Had anyone told Jim O'Neal and Amy van Singel, back in 1970 when they started Living Blues magazine, that it would still be going some 30 years later, it's almost a certainty that they'd have doubted you. O'Neal and van Singel met at Northwestern University in 1968 and soon found they shared a common thread; both were serious blues enthusiasts, and van Singel sported her own radio program, Atomic Mama's Wang-Dang-Doodle Blues Show. The pair married while the magazine was still in its first year, and in 1983, publishing duties were handed over to the University of Mississippi, although O'Neal stayed on as editor until 1987, the same year the husband/wife partnership ended. Living Blues has continued from the University of Mississippi, and has indeed outlived a number of other periodicals devoted to blues, both here and abroad.
One of the highpoints of Living Blues magazine over the years has been its lengthy and interesting interviews with a wide-ranging variety of both men and women. While other periodicals have used the same question and answer forum, Living Blues interviews have always run longer, and in turn, been far more interesting and informative than those of others. At over 400 pages, "The Voice of the Blues" collects a dozen reflective, humorous, and spellbinding discussions with both blues stars, and lesser-known sidemen, while some of them have been beefed-up with the inclusion of previously edited segments. Of the twelve interviews, two are done in pair format. Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon sat down with Kip Lornell, and later, with Jim O'Neal, as well as Little Walter and Louis Myers who bantered back and forth with Bill Lindemann, while Little Milton Campbell is the only survivor among the questioned artists here. Wherever possible, with ongoing research bringing new information to light, updates have been added; these include session details, record labels, and the dates, where known, of others who have since passed away (unfortunately, that relates to a rather large percentage of those who came up in conversation).
(Photo of Georgia Tom)
Following a foreward by Peter Guralnick, and O'Neal's introduction, the interviews begin with Georgia Tom Dorsey, who had a highly successful, although somewhat short-lived blues career, as a writer and publisher. After a partnership with Tampa Red, which led to some fine recordings, Dorsey left the blues life, devoting his incomparable skills as a songwriter to the church, and went on to become one of the most sought-after gospel writers of the past century. It is interesting to note that Dorsey "converted to this gospel song business in 1921," but it wasn't until 1932 that he took to directing a choir, seeing blues music on the decline. His recollections were sharp and his eloquence bursts from the pages. Estes and Nixon are close behind, and quite funny in their repartee, and beaming with pride when sharing the story of their 1964 American Folk Blues Festival appearance in Europe. While other performers on the bill seemed to garner polite applause from the crowd, it seems that this pair brought the house down at merely the mention of their names, as Nixon aptly explained; "They got up there and got to talking about these guys been lost, buried, and everything, but said now we have come back alive. The floor fell out of the building. Man, them folks went to tearing the place down. We really didn't have to do no playing none of them places, me and John didn't. Just that appearance - just call our name."
(Photo of Houston Stackhouse, far right, with Joe Willie Wilkins, Pinetop Perkins, Sonny Boy, announcer Hugh Smith, and Peck Curtis in 1944.)
Houston Stackhouse brings the Delta region to life in the more than 60 pages of captivating conversation he took part in with Jim O'Neal on a half-dozen occasions. While Stackhouse never received the accolades truly due him, he was a key player in the history of Delta Blues from the 1920's, until his death in 1980. He was a highly respected guitar player who, at the drop of a hat, was willing to share his knowledge with anyone who needed assistance. Stack's influence reached far and wide as he taught countless players his tricks and gimmicks, and knew just about everyone who passed through the neighboring communities where he lived and worked. His long association with Rice Miller, the second Sonny Boy Williamson, is especially interesting while he recounts his days as a King Biscuit Entertainer, and the many jobs he played with Peck Curtis, Willie Love, Pinetop Perkins, and Williamson, who was, in Stack's words, "...a terrible scound... if you didn't watch him close, he'd have all the money and be gone."And his story of Elmore James cracking a hole in the head of Williamson, with a handy microphone stand, is priceless. Over his long and sometimes arduous career, Stack played with Robert Nighthawk, Elmore, Tommy Johnson, Boyd Gilmore, CeDell Davis, and dozens of others, but passed on numerous chances to join the ranks of his friends, who recorded more often. While there is precious little of Houston Stackhouse as the brilliant guitar played he was, his memories of those around him are worth the price of the book alone!
Muddy Waters, who maintained "a wall of reserve," as Peter Guralnick stated, seemed to drop that protective layer when interviewed by O'Neal and van Singel, perhaps more than he did with others, and the 40+ pages where he is the center of attention, are particularly strong. Waters was the man, who almost single-handedly, changed the course of Chicago Blues, and brought its full power to the forefront of the music industry. His band seemed to be a launching pad for the many stalwarts that passed through its ranks, and without Muddy's strength and unselfish attitude, the lives of Otis Spann, Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter, Junior Wells, James Cotton, and countless others, might never have been quite so rewarding. The King of Chicago Blues calls back his plantation upbringing, his struggles to enter the circle of more-respected artists, and the glory days of the Windy City in the 1950's. With Muddy's passing in 1983, Jim O'Neal never got the chance to question him fully about his rise to international fame, or the praises heaped on him by many, including Johnny Winter, Eric Clapton, ZZ Top, the Rolling Stones, and others. O'Neal does point out that Muddy had grown tired of that line of questioning but relished the opportunity to go on at length about his younger days.
(Photo of Jimmy Reed)
Little Walter's hilarious and hair-raising desire to careen around Chicago, in a Lincoln minus all its doors, caused a few problems, and once resulted in Big Walter Horton being thrown from the car when it overturned... "I turned that thing over when me and Big Walter was together. I thought I'd killed him! We were runnin', goin' down Twenty-second Street, runnin' our mouth, when [before] I know anything, I'm up on top the thing, and the car turned over, and Walter out on the ground, and I'm trying to get out." Louis Myers, a longtime friend and playing partner, goes on at good length with Little Walter about harmonica blues, recording sessions, and much more. Sadly, Little Walter's time was nearing an end, and within a few short months of his only decent interview, he would die from injuries sustained in a street fight.
(Photo of Freddy King)
John Lee Hooker, Eddie Boyd, and T-Bone Walker, all have plenty of space and impart incredible stories of their time, be it childhood memories, their dawning years as musicians, and their ascent up the ladder of blues greats. Jimmy Reed, once a true blues star, suffered in later years with alcoholism and seizures, and seemed to have a few problems going back to better times, his association with Vee Jay Records, Eddie Taylor, and other friends. There are also short talks with Freddie King, Esther Phillips, and Little Milton, which round out the book keenly, and although Howlin' Wolf is listed on the back as another who is included, his interview does not appear.
Two versions of this book are available; the cost-effective paperback at $24.95, and the cost-prohibitive library edition, in cloth, at $95.00 (suggested retail), and both are adorned with great pictures. Blues is now seeing an interest that perhaps no one envisioned, and aside from the 1940's and 50's, when recording was at an all-time high, we can rejoice at finding so much available to us. There are more books, guides, and biographies than ever before, all with blues as a main topic of discussion, and due soon, are biographies on Little Walter Jacobs and slide guitar legend, Elmore James. A virtual warehouse of interviews reside in the blues archives at the University of Mississippi, thanks to the efforts of Jim O'Neal, Amy van Singel, and others, and if sales of "The Voice of the Blues" reach the heights deserved, perhaps we can look forward to another amazing journey like this one. "The Voice of the Blues" is a riveting read laced with humor, extensive history, and oft-forgotten people who will never be more than a short sidenote, regardless of their contributions. Strongly recommended! O'Neal is also planning an archival project, and those with interviews and other materials, or anyone wishing to help, can send email to: Rooster232@aol.com
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