Difficult as it is to imagine today, but back in the 1970s, it was not totally uncommon hereabouts to encounter American Bluesmen in your local supermarket, laundromat or in the pub.
The reason was that having discovered and then managed Aston-based blues band Earth, namechanged them to Black Sabbath, taken them to two hit albums and a hit single, and then lost them to a pair of London sharp suits in posh cars, I found myself somewhat disillusioned by the experience.
So I decided to go back to an earlier love – The Blues. Let the book I wrote with my brother, Ron, “Don’t Worry ‘Bout The Bear”, take up the story…
In January 1973 I checked six American bluesmen into an Edgbaston hotel and routined our programme for two days with Brummies Roger Hill and Tom Farnell who were to be, as bass guitarist and drummer respectively, part of the touring package. Then we set off, much in the spirit of the Duke of Medina Sidonia in 1588 when he sent the Spanish Armada to invade England ‘in the confident hope of a miracle’.
From January 26th to March 1st 1973, American Blues Legends ’73 toured the UK and Europe, appearing before 35,000 people in 33 concerts in 35 days. The show played ten countries, appeared on three television and seven radio shows and recorded an album for Big Bear. The musicians were Lightnin’ Slim, Whispering Smith, Homesick James, Snooky Pryor, Boogie Woogie Red and Washboard Willie. Smith, Slim’s erstwhile Excello Records harmonica player, the subject of Slim’s often-recorded ‘Play your harmonica, son’ exhortation, was born in Brookhaven, Mississippi. Snooky, harmonica player from Lambert, Mississippi, and guitarist Homesick James from Somerville, Tennessee, were both hugely influential Chicago veterans with Snooky’s Telephone Blues on Planet Records in 1948 the first recorded amplified blues harmonica. Homesick claimed to be the creator of Dust My Broom which later elevated his younger cousin Elmore James to the status of blues legend. Like so many things in blues history it’s impossible to verify (Homesick’s year of birth, for instance, was variously placed between 1905 and 1924 and he used at least three surnames), but Homesick seems to have been associated with Robert Johnson at the time he made the initial recording of (as it then was) I Believe I’m Gonna Dust My Broom, so who knows the truth of his claim? Piano player Boogie Woogie Red from Rayville, Louisiana, had relocated to Detroit, as had Washboard Willie from Phoenix City, Alabama.
If the recording at what had become our hometown Chalk Farm Studios went well, it must be admitted that the tour itself was not without incident. Early on Snooky and Slim had emerged as the elder statesmen. The ever-amiable Snooky adopted the title Little Bear and delighted in introducing himself as my brother, maybe because we looked so much alike! Slim assumed the responsibility of taking care of business, correcting other musicians whom he thought were stepping out of line.
There was an occasion, after an arduous drive from a performance in Liege in the extreme east of Belgium, with treacherous roads throughout, when I had to break up a fight between Slim and Boogie Woogie Red on the icy quayside at Zeebrugge while we were waiting for the Dover ferry. They had bought a bottle of cognac between them, polished it off on the journey and then started arguing about who had drunk the most, each accusing the other of having more than his fair share. And now there they were, in a bitter wind blowing off the sea, swinging punches that never quite landed and doing more harm to themselves than the other as they slipped over on the frozen quayside. Things didn’t properly settle down until we had boarded and they were able to buy another bottle between them.
Moses Smith was the quiet one, smiling, taciturn, never giving away too much of himself. A serious, dignified man, he was a pleasure to be with. Killingly cool and hip on stage, he plied his trade building swimming pools in his hometown of Baton Rouge whenever no calls came to play the blues. Washboard Willie, back home in Detroit, drove a school bus for a living, unable even in a city of that size to get enough gigs to keep body and soul together. Boogie Woogie Red wasn’t prepared to do anything else but play piano and sing, and why should he? He was a fine musician and a consummate entertainer who scuffled a living in the clubs, cabarets and dives of Detroit’s underbelly. A most amiable man, I suspect he was never able to live with the dignity of a decent income, but I never heard him complain as long as there were a bed to sleep in, a piano to play and a bar not too far away. Food? That was probably a different matter.
Homesick James Williamson, probably born William Henderson, was an enigma. He claimed to have fought in France during World War II in a black regiment which, he delighted to recount, put the fear of God into the German infantry when they descended on them, bayonets fixed, screaming wildly. Homesick said the Germans thought they were being attacked by apes. Given the Nazi propaganda about the sub-human status of blacks, this just might have been true, especially as the more level-headed Snooky Pryor backed up Homesick’s story. As for the African-Americans themselves, Homesick claimed they screamed so loud because they were just so terrified.
Home would slap his leg and say that it was twisted because of a wound sustained in France. His leg certainly was dodgy and kinked as he walked or, more accurately, lurched. He did have something of a drink problem. When in his cups, which he usually was about the time the curtain rose, he became difficult, at first refusing to go onstage, then, later, refusing to come off. Slim would be very helpful on most occasions, but Home could very easily overstep the mark and I often had to read the Riot Act, though by the next morning it was always forgotten.
On one occasion in Stockholm I had to give him a real talking-to, of the ‘You’re on the first flight back to Chicago tomorrow morning’ variety. Not unusually he tried to make up for his demeanour by playing a stormer. My telling off must have sounded as if I meant it because that night he pulled out all the stops, playing with guitar held behind his head, playing with his teeth, dropping to his knees with a drama that James Brown would have envied, all the time watching me, standing side-stage, to assess whether he had done enough for me to forgive him – which I actually had before he’d played a note. It has to be remembered that this was not a young man, all heart, it’s true, but anything but fit, by no means sober and with a gammy leg. He suddenly realised that there he was, on his knees, onstage, in front of 800 people and unable to get to his feet. Responding to what had become an imploring gaze, two stagehands, despatched by the ever-attentive Lightnin’ Slim, picked him up and put him back on his feet. Encouraged by the massive applause, the old rascal this time dropped down, rolled over onto his back and lay there, still playing guitar. The crowd went wild, unsurprisingly, and the look he gave me on the way back to the dressing-room, having been hoisted to his feet a second time, was one of pure triumph.
There were more Blues Legends tours over the subsequent years, the final one coming in 1979, but that first one was a real adventure. We really did feel, to steal a line from the wonderful Blues Brothers film, that we were ‘on a mission from God’. Personally my eyes were opened: it was a real education travelling, living and working with those difficult, obstreperous, bickering, argumentative, wonderful, lovable bluesmen for some seven weeks.