Which Harp Player Would Open Up for Sonny Boy Williamson Blowing OUTSIDE of the Club Because He Was Too Young to Enter?

james cotton young


James Cotton (called Cotton by his friends) was born on the first day of July,1935, in Tunica, Mississippi. He was the youngest of eight brothers and sisters who grew up in the cotton fields working beside their mother, Hattie, and their father, Mose. On Sundays Mose was the preacher in the area’s Baptist church. Cotton’s earliest memories include his mother playing chicken and train sounds on her harmonica and for a few years he thought those were the only two sounds the little instrument made. His Christmas present one year was a harmonica, it cost 15 cents, and it wasn’t long before he mastered the chicken and the train.  sonny boy

King Biscuit Time, a 15-minute radio show, began broadcasting live on KFFA, a station just across the Mississippi River in Helena, Arkansas. The star of the show was the harmonica legend, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller). The young Cotton pressed his little ear to the old radio speaker. He recognized the harmonica sound AND discovered something – the harp did more! Realizing this, a profound change came over him, and since that moment, Cotton and his harp have been inseparable – the love affair had begun. Soon he was able to play Sonny Boy’s theme song from the radio show and, as he grew so did his repertoire of Sonny Boy’s other songs. Mississippi summers are ghastly, the heat is unrelenting. He was too young to actually work in the cotton fields, so little Cotton would bring water to those who did. When it was time for him to take a break from his job, he would sit in the shadow of the plantation foreman’s horse and play his harp. His music became a source of joy for his first audience. James Cotton’s star began to shine brightly at a very early age.

sonny boy 3

By his ninth year both of his parents had passed away and Cotton was taken to Sonny Boy Williamson by his uncle. When they met, the young fellow wasted no time – he began playing Sonny Boy’s theme song on his treasured harp. Cotton remembers that first meeting well and says, “I walked up and played it for him. And I played it note for note. And he looked at that. He had to pay attention.” The two harp players were like father and son from then on. “I just watched the things he’d do, because I wanted to be just like him. Anything he played, I played it,” he remembers.


There were dozens of juke joints in the South at the time and Sonny Boy played in nearly every one in Mississippi (pronounced “miz-sip-ee”) and Arkansas. Now he had an opening act! Because Cotton was too young to go inside he would “open” for Sonny Boy on the steps of these juke joints, sometimes making more money in tips outside than Sonny Boy did at the gig inside.

After a gig early one morning Sonny Boy split for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to live with his estranged wife, leaving his band to Cotton who comments, “He just gave it to me. But I couldn’t hold it together ’cause I was too young and crazy in those days an’ everybody in the band was grown men, so much older than me.”

There was no one to care for the teenager – no real home to go to – but young Cotton had his harmonica. Beale Street in Memphis was alive with the blues and Cotton played on the street for tips. Also, he put a mean shine on any paying customer’s shoes. When he’d been with Sonny Boy, they had played a juke joint named “The Top Hat” in Black Fish, Arkansas.


One night he heard Howlin’ Wolf was playing there and he decided it was time to meet him. He was still underage but the owner let him through the door this time. He liked the young musician plus he knew if Cotton sat in with Howlin’ Wolf the good times would roll even farther, deep into the night. Cotton got along well with Howlin’ Wolf from the moment they met and they began to play the juke joints as far north as Caruthersville, Missouri, and as far south as Nachez, Mississippi, with Cotton doing most of the driving down old Highway 61. He learned the ways of the road from a second blues legend.

At the ripe old age of 15 he cut four songs at Sun Records: “Straighten Up Baby,” “Hold Me In Your Arms,” “Oh, Baby,” and “Cotton Crop Blues.”

KWEM, a radio station in West Memphis, Arkansas, directly across the Mississippi River from Memphis, gave Cotton a 15-minute radio show in 1952. This was a great achievement for a bluesman who was only 17 years old. It gave him a wider audience; not everyone went to juke houses, but the radio was on everyday from 3-3:15 p.m. Mississippi and Arkansas held the very essence of the blues in their cotton fields. People wanted to hear their own music.

muddy & cotton   muddy waters

Cotton had gigs every weekend but to help support himself better he found a job in West Memphis driving an ice truck during the week. When he got off work one Friday afternoon in early December 1954, he walked to his regular Friday happy hour gig at the “Dinette Lounge” and played his first set. The club was getting crowded and he recognized many familiar faces but when the band took a break, a strange man approached and extended a handshake to Cotton saying, “Hello, I’m Muddy Waters.” He’d heard about the young James Cotton. “I didn’t know what Muddy looked like but I knew it was his voice ’cause I’d listened to his records,” says Cotton. Muddy needed a harp player. Junior Wells had abruptly left the band. He asked Cotton to play the Memphis gig with him. The answer is history. Cotton remained Muddy’s harp player for 12 years.

little walter 2     junior wells

Chess Records kept Little Walter (Jacobs) playing harmonica on Muddy’s records until 1958. Before then Muddy asked Brother Cotton to “play it like Little Walter” – note for note live on stage every night. But that wasn’t Cotton’s aim in life and finally one day he said to Muddy, “Hey man, I never will be Little Walter. You’ve just got to give me a chance to be myself.” Cotton’s star shined even brighter in 1958 when he began recording at Chess Records with Muddy on “Sugar Sweet” and “Close To You.”

Cotton developed an arresting stage presence which Muddy recognized. As a sideman, Cotton always respected Muddy’s position of authority. But they both knew Cotton had his own full-blown brand of animated showmanship that no one had ever seen before and that, coupled with his own harmonica style, commanded attention from the audience. In 1961 at the Newport Jazz Festival one of the highlights of his career came when his wild harmonica exploded on stage during his solo of the song he arranged for Muddy, “Got My Mojo Working.” You be the judge! Fortunately, the tape was running and the recording belongs to all of us.

muddy & cotton 2

“Muddy was a very sweet guy. I loved and respected Muddy very much. But I did all I could there, an’ it was time to move on to something else,” Cotton explains why he left the band in the latter part of 1966.

The year 1967 is well-documented as Cotton’s first year as a bandleader with the two CD’s “Seems Like Yesterday” and “Late Night Blues” recorded live in Montreal at the “New Penelope” club and unreleased until 1998 on the Justin Time label. It was the first gig on the first tour of the first James Cotton Blues Band. From that night forward Cotton embarked on tours all across the country. He had crossed over into the blues-rock genre because of his reputation as Muddy Waters’ harp player. During the last half of the 60’s decade Cotton made four records. “Cut You Loose” was released on Vanguard, “Pure Cotton,” “Cotton In Your Ears,” and “The James Cotton Blues Band” were released on the Verve label.

cotton & muddy & winter

The hippies had arrived. They were young people with flowers in their hair and music in their hearts and they wanted to know where this rock n roll music came from. Muddy Waters and Brownie McGhee got together and wrote “The Blues Had a Baby and They Called It Rock and Roll” which answered their question. This song was on the “Hard Again” album on the Blue Sky label featuring Muddy on vocals and guitar, Johnny Winter on guitar, and Cotton on harmonica. Not to be forgotten are the miscellaneous screams provided by Johnny Winter and the miscellaneous hoots (or are they hollers?) of Cotton! It’s obvious, they had a ball while making this record. It won a Grammy in 1977. Some of Janis Joplin’s most popular songs were old blues standards, i.e., Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain.” The first time Cotton opened for Janis she had never heard him play. After the show that night an excited Janis phoned Albert Grossman, who was Janis’ and Cotton’s manager at the time, in Woodstock. Then Albert phoned Cotton saying, “Janis was all excited and told me ‘Man, I REALLY dig that James Cotton, he makes me WORK!’” Cotton opened for and/or sat-in with the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Santana, Steve Miller, Freddie King, B.B. King…to name a few. He played the Fillmore East in New York, the Fillmore West in San Francisco, and almost every major venue between those two cities including the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas.


Cotton became known as the ultimate showman. By the time he got to the center of the stage and blew his first note, the audience was on it’s feet, dancing, screaming, sweating right along with him, and having a good time. That is what it was all about. “Boogie, boogie, boogie,” he’d wail from the stage. He became famous for his back flips. An old fan reminisced with him at a recent festival, “James, the first time I saw you do a back flip, man, I was shocked,” he said, shaking his head, “I’d never seen one before! Thanks.” Cotton laughed, patted his stomach, and replied, “Well, you aren’t getting the flips tonight but you WILL get the music!”

It is an old, true story – there are nights when he blows his harmonica so hard the keys fall out in his hands. A man with a good sense of humor, his old fans and friends like to remember one night when he began playing so hard his harp fell apart, “Oh, I’m just warming up,” he teased them with a big smile.


The 1970’s brought releases from Buddah Records of “100% Cotton,” “High Energy,” “Alive and on the Move,” and “Live at the Electric Lady.” All this time he was touring, crossing the country many, many times, and playing to packed houses.

The name “Superharp” has been with Cotton ever since Kenny Johnson, the drummer in Cotton’s band at the time, arrived at the gig one evening with a denim jacket adorned with silver studs, a popular clothing decoration at the time. “SUPERHARP” appeared in these silver studs across the back of the jacket and the well-deserved name has stuck with Cotton to this day – longer than the studs stuck to the jacket!

older james cotton



In 1994 Cotton had throat surgery followed by radiation treatments. Not long afterward he was back on the road with his James Cotton Trio, playing the music of his roots. That same year he moved back to the Memphis area. Cotton’s life has come full circle, he has returned to the source of the fountain on two levels…his star still shines.

cotton & deep

There is a photograph of a man wearing overalls sitting on an old porch intently playing a harmonica. If you study the photograph you can feel the depth of the man’s soul. The man is James Cotton. The porch is part of the commissary store on the plantation where he was born in Tunica, Mississippi. The depth of the man’s soul can be heard on “Deep In The Blues” on Verve Records. Grammy Award – Best Traditional Blues Album-1996

When one looks at Cotton’s audience in his theatre, university, and festival venues, it consists of three generations – the youngest is usually holding a harp. My guess is Cotton finds that a beautiful sight.



The year 2016 is Cotton’s 72st year in the entertainment business. What an amazing adventure this man is experiencing with his little harmonica. Congratulations SUPERHARP!


Stevie Ray Vaughan

 Born on October 3, 1954 in Dallas, Texas, Stevie Ray Vaughan played guitar as a child and became lead singer for the Texas band Double Trouble, which led to work with David Bowie and Jackson Browne. Vaughan had hit albums with his band before the 1989 release of In Step, for which he earned a Grammy. He also recorded with his brother Jimmy. Vaughan died in a late night helicopter crash on August 27, 1990, at 35.

Musician Stevie Ray Vaughn was born on October 3, 1954, in Dallas, Texas. Vaughan was at the forefront of a blues resurgence in the 1980s, bringing rock fans into the fold with a powerful, driving style of play that earned him comparisons with some of his heroes such as Jimi Hendrix, Otis Rush and Muddy Waters. His four main studio albums were critical and commercial successes, rising high on the music charts and paving the way to sold-out stadium shows across the country. muddy waters    otis rush

Stevie Ray originally wanting to play the drums, but inspired by his older brother Jimmie’s guitar playing, Stevie picked up his first guitar at the age of 8; it was a gift from Jimmie–a hollow-body Gibson Messenger.  With an exceptional ear, (Stevie never learned to read sheet music) Stevie taught himself to play the blues by the time he’d reached high school, testing his stage skills at a Dallas club any chance he could.

stevie ray (young0

Well into his junior year, Vaughan had already played with several garage bands. But lacking any kind of academic drive, Stevie struggled to stay in school. Following a brief enrollment at an alternative arts program sponsored by Southern Methodist University, Stevie dropped out of school, moved to Austin and concentrated on making a living as a musician. To make ends meet, Vaughan collected soda and beer bottles for money and couch-surfed at various friends’ houses. The rest of the time he was playing music, jumping in-and-out of various bands that had semi-regular gigs in the Austin area.   Stevie Ray Vaughan’s first band was called Paul Ray and the Cobras, who played around Austin in the 1970s. Stevie Ray Vaughan would frequently hit the stage at the famous Austin club, Antone’s Night Club in its original location in Sixth Street.

stevie ray young 2   stevie ray young 3

vaughan guitar

Stevie’s sound was really like new at the time. His distinctive sound was because of several factors. First, he had heavy strings, GHS nickelrockers, 13-58, or 11-58 when his fingers hurt. Next came the pickups. The pickups came from 1959, but what was different about his set was that they were accidentally over wound, creating a boost in harmonics, and a nice smooth sound. Stevie played at first through a Marshall combo that was 80 watts about, but he then got two Fender(R) Vibroverbs(TM). These amps have a 15 inch speaker, which gives the sound the full range of bass, middle, and treble frequencies. He had his modified for more gain. He had an Ibanez(R) TS808 overdrive pedal (Ibanez recently re-put the ts808 on the market) Vox V-847 wah wah (modified with true bypass) and various other pedals including a Univibe, Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face etc. In the song “Leave my girl alone” (soul to soul album) he plays a Gibson(R) ES-335. He had many other guitars. Fender made a tribute guitar for Stevie, not the artist one it was one that was made to look EXACTLY like his #1 with the broken up body, cigarette marks on the headstock and everything.

Stevie was amazing….His playing style and sound, which often featured simultaneous lead and rhythm parts, also drew frequent comparisons to that of Jimi Hendrix; He covered several Hendrix tunes on his studio albums and in his live performances.

stevie ray and buddy guy

SRV cited Jimi, Buddy Guy, BB King and his brother Jimmie among his greatest influences. SRV’s blues playing style was strongly influenced by Albert King, who dubbed himself Stevie’s “Godfather.”

triple threat 2       double trouble

In 1975, Vaughan, vocalist Lou Ann Barton, bassist Jackie Newhouse and drummer Chris Layton formed Triple Threat. When Barton left in 1978, SRV took over vocals and the band was renamed “Double Trouble”( inspired by an Otis Rush song.) With Vaughan on lead vocals, the group developed a strong fan base throughout Texas. Eventually their popularity spread outside the Lone Star State. In 1982, the group caught the attention of Mick Jagger, who invited them to play at a private party in New York City. That same year, Double Trouble performed at the Montreux Blues & Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble was the first unsigned band to book the Montreux Jazz Festival.


While there, SRV attracted attention from David Bowie and Jackson Browne, and he played on albums with both. Bowie featured Vaughan on his Let’s Dance album in the songs, “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl.”

With some commercial viability behind them, Vaughan and his band mates were signed to a record deal with Epic, where they were put in the capable hands of legendary musician and producer, John Hammond, Sr. (Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Bob Dylan, et al)

The resulting record, Texas Flood, did not disappoint, reaching No. 38 on the charts and catching the notice of rock stations across the country. For his part, Stevie was voted Best New Talent and Best Electric Blues Guitarist in a 1983 reader’s poll by Guitar Player Magazine. Double Trouble set off on a successful tour, and then recorded a second album, Couldn’t Stand the Weather, which climbed to No. 31 on the charts and went gold in 1985.

More records (the live album, Live Alive and then another studio collection, Soul to Soul) and more success followed. There were Grammy nominations and, in 1984, the unprecedented recognition of Vaughan by the National Blues Foundation Awards, which named him Entertainer of the Year and Blues Instrumentalist of the Year. He became the first white musician ever to receive both honors.

But Vaughan’s personal life was spiraling downward. His relationship with his wife, Lenora Darlene Bailey, whom he’d married in 1979, fell apart. He battled drug and alcohol problems. Finally, following a collapse while on tour in Europe in 1986, the guitarist checked himself into rehab.

For the next year, Vaughan largely stayed away from the high-powered music scene that had dominated his life over the last half decade. But in 1988, he and Double Trouble started performing again and making plans for another album. In June 1989, the group released their fourth studio album, In Step. The recording featured Vaughan’s driving guitar style, as well as several songs such as “Wall of Denial” and “Tight Rope,” which touched on the struggles he’d gone through in his personal life. The release reached No. 33 on the charts, and garnered the group a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Recording.

Vaughan was as much a fan of blues history as he was a part of it. He owned Hendrix’s “wah-wah,” as well as a small army of classic Stratocaster electric guitars that had colorful names like Red, Yellow and National Steel. His favorite—and the one he used more than any other—was a 59 Strat he called “Number One.”

Jimmie & Steview Vaughn

In the spring of 1990, Vaughan and his brother stepped into the studio to begin work on an album that was scheduled to be released that autumn. The record, Family Style, made its debut that October, but Stevie never lived to see it.

vaughan grave

On August 26, 1990, Vaughan and Double Trouble played a big show in East Troy, Wisconsin, that featured Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray and Jimmie Vaughan. Just after midnight, Stevie hopped on a helicopter bound for Chicago. Contending with dense fog, the helicopter crashed into hilly field just minutes after take-off, killing everyone on board. Vaughan was buried at Laurel Land Memorial Park in South Dallas. More than 1,500 people attended the musician’s memorial service.

In the years since, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s legend has only grown. Just a little more than a year after his death, Vaughan was recognized by Texas governor Ann Richards, who proclaimed October 3, 1991, “Stevie Ray Vaughan Day.”

In addition, fans have been treated to a number of tribute specials and posthumous albums, including an early live Double Trouble record and a special box set of rare recordings, live shows, and never-before-heard outtakes. In a demonstration of the power of Vaughan’s music, sales of these newer records have more than matched the records that came out during Stevie Ray Vaughan’s lifetime.


Which Stride Piano Player was also a Trained Cantor in a NYC Synagogue?


Willie “The Lion” Smith was a founding father of Harlem Stride piano that combined elements of ragtime, barrelhouse, and classical concert piano technique in his style. Along with friendly rivals James P. Johnson and Thomas “Fats” Waller, Smith’s virtuosity had tremendous influence on future jazz pianists including Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Thelonious Monk. In Ellington’s own words, “No one could ever play the same again after hearing The Lion.”  Ellington, as an homage to Smith ,would later write “Portrait of The Lion”.

james johnson   James Johnson                                fats   Fats Wallerellongton Ellington

basie Basie                  monk   Monk

Although he was a braggart and (with his cigar and trademark derby hat) appeared to be a rough character, Smith was actually more colorful than menacing and a very sophisticated pianist with a light touch.

He’s been called a musician’s musician, whose original approach made him the envy of virtually every pianist in jazz — and every wise guy. “The Lion” was as well known for his flamboyant behavior, ever present cigar and derby hat as he was for his Harlem stride style piano.

According to Smith, his birth father was Jewish. As a boy, he delivered clean clothes to his mother’s clients, including to a prosperous Jewish family who invited him to sit in on Hebrew lessons on Saturday mornings. Willie was bar-mitzvahed in Newark at age thirteen, and later in life worked as the cantor for a Black Jewish congregation in Harlem.William Henry Joseph Berthol Bonaparte Bertholoff was born in Goshen, New York on November 23rd, 1897. According to Smith’s autobiography, his mother Ida had “Spanish, Negro, and Mohawk Indian blood,” and his birth father, Frank Bertholoff, was a “light-skinned playboy who loved his liquor, girls, and gambling.” By age two, Ida had thrown Frank out of the house, and she relocated to Newark, New Jersey, where she worked as a laundress and the boy took the surname of her new husband, John Smith, a master mechanic.

By age six he began learning to play the piano from his mother, herself an accomplished church pianist and organist. Smith proved a quick study, and by 1911 he began playing professionally in Newark. Newark and the nearby city of Jersey City, home to James P. Johnson, served as excellent training ground for the generation of African-American pianists who would later be known as the founders of the Stride piano style. While growing up in Newark, he was exposed to music of both Jewish and African American cultures and would later embrace these influences in his own sound.

willie 2

Smith first met Johnson while performing at Randolph’s club in Newark. Smith was the steady pianist for the club at the time and Johnson, along with his future wife, Lillie Mae Wright, came to Randolph’s angling for work. Lillie Mae got the job, but Johnson was informed that the club already had a pianist. It is through Lillie Mae that Willie “The Lion” Smith and James P. Johnson were introduced. From that day in 1914, according to Smith, a bond formed between the two, and “Jimmy and I, we became like twins and came up together.”

Smith worked consistently in Newark and the Harlem and San Juan Hill areas of Manhattan until 1917, when the United States became involved in World War I. orated the rhythmic stride style in his playing.

In 1916, Willie enlisted in the Army where he became the drum major for his unit. During World War I, he spent over a month on the front lines, where he earned his name “The Lion” for his bravery. Later,  Smith enlisted with the all-black 92nd Division and served active duty in France as a gunner on the front line. Smith was heralded for his bravery in battle after volunteering to fire the “Glorious 75,” an enormous French-made cannon, and was given the nickname “The Lion” by his commanding officer for his heroism.

Discharged from the army in 1919, Smith returned to New York City and picked up his position as one of the finest pianists, or “ticklers” as they were known, in the city. The consummate showman, he was notorious for his fine clothes and his carefully maintained image. “A good image is good for the mind and soul”, Smith said, “It gives a man the dignity to conduct his affairs in a proper manner.” According to James P. Johnson, “when Willie Smith walked into a place, every move was a picture.”

The Lion quickly became a mentor for younger musicians such as Duke Ellington, Bix Beiderbecke, Artie Shaw, and the Dorsey Brothers. They would often go up to Harlem and listen to Willie and play and ask for musical tips to better their skills.

As the 1920s arrived, a new form of jazz piano playing emerged out of Harlem — stride. An evolution from ragtime, stride had a true master in Willie Smith. Also during this time, many Harlem “rent parties” started; residents would invite friends over and serve up food, drinks and live music, charging a nominal fee in order to raise money for rent. Some of Willie’s piano contemporaries were  Johnson, Fats Waller, and Eubie Blake. While playing at rent parties, members of this group would often engage in friendly musical combat called “cutting contests.” Each pianist would try to top the other — both on the keyboard and off.

willie 4   Willie with Mamie Smith & the Jazz Hounds

Smith held a steady gig at Leroy’s in Harlem from his return from France through 1920. On August 10th, 1920 Willie  put together and performed with the band that supported Mamie Smith (no relation) on the groundbreaking recording of ’Crazy Blues’ for Okeh records. ‘Crazy Blues,’ often cited as the first recording of a blues tune, sold more than a million copies in the first year it was released and started a national craze for blues acts. While Willie’s playing is barely audible behind Mamie Smith’s powerful vocal and the horn section, there are a few moments, particularly following the line “I can read his letters but I just can’t read his mind” where one gets a tiny taste of Smith’s already masterful Stride styling.

Though he recorded infrequently through the decade, as a performer Smith was constantly in demand throughout the twenties. Smith continued to be a fixture of the Harlem scene, either as a leader, solo act, or as a sideman working with Sidney Bechet, Bubber Miley, Jimmy Harrison, Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter. By the early thirties Smith held a standing engagement at the Pod and Jerry’s club on 133rd St. in Harlem.

While already a legend in New York, Smith did not become a national figure until 1935 when he released a number of small group recordings on Decca records. On May 14th, 1934 Willie Smith made his first solo recording, “Fingerbuster.” This fairly incredible display of keyboard facility might not quite out-class James P. Johnson’s or Art Tatum’s finest efforts but clearly displays an incredibly creative musical mind coupled with brilliant technique. The strength of his left hand is especially well demonstrated throughout the recording. The influence of Stride and Classical piano is clear in this composition.

Willie always brought his interest in European classical music into his playing and composing. His own compositions were inventive and always challenging. During the 1930s, he composed a number of beautiful pieces, some of which infused a classical feeling, such as his most famous composition “Echo of Spring.”

Smith made a number of small group and solo recordings during the second half of the 1930s but it was a session for Commodore on January 10th, 1939 that is, perhaps, the finest example of his genius. The session yielded such gems as “Passionette,” “Echoes of Spring,” and another mind boggling version of “Fingerbuster.” Of these, “Echoes of Spring” stands out as a beautiful, classically impressionistic composition tinged with just the right amount of stride style. Smith executes the piece brilliantly on this recording.

Smith’s fame continued to grow steadily through the forties. He again performed and recorded with Sidney Bechet and had his compositions performed by two of the most popular bandleaders of the day, Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey. Smith remained a constant force in the New York clubs and would frequently engage in piano ‘battles’ with James P. Johnson. At the end of the decade Smith toured Europe and North Africa. “The Lion” was incredibly well received on both continents, a clear sign that his reputation was now international.

Willie “The Lion” Smith lived through six decades of music and, despite the changes in musical styles over those years, he remained true to himself and his own style.

Smith’s popularity would not diminish in the following decades. He continued to play regularly in New York and Toronto and was a major draw at festivals around the U.S. and Europe. In 1965 Smith published his memoirs, “Music on My Mind: The Memoirs of an American Pianist” and released his first solo album in seven years. Smith never showed any signs of slowing down. He performed just a few short months before he passed away at the Village Gate in New York as a part of concert called ‘Piano Evolution’, a clear tribute to his contribution to the idiom. Smith passed away April 18th, 1973 in New York, the city he had called home for most of his life.

Willie “The Lion” Smith lived long enough to be considered a walking legend. In his later years he received frequent honors for his life’s work including a “Willie ‘the Lion’ Smith Day” in Newark, New Jersey. Perhaps the greatest evidence of “The Lion’s” greatness was the words of praise and respect he received from his peers.


Which Singer/Songwriter’s Dad was a Broadway Star?

When Bonnie Raitt won a phenomenal four Grammys in 1990, it came as overdue recognition for an artist who had been breaking down barriers of gender and genre since the early Seventies. Her feel for the blues was evident on her first album, Bonnie Raitt (1971), and though she’s explored different kinds of material over the years — including pop, rock and balladry — a serious rooting in the blues has remained evident in her work.

Bonnie Lynn Raitt was born in 1949 in Burbank, California. Her father, John Raitt, became a major Broadway star in the Forties and Fifties, as a result of his roles in such musicals as Oklahoma!, Carousel,Annie Get Your Gun, The Pajama Game and Kiss Me Kate. Her mother, Marjorie Haydock, was a piano player. The family spent most of Bonnie’s early years shuttling between the two coasts until 1957, when they settled in Los Angeles after her father landed a role in the film version of The Pajama Game.

bonnie & family      john raitt

Bonnie got her first guitar – a $25 Stella – as a Christmas present when she was eight years old. At the time, her instrument of choice was piano, but within a few years, she changed her mind. Her maternal grandfather played Hawaiian lap-steel guitar, and he taught her a few chords. She honed her guitar skills by playing at Camp Regis-Applejack , a Quaker summer camp in the Adirondacks, Bonnie was exposed to folk and protest music. In addition, when she was 14, she learned about the blues via an album recorded at the 1963 Newport festival, Blues at Newport 1963, and a batch of Ray Charles recordings a family friend had given her.

Bonnie 2

When she was 15, Bonnie and her family moved back East. She attended a Quaker high school in Poughkeepsie, New York, then enrolled in Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She took classes at both Radcliffe and Harvard and majored in social relations and African studies. While attending college in Boston, she gravitated to the Cambridge folk-blues scene of the late Sixties. She emerged as both a prodigy and anomaly: a young woman who sang blues with gritty passion and played slide guitar with authority, as if the genre’s fundamentals had been etched in her soul. The late B.B. King always said that Bonnie was his favorite slide guitarist.

While at Radcliffe, Raitt met Dick Waterman, a former photojournalist who had helped many bluesmen resuscitate their careers in the wake of the Sixties blues revival. He took her under his wing, and Raitt was schooled by, and performed alongside, such estimable legends as Sippie Wallace, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Son House. “I’m certain that it was an incredible gift for me to not only be friends with some of the greatest blues people who’ve ever lived, but to learn how they played, how they sang, how they lived their lives, ran their marriages and talked to their kids,” she said.

Eventually, Raitt decided to pursue music full time. “I never expected to have a career in music,” she said. “But I thought, ‘Geez, if I want to take a semester off from college and support myself by making $50 here and there, well. . . .’ It was hilarious to me that it went over.” After one of her shows at the Gaslight Club in New York, Raitt was offered a recording contract with Warner Bros. Records. Throughout her career, she’s combined an old-school country-blues grounding with a contemporary outlook and willingness to experiment.

Bonnie & Sippy   bonnie & jackson

One of the early highlights of “Late Night,” before James Brown, before Kaufman/Lawler: Bonnie Raitt performs “Me and the Boys” with The Bump Band, chats with Dave on April 27,1982, is later joined by Sippie Wallace, who then performs “Women Be Wise” with Bonnie and Dr. John. Sippie tends to sing “shit” instead of “shout,” and it’s not edited out of the broadcast.

Raitt produced five albums from 1971-75, containing mostly covers of blues, folk, and pop songs. Tracks included several Sippie Wallace tunes (“You Got to Know How,” “Mighty Tight Woman,” and “Woman be Wise”) as well as songs by Joni Mitchell, John Prine, Jackson Brown, and Randy Newman. By the mid-Seventies, she’d accrued a loyal and growing following on the strength of such albums as Streetlights (1974) and Home Plate (1975). In 1977, Raitt’s LP Sweet Forgiveness turned into her first gold album and produced a hit cover of Del Shannon’s “Runaway.”

Raitt’s interest in linking music and social causes was evident in her 1979 participation as a founding member of Musicians United for Safe Energy (M.U.S.E.). Joining M.U.S.E. co-founders John Hall, Jackson Browne, and Graham Nash, she performed in a series of five benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden, which were recorded and released as a three-album set.She recorded eight albums for Warner Bros. from 1971 to 1986, progressively moving from straight blues into more pop-oriented areas without losing sight of her roots. All the while, she selected tunes by the choicest songwriters (e.g., Randy Newman, John Prine, Eric Kaz, Allen Toussaint and Jackson Browne), while working with the cream of Southern California musicians.

Bonnie & Lowell

The late Lowell George’s Little Feat and Bonnie Raitt sometimes worked together in the 1970s. On the east coast blues rock tour circuits, Bonnie, Emmylou Harris and Little Feat’s paths frequently crossed. Raitt would occasionally join Lowell and the Feat onstage and vice versa. With George being a premiere country-ish slide rocker, Little Feat, Harris and Raitt had a natural affinity. “Dixie Chicken” is one of Little Feats most notable songs; adding Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris makes it something extraordinary.

Robert Hilburn commented in the Los Angeles Times, “At 44, an age when many pop rockers are in the twilight of their careers, Bonnie Raitt exudes the energy and ambition of someone just entering her prime—which she may well be.” A performer who loves to tour, Raitt is also a tireless champion of social issues. Within the musical realm, this includes encouraging women to play the guitar and helping aging, financially-distressed blues musicians.

Bonnie & Muddy

Raitt’s husky vocals and slide guitar playing are the core of a musical style that defies categorization. As she explained in Guitar Player, “I’m certainly blues based, but I’ve never felt that I was totally a blues artist. I’ve been doing the same mixture of rock and roll songs, ballads by contemporary songwriters, [and] off-the-wall jazz songs.” Raitt is famous for playing bottleneck slide guitar, a technique she taught herself. And while Raitt is modest about her playing abilities—she demurred in Guitar Player, “I play the same Muddy Waters lick over and over”—she placed first in the magazine’s readers poll for four consecutive years. For many years, Raitt specialized in playing and singing other people’s songs, performing only a few of her own. But the overwhelmingly positive response to Raitt’s own songs on Nick of Time has given her a new confidence and interest in songwriting.
The albums that followed, The Glow (1979) and Green Light (1982), did not perpetuate increased album sales for Raitt. She was working on an album tentatively titled Tongue and Groove for Warner Bros, only to be told that the record company refused to release it. The material was eventually released as by Warner Bros, as Nine Lives in 1986.

Raitt parted ways with the company in 1983, sought new management, and later signed a contract with Capitol Records.was at this time she began gaining weight and started drinking.  Her life was falling apart personally and professionally.  She even had an opportunity to perform with Prince, though the project fell through due to Raitt’s perceived appearance.  After that, she got her act together and had the biggest successes of her career.

Bonnie 6

The upheaval in Raitt’s life was personal as well as professional. In 1987 she joined Alcoholics Anonymous, feeling that she had hit bottom physically and emotionally. Raitt looked back on the experience in a New York Times interview, noting, “I’m really grateful that I didn’t either kill myself or somebody else. I really used to think I needed to be messed up to sing the kind of music I sing…. I don’t regret all those years, but I was one of the lucky people that could say no to [alcohol] and not miss it that much.”

bonnie & hooker

Some of Bonnie Raitt’s best work has been her collaborations with other artists. Raitt’s teaming with the legendary blues pioneer, John Lee Hooker, nicknamed “The Healer,” is remarkable. Raitt and Hooker, separately and together, represent the royalty of blues rock. Available on Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Volume 1: 1986 – 1991, Raitt’s guitar growls alongside the late Hooker’s restrained vocals in a special live performance.

Raitt’s breakthrough album, Nick of Time (1989), slowly gained momentum, reaching the top of the chart exactly a year after its release — and a month after Raitt won the aforementioned batch of Grammys. On that memorable evening, Raitt put her awards in selfless perspective: “It means so much for the kind of music that we do,” she said. “It means that those of us who do rhythm & blues are going to get a chance again.”

bonnie 7The overwhelmingly positive response to Raitt’s own songs on that hit album had given her a new confidence and interest in songwriting. Indeed, the followup album Luck of the Draw fared even better, selling 5 million copies and winning three more Grammys. It also gave Raitt the first bonafide hit single of her 20-year career in “Something to Talk About,” which reached Number Five. In 1994, Raitt released Longing in Their Hearts. The album went to Number One and won two Grammys.

The media attention generated by these two breakthrough albums gave Raitt new opportunities to promote political and social causes as well as to express her views on the music business. In 1991, Raitt co-founded the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, an organization devoted to assisting aging and often poor musicians. She frequently appears at political benefits, such as a 1998 fund-raiser for Democratic California senator Barbara Boxer. In the New York Times, Raitt commented on using fame to advance causes: “You just do what you can…. As long as I’ve got a mouth, somebody’s going to be hearing about it. I’m just glad I won those Grammys, so now I get on a better page when the newspapers cover these things.”

Subsequent albums have included the double-live CD Road Tested (1995), Fundamental (1998), Silver Lining (2002) and Souls Alike (2005). After the release of Souls Alike, Raitt took a break from touring and recording. Both of her parents had died, her brother had died and one of her best friends had died. “I took a hiatus from touring and recording to get back in touch with the other part of my life,” she said. In 2009, Raitt appeared at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Bonnie 4

 Raitt is working to encourage other women to play the guitar, which led to the Bonnie Raitt-signature Fender guitar. The only Fender instrument to honor a woman, it’s production resulted in a giveaway program and provided women with an instrument that features a slimmer neck— which is more suited to smaller hands—and a copy of a guitar that Raitt plays. Raitt was enthusiastic about the future of women guitarists in Guitar Player, saying, “I’m waiting for the next Stevie Ray Vaughan to be a woman…. We’re like a sneeze away from a great lead guitar player with that kind of attitude…. We just have to make sure [women] get the exposure they deserve.”

In 1998 she took part in several concerts at the Lilith Fair festival, which featured an eclectic mix of female performers. Raitt expressed both appreciation for her good fortune and a yearning for the smaller, intimate performances of the past in Billboard, saying, “I’ve been playing these sheds because there’s 15,000 people a night who want to see [me] luckily, and that’s great for me. Except, I’m sure those longtime fans sure get tired of only getting to see me in a big place.” And she concluded that her time onstage was still her greatest thrill: “The time when you’re actually getting onstage and playing makes it all worth it. If you can have a life where you get to travel around and control when and where you work and have that much fun and make that many people happy’. I’m not complaining for one minute.”

Bonnie 3

In 2012, Raitt released her first album in seven years, Slipstream produced by John Henry. She issued the album on her own label, Redwing Records, and it sold more than a quarter-million copies and won a Grammy for Best Americana Album.

Over the course of her career, Raitt has won 10 Grammys. Rolling Stone magazine ranked her at Number 50 in its list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time and at Number 89 in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.


Bonnie Raitt’s powerful voice and slide guitar prowess is just what the doctor ordered in 2016. “Dig in Deep,” was released on Feb. 26th, will be Raitt’s first studio album since her Joe Henry produced 2012 “Slipstream.” Since “Slipstream” came out, Raitt has found a new audience in the growing Americana music scene, with her latest release winning the Best Americana Album award and Raitt being presented with an Americana Music Association.


Jimmy Page

With all the attention Jimmy Page has been getting as a result of the court case regarding the origin of “Stairway to Heaven”, was it nicked from Spirit or not (it wasn’t), I thought I would post some history of Page’s life and career for your pleasure.

Jimmy Page is best known as the fire-slinging riffmaster who helped Led Zeppelin to hard-rock dominance in the 1970s. His work with Zeppelin made him one of rock’s most important and influential guitar players, writers, and producers; in 2003, Rolling Stone listed Page as number nine on its list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. Since Zep’s demise, Page has alternated between solo projects and collaborations with other superstars. Largely uninterested in new trends and technology, Page’s later work has been as bound to classic rock as his legendary band was.

jimmy page 3

A self-described “introspective loner” as a child, Page, who was born January 9, 1944, grew up the son of a corporate personnel officer in the town of Surrey, outside London. Page  took up the guitar at age 13, learning to play mostly by teaching himself. As a young art student, Page, like nearly all of England, had become swept away with the rock and roll craze that reached Europe in the form of Elvis Presley in the 1950s. Deciding to take up guitar, Page started out in a band called Neil Christian and the Crusaders, where he learned to imitate such star guitarists of the day as Scotty Moore, James Burton, and Hank B. Marvin.

But due to physical problems involving a glandular disorder that induced travel sickness, Page was unable to perform live, so he began to make his mark in London as a guitarist in recording sessions, some that were credited to him and some that were not, for various groups. Much controversy has swirled around Page’s work during this period, such as the claim by some that Page contributed greatly to such hits by the Kinks as “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night.” Nevertheless, it is certain that during this time Page performed on recordings by such a diverse array of artists as the Rolling Stones, the Who, Joe Cocker, Donovan, Petula Clark, and Tom Jones. But the session work began to drag on Page, particularly the work on easy-listening and Top 40 records that reined in his budding talent (though the control Page learned in these years would later add significantly to his trademark style). Jimmy Page’s affinity for both electric and acoustic guitars grew out of the early session work he was unhappy with. Swan Song Records executive Alan Callan said he went home and practiced on the acoustic nonstop for two months.

One of the path-burning groups in London in the mid-1960s was the Yardbirds, and when Eric Clapton, another up-and-coming guitarist with whom Page had played and recorded, left the group.

Jimmy Page didn’t always want to be a rock star. In fact, during an appearance on a 1957 episode of the U.K. children’s talent show ‘On Your Own,’ a 13-year-old Page said he wanted to grow up to work in “biological research” studying germs.

john paul jones

When the Yardbirds fell apart in the summer of 1968, Page was left with rights to the group’s name and a string of concert obligations. He enlisted John Paul Jones, who had done session work with the Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, Lulu, Dusty Springfield, and Shirley Bassey. John Paul Jones had been known by the stage name of John Baldwin, until Andrew Loog Oldham — later manager of the Rolling Stones — suggested he take a new moniker from the title of a popular movie starring Robert Stack. He said he had no idea who John Paul Jones was; he just liked the sound of it.

Page and Jones had first met, jammed together, and discussed forming a group when both were hired to back Donovan on his Hurdy Gurdy Man LP. Page had hoped to complete the group with drummer B.J. Wilson of Procol Harum and singer Terry Reid. Steve Marriott of the Small Faces was also on Jimmy Page’s list for possible singers. But he was reportedly met with this response from Marriott camp: “How would you like to play guitar with broken fingers?”

robert plant

Terry Reid recommended Robert Plant, who in turn suggested Bonham, drummer for his old Birmingham group, Band of Joy. Robert Plant is said to have pushed for John Bonham to join the fledgling group not because of his legendary prowess at the drums, but because he was also from the British Midlands — better known as the Black Country. Jimmy Page also asked Aynsley Dunbar, who later played in both Journey and Jefferson Starship, along with Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention,  about coming on board as Led Zeppelin’s first drummer. But Dunbar was more interested in launching his own band, the quickly forgotten Retaliation.

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page bonded over Joan Baez’s version of ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ from her ‘In Concert’ album during their first meeting in 1968. They’d rework the song for Led Zeppelin’s debut.Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham first played together as the session group behind P.J. Proby on his Three Week Hero.

In October 1968 they embarked on a tour of Scandinavia under the name the New Yardbirds. Upon their return to England they recorded their debut album in 30 hours. Not long after Robert Plant was asked to join, he ran into Paul Rodgers — who was then fronting Free. He asked Rodgers for advice, saying he’d been offered “either 30 quid a week or a percentage” to join. It was Rodgers who told him to take the percentage. (Rodgers would later co-found the Firm with Jimmy Page.)

Adopting the name Led Zeppelin (allegedly coined by Keith Moon), they toured the U.S. in early 1969, opening for Vanilla Fudge. Their first album was released in February; within two months it had reached Billboard’s Top 10. He paid for the recording of the entire album  as he wanted artistic control “in a vise grip.” Recording and mixing cost Page £1782 (or about $4300). The debut album ended up making over £3.5 million.

The second one took more than eight months, largely because of nonstop touring.

The piecemeal approach to recording ‘Led Zeppelin II’ between concert dates meant that John Bonham’s drum solo for ‘Moby Dick’ was spliced in from a different session than the rest of the song, as was the unaccompanied guitar solo in ‘Whole Lotta Love.”Led Zeppelin II reached Number One two months after its release. Since then every album of new material has gone platinum; five of the group’s LPs have reached Number One.

After touring almost incessantly during its first two years together, Zeppelin began limiting its appearances to alternating years. The band’s 1973 U.S. tour broke box-office records throughout the country (many of which had been set by the Beatles), and by 1975 its immense ticket and album sales had made Led Zeppelin the most popular rock & roll group in the world. In 1974 the quartet established its own label, Swan Song. The label’s first release was Physical Graffiti (Number One, 1975), the band’s first double-album set, which sold 4 million copies.

In 1971, Page bought the former Loch Ness, Scotland home of the British philosopher and occultist Aleister Crowley. Page claimed it was haunted, not necessarily because of Crowley, but because of its previous owners. “It was also a church that was burned to the ground with the congregation in it,” Page told Rolling Stone in 1975. “Strange things have happened in that house that had nothing to do with Crowley. The bad vibes were already there. A man was beheaded there, and sometimes you can hear his head rolling down.” The guitarist was a fan of Crowley’s, having Crowley’s “Do what thou wilt” inscribed in the run-off groove of the original Led Zeppelin III vinyl records. Page was believed by some to worship Satan because of these connections; Page never confirmed.

On August 4, 1975, Plant and his family were seriously injured in a car crash while vacationing on the Greek island of Rhodes. As a result, the group toured even less frequently. That and speculation among fans that supernatural forces may have come into play also heightened the Zeppelin mystique. Plant believed in psychic phenomena, and Page, whose interest in the occult was well known.

In 1976 Led Zeppelin released Presence, a four-million seller. Presence was recorded in 18 days in Munich, Germany. Plant had been in a car crash in Greece previously. Page explained to The Guardian, “Robert was really keen to do the recording, and we all were, because there wasn’t anything else that we could do.” Plant recalled a failed attempt to move on crutches at the studio where he took a fall. Page ran from the control room to pick him up. “He was like an Olympic athlete!,” Plant exclaimed. “ I’d never seen him move so fast in my life!”

The group had just embarked on its U.S. tour when Plant’s six-year-old son, Karac, died suddenly of a viral infection. The remainder of the tour was canceled, and the group took off the next year and a half.

In late 1978 Plant, Page, Jones, and Bonham began work on In Through the Out Door, their last group effort. They had completed a brief European tour and were beginning to rehearse for a U.S. tour when, on September 25, 1980, Bonham died at Page’s home of what was described as asphyxiation; he had inhaled his own vomit after having consumed alcohol and fallen asleep.

john nonham

On December 4, 1980, Page, Plant, and Jones released a cryptic statement to the effect that they could no longer continue as they were. Soon thereafter it was rumored that Plant and Page were going to form a band called XYZ (ex-Yes and Zeppelin) with Alan White and Chris Squire of Yes; the group never materialized. In 1982 Zeppelin released Coda (Number Six, 1982), a collection of early recordings and outtakes.

After Zeppelin drummer John Bonham’s death, Page didn’t touch a guitar for nine months. His first collaborative project after that, with  Squire and  White, never made it out to the studio. His soundtrack for the film Death Wish II is a predominately instrumental album that, at times, finds him playing fitfully with synthesizers. A 1983-84 ARMS (Action for Research into Multiple Sclerosis) benefit tour brought Page to the concert stage for the first time since 1980. He also contributed to former band mate Robert Plant’s first solo album, Pictures at 11, in 1982.

Two years later Page, founded the Firm with former Free and Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers. Page once referred to the band as a vehicle to show people he wasn’t the drug user oft rumored. In the fall of 1984, however, he was arrested for possession of cocaine, his second offense, and his personal life continued to remain shrouded in mystery, colored by rumors of an interest in the occult and a period of heroin addiction.The Firm released two albums and toured once, to lukewarm critical and mixed fan response.

In hopes to “avoid routine,” Page released his first non-soundtrack studio album, Outrider (#26, 1988), which featured vocals by John Miles, Chris Farlowe, and Plant. Outrider earned Page a Grammy nomination for best rock instrumental and sent him on his first solo tour.

For his next album, Page paired up with former Deep Purple and Whitesnake vocalist David Coverdale, whose similarities to Rodgers and Plant have provoked the ex-Zep singer to call him “David Coverversion.” The Page-Coverdale collaboration is a solid if somewhat generic contribution to the hard rock Page pioneered (the album peaked at Number Five in 1993).

Page and Plant put their differences aside in 1994 when they reunited to record a new album, No Quarter, in Wales, Morocco, and London, where Unledded, the MTV Unplugged special, was taped. A mix of Led Zep and new songs, the album featured musicians from Marrakech, India, and Egypt. It reached Number Four on the U.S. album chart and went platinum. Page and Plant embarked on a 1995 tour to promote the album.

plant & page

In 1998 Page and Plant released Walking Into Clarksdale, the first album of new material they had recorded together in two decades. “Most High,” a single, recalled Zep’s hypnotic “Kashmir,” but the album (its title an allusion to the cradle of the Delta blues) was more wistful than bombastic. It reached Number Eight on the U.S. charts and went gold. Page was also featured on Sean Combs’ “Come With Me,” a song from the movie Godzilla that set rap lyrics to the melody from “Kashmir.” In 1999, Page toured with the Black Crowes, performing a mix of Zep and Crowes material, as well as old blues covers. Live at the Greek, a tour document, came out in 2000.

In December, 2007, Led Zeppelin reunited for a one-off charity concert in London—with Jason Bonham filling in on drums for his departed dad, John—fueling speculation that the quartet might get together for a full tour and album. Instead, Page appeared in It Might Get Loud, a documentary about electric guitars that also featured Jack White and The Edge. In early 2010, Page announced that he would release a limited-edition autobiography.


Which Bluegrass Master Would Accompany Himself By Dancing in a Sandbox?

John Hartford won Grammy awards in three different decades, recorded a catalog of more than 30 albums, and wrote one of the most popular songs of all time, Gentle On My Mind.  He was a regular guest and contributor on the Glen Campbell Good Time Hour and the Smothers Brothers Show.  He added music and narration to Ken Burns’ landmark Civil War series, and was an integral part of the hugely popular “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack and Down From the Mountain concert tour.  But that hardly explains John Hartford.

oh brother

John Hartford was an American original. He was a musician, songwriter, steamboat pilot, author, artist, disc jockey, calligrapher, dancer, folklorist, father, and historian.

Born John Cowan Harford in New York on December 30, 1937, John grew up in St. Louis.  He was a descendent of Patrick Henry and cousin of Tennessee Williams.  His grandfather was a founder of the Missouri Bar Association and his father was a prominent doctor.

At an early age, John fell in love with two things: music and the Mississippi River.

They were passions that would last his lifetime, and their pursuit would be his life’s passage.

gentle     gentle 2

In 1965 he moved to Nashville. The following year he was signed to RCA Records by the legendary Chet Atkins. It was Atkins who convinced John to add a “t” to his last name, becoming John Hartford. In 1967 his second RCA release “Earthwords & Music” featured the single “Gentle on My Mind”, a song Hartford wrote after seeing the movie Dr. Zhivago.  That year, the song earned four Grammy awards.  Hartford would take home two awards, one as the writer and one for his own recording of the song.  The other two went to Glen Campbell who had heard Hartford’s version on the radio and decided to record it.  Campbell’s rendition became an instant classic, and the song became one of the most recorded and performed songs of all time, covered by everyone from Elvis Presley, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra to Aretha Franklin.

Hartford often said that Gentle On My Mind bought his freedom.

He used that freedom to explore his various creative curiosities, and was usually happy to take his friends along on the trip.

In 1968 John Hartford left Nashville for Los Angeles, where he played on the Byrds’ classic album, Sweethearts of the Rodeo.  He became a regular guest and contributor on CBS’s Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and later on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. He would also earn his riverboat pilot’s license by the end of the decade.

aero plain

John Hartford became mentor and mystic for a generation of pickers, singers, and songwriters. His landmark record, Aereo-plain (1971) documented his work with Vassar Clements, Norman Blake, and Tut Taylor. Rooted firmly in tradition but sprouting at the top with hippie hair, the group’s instrumental mastery and free-wheeling style bridged a musical gap between traditional bluegrass and a progressive new audience, making every song a cult favorite and every live performance the thing of legend. According to Sam Bush, “Without Aereo-plain, there would be no ‘newgrass’ music.”

In 1976, John won another Grammy award for his contemporary folk masterpiece, Mark Twang.  The album featured a set of quirky river-centric original songs, presented in stripped down arrangements, typically featuring only Hartford accompanying himself on banjo, fiddle, or guitar while tapping his feet on an amplified sheet of plywood.  The combination was magical, and would become his trademark sound for many years as a solo act.

Summer days might find him piloting the Julia Belle Swain on her afternoon run, before entertaining the passengers at night.  During festival season, his amazing instinct for single-handedly captivating an audience would often have him leaving the stage and leading a processional of joyful dancers through the grounds, like a fiddle-playing pied piper.

Hartford was famous for his unique performance style. That is, accompanying himself while dancing in a sandbox. (see 2nd video above.)

Later in his career, he would revisit different ensemble configurations, recording and touring with his son, Jamie, and with various incarnations of the John Hartford String Band.

civil war

At his house overlooking the Cumberland River, John continued to write, record, and fill his hours with music.  Already a published author (“Steamboat in a Cornfield” and “Word Movies”), Hartford also developed an extensive manuscript on the life and music of fiddler, Ed Haley. He kept busy with a host of side projects such as narration for the Ken Burns public-television series The Civil War.

In 2001, he was awarded a Grammy award for his contribution to the soundtrack of “O Brother Where Art Thou”.  His bittersweet appearance on the subsequent “Down From The Mountain” tour was immortalized in the concert film.  He died on June 4, 2001, after a long battle with non-hodgkin’s lymphoma.

This summer, fans and musicians will again gather as festivals draw tens of thousands of music lovers.  For many, it is like a family reunion….where the uninitiated, cousins, friends, and in-laws are always welcome.  And while John Hartford no longer performs, his music and memory continue to permeate both stage and campground.

His influence is everywhere.  From Merlefest to Telluride to Bonnaroo

Just ask Bela Fleck or Sam Bush, or Yonder Mountain, or Tim O’Brien….or the guy at the next campfire.


Which Rocker was Found in his Car with Multiple Stab Wounds and Covered in Gasoline?

Imagine that the British Invasion of the US never happened, that the Beatles’ three-night stand on The Ed Sullivan Show never aired, and that American popular music in the 1960s developed on its own, without the introduction of a viral strain from across the Atlantic. What might it have sounded like?

Maybe the answer lies in the music of Bobby Fuller, self-styled “Rock’n’Roll King of the Southwest”, who died on 18 July 1966, aged 23, in mysterious circumstances. Throughout the early 60s – working variously as a songwriter, performer, producer, label-owner and impresario – Fuller carved out a unique sound, blending southern styles and drawing heavily on the stripped-down, raw, heart-on-sleeve rock’n’roll of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Eddie Cochran. To those elements he added vocal harmonies styled on the Everly Brothers and searing blasts of surf guitar and garage rock fuzz bass. It was a purely American music – one that didn’t acknowledge the Beatles or other British bands then making an impact in America.

“Contrary to popular belief, American music was alive and well before the British Invasion,” says Miriam Linna. Her book I Fought the Law: the Life and Strange Death of Bobby Fuller, titled after its subject’s biggest hit, makes a compelling case for a re-evaluation of Fuller as a pivotal figure in American pop music. “My brother was ahead of his time,” says Randy Fuller, Bobby’s younger sibling and bass player for the Bobby Fuller Four, who co-wrote the book with Linna.

Randy recalls that his brother liked to say the Beatles would “never be able to do Buddy Holly like Buddy Holly because they’re not from Texas”. In other words, they didn’t have the cadence or the swing; unable to tap into a rich vein of regional music that included southern blues and R&B, western swing and Tejano, from south of the border, they couldn’t rock’n’roll like boys from the south. That propulsive rhythm is what drives I Fought the Law, a top 10 hit in March 1966 for the Bobby Fuller Four, who gamely performed it on TV shows such as Hullabaloo and Shivaree, in jailhouse sets or backed by hot-stepping cowgirl go-go dancers brandishing six-shooters. With their distinctive Jay Sebring haircuts, Beatle boots and tailored suits, the Bobby Fuller Four looked curiously out-of-step with their shaggier and more outré peers on the Los Angeles music scene.

bobby fuller 4

I Fought the Law has become the archetypal outlaw rock’n’roll anthem, and has been covered more than 50 times, by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and, most famously, the Clash. Although the song was written by Buddy Holly’s friend Sonny Curtis and originally performed by the Crickets in 1960, it was Fuller’s version, with its intense, frenetic energy, that popularized the song and drew generations of punks and rockers to it. The song’s success served to overshadow Fuller’s own formidable talents as a writer and arranger of pounding, anthemic odes to teenage heartbreak, such as Let Her Dance and Never to Be Forgotten. Bob Dylan was apparently so enamored with Fuller’s slow-burning ballad A New Shade of Blue that he applied new lyrics to the melody to make Soon after Midnight on his 2012 album, Tempest – claiming the songwriting credits for him.

bobby fuller 2

Fuller was a hometown hero in El Paso long before he hit the national charts. In 1961, aged 19, he built his own studio in the den of his parents’ three-bedroom, two-bathroom home there, recording initially on a Viking reel-to-reel tape deck, before gradually acquiring more and better equipment. “If it was the tape recorder that Bob Keane used to do La Bamba with, he got it,” Randy says. “And he would talk my mom and dad into buying it for him.” The brothers built their own control booth and echo chamber, and Fuller started two labels, Eastwood and Exeter, to release his music. In 1964, inspired by what he saw and heard at surf music pioneer Dick Dale’s Rendezvous Ballroom on a trip to California, Fuller opened his own teen club in El Paso (also called the Rendezvous). His group, then known as the Fanatics, was the house band. “It was a sight to behold,” says Randy, “playing surf music in El Paso at our teen club.

Teenage desert rats flocked to the club dressed as surfers and beach bums. Bobby became a local sensation. “England has the Beatles but El Paso has Bobby,” the El Paso Herald Post crowed in September 1964. The group experienced Beatles-style teen adulation on a local level. An appearance at a local shopping center drew “6,000 screaming and cheering boys and girls”, the paper noted. “It was like something was about to happen and you knew it,” Randy says.

By the close of 1964, they had outgrown El Paso and upped sticks to California, where they looked up Bob Keane, owner of Del-Fi Records, who had discovered and produced Valens and had expressed a prior interest in the band. Keane duly signed them, becoming their manager, booker, producer, label boss and publisher. Years of playing across the southwest had honed the newly christened Bobby Fuller Four into a formidable live group who wowed the Hollywood music scene. The top 10 success of I Fought the Law in the spring of 1966 turned them into teen idols almost overnight.

Things quickly soured, though. Keane’s attempts to mould Fuller into a Valens-style star alienated the rest of the band, and Fuller himself became dissatisfied with the direction in which Keane was pushing the group and with a punishing tour schedule that kept them out of the studio. Although known to eschew gimmicks and overdubs in favor of producing recordings that could be recreated on stage, it was gimmicks that would ultimately stifle Fuller’s career. Keane came up with a succession of dumb marketing ideas for the group: a single released as the Shindigs to secure a slot on the music TV show Shindig!; a drag racing-themed debut long-player, branded with the name of the Los Angeles radio station KRLA; a cameo in The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini – a goofy beach party movie starring Boris Karloff – lip-synching to songs behind Nancy Sinatra. And, it may have been gimmicks that killed Bobby Fuller, too.

On the afternoon of 18 July 1966, Fuller was found dead by his mother in her blue Oldsmobile. Initial reports pointed to suicide: “Musician Robert Fuller, 23, was found dead on the parking lot at his Hollywood apartment house with a plastic hose in his hands leading to a gasoline can,” the LA Times reported. That’s how the police saw it, too, closing the case without even brushing for fingerprints or interviewing anyone. The details told a different story. The car had not been in the lot 30 minutes before his mother found it, yet Fuller’s body was in an advanced state of rigor mortis, suggesting he had died elsewhere.

Various theories have been advanced about Fuller’s death, most wildly implausible: an accident following a bad reaction to LSD; knocked off by the Manson family; retribution for a dalliance with the girlfriend of a mob-connected Los Angeles nightclub owner. One theory even implicated Keane, noting that Fuller was the third artist under his charge, after Valens and Sam Cooke, to die in disputed circumstances.

While Linna’s book doesn’t solve the mystery, it does offer up the name of somebody whose entry into Fuller’s life was a bad omen: Morris Levy, owner of Roulette Records, a notorious figure once described as the “Godfather of the American music business”. Levy’s business partners and associates read like a roll call of the east-coast mafia, and included members of the Gambino, Genovese and DeCavalcante crime families. The book catalogues the grim history of beatings, threats and deaths of those associated with Levy.

Shortly before Fuller’s death, Keane’s label had signed an exclusive distribution deal with Roulette, and the Bobby Fuller Four’s last single, The Magic Touch, a Motown-style soul number picked by Keane to piggyback another musical fad, was penned by a songwriter associated with Roulette. Randy believes it is likely that his brother’s death was connected to a business deal he wanted to back out of. He recalled seeing his brother and Keane in the company of a third man during the Bobby Fuller Four’s spring 1966 stay in New York, although he could not remember who it was. When shown a photo of Levy by Linna, Randy identified him without knowing his name.

Randy believes that, had he lived, Bobby might have returned to El Paso, opened a new teen club and continued his experiments in the studio, free from interference and commercial pressures. If so, he would almost certainly be thought of now as a seminal and visionary figure, along the lines of Brian Wilson, Phil Spector or Joe Meek. Linna, too, is convinced Fuller was destined for more than cult success, pointing to the fact that a UK tour had been booked for the Bobby Fuller Four. “If that had happened, I honestly believe today’s music scene would be vastly different,” she says. “[Fuller] would have represented the second coming of Buddy Holly, who eight years earlier had toured Britain, inspiring everyone from the fledgling Beatles to those guys who ended up being in a band called the Rolling Stones.”

And maybe, just maybe, the Bobby Fuller Four would have spearheaded an American Invasion of Britain.