Waylon Jennings – Nashville Rebel

“Waylon Jennings was an American archetype, the bad guy with the big heart”

  • Kris Kristofferson

I was moved to write an article on Waylon Jennings after listening to Shannon McNally’s fine – and very ambitious – CD, The Waylon Sessions. (A recording that reinforced just how truly fearless McNally is).

I’ve been a casual Waylon fan since a hometown friend introduced me to him and the classic 1973 album Honky Tonk Heroes back in the day. At that time I was – and still am – heavily into Blues and R&B but open enough to be taken by the sound of the overall recording and that unmistakable voice that could only be Waylon Jennings. Additionally, the liner notes underlined the gravity of the whole affair when noted that the prime songwriter Billy Joe Shaver threatened to fight Jennings because “he was messin’ with my melody”. Knowing more about Jennings today that just all seems so fitting, and in keeping with the tough imposing image put forward by Waylon Jennings.

That threatening persona was no doubt amplified by Jennings being viewed as the high profile leader of the Outlaw movement. The Outlaw phenomenon – exemplifying a hard living lifestyle – was a Nashville marketing strategy, and, as laid out for public consumption it was, for the most part, independent of Jennings. The legitimate Outlaw stance, as spearheaded by Jennings, can be found in the backstory of Jennings rebelling against the Nashville establishment’s business practices. Jennings was characterized as an outlaw in Nashville because he wanted artistic freedom. Specifically, the crux of the matter is that Waylon insisted on having the right to record material that he wanted to record while employing songwriters and musicians of his choosing. (The musicians in question being his road band, The Waylors, instead of the regular Nashville session players; and the songwriters being those other than the Nashville staff or established songwriters). As a backdrop, it should be taken into account that Rock stars had benefitted from those same “indulgences” for years. To Jennings’ credit, in fighting the accepted style and approach of the sterile Nashville Sound, he changed the way things were done in Music City forever. And, other Country stars – initially in the likes of Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson – followed suit.

In sum, rather than trying to destroy the system, his actions displayed the steadfastness of a strong willed Jennings wanting to do music his way. It was a tendency that spoke more of the self-reliance that was evident some years previous, going back to the start of his career. That beginning for Waylon was as a teenage DJ and musician in his Texas hometown of Littlefield, located about 25 miles south of Lubbock.  

Waylon Arnold Jennings, (June 15, 1937 – February 13, 2002), began his life and career in Littlefield, and, along with his parents and three younger brothers, worked the cotton fields of the family farm. Like many families in West Texas the Jennings knew only an impoverished existence. Although the parents may have known differently, the four boys’ outlook on life was that everyone, black and white, was as poor as they were. The situation left a lasting impression on Waylon and shaped his view on race relations. On reflection, later in life, Waylon would say: “There was just no difference in a poor country boy and black people in my mind. I worked the fields with black people and never paid much attention to it.”

The Jennings household was a musical one in that the family gathered around the radio regularly to listen to The Grand Ole Opry and The Louisiana Hayride and both parents were accomplished guitar pickers. Of the four boys it was Waylon for whom the music flame burned the brightest. Waylon’s mother taught him the basics of guitar when he was 8 years old and Waylon said of his father: “My dad played like Jimmie Rodgers. And we’d sit around and sing his songs when I was a kid”. Young Waylon was a devotee of Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb and cited influences including Bob Wills, Floyd Tillman, Carl Smith, and Elvis Presley.

As a young preteen Waylon worked as a DJ both in Littlefield as well as in Lubbock. At 13, performing for the first time, Jennings won first prize at a jamboree sponsored by local radio station KSEL. By the time he was 14 Waylon was a known commodity at regional talent shows playing guitar and singing a mix of Country and Pop tunes. Waylon left high school at 16 to pursue a career in music, continuing to both DJ as well as perform in venues and on the radio with his first band The Texas Longhorns.

While working as a DJ for KLLL in Lubbock in 1958, Waylon struck up a friendship with native son Buddy Holly. They became close with Holly mentoring Waylon and arranging for his first recording session. The resultant single, “Jole Blon”, a traditional Cajun waltz, often called “the Cajun national anthem” failed to make any noise but it forged the start of the Holly / Jennings story. (Incidentally, Jennings couldn’t understand the Louisiana patois of the recording that he used to learn the song, so he sang the song phonetically).

Holly, had who had recently disbanded the first incarnation of The Crickets, convinced Waylon to come aboard as the bass player of the newly formed Crickets. Waylon, displaying only rudimentary bass skills at the outset, would go on to play with Holly for 2 years (1958-59). The end would come with the ill-fated 1959 Winter Dance Party tour and plane crash that would take the lives of Buddy Holly as well as Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. The three fell prey to bad weather and, complicating matters, an inexperienced pilot.

There are conflicting stories as to who was supposed to occupy the 3 available seats on the chartered plane that was to travel some 365 miles from Clear Lake Iowa to Moorhead Minnesota in the early hours of February 3, 1959. Suffice to say that Waylon and fellow bandmates, Tommy Allsup and Carl Bunch, were not on the plane, and made the trip in the rundown tour bus used to transport them as well as the others on the bill: Dion & The Belmonts and Frankie Sardo.

Before take-off Holly and Jennings were cracking wise with each other with Holly saying “I hope your bus freezes up again” and Waylon responding with “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes”. Those words would come back to haunt Waylon who, racked with survivor’s guilt, completed the tour and then headed back to Lubbock with “no intention of playing another note.”

Once back in Texas he returned to working as a DJ and it wasn’t until a year later in 1960 that he moved to Phoenix Arizona and restarted his musical career. He soon formed The Waylors playing a number of clubs in Arizona before he developed a huge local following as the house band at JD’s, a club in Scottsdale. That led him to recording a few singles for Trend, a minor Arizona based label. Although not generating much in actual sales, those singles combined with his JD’s following brought Waylon to the attention of Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss at A&M Records who signed him to a contract in 1963, prompting a move to the City of Angels.

The Jennings / A&M union was short lived however. An apparent difference of opinion surfaced when A&M – with their view of Waylon being more Folk than Country – planned to steer him in a Folk / Pop direction. When subsequent recordings tanked, Waylon asked for his release. (Waylon summed up his A&M experience by saying that Alpert and Moss wanted him “to sound like Al Martino and I wanted to sound like Flatt and Scruggs.”)

Waylon’s next course of action would serve to establish him as a prominent recording and performing artist, and – aided by his Outlaw persona – cement his position as a Country superstar. It all started when, on the recommendation of a number of people including Bobby Bare and Willie Nelson, Waylon was signed to RCA by then talent scout, producer, and VP of RCA’s Country Division Chet Atkins. The Jennings / RCA partnership would last for 20 years including 5 years – 1965 to 1970 – with Atkins producing Waylon’s recordings.

*(An interesting Nashville sidebar. When Waylon moved there in 1965 he made the acquaintance of Johnny Cash, and for a time, the future lifelong friends, were roommates in Music City. Jennings would later comment that he and Johnny were “the original odd couple” with an agreement that Waylon would do the cleaning and Cash the cooking. Waylon didn’t think too much of Cash’s culinary skills other than to say “he could put together a breakfast.”

And, without dwelling on the topic, Jennings and Cash both ingested amphetamines by the handful. Waylon, providing perspective, noted that “pills were the artificial energy on which Nashville ran around the clock and then some”. Drug dependency would play a role in Waylon’s life going forward.)*

Starting with his first RCA album Folk Country, a 1966 release, Waylon went on to record 9 more albums under Chet Atkins’ supervision. And, by 1968 Waylon had several hit singles including the first one out of the gate in 1965: “Stop The World (And Let Me Off)” that was a Top 20 Country single. Other notable singles in that time period include “Walk On Out Of My Mind” (1967, #5 Country), “The Chokin’ Kind” (1967, #8 Country), and “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line” (1968, #2 Country).

Also, in that time frame, Waylon starred in the 1966 movie “Nashville Rebel” handling both acting and performance roles. And, Jennings – who in the course of his career would win 2 Grammys and score 13 nominations – won his first Grammy in 1967 for his recording of “MacArthur Park”, (shared with the The Kimberlys vocal group).

Chet Atkins, for his part, played a major role in Waylon’s early success. That is, Atkins, who is credited with establishing the Pop heavy Nashville sound, produced a string of hits, and was responsible for maintaining RCA and Nashville’s prominent profile in Country Music. Waylon chafed under Chet Atkins’ studio direction because Waylon plainly wanted to play music as he felt it. As he said: “Some people have their music. My music is me”. While at odds musically with Atkins, Waylon respected him, and understood that Atkins had to serve what he viewed to be RCA’s best interests. In addition, Jennings acknowledged that his drug using lifestyle – that didn’t coincide with the straight edged Atkins’ view on life – may have played a role in their relationship. Waylon summed it up this way: “The guy the drunk man hates the most is a sober man”.

By the start of the 70’s Waylon started to assert himself. When he felt he was being frozen out by Nashville’s mainstream, he responded by hiring Neil Reshon, Miles Davis’ eccentric NYC based manager. Reshon was instrumental in Waylon broadening his audience appeal by getting him into high profile venues like Max’s Kansas City, a New York City spot usually reserved for Rock acts. And, in 1972, most importantly from Waylon’s perspective, when it was time to renew his RCA contract, Reshon helped him gain artistic control of his recordings going forward. From there Waylon started putting his own spin on hard core Country songs of heartbreak, bad breaks, and difficult choices. He did so by incorporating accepted Country instrumentation, and merging Folk’s introspective lyrics with Rock’s rhythms on a tougher more bass driven sound.

With artistic freedom assured, Waylon’s first statement, Honky Tonk Heroes, stands with his best recordings. “Heroes” marked a distinct departure from the slick production of traditional Country music. Backed by The Waylors and choice studio musicians, (including guitar players Eddie Hinton and Reggie Young usually associated with Southern Soul), Waylon displays a fresh urgency and excitement on 10 songs. There isn’t a weak cut on the album; highlights include the title song plus other gems like “Omaha”, and “Black Rose”; (with the fitting lyrics: “The Devil made me do it the first time / The second time I did it on my own / Lord, put a handle on a simple handed man / And help me leave that black rose alone”).

Honky Tonk Heroes started a trend of a number of commercially and critically acclaimed releases including the highly regarded follow-up, This Time, that contains Waylon’s first #1 Country hit of the same name. Following are some highlights of the remainder of Waylon’s 45 studio albums (with 20 of them landing in the Top 10). It should also be kept in mind that the total of 60 albums that Waylon recorded over a 50 year career contained an impressive 16 #1 Country singles.

1967 Love Of The Common People

  • A foreshadowing of Waylon coming into his own
  • Includes the hits “The Chokin Kind” and “Walk On Out Of My Mind”

1971 The Taker / Tulsa

  • Waylon’s first post Chet Atkins release
  • It’s a sampling of Waylon welcoming new songwriters to Nashville with the album featuring four songs by Kris Kristofferson
  • Includes “Lovin’ Her Was (Easier Than Anything I’ve Ever Done)”, “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down”, and “The Taker” – all written by Kristofferson

1973 Lonesome On’ry And Mean

  • The first album unfettered by the clutches of old school Nashville
  • Backed by The Waylors; produced by Waylon
  • Includes the title cut and outstanding covers of Danny O’Keefe’s “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues” and Kristofferson’s “Me And Bobby McGee”

1974 This Time

  • The follow-up to Honky Tonk Heroes
  • The title song was Waylon’s first #1 hit
  • Includes 4 Willie Nelson songs and the fine Buddy Holly Medley: “Well Alright / It’s So Easy/ Maybe Baby / Peggy Sue”

1974 The Ramblin’ Man

  • The album personifies Waylon’s Outlaw image
  • Waylon’s first #1 hit album
  • Top songs include “I’m A Ramblin’ Man”, the exquisite “Amanda”, “Oklahoma Sunshine”, and “Memories of You And I”

1975 Dreamin’ My Dreams

  • Another #1 album
  • Hailed by many critics as Waylon’s finest release; and Waylon as “my favourite album I’ve ever done”
  • Produced by Waylon and singer songwriter and ex Sun Records producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement who Waylon likened in approach to Buddy Holly: “Like Buddy, Jack was another guy going after the feel”.
  • Includes “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”, “Waymore’s Blues”, and “Bob Wills Is Still The King”
  • “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” was Waylon’s first crossover hit

Honourable Mentions (not original studio recordings as such in that they’re compilations, but included here because of their huge impact on Country Music in general):

1976 Wanted! Outlaws

  • Actually a compilation of previously released material
  • The first Country album to be certified Platinum
  • Features Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser, and Jessi Colter; (the release furthered all of their careers; Waylon’s participation significantly enhanced his reputation as a central figure of Outlaw Country and a major Country star)
  • Includes the Grammy nominated Jennings / Colter duet “Suspicious Minds”
  • A prime marketing vehicle in RCA’s promotion of the Outlaw mystique

1979 Greatest Hits

  • A compilation of 9 outstanding tracks
  • Not a comprehensive set but it stands as a snapshot of Waylon’s prominent role in the Outlaw phenomenon
  • Included here on the basis of the impressive 4 million copies sold – unprecedented in Country music at the time

Once again the list as cited stands as highlights of Waylon’s recording career. There are other releases – with more than 35 more studio albums to choose from – that are worthy of being on the list but these provide an even-handed cross section of Waylon’s works.

Waylon continued his maverick / Outlaw ways – at odds with the industry while touring extensively and remaining a major draw even when the hits dried up as the 80’s drew to a close. He often refused to attend music awards shows reasoning that artists shouldn’t be competing against each other. Instead his feeling was that those shows should exist solely as a celebration of the art itself. In fact, Waylon was the only living entertainer who ever refused to show up at his own induction into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in Nashville in 2001. (He sent his son Shooter to accept on his behalf).

Amidst all of the above Waylon continued in the spotlight. He won his second Grammy Award for his duet with Willie Nelson on the classic “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”. (The single was taken from the multimillion selling album Waylon & Willie). And he followed that up with 2 Grammy nominated albums with The Highwaymen (with Nelson, Cash, and Kristofferson).

Representative of his mainstream appeal, Waylon appeared on TV shows such as “Sesame Street” and narrated “The Dukes Of Hazard” as well as writing and recording the theme song “Good ‘Ol Boys”. All of this and more was captured in his highly regarded 1996 autobiography Waylon, The Life Story Of Waylon Jennings (co-authored with guitarist and writer Lenny Kaye).

The “more” includes his 21 year addiction to amphetamines and cocaine that he quit cold turkey in the mid 80’s when he came to the realization of how it affected those close to him – especially his wife Jessi Colter and son Shooter. Although he was able to shake his substance abuse he still endured associated heart and diabetes troubles. Resultant surgeries and a desire to spend more time with his family led Waylon to quit touring in 1997.

Waylon Jennings died in his sleep at home in Chandler Arizona on February 13, 2002, Cause of death was attributed to a heart attack.

Waylon Jennings was a towering figure in Country Music. While maintaining an acrimonious relationship with the Country Music establishment till the end, he continued to be loved by his many fans and held in high regard by his peers.

“I loved Waylon. He had a great voice and a way with a song like no one else. He was a class act as an artist and a man; I’m really going to miss him”.

  • Emmylou Harris

“Waylon was a great friend, one of the very best for 35 years, I’ll miss him immensely”

  • Johnny Cash


  1. Stop The World (And Let Me Get Off)
  2. Walk On Out Of My Mind
  3. The Chokin’ Kind
  4. Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line
  5. Lovin’ Her Was (Easier Than Anything I’ve Ever Done)
  6. Sunday Morning Comin’ Down
  7. The Taker
  8. Honky Tonk Heroes
  9. Omaha
  10. You Asked Me To
  11. Black Rose
  12. We Had It all
  13. This Time
  14. I’m A Ramblin’ Man
  15. Amanda
  16. Oklahoma Sunshine
  17. Memories Of You And I
  18. Lonesome On’ry And Mean
  19. Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way
  20. Waymore’s Blues
  21. Bob Wills Is Still The King
  22. Suspicious Minds (w/ Jessi Colter)
  23. Good Hearted Woman (w / Willie Nelson)
  24. Mama Don’t let Your ladies Grow Up To Be Cowboys (w/ Willie Nelson)
  25. Luckenbach Texas (Back To The Basics Of Love)
  • Rico Ferrara, September 2021


As told numerous times, the emergence of Urban Blues was a by-product of the Great Migration of African Americans from the southern U.S. to points north. Undoubtedly affected, (for different reasons), by the Great Depression (1929-1933) and the War, millions of Blacks left the South for the urban centres of Atlanta, Memphis, St. Louis, cities in the U.S. West Coast, and predominantly Detroit and Chicago. An estimated 1.6 million Blacks made the trek north.

The migrants were typically farm workers / share croppers at home – including those moonlighting as musicians – and those that chose to make music a full time occupation. They were drawn to said northern locales by the need and attraction of potential employment – especially the manufacturing jobs – that cities like Chicago had to offer. (It was not uncommon for musicians to work as a labourer by day and Bluesman at night in their adopted home).

The new arrivals brought their customs and rituals as well as their music. That music, so integral to their daily lives, was usually comprised primarily of “Hillbilly” fare – complete with fiddles, hoedowns, and square dances – and, of course, Country Blues. In most instances the prevalent form of Blues was the Delta Blues variety that originated in the Mississippi Delta.

The Mississippi Delta Blues can be generally characterized as direct and emotionally intense, and stands as arguably the most influential of the various Blues styles. In its most basic setting Delta Blues musicians played solo accompanying themselves on rhythmic, percussive acoustic guitar, often employing a slide or bottleneck. And, the player might be joined, at times, by a backing musician playing harp (primarily) and / or fiddle, and / or second guitar.

With the move to the city both the songs that were performed and the instrumental accompaniment were adapted to the new urban environment. While some themes remained, lyrics moved from country life to that of their new city surroundings. And Blues ensembles evolved, adding electric guitar, amplified harp, piano, and later a rhythm section of bass and drums. (It should be noted that slide guitar maintained its place – as a pillar of Blues music in general). The full blown band not only ratcheted up the intensity but also enabled the performers to be heard above the din of the rowdy and joyful crowd that frequented the many Windy City clubs.

In the 20’s and 30’s the first wave of Delta Bluesmen such as Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, and Sonny Boy Williamson 1 (John Lee Williamson) were the forerunners who gained popularity and became well established in the Chicago Blues musical community. After 1945, they gave way to a new generation of Bluesmen including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson 2 (Aleck “Rice” Miller), and Little Walter.

Racial discrimination as it was forced Waters et al to take up residence and make their living on the South Side of Chicago. That being the case, and since they were the highest profile artists, when Chicago Blues and the associated legendary clubs are mentioned most everyone immediately assumes that any such talk is referring to music played on the South Side. No doubt there were numerous, (and famous), clubs on the South Side: Pepper’s Lounge, Theresa’s Lounge, Big Duke’s Blue Flame, 708 Club, Smitty’s Corner, Cadillac Baby’s, The Trocadero, and The Castle Rock among others that featured live music up to seven nights a week.

But just as Blacks were relegated to the South Side due to segregation so too were Blacks confined to the West Side of Chicago for the same reason. (The West Side had been mainly a Jewish neighbourhood whose population moved to the North side or to the suburbs). And, as in the case of the South Side, West Side musicians mostly lived and performed in their own area of town. As sax player Eddie Shaw, who started his career on the South Side with Waters and Wolf before taking up residency on the West Side, explained: “Most of the time we didn’t usually play on the other’s turf”. (While this may have been somewhat the norm, both South Side and West Side musicians would go wherever the dollar led them). Just like their counterparts in the South Side, the West Side had its own share of clubs that enjoyed notoriety: 1815 Club, Mel’s Hideaway Lounge, (later named Alex Club), Sylvio’s, Club Zanzibar, The Squeeze Club, Curley’s Twist City, Walton’s Corner, The Tay May, Big Bill Hill’s Place, and The Copacabana.

West Side Blues emerged in the late 50’s as West Side players acted as change agents setting themselves apart from the “old guard”. They used the established style as a base and expanded on it by adding their own distinctive take on the still recognizable Delta Blues. Similar stories in song continued to be told, but while the established voices of the Blues kept it somewhat insular, the new players were open to new influences and thereby incorporated Gospel, R&B, and tinges of Rock & Roll.

In keeping with the new wave approach, West Side players altered instrumentation as well. They generally eschewed the harp in favour of one or two sax players. And when the economics didn’t allow the addition of horns West Siders compensated by emulating the sax sound with their guitar phrasings. They also presented themselves differently on stage as well. While club audiences were accustomed to the musicians sitting down, West Side artists preferred to stand as they performed thereby providing an additional dimension of stage presence as they energetically pushed their music forward. In so doing, they modernized and breathed new life into Chicago Blues with an electrifying new style.

While true to the original form, West Side players shared commonalities with the new white interpreters of the idiom on both sides of the Atlantic. Chicago’s West Side guitar players tended to display an aggressive style; playing it raw, loud and hard, heavy on the vibrato and reverb. And, although West Siders played fewer notes with comparatively a lot more sustain, they were just as inclined to stretch out and jam like their white counterparts bringing screaming guitar to the forefront. West Side guitar player Jimmy Dawkins described it this way: The West Side is bare; it’s down to the blood-line. We played hard-core, bone-crushing Blues; the sound was raw, strictly from the throat and stomach”.

Although it may seem contradictory, they played in that fashion but did so with an eye to the clean guitar lines of B.B. King and drew on the emotionally charged vocals they heard by the likes of Ray Charles. And like B.B., the best West Side guitar players truly sang as well as they played.

While open to conjecture as to who was the initiator, the unquestioned champions of this new breed were Magic Sam and Otis Rush. As the leaders, they influenced a long line of West Side creators including Buddy Guy, Freddie King, Jimmy Dawkins, Luther Allison, Mighty Joe Young, and Byther Smith among others. (Freddie King, originally a Texas guitar player, is mentioned because he played an integral role in shaping the West Side guitar sound when he took up residency in Chicago in the years 1950 through 1963).

It’s indisputable that Buddy Guy – who Eric Clapton once called “The best guitar player in the world” – with 9 Gammy Awards and 34 Blues Music Awards, (the most any artist has ever received), over more than a 60 year career, is the most celebrated of the above mentioned artists. In fact, he has rightfully earned his place as a true Blues icon alongside the likes B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter. Also, it goes without saying that the flamboyant Guy is part of the triumvirate of West Side Blues standing shoulder to shoulder with Magic Sam and Otis Rush. But given all of that, it can’t be discounted that his initial entry into the hearts and minds of Blues fans was provided by Magic Sam and Otis Rush, the acknowledged pioneers of the West Side Blues sound.

In keeping with that mindset, the respective stories of Magic Sam and Otis Rush – major forces in the genesis of Chicago’s West Side Blues – deserve to be told in greater detail. (It should be noted that songwriter and producer Willie Dixon and Cobra Records, synonymous with the birth of West Side Blues, played a major role and warrant attention as well).

Otis Rush, who predates Magic Sam’s arrival on the scene by a couple of years, was known for his impassioned, full throated vocals and highly inventive guitar playing. He was a major influence on Michael Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, and Elvin Bishop among other “name” guitar players. (Not to mention that John Mayall’s singing style leaned heavily on Rush’s vocal tendencies).

Rush, from Philadelphia Mississippi, was born one of seven children on April 29, 1934. While Rush did sing in the church and started playing guitar at eight years of age – learning from watching his older brothers play – there was no music tradition in the family as such. The family was preoccupied with working in the fields, and, for his part, Rush didn’t take playing the guitar seriously at that point. Members of the family did listen to Country Music radio, and Rush learned to pick out some notes to Eddy Arnold, Bill Monroe, and Hank Williams offerings.

In the course of learning to play guitar, being left handed, and his brothers being right handed, it never occurred to Otis to re-string the guitar to play it conventionally – that is with the thickest, lowest-pitched string at the top of neck and the thinnest, highest-pitched string at the bottom of the neck. In effect, Rush played the guitar “upside – down”. As he said: “When I put it on it was strung right-handed and I just began to learn that way by ear… I just began to learn notes and some chords…”.

When Rush was 15, he visited his sister in Chicago. In what turned out to be a major turning point in young Otis’ life, his sister took him to a club to see Muddy Waters. Thrilled with the experience Rush decided right then and there to move to Chicago permanently. He worked various labour jobs by day, and spent the nights hawking the clubs for his new found heroes and, now taking the guitar seriously, practicing steadily.

At 19 years of age, Rush made his first public appearance when he came to the attention of the owner of a club – The Alibi. When the act that was booked to play cancelled at the last minute, Rush was asked to fill in. Otis didn’t have a band but elected to play solo and was well received. Accordingly, doors started opening for Rush who played with various bands at a number of local clubs on both the South and West Side of town. As he gained the invaluable experience of playing live, Rush continued practicing; immersing himself in B.B. King and T-Bone Walker records as well as taking lessons from ex Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf sideman Jody Williams.

Rush kept honing his craft over the next few years, and started to establish his own unique, innovative guitar style complete with jagged notes, sustained licks and lines. In short, he did things on guitar that other – lesser – players wouldn’t even think of doing. Rush coupled those twists and turns with forceful, frenetic, almost out-of-control vocals.

He built enough of a following that in 1956 he had a South Side residency at the 708 Club with a band including Louis Myers on second guitar and Fred Below on drums. It was at the 708 Club that Eli Toscano, the owner of the fledgling Cobra Records, was introduced to Rush. That introduction was made by legendary bass player, songwriter, and then Cobra Records talent scout and producer Willie Dixon. (Dixon had left the employ of Chess Records, frustrated that he couldn’t convince Leonard Chess to sign acts that he had personally scouted. Rush was one of Dixon’s suggestions).

It would prove to be a fortuitous moment because Rush would go on to be the most recorded artist on the Cobra roster, and the label would be a key component in the establishment of the West Side sound as Toscano  would not only sign and record Rush but also Magic Sam and Buddy Guy as well.

From 1956 through 1958 Otis Rush would go on to record 16 sides, (singles were the order of the day), for Cobra pushing Toscano’s second hand equipment to the limit. Most of the releases were written, arranged and produced by Dixon. Dixon also brought another attribute to the table, that of being able to attract top flight musicians to the sessions. Included in that list were: guitarists Wayne Bennett, Ike Turner, Jody Williams, Louis Myers, and Matt “Guitar” Murphy; piano players Little Brother Montgomery and Lafayette Leake; Little Walter on harp; and Fred below on drums.

Cobra struck gold on the first release. Backed by a band including Bennett, Leake, and Dixon on Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby” Rush’s anguished vocal and multi note attack dominate the track. And the public took immediate notice as the cut reached number 6 on the R&B Top Ten. (The uninitiated may associate the song with Led Zeppelin’s tepid, histrionically heavy version on their first album).

It can truly be said that virtually all the tracks merit attention. (I say that with the question “what was Dixon thinking?” on “Violent Love”). That being said, 2 entries rise above the rest. The last session in 1958, utilizing Ike Turner’s band on Turner’s echo laden arrangements, produced the classic “no job, no love” lament “Double Trouble” and the timeless Rhumba inflected “All Your Love (I Miss Loving)”. Both stand up years later, and were popularized by The Butterfield Blues Band (“Double Trouble”) and John Mayall / Eric Clapton (“All Your Love”) respectively.

Unfortunately, Rush’s success at Cobra was short lived. Toscano, an incessant gambler, lost all of his money and was forced to close the doors in 1959. That ended a short but highly successful run while playing a vital role in the birth of the West Side sound. (It may be of interest that Toscano was said to have underworld ties and died under mysterious circumstances in 1966).

But Rush had made his mark, and his success at Cobra made it possible for him to hire an outstanding band – possibly the best band he ever had. Along with 2 saxes, Rush’s band boasted Jody Williams or Earl Hooker manning the second guitar chair. This hot band played both South Side and West Side venues on a regular basis including Pepper’s Lounge, a mainstay of Rush’s.

Rush was gigging regularly but without a label or releases of any sort when he was approached by Sam Charters at Vanguard Records in 1965 to be part of a Chicago Blues compilation: Chicago / The Blues / Today!, (street date 1966). In what would be a highly influential release of 3 separate albums showcasing James Cotton, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, and Otis Spann, Big Walter Horton, and Charlie Musselwhite among others. The Otis Rush Blues Band, (featuring Luther Tucker on rhythm guitar), contributed 5 selections on the second album including a credible remake of “I Can’t Quit You Baby”. Undoubtedly, the performance earned Rush new fans as the collection has been cited by many people – this writer included – as their initial in-depth door opener to Blues and Chicago Blues in particular.

The following year, back in Chess Records’ good graces, Willie Dixon brought Rush to Chess for another try. But two years with the label resulted in the release of one worthy song – the fine “So Many Roads, So Many Trains”. So Rush was on the lookout for another label. He signed a five year deal with Duke Records that would produce one substantial release, “Homework”, that The J, Geils Band would make their own on their debut album. (It’s doubtful that the general Blues audience had ever heard the original).

Feeling that his time had passed him by, what followed for Rush were a number of albums, mostly live efforts, with a lot of hits and misses in what would often be a commonplace lifeless, offhanded approach put forth by Rush. However, there are 2 albums that are consistently good and serve notice that Rush was still a force to be reckoned with: Mourning In The Morning and Right Place, Wrong Time.

The 1969 release “Mourning” on the Atlantic subsidiary Cotillion was Rush’s first full length album. It was cut at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals with The Swampers including Duane Allman backing him. Produced by musicians / fans Michael Bloomfield and Nick Gravenites, the album features a number of highlights including the titles: “Working Man” (a Gravenites & Bloomfield co-write), “Reap What You Sow” (a Butterfield, Bloomfield, & Gravenites co-write), and a cover of B.B. King’s “Gambler’s Blues”.

Right Place, Wrong Time, which was released in 1976, on Hightone Records was actually recorded for Capitol in 1971 but put on the shelf because the powers that be at Capitol felt the product left a lot to be desired. Capitol, with a history of miscues, was wrong still again. “Right Place” finds Rush at the height of his powers on ten songs. Once again highlights abound with Ike Turner’s “Tore Up”, Albert King’s “Natural Ball”, a speedy cover of Little Milton’s “Lonely Man”, Rush’s own title cut, and a moving version of Tony Joe White’s classic “Rainy Night In Georgia” among them.

Otis Rush would release his last album in 1998 – Any Place I’m Goin’ on the House Of Blues label – before his health started to fail him. An originator and leader in the West Side Blues movement, Otis Rush passed away on September 29, 2018 from complications resulting from a stroke.

“No Blues guitarist better represented the adventurous modern sound of Chicago’s West Side more proudly than Magic Sam”

  • Bill Dahl, Music Historian & Writer

“I’m a Bluesman, but not the dated Blues – the modern type of Blues. I am the modern type of Bluesman. But I can play the regular stuff and I’m also a variety guy. I can play the Soul stuff too”

  • Magic Sam

The mercurial Magic Sam distinguished himself in a relatively short but highly influential 12 year career. (Guitar stalwarts including Michael Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, and Duane Allman cite the effect that Sam had on their playing). More visceral that his West Side compatriots, Otis Rush and Buddy Guy, Sam inserted a good measure of his rural background influences into his sound. In fact, due to his local community leaning more towards Country than Blues per se, when he hit Chicago in 1950 Sam played in a more of a Country / Hillbilly style than a straight ahead Blues vein. (His Country leanings may have served as an inspiration to pluck the guitar strings in that Sam didn’t play with a pick). It was only after listening intently to Muddy Waters and Little Walter – in addition to  friend, (Blues / Soulman) Syl Johnson, teaching him Blues and Boogie – that Sam began to “urbanize” his sound.

Samuel Gene Maghett (February 14, 1937 – December 1, 1969), was born in Grenada Mississippi. Although his immediate family wasn’t musically inclined, Sam was taken with music, and namely guitar at an early age. It was stuff of folklore that, not owning a guitar, a young Sam made and played Diddly Bows, (baling wire nailed to the side of a barn), and later cigar box guitars to fill that void. But, it must be said that Sam proved to be a quick study once he got a guitar, in that when he left for Chicago at 13 years of age he was a relatively skilful player.

It was Sam’s preoccupation with the guitar and his aversion for farm work that prompted his move to Chicago. The story goes that Sam was subjected to several beatings at the hands of his father due of his refusal to help in the fields. In turn, his Aunt Lilly and her husband, harmonica player “Shakey Jake” Harris, agreed to take Sam off his family’s hands and let Sam move in with them in Chicago.

With future sometime sideman Harris’ guidance and encouragement, Sam soon started sitting in with various musicians around town and joined the Morning View Special a West Side Gospel group, thereby furthering his vocal skills while leaving an indelible mark on those same vocals. At 17 years of age, Sam decided to drop out of school and pursue music on a full time basis. By the following year he was gigging regularly usually fronting a guitar / bass/ drums 3 piece. With Sam’s driving rhythms and tremolo heavy lines on full display the trio produced a full wide sound. It was also at this time that he played in Homesick James’ band amping up James’ traditional Blues by injecting searing guitar solos.

In 1957, the 20 year old Sam, presented material to Chess Records, and, like Otis Rush before him, Sam was turned down. And also like Rush, Sam, in turn, was signed by the West Side Blues label Cobra Records. At the time of his signing his stage name was “Good Rockin’ Sam”. Eli Toscano, the owner of Cobra, suggested that a name change might be in order. After a number of names were bandied about Sam’s sometime bass player, Mac Thompson, came up with “Magic Sam”– a play on Sam’s name, (Maghett, Sam). And with the release of the debut single and instant hit “All Your Love” on Cobra, so started the short but highly productive recording career of Magic Sam.

Magic Sam would record 8 singles on Cobra from 1957 through 1959. Sam was hugely popular in Chicago and his records sold well. Unfortunately, as his career was building, Sam was drafted into the army. Despondent with his livelihood and dream derailed, Sam deserted. Receiving a dishonourable discharge, Sam was sentenced to 6 months in jail.

Sam struggled after his release from prison. With the demise of Cobra in 1959, Sam turned to Mel London’s Chief Label. Although he recorded 8 sides for the label, nothing of any significance resulted. (London noted that Sam had lost his confidence and the fire that was a signature of Sam’s Cobra recordings).

Sam continued to try to find some inspiration and cut 4 sides with Germany’s L+R label and 2 more with Otis Spann on the Crash label to no avail. In response Sam took a 2 year hiatus from recording but continued gigging regularly with his own band as well as playing with Otis Rush.

Amidst all the failed attempts at recording his live flame never burned brighter and it was proven time and again that Sam had a loyal fan base. One of those fans was promoter and Delmark Records owner Bob Koester who recalled seeing a young Sam for the first time: “I first heard Magic Sam on one of the great Cobra 45’s, later at The Alex Club at Roosevelt and Loomis on Chicago’s West side in 1962. Muddy called him up to the bandstand; Sam tripped on an electric cord and sparks flew! His playing and singing was even more electrifying”.

Koester, who played an integral role in promoting the growth of Chicago Blues in general, would be part of West Side music history by signing Magic Sam and releasing two landmark Magic Sam albums: West Side Soul and Black Magic.

West Side Soul effectively established the West Side sound, and set a new standard for Chicago Blues. The album was cut live in the studio, (with no overdubs or extra effects), in 2 days in 1967. Joining Sam was fellow West Sider Mighty Joe Young on rhythm guitar on 12 tracks including a remake of Sam’s first Cobra hit “All Your Love”. Also included on the album that Living Blues Magazine would cite as one its’ top ten “desert island” Blues albums are an outstanding cover of J.B. Lenoir’s “Mama, Mama – Talk To Your Daughter”, and the definitive urban take of Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago”.

Black Magic was cut in 1968 and released in 1969 just days short of Sam’s untimely death. It contains a new version of the Cobra recording of “Easy Baby” and along with “I Have The Same Old Blues” remains a Magic Sam signature tune. Mighty Joe Young is once again on rhythm guitar, and the set includes “name” musicians Eddie Shaw on sax, and Lafayette Leake on piano.  

Sam toured both Nationally and Internationally in support of West Side Soul and cemented his strong West Coast fan base, especially in San Francisco where he played The Fillmore West and Avalon Ballroom, and had planned to return on a regular basis. A key date was the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival. Added to the bill at the suggestion of Bob Koester, the star studded line-up of both Country and City Blues artists included: Muddy Waters, B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House, Junior Wells, and Luther Allison.

Sam’s appearance didn’t look too promising when he showed up late accompanied only with his bass player, Buffalo Bob Barlow. Explaining that he didn’t have a regular drummer, Sam quickly enlisted the services of Sam Lay who luckily was playing that day. No further apologies were required as Sam stole the show. The publication Blues Unlimited, reported on the event (captured on the 1969 release Magic Sam Live): “The music alone moved the people who weren’t expecting it from someone they’d never heard of. And they screamed for him the rest of the evening”.

Other high profile gigs were soon to follow and Sam’s future appeared to be a bright one in that he was set to sign with Memphis’ Stax Records. (Koester, not wanting to stand in his way, agreed to release him). But Sam’s recurring health issues were making matters difficult. After fainting in Louisville Kentucky Sam returned home to Chicago for a short stay only to embark on a tour to California and Europe. Returning to Chicago, Sam complained of heartburn and said that he was going to lay down for a rest. He collapsed before he got to the bedroom. Magic Sam Maghett was pronounced dead as a result of a heart attack at 32 years of age.

While providing some history and context on Chicago Blues, my hope is that this article will shine a well-deserved light on Magic Sam and Otis Rush, the kings of West Side Blues.

** I’d like to acknowledge the help and guidance of author and musicologist Bill Dahl in the writing of this article. Bill set me straight on Chicago’s South Side and West Side clubs as well as hipping me to a book that proved to be a great resource – Chicago Blues by Mike Rowe.

A Suggested West Side Blues Playlist

  1. Hideaway – Freddie King
  2. Takes Money – Mighty Joe Young
  3. Mississippi Kid – Byther Smith
  4. I Wonder Why – Jimmy Dawkins
  5. Love Me Mama – Luther Allison
  6. My Time After A While – Buddy Guy
  7. Hoodoo Man Blues – Junior Wells
  8. Reap What You Sow – Otis Rush
  9. So May Roads So Many Trains – Otis Rush
  10. Double Trouble – Otis Rush
  11. All Your Love – Otis Rush
  12. I Can’t Quit you Baby – Otis Rush
  13. All Your Love – Magic Sam
  14. I Feel So Good – Magic Sam
  15. Sweet Home Chicago – Magic Sam
  16. Easy Baby – Magic Sam
  17. I Have The Same Old Blues – Magic Sam
  • Rico Ferrara, August 2021

ANN PEEBLES – St. Louis Woman With A Memphis Melody

It was January 1984 and I found myself downtown with some time to kill. I decided to go into the now long gone Vinyl Museum on Yonge Street. (As you might surmise by the store name, they sold primarily used albums).

Looking through the racks I came upon new sealed copies of Night People by Lee Dorsey, Up On Love by Jerry Butler, and the treasured discovery: I Can’t Stand The Rain by Ann Peebles. Without hesitation, I bought all three.

Working the counter was soon-to-be celebrated Soul historian Rob Bowman. As he was ringing up my purchases he remarked “interesting choices” and paused at I Can’t Stand The Rain: “Do you know what you have here? This is one of the greatest Soul albums of all time”. My response was “Yes I know; I’ve been looking for that album for a long while”.

That marked the start of my love affair with Ann Peebles.

The dictionary defines “a eureka moment” as a moment of sudden, triumphant discovery, inspiration, or insight. It’s been known to occur, but rarely happens like it did one night at Ann Peebles’ and husband and songwriter Don Bryant’s apartment when local Memphis DJ and friend Bernard Miller came by with plans to attend a Bobby Bland concert. It was raining hard and while they were waiting for the rain to subside Peebles remarked “I can’t stand the rain”. Bryant’s response was “that’s a great title”. Inspired, the trio proceeded to write Ann Peebles’ signature tune, “I Can’t Stand The Rain”, in 15 minutes and recorded it the next day. Eureka!

Ann Peebles already had 8 R&B hits and 3 outstanding albums leading up to that fateful night in 1973. Peebles had been singing professionally since the mid 60’s. And going further back, she was a young teenager singing in her father’s church, and The Peebles Family Choir with her 10 siblings. Further back still, Peebles remembers singing “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” for her parents at the age of 5. Accordingly, it could truly be said that Ann Peebles had been singing virtually her whole life.

The 74 year old Ann Peebles’ career lasted more than 40 years and ended after suffering a stroke that damaged her vocal chords. (But, thankfully, as her husband of 47 years, Don Bryant said in an NPR interview, “She’s doing OK”). For all of her success over the course of 10 albums and a dozen R&B charting songs, she was still underrated and unappreciated by the record buying public. Some of it could be due to being overshadowed by Hi Records label mate and mega star Al Green who’s numerous hits crossed over to the Pop market. Another factor is possibly Peebles herself, who it’s been said had the talent to be a big star but not the enormous personality that went with it. Peebles simply accepted her success with a mixture of humility and reserve. Further on that point, long-time producer, Hi Records’ Willie Mitchell said of Peebles: “She was the girl with the big voice who could have really gone further…But I don’t think Ann spent enough time thinking about what she needed to do. I don’t think she put as much energy into her career as a singer as some of the rest of these people”

And Ann’s comments down the road, after the demise of the Hi Records label, and having no real desire to push things, seem to echo what Mitchell said: “At that point I was married, I had a child and I was happy…Knowing stardom would take me away from what I was really like; it didn’t bother me that much”

But things started out quite differently, when there seemed to be nothing but endless possibilities, for the young woman who found true joy in singing. For Peebles, the 7th of 11 children, born and raised in East St. Louis Missouri, it started at home with Gospel music all around her. Her mother was a Gospel singer and her father was a minister of The First Baptist Church and the director of The Peebles Choir that Ann first joined when she before she was 10 years old.

The Peebles Choir would travel the Gospel circuit, and with East St. Louis being located some 300 miles south west of Chicago, they would intersect regularly with 2 huge influences and idols from the windy city – Mahalia Jackson and The Soul Stirrers (featuring Sam Cooke). Jackson would prove to be a lasting inspiration for Peebles; and Sam’s success in secular music – along with Aretha Franklin’s – would motivate Ann to try her hand in the field as well (with her father’s blessing).

Peebles first significant venture in the secular music world occurred when she met band leader Oliver Sain. (Sain was an important figure in the development of R&B in St. Louis. In addition to leading The Oliver Sain Revue, Sain was a songwriter and record producer of note. Among other accomplishments, Sain was responsible for writing and producing the top 5 R&B hit “Don’t Mess Up A Good Thing” that was recorded by two members of his Revue: Fontella Bass and Bobby McClure). Peebles was still a teenager when she decided to join Sain’s Revue. And, years later, a Sain composition “Walk Away” that just missed the R&B Top 20, would be Peebles” first single release on Hi Records.

That release would be preceded by events in 1968. Specifically, Peebles happened to take a trip to Memphis and catch and sit in with Eugene “Bowlegs” Miller’s band at The Rosewood Club. She impressed all concerned with her rendition of Jimmy Hughes’ hit “Steal Away”. Miller, a trumpeter, and a Stax sideman, was also good friends with Hi Records producer Willie Mitchell. Miller recommended Peebles to Mitchell.

Following a successful audition, Peebles was signed to Hi Records, (with her father signing the contract on Ann’s behalf because she was only 20 years old). This was at a time when Hi was still in the transition of moving from more of a Country label to R&B, and a full year before Al Green was signed to the label. And, in 1969, by way of the release of her first album, This Is Ann Peebles, the world would be introduced to the commanding, poised, sultry, and confident voice of Ann Peebles. The release included the aforementioned “Walk Away” and provided Peebles an opportunity to put her personal stamp on a number of covers – notably “Steal Away”, Bettye Swann’s “Make Me Yours”, and a throw down take on The Isley Brothers’ funk “It’s Your Thing”.

One could sense Peebles becoming more assured on her second release as evidenced by her convincing version of Little Johnny Taylor’s, “Part Time Love” – Peebles’ first Top Ten R&B hit. But it was on her third album Straight From The Heart that she really started to outpace her previous work. And it’s not a coincidence that the timing coincided with Willie Mitchell putting Hi Records songwriter and singer Don Bryant together with Peebles to help her with both her songwriting and R&B phrasing. Both Peebles and Bryant agreed that “we didn’t hit it off at first… we bumped heads” but for different reasons. On Peebles part, since she had been singing her whole life, she was reluctant to take any advice on her singing style. Bryant, meanwhile, was more concerned with his own singing career thereby not giving the project his utmost attention.

But rewards were reaped from the union on Straight From The Heart that featured a couple of Peebles / Bryant contributions as well as a Bryant composition that he offered up to Peebles as kind of a peace offering: “99 lbs”, a salute to Peebles’ small stature. After an initial hesitancy, (Peebles said “I don’t want to sing about myself”), she belted out:

“I don’t mean to be braggin’
Just know it’s a natural fact
Good things come in small packages
You’ll have to agree to that

I’m 99 lbs of natural born goodness y’all
99 lbs of soul
Now I’m 99 lbs of natural goodness y’all
99 lbs of soul”

Just as important as the songwriting was Peebles continuing to assert herself with passion, power, and precision that cut to the heart and soul of every song. And none more so than Albert King’s “I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” (# 3 R&B), “How Strong Is A Woman”, and the outstanding opening cut “Slipped, Tripped And Fell In Love”. The strength of “Slipped Tripped” has been best described by Tierini Jackson, the lead singer of the phenomenal Memphis based Blues, Soul and Jam band Southern Avenue. When commenting on why the band chose to record the song on their self-titled debut, Jackson said that the number fit the bill of exactly what she was looking for – “real deep Memphis Soul”. That it is!

While Straight From The Heart stands as Peebles’ first creatively recognized album, it also serves a high quality introduction to her follow-up – the masterpiece, I Can’t Stand The Rain. Aside from the obvious strength of the title song – Peebles’ biggest hit slotting # 6 R&B and # 38 Pop, and covered by the likes of Tina Turner and Missy Elliott – there are a number of strong cuts on the cohesive set of “love and respect” songs. The majority of the cuts penned by the now married couple, Ann Peebles and Don Bryant, include such titles as “Until You Came Into My Life”, “A Love Vibration”, and “You’ve Got To Feed The Fire” – love letters all.

And no discussion of “Rain” would be complete without the mention of the standout cut I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down”. It isn’t a Peebles / Bryant co-write but it serves as a personal Ann Peebles statement, complete with a gritty, defiant, straightforward delivery. A true highlight that diminishes covers like those of Graham Parker and Paul Young. While both versions raise the intended ire, neither gets inside the song like Peebles does. In no uncertain terms Peebles declares:

“You think you’ve got it all set up
You think you’ve got the perfect plan
To charm every girl you see
And play with everyone that you can

But I’ve got news for you
I hope it won’t hit you too hard
One of these days while you’re at play
I’m gonna catch you off guard

I’m gonna tear your playhouse down, pretty soon
I’m gonna tear your playhouse down, room by room”

A final note on “Rain” is that, (with all due respect to Malaco), it cemented Hi Records’ position as the Southern Soul label of the 70’s. Stax owned that title in the 60’s based on the works of their outstanding artists, (e.g. Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, William Bell), and the formidable house band of Booker T. & The M.G.’s. Hi, by comparison, had their own stable of high quality artists, (Al Green, Peebles, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, etc.), and boasted their own peerless house band, Hi Rhythm Section, complemented with the backing vocals of the highly regarded Rhodes Chalmers And Rhodes. (Both labels utilized variations of The Memphis Horns). With such an outstanding cast of singers and players, Hi ruled the R&B airwaves throughout the 70’s.

Peebles would go on to record 6 more albums with 3 on Hi Records before the label folded in 1979. At that juncture, she stepped away and raised a family while pondering the future. But the urge to do what came naturally – sing – didn’t leave her, and she returned (ten years later) to record a Funk oriented effort, Call Me, on Willie Mitchell’s Waylo imprint. Unfortunately, the release failed to move the needle.

While Call Me didn’t fulfill expectations, there proved to be more on the horizon for the Ann Peebles story. Marian Leighton Levy and her husband Ron Levy, who together started the Bullseye Blues subsidiary of Rounder Records, signed Ann to a recording contract. (Levy, a former B.B. King sideman and Bullseye producer, said that it took more than 3 years to finally convince Peebles to record again). Both the artist and the label were rewarded with 2 fine albums done in classic Ann Peebles style: Full-Time Love (1992; produced by Levy) and Fill This World With Love (1996; produced by Peebles and Bryant). Peebles supported both releases with extensive, well received tours, (including an outstanding show at Toronto’s Soul & Blues Festival).

Those two albums might well have signposted the end, by all standards, of a remarkable recording career, but Ann Peebles continues to live on in the hearts and minds of fans and critics alike. For those who were there from the beginning, keep on with the love for Ann Peebles, one of the most expressive voices of her time. For the uninitiated, who may be considering bringing to light one of the truly great Soul singers, look no further than all of her albums, (including a number of compilations), that are still available today. All display Peebles’ perfect balance of silky sophistication and grit that can’t be overstated.


1. Walk Away

2. It’s Your Thing

3. Steal Away

4. Part-Time Love

5. Slipped Tripped And Fell In Love

6. How Strong Is A Woman

7. I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home

8. I Pity The Fool

9. 99 lbs

10. I Can’t Stand The Rain

11. Until You Came Into My Life

12. A Love Vibration

13. You Got To Feed The Fire

14. I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down

15. Come To Mama

16. It Was Jealousy

17. If This Is Heaven

18. St. Louis Woman

19. I Miss You (Sugar Ray Norcia, harp)

20. Fill This World With Love (Duet with Mavis Staples)

  • Rico Ferrara, August 2021

TONY JOE WHITE – The Swamp Fox

In May of 1970 I attended “Scarboro Fair”, a Toronto music festival. It was an outstanding line-up on a bright sunny day, (including the Butterfield big band who laid down over an hour of fine Blues).

As the day wore on it got progressively colder; to the point that when Tony Joe White hit the stage in the evening it had started to snow. White performed solo, accompanying himself on guitar and harmonica and keeping time with constant foot stomping on a wooden crate. Granted, it wasn’t the best of circumstances to appreciate the music, but I have to admit that I just didn’t get it. His percussive songs all seemed to be a variation of a theme and his vocal range appeared limited. I’m sure my take was like that of a number of uninitiated or passive listeners.

It wasn’t till much later when, on a whim, I bought a used copy of TJW’s third Monument album – Tony Joe – in 1972 that I started to get an understanding of where White was coming from. Instead of trying to be critical or judgemental I gave in and fell into his web, or “soulful groove” as he liked to call it – one that was backboned by riff driven wah wah guitar. It was totally infectious, and his growling and grunting on a mix of backwoods stories was totally well-matched with his overall sound. Rather than dwell on any vocal shortcomings, I came to realize quite quickly the nuances of his singing. That is, that his vocals were actually quite expressive as he molded his low key approach to suit each story at hand. In sum, it can’t be explained; because doing so just complicates matters.

Tony Joe White’s career stretched 50 years over the course of some 30 albums. Unfortunately he’s remembered for only 2 songs by the general music buying public: “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night In Georgia”. Although both are representative of TJW’s obvious talent and style, to think that those two selections are a fitting summary of his career is to sell him woefully short. There’s a lot more to Tony Joe White than initially meets the eye, (and ear).

Tony Joe White, the youngest of 7 children, was born in 1943 in Northeast Louisiana in Goodwill, about 12 miles from Oak Grove, West Carroll Parish, with a population of approximately 2,000. The family worked a 40 acre cotton and corn farm, and TJW grew up in a shotgun shack, (a long narrow wooden framed house with a tin roof and a front and back porch). The family came to know a dirt poor existence that was shared with neighbours in the same geographical area.

While all members of the household worked the fields by day, there was music was all around. Everyone in the family played either guitar or piano. There were family sing-alongs, Gospel in church on Sunday, and Saturday nights were spent listening Country music on The Grand Ole Opry. For his part, although he played some rudimentary guitar, TJW wasn’t as taken with music. His passion was baseball. That is, until his brother brought home a Lightnin’ Hopkins record when Tony Joe was 15. He was immediately drawn in by the Houston Texas based Hopkins’ stark understated approach. After his brother showed Tony Joe some Blues guitar licks it was all over. To hear Tony Joe tell it; “That completely turned me around. That’s when I started playing and forgot completely about baseball”.

While his style would evolve as he added harp and wah wah effects, his approach was fully formed early on when he was in high school. Performing solo at school dances and house parties, he primarily played Blues as was the fashion at these functions as well as the area in general where White grew up. He would keep time by stomping on a Coke crate, (as he had seen Hopkins do the same), and layed down Hopkins licks combined with hypnotic repetitive guitar riffs learned from another idol John Lee Hooker. To the crowd’s delight, his repertoire initially consisted mainly of Hopkins, Hooker, Slim Harpo, Silas Hogan, and Elvis Presley tunes.  

After graduating high school, following a short stint in Marietta Georgia working as a highway department dump truck driver, White moved to Corpus Christie Texas. It was there that TJW started to seriously consider music as a career. Knowing the best gig prospects were the beer joints along the Texas / Louisiana “Crawfish Circuit” he recognized that he would need a band to be heard above the din of the wild crowds. Indeed, “the beer bottles would be flyin’” as White recalls and his band – under a variety of names: Tony White & His Combo, Tony & The Mojos, Tony & The Twilights – worked that same track for more than 10 years.

While in Corpus Christie, he heard a southern based hit song that would serve as a major inspiration to TJW as a songwriter: “Ode To Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry. He could identify with the song, which had such a profound effect on him, because he knew exactly where the Tallahatchie Bridge was located, (about 100 miles northeast of his home town). It made the tale of Billy Joe McAllister so real that he swore right then and there that “If I ever write a song it’s going to be about something I know”.

TJW would take his own advice of “if you didn’t live it don’t write it” to heart, and it was borne out in virtually all of his songs. He matched that homespun songwriting with his drawling delivery and natural talent as a story teller. The most well-known example being his first hit, “Polk Salad Annie”, with a spoken intro:

“If some of ya’ll never been down south too much
I’m gonna tell you a little bit about it so’s you’ll understand what I’m talkin’ about
Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods, and the fields
And it looks somethin’ like a turnip green
Everybody calls it polk salad
Polk salad
Used to know a girl lived down there and she’d go out in the evenings and
Pick her a mess of it
Carry it home and cook it for supper

Because that’s about all they had to eat
But they did all right”

Down in Louisiana
Where the alligators grow so mean
There lived a girl
That I swear to the world
Made the alligators look tame…
Polk Salad Annie, Polk Salad Annie
Everybody said it was a shame
‘Cause her momma was a workin’ on the chain gang
A mean vicious woman”

White proceeded to write a number of songs and recorded them on a basic tape recorder with a plan to audition them for powers that be in Memphis. He reasoned that the rural sensibility of his Blues / Soul / Country songs would be well received by a prospective label there. The story goes that he got on the highway heading northeast towards Memphis, but having never driven to Memphis he missed the cut-off. That being the case, he then decided to continue on to, (his future home), Nashville where – with tape recorder and guitar in tow – he started knocking on doors on Music Row.

Through a series of encounters in Nashville White secured both a publishing deal and a recording contract with Monument Records; (a label mate was Roy Orbison who TJW never did get to meet). White would go on to record 3 fine albums for the label that included the aforementioned “Annie”, his first European hit “Soul Francisco”, and the Roots / Americana classic, “Rainy Night In Georgia”.

Despite containing TJW’s two best known songs as well as other outstanding numbers the albums didn’t fare well in the U.S., (a foreshadowing of essentially all of his albums stateside). While building an instant following in Europe, in the U.S. TJW was deemed too black for white radio and too white for black radio.

TJW’s entry into the European market was the single “Soul Francisco”, (from his first release Black And White), that hit initially in France in August of ‘68 and was followed by a successful run in Belgium, Germany, Spain, Japan, and the Philippines. Tony Joe would continue to have a strong base in Europe – particularly France – and Australia throughout the rest of his career.

Contrary to his success in Europe, TJW wasn’t making much headway in the U.S. The targeted single “Polk Salad Annie” languished for 9 months on the charts when an L.A. disc jockey picked up on it in July 1969. By the fall, TJW’s only U.S. charting single would enter the Top Ten peaking at # 8. And there was more to come in that the song was covered more than 60 times over the years including Elvis Presley’s version that hit # 2 in the UK, (and, going forward, became a staple of his live shows).

TJW’s other claim to fame “Rainy Night In Georgia” almost never happened. He wrote the song and put it aside until his wife, (and future co-songwriter), Le Ann convinced him to record a demo. The demo found its way into Jerry Wexler’s hands and was ultimately cut by Brook Benton who had a Top Five hit in 1970. (On first hearing Benton’s version White said “God, man, I got to learn the song. This is good”). Once again, the song that White would record on his second album, ...Continued, and be named one of the top 500 songs of all-time by Rolling Stone Magazine, would have lasting power in that it would go on to be covered more than 200 times to date.

It wouldn’t be the last time that TJW’s songwriting talents would be recognized and songs of his would be recorded by other artists. The extensive list of artists who covered his songs includes: Dusty Springfield, Willie Nelson, Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Robert Cray, Jerry Reed, Jessi Colter, Johnny Adams, Eric Clapton, and Joe Simon. Fully understanding that he had what would best be described as a cult following, White knew that those covers represented a much needed revenue stream. And, in addition, they helped to keep his name in the forefront of prospective music buyers and concert goers. Accordingly, White made it known on more than one occasion that he was forever grateful for the success of his songs in other people’s hands.

The fact that TJW commanded less than mass appeal isn’t indicative of his talent. Rather it’s representative of White’s steadfastness to continue on his own unique path. Forever a maverick, he explained; “When I look back now, I guess it was pretty different to be doing what I was doing. I haven’t changed a whole lot. I’m almost a lone wolf out there. I just play my guitar and don’t worry about it.”

Using his understated approach – although he performed in a full band setting as well, White preferred being backed only by a drummer in live performance because he reasoned that it freed up his guitar playing – White made some outstanding albums in his career despite the comparatively limited audience. One of his very best is the 1972 Warner Brothers release The Train I’m On. Produced by Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd and cut in Muscle Shoals, White is backed by the Muscle Shoals house band on a set of songs primarily grounded on a bed of acoustic guitars courtesy of TJW and overlooked southern guitar stalwart Tippy Armstrong. With hardly a “Womper Stomper”** laden number in sight, it varies somewhat from a lot of TJW’s recordings. The constants are the superb songwriting, performance, and production values that remain on a set of numbers convincingly delivered by White and his cohorts. With a winning combination of songs including: “I’ve Got A Thing About You Baby”, If I Ever Saw A Good Thing” “As The Crow Flies”, “Take Time To Love”, the fun “Even Trolls Love Rock and Roll”, plus the title cut, the recording presents White in a soulful singer / songwriter light. Given the timing of release, it should have been a big hit. The album is currently out of print but well worth searching for.

** TJW’s name for his instantly recognizable fuzz toned guitar played through a crunchy wah wah pedal

If you’re looking for a vintage live performance by TJW check out That On The Road Look that was originally recorded and released in 1971. It quickly went out of print until 2010 when it was re-released on the Rhino Handmade imprint. Backed by Mike Utley (keys), Sammy Creason (drums) of The Dixie Flyers plus Duck Dunn (bass) of Booker T. & The MG’s, White and company layed down outstanding takes on some of White’s better known songs including both “Rainy Night In Georgia” and a ten minute rendition of “Polk Salad Annie”. Also added is the definitive version of White’s moving “Willie And Laura Mae Jones” delivered by White in a solo acoustic setting. The song centres around White’s understanding that there was no status or colour disparity when families shared the same socioeconomic conditions:

Willie and Laura Mae Jones
Were our neighbors a long time back
They lived right down the road from us
In a shack just like our shack

We worked in the fields together
And we learned to count on each other
When you live off the land
You don’t have time to think
About another man’s colour

The show took place at a time when, on the strength of TJW’s two big songs, he was asked to open for better known, (read successful), artists of the day. That being said, these recordings were taken from dates opening for Creedence Clearwater Revival and define the intensity and competitive spirit of White’s band’s performance. As White recalled:
“Creedence tried to burn us down and we tried to burn them down ‘cause they were goin’ around, ‘swamp this and swamp that’, and ol’ Duck and me was real tight – we was fishin’ buddies and we got talkin’ one night, and he told ’em, ‘you know, Fogerty, there ain’t no alligators in Bekeley’. From then on it was war every night onstage”

TJW continued to release albums in the 80’s but for all intents and purposes stepped away from the business for most of the decade, content to live off his songwriting royalties. That changed in1989 when friend and sometime recording partner Mark Knoffler told him that he was sitting in on Tina Turner’s next album, and that she was looking for material. White sent Turner some songs that she liked, and, in turn, was invited to the sessions. (When he showed up and was introduced to her, Turner immediately started laughing. After regaining her composure she gave him a big hug and told him “I’m sorry man. Ever since ‘Polk Salad Annie’ I always thought you were a black man”). The resultant album, Foreign Affair, not only featured four TJW compositions – including a Turner hit “Steamy Windows” and the title cut – but White also ended up adding guitar, harp, and keyboard bass in addition to producing his contributions.

The Foreign Affair experience led to a comeback of sorts when Turner’s manager signed White to his stable of artists and got him a recording contract with Polydor. The resultant album Closer To The Truth in 1991 was a minor hit that contained two of the songs that he contributed to Turner’s Foreign Affair: “Steamy Windows” and “Undercover Agent For The Blues” plus the outstanding opening cut “Tunica Motel”. All were done in the inimitable TJW style. (Incidentally, check out the acoustic version of “Tunica Motel” on youtube that cuts to the heart of the matter more so than the studio take).

TJW would continue to record and perform until he passed in 2018. Of note are his last three albums on the Yep Roc label – all produced by his son and manager Jody White – that have sold fairly well to date and garnered some acclaim: Hoodoo (2013), Rain Crow (2016), and Bad Mouthin’ (2018). The relative commercial success may be attributed to a surge in popularity of Roots / Americana and / or it could be that TJW was finally getting his due, (albeit late). Whatever the case, there are no new stylistic roads travelled on the three statements. They all feature TJW’s unmistakeable lazy lowdown Blues grind. Of special mention is Bad Mouthin’ that pays tribute to White’s influencers including versions on “Baby Please Don’t Go” (Big Joe Williams), “Big Boss Man” (Jimmy Reed), “Awful Dreams” (Lightnin’ Hopkins), and White utilizing his “soul whisper” to maximum effect on “Heartbreak Hotel”.

Tony Joe White died of a heart attack in his sleep on October 24, 2018 in his home, just south of Nashville, in Leipers Fork. But there’s more to be heard from Tony Joe White. At this writing a posthumous release of 9 songs taken from a number of recordings, (that White had made in his home studio with just his electric guitar and harp), is in the works. Those bare bones recordings were fleshed out by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys plus Nashville musicians of his choosing to produce the album Smoke From The Chimney.

Tony Joe White summed up his music and approach this way:
“When and where I grew up, Blues was just about the only music I heard and truly loved. I’ve always thought of myself as a Blues musician, bottom line, because the Blues is real, and I like to keep everything I do as real as it gets”.

Well, awright!

So ends the ballad of The Swamp Fox, Tony Joe White, an unsung hero of American music. Now and forever a true original.


  1. Polk Salad Annie
  2. Willie And Laura Mae Jones
  3. Soul Francisco
  4. Rainy Night In Georgia
  5. Roosevelt And Ira Lee – Night Of The Mossacin
  6. Stud Spider
  7. Boom Boom
  8. I Just Walked Away
  9. I’ve Got A Thing About You Baby
  10. If I Ever Saw A Good Thing
  11. The Train I’m On
  12. Even Trolls Love Rock And Roll
  13. As The Crow Flies
  14. Take Time To Love
  15. 300 Pounds Of Hongry
  16. Did Somebody Make A Fool Of You
  17. Tunica Motel
  18. Steamy Windows
  19. Undercover Agent Of The Blues
  20. Bad Mouthin’
  21. Heartbreak Hotel
  22. Smoke From The Chimney
  • Rico Ferrara July, 2021

NINA SIMONE – The High Priestess Of Soul

It was in the mid 80’s when Toronto’s short lived Village Vanguard North was advertising “Sunday Brunch With Nina Simone”. The thought of Nina Simone performing a concert while the audience threw down eggs benedict was both startling and intriguing. Knowing little about Nina Simone other than some of her stark recordings coupled with the fact that she was reportedly not the most sociable person had me wondering why she was on board with the idea. Surely, based on reputation, she would demand the audience’s utmost attention. And that was something she definitely couldn’t count on while people chomped down food and slurped special coffees.

With little introduction, suddenly there she was – an imposing presence in an African gown and head wrap – The High Priestess Of Soul. My preconceived notions vanished as Nina “entertained” the audience rather than laying out a concert as such. I recall her doing some of her better known songs, (i.e. “I Loves You Porgy”, “My Baby Just Cares For Me”, “Please Don’t Let Me Misunderstood”), interspersed with “lecture tone” dialogue, (on topics that I either couldn’t decipher or can’t recall), mixed with impromptu displays of African rhythmic dance. I’d never seen anything quite like it. The captivating performance was just as unique as the artist herself.

Knowing much more today about Nina Simone and of her idiosyncrasies makes that show even more fascinating. That is, for all the deeply rooted anger that Simone was and is known for, the show was an intimate encounter with her audience. It was as if she thrived on the contact with the crowd; that the connection served as a lifeline as she sought to be accepted for who she was – an uncompromising diva to be reckoned with.

Nina Simone’s life story can best be summed up as an extremely influential, original artist who was scarred by personal, racial and social injustices (both real and imagined). A non-conformist, Simone confronted said injustices directly and as swiftly as possible. And, at the same time, she used those same wrongdoings to fuel her art. A product and barometer of the times, Nina came to prominence in the 60’s. Although she still continued to record and perform through to the end of her life, it was that decade that defined both her artistry and her social consciousness. If Simone stopped performing and recording immediately following those years she still would have earned her place in the annals of modern music. Accordingly, it truly can be said that, as one writer stated, “to really understand the 60’s, you had to hear Nina”.

Simone, (1933-2003), was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina. The sixth of eight children, Simone was part of a respected family. Her mother was a Methodist minister and worked as a domestic while her father helped support the family as a handy man. While not well off by any means, the family lived comfortably, and were mainstays of the Tyron black community.

Nina was a true child prodigy as a gifted pianist at the age of 4. It was a year later that young Eunice started both accompanying her mother at Sunday services as well the church choir. Coincidentally, around this time Eunice started taking lessons from a local piano teacher, Murial Mazzanovich. “Miz Mazzy” or “my white momma”, as Simone referred to Mazzanovich, unlocked her passion for the masters: Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven, and Schubert. She also served as inspiration for Nina’s plans to become America’s first great black female concert pianist.

Word of Nina’s extraordinary talent spread quickly with people travelling from miles around to attend her piano recitals. One such recital at a local library when Nina was 11 first raised her sensitivity to racism. It happened that Simone’s parents were told to move from their front row seats to make room for white patrons. In one of a number of acts of defiance in her life, Simone refused to continue unless her parents were allowed to return to their rightful place.

In her quest to fulfill her concert pianist dreams Simone attended the summer program at The Julliard School in New York City in hopes of readying herself for an audition for acceptance at The Curtis Institute Of Music in Philadelphia. Nina’s parents were so sure of her impending approval that they moved the family to Philadelphia. However, despite a well-received performance, her application was denied thus leading Simone to believe that it was due to racial discrimination. Although there was no evidence to support her belief, it nonetheless left a lifelong wound and further embittered her perception of the world. A world in which she was firmly convinced racially motivated biases played a major role in her life going forward.

Needing money to continue her studies, Simone took a job at an Atlantic City dive, The Midtown Bar & Grill, as a cocktail pianist. Eunice Waymon was now officially “Nina Simone” as she sought to keep the fact that she was playing “the Devil’s music” a secret from her minister mother. Her initial, all instrumental, repertoire consisted of Gospel numbers, mixed with Jazz standards, and Classical pieces. However, Nina was told that to keep her job that she would have to sing. Although a new experience, Simone quickly adapted, unleashing her husky, expressive, smooth contralto voice – typically, the lowest register of the female range – first on a set of songs she learned from a Billie Holiday album and later expanded her collection to include Blues, Folk, and Show tunes – all performed in typical Simone fashion. That is, although she played various genres, she wasn’t confined by their boundaries thereby making all that she sang a deeply personal statement.

Simone moved to New York in the mid fifties and established her reputation in clubs in Greenwich Village. The Village, known for its progressive attitudes, proved to be a perfect setting for Simone’s mix of Jazz, Folk, and Blues always suspended by a Classical touch. Not only did she enjoy rave reviews for her performances, but with her staunch stance on all race related matters, Simone also attracted the attention of some of Black America’s outspoken literary minds including James Baldwin.

A person who had his hand on the musical pulse of the times, and recognized the brilliance of her Village performances, was Syd Nathan of King Records who signed Simone to his Bethlehem subsidiary. Due to disagreements regarding the label’s promotional efforts, their partnership would only produce one album – Little Girl Blue, (AKA Jazz As Played In An Exclusive East Side Street Club). The release, an auspicious debut consisting of primarily Jazz and Gospel flavoured entrees with Classical sensibilities, was recorded in 1957, (when Nina was 24 years old), and released in 1959. It yielded the definitive take of “I Loves You Porgy” – even eclipsing Billie Holiday’s version – that earned Simone a #2 R&B, #18 Pop hit. It should be noted that Simone identified with the song, (“I love you Porgy / Don’t let him take me / Don’t let him handle me with his hot hands…”), and it would be a staple of her live set going forward.

More than 30 releases, (not including compilations), followed on other labels including Colpix, Phillips, RCA, Verve, and Elektra, as she recorded prolifically through to 1993. The bulk of those releases were in her zenith, the 60’s. It was in the 60’s that Simone not only released some of the best albums of her career but also established herself as a true star. Simone was a critics’ darling and a performer who could consistently sell out a show no matter the venue.

Playing a vital role in Simone’s rise to fame was her manager / husband Andrew Stroud. Stroud, an admirer from afar was a tough New York City detective when they met. After marrying Simone, Stroud retired from the force to manage her career. Stroud was an unrelenting driver who had well laid plans to make Simone successful. Stroud had Nina working constantly, capitalized on every opportunity, and succeeded in securing a number of high profile gigs. (Notable in his efforts is that Stroud put up his own money to finance a concert at Carnegie Hall thereby fulfilling Nina’s lifelong dream of playing the performance hall). Those dates were successful in their own right, and, in addition, helped fuel her album sales. Nina released 7 critically acclaimed albums in that time period – primarily on Colpix, a label that allowed Simone creative freedom:
Nina Simone Live At Newport (1960)
Nina Simone Live At The Village Gate (1962)
Nina Simone Live At Carnegie Hall (1963)
Nina Simone In Concert (1964)
I Put A Spell On You (1965)
Nina Simone Sings The Blues (1967)
‘Nuff Said (1968)
It’s no coincidence that the majority of the albums are recordings of live performances because it was in a live setting that Simone excelled. Here, she stepped outside of herself, and was left to her own devices to feed off of transfixed audiences with improvisational displays of virtuosity.

Some of Nina’s best known songs are contained on the above mentioned albums, (in addition to other 60’s releases), including:
“Trouble In Mind”
“Work Song”
“Love Me Or Leave Me”
“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”
“Feeling Good”
“I Put A Spell On You”
“Backlash Blues”
“Mississippi Goddam”
“To Be Young Gifted And Black”

But all was not sunshine and roses in the Simone / Stroud household. Despite living very well in a Mount Vernon NY house, complete with a butler and a maid, in an upscale neighbourhood, and happily bringing a daughter into the world, trouble was lurking around the corner.

Nina was growing weary; she complained of a feeling of emptiness and of the constant touring, while Stroud refused to let up. Making matters worse, Simone was subjected to physical abuse at the hands of her husband on more than one occasion. (One particularly inglorious moment for Stroud occurred after he saw a fan pass Nina a note at one of her concerts. In a fit of jealousy, Stroud proceeded to beat Nina in the dressing room and on the ride home. Once at home, he supposedly tied Nina to a chair as he continued to beat her).

The beatings, no doubt added to Nina’s stated feeling of emptiness, and resulted in Nina acting out her frustrations in public. While Nina was a strong woman, she was easily wounded by perceived injustices. The smallest incident could set her off resulting in rather inappropriate behaviour. For example, she became known for scolding her audience, in mid song, if she thought they weren’t being attentive. In other instances she would leave the stage for lengths of time for reasons known only to her.

Looking to fill the void coincided with current events that reawakened Simone’s acute sensitivity to racism and sparked Simone’s anger. On such incident cut deeply – the white supremacist terrorist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sunday, September 15, 1963 that resulted in the death of 4 young girls.

In response, it took an enraged Simone one hour to write “Mississippi Goddam”:
“Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

Can’t you see it
Can’t you feel it
It’s all in the air

I can’t stand the pressure much longer
Somebody say a prayer

Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam”

The fuse had been lit as Nina became consumed with the Civil Rights Movement and her associated hate. As an artist, her immediate response was a desire to only sing civil rights songs, (“the important ones”), because as Simone summed it up “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”. Accordingly, Simone became a major voice of the Black Power Movement as she aligned herself not with Martin Luther King – who upon meeting him for the first time Simone let him know that “I’m not non-violent” – but with Stokely Carmichael whose fierce philosophies coincided with Simone’s inclinations.

But as the 60’s were drawing to a close Simone started paying for her violence leaning civil rights stance in that promoters were reluctant to book her. In addition, her relationship with her husband – who wasn’t totally on board with her Back Nationalist posturing in the first place – was becoming more and more frayed. The result was that Nina left Stroud in 1970.

Without Stroud’s grounding and direction Simone’s career was at a standstill. In interviews she confided that she felt abandoned by the Movement and that her preoccupation with civil rights activities had sabotaged her career. She went on to say, as a result, that she could no longer perform the so-called “important songs”.

After flailing around rudderless for a number of years Simone took her 12 year old daughter and moved first to Barbados and then to Liberia in 1974, never to return to the States on a permanent basis for the rest of her life. In Liberia she sought refuge from her professional life and in the two years that she lived there she – for all intents and purposes – retired; never playing a gig, or the piano for that matter. At the same time her behaviour was becoming more and more erratic, (including beating her daughter without provocation and / or for the slightest indiscretion), as her life appeared to be spinning out of control.

After her daughter moved back to the States to live with her father, Simone moved to Switzerland, (playing a somewhat confounding but well-received set at The Montreux Jazz Festival), and then to France in the hopes of reviving her career. Simone eventually ended up in Paris with a resident booking at a small club for $300 a night – unbecoming for an international star of her stature to say the least. Her performances alternated between genius and disaster. Compounding the problem was that Simone was drinking excessively, further altering her inconsistent behaviour, while not minding the necessities required for healthy living.

In the mid 80’s a Dutch admirer and friend Gerrit de Bruin happened to catch one of her shows, and along with Simone’s long time guitarist Al Schackman, came to her rescue. Not only did de Bruin find her a reasonable place to live and buy her clothes, (“she was dressed in rags”), but he also introduced her to a doctor who diagnosed Simone as manic depressive and bi-polar. With the help of the prescribed medication Simone’s condition started to stabilize allowing her to resume her career in earnest.

Although she would never achieve the heights that she enjoyed in the 60’s, Simone would nevertheless continue to perform and record a dozen more albums – including the fine 1984 set Live At Ronnie Scott’s, London’s famous Jazz club. (Nina would release her final album, A Single Woman, in 1993). And Simone would continue to be a major influence on artists of all genres because her music and her songs refused categorization and appealed to many. Part of that attraction was Nina’s eclectic tastes as demonstrated by covering seemingly diverse artists such as Bob Dylan and The Bee Gees, and even recording a selection from the musical “Hair”. Despite her personal issues, Nina Simone was one of the most celebrated singers of her day, and of any day. Above all else, it could rightfully be said that she made you believe. As a NY Times review of her 1992 concert at Carnegie Hall stated:
“Whether she was singing love songs or protest songs, Ms. Simone performed as though her soul was living out each injustice and heartache”

Nina Simone was living her final years battling lung cancer, and a few days before her death Simone was awarded an honorary degree by the Curtis Institute of Music, the music school that had refused to admit her as a student as a teenager. Nina Simone died in her sleep at home in Carry-le-Rouet France in 2003.

And, among a number of other awards, after several years of getting slighted from a spot, Nina Simone was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.


  1. Mood Indigo
  2. I Loves You Porgy
  3. My Baby Just Cares For Me
  4. Work Song
  5. Love Me Or Leave Me
  6. Mississippi Goddam
  7. I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be free
  8. Trouble In Mind
  9. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
  10. I Put A Spell On You
  11. Sinnerman
  12. Feeling Good
  13. Four Women
  14. Black Is The Colour Of My True Love’s Hair
  15. Do I Move You?
  16. I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl
  17. Backlash Blues
  18. I Ain’t Got No / I’ve Got Life
  19. To Be Young Gifted And Black
  20. Nobody’s Fault But Mine
  21. Baltimore
  • Rico Ferrara, July 2021

William Bell – The Soul Of A Bell / This Is Where I Live

William Bell – a true Soul survivor – is 81 years young. The Memphis born William Yarbrough – he chose the name Bell to honor his grandmother Belle – started his career in 1960 and is still going strong today.

William Bell’s mother sang Gospel and William followed suit from the time he was 7 years old. While his mother would have been pleased to have him carry on the tradition, she was more of the mind that William should become a doctor. But the smooth singing Bell had other ideas.

Not long after winning a local Memphis talent contest at 14 years of age, Bell started to find work in local clubs, (mostly backed by early mentor Rufus Thomas’ band The Bear Cats). Gaining some notoriety, (Bell said “Everybody on Beale Street knew me including B.B., Junior Parker, Bobby Bland …”), William came to attention of Memphis Jazz legend, drummer Phineas Brown, and accepted Brown’s offer to join his orchestra for both local gigs and extended tours. With an impressive line-up of 14 musicians including Hank Crawford and Charles Lloyd on sax backing him, William remembers singing all the standards including “Unforgettable” and “Moonlight In Vermont”. It was quite an education for the young Bell and he grew up in a hurry. (It was while on tour with the Brown band that a 16 year old homesick Bell would try his hand at writing and came up with his first hit, the soon to be Southern Soul classic “You Don’t Miss Your Water”).

Bell had now established a musical vocabulary of Gospel, Standards, and Blues (that he both heard and sang on Beale Street). He added Doo Wop to those expressions – first singing under the streetlights with Maurice White, (later of Earth Wind and Fire fame), and David Porter, (future Stax resident songwriter), before forming The Del Rios.

William sang lead for The Del Rios, (whose line-up would be fluid), a quartet that included locals Louis Williams, Norman West, and James Taylor. The Del Rios were one of the hottest young groups in Memphis and bolstered their reputation with the release a number of singles that received local airplay. It was the summer of 1960 when Chips Moman – then a primary decision maker at Stax – heard them one night at their resident gig at The Flamingo Room located on Hernando, just off of Beale. Moman was impressed with the group and with the 21 year old Bell in particular. So much so that he convinced owners Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton to sign both the group and Bell as a solo act. (Estelle knew Bell as one of teenagers that regularly hung out at The Satellite Record Shop that she operated as a store front of the Stax building)

At that point in time, artists signed to the Stax roster were either singing groups or instrumental groups such as Carla & Rufus (Thomas), The Vel-Tones, The Chips, The Triumphs, The Tonettes, The Canes, and The Mar-Keys. William Bell was the first male solo act signed to the label. And, with the exception of the Thomases and The Mar-Keys, while the aforementioned acts serve mostly as a footnote in Stax history, William Bell consistently turned out hits, and was the only artist to stay on the label until the demise of the first chapter of Stax in 1975.

The Del Rios’ first point of business at Stax was singing back-up on the 18 year old Carla Thomas’ first hit “Gee Whiz”. This was followed by a double sided single pairing two Bell compositions, “Just Across The Street” b/w “There’s A Love”. In addition, Moman organized a Bell solo session cutting two demos: “Formula Of Love”, (another Bell work), and the aforementioned “You Don’t Miss Your Water”. Moman was pleased enough with the result that he released the demo as a two sided single with “Formula Of Love” designated as the “A” side in 1961.

The non-success of “Formula Of Love” was preordained when a DJ in New Orleans started the trend of flipping the single and making “Water” the “A” side. Program directors and DJ’s across the country fell in line resulting in the song becoming Bell’s first hit record. “Water” sold over 200,000 copies and placed # 95 on the Pop charts – William Bell was on his way to Southern Soul history.

“You Don’t Miss Your Water”, cited by many as a cornerstone of Southern Soul, is best described as a fusing of Black Gospel and White Country, and found Bell using his completely developed ballad style to full advantage. (Bell explained that he always saw himself as a ballad singer, and preferred the style because it lent itself to telling a story while drawing on his Gospel background). And the song’s influence wasn’t lost on Bell’s contemporaries as the song has gone on to be covered by such diverse artists as Otis Redding, The Byrds, Taj Mahal, Fred Neil, Johnny Adams, and Peter Tosh.

A year later Stax released Bell’s follow-up to “You Don’t Miss Your Water” – the Bell authored and Sam Cooke influenced “Any Other Way”. Although the song barely charted for Bell it would be covered and be a hit for Chuck Jackson (# 62 R&B). “Any Other Way” would be followed by more singles including “I’ll Show You” the first song penned by the songwriting team of Bell and Booker T. Jones, (Hammond B-3 maestro, multi-instrumentalist, and leader of Booker T. & The M.G.’s). Although showing modest results at # 63 on the Pop charts, it held promise for future Bell / Jones co-writing endeavours. That promise would come to fruition when the tandem would later write a timeless Blues staple for Albert King – “Born Under A Bad Sign” – in 1967. And the duo would strike it rich again the next year with one of the great Soul ballads of all time – “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” – that Bell took to # 45 Pop and # 10 R&B.

William Bell and Booker would go on to write a number of great songs together while both were at Stax. Bell stated that their success as a songwriting team was attributed to the fact that both he and Jones recognized that the subject matter had to be something that would be relatable for the listening audience. Bell would sum up his writing experience with Jones by saying “We just fit like a glove”.

In 1963, William Bell rivalled Booker T. & The M.G.’s as Stax’s most prominent artist but Bell’s career would hit a bump in the road when he was drafted the same year. When he returned from the army in 1965, he found that he was displaced in the Stax hierarchy by the soon to be King Of Soul, Otis Redding. Incidentally, no rivalry ensued in that Bell and Otis became close friends. It’s been said that Bell provided Otis with some inspiration for the song “Respect” and that Otis contemplated giving Bell a co-write credit. (Bell sings the “hey, hey, hey” on the original studio recording of the song). A year after Otis’ death Bell would release “A Tribute To A King” that reached #16 on the R&B charts.

It took some time for Bell to get his bearings when he was initially back on the scene in that he felt out of touch with what was hitting in the world of music. But it wasn’t long before Bell acquitted himself well with a handful of charting singles that led to his first full length recording, the excellent The Soul Of A Bell in 1967. A lot of albums in this time period featured one or two of the artist’s hit singles with the rest of the recording consisting of “filler” type material. Not so with The Soul Of A Bell that boasted the hits “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, “Any Other Way”, and post army charting singles “Everybody Loves A Winner”, “Never Like This Before” “Eloise (Hang On In There)”. And, in addition, well-chosen covers that displayed Bell’s rich Gospel drenched vocals rounded out the set.

A number of charting singles followed on Stax (including his # 8 R&B duet hit with Judy Clay, “Private Number” and the aforementioned “I Forgot To Be Your Lover”), and Bell had some successful moments as well after the company folded. Of those the most prominent was his R&B chart topper “Tryin’ To Love Two” on Mercury in 1976. The song demonstrated that Bell was keeping up with the trends in that “Tryin’ To Love Two” is a perfect rendition of 70’s Philly Soul.

Recording activity going forward – including those on Bell’s own Wilbe imprint – was sporadic into the 2000’s as the comparatively overlooked Bell fell away from public consciousness. (It should be noted that Bell resurfaced briefly as a guest vocalist – along with the likes of Otis Clay and Charlie Musselwhite – on The Bo-Keys’ superb 2011 release Got To Get Back! – with his contribution, “Weak Spot”, an album highlight).

As it would happen the revitalized Stax, (now owned by Concord out of Beverley Hills), came calling in 2015 about making a recording; and, in so doing, offering a beckoning back home of sorts. Bell took some time responding, but agreed in the hopes of having the latitude to deliver a product to his liking – one with more of present-day feel. With that in mind, Stax turned to premier producer and multi-instrumentalist John Leventhal to oversee the effort. Leventhal was extremely knowledgeable of Bell’s work, and although Leventhal had made his mark to date in Country tinged Roots music, he has always maintained a deep appreciation for Soul. Accordingly, Leventhal was pleased with the opportunity, and accepted the offer contingent on being able to write with Bell. In describing Bell, Leventhal said “There’s a restraint and dignity in what he does…You feel the poet lurking behind the façade of Soul music”. Bell’s take on Leventhal was just as laudatory: “It’s the first time other than Booker that I really clicked with a writer that felt the same mood thing that I did”

And Leventhal and Bell were of the same mind of using groove driven Stax-like arrangements as a baseline on which to create their own vision of contemporary music. The two took their time; This Is Where I Live was a year in the making, and was well worth the wait. The result is a seamless, flawless release with every track a true gem. Along with 9 Bell and Leventhal co-writes, rounding out the album are an update of “Born Under A Bad Sign”, Jesse Winchester’s tender “All Your Stories”, and the Leventhal / Rosanne Cash highlight “Walking On A Tightrope”.

All the songs have a tendency to stay with you. For instance, after listening a few times it’s hard not to want to sing along with the title track:

This is where I live
This is where I live
This is where I give

Or do the same with the album closing, anthemic, hymn-like “People Want To Go Home”:

Cause when you’re tired
People wanna go home
When you’re lonely
People wanna go home
When you’re weary from your heavy load
People everywhere just want to go home

(As an aside – strictly from a musical appreciation perspective, and not to compare the two works – when I first listened to This Is Where I Live it brought to mind Bobby Purify’s Better To Have It. For me, the two releases share a certain spirituality and tonality. In fact, I tend to play the albums back to back for a soul satisfying listening experience)

Bell, (and Leventhal), were deservedly rewarded with a 2017 Grammy Award for “Best Americana album” and Bell performed “Born Under A Bad Sign” with guitarist extraordinaire Gary Clark Jr. on the Grammy Awards telecast. The Grammy is added to the recognition that Bell has garnered in his 65+ year career including:

  • The R&B Pioneer Award from The R&B Foundation
  • The W. C. Handy Heritage Award from The Memphis Music Foundation
  • The BMI Songwriter’s Award
  • Induction into The Memphis Music Hall Of Fame
  • Induction into The Georgia Music Hall Of Fame*

*Bell has been an Atlanta Georgia resident since 1969

In a recent interview Bell restated his secret of effective songwriting. Specifically, that secret involves focusing on subject matter that people can relate to; of putting forth the human factor and the wishes and desires that everyone shares. And, lastly, of being mindful of including a loving touch (that’s needed today more than ever before). In the same interview, Bell also revealed that he’s written and recorded a number of songs with Roots multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell (ex Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, Rodney Crowell, et al), that he hopes will be part of a new album in the not too distant future.

So Bell isn’t done yet. But, as it stands today, his first and latest statements The Soul Of A Bell and This Is Where I Live stand as twin pillars of a outstanding Soul career of the unheralded singer and songwriter – Mr. William Bell.  


  1. There’s A Love (The Del Rios)
  2. Just Across The Street (The Del Rios)
  3. You Don’t Miss Your Water
  4. Any Other Way
  5. I’ll Show You
  6. Everybody Loves A Winner
  7. Eloise (Hang On In There)
  8. Never Like This Before
  9. Share What You Got
  10.  Private Number (feat. Judy Clay)
  11.  I Forgot To Be Your Lover
  12.  Tryin’ To Love Two
  13.  Weak Spot (w/The Bo-Keys)
  14.  The House Always Wins
  15.  Born Under A Bad Sign
  16.  All Your Stories
  17.  Walking On A Tightrope
  18.  This Is Where I Live
  19.  Mississippi-Arkansas Bridge
  20.  People Want To Go Home
  • Rico Ferrara, June 2021

ESTHER PHILLIPS – From Little Esther To Esther Phillips

“She offers soul-shaking evidence that there is no better lesson in the art of singing the blues than a graduate course in living it”

  • Leonard Feather, Renowned Jazz pianist, composer, producer, and music journalist’s comments after experiencing an Esther Phillips live performance

Given the harsh realities that Phillips had to face, (often alone), even before the start of her singing career at an impossibly young 14 years of age, it was a more than apt observation.

The life experiences coupled with the struggles with racism and sexism she encountered as an African American woman were constantly interwoven with her singing career and hardened her outlook on life. Consider another quote, this time from producer Jerry Wexler – one of the more empathetic record executives when it came to racial relations – reflecting on Phillips’ stay at Atlantic Records in the mid to late 60’s when Esther was in her early 30’s: “Esther Phillips was great to work with. Funny, and so hip, so sly. She’d give you that look, like, I know where you’re coming from, whitey, so don’t bullshit me papa”.

Nothing seemed to come easy for Esther Mae Jones who was born in Galveston Texas on December 23, 1935. She came from a troubled family; her parents divorced when Esther was very young resulting in her splitting her time with her father in Houston and mother in Galveston. Esther was 5 when her mother moved her and her sister Marianna to the Watts neighbourhood of L.A. Once settled there, young Esther established herself singing in the choir at The Sanctified Church – a precursor of what life had in store for Esther down the road.

Esther started on her way to a singing career as a teenager. The story goes that Esther, her sister Marianna, and a friend were looking to scrape up enough money to buy the makings for a popular drink at the time, White Port wine and lemon juice. Having no money whatsoever, and knowing of Esther’s passion for singing, Marianna – unbeknownst to Esther who was 13 at the time – entered her in a talent contest at The Largo Theatre. Esther did a version of her idol Dinah Washington’s “Baby, Get Lost”, winning first prize of $10. (In a New York Times interview, Esther said “by the time I was 12 or 13 I was singing like Dinah Washington; that was who I wanted to be”).

While there’s no information as to whether the girls went out and bought what was needed for the drink that served as the motivation for entering Esther in the contest in the first place, another benefit to winning the contest presented itself. Namely, local band leader and innovator in the emerging R&B field, Johnny Otis was in the audience and immediately recognized the nascent talent of the precocious Phillips.

In addition to being a recording artist, Otis also wrote songs and worked as a producer. And Otis owned a nightclub – The Barrelhouse in Watts – that featured R&B acts exclusively. He used the steady stream of artists that he booked at The Barrelhouse as a foundation of his revue, The Johnny Otis Rhythm & Blues Caravan. After some work tracking her down, Otis booked Esther for his revue at the club, and subsequently took her on tour with The Caravan.

Esther was in the studio when Otis, with his working band, was producing a recording for The Robins, (later to be known as The Coasters), and there was some studio time left. With the plan to record Esther with The Robins backing her, Otis wrote a song on the spot in 20 minutes. Using Bobby Nunn, (The Robins’ bass singer), as a foil for Esther, they cut the classic “Double Crossing Blues”.

“Double Crossing Blues” by “Little Esther”, (so named by Otis), was released on the Savoy label in 1950 and reached #1 on the Billboard R&B charts. It stayed on the charts for 22 weeks, and sold over 1 million copies! Quite a debut to say the least.

But “Little Esther” wasn’t done. In the same year, backed by the Johnny Otis Orchestra with Mel Walker assuming Bobby Nunn’s role, she followed “Double Crossing Blues” with 2 more # 1 hits: “Mistrustin’ Blues” and “Cupid’s Boogie”. And, with the same line-up, Esther had 4 more top ten hits before the year was out: “Misery” (placing at # 9), “Deceivin’ Blues” (# 4), “Wedding Boogie” (# 6), and “Faraway Christmas Blues” (# 6).

So, to sum up the year 1950, “Little Esther” Phillips – Esther took the name “Phillips” from the then popular Phillips 66 gas station banner – had 7 top ten hits with 3 of those hitting number 1! And Phillips was only 15 years old at the time!

But factors came into play that would dampen the promise of 1950. A predominant issue was Phillips’ long time drug addiction and dependency, (including time she spent in rehab), that caused her to miss opportunities when she wasn’t physically able to participate in either or both recording sessions and live performances. And when she was able to bring her considerable talent forward any prospective success was hampered by record companies that lacked a vison as to how to market her; (even during her stint at Atlantic Records that had a history of promoting female artists such as Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, and Aretha Franklin successfully). As well-regarded and talented as Phillips was, there was potential for so much more.

The road to Esther’s well known addiction to heroin was paved before she was 20 years old. It’s been rumoured that singer Mel Walker, (who himself died of an overdose), introduced her to heroin. But if it wasn’t Walker it probably would have been someone else because as Esther stated she started indulging “because it was there; it was available”.

Not to condone her behaviour but, rather, to offer some perspective, picture a teenager / young adult who only knew a life of constantly being on the road playing one nighters at dance halls, theatres, and tobacco warehouses across the country. She travelled and played with musicians a number of years her senior, and she had no friends or acquaintances her age to socialize with as a “normal” teenage life eluded her. She had a tutor on the road but it was next to impossible to read or study given the usual musicians’ tour bus mayhem. (Esther remembers receiving a “diploma”, a piece of paper presented to her that she long suspected was paid for). It’s not hard to visualize that young Esther turned to drugs because of the sameness, and the tedium of going from yet one nameless stop to another; hoping that the drugs would emotionally and psychologically transport her somewhere else.

All of the above accepted, Esther still enjoyed some highlights in her 35 year career that spanned some 20 albums and over 25 single releases.

After parting ways with Otis and Savoy at the end of 1950, Esther signed with Federal. But aside from the # 8 R&B charting ”Ring-A-Ding-Do” in 1952, there were no other comparatively noteworthy releases among the 30 some odd sides she cut for Federal. With her addiction raging she moved back to Houston to live with her father with the hope of laying low while recovering. Esther was out of the general public eye playing small clubs in the South between periodic stays at a Lexington Kentucky hospital in an attempt to kick her habit when Kenny Rogers caught her at a Houston club. Rogers got her signed to his brother’s Lenox label. (At Kenny’s urging, Leland Rogers actually started the label with thoughts of Phillips serving as the cornerstone).

It was 1962 and the 27 year old Esther Phillips, (no longer billed as “Little Esther”), was on the comeback trail with an immediate hit for her new label with the Country standard “Release Me” that went # 1 R&B and # 8 Pop. (The release no doubt benefitted from the urban Blacks’ renewed interest in Country music thanks to Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music released the same year). Phillips would record one album for Lenox in 1963 – of the same name – before Lenox went bankrupt that same year. But as that door closed another door opened for Esther – Jerry Wexler stepped in and bought out her contract as well as the masters, and signed her to the prestigious Atlantic label.

As previously stated, Atlantic didn’t quite know how to channel her evident talent. To their credit they alternately tried to capture her mastery of assorted styles, be it Blues, R&B, Pop, show tunes, or Jazz. And, as you would expect from the marriage of the Atlantic label and such a thoroughly professional and refined singer, there were some brilliant moments to be had and remembered. Case in point was her first single, a take on The Beatles “And I Love Him” that hit the Pop charts at # 58 and just missed making the R&B Top Ten in 1965. Paul McCartney and John Lennon were so taken with her version of the song that they brought her to the U.K. for an appearance on the popular BBC TV show Ready, Steady Go. Another single, Esther’s Percy Sledge answer song “When A Woman Loves A Man” would make it to # 20 in the R&B chart.

But the unquestioned highlight of her Atlantic career is two outstanding albums: Burnin’ / Live At Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper, L.A. and Confessin’ The Blues (a combination of studio and live recordings with the live performances again taken from Jett’s Pied Pepper). On both of these releases Phillips is in complete command delivering a set of varied Blues, Jazz, and Pop standards. Backed by a stellar big band, Phillips pushes herself forward on the strength of her rich textured voice. The effortless Jazz phrasing exhibited shouldn’t come as a surprise given that while she was singing R&B in her teens, it was also at that time that young Esther began to appreciate both Sara Vaughan and Charlie Parker. In fact, Esther was known to vocally mimic some of Parker’s solos note for note. Burnin’ caught the imagination of both old and new fans proving to be her bestselling album to date, placing # 7 on the R&B charts.  

Unfortunately, her drug addiction and dependency were a major barrier to capitalizing on any success that Phillips had to date. That is, her substance abuse, and subsequent stints in rehab,  caused her to both miss dates and cancel gigs because she was physically unable to perform. After more therapy, Esther finally seemed on the road to recovery, and in 1971 Creed Taylor signed her to his CTI / Kudu label. Taylor was known for his synthesis of Funk, Jazz, and Pop; a formula that worked perfectly for Phillips. In her words: “I had a lot of fun on that label because he (Taylor) allowed me to stretch out and say whatever I wanted to say”.

The 6 albums released on Kudu from 1972 through 1975 and the associated acclaim served as a resurgence and proved to be a high point in Esther’s career. Of special mention is her initial Kudu release in 1972, From A Whisper To A Scream, that has to rank as one of, if not the best, album in her career. Arranged and conducted by Pee Wee Ellis, (of James Brown fame), and backed by an early version of the Jazz/ Funk outfit Stuff including Bernard Purdie on drums and Hank Crawford on alto, Whisper may be Phillips finest hour. The opening number is a reading of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Home Is Where The Hatred Is”, that rings autobiographically and Phillips courageously makes her own. The chilling lyrics are delivered directly, with no histrionics, as unvarnished truth:

Home is where I live
Inside my white powder dreams
Home was once an empty vacuum
That’s filled now with my silent screams

Home is where the needle marks
Tryin’ to heal my broken heart

And it might not be such a bad idea
If I never, I never went home again

Whisper is a seamless set that includes Phillips’ definitive version of Allen Toussaint’s title cut; (listen a couple of times – no one else’s take can match Esther’s profound heartbreak). The most compelling evidence of the album’s excellence is the fact that when it was nominated for a 1973 Grammy Award, and losing out to Aretha Franklin’s Young Gifted And Black, the Queen Of Soul herself – in a rare moment of humility – turned around and presented the Grammy to Phillips. Aretha, in her presentation of the Award, said that Whisper was not only the best album in the category of “Best Rhythm & Blues Vocal Performance – Female”, but rated as the best album of the year period!

One other Kudu album merits a special mention because it proved to be the best selling album of Esther Phillips’ career. Backed by some of New York’s finest session musicians including Joe Beck, David Sanborn, and the Brecker Brothers, the album What A Diff’rence A Day Makes – her last on Kudu – made the Top Ten R&B and Top Twenty Pop. The album’s the title cut, a disco style re-working of her idol Dinah Washington’s song reached # 2 on the U.S. Dance Charts and even earned her a guest spot on the hugely popular nationally televised Saturday Night Live.

After her stint with CTI / Kudu, Phillips moved to Mercury for another four albums but couldn’t recapture the magic she discovered at CTI. Phillips’ health was failing, and although successfully recovering from her heroin addiction and dependency some years previous, the years of hard living and abuse were too much for her body to withstand. Esther Phillips passed as a result of kidney and liver failure on August 7, 1984 at the age of 48.

Esther Phillips was:

  • nominated for four Grammy Awards
  • nominated twice for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame
  • named Best R&B Vocalist 1974-75 by Rolling Stone Magazine
  • named Best Female Blues Vocalist 1974-75 by Ebony Magazine
  • named Best Female Jazz Artist 1976 by NATRA (National Association Of Radio & TV Announcers)

Esther Phillips proved to be adept at singing Blues, R&B, Soul, Jazz, Pop, and Disco. In her words: “I sing Jazz, Blues, and ballads….I’m just a singer. If I like a song it doesn’t matter to me where it comes from. I can do it my way”.

Sure enough!

While I was doing my time in corporate marketing, I had a Blues calendar on the wall in my office – not standard practice, at least not at the company I was working for. (It always made for a talking point when someone came into my office). The calendar featured a different artist each month and one particular month it was Esther Phillips complete with a shot from the Burnin’ album cover. I remember that when my co-workers would ask about her, my stock answer was something like: “That’s the great Esther Phillips who started her career at 14 years old and died at 48. What was so great about her is that she was the first female superstar in R&B, and the youngest to have a # 1 hit. And, she could do it all with conviction and authority: Blues, R&B, Jazz, Pop, and Country”.

I always thought that to be a pretty good thumbnail summary of Esther Phillips.


  1. Double Crossing Blues
  2. Mistrustin’ Blues
  3. Cupid’s Boogie
  4. Misery
  5. Deceivin’ Blues
  6. Wedding Boogie
  7. Faraway Blues
  8. Release Me
  9. And I Love Him
  10.  I Could Have Told You So
  11.  Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream
  12.  Confessin’ The Blues
  13.  Use Me
  14.  I’ve Never Found A Man
  15.  Home Is Where The Hatred Is
  16.  From A Whisper To A Scream
  17.  That’s All Right With Me
  18.  Till My Back Ain’t Got No Bone
  19.  Sweet Touch Of Love
  20.  Baby I’m For Real
  21.  Black-Eyed Blues
  22.  What A Diff’rence A Day Makes
  • Rico Ferrara, June 2021

JOHNNY ADAMS – The Tan Canary

I heard Johnny Adams for the first time in 1969 on one of my “go to” radio stations, CKLW, out of Windsor. The song was “Reconsider Me”. About a minute into the song Johnny slid up the scale effortlessly on the lyric “please”. Actually, he held onto “pu-lee-ee-ease” at the top end for about 5 seconds. It was a full blown melismatic Blues song achieved in just over 5 seconds. It sent the proverbial chills down my spine in that I’d never heard anything quite like it. It would be later that I learned that the unmatched falsetto was a Johnny Adams trademark.

Another Johnny Adams memory. Having decided to get into the music business in late 1997 I ordered a copy of the Living Blues Directory that included contact information for various artists. At the time, I was so taken with Adams after both continually playing his current CD at the time, One Foot In The Blues, and witnessing an outstanding cameo appearance at the recent Handy Awards, (backed by Bonnie Raitt’s band), that I decided to see if there was a contact number for him. My thought was to inquire about the possibility of Johnny playing a date in Toronto. Looking through the Directory, I found a number anticipating that I would be speaking with his agent. I dialed the number and a woman answered. I told her the purpose of my call and the woman’s response was that Johnny was resting and asked if she could help me, introducing herself as Judy, Johnny’s wife. It was Johnny Adams’ home number!

She seemed pleased that I called and relayed the info to Johnny. She then went on to explain that Johnny wasn’t feeling well but that he would get back to me when he was feeling better. Before hanging up Judy said that they were looking for a manager and asked if I would be interested in managing Johnny. I replied, that while I would welcome the opportunity, someone else might be better suited for the job. I left Judy my number, but when I read shortly after that Johnny was suffering from prostate cancer I didn’t have any expectations of hearing back. We never got to finish the conversation; Johnny Adams passed less than a year later.

Still another memory: I was working a show featuring the great singer / guitar player / songwriter Earl King in 1999 and I was transporting him from Buffalo to Toronto for the gig, and back to Buffalo after the show. We got into an easy conversation on the way back to Buffalo with me asking him a number of questions about New Orleans, New Orleans musicians, and general music stuff. When I mentioned Johnny Adams a big smile came across Earl’s face and he chuckled. He commented that Johnny was a gentleman, and indeed special. Earl said that the memory that came to mind was that when Johnny got into a hotel room, regardless of the outside temperature, before doing anything else, Johnny would to turn the AC on high. That, and the fact that Johnny chain smoked Kools, (menthol cigarettes).

Laton John Adams was born in New Orleans on January 5, 1932. The oldest of 10 children, Johnny was raised in a religious family and was singing Gospel for as long as he could remember, including doing so in the church choir. He left school at 15 to pursue a Gospel singing career, and sang with primarily 2 quartets: The Soul Revivers and Bessie Griffin & The Consulators.

Johnny continued singing Gospel for the next 10 years or so when songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie, who lived in the same apartment building as Adams, heard him singing “Precious Lord” and was taken with his voice. LaBostrie, a songwriter for Joe Ruffino (who owned the local record labels Ric and Ron), suggested to Adams that he should try singing some of her secular material; (according to a then reluctant Adams, LaBostrie worked on him for almost a year).

LaBostrie* had written a song “I Won’t Cry” and wanted Johnny to record it. It was 1959 and Johnny at 27 years of age, sensing that nothing was happening for him in the Gospel field, agreed to go over to the other side. (At that point in his life Johnny was trying to make ends meet working as a roofer by day and singing Spirituals at night). The single, the start of his association with Joe Ruffino, produced by the 18 year old Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), was a local hit that started Adams’ career in addition to beginning a lifelong working relationship and friendship with the Good Doctor.

(*LaBostrie, a songwriter of note, is recognized for having written, (read: “cleaned up”), Little Richard’s “Tutti Fruiti”, as well as Irma Thomas’ first record and hit “You Can Have My Husband {But Please Don’t Mess With My Man}”, and L’il Millet’s “Rich Woman”.)

While “I Won’t Cry” would prove to be a start, Johnny’s career wouldn’t get much traction. Johnny attributed that to three primary factors. Firstly, was Ruffino not having the business savvy to align himself with major distributors thus limiting the sales of any Ric or Ron recordings solely to the local market. Secondly, Johnny missing out on an opportunity that presented itself when Motown’s Berry Gordy showed interest in recording him. That is, until Ruffino thwarted that chance as well by not letting Adams out of his contract – that Adams, in later years, speculated was fraudulent – and threatening to sue Gordy. And lastly, the fact that Johnny wasn’t allowed to pick the material that he recorded implying that the selected songs either didn’t suit him and / or were not marketable product.

The year 1962 would mark Johnny’s first National R&B hit, “A Losing Battle”, written by Mac Rebennack and climbing to # 27 on Billboard’s R&B Chart. The Ric and Ron labels would also fold in 1962 after Joe Ruffino’s death thereby freeing Johnny for a re-start. But despite having developed a considerable local following, Johnny wasn’t well known outside of New Orleans thus restricting his ability to draw any interest from a prospective significant label. Accordingly, for the next 5 years, Johnny continued to record for primarily small New Orleans labels such as Gone and Watch in what would prove to be a prolonged dry spell.

Johnny would resurface in 1968 on Shelby Singleton’s SSS label out of Nashville hitting with a cover of the Country classic “Release Me” that made it to # 34 R&B and # 82 on the Pop charts. Staying in the Country Soul vein, (a style that Adams played a significant role in popularizing), Johnny followed that up with the aforementioned “Reconsider Me” that fared even better by making it to the R&B Top 10 (at # 8) and # 28 Pop in 1969. (Both “Release Me” and “Reconsider Me” can be found on the fine SSS album Heart & Soul). Unfortunately, Johnny wasn’t able to follow up the success of “Reconsider Me” because Singleton decided to abandon his pursuit of R&B hits to instead concentrate on his Country artists.

Now Johnny was back to cutting singles for obscure labels once again. But Adams took it in stride reasoning that even if the singles didn’t sell well they would at least provide him with some market presence and an appearance of being active in the business. That, in turn, would enhance his opportunities for live gigs. So, while still not making any significant headway with his recordings, Johnny, who was hugely popular as a local live act, decided to concentrate on that avenue saying “The money is in gigs, not in the records”. As such, from the early 70’s until the mid 80’s, Johnny cultivated a loyal following at a weekend residency at Dorothy’s Medallion Lounge backed by guitarist Walter “Wolfman” Washington’s Soul / Blues combo. (It should be noted that Adams did hit locally – 50,000 copies – with a re-make of Conway Twitty’s “After All The Good Is Gone”, on the Hep’ Me imprint, in 1978).

For the most part never venturing very far outside of the New Orleans area, Adams continued to cement his local standing. Always handling an assortment of styles with credibility and authority, Adams used his multi octave voice to great advantage. Known for his swooping vocal gymnastics and unparalleled falsetto, Adams also exhibited great timing on his delivery that put him in a league with “silk” singers like Charles Brown and Bobby Bland. Add in flawless enunciation – sometimes reminiscent of Johnny Hartman in that regard – and you had a vocalist that was truly unique, and, for lack of a better descriptor, truly special. Such precision with passion and elegance would move New Orleans DJ Tex Stevens to christen Adams, the “Tan Canary”; a moniker that would stay with Johnny till he took his last breath.

In 1983 Adams came to the attention of Scott Billington at Rounder Records who wanted to record an R&B album with Johnny and his Walter “Wolfman” Washington led working band. (The sessions would evolve into his first Rounder album From The Heart). To Billington’s credit, he was quick to recognize Adams’ versatility and his interest in a wide range of genres. Billington sought to capitalize on Adams’ mastery of Jazz, Blues, romantic ballads, Country, Pop, Soul and whatever hybrid of the various styles on the Rounder releases. From Adams’ side, all was positive as well as he said that “This is the first time I’ve had the freedom to choose what to sing, and how to sing it”. Further, in describing his satisfaction with Rounder, he claimed that previous record companies wanted to categorize him as a certain type / style of singer when he instead had the capability of “doing it all”. The progressive environment provided Johnny with a new found confidence in his abilities and a willingness to test the limits.

Starting in 1984 Johnny Adams would go on to record 9 eclectic and critically acclaimed releases for Rounder that would eclipse much of his previous work. Johnny would not only reap the benefits of the recordings themselves but by extension would broaden his appeal by touring both nationally and internationally.

It’s safe to say that every one of Johnny’s Rounder albums hits the mark, has something to offer, and is complementary to the one that came before. The build from album to album can be attributed to Billington and Adams continually becoming more familiar with each other and Adams’ growing confidence in both his capabilities and desire to stretch out. And, if – subconsciously or otherwise – the fifty something Adams was intent on making up for lost time, he certainly did that and then some.

The first two releases, From The Heart and After Dark are wide ranging affairs as the Adams / Billington combo are establishing their varied direction. “Heart” is the first of the Rounder albums to feature two of Adams’ favourite songwriters’ works; those of Doc Pomus and Percy Mayfield. After Dark contains a great rendition of John Hiatt’s “Lover’s Will”. (One of Hiatt’s best, being such a fine lyric, it makes me wish that I could hear Johnny reprise the song using Bonnie Raitt’s outstanding arrangement. I have no doubt he could match Raitt’s resignation and longing and more.)

Things start to coalesce on the following records with Johnny at the height of his powers. The comparatively high points are Room With A View Of The Blues, Walking On A Tightrope: The Songs Of Percy Mayfield, Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus: The Real Me, One Foot In The Blues, and Man Of My Word.

“Room” is the first album to feature the twin guitars of Walter “Wolfman” Washington and Duke Robillard on truly first rate songs. It’s the Blues but there’s a Jazz feel in the arrangements and Johnny’s phrasing. The Percy Mayfield entry “Not Trustworthy (A Lyin’ Woman)” is a shuffle that flat out swings as Johnny tells the tale:
“I remember when I met you
You said your name was Mary Jane…
But when I saw you in the line-up
The heat was calling you by another name” 
And keeping the fun going is the cool funk of Robillard and Rebennack’s offering “Body And Fender Man”:
“I’m your body and fender man
Let me fix your car
When it comes to bodies and fenders
I’m sure some kind of superstar”
Also, “The Hunt Is On” bears mentioning; another great Mayfield shuffle that features Adams’ mouth trombone, (simulated trombone soloing), on the ride out.

“Tightrope” features all the Percy Mayfield goodies including the title song, “Lost Mind”, and “Danger Zone”. (The only missing piece is “Please Send Me Someone To Love”).The love that Johnny had for Mayfield is evident as he caresses every lyric. With all due respect to Brother Ray, the album exemplifies that Johnny Adams is indeed the premier interpreter of Percy Mayfield’s material.

Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus is Johnny’s tribute to his “other” favourite songwriter, and it’s truly unfortunate that the legendary Pomus, one of the top writers in the R&B / Blues idiom, didn’t live to see this album completed. Johnny was one of Doc’s favourite singers because of the feeling that Johnny injected into every song like no other. As reflected on this release, at this juncture in his career, Pomus’ songwriting had taken a turn to one of more simplicity and emotional directness. Both of those qualities were held in high regard by Adams thus making this outing a heart shared meeting of the minds. Johnny has commented that his favourite cut on the album is “There Is Always One More Time” because he could relate directly to the message of hope contained in the song:
“If there’s a heart out there
Looking for someone to share
I don’t care if it’s been
Turned down time and time again
And if we meet one day
Please don’t walk away
‘Cause there is always one more time
There is always one more time”

One Foot In The Blues got its title from the album concept of having one foot in Blues and one foot in Jazz. This is a masterful organ trio album featuring the eccentric Dr. Lonnie Smith on Hammond B-3, (including covering the bass pedals), Jimmy Ponder on guitar, and Shannon Powell on drums. With Ed Petersen’s tenor forays and Johnny’s sublime vocals on selections from the respective Dann Penn, Buddy Johnson, and Percy Mayfield song books, the result is a combination that’s tough to beat.

Billington and Adams decided the next album A Man Of My Word would be an all stops out R&B / Soul album and planned to record it in Memphis. However, the logistics proved to be too strenuous for Adams who was suffering from prostate cancer. Instead they pivoted to recording the album at Ultrasonic Studio in New Orleans. Adams is backed by a star studded cast including two of Johnny’s former band leaders, Walter “Wolfman” Washington on guitar and David Torkanowsky on keys, renowned Memphis guitarist Michael Toles, and a rhythm section of ex Meters George Porter on bass and drummer Donnell Spencer Jr. who worked with Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan among others. The band is superlative as is the material. And given his physical condition it’s a true wonder that Johnny Adams’ considerable skills were intact as he commanded the room on a set of primarily outstanding covers including Bobby Bland’s “This Time I’m Gone For Good”, Little Willie John’s “Now You Know”, William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, and Percy Sledge’s “It Tears Me Up”. Toss in a handful of originals and a definitive reading of Bobby Charles’ “I Don’t Want To Know”, and all make for an emotional tour de force. The icing on the cake is a breath taking duet with Aaron Neville on the Gospel standard “Never Alone”.

Such was the last recording, a fitting musical epitaph for one of the truly great singers of our time.

As I was writing this article I thought it would be appropriate to reach out to Scott Billington, vice president of A&R for Rounder/Concord Records – who knew Johnny so well and was so instrumental in Johnny’s success at Rounder and beyond – for a comment that I could include in my essay. Scott graciously provided the following that serves as an eloquent summary of all of the above:

“Johnny Adams was one of the great vocalists of the last century– in any genre. His contemporaries like Irma Thomas or Aaron Neville would likely say the same thing. He had a gospel singer’s soul and a jazz musician’s ear, which enabled us to make each new album different from the one before. So, we went from R&B, to jazz, to blues and back again. Finding songs that matched his talent, and that had the right harmonic foundation to give him space to sing, was my challenge.  

Johnny was a pro in the studio, and he always came prepared, knowing the songs inside and out. Songwriters loved him because he stayed true to the melody and phrasing of a song as it was written– at least the first time through. He was also a master of improvisation, so the vamps of the songs were often his space to play. He loved being in an environment with musicians who could improvise along with him. After we had finished a track, he would often ask to overdub his vocal again… and again. It wasn’t because there was anything lacking in his performance, but because he enjoyed exploring where else he might take it”.


  1. I Won’t Cry
  2. A Losing Battle
  3. Release Me
  4. Reconsider Me
  5. Lover’s Will
  6. Not Trustworthy
  7. Body And Fender Man
  8. The Hunt Is On
  9. Walking On A Tightrope
  10.  Lost Mind
  11.  There Is Always One More Time
  12.  Good Morning Heartache
  13.  The Jealous Kind
  14.  One Foot In The Blues
  15.  Roadblock
  16.  It Ain’t The Same Thing
  17.  Going Out Of My Mind Sale
  18.  I Don’t Want To Know
  19.  Bulldog Break His Chain
  20.  Never Alone
  • Rico Ferrara, May 2021

BOBBY CHARLES – The King Of Swamp Rock

Dr. John: “I think of all of Bobby’s songs have something to offer at all times, for all people”

Delbert McClinton: “He’s Bobby Charles; there’s only one.”

Johnny Adams, Bonnie Bramlett, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Paul Butterfield, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, Jackie DeShannon, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Etta James, Dr. John, Tom Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Delbert McClinton, Shannon McNally, Wilson Pickett, Lou Rawls, UB40, Jerry Jeff Walker, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells… What do all of these artists have in common? They all have, at one time or another,  recorded at least one Bobby Charles song. As a matter of fact, after forming a bond with Charles, Shannon McNally devoted an entire album to his songs. (Incidentally, “See You Later Alligator” – Charles’ initial claim to fame; more on the song later – to date has been covered an incredible 62 times!)

Such is the skill of Bobby Charles as a songwriter. And his songwriting expertise is even more remarkable when you consider that Bobby couldn’t read or write music or even play an instrument. That is, other than his own voice which was a more than serviceable in conveying varied emotions, and was all too rarely used. But singing isn’t where his interests lied; and it goes without saying that Charles was more successful as a songwriter than as a singer.

Robert Charles Guidry was born about 150 miles west of New Orleans in the Cajun Country town of Abbeyville LA., (population 9,300), on February 21, 1938. Growing up in a French speaking household, Charles was bit by the music bug early, listening to mostly traditional Cajun music on the radio. As a young teen he discovered Country and R&B, and cited his early idols as Hank Williams and Fats Domino.

It was also around this time, at the age of 13, that Charles started singing with a local group, The Clippers, at the Mount Carmel High School dances in Abbeyville where Charles was a student. The Clippers played primarily Country and Cajun material as was the fashion around Abbeyville. Charles also started dabbling in songwriting during his tenure with The Clippers, including his first fully realized composition “See You Later Alligator” that he penned at 14 years of age.

The writing of “Later Alligator” would prove to be a watershed moment in Charles’ young career. Things started rolling when Fats Domino played a show in Abbeyville, and Charles was able to speak to him after the show, taking the opportunity to offer “Later Alligator” to him to record. When the song was turned down by Domino, (who said he didn’t want to “sing any song about alligators”), through the connections of a local record shop proprietor, Charles, in turn, auditioned the song in a phone call to Leonard Chess, founder of Chess Records. Suitably impressed, Chess suggested a name change to simply “Bobby Charles” and arranged for Charles to record the song, (with The Clippers backing him), at Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans. Although the single was a hit locally, it didn’t fare well nationally – making just a token appearance at #14 on the R&B charts for one week.

All was not lost, however, because a major artist in the burgeoning genre of Rock & Roll, Bill Haley & The Comets, (who’s 1956 single  “Rock Around the Clock” would become, for a time, the biggest selling rock and roll single in the history of Rock & Roll), recorded the song and made it an International hit. (Not to mention the expression “see you later alligator” finding its’ way into the hipster lexicon of the day). “Later Alligator” would prove to be the start of a prosperous songwriting career for Charles.

Although “Later Alligator” had established Charles as a Chess recording artist, Leonard Chess didn’t meet Charles in person until 3 months after the release of the song. When introduced to Charles at the Chess offices in Chicago, Chess was, to say the least, surprised to find that Charles was white. He was especially confounded given that he had already set up a tour of mostly Black venues; including Charles along with Chuck Berry and other Chess artists. (Once audiences got over the initial shock of Charles being white he was well received).

Bobby, (the only white artist on the Chess label), would go on to record more singles, and be included in more package tours for Chess. After leaving Chess, Charles cut more singles on other labels like Imperial, Jewel, and Paula without much success. At the same time Charles admitted that he didn’t enjoy the touring required to support the singles and that he wasn’t enamoured with being a singer / frontman. Instead, Charles was more comfortable in the studio and writing songs. Coincidentally, his reputation as a songwriter was growing. Among other songs recorded by various artists, he wrote “Walkin’ To New Orleans” for Fats Domino and “(I Don’t Know Why I Love You) But I Do” for Clarence “Frogman” Henry. Those two songs provided a much needed jolt to his songwriting career, and put Charles on course as a pioneer of a musical genre known as “Swamp Rock”.

While Charles had success as a songwriter, he was growing increasingly disenchanted with the music business, and he drifted away while keeping a low profile working menial jobs in Texas and various parts of the Southwest. He did settle in Nashville for a short time, writing songs for John R at WLAC, but after being busted for pot possession he decided it was best to leave town and look for new horizons.

The story goes that, with no definite destination in mind, he came across Woodstock on a map and decided to make his way there. (Surprisingly, he apparently had never even heard of the famed Woodstock Festival). Once there he quickly acclimated to the laid back lifestyle and just as quickly made friends with some of the local musicians including members of The Band and Paul Butterfield’s Better Days. And in keeping with his low profile mindset, when questioned by one of the Woodstock musicians if he was that Bobby Charles of “See You Later Alligator” fame, Charles’ response was “don’t tell anybody”

But word got around and Charles eventually came to the attention of Albert Grossman, (the high powered manager of Bob Dylan, The Band, Paul Butterfield etc.), who signed him to his Bearsville label, and made the recording of his, (self-titled), first album possible. Backed by a star studded supporting cast including Amos Garrett, Dr. John, David Sanborn, and members of The Band among others; Charles cut more of a cult favourite than a commercially successful release. Co-produced by John Simon, (The Band’s producer), and Rick Danko of The Band, “Bobby Charles” is a swampy boozy mix of R&B, good time Rock & Roll, and Country that would fit well in a roots rocker’s or singer songwriter’s catalogue. Although the album didn’t sell well, it was well received by critics and contained 2 entries that came to be known as “Woodstock Songs”, continually performed by local musicians: “Small town Talk” and “He’s Got All The Whiskey”.

During Charles’ time in Woodstock, among other ventures, he became an unofficial member of Paul Butterfield’s Better Days, (as well as Butter’s running buddy), contributing songs and guesting on the band’s two studio releases. He made his presence felt on the second release writing the title track “It All Comes Back” in addition to 2 co-writes with Butter, and sharing vocals with him on one of them “Take Your Pleasure Where You Find It”. It’s also worthwhile noting that Charles wrote arguably the best song, (“Here I Go Again”), on Butterfield’s otherwise lacklustre solo album “Put It In Your Ear”.

Charles did make a couple of subsequent recordings while in Woodstock, although neither was released. The first was recorded with R&B / Soul songwriting legend Spooner Oldham while the second was a live effort with Charles backed by Butterfield and the NYC funk collective Stuff.

Charles’ stay in Woodstock wasn’t a long one as he became increasingly uncomfortable and decided to move back to Abbeyville. He did some sporadic recordings that found their way on various releases but for the most part Charles was content to be at home and live off his songwriting royalties. One of those recordings was “Down South In New Orleans” performed at The Band’s Last Waltz concert and captured on the soundtrack. (In keeping with his low profile mentality, in typical Bobby Charles fashion, he refused to be in the accompanying movie).

Bobby Charles resurfaced as a recording artist briefly in the 90’s, signing with Holger Petersen and Stony Plain Records, and releasing 2 CD’s. That was followed by 2 more on the Rice N’Gravy imprint. All four albums plus a number of subsequent compilations show that Charles’ songwriting skills remained intact, as he continued to entice various artists to cover his songs.

Despite his nature – that could be interpreted as passive – Bobby Charles was serious about his songwriting. Calling songs “the seeds of the music business”, Charles explained that he didn’t try to sit down and write a song but rather that songs are an inspiration that come from the heart. He went on to say that once inspired, he would usually finish a song in under a half an hour as “it’s like a release” that had to come out. (For instance, Charles wrote “Walkin’ To New Orleans” in 20 minutes).

Interestingly, to capture the creative moment – taking into account that Charles didn’t play an instrument – Charles would often sing the song onto his phone’s answering machine. From there he would “transmit” the song to the studio musicians, and, as was his custom, record the song in one take while it was “fresh”. (When recording the “Bobby Charles” album, Charles remembered laying down 5 or 6 of the 10 tracks in one session – all of them one take).

Bobby Charles, the “King Of Swamp Rock”, has taken on legendary status based on the simplicity, humour, and empathy displayed in his brand of Louisiana Rock & Roll and R&B. There’s no doubt that the world lost a real treasure with his passing on January 10, 2010 at the age of 71.

It’s only fitting that Bobby Charles was honoured by being inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame in 2007.


  1. See You Later Alligator – Bobby Charles
  2. Walking To New Orleans – Fats Domino
  3. Street People – Bobby Charles
  4. Long Face – Bobby Charles
  5. Save Me Jesus – Bobby Charles
  6. Grow Too Old – Bobby Charles
  7. He’s Got All the Whiskey – Bobby Charles
  8. Small Town Talk – Paul Butterfield’s Better Days
  9. Tennessee Blues – Shannon McNally
  10.  Down South In New Orleans – Bobby Charles w / The Band
  11.  Take Your Pleasure Where You Find It – Paul Butterfield’s Better Days feat. Bobby Charles
  12.  Why Are People Like That – Muddy Waters
  13.  Jealous Kind – Etta James
  14.  Here I Go Again – Paul Butterfield
  15.  I Don’t Want to Know – Johnny Adams
  • RICO FERRARA, May 2021


Luke Winslow-King is fluent in “the language of music”.

Apart from being an outstanding guitar player – he started playing at the age of 10 – as well as a multi-instrumentalist, Winslow-King can boast having an impressive academic music background as well. Born in Cadillac Michigan, he attended the Michigan based Interlochan Arts Academy where he specialized in Jazz guitar and Bebop. LWK also studied music theory and music composition at The University of New Orleans that led to earning a scholarship to study Czech music at St. Charles University in Prague.

As diverse and interesting as LWK’s academia is, so too are his life experiences to date. It was in 2002, then 19 years old, that Luke, while part of a cross country tour of a show comprised of Woody Guthrie songs – “From California To The New York Islands” – made a stop in New Orleans and fate stepped in. While In New Orleans it happened that the troupe’s van was burglarized resulting in everyone losing their instruments. Stranded, LWK decided to stay in New Orleans, and, for all intents and purposes, remained there till 2017, at which time he relocated back to Cadillac Michigan.

LWK, who initially spent his time busking and playing various club dates both as a solo performer and backing local Soul singer John Boutte′, did move to New York for two years after Katrina; (he returned in 2007). While there, the resourceful LWK took up residence in Harlem, and used his time effectively both working as a music therapist by teaching music at The Lavelle School For The Blind in the Bronx, and writing scores for plays and movie productions. (There’s no record of any commercial success of his musical scores).

Once “back home” in New Orleans, LWK started his recording career while once again busking and playing clubs around town, and continuing to immerse himself in the local music scene. It’s safe to say that he arrived in town as primarily a Blues / Folk performer and evolved into a musician adept at blending Delta Blues, Folk, Ragtime, Americana, and primitive Rock & Roll. And all has been done with an eye to shining a light on his adopted home’s musical heritage.

LWK has released 6 albums to date, (with a rumoured 7th in the works, “If Walls Could Talk”). All reap the benefits of his well-learned, fully formed expertise in playing a number of genres. In saying that, he has honed his skills playing vintage music forms so well that there’s a possible misconception of categorizing LWK as merely an archivist / revivalist. But anyone really listening will realize very quickly that there’s enough originality in the songs that such a notion doesn’t get any real traction.

Sitting atop his playing and arrangements are LWK’s convincing vocals. Given the material, although not as rough-hewn as might be generally expected, those vocals are expressive and certainly generate the heat as required at any given time. (And when those vocals are complemented by – now ex – wife Esther Rose’s backing and harmonies, a new dimension is added; that of a divergent Appalachian feel).

All of LWK’s releases are critically acclaimed but the last 4 – all on Chicago’s independent Bloodshot Records – with LWK hitting his stride, are a cut above the rest. “The Coming Tide”, “Everlasting Arms”, “I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always”, and “Blue Mesa” all feature fine songwriting and outstanding performances, including the slide guitar work of recording partner and sometime band mate Roberto Luti of the Playing For Change Band. (LWK met Luti – who’s originally from Livorno Italy – when Luti was playing on a street corner in New Orleans). Although LWK is a formidable slide player in his own right, on recordings he gives equal time to Luti. LWK attributes Luti with teaching him to “spend my time trying to find passion out of fewer notes”. 

Following are some highlights that can be found on the aforementioned albums, and stand as proof positive that LWK’s music is always evolving:

  • “The Coming Tide” – the title song of the 2013 release, a sparse arrangement of a rural Blues number written by LWK
  • “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning” – from “The Coming Tide”; a tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell who LWK credits with an “incredible rhythmic style that is so rough and rustic… makes you want to jump”.
  • “Everlasting Arms” – the title cut that could be easily mistaken for a traditional, hopeful “lend a helping hand” spiritual but was actually written by LWK. (You may be familiar with this song from its’ inclusion in an excerpt of “Playing For Change” on youtube)
  • “Swing That Thing” – from “Everlasting Arms”; backboned by a sweaty Bo Diddley like riff that never lets up. Written by LWK.
  • “Domino Sugar” – from “Everlasting Arms”; an overtly commercial Blues co-written by LWK and Luti, and featuring their twin slide guitars
  • “Home Blues” – from “Everlasting Arms”; a classic New Orleans Ragtime style Blues written by LWK. It would fit snugly between a couple of Leon Redbone cuts
  • “I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always” – the title cut written by LWK; an echoey “down in the bottom” Blues. Once again powered by LWK and Luti twin slides
  • “Louisiana Blues” from “I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Always Last” – heavily influenced by Howlin Wolf; written by LWK
  • “Born To Roam” – from “Blue Mesa”; an all-out rocker written by LWK
  • “Chicken Dinner” – from “Blue Mesa”; written with Lissa Driscoll; it showcases counterpoint guitars, courtesy of LWK and Luti, against an infectious Rhumba / New Orleans backbeat

And that’s just a sampling of some of the great music found throughout. (It should be noted that the album “I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always” consists of a collection of songs written after, and due to, the break-up of LWK’s marriage to percussionist and vocalist Esther Rose. It triumphs in the presentation of first-rate songs that have the desired effect without sounding self-pitying or maudlin).

Although still awaiting National acclaim – LWK currently enjoys a following in Europe – he has been celebrated in his sometime home of New Orleans. He’s been nominated 9 times for various OffBeat Magazine Awards including “Best Emerging Artist”, “Best Singer / Songwriter”, “Favourite Blues Album” for “Everlasting Arms”, and for “Favourite Blues Album” for “I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always”.

LWK’s 15 years in New Orleans served him well; as he refined his craft while the experience aided in his development of a highly personal, distinctive sound. What LWK offers up is honest, unaffected, no-nonsense, organic music – free of contrived histrionics delivered through a filter of Country Blues, Trad Jazz, Gospel, Ragtime, Folk, and good old Rock & Roll. For most people that’s more than enough.


  1. The Coming Tide
  2. Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning
  3. Ella Speed
  4. Everlasting Arms
  5. Swing That Thing
  6. Domino Sugar
  7. Home Blues
  8. I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always
  9. Louisiana Blues
  10.  No More Crying Today
  11.  You Got Mine
  12.  Leghorn Women
  13.  Blue Mesa
  14.  Born To Roam
  15.  Chicken Dinner