The origins of Texas Blues go back to the early 1900s when a veritable army of the unemployed came to the state to work in the oilfields, ranches and lumber camps – and when a population shifts, their music isn’t far behind.
The main blues cities were Galveston, San Antonio, Houston and of course Dallas, where the Deep Ellum section became a focal point. Johnny and Edgar Winter, Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and ZZ Top are among others who have carried the flag for Texas blues that first flew over 100 years ago.
I guess that it wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say that Texas Blues began with guitarist and singer Blind Lemon Jefferson. Born blind in 1893 in Coutchman, Texas, his birth name Lemon Henry Jefferson, he was the youngest of seven, or maybe eight, children born to sharecroppers.
Hardly into his teens, he started playing guitar and was soon performing on street corners, outside barber shops, at picnics and parties. His cousin, Alec Jefferson, wrote, “It was rough. Men were hustling women and selling bootleg and Lemon was singing for them all night. He’d start about eight and go on until four in the morning, mostly just him, sitting there and playing and singing all night.”
In his late teens, Lemon seemed to settle in Deep Ellum, meeting and playing with Lead Belly and getting to know T-Bone Walker. T-Bone would act as Lemon’s guide, while Lemon taught the younger man all about blues guitar.
Late in 1925 Jefferson was taken to Chicago by Paramount Records, going on to record around 100 tracks, many of the 43 that were issued becoming big sellers, resulting in him making a decent living, enabling him to marry, and, probably, have a child, buy a car and hire chauffeurs. His distinctive, old-timey voice and intricate guitar playing influenced such important musicians as Furry Lewis, Charlie Patton, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Barbecue Bob as well as later generations of bluesmen.
There are contradictory reports regarding Jefferson’s death in 1929 in Chicago at the age of 36. It was suggested that his drink was poisoned by a jealous lover; that he was robbed and killed by a man escorting him to the rail station; that he was attacked by a dog, and, the most likely, he died following a heart attack when he became disoriented during a snowstorm.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame selected his “Matchbox Blues”, recorded in 1927, as one of the 500 songs that shaped Rock and Roll.
When I first toured Doctor Ross, the one man band from Tunica, Mississippi, we didn’t quite hit it off at first. His experiences Stateside with record company folk, and white folk in general, had naturally made him cautious in the extreme and he viewed my every action with suspicion. In June 1972 we arrived in Montreux where he was to feature in the Jazz Festival, supporting the Muddy Waters Band and recording his first Big Bear album – “Live At Montreux”.
Waiting in line to check in at the hotel, Doc was still decidedly grumpy. As the guy in front of us turned away from reception, I thought that I recognised him, though I couldn’t place the face, and gave him such a big hello that it made him think that he knew me. He gave me a huge smile in return and a pat on the back.
Doctor Ross looked totally shocked. “You know T-Bone?”, he said and I realised that I only knew the great T-Bone Walker from the many photographs I had seen, so then it was my turn to be shocked – and somewhat embarrassed, but from that moment on Doctor Ross regarded me in a totally different light – “any friend of T-Bone is a friend of mine” – and we had a fine old time together over the subsequent years, touring and recording.
Aaron Thibeaux Walker, sometimes known as Oak Cliff T-Bone [a reference to the area in Dallas where he was raised] was part Cherokee Indian, born in Cass County, Texas, in 1910. His parents were both musicians and he got interested in music early. As a boy he sang with his stepfather at local drive-in soft drink stands and at around ten years old worked as lead-boy for Blind Lemon along Central Avenue, Dallas.
At thirteen he was touring with Dr. Breeding’s Big B Tonic Medicine Show through Texas, as singer, guitarist, comedian and dancer, before joining The Ida Cox Road Show to tour through the South. In 1929 T-Bone recorded for Columbia and a year later won first prize in Cab Calloway’s Amateur Show before going on tour with Cab.
This was his breakthrough. T-Bone [a corruption of his mother’s pet name for him, T Bow] went on to build his considerable reputation as one of the most important of blues musicians, touring worldwide, recording prolifically, appearing in films and on TV and influencing so many, including Bobby Bland, Gatemouth Brown, Duane Allman, Jeff Beck, Johnny Winter – and importantly, all of the Three Kings, BB, Albert and Freddie.
Max Jones wrote in Melody Maker,= “He played the kind of lean, biting solos which turned a generation of blues and R & B musicians around into new directions”, while Freddie King said, “I believe it all comes originally from T-Bone Walker.” B B King said, “It was T-Bone who really started me to want to play the blues. I can still hear T-Bone in my mind today. He made me so that I knew I just had to go out and get an electric guitar.”
T-Bone was married for 40 years to Vida Lee and had three children. In later years, he had stomach problems and couldn’t quit drink, and in 1974 he suffered a stroke and had to stop playing. He died of bronchial pneumonia in a Los Angeles hospital in 1975. He was 64.
T-Bone’s contribution to modern blues cannot be overstated. He was the first blues guitarist to play electric and his sound shaped all post-war popular music while Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix and many more were inspired by his showmanship.
I’ve long been intrigued – a little bit disappointed and confused – by Texas bluesmen George Little Hat Jones. Intrigued by his name, disappointed to find that the story behind the name was by no means exotic and confused by the presence of another little-known Texas bluesman, Dennis Little Hat Jones.
Firstly, the Little Hat. George Jones worked on a construction site for around 13 years from the age of 15, and when he turned up for work one morning wearing a hat with half of the brim cut away, his boss christened him Little Hat and was so amused by his own wisecrack that he insisted in making out George’s paychecks in that name.
George Jones was born near the Sulphur River in Bowie County, Texas, in 1899, on the family farm that had been purchased by his grandfather, a former slave. He quit school at thirteen to work on the farm when his father became ill and several crops were lost.
His mother bought him a guitar at this time and in 1929 he was performing at fish fries and juke joints in San Antonio, often with Thomas Shaw, J.T. ‘Funny Papa’ Smith and Texas Alexander. On June 15th that year he recorded “New Two Sixteen Blues” and “Two String Blues” in the Okeh Studios and later that same day played guitar on nine tracks by Texas Alexander.
Six days later he recorded four more songs for Okeh and a year later another six. Those sessions accounted for more-or-less his entire recorded output.
He wasn’t to record again, but carried on performing, moving to Naples, Texas, in 1937 with his second wife, Janie Traylor. He took work outside of music at The Red River Army depot and died in 1981, aged 81 and is buried in the Morning Star Cemetery in Naples.
Even less is known about singer and guitarist Dennis Little Hat Jones, who was supposedly active at more-or-less the same time as George. We don’t even know where his Little Hat nickname came from and his dates of birth and death are unknown. He, like George, travelled and worked with Texas Alexander and J.T. Smith and it is said that he recorded only occasionally and only up to until 1930.
Logic seems to dictate that those blues historians who wrote about Dennis were in fact, simply confusing him with George. If anyone knows any different, I’ll be delighted to hear. In the meantime I feel a sense of relief that, after all, there’s only one Little Hat Jones.
Texas Alexander is a name that inevitably crops up when folk are talking about early Texas Blues. There’s some confusion about his dates of birth and death, but it’s generally accepted that Alger Alexander was born in the Brazos bottom-lands in Jewett in 1900.
He had a powerful singing voice, didn’t play an instrument, but carried a guitar case so that whenever he arrived in town, musicians would come up and talk to him, and maybe he could get a gig. He was a first-generation East Texas blues singer, echoing the field hollers, work shouts and prison songs of the early 1900s.
An older cousin of Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins, he spent much of his life outside music, working in cotton fields and on railroad gangs, just singing on streets and in taverns. He did, however, record with some interesting musicians, including jazz greats Joe ‘King’ Oliver and Eddie Lang and the impressive bluesmen Lonnie Johnson, The Mississippi Sheiks [Sam Chatman, Bo Carter, Walter Vinson], Little Hat Jones and Funny Papa Brown for Okeh and Vocalion.
His songs “Penitentiary Moan Blues”, “Levee Camp Moan”, “Section Gang Blues” and “Texas Troublesome Blues” might indicate more than a passing knowledge of prison life and it is widely reported that he was sentenced to six years in Paris State Penitentiary for the murder of his wife.
However, recent research has indicated that he may well have been sentenced to a spell in a Country Work Farm for singing lewd songs in public and it’s also reported that there is no State Pen in Paris, Texas.
He was later performing on streets and buses with Lightnin’ Hopkins and slipped out of sight around 1950. Texas Alexander suffered from syphilis for years, eventually dying from it in Richards, Texas in 1954, at the age of 50.
I have never understood why Charles Brown is not as widely-known as his immense talent demands, blues musicians speak his name with near-reverence. Charles had seven Top Ten hits on the Billboard R&B chart including the seminal “Driftin’ Blues” and the very best ever Christmas song “Merry Christmas Baby”.
Ray Charles took his stage surname from Charles and Nat ‘King’ Cole told the world that Charles Brown was his one-and-only influence – just listen to the earliest Nat Cole singles and you hear pure Charles. Percy Mayfield, Floyd “Mr Bartender” Dixon, Ivory Joe Hunter and Johnny Ace all acknowledged their debts to Charles, yet too often when you mention his name the response is “Charles who?”.
I first met Charles in 1992 when he played the Notodden Blues Festival in Norway and I was there with King Pleasure and the Biscuit Boys. The first morning of the festival, I was taking breakfast with Buddy Guy and the room was full of American bluesmen when Charles made his entrance.
Almost as if rehearsed, the room erupted into a spontaneous version of Charles’ hit single, Merry Christmas Baby, with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells leading the way. It was extraordinary to see the respect and affection these blues stars, some of them gnarled veterans, had for Charles which makes it even more surprising that he was never a household blues name. The Norwegian promoter introduced me to Charles who gestured towards Buddy and Junior and grunted, ‘These boys bothering you?’.
I went to his rehearsal that morning with Biscuit Boy Al Nicholls. We were bowled over by the immediate change in Charles’ demeanour from amiable and jocular companion to ultra-strict disciplinarian. Where music was concerned, Charles knew exactly what he wanted from every musician, but he was equally exacting when it came to presentation.
Ruth Davies, the attractive bass player, looking all the more feminine in a man’s dinner jacket, came in for a tongue-lashing, even though this was just a rehearsal, for not appearing to be totally involved; to Charles every time you played, you put on a show.
‘Don’t take your eyes off me, bitch,’ Charles demanded. ‘Look like you’re madly in love and can’t wait to get me home!’. The fact that Charles was famously gay somehow made it all the more ironic.
We booked him into Ronnie Scotts, Birmingham the next year for a week which quickly sold out and was his only UK appearance. He also recorded for Big Bear on the album “Blues & Rhythm Revue: Volume One” with King Pleasure & The Biscuit Boys.
There have not been a lot of bluesmen who come to the party with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry, but Charles Brown did just that. He taught science and maths at Carner High School in Baytown, Texas, worked as a civil service chemist at the Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas.
He then transferred to the Bay Area, where he attended The University of California before deciding to concentrate on the blues, moving to Los Angeles and working as an elevator operator to help support himself as he made his way in music.
He was born in Texas City in 1922, died in 1999, aged 76, in Oakland, California, and was one of the greatest of all bluesmen.
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