Tag Archives: Muddy Waters

radio and biscuits

What is a good definition of radio? According to an old saying: “Radio is the theater of the mind; television is the theater of the mindless.”

Radio became a reality shortly after the turn of the century. However, commercial development of radio was set back during WWI as the American Navy commandeered the technology for use in the war, i.e. sending messages to and from naval ships. It is telling that the U.S. Navy press sent its final dispatch of the war, announcing armistice on November 11, 1918, via radio transmission.

Radio experienced monumental growth after the first commercial station, KDKA, was brought to life by Westinghouse Electric in 1920, just after the Great War ended. “The company was the first to utilize the radio for broadcasting purposes. The first broadcast announced the results of the 1920 Presidential election. By creating interest in the broadcasts, Westinghouse Electric cultivated demand for radios by the general public [especially for broadcasts of boxing matches]. This demand led to the sale of $60 million of radio equipment and accessories in America. By 1924, that number jumped to $358 million,” claims the website Bnhv.org.

In other words, the commercialization of radio coincided historically with the rise in the popularity of blues music in the first part of the 20th century. Such records as Bessie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” became extremely popular in the early 1920s, but the 78rpm discs had to be played on a record player, usually a hand-cranked Victrola. Radio broadcasts of music changed all that. A radio in the center of American homes became television before television. Blues made its escape from hand-cranked turntables to the radio waves as black female singers of the Classic Blues climbed the ratings. Radio music broadcast popularity soared in the 1920s, particularly after E.C. Wente invented the condenser microphone, which greatly improved radio sound quality.

Not many blues writers and aficionados would make a connection between the blues and the sale of flour. But after the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929, the blues recording business crashed along with it. Blues artists doing well selling records during the roaring twenties suddenly found they had to return to a life of hard work in the cotton fields or doing other manual labor jobs. Blues recording seemed to die an early death. However, one staple every Great Depression family needed was bread, especially the kind made from white flour. Mixing the previously popular blues music with flour advertising seemed like a no-brainer to some flour companies. Using the relatively new medium of radio was also a self-illuminating idea.

What were some early radio stations that played blues music? It was not surprising, then, that the first such blues-oriented show was The King Biscuit Time radio show, named after King Biscuit flour, the show’s sponsor. The show debuted on AM 1360 KFFA in Helena, Arkansas with performances by Sonny Boy Williamson II and Robert Lockwood Jr. At the time (1941), it was the only radio show featuring African American music. KFFA reached a wide audience throughout the Mississippi Delta and later became famous around the world. The success of King Biscuit Time would pave the way for other African American radio stations and programming. It is still on the air daily on KFFA from Helena.

Wikipedia explains the wide-sweeping influence of this popular radio program: “King Biscuit Time was also a major breakthrough for African-American music in general. The popularity of the program and its reach into the untapped African-American demographic gained notice and spawned a host of imitators. By 1947, the first black disc jockey in the South, Early Wright, had been signed at WROX across the river. WDIA in Memphis soon became the first radio station in the South with an all-black staff (including deejay B.B. King) and a musical format based on the success of King Biscuit Time.”

Programmers at KBT wanted to aim their show at a maximized black audience so the show’s 12:15 pm time slot was chosen to match the lunch break of workers in the Mississippi Delta. KBT has racked up more broadcasts than the Grand Ole Opry and American Bandstand combined; it celebrated its 17,000th broadcast on May 13, 2014. The 30-minute live show is broadcast from the Delta Community Center in downtown Helena.

While working on the Stovall Plantation, just outside Clarksdale Mississippi, a young musician named Muddy Waters heard some King Biscuit Time  broadcasts on his lunch hour and decided in 1943 to head north for the bright lights and blues music being played in Chicago. The rest was history in the making. Muddy’s electrified blues style not only changed the Chicago blues, it changed the whole world of blues music. And audiences across the world also got to hear Muddy Waters sing and play via radio, thanks to the financial support from a flour company.

“Until it’s on the radio or online, it’s not real,” claims Bono of U-2.

As a child without access to television in the early 1950s, radio was very real to me. Hovering around our old cathedral radio set, I would listen to football or baseball games and radio’s Golden Age serials like “The Shadow, “Sky King” and “The Lone Ranger.” I would get chills running down my spine just waiting for the shows to begin. I never had those same feelings for television. Maybe it was because I was older. Maybe not.

Robert Lockwood Jr. performs “King Biscuit Time”

little red rooster

Willie Dixon

Lyrics written and sung by traditional bluesmen have often tried to mimic the sound of farm animals such as horses, mules, cows, pigs, dogs and chickens. For example, Texas bluesman Billiken Johnson accurately copied the braying of mules in his 1928 recording of “Wild Jack Blues.” Lightnin’ Hopkins sings about talking to a cow in “Tom Moore’s Blues.” Other traditional blues players used harmonicas to mimic the sounds of different farm animals. Blues song writers and performers, such as Willie Dixon (1915-92), grew up on Southern farms and were surrounded by such animals. Dixon is often referred to as the “poet of the blues.”

It is only natural, then, that these budding artists noticed the sounds and behavior of their feathered and cloven-hooved friends, later incorporating the same into their music. In fact, one of Dixon’s greatest creations was “The Little Red Rooster,” first recorded by bluesman Howlin’ Wolf in 1961. The song about a barnyard rooster gained an instant following, especially after covers were later recorded by Sam Cooke (1931-64) and the British rock band The Rolling Stones. The Stones’ lyrics, somewhat different from the original, go like this:   

“I am the little red rooster
Too lazy to crow for day
I am the little red rooster
Too lazy to crow for day

Keep everything in the farmyard upset in every way

The dogs begin to bark and hounds begin to howl
Dogs begin to bark and hounds begin to howl
Watch out strange cat people
Little red rooster’s on the prowl.”

A variety of musicians have interpreted and recorded “Little Red Rooster.” Some add new words and instrumentation to mimic the sounds of animals mentioned in the lyrics. Some critics claim the song is the most overtly phallic song since Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1927 “Black Snake Moan” while more objective analysts see it as an innocuous farm ditty. Dixon himself said, rather sarcastically: “I wrote it as a barnyard song really, and some people even take it that way!”

American soul music singer Sam Cooke adapted the song using a more up-tempo approach and it became a successful single on both the US rhythm and blues and pop record charts in 1963. Concurrently, Dixon and bluesman Howlin’ Wolf toured the UK with the American Folk Blues Festival and helped popularize Chicago blues with local rock musicians overseas, points out Wikipedia. That particular tour was a major impetus for the British Invasion which soon followed.

The Rolling Stones were among the first British rock groups to record modern electric blues songs. In 1964, they recorded “Little Red Rooster” with original member Brian Jones, a blues purist and a key player in the recording. “Their rendition, which remains closer to the original arrangement than Cooke’s, became a number one hit record in the UK and continues to be the only blues song to ever reach the top of the British chart. The Stones frequently performed it on television and in concert and released several live recordings of the song. ‘Little Red Rooster’ continues to be performed and recorded by a variety of artists, making it one of Willie Dixon’s best-known compositions,” opines gerrymoss.net.

Interpretations notwithstanding, the above comments beg the question of whether white people can authentically sing and/or play the blues invented and perfected by African Americans. Muddy Waters once famously said that whites can play the blues but cannot sing them. A June 1999 article in the Independent entitled: “Music: White Men Sing the Blues” asked the question of whether white bands like the Rolling Stones could actually sing the blues like black singers. “Yet, although black people were not seduced by the Stones’ artificial persona, many white teenagers were. The group had embraced the rebellious stance of black blues musicians, prompting Stanley Booth to describe Keith Richards as ‘the world’s only blue gum [very dark skinned black man] white man, as poisonous as a rattlesnake’. Brian Jones also initially called himself ‘Elmo Lewis’, an allusion to the blues guitarist Elmore James.”

Unfortunately, the blues-loving founder of the Rolling Stones drowned in a swimming pool incident in 1969. After his death, the Rolling Stones became less bluesy and more focused on rock ‘n’ roll. Mick Jagger, then comfortably ensconced as lead singer of the group, realized he needed to become more visual and active during stage performances. He needed a dance that would make him appear more African-American like. So Jagger studied the dance moves of the incredibly athletic James Brown in order to perfect his own version of the funky chicken. He also copied the moves of Ike and Tina Turner, in an attempt to become a white singer with black moves.

By doing so, Jagger succeeded in becoming an international sex symbol, but some observers remained unimpressed. Ike Turner said that Jagger “could not sing” and Truman Capote deduced that Jagger’s performances were “about as sexy as a pissing toad.” Nevertheless, the Rolling Stones are still rocking and making millions onstage despite being grandfathers and senior citizens. According to the magazine named after the Rolling Stones, they are the second-longest running rock band (without a break) after U-2, an Irish rock band named after an Irish unemployment form.

The Rolling Stones sing “Little Red Rooster”