on a folding frame and Coleman lanterns – gasoline mantle lamps – acted as footlights. There were no microphones; the weaker voiced singers used a megaphone, but most of the featured women blues singers scorned such aids to volume.”

One has to wonder why minstrel shows were so popular in the early days of traveling tent shows, and later. And why would a black performer in those days demean himself or herself even more by blackening their own faces with burnt cork? Beginning about the 1820s, white entertainers began performing songs, skits, and dances in blackface, often as the two stereotypical characters of minstrelsy, Zip Coon and Jim Crow.

Schmoop.com explains: “On the one hand, these routines, which were tremendously popular throughout the United States—North and South—for much of the 1800s and centered on blatantly racist, crude caricatures of African-American language and life, played for white laughs. But on the other, minstrelsy served as a vehicle for popularizing Black secular music. The minstrel shows were, to borrow the phrase of the historian Eric Lott, sites of ‘love and theft,’ and the racial dynamic of showcase, appropriation, and ridicule became even more complicated as Black performers—some of whom, such as W.C. Handy and Ma Rainey, would become crucial blues figures—increasingly filled the ranks of the white-owned touring minstrel companies after the Civil War.”

Minstrel shows were still being performed in Navasota, Texas as late as March 1963, according to the little town’s newspaper called the Navasota Examiner. Singer Bobby Berger performed in blackface as Al Jolson at the Richlin Ballroom in Edgewood, Md., in 2015. The white singer Al Jolson (1888-1950) was known in the 1920s as “the king of blackface” and is best remembered for singing “Mammy” in the first feature-length movie talkie in 1927 called The Jazz Singer. Although we should be cautious about judging the past by today’s morality, it is also true that minstrel shows were more popular in the North than in the South.

Many blues singers got their start with the “foots.” A black-faced minstrel named “Jim Jackson (1884-1937) used to tour in his younger days with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, but it was only in October 1927 that Jackson finally went into the studio, aged around 43.  His first session included ‘Kansas City Blues,’ which went on to become a blues and rock template,” states Wikipedia. Jackson’s blues classic spawned Charlie Patton’s, ‘Going to Move to Alabama’(1929), Hank Williams’ first hit ‘Move it on Over’ (1947), and Bill Hayley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ (1956).

Another key “foots” performer was Rufus Thomas (1936-98), later known as Mr. Swing, who also called himself the “world’s oldest teenager.” Thomas began performing in traveling tent shows. In 1936, he joined the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, an all-black revue that toured the South, as a tap dancer and comedian, sometimes part of a duo, Rufus and Johnny. He is best remembered for such classics as “Walking the Dog” (1963) and “Do the Funky Chicken” (1970).

“The Rabbit Foots was like a carnival, like when a fair came to town,” said Bobby Rush, a bluesman from Jackson Mississippi.

What was it about the name? The omg.com website explains: Although the superstition of rabbit’s feet being associated with luck has some roots in European culture, the common North American myth originates from the African-American folk spirituality known as hoodoo. It’s said that rabbit’s feet are lucky because of their reproductive habits, so carrying a rabbit’s foot was thought to help with fertility and luck.

There are, however, a few specification the rabbit’s foot must adhere to in order to technically be considered lucky:

1. It has to be the left hind foot.

2. The rabbit needs to have been captured or killed in a cemetery.

3. The rabbit’s foot needs to be cut off on a specific day—usually a Friday, but with variations such as the weather, date, etc.

To answer the above question of why African Americans blackened their faces for money, it was because minstrelsy in those early days was the route to becoming famous and prosperous. Money was only one aspect, however. “Yet it [minstrelsy] also reveals the strange way white Americans yearn to see, and indeed idolize, black performers and black culture. Wearing blackface, a white person tries on a life he simultaneously disdains,” states author Marc Aronson in a 2018 article in the Washington Post.

If the white American public in those days wanted to pay to see a cartoon version of a happy plantation slave (a parody of a freed slave) performing on stage, the Rabbit Foot Minstrels were glad to provide it to the tune of cash registers ringing. The fact that blackface still pops up here and there these days should give us all pause to reflect on its true meaning.

The Rabbit Foot Minstrels:

the blues and viagra

A connection between the blues and television advertising for an impotency drug? You must be kidding…No, not really.

Advertising, particularly the television variety, is all about identifying a target and then manipulating it for sales purposes. Once a target is identified, a virtual war chest of techniques can then be used to convince consumers to purchase your product. One technique is to make your ad so irritating that it becomes lodged in viewers’ memories. Take the Progressive Insurance ads that feature a woman so obnoxious that you remember the ad whether you want to or not.

Another technique is to associate the ad to a time period that matches the ages of your prospective consumers. One way to do this is through employing background music that features a song that is representative of the period your target audience knows well. By doing this, the advertiser associates certain feelings and moods with the ad, causing a sympathetic or warm feeling when watching the ad on television. A song like Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” is often used when advertisers aim at baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) because it was the title song for the immensely popular 1969 movie “Easy Rider.” Just hearing that music suggests the freedom of the open road and a resistance to authority; taking boomers’ feelings back to their teens. Nostalgia clearly works.

Baby boomers, America’s largest demographic, are now in their 60s and 70s, many of them drawing social security payments. Erectile Dysfunction (ED), a fancy phrase for impotence, is an embarrassing problem for some 30 million male boomers, but in the late 1970s a “solution” was accidentally discovered at Pfizer Laboratories. Sildenafil nitrate (Viagra) was finally greenlighted by the FDA in March 1998. Despite several serious side effects, the little blue pill must have seemed like manna from heaven for these ED sufferers.

“Viagra’s massive success was practically instantaneous. In the first year alone, the $8-$10 pills yielded about a billion dollars in sales. Viagra’s impact on the pharmaceutical and medical industries, as well as on the public consciousness, was also enormous. Though available by prescription only, Viagra was marketed on television, famously touted by ex-presidential candidate Bob Dole, then in his mid-70s,” states an article on history.com.

Television advertising for Viagra has evolved to a much more sophisticated level these days. Interestingly, many of the newer ads for Viagra feature blues music in the background. The 2011 Viagra TV ad (see below), for instance, employs the lead-in instrumental to the blues song “Smokestack Lightning” by Chicago bluesman Howlin’ Wolf (1910-76) as the background music. Another Viagra TV ad features the classic blues song “Dimples” by Delta bluesman John Lee Hooker (1917-2001), who is also featured in TV ads for Lee blue jeans. In these cases, the advertiser is attempting to link its impotency-correcting drug to a feeling of American historical authenticity, a key element of blues music. Both singers became popular icons during their lifetimes, familiar to many boomers who had experienced the blues and folk music revivals of the 1950s and 1960s first-hand.

Chester Arthur Burnett, better known as “Howlin’ Wolf,” was born in White Station, Mississippi to an Ethiopian father and Choctaw mother. During the above-mentioned blues revival, black blues musicians found a new audience among white  youths, and Howlin’ Wolf was among the first to capitalize on it. Wikipedia states: “He toured Europe in 1964 as part of the American Folk Blues Festival. In 1965, he appeared on the popular television ABC-TV program Shindig! at the insistence of the Rolling Stones, whose re-recording of Wolf’s ‘Little Red Rooster’ had reached number one in the UK in 1964.” In the 1950s and ‘60s, Howlin’ Wolf had multiple songs on the Billboard national R&B charts, including his very popular “Smokestack Lightning.”

John Lee Hooker, the son of a Mississippi sharecropper, rose to prominence performing an electric guitar-style adaptation of the Delta blues. “Hooker developed his own driving-rhythm boogie style, distinct from the 1930s and ‘40s piano-derived boogie-woogie,” explains Wikipedia. Some of his best known songs include “Boogie Chillen,” “Dimples,” and “Boom, Boom,” the last of which is now used as the lead-in song for the TV crime drama called “NCIS: New Orleans,” starring Scott Bakula (best known for the 1989 time-travel drama “Quantum Leap”).

Both singers were great performers of their times, and both would probably have been astonished if they had known their legacies would have been linked with such a product. A sign of the times? Hard to say.

Howlin’ Wolf’s lead-in to “Smokestack Lighting”

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 loudersound.com. 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 paranormalscholar.com.

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.”

bellevue hospital blues

Mamie Smith, with her 1920 recording of “Crazy Blues,” made history as the first black singer to break the color barrier in vocal recordings. However, most historians fail to note that all her backup singers and musicians were white. Before the release of Mamie’s smash hit, Okeh Records’ owner Fred Hagar had received death threats from Northern and Southern pressure groups saying they would boycott the company if he recorded a black singer. It seemed that having a black male singer recording a song was taboo at that time, but Mamie was a black woman, which made her release more palatable to a white audience. After all, the word “crazy” was in the title of Mamie’s hit song. Other black blues singers of the day like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were considered weird, but not dangerous. Bessie was openly bisexual and Ma was an “unattractive” woman. 

Allowing a black male singer to make a recording then was unthinkable because such performers were thought by white audiences to be “dangerous” and “lecherous.” But after Mamie’s success, these attitudes began to change rapidly, especially among recording companies. Money talks, loudly. In the latter half of the “Roaring Twenties,” male blues singers like Texas-born Blind Lemon Jefferson and Louisiana-born Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, began to be recognized as “interesting” performers. And nothing was more interesting, in the Prohibition days of Bonnie and Clyde-type criminal worship, than a bad black male blues singer who had been imprisoned for murder and was being recorded after regaining his freedom. Lead Belly fit that bill perfectly.

Lead Belly, the self-styled king of the 12-string guitar, was best remembered for songs such as “The Midnight Special,” “Rock Island Line” and “Goodnight Irene.” Lead Belly is “the hard name of a harder man,” Woody Guthrie once said of his friend and fellow American music icon. Though most closely associated with the rural Deep South, from the mid-1930s until his death in 1949, Lead Belly lived at 414 E. 10th Street in New York City. He was a regular performer in the music halls of Harlem and also had a regular Sunday night slot on WNYC radio station, explains the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation on its website Gvhsp.org.

Just as he began to achieve some measure of wider fame, Lead Belly got sick. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 1949 and was placed in New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. By December of that same year, Ledbetter was dead, having spent his final days in a sick bed. He even wrote and recorded a blues song there, entitled “Been So Long,” also called “Bellevue Hospital Blues.” Some of its lyrics are as follows:

“I heard a woman saying the other day,

As some doctor began, in ten days you’ll start walkin’ again,

It’s been so long, so long, so long.”

“Ever been down in Louisiana, in New Orleans?

Got the first woman doctor I ever seen

It’s been so long, so long, so long.”

Writer Nick Deriso explains in somethingelsereviews.com. “He doesn’t lament that certain fate on ‘Been So Long,’ even while admitting that he had already lost the ability to walk. Instead, Lead Belly flirts with the first female doctor he’d ever seen, before turning his focus to a friendly nurse. You start out thinking he’s going to talk about his heartbreaking fate; he ends up joking about an impulse that starts some place lower.” Lead Belly never lost his ribald sense of humor, even when he saw the end approaching.

Bellevue Hospital Center has not lost its reputation either: it is still the oldest public hospital in the United States (founded in 1736) and is still the flagship hospital of New York City’s Health and Hospitals Corporation. Bellevue is also famous for its psychiatric ward and in the old days, getting sent there was a pejorative expression. No longer. Bellevue is now on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit New York City hardest of all American cities. Bellevue has a central role in New York’s fight against the deadly virus as its policy is to accept any patient, insured or not.

Ledbetter’s legacy has also been bolstered through the release of long-lost music recorded under the aegis of Moses Asch for Folkways between 1941-47. The bulk of those recordings was issued in the late-1990s, under the titles Where Did You Sleep Last Night, Bourgeois Blues and Shout On. “Turns out, there’s more where that came from. Those earlier discs have been bolstered by 16 remarkable, previously unheard moments like ‘Been So Long’ for the Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection that was published in February, 2015. This five-disc set includes 108 tracks in all, providing fresh insights into a figure who joined the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, nearly four decades after his death,” explained Deriso. Lead Belly was also inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2008.

Lead Belly Sings “Bellevue Hospital Blues”