Up until 1966 my connections with old-time blues had been mostly in collecting blues records and going to concerts and festivals. In the ’50s and ’60s I managed to see live a good many important treasures of that music, including Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Son House, Jesse Fuller, B.B. King, Willie Thomas and Butch Cage, Fred McDowell, Elizabeth Cotton, Bukka White, Mance Lipscomb, Little Willie Littlefield, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Pete Williams, Furry Lewis, Big Joe Turner, Mercy Dee Walton, Lonnie Johnson, T Bone Walker, and others. I even went with some friends to South Carolina to meet and visit with old time bluesman Pink Anderson. But, it wasn’t until 1966 when local collector Ken Swerilas brought Mississippi bluesman Sam Chatmon out to San Diego for a stay that I really got connected with the blues.
Sam was easy to know and he and I hit it off immediately. He was full of stories about the early days of blues recordings and traveling and playing music with his brothers and cousins in various family bands including the Mississippi Sheiks, Chatmon’s Mississippi Hot Footers, the Mississippi Mudsteppers, the Chatmon Brothers, and others. Sam had 12 musical brothers in the immediate family band (the Mississippi Sheiks, which included brothers Harry, Edgar, Lonnie, Bo, neighbor Walter Vincent, and others); cousins Joe and Charlie McCoy played with Sam in the Mudsteppers and with Charlie on mandolin and Sam playing back up guitar, they did lots of parties. Sam also had two other cousins who played music. Peter Chatmon (aka Memphis Slim) and Robert McCollum (later know as Robert Lee McCoy and, finally, as Robert Nighthawk) and Sam played bass or backup guitar with both on occasion. He also did revival gospel shows with Robert’s mother’s tent shows. She made records as Mother McCollum. Sam was the lyrics writer for the family band For the family band along with his brother Lonnie (who did the music) wrote such blues standards as “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” “Corrina Corrina,” and a bunch of others. Most often, Sam and Lonnie never got any credit even for their own recording of a tune much less anyone else’s.
I’d book Sam up and down the West Coast when he was out here and I thought Jackson, Mississippi blues was going to be my specialty, but it was only a year after I opened my store (Folk Arts Rare Records) in 1967 that Thomas Shaw walked in looking for guitar strings. Shaw was from Brennam, Texas and had learned to play guitar in the late 1920s from Blind Lemon Jefferson. He was a walking library of Texas blues, having played with Ramblin’ Thomas, J.T. “Funny Papa” Smith, Texas Alexander, and Willie “Little Brother” Lane. He also played some with a very young Mance Lipscomb. Thomas Shaw was a major find and with both Sam and Shaw to work with I was soon writing articles for Living Blues and England’s Blues Unlimited and was talking with record companies like Yazoo, BlueGoose, and Advent about getting these guys recorded (John Fahey and I recorded Sam in Ken Swerilas’s living room for that first Blue Goose LP, now long out of print. Frank Scott came down and recorded Shaw for Advent in the back room at Folk Arts Rare Records, which was reissued on Testament on CD, also now out of print). I was also well into doing folk festivals in those days. Sam played at the third festival and Shaw at the fourth. When Shaw played he brought along piano man Robert Jeffery who turned out to be a first cousin of T Bone Walker and grew up with him in Oklahoma. Like Shaw, Bob came out to San Diego in the mid ’30s and along with being a top flight mechanic played piano in San Diego clubs during the ’40s and ’50s. I featured Bob at the fifth festival and by then we were doing concerts at the store, so on any given Friday and Saturday night all three of them in any combination might be playing. Bob and Shaw also brought Bonnie Jefferson down with them to one of the store shows. She was from West Arkansas (out in the country between Little Rock and Fort Smith) bringing a songster element to her blues (she did some real old stuff). By the early and mid-’70s folks were starting to talk about these country blues guys in San Diego. Sam was getting invited to the East Coast festivals and got recorded by Alan Lomax in a film; he also did albums for Flying Fish (recorded at Folk Arts), an Italian label (recorded at his home in Hollendale, Mississippi), and Mark Wilson and I recorded him for Rounder Records. Meanwhile, Thomas Shaw made a record for Blue Goose (who also recorded but never issued Robert Jeffery, and Bonnie Jefferson), and did a tour of Europe (where he managed to record an LP for the Dutch Blues Beacon label).
In the early ’70s Tomcat Courtney and Henry Ford Thompson entered the picture, as did Louis Major from the Bahamas (Tomcat was from Waco, Texas, and Ford from Memphis). Frank Scott got all these folks together and did an LP called San Diego Blues Jam for his Advent label (later reissued on CD for Testament). The scene continued with a couple of dynamite country blues festivals in 1979 and 1980 that featured a lot of local blues and gospel, featuring all of the above plus others like Curry Lee Pigg, Sister Helen Sanders and her Family, Winifred Stewart, Brother Jerone Lee and his Sanctified Sax, the Fro Brigham Preservation Band with Jessie Wilkins Jr., Les Gumbs, Sister Charlie May Ralph and Family, James Earl Wilkins, and others.
The scene continued with the blues getting more modern and the old timers leaving us until now. Of that original group only Bonnie Jefferson (who doesn’t play anymore) and Tomcat Courtney (who still plays a lot) are still with us. Oh, yes, I’m still here too with a lot of wonderful memories of old friends and teachers, whose music continues to inspire me.
Note: Reprinted from the July 2003 issue of the San Diego Troubadour.