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About the Author
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"Underpaid and overprivileged," is how one reporter described his livelihood. That's how it's been with me. While barely surviving, I've hung out with the most amazing characters. A few years ago, I received in the mail, with increasing urgency, a series of postings that consisted of at least two galley proofs and three letters from a New York literary agent whose client (a regular, probably salaried, contributor to one of the oldest American periodicals, one named after an ocean) had written a history of the blues. My collection of blues- and jazz-related pieces, Rythm Oil, had appeared about four years earlier and, according to the agent, her client liked it a bunch. He wanted my endorsement, desperately, it seemed.
So, finally, I picked up one of the proofs to look it over. I hadn't read far before I came upon these words: "The weekend I was in Memphis ..." Unlike many before him, who'd simply bought a lot of blues records, listened to them, and written a book, this writer had made the extra effort of going to the blues museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi, passing through Memphis on his way there, thus becoming an authority. I, who lived in Memphis twenty-five years, going in the course of my research to the city and county jails as a guest more times than I cared to remember, found it hard to restrain myself from hurling the galley all the way back to New York.
They have in Memphis an expression, "blues pukes" (BP). The blues book author (call him BP1) was just one of many who've crossed my path. They come from everywhere, though California, the American Northeast, Europe, and Japan seem to have more than their share. All BPs seem to suffer from the same delusion. They think they can vicariously absorb some essence that will permit them to interpret the mysteries of the blues. The shallowest BP thinks that he is somehow, by divine right, an arbiter of the authentic. Never happen. But still people persist in such delusions.
Of course, being jealous of the blues is like being jealous of heartburn. The truth is, knowing nothing about the blues is preferable to knowing anything about the blues. Here, however, we run into semantics. There's the blues, an emotional state, and there's the blues, an art form, or a group of art forms. Believe me, when you're in the Memphis jail, city or county, you got the blues. When you're in your cozy room, listening to Robert Johnson's plaintive tunes, you're hearing the blues. Two different worlds. But some people, people from Berkeley, or Boston, or wherever, are so highly imaginative that they make a leap of funk and become Spokesmen of the Blues. No, really, they make a living this way. People in Dublin, London, Kyoto, Amsterdam, and Lower Slobbovia read them and feel somehow enhanced, enlightened, end manned by the blues.
I never intended to have anything to do with the blues. They came into my life through my bedroom window when I was a child. It wasn't a matter of choice. What I learned, I paid for in experience at the school where they arrest you first and tell you why later.
* * *
Here's an attempt to communicate with the genus BP, species television producer (BP2, let's say). It combines a modest amount of truth with an admixture of insincerity, self-promotional hyperbole (I never really knew Annie Mae McDowell all that well), and justifiable distrust.
September 6, 1996
Thanks for calling. I enjoyed our chat, and I appreciate your asking for my thoughts on a video series based on the blues. As you can imagine, this idea has come up a number of times in the past. The problem to a man in my position, which is nearly unique (others, among them men like Sam Charters and Paul Oliver and such esteemed friends of mine as Peter Guralnick and Greil Marcus, have written about the blues, but they, superb fellows and decent writers though they surely are, have all seen the blues in at best a secondhand fashion, at a certain remove), is to talk about my knowledge and experience without giving away all I have: my decades-long personal observation of the human reality, the tragic pain and transcendent joy, of the blues and all that word connotes in human life and passion.
Unlike any other writer about the blues, I grew up in a turpentine camp on the edge of the Okefinokee Swamp. A little later, I (and I alone among writers) kept Furry Lewis company as he swept the streets of Memphis. I (alone again) watched Otis Redding write and record "Dock of the Bay" and other soul classics. Dewey Phillips, the first man to play an Elvis Presley record on the radio, took me, no other writer, to Graceland and Elvis's ranch. As a veteran of many Southern campaigns, I have seen fiery crosses and whole black neighborhoods burning. I stood behind Keith Richards and watched Meredith Hunter stabbed to death at Altamont. I am the only living person, writer, or what you will who has been friends with Brian Jones, Sam Phillips, Dewey Phillips, Bukka White, Gram Parsons, Alexis Korner, Ian Stewart, Huey Meaux, Sam the Sham, Alex Chilton, Anita Pallenberg, Keith Richards, Johnny and Eva Woods, Fred and Annie Mae McDowell, Shelby Foote the Civil War historian and his daughter Maggie the stripper, Jerry Wexler, Ahmet Ertegun, James Carr, Al Green, Rufus Thomas's whole family, Steve Cropper, Jimi Hendrix, Mike Bloomfield, Phineas and Calvin and Mama Rose Newborn, Chris and Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes, Mississippi John Hurt, B. B. and Albert King. And Charlie Rich and Charlie Freeman and Waylon Jennings. And Little Richard and Duane Allman and Tinsley Ellis. And on and on. Jim Keltner and Charlie Watts. And Joe Venuti and Slim Gaillard and Lash LaRue. This might argue nothing more than an unseemly gregariousness, but you have read my book Rythm Oil, which gives rather more than an inkling of the stories I know and the way I tell them, that is, in effective dramatic scenes.
There are many great, thrilling, exciting stories arising from the blues. Any time someone can manage to pay me to tell one or a few, I am pleased. They all have something to do with slavery and freedom and betrayal and hatred and love and loss and death. "Some people say the worried blues ain't tough," Furry used to sing. "I declare if they don't kill you, they'll handle you mighty rough." The stories are many, waiting to be told. But if I tell them in letters, not only will the letters be perhaps rather long, then everybody will know my stories, and I will have to go to work for a living, a fate I am determined to avoid, cost what it may.
The letter worked, in the sense that the people who read it decided to pay me for a "treatment," an outline of a blues TV series, an enormous hype:
The Blues, featuring the incomparable bluesman B. B. King as host of eight one-hour programs, celebrates as television never has the present flourishing and the fascinating history of this essential musical form. Incorporating classic archival material as well as exclusive original performances and interviews, The Blues follows the music from its beginnings in slavery and oppression to its contemporary global prominence.
I gave them — two Europeans with a production company — pages and pages of such drivel, a description of a TV series that didn't exist. Luckily, I got half the money up front. That was in the fall. By the end of the following Lent, having delivered all material owed them according to our contract, I was still waiting for the second half.
Fax Transmission April 11, 1997
If you'd had a check sent to me by Federal Express as you said you were going to do, I'd have it now. Your failure to do what you say you will is deeply disturbing and extremely inconveniencing. I assure you that I have been treated with greater rudeness and insensitivity, but this amount of rudeness and insensitivity will suffice —'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door, but 'tis enough, 'twill serve.
The last line comes, as you know, from Hamlet. Ham, as I call him, is describing the wound that will soon usher him off this mortal coil. I don't think BP2 recognized the line's provenance. He sent me a return fax accusing me of attacking him with "bile" and saying he couldn't pay me without his partner's approval. BP2 had come to my house, stayed as a guest by right of imposition, and now was telling me that he wasn't in charge, at least when it came to disbursing funds.
Well, of co'se, Massa, I's mighty grateful you notice me at all, Cap'm —'scuse de hat. Please don't whup po' ole me, I don't mean no ha'm — I been wo'kin' out here in you Europeans' fields so long, under dis broilin' sun, dat my brains get a lil fried, you know, and I start to think I's yo' equal. Crazy ole man, please forgive me, Massa.
On the other hand, where she wore a glove, to hide that unsightly wart: Bile? Bill Shakespeare is bile? Deeply disturbing and greatly inconveniencing is bile? Well, let me put it this way. It's going to be deeply disturbing and greatly inconveniencing to the Glynn County High Sheriff if he has to come out here and repossess the car for the bank. It's going to be d.d. and g.i. to the people at Georgia Power when they have to send somebody out here to cut off my lights. Ditto the phone company. It's going to be d.d. and g.i. to Father Germain when I can't make it to serve as lector at mass because I no longer have a car. A number of other people will find it d.d. and g.i. also, and only because you haven't done what you said you'd do weeks ago and pay me. You come to me and buy my small portion of the wisdom of the ages for pennies — you'd have bought it for a thousand bucks if you'd been a bit smoother — and are indignant when I simply ask that you do what you've said repeatedly that you would do? Who and what do you think you are?
One of the best things I ever overheard was a man seated at a table near mine in a Mexican restaurant in Mt Dora, Florida, saying, "She never would've testified against me if she hadn't been caressed into it."
"Coerced," said the bottle-redhead eating with him.
So you have to caress [your partner], whom everyone to my delight keeps calling Boze, perfect name for a field boss, into paying me? Wow, you such a standup guy. Me mighty grateful. I really hadn't the slightest concept how dignified and righteous you could be when asked to part with money in an expedient fashion. 'SCUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUSSSE lil ole me. But you know what? The first time it was the agent's fault. This time it's my fault. Next time it'll be B. B.'s fault. You want me to introduce you to Sam Phillips? And Fred Ford? Are you sure? Search your heart, lil red rooster. You ain't in a barnyard full of rockoids now.
I was discussing this sort of behavior with [another producer] a few days ago, and he said something I found interesting, about how dismissive it is, how it involves denial, the fundamental denial of the value of a unique vision in the first place.
I wash my teef wif di'mon' dus'
I don' care if de bank go bus'
Done got to de place Where my money don' never run out
I see now that to disport myself among such international gents as you & [Boze] I should have attained such status. The people who robbed Furry would have made little profit with your attitude. You can pay me quick and rob me and my friends much better. See, Furry never met anybody who was responsible for his economic status, either.
But Furry, God bless him, had the courtesy to die. If I were dead, you could talk to BP1, who spent in his life one weekend in Memphis, and be much more certain of your goal and so on.
Months later, they paid me. Naturally, the series didn't get made. Why am I telling you all this? Because this is part of the blues. No bluesman was born rich and I've never known one who died rich. Insofar as I've learned about the blues, I've suffered from the basic blues conditions. I used to wonder why Furry sang so much about poverty, loneliness, and death. I don't wonder anymore.
* * *
Nobody told me it would be like this, all those years ago when I started out with the blues. The first book about the blues I ever read, or heard of, was Sam Charters's The Country Blues. Published in 1959, the year I came to Memphis, Charters's book introduced me to Furry Lewis, Gus Cannon, Bukka White, and Sleepy John Estes, each of whom turned out to be a character in my life.
In those days, there were no blues records. A few existed, of course, but there were, as they say, none to speak of. The odd rhythm and blues hit — "Good Golly, Miss Molly," "Corrine, Corrina," "Good Rockin' Tonight" — had been cast in twelve-bar blues form, but that was incidental. Today, there are a zillion blues recordings to choose from. Then, to give an example, Columbia had the four-LP Bessie Smith set. That was it until the appearance of a series of long-playing vinyl records marketed as "Adventures in Sound." Included in the series were two Italian albums recorded in Sicily (by San Domenico Barbers of Taormina) and Naples, respectively; three French albums — one, called Delirium in Hi-Fi, "Recorded Somewhere in France," by Elsa Popping and her Pixieland Band — two in Spanish, and one instrumental album of folk songs from the Russian steppes. Another single album, consisting of music approximately as esoteric as folk songs from the Russian steppes, was recorded in Denmark on acoustic guitar by the bluesman Bill Broonzy. Though the bulk of Broonzy's work had featured his electric guitar and other amplified instruments, at this time European intellectuals hadn't accepted instrumental electricity — in order to be "authentic," Broonzy had to assume a primitivism he didn't possess. He still cut a great album, with classic versions of "Troubled in Mind," "See See Rider," and "Ananias."
I'd heard of an album on I think United Artists called Blues in the Night, featuring Broonzy, Memphis Slim, and the original Sonny Boy Williamson. Jim Dickinson and Johnny Cash had it, I later learned, but I never saw it until it came out on CD. Real blues was rare, precious. Then the first great rhythm and blues albums appeared: Fats Domino on Imperial; Jimmy Reed on VeeJay; Ray Charles, Joe Turner, and Champion Jack Dupree on Atlantic; Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry on Chess and Checker. I obtained Leadbelly's Last Sessions on Folkways from the Readers' Subscription Book Club and memorized every one of its four sides. "We in the same boat, brother, we in the same boat, brother — and if you shake one end you gonna rock the other — in the same boat, brother. Well, it taken some time for the people to learn, what's bad for the bow ain't good for the stern —"
Genius. The message rang loud and clear in those days of civil rights struggle. In 1959, I came to Memphis and, though it took me a few years to find what I was looking for, by the mid-sixties was sitting at the foot of Furry Lewis's bed, happy as a dead pig in the sunshine.
Furry and other friends gave me more stories than I have breath to tell. After Furry's death, I returned to my Georgia roots without leaving the blues. The blues is, for better or worse, where I stay. In recent years I've written about a number of different aspects of the blues, and many of those essays, along with some vintage pieces, censored by previous editors, are contained herein.CHAPTER 2
"CHIMES BLUES," BY JOE "KING" OLIVER
For a few years Bill Forman, one of the finest editors I've ever known — let's see, that makes, what, three good ones? — worked at Grammy magazine. Through him I got cool assignments like the following, which is a minor definition of the blues, though it's ostensibly about a jazz giant.
Fred Ford asked me, late in his life, "Why didn't Louis Armstrong send Joe Oliver some money?" He was asking a larger question, one I couldn't, and still can't, answer. Dana Fradon said, "If God hadn't intended there to be poor people, he'd have made rich people more generous."
Joseph "King" Oliver, the New Orleans cornetist who led the Creole Jazz Band, which made what have been called "the first genuine masterpieces in jazz recording," among them "Chimes Blues," lies in an unmarked grave in New York City's Woodlawn Cemetery. Born May 11, 1885, Oliver, while also working as a butler, was perhaps the leading Crescent City cornetist of the period between Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong. Armstrong's idol, Oliver had played with the Henry Allen, Sr., Brass Band, the Magnolia, Olympia, Melrose, and Eagle Bands, and the Original Superior Orchestra.
"He was a riot in those days," a contemporary of Oliver's observed, "his band from 1915 or '16 to 1918 being the best in New Orleans."
"The great King Joe Oliver," Armstrong called him, "(my my whatta man) ... How he used to blow that cornet of his down in Storyville for Pete Lala ... I was just a youngster who loved that horn of KingOliver's ... I would delight delivering an order of stone coal to the prostitute who used to hustle in her crib right next to Pete Lala's cabaret ... Just so's I could hear King Oliver play ... Oh that music sounded so good ..."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Red Hot and Blue"
Copyright © 2019 Stanley Booth.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
"Chimes Blues," by Joe "King" Oliver,
Ma Rainey: The Mother of the Blues,
Blind Willie McTell,
Furry's Blues Again,
Situation Report: Elvis in Memphis, 1967,
The Memphis Soul Sound,
The Gilded Palace of Sin: The Flying Burrito Brothers,
The 1969 Memphis Blues Show: Even the Birds Were Blue,
Blues for the Red Man,
Beale Street's Gone Dry,
The King Is Dead! Hang the Doctor!,
The Godfather's Blues,
For Real: Marvin Sease,
Where the People Smile,
Why They Call It The Blues,
Mr. Crump Don't Like It: If Beale Street Could Talk,
Red Hot and Blue,