It has been a cold, rough winter even here in Mississippi. But things are heating up fast in the blues world. Festival season is getting rolling and there are a slew of great new releases coming out. In fact, three of our featured artists have new releases just out or coming soon.
Cover artist Billy Branch is now one of the elders of the Chicago blues harp scene, but it has been 11 years since his last recording. As Branch put it, “I knew what I didn’t want to do. I just didn’t know what I did want to do.” So Branch spent his time playing live and writing songs and thinking about what he wanted to do next. The result is a mature, well-thought-out, well-written collection of 11 songs that tell stories and honor some of the people in his life who have mattered the most. The centerpiece song on the album is Going to See Miss Gerri One More Time, a song about his “godmother” Gerri Oliver, the proprietor of the famous Palm Tavern in Chicago. The Palm Tavern opened in the 1930s in Chicago and was one of the top gathering places for African Americans during the middle part of the century. Not a blues bar, but an upscale place to see and be seen. Branch’s touching ode to the club’s second owner tells the story of a lost piece of Chicago history.
Southern Illinois bluesman Rip Lee Pryor also has a new recording on the horizon. Pryor is the son of blues legend Snooky Pryor and is mostly performing now as a solo act playing guitar and harmonica. Rip Lee played in several family bands, some with and some without his father, but just as his career was getting rolling a battle with cancer put the brakes on. Healthy and back on track, Pryor is one of the most exciting “newcomers” on the scene today.
Eighty-one-year-old Leo “Bud” Welch is another exciting “newcomer.” Welch, from Bruce, Mississippi (on the edge of the hill country), began performing as a teenager, playing in various groups at local clubs and house parties and on radio shows but also worked in the lumber industry for over 50 years. By the mid-1970s he had shifted his musical focus to gospel but still retained his interest in blues. Welch is a wonderful example of the living tradition of the blues that goes on right under our noses, often without us ever having a clue it is there.
We continue the case of the Willies this issue. Last issue featured an article unraveling Casey Bill Weldon, and here Gayle Dean Wardlow recounts his more than 40-year journey on the trail of Delta blues mystery Willie Brown. With the help of Randy Meadows, Wardlow shines new light on the life of one of the biggest biographical mysteries in early blues.
Sparked by our Casey Bill Weldon story in the last issue money has been raised to place a tombstone on Weldon’s grave. An event announcing the tombstone will be held in Kansas City in February.
Boogie Jake, the subject of last issue’s Lost Blues Files, died on December 6—the same day the issue of LB with his story in it arrived at his home. His wife told writer Gene Tomko that she showed him the issue and his article but doesn’t know if he knew it or not. A sad ending to an exciting rediscovery in the blues.
On a personal note, one of my best friends in the blues died on December 7. I first met Chick Willis in the late 1980s and went on to do our first feature story on him in 1999, interviewing him at his home in Georgia. Chick was a delight to be around. Always smiling and laughing in an impish sort of way, with just a twinkle of mischief in his eye, Chick was a master showman and carried the tradition of “The Dozens” on into the 21st century with the performance of his hit Stoop Down at his live shows. Every few months I’d come home to find a message on my answering machine saying “Hey Britt (Chick never did get that it was “Brett”) this is Chick…just calling to say hello and see what was up.” I’d call back and we would talk blues business and laugh about life. I’ll miss those talks and the laughter we shared together.
Brett J. Bonner