As the 20th century progressed things changed. The increasing mechanisation reduced the need for so much labour and the rural work-force started to migrate from Mississippi to the cities in search of work. The big northern cities of Detroit and Chicago had the factories and car production that required workers. The money was good and it proved a big pull.
I went to Chicago in 1971. Walking the streets of Chicago in the seventies was a daunting experience. The skyscrapers loomed over the underpasses and it felt very forbidding. I found it quite threatening. During the fifties the southern states were full of segregation, intimidation and Jim Crow but the Northern cities were even more dangerous. The places were full of gangsters, pimps and murder. You carried a gun and a knife and the murder rate was high. It felt like that to me. It was scary.
A staging post along the way for musicians was Memphis. Situated in Tennessee it was a half-way house on the way to Chicago. The talent scouts would check out the black acts from the rural areas for the big black record labels such as Modern, set up by the Bihari Brothers, or Chess (and it’s subsidiaries Checker, Cadet and Argo), set up by Phil and Leonard Chess. Sam Philips started off in the late forties as a scout for these labels (as did Ike Turner). After a bit he decided to set up his own Sun label in Memphis working on the premise that there was money to be made and why send all the talent up the road to Chicago when he could record in Memphis? Sam recorded the local Blues, R&B and Country before inventing Rockabilly. He ‘discovered’ Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and many others but he always said that the greatest talent that he unearthed was Howlin’ Wolf.
Memphis developed a booming blues scene on Beale Street. It had started out in the twenties and thirties with acoustic blues with the likes of Furry Lewis and Sleepy John Estes but by the forties it had turned electric. The first black radio station WDIA was broadcasting and giving airtime to the likes of BB King. I walked round Beale Street. By the time I got there it had become commercial. The old time place was knocked down but it still had a bit of the feel. There were blues bands playing and we went in BB Kings place and caught a few acts. At the end of town I sat by the bronze statue of W.C. Handy and then the one of Elvis in all his glory. It seemed appropriate. It took me back to the dust of that old town as it had been in its hey-day..
The forties was the era of ‘Race’ records. Radio stations and segregated music and audiences. The whites had their crooners and swing with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney or the Country & Western of Hank Williams, Gene Autrey, Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb and Flatt & Scruggs. The blacks had the blues. There was a stark difference. The blues was raunchy in a way that white music never was. The blues seemed real. White music seemed sanitised.
Most of these early blues records were recorded in make-shift studios, in hotel rooms or above shops. That still went on but in the fifties there were proper studios like Sun and Chess. Many of the blues guys would record for a number of different labels using various pseudonyms in order to avoid being sued. John Lee Hooker was famous for it. He’d notoriously record for one label in the morning and another in the afternoon under a different name.
The post-war blues scene was different. The urban environment was harsher and the clubs small, noisy and sweaty. This was no country juke where a national steel guitar was sufficient. In order to make yourself heard you needed amplification. The electric sound mainly grew out of Chicago.
The workers had been on the assembly line all day and when they hit the bars and clubs they wanted to let off steam. The music reflected that. It was loud, aggressive, beaty and rocked. The clubs were packed and the floor writhed. I would have loved to have had a single night in one of those joints. From the reports they were alive. They were funky with sweat.
The development of the music can be clearly seen by a quick comparison between Robert Johnson and Elmore James. Elmore based his slide guitar style on that of Robert Johnson and Kokomo Arnold and did a cover of Robert’s ‘Standing at the Crossroads’ which was his story about selling his soul to the devil. In the forties, after being discharged from the army, Elmore worked in an electric store on Hickory Street in Canton. It was there that he developed his raw electric sound. He created his own electronics to produce distortion and sustain so that his guitar sound was searing. He has many imitators but has never been equalled. That sound is still boss. I visited Canton and that street. It had been demolished. All that was left of Elmore’s electric shop was the foundations and a few bricks. I stood in the dust and could imagine him standing in that shop working on his guitar to create a different type of pick-up. He was a genius in many ways. Elmore is one of my heroes.
The Robert Johnson acoustic version of ‘Crossroads’ is brilliant. His anguished voice and complex guitar are masterful. But Elmore took it somewhere else. He electrified the sound with a scorching riff and added a thumping beat. This exemplified the difference between the forties and fifties.
The whole of Memphis was jumping with the Blues and R&B and this is where Elvis snuck off to watch the black performers busking or playing in the clubs. He was knocked out by the power of Rufus Thomas, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup and Big Mama Thornton. But it was in Chicago that the Blues really reached its apotheosis. The clubs were a battle-ground in many ways and the giants of the scene would battle it out for supremacy. At that time it Was Muddy Waters slugging it out with Howlin’ Wolf for who was the top dog. They were closely pressed by Sonny Boy Williamson and Elmore James. Then there was Billy Boy Arnold, Little Walter, Freddie King, and Buddy Guy. Elsewhere Lightin’ Hopkins, Magic Sam, Robert Nighthawk, Albert King and John Lee Hooker were setting their styles.
The bands pulled out all the stops to create excitement and steal the show. They’d learnt their trade as showmen and pulled out all the tricks. Howlin’ Wolf was famous for his lascivious tricks with his harmonica, for howling and rolling around on the floor like a wolf and clawing his way up curtains, all wide-eyed and ferocious. He was a huge man, weighing in at 300 lbs. and standing six foot seven and created an imposing, formidable act. Muddy Waters was not to be outdone. He’d work the audience into a frenzy, put a bottle of coke down his pants, flip the top off and spray the audience at the climax. This was the type of raw sex and fury that was lacking for me in the controlled, censored music produced for white audiences. I wanted the real thing.
Willie Dixon was the driving force behind much of the Chess label success. He was a great bass player and arranger but it was his song-writing that really made the difference. He penned most of the great blues numbers that powered the later British blues boom including: Spoonful, Little Red Rooster, Wang Dang Doodle, Back door Man, I Just want To Make Love to You and Smokestack Lightnin’.
I went to Clarksdale and visited the Delta Blues Museum. They had Muddy Waters’ shack in there with a wax model of Muddy sitting in it with a guitar. It didn’t feel right to me. I visited the site where they’d taken it from and stood there looking over the fields of the plantation he used to work on driving his tractor, where it had all started. I wished they’d left the shack there. It felt more fitting.
I also went to White Station where Howlin’ Wolf grew up. The Howlin’ Wolf museum was shut but I walked around and sat by the statue they had to him. It was slightly smaller than life-size but it was good. He was being recognised as a great performer. Mississippi Hill Country was hot and fertile. Chester Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf) used to plough the land with an ox. I could imagine the huge man doing that in the heat with the buzz of insects and rich smell of the soil.
My first introduction to the Blues was when I was fourteen and my friend Dick Brunning played me his records. I had to listen to Lightnin’ Hopkins. I couldn’t make out a thing he was singing and there was only that electric guitar run with Lightnin’ keeping time with bottle-tops nailed to his shoes. It took me a while for my ears to tune in but I grew to love it. It was a huge difference to the Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Beatles that I was listening to. Dick introduced me to Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and I never looked back.
Those earthier, sexier sounds were raw and sang of a different, more real life to the one I was living. It stank of sex, excitement and energy. I wanted it.
Out of that Chicago sound Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry emerged to pump that energy into the nascent Rock ‘n’ Roll scene. The blues sound was largely ignored by the white audiences in the USA but had a huge impact in Britain. Chris Barber was responsible for bringing the artists like Muddy Waters across the ocean where they received a rapturous response in Europe. Some even settled here. This sparked off a great interest in the blues which resulted in a multitude of British blues bands starting with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated and giving rise to the sixties Beat bands like the Rolling Stones. Stars like John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf found a new audience in Britain just as their home black audience was moving on to the softer sounds of Tamla Motown, Doo-wop and the R&B dance crazes of the late fifties and early sixties.
The electric blues sparked off electrification back in the rural regions too. In Louisiana we had the swamp blues of Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester and Lonesome Sundown and in the Mississippi Hill Country we had the likes of Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside.
The Blues was alive and rockin’ and went on to invigorate the sixties Rock scene in many ways. Blues is seminal.