We’re in the scary process of trying to put in some semblance of order the artefacts created by around 60 years of working in the music business.
There are recordings galore, a mountain of publications including the early 1960s Midland Beat and our own Brum Beat and Jazz Rag, news cuttings, programmes, a bunch of publicity items, posters – and photographs.
I thought it might be nice to share a few of my dodgy old photographs that are relevant to this Bluesletter.
Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins was one of the all-time great blues guitarists and singers, listed in Rolling Stone magazine at number 71 on their list of 100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time. At the age of 8, he met Blind Lemon Jefferson at a church picnic and from that day believed that the blues was “in him”.
He learned to sing and play with his cousin, Texas Alexander [another cousin was Frankie Lee Sims], accompanied Jefferson on guitar at informal Church gatherings. Apparently, Jefferson never let anyone play with him except the young Hopkins.
After a spell in County Prison Farm, Hopkins moved to Houston, to break into the music business. Discovered by LA-based Aladdin Records, he recorded the first 12 tracks of what was to become a long and prolific career.
Singer and Guitarist George Buddy Guy is one of the most important of all bluesmen, and a good friend of Birmingham. He first played here in 1964 at Tek City Jazz Club, now Aston University.
He stayed in contact over the years, returning to play the Jazz & Blues Festival and most recently, welcomed The Leader of Birmingham City Council to his own Legends Club in Chicago. He influenced Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan and others, ranking 30 in Rolling Stones Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
Clapton described him as “the best guitar player alive”. Born in Lettsworth, Louisiana, he moved to Chicago in 1957, played with Muddy Waters and began a long musical partnership with Junior Wells.
REVEREND GARY DAVIS
Blind he may well have been, but backstage at Birmingham Town Hall he unfailingly expressed his pleasure at any female who happened by.
Also known as Blind Gary Davis, he was born in South Carolina in 1896, one of eight children who survived to adulthood. He became blind as an infant, his father was shot dead by the Birmingham Sheriff in Alabama when Davis was 10 and he was placed with his grand-parents because of ill-treatment by his mother.
Nevertheless, His guitar playing was unique, produced solely by his thumb and forefinger and he was an acknowledged influence on Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Keb Mo’ and John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful.
Singer, guitarist, songwriter, duck-walker Charles Edward Anderson CHUCK BERRY is one of the three men who could rightly claim to have been responsible for the shaping of Rock and Roll. Many, quite rightly, consider him to have been the most important American wordsmith of the 20th Century.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1926, he was one of the first musicians to be inducted in to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with the citation, “he laid the groundwork for not only the Rock and Roll sound, but also a Rock and Roll stance.” The second part of the statement possibly refers to his three separate prison sentences, the first for armed robbery while still at high school in 1944.
Remarkably, despite these distractions, Chuck Berry recorded some of the greatest music of our time, enjoyed a string of hit records, influenced hundreds of bands, including The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, He wrote monumental songs and toured consistently, which amazingly he still does. John Lennon said, “If you gave Rock and Roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”
Rolling Stone Magazine ranked HOWLIN’ WOLF at Number 51 on their list of The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Sam Phillips of Sun Records said, “The soul of this man will never die”, and he’s been proved correct; Wolf’s songs are still played nightly by blues bands across the world.
Born Chester Arthur Burnett into a Mississippi farming community, he ran away from home at age 13, was functionally illiterate, yet became one of the most influential and financially successful of all bluesmen. He arrived in Chicago to join Chess Records in his own car with 4000 dollars in his pocket.
In his 40s he went back to school, studied accountancy and business and was probably unique amongst bluesmen at that time in paying band members a decent salary and even benefits such as health insurance, which of course allowed him to employ the very best musicians.
He came to Britain in 1964 as part of the American Folk Blues Festival and The Rolling Stones recording of his song, Little Red Rooster reached Number One in the same year. Wolf died in 1976 age 65.
SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON
Sonny Boy was born on the Sara Jones Plantation in Tallahatchie, Mississippi, probably in 1912. He sang the blues and played harmonica, associated with Robert Johnson, recorded for Trumpet, Checker/Chess Records and became established as one of the great Chicago bluesmen.
In the 1960s Sonny surprisingly relocated to Birmingham, in order to be close to The Spencer Davis Group [well Steve Winwood to be precise] with whom he was gigging. Around this time he set fire to his hotel room while trying to cook a rabbit in a coffee percolator.
BROWNIE MCGHEE, SONNY TERRY & REVEREND GARY DAVIS
Three of the greatest ever country bluesmen. Brownie played guitar and sang, most of his life in collaboration with harmonica player Sonny – known also for his vocal whoops and hollers. Brownie’s childhood bout with polio left him crippled in one leg and Sonny was blind, but they really looked after one another.
Brownie figured that between them they were one whole person. Sonny and Brownie came together in 1942 and were inseparable, developing a huge following during the 1950s folk boom. They teamed with Reverend Gary Davis in the American Folk Blues Festival of 1964.
We’ve compiled all the selections from this article on our Henry’s Bluesletter YouTube playlist as well as on Spotify below: