Part four of the stories behind the story of my West Texas Music drive, one of 18 drives featured in Texas Monthly magazine’s Drive issue, June 2012.
Clovis may be across the line in New Mexico but for all practical purposes it could just as well be the other side of Lubbock or Amarillo. It’s a classic western city, defined by railroad lines but laid out for automobiles. The boulevards are spacious and wide, ideal for cruising.
Clovis native Norman Petty started building his recording studio in 1948 in order to record his own mellow music group, the Norman Petty Trio, featuring his wife Vi on vocals. But when Buddy Holly and the Crickets showed up in 1958, Vi and Norm’s own recording dreams took a back seat to the hot rock and roll band from Lubbock. Soon, Buddy Knox and the Rhythm Orchids (“Party Doll”), the Fireballs (“Bottle of Wine”, “Sugar Shack”), the Stringalongs (“Wheels”), Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings (“An Empty Cup and a Broken Date”, “Tryin’ To Get to You”, “Ooby Dooby”), and the Nighthawks (“When Sin Stops”), and Waylon Jennings (“Jole Blon”) joined the Crickets in making the pilgrimage to Clovis. where 12 Top Ten hits were recorded in 15 months.
The sound he created is associated with West Texas rock and roll, wide open, with plenty of space, drenched in echo – part and parcel of the Petty touch.
Since Petty’s death in 1988, the studio has been frozen in time.
The original chair in the control room is perfectly sited between the original Lansing/Altec speakers, which Petty suspended from the ceiling as he did the air-suspended equalizer, all the better to hear “Peggy Sue” and other hit records recorded in the studio. Ken Broad attributes the success of the room to its design (“No flat walls in the studio. They’re cylindrical.”) and to Petty’s perfect pitch.
Shirley Broad plays the celeste keyboard that provided the hook to Holly’s “Every Day” on request and Dean will fire up the Solavox organ that Petty added to “Sugar Shack” after the Fireballs left the studio. If you’re lucky, David Bigham will come along – he’s one of the Roses singing group that backed up the rock and rollers on their recordings after Bigham came to Clovis as one of the Teen Kings, Roy Orbison’s band, after Roy, dissatisfied with his first recordings made at Sun Studios in Memphis, sought out Petty. Petty liked the Roses backing vocals and recruited them to come to Clovis and record for him.
The apartment in the back of the studio was built by Petty for the Crickets, so they could stay and record as long as they wanted. The living area features some innovative designs (eg. a bookshelf built into the fireplace) and zoomy features that capture the essence of 50s moderne.
There’s even an early microwave Petty bought for the apartment. Between the recording studio, the apartment and the home he designed for Vi and him, it’s obvious this eastern New Mexico native was some kind of visionary.
1313 West 7th, to book a tour, contact Ken Broad 575 760 2157/356 6422 Donations requested. I dropped a twenty.
FOXY DRIVE-IN, six blocks from the Petty studio, is a classic 50s establishment with curb service where Holly and his band used to order taquitas, rolled and fried little flautas, now 85 cents each, whenever they were recording. Burgers are pretty great too, with curb service, natch.
720 West 7th @ Thornton, 575 763-7995
NORMAN AND VI PETTY ROCK & ROLL MUSEUM takes the macro view of Norman Petty’s influence on West Texas music in a soda shop/jukebox kind of setting in the basement of the chamber of commerce building. The nine foot Stratocaster and the half circle of piano keys out front mark the spot. Norm and Vi’s private life, Norman’s recording technique (his original mixing board is here), his relationship with Buddy Holly and the Crickets, and the other bands that flocked to the studio for the magic sound are all showcased, with great photographs of the lesser-known acts. 105 East Grand @ Main Street, 800 261 7656 Hours: 8-noon, 1-5 weekdays, weekends by appointment only. Pettymuseum.org $5 admission
The sound that came out of the Biggest Little Music City in the Whole World is celebrated at the Clovis Music Festival the first weekend of every September
Part five of the stories behind the story of my West Texas Music drive, one of 18 drives featured in Texas Monthly’s Drive issue, June 2012
Driving highway 84 from Clovis, thoughts turned to the Crickets’ old game of Beat the Clock – pounding the hundred miles of two-lane blacktop from Lubbock to Clovis in less than hour, so they could arrive before they left, courtesy of changing time zones from Central to Mountain. For the life of me, I can’t imagine anyone pulling it off, especially making it through Muleshoe unscathed. In case local teenagers still try this trick, I was glad the highway was four-lane mostly-divided highway now. This stretch is mostly irrigated farmland – cotton and soybeans, mostly – evidenced by the giant sprinkler systems that bring water from the Ogallala Aquifer deep below the ground to feed the crops, with grain elevators, water towers, and stadium lights rising from the flat horizon.
Then there’s the billboard, bigger than life. The next town may look like all the other towns from the road, but the large sign suggests different – Littlefield is hometown of Waylon Jennings, Buddy Holly protege, Nashville Rebel, Willie Nelson partner, Country music outlaw, the baddest of the badasses.
How can one not turn and follow directions to Waylon Jennings Boulevard, leading to one of the coolest, most unusual music museums in the world?
Waymore’s was James Jennings’ Exxon service station for “30 some odd years” before he switched from gas to booze in 2008 and started adding display cases of Waylon memorabilia. W’s first guitar, letters to his family, and the handwritten backstage pass for his mother and father would have been the highlights if James hadn’t shown up. The engaging, self-deprecating “ol’ redneck” is without a doubt one of his big brother’s most entertaining boosters and a joy to hang around. He fills in the blanks when there’s questions about young Waylon and tells pretty good stories about all the folks who’ve dropped by.
Donations accepted and recommended.
E. Waylon Jennings Blvd (FM 54) @ Hall Ave., 806 385 5561, 385 0054
Open 10-9 Mon-Sat. Donations accepted
Farther south on Hall Street is the municipal Waylon Jennings RV Park. Parking and camping are complimentary.
Part two of the story behind the story of my West Texas Music drive for the June issue of Texas Monthly magazine
Woody Guthrie, America’s greatest folksinger may have come from Okemah, Oklahoma, but he came of age in Pampa. Here’s what I found, starting with the Woody in Pampa website :
THE WOODY GUTHRIE FOLK MUSIC CENTER is the old Hall Drug Store on Pampa’s red brick old main street, where Woody worked from 1930-1935 and learned to play guitar, combined with the barber shop next door. Woody’s father ran a “cot house” across the street for oil field workers who flooded the town in the early 30s, which may or may not have included a bordello in the back.
The folk center is the vision of local historian and author Thelma Bray, whose two biographies of Guthrie are on sale at the center; the second, revised edition was published after Pete Seeger consulted Bray.
While the center is packed with photographs, newspaper articles, and copies of letters Woody and others wrote (did you know his song “Up from Boston” is the Boston Red Sox theme?), the center’s greatest artifact is “the building itself,” says Mike Sinks, one of the center’s supporters, who showed me around. “It’s where Woody Guthrie learned to play music.”
He also formed his first ensemble, the Corn Cob Trio, in 1934.
Sinks tells good stories about Woody, how he was known around town for spending so much time in the library reading books, and how his political leanings still divide the town – an attempt to name a street after him failed in the mid 90s when a Pampa official protested that Guthrie was a “communist” and naming a street after him would give the town a bad reputation. [Pampa officials today could do worse than talk to their peers in Okemah and find out what they’re missing.
Taking cues from Woody, live music is the main feature of the center: acoustic jams on the first Friday night of every month, electric jams on the third Friday, and informal pickings any old time.
The tracks where Guthrie first started hopping freights to California are a block north.
320 South Cuyler, www.woodyguthriepampatx.com The office is open 1-4 Fridays, but if you’d like to look around the folk center any other time, call or email Mike Sinks (806-664-0824; email@example.com), or one of the other center board members found on the website and open the building for you and show you around. Donations appreciated.
Arlo Guthrie played Pampa on behalf of the folk music center back in March, a few weeks after Jimmy LaFave stopped in coming back from a Colorado gig, which was front page news in Pampa.
Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday will be celebrated at the center on July 25 and nationally on July 14, his actual birthdate.
All pickers are welcome, in the spirit of Woody.
THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND MUSIC NOTE FENCE in East Coronado Park on the south side of the AmericInn motel, 1101 North Hobart, (US 70 North), was created by welder Rusty Neef. Pampa city fathers balked at naming a street after Guthrie in 1995. “They didn’t want to name a street after a communist,” Mike Sink said. Nothing was said of Guthrie’s three tours of duty for the US military.
For general Pampa information go here cityofpampa.org
Good listening: The Saturday morning Western Swing and Other Things radio show hosted by Dodge City, KS Marshal Allen Bailey and his sidekick Cowgirl Jane, heard on High Plains Radio public radio affiliates throughout the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma, and Kansas every Saturday
The first stop of my West Texas Music drive, as seen in the June issue of Texas Monthly magazine (texasmonthly.com) was Turkey, Texas, home of the King of Western Swing, Bob Wills
Here’s the lowdown on all things Wills in Turkey:
Last April was the 41st year of Bob Wills Day, which draws some folks more than two weeks before the actual event for jam sessions. The Hotel Turkey is reserved exclusively for Texas Playboys on that weekend, according to Lorene Setliff who was manning the counter in the museum on my visit. “They come from everywhere. This morning we had people from Canada and from Delaware. They just want to enjoy the music and see how Bob lived.”
Jim Rob Wills lived poor on the 600 acre cotton farm north of town between the Big Red and Little Red rivers. He lived rich once he made it in music. He honed his people skills cutting hair and chatting up customers at Hamm’s Barber Shop.
Among the artifacts are Ann Richards’ letter recognized the Bob Wills postage stamp, a sheet of Bob Wills Texas lottery tickets, a copy of Dwight Adair’s “Faded Love: The Life and Times of Bob Wills, photos of Bob at home in Abilene in 1957 with his kids and at Wills Point in Sacramento, California where he spent the late 1940s, a fiddle that belonged to Bob’s father, and a shaving brush and scissors from Ham’s Barger Shop where Jim Rob honed his people skills, and a framed Playboy Flour sack from Red Star Milling in Wichita, Kansas.
An enlarged photo of the Texas Playboys standing at attention in front of their bus, with Bob astride a horse on one side, takes up an entire wall. Koozies, notepads, ball caps, bumper stickers, CDs and books by Townsend, Rosetta Wills, and Al Stricklin, the Playboys’ longest-serving pianist, are among the gifts for sale.
602 Lyles, 806 423 1253, 806 423-1033. 8-noon, 1-5 pm weekdays only, or by special appointment. Donations accepted.
The Gem Theater hosts the First Saturday Jamboree on the first Saturday night of every month. 217 Main St., contact Marie Cruse of Turkey Heritage Foundation 806 423-1420.
The whole town comes alive for Bob Wills Day, the last Saturday in April
For more information: www.turkeytexas.net
Got a nice note today from Mojo Nixon, weighing in on the Oral History of Jimmy Reed, which is on this website:
Me and casey monhiam were talking about nick tosches and jim Dickinson
When he asked me if I had read yer jimmy reed oral history
I just finished it
Fan fuckin tastick !!!
Truth beauty and rock n roll
I always dug Mojo, in no small part due to his recording history with Jim Dickinson, his radio show, and his acting up decades ago when Bill Crawford and I hosted a local cable tv talk show during SXSW in its early stages.
What Natalie Maines Learned From Her Father. What Lloyd Maines Learns From His Daughter. A Tale Of Kinship And Country Music.
“Stand straight. Keep your chin down. Relax. Quit worrying you’ll look like you’re a goober.”
For most of Natalie Maines’s life, her father, Lloyd, the potential goober, was her major influence. He was the one with the music career the revered producer of records by everyone from Jerry Jeff Walker to Wayne Hancock, and a wicked-good steel guitar player to boot and she obviously learned from him well, though his teachings were so low-key and subtle that she realizes today she learned most everything by osmosis. And it was he who facilitated the deal that landed her in the Dixie Chicks, her ticket to the big time. But in this East Austin photographer’s studio, before lights and cameras that are completely foreign to a behind-the-scenes player like Lloyd, she’s the one who calls the shots. She has even loaned him the makeup artist she had flown in from Nashville (standard operating procedure when you’re a chart-topping country star) and taken the time to give him a few tips on applying foundation. Natalie’s on a much-deserved break from the road right now, she has told me, turning down all requests for interviews and media ops. But since her dad is involved, she has made an exception. She’d do anything for him.
And he for her. Reflecting his laid-back approach to life, 48-year-old Lloyd patiently waits for his daughter to strike a pose before he straightens up and places his hands on her shoulders. His idea of mischief is to make devil’s horns with his fingers behind her head. For her part, 25-year-old Natalie whose public image is that of a bubbly spitfire hardly able to contain her energy and always looking as if she’s about to burst into song handles the session like a seasoned pro, cool, calm, and quiet, until she turns on the perky charisma and flashes a radiant smile in anticipation of the whirs and clicks.
Posing is business as usual for her. She’s used to having all eyes on her in this case, makeup artists, publicists, photographers, and photographer’s assistants, who do what they do so she can do what she’s supposed to do. But with her mother, Tina, looking on, the superstar seems abnormally normal. For a few moments, she’s the sweet gal from Lubbock all over again, joshing with her daddy. He’s hugging her. She’s hugging a guitar. They’re the unsung first family of Texas music, playing themselves.LLOYD HAS NEVER BEEN ANYTHING BUT normal. An exceptionally decent fellow, particularly for someone in his line of work, he’s as earthy today as he was 25 years ago, when he made his name as a member of the Joe Ely Band, a crack ensemble way too raucous for Nashville tastes but with too much High Plains red dirt in their boots to pass as rockers. His steel guitar was their secret weapon. He played it like it was a nitro-fueled dragster, which certainly went against the grain of how steels were supposed to sound in those days: all weepy and morose, as a counterpoint to the melody. It was while he was working with Ely that Lloyd developed a side interest in producing. His first project, Terry Allen’s Lubbock (On Everything), was a rather auspicious debut. Recorded at Don Caldwell’s studio in 1977, the album still holds up as the most succinct commentary on the West Texas condition ever captured on audiotape. The session cemented Lloyd’s reputation as something of an efficiency expert too. The band he put together featuring his brother Kenny on bass and a drummer named Curtis McBride jumped in behind Allen and his leather briefcase full of songs to complete 22 tracks in two days. Lubbock (On Everything) also put on view Lloyd’s particular knack for bringing out the best in people. “Terry had recorded before for Capitol, and when he did, the producer gave him grief for stomping his foot as he sang,” he says. “Instead of trying to hide that, we kept it in. His foot became the kick drum.”
The work that followed was mostly of a more mundane variety, meaning whoever and whatever walked in the doors of Caldwell’s studio. There were aspiring country stars, of course, and rock and rollers, along with Christian contemporary and gospel groups, heavy metal bands, conjuntos and other Tex-Mexers, and local commercial clients that needed audio for radio and TV spots. He also took the lead in producing the eight albums recorded by the Maines Brothers Band, the country and country-pop combine that dominated the South Plains live music circuit after Ely moved to Austin in 1981.
Ely had wanted him to come along, but Lloyd decided to stay in Lubbock so that he and Tina could raise their two daughters, Kim and Natalie, where they themselves had come of age. He got off the road altogether following an extended international tour on which the Ely band opened for the English punk band the Clash. “My kids were old enough for me to realize that they needed a dad at home,” he says. “And I liked the idea of producing, of recording something that’s going to be around a long time for people to criticize and analyze, as opposed to playing live, which was for the moment. It didn’t matter what I produced. I just enjoyed the process, and it allowed me to pay the bills.”
Neither he nor Tina had made a big deal of what he did for a living. He had made flying all over the world with Ely and rubbing elbows with Linda Ronstadt seem like another day at the office. But it sure rubbed off. “I remember Terry and Joe and the Tornado Jams and Stubb’s,” Natalie says. “But I didn’t grasp how great they were. The person I really remember is Jo Harvey [Allen, Terry’s wife, an accomplished playwright and actress]. I adored her. I always wanted to hang out with her. I was sort of a little brat. And her term of endearment for me was ‘little shit,’ as in, ‘You know, you’re a real little shit.’ I loved it.”
No one remembers exactly when Natalie’s destiny became obvious. She hadn’t taken a single singing lesson, but she had quite a voice and an attitude to back it up. It might have been when the precocious three-year-old continued banging on the piano, willfully ignoring her dad’s demands that she stop even though she knew she was making him mad. Or a year later, when she tap-danced to Cecil Caldwell’s music and sang “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?” backed by the Maines Brothers Band at the West Texas Opry.
“Dad was putting me onstage whenever I wanted,” she says. “I’d go to rehearsal and work up a song for the show with the band. He was just so proud.” Tina thinks it might have been the time Natalie’s second-grade teacher called her at home after Natalie refused to answer a particular math question “because I’m going to be a star.” Standing in line one day at the Baskin-Robbins, Tina became certain that her daughter was headed for some kind of career: “All of a sudden I heard ‘Greased Lightnin” being belted out behind me and I cringed. She knew every lyric and every line of dialogue from both Grease and West Side Story and could recite them in several different dialects. She had Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ down cold.”
Lloyd was pragmatic about accommodating his little girl, but he wasn’t pushy. If he needed someone to sing backing vocals for a commercial, he knew Natalie would be only too happy to help. “One time he needed a vampire’s laugh for a spook house, and he let me do it,” she recalls. “The guy designing the spook house said I was excellent.” And whenever Natalie asked, Lloyd passed on the sort of deep knowledge that isn’t taught in school, like the value of doing your own songs and keeping your publishing rights, or how if someone called you “baby” in L.A., it was the same as someone in Nashville calling you “hoss.”
After graduating from Lubbock High School a year early, Natalie spent a semester at Canyon’s West Texas A&M University before transferring to South Plains College in Levelland, which was closer to home. There, her musical inclinations became her studies, and she began performing on her own more. With Lloyd backing her up on acoustic guitar and manning the console, she made a demo tape and earned a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Again, one semester far from home was enough. She moved back to Lubbock in 1995 and had enrolled at Texas Tech University when she got the call that changed her life.
Daddy had already given his blessing in advance. His production credits on albums by Jimmie Dale Gilmore (his self-titled second recording for the HighTone label), Butch Hancock (The Wind’s Dominion and Diamond Hill), and Jerry Jeff Walker (Navajo Rug) had raised his profile enough that he had great word-of-mouth within the community of Texas country players. It was this reputation that led to, among other things, a stint playing on two albums by a fringe-wearing girl group talented enough to play their own banjos, guitars, and fiddles. They called themselves the Dixie Chicks.
After Robin Lynn Macy and then Laura Lynch had left the Chicks, founding sisters Emily Erwin and Martie Seidel sought Lloyd’s advice for a replacement. He gave them a copy of the demo tape Natalie had made for Berklee. Could his daughter have the right stuff for them? He was apprehensive: She was only twenty his baby girl. He knew the road was treacherous. But he also knew she was a go-getter who absorbed things fast.
Natalie accepted an invitation to try out with one caveat. “I won’t wear those cowgirl clothes,” she told Emily and Martie. A week later, she was performing onstage as the third Chick. The band’s sound and look changed dramatically. So did its financial outlook.
Especially after Lloyd brought a certain tune to the Chicks. He’d gotten a call from a woman in Amarillo named Susan Gibson, who asked if he’d be interested in producing a record by the band she played in, the Groobees. He sat down to listen to their audition tape and was floored by the first song, about a child leaving home. He played it nine times. “The dad even says, ‘Check your oil,'” Lloyd marvels. “I don’t know how many times I’ve said that.” After producing the Groobees, he persuaded the Chicks to cover the song, “Wide Open Spaces.” He says that when he sits in with the Chicks on the road, “you think you’re at a Beatles concert. These girls and these guys have tears in their eyes. It’s like an anthem.”
Having her father play with her band has made Natalie aware of how much they are in sync with each other. “We actually hear things the same way what to hear, how a song is structured,” she says. “Some of it’s telepathic. He’ll just stop the tape and I’ll know what he’s going to say.” Sometimes she even knows what he’s supposed to say. “When we played ‘Cowboy Take Me Away’ on The Tonight Show, we all told him during rehearsal that he was doing one little lick different from what was on the record, and he’s the one playing on the recording. We had to teach him the lick again.”
The best trick that Lloyd picked up in the studio and passed on to Natalie has been how to use and not use reverb, the echo effect that was cultivated by Norman Petty in Clovis, New Mexico, and became Buddy Holly’s signature. “Norman had the most calming effect in the studio,” Lloyd says. “One thing he taught me was that when you’re overdubbing, it’s best not to let yourself hear reverb, because you’ll sound better than you really are. He said, ‘I like to hear a voice as dry as possible.'”
Natalie shares that opinion: “No reverb in the studio, on tape, in the headphones. Why use it if you don’t need it?”
What else did Dad teach her? Stick to your guns, a lesson all the Chicks have taken to heart. “Emily played banjo when she first went to Nashville,” Lloyd remembers, “and she was told she shouldn’t play banjo. She said, ‘Yes, I can, because that’s what I do.’ Guess what’s the hot studio instrument of the moment in Nashville?” Lloyd smiles wickedly. “Those three girls are nice and they’re sweet,” he continues, “but the people around them know they have to get the job done, because if someone on the team hasn’t been doing so, they’ll tell them, ‘You’re outta here’ in a heartbeat.”
Despite his daughter’s rapid rise to platinum-selling status, Lloyd has been resolute about staying in the trenches, focusing on producing up-and-comers like the Robison brothers, Pat Green, and his latest protegee, Terri Hendrix, who’s taking the do-it-yourself route, starting her own label and racking up sales of 10,000 units on her second album, Wilory Farm, and 6,000 on her follow-up, Terri Hendrix Live. He’s also taking the opportunity to work with old-timers he admires, most recently Johnny Bush and Hank Thompson. And he still sits in with Joe, Jerry Jeff, and Robert Earl Keen, but only as his time and interest allow. Robert Earl regularly sends him his touring schedule just in case.
The biggest change in his life hasn’t been nurturing a Dixie Chick; it was finally leaving Lubbock. He spent so much time recording bands in Austin 219 days in one year by his calculation that he and Tina relocated there in 1998, reasoning that the kids were out of the house and the work was where the work was. They miss their friends and family, Tina says, but they don’t miss other things. “I heard that it rained mud the other day,” she says. “That I don’t miss.”
Lloyd’s style of working remains the same. “I like to keep it moving,” he says. “I don’t like to waste time. Once you’ve got the machine rolling, it’s best to keep it there until you hit a wall, then you take a break. The reason I crank out so many records is that most of them are low-budget; we can’t spend a lot of days making it. An act might come in with $10,000 to do the whole master. That’s what major labels spend on catering!”
Natalie thinks he undersells himself. “I just did a session in Los Angeles with the Pretenders and Stevie Nicks,” she reports, “and they didn’t know who he is! And they should! He’s almost too fair. Not only does he tell you when it’s sharp or flat, he arranges songs. He ought to get a songwriting credit on every track he produces. He has never gotten credit for being as creative as he is.” Spoken like a doting, fiercely protective daughter.
“I’ve been a little scared of this business in some ways, just because it’s so volatile,” Lloyd explains. “Being self-employed, you wake up hoping the phone will ring. She dove right into it, head-on. I’ve observed her fearless approach. Maybe some of that has rubbed off on me.”
Just as his take on Texas music that it’s okay to be imperfect as long as you put your soul into it has rubbed off on the young pro at the top of her game. “Follow your heart, do what you want to do, and don’t do anything you don’t want to do; that’s what he taught me,” Natalie says. “There’s always give and take, but stick to your guns. We’re a band. Our passion is not to be stars, but to play music and reach our audience. “I didn’t realize until recently how naturally it all came to me,” she says, packing her bags when the shoot is over. She’ll spend the night at her parents’ house before hitting the road. “We both recognize we’ve got a good thing going on,” she says emphatically, leaving no room for more questions. “We know it.”
Jimmy Reed, Emancipator of the South: An Oral History
Blues Access BY JOE NICK PATOSKI Summer 2000, Issue No. 42
It begins with the discovery of a black-and-white photograph dated 1961. The setting is Walker’s Auditorium, a chitlin’ circuit showcase for touring black musicians in Waco, Texas, the same city where a black man named Washington Jess had been lynched 45 years earlier. In the center of the shot is the performing artist Jimmy Reed, dressed to the nines in a shiny cream-colored suit with black lapels and a black low tie, strumming a guitar and looking back at the photographer beaming a wide-open smile, a pure expression of some kind of ecstasy, wiggling a hip, the fingers of his left hand contorting to make a chord on the fret board while his right hand works the strings below, stroking. In the foreground are the head and shoulders of another black man in a dark suit, looking off to the side, a guy in the band you can’t see well enough to identify. Over Reed’s left shoulder in the background is a second black man, in a white short-sleeved shirt, holding what appears to be another guitar. It may or may not be Eddie Taylor or A.C. Reed, two of Jimmy Reed’s sidemen, but it really doesn’t matter. It’s the scene beyond the two microphones set up on the lip of the small stage that counts: a sea of young white faces, most of them clustered around the stage watching, others dancing, all eyes fixed on Jimmy Reed. Most all of them are males, though you can see a couple of young women among them brazenly walking the wild side. One college-aged gentleman clutches a can of Lone Star beer, his brow furrowed, concentrating hard, really hard, as if trying to understand what it all means, working at getting into the groove. The burr-headed man next to him is bent down low towards the ground, face relaxed, lost in a dream. He already knows. Across the stage are two boys in matching white shirts and dark ties, both resting left arms on left knees propped up on the stage, paying very close attention. The image leaves the impression that it’s still early, but by midnight, no more three hours after the moment was captured by the photograph, everyone in the picture will be foaming-at-the-mouth, stark-raving mad, flat-on-their-ass shit-faced drunk, Jimmy Reed included. But the more I look at the photograph, the more I see Jimmy Reed the liberator, as well as Jimmy Reed the showman. I’m not certain, but I’m almost absolutely positive that without Jimmy Reed, the integration of the South would have been even far more contentious and difficult fight. By attracting and emancipating white southern youth in the late fifties and early sixties through music and alcohol and the fine art of having a good time, he set the stage for Martin Luther King. Laws legislating change in the wake of the societal crossover that was in play at the time within the realm of entertainment, thanks to Jimmy Reed and his peers. The message may have been one of pure pleasure with a subtext of celebrating being yourself (Jimmy Reed couldn’t have put on an act if he wanted to). The effect was far more reaching. I sought out five white musicians who were my elders when it came to learning about blues in the first place, to find out whether that’s was the way it really was.
THE FIRST TIME Delbert McClinton “Lemme tell you, I know exactly where I was the first time I heard a Jimmy Reed song. I was in Fort Worth, over on the south side, I can’t remember what intersection, when “Honest I Do” came on the radio. I was in the car with about three other guys and I just went apeshit –especially at the big cymbal crash. It wasn’t but a few weeks later we were playing Blue Monday out at the Skyliner Ballroom [on the infamous Jacksboro Highway, the sin strip of Texas], Jimmy Levens [the star black disc jockey on KNOK-AM] always booked us out there. He booked all those shows. Blue Monday was when blacks had the Skyliner [the rest of the week the only blacks in the house were the performers and the hired help] and Jimmy would always put shows on out there. On this particular night, Red Prysock was out there playing, and I don’t know who all. We played out there a lot, a lot of times played with Bobby Blue Bland, Junior Parker, you know, in fact I think they were there that night. But we were out there, we played on our own [with his band, the Straitjackets], so we got to stay and watch the whole show, sat right on the side of the stage, and I hear somebody playing harp [his voice takes on this faraway wistful tone]. Do you remember the old Skyliner Ballroom? The stage was built for an orchestra, so they would hang this sheer from across the back half of the stage, so it wouldn’t look like such a huge stage. And Jimmy Reed comes walking out behind there playing the harmonica. And I just about shit. I had been playing harmonica all my life but I was playing stuff like “Dixie” and little Irish jigs, and “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon”, shit like that. The next day, I went over to T.H.Conn music store–that’s back when harmonicas cost seventy five cents a piece–and I got a few harps. I have been playing harp regularly since that day.”
Augie Meyer: “My momma used to get mad at me. They used to play him on the radio and I’d be working at my mother’s store, and when Joe Anthony [the disc jockey who hosted the Harlem Hit Parade on KONO in San Antonio] would come on, I’d go in the back room and listen to him. She’d know where I was, and she’d find me and say, ‘Junior, get back over there!’ It was between him or Slim Harpo. They both had that almost nasal kind of voice. First time I saw Jimmy Reed was at a theater on Telephone Road in Houston. I went there on my motor scooter, drove 200 miles from San Antonio, 35 miles an hour. There wasn’t the Interstate back then. I had an Allstate, cost me forty five cents in gas to get there and cost me $4 to get in. It was mostly all-black [crowd]. If the white people were there, they were Cajuns.”
Jim Dickinson: “When I first encountered Jimmy Reed, it must have been on the radio from Dewey Phillips. Around here [Memphis, where Dickinson grew up] in the mid to late fifties, that’s what was going on. I didn’t understand til I got to Texas that the music I was hearing was not universal music. Dewey Phillips used to say ‘It’s a hit!’ and play a record, and I thought it was a hit. I first heard Jimmy Reed on the radio, then I spent a long time trying to do it. Seeing the picture of him with the harmonica rack, wow, Bob Dylan must have seen a picture of Woody Guthrie. I didn’t see a picture of Woody Guthrie until way later. But I saw this picture of Jimmy Reed with this rack around his neck, I thought, Damn, lookit that. And I made me a rack out of coat hangers, like every other white boy who would tell you this story, of which there are plenty. Steve Cropper can tell you the same story. Steve Cropper used to have a Jimmy Reed amp, like me. I did 10 or 12 Jimmy Reed songs at my peak, and I did pretty good. I never did figure out crossharp until later. I was blowing, I was playing folk harp. I didn’t know you were supposed to suck, although the second night I saw Jimmy Reed in the flesh, I saw him play in at least five keys, using a capo on the double neck. Never changed the harmonica. I have no idea how he did that. The first time I saw him live was at the auditorium downtown where I saw Elvis in ’56. This was a package show. James Brown was the headliner, must have been ’59, Bo Diddley was on it. Everybody was doing two songs tops, a big band backing them up. Jimmy Reed came out soused. He introduced ‘Goin’ To New York’ and played ‘Take Out Some Insurance’ then kept playing. The band played an ending and he went “Take out some insurance….Jimmy Reed, baby…” introducing himself. They pulled him offstage, he came back onstage, it went on and on. It was a memorable thing. Albert King was backing him up, and Jimmy would say onstage, ÔTurn me around in G, Albert.’ He’d play some 5-4-1s and he miss it, and sing, ÔTurn me around again.’ I went there with my cousin. Fats Domino was supposed to be on the show. I’ve never known why. You could see him in the wings, we were way in the back, and they said he was sick and he didn’t play. James Brown was the star. They didn’t turn on half the PA until James Brown. The kids in this mostly college crowd kept screaming, ÔBring on the Bullet, bring on the Bullet.’ I didn’t know what they were talking about. After the intermission, the announcer said, ÔNow we’re going to bring on the Bullet and the crowd goes crazy.’ And they bring on this black quadriplegic. And they put a stool in the middle of the stage, and a pillow on the stool, and a microphone in front, and they brought him on and put him on the pillow and he screamed into the microphone. That was it. WAAHHHHHHHHHH! The audience went nuts. Then they came on and got him. That was the first time I saw Jimmy, and he was….disappointing.”
Jerry Williams: “When I eleven, I got my first guitar and that’s when I started finding Jimmy Reed records. I said, ‘Oh man, this is for me, I love this.’ Dad took me down to Montgomery Wards there on Seventh Street [in Fort Worth], bought me a Silvertone guitar, a black one that had the gold glitter thrown into the paint, had that little piece of white plastic around the edges, the case was the amplifier, you opened it up and it was painted the same way: glossy black with gold glitter thrown on it, and up in the right-hand corner this little-bitty ol’ eight inch speaker in the case. You took the guitar out and opened the case and stood it up. And that was the amp. Of course I learned every damn Jimmy Reed song that ever was, then I got into Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, anything that had serious rock and roll in it. ‘Big Boss Man’, ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’–it had to have that kind of feel, that kind of emotion. The song was real. You felt like you were living it. Those guys were pulling it off, where they actually made you believe. It was too much for me.”
Steve Miller: “I started listening to Jimmy Reed when I was eleven years old. I was just absolutely sucked in. It was before radio became unified. You know, Little Walter had hit records, so did Tommy Tucker [‘High-Heeled Sneakers’] and Bill Doggett with ‘Honky Tonk’. I was walking around telling everybody about Jimmy Reed, and went over to the record store and got his album and would listen to his record over and over and over, every night when I’d go to sleep. Jimmy Reed was so different than all of those people, he was like so real, to me, it just moved me more than anything. He was my most favorite guy. The tunes were really cool, the playing was so loose, it was perfect to dance to, it was different. He’s the only guy who did that stuff, really. Nobody else played like that, I don’t really know why. I don’t know why I loved it more than all other stuff, but it was my favorite thing. Jim Lowe and Kats Karavan [a nightly rhythm n blues show on WRR-AM in Dallas in the fifties and sixties] had a lot to do with that. That was the radio station we listened to every night and, what’s the one in Tennessee? WLAC. John R. Those guys, we’d listen to that too. Everybody was into that stuff and if you couldn’t play that stuff, you couldn’t get the gig. ***
DRUNK McClinton: “Until he got drunk, he was just a regular guy, although no way he was just a regular guy. But he wasn’t outrageous. He’d get drunk. Have you got the CD that’s got a bunch of outtakes of him on it? I’ve got it here somewhere. You need to get it because there’s no better example of what he was like when he got drunk. On this CD, they keep trying to start the song and he keeps fucking it up. [adopts voice] Ohohohoh. Ah’m sorry. Ah’m sorry. I should be in the key of C, me n you both are on the wild side of the count. The voice that’d come out, it just don’t get no lower down. If you could put your hand on the truth and pick it up, his voice is the closest thing to everything there is….I just hung on every word he had to say. He was thrilled to death with his popularity, but all he wanted to do was drink whiskey and go out with women. I’ve got a microphone I’m looking at right now, big ol Shure 550, the kind they like to use today in videos, big ol mic, and I bought that one weekend when Jimmy was gonna work with us and I went so far as to rent a little Bogan PA system–which if you know what that is, well, two speakers clipped together with the amp in the middle. I rented a Bogan PA system and bought this microphone when Jimmy Reed was coming to play. For the second set, he’d usually come up just drunk out of his mind, in fact he’d usually have two or three women helping him up there, and he got up there and started to sing a song and puked right on this microphone, the very first night I got it. I’ve got in a little showcase here, it’s one of the only things out of my past. Fortunately it’s something with a story attached to it. I’ve worked on that son of a bitch forever with a toothbrush, I’m still not satisfied it’s cleaned. It wasn’t a full-blown blowing beets, it was just one of them little ol’ liquid pukes that just shoot out of your throat, you know what I’m talking about? I watched it happen, I went Shit! What are you gonna say, man? It’s Jimmy Reed. And he’s my hero.”
Meyer: “He was drunk. He was always drunk. I seen him three times–once in Houston, once in New Orleans, and in Houston again. The third time, I was onstage with him. You know, he’d walk out, sit down, set that microphone out there. I wasn’t there one night, I don’t know where it was, but Jimmy Reed was sitting up there, saying ‘I’m gonna play for ya’ll, all right.’ Turned around and just passed out. ”
Dickinson: “The thing that sounded so great to me as a kid was, this music sounded drunk. Which, they probably were. Later, Albert King told me he was hired to keep Jimmy Reed sober. I don’t know if was true or not, but Albert King told me he was playing drums, that he had been Jimmy Reed’s driver, that is was his job was to keep Jimmy Reed sober. I don’t think he did a very good job, the few times I saw Jimmy Reed in the flesh. The second time I saw him was more reassuring, which was about ’63 or ’64 at Clear Pool, which was the roller skating rink that Elvis used to rent, out on Lamar. It was an upstairs-downstairs teenage hoodlum venue for fraternity parties, that kind of stuff, and this was a fraternity party. I was playing in the opening band with Don Nix from the Mar-Keys (sp), this might have been a Mar-Key gig, I don’t remember. This was about the time I was playing phony Mar-Key gigs–when the Mar-Keys broke up, they all would book gigs and everybody would be a Mar-Keys, anybody of a certain age group in Memphis who had an instrument was a potential Mar-Key. I played in the opening band, and I was such a purist, that I missed my chance to play with Jimmy Reed. I could’ve easily stayed on the stage and played, but I thought to myself, Jimmy Reed doesn’t have a piano player, there’s no piano on the records, so I’m not going to play. So I didn’t play. I got drunk instead. The piano was still on the stage, he propped himself against it, between the piano and the microphone, giving himself as little room to fall over as possible. He was wearing a custom made suit that looked like cutaway tails, but it was made out of awning material, like canvas, bright green canvas that had snaps like a high school letter jacket and a stripe going down his pants, a plastic bow tie, and black plastic cowboy boots. He was beautiful. He was like three or four days gone, just soused, they put the guitar on him, put the harmonica rack on him and he just stood that way backstage. Nix and I were talking to him before he went on. And he didn’t have his wife with him. ‘Course, part of the mythology is his wife whispered in his ear, and all those stories. Nix would say anything to anybody and we were jiving with Jimmy and he says, ‘Jimmy, where is your wife?’ Jimmy says, [Dickinson speaks slowly] ‘She’s back at the hotel. She can make more money there than I can here.'”
Williams: “My job was to make sure he had everything he needed. I brought him towels and whisky, Jimmy was doing a little heroin, you don’t have to mention that one, I guarded the door.”
Miller: “Jimmy was just drunk all the time. That was his problem. That gig I played with him was like that. He was about to pass out. That’s where he was at.” ***
TRANSITIONAL JIMMY REED MOMENT McClinton: “We worked with Jimmy a lot, backing him up a lot at Jack’s Place [on the Mansfield Highway in southeast Fort Worth, where the neon sign of a kicking mule was hard to miss–“If the mule was kicking, everything was cool,” Delbert said. “If it wasn’t kicking, it meant there was gonna be a raid that night.”] back in the late fifties and early sixties. Lot of times, he and Sonny Boy [Williamson] both, we would play with them in Fort Worth or Dallas on Friday and Saturday night, and then go up to Oklahoma with ’em to play a black club on Sunday night. One place I remember, in Lawton, was Mother’s Place. Beer and barbecue and blues. That’s the real deal. Jimmy used to bring this guy with him sometimes, this one-eyed bass player, Hal somebody, he was kind of his manager–who knows what he was–he was with him, he was a bass player, relatively no reason for him to be there, I guess they were good buddies, or he, I don’t know, he waddn’t much on watching out for anybody. Anyway, we took a station wagon up to Oklahoma. Some other black guy was with us, it might have been someone in Sonny Boy’s band. There were two carloads of us, mixed pretty evenly. There were probably ten people, half-black, half-white. I was sitting in the car with Jimmy, you know, and this one-eyed bass player. This guy was wanting to light a cigarette and he didn’t have a match. He reached over the front seat, tapping this black guy sleeping, wanting to get a light from him, and Jimmy reached over and knocked his hand away: ‘Lev him alone and leave him kept on slepping.’ And I like to have fuckin’ died. I think I was the only one that laughed. That was the way the talk went. ‘Lev him alone and leave him kept on slepping.’ I guess he didn’t like people smoking ’cause I’ve seen him more than once slap a cigarette out of people’s hands. No smoking on the fuckin’ bandstand.”
Meyer: “He would sit in the hotel room, and he’d start playing and make up words. We were at a place called the White House Motel out on Main Avenue, a long time ago. We were sitting around talking, and I said something about having to take my son to the doctor. He had his guitar with him all the time, and whatever you were talking about, he’d start singing, that knack or ability, so he sang, ‘I had to take my boy to the doctor….’ I played a two-night stand with him at Liberty Hall in Houston in 1975 [shortly before Reed’s death]. We’d sit there on my bus and tell stories. He told me this one story, he said, ‘Man, I’d got off a gig, got in my car to go to the hotel, got about $5,000, got a bottle of whiskey, got a woman. Wake up in the morning, my car is gone, my $5,000 is gone, the woman’s gone, and the whiskey’s all gone.’ I asked him, ‘How many times that’d happened, Jimmy?’. He looked at me and smiled. ‘Too many,’ he said.”
Dickinson: “Of my generation of kids who grew up in the fifties, most of us got a guitar and learned to play ‘Honky Tonk’, which is what it is: it is Bill Doggett’s ‘Honky Tonk’. We called the actual riff ‘shifting’ around here. And it became ‘The Twist’, also dada dada dada dada. It’s the same musical notes. It’s part of the interrupted left hand boogie-woogie pattern played on the top two or three strings of the guitar. In both cases, that’s what Chuck Berry does, and that’s what Jimmy Reed does. Or that’s what they appear to do, if you’re a stupid white boy from the suburbs and you can figure out how to do that too. Soon you realize that they must be doing something else, because when you do it, it doesn’t sound like what they’re doing when they do it. And sure enough, there is a mystery to it. I did finally crack the mystery with the help, the shameful help of a teabag, but sometimes it takes our brothers from across the water to open our eyes to the truth. The first Jimmy Reed record was an obscure one. It’s one of the early ones, which we referred to around here as ‘Backed Up to the Window’ which is just a line from the second verse. That’s what everybody called it. The actual name of the song is “Can’t Stand to See You Go”. There’s a mistake in the intro, one of the rare cases where he uses a guitar intro. Usually he uses the harmonica. There’s this guitar figure for the intro and whoever’s playing guitar screws it up and you hear Jimmy Reed laugh. I loved it because of that. You hear this riff, riff, then ‘hahahahaha’ and the next start and finally he starts to sing. You can’t understand maybe three words out of ten, and it’s a wonderful song. And as a stupid white kid in the suburbs of Memphis back in the fifties, I sat there with the record until I figured out what this guy was saying and it still didn’t make any sense. You can’t tell whether the song is about suicide or what. Great song. Harmonica sounds broken. That was when I started to debate what was the difference between those Jimmy Reed records and other records that represented the same genre. And I didn’t find that out until the seventies: the difference was the engineer, a white guy. It’s like with Robert Johnson and Don Law. There always has to be the white guy, like Leonard Chess was to Muddy Waters. Like Miss McBurney was to Elmore James in Jackson. There has to be that guy. In this case, it was an audio designer named Bill Putnam who receives label credit. He built Universal Studios in Chicago where they made this stuff. He is the explanation for why Jimmy Reed sounds like it does. It’s primitive music, of course, with no bass. The best recordings on Veejay were made with no bass guitar at all. It sounds like the drums are maybe boxes and the guy’s hitting it with his shoe–BUT, the sound is real good, the audio quality of this lo-fi sound has been recorded in hi-fi by this weird guy Bill Putnam who built studios. He built the studio that is now Ocean Way in Hollywood, probably the highest dollar studio in America. Allen Sides (sp.) the current owner, one of his big selling points is that when he bought the studio, he ripped all the seventies and eighties treatment off the wall and went back to the original Bill Putnam room. That’s why the Rolling Stones are recording there. I’m sure Bill Putnam would have been more comfortable recording a string quartet. In a way, it’s like George Martin with the Beatles and those guys in lab jackets that you see in early recording pictures. They couldn’t have possibly liked the music. I doubt very seriously Bill Putnam enjoyed the experience in recording Jimmy Reed, but he recorded the crap out of him. Used to be at the fraternity party, we’d do the third set blues, to make people leave. Bout ’59, ’60, they started staying. Kids coming back from college would actually request Jimmy Reed songs. Because they wanted to do this specific dance, which in Texas was the Push. Around here, it was a little bit different. It was called the UT, and it’s the same basic thing, but a pre-Twist. I remember the night onstage when the third or fourth person asked me to play a Jimmy Reed song. I thought, Something has shifted here. Something has changed. We became known for doing Jimmy Reed stuff. At the same time, Steve Cropper was in a band called the Royal Spades, that became the Mar-Keys, with a rack around his neck would stand at microphone and try to sing Jimmy Reed songs.
Williams: “The North Texas Push was the fuckin’ dance. Everybody loved it. It was the coolest dance I’ve ever seen, to this day. It was originally called the North Texas Push, and Jimmy Leavens at the Skyliner touted it as the greatest dance floor in Texas, this was before Gilley’s or any of that shit. It was half the size of Fort Worth. My job was to keep it slick, so he gave me a big box of Ivory Snow detergent that looked like snowflakes and I’d go out and sprinkle that on the dance floor. Boy, you could slide across that sumbitch like it was an ice pond. And I’d help him pick up the beer bottles at night, and that’s how I got the gig. He’d had one bad leg, Jimmy did, God bless him, and all the waitresses were a bunch of idiots and they’d leave the place a mess. This club seats 500 people, big place. And Jimmy’s out there, dragging that one bad leg out there trying to pick up all these beer bottles and carry them out to the bar. I says, ‘Jimmy, you put them away. I’ll go get em.’ That’s how I got the job warming up acts like Ray Sharpe with my band. He’s losing business to the Rocket Club, so he says, ‘Jerry, what am I gonna do? Nobody’s coming to the club anymore.’ I said, ‘Jimmy, you need to book these black artists. The big dance now is the North Texas Push’, and it started up in Denton at the college, and these college kids are flipping out about this dance.’ He says, ‘Who do you have to book to get them to do that dance?’ I says, ‘They love Jimmy Reed–Jimmy Reed, Bobby Blue Bland, Ike and Tina Turner.’ He says, ‘Can you book these acts?’ Before I could even think about it, my mouth went ‘Yeah.’ So I went home and got out all the albums that everybody loved to dance to, and called the record label, and found out there managers, and called them up. Ike and Tina were about Eight Grand, Bobby Blue Bland Seven, and Jimmy Reed Six. All of them you had to send half the money up front. Jimmy said, ‘All right, let’s book ’em up. But who should we book first?’ I said, ‘Jimmy Reed. He is the God of North Texas Push, this is what everybody dances to.’ He gave me the money, I got him booked in.”
Miller: “Our house was very integrated. My dad was a doctor in Dallas and he had black lab technicians. He actually got arrested for having a race party, a Christmas party for everybody who worked in the pathology lab. It was like 4:30 in the afternoon, and cops came down and handcuffed him and everybody else, threw him in jail. In my family there were a lot of black people coming and going. T-Bone Walker used to come over to the house all the time, was a good friend of my father’s. My dad listened to all kinds of music, he was into recording music. He’d go into black Baptist churches and record Sister [Rosetta] Tharpe and people like that, he was recording those people for himself, just for his own collection. Anyone who was a good musician, my dad would end up knowing them. We had all of that music going on in our house all the time, but it seemed there was black music going on in everybody’s house. In a lot of ways the South was a lot hipper than the north, and in a lot of ways, it was a lot worse. The segregation part was terrible, but the two cultures crossed a lot. I started playing fraternity gigs when I was twelve years old. You had to play Bobby Blue Bland, you had to do Ray Charles, you had to do Little Walter, a little Muddy Waters, some Chuck Berry. Black music was all anybody was interested in. Even the white bands were playing black music. We were way ahead of the curve. When I was fourteen, my band backed up Jimmy Reed at Lou Ann’s It was amazing. It’s hard to believe. There weren’t any rock n roll bands. I think we were the second rock and roll band in Dallas, Mario Daboub and the Nightcaps and the Marksmen combo [Miller’s band] were the only two bands in Dallas for a really long time. We played Jimmy Reed tunes, so getting to play with him was interesting. We did this gig out at Lou Ann’s. It was Ben E. King and Jimmy Reed. We backed up Jimmy Reed, and he was sooooo drunk. I never really get to talk to him. I didn’t even think he was even going to be able to play. He was almost unconscious before he hit the stage. He had this black guy with him, who was sort of his roadie who ran the band, and we were just little kids wearing seersucker suits and Ray Charles sunglasses trying to be cool.” ***
CHOPS McClinton: “Jimmy Reed is a phenomenal lyricist. ‘Course you got to be able to understand what he’s saying. I took it real, real serious to try to understand that. I can’t think of one other person–Jimmy Reed is as unique as Bob Wills. Like with Bob Wills, you hear Bob Wills, you know it’s Bob Wills. It ain’t somebody else. Jimmy Reed, there’s just nobody sounds remotely like him.”
Meyer: “He had muscles. You ever see his arms? He’d take his shirt off. He was built.”
Dickinson: “Jimmy Reed, like Howlin’ Wolf, is a mystery. Because, A–what is he singing? –and B–what does it mean? The simplicity of what he appears to be doing musically, is again, another mystery. Like Chuck Berry, it appears to be this very simple musical thing that every white boy of a certain generation learned how to do. And it’s not. If you watch his hands, again like Chuck Berry, watch his hands, they’re basically the same riff. Chuck Berry played it in eighth notes and it became rock and roll. The same exact pattern, Jimmy Reed had been playing since God knows when. Which is a pattern. That’s why it became so accessible to a generation of white people. Chuck Berry plays it with all the eighth notes having the same value, like Billy Gibbons does. But Jimmy Reed plays it in a shuffle pattern, where the two eighth notes are divided. He also plays it slower. I went to Texas in 1960, assuming that music was over for me, that I was going to do something else. But in Texas, I found all these people who loved Jimmy Reed, so at the cast party–I was in theatre–wherever we were, we lived in this apartment on campus in Waco called the Catacombs. We had this unofficial group, the Catacombs Coon Hunters, which was me and this guy John Logan who later wrote ‘Jack Ruby, All-American Boy’, the musical that they did in Dallas, and this girl who later did dinner theater in Dallas named Sharon Bunn, used to read about her, we had a Jimmy Reed in Life pact that we’d do at various social functions. It seemed odd to me to be transplanted into this group of people who all loved Jimmy Reed. But then I did see the West Texas Push, the dance that everybody did to that particular rhythm in Texas. The feel for the music, the subtle laziness, the swing factor, whatever the drummer would tell you it was in that shuffle, and the tonality of his voice. There was a back of the throat, top of the head sub-nasal tonality. He sounded drunk. He sounded loose. He sounded funky. All those things that I liked. The thing about the lick, OK, it’s obviously ‘Honky Tonk’, until you get to the five chord, which would be B7 if you’re playing the lead, the turnaround, the blues pattern. Then, Jimmy Reed does something. He plays this thing, this riff, instead of the five chord, that eluded me for twenty years, I guess, until Keith Richard showed me backstage at the Astrodome. ‘This is the way you do it.’ And it is. That takes it across the fuckin’ ocean to another bunch of white boys, another place, hearing his mysterious drunken sound. Mystery is a real important part of it too because it was, and is, remains mysterious, that music pattern. In a way a lot of other blues singers don’t get to. Howlin’ Wolf, certainly, is a more drastic example, but that same sense of mystery is attached to Jimmy Reed. He’s from somewhere else. And it is ensemble playing. He has a band and they are in the pocket, a way few other bands ever get to. And it sounds like morons playing on boxes, but it is in this unbelievable groove. The bass is being played by a guitar, and they’re all out of tune. The harmonica by nature of its existence. They’re at least drunk, if not more, and yet somehow, it comes together in this pulse that talked to a generation of white kids in a way nobody white was doing. As a musician, it gives you a workable pattern, cause if you can’t play it right, at least you can play it wrong and get by. They were playing on Silvertones and Kays. There weren’t any Les Pauls or Stratocasters.”
Miller: “There aren’t a lot of people who know Jimmy Reed cold. Everybody thinks they do, but they don’t even have a clue. All my rhythm guitar playing comes from Jimmy Reed records. Taj Mahal taught me the final ultissimo licks and put it all together for me. The simplicity of Jimmy Reed stuff and his band and what they did is just so natural, it’s great.” ***
REVELATION: McClinton: “One thing, Jimmy worked a lot, he was on the road. He worked a lot, and I can only assume that everywhere else was like Texas. The college kids just fuckin’ loved him. I think it was because he was so unique. I know what an impact he made on me. My parents didn’t give me shit [for liking Reed], they just didn’t understand it. ‘Course I was way far gone into it before knew what I was doing. My parents never did try to stop me. They worried the hell a lot about me. You can imagine my parents coming from where they came from [Lubbock] and all of sudden rock and roll comes along and then their little boy’s listening to mmmrrruhhuhwuhwuhwuh [making a guttural sound somewhere between a Reed vocal and a mouth harp], just low-down shit. I played a lot of black clubs back in the late fifties and early sixties, and never ever one time did we catch any shit. ‘Course we were there with the fuckin’ star, too, and we were playing the music pretty damn good. And at this point, everybody in the world wasn’t doing it. There weren’t that many good bands that could supply, and do it well. All the white folks–I mean, let’s define which white folks we’re talking about. The white folks that came out to the club, they were all into it. And at that time, it was a real novelty for a lot of people to hang out with black people. So, a lot of times, people would try to come through me or other guys in the band to get close to these guys. You know, we’d be their window into hanging with them, because we were backing them up. I remember another night, at Jack’s Place, Jimmy Reed and Buster Brown. This is right when I started getting into these guys. I had harmonicas in hand, and I was determined to take every opportunity to learn something from these guys. So, before the show ever even started, I’m in the dressing room with Buster Brown and Jimmy Reed, and they’re passing a fifth of Old Granddad whisky back and forth between ’em. And I’m like twenty, twenty one, couldn’t drink [legally], but I’m getting that bottle double, I’m in the middle so I’m getting it twice for every time they’re getting it once. Never saw the show. Never even made it to the opening fuckin’ note, man. I was drunk and passed out in the office at Jack’s Place. I know that Jimmy Reed music was the most popular thing that we got requests for, because people could do the Push to it. And anytime he was in town, all the Push people, which during a particular few years there was like a religion, as is now the Shag in North Carolina, which is very, very similar, whole lot of the same steps. Hell, I worked down there and people have got gold chains around their neck with SHAG written in gold, I mean they live it, you know. That’s how my popularity grew in the Carolinas, because I was doing all that old music there, this guys comes from Texas, and I’m doing all this music. Hell, there was a period of years back when I didn’t have anything going, North and South Carolina kept me alive. And I’m still a big item down there. I’ve got fans down there that’d take a bullet for me, because like they shag to this music. The Push, in my opinion, is a much classier, more interesting dance than the Shag, but basically it’s the same thing. Between him and Sonny Boy, that’s how I learned to play. I’d say how’d you do that? Course you couldn’t see anything they were doing. It’s hard to say how he taught me. I wanted to know, and I had multiple opportunities to be sitting knee to knee with him and listen to him play. By doing that, I’d try to copy him. ‘Course at the same time, I also developed my own style, so it was a good thing. I knew I was in a good place at the time. He was always gracious. He didn’t give me too much shit. Any time you ask him something, he was available, unless he was stoned out of his mind or he was chasing women. He did whine a lot. I think that’s why he liked to have that one-eyed bass player with him. He was a pure artist.”
Meyer: “The only guy I know who can sing like Jimmy Reed today is Rocky Morales.”
Dickinson: “When I was writing for music for Ry Cooder doing movie soundtracks, we did ‘Streets of Fire’, it was all futuristic fifties music like Link Wray stuff. He wanted some kind of Jimmy Reed thing. Cooder, the way we used to do things, he’d cut a band track, then he gave it to me to write words to. It was pretty good for where we were and what we were doing, it was pretty Jimmy Reed-esque. It was Cooder and Tim Drummond and Jim Keltner. I sitting in the Miramar hotel in Santa Monica, trying to write words to this thing. I had a couple of verses, I had an idea going. But Jimmy Reed, there was always that one line hook that had any number of vague meanings, specific and universal and all that literary stuff, and I had to have one of those lines. The way I worked with Cooder. I was in the hotel room and had on headphones and a small tape recorder, I’d just play the band track over and over and write words. I’ve heard other people talk about hearing voices in their head, but never happened to me before or since .but I swear to you as I’m sitting here now, I heard the voice of Jimmy Reed in my head, sing the entire hook line and I just wrote it down. Which is ‘You got what you wanted but I got what you need tonight.’ I heard the voice of Jimmy Reed sing it into my ear. I promise you. Jimmy Reed paid the price for being Jimmy Reed. He obviously drank himself to death and he didn’t and couldn’t take care of business. But the thing to remember, it’s hard to keep in context now with the commercialization of rock and roll, is that it was not popular music. It is now. But it wasn’t then. The blues never was popular, it’s a complaint, it’s a bitch, it’s a gripe. Robert Johnson never played for more than fifty people at one time in his career, but the music of Robert Johnson, inexplicably it will not go away. And so it is with Jimmy Reed. He’s singing about the human condition. He was obviously not an establishment figure. He was talking back to the boss man: ‘You’re just tall, that’s all.’ Read his lyrics and tell me it’s not poetry. ‘Baby What You Want Me To Do’, which if you write it out appears to make sense on two or three different levels, if you closely analyze it really doesn’t make any sense at all. Everybody thinks they know what it’s about and it’s not about anything. ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ is the same thing, it’s such a simple one line idea it means anything: ‘Bright lights, big city went to my baby’s head’ fucking says it! That’s the whole story.”
Williams: ” I got Jimmy to teach me how to play guitar.”
Miller: ” See, Jimmy sold a lot of records. He probably sold more records than Muddy Waters and Little Walter or those guys in Chicago. In my world, Jimmy Reed had hits. ‘Big Boss Man’ was a big hit. ‘Goin’ To New York’, ‘Honest I Do’. Just one after another. Those were hits that were played on the radio. The radio back then did play a lot of black music. Then about 1960 it got all screwed up. When WLS and Dick Biondi and those guys in Chicago and those guys in the East Coast, we used to laugh our asses off at Fabian and people like that, they were junk. That was manufactured bullshit. Jimmy Reed was real. When I was thirteen, I spent one summer in Florida and played in a band. The same thing was going on. Bands were integrating stuff and it was touch and go. Sometimes there’d be trouble, most of the time there wasn’t. I grew up in an integrated world, so to me, it seemed weird when people were trying to segregate things. At the same time, I didn’t know any black people as equals until I went to college, and I went up to the University of Wisconsin. They were the first guys I met that were as smart as me, who weren’t yard men or something, like it was in the South, especially in Texas. I think the music really broke down those barriers. You talk about Martin Luther King, I was a freedom rider, and I was in SNCC [The Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee]. I was very involved in civil rights after I got out of Texas because I that felt segregation was really bullshit. It was Jimmy Reed and T-Bone Walker and Martin Luther King for me, really and truly. The music definitely broke down the barriers way before the law did or before Martin Luther King did. Guys like Jimmy Reed were making people think. A lot of people weren’t thinking of it in terms of race and segregation, they weren’t thinking about it at all, except they liked the music and danced to it and they got down to it.” ***
Austin Chronicle BY JOE NICK PATOSKI November 8, 2002
There’s an inherent flaw to creating a Texas Top 40 using Billboard as the source: Billboard didn’t (and still doesn’t) have a clue. According to Billboard, Mouse & the Traps, the Tyler, Texas, band that paid homage to Bob Dylan with “Public Execution,” later immortalized on the Nuggets punk retrospective, didn’t even exist. In Austin, Ray Campi’s “Caterpillar,” the Slades’ “You Cheated,” and Roky Erickson’s first band the 13th Floor Elevators’ “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” also acknowledged on Nuggets, Vol. 1, were all radio hits. The Moving Sidewalks, Billy Gibbons’ first band, garnered loads of Houston AM radio airplay with their psychedelic single, “99th Floor,” alongside the Elevators and Fever Tree’s “San Francisco Girls.” Rene & Rene’s bilingual belly-rubber “Believe Me” got so much South Texas airplay that they were radio gods. So, my Texas Top 40 is offered with considerable hesitation. You may think Christopher Cross was somebody because Billboard recognized “Ride Like the Wind” and “Sailing.” I find another local San Antonio chart-topper, Sonny Ace y Los Twisters, who was doing Rock en Español before there was a name for it back in the mid-Sixties, far more significant, not to mention spiritually nourishing. Any chart that doesn’t have room for Jimmy Dee’s “Henrietta,” the Triumphs’ “Garner State Park” (before B.J. Thomas went solo), Bruce Channel’s follow-up to “Hey Baby” — “Going Back to Louisiana” — isn’t really an accurate barometer at all.
Songwriter helps lead the fight against development
The Dallas Morning News BY JOE NICK PATOSKI December 12, 2003
EL PASO – Tom Russell can lay claim as the “last” singer-songwriter in Texas. That’s because he lives in a historic 70-year-old adobe home on 3 acres within spitting distance of the New Mexico state line.
The Los Angeles native, whose folk songs have been covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Nanci Griffith and K.D. Lang, has lived in many corners of the world – Nigeria in wartime, Austin as it was emerging as a music scene, San Francisco and Brooklyn. But he now lives in the far end of far West Texas by choice.
The rural area is known as the Upper Valley, a swath of green bordering both sides of the Rio Grande for a mile or two as it meanders through the Chihuahuan Desert. The rugged western flank of the Franklin Mountains, the southern end of the Rockies that end in the heart of the city, provides a scenic backdrop.
“This is the last oasis in West Texas,” says Mr. Russell, 55. “It’s a refuge for heron, desert tortoises, egrets, raccoons, skunks, badgers, you name it. I have foxes walking through my yard every day.”
But the days of Mr. Russell’s idyllic retreat may be numbered. Progress in the form of two-story stucco houses built to their lot lines – crammed into subdivisions, five to eight homes per acre – are marching his way at a fast pace, with requests by developers for city zoning variances leading the way.
The first skirmish came last year when Mr. Russell and five of his neighbors managed to reroute massive overhead power lines that were proposed to run directly over their homes.
A controlled access highway completed two years ago to link Interstate 10 with Santa Teresa, N.M., has been a magnet attracting subdivisions, which in turn are attracting commercial developments.
Farming on plots of land less than 100 acres was already in decline in the Upper Valley, as it is everywhere in the United States. The sandy river-bottom soil is certainly productive enough. But the cost of planting, growing and harvesting crops, and increased competition from other countries add up to food and fibers being grown somewhere else.
Factor in what Mr. Russell sees as a city leadership overly supportive of growth and development at the expense of residents, and the Upper Valley becomes vulnerable. It is one of the few green spaces remaining in the metro area.
Yet those who support growth and development say that El Pasoans need housing and that it is being provided under the rules and guidelines set forth.
“Ownership of property is one of our basic rights in America, and it cannot be vulnerable to opposition without good cause,” says Rex Smith, a landowner who purchased Upper Valley property a year ago and immediately sought a zoning variance from the City Planning Commission. “Progress happens, and it cannot be stopped.”
Susan Austin, the City Council member who represents the Upper Valley, pushed for lower-density housing rules after initial protests. But she – along with the majority of the council – also voted to approve Mr. Smith’s application for higher-density housing. That has prompted one of Mr. Russell’s neighbors to mount a recall campaign of Ms. Austin.
Even if she has been the object of much wrath, Ms. Austin calls the activism of Mr. Russell and his neighbors “as passionate as any neighborhood group in my district.”
But she pointedly adds that they should put their money where their mouths are. “A lot of people want to preserve the idea of having a ranch-size homestead without having bought a ranch-size homestead, including Tom Russell, ” Ms. Austin says.
“Some of the people all over me don’t even live in the city. They live in the county” – outside the city limits. “The city can regulate. There are no zoning restrictions at all in the county.”
Mr. Russell came to El Paso seeking the same sort of inspiration that artists such as Tom Lea and Luis Jimenez and writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Benjamin Saenz have mined so well. “He always loved places like this,” says his sister Nan Lazzaretto, a schoolteacher.
Mr. Russell’s home is a hideout of sorts, in the outlaw tradition, tucked behind a wall of trees, high brush and cane that suddenly materializes among the fields of cotton, chili peppers, pecan plantations and pastoral horse farms that define the Upper Valley way of life.
“I love that there is no scene here,” he says as he doffs his cowboy hat to reveal a head of graying, wavy hair. “I don’t have to worry about being seen.”
Unlike Brooklyn, where he lived for almost 20 years before moving here six years ago, “people here are pleasant and neighborly,” he says.
“Downtown El Paso is like a movie set. It’s like things have never changed. I love being close to Mexico. I love the history. The Old Spanish Road up to Santa Fe is right down here. I grew up on Marty Robbins’ ‘El Paso’ and the tales of gunfighters.” As it happens, Rosa’s Cantina is not too far down the road.
Sometimes friends stop in. Dave Alvin drops by whenever he’s on his way from his home in Los Angeles to gigs in the southern United States. So does Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
A few years back, Mr. Russell hosted a border-town birthday bash for songwriter and visual artist Terry Allen that drew a gaggle of like-minded professional dreamers. Not everyone gets it. The late folk legend Dave Van Ronk, whose last recording was backing up Mr. Russell, likened El Paso’s dry summer heat to being “in a pizza oven.”
Mr. Russell started writing, singing and playing originals more than 30 years ago, inspired by hearing his older brother sing cowboy songs and seeing Bob Dylan perform “Desolation Row” at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964.
He taught criminology in Nigeria from 1969-70 during the Biafran war , then followed friends he made in Africa to Vancouver, British Columbia. A band performing Hank Williams songs on Skid Row moved him to think: “That’s the job for me.” He landed in Austin in 1974 during that city’s nascent era as a music scene. Later, he drifted to San Francisco before landing in Brooklyn in the early ’80s.
He shifted his focus to writing (“I’m a frustrated novelist,” he says) and drove cabs to pay the bills. When he sang a song he’d written called “Gallo del Cielo” to one fare – the composer Robert Hunter, who collaborates with the Grateful Dead – he was encouraged to get back on stage.
Life in El Paso has suited him just fine. His adobe hacienda is filled with Mexican pickled-pine furniture and folk art. He just finished an open, Mexican-style patio. He has incorporated the landscape and local history into his work.
The critic John Swenson called Mr. Russell’s ambitious 1999 song cycle The Man From God Knows Where as “close to a Homeric treatment of American history as we’re ever likely to see.” Two years ago, he released Borderland, which includes “When Sinatra Played Juarez,” a song inspired by his ex-girlfriend’s uncle.
The uncle, who found the house Mr. Russell lives in, used to play piano across the border when Juarez was a hotbed for quickie Mexican divorces. The location also satisfies Mr. Russell’s jones for bullfighting and his love of the border, although twice he’s found himself caught in the crossfire of warring drug gangs in Juarez.
Mostly, though, Mr. Russell’s place offers refuge from a steady touring schedule that over the past half-year has taken him to Ireland, the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Calgary and Edmonton in western Canada, and across the United States from Oregon to Maine – including an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman, backed by Nanci Griffith in support of his latest album, Modern Art.
Mr. Russell and five neighbors have won some small victories in their effort to ward off more developments. Last summer, they successfully lobbied the City Planning Commission to reduce zoning density from R3A zoning, which allows up to eight homes per acre, to R2A, meaning lots can accommodate no more than five homes per acre.
That may be the best outcome possible, says Elma Carreto, the chairwoman of the Planning Commission. She says she sympathizes with Mr. Russell and insists the commission’s goal is to make sure planned developments conform to the existing area.
She says existing infrastructure, including roads, bridges, police, firefighters and schools, are not prepared to handle the traffic that 2,500 new homes bearing families will bring. But she can go only so far, she says.
While Mr. Russell’s songs classify him as a folkie, he is not known for political broadsides. His body of work tends to speak to larger philosophical issues, such as aging and loneliness. That makes his anti-development activism all the more unusual. “I don’t have any political bent,” he explains. “I don’t write protest songs.”
Instead, he has written letters, called the local chapter of the Sierra Club (the voice on the other end of the line urged him to play at a weekly meeting), attended planning commission and council meetings, and spoken out. “This is not a left-wing or right-wing argument – it’s right or wrong,” he says.
“There’s no real plan for this area. They just want to develop here while the interior of the city begs to be redeveloped. The leaders don’t see the big picture. They just want to develop, develop and develop until there isn’t anywhere left. We don’t need another 7-Eleven. There’s a Circle K a quarter-mile down the road. Lowe’s and McDonald’s will be next. The prognosis is pretty sad.
“You don’t do this to farmland. You don’t do this to your children. It’s corrupt thinking.”
His heels are dug in deep. “I’ll take my stand here,” he says. “Maybe import some donkeys and ducks and pigs, and no one will want to live next to me. I’m talking with some folks about buying up some land to keep it in farming. Other than that, I’m planting a lot of trees.”
The dilemma has moved him to also do what he does best. “I’m thinking about writing a song about all this,” he says. “Only it’s going to be from the point of view of a fox.”