Ma Rainey - Booze And Blues

If Bessie Smith is the acknowledged “Queen of the Blues,” then Gertrude “Ma” Rainey is the undisputed “Mother of the Blues.” As music historian Chris Albertson has written, “If there was another woman who sang the blues before Rainey, nobody remembered hearing her.” Rainey fostered the blues idiom, and she did so by linking the earthy spirit of country blues with the classic style and delivery of Bessie Smith. She often played with such outstanding jazz accompanists as Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson, but she was more at home fronting a jugband or washboard band.

A country woman to the core, Rainey was born in Columbus, Georgia, on April 26, 1886. She began performing at age 14 with a local revue and, in her late teens, joined the touring Rabbit Foot Minstrels. By all accounts, she was the first woman to incorporate blues into vaudeville, minstrel and tent shows. In fact, it is believed that Rainey coached a young Bessie Smith while touring with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. After more than a quarter-century as a performer, Rainey was signed to Paramount Records in 1923, at age 38. She recorded over a hundred sides during her six years at Paramount. Her most memorable songs were often about the harsh realities of life in the Deep South for poor blacks, including such classics as “C.C. Rider,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Bo Weavil Blues.”

When the blues faded from popularity in the Thirties, the earthy Ma Rainey returned home to her Georgia hometown, where she ran two theaters until her death from a heart attack in 1939.

Recorded: New York , October 15 1924
'Ma' Rainey And Her Georgia Band
Ma Rainey (vcl), Howard Scott (cn), Charlie Green (tb), Don Redman (c), Fletcher Henderson (p), Kaiser Marshall (d)


Memphis Minnie - Me And My Chauffeur Blues

Born June 3, 1897, in Algiers, Louisiana, Lizzie Douglas was raised on a farm before moving in 1904 to Walls in northern Mississippi. The following year Douglas was given a guitar for her birthday and quickly learned to play. A child prodigy, she began playing local parties as "Kid" Douglas before running away from home to play for tips at Church's Park ( the current W.C. Handy Park) on Beale Street in Memphis. During the 1910s and early 1920s, Douglas adopted the handle of Memphis Minnie and toured the South, playing tent shows with the Ringling Brothers Circus.

During the late 1920s Minnie began playing guitar with a variety of ad hoc jug bands during Memphis's jug band craze. Minnie also began a common law marriage with Kansas Joe McCoy, a musician with whom she had begun playing and would soon record. Their very first session yielded the hit song "Bumble Bee" (later recorded by Muddy Waters as "Honey Bee"), and McCoy would be her musical partner for the next six years. Within a year of her first recording date, Minnie had logged a half-dozen more sessions, including a reprise of "Bumble Bee" with the Memphis Jug Band. Bukka White claimed that Minnie sang backup on his 1930 gospel recordings. By the time the effects of the Great Depression had shackled the recording industry, Minnie had recorded fifty sides that showcased her powerful voice and energetic guitar picking. She affected wealth as her idol Ma Rainey had done, traveling to shows in luxury cars and wearing bracelets made of silver dollars on her wrists.

During the 1930s, Minnie moved to Chicago where she set the musical style by taking up bass and drum accompaniment, anticipating the sound of the 1950s Chicago blues. After her breakup with Kansas Joe, Minnie married Ernest Lawlars, known as "Little Son Joe," and continued to record into the early 1950s. Poor health prompted her to return to Memphis and forsake the musician's life in 1958. Memphis Minnie was the greatest female country blues singer, and the popularity of her songs made her one of the blues most influential artists.

Memphis Minnie died August 6, 1973, in Memphis, Tennessee, and is buried in New Hope Cemetery in Walls, Mississippi.


Little Walter - Last Night I Lost The Best Friend

Harmonica virtuoso Little Walter (May 1, 1930 – February 15, 1968) was a key contributor to bluesman Muddy Waters’ music through most of the 1950s. Both as a sideman and bandleader, Little Walter revolutionized the sound of blues harmonica through amplification, clasping a mike to the harp as he played. While he may not have been the first bluesman to play amplified harmonica, he explored its possibilities most fully. He was inarguably a musical genius. Little Walter could make an inexpensive, portable “mouth organ” moan and roar like a full horn section or produce an unearthly, haunting wail. Moreover, he was a tasteful and sympathetic accompanist. As journalist Robert Palmer wrote of Little Walter’s contribution to Waters’ music, “The harp lines wrapped themselves around Muddy’s vocals, now chording like an organ, now filling melodically like a horn.”

Little Walter was born Marion Walter Jacobs in rural Louisiana. Little Walter made his way north to Chicago via stops in New Orleans and Monroe, Louisiana; St. Helena, Arkansas; Memphis, Tennessee; and St. Louis, Missouri, arriving in the Windy City in 1947. That same year, he made his first recordings for the local Ora Nelle label. Little Walter and Muddy Waters first appeared on a session together when both backed Jimmy Rogers in 1949. Waters backed Little Walter on a session for Parkway Records in January 1950. That August, Little Walter first backed Muddy for the Chess label, and in October, they recorded the Waters classic “Louisiana Blues.” Nearly a year after Little Walter’s initial appearance on a Muddy Waters session for Chess, he used an amplified harmonica for the first time on a groundbreaking July 1951 session that yielded “She Moves Me.” Waters was among the earliest to recognize that blues possessed a formidable power when electrified, and with Jimmy Rogers on electric guitar and Little Walter on amplified harp, he had the hottest blues band in Chicago. Little Walter split from Waters’ band after an instrumental showcase of his that was popular with crowds – “Your Cat Will Play,” retitled “Juke” when he recorded it – became a huge solo hit. A classic juke-joint instrumental, “Juke” topped the R&B chart for eight weeks in the fall of 1952.

In addition to harmonica, Little Walter played guitar, sang and wrote songs. He recruited a backing band from the Chicago club scene (whom he rechristened the Jukes, after his big song), and they recorded and toured throughout the Fifties. On his own, Little Walter charted 14 Top Ten R&B hits for the Chess label’s Checker subsidiary. One of these, “My Babe” – written by Willie Dixon and featuring the melody from the spiritual “This Train” – went to Number One. Other sizable hits from Little Walter included “Sad Hours,” “Mean Old World,” “Blues With a Feeling,” “You’re So Fine,” “Oh, Baby” and ‘Last Night.” At Leonard Chess’s behest, Little Walter continued recording with Muddy Waters, too, adding his unmistakable harmonica to such classics as “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Trouble No More.”

Little Walter’s had a pervasive influence on succeeding generations of harmonica players, especially in Britain, where he was revered by a rising generation of blues-smitten rock and rollers. Unfortunately, his predilection for drinking, fighting and self-destructive behavior caught up with him. Little Walter died in 1968, at the age of 37, from head injuries suffered in a street brawl.

The Little Walter Foundation


Blind Willie Johnson - Let Your Light Shine On Me

Seminal gospel-blues artist Blind Willie Johnson is regarded as one of the greatest bottleneck slide guitarists. Yet the Texas street-corner evangelist is known as much for the his powerful and fervent gruff voice as he is for his ability as a guitarist. He most often sang in a rough, bass voice (only occasionally delivering in his natural tenor) with a volume meant to be heard over the sounds of the streets. Johnson recorded a total of 30 songs during a three-year period and many of these became classics of the gospel-blues, including "Jesus Make up My Dying Bed," "God Don't Never Change," and his most famous, "Dark Was the Night -- Cold Was the Ground."

It is generally agreed that Johnson was born in a small town just South of Waco near Temple, TX, around 1902. His mother died while he was still a baby, and his father eventually remarried. When Johnson was about seven years old, his father and stepmother fought and the stepmother threw lye water, apparently at the father, but the lye got in Willie Johnson's eyes, blinding him. As he got older, Johnson began earning money by playing his guitar, one of the few avenues left to a blind man to earn a living. Instead of a bottleneck, Johnson actually played slide with a pocketknife. Over the years, Johnson played guitar most often in an open D tuning, picking single-note melodies, while using his slide and strumming a bass line with his thumb. He was, however, known to play in a different tuning and without the slide on a few rare occasions. Regardless of his excellent blues technique and sound, Johnson didn't want to be a bluesman, for he was a passionate believer in the Bible. So, he began singing the gospel and interpreting Negro spirituals. He became a Baptist preacher and brought his sermons and music to the streets of the surrounding cities. While performing in Dallas, he met a woman named Angeline and the two married in 1927. Angeline added 19th century hymns to Johnson's repertoire, and the two performed around the Dallas and Waco areas.

On December 3, 1927, Columbia Records brought Blind Willie Johnson into the studio where he recorded six songs that became some of his most enduring recordings: a song about Samson and Delilah called "If I Had My Way," "Mother's Children Have a Hard Time" (often understood as "motherless children"), "It's Nobody's Fault but Mine," "Jesus Make up My Dying Bed," " I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole," and Johnson's single most-acclaimed song, "Dark Was the Night -- Cold Was the Ground," which is about the crucifixion of Christ. But after this session, Johnson didn't return to the studio for an entire year. The second visit (which took place on December 5, 1928) found him accompanied by his wife, Angeline, who provided backing vocals. The two recorded four songs, including "I'm Gonna Run to the City of Refuge" and "Lord, I Just Can't Keep From Cryin'." Songs from these first two sessions were also issued on the Vocalion label. Several months later, Willie and Angeline Johnson met Elder Dave Ross and went with him to New Orleans where Blind Willie Johnson recorded ten songs for Columbia. From this December 1929 session came a few more of his best-known songs, including "God Don't Never Change," "Let Your Light Shine on Me," and "You'll Need Somebody on Your Bond."

Although Blind Willie Johnson was one of Columbia's best-selling race recording artists, he only recorded for them one more time -- in April 1930 -- after which he never heard from them again. This final session took place in Atlanta, GA (again, Johnson was accompanied by Angeline who actually sang lead on a few numbers this time), and consisted of ten songs, including "Can't Nobody Hide From God," "John the Revelator," and the slightly altered "You're Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond." These last two songs were issued on one record that was withdrawn shortly after its release. Despite the fact that Johnson did not record after 1930, he continued to perform on the Texas streets during the '30s and '40s. Unfortunately, in 1947, the Johnsons' home burned to the ground. He caught pneumonia shortly thereafter and died in the ashes of his former home approximately one week after it was destroyed. Purportedly, Angeline Johnson went on to work as a nurse during the 1950s.

Dark Was the Night Over the years, many artists have covered the gospel songs made famous by Blind Willie Johnson, including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Ry Cooder ("Dark Was the Night" inspired Cooder's score for the movie Paris, Texas). Johnson's song "If I Had My Way" was even revived as a popular hit during the 1960s when it was covered by the contemporary folk band Peter, Paul and Mary. Several excellent collections of Blind Willie Johnson's music exist, including Dark Was the Night (on Sony) and Praise God, I'm Satisfied (on Yazoo). Johnson's music also appears on many compilations of country blues and slide guitar.