Jimmy Witherspoon – commonly referred to as ’Spoon by his audience, peers, and those in the industry – was, in the main, a Blues shouter in the Kansas City tradition. Although extremely versatile, he shared some of those traits with others of that same practise such as Jimmy Rushing and his idol Big Joe Turner. ‘Spoon did so while displaying a smooth rich baritone.
**At this juncture, it should be noted that Witherspoon and his contemporaries were considered Blues singers – albeit with Jazz tendencies. That being the case, it’s informative to make the distinction between their take on Blues and the popular and accepted Urban and / or Country Blues. That is, Urban and Country Blues were generally guitar centred, and the singers who sang that particular style of Blues, (e.g. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf), were instrumentalists as well as singers; affected by their own particular environment. In contrast, ‘Spoon, Rushing, Turner at al were exclusively singers that were heavily influenced by the big band styles of the day. So much so that both their style and phrasing evolved from their involvement with Jazz musicians. Their training as Blues singers came in the Jazz era, and they stand as essentially singers in a Jazz band. Finally, it could be rightfully stated that, while their Blues were more refined / sophisticated than the likes of Waters and Wolf, their Blues carried just as much emotional weight**.
** The root of this paragraph is drawn from liner notes of The Spoon Concerts written by journalist and musicologist Ralph J. Gleason
Like his peers, ‘Spoon straddled the Jazz and Blues worlds while making a valued contribution in both. However, although he proved to be a major inspiration for a number singers that came after him such as Bobby Bland among others; he didn’t benefit from the same level of acclaim, during his prime, accorded those same artists.
Never to be deterred, Jimmy Witherspoon’s story is one of steadfastness in not ever losing sight of his calling. In so doing he proved to be a model of resiliency facing any of life’s hurdles that presented themselves. Even after a bout with throat cancer in his 50’s he forged on, altering his vocal style to compensate for changes that resulted from the disease. Indeed, he continued working up until his final days.
Witherspoon’s career started out promising enough but hit a flat spot with the advent of Rock & Roll and associated preferences on the part of the record buying public. For instance, unlike Big Joe Turner, ‘Spoon didn’t cross over into the burgeoning market, and it remains to be known whether it stemmed from a reluctance on ‘Spoon’s part, (to vary his Jazz / Blues style to suit), or whether he wasn’t afforded the opportunity to do so
Interestingly, the fact that he didn’t cross over – and thereby increase his popularity – didn’t impede his many chances to record. (Witherspoon released 25 albums in the 50’s – 60’s period, and more than 50 in a career that spanned 50 years). While certainly commendable and indictive of his talent that labels would continue to take a chance on Witherspoon, the subsequent sales, generally moderate at best, were not sufficient to enhance his drawing power. As a result, ‘Spoon was relegated for long periods to mainly playing the Chitlin’ Circuit. Although not in total obscurity – as there were many highlights – it would lead to a checkered career going forward.
James John Witherspoon was born in in Gurdon (Clark County) Arkansas on August 8, 1920. Like many singers in the Blues tradition, before and after him, Witherspoon got his start in church. In Witherspoon’s case, he was born into a very religious family where both parents attended the First Baptists Church and were members of the church choir. A young Jimmy Witherspoon followed suit by singing in that same choir at the tender age of 5.
Jimmy won a Clark County talent contest soon after, singing “Water Boy”, a traditional Folk song. That proved to be the jumping off point. As he grew he was drawn more and more into singing; and he listened to a variety of singers and styles, including Blues. He was taken especially with the big band singers like Jimmy Rushing and Herb Jeffries, (both rising to fame with Count Basie); stirred by their diction: “… I was inspired by them because of the way they pronounced their words”. This attention to detail would become a trademark of ‘Spoon’s style throughout his career.
At 14 years of age, he was convinced that he was destined to be a singer. Hearing about the developing scene on a club lined Central Avenue in Los Angeles, he ran away from home, (making his way there by train). Once in L.A., while he was determined to do whatever it took to be successful, he did so with some reservations. He knew that Blues were popular, but he was initially reluctant to sing songs in that vein to be successful. The product of a religious household, it was ingrained in him that Blues were profane. ‘Spoon explained: “I didn’t dig Blues because I’d been told it’s a dirty word…you couldn’t sing in church and sing the Blues”. (As a matter of fact, Witherspoon’s mother didn’t hear him sing in person until much later in life – in 1959 at the Monterrey Jazz Festival – when Jimmy was 39 years old). Of course, ‘Spoon’s hesitancy to sing Blues would diminish as future opportunities presented themselves.
The early days in L.A. were spent washing dishes at a local drug store by day and hawking the Central Avenue clubs by night. Over the next few years ‘Spoon sat in with whoever would allow him the chance to do so. Of those various bands ‘Spoon guested regularly with T-Bone Walker and the Jazz piano great Art Tatum. He recalled proudly that “They didn’t know I was a dishwasher – they thought I was a professional singer”.
Witherspoon started to build a local following singing primarily Jazz standards. His world and outlook on material changed in 1941 when he saw Big Joe Turner in the cast of Dule Ellington’s musical film “Jump For Joy” at Hollywood’s Mayan Theatre. Proclaiming “I liked Jimmy Rushing but Big Joe Turner was my idol. He’s a Blues singer”, ‘Spoon decided then and there to be a Blues singer. (‘Spoon would later become personal friends with Turner who offered him encouragement in chosen path).
Before Witherspoon could get any real momentum, he was called to join the Merchant Marines in 1941. While he worked as a cook and steward Spoon continued on his quest to be a singer when an opportunity presented itself while on a 5 day furlough in Calcutta (now Kolkata) India in 1943. There he ventured into The Grand Hotel where Chicago pianist Teddy Weatherford was leading a band of ex-patriots from the U.S. and Europe. Invited to sit in, Jimmy got up to sing a rendition of 40’s R&B singer Lil Green’s “Why Don’t You Do Right” to confidence building applause. Being so well received, ‘Spoon was invited back to sing on a regular basis during his leave. Coincidentally, ‘Spoon earned some notoriety when his performances with Weatherford were broadcast on the U.S. Armed Forces Radio Service. (The Armed Forces Radio Service, that was created by a service department of war in 1942 to entertain military personnel stationed overseas, aired regularly for the duration of WW II).
‘Spoon’s Merchant Marine stay ended in 1944. Upon his return Stateside he moved in with his mother who was living in the Bay area. There, not losing sight of his singing ambitions, he worked in a steel mill and sang on the weekends at various clubs – most prominently at The Waterfront front near Vallejo California.
Around this time, Jazz pianist and bandleader, Jay McShann made a stop nearby on his current tour. It just so happened that McShann was looking for a singer with both Walter Brown and Max “Blues” Bailey having recently left his employ. Subsequently, ‘Spoon approached McShann, and was invited to sit in at The Casino Ballroom. McShann remembered the evening: “He came up and sang ‘Wee Baby Blues’, the Big Joe Turner hit, and a couple of other numbers and got a nice hand”. Having passed his “audition” ‘Spoon officially joined the band the next night in Stockton California.
Witherspoon would go on to perform and record – appearing on a number of releases on various labels – with McShann for the next 3 years. He left the band to go solo in 1948 at the age of 28. ‘Spoon was not widely known at the time, and it was reflected in his first two singles, covers of Big Bill Broonzy’s “When I Been Drinkin’” and Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” with both being only minor hits. But his fortunes changed with the release of his 4th single in 1949. Backed by McShann and his band, ‘Spoon hit with a two part remake of Bessie Smith’s “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do”. Not only did the single go to # 1 on the R&B chart, (Billboard’s “Best Selling Retail Race Records“ Chart); but it would stay on the chart for 34 weeks – longer than any other R&B tune at the time! “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” would prove to be ‘Spoon’s signature song going forward.
Benefitting from the halo effect of “Business” ‘Spoon would step forward in short order with 4 additional top ten hits:
“In The Evening When The Sun Goes Down” (a Leroy Carr cover; # 5 R&B, 1949)
“No Rollin’ Blues” (# 4 R&B, 1949)
“Big Fine Girl” (# 4 R&B, 1949)
“The Wind Is Blowin’” (# 7 R&B, 1952)
The 50’s, for the most part, found ‘Spoon recording sporadically, and, accordingly, not commanding the most high profile engagements. For all intents and purposes, Witherspoon all but disappeared until 1959 when, somewhat surprisingly given his relatively low profile, he was invited to perform at the 2nd annual Monterrey Jazz Festival in October of that year.
Leaving nothing to chance, for his performance ‘Spoon surrounded himself with what amounts to a virtual “who’s who” of Jazz including Roy Eldridge on trumpet, Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins on tenor saxes, Woody Herman on clarinet, Earl “Fatha” Hines on piano, and Mel Lewis on drums. And to top it off, he used his 25 minute set to lead the band through the hits: “No Rollin’ Blues”, “Good Rockin’ Tonight”, “Big Fine Girl”, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” and “When I Been Drinkin’”.
All in all, the show is considered the high point of his career. The performance, (and response to it), was so successful that it launched a “second” career for Witherspoon. He immediately started receiving higher paying jobs and drawing larger crowds. The performance also provided entry into new markets, (of which his 60’s European excursions proved to be the most lucrative). In addition, Witherspoon was featured in Jon Hendricks’ historic program and recording Evolution Of The Blues Song in 1960.
The set – that was released on what many critics view as ‘Spoon’s finest album, Witherspoon At Monterrey – can also befound on the 1989 CD release, The ‘Spoon Concerts. The CD, (this writer’s favourite ‘Spoon release), also includes another live performance – this time from December 1959. Originally released under the title Witherspoon, Mulligan, Webster At The Renaissance, the performance features another high profile collection of Jazz artists. Backed by, (among others), Gerry Mulligan on baritone sax, Ben Webster on tenor sax, and Mel Lewis once again on drums, ‘Spoon reels off 10 selections from his live performance repertoire and recording catalogue. Included here are songs long associated with ‘Spoon such as “Times Gettin’ Tougher Than Tough (Money’s Gettin’ Cheaper)” and tributes to Big Joe Turner – “Corina Corina” and “Roll ‘Em Pete”. More than 70 minutes in total of undisputed artistry.
Banking on his 60’s successes, the 70’s through the 90’s found a productive Witherspoon reaping long overdue recognition and rewards. Re-establishing himself through re-issues and new releases, he continued to perform frequently. Not even the aforementioned cancer scare could hold him back. Although as ‘Spoon said in reflection “I had to learn to sing all over again”, he found that he could now hit a lower register providing a new found depth to his vocals. And, in that same year – 1975 – he returned to the charts with “Love Is A Five Letter Word” reaching # 31 on the R&B charts.
Accolades followed. ‘Spoon received Grammy recognition with 4 nominations:
Jimmy Witherspoon Sings The Blues with Panama Francis and The Savoy Sultans (Best Jazz Vocal Performance Male, 1981)
Patcha Patcha All Night Long (Best Traditional Blues Recording,1986)
Midnight Lady Called The Blues (Best Jazz Vocal Performance Male, 1987)
Live At The Mint (Best Traditional Blues Recording,1997)
He was also inducted into both The Arkansas Jazz Hall Of Fame (Arkansas Jazz Heritage Foundation) and The Blues Hall Of Fame (The Blues Foundation).
Jimmy Witherspoon – standing a 6’ 3” and weighing 235 pounds was a physically imposing figure. He was a prideful man who was well aware of his vast talent. But while revered as an exceptional singer who was adept at a number of styles, and viewed as the main attraction, ‘Spoon always saw himself as a member of the band. He credited his backing musicians for playing a key role in any personal success. In an interview shortly before his death ‘Spoon was asked what made it possible for him to get such a wide range of work. His reply: “It comes from your environment, being with top musicians who have class…and also knowing that musicians are 99% of any singer. Where a lot of singers think they are greater than any musician …they are fools”.
And the band played on. It can truly be said that ‘Spoon never stopped singing – his last live date was just 2 months before his death from natural causes on September 18, 1997.
A ‘SPOON PLAYLIST
- In The Evening When The Sun Goes Down
- Wee Baby Blues
- The Wind Is Blowin’
- Love Is A Five Letter Word
- When The Lights Go Out
- I Had A Dream
- New Orleans Woman
- One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer
- Times Gettin’ Tougher Than Tough
- How Long Blues
- Corina, Corina
- C.C. Rider
- Roll ‘Em Pete
- Every Day
- Goin’ To Kansas City
- Outskirts Of Town
- Trouble In Mind
- St. Louis Blues
- No Rollin’ Blues
- Good Rockin’ Tonight
- Big Fine Girl
- Ain’t Nobody’s Business
- When I Been Drinkin’
- Rico Ferrara, November 2022.