On 7 February 2020, the EBA presented “Discovering the Blues: Paul Oliver and the Blues – an Evening of Live Music and Discussion” in conjunction with the Think Human festival at Oxford Brookes University.
The first hour of the programme featured live sets by guitarist and director of the European Blues Association Michael Roach, followed by Dr. Tom Attah, a guitarist and course leader in popular music performance at Leeds Arts University. The event then moved to a panel discussion on the history of the blues, and on the life and work of blues historian Paul Oliver. Here Roach and Attah were joined by Dr. Christian O’Connell (Senior Lecturer in American History, University of Gloucester), Dr. Dai Griffiths (Senior Lecturer in Music, Oxford Brookes University), and Prof. Brian Ward (Professor of American Studies, Northumbria University).
During the event, the EBA displayed an exhibition on Oliver’s research, together with copies of artefacts from the Paul Oliver Archive of African American Music including recordings, photographs, sheet music, and fieldnotes.
More photos of the event and exhibition can be seen in the gallery below.
February 14th, 1920 marks a seminal moment in the history of the blues, and perhaps in the whole history of popular music.
One hundred years ago today, African American vocalist Mamie Smith stepped into the recording studios of the Okeh Phonograph Company in New York City to record ‘That Thing Called Love’ and ‘You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down’. Upon their release in August 1920, these two titles would become the first commercially released recordings by an African American woman.
Smith is now most frequently associated with her recording of ‘Crazy Blues’, recorded on August 10, 1920. ‘Crazy Blues’ sold over 70,000 copies within the first month of its release, and kick started the production of what were referred to at the time as ‘race’ records: that is, recordings of African American performers marketed to African American consumers.
But Smith’s recording career had begun before this point, first with an audition session on January 10th, 1920, and a full session on February 14th. When the recordings from this session were released the following August, they sold over 10,000 copies; this prompted Okeh to book Smith for a second recording session, which would produce ‘Crazy Blues’.
Given the meteoric success and influence of ‘Crazy Blues’, what makes Smith’s earlier recordings so worthy of commemoration? When we consider foundational events in history, it’s easy to focus on one event or ‘watershed moment’, and forget the circumstances and actions that led up to that moment. Smith’s recordings of ‘That Thing Called Love’ and ‘You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down’ help us to understand the historical processes that made iconic recordings like ‘Crazy Blues’ possible. And, more importantly, these recordings help us understand the story of how African Americans were able to break down the music industry’s pervasive racial barriers and enter the recording studio.
Mamie Smith was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1883. Like many African American entertainers at the turn of the century, she began her musical career in vaudeville, first with an act called the Four Dancing Mitchells, and then the Tutt Brothers’ show The Smart Set. She left Cincinnati for Harlem in 1913, immersing herself in the neighbourhood’s thriving nightlife, before joining composer Perry Bradford’s Maid in Harlem revue at the Lincoln Theater in 1918.
Yet, while African American culture was booming in the theatres and clubs of urban centres like Harlem, black performers were conspicuously absent from a new form of musical dissemination, the sound recording. One reason for this was ostensibly commercial, if unsurprisingly prejudiced: emerging record companies – all owned by whites – erroneously assumed that African Americans had neither the means nor the interest in purchasing records, the bulk of which were dedicated to more ‘refined’, Eurocentric forms of culture like marching bands, opera, and other classical works.*
The other reason was altogether more invidious. Since the early nineteenth century, American popular culture had been predicated on the minstrel show. White entertainers, ‘blacked up’ with burnt cork, performed stereotyped songs and comedy routines based on what white audiences believed black music sounded like. For the vast majority of white listeners, characters like ‘zip coon’, ‘mammy’, and ‘jim crow’ stood as personifications of black culture and expression.
The global success of minstrelsy during the nineteenth century gave rise to what music historian Karl Hagstrom Miller describes as a ‘minstrelsy paradigm’ in turn-of-the-century American popular music. According to Miller, the minstrelsy paradigm held that music and culture was performative. By donning burnt cork and costume, performers could ‘play’ not only characters, but entire cultures too, whether African American, Italian, Irish, Jewish, Chinese, or one of the many other diaspora communities present in American society.
Consequently, even by the early 1920s, neither industry figures nor audiences considered it necessary to have black artists performing black music. Even though blues music was being composed and performed onstage by African Americans, the singers who first put this material onto disc, like Marion Harris and Sophie Tucker, were white.
This state of affairs did not go uncontested, however. Perry Bradford, a Harlem-based composer and pianist, was convinced that putting an African American performer into the recording studio would ignite not only a new vogue for blues music, but would open up a new market of African American musical consumers. Bradford badgered Okeh’s musical director Fred Hager repeatedly to arrange a session to record his newest songs, with an African American woman on vocals: ‘There’s fourteen million Negroes in our great country’, Bradford recalls saying to Hager in his 1965 autobiography, ‘and they will buy records if recorded by one of their own’.
In the end, Hager did not directly acquiesce to Bradford’s petitions: he booked a session to record Bradford’s new songs, but with Sophie Tucker on lead vocals. But when Tucker fell ill and was unable to attend, Bradford engineered her replacement with Mamie Smith, a seasoned contralto then performing in his latest Harlem show. In doing so, Bradford and Smith succeeded in breaking one of many racial barriers in American entertainment.
Bradford, Perry, Born With the Blues: The True Story of the Pioneering Blues Singers and Musicians in the Early Days of Jazz (New York: Oak Publications, 1965).
Dixon, Robert, and John Godrich, Recording the Blues (New York: Stein and Day, 1970).
Horton, Luke, ‘Perry Bradford: The man who sold the blues’, Australasian Journal of American Studies, 32.2 (December 2013), pp. 13-26.
Kenney, William Howland, Recorded Music in American Life: The Phonograph and Popular Memory, 1890-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Miller, Karl Hagstrom, Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
Sampson, Henry T., Blacks in Blackface: A Sourcebook on Early Black Musical Shows (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2014).
*In fact, the Chicago Defender had drawn attention to the popularity of gramophone records amongst African Americans, as well as the paucity of African American performers that could be heard on disc, as early as 1916.
What did African American blues musicians think of traveling and working outside of the United States? In this post, historic archive sources unlock a forgotten perspective.
Most histories of the British ‘blues boom’ of the early 1960s are told from the perspective of the listeners and aspiring musicians who made up the scene. Scholars like Roberta Freund Schwartz and Andrew Kellett have painstakingly documented how the blues spread to Britain, first through recordings and eventually through live performances by visiting bluesmen like Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker. But we know far less about what African American musicians themselves thought of these journeys and the attention they were given by these new, white fans.
It’s clear that most visiting blues musicians were quite surprised at the attention they received from their British audiences. But this surprise is often evidenced by stories of things that went wrong, or misunderstandings between artist and audience. For example, the myth that Muddy Waters’s bold electric blues style was too loud for British audiences, who were more accustomed to the ‘folk blues’ of Big Bill Broonzy, demonstrates the common assumption that visiting bluesmen did not know what their new audiences would want to hear.
Other anecdotes attest to the eccentricity and volatility of visiting blues musicians in their new surroundings. The harmonica player Rice Miller (aka Sonny Boy Williamson II), for instance, decided to channel the ‘English gentleman’ on his European tours, appearing in a pinstripe suit and bowler hat during concerts. His interactions with British musicians were often incendiary: members of the then-fledgling Yardbirds recall his heavy drinking and his wanton changes to the tempo and keys of songs during performances (Kellett 2017, pp. 63-64).
Such anecdotes certainly capture an element of visiting musicians’ personalities, but they also help to amplify the sense of awe that their tellers would have felt when encountering their idols for the first time. Told by performers like Eric Clapton or Robert Plant, who have since become legends in their own right, these anecdotes filter the visiting musicians’ perspectives through the imaginations of their first British audiences.
Evidence from magazines of the day show another side to the story: in print, African American visitors often appeared more moderate – even diplomatic – and were often acutely aware of the potentials of a new audience in Europe.
In July 1961, the Melody Maker published a short interview with the pianist Memphis Slim, who was already building an intercontinental career. By this time he’d already toured Britain, France, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and Israel and Israel that year, and had since worked in France, Switzerland, and Scandinavia.
Slim observed that London was ‘a haven for blues’ and that ‘everybody in Chicago wants to come over.’ Indeed, the pianist speculated that he could himself make money by acting as an intermediary for American blues artists wanting to play abroad: ‘If I could sell all the blues players who wanted to come,’ Slim joked, ‘I wouldn’t have to work any more.’
Interestingly, too, Slim understood the importance of distinguishing European blues tastes from those of his African American audiences back home:
‘I can play things in England – in most of Europe if it comes to that – that I couldn’t play at home to my own audience in Chicago. […] [T]he Negro audience don’t want those old rolling blues that I learned in my younger days. At least, most of the time they don’t. Not until it gets late, and then somebody’s sure to call for the real blues.’
Slim’s comments allude to the widespread belief that African American audiences were abandoning an existing generation of blues performers in favour of more contemporary, aspirational, and cosmopolitan R&B and Soul musicians, although it is clear that the blues still held an important place in African American cultural life.
But more importantly, Slim shows that he and other blues musicians were already adapting to these circumstances, and that this ability to adapt to diverging audience tastes was imperative for continued career success. While blues musicians had to satisfy their audiences at home with new music, they could not bring the same repertoire to Europe: ‘This is something the Chicago singer has to learn before he comes’, Slim asserted; ‘He has to do the older kind of song. Otherwise he’s liable to be misunderstood.’
Slim’s comments provide an alternative take on this period of musical history. Most historians see the late 1950s and early 1960s as a period of discovery and change: audiences across Europe began to embrace the blues, prompting groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to change the face of popular music forever with their blues-inspired pop. But we should also bear in mind that the African American musicians that these audiences encountered were making discoveries of their own, as they adapted to a new musical landscape that positioned them as the ‘roots’ – rather than the innovators – of popular music.
‘London Loves Blues, Says Memphis Slim’, Melody Maker, 15 July 1961, p. 7.
Andrew Kellett, The British Blues Network: Adoption, Emulation, and Creativity (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017).
Roberta Freund Schwartz, How Britain Got the Blues: The Transmission and Reception of American Blues Style in the United Kingdom (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007).
There is a popular misconception that the blues arrived in Britain in the 1950s and early 1960s, when ardent young fans embraced the sound of ‘folk’ blues singers like Big Bill Broonzy, or postwar Chicago blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. But British awareness of blues music on record has a much longer history, one that stretches back to well before the Second World War. British record companies were releasing recordings of African American blues singers as early as the 1920s. Even as the blues was developing in black communities across America, it was already being heard around the world.
Why is the extent of the blues’s international circulation so often overlooked? One reason is that when we think about the discovery of blues on record in Britain, we often focus on the stories of the listeners who bought the records: the chance discovery of a record in a second hand shop, the hours spent frequenting a specialist record store to build a connection with knowledgeable staff, or the anxious wait for the arrival of a mail order purchase. These are all ways in which blues enthusiasts – particularly during the 1950s and 60s – got hold of recordings.
But we can also look at the activities of the record companies themselves. Few major record companies during the first decades of the twentieth century were solely national concerns; they were nearly all multinational companies that produced and disseminated recorded music on an global scale.
One typical example is the Carl Lindstrom Company. Founded in 1893 in Berlin, it produced records in Britain, Germany, and France under the Odeon label, and eventually became a ‘holding’ company for a number of other European and American labels, most famously Okeh in the United States and Parlophone in the United Kingdom. This transatlantic link between Okeh – one of the biggest producers of African American ‘race’ records – and Parlophone in the UK would make the latter label a market-leader in the distribution of American records in Britain.
Parlophone released its first blues record in June 1924: ‘If I Let You Get Away With It’ and ‘E flat Blues’ by Margaret Johnson, accompanied by Clarence Williams’ Blue Five. This was Johnson’s first recording session. Catalogued as Parlophone E5187, the disc was a direct copy of OKeh 8107. Both sides were recorded on 19 October 1923 in New York City, and were released by OKeh in the United States in December 1923.* That a recording of a hitherto unknown blues artist should be released on the other side of the Atlantic, barely six months after its release in the United States, is quite remarkable.
In addition to showcasing Johnson’s talents, both records foreground soloists in Clarence Williams’s Blue Five, and in particular their soprano saxophonist, Sidney Bechet. ‘E Flat Blues’ is credited to Thomas Morris (clarinettist in the Blue Five) and Clarence Williams himself, while ‘If I Let You Get Away With It’ is credited to Jack Frost and Fred Rose. Rose was a vaudeville songwriter, but most of his songs are now more closely associated with country music stars like Hank Williams, Gene Autry, and Bob Wills. Jack Frost – a pseudonym for Harold Frost – was also a popular song lyricist, whose credits include songs like ‘Avalon’ and ‘Sweet Hawaiian Moonlight‘, made famous by bandleader Ray Kinney.
So what might have compelled Parlophone to begin releasing vocal blues records at this point? In late 1923, there was a brief craze for ‘blues’ dancing, prompting the release of a number of instrumental blues records by both American and British dance orchestras. Around this time, too, The Gramophone Company released Lizzie Miles’s recording of ‘You’re Always Messin Round With My Man’/‘Downhearted Blues’ (HMV B1703), perhaps testing the market for vocal blues sung by African American singers amongst the wash of instrumental records.
Another important influence on Parlophone’s interest in vocal blues may have been the arrival in mid-1923 of the broadway revue From Dover Street To Dixie, which starred renowned blues and vaudeville singers Florence Mills, Edith Wilson, and Gladys Bryant. Perhaps Parlophone were hoping to convert the success of this theatrical show into a longer term interest in vocal blues amongst British record buyers?
Unfortunately the strategy does not seem to have been particularly successful. Although Parlophone would release further vocal blues recordings between 1924 and 1925, such as those by Rosetta Crawford, Eva Taylor, and Sara Martin (as well as two further sides by Johnson) the company’s coverage of these performers pales in comparison to the breadth of their dance music releases, showcasing bands like Vincent Lopez and his Hotel Pennsylvania Dance Orchestra, or small ‘hot’ ensembles like the Original Memphis Five; these groups dominated the label’s popular catalogue by the middle of the decade.
It was not until the 1930s that British listeners became seriously interested in African American vocal blues singers – but that’s another story…
*According to discographer Tom Lord, Johnson’s first OKeh release was advertised in the Chicago Defender on 22 December 1923 (p. 9)
Tom Lord, Clarence Williams (Chigwell: Storyville, 1976).
Paul Oliver’s 1965 book Conversation with the Blues is a landmark of blues research. But the photographs and recordings that Oliver collected in the United States have appeared in other contexts, too. This post highlights a lesser-known – but no less provocative – use of his research materials.
Blues fans are likely to be familiar with Paul Oliver’s Conversation with the Blues. Based on Oliver’s 1960 field trip to the United States, Conversation gathers together the testimonies of a wide range of blues musicians, from leading names like Muddy Waters and Little Walter, to lesser-known artists like Butch Cage, or Willie Nix. Alongside stark, black and white photographs also captured by Oliver, Conversation presents searing accounts of African American life and music in the words of those who have lived it. According to blues scholar Christian O’Connell, Conversation shattered many early blues fans’ romanticised perceptions of black life, forcing them to face up to the harsh realities that lay behind the music they heard on record.
Conversation with the Blues was published in 1965, and it is certainly the most well-known presentation of Oliver’s fieldwork. Some fans may also be familiar with the companion LP released by Decca in the same year, which was discussed in an earlier blog post on this site. But Oliver also found other uses for the material he had gathered, both prior to and following the publication of Conversation.
In August 1961, for instance, Oliver presented a two-part radio series for the BBC’s Third Programme. Also called ‘Conversation with the Blues’, the series – according to the Radio Times – presented ‘field recordings collected in the U.S.A. by Paul Oliver’; the first programme was given the ‘Blues is a Feeling’, while the second ‘Walk a-while, Ride a-while’. An archive recording of ‘Blues is a Feeling’ is held at the British Library.
Oliver also permitted his audio and visual research materials to be turned into a film by the filmmaker John Jeremy. Released in 1970, Blues Like Showers of Rain presents a thirty-minute collage of Oliver’s photographs, set to his interview recordings. Strikingly, Blues Like Showers of Rain features no moving footage or live participants, an approach Jeremy would also take in the 1972 film Jazz Is Our Religion. Instead, Jeremy uses techniques now commonly associated with acclaimed director Ken Burns to bring Oliver’s photographs to life. His subjects speak – and even sing – to the viewer in an arresting portrait of the blues. When the credits roll at the end, Jeremy includes the names of the blues musicians whose voices can be heard in the film.
Fortunately, Blues Like Showers of Rain can be viewed for free online via the Folkstreams website. You can watch the following short trailer here, or follow the link below to view the whole film.
“Smokestack Lightning” is an iconic postwar blues song. But who wrote it, and what can it tell us about the 1950s Chicago blues business?
On 1 September 1954, Muddy Waters and his band entered the Universal Recording Studios in Chicago. Although Waters was already a seasoned performer and recording artist, having been working on the Chicago blues scene for over a decade, this was only the third recording session featuring his full performing band, as it would have been heard in the clubs of the city’s South Side: Waters on vocals, Little Walter on harmonica, Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Otis Spann on piano, Willie Dixon on bass, and Fred Below on drums.
Leonard Chess, head of Chess Records, was famously reticent for bringing Waters’s whole band into the studio. The bluesman’s first hits had been solo guitar numbers, with only a light backing from bassist Ernest Crawford. Reluctant to diverge from this formula, Chess would occasionally admit harmonica, maybe an extra guitar, into Waters’s sessions – but not the whole band. Spann, Waters’s stalwart pianist, didn’t enter the studio for a Waters session until 1953.
But 1954 was different. Their first session of the year was supervised by Willie Dixon, a bassist and songwriter who had begun to work at Chess as a record producer and A&R man in 1950. Here they cut a song unlike any that Waters’s band had recorded before: ‘I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man’. With its thumping stop-time and exuberant machismo, the record rocketed into the Billboard R&B chart. The band’s next session, in April 1954, produced another Dixon hit, the equally raunchy ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’.
With the band’s September session, Chess got the hat trick it was seeking: the first number cut on this session was ‘I’m Ready’, again a swaggering Dixon number that would stay in Waters’s repertoire for the rest of his career. But it is the song they turned to record next that is most interesting: ‘Smokestack Lightning’, a song associated with another legendary Chicago blues artist, Howlin’ Wolf. It was one of Wolf’s first chart hits, and remains one of his best-known numbers.
Here’s Waters’s version:
A comparison of Waters’s version with Wolf’s reveals a number of clear differences, but also some illuminating similarities. Musically, both are based on the same single chord, minor key vamp, although Waters’s version is slower and has a more pronounced swing. Lyrically there are further similarities; both versions feature a constant third line in each verse: ‘Why don’t you hear me crying?’ in Wolf’s version, ‘Now don’t you hear me talking baby?’ in Waters’s. This is an idiosyncratic, but highly significant feature that adds to the song’s feeling of impulsiveness. (My own impression of this song is that Wolf always sounds a little unhinged; looking at the lyrical structure, with each verse anchored by a constant third line, suggests that the singer is indeed ‘hinged’ – just in the wrong place!) At the same time, Waters’s lyrics feel a little more conventional. Setting the constant third line aside, they effectively follow an a-a-b structure:
Well smokestack lightning
The bells all shine like gold (a)
(Now don’t you hear me talking baby?)
Bell’s all shine like gold (a)
How much I love her
Don’t nobody know (b)
In Wolf’s version, on the other hand, each verse has only one idea, expressed in the first phrase, before Wolf reverts to ‘ooh’ and ‘whoo-hoo’ sounds:
Whoa, tell me baby
What’s the matter with you?
(Why don’t you hear me cryin’?)
Interestingly, Waters’s version models a number of distinctive elements that we now associate with Wolf’s version. Each verse begins with a long and drawn out “Well”, similar how Wolf begins his version, as well as other songs in his repertoire. Waters’s lyrics also strategically leave out some words of the story being told. When he sings ‘Woman I love / Great long curly hair’ rather than ‘The woman I love / has great long curly hair’, the effect is brooding and almost animalistic, playing on the bestial undertones of desire that Wolf himself used to great effect in songs like ‘The Wolf Is At Your Door’ or ‘Howling For My Darling’. That Wolf’s version of ‘Smokestack Lightning’ does not do this is significant: it suggests that the presence of Wolf himself was enough to conjure this image, while Waters had to emphasise it musically to get the same effect.
This is where things get a bit complicated. Waters’s version of ‘Smokestack Lightning’ clearly owes a lot to Wolf’s style, but Wolf did not record the song until nearly two years after Waters’s session, in January 1956. Wolf’s version was issued soon after recording by Chess, whereas Waters’s version was shelved and not released until it was included on a ‘Rare and Unissued’ compilation LP in 1984, the year after Waters’s death. Dick Shurman’s liner notes to this disc observes that Waters’s version is ‘a nod to rival Howlin’ Wolf’, but the brevity with which Shurman treats this relationship leads me to think that Shurman assumed Waters’s version was a straightforward cover. This cannot be the case, however, if Waters’s version predates Wolf’s.
So we need to think again about the relationship between these two recordings, and the authorship of the song itself. Wolf has always been credited as the composer of ‘Smokestack Lightning’; he described how the song was inspired by watching trains in the South: ‘We used to sit out in the country’, he recalled, ‘and see the trains go by, watch the sparks come out of the smokestack. That was smokestack lightning.’ Wolf’s claim to authorship is bolstered by the fact that we can hear elements of ‘Smokestack Lightening’ in a number of his earlier recordings. Wolf’s first record, ‘Moanin’ at Midnight’ (rec. July 1951), also uses a one-chord vamp, as does ‘I’m The Wolf’ (rec. February 1952, although not issued until 1970). Wolf’s October 1951 recording of ‘Crying At Daybreak’ is the closest model for ‘Smokestack Lightning’: it bears many similarities, and even uses the fixed line ‘why don’t you hear me crying?’ in each verse, and the phrase ‘smokestack lightning’ in one verse. Present, too, are Wolf’s signature falsetto ‘whoo-hoos’, and the roaring start to each verse, audible in both Waters’s 1954 version and Wolf’s 1956 recording.
Importantly, all of Wolf’s models for ‘Smokestack Lightning’ were recorded in the Memphis area. ‘Moanin’ at Midnight’ was cut at Sam Phillips’s Sun Studios in Memphis, while ‘Crying at Daybreak’ was cut at the KWEM radio station in West Memphis, Arkansas and released on the RPM label. (‘I’m The Wolf’ was also cut in West Memphis, possibly also at KWEM). But while Wolf did not move to Chicago until 1952, Chess had already signed a deal to release some of his Sun and RPM cuts. Wolf’s music was already having an impact on the Chicago scene in the early 1950s, even if the singer himself was not yet personally present. Chess was becoming increasingly aware of the Memphis blues sound, and its potential popularity on the Chicago (and arguably nationwide) blues market. Their response was that of any business-savvy publisher and record company: make a deal to allow the label to release existing recordings in this style on their own label.
The missing link between these versions, I think, is Willie Dixon. As I have already noted, Dixon was writing songs for a number of Chess artists during the early 1950s. The other two songs on Waters’s 1954 session were both by Dixon, as were the most successful results of his earlier sessions that year. Given the professional rivalry that was developing between Waters and Wolf, it is unlikely that Waters would have decided to pinch one of his labelmate’s songs – less likely still that Wolf wrote it for Waters to record! More likely is that it was Dixon – not Wolf – who wrote ‘Smokestack Lightning’, and that he did so in response Chess’s growing awareness of the popularity of the Memphis sound.
Listening again to Waters’s ‘Smokestack Lightning’, it becomes clear that the song is not aiming to emulate Wolf specifically, but other Memphis artists too.
Junior Parker’s song ‘Mystery Train’, recorded for Sun in October 1953, begins with the lyrics ‘Train I ride / Sixteen coaches long’, and the same phrase appears in Waters’s cut of ‘Smokestack Lightning’. Parker also omits connecting words like ‘the’ and ‘is’, just as Waters would do in his version of ‘Smokestack Lightning’. At the same time, Dixon clearly wanted to link the song sonically to Waters, and his own developing compositional style: the band starts off not with an emulation of Wolf’s one-chord vamp style, or Parker’s rhythmic train pattern, but with a modified version of Dixon’s signature ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ riff.
We may never know the reasons why Waters’s recording of ‘Smokestack Lightning’ was shelved. Perhaps ‘I’m Ready’ was judged to have more hit-making potential. Maybe Waters was reluctant to associate himself with a song that was so obviously written to a Howlin’ Wolf template. Either way, the fact that we can compare these two versions sixty years later gives a fascinating insight into the processes of record production on the Chicago blues scene. Musical style was clearly important; these performers’ celebrity status was founded on listeners’ ability to recognise their recordings the instant the disc began to play. But style was also beholden to market speculation. If the Memphis sound was going to be a hit, Chess was keen to get his leading artists onboard.
(With thanks to Keith Randall for drawing my attention to Waters’s version of ‘Smokestack Lightning’)
J. B. Lenoir (1929-1967) cut a distinctive figure on the 1950s Chicago blues scene. Although he began his career in Chicago playing downhome blues alongside early postwar stalwarts like Leroy Foster, Sunnyland Slim, and Memphis Minnie, by the mid-1950s his sound was more akin to the refined urban blues of B. B. King and Little Junior Parker. His voice was noticeably high, but could be surprisingly delicate, a juxtaposition that was echoed in his visually arresting but effortlessly smart collection of zebra print jackets.
Some of the most notable Lenoir recordings are his topical blues, commenting on the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Civil Rights Movement. In this way he is quite unlike other blues stars of the 1950s, who largely avoided overt references to current events in song, but his many performances for white revivalist audiences – particularly as part of the American Folk Blues Festival European package tours – have often emphasised this side of his repertoire.
Of course, Lenoir didn’t have to be topical to approach themes of hardship in song. One of his best-known numbers is ‘I Been Down So Long’, first recorded on 19 December 1956 for the Checker label. Here Lenoir plays electric guitar and is backed by a full band, including Joe Montgomery on piano and Willie Dixon on bass, and the backing horns duo of Alex Atkins and Ernest Cotton.
In 1960, Paul Oliver recorded Lenoir singing the same song, accompanied only by his guitar. While Oliver interviewed the blues and gospel vocalist Brother John Sellers, Lenoir ‘played quitely in the background’ before offering a song to Oliver’s tape recorder. Sellers’s interview provides a telling context for Lenoir’s theme, describing the psychological weight of living in a segregated society:
Take most blues singers – they have lived rough lives, or they have been rough in their lives before they changed, because hard struggles and hard times – it makes people hard and mean towards each other regardless of who they are. If you have poverty you must have hard times and roughness – because if you come up a rough way it makes you tough and ready to battle at anything. Maybe people been talking about you and you get an achin’. Maybe you with a gang of people and some person, especially some white person say, ‘Move back!’ Well you automatically think they’re talkin’ to you. Move back? Move back for what? What have I got to move back for? Poverty makes you rough; it makes you like that – and that’s part of the blues.
Without his full band, Lenoir’s performance is more intimate and more emotional than the Checker version. Oliver’s close-quarters recording allows us to hear the whole range of Lenoir’s voice, as well as the crafted interplay between his words and the guitar accompaniment. It invites us to wonder about Lenoir’s own experiences of ‘hard times and roughness’, so often out of earshot in his more exuberant performances.
Further Reading & Listening
Paul Oliver, Conversation With The Blues, 2nd edn. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
Paul Oliver, Conversation With The Blues: A Documentary of Field Recordings, Decca LK 4664 (1965)