But for every one of these established Bluesmen who plays the Fillmore there are hundreds of beautiful musicians who play 6 hours a night, seven nights a week on Chicago's South Side. While Cream and Eric Clapton rake in $10,000 for one show, J. B. Hutto plays all night at Peppers Lounge and goes to work in a body shop in the morning to make payments on his guitar and feed his kids. You've probably never heard of J. B. Hutto but superstars like Clapton and Butterfield have and they know that without Hutto and hundreds of anonymous Bluesmen like him there would be no Blues, not to mention a Blues revival.
But lets go back about 10 years to the South Side of Chicago and some of the original stuff played by the men who made the Blues revival possible. The list of unsung heroes of the Blues is endless; but I have chosen to emphasize 3 of my favorites--keyboard man Otis Spann, Harp man Sonny Boy Williamson, and slide guitar man Elmore Jones.
Of these only Otis Spann is still living. Spann is the keyboard man and co-leader of the legendary Muddy Waters Blues Band. I saw them at the Jazz Workshop about a month ago. Since Muddy likes to take it easy these days and the crowd was sparse, Spann did most of the singing. Spann lived a lot of his life in Mississippi and his singing and piano style reflect his past. His Southern accent is heavy and his voice is a mixture of pain and suffering--and the ironic sense of humor which is essential to the Blues. His style is relaxed and easy. One of his show piece numbers is called "My Home is in the Delta" and can be heard on his Bluesway Album, The Blues is Where its At; Spann sings:
My home is in the Delta--you know way out there on the lonesome road
I'm leaving Chicago and lord I hate to do
I'm leaving the morning child and I won't be back no more
You know my baby she don't know the shape I'm in
Lord I ain't had no loving in lord I don't know when
Women ask where I'm going, you tell her where I've been.
This song is in the classical Chicago style. Spann sings about his woman who mistreated him and plays lead on the piano, being backed up by Muddy Waters on bottleneck guitar and George Smith's harp, and the rest of the band. The mood created is mournful and sad, but determined. Spann's voice expresses the stoic posture so characteristic of the Blues; and his piano style is slow and shuffling as if expressing the long lonesome journey he is beginning in the song.
Sonny Boy Williamson died in 1965 and can only be heard on record. Many Blues musicians believe Williamson was the greatest harpman in the Blues. He wrote and recorded what may be the most moving Blues song of all time," Help Me." This song has been recorded by many of the popular groups of the Blues revival but it's Williamson's song and it expresses the quintessence of the Blues. Sonny Boy sings:
Help me baby I can't make it by myself You got to help me I can't make it by myself If you don't help me baby I'll have to find somebody else.
The lyrics are complemented by an insistently rhythmic organ and Sonny Boy's incredible crying harmonica. The combination of the lyrics and the music creates sadness, loneliness, and despair--the Blues--and yet the sound of his slashing harp and insistent flowing rhythm section indicate that despite his blues Sonny boy can still swing and by singing and playing the Blues he is able to transcend his blues.
One of Sonny Boy's sidemen and perhaps the most underrated Bluesman of the post war era was singer-guitarist Elmore Jones. Indicative of his anonymity is the fact that it is virtually impossible to get his albums in the United States (though some are now being imported from England). Elmore Jones played slide guitar. This means that he used a special open string tuning in D or G, with a metal ring of some kind on his little finger. Recently an English group led by Peter Green, Fleetwood Mac, have recorded albums in which they do exact copies of some of James' greatest songs. Also, Mike Bloomfield did some excellent slide guitar work on the first Butterfield album and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones used it on "King Bee." But these are all only weak imitations.
Elmore James not only invented the electric slide style, but he also sang with a powerful hoarse, shouting style which just can't be imitated.