In Blues All Day Long, Wayne Everett Goins mines seventy-five hours of interviews with Rogers' family, collaborators, and peers to follow a life spent in the blues. Goins' account takes Rogers from recording Chess classics and barnstorming across the South to a late-in-life renaissance that included new music, entry into the Blues Hall of Fame, and high profile tours with Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. Informed and definitive, Blues All Day Long fills a gap in twentieth century music history with the story of one of the blues' eminent figures and one of the genre's seminal bands.
About the Author
"Goins gleans fresh facts and vivid memories from dozens of lively interviews to capture the energy and struggles of the Chicago Blues scene, from Maxwell Street to the Chess Records studios. . . . engrossing."--Booklist
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Blues All Day Long
The Jimmy Rogers Story
By Wayne Everett Goins
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
MONEY, MARBLES, AND CHALK
My mother was Grossie Jackson. My father's name was Roscoe ... He was from Georgia, around Atlanta. So he came up there in Mississippi, workin', I guess. They got together and I was born. —Jimmy Rogers
Jimmy Rogers was born James A. Lane on June 3, 1924, in Ruleville, Mississippi, to Grossie Jackson and Walter "Roscoe" Lane. Roscoe was from an area near Atlanta, Georgia (little is known about what brought him to the South). While there is almost no information about his father's background, much more is known about Jimmy's mother. Grossie Jackson, born on January 17, 1905, was from the small town of Maben, Mississippi; she was one of seven children born to LeAnna Miller and William Jackson.
After a whirlwind romance, eighteen-year old Grossie discovered that she was pregnant, possibly to the surprise of both her and Roscoe's parents. As was the custom of the day among black folk in rural towns in the early 1920s, any circumstance that would have led to a woman giving birth out of wedlock was frowned upon, placing heavy expectations upon the soon-to-be father to protect his family name. According to the 1930 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, Grossie Jackson was nineteen when she married Roscoe and became Grossie Lane. Shortly after, the couple and their new baby returned to Roscoe's hometown of Atlanta.
Roscoe got a job working at a sawmill plant, "one of what you call 'groundhog' sawmills," Jimmy once explained. Though few details are known about the circumstances surrounding what took place at the job site, there was evidently a physical encounter between Roscoe and another worker at the plant, and Roscoe got the worst of it: he was killed at his worksite. The entire event is shrouded in mystery. Even today no one knows what the scuffle was about, how Roscoe died, whether any charges were filed, or whether the culprit was ever brought to justice. What is certain, however, is that while Jimmy was just a toddler, his dad died in what more than likely amounted to some senseless fight that broke out between him and another person at the sawmill.
Grossie, no doubt distraught over the loss of her husband, did not stay long in the town that had brought such tragedy to her family. After the funeral she immediately gathered her belongings and brought her infant son, James, back to Mississippi—not to Ruleville, but to the nearby town of Vance, where her mother was anxiously waiting. "I left Atlanta in 1926," Jimmy said. He was two and a half years old.
Grossie found that being both a widow and a single parent at the tender age of twenty-one was not conducive to establishing a stable environment for either herself or her son. A female with little education and no particular job skills had few options in the 1920s, and being a Negro woman in the South definitely didn't help matters. It is not surprising, then, that not long after her return to Mississippi in 1926, she met a man—Henry Hall from Minter City—and struck up an immediate relationship with this handsome, brown-skinned gentleman who was at least thirteen years her senior. Their union blossomed quickly, and within the next year Grossie had a baby girl, LeAnna Hall (born in 1928), named after her mother. Not yet six years old, Jimmy now had a half sister who was about three years younger than himself. By 1930 (according to the census report) they were all living under the same household in Sunflower County.
At some point a decision was made to restructure the living arrangements in the family. Maybe Grossie and her husband decided it; maybe it was Grossie and her mother's idea. Whatever the case, someone thought it best that Jimmy live with his grandmother LeAnna Jackson on a permanent basis. Over the next twenty years Grossie and Henry Hall had a total of eleven children, all of whom were raised on a plantation owned by Arthur Sturdivant in Minter City, Mississippi, where they sharecropped until around 1957. In chronological order, the children were LeAnna, Avery, John, Lula, Georgia (who died before 1940 at age two of pneumonia), Elizabeth, Henry Jr. (known as "Brother"), Iguster, Gertrude, David, and Mary.
Meanwhile, Jimmy was relocated thirty miles down the highway in Vance to live in the home of Grossie's mother, where he would spend the next few years. In LeAnna Jackson's home, Jimmy was raised and treated as her son. Also living there were his three aunts—Annie Lou, Mary, and Sarah—who Jimmy often referred to as his sisters. (This arrangement would eventually become a source of great confusion for interviewers in later years.)
According to an interview with Jimmy, LeAnna Jackson's young looks belied her actual age. Jimmy said, "People thought my grandmother [LeAnna] was my mother, and [thought] my aunt, [Grossie's sister] Annie Lou, was my sister. She [Annie] was four years older than me." Annie Lou was nine years old at the time of Grossie's marriage to Henry, while Jimmy was approaching the age of five. Jimmy's grandmother LeAnna had a brother named William "Willie" Miller who worked for the Illinois Central Railroad as a porter, traveling to Memphis, Detroit, and Chicago. Whenever he could, he helped get LeAnna jobs cleaning the railroad cars, which required her to travel to wherever the train's destination happened to be. As he grew up, Jimmy traveled right along with her. Unlike most other children of his age, he didn't get much time to work on the farm, spending a relatively limited amount of time milking cows and retrieving eggs from the chicken coop.
As a result of traveling with his grandmother, the time Jimmy spent playing with his childhood friends was spotty: "I'd be goin' and cornin'," he said. "I would stay for a while. Then they wouldn't see me for the next couple ofyears" Unfortunately, all the travel meant that Jimmy missed a great deal of school in his formative years in Vance, which he later regretted. It left an indelible mark on him, and years later he would work doubly hard to ensure that his own children had as thorough an education as possible. (Research into Jimmy's childhood is complicated by the fact that he did not live under the same roof as his half brothers and sisters.) As a consequence of being under his grandmother's guardianship, he was subject to the conditions at home created by her particular line of work. Thus he was forced to lead what can only be described as a nomadic lifestyle; her job as a train porter, by definition, required that she travel both frequently and far away.
It comes as no surprise, then, that not much is known about Jimmy's developmental years between the ages of five and twelve, because he was constantly in motion, traveling around the country by railroad car under the arm of his grandmother, who did what she had to do to make ends meet. To be sure, the circumstances were less than ideal, and one can only imagine the trepidation that LeAnna felt whenever she had to remove Jimmy from school to take him along with her on these long and frequent journeys. She knew full well that this was not the ideal life for a child; Jimmy should have been at home, squatting in the backyard in his dirty knee pants with a whole mess of other kids his own age, shooting marbles, or romping through Mississippi mud just for the fun of it. Jimmy's aunt Annie Lou (LeAnna's youngest daughter) was not old enough to look after Jimmy herself, which was probably why LeAnna opted to take him with her. Then again, maybe she just needed the company.
Jimmy's home life was further complicated around 1950 when his grandmother LeAnna (now well into her fifties) met Henry Rogers, a light-skinned handsome man. Most likely, LeAnna (who had reclaimed her maiden name of Miller by then since her husband, William Jackson, had passed) moved her family, along with Jimmy, to Charleston, Mississippi, where she married Henry Rogers and became LeAnna Rogers. This union led to an entirely new set of stepbrothers and stepsisters for Jimmy, who was raised as their brother. This was the family that Jimmy came to know, and Charleston was the city where he would eventually discover the blues as a teenager. While he had the stability of living with his grandmother, step-grandfather, aunts, and possibly Henry's children, he saw little of his own mother, brothers, and sisters.
Getting to the roots of Jimmy Rogers's family tree is a difficult task at best. And Jimmy eventually added yet another layer to the degree of complexity—as if the roots of his lineage weren't already complicated enough. In an attempt to establish his own identity as a teenager, he pondered how he wanted to be referred to. He had several options: first, the surname of his biological father, Roscoe Lane, was a possibility; second, he could choose his stepfather, Henry Hall's surname; a third consideration was the surname of his grandmother LeAnna's husband, Henry Rogers.
What he ended up with would be a combination of the first and third options. Initially Jimmy chose to retain the last name Lane in order to keep the surname of the man who was his actual blood relative, passing up the opportunity to be James Hall or even James Rogers. "I had always been going under Lane," he admitted. "I got my social security card under that one and came on through that way". Thus, as an adolescent, he was known to all as James Lane. As an adult, however, he reconsidered his initial choice and became Jimmy Rogers. "I grabbed his name when I became a professional musician," Jimmy explained.
More than likely this decision was made because Henry Rogers actually spent more time raising Jimmy than either his actual father, Roscoe Lane, or his mother's husband, Henry Hall. Clearly, LeAnna and Henry Rogers had treated Jimmy like their son, not their grandson, and raised him as the older brother in the family. Consequently, he viewed his Rogers "aunts and uncles" as his own younger siblings. Jimmy stated, "Well, I had that name because of my sisters and brothers [in actuality, they were his step-aunts and -uncles]. My stepfather [i.e., step-grandfather] was a Rogers, and they used to call me a Rogers, too." Even so, Jimmy never did sign his name that way, from childhood throughout adulthood. "I sign it 'J. A. Lane,'" Jimmy told a reporter in a 1972 interview.
Indeed, out of hundreds of interviews over the illustrious career of the man who became known as Jimmy Rogers, he never spoke of any significant influence on his life by the person who would have played the role of his step-grandfather. Only his choice of the name Rogers might indicate such an influence. Whatever the case may be, what is certain is that despite the interruptions in his schooling, Jimmy did love the frequent trips on the train and looked forward to them; they offered the kind of adventure children rarely experience. And although he could not have realized it at the time, the long hours and thousands of miles he logged during his early years on the road would serve as superb training for the life that lay ahead of him.
Jimmy never ran with a large group when he was younger, but he did have two especially close pals in Vance: Moody Jones and James "Snooky" Pryor. Jimmy met Snooky (then known to Jimmy as "Bubba") in 1934. Jimmy was just beyond ten years old. Destined to become a Chicago harp legend, Snooky Pryor grew up about five miles outside of Vance and became one of Jimmy's closest childhood friends when he was around nine years old. He and Jimmy would go rabbit hunting together, Jimmy with his .22 rifle and Snooky with his three-foot stick, which he used to "tap" the rabbits. According to Jimmy, Snooky was an amazing talent when it came to using his home-fashioned stick to kill wild game: "Man, he could throw that stick. He didn't need no gun ... he'd have four, five, six rabbits. We'd take 'em to my grandmother at home ... I'd skin 'em, wash 'em ... she'd salt 'em, put him in a pan with a little vinegar and let him sit there for a few hours ... Taste better than chicken." Snooky, even in his later years, was proud of his accomplishments during the times he and Jimmy wandered in the woods. "They had rifles," he recalled, "but I'd kill as many as they did with a stick this long. I'd trim the end, put a metal tap on it, put a nail up in it so the tap wouldn't come out. I'd kill a rabbit runnin' with that tap stick. I'd shoot birds out of the air with a slingshot, too."
There are few remaining stories that exist about the people and places near Vance or Charleston that shaped Jimmy's life. Apparently his natural tendencies were to keep to himself socially. This temperament, combined with the strict principles of his grandmother, led to limited outside activity beyond maintaining his daily routine of schoolwork and household chores. Consequently, he developed into somewhat of a loner, although there was never a clear indication that he was lonely. From what can be gathered, his involvement with music served as a fair companion and kept him in good company in the early days. He always had Snooky, and his other good friend, Moody, to look forward to seeing at school—when he was there. There was, however, another particular young man who grew up in the same neighborhood when Jimmy lived in Vance. He stood out in Jimmy's childhood memory as an older kid who sought the affections of one of his relatives. His name was John Lee Hooker.
Evidently, John Lee (born August 22, 1917) had a thing for Jimmy's aunt Annie Lou, who, like her mother LeAnna, looked a lot younger than she actually was. "Most people thought she was my sister but she was my baby aunt. She was about three [or four] years older than me. He liked her, so he protected me. In fact, the last time I saw him, he asked about her ... [Annie Lou] never did like him too tough durin' that time," Jimmy later recalled.
While Jimmy's physical stature was unimposing for his age, John Lee's build was even more so, with a lean, taut frame that would remain the same throughout his lifetime. "I was something like maybe 12 or 13," Jimmy explained, "and he was much older than me [nearly seven years] but he was a small guy, you know, so he would be around with me and some more boys who were my age." Because of John Lee's size and gentle demeanor, he was thought to be easy prey for the bullies in the area. According to Jimmy, they were sadly mistaken: "He was a real hard little fella! Y'know, boys'll pick on you if they don't like you and he was small ... But see, he was old and hard so he could fight! He'd win most of the fights he was in 'cause he was older than the guy who was attackin.' That's why we got to be real good friends, 'cause he was a good boxer, good with his fists. Me, I never like to fight."
From early 1936 to early 1938, when Jimmy was between the ages of twelve and fourteen, he left Vance for almost two years when he went with his grandmother to West Memphis, Arkansas, which was where he first encountered James Peck Curtis, Joe Willie Wilkins, and Robert Junior Lockwood. Although Jimmy wasn't as mature as they were, they allowed him to accompany the group, due to his persistence and fascination with the blues life. "They recognized me and respected me as a young musician tryin' to learn," he said, "and I appreciate all those guys for that."
This was an important, formative period in Jimmy's musical life. About the West Memphis days, Jimmy said, "It was swingin' over there, man. At the roller rink it was a club there ... they'd get together and throw the big balls." In addition to slide guitar wizard Houston Stackhouse and the harp shark Sonny Boy Williamson II, other young artists in the West Memphis area were gradually maturing, and Jimmy saw them all on a fairly regular basis. Three faces in particular—Junior Parker, B. B. King, and Little Milton—were singing spiritual songs during that time, well before they began their secular life of blues.
Jimmy spent a good part of his early years—when he wasn't traveling—going to school part-time and listening to music full-time. Barely a teenager by now, he realized that music would play a major role his life. "As far back as I can remember, I always liked music," he said. "I first started playing music in Charleston. I was about 13 years old. I was listening to records such as Roosevelt Sykes, Memphis Slim, Peetie Wheatstraw, the original 'Sonny Boy' [Williamson]."
Excerpted from Blues All Day Long by Wayne Everett Goins. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Kim Wilson ix
Part I From Minter City to Madison Street (1924-1960)
1 Money, Marbles, and Chalk 9
2 Chicago Bound 27
3 Chess Moves 53
4 Headhunters and Wolfmen 76
5 The World's in a Tangle 98
6 Blues Leave Me Alone 118
Part II Rising From The Ashes (1970-1989)
7 Walkin'by Myself 139
8 Shelter from the Storm 157
9 Gold Tailed Bird 181
10 Feelin' Good 208
11 Out on the Road 237
Part III Fathers and Sons (1989-1997)
12 Changing Lanes 263
13 That's All Right 291
14 Long Gone 310
Coda: The Last Time 317
A Selected Jimmy Rogers Discography 351