This Week in Blues Past: Hill Country Blues, New Orleans, Junior Wells, much more

This week is packed full of blues happenings, from birthdays to a handful of New Orleans Blues milestones to Chicago and Hill Country blues luminaries!

tipitinasogo11. Mississippi Fred McDowell

January 12th, 1904: Hill Country Blues singer and guitarist, “Mississippi” Fred McDowell was born in Rossville, Tennessee. He learned guitar and began playing dances in the area at age 14. In 1926 he moved to Memphis where he worked several odd jobs and played for tips wherever he could. Two years later he moved again and settled in Como, Mississippi working steadily as a farmer, busking for tips and playing picnics and dances, playing slide guitar with a pocket knife, a beef rib bone, and finally a glass slide. McDowell is the first North Hill Country bluesman to gain recognition, even though he is commonly lumped into the Delta Blues category. His recording career began in 1959 when he was discovered by Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins. By 1965, he was touring Europe with Big Mama Thornton, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and Roosevelt Sykes. McDowell died of cancer on July 3rd, 1972 and in 1993 a memorial was placed on his grave, paid for by Bonnie Raitt, whom he had coached on slide guitar technique. He was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1991.

2. The Origins of Motown

January 12th, 1959: Then songwriter, Berry Gordy, with $800 which he borrowed from his family, opened the Tamla Record Company in Detroit, Michigan. Within a year, he changed the name to Motown Records. While the label focused primarily on Northern Soul and R&B artists, some Blues performers had links to the label as well. They included Mable John (sister of Little Willie John), Sammy Ward, Amos Milburn, Arthur Adams, Earl King and Luther Allison.

3. Earl Gilliam

January 13th, 1930: Blues pianist and organist, Earl Gilliam was born in Lafayette, Louisiana. He moved to New Waverly, Texas at age 12 and then to Houston, Texas by age 18. A self taught pianist, Gilliam played as a sideman for Albert Collins, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Amos Milburn, Johnny Copeland, Joe “Guitar” Hughes and several other artists. Gilliam was famous for hosting his “Doghouse Jams,” informal gatherings at his house on Sunday afternoons that lasted for hours and brought out much of the Houston-area blues community. His album, Texas Doghouse Blues was released in 2005 but he later disowned the album, stating the label never paid him for it. Gilliam died in Tomball in October, 2011 of advanced lung disease at the age of 81.

4. Allen Toussaint

January 14th, 1938: Allen Toussaint was born in the New Orleans, Louisiana neighborhood of Gert Town. His mother welcomed and fed all manner of musicians traveling through the area and Toussaint jammed on piano with them all. He got a lucky break at age 17 when he filled in with Earl King’s band at a gig in Alabama. Professor Longhair was a major influence on him, and although he has released 19 albums of his own and appeared on scores of other recordings with artists such as Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Etta James and John Mayall, he is also a well known composer and songwriter. Some of his songs, made famous by other artists include “Working in the Coal Mine”, “Fortune Teller”, “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues)” and “Mother-in-Law”. After Hurricane Katrina, Toussaint moved to Baton Rouge and then to New York City where he resides today. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2012.

5. Tipitina’s

January 14th, 1977: One of the best known clubs in New Orleans, Louisiana opened its doors as Tipitina’s. Located at 501 Napoleon Avenue, the dance hall was built in 1912 and used as a gambling house, gymnasium, brothel, restaurant and juice bar with radio station WWOZ located in one of the apartments upstairs. The name comes from the song “Tipitina” by Professor Longhair who performed there regularly until his death. It is a hot spot during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival each year, hosting a concert series called the Fess Jazztival. It has also established a non-profit organization that assists local musicians, particularly New Orleans public high school marching bands. Artists who have recorded live albums at Tipitina’s include Fess, The Neville Brothers, Anders Osborne, The Radiators, Tuts Washington, Dr. John and The Blind Boys of Alabama.

6. Earl Hooker

January 15th, 1929: One of the most respected six string slide guitarists in the Chicago blues scene, Earl Hooker was born in Quitman County, Mississippi. A cousin of John Lee Hooker, he moved to Chicago with his family a year later and by age 10 was playing guitar. He did very little singing in his career as he stuttered badly, but his guitar playing more than made up for it. Robert Nighthawk taught Hooker to play slide guitar and T-Bone Walker taught him showmanship. He played street corners with Bo Diddley and Junior Wells and when he began recording, there was no stopping him. He recorded on no less than six labels, with artists such as Wells, Pinetop Perkins, Magic Sam, A. C. Reed and many others. His instrumental song, “Blue Guitar” was given lyrics by Willie Dixon and with Muddy Waters vocals overdubbed on it, was released as “You Shook Me”. He often played a double neck guitar and was considered a “blues guitarists’ guitarist”, highly regarded by B. B. King, Albert Collins, Tinsley Ellis, Buddy Guy, Albert King, Otis Rush and a myriad of other artists. Hooker had contracted tuberculosis as a child and died from its effects on April 21st, 1970 at the age of 41. He was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2013.

7. Junior Wells

January 15th, 1998: The “Godfather of the Blues”, Junior Wells died of lymphoma in Chicago, Illinois at the age of 63. He was born Amos Wells Blakemore, Jr. on December 9th, 1934 in Memphis, Tennessee and was taught harmonica as a child by his cousin, Junior Parker and Sonny Boy Williamson in West Memphis, Arkansas. He moved to Chicago with his mother in 1948 and, influenced by Little Walter, developed an amplified harmonica style. He made his first recordings in 1952 and played with Muddy Waters and Earl Hooker and, during his career, recorded 12 albums with Buddy Guy. Some of his best known songs include “Messin’ With the Kid”, “Come on in This House”, “Hoodoo Man Blues” and “It Hurts Me Too”. He was inducted, along with Luther Allison, into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1998.

8. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

January 16th, 1991: A large group of blues and blues-influenced artists are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during its 6th annual induction ceremony. The ceremony began late, following President Bush’s declaration of the first Gulf War and bombings beginning in Baghdad. Howlin’ Wolf was inducted by Robert Cray as an Early Influence. Others inducted into the Hall that evening included John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, LaVern Baker, Wilson Pickett, Ike & Tina Turner, The Byrds and The Impressions.

9. Junior Kimbrough

January 17th, 1998: North Hill Country Blues artist and club owner, Junior Kimbrough, died following a stroke in Holly Springs, Mississippi at the age of 67. He was born in Hudsonville, Mississippi in 1930 and began playing guitar in his youth, influenced heavily by Lightnin’ Hopkins. By the late 1950s he began playing in his own droning, hypnotic style which was a prime example of North Country Hill Blues and greatly resembled artists such as John Lee Hooker. He moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 1966 and began recording, although they wouldn’t be released until 2009. He did see five albums released in his lifetime and was a long time friend and label mate of R. L. Burnside on the Fat Possum label. Around 1992, he opened a juke joint called Junior’s Place in Chulahoma, Mississippi. It was a great traditional juke and drew crowds from around the world, including Keith Richards, Iggy Pop and members of the band U2. Although his sons kept the juke open after his death, it burned to the ground on April 6th, 2000.

10. Low Country Blues

January 18th, 2011: Gregg Allman released his 11th studio album, Low Country Blues, on Rounder Records. The album was produced by T-Bone Burnett who also played guitar on 6 of the 12 tracks. Allman and Warren Haynes wrote one song for the LP, “Just Another Rider” and Allman also arranged 2 traditional tracks, “I Believe I’ll Go Back Home” and “Rolling Stone” with the help of Burnett and Dr. John. Other tracks on the record were covers of songs by Sleepy John Estes, B. B. King, Skip James, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush and others. Other performing artists included Dr. John, Dennis Crouch, Doyle Bramhall, Jr. and Colin Linden to name just a few. Low Country Blues reached Number 1 on the Top Blues Album charts and Number 5 on the Billboard 200.

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