Blues-Link was a must-read 1970s publication. It was produced in Barnet, Hertfordshire and edited by Mike Black and assistant editor Alan Balfour.
In Blues-Link #3, dated January/February 1974 and priced at the princely sum of 25 pence, their lead story was written by John Stretton and Bob Fisher and based on interviews they did with most of the featured artists on the Big Bear Chicago Blues Festival Eurotour of that year, and here it is.
The blues artists to be seen in this country today are almost all in the capable hands of Jim Simpson’s Big Bear organisation. More than any other promoter in the field, Simpson concentrates on bringing the same acts in fairly regularly, but each one with his twice yearly concert packages has with it some newcomers. The tour which was around during October featured Snooky Pryor and Homesick James plus regular UK performer Johnny Mars and The Sunflower Boogie Band. In addition there was Eddie Taylor, Big John Wrencher and white pianist Erwin Helfer. All will hopefully return.
Backstage at the Digbeth Civic Hall, Birmingham, most of the artists were able to talk freely in a relaxed atmosphere.
For Eddie Taylor it was a return to England after an absence of some 5 years when he toured with Hooker, T-Bone and his once constant sidekick Jimmy Reed, for an AFBF tour. He now works mainly on the West coast, with a band featuring Sam Lay and two white musicians, sporadically recording for Frank Scott’s Advent label.
“I’d been going all over the country you know, I’ve no special place in Chicago, I quit. Advent just called me up and kept on bothering me. I was working on the West Coast, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles with my own band”
Before the Advent album he hadn’t recorded acoustically, but even then it didn’t really work out as he had wished.
“I’ll tell you the guitar I was given to play on that album. It was a bad guitar, the strings were set in something like H and it was hard to play, but that’s how I started in Mississippi, by myself. I had a chance to record in Mississippi with the guy who cut Joe Hill Louis and Walter Horton . . . er . . . Sam Phillips, yeah that’s him, but I didn’t cos I had a good job driving trucks.”
Eddie was born in Bernard, Mississippi, on Jan 29th 1923, to a noticeably non-musical family.
“It was people like Charlie Patton, Son House, Roosevelt Sykes and Robert Johnson I heard. But I didn’t have to buy their records because I’d be under the house listening. See, in the country in those days they’d give parties after 12, leave town and go out to the parties. I was too little to go inside, so I’d go under the house and sit all night listening, it’d sound so good. I was 8 or 9 when I started playing. I started around ’33 and went pro in ’38. My mother didn’t bother me, she even ordered me a guitar from Sears Roebuck. I didn’t get whupped when I’d leave home, cos, when I come back I always brought some money over.”
“I got to Chicago in ’49. I had my own band with Snooky Pryor in those early days, also with Floyd Jones we worked back and forth with one another, till I got together with Jimmy Reed. Snooky’s here but Floyd Jones he isn’t playing much anymore. He goes out of town every once in a while. We could still play together cos he knows what I’m doing and I know what he’s doing. I’d like to work regularly with him, he’s a good guy.”
“I wasn’t with Vee Jay from the start, Jimmy was and so were The Spaniels (VJ 100 Jimmy Reed “Roll and Rhumble”, VJ 101 The Spaniels “Baby It’s You”/Bounce”) but was on most of his recordings except “Found My Baby” (Leadbitter/Slaven list him as present on that and on VJ 100, which makes his comment open to doubt). As well as my own and Jimmy’s, I was on records by Morris Pejoe, Elmore James and Snooky and Floyd Jones.”
Eddie claims to have no style of his own and forced the point quite strongly:
“I play the same way Robert Nighthawk did, but I do what he did with a slide, with my fingers. You take me, I don’t have no style of my own. I take this guys and that mix it up a little and put a little me in there. Anyone who says they got their own style is a liar, I don’t care who they are.”
“One thing that’ll bother me is if the music ain’t right, this music over here is bothering the hell out of me (Homesick and Snooky). It ain’t right, I can’t play good here. I think it’s all very nice (referring to the UK tour) it’s just the amps. Now Lippman, you know in Germany, they rent amplifiers, they got a good sound. These here are good but I can’t get the tone I want, you just have to go ahead and do the best you can. I don’t like to get angry about nothing, but I can’t play the music I want, these guys over here don’t understand what I want.”
At this point a row of some proportions broke out, as John Wrencher chastised Eddie for being ‘unprofessional’ in his outspokenness about other musicians. Wrencher being a good time singer out for the fun of it and Eddie being a ‘pro’ and a perfectionist told him in no uncertain terms by retorting that if John had worked as long and as hard as he had in clubs and on package tours, he might understand more.
“What do you know about the road, you’ve never toured like me. Day in day out with people fucking in the same room waking up finding someone pissing in your face. Everybody knows about musicians on the road and playing live (meaning us) they do, or they wouldn’t ask these questions. I seen it all and I know that this ain’t right. . .”
You may gather from all this that Eddie was difficult to talk with and many questions just received ‘Yes/No’ answers in quick fire fashion. The subject of Jimmy Reed brought little response. Did he still work with Jimmy?
But he did follow through with a little more.
“He don’t drink anymore, you know. Nothin’ but Pepsi Cola now. It’s an insult to offer him a drink of alcohol, he’s back like he was in the 50’s. I don’t work with him, no, because I worked with him 27 years you know(?) and it worried me – gave me ulcers.”
Despite his perfectionist qualities and criticisms, he is a fine performer and to the untutored ear he sounds excellent, blending in with his UK support extremely well. Don’t let anything he’s said put you off seeing him, he’s really just too critical of himself and others. In fact, he said a lot more, but in fairness to him the tape was switched off during the heated words.
Apart from the Advent material, and whatever he may record for Big Bear, there is nothing of his work available despite the fact that all his Vee Jay solo work could fit neatly on an album. So, start writing to President Records who hold the rights to Vee Jay and get them to issue a Joy Special.
If you’re interested in The Spaniels who Eddie mentioned, try the three volume “Good Ole Rock And Roll” at 94p each, which features much of their work. If President had their ear to the ground, they could have had it out to coincide with the tour and sold it at the shows. The ways of the record biz don’t come easy to understand . . .!
Big John Wrencher, or One Arm John Wrencher, is altogether a different artist. Not a superstar, in the comparative sense of Eddie Taylor, but a simple Juke and street performer who only has one track available (that is, if we don’t count the bootleg album in the States on the Barrelhouse label) on a Testament album if 1964 called “I’m Going To Detroit”.
He was born in 1924 and had a fairly standard start in music.
“A friend of mine, Sidney, he used to play harp at house parties and I’d follow him around. Finally, I said I’ll buy myself one too. I couldn’t play, but finally I hit a tune and learned to push and pull it. I was 12 then and when I got to be grown I’d go where the bands were and let them see what I could do.
I always thought I had a wonderful voice, I had sung in church and I’d make the sisters jump and shout and the deacons had to hold ‘em. The first star I ever played with was Robert Nighthawk, after that Sonny Boy (Rice Miller, you know).
I never had to pay to get in clubs, they all knew me and let me in free. I used to be a little shy, never lift my head up when I played, bashful like, and they got a little home brew, like they make in the south, give me a couple of shots to build me up and I’d be okay. Soon I found I didn’t need it after a while.”
“My aunties had a couple of buildings in Chicago and asked me if I wanted to go to live there, so I went. I got a job at General Screw, a factory that makes parts nuts and bolts and stuff, then started playing on Maxwell Street. I still play every Sunday, I don’t have to, but a lot of my friends are there still. It’s changed. They pull all the buildings down, and colleges and apartment blocks have come up, but people haven’t forgot Jew town, it ain’t original, but you can still buy all the same cheap second-hand stuff like it’s the same thing.”
“John Lee Granderson, he was with me three weeks ago, and Johnny Young, also Shakey Horton, everybody still playing.”
It seemed indelicate to bring up the obvious question of his lost arm, but he answered with delight.
“In a car wreck in a little town called Mount Bayou (phonetic) Miss. I was visiting my mother. I drove 700 miles from Chicago. I was okay but on the return I fell asleep at the wheel. I was playing again the next day though. I never gave up. It cut my arm clean off and left it in the highway. Then I walked 2 ½ miles to a girlfriend and picked up my arm and brought it on to Clarksdale.
When the ambulance men come with stretchers, I was in bed smoking, so I drove back in front with the guys. I was in hospital for three days only. For a while I still had pain at night. As you know, fever rises at night and that’s how it was.”
Although Leadbitter/Slaven only lists the Testament track, he has recorded more.
“I also recorded for Mr. Shelton, 4 or 5 things, but he ain’t put them out. (Shelton owns the Ja Wees/Daran label and distribution set up. He was first to record the Chi-lites and Magic Slim. Wrencher’s material, obvious unbeknown to him, is packaged and ready but not released, Daran/Ja Wes marterial is, or was, available through the Beacon company in the UK but it is not clear whether the label still exists.
“Chicago Blues” from Shelton’s label is still available in Tesco’s on the Windmill label, which includes Magic Slim and others. These too could have tied in with the tour) In recording you have to watch them, they’re all for themselves. I will not cut for anyone unless they for real. He cut me and sits on it and I went and signed for a year too, but I can sit out, I’ll go to sleep for a year. Eddie and I are talking about recording for Jim over here.”
John’s description of his live work was a little confusing. It seems he still lives in Chicago but bases in Detroit and from there travels all over Michigan and into Canada.
It was all something of a geographical nightmare, as we jumped from Port Huron to Tennessee and back to Chicago, but he is working a lot. On stage he puts over an exuberant performance laced with what is obviously a derivative from the old minstrel buck dancing.
He has a powerful voice, and considering his arm, plays a powerful harmonica. Let’s hope that James Shelton gets the material out on Wrencher, because one track for as good an artist he, is a sin. Judging by the audience response, Big John has a good chance of emulating Lightnin’ Slim’s popularity with British audiences. He could well become a semi-permanent fixture on the club and college scene.
A surprising addition to the tour was Erwin Helfer; surprisingly as he is white, contrary to Jim Simpson’s usual policy. Assiduous readers of Living Blues will have seen the name before; but for the uninitiated, he is a youthful looking 37-year old, who teaches blues and classical piano in Chicago. He has cut several records, and has produced blues LPs for his own label, Tone Records. In a slow drawl he sketched his life.
“The first deep musical experience I had was when I went up to Maxwell Street as a child, and saw some skiffle bands. I still didn’t pay much attention, though; blues and gospel were on the periphery of my life, because they were not on the radio a great deal.
When I was in High School, I made a habit of going to South Side, and meeting people like Clarence Lofton. I was too young to visit the clubs really, but I went to a few funky places with Mama Yancey, when no white people ever went there.
I got a good education in these places! One time a guy came up to me, I never drank, and he said, “what the hell are you doing in here?” You know, real rough. So I said, “I like the music”, and he really dug that, and started buying me cokes.”
“What always bothered me though, was the racism, in blues on the side of white people. Like Eddie Taylor has two guys in his band, and he and Sam Lay have trained them, and now they’re as good as any blacks. One’s a guitar player, Al Hite – not of Canned Heat fame – and the other is a bass player John Salter. Eddie is a perfectionist, and I dig that, and John (Wrencher) just wants to enjoy himself, and I dig that too.
A lot of young white blues fans, if they hear about some black dude who’s a real drunk and who pisses in his pants, they think that real neat. But they wouldn’t put up with that with a white person. If that isn’t racism, I’d like to know what is.
They expect blacks to act this way, and it’s just fucking nasty as far as I’m concerned; and I say, I think the more sources you draw from, the better you play. Where would a lot of black jazz players like Cecil Taylor be if they couldn’t draw from white influence? Scott Joplin couldn’t have written his rags if he hadn’t have known European classical music.
The whole thing is, we’re in the world together and the divisions have got to stop somewhere. Living Blues have written a lot of very complimentary things about me, but they wrote this racist editorial; which disturbed me, and I sent a letter that they wouldn’t publish.
Thing is, it didn’t protect white people trying to play the blues; what it is, is just asking people to listen. That’s the only way to understand anything.” (Our sentiment too – eds).
Snooky Pryor was tired and declined an interview (probably thinking that his well-documented life was going to be plumbed again). Later he began talking in conversation, and the tape was switched on.
“I wrote ‘Telephone Blues’ (cut with one other on his first ever session, with Moody Jones and sometimes issued as ‘Calling Up My Baby Blues’) in service in Japan, thinking about my little wife I left behind; that’s when I wrote the number. When I came back to the United States in 1947, I recorded it and I made the first post-war blues in Chicago.
Not too much of a blues scene then, only house parties. There were none too many clubs for bluesmen to work, but the house parties were going pretty strong.”
“I was not doing anything but playing music, as I had not long come out of Service in 1945. It was my own idea to record; I had this in mind. As a kid I wanted to do recording.
I started playing when I was 8/9 years old. I had a real lot of trouble with my parents. My father, he was a minister, and he didn’t want me to play music; to get my rehearsals, I had to go to my eldest brother’s house. He (father) figured it was a sin to play blues. He didn’t know what the blues were, but he had them himself.”
“Well the record company didn’t want to give you the break; they didn’t want to pay the price. But I wasn’t going to do it for nothing.
After this was recorded, I had plenty of working jobs until 1954. I had Chicago sewn up for blues with my band. Floyd Jones was in that, and Moody Jones. We had a drummer, but he was not too much on drums; we called him Porkchop.
So I had this record out, and it was going big, and so I was going out on the gigs. I even recorded before Muddy Waters did (must have been close!) there was not too much competition from Little Walter that time. He was recording, but I was more famous you understand, before I retired the first time.
I wasn’t afraid of him. He was good, but Sonny Boy Williamson II was my favourite. He was the second man I ever heard play harp when I was young.
But I guess my playing was inside me; and I wanted to do this anyway. I never had no teacher. I like the sound of the harp; and in those days it was kinda difficult to buy a guitar. Money was scarce in those days.”
This is his second time over here in a short time. What are his thoughts about this?
“(I feel) about the same as before. I don’t care for music like I used to. It used to be my heart. I guess I got older, and I retired, and I didn’t want to be away from home too long.
I’ve got quite a big family. They’re pretty sad when I come over here, and the first time I thought they’d die (laughs). My wife and they not want me in the music world. I’d been with them 12 years before I came back into the music business.
My sons play guitar, but I don’t encourage them. I didn’t even have my own LPs in the house, until about three years ago. I know what a life it was. They just play for themselves.”
“(Homesick) he had to persuade me from 1970 to when I came over here. We’ve been playing together for some 30 years(!!?), and I guess he felt kind of lonesome without me.
I decided I’d come back for a while to see what it’s like. Everything’s been working out fine. I likes to travel these countries. The people are very warm. I like to meet ‘human’ people”
On the subject of living elsewhere. . .
“Well, that’s where I was put. I would prefer to stay where I am until times change. There’s still a lot of prejudice; a person of my ability meets it anywhere. But I have a Biblical insight, so it would profit me nothing to leave America before the time.
I would prefer to live in the land of Canaan, Palestine, Jerusalem; my God-given land. But not with the present troubles. These things I understand, and you can’t rock the boat before time.
I wish all my people could wake up and find their way and learn something about themselves, and their ancestors. We don’t know anything about our God-given land. Now, everybody has his land except the Negro.
I searched Biblical history; I searched the Bible; I searched Encyclopaedias; and I never heard of a Negro land yet. There’s something wrong with that. I must try and find my land; and I have come to the conclusion it is Canaan.
I am one of the lost tribe. That I know, and I can prove it. Most people don’t understand.”
Does he play in Chicago much?
“No, not much. College dates and tours like this. I don’t do too much of anything. I’m a union carpenter by trade. I contracts my own jobs.
I work as I please. If I want to contract about £400/500 a week, I can do that. Then I have my own farm and home. I have two homes, all of which is paid for. I can afford to kinda take it easy!”
The conversation then flowed through several minor matters, including Floyd Jones being sick, with high blood pressure, and age, but he might be fit enough to come over (!); he (Snooky) finds people warmer in England than in Europe; and Jim Simpson works him pretty hard, only one day off on the last tour!
We would like to thank Jim Simpson for the courtesy and opportunity of making this interview; the artists for their politeness and time; and Alan Johnson for taking the photographs.
John Stretton and Bob Fisher