We all make choices in life. We follow a path with no guarantee that it will lead to fame and fortune.
Georgia bluesman Roy Lee Johnson followed his path. Johnson has a great voice, he is a fabulous guitar player, and he writes killer songs. So good, in fact, that the Beatles covered his Mister Moonlight in 1964 and both Albert Collins and Roy Buchanan recorded his When a Guitar Plays the Blues. Johnson was a member of Atlanta’s hottest band, Dr. Feelgood and the Interns, played briefly with the Ohio Untouchables (who later became the Ohio Players), recorded as a solo artist at the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals in its heyday, and later for Stax Records in Memphis. But still fame eluded him. He struggled with bandleaders, label owners, and publishing rights. He had all the talent, but stardom just didn’t happen.
Chicagoan Johnny Drummer chose to be a drummer, at least at first, and in the 1960s very few drummers were stars. His band, the Starliters, included Mac Arnold, Lefty Dizz, Nick Charles, Willie Mabon, and Junior Wells at times in the mid-1960s and backed big-name front men for years. In 1966 he was even offered a job playing bass with Muddy Waters, but he declined saying, “Well, you know, I got this day job, man, a city job.” Another choice. Drummer chose to stay in the city, but he has had an active and prolific musical career none-the-less.
Vernon Garrett has had a musical career full of choices. He started in gospel in the early 1950s with the Faithful Wonders and then later the Swan Silvertones. He switched to the booming R&B market in the late 1950s and scored his biggest hits there in the late 1960s. Over the last three decades Garrett has chosen to build a reputation on the chitlin’ circuit and overseas.
South Mississippi–based Tommie “T-Bone” Pruitt made his choices too. Though Pruitt has played the blues all his life he chose to work a day job and raise a family rather than run the roads as a touring bluesman. At 81, Pruitt has never recorded but still plays a regular gig at a local club just like he has for most of the last 60 years. It may seem surprising that in 2014 we are still “discovering” unrecorded blues talent deep in the back roads of Mississippi, but we are. Pruitt, Leo “Bud” Welch, and L.C. Ulmer are all octogenarian bluesmen who have been playing music their entire lives, flying under the radar, doing their thing in their own communities, unnoticed by blues fans for decades.
We visit (and re-visit) three prewar blues figures in this issue. Dan Beaumont tells of his discovery of 98-year-old Casselha Knox, a woman from Mississippi living in Rochester, New York, who knew both Son House and Willie Brown among others.
Henry “Son” Simms recorded with Charley Patton and Muddy Waters, but until just recently the whereabouts of his gravesite has remained a mystery. Amazingly, his headstone has been hiding in plain sight all along.
I want to announce a special issue of Living Blues coming this fall. In a partnership with the Mississippi Development Authority Division of Creative Economy and Culture we will be producing a special issue of the magazine focusing on the Mississippi Blues Trail and all of the exciting places to explore in Mississippi while following the trail. We look forward to bringing you a guide to exploring the birthplace of the blues.
Don’t forget to VOTE in the 2014 Living Blues awards! Go to www.LivingBlues.com and click on the “Vote” button today. Last year we had over 5,000 votes. Help us garner even more votes for your favorite blues artists this year.
Brett J. Bonner