Saturday, August 28, 2010

Sam Chatmon Interview: Last of the Mississippi Sheiks

When Sam Chatmon first began playing the blues, Teddy Roosevelt was president of the United States. Most of his neighbors in rural Mississippi were still listening to rags and reels that dated back to slavery days.

Chatmon launched his recording career in the 1930s, playing alongside his brothers Bo Carter and Lonnie Chatmon in the era’s most celebrated string band, the Mississippi Sheiks, and performed as one-half of the Bluebird duo “Chatman Brothers (Lonnie and Sam).” Outliving his brothers, Sam was “rediscovered” in 1960 by Chris Strachwitz, who recorded him anew for Arhoolie Records. Sam went on to make several fine albums for other labels and attain status as an elder statesmen of the blues.

In concert and on record, Chatmon seemed a living summation of the country blues style his family helped pioneer more than a half-century earlier. While skilled on banjo, bass viol, mandolin, harmonica, and piano, he most often performed on acoustic guitar. Like his more famous brother Bo, Sam was facile in many keys and favored smooth fingerpicking patterns and old-time pluck-and-strum rhythms. He sang with a warm, plaintive, almost delicate voice, staying true to the spirit of what he reverently referred to as “the old-fashioned music that first was handed down.”

Most sources credit January 10, 1897, as the date of Sam Chatmon’s birth. His father, fiddler Henderson Chatmon, was born in slavery and had several sets of children. “My daddy had three wives,” Sam claimed in the liners to the Rounder album Sam Chatmon’s Advice, “and my mother had the least children of any of them, which was 13. Daddy said he had 60 children, but that ain’t countin’ Charley Patton and all them on the outside.” (While the Patton link is unproved, Henderson reportedly had an affair with Annie Patton, Charley’s mother, during the 1890s.)

The elder Chatmon owned fiddles, guitars, a banjo, mandolin, clarinet, piano, and bass viol, and his sons banded together to play white square dances and black parties. “All of us nine brothers played together,” Sam described. “Lonnie and Edgar would play the violins. Harry would play the guitar, piano, or violin. Willie and Bert played the guitar. Bo would play the guitar or banjo, and brother Laurie beat the drums. I’d usually play bass violin for them. Walter Vincent joined us in 1921. They called him ‘Walter Jacob’ on the records, but old man Vincent was his daddy.” (In discographies, Walter’s last name is usually listed as “Vincson.”)

The Mississippi Sheiks, 1936: Bo Carter, Walter Vincson, and Sam Chatmon.

Working in various configurations, Walter Vincson and Lonnie, Bo, and Sam Chatmon performed and recorded as the Mississippi Sheiks, a name inspired by a popular 1921 Rudolph Valentino film, The Sheik. A propulsive fiddler, Lonnie managed the band, while Bo, a strong, confident singer and gifted guitarist, became its biggest star. (Bo, whose real name was Armenter Chatmon, cut stacks of popular records – some quite risque – during the 1930s under the pseudonym Bo Carter.) Vincson’s quavering vocals and steady guitar strums helped bring the music its exhilarating, countrified edge. The Mississippi Sheiks’ biggest hit, 1930’s bittersweet “Sitting on Top of the World,” became part of the blues repertoire, inspiring covers by Tampa Red, Bob Wills, Howlin’ Wolf, Ray Charles, Carl Perkins, Doc Watson, Cream, the Grateful Dead, and many others. Young Muddy Waters covered Mississippi Sheiks songs with his first string band. “Walked ten miles to see them play,” Waters told Jim O’Neal. “They was high time through there, makin’ them good records, man.”

During the height of the Depression, when precious few blues records were made, the Mississippi Sheiks put out 78s on Columbia, OKeh, Paramount, Champion, and Bluebird. Their final session took place in January 1935. The following year, Lonnie and Sam recorded a dozen songs as the Chatman Brothers; aural evidence suggests Sam sang lead on all of these tracks but “Radio Blues.” According to Sam, the Mississippi Sheiks folded in 1937, when death claimed five of his brothers and sisters. By then, the band’s old-timey sound was rapidly being eclipsed by more streamlined styles. Bo was still specializing in risqué hokum at his final session in February ’40. He fell on hard times afterwards and died in obscurity in Memphis during the ’60s.

Sam worked as a farmer and a night watchman during the ’40s and ’50s, buying a house on a half-acre near Hollandale, a small Delta community about a dozen miles from the Mississippi River. When Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records taped him there during a 1960 field trip, Sam sounded remarkably similar to his 78s. He played many old Mississippi Sheiks numbers, as well as religious hymns and his own songs of social protest. He went on to perform concerts and record for Blue Goose, Rounder, and Flying Fish. Esteemed music critic Robert Palmer wrote of him in The New York Times: “The rhythmic elegance of Mr. Chatmon’s guitar playing and the unhurried, conversational warmth of his singing are qualities that have all but disappeared from American music. Even the best of the younger blues singers have captured only a part of the whole, while Mr. Chatmon effortlessly illuminates a vanished era with every gesture and phrase.”

Unlike some of his “rediscovered” contemporaries, Sam did more than recapitulate the past. He bravely sang of racial inequality in songs such as “I Have to Paint My Face,” with its ironic images of a “stomp-down, baby-chicken-killin’ nigger” and a black man’s desire to paint his face a lighter shade. Between concerts and recording sessions, he returned home to farm. Our interview took place during October 1980. It was late afternoon, and Sam had just come in from working in a field near Hollandale. This interview also appeared in the February 2009 issue my favorite blues magazine, Living Blues.

Sam Chatmon made his final professional appearance at the 1982 Mississippi Delta Blues Festival and passed away on February 2, 1983.

* * * *

There is some confusion about your birth date. How old are you?

I’m gonna be 82.

Your father was a fiddler.


What kind of music did he play?

Ragtime music, square-set dance. They called it a square dance music, breakdowns.

Did he play with another fiddler named Milton Bracy?

Uh huh.

Was this when you were a child?

No, I wasn’t born

You were the seventh son.


Did your father teach Lonnie to play?

No, he didn’t teach no one how to play. All of us just learned ourself how to play. But his brother in law, Leo Wesson, taught him the notes, so he could play a violin by notes.

Could any of your brothers read music?


When did you start playing guitar?

I started about four years old.

How did you learn?

I just picked it up and watched the others – same way I learned how to drive a car. Ain’t nobody never showed me how to drive no car. I sit in there and watch.

Did you learn how to fingerpick when you were little?

Yeah, that’s the first way I learned.

What kind of songs was that?

Just the same old old-fashioned blues.

Can you remember the first blues you ever heard?

Well, I tell ya, the first I ever hear was: “Run down the river / thought I’d jump and drown / I thought about my baby / then I turn around.” That’s the first piece I ever heard anybody sing. My oldest brother sang it. His name was Ferdinand.

Did you meet any bluesmen when you were young?

No, I never did go out that way. I didn’t start out till I was seven years old, and I was with my brothers. And we didn’t play no blues hardly, because we’s playin’ for white folks.

Did you ever meet Blind Lemon Jefferson?

Yeah, I met Blind Lemon. Since I been pickin’ guitar and start playin’ with Bo, I done met ’em all!

What was your impression of Blind Lemon?

He was okay. I used to play like him, but I quit.

How about Charley Patton?

Well, I picked like Charley Patton, but I didn't like his singin’. Charley Patton was my brother.

Who were your favorite players in those days?

Well, my favorite man for singin’ the blues is B.B. King. He used to follow me around when he couldn’t pick a little guitar.

Did you ever meet Robert Johnson?

Yeah! You know, he picked the “Big Road Blues,” and I picked “Stop and Listen” just like he picked “Big Road Blues.”

What did he look like?

He was sort of tall, brownskin man. He’s a nice young fella.

There’s an old story that he sold his soul to the devil.

No. I’ll tell ya, he picked that piece about he sold his soul to the devil. Nah, he wasn't crazy until he go to drinkin’. Then he act funny.

You started playing the bull fiddle when you were seven?

Yeah, I started to playin’ the bull fiddle. I had to carry a box to be tall enough to reach it.

Sam’s brother, Bo Carter.

When did you pick up on banjo?

Well, how I found out, you see, I knowed how to play a guitar when I was in the band. We had a banjo tuned like the first four strings on a guitar, where I could just play anything I want to play on the banjo.

When did you start playing for money?

For money!? I was playin’ for money when I was seven years old.

How was the pay back then?

We was doin’ pretty good for a while. We’d play at Coopersville and Brownsville. We’d get $25 dollars a week – that was great big money! Yeah, $25 a week – that was big money!

How much could a guy make a week working in the fields at that time?

Well, you’d get about three dollars, maybe, a week. Six days.

Did you ever play parties for the white folks you worked for?

Yeah, I play for them. I used to serenade for ’em, right here in Hollandale. He give me 60 cents a day for plowin’, and give me five dollars for playin’ three or four pieces at his house.

When did Walter Vincson join your band?

That was back in ’23 or ’22. And then Charlie McCoy, Memphis Minnie – all of us played together there in Jackson. And we’d have two or three jobs. We send half of ’em one way and the other half go another way.

When you were playing music, did you still hold down a day job?

I was farmin’.

It’s said the Mississippi Sheiks became the post popular string band of the time. Is that true?

Sho is.

Who was the competition?

That Memphis Jug Band and all them – we played up there to them. They didn’t have no time with us.

As the guitarist in the band, did you prefer doing blues, fox trots, one steps . . .

My favorite was the “St. Louis Blues.” I liked that ever since I first heard it! Yeah, that’s what I likes to play now.

What key do you play it in?

I play it in G.

Do you use many open tunings?

No, I don’t use ’em now. I used to use ’em. Now I stays in regular tunin’.

Did you ever play bottleneck?

That’s when I used to use the bottleneck, when I tuned it into Spanish [open G].

Tell me about the first time you recorded.

That was for P.C. Brockman. I recorded in Jackson in ’23. That was the first time I recorded. I played with the other boys. I put out records – me and Memphis Minnie, Charlie McCoy, and my brother Harry. [Blogger’s note: Chatmon may be referring to the ARC company’s 1935 field trip to Jackson, during which recordings were made by Harry Chatmon, Minnie Wallace, Son Joe, Robert Wilkins, and others.]

How much did you make for that session?

Oh, just nothin’. About twenty dollars.

No royalties?

No! No royalties at all.

And then you did some songs with Lonnie that came out credited to the “Chatman Brothers (Lonnie and Sam).”

Yeah, in ’36.

Is that when you did that nice variation on “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor”?

Yeah, I think it was. I put out another piece, the same tune as “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor” – “If You Don’t Want Me, Please Don’t Dog Me ’Round.” Now, that’s just the same thing as “Pallet on the Floor.” I changed the words.

Back then, were you making up a lot of material?

Yeah, I made up all I played!

How did you go about making up tunes? Did you come up with the melody first?

Well, the way you get a song together, you got to think about what you gonna sing about. When you’re puttin’ out a record, you ain’t got to put out but four verses – no more than five. You play through it once, and that clear the three minutes. You see, we used to have to play in three minutes, but now you can’t play but two minutes and a half on these little bitty records [45s]. So that’s the way I do it. I get me five verses, then I just practice up on them and go on put ’em out.

What was your favorite song that you made up?

My favorite song that I made up was the “Radio Blues” and “Please, Baby, Don’t Give My Love Away Because I’m Sinkin' Down, I’ll Be Up Again Someday." I like them two pieces.

You and Bo had a lot of humor in your blues.

Well, I guess we did.

Did the band break up in ’37?

Well, I don’t know exactly, because I didn’t take time to try to think about when it broke up. ’Cause we was getting’ apart ’cause the one died and another one died. So that’s what broke the band up. My brother Ed, he played with my brother Bo in Hollandale, and I wasn’t playin’ at all. I was a night watch at the cotton press.

Did you still play guitar during the years you weren’t performing for a living?

Yeah, I played.

Did you meet any of the younger bluesmen, like Albert King?

Yeah, I met Albert King and Freddie King – they stayed on the plantation where I was the agent then. In Arcola.

You started playing again in 1960.

Uh huh.

What did you think about someone coming to find you and getting you jobs in San Diego?

Chris Strachwitz? Well, my wife was sick, and I thought it was the greatest thing that ever happened, ’cause I had about done spent my money out down to nothin’. And he brought that money by just like this, and just give it to me.

Was it surprising that your music became popular again?

Well, no. Because everywhere I went, even when I was five and six years old, when I’d go to these clubs to play, the first thing they would say when I walked in the door, folks started to pattin’ and hollerin’, “Let Sam have it! Let Sam have it!” And I’d get that, man, and people – whoo! I’d put life all in there! And it’s the same thing right now. Anywhere I go, I just haves a zeal. I have a good zeal to play.

What kind of guitar do you use now?

I have a Gibson made in 19 and 10. I been using it about seven or eight years, but the first guitar I had when I was little was a Washburn. It’s out there in California now, hangin’ upside the wall.

Did you ever play a Stella?

Yeah! Man, them there was good guitars! I wished I could find me a Stella now.

Through the years, did you have much interaction with the other Mississippi bluesmen?

Yeah, I had a whole lot a action with ’em. Every one more or less did recordin’. I went to recordin’.

Did everyone get along, or was there a lot of competition?

No, everybody get along fine. I ain’t never been out where nobody like to want to argue or nothin’ about nothin’ like that.

When was the best time for your kind of blues?

Well, I’ll tell ya. From ’60, it’s been good time to me ever since I started back to playin’, ’cause I pick like Lonnie Johnson, pick like Blind Blake and them. And everybody when I do the pickin’, they say, “Oh, he play like so-and-so. He play like such-and-such a somebody.” So I got me a way of my own. And I learned how to pick it and learned how to sing to it, and that’s what I’ve done. And I’ve been havin’ a nice time ever since.

How often do you play guitar these days?

I aim to pick it up every day, but sometimes I be too busy. I try to play in the evening – I like the night. I got a boy be hear directly. He want to come to pick some with me. I’m gonna show him how to pick just like I done with others.

Do you like to play on your porch?

Yeah. I likes to play anywhere! I love playing!

Are you the last of the performing Chatmons?

My boy got his own band – he in Chicago. He’s called “Singin’ Sam.” My grandchildren play too. My grandboy, his boy, he’s a saxophone blower. He ain’t but 17 years old. He’s a drum beater, a piano player, an organ player.

Do you always plays fingerpick style?

I’ll tell ya. I don’t use no picks. I got a pocketful of ’em, but I picks with my natural fingers. That’s the way I be. Now, I can play any old jazz songs you can name, way back, but I plays them sometimes with a pick. I’ll take a pick out then, but other than that I play with my natural fingers.

What old jazz songs do you play?

Like “Dinah” and “Somebody Stole My Gal.” All them pieces. That’s jazz music!

Have you ever played an electric guitar?

Yeah, that’s how I first started off when Chris Strachwitz come by here [in 1960]. He had an acoustic guitar, and I picked his acoustic guitar and left my electric guitar alone. He didn’t want no electrics on the record I was puttin’ out. And I picked his guitar.

What kind of electric guitar did you have?

I had a Fender.

A Stratocaster, Telecaster . . .

No, it’s a Fender! I didn’t know nothin’ but a Fender, and I got the amplifier yet. I traded the guitar for one of Sears, Roebucks. That guitar was too heavy for me, so I got me a little old Sears, Roebuck guitar now.

A Silvertone?

Silvertone! That’s what B.B. King used to pick.

When did you get into electric guitar?

Well, when the wife died, I had a guitar here at home. I said, “I give up.” Not to play no more. And my boy come here, and he brought me a good guitar, an electric guitar, that Fender, and started me back out to playin’. That was in ’60.

Have you ever been onstage with an electric?

Yeah, man, that’s all I played when I first started off. When I come to California, I played electric guitar everywhere I went. Yeah, but they didn’t like the electric guitar. I was tryin’ to get a job, audition, and they wanted acoustic guitar. So I said, “Let me pick the one that I’m used to.” Every time I’d pick, they’d hire me.

What do you think the future holds for the blues?

Well, I’ll tell you what I believe – I might be wrong – but everybody begin to like blues. There’s a mighty few people you find don’t like blues. Everywhere I go play, when I leave, going from one place to the other one to play, the people behind me just like the prodigal son. All the people followin’ me to get to hear me play again.

Do you have any advice you’d pass along to a young musician?

Uh huh. Don’t drink! That’s my best advice. Do you know, a person drink, he think he be doin’ somethin’, when you actin’ a fool.

Will you be playing the rest of your life?

I'm gonna play till I can’t. When I play, I feel better than I do when I’m sittin’ down. Yeah, my playin’ makes me feel good!

Was blues considered devil’s music when you were young?

No, no. And I’ll tell you the way I do. I picks a blues – anywhere I go, I play ’em, and then I can play many church songs. And then I can get up the next day. When God gave you a talent, it ain’t no sin for you to do it. I don’t feel like blues is sin. That’s the way I feel. If that wasn’t a talent the Lord give me, I couldn’t do it, and somebody else’d be doin’ it.

Are you happy with your life and music?

Sure is. Just as happy as I can be!

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

B.B. King: Live at the Regal

B.B. King works audiences the same way he works the guitar he calls Lucille. He teases them, tickles them, and then jolts them with the lyrics he sings and the notes he plays. “Usually when I’m up there onstage,” King explains, “I try and do like an electric eel and throw my little shock through the whole audience. And usually the reaction comes back double-force and pulls me out of it, because the people can help you entertain. They become part of it. It’s something like radar: You send out a beam, and it hits and comes back with more energy.”

Nowhere is this better exemplified than on King’s classic Live at the Regal album, recorded on November 21, 1964, at Chicago’s Regal Theater, one of the nation’s most prestigious black venues. King had played there many times before, and Johnny Pate, a top producer and arranger, came in to supervise the recording. B.B.’s hard-swinging band was in sublime form, and King remembers his tenor man, Bobby Forte, as one of his “all-time great sidemen.” Rounding out the lineup was pianist Duke Jethro, trumpeter Kenny Sands, saxophonist Johnny Board, electric bassist Leo Lauchie, and drummer Sonny Freeman.

In the liner notes for his King of the Blues box set, B.B. recalled that “Johnny Pate set up everything, making sure that we had a good sound, and he recorded two or three of the shows. And the audience was good. See, we were starting to lose young blacks. I’d never really had a young black audience – blacks were with me according to my age and older, and as I got older, my black audience got older with me. But at the Regal and in Chicago, they still think well of and respect me and the dignity of blues, thanks to Muddy Waters and the rest. That particular day in Chicago everything came together and the audience was right in sync.”

The Regal repertoire was typical for that era. The band starts with “Every Day I Have the Blues,” with B.B.’s beautifully placed, warm-toned solo soaring over the driving rhythm and horn kicks. He then slides easily into “Sweet Little Angel,” which he describes as “one of the real, real oldies.” The song’s pedigree includes Lucille Bogan’s 1930 piano-backed version, Tampa Red’s 1934 slide guitar rendition called “Black Angel Blues,” and Robert Nighthawk’s 1949 Aristocrat single of “Black Angel Blues.” B.B. himself had cut an RPM single of the song in 1956. He laces his Regal version with crackling lines featuring his trademark “hummingbird vibrato,” which many have imitated but none have surpassed. (In a classic example of turning limitations to strengths, King originated his distinctive vibrato early in his career, when he found himself unable to play traditional Mississippi bottleneck blues: “I won’t say I invented playing like this,” he says, “but they weren’t doing it before I started! Bukka White and quite a few other people used bottlenecks, but I got stupid fingers. They won’t work. If I get something like that in my hand and try to use it, it just won’t work. So my ears told me that when I trilled my hand, I’d get a sound similar to the sound they were getting with a bottleneck.”)

Without missing a beat, King and his band segue from “Sweet Little Angel” into another powerhouse blues, “It’s My Own Fault.” His Gibson ES-355 SV, at the time the company’s top semi-hollowbody model, sported stereo electronics and a Vari-tone. With a flick of the switch, King dials in a tougher, more trebly sound for his solo flourishes. “I usually go through the stereo circuitry, with both pickups working against each other,” King explained. “With just a quick shift of the hand I can set the volume or change the tone. To tell you the truth, I’m not even sure which pickup does what. I just put them both on and use my ear.” Towels or wadded paper stuffed through the guitar’s soundholes eliminate feedback.

King’s storytelling lyrics during “It’s My Own Fault” hold the audience at rapt attention; his blistering solo brings them screaming to their feet. Without pause, the band modulates to a higher key as B.B. explains that he’s going to go “way down in the alley” with his next selection, “How Blue Can You Get.” His opening solo is a masterpiece of phrasing and string bends – pure B.B. King at his best. He delivers his heart-rending lyrics like a preacher in an old-time revival, and he brings down the house with his punchline, “I gave you seven children, and now you want to give ‘em back.” Wow!

King jump-starts his original “Please Love Me” with an Elmore James chordal flourish. He then pays tribute to his swing and bebop influences, Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker, with horn-like guitar lines soaring above the jumping band. He follows with a sexy jump blues, “You Upset Me Baby,” comping rhythm while giving his band room to move.

B.B. brings Lucille back into the spotlight for the extended opening solo of the “waaay back” slow blues “Worry, Worry,” providing a case-study in how to “tell the truth” on electric guitar. The performance showcases his extraordinary finesse with bends, which often involves hitting a fret lower than the intended note and then quickly bending up to pitch. “My reason for developing this way of doing it was that my ears don’t always hear like they should,” King explained with typical modesty. “I’m always afraid that I might miss a note if I try to hit it right on the head, so if I hit down and slide up to it, my ears tell me when I get there. But also it’s more like a violin or a voice; you just gliss up to it.”

After the hard blues of “Worry, Worry,” King and company change the pace with the rumba-esque, riff-driven “Woke Up This Morning,” which he’d recorded a dozen years earlier for RPM. He then launches into a reworking of Victoria Spivey’s prewar blues, “You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now,” making the song uniquely his own with gospel-inflected vocals and taut guitar jabs. He ends the show with “Help the Poor,” a modernistic, rumba-flavored plea for understanding. In just 35 minutes, B.B. King has delivered a blues masterpiece.

Mirroring the audience reaction, critics went wild when ABC released Live at the Regal, proclaiming it King’s “best ever” recording and hailing the “rediscovery” of a bluesman who, ironically, was averaging 310 shows a year. As the ever-astute critic Leonard Feather aptly put it in his liner notes for a reissue of Live at the Regal, “This unique Regal session is the definitive statement of B.B. King’s phenomenal rapport with a crowd, of the miraculous vibrations that can exist between audience and performer. In essence, it tells you how, where, and why he ultimately became King of the Blues.”

These days, B.B. King is quick to point out that while the Regal concert was a good one, he’d played hundreds of better ones during the same era, which found him performing almost exclusively to black audiences. The album’s release in 1964 was perfectly timed, as young British rock musicians were in the midst of the “blues boom” that had led to the formation of bands such as the Animals, Yardbirds, and Rolling Stones. Back home in America, Live at the Regal struck a resonant chord with Michael Bloomfield, Duane Allman, Johnny Winter, and many other guitarists who’d soon bring blues to stadium-sized audiences.

For a few years after its release, B.B. would still play to largely black audiences in the Southern chitlin circuit and Northern clubs. After one such performance, he was paid a compliment that shows great insight into his artistry: “I was at the Apollo Theater one time, and there was a critic there, and to me what he said was one of the great compliments that people have given me. The critic wrote: ‘B.B. King sings, and then Lucille sings.’ That made me feel very good, because I do feel that I’m still singing when I play. That’s why I don’t play a lot of notes maybe like some people. Maybe that’s the reason why most of my music is very simple – that’s the way I sing. When I’m playing a solo, I hear me singing through the guitar.” And that, ultimately, is the deepest beauty of Live at the Regal.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Pops Staples Interview: Playing for Peace

The Staple Singers recorded some of the most transcendent gospel and inspired pop of the 20th century. With his gentle voice and sublime guitar style, Roebuck “Pops” Staples anchored the family quartet that featured, at various times, his son Pervis and his daughters Cleotha, Yvonne, and Mavis. Although the Staple Singers were based in Chicago, Pops’ Mississippi Delta roots influenced his music throughout his life.

Pops was born in 1914 in rural Winona, Mississippi, and at age eight moved to Will Dockery’s plantation in Sunflower County. As a child he worked the fields. “The first music that I listened to was a cappella singing in the churches,” Pops remembered. “I was always into gospel right from a boy on up. I got into blues stuff after the gospel when I got to be 12, 13 years old.” In his youth he watched legendary Charley Patton play in front of Dockery’s general store. His favorite local bluesman, though, was young Howlin’ Wolf, who’d stand in front of the depot and play for tips. Once he had his own guitar, Pops learned the local non-bottleneck blues styles. At 16 he joined the Golden Trumpets, a Methodist quartet. He married his grade school sweetheart, Oceola Ware, and the couple had their first child, Cleotha, in 1934, followed soon afterward by Pervis.

Seeking a better life for his family, Pops moved to Chicago in 1935 and found work in the stockyards. His wife and children joined him the following year. Pops became a member of the Baptist church – his brother Chester was a reverend – and began singing with the Chicago-based Trumpet Jubilees. His daughter Yvonne was born in 1938, followed by Mavis in 1939. For many years Pops was too busy raising his family to play guitar – in fact, he didn’t even own one. As Mavis recalled, “I was about seven when I first saw my father play guitar. He had gone to a pawn shop and paid $30 to $35 for it. It only had three strings on it, and he had to save enough money to buy three more. He played the three-string instrument as best he could, then called us kids into the room and gave us parts to sing along with what he played.” And thus was born the world-famous Staple Singers.

The Staple Singers, circa 1951: Pervis, Pops, Cleotha, and Mavis.

By the late 1940s, the original lineup – Pops, Pervis, Cleotha, and Mavis – was singing in churches. They launched their recording career in 1953 with the Royal single “These Are They”/“Faith and Grace,” which they sold at concerts. A friend took them over to United Records, where they did their first session to piano accompaniment. At a follow-up session in 1954, Pops’ guitar was front and center in the mix. In 1955 they jumped to the Vee Jay label, recording their classic “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray” at their first session. At their 1956 Vee Jay session, the Staple Singers recorded one of the best-selling gospel singles of the year, “Uncloudy Day.” Education came first in the Staples family, and after Mavis graduated from high school in 1957, Pops quit his day job to focus his energies on the group. He subsequently completed his own high school education.

Pops enjoyed a long friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, who inspired him to begin recording protest songs. The Staple Singers went on to record pop and soul songs for Riverside and Epic, but didn’t hit their commercial stride until signing with Stax in 1968. In a rare appearance outside of his family group, Pops recorded the bluesy Jammed Together album with Albert King and Steve Cropper in 1969. The Staple Singers struck gold in the early 1970s with a series of inspirational pop/soul singles – “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There” (#1 in April ’72), and “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me).” When Stax’s fortunes began to wane, they signed with Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label in 1975 and scored two more Top-10 hits with “Let’s Do It Again” and “New Orleans.” The Staple Singers appeared in three notable 1970s concert films: Soul to Soul, Wattstax, and The Last Waltz. The group’s final appearance in the R&B charts came in 1984.

After Mavis left the group to go solo, Pops flirted with acting, appearing in the Talking Heads film True Stories. He also made the rounds of blues festivals, where he usually sang gospel songs. In 1992, he realized his long-held dream of recording a solo album. Featuring the Staple Singers, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, and Ry Cooder, Peace to the Neighborhood is nothing short of a masterpiece of love and hope. Soon after its release, I met with Pops in a San Francisco hotel room. It was May 11, 1992, and he was happy to talk about his life and music. Here, for the first time, is that conversation.

* * * *

On the new record, I hear a similarity between your music and Muddy Waters’, in that you both understand the power of keeping it simple.

Yes. In fact, that’s the best way to try to execute and explain yourself and what you’re trying to do to the people. I’m trying to play my music to something constructive and trying to get peace here between the United States and the people – what Chicago call the “melting pot,” all nationalities. I just can’t figure out why there’s a difference in people in the United States. Some have, and some have not. Some get the privilege, some don’t. I’m trying to sing songs that together we stand and divided we fall – that’s just not in the family, that’s in the whole United States. If we stick together, we will stand. If we don’t, I’m afraid somewhere down the line we gonna fall. It might be a long ways, but if you’re keeping one nationality down, you’re gonna be down there with ’em. The only way to get up is to carry the people along with you. If I’m down here and you’re up here, you gotta look back down here to try to bring me up. I don’t care who you are or how big you are – I think the onliest time you should look down on a person is when you’re lookin’ down to pick him up.

Everybody is somebody – it doesn’t make any difference whether you are the President or whether you’re a drunk walkin’ the streets, sleepin’ in the streets. Everybody is a human being. God love all of us the same. There ain’t big guys or little guys in the sight of God. So I would just like to try to get a song over for the people to listen. And the song’s trying to say don’t use cocaine, because it’s detrimental to your whole body and soul. It’s no good for you. That’s all, that’s all. I’m not trying to preach to nobody. I feel good. I live good, and I feel good. I’m 77 years old, and shoot, and I feel good because I don’t worry about nothin’. There’s no use to worryin’. So that’s my main emphasis – just try to help somebody along the way.

Throughout your career, going all the way back to the Vee Jay material, it seems your message has been that music is a healing force. Music can bring a person closer to what’s truly important.

Yes, yes. Right. I believe that it’s a healing to the soul. It’s a healing to the feeling of the people. Talkin’ to a lady the other day – she was riding down the freeway, and she was very depressed. Didn’t know why, didn’t know what to do. She was just depressed. And driving along playing the radio, one of the Staple Singers songs was put on. That song was sung through, and when it was finished, she said that it was like a load was lifted off her. She says, “Pops, that went on for the day!” That gave her all kinds of jubilee, made her feel good. And I feel good when people like that are gettin’ the message.

A little child come up to Mavis: “Mavis, you talk about you ‘take us there.’ Say, what y’all talkin’ about? Where y’all gonna take us to?” And Mavis say, “Well, what do you think?” She say, “Well, I don’t know, Mavis. I don’t know no place you can take us. The only place I know you can take us is to heaven.” So Mavis says, “That’s just what I’m talking about.” They listen, you know – they be listening. That’s what we talkin’ about – we gonna take you to heaven. Come on and go to heaven with us.

Respect yourself.

“Respect Yourself” – now, that’s my favorite! Respect yourself. If you don’t have no respect . . . When I was a boy, I had to respect my parents. Not only my parents, but my peers’ parents. Any older person, you would have respect for them. But now, we don’t have no respect for one another, nobody. That’s bad. But back in those days, it was a better world. We were living in places where we didn’t have to lock the doors, leave your guns and everything in the house, shotgun what you hunt with, pistol, whatever. Go out of town, wherever, leave your door unlocked. Come back and everything is the same. You can’t do that now. They won’t let ya.

Was it a more difficult time in terms of people having to work harder and having to face racial prejudice?

Well, yes. It’s always been that way. We worked hard. The black worked hard down there, the white did too. In farming, all of us work about the same, but the white farmer got different treatments than the black farmer. It always has been that we had a harder struggle than the white because they could get paid for some of their cuttin’ or their ginnin’. The black people had to wait until the end of the year before they got theirs, so that was tough. That’s why I left.

When you were young, was there a difference between spiritual music and gospel music?

Yes. Spirituals is a song like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Comin’ to Carry Me On,” and gospel music was brought out sometime in the late ’30s or ’40s, I believe. Songs like “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” by Rev. Dorsey – that was a gospel number. There’s a difference between spiritual and gospel.

Some people call Rev. Thomas Dorsey the “Father of Gospel Music” Do you think that’s fair?

I know it is! Whoo, ain’t no “think” – I know it is. Yeah, he’s it. Dr. Dorsey was away on a tour – I don’t know whether he was singing’ the blues then or what, because he was a bluesman too – and his family passed, his [child and] wife. And she was the backbone of him. He didn’t know what to do. And that’s when he wrote “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” It come off from that, and he been goin’ ever since then. He’s still livin’ – oh yes! He’s just layin’ there, a sick man, but he’s still livin’.

Is he still at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago?

Yes, yes. Still there. [Blogger’s note: Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey passed away on January 23, 1993.]

What year did you leave Mississippi?

’35. Got to Chicago, I had $12 in my pocket. Winter time. Nowhere to stay. But I did check up with my wife’s uncle, and I had a sister there. I went and stayed with her until I got a job.

Was there a church in Chicago where you played regularly?

You know, I’ve got to go by there and get a picture of the first church I ever sung at in Chicago, if it’s there. I doubt it’s there, though. It was just a small storefront church. I sung at Pilgrim Baptist Church, Canaan, Metropolitan, and Shiloh. Lot of churches are still there, but I want to see the first one.

Do you still play in church?

Yes, I play in church. We hardly play any shows in church, because churches don’t like to charge, but they like to use the Staple Singers because they can rent a hall and charge at the hall and raise benefits for the church.

I’ve read that you were one of the first people to bring the guitar into a Methodist ceremony.

I was the first artist with a singing group to take the guitar and go into church, which they didn’t allow. And they had faith and believed in Pops Staples and the Staple Singers. You know, we wasn’t trying to start something for money or nothing. We were just singing because we love God’s word and we love God. We were singing for the praises of God. And the ministers could see that. They let us come in with the guitar, and that started the whole ball rolling. The Soul Stirrers, Blind Boys, Nightingales, Swan Silvertones, all of them – we would come to Chicago to sing on radio. They got to their songs, and I was on one end of the studio and had a guitar, and that was fascinating to them. The next time around, everybody came to Chicago had guitar. Something new, see? They had sung themselves out, went all over the world, just singing a cappella. And that was a new thing – the guitar was new! Now, they got guitar, bass, drum, everything.

Pops holds the Les Paul heard on the Staple Singers’ classic Vee Jay records.

In the beginning, were you playing electric guitar in church?

No. Acoustic.

Was this in Mississippi or Chicago?

Chicago. I started playing blues down in Mississippi. I was playing blues on Saturday night in house parties. Didn’t have my heart in it, but I just knew how to play. Weren’t enough guitar players around to go to all these parties, so I was hired to play in that style. [At this point, I hand Pops an old photo of Charley Patton.]

Were you familiar with this fellow?

[Laughs.] We stayed on the same plantation. Sure enough. How old is this picture – do you know?

That’s about 1930.

Mm, mm, mm. Charley Patton used to be on the lower place at Dockery – I was in the upper. Last year I was down in Indianola, Mississippi. We put a tombstone there. That man been dead how long, about 50 years? And they just put on his tombstone. I went down and sung at the ceremony.

Did you see him play when you were young?

Saw him on the upper place, yeah. I didn’t know much about it – I was just a boy. And he – whoo! And from there, I seen Howlin’ Wolf. Howlin’ Wolf was a young man. And Dick Banks – Dick Banks never did make the records. And Bill Holloway, the guitar player. I said, “If I get to be a man, I’m gonna play a guitar.” So when I got to be about 12 years, I bought me a guitar and started to play.

Did you buy it from a catalog?

No, I bought it right out of a hardware. A Stella – cost five dollars. One of the best acoustic guitars I ever owned. I bought it in Drew, Mississippi, where I be on the 5th of June this year. They’ll name the park after me. We goin’ to celebrate there. So I bought that guitar there. Paid five dollars for it. Times was so hard, I bought it on time. Put fifty cents down, and I paid it off.

B.B. King told me that back then, guitarists used a pencil and string to make a capo.

Yes! [Laughs heartily.] Did you ever see that?


Yeah! That’s what we’d use for a capo. Piece of string to tie it down. Yep, that’s the way we’d do it, see. [Pops gets his Stratocaster to demonstrate.] Take the pencil, put it across like that [between two frets], take a string right around there [demonstrates how to wrap a string around both sides of the pencil], bear down on that tight. Tie the string, you got a capo.

Mr. King also said that worked when you broke a string – you could sometimes tie the string back together and put a pencil capo above the knot.

[Laughs.] See, that was the problem: We weren’t able to have strings if you break one. We had to piece it together and put a capo on it and just keep on usin’ the string.

Were those Black Diamond strings?

Yeah, Black Diamond.

Those things were like baling wire.

Yeah! Yeah.

When you saw Patton playing, was he by himself or with another guitarist?

Patton be by himself, more or less. And Howlin’ Wolf be by himself. I didn’t never see no one play with him. But Dick Banks, there was him and another guy, Bill. There was two guitar players.

Would they play at the train station?

Yes! That was good. Stand around, and people would just crowd up and throw money out there.

If a musician had a record out, would he have better luck?

I didn’t never experience seeing nobody had a record. [I hand Pops a photo of Robert Johnson.]

Did you ever encounter this musician?

Mm, mm. Never did. Now, I heard about him a lot. I never did see him, never did see him. Ah, boy. I heard so much of Robert. Big Bill Broonzy, Willie Dixon, Lonnie Johnson – of course I saw them.

I’ve always admired Son House.

Son House – I saw Son House! Oh, yes. He’s dead. I saw Son House in Boston. We played together. Ooh, Son House – he come up not so long ago. Yeah, not so long ago. He came in the ’70s.

He was a good slide player.

Yeah. I always wanted to play slide, but never did learn.

Why didn’t you?

Didn’t take the time. I played it pretty good, but the way they were playing it, you had to tune your guitar into E minor straight, and I never would change it. I played it one way all the time.

When did you get your first electric guitar?

In the ’40s.

Who was the first person you saw with an electric guitar? I heard Memphis Minnie was one of the first in Chicago.

I didn’t see her. Now, Big Bill – that’s about the first one I saw. Yeah.

Is it true he was a kindhearted guy?

Didn’t know too much about him. I just know he was good to musicians. I was quite young then too. I had just got married when I met Bill. I wasn’t even playing then. I had been playing down in Mississippi, but when I went to Chicago, Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Slim, they was playin’ together, and that started me back to wanting to play guitar.

So you gave up playing for a while?

Yes, I got married, and my wife was having children so fast, I had to get out and get a job. So I got that job. I worked about 12 years before I even picked up a guitar. I’d got rid of all of them. I got the kids, they was on the way, and I got them up. They was about eight years old when I started to go back [to playing guitar]. There was a time I always was active, and they had us both working – my wife and me. We did it ourselves. We worked to make ends meet. She worked at night and I worked in the day. So on my time off, I taught the children to sing. I’d babysit in the day while she worked, and we gathered around, and that’s the way we started singing. Right around the house.

What were the first songs you taught your children?

“If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again” and “Do Not Pass Me By” – those kind of songs. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

You have such a distinctive guitar sound on your early records. I’d like to play you one of your old songs and ask you about it. [I play the opening of “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again.]

That was one of the first songs we ever played! Isn’t that something.

What were you doing with the guitar to give it that sound?

Nothin’. I was just playin’.

What kind of amplifier?

Gibson. [At this point Pops picks up his Strat and sings and plays the first verse of the song we’ve just heard. Even without amplification, that gentle tremolo sound is there – it turns out he created a lot of that effect with the way he’d move his left hand. In an interview several days later, Ry Cooder told me he’d experienced the same phenomena while working with Pops on the album.]

That’s so beautiful. Let me ask you about something else. [We listen to the first verse of “The Lord’s Prayer” from the Freedom Highway CD.]

Who did the vocal arrangement?

I did. The children were so young, they didn’t know how to sing in a key, what key, or nothin’. It’s four sounds, so I just took them and [Pops plays four descending notes of a major chord on his guitar, one at a time, singing the pitch for each one.]

Each child would take a note?

Yes, yes! That’s what I did. I give them a note [plays an A]. I said, “Now you keep that. Hold it!” So she sings [sings an A]. Each one gets a note. When they all sing together, that makes a chord. That’s the way I taught them how to sing. I said, “Now you just keep that sound all the way through.” That’s the way I taught them – no music or nothin’. I hit the string where they should be – where this one should be and where that one should be. That’s the way I taught them how to make that music.

When did you become aware that Mavis had such a great voice?

Mavis was two years before we could get her – like I was hittin’ that sting – to hold her tune. For about two years, we kept on singing around the house. That’s the reason I said, “Never think about going on no road,” so we was just singin’ for ourselves. After about two years, Pervis and me was singing lead. Mavis was singing contralto, and then Pervis’ voice got too heavy for lead. I said, “Mavis, you try it.” And right then, when she hit the first song, I said, “That’s something.” I knew then. One of the guys said, “Staples, man, you sure got a good group” – that was when Pervis and me were singin’. He said, “You did right to leave the other group and start your family.” And I said, “Yeah, you think so? You just wait a minute – you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” Sure enough, about six more months, Mavis was taking off.

If somebody wanted to make a record of Pops Staples’ best guitar playing, what songs would have to be on there? Which ones have your best guitar arrangements?

Those, and “Uncloudy Day,” “I Been ’Buked and I Been Scorned,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Some of those songs. That would be some of my old songs, back in those days. I play about the same – I don’t change much. But I can’t get a amplifier now. They changes up so – instead of going good to better, it seem like that sound I was getting out of the amplifier then, can’t get it now.

Did you have a reverb or a tremolo?

It was a tremolo on it, but they don’t make the tremolos like they did. It’s different things.

Have you tried getting one of the old amps or do you still have yours?

No. I found one, but they wouldn’t sell it to me. Down in Los Angeles. Ry had a pretty good one, but Jackson Browne had the best one. Jackson Browne had what I needed. See, that’s the one that I wanted to get and put it on the song with Bonnie Raitt [“World in Motion”]. That was a Fender Twin. I don’t know if it was a 10 or 12 speaker, but it was a Twin. It had a little foot tremolo [control], and you step on it. On one side [of the effects device] a wire come into the amplifier, and on the other side a wire come to the guitar.

Do you know what kind of tremolo it was? MXR?

It wasn’t no MXR. I just can’t remember. Whoo! Lord knows, if I had knew that this day was comin’, I would have kept all that stuff, but I didn’t.

You got rid of your classic gear?

Yeah. I didn’t know how valuable it was.

Have you kept any guitars through the years?

No. I wish I’d have kept that Stella, and the Les Paul I got in Chicago. I got rid of it – it’s worth about three, four thousand dollars now.

Is that what you used with Vee Jay?

Yes. Les Paul.

What kind of guitar was on the songs we just heard?

Gibson Les Paul.

When you played on the Grammy Awards a couple of years ago, you conjured that old sound.

[Fingerpicks and sings the first verse of “It's Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” using his fretting fingers to create a tremolo effect.]

That’s so deep, so Mississippi.

[Laughs heartily.] That’s the Mississippi sound! Yeah.

Who are the best slide players you’ve seen?

[Sighs.] Ry Cooder in the late days. I didn’t pay much attention to them before Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt. I wouldn’t give one for the other. So there’s two of ’em – Ry and Bonnie. I love both of ’em.

When you were growing up in Mississippi, did people use bottle necks to play slide?

Yes, broken bottle necks and pocketknives. Yeah, that’s what they used.

How would they make slides from bottles?

They’d break that bottle neck off, and somehow they would make it fit their finger, and they’d play with it like that. But the knives, they would lay the guitar down on the lap and play with the knife. But with the bottle they could play with the guitar up.

That song you just played – “It's Nobody’s Fault but Mine” – did you ever hear the old 78 by Blind Willie Johnson?

Blind Willie Johnson. That’s where I got it from.

When you were a child, did you ever hear people call blues “devil’s music”?

Yes, yes. That’s why they didn’t want it in the church. Because that’s the “devil’s music.” Not only the blues, the guitar was the “devil’s instrument.” And the Bible said we should use strings and wind horns and all to make music and praise God, but they took it for devil’s music. It’s not the instrument. It’s what you play on the instrument. You know that.

Rev. Gatemouth Moore told me last summer that the only difference between blues and gospel is you say “Jesus” instead of “baby.”

I’ve heard that. I’ve heard that. You got to have the feeling in your heart and the meaning. So many have took the gospel songs and sung with a blues feeling, and took the blues songs and made a gospel-song feeling. I take the blues feeling and do gospel. What I call “gospel” is truth. I sing truth for song. Songs have meaning.

Rev. Dorsey defined gospel music as “good news.”

Yeah, it is. It is.

What song did you play at Muddy Waters’ funeral?

“Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, Since I Lay My Burden Down.” Same thing I sang at Willie Dixon’s. I was in London when I sung for him. He passed while I was in London. We made a beautiful tape. He was doing some talking, and I sung on it. Muddy Waters and his.

When you’re looking to get a guitar, how can you tell when you’ve found a good one?

Well, I’ve been using a Fender all the time. I been using this one here, that Strat, for about a year now. It’s different in the feel of the neck. You can get the same guitar, same color and everything, but it won’t play like this guitar. You have to pick by the way it feels to your hand. That’s the way I pick mine. Of course, Fender made me a beautiful guitar – I guess it cost, oh, $1,100 – and they give it to me. I endorsed it, and they gave it to me. It’s beautiful, but I haven’t learned how to play it like I have this one [points to the Strat in his hotel room]. I got this one. The one Fender made me got pearl all up and down the neck and got my name engraved in it, but I play this one. And they gave me this one for half price.

Do you play as much guitar now as you did twenty years ago?

No. I hardly ever play that much. I play more now since I made this record than I played in five or six years.

How great to be able to make this record.

The Lord has given me the strength and the will and the songs and brought stuff to me to do. I’m doin’ very good with it. I got more write-ups with it than with anything, even with the Staple Singers. [Pulls out a copy of Jet magazine and points to an article.] That’s what come out in the Jet – that’s the Staple Singers’ magazine. That Jet came out last week. You can’t hardly get nothin’ in the Jet, but they thought enough of me and they think the record is well enough to put me in there.

This article says it took you forty years to go solo!

[Laughs.] I didn’t want to go solo! I always said when I was a boy, “If I ever get to be a man, I’m gonna make me a record.” So I’m just now getting to it, just now getting to it.

Must feel pretty good.

Yeah, it does. It does.

Plus in such a difficult time, it’s wonderful to have an uplifting message.

Yeah. I wonder sometime, does it do any good. It must be, because everybody talking about all the destruction in Los Angeles and all this stuff going on. The record seem like it come up just at the right time.

The title says it all – Peace to the Neighborhood.

“Peace to the Neighborhood” – see, that’s what I strive for, Jas. Tryin’ to bring peace to everybody that’s miserable tryin’ to make it. You can’t pull yourself up by your own bootstrap. You need help sometimes. I was a lucky guy to be able to bring my children up. Through the time that I was comin’ up, I had to work for three dollars a week – a whole week, sunup to sundown. Three dollars a week – that’s less than you get for an hour’s pay now on the minimum wage. But now, I am blessed to bring my kids up and we made a nice living out of it. Because I want to do the right thing. I’m trying my best to help if I can. That’s what I’m trying to do. That’s my aim and my purpose.


After our interview, Pops asked me to send him some Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and Blind Willie Johnson music, which I was happy to do. Later that year, Peace in the Neighborhood
 earned him a Grammy nomination. His follow-up album, Father, Father, won the 1995 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album. In 1999, the Staples Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Months later, 85-year-old Pops Staples fell in his home in Dalton, Illinois, and suffered a concussion; he passed away on December 19, 2000.

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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Jimi Hendrix in London

When Jimi Hendrix boarded a flight to London on September 23, 1966, he had no idea how dramatically his life was about to change. His luggage – pretty much everything he owned – showed how hard times had been for him in New York City. He carried with him just one Fender Stratocaster electric guitar and a small bag with a change of clothes, plastic hair curlers, and acne medicine. His pocket held $40 borrowed on his way to the airport. The 23-year-old was traveling first class, though, courtesy of his new manager, Chas Chandler.

That July, Chandler, bassist for the popular British group the Animals, had heard Jimi play at Café Wha in New York’s Greenwich Village. Jimi’s set included one of Chandler’s favorite songs, Tim Rose’s “Hey Joe.” “Jimi was just an explosive kid whose potential struck me,” Chandler remembered in John McDermott’s essential book Jimi Hendrix Sessions. “As much as his version of ‘Hey Joe’ impressed me, what convinced me of his talent was another song he did that day, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ by Bob Dylan. He did it with tremendous conviction, and the lyrics came right through to me.” Jimi accepted Chandler’s offer to record him in London once the Animals’ current U.S. tour was completed. Chandler, ambitious to become a record producer, was determined to have Jimi record “Hey Joe” as his first single.

Jimi’s passport photo, September 1966.

Hendrix landed at London’s Heathrow Airport at 9:00 the following morning. It was Saturday, and as Charles Cross recounts in his excellent Hendrix biography, Room Full of Mirrors, publicist Tony Garland picked Jimi up from the airport and took him straight to the home of bandleader Zoot Money. Jimi tried to play his Strat through a stereo record player, but when that failed, he wowed Zoot with his performance on a borrowed acoustic. Andy Summers, later the guitarist for the Police, was living in Zoot’s house and witnessed this performance. Thus, writes Cross, Summers became “the first of legions of Great Britain’s guitar players to be awed and dazed by Jimi.”

Jimi’s next stop that day was the Scotch of St. James, a club where musicians and record company execs hung out. Hendrix asked if he could jam with the house band, and when he began playing blues, the crowd was awestruck. Among the attendees was 20-year-old Kathy Etchingham, former girlfriend of Brian Jones and Keith Moon. Kathy accepted Hendrix’s invitation to spend the night. During the weeks that followed, she introduced him to “Swinging London,” and for the next two years they’d be an on-again, off-again couple.

Two days later, Chas took Jimi to meet Eric Burdon, lead singer of the Animals. As Burdon recounts in Tony Brown’s well-researched Jimi Hendrix: A Visual Documentary, “The first time I heard him play, I was in a rehearsal room putting together the New Animals, and this shadowy figure stepped into the room wearing a large Western, sombrero kind of hat, beads around it, and he looked almost sort of purple, you know, in the darkness of this club. And he just grabbed hold of Vic Briggs’ guitar and in the same instant said, ‘Do you mind if I have a jam?’, you know, and cracked up into an up-tempo blues jam with John Wieder. And Barry Jenkins and Danny McCulloch from my band just leapt in and chased him on this incredible jam. I mean, the sounds just rocketed around the room, like ricocheted around the room. I was totally stunned and from that point on I became unashamedly a Jimi Hendrix addict.”

On his fourth day in London, Hendrix sat in with a group called the VIPs at the Scotch of St. James. As Jimi played, Kit Lambert, founder of Track Records, tried to talk Chandler into having Jimi sign with his fledgling label. The next day Jimi phoned Seattle to speak to his dad. In the book we wrote together, My Son Jimi, Al Hendrix recounted the conversation: “One day in late September 1966, our phone rang and the operator said ‘London calling.’ At first I was wondering who in the heck was calling me – I didn’t know anybody over there. It was Jimi, and he was all excited as he told me, ‘Dad, it looks like I’m on my way to the big time.’ He went on to say he was in England, auditioning for a bass player and a drummer. ‘I’m gonna call the group the Jimi Hendrix Experience,’ he said, ‘and I’m gonna have my name spelled J-i-m-i.’ Jimi also talked about he was going to sing. ‘Yeah, dad,’ he said, ‘all these other guys sing, and they ain’t got no voice and they’re just hollering and going on. You know I ain’t got no voice, but heck, I’m gonna do it too.’”

Initially, Jimi had wanted a nine-piece revue like the one he’d played in with Little Richard. Chandler, though, wanted a trio, both to save money and to ensure that Jimi was the focus of attention. The first recruit, guitarist Noel Redding, had recently auditioned for the Animals. Chandler asked him if he’d be interested in playing bass for Hendrix, and Redding agreed to give it a try. On September 29, after jamming on “Hey Joe” and “Have Mercy on Me Baby,” Jimi offered Noel the gig. In the coming weeks, Chandler tutored Noel by showing him scales and walking patterns on bass. On occasion, Jimi would also teach him the parts he wanted to hear. During his first few months with the Experience, Noel used Chandler’s Gibson EB-5 semi-acoustic bass, and then got his own Fender Jazz Bass.

While sitting in with Brian Auger’s Trinity, Jimi had his first encounter with a Marshall amplifier. He instantly rolled all the dials to 10 and shocked the crowd with a wall of feedback before playing launching into “Hey Joe.” “Everyone’s jaw dropped to the floor,” Auger remembered. “The difference between him and a lot of the English guitar players like Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Alvin Lee was that you could still tell what the influences were in Clapton’s and Beck’s playing. There were a lot of B.B. King, Albert King, and Freddie King followers around in England. But Jimi wasn’t following anyone – he was playing something new.”

At the time, Eric Clapton was considered England’s foremost guitar slinger – to the point where people had scrawled “Clapton Is God” on London buildings and subway walls. Now he was making the scene with Cream. Just one week after he’d landed at Heathrow, Hendrix went to see Cream. In Clapton: The Autobiography, Eric described what happened: “On October 1, we were booked to play at the Central London Polytechnic on Regent Street. I was hanging around backstage with Jack, when Chas Chandler, the bass player with the Animals, appeared, accompanied by a young black American guy whom he introduced as Jimi Hendrix. He informed us that Jimi was a brilliant guitarist, and he wanted to sit in with us for a couple of numbers. I thought he looked cool and that he probably knew what he was doing. We got to talking about music, and he liked the same bluesmen I liked, so I was all for it. Jack was cool about it, too, though I seem to remember Ginger was a little bit hostile.

Cream in 1966: Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce.

“The song Jimi wanted to play was by Howlin’ Wolf, entitled ‘Killing Floor.’ I thought it was incredible that he would know how to play this, as it was a tough one to get right. Of course Jimi played it exactly like it ought to be played, and he totally blew me away. When jamming with another band for the first time, most musicians will try to hold back, but Jimi just went for it. He played the guitar with his teeth, behind his head, lying on the floor, doing the splits, the whole business. It was amazing, and it was musically great, too, not just pyrotechnics. Even though I had already seen Buddy Guy and knew a lot of black players could do this kind of stuff, it’s still pretty amazing when you’re standing right next to it. The audience was completely gobsmacked by what they saw and heard, too. They loved it, and I loved it, too, but I remember thinking that here was a force to be reckoned with. It scared me, because he was clearly going to be a huge star, and just as we were finding our own speed, here was the real thing.” “It must have been difficult for Eric to handle,” Jack Bruce later commented, “because people were writing Clapton was ‘God,’ and this unknown person comes along and burns.”

Chandler, meanwhile, was hard at work completing the Experience. Drummer Aynsley Dunbar rehearsed with Noel and Jimi on October 4. The following day, Mitch Mitchell, who’d recently left Georgie Fame’s band, was brought in. As Mitchell described in Tony Brown’s book: “It was strange. I met this black guy with very wild hair, wearing a Burberry raincoat. I think we did ‘Have Mercy on Me Baby’ first. Jimi didn’t really sing, just mumbled along to the music. And for two hours we run through what we all knew – Chuck Berry, Wilson Pickett, basically R&B, after which Hendrix said, ‘Okay, I will see you around.’ After the initial session, I think it was only a few hours later that I got a call from Chas saying, ‘Yes, we’re interested.’ Chas said there was a gig in Paris the next week with Johnny Halliday and asked if we fancied doing it. So I said okay and spent three days rehearsing. Then off we went and that was how it started.” Chandler later revealed, “It was a toss-up between Aynsley Dunbar and Mitch Mitchell, and literally we just spun a coin – we couldn’t make our minds up – and it fell for Mitch.”

Mitch Mitchell on drums.

Next on Jimi’s agenda was French tour opening for singer Johnny Halliday, who’d seen him jamming in a nightclub. First, though, he needed to score a better amp than the 30-watt Burns model Chandler had supplied. On October 8, Mitch took Jimi to see Jim Marshall of Marshall Amplifiers. “I thought he was just another one who wanted to have something for nothing,” Marshall recalled in Brown’s book. “But he seemed to read what I was thinking and he said, almost in his next breath, ‘Well, I don’t want it for nothing. I wanna pay full price, but I want good service.’ And that’s what we gave him.”

The newly named Jimi Hendrix Experience gave their debut performance on October 13, 1966, at the Novelty in Evreux. Their set consisted of “Midnight Hour,” “Have Mercy on Me Baby,” “Land of a Thousand Dances,” and “Hey Joe.” This first performance garnered a surprisingly bad review in the local newspaper L’Eure Éclair: “Il s’agissait d’un chanteur guitariste à la chevelure broussailleuse, mauvais cocktail de James Brown et de Chuck Berry qui se contorsionné pendant un bon quatre d’heure sur la scène en jouant parfois de la guitare avec le dents. Il termina la première partie qui fut suive d’une assez long entracte.” This roughly translates to “he was a singer and guitar player with bushy hair, a bad cocktail of James Brown and Chuck Berry who writhed onstage for a good quarter of an hour and sometimes played the guitar with his teeth. After he ended, there was a long pause.”

But Mitch Mitchell, for one, came away impressed: “Jimi was a quiet bloke, at least until he got onstage,” Mitchell recalled in his must-read autobiography, Inside the Experience. “It was on this first gig that we saw the whole other person, completely different from anything I’d seen before, even during rehearsals. I knew he played really tasty guitar, but I didn’t know about the showmanship that went with it. It was like, ‘Whoosh! This man is really out-front!’ The showmanship – playing behind his head, with his teeth, etc. – was amazing. But even then it was obviously not just flashiness, he really did have the musicianship to go with it.”

The trio garnered far better reviews when they played the Olympia in Paris five days later, where Jimi blew everyone’s mind with “Killing Floor,” “Hey Joe,” and a pull-out-the-stops cover of “Wild Thing.” During the finale, Hendrix appeared onstage with the other performers, playing his white Stratocaster. The Experience then returned to London, where, exactly one month after Jimi’s arrival in London, the trio began making records.

With Chandler producing, the trio recorded “Hey Joe” at London’s DeLane Lea Studios on October 23. Jimi played his Strat through a Marshall twin stack. Chandler had to convince Jimi to overcome his insecurity about his voice. “It was the first time I’d ever sung on record,” Jimi would later confess. More than 30 takes were needed to complete the backing tracks, but in the end, the Jimi Hendrix Experience had its first hit single in the can. But what to put on the other side? Jimi wanted to cover “Mercy, Mercy” or “Land of a Thousand Dance,” but Chandler told him he’d need to write his own songs to make publishing royalties. So the following day Jimi sat down and wrote all of “Stone Free,” recorded and mixed on November 2. On October 25, the Experience made its London debut at the Scotch of St. James. With money from his early club gigs – typically £25 a performance – Jimi purchased mod clothing in the boutiques along Carnaby Street, the center of the “Swinging Sixties” fashion scene.

While Chandler shopped for a record deal, eventually signing with Track Records, Jimi began working on more songs. He developed early versions of “Can You See Me” and “Remember,” as well as two songs inspired by science fiction books he’d borrowed from Chandler – “Third Stone from the Sun” and “Up from the Skies.” He also kept up a busy rehearsal schedule.

On October 29, the British publication Record Mirror ran Richard Green’s “Ex Animal Adventures,” the first English-language article about the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The write-up misspelled both of Jimi’s names and misstated his age by three years: “Never one to let a good thing pass, Chas Chandler has signed and brought to this country a 20 year old Negro called Jim Henrix who – among other things – plays the guitar with his teeth and is being hailed in some quarters as main contender for the title of ‘the next big thing.’ . . . ‘He looks like Dylan, he’s got all that hair sticking all over the place,’ Chas told me. ‘He’s coloured but he doesn’t think like a coloured person.’” Ouch. But wait, there’s more: “‘He’s better than Eric Clapton,’ Chas claimed, getting to the main point about Jim. ‘He played with the Cream at a London college date and played Clapton off the stage. Ginger Baker didn’t want him to go on because he said he had to have Eric there to work with him. Clapton admitted that Jim was a fantastic guitarist.’”

Beginning on November 9, the Experience played three nights in Munich, Germany, to ever-increasing crowds. “This was really the first time we all knew something big was going to happen,” Noel Redding remembered. “You could feel we were just on the cusp of success.” Using a long cord to walk into the adoring crowd, Hendrix damaged his guitar getting back onstage. In anger, he lifted it over his head and threw it to the ground. The crowd went berserk, and soon guitar smashing – often the same guitar, glued back together each night – became a standard part of the set. Hendrix did not pioneer this attention-getter, though. Pete Townshend of The Who was already an old-hand at smashing guitars, and in the film Blow-Up, released earlier in 1966, Jeff Beck is seen angrily destroying a guitar during a Yardbirds set.

Upon his return from Germany, Jimi watched while the Rolling Stones recorded “Ruby Tuesday” at Olympic Studios and visited a Who session at IBC Sound Studios. On November 24, two days before his 24th birthday, he recorded “Love or Confusion” at DeLane Lea Music.

The following day, Jimi played at the Bag O’ Nails and gave his first published interview to Peter Jones, who headlined his December 10th Record Mirror article “Mr. Phenomenon.” Jones was decidedly kinder – and a better speller – than Richard Green. “Now hear this – and kindly hear it good! Are you one of the fans who think there’s nothing much new happening on the pop scene? Right. Then we want to bring your attention to a new artist, a new star-in-the-making, who we predict is going to whirl round the business like a tornado. Name: Jimi Hendrix. Occupation: Guitarist-singer-composer – showman – dervish – original. His group, just three-strong: The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

“Bill Harry and I dropped in at the Bag O’ Nails club in Kingley Street recently to hear the trio working out for the benefit of press and bookers. An astonished Harry muttered: ‘Is that full, big blasting, swinging sound really being created by only three people?’ It was, with the aid of a mountain of amplification equipment. Jimi was in full flight. Whirling like a demon, swirling his guitar every which way, this 20-year-old (looking rather like James Brown) was quite amazing. Visually he grabs the eyeballs with his techniques of playing the guitar with his teeth, elbow, rubbing it across the stage. But he also pleasurably hammers the eardrums with his expert playing. An astonishing technique, specially considering he started playing only five or six years ago. Sweatily exhausted, Jimi said afterwards: ‘I’ve only been in London three months – but Britain is really groovy. Just been working in Paris and Munich.’”

Jones asked Jimi to describe his music: “‘We don’t want to be classed in any category,’ said Jimi. ‘If it must have a tag. I’d like it to be called ‘free feeling.’ It’s a mixture of rock, freakout, blues and rave music.’ . . . About that thing of playing the guitar with his teeth: he says it doesn’t worry him. He doesn’t feel anything. ‘But I do have to brush my teeth three times a day.’”

In early December, Jimi, Kathy Etchingham, Chas Chandler, and Chas’ girlfriend Lottie Lexon took residence at 34 Montagu Square in London; the flat’s previous tenant was Ringo Starr. During the next two years, Jimi would eventually amass a collection of nearly a hundred albums in the places he’d share with Kathy Etchingham. While he owned everything from Holst and Handel to comedian Bill Cosby – I Started Out as a Child was reportedly his all-time favorite album – most of his collection was dedicated to the blues, with Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Sonny Boy Williamson being particular favorites. He also had a deep admiration for Bob Dylan. “People will argue with me,” Etchingham told James Rotondi in Guitar Player magazine, “but I tell you, that guy was a bluesman. That’s where his heart really lay. Anybody who tells me he would have become a jazz musician – well, balls to them. What he really liked, and what he really played at home, was blues.”

On December 13, the Jimi Hendrix Experience taped “Hey Joe” for the popular British TV show Ready, Steady Go! Watching that performance was effects wizard Roger Mayer, who’d built the custom fuzz boxes used by Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck with the Yardbirds. “I said, ‘Damn, this guy is incredible,’” Mayer told me in a 1979 interview. “He was the epitome of what any rock guitarist should be – we had no one of that caliber in England.” (Mayer would soon give Hendrix the Octavia octave-doubling device heard at the end of “Purple Haze.”) Later that evening, the band had a recording session at CBS Studios. Jimi brought along four Marshall cabinets and told engineer Mike Ross, “Stick a microphone eight feet away, and it will sound great.” It did sound great, Ross observed, “but it was the loudest thing I ever heard in that studio. It was painful on your ears.” With Chandler very much in charge of the session, they completed “Foxy Lady,” “Red House,” “Can You See Me,” and “Third Stone From the Sun,” all of which would be included on the British version of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s debut album. Three days later, “Hey Joe”/“Stone Free” was issued as a single, eventually making it all the way to #6 in the British pop charts.

The Experience’s December 21 club gig earned a rave review from Chris Welch in the December 31 issue of Melody Maker: “Jimi Hendrix, a fantastic American guitarist, blew the minds of the star packed crowd who went to see him at ‘Blaises’ club, London, on Wednesday. Among those in the audience were Pete Townsend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwhistle, Chas Chandler and Jeff Beck. They heard Jimi’s trio blast through some beautiful sounds like ‘Rock Me Baby,’ ‘Third Stone from the Sun,’ ‘Hey Joe’ and even an unusual version of The Troggs’ ‘Wild Thing.’ Jimi has great stage presence and an exceptional guitar technique which involved playing with his teeth on occasions and no hands at all on others! Jimi looks like [he’s] becoming one of the big club names of ’67.” In 1980, I asked Jeff Beck about his relationship with Jimi: “It was a bit difficult. We could never enjoy a real close friendship because of what we did. He and I were both after the wild guitar playing. I liked Jimi best when we didn’t talk guitars.”

For Pete Townshend, watching Jimi perform was even more cathartic. “Seeing Jimi absolutely, completely destroyed me,” he told Matt Resnicoff in their September 1989 Guitar Player cover story. “It was horrifying, because he took back black music. He came and stole R&B back. He made it very evident that’s what he was doing. He’d been out on the road with people like Little Richard, had done that hard work, and then he’d come over to the U.K. And when he took his music back, he took a lot of the trimmings back too. Seeing Jimi shifted my emphasis, as it did for Eric Clapton. It was very strange for Eric and me. We went and watched Jimi at about ten London shows together. It got to the point where Eric would go up and pay his respects every night, and one day I got up to pay my respects. He was hugging Eric, but not me – he was kind of giving me a limp handshake – just because Eric was capable of making the right kind of approach to him. You have to remember the other thing about Jimi – that he was astonishingly sexual. You could just sense this whole thing in the room where every woman would just go for him at a snap of a finger. There was a slightly prince-like quality about him, this kind of imp at work. I found him very charming, very easy, a very sweet guy. You know, I just kept hearing stories, like the night that he went up to Marianne Faithful when she was there with Mick Jagger and said to her in the ear, ‘What are you doing with this asshole?’

Pete Townshend, foreground, with The Who

“Slowly but surely Jimi became sure of himself. I’m talking about the first few weeks he was in London. You know, it was a new band, and they were just taking London by fucking storm! You can’t believe it. You’d look around and the audience was just full of record company people and music business people. I suppose I went away and got very confused for a bit. I kind of groped around. I had a lot of spiritual problems. I felt that I hadn’t the emotional equipment, really, the physical equipment, the natural psychic genius of somebody like Jimi. I realized that what I had was a bunch of gimmicks which he had come and taken away from me. He attached them not only to the black R&B from which they came, but also added a whole new dimension. I felt stripped, and I took refuge in my writing.”

In Christmas Eve publications, the British music press raved about Jimi’s first single. The New Musical Express proclaimed: “Here’s a young man who could make a profound impression in the future. This is a raw uninhibited treatment of a traditional number. It’s in the insidious R&B pattern, with thundering drums, some spine-tingling guitar work and a hypnotic slow beat. It’s guttural, earthy, convincing and authentic. Flip: Much the same remarks apply to this side, except it’s faster-paced and more fancy-free. This is a disc for the connoisseurs.” Record Mirror’s review, published the same day, was even stronger: “Should justice prevail, this’ll be a first-time hit. The most genuinely soulful record ever made in Britain. Jimi has really inspired the other two musicians. Dig the way the bass comes through. The best record Polydor has issued. A must. Flip is more urgent and equally soul-laden.” These write-ups doubtlessly fuelled Jimi’s holiday cheer.

On the day after Christmas, the Jimi Hendrix Experience performed at the Upper Cut club. In the dressing room backstage, Jimi wrote the lyrics for what was to be one of his most enduring songs, “Purple Haze.” The Jimi Hendrix Experience gave its final performance of 1966 on New Year’s Eve, at the Hillside Social Club in Folkestone. Afterward, the band visited Noel’s mother, Margaret, who lived nearby. “It was very cold that night,” Mrs. Redding remembered in Tony Brown’s book. “Jimi asked me if it would be alright to stand next to the fire, and that’s how he got the idea for the song ‘Fire.’”

News of Jimi’s success during his head-spinning first three months of 1966 reached all the way back home to his dad. “When Jimi first went to England,” Al remembered in My Son Jimi, “I didn’t think he was going to be that successful, but then I started getting reports on him after he started playing as the Experience. There was a notice of him in some music magazines, and then one of my stepdaughters saw a picture of Jimi with a caption that said ‘The Wild Man of Borneo.’ When she first looked at the picture, she thought it was me for a minute. She said, ‘What’s Al doing in London?’ Then she looked again and said, ‘Ooh, that’s Jimi Hendrix – ‘The Wild Man of Borneo’ and ‘The New Sensation of London.’ Jimi was on his way.”

Jimi Hendrix would remain headquartered in London for the first half of 1967, cutting records, playing clubs and concerts, and making forays into other European countries. Less than nine months after he left New York City impoverished and uncertain of his future, he returned to the U.S. a conquering hero, stealing the show at the Monterey Pop Festival.

Blogger's note: If there’s enough reader interest, I’ll write another blog on the rest of Jimi’s stay in London.

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