Blues Unlimited – Essential Interviews From The Original Blues Magazine
Edited by Bill Greensmith, Mike Rowe, and Mark Camarigg
Founded in 1963 by Simon Napier and Mike Leadbitter, the original editors, Blues Unlimited set the standard for all of the other blues publications that followed in its wake. Employing a number of distinguished writers like John Broven and Mike Rowe, the magazine became a living treasure trove of blues history, commentary, and photography. The editors and staff writers often made trips to the United States to take in-depth looks at the blues community in major cities throughout the country. They had little to go on as few writers had spent much time documenting the lives of blues musicians and their burgeoning influence on the musical fabric of a nation.
Over its twenty-four year existence, the magazine published a huge list of extensive interviews that ranged from stars like Freddie King to the obscure St. Louis piano player Joe Dean. This book offers a sampling of these interviews with a focus on the cities of Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis plus sections on musicians from Mississippi, Texas, and the West Coast. The final section introduces readers to two influential men involved in the record business. The earliest interview ran in 1970, featuring guitarist Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, who wrote the song “That’s All Right Mama” that was an early hit for Elvis Presley. He covers the early years of his career, his time with Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), and touches on the all-to-familiar tale of losing money to the owners of record labels.
The Chicago section starts off with Leadbitter talking to King in 1974 about the musicians that helped form his style and his success on King Records. Guitarist Louis Meyers repeatedly emphasizes the importance of tone while describing his time with his brother Dave and drummer Fred Below in the Aces, a legendary band that backed Little Walter. The king of the shuffle-style beat, Below’s interview focuses on artists he played with in addition to touching on the extent of his influence as one of the most recorded blues drummers in history. The rest of the section includes a piece on the piano man Jimmy Walker, who started out playing house-rent parties in the ’20s, a talk with James Cotton that covers his career up to 1976, saxophonist Red Holloway’s frank discussion of his career that ranged from Roosevelt Sykes to Chess Records to Billie Holliday – a truly memorable tale. The closing piece focuses on the three musicians instrumental in kick-starting the post-war blues sound – guitarists Moody Jones and his cousin Floyd plus the harmonica great Snooky Pryor.
Moving north to Detroit, readers will learn about guitarist Robert “Baby Boy” Warren, a mainstay of the local scene, followed by an article on the career of Big Maceo Merriweather, with his wife supplying new-at-the-time information about the piano player’s life. When the focus shifts to St. Louis, Editor Bill Greensmith delivers the longest interview with help from Cilla Huggins featuring singer Jimmy Thomas, who spent an extensive stretch as a member of Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, and later as part of the Ike & Tina Revue. The interviewers display an extensive knowledge of little-known clubs and musicians that are part of the Thomas saga. The singer had plenty of recollections to share, including some hilarious, bawdy tales from life on the road. Another chapter has singer Fontella Bass recounting the events leading up to her monster hit, “Rescue Me”.
Crudup’s piece is included in the Mississippi section along with a short probe of the mystery surrounding singer and pianist Louise Johnson, who cut four songs for Paramount Records before disappearing into the fog of time. Albert Collins is featured in the Texas section along with a piece on Dr. Hepcat (Albert Lavada Durst), a barrelhouse piano man and the first African-American DJ in the state. Leadbitter takes a look at one of the magazine’s favorites, Weldon “Juke Boy” Bonner, who played guitar while alternating between singing and playing harp.
The West Coast section contains just two interviews – but they are highlights! Done in 1972, Johnny Otis gives a brief run-down on some of his career highlights up to that point. Then Broven takes his time with blues-shouter Roy Brown, who had a monster hit with “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and in 1949, had four records in the Top Ten at the same time. Brown is open about his successes and bad decisions as well as his frustrations with the record business. The Record Men section highlights two important figures. Henry Glover was the artistic director for King Records, one of a few black men to hold an executive position with an independent label. The arc of his career ranges from Bullmoose Jackson to Muddy Waters – and the horn arrangements for the Band’s Last Waltz concert. Ralph Bass worked for King/Federal, Savoy, and Chess records with artists like Johnny Otis and singer Little Esther Phillips, not to mention discovering James Brown.
Throughout the book, the editors and writers of Blues Unlimited show a deep knowledge of the history of the musicians under consideration. That knowledge base is quite impressive at a time long before the internet made everyone an expert. The thoroughness of the research certainly set the bar quite high for the blues publications that eventually followed. Readers will certainly broadened their understanding of blues idiom and some of its legendary performers in this illuminating edition. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for a Volume 2!
– reviewed by Mark Thompson