The list of living legendary Chicago Bluesmen is getting shorter each year!
Guys like Buddy Guy, Eddie Shaw, Carl Weathersby, James Cotton, and one James Yancy Jones, A.K.A. Tail Dragger are some of the more prominent veterans still plying their trade in the clubs of Chicago and touring the world to keep their beloved music alive.
James Jones (Tail Dragger), has been listening to the Blues for his whole life starting in rural Arkansas. Like a lot of youngsters of the day, young James had to do his listening on the sly because parents considered the Blues ‘devil’s music.”
“I used to take the radio to bed with me and listen to the Blues,” he said. “I’d listen to Randy’s Record Mart out of Memphis. My folks didn’t know. We had one of those battery-powered radios ‘cause we didn’t have electricity in the house then. They’d want to listen to their gospel music before church on Sunday morning and couldn’t figure out why the batteries were down (on the radio).”
“The first show I ever saw was Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) and Boyd Gilmore in Pine Bluff,” TD recalls. “They had this club, Jack Rabbit’s and I used to sneak in there ‘cause I wasn’t old enough to be in the clubs. That’s where it all started.”
Those early shows and the songs on the radio sparked young James’s interest in the Blues and before long he was trying his hand at singing.
TD’s parents separated when he was just a baby and he was raised by his grandparents.
“I went to visit my mom in Chicago when I was 14 years old,” he said. “Then I went to Texas and stayed with my uncle, who was a travelin’ preacher and then I came back to Chicago in 1966. I been here ever since.”
Tail Dragger tried marriage the first time when he was 18 and things didn’t work out so he left town for a while. He tried marriage twice more before Uncle Sam caught up with him and he was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam era.
Coming up in the ‘60s, James was subject to the draft and faced the prospect of Vietnam like all young men of the day. He was eventually drafted into the army and spent his basic training in Louisiana and Kentucky before being discharged because he was married with children. He said he fell under a new law passed by the Kennedy administration that allowed guys with families to be exempt from active duty. By that time he had already fathered four kids.
As a young man James had always been good with his hands and had earned a living working on cars, keeping them running and doing body and paint work.
“I started messing with cars when I was a kid,” TD said. “I worked for this car dealer sweeping the floors, taking out the trash. There was this guy who knew all about rebuilding engines and body work and I learned a lot from him. That’s where I learned mechanics. I was always asking questions. That’s what I did long before I ever started singing. I worked on cars.”
Those were the days when the legends were playing every night in the little clubs and dives on Chicago’s West Side, long before the word “legend” was ever used.
“Howlin’ Wolf was my favorite,” TD said. “I’d go watch him every chance I got. I always had a car so me and my buddies would pile in and go see The Wolf.”
“I hadn’t thought about singin’ in the clubs yet. I tried the guitar. Took some lessons but after I started singin’ I put the guitar down. I never could play and sing at the same time. I wasn’t ever satisfied with (my guitar playing) so I got a harp. I can blow shit that I can’t sing but after they put a stent in my heart I put the harp down.”
“I was at a club one night drinkin’ and this guy, Necktie Nate had a band and was singin” Wolf stuff. I told him ‘I can sing that.’ And he told me I was full of shit so I bet him a half pint that I could. People started clappin’ their hands and hollerin’ and that’s how it got started. Best bet I ever made.”
“We’d go see Wolf anywhere we could,” Tail Dragger said. “One night he noticed me and took a likin’ to me. He told his band ‘Help this boy. He’s gonna take my place.’ He taught me to listen to the drums. He taught me how to keep count. A lot of guys play against instead of with each other trying to shine. Wolf taught me to pay attention.”
As with most accounts told by musicians who worked with Howlin Wolf, Tail Dragger treasures the time spent with his mentor.
“He was strict on the band stand,” he said. “Off stage he was just a normal person. There was no drinkin’ and no smoking on the bandstand. No foolishness. If you messed up on stage he would stop the band and say ‘Now I ain’t got to mention no names’ and you knew if it was you who messed up. He damn sure kept everybody in line.”
“You go ‘round Muddy Waters and he’s singin’ to all the nice ladies. Wolf was all about the money. He came up poor with not much education but he sure knew how to make and save that money. He only drove Pontiac station wagons when everybody else was driving big, shiny Cadillacs. He didn’t care about that. He was into makin’ a livin.”
It was Howlin’ Wolf who gave James Jones the moniker that has followed him throughout his life.
“He called me “Tail Dragger” because I was always late for shows,” TD says. “They used to call me “Crawlin’ James” because I used to crawl around on the floor like Wolf when I sang. They said it was ‘cause I was trying to look up the ladies’ dresses while I sang. When you’re off into a song you’re not thinkin’ about that stuff. You don’t have time.”
When asked if he might have at least peeked once or twice Tail Dragger just lets out a big laugh and moves on to the next question.
Before long it was Tail Dragger’s turn to front the bands and keep things in order. It started out slow and gained momentum.
“I was running a shop on Madison Street (in Chicago) and what they’d do, they’d (Necktie Nate) take me with them and I’d hold the door taking money until later on in the night,” he said.
“They knew everybody would be waitin’ for me to get up there and sing. I worked on a lot of people’s cars and then they’d follow me to shows. I had three or four cars full of people following me around. They was usin’ me to keep the crowds.”
All of this was taking place in Chicago during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the golden age of modern Blues.
“There was a place on every corner playin’ Blues,” Tail Dragger said. “Six nights a week. I had a guy, Mad Dog Lester, playing harp for me. He left and I talked Big Leon Brooks into coming down and playing for me. He’d given it up and was driving a truck when I got him to come back. He looked pretty ragged so I took him and bought him some clothes. He had a problem with drugs and I had to keep an eye on him.”
“He was a funny guy. He would get a long cord and get over in the corner and blow. I never knew why. I guess he was bashful. He had great tone. He was the kind of guy who would blow for you instead of against you to make himself shine.”
Drugs were the order of the day during those times and Tail Dragger was having no part of it.
“They offered me a hit off a joint one time and I took it and I was laughing so hard I couldn’t hardly get on stage,” he said. “I tried it one more time and never touched it again.”
“Two white guys came to a show one night and gave me a big bag of pot and I thanked them and took it and threw it away. They were always saying ‘Try this. Try that.” I saw what it did to other people. I would say ‘What makes you think you can control it?’ I lost a brother to that shit. He would preach for a while and then go do drugs for a while. I just never did see any good in it.”
Tail dragger’s adventures have taken him all over the world numerous times and he has high praise for the European audiences.
“They treat you like a king over there,” he says. “One time they were doing a Honeyboy Edwards movie here in Chicago and I got in it and this led to a gig in Europe. I been goin’ over there since 1989 and hope I get to back a lot more. One thing about the audiences over there, you can’t bullshit them. They know their stuff.
“The young blacks (in America) today have forgotten the Blues,” TD says. “They don’t realize their forefathers started the music that led to the rap they listen to today.”
“I don’t dig that shit at all, by the way. They act like they’re ashamed of it. It’s the young white guys who are playing the Blues today. The white guitarists are undermining the real Blues. And, it’s really not the “real” Blues. It’s bullshit Blues. Rock Blues. Tourist Blues.”
“You go to Brazil and every kid there has either a set of drums, a guitar or a harmonica in his living room. I went to one guy’s house and he was talking about stuff I didn’t even know. Talkin’ about Bar B Que Bob and people like that. Stuff I didn’t know. He had this huge wall covered with Blues posters and pictures.”
“Here (in Chicago) they’re into rap or selling drugs. It’s pretty sad to see.”
If nothing else, Tail Dragger calls himself a perfectionist when it comes to his music.
“I’ve got five pieces in my band and I want my sound to be as perfect as we can make it,” he said. “I’m not doing it just to make a dollar. I want it right. But, don’t get me wrong, I like money just as much as the next guy. It’s just not the only reason I sing and play the Blues. A lot of guys don’t care. They’re there just to get the check and go on to the next gig. I don’t understand that.”
“Before each song I always tell a little story,” TD says. “That way the audience has to pay attention. I make them pay attention. That’s what the preacher does. They call me the Blues preacher.”
“You got to have a gimmick. You need the people. They don’t need you. They’re the ones who make you. If it’s just one song after another you’ll lose the audience. It’s all about showmanship. You got to get it figured out.”
Tail Dragger says life is good these days and he wouldn’t change a thing.
“My high points?” he says. “Right now are my high points. I’m traveling more and at my age I don’t have to punch a clock. I’m making more money than I ever have. I’ve got my Social Security ‘cause I always had a job. Some guys never worked and have to play to eat. I’m very comfortable. I plan on staying around and doing it as long as I’m able.”
If you want to see Tail Dragger in action, check out these videos for a sample of his singing.
Visit Tail Draggers website at: http://www.taildraggerbluesband.com/
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2013 Blues Blast Magazine.