This interview of Cash McCall took place in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Many thanks go to Carol and Ron Marble for all of their help.
The name I was born with was Maurice Dollison Junior and I was born in Missouri, and the house used to be standing there a long time when I used to come from Chicago down this way but they’ve since torn it down.
I was born there and my mother and father didn’t have any electricity or television and when I was six months they took me to Chicago with the whole family. My brothers and sisters and I was in Chicago until I got to be about six or seven years old, and the next thing I know is we were moving back to Missouri and I stayed there for quite a while.
Back then those old guitar players used to come through those cotton fields. One was Elder Gillespie and he would play guitar and sing and me and my brother Leon we were fascinated by that, and so we wanted to talk to him but the older people used to push us away and my father used to tell us to get back there and pick that cotton. We paid attention to Elder Gillespie and finally, when we was older, we got the chance to go to Elder Gillespie’s church and watch him play guitar.
My father and my mother were great singers, my mother would sing soprano and father sang bass and they used to sing in what they called a Hallelujah choir, which was old time gospel, and the choir director would give you a tone on that harmonica and then the rest of the choir would come in and sing, and they sang some great songs.
We had entertainment from my mother and father when they would sit next to that tin stove and they would sing and we, as poor kids, were sitting around and listening and so we were into music when we were real young. So as I grew up, after Elder Gillespie came through those fields playing, me and Leon were so interested in that guitar.
They used to have comic books come out like Captain Marvel and Batman, and on the back of it they had where you could get a guitar if you sold seeds, and people all around there had gardens and stuff and me and Leon wanted that guitar so bad, so what did we do? We went around and we sold garden seeds for something like fifteen cents a pack and we sold them all and we sent the money in and we were sitting on pins and needles waiting for this guitar to show up.
The mail man came and brought in the box and me and Leon were so nervous and excited and when we opened it up, it was plastic with plastic strings, it was a little toy but we were excited and we played it, and we didn’t know nothing about tuning but my father had an old tuning fork from way back.
The guitar didn’t last but a couple of weeks and it fell to pieces and we were so disappointed and then my father built us our first guitar. They used to bale the hay with baling wire and he took a piece and put two nails upside of the porch and told us to go get a sixteen ounce tomato can and we did that and he put the nail in and put the baling wire up there and he took the can in there and moved it up and down and plucked the strings and me and Leon was mesmerized. We would be out there every morning and evening plucking on that thing and moving that can up and down. We would even listen to that FM radio in the living room and they would be playing stuff and we would try and play along with it and stuff. That was the early days and it was fun.
We used to listen to a radio station and my father moved us to Mississippi for a while but we ended up in Missouri and that’s when we began to hear quartets and stuff. My father would always take us to church and we would hear these quartets and sometimes they didn’t have the music but they would get up there and sing, and those were exciting days for me and my brother.
Then me and my brother, we wanted to sing as well. Where we were living at the time in Sikeston, Missouri they had a group there called The Dixie Harmonisers and they had a guitar player named Melvin Williams and he could play country music and cross Spanish, and me and my bother could sing harmony and stuff and they heard us sing in church and when the manager of the Dixie Harmonisers heard us he came to us with this option, saying they needed a tenor singer and they wanted my brother Leon for this and I’m sitting there and I told them I could sing tenor too, but they wanted to speak with Leon and I was so disappointed.
They did a lot of difficult harmony stuff and they did this tune ‘This Little Light Of Mine’ and they tried to do harmony on it and their tenor singer made a mess of it, and my brother Leon got me to sing it with them and then the manager Troy said that maybe they could use me in the group and I was so happy and glad and so was Leon. I was about eight or nine at that time and Leon was about eleven or twelve and we started our harmony singing background from there and that was the joy of my life.
I got a chance to play for some great quartets in my lifetime; I played for the Blind Boys Of Mississippi for about three weeks. Their guitar player had gotten into some kind of mess. This was in the sixties. My brother Leon went into the army and I got a job playing for a group called The Five Tones Of Harmony and they could sing great harmony and I was playing guitar in the key of E. I used the one finger and played the rhythm, that was what they were looking for was that rhythm.
Then I got a chance to play with the Pilgrim Jubilees from Chicago, they had a big hit called ‘Stretch Out’ and they went all over the place. I connected with them as I went to WDIA radio station in Chicago, which was on 35th Street near Indiana, and they had an Al Abrahams Pontiac dealership there and they used to have a radio spot, and they would let all the quartets in Chicago come there and sing on their radio show and they would advertise their cars for sale. They had an open floor right in the car showroom where they would have the mic.
Going back a little, when I was in Missouri my father passed away and that was a hurting time for us, and my brother Leon and me were living way out in the country and he decided he was going in the army, so I thought I would go in the army too but it didn’t happen that way. He went in the army and about a year later I decided to go in. I forget how old I was then, maybe sixteen, and I lied about my age and I went in the army and from there I went to 82nd Airborne Division, this was I think in 1958/ 1959. I went to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, that was the base. Then I applied for Airborne, as I had seen people jump out of airplanes and I had seen that Sky King, the TV show. When you get in the army you have to have tests to see if you have the strength to be a paratrooper and I passed the test but it almost killed me, so I went Airborne.
I had an accident and messed up my knee bad but I still wanted to go Airborne and the guys told me not to tell them that my knee was messed up, so I kept it quiet and went through the training and they sent me to North Carolina. I guess I was young and crazy and that training was so hard on the knee and I was in pain so bad and finally they put me out. The doctor told me I couldn’t go on in the Airborne. They sent me to hospital for five months and that’s where I met a great country and western guitar player who had shot himself in the stomach to get out of the army and he taught me some stuff on guitar and some songs.
So after they put me out I went back home to my mother and sister in Chicago in 1961. My sister bought me an old Stella acoustic guitar and I used to sit on the front porch and play. I still had to go to the VA hospital to get my knee attended to. Then a harmonica player saw me sitting on the porch playing the guitar. I can’t remember his name but he was doing some stuff for Chess at that time and he told someone at George Leaner’s One-Derful Records, that he heard me and that was a company that McKinley Mitchell was recording for at that time.
The guy he told about me was Monk Higgins. I was just working on the guitar and I started writing songs. I had written some songs in the army but I didn’t think it was that good. We knew Clyde and Daisy Magee, they were singers, and we knew this boy that lived not too far away in the neighborhood called James Carr, [not the renowned singer, James Carr] who everybody called Huckleberry Hound because he was crazy. He was a singer and he would always come by the house and he thought he was the greatest singer in the world and he would grab the guitar and start singing, but he couldn’t sing at all, but he found out that One-Derful people were recording some people from the neighborhood who could really sing.
So Huck told us about the recording companies and stuff, and guess who was living right beside us at the time. It was this girl Betty Everette and we’d been making a noise playing and stuff and she had told One-Derful Records’ Monk Higgins that there are some guys over there kicking up a bunch of noise, which was us, so we went down to One-Derful records for an audition with a song I had written. Huck was going to sing the song and Monk Higgins is standing there, a big old, mean looking guy and Huck is looking around the walls, nervous and scared and he started shaking, Clyde and Daisy are also getting nervous and I gave them the key of the song and Huck lost his voice. So Monk Higgins tells us all “Where’s this song I’m supposed to hear?” I’m sitting there waiting for Huck to sing and he’s all shaking and nervous and he came apart. He had told us he knew about recording and stuff and we all had faith in him, and he gets there and blows it.
Monk Higgins told us we had better do something, as he didn’t have time to be playing games. So I told him that this was the way the song goes and I gave him the key and I sang the song for him and Monk told me he liked the song, and he told Clyde and Daisy and everyone to go home as he wanted to talk to me, and I was wondering why. He told me that he liked my voice and my song and he gave me an appointment for tomorrow, and I asked him about the group and he told me he wasn’t interested in them, and I told him we was doing this stuff together but he wasn’t interested and if I wanted to do something with him he would give me a shot, but he wasn’t interested in nobody else.
I didn’t want to go and tell my sister and Clyde and Daisy about this but I had to tell them Monk just wanted me and Huck was saying that they had tape recorders all in the walls and they steal your songs. My sister told me that she knew we wasn’t the best in the studio and that I should go ahead and do it and Clyde and Daisy were cool with it and they knew I would come back and help them, but Huck, he passed away a few years ago, he still thought they had tapes in the walls and that they would steal my songs. I told my mother about all this and she told me to be careful as I had no experience in all this and she blessed me.
So I went there the next day and guess who I ran into? Jimmy Tillman, he played for Muddy awhile, and George Patterson and they were members of a group called the Doo Tones and also there were the guys that did that song ‘Shake A Tail Feather’ and McKinley Mitchell who had that hit ‘The Town I Live In’, so I had the chance to meet those people and that was quite exciting.
So I recorded ‘Mr. Turnkey’ about some guy that had been put in jail. The song didn’t make a lot of sense but it was something I wrote and Monk Higgins got the bass player James Morris, and that’s the first time I met Mighty Joe Young, and Jimmy Tillman was the drummer and Monk Higgins played keyboards on it. All I knew is that we are in the studio and I’m sitting there on this great machine and I’m looking at all this stuff and it was all new to me and exciting and I recorded the song in one take. It was a terrible song but it was my first one and they put the record out and I thought I was going to be a star overnight but it didn’t happen. The song came out on One-Derful Records.
The next thing George Leaner hired me and gave me $40 a week to be in the studio to play on people’s stuff. I wasn’t a great player at the time but I was learning, and Mighty Joe Young showed me a lot of stuff but there was another guy who was a great help. Cecil Whitfield was his name and he lived in Italy a while and he was a great guitar player and he would come by and pick me up. I played bass for him and he would show me all kind of things on guitar. I became a session musician for a while and Monk gave me a chance to play on a lot of people’s records.
I played on records by McKinley Mitchell, Josephine Taylor and Otis Clay, and me and Otis we sang in the same gospel quartet, the Gospel Songbirds, which was in about 1963/64 in Chicago. That’s when I met the greatest guitar player, the cat that taught me all my life. His name was Joseph Moore, he was handicapped, he had to walk with a crutch but he was great. L.C. McKinley was another great guitar player that people have not heard of, and Lefty Bates I got a chance to play bass with, as I was much better on bass than guitar at that point. I’m telling you, my head was in the clouds playing with those guys.
L.C. McKinley made some records, one was called ‘I’m The Sharpest Man In Town’ and Lefty Bates showed me how to play ‘Misty’ and ‘Moonlight In Vermont’. I enjoyed those guys so much. I was playing with those guys in the clubs in Chicago. It was Lefty Bates who told L.C. McKInley about me and told him I wanted to play. So L.C. called me over to his house one day and I got on the bus and my sister had bought me an old bass and I took it over there and played for him and he told me he had a gig that he wanted me to play on, but he needed to see if I could play good enough, so the song we rehearsed was that Percy Mayfield song ‘Rivers Invitation’, and he taught me a whole lot of stuff and I got that gig. The gig was for $15 but I felt like a rich man. L. C. had a car and the fist gig we had was downtown Chicago and we played other gigs.
So L.C. told Easy Baby and The House Rockers about me and L.C. wasn’t going to work for a couple of weeks so Easy Baby called my mother and we talked to him and he had fired his bass player and I went over to the club Etiquette which was a supper club for all those blues players on 15th and Paulina in Chicago. I went down this little dark street, with glass all in the parking lot and stuff, and there is this little old building. I was carrying my bass guitar and there was Easy Baby who is the keyboard player and they had a harmonica player and a guitar player called Sam who I loved and we got up and did the song, and this guy was giving me these mean stares and I asked the guitar player why he was looking at me as if he hates me. The guitar player told me it was the old bass player and I had taken his job. Sam then drove me home and I played that gig with Easy Baby for a few weeks.
Other artists I was hanging around with back then included Lefty Dizz, he showed me a lot and I loved the ground he walked. As a matter of fact before he passed away I was playing at Buddy Guy’s and Lefty walked in and I hadn’t seen him for a good while. He told me had a problem and he was seeing a doctor and he didn’t want to play so that meant something was wrong, and he stayed a while and a couple of weeks later he passed away. I was also hanging out with Sammy Lawhorn, Charles Stepney, and I used to play guitar with The Dells a bit, also Koko Taylor and Mighty Joe Young. I played on a Woody Herman album as well. Gene Barge, I worked for him, and he was the guy that put me on all those sessions with Chess Records. I played with Junior Wells and he would come in the studio as crazy as a bunch of dogs. The main one I met who was a friend of mine until he passed away was Willie Dixon. I wrote a lot of songs for Etta James too.
I got involved with Chess Records but that was bad news from the get go. I was recording for One-Derful Records and had a hit, that song called ‘When You Wake Up’ and I thought I was going to be a rich man as everyone was playing the record. It was number one in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and all my friends were looking at me saying I was going to be making a lot of money and that had me thinking that way. But it didn’t happen; everybody made some money, but me. Monk Higgins left One-Derful Records and went to a company called St. Lawrence Way on the north side of Chicago. I was working at some car wash somewhere at that time and I wrote a song, and somehow I let Otis Clay hear it, and Otis was still in contact with Monk Higgins and he told Monk about the song. Monk came by the house and asked me about the song and I went up to St. Lawrence Records and I recorded it there, so Otis could hear it, and I did another song called ‘When You Wake Up’. That song went into the r&b charts, so from there the record hit number one in major cities, and then St. Lawrence closes down and they sell his catalogue to Chess Records.
Well Monk Higgins then goes to work at Chess Records and I’d already heard some bad news about it and I wasn’t interested, so I went back to my job and I was playing for a gospel quartet on a Sunday, the Gospel Songbirds and the Five Tones Of Harmony. I was happy doing that, hanging out with the gospel guys, and that’s where I met Jessy Dixon and Dorothy Norwood and I also used to record with the Thompson Community Choir all of the time. I was doing so much work at one point, wasn’t making much money but I enjoyed it.
Now Chess Records – biggest mistake I made in my life. Monk needed somebody there to write songs as he could not write and he gets his names on songs and he called me and asked me to come by and he can get me some money. Chess was an impressive building on 320 E. 23rd Street, not the one on Michigan. Monk was on the third floor, that was where all the producing and writing went on, and the studios were there also. Studio A, a big studio, Studio D, a medium sized studio and Studio E, a rehearsal studio, so impressive and Monk had an office there. This was in the early to mid sixties. So I decided that I would write, it was kinda nice being in that atmosphere.
I met so many people there and I was warned by a secretary what Chess Records was doing to black people and she told me to get out of it and take my music somewhere else, and if I had listened to her, Dot, I would have been a very smart human being. I was young and dumb and I would go out into the bad neighborhoods and write my stuff, as life was happening right in your face there. Chess told me that the stuff I was writing wasn’t blues but it was blues to me. I told them I knew what life was about. A lot of my songs I wrote on Madison Avenue, as there were a lot of people sleeping on benches and I would go there and sit with my old acoustic guitar, and also at Garfield Park, as life was right there.
I wrote ‘Jealous Kind Of Fella’ for Garland Green. He came in the studio and said he needed a song and I had written that song some time ago. Phil Upchurch and Morris Jennings played on the demo of that song I did. Garland walked out of the studio with that song and I didn’t see him for some months and he goes and records the song and he takes part of the song, as does Jo Armistead and Rudolph Browner and that’s why I never wrote another song for him ever. They finally gave me some credit for that song eventually.
I also wrote back then ‘More And More’, ‘That’s How It Is When You Are In Love’, ‘I Prefer You’ – Etta James recorded that one and I wrote five or six songs for her, ‘Bird Nest On The Ground’, Muddy Waters recorded that. I did an album on Howlin’ Wolf that didn’t work out too well, I didn’t know the man couldn’t read and that was ‘Message To The Young’. I produced that and Wolf didn’t have any respect for me, as I was so young. I used to listen to him when I was still in the cotton field, I loved his voice.
I wrote a lot of stuff for the Soul Stirrers. I did some producing at Chess as well. I produced the Violinaires and I was supposed to produce Etta James, but that didn’t happen, and so many others. I also co produced Willie Dixon’s ‘Hidden Charms’ album that won him that Grammy, but that was later on. I worked for Chess for six straight years before I found out what stuff was going on. I worked for Minnie Riperton, and she was first a secretary at Chess, and I also worked with Roscoe Robinson from the Blind Boys, when I first went to Chess.
Minnie, when she was secretary wouldn’t let myself and Roscoe into the building as she didn’t know who we were, but she did let us in eventually. That was the fist time I saw Gene Barge and I saw Jackie Ross and her husband, Ronnie, used to sing quartet with us in the Jubilee Hummingbirds. Jackie had just had a big record then. Sam Cooke came in one day when we were at rehearsal and he came with L.C. Cooke and Sam could play some guitar.
Etta James wanted me to go out on the road and play with her, which I did and that’s the first time I ever went to Switzerland, and I played with Koko Taylor and I played with Minnie Riperton, and that’s how I ended up in California. She wanted me to put songs together for her and she got me a beautiful apartment with furniture for me to come out there and play with her, which I did. She had Odel Brown play with her and Ed Brown and Nicky Rudolph played guitar.
I worked with Wild Child Butler as well. He was wild, they didn’t call him Wild for nothing. The first time I met him was with Willie Dixon who had some connections with other labels than Chess. I worked with Jimmy Dawkins as well, he was a pretty cool guy, and I worked with Johnny Twist when I was with Koko Taylor and he was a great player. He used to be working the white clubs in Chicago before anybody else and folks loved his playing. He owns a record store in Chicago these days.
I moved from Chicago to California to be with Minnie Riperton and I was making $700 a week playing with her and I loved working with her. They wanted me to do studio sessions when I was out there but I was playing with Minnie, and then I played with Natalie Cole for a while and I played for the Drifters and the Coasters and I stayed busy all the time and I also worked with Donnie Brooks and he had a hit record called ‘Mission Bell’ and that’s how I ended up meeting the Drifters, the Coasters and the Platters who I played with.
I was on the West coast for about twenty years and I played for the Drifters for four years and they would always play those oldie but goody shows and Donnie Brooks was always in charge of those shows. I did some recordings when I was in California, some were with Natalie Cole on her hit records. I did three or four movies when I was out there, one was ‘No Place To Be Somebody’, I was playing guitar on that movie. I even got an acting part in one of the movies. I did some work with Willie Dixon when he was living out west and I got a chance to play with him.
Some of my albums are No More Doggin’ and Cash Up Front and Vintage Room. I’m on a DVD with Willie Dixon and Koko Taylor and Joe Louis Walker, Albert Collins and Stevie Ray Vaughn called A Celebration Of Blues And Soul The 1989 Presidential Inaugural Concert.
Tyrone Davis has recorded some of my songs, me and him go way back. Bobby Rush used to be my landlord back in Chicago. When he first started getting his songs together and writing I used to hear them, as I was upstairs and he was downstairs working on them. I ended up playing guitar on one of his first records in the sixties that was recorded at Chess. He used to play bass back then as well as sing.
More recently I have been concentrating on my writing. I’ve written a great gospel song for Otis Clay. I’m living in Memphis at present. Some of my wife’s friends who used to live down here belong to the Seventh Day Adventist Church and the next thing I know she has bought a house here, and that was about twenty years ago from about 1992. That was the same time that both my brothers passed away. I still get to Chicago, as I have a lot of friends there and a lot of musicians that I know are still there. I still play guitar although my fingers hurt a lot.
I recorded an album for Horst Lippman in California, he wanted records done like they did in the old days. I first met him in Germany and he used to come over to the US and he recorded Margie Evans. He told me that his partner Fritz Rau saved his hotel and if it hadn’t been for him Hitler would have taken all his stuff, but they did put him in jail. As you know, they started that American Folk Blues Festival thing. I did one of those festivals in the eighties. Margie Evans was on it and Blind Joe Hill. They used to take good care of us.
They used to book me all over Europe and I even did a perfume commercial for a perfume company in England when I was there. I was dressed in overalls, raggedy shoes and an old straw hat playing guitar and singing.
Interviewer Mike Stephenson is a UK based blues journalist and photographer who has been a blues fan all his life. He has written articles on and interviewed blues artists and reviewed blues events in Europe and the US primarily for Blues & Rhythm but also for other blues publications.