Oh, Mama! A Tale Of Two Cities' Memphis Blues
Memphis, Tenn., and West Memphis, Ark., don't receive enough props when it comes to the blues. After all, Mississippi is the first place that comes to mind when talk turns to early, acoustic country blues, while Chicago is known as the city where The Blues Went Electric.
So what about Memphis? Well, before nailing down the title "birthplace of rock 'n' roll," Memphis and West Memphis made many great contributions to early acoustic and electric blues. Here are a mere five of them.
Cannon's Jug Stompers
In the 1920s and '30s, jug bands were all the rage in Memphis. A jug band's core instruments were generally guitar, harmonica, banjo and a glass or ceramic jug, into which a band member would blow to create a bass line. One of the bands at the top of the heap was led by Gus Cannon, whose Jug Stompers recorded a great deal of material that has withstood the test of time. In the 1960s, The Jim Kweskin Jug Band dipped liberally into the Jug Stompers' canon (pun intended, sorry), and a folk group called The Rooftop Singers had a No. 1 hit with an almost note-for-note re-creation of The Jug Stompers' song "Walk Right In." Rock bands also looked to Cannon's music for inspiration, perhaps most notably the Grateful Dead with its version of "Minglewood Blues." John Sebastian of The Lovin' Spoonful, in an odd fit of inspiration, took the prison song you're about to hear and turned it into a love song called "Younger Girl." He put new words to the melody and changed the refrain from "These prison-wall blues keep rollin' across my mind" to "A younger girl keeps rollin' across my mind." In other words, "Younger Girl" is really "Prison Wall Blues" with a dress on.
Sleepy John Estes
Here, we have a stone-cold blues classic. "Milk Cow Blues," recorded in 1930, became a blues standard that has been re-recorded by a number of artists, including Ry Cooder (who called his version "Ax Sweet Mama") and Taj Mahal (who titled his version "Leavin' Trunk"). Later in his life, the majority of Estes' songs would chronicle his life — and the lives of his neighbors — in his hometown of Brownsville, Tenn.
Sonny Boy Williamson II
Sonny Boy Williamson (not to be confused with the original John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson) had a couple of important benchmarks in his career before making his way to the Chess label in Chicago. His first benchmark was his radio show, King Biscuit Time, on KFFA in Helena, Ark. His second was his radio show on KWEM, a station in West Memphis, Ark., right across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tenn. In fact, KWEM helped launch some of the most important blues artists of all time, but more about that in a moment. Right now, you can hear some relatively early work from Williamson, recorded in 1951 — about a year after he'd left KWEM, but while was probably still spending a lot of time around Memphis. "Mighty Long Time" is about as stripped down as blues can get. It's just Williamson's voice and harmonica, backed up by a man named Cliff Givens, doing a vocal bass-line. Many contemporary harmonica players consider this track to be among Williamson's best.
KWEM in West Memphis was, in many ways, a springboard for blues artists on their way to greater glory at Chess Records in Chicago. Out of all of them, Howlin' Wolf is perhaps the best example. Although Wolf had years of playing and performing under his belt, he didn't begin to reach a broad audience until he started doing a radio show on KWEM in 1948. It was there, in 1951, that Sam Phillips — owner of the Memphis Recording Service, later called Sun Records — first heard Howlin' Wolf and quickly invited him to his studio to lay down some tracks. "How Many More Years" is from one of their earliest sessions in Memphis. Wolf would later re-record the song as one of his many classic Chess recordings in Chicago.
Without question, the most famous blues artist who got his start at KWEM was none other than B.B. King. He first appeared as a guest on Sonny Boy Williamson's KWEM show, gained a local following and then built upon it with a show of his own on WDIA, back across the Mississippi on the Tennessee side. It was at WDIA that Riley B. King got the nickname that would forever associate him with Memphis. He was called "The Beale Street Blues Boy," later shortened to "B.B." Unlike other Memphis blues musicians, King didn't migrate to Chess Records. Instead, in 1949, he hooked up with a record label in Los Angeles and began performing up and down the road that would one day lead him to be called King of the Blues. "Crying Won't Help You" is from his first LP in 1956. In less than three minutes, you'll hear everything that makes B.B. King's music immortal: the voice and guitar that combine to create blues that's simultaneously gut-wrenching and uplifting.