2014 Blues Hall of Fame Inductees
R.L. Burnside was a champion of Mississippi hill country blues who was able to energize rock audiences just as he did local juke joint revelers. He achieved crossover success by attracting a cult following among young college-age crowds with his infectious rhythms and good humor, and by agreeing with his producers at Fat Possum Records to collaborate with indie rock musicians and to submit his blues to sampling, scratching and digital programming. Although his 1990s studio product caused some reviewers and listeners to define his sound as progressive blues, Burnside himself was a traditional bluesman who never changed the way he played, and entertained live audiences as he always had.
Burnside was born in the Harmantown community near Oxford, Mississippi — where he would later become an Ole Miss favorite and Fat Possum artist — on November 23, 1926. He sometimes said his initials stood for Robert Lee, but he was also called “Rule,” and Social Security records cite his name as Rural or Rural L. Burnside. His musical inspiration came from his neighbor, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Ranie Burnette, and he entertained at house parties, juke joints and local gatherings in the Holly Springs area while working in the cotton fields and catching and selling fish. Burnside also lived for a few years in Chicago where he grew close to another influence, Muddy Waters. His first recordings, made in 1968 by folklorist George Mitchell, appeared on Arhoolie Records and, as his reputation grew, he made many more records and began traveling to appear at blues festivals and clubs, in the U.S. and overseas. He usually performed alone with his guitar but, as patriarch of a growing brood of musicians, he began playing with his sons and other family members, and the addition of hard-driving drumming to the rhythm of his guitar grooves gave his music an electric edge that bode well for expanding his audiences.
Six of Burnside’s later albums, some of them done with Jon Spencer or Tom Rothrock, made the Billboard blues charts. With this success, a spate of Burnside albums appeared on various labels, the result of tapes Burnside had happily agreed to make during earlier years for any fan who showed up with a tape machine. He died at St. Francis Hospital in Memphis on September 1, 2005. The family blues legacy has been carried on by sons Duwayne, Garry and Daniel, grandsons Cedric and Kent, and several other Burnsides.
Big Jay McNeely became the act no one wanted to follow during the “honkers and shouters” era of rhythm & blues that preceded rock ‘n’ roll, when the gunslingers of the trade wielded saxophones, not electric guitars. McNeely, “The Wild Man of the Saxophone,” launched sonic assaults while lying on his back, walking the bar or leading a procession out the door, driving his young audiences into a frenzy. While less acrobatic now that he’s in his eighties, McNeely has still maintained his instrumental prowess and his talent for exciting a crowd.
Born on April 29, 1927, in Watts, when the neighborhood had yet to be incorporated into the city of Los Angeles, Cecil James McNeely played jazz and classical music in high school. He graduated into the rocking world of R&B at the Barrelhouse, a club co-owned by Johnny Otis, who hired McNeely to play on a recording session in 1948. Savoy Records’ A&R man Ralph Bass signed McNeely to a contract and label owner Herman Lubinsky gave him the name “Big Jay.” His Savoy instrumental Deacon’s Hop hit No. 1 on Billboard‘s “race music” charts in 1949. McNeely continued to record for other labels, including Exclusive, Aladdin and Federal, but it was as a live act, both locally and on tour, that he had his greatest impact. The Los Angeles Sentinel reported in 1955 that the “inimitable brand of excitement imparted by his music was recently studied by a psychiatric board engaged in youth activities.” Varying and expanding his show, he added doo-wop groups to the revue and performed with glow-in-the-dark instruments and strobe lights. His over-the-top showmanship reportedly influenced a youngster who saw McNeely’s show in Seattle named James (later Jimi) Hendrix.
As musical trends changed, McNeely recruited a singer, Little Sonny Warner, for his band, and together they recorded his best-remembered song, the blues ballad There is Something on Your Mind, a 1959 hit which bore no trace of McNeely’s raucous honking. Within a few years, though, finding fewer outlets for his music, he took a job at the post office and continued the Jehovah’s Witness ministry he had adopted in his youth. In the 1980s a revival of interest in vintage R&B led to his return to the stage, as he excited a new generation of audiences around the world. McNeely was profiled in the 1995 Jim Dawson book Nervous Man Nervous: Big Jay McNeely & the Rise of the Honking Tenor Saxophone.
Eddie Shaw continues to build upon his unparalleled career as a Chicago blues saxophonist/bandleader in a city where guitar, harmonica and piano players have long ruled the roost. A multiple Blues Music Award winner and perpetual nominee in the Instrumentalist–Horn category, Shaw has blown his industrial-strength sax with the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Magic Sam. And with his Wolf Gang he has racked up the most road mileage of all Chicago bands over the past four decades, crisscrossing the country from Maine, where his upbeat, high-energy blues is a particular favorite, to countless points south and west.
Shaw, born March 20, 1937, in Stringtown, Mississippi, learned saxophone at school in nearby Greenville, Mississippi, the hub of blues activity in the Delta. He continued at Mississippi Vocational College (now Mississippi Valley State University) in Itta Bena, meanwhile working or sitting in with Little Milton, Ike Turner, Charlie Booker, Elmore James and others, including Muddy Waters when he brought his band down from Chicago. Muddy was so impressed that he offered Shaw a spot in the band, and before long the sax phenom was a Windy City resident. His most significant work in establishing himself in Chicago, both in the clubs and in the studio, came with Magic Sam and Howlin’ Wolf. Shaw also ran a laundry business, an air conditioning service and blues clubs on the West Side. After Wolf died in 1976, Shaw took over the band, with Hubert Sumlin on guitar, and initiated a tireless touring itinerary. His son Eddie “Vaan” Shaw, Jr., soon assumed guitar duties and, along with bassist Shorty Gilbert, has now been with the Wolf Gang for more than 30 years. Shaw has recorded for Alligator, Rooster Blues, Delmark, Wolf, North Atlantic and other labels, and has found time in the studio to do sessions with Jimmy Dawkins, Willie Kent, Lonnie Shields, John Primer, Sunnyland Slim, George Thorogood, Big Head Todd and a growing list of others. His son Stan Shaw is a veteran Hollywood actor, and father Eddie made his own big screen debut in the 2007 film Honeydripper.
Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson was an acclaimed alto saxist who fit in comfortably in a variety of blues, jazz and R&B settings. A contemporary and admirer of Charlie Parker, he contributed to the first wave of bebop, but achieved his greatest popularity with his unique singing voice, which combined full-bodied blues shouting with a quirky, broken squeal. Vinson, born in Houston on December 18, 1917, played locally with the bands of Chester Boone and Milt Larkin before he was recruited to join trumpeter Cootie Williams’ orchestra in New York in 1942. Three of the records he made singing with Williams (Cherry Red Blues, Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t and Somebody’s Got to Go) made the Top Ten of Billboard magazine’s Harlem Hit Parade charts in 1944-45 and he won Esquire magazine’s jazz poll in the “New Stars” vocalist category. Leaving Williams to front his own band, Vinson scored more Billboard hits with the 1947 Mercury double-sider Old Maid Boogie/Kidney Stew Blues and his 1948 waxing of Somebody Done Stole My Cherry Red on King. Other favorites included his original version of the standard Person to Person, his cover of Big Bill Broonzy’s Just a Dream, and a number of tunes, such as Cleanhead Blues, touting his trademark baldness. (He shaved his head to maintain the look after first losing his hair to a lye-based hair straightener treatment gone awry.)
Vinson’s later recordings retained his characteristic warmth and humor and included albums with backing by Cannonball Adderley, Jay McShann, Mike Bloomfield and Roomful of Blues, collaborations with Count Basie, Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker and Oscar Peterson, and vocal and instrumental spots on sessions with Johnny Otis and others. He played alongside many other top names in blues and jazz at different points during his long career, from accompanying Big Bill and Lil Green to hiring a young John Coltrane as a sideman. Following his years in New York, Vinson returned to Houston and spent time in Detroit and Kansas City before settling in Los Angeles to enjoy a career revival during his last two decades, recording prolifically and making several European tours. “Mr. Cleanhead” died in Los Angeles on July 2, 1988.
Robert Pete Williams made his first recordings in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in 1959 while serving time for murder. Folklorist Dr. Harry Oster was in search of work songs but found instead one of the most original blues artists ever in Williams, who wailed and played guitar with ominous passion and intensity in a visceral style outside the bounds of traditional musical structure, rhyme and meter. Oster’s co-worker Richard Allen noted, “He did unorthodox things. He’d be in three modes at once.” Williams often made up lyrics and improvised accompaniments (picked rather than chorded) as he played, and his subject matter could be stark and disturbing. In one of his best known songs, Grown So Ugly, he looks in the mirror and moans, “I got so ugly I don’t even know myself.” The spontaneous nature of his music made it all but inimitable and it was fitting that one of the few musicians to cover Grown So Ugly was an equally unconventional rock icon, Captain Beefheart.
Robert Williams, who added the nickname Pete as a teenager, was born in Zachary, Louisiana, near Baton Rouge, on March 14, 1914. He played music at local gatherings but made his living by farming and working at a dairy, a lumber yard and other odd jobs until he shot a man, in self-defense, he claimed, in a barroom altercation. He entered Angola in 1956 and earned a work parole in 1959 with the support of Oster and others (in a scenario reminiscent of Lead Belly. After songs from his prison sessions appeared on the Louisiana Folklore Society label, the burgeoning folk-blues revival was ready to welcome Williams. His photo appeared in the national press along with news of an invitation to appear at the 1960 Newport Folk Festival. But the parole board refused him permission to travel, and he continued to work on a local farm until his time was served. His long-anticipated Newport debut in 1964 was recorded by Vanguard, and during the 1960s and ’70s he saw albums released on Folk Lyric, Arhoolie, Bluesville, Takoma and several European labels. He performed widely at folk and blues clubs and various festivals, endearing himself in the process to an international audience who found him anything but murderous. His music made him famous among a select segment of the blues world but not prosperous at home; his jobs during his years of freedom included collecting and selling scrap iron. Williams died on December 31, 1980, in Rosedale, Louisiana.
Individuals (Business, Academic, Media & Production)
Mike Kappus has been the kind of manager and booking agent any musician would want, and the blues world is filled with musicians who wish they could have been represented by his Rosebud Agency. The example he set guiding careers, booking jobs, finding record deals and championing artists’ rights with dedication and drive made him one of the most respected men in the business. To do his most effective work, however, Kappus kept his roster select and small, and in so doing, he was able to elevate the careers of John Lee Hooker, Robert Cray and others to new heights. Hooker, who served as best man at Kappus’ wedding, once said, “Mr. Kappus has done more for me than any agent I ever had . . . He is a very strong young man. He don’t back down.”
Kappus got his start booking bands in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where he was born in May 24, 1950. He later worked for two Milwaukee agencies, TGC Productions, and Contemporary Talent, and brought a number of blues acts to town, including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon and Freddie King, in addition to booking a blues stage at Milwaukee’s Summerfest. He relocated to San Francisco to join the Keystone Music Agency and in 1976 he founded Rosebud. Kappus’ personal management clients have included Hooker, Cray, John Hammond, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, J.J. Cale and Trombone Shorty. As a booking agency, Rosebud also represented Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, George Thorogood, Allen Toussaint, Albert Collins, Pops and Mavis Staples, Ben Harper, Ruthie Foster and others. At the end of 2013 Kappus, a recipient of multiple Keeping the Blues Alive awards, closed the booking business of Rosebud but he continues his management work, as well as his service to nonprofit groups. Kappus has aided environmental, educational, human rights and cross-cultural organizations with his volunteer work. He originated the idea for and initially funded The Blues Foundation’s HART Fund which since 2003 has paid medical and funeral expenses for blues musicians in need.
Don Robey built one of the most formidable entertainment empires in the independent music business with his Duke and Peacock labels, Buffalo Booking Agency, Lion Music publishing company, nightclubs, and other associated activities. His hardnosed business tactics made him a controversial figure, but many of his artists, including his first Peacock signee, Gatemouth Brown, and longtime Duke star Bobby Bland, who recorded for Duke for 20 years, spoke of him with admiration and respect.
Robey was born in Houston on November 1, 1903, to a white mother and black father, a professional chef. Robey, who lived with his mother on a cotton farm as a teenager, dropped out of high school to pursue a gambling career. He chauffeured and labored on the docks in Galveston before he worked at or owned a series of restaurants and nightclubs in Houston in the 1930s, including the Sweet Dreams Cafe, Lenox Club and Harlem Grill, a large dance hall where he and partner Morris Merritt brought in top-flight big band entertainment. Robey and Merritt were longtime associates in promotion and management and were later joined by Evelyn Johnson in the Buffalo Booking Agency. Robey learned more of the business during a stay in Los Angeles, and back in Houston he opened the upscale Bronze Peacock Dinner Club, another major performance venue. In 1949 Robey launched Peacock Records and later acquired Duke and added the Back Beat, Sure Shot and Song Bird labels. At one point his company was regarded as the most successful black-owned record business in America, with multiple hits by Big Mama Thornton, Bobby Bland, Junior Parker, Johnny Ace, O.V. Wright, and a sterling roster of gospel acts including the Dixie Hummingbirds, Five Blind Boys and Sensational Nightingales. The labels’ performers were signed to booking and management contracts as well, as was B.B. King. Under the pseudonym Deadric (his middle name) Malone (his wife’s maiden name), Robey published many songs he wrote or bought outright from songwriters. Robey’s operations at times also included a record store, pressing plant and print shop. Robey sold his firm to ABC in 1973 and stayed on as a consultant, but his new position did not last long. He died of heart failure at St. Luke’s Hospital in Houston on June 16, 1975.
Dick Shurman is widely recognized in the blues community not only for the quality and care evident in his record productions and writings but also for his love for the music and the artists who sing and play it. His producing credits include albums by Albert Collins, Johnny Winter, Magic Slim, Charlie Musselwhite, Earl Hooker, Fenton Robinson, Roy Buchanan, Eddie C. Campbell and Lurrie Bell, and his bibliography includes articles for Blues Unlimited, Living Blues and Juke Blues, book chapters, and over 100 album liner notes. He has compiled numerous reissues and put in decades of service with the Chicago Blues Festival advisory committee. What makes his accomplishments even more remarkable is that he has compiled this Hall of Fame-quality blues resume while holding down non-music-related full-time jobs in a library system.
Shurman was born May 23, 1950, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and lived in Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin, before Boeing offered his father a job in Seattle. Inspired by blues he discovered on the radio, on records and with friends in Seattle, Shurman headed straight for blues mecca when he enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1968. He began befriending blues artists, submitting articles to Blues Unlimited, and making tapes in the clubs (including some by Earl Hooker that were released on LP), but found himself so drawn to the clubs that he decided it would interfere with his studies. He returned to Seattle to earn his degrees, including a master’s in library science from the University of Washington. With the degree he was able to return to the Chicago area and start work at a suburban library, enabling him to earn a living without depending on income from the blues.
A former contributing editor with Living Blues, Shurman interviewed a number of artists he would later produce in the studio, including Albert Collins, Otis Rush, Jody Williams, Johnny Heartsman, Andrew Brown and Lee Shot Williams. His rapport with the musicians extended beyond the studios and clubs as he developed lasting personal friendships, just as he did with a worldwide network of blues aficionados. He continues to produce and write with insight and to display his well-known talents as a punster and as a font of blues anecdotes, printable and otherwise.
Classic of Blues Literature
Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown and Company, 2005)
Dream Boogie is the fourth book by Peter Guralnick, America’s premier music biographer, to attain Blues Hall of Fame status. In this meticulously researched and detailed 750-page opus, Guralnick delves into the mind, music and soul of Sam Cooke and follows his trail, stop by stop, from his gospel days to his crossover to R&B and pop stardom to his tragic and controversial demise in a Los Angeles motel. Cooke’s talent extended to the blues and he especially admired Charles Brown, as Guralnick notes; Cooke even invited Brown to play piano on one of his sessions. The changing social landscape that soul, gospel and blues singers traversed in the 1960s is one of many fascinating themes in the book, along with the complex nature of Cooke’s personality. A champion of independence, freedom and equality, Cooke also had his demons, foibles, and a ruthless business side. Guralnick lays bare the details as no one has done before or since.
Classic of Blues Recording: Single or Album Track
After Hours – Erskine Hawkins and His Orchestra (Bluebird, 1940)
As a counterpoint to the boogie woogie piano craze of the era, trumpeter-bandleader Erskine Hawkins turned pianist Avery Parrish loose to wax a slow, atmospheric instrumental blues on a June 10, 1940, session in New York. Hawkins and his horn men come in only at the end of the song, leaving it a showcase for Parrish’s moody pianistics. The lastingly popular (and often rereleased) After Hours (first issued as Bluebird B-10879) earned the unofficial title of the “Negro national anthem” and was a tune every club or lounge pianist needed to know, regardless of their race or preferred musical genre. It also served as a theme for several radio programs. The record brought national fame to Parrish, a member of Hawkins’ band dating back to its ‘Bama State Collegians origins in Birmingham, but in 1943 he was hit over the head with a bar stool and was never able to perform again.
Catfish Blues – Robert Petway (Bluebird, 1941)
Delta blues guitarist Robert Petway helped establish an enduring downhome blues theme with his March 28, 1941, recording of Catfish Blues in Chicago (Bluebird B8838). Many other bluesmen have since sung their own renditions of Petway’s line, “Well, if was a catfish, mama, I said swimmin’ deep down in deep blue sea, all these gals now, sweet mama, settin’ out hooks for me, settin’ out hooks for me . . .” Petway’s friend Tommy McClennan recorded a similar Deep Blue Sea Blues later in 1941, and Muddy Waters most famously reworked the catfish verse as the opening line of his smoldering classic Rollin’ Stone in 1950. Kokomo Arnold had earlier (1935) sung, “I’d rather be a catfish down in the Gulf of Mexico.” None of the other versions, however, were carried by such a propulsive rhythmic drive as Petway provided on this flailing guitar workout.
High Water Everywhere, Parts I & II – Charley Patton (Paramount, 1930)
Often regarded as Delta blues king Charley Patton’s masterpiece, the two-part High Water Everywhere is a dramatic account of the flooding that inundated parts of the Mississippi Delta and Arkansas in 1927 (and perhaps later). Patton sings of the devastation and death and works over his guitar with a force that builds as the song progresses, bringing an immediacy to an event that occurred some two and a half years before the session. Perhaps one reason, as Patton scholar Dr. David Evans has suggested, is that Part II, in which the scene shifts from Mississippi to Arkansas, may have been inspired by flood waters that threatened Arkansas again in January 1930. The date for this session is usually reported as circa October 1929 but Paramount discographers now believe it was early February 1930. The record was released as Paramount 12909 in April of 1930.
It’s Tight Like That – Tampa Red & Georgia Tom (Vocalion, 1928)
Guitarist Tampa Red and pianist Georgia Tom joined together in a playful vocal duet to rework of a hot street slang phrase of the 1920s into a genre-crossing national hit. It’s Tight Like That, a prime example of the good-time music known as hokum, was cut in Chicago on October 24, 1928 (Vocalion 1216), and was widely recorded by blues, jazz and country artists, including several sequels by Tampa Red (Hudson Whittaker) and Georgia Tom (Thomas A. Dorsey, who was later to be hailed as “the father of gospel music”).
Milk Cow Blues – Kokomo Arnold (Decca, 1934)
Milk Cow Blues (Decca 7026), a solo performance by slide guitarist James “Kokomo” Arnold, was one of the biggest blues hits to come out of Chicago in the 1930s. Decca kept it in print with a popular reissue in 1946 and in the meantime it was adapted not only by other bluesmen, but by Western swing bands, including Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys and Johnnie Lee Wills. Elvis Presley recorded a Wills-influenced version on Sun in 1954 and it has been covered many times since by artists ranging from Willie Nelson to Aerosmith. Arnold’s song, recorded on September 10, 1934, is not the same as earlier Milk Cow Blues by Sleepy John Estes and Freddie Spruell, and is recognizable both for its “If you see my milk cow, please drive her home” lyrics and Arnold’s influential phrasing of “You gonna need my help some day.” Robert Johnson answered it in 1937 with Milkcow Calf’s Blues, the last song he ever recorded.
Classic of Blues Recording: Album
Hawk Squat! – J.B. Hutto (Delmark, 1969)
In his liner notes to Hawk Squat! (Delmark DS-617), producer Bob Koester called J.B. Hutto and the Hawks “the most exciting, roughest blues band in Chicago,” and he set out to capture the Hutto sound he heard at Turner’s Blue Lounge in the South Side ghetto. The power of Hutto’s roared, sometimes almost unintelligible vocals, ripping slide guitar, and hard-hitting band work emphatically drove home the point on these sessions. Joining Frank Kirkland, Lee Jackson and other Hawks on the tracks were special guests Sunnyland Slim and, from Delmark’s modern jazz roster, Maurice McIntyre blowing his tenor sax in a blues mode. One track, Hutto’s popular Hip-Shakin’ — which is missing from some pressings of the original LP — was recorded at a club, Mother Blues, in 1966, and the rest came from two studio dates in 1968. Although often cited as a 1968 release, Blues Unlimited magazine reported a delayed release date of 1969.
Moanin’ in the Moonlight – Howlin’ Wolf (Chess, 1959)
Moanin’ in the Moonlight (Chess 1434) was the first compilation of Wolf’s work to be issued on LP, in 1959, and marks the fifth time the Blues Hall of Fame has inducted a Wolf album on Chess. As with most of his other Chess LPs, this was a collection of singles, here including four of the five tracks that hit the Billboard charts as 78s or 45s in the ’50s — the double-sided 1951 Memphis recording of Moanin’ at Midnight/How Many More Years, plus Smokestack Lightnin’ and I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline) from 1956 Chicago sessions. Other tracks are just as highly regarded as classics today, including Forty Four, No Place to Go and Evil. Adding to Wolf’s unmatched ferocity is a brilliant pack of sidemen, including guitarists Jody Williams, Hubert Sumlin, Willie Johnson and the unsung Lee Cooper. This music is all available today, of course, on multiple reissue sets, but for an introduction back in 1959, Chess could hardly have done better.