Today the final part of our series on the American Blues Legends tours of the 1970s kicks off with some lesser known, but still immensely important names and goes on to look at a couple of the all-time greats.
Less regular bluesmen on our tours included Boogie Woogie Red and Baby Boy Warren. Red, born Vernon Harrison in Rayville, Louisiana, on October 18th 1925, was a fine, driving piano player and jazz-influenced singer, who somehow never received the recognition his ability warranted. Based out of Detroit, he was often heard alongside that city’s finest players, and was in the ubiquitous John Lee Hooker’s band for a spell.
His touring for Big Bear was limited by the lack of decent acoustic pianos on the club circuit, probably a direct result of a peculiar madness that had swept the UK in the 1960s, namely piano smashing.
Guitarist Robert Henry ‘Baby Boy’ Warren, born Lake Providence, Louisiana, August 13th 1919, only played on one tour for Big Bear, during which he recorded a still-unreleased album with Boogie Woogie Red. A fine performer and a deft composer of very original songs – certainly one of the finest of the older generation of Detroit Bluesmen – he is to be heard sharing the spotlight with Johnny Mars and Boogie Woogie Red on ‘Meet Me In The Alley’.
Pianist Erwin Helfer, born in Chicago, circa 1934, was raised on the South Side listening to the music of Speckled Red, Jimmy Yancey, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson. As a young man he befriended Big Joe Williams, with whom he regularly took bookings.
He was also close to Jimmy Yancey and went on to accompany Mama Yancey when Jimmy died. He recorded one collection for Big Bear, Boogie Piano Chicago Style, which included several piano duets with Bob Hall in the style of Ammons and Johnson.
Guitarist G.P. Jackson came over for the American Blues Legends 74 tour on the recommendation of Blues researcher Mike Leadbitter. Born George Paul Jackson in Alligator, Mississippi, on May 16th 1920, he was raised in nearby Dundee. Initially a slide player in the style of Robert Johnson – whom he claimed to have met as a seventeen-year old – Jackson later played with Wylie Galatin, the man who taught Doctor Ross his licks.
Having picked cotton alongside Howlin’ Wolf before WW2, Jackson teamed up with Doctor Ross for two or three years before going into the US Army. After the war he joined Barber Parker’s Silver Kings, moving to Memphis in the late 40s, before settling down in Kansas City in the early 50s where he formed his own band and became known as The Kansas City Bo Diddley.
William ‘Billy Boy’ Arnold, born in Cook County, Chicago, Illinois, on September 16th 1935, was another fine harmonica player and singer. One of sixteen children, self-taught on harmonica, he performed with Bo Diddley from the age of fifteen. As he matured he featured in the bands of Otis Rush, Johnny Shines, Earl Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. He toured with American Blues Legends 75, bringing his expressive singing and gifted Blues harmonica playing to a wide audience.
Thanks to his 1955 recording of his own song, “I Wish You Would”, on Vee-Jay Records, he was initially, and very wrongly, labelled a Bo Diddley copyist thanks to that typical Diddley rhythm pattern. Though strangely, thanks to that single, he very nearly made a name for himself in the UK.
He was denied by the Birmingham-based ATV TV company omitting to credit him while using his recording as the sign-out music of the hugely-popular series “Thank Your Lucky Stars”, broadcast from Aston in Birmingham. The series ran for 248 episodes, of which 244 have somehow gone missing, and was the only competitor to the juggernaut “Juke Boy Jury”. “Thank Your Lucky Stars” featured most of the rising UK stars at the time, including The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Kinks, The Animals and The Who.
With such a huge natural talent as singer, songwriter and piano player, it’s difficult to understand why William ‘Billy The Kid’ Emerson does not enjoy a much bigger reputation. Born in Tarpon Springs, Florida, on December 21st 1929, he played locally until joining the US Air Force in 1952. From 1954 he was with the Ike Turner Band, following which he recorded for Sun Records before settling in Chicago later in the decade, where he recorded for Vee-Jay and Chess.
His lyrics are witty and urbane, his delivery owes something to Charles Brown, and his piano playing is formidable. He toured the UK with American Blues Legends 79, enjoying far more success onstage than off. Claiming to be highly religious, he was loudly scornful of the behaviour of the other musicians when it came to the drinking, the womanising, and the generally having a good time departments. Other times, he veered to the opposite end of the spectrum…so who knows?!
In all the tours undertaken by Big Bear, we only ever actually lost or mislaid one musician. It was in fact, Billy The Kid. Following the last date of the tour, at a 24 hour roadside cafe somewhere in the Pennines he got out of the bus, in some disgust at an insult either real or imagined, and vanished into the gloom clutching his mojo stick and muttering to himself.
Another million seller who recorded for Big Bear, although sadly not a million-seller on Big Bear, was the legendary Tommy Tucker. Tommy made every chart on this planet with his fabulous and much-covered recording of his own ‘Hi-Heel Sneakers’. This wasn’t the only song in this talented musician’s locker, and it wasn’t the only killer-diller vocal he delivered either.
Robert Higginbotham was born in Springfield, Ohio, on March 5th 1933, he played piano from the age of seven and first recorded at fourteen. He was, bizarrely, a Golden Gloves boxing contender in 1950 and became serious about music during that decade.
Following his hit, he lit out on a theatre tour with Ray Charles and Dionne Warwick, touring Europe with The Animals in 1965. His Big Bear tour dates were eminently successful – he was an instant hit on the American Blues Legends 75 tour – and he professed himself keen to continue and develop the relationship.
But somehow, though ever-friendly and a joy to be with, he never seemed sufficiently interested in his music to be able to concentrate long enough to motivate himself to follow up the opportunities. A sad waste of an immense talent.
If ever anyone has anything bad to say about Charles Brown, then they’d better not say it within hearing distance of Big Bear Towers! The Bear got to work with one of the greatest-ever music talents over two weeks in 1994, when he recorded Charles Brown at Chipping Norton Studios.
Charles, the acknowledged and indisputable influence on an army of singers and pianists (including Nat King Cole and Ray Charles) was born in Texas City, Texas in 1920. Classically-trained and straight out of church, he took the music to places it had never been. First heard on the Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers recordings for Aladdin in 1945, over the subsequent five and a half decades Charles has gone on to leave a consistently-brilliant collection of recordings.
Charles has gone, and we miss him. The Bear used to regularly phone Howard McCrary in Los Angeles just to hear his Charles Brown impersonation, to try and convince himself that the great man was still around, if only for a passing moment.