Editor’s note: After a brief holiday hiatus, we’re back to our normal rotation of weekly blues articles! Here’s the highlights of what happened this week in blues history!
1. Elizabeth Cotten
January 5th, 1893: Blues singer, songwriter and inventor of the “Cotten Picking” style of guitar playing, Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten was born Elizabeth Nevills in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The youngest of five children, at age seven she began to play her brother’s banjo and by age eleven, had purchased her own guitar with money she made as a domestic helper. Cotten was left handed and played a standard right handed guitar, upside down, playing the bass line with her fingers and the melody with her thumb. She developed an alternating bass line that came to be known as “Cotten picking”. While in her early teens, she wrote her most recognized song, “Freight Train”. She married at 17, had a daughter at 18 and left music for family and church. Years later, in her 60s, she began working as a maid for the Seeger family and in the late 50s, Mike Seeger began recording her playing and singing. Her first album, Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar, was released and her songs were covered by artists such as Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal and Doc Watson. In the early 1960s she toured the Folk Revival Circuit playing with John Lee Hooker, Mississippi John Hurt and Muddy Waters. She won a Grammy award in 1984 for “Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording” and continued to play, when she could, until her death at age 94.
2. Son Seals
January 5th, 1997: Alligator Records recording artist and future Blues Hall of Fame inductee, Frank “Son” Seals was shot in the jaw during a domestic dispute with his wife, Johnnie Seals. According to some reports, Seals was in bed when his wife shot him. The shot shattered his jaw, requiring reconstructive surgery and it had to be wired shut, however he was back on stage in just a few short months playing the Blues to adoring Chicago fans. Johnnie Seals was convicted of three aggravated battery charges and received three years of probation for the assault. Seals first signed with Alligator in the early 1970s and released nine albums with the label. More misfortune followed him as part of his left leg was amputated due to complications from diabetes; his house burned while he was away performing and several of his guitars were stolen from his home as well. The diabetes took his life in 2004 and he was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2009.
3. Kim Wilson
January 6th, 1951: Blues singer and harmonica player, Kim Wilson was born in Detroit, Michigan. He grew up in Goleta, California and was tutored in the blues by Muddy Waters, George “Harmonica” Smith, Albert Collins and many others. In 1974 he moved to Austin, Texas where he formed The Fabulous Thunderbirds with guitarist Jimmie Vaughan and they soon became the house band at Antone’s. Influenced by Slim Harpo and Lazy Lester, they combined Texas Blues with a Swamp Blues sound and released their first album in 1979. As well as releasing several albums with the band, Wilson has also released six solo albums and appeared on recordings with Kid Ramos, James Cotton, Bonnie Raitt, Louisiana Red, Elvin Bishop and several others.
4. The Flying V
January 6th, 1958: Gibson Guitars launched the Flying V electric guitar. Meant to add a more futuristic aspect to the company’s image, they initially did not sell well, and were discontinued the following year. In 1963, some were assembled again with leftover parts and shipped with nickel, rather than gold-plated hardware. Almost immediately, artists such as Lonnie Mack and Albert King made them their guitar of choice. Guitarists Dave Davies, Jimi Hendrix, Billy Gibbons, Lenny Kravitz, Paul Stanley, Eddie Van Halen and Johnny Winter have all played a Flying V at some point. The original 1958-59 korina Flying V such as the ones played by King and Mack is one of the most valuable production model guitars on the market, with a price tag in the $200,000 range.
5. Cyril Davies
January 7th, 1964: British blues vocalist and harmonica player Cyril Davies died from an inflammation of the heart after contracting pleurisy the previous year and drinking heavily to ease the pain. Davies was born on January 23rd, 1932 near London and began his musical career as a banjo and 12-string guitarist in a skiffle group with Alexis Korner. He switched to harmonica after hearing Little Walter play. He and Korner opened The London Blues and Barrelhouse Club which hosted artists such as Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. In 1961 they founded the band Blues Incorporated and also opened The Ealing Club in 1962 which attracted folks like Eric Burdon and Mick Jagger. In October 1962, he left Blues Incorporated and founded the Cyril Davies All-Stars with vocalist Long John Baldry, Nicky Hopkins, Carlo Little, Rick Brown and, for a short time, Jimmy Page. Upon his death, the core band was taken over by Baldry and became the foundation of his band, the Hoochie-Coochie Men.
6. Elvis Presley
January 8th, 1935: The “King of Rock and Roll”, Elvis Aaron Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi. At the age of 13, his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee where he got his start in music in 1954 working with Sam Phillips at Sun Records. Phillips was looking for a white performer that had a black sound and feel. He found it when Presley, along with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black began fooling around in the studio playing Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s Alright”. The rest, as they say, is history. Presley went on to become on of the most celebrated and influential artists of the 20th century and the best selling solo artist in the history of recorded music. He had 20 Number 1 albums, 33 Number 1 singles, starred in 33 movies, won 3 Grammy Awards and spawned legions of impersonators. Presley died on August 16th, 1977 with the official cause of death, finally being published as a heart attack in his home. At the time of his death he suffered from glaucoma, migraines, high blood pressure, liver damage and an enlarged colon, and his body contained 14 prescription drugs, 10 of which were in a significant quantity.
7. Dave Alexander
January 8th, 2012: Dave Alexander, self-taught blues pianist, singer, advocate and writer was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Marshall, Texas. Alexander was born David Alexander Elam in Shreveport, Louisiana on March 10th, 1938. After a stint in the US Navy, he moved to Oakland, California and began playing with artists Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton, Buddy Guy and Albert Collins. He was also the warm up act for the iconic Last Waltz concert at the Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving Day, 1976. He released two albums on the Arhoolie label under the name Dave Alexander before changing his name to Omar Hakim Khayam, also in 1976. He was also known as Omar Sharriff and Omar the Magnificent. He released an additional 5 albums under the Omar Sharriff name and wrote several articles for Living Blues Magazine. He moved back to his boyhood home of Marshall, Texas in 2011 after a radio broadcast proclaimed the town as birthplace of the boogie-woogie piano style.
8. Jimmy Page
January 9th, 1944: James Patrick “Jimmy” Page was born in Heston, Middlesex, England. He came across his first guitar at age 12, when the family moved into a different home and a previous occupant had left a guitar behind. He took a few lessons, but was mostly self-taught. His earliest influences were Rockabilly guitarists, Scotty Moore and James Burton, but he soon turned to the blues sounds of Elmore James, B. B. King, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy and Hubert Sumlin. He worked as a successful session musician and songwriter, working and recording with Jet Harris, The Who, The Kinks, Marianne Faithfull, Van Morrison, Petula Clark and the Rolling Stones. He, along with his friend Jeff Beck became members of The Yardbirds upon Eric Clapton’s departure from the group and a short time later was a founding member of Led Zeppelin. After their breakup, Page did short stints with The Firm, The Honeydrippers and performed shows with Steve Winwood, Clapton, The Black Crowes, Jack White and many others. He is a two time inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has influenced guitarists such as Slash, Tom Scholz, Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen and a myriad of other players.
9. Howlin’ Wolf
January 10th, 1976: Blues legend, Chester Arthur Burnett, better known as Howlin’ Wolf, died from a metastatic brain carcinoma in Hines, Illinois at the age of 65. Although he suffered several heart attacks late in his life, the tumor was found only 3 days before his death. Wolf was born on June 10th, 1910 in White Station, Mississippi. He learned guitar from Delta Blues master, Charley Patton and was influenced by other artists in the area, including the Mississippi Sheiks, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Ma Rainey. During the 1930s he played solo as well as with Robert Johnson, Johnny Shines, Willie Brown, Son House, Honeyboy Edwards and Sonny Boy Williamson. He recorded several songs for Sam Phillips at his Memphis Recording Service in 1951 and by 1952 Leonard Chess secured his contract and Wolf moved to Chicago. For the next several decades he cranked out hit after hit including “Moanin’ at Midnight”, “Smokestack Lightning”, “Wang Dang Doodle”, “Little Red Rooster” and “Killing Floor”. His band rotated some of the greatest Chicago blues players through it over the years. Just some of these were Hubert Sumlin, Jimmy Rogers, Buddy Guy and both “Big Smokey” and “Little Smokey” Smothers. He was posthumously inducted into The Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame in 2003. Many of his songs, the aforementioned as well as “Spoonful” and “Back Door Man” have become blues and rock standards.
10. Slim Harpo
January 11th, 1924: Blues harmonica player, singer and guitarist, James Isaac Moore was born in Lobdell, Louisiana. Early in his career, influenced by Jimmy Reed, he played under the name Harmonica Slim with his brother-in-law, Lightnin’ Slim in the bars of Baton Rouge. He took the name Slim Harpo when he began his recording career with record producer Jay Miller in 1957. His first recording with Miller was to go on to become his most influential song, “I’m a King Bee” recorded in March 1957 in Crowley, Louisiana and released on Excello Records out of Nashville, Tennessee. It was a piece of Swamp Blues genius that went on to be covered by the Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters, The Doors and many more. Other successful and influential songs by Harpo include his biggest commercial success, “Baby Scratch My Back”, “Rainin’ in My Heart” and “Shake Your Hips” which was used on the ZZ Top hit, “La Grange”. Harpo toured widely in the late 1960s bringing his brother-in-law along with him. He died suddenly of a heart attack at age 46 in Baton Rouge on January 31st, 1970. He was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1985.