This Week in Blues Past: Two Mississippi Tragedies that produced famous songs, the naming of a Blues Award and much, much more…

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1. Johnny Shines

April 20th, 1992: Original Delta Blues man, Johnny Shines died just six days shy of his 77th birthday in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Born in the Frayser neighborhood of Memphis, Tennessee in 1915, John Ned Shines was taught to play guitar by his mother and at a very young age was busking the streets of Memphis and playing delta slide in local juke joints. After moving to Hughes, Arkansas, a chance meeting with Robert Johnson inspired him even further. In 1935, Johnson and Shines traveled together for nearly two years, playing music in Chicago, Texas, New York, Canada, Kentucky, and Indiana. In 1941, Shines moved to Chicago and worked construction, playing nights at local clubs. He recorded in 1946, 1950 and 1952, but had no commercial success, frustrating him enough to sell his equipment and work construction full time. In 1966 he was found taking pictures in a Chicago club by staff members of Vanguard Records, who convinced him to return to the studio. His successful recordings there put him on tour with Lee Jackson, Big Walter and Willie Dixon as the Chicago All Stars. In 1969 he moved to Holt, Alabama where he played a local coffee house, inviting Mississippi Fred McDowell to join him. He also toured extensively with Robert Lockwood, Jr. as the last remaining original delta blues musicians. He suffered a stroke in 1980, but was back on tour with Kent DuChaine 9 years later. He was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame the same year as his death.

2. Koko Taylor Award

April 20th, 2010: Just three weeks prior to their 31st Annual Blues Music Awards Gala in Memphis, Tennessee, The Blues Foundation announced that the award for Best Traditional Female Artist would, from this time forward, be known as the Koko Taylor Award. Known as the “Queen of the Blues”, Taylor’s last performance was at the 30th Annual Blues Music Awards the previous year as she died on June 3rd of that year. Taylor had been nominated for 37 total Blues Music Awards and had won 29 of them. She was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1997 and won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Blues Foundation in 1999. The winner of the first ever Koko Taylor Award was blues guitarist, Debbie Davies, who, at the time, had released 12 albums, spent 4 years as a member of the Icebreakers with Albert Collins and had collaborated with artists such as Double Trouble, Coco Montoya, J. Geils and Duke Robillard.

3. The Great Mississippi River Flood

April 21st, 1927: After months of unprecedented rainfall and river flooding, the levee at Mounds Landing, Mississippi gave way, beginning the Great Mississippi Flood. Over the next few weeks the levee system broke in 145 places, causing flood waters up to 30 feet deep to cover more than 27,000 square miles, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and killing 247 people in 7 states. When the Mounds Landing levee broke, it doubled the water volume of Niagara Falls. 11 states in all were effected by the flood waters and by May the Mississippi River below Memphis, Tennessee was 60 miles wide. The flood waters did not recede until August. Songs written about the flood, from beforehand to the devastation much afterward include “Backwater Blues” by Bessie Smith; “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues” and “Mississippi Low Levee Blues” both by Barbecue Bob; “High Water Everywhere Parts 1 & 2” by Charley Patton; “When the Levee Breaks” by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy, famously covered by Led Zeppelin; “Southern Flood Blues” by Big Bill Broonzy; “Rising High Water Blues” by Blind Lemon Jefferson; “Broken Levee Blues” by Lonnie Johnson; “Flood Water” by Eric Bibb; “High Water (For Charley Patton)” by Bob Dylan and “Louisiana 1927” by Randy Newman. The Great Flood also caused several other occurrences including the migration of blacks from the delta, North to Kansas City and then Chicago, and a mass political movement of blacks from the historically anti-slavery Republican party to the Democratic Party. A Mississippi Blues Trail Marker was established on this date in 2009 to commemorate the event in Scott, Mississippi.

4. Earl Hooker

April 21st, 1970: Virtuoso guitarist, Earl Hooker, died from complications due to tuberculosis in Chicago, Illinois. A native of Quitman County, Mississippi, and cousin of John Lee Hooker, he was moved to Chicago at age one with his family. By the time he was 13 years old, he was playing Chicago street corners with friends that included Bo Diddley. He learned a soft touch slide technique from T-Bone Walker and Robert Nighthawk which he developed into a style that brought him great praise from other musicians including B. B. King, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, Albert King, Otis Rush and many others. Most of his career was spent as a sideman, recording with Magic Sam, A. C. Reed, Ike Turner, Muddy Waters, “Big Moose” Walker and many more. He did release 4 albums in his lifetime and several others were released posthumously from previously unreleased recordings. Hooker is recognized as the “blues guitarists’ guitarist” and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2013.

5. The Blues Brothers

April 22nd, 1978: The first performance by The Blues Brothers was their appearance as the musical guests on Saturday Night Live where they were introduced by Paul Shaffer (as Don Kirshner) and performed the song “Hey Bartender”. Dan Aykroyd (Elwood Blues) and John Belushi (Joliet Jake Blues) were SNL cast members who, along with other cast members and guests would hang out at Aykroyd’s Holland Tunnel Blues Bar after shows. Aykroyd was a long time blues fan and Belushi became hooked while filming the movie Animal House in Oregon and getting to know Curtis Salgado. Their actual first appearance on the show was on January 17th, 1976 as a sketch, performing Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee” as Howard Shore and His All-Bee Band, dressed, of course, in bee costumes. After compiling one of the greatest backing bands in musical history, they released their first album, Briefcase Full of Blues on November 28th, 1978. The album went to #1 on the Billboard Charts and Double-Platinum.

6. Natchez Burning

April 23rd, 1940: One of the deadliest fires in US history, “The Natchez Dance Hall Holocaust”, occurred when a discarded cigarette ignited the decorative Spanish moss that hung from the ceiling of The Rhythm Club in Natchez, Mississippi. Over 200 people were killed in the blaze, including bandleader Walter Barnes, 9 members of his orchestra and his guest, fellow bandleader, Clarence “Bud” Scott, Jr. Within weeks of the fire, Chicago artists Lewis Bronzeville Five, Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston, and Gene Gilmore recorded the first commemorative songs. Other songs were written and recorded by artists such as Captain Beefheart, Robert Gilmore, John Lee Hooker and many others, the most famous of which is “The Natchez Burning” recorded in 1956 by Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett.

7. Otis Spann

April 24th, 1970: Perhaps the greatest post-war Blues pianist, Otis Spann, died of liver cancer in Chicago, Illinois. Born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1930, Spann began playing piano at age 7 and by the age of 16 had moved to Chicago and was playing with artists such as Big Maceo Merriweather. In 1952 he joined the Muddy Waters band, and although he also recorded solo and as a session player, he remained with Waters’ band until 1968. Even with being one of the first inductees into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, Spann’s grave lay unmarked in the Burr Oak Cemetery in Ilsip, Illinois for nearly 30 years until the founder of the Killer Blues Headstone Project, Steve Salter, took notice and wrote a letter to Blues Revue magazine. People from around the world sent donations and Spann’s headstone was placed on June 6th, 1999.

8. Albert King

April 25th, 1923: Known as “The Velvet Bulldozer” and one of the “3 Kings of the Blues”, Albert King Nelson was born in Indianola, Mississippi. His father played guitar and King grew up in a household that picked cotton by day and sang gospel on Sundays. He began his professional music career with a group called the Groove Boys in Osceola, Arkansas and soon moved up to Gary, Indiana and then St. Louis, Missouri. He was a drummer for Jimmy Reed, but being influenced by Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson, he preferred the guitar. He settled on the Gibson Flying V guitar as his primary instrument and his first major hit was in 1961 with “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong”. He moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 1966 and signed with the Stax label. He was left-handed but played a right-handed instrument, upside down and was responsible for songs such as “Born Under a Bad Sign”, “Crosscut Saw” and “I’ll Play the Blues For You”. He played with many of the greats and was a major influence on Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Mike Bloomfield, Albert Collins and Otis Rush. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1983 and posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 30 years later. King died on December 21st, 1992 from a heart attack at his home in Memphis.

9. Ma Rainey

April 26th, 1886: Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett was born in Columbus, Georgia. Her first public performance was at a talent show there around the age of 12. She married Will Rainey in 1904 and from that time on was known professionally as Ma Rainey. They formed the Alabama Fun Makers but were soon both touring and performing with the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, where she fist met Bessie Smith. In 1920 Mamie Smith was the first black woman to record a record, and Rainey was not far behind. In 1923, she signed a contract with Paramount and made her first 8 recordings in Chicago. Over the next 5 years she recorded over 100 singles including “Bo-Weevil Blues”, “See See Rider” and “Black Bottom”. In 1935, Rainey moved back to her home town where she ran two theaters, “The Lyric” and “Airdrome” until her death from a heart attack in 1939. Rainey was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. In the upcoming 2015 movie, Bessie, the part of Ma Rainey is played by Academy Award winning actress, Mo’Nique.

10. J. B. Hutto

April 26th, 1926: Joseph Benjamin “J.B.” Hutto was born in Blackville, South Carolina. The son of a preacher, Hutto moved with his family to Augusta, Georgia three years later and, upon his father’s death in 1949, to Chicago, Illinois. Hutto was drafted into the Army during the Korean War and upon his return home played drums and then piano for local bands before settling on the guitar and busking with Eddie “Porkchop” Hines. They added Joe Custom on second guitar and George Mayweather on harmonica and began playing clubs as The Hawks. They recorded beginning in 1954 but by the late 50s Hutto had become disenchanted with music. When a woman broke Hutto’s guitar over her husband’s head in a nightclub, he called it quits, working as a janitor for the next 11 years. He returned to music in the mid-1960s revamping the Hawks and recording on the Vanguard, Testament and Delmark labels. Upon Hound Dog Taylor’s death in 1975, Hutto took over The Houserockers for a while until he moved to Boston and started The New Hawks in 1979. In the early 80s he moved back to Chicago, was diagnosed with cancer and died on June 12th, 1983 in Harvey, Illinois. He was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1985 and his nephew, Lil’ Ed Williams and his band The Imperials, maintain his legacy and play in his style.