This Week in Blues Past: Catfish Keith, The GRAMMYS, Screamin' Jay, More!

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Screamin Jay Hawkins1. Catfish Keith

February 9th, 1962: Acoustic blues singer, songwriter and guitarist, Catfish Keith was born Keith Daniel Kozacik in East Chicago, Indiana. Growing up he was influenced by artists he heard on the radio including Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. By the time he got his first guitar as a teenager, he was listening mostly to Son House. Keith attended high school in Davenport, Iowa and the set out traveling around the United States and the Caribbean to learn the blues. He toured constantly and picked up playing tips from artists such as Jessie Mae Hemphill, Henry Townsend, Johnny Shines and David “Honeyboy” Edwards. In 1984, he recorded his first album, Catfish Blues and by 1988, founded his own label. By the early 1990s he was being recognized as a master of the resonator steel guitar and being compared to Frank Hovington and Elizabeth Cotten. He continues to tour the US and Europe and has released 15 albums to date, 5 of which are on his own Fish Tail Records label.

2. Back Alley John

February 10th, 1955: Harmonica player and blues singer, Back Alley John was born John Carl David Wilson in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. At the age of 14 he ran away from his strict home and ended up in Venice Beach, California in a stolen truck. Afraid of getting arrested, he busked in the back alleys of Venice Beach, earning the nickname he used all his professional life. He was deported back to Canada and set up his first band in 1980, The Back Alley John Revue. He won the 1982 Ottawa Bluesfest harmonica competition and a couple years later was playing with Kim Wilson, John Hammond and Albert Collins and had added 16 year old guitarist, Sue Foley to the band. A blues historian, John was influenced by Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, Little Walter and Johnny Winter. He became seriously ill in 1988 and moved to Calgary to be closer to his brother. In another 10 years he was recognized as one of the finest blues players in North America, although he was suffering from respiratory disease. Although he was eventually confined to a wheel chair and on full time oxygen, John played, quite literally, until his last breath on June 22nd, 2006. He was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame of the Calgary Blues Music Association in 2008.

3. 50th Grammy Awards

February 10th, 2008: The 50th Grammy Awards were held at the Staple Center in Los Angeles, California. Among the big winners of the night were British blues and soul singer Amy Winehouse with 5 awards; Henry Townsend, “Pinetop” Perkins, Robert Lockwood, Jr. & David “Honeyboy” Edwards winning the award for Best Traditional Blues Album for Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live In Dallas; JJ Cale & Eric Clapton for The Road to Escondido and Levon Helm for Dirt Farmer. The show also included a medley performance by Jerry Lee Lewis, John Fogerty and Little Richard.

4. Josh White

February 11th, 1914: Joshua Daniel “Josh” White, singer, guitarist, songwriter, actor, and civil rights activist also known as Pinewood Tom and Tippy Barton was born in Greenville, South Carolina. He played Piedmont and Country Blues as well as folk, gospel and social protest songs. By 1931 he had moved to New York and was playing and recording, performing as a radio actor, as well as on Broadway and film. He became close friends with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, playing at his inauguration as well as a command performance at the White House. He became so close with the first family that Roosevelt and his wife were godparents to Josh White, Jr. Because of his anti-segregation and human rights stance, he was caught up in the communist Red Scare, with his career being irreparably damaged even though President Kennedy invited him to appear on the national CBS Television’s civil rights special “Dinner with the President” in 1963. White was the first black singer-guitarist to star in Hollywood films and on Broadway, the first black singer to give a White House Command Performance, the first to get a million-selling record, (“One Meatball” – 1944) and one of the first to be honored on a US postage stamp. White is also acknowledged as a major influence on Brownie McGhee, Alexis Korner, Odetta, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Mike Bloomfield, Ry Cooder, Ray Charles and hundreds more. White died on the operating table during an unsuccessful heart operation on September 5th, 1969 in Manhasset, New York.

5. Earring George Mayweather

February 12th, 1995: Chicago harmonica player, “Earring” George Mayweather died of liver cancer in Boston, Massachusetts at the age of 67. Mayweather was born in Montgomery, Alabama on September 27th, 1928 and received his first harmonica as a Christmas present at age 6. He taught himself to play, listening to Sonny Boy Williamson records, and when he got to Chicago at the age of 21, he made friends with Little Walter, who taught him some of the finer points of the instrument. Two years later he formed a band with his next door neighbor, J. B. Hutto and drummer, Eddie “Porkchop” Hines and began playing the Maxwell Street market on weekends. Work was slow and money was tight, so Mayweather joined Bo Diddley for a time, working with both bands. He turned down an offer from Walter to replace him in Muddy Waters’ band, and instead formed a group with Eddie Taylor, recording with both he and Hutto. He moved to Boston in the late 1980s and quickly became THE act at the 1369 Jazz Club there. One album, Whup It! Whup It!, was released in 1992 on the Tone Cool label.

6. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

February 12th, 2000: Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins died after surgery to treat an aneurysm in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France at the age of 70. Hawkins was born in Cleveland, Ohio on July 18th, 1929 and was learning piano, guitar and operatic voice as a young man. With is failure to become an opera singer, he turned to singing the blues. The original “Shock Rocker” he recorded songs like “Feast of the Mau Mau”, “Constipation Blues” and his biggest hit, “I Put a Spell On You” which, coincidentally, was recorded 44 years, to the day, prior to his death. Hawkins was never a major recording artist, but that one song kept him touring for decades.

7. Memphis Jug Band

February 13th, 1928: The Memphis Jug Band held a recording session in the Memphis Auditorium and recorded four songs which would be released on the Victor label. The band, at that time made up of Will Shade, Ben Ramey, Will Weldon, Vol Stevens and Charlie Polk, recorded “Coal Oil Blues”, “Papa Long Blues”, “She Stays Out All Night” and “Peaches in the Springtime”.

8. Blind Boy Fuller

February 13th, 1941: One of the most popular recorded Piedmont blues artists of all time, Blind Boy Fuller, died at his home in Durham, North Carolina of pyemia and kidney failure at the age of 33. He was born Fulton Allen in Wadesboro, North Carolina on July 10th, 1907 and learned to play guitar as a boy. He married very young and began to lose his eyesight as a teenager. By 1928 he was completely blind and making whatever money he could as a singer, busking in the streets. He listened to records by Blind Blake and soon was playing house parties in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and Danville, Virginia and well as the tobacco warehouses of Durham where he played with folks like Floyd Council and Sonny Terry. His first recordings were done in 1935 on the American Recording Company (ARC) label and over the next five years, he recorded 120 sides. Some of his most popular songs included “Get Your Yas Yas Out”, “Truckin’ My Blues Away”, “Step It Up and Go” and “Lost Lover Blues”. Fuller lies in an unmarked grave in the former Grove Hill Cemetery outside Durham, with a plaque along the American Tobacco Trail that states that he is buried “nearby”. He was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2004.

9. Magic Sam

February 14th, 1937: Samuel “Magic Sam” Gene Maghett was born in Grenada, Mississippi. He learned to play the blues listening to Muddy Waters records and after moving to Chicago in 1956, was recording on the Cobra label by age 19. He was drafted into the army, deserted and after spending 6 months in jail, was back in Chicago playing and recording. In 1967 he signed with Delmark Records and his iconic albums, West Side Soul and Black Magic were both recorded on that label. He toured with Charlie Musselwhite and Sam Lay and his performance at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969 was one that is still talked about. Sam died of a heart attack on December 1st, 1969 at the age of 32 and was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1982.

10. Kokomo Arnold

February 15th, 1901: James “Kokomo” Arnold was born in Lovejoy’s Station Georgia. He learned the guitar from a cousin in his youth and played where he could as he traveled around working in Buffalo, New York, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Chicago, Illinois. He was working as a bootlegger in Chicago in 1930 when he made a trip down south and made his first recordings; “Rainy Night Blues” and “Paddlin’ Madeline Blues”, under the name Gitfiddle Jim for the Victor label in Memphis. He quickly moved back to Chicago and began recording for the Decca label on the recommendation of Kansas Joe McCoy. He cut 88 sides for Decca in 3 1/2 years including “Milk Cow Blues”, “Sissy Man Blues” and, of course, his famous cover of the Scrapper Blackwell song, “Kokomo Blues” which Arnold changed to “Old Original Kokomo Blues” and Robert Johnson later turned into “Sweet Home Chicago”. Arnold left music in 1938 and went to work in a factory. When approached by blues researchers in 1962, he showed no interest in returning to music. He died of a heart attack in Chicago on November 8th, 1968 and was buried in the Burr Oak Cemetery.