It’s hard to figure out why Jimmy Dawkins doesn’t generally come to mind when folk are talking about the greatest post-60s blues guitar men. He had as good a technique as anyone and far better than most. His soloing was stunning, played with feeling and imagination, his singing is passionate and I see him as up there with Buddy Guy and Hubert Sumlin.
Maybe the reason he remains largely unsung is because of his relatively calm on and off-stage demeanour. Nobody ever speaks of Dawkins brawling, boozing, and getting into scrapes with the Law, perhaps a musician need to have something of a wild streak in order to be considered street by some of the blues fraternity.
I worked with Dawkins. He was fine company, extremely wise and knowledgeable, ever helpful and I only saw him get riled was when anyone called him Fastfingers. That did it every time! It would have been in reference to his first album under his own name, which Delmark titled Fast Fingers, which he considered to be disrespectful to his meaningful playing on the slows, focussing on the admittedly very speedy work on the uptempos.
Interestingly, the album was largely ignored Stateside, although it did pick up a 4 star review in Downbeat, but inexplicably, fared far better in Europe, particularly in France where it was awarded the “Grand Prix du Disque” for the Best Blues Album of 1971. It also helped establish Dawkins with European audiences which was to serve him well.
Although Dawkins was the nicest of folk to be around, his deep-rooted and over-developed sense of propriety, of doing things the right way, were the cause of one of the most embarrassing episodes in my life, and there have been many of those. I’d been talking to him for a while about how it would make much more sense for me to come to Chicago to produce the next American Blues Legends album that we could then release and market throughout the tour, than to record in Europe at the tour’s end and have to promote it from a standing start.
Who better to turn to, when it came to putting together six of Chicago’s then-hottest bluesmen, than Jimmy Dawkins? He came up with an impressive list of suggestions, I gave him my choices, he got their agreements and relaxed in the knowledge that I had Dawkins by my side, I flew into O’Hare in a relaxed frame of mind.
Settled into a hotel only a stroll away from where we were set to record, Odyssey Sound Studios, at 2120 South Michigan Avenue, the old Chess Recording Studio which was then owned and operated by former Chess recording engineer, Ed Cody, I looked forward to a few days seeing Jim and Amy O’Neal of Living Blues and touring the South Side with Jimmy Dawkins. But Dawkins had other ideas.
He had arranged with the guys for me to actually audition them before offering them the contracts. I didn’t need to, I knew them all from recordings, by reputation and trusted implicitly in Jimmy’s judgement. Anyway, who the hell was I to consider myself important/worthy enough to ask these absolute blues legends to audition for me? Dawkins insisted, telling me that they wouldn’t value the gig or take me seriously if I didn’t show that I could take care of business.
So I went through a couple of hours of excruciating embarrassment in a small Chicago club, nodding approvingly as Eddie C. Campbell, Good Rockin’ Charles, Billy The Kid Emerson, Little Smokey Smothers, Lester “Mad Dog” Davenport and Chico Chism, delivered the sort of down home blues session that us European fans can only dream of. I thanked them properly, we took a few drinks before Dawkins told me “don’t go getting these boys into bad ways, now”. Looking around at that group of hardened South Side blues hooligans I thought he had to be joking, and from the look in his eye, he certainly was.
We spent the next three days recording what was to be the American Blues Legends 79 album, though truth to tell, it was all rocking along so nicely that we could have finished in just one day, or a little more, but we were having such fun I could find no reason to call a halt.
Dawkins, who had insisted that he was only there to make sure that things worked well, sort of accidentally happened to bring his guitar along and he can be heard sharing guitar duties with Eddie C on the Little Smokey Smothers, Chico Chism and Lessie Davenport features. Veteran Chess Records engineer Ed Cody, kept muttering “this takes me back, man” which I found immensely gratifying, but I still cannot understand not even to this day, why, with a few very notable exceptions, U.S. record companies at that time didn’t record these guys and so many like them while they were playing and singing so brilliantly.
There was a sadly and ironic footnote to these sessions. The plan was to take the guys, Eddie C., Good Rockin’, Billy The Kid, Lessie Davenport, Chico and Little Smokey Smothers on the road for a seven weeker through UK and Europe to promote the album, but come departure time some months later I had an anguished, near-tearful phone call from Smokey, pulling out of the tour.
The foreman at his day job in Chi Town, where he worked as a labourer in a construction company, had told him at the last minute that if he took off on this tour, his job wouldn’t be there when he got back. Poor Smokey, my guess is that his ofay boss was just a malicious bastard who resented Smokey getting any of the recognition he was so much entitled to.
Up stepped Dawkins with an immediate replacement in the shape of the impeccable and soulful bass player and singer, Nolan Struck who didn’t put a foot wrong throughout that memorable tour, but I still feel bad that Smokey couldn’t stay on team.
But about James Henry Dawkins, born on October 24th 1936 in Holmes County, Tchula, Mississippi. He was an only child, raised in Pasagoula where his father worked on warships. He remembers from when he was 3 or 4 years old, an uncle, staying with the family, left a beat-up old guitar on his bed, Jimmy pulled it off and started to fool around on it.
His mother bought him his first guitar when he was fifteen and he taught himself to play. Four years later he took The Greyhound to Chicago to take work outside music, but it wasn’t long before he was playing for tips on the street corner of Albany and Roosevelt on The West Side, and later the same year he formed his own band to play The Pink Poodle Club and then The Big Squeeze Club.
Jimmy Dawkins was then firmly on the map as an in-demand guitar man, hired by such guys as Jimmie Rogers, Sonny Thompson, Wild Child Butler, Johnny Young and Walter Horton, playing clubs, radio remotes and recordings.
Dawkins went on to enjoy a hugely productive near 50 year career which saw him record some thirty albums including recording for Vogue and Black & Blue in France. Perhaps the European and Japanese audiences were more appreciative of his terrific, calmly-delivered playing and impeccable though non-dramatic vocals than folks were stateside. Whatever, following his 1970 European tour in the company of John Lee Hooker, Eddie Taylor and Carey Bell he became a regular visitor, just as he did in Japan.
In the 1980s he started his own record label, Leric Records, with typical modesty, not to feature himself but to provide a platform for Blues talent that he figured were not properly appreciated – namely Tail Dragger Jones, Queen Sylvia Embry, Little Johnny Christian and Nora Jean Bruso.
Among his fans can be counted Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton and I remember the great Hubert Sumlin taking me aside in a Chicago club to tell me “you stick with Dawkins, he’s the man!”
Jimmy Dawkins, was married to Verdia. They had six children, many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He died aged 76 in Chicago on April 10 2013. I can’t find the cause of his death.