Steve Cushing – Blues Before Sunrise 2: Interviews From The Chicago Scene | Book Review

Steve CushingBlues Before Sunrise 2:  Interviews From The Chicago Scene

University of Illinois Press

232 Pages

Following up on his 2010 publication, Blues Before Sunrise: The Radio Interviews, Steve Cushing returns with another publication featuring interviews conducted for his Blues Before Sunrise radio program, which has been on the air for forty years. That alone gives the author a level of credibility, but there is more to the story. Cushing is also a noted drummer, appearing on recordings with Magic Slim & the Teardrops, Barrelhouse Chuck, Lurrie Bell, Studebaker John, and other Chicago blues artists. He filled the role of producer on recordings by Bell and Jimmie Lee Robinson in addition to having several of his original songs recorded.

Dividing his latest work into four sections, Cushing begins with six interviews where the focus is on a famous figure through remembrances of the person being interviewed. The late saxophonist Abb Locke recounts his experiences with Two Gun Pete (Sylvester Washington), known far and wide as being the toughest, deadliest Chicago police officer on the city’s South Side. Guitarist Brewer Phillips, an integral part of Hound Dog Taylor & the Houserockers, looks back at the time he spent with the legendary Memphis Minnie during the late 1950s in her namesake city. As a result of an introduction made by Bob Koester at his fabled Jazz Record Mart store, Cushing met Louise “Mattie” Johnson, and discovered that her mother, Flossie Franklin, helped pianist Leroy Carr write lyrics for a number of tunes, including “Blues Before Sunrise,” leading to a fascinating interview with that included her sister Dorothy, also touching on their brother, Guitar Pete Franklin.

That was often the way the author connected with people of interest. Friends would recommend someone with interesting connections to the blues or gospel communities, or listeners of his radio program would call in with details after hearing a song he played on the air. A fellow radio host led Cushing to Dick LePalm, a record promoter with strong ties to Nat King Cole. Grady Freeman was totally unknown, yet his piece engages readers with details on his experiences growing up with Junior Wells plus his cousins, Dave and Louis Meyers. It took six months to track down Theautry Jones based on a tip from Studebaker John Grimaldi, ending in a short, two page interview where the guitar player talks about his stint backing harmonica legend Little Walter.

Cushing excels as an interviewer, comfortable asking his subjects a question, then giving them whatever time they need to respond. That skill shines through on a piece with Clarence Small, a member of the Wings of Jordan choir from Ohio, a favorite of Cushing’s program. He does a gospel segment each week that includes a pre-war gospel piece, a sermon recorded for prosperity, and a post-war gospel hymn. Listeners put him in touch with Small, who was a member of the group. His descriptions of life performing across the country includes a myriad of details on how the group was structured and how they coped with the constant travel. Cushing also delves into Small’s experience in the Air Force during World War II. Pastor Donald Gay met Cushing at a live show both were involved in. The author was intrigued by Gay’s knowledge of artists Cushing had only encountered on records. Their interview focused on another top-flight gospel group, the Gay Sisters, comprised of Evelyn, Mildred, and Geraldine, the pastor’s older sisters.

The third section switches focus to the Bronzeville area of Chicago, the center of the African-American community on the South Side. Singer Andrew Tibbs recorded sessions for Chess records, and was a popular figure in the area clubs, until substance abuse issues impacted his career, an area Cushing doesn’t hesitate to explore. Bill Samuels led the Cats ‘n Jammers trio on vocals and piano. His two brothers along with several musicians who worked with him make it clear that Samuels was a very talented singer. And once again a listener came through, putting the author in touch with Marl Young, who lead a group backing vocalist Little Miss Cornshucks on some rare sides that captured Cushing’s attention, with Young on piano and handling the arrangements. Additional descriptions cover working the Chicago club scene to recording with T-Bone Walker. Known as the Mayor of 47th Street, Scotty Piper was the tailor to the stars as well as frequent presence at musical events. His story offers an insider’s view of the Chicago scene.

Closing out the book are nine interviews that Cushing did earlier in his career. These are shorter pieces as the author was still learning the art of the interview. Blues fans will certainly be familiar with Little Brother Montgomery, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Sippie Wallace, Blind John Davis, and Roosevelt Sykes. In his opening remarks to Montgomery’s interview, the author bemoans the state of the Chicago blues piano tradition with the loss of several influential figures like Otis Spann. The short form still finds Cushing more than capable of eliciting memorable stories and information in each piece. Cushing thankfully also connected with some of the truly obscure figures like Johnny Lewis, a country blues guitarist who never recorded, and singer/guitarist Homer Harris, who’s lone recording session had Muddy Waters in the band, but the three tracks remained on the shelf for decades. Arbee Stidham had one hit following WW II. Cushing was able to locate him using the phone book and the ensuing interview added plenty of missing information about the singer’s career. Pete Cosey is a guitarist of note. He called Cushing during a show after hearing “Ration Blues” by Louis Jordan & His Tympani Five. Cosey’s mother, Collenane Cosey, actually wrote the song, as she explained in her brief interview.

By asking insightful questions and letting the artists speak for themselves, Cushing manages to bring to life the excitement of by-gone eras, and shines a light on the impact of obscure artists as well as known legends across several musical genres. This is an important work that definitely belongs in your personal “College of Musical Knowledge” library, making it highly recommended!

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