On May 4, 2016 five legendary blues performers, two individuals who were instrumental in the creation of blues music, five single blues recordings, one blues album and an important piece of blues literature will be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
Elvin Bishop, Eddy Clearwater, Jimmy Johnson, John Mayall, and The Memphis Jug Band will each take their places beside performers who have been deemed by a group of blues scholars and industry veterans to be the Best in the Blues. Each of these musicians has carved his place in blues history. Bishop’s beginnings with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band to his more recent recognition for the 2015 Blues Music Awards “Song of the Year” have elevated him to the highest stature in blues music. Clearwater, Johnson, and Mayall each boast careers that have spanned more than a half century, and their talent has not waned as they each continue to produce music and to perform for devoted audiences, yet each are distinguishable by their stage presence and musical talent. The Memphis Jug Band’s music crossed the racial divides of the first half of the twentieth century and inspired many musicians to follow in their footsteps.
Non-performer individuals to be recognized by The Blues Foundation for their behind-the-scenes contributions are Malaco Records partners Tommy Couch, Sr. and Wolf Stephenson, whose label’s first big hit was Dorothy Moore’s “Misty Blue” in 1976, and who then went on to produce such blues greats as Bobby Bland, Little Milton, Z.Z. Hill, Denise LaSalle, Latimore, Johnnie Taylor, and Tyrone Davis. The business foundation they built has allowed Malaco to remain an active player in the music world today.
The book Early Downhome Blues: A Musical and Cultural Analysis, by Jeff Todd Titon is the literature entry into the Blues Hall of Fame this year, and is one of the most important analytical studies of the blues to have been published.
The classic album Blues in the Mississippi Night (Nixa, 1957: United Artists, 1959) is being honored as are the singles, “Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith (OKeh, 1920), “That’s All Right” by Jimmy Rogers (Chess, 1950), Billy Boy Arnold’s “I Wish You Would” (Vee-Jay, 1955), Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers’ (Charles Brown, vocal and piano) “Merry Christmas Baby” (Exclusive, 1947), the first Yuletide song inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and “Blues Before Sunrise” by Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell (Vocalion, 1934).
The induction ceremony will be held Wednesday, May 4, at the Sheraton Memphis Downtown in Memphis, Tennessee, the night before the 37th Blues Music Awards. With living musicians like Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton, and legends like Muddy Waters and Koko Taylor, the Blues Hall of Fame consists of blues music’s best and brightest stars. The Blues Hall of Fame induction ceremony will coincide with the one year anniversary of the opening of the Blues Hall of Fame Museum, also located in Memphis, TN at the home of the Blues Foundation. This state of the art facility celebrates the lives and the music of each Hall of Fame individual as well as the history of the music and the literature produced through the blues timeline. These newest inductees will be added to the museum’s permanent exhibits and interactive displays in conjunction with their induction this May.
Elvin Bishop first came to prominence alongside fellow Blues Hall of Fame guitarist Michael Bloomfield as a member of the influential Paul Butterfield Blues Band in the 1960s and has since carved his own niche both as a hit making roadhouse rocker and as a multiple Blues Music Awards recipient. The blues bug bit Bishop when he heard Jimmy Reed and others on the radio as a teenager in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was born in Glendale, California, on October 21, 1942, but grew up on an Iowa farm and in Tulsa, and his persona and music reflect his rural roots, wit and humor, and an appreciation of a wide range of sounds, including blues, rock, soul, gospel, and country.
Bishop attended the University of Chicago on a scholarship in 1960, ostensibly to study physics, but the city’s thriving blues scene became his laboratory, with guitarist Little Smokey Smothers his prime instructor. His productive partnership with Paul Butterfield yielded several historic albums, his guitar work coming more to the fore as the years passed. In 1968, Bishop struck out on his own, drawn to another fertile musical landscape in the San Francisco Bay Area. While he never lost his blues chops, his music took a new direction when he recorded his first albums for Epic, and then for Capricorn. Five of his Capricorn albums, led by Struttin’ My Stuff, made the pop charts from 1974 to 1978, as did five singles, including his biggest hit, “Fooled Around and Fell in Love.” Several competing Best of Elvin Bishop compilations from his ’70s work later hit the market.
A return to more blues-based showcases for his guitar, vocals, and songwriting began in 1988 with a series of albums for Alligator, Blind Pig, and Delta Groove, including a collaboration with Little Smokey Smothers and albums with guests such as James Cotton and B.B. King. Bishop was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 2015, the same year he took home Blues Music Awards for Album and Song of the Year (“I Can’t Even Do Wrong Right”).
Eddy Clearwater earned a reputation early in his career as a colorful and versatile entertainer, one whose onstage flamboyance belied his soft-spoken nature. A Chuck Berry act was once his specialty, and he learned how to play music, from Top 40 to country to R&B, to please any audience in the clubs of Chicago and the suburbs. But his blues roots ran deep, back to the Macon, Mississippi area where he was born Edward Harrington on January 10, 1935, to a prodigious musical family tree that includes Carey and Lurrie Bell, and to the West Side blues of Otis Rush and Magic Sam that inspired him. By the time he made his first record for his uncle Houston Harrington’s Atomic-H label in 1958, he had acquired the stage name Clear Waters (later just Clearwater)– a play on another of his influences, Muddy Waters. A few more singles followed, some in the Chuck Berry vein, but when it came time to do his first albums his blues talents had begun to be recognized in Europe and in the blues clubs of Chicago.
He earned another nickname, “The Chief,” from the title of his first American LP on Rooster Blues when he posed for the cover on horseback in an Indian headdress (a gift from a fan). Already playing one of the busiest nightclub schedules of any Chicago bluesman, Clearwater ramped up his road work and rocked the blues harder than ever. More albums for Rooster Blues, Blind Pig, Bullseye Blues, and his own Cleartone imprint followed, along with assorted European releases, leading to widely acclaimed releases for Bullseye Blues (Rock ‘n’ Roll City, with Los Straitjackets) and Alligator (West Side Strut). Still strutting his stuff in his war bonnet, Eddy Clearwater adds to a proud legacy every time he steps onstage or into a recording studio.
Jimmy Johnson followed a circuitous route back to the blues he grew up with in Mississippi to reemerge on the Chicago blues scene in the 1970s heralded as a fresh and exciting “new” voice in the music. Johnson was born Jimmy Thompson in Marshall County, Mississippi, on November 25, 1928. His father and younger brothers Mac and Syl were all musicians, and as a teenager he counted Matt “Guitar” Murphy as a best friend. (Syl Thompson later became a soul star under the name Syl Johnson, and Jimmy and Mac eventually followed suit to become Johnsons.)
Jimmy sang gospel in Memphis and Chicago, finally trying his hand at playing blues guitar in the late ’50s. But soul music was hot in the ’60s, and Johnson began to find better-paying work playing shows and touring with his brother Syl, Otis Clay, Denise LaSalle, Bobby Rush, Tyrone Davis, and many others. As jobs on the soul circuit began to wane in the ‘70s, Johnson answered the call of the blues again when he joined the Jimmy Dawkins band in 1974. He soon began to develop his blues career with his own band, gigging in Chicago as well as making European tours and recording for the French MCM label, Alligator, and Delmark. The piercing, soulful quality of his vocals and guitar playing earned him a staunch following among blues fans, bringing him several W.C. Handy Blues Awards (now called Blues Music Awards) along the way.
Johnson cut back on traveling after a tragic accident in 1988. He and his band were returning from a job in Indiana when their van ran off the road, and two band members perished. But when he has chosen to perform and record again, he has proven that his talent remains undiminished, as evidenced by his live shows (even in his eighties sounding uncannily like he did 40 years earlier) and his albums for Verve in 1994 (voted Comeback Album of the Year), Ruf in 1999, and a pairing with brother Syl in 2002 on Evangeline, Two Johnsons are Better Than One.
The “Godfather of British Blues” and a longtime crusader for American blues originators, John Mayall joins many of his idols, as well as a famous former band member, with his induction into the Blues Hall of Fame. Eric Clapton, guitarist with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in the 1960s, was inducted in 2014, while the bluesmen who inspired Mayall, including Sonny Boy Williamson, J.B. Lenoir, Otis Rush and Freddie King, were among the first inductees.
Born November 29, 1933, in Macclesfield, Cheshire, England, Mayall inherited an early interest in blues, boogie woogie, and jazz from his father, Murray Mayall, a trombonist, guitarist, and record collector. Mayall took up piano, guitar, and harmonica, formed his first band in 1962, and founded the legendary Bluesbreakers in London in 1963. The band featured a succession of guitarists who went on to greater blues/rock fame, including Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor, as well as future Fleetwood Mac founders Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. The Bluesbreakers’ 1966 LP with Clapton was a Top 10 album in England. In the liner notes to his 1967 album Crusade, Mayall wrote, his goal was “to campaign for some of my blues heroes,” and he later devoted a whole album to songs by one of them, Freddie King.
Mayall moved to California to continue his blues journey stateside and has recorded prolifically and toured steadily with only a rare hiatus, still recruiting hot young sidemen such as Coco Montoya and Walter Trout, and making his mark as a songwriter as well as a devoted interpreter. His studio albums number more than 60, augmented by a growing catalog of live recordings. Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Albert Collins, and other Blues Hall of Famers have taken guest spots on some, and along the way Mayall also produced an album by another, Albert King. Numerous Mayall albums have appeared on the Billboard pop charts over the years, including The Turning Point, Bare Wires, Empty Rooms, U.S.A. Union, and Back to the Roots, and his later releases have scored high on the magazine’s blues charts. As Mayall’s odyssey continues, the words he wrote for Crusade in 1967 still resonate decades later: ” I have dedicated my life to the blues … I hope you’ll join forces with me.”
MEMPHIS JUG BAND
The Memphis Jug Band was one of the most popular and prolific blues groups of the 1920s and ’30s, employing jugs, harmonicas, kazoos, guitars, mandolins, fiddles, and other instruments to entertain a wide variety of audiences with brisk renditions of downhome blues, waltzes, hokum, minstrel songs, and pop tunes. The band revolved around founder Will Shade, who played guitar, harmonica, and “bullfiddle,” a homemade one-string bass. Shade recruited a fluid cast of singers and musicians that included Charlie Burse, Ben Ramey, Milton Roby, Will Weldon, Jab Jones, and Charlie Polk on their 1927-1934 sessions when they recorded “Stealin’, Stealin,” “K.C. Moan,” “Cocaine Habit Blues,” “Fishin’ in the Dark,” and a cache of other enduring favorites.
Their records were marketed mainly to African American blues audiences, but white patrons often employed the band for social affairs, political events, conventions, country club dances, and railroad and riverboat excursions. They also played in parks, restaurants, and the back of trucks, and did some traveling to Chicago, New Orleans, and other destinations for both black and white events. Such was their renown, even at the start, that on February 24, 1927, the Memphis Jug Band had the honor of making the first phonograph records not just in the city of Memphis, but also within the five-state area of Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, and Kentucky. The session for Victor Records, on the fourth floor of the McCall Building (where the Waterfront Plaza now stands in downtown Memphis), began with “Sun Brimmers Blues” — a title based on Will Shade’s nickname “Son Brimmer.”
Shade, born in Memphis on February 5, 1898, put various incarnations of the band together for several decades, and recorded again for Sam Charters in 1956 and for other folklorists and researchers in the 1960s. Inspired by the success of the Memphis Jug Band, several other jug bands sprang up in Memphis, but none ever matched the primacy of Shade’s group. Shade died on September 18, 1966.
INDIVIDUALS (Business, Production, Media or Academic):
TOMMY COUCH and WOLF STEPHENSON
Tommy Couch (born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on November 12, 1942) and Gerald “Wolf” Stephenson (born in Columbia, Mississippi, on August 24, 1943) built Malaco Records, the premier label for Southern soul, soul-blues and gospel music, out of a booking partnership they started to bring rhythm & blues acts to their fraternity while they were pharmacy students at Ole Miss in the 1960s. Their bookings extended to other colleges and then to R&B and pop concerts in Jackson. Couch co-founded Malaco, Inc. in 1968 with his brother-in-law Mitch Malouf and was soon joined by Stephenson and later by business manager Stewart Madison. The operation expanded to include a recording studio where Stephenson engineered along with production and publishing companies and several record labels.