When Little Sonny took a train north from Alabama and moved to Detroit in 1953, he arrived to find a bustling blues music scene.
“It was popular,” said Little Sonny, 80, known as the “King of the Blues Harmonica.” “As a matter of fact, mostly all the clubs that you would go to had blues music.
|Little Sonny performs at the Anti-Freeze Blues Festival|
at the Magic Bag in Ferndale in January 2011. (Joe Ballor/Daily Tribune)
“You could go to Club Carribe, you could go to the Apex, you could go to the Bank Bar, you could go to Henry’s Lounge. There were all kind of places you could go to. There were (blues) bars all over Detroit.”
In the decades since, the local blues scene has seen its ups and downs. Right now, it is on a downswing.
It’s not for a lack of talent. There just aren’t very many venues currently featuring live blues music.
“I don’t think there is much of a scene now, like there used to be,” said blues musician Motor City Josh, who first came on the scene in the early 1990s when many of Detroit’s legendary blues musicians were still active. “There a couple of bright spots, I think people are trying to keep it going, but not as many people are going out as there used to be, to listen to this kind of music.”
Many factors have contributed to the downturn in live blues music venues, including the economic recession and the no-smoking laws.
|Motor City Josh (Photo by Mike Klewicki)|
“The talent is still there, but the club scene is in free fall, because of the enforcement of the more severe alcohol laws that have been passed over the years, and the non-smoking laws,” said Mike Boulan, who runs Detroit’s independent blues label No Cover Records. “People are afraid to go out and drink, and when they do, they won’t stay out past midnight. They are afraid to get in trouble. So, they leave at midnight and they don’t go out as often, period.
“These things are affecting attendance at clubs and making it harder for bands to get work. So the situation is a little dire. But, you can still go see a great band. The music hasn’t changed, it’s just the scene itself is in a little bit of trouble.”
With the popularity of smart phones, social media and electronic entertainment, society itself has changed since the days when being entertained meant going out to a local venue and enjoying a live performance.
“Not as many people care about going to see live music,” Motor City Josh said. “It’s a different day, it’s a different era. It’s the instant world where everyone can just download the song, and stay at home, sit on their a--, and watch TV and get fat. It’s just another day, it’s another time.
“People used to go out and appreciate someone that has spent their whole life practicing and honing the skills to be a good musician and now it’s like people think you can just play ‘Guitar Hero’ and do the same thing. It’s not (the same thing).”
“There just aren’t that many good blues clubs anymore,” said Wolfgang Spider, a Detroit Blues Society board member who writes the column Bluesin’ Around Detroit for the organization’s Blues Notes monthly newsletter. “The ones that do exist don’t pay all that well.
“I think part of the reason for that, other than economics and the changing mood of the fans, is that there are so many young kids now that get a guitar, learn a few songs, and they’ll go out and play and start a little band and they will play for nothing. They just want to play. And there’s so much of that going on. I think it has hurt the more serious musicians.”
Remembering Detroit’s golden age
By the 1950s, Detroit’s blues scene was well established by popular musicians such as Big Maceo Merriweather and John Lee Hooker.
Big Maceo was a piano player from Georgia who moved to Detroit in the 1920s and was a major player on the local scene until he moved to Chicago in the early 1940s. He died in 1953, perhaps underappreciated for his musical contributions.
With the exception of B.B. King, the late John Lee Hooker is perhaps the most recognizable figure in blues music.
Born in Mississippi in 1917, he moved north to Detroit by the early 1940s. Like many other musicians, Hooker worked a day job, in his case as a janitor in the auto factories.
His first hit record was “Boogie Chillun” in 1948. Other hits, such as “I’m In the Mood” and “Crawlin’ Kingsnake” soon followed.
“Maceo had died when I came here,” Little Sonny said. “He had passed away. But he was the biggest thing here before John Lee Hooker, from what I read. ‘Worried Life Blues’ was his song and that was a big record all over the country.
“I used to listen to John Lee Hooker down South when I was courtin’ my wife. We were in the juke joints all night and we’d be dancin’ to John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boogie Chillun’ or something like that.
“I never had no idea I would meet these guys.”
When Little Sonny arrived in Detroit, he augmented his daytime job working at a used car lot by taking Polaroid photos and selling them to bar patrons.
He changed his career focus when he discovered the money that could be made as a musician. He realized his earning potential after watching Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) perform at a Detroit nightclub.
|Eddie Burns (BluesPhotos by Don McGhee)|
“He’s the guy who really inspired me” to play professionally. “When I saw this guy playing and making money at it, I thought, ‘Hey, if this guy can do it, I can do it.’
“When I seen Sonny Boy, it was almost like I got hypnotized. He would come in on weekends and stay here a couple of weeks. And then he’d be gone.”
Little Sonny, born Aaron Willis on Oct. 6, 1932 in rural Cassimore, Ala., learned to play on a five-cent plastic harmonica his mother had bought him as a boy. He started his own performing career by filling in with a band led by Eddie Burns.
“Eddie was the man that would give me a chance to sit in. Eddie used to be on stage performing and he would just walk off. He’d get him a lady and go on outdoors. I don’t know what he was doin’ out there, but I have an idea,” he laughed.
“Sometimes I’d finish my song (before he came back), but I’d still be playing, ‘cause you can play ‘I’m a Man’ a long time.”
Little Sonny began sitting in with other musicians as well, and eventually the owner of the Good Time Bar at Brush and Gratiot offered him a gig with the band Washboard Willie and His Super Suds of Rhythm, paying $10 a night three days a week -- big money in those days.
|Mr. Bo publicity photo|
After a falling out with Washboard Willie over money, bandmates Louis “Mr. Bo” Collins (guitar) and Charles “Chuck” Smith (piano) convinced Little Sonny that he could be a bandleader on his own. The three young musicians all left Washboard Willie’s group, and, along with drummer James “Jim Due” Crawford, formed a group that became known as Little Sonny and the Rhythm Rockers.
They were soon playing regularly at the many clubs in Detroit’s blues circuit.
“I stayed at the Bank Bar (at Clay and Russell) about 3-1/2 years, close to four,” Little Sonny said. “After I left the Bank Bar, we played the Congo Lounge on Chene and Gratiot. I stayed at the Congo Lounge five years. I left the Congo Lounge, and went to Kent Starlight Lounge off Michigan Avenue on the west side of Detroit. I stayed there a very short period of time. That’s when I moved to the Apex (at Oakland and Smith). I spent over five years at the Apex.
“We would play Friday, Saturday and Sunday at all the bars. When I went to the Calumet Show Bar (on 12th Street), after the Apex, that was the last one I appeared at for a long time, I stayed there about 3-1/2 years.
“I signed with Stax (Records) out of there in 1969 to do the ‘New King of the Blues Harmonica’ album.”
Those were the days when there was plenty of work for Detroit blues musicians.
“They tell me that blues existed in so many clubs that you had no trouble finding it,” Wolfgang Spider said. “There were many very traditional clubs and people found it easy to find work. When (drummer) Duke (Dawson) played with Mr. Bo, they played seven nights a week for about three or four years, every night.”
There are many recognizable names from Detroit’s blues scene, early artists such as Sippie Wallace, and other musicians such as Calvin Frazier, Robert “Baby Boy” Warren, Vernon “Boogie Woogie Red” Harrison, Little Jr. Cannaday, Mr. Bo’s brother Little Mac Collins, Eddie Kirkland, Willie D. Warren, Johnnie Bassett, Sir Mack Rice, Alberta Adams and numerous others. Rice (who wrote “Mustang Sally”) and Adams are still living. Adams, Detroit’s “Queen of the Blues,” is still occasionally performing in her 90s.
There were also many artists that didn’t get the recognition, but who were working musicians.
Little Sonny remembers a favorite performer named Sax Cari playing the Detroit clubs.
“He was a guitar player and a songwriter and a promoter,” Little Sonny said.
“Walter Jackson was a hell of a ballad singer. I used to give him rides ‘cause he had polio and used to walk with that crutch. He was with Columbia. He was a beautiful singer.”
Shows in those days occasionally included comedians or exotic dancers.
Little Sonny recalls Gip Roberts.
“He was one of the greatest comedians in this city. He was a one-man show. He’d get on and sand dance, tell jokes, and he was an emcee. He would work at Phelps Lounge and bring on the big stars. He was a hell of a guy and he was a show business guy. He was a singer, a comedian and versatile emcee.”
In the first half of the 20th century, the Black Bottom neighborhood on Detroit’s east side was the center of Detroit’s black community. Black Bottom -- named by Detroit’s early French settlers for its dark, fertile soil -- is often remembered for Hastings Street, which was known for its many nightclubs, bling pigs, and other numerous illegal activities.
And although Hastings Street has become synonymous with Detroit blues, Little Sonny recalls it being more of a jazz music haven.
Little Sonny, left, and John Lee Hooker outside Joe Von Battle's
record shop on Hastings Street in Detroit in 1959.
(Photo submitted by Little Sonny)
“It’s always been confused. Hastings Street wasn’t a blues street,” he said. “I never played on Hastings Street. The only thing I ever did on Hastings Street was record for JVB, Joe Von Battle. That’s where all the blues artists would meet, at Joe’s Record Shop.”
Von Battle had a small recording studio in the back of his record shop.
Little Sonny has a theory why Hastings Street is known as a blues street.
“Eddie Burns and I would talk about that all the time before he passed away. I don’t know how it became that people were saying it was a blues street. It was never a blues street. They did have same jazz places.
“I think how it happened, is because John Lee Hooker put out ‘Boogie Chillun’.’ And, ‘Boogie Chillun’’ said ‘Henry’s Swing Club’ (in the lyrics). Now, John Lee Hooker played there, at that club, ‘cause they used to hang a little sign out there that said ‘John Lee is here tonight.’ That’s the only blues club that I know that was on Hastings Street during that time.
Keeping the blues alive
The razing of Black Bottom in the name of urban renewal and the paving of the Chrysler Freeway (I-75) over what was the Hastings Street area were only two factors that led to a decline in the popularity of Detroit’s blues.
By the 1960s, civil rights protests were on the front pages and blues may have been looked on as outdated by younger blacks. After the 1967 riots, white patrons were less willing go to an urban club. And then there was the growing popularity of soul music, especially in Detroit, where Motown Records was the new king.
But, throughout the years, there have been individuals who have helped keep the heartbeat of the blues on life support.
Musician Bobo Jenkins was one of those people. His Big Star record label gave many Detroit bluesmen an opportunity to record. He hosted a show on WDET (101.9 FM) called “Blues After Hours.” He was also a founding member of the Detroit Blues Club, which existed before today’s current Detroit Blues Society.
He also inspired the Famous Coachman, a record shop owner and longtime radio host who promoted the blues on his shows, most notably during a 21-year stint on WDET.
Both Bobo and the Coachman also promoted the music through blues festivals.
Musician/radio host Mark “Pazman” Pasman continues to promote the blues over the airwaves. He has hosted the “Motor City Blues Project” on WCSX (94.7-FM) for over 20 years.
Another individual credited with keeping Detroit blues alive, during the late 1970s and early ‘80s, is musician Uncle Jessie White.
“During the down period when the clubs were closing and the blues scene caved in, people would join at his house on weekends,” Wolfgang Spider said. “It’s a classic story, you’ve heard it a million times, that people would come on Friday and they wouldn’t leave until Monday morning. They would spend the whole weekend there.”
Blues makes a comeback
Eventually, some clubs – most notably the Soup Kitchen Saloon, at Franklin and Orleans, which fought the odds to stay alive for 25 years and hosted national as well as local acts until it closed in 1999 – began featuring the blues again.
A new generation of young white musicians were turned on to the music, some after referencing back to the roots from blues-based rock ‘n’ roll, and many of the older black musicians were still active too.
There was Sully’s, Moby Dick’s, the Music Menu, 5th Avenue, and Sisko’s. Later, there was Memphis Smoke in Royal Oak.
One of the clubs hosting the blues was the Attic Bar in Hamtramck.
It was home to blues musicians such as Uncle Jessie, Duke Dawson, Johnny “Yard Dog” Jones” and, literally, the Butler Twins, Curtis and Clarence, who lived upstairs.
“It was a Mecca (for the blues), particularly once the Soup Kitchen closed,” Wolfgang Spider said. “… You could go in there any Saturday night and hear Uncle Jessie and other nights you could hear other players. What was really fascinating about it, to me, is that you never knew who you would run into. Often, during the evening, if they weren’t already playing, the (Butler) Twins would come down, ‘cause they lived upstairs. They would come down and hang out with the gang and see what was going on, after they got done watching their Western movies that they liked.”
Uncle Jessie was one of the most unique characters ever.
He played piano, sang, and blew on a harmonica that was attached to a strange contraption of his own making.
“(Musician Rev.) Robert Jones always referred to it as some sort of a torture device, he said it didn’t look like something somebody should wear,” Spider said. “He had this weird rig and, interestingly enough, it would change. The next time you would see him it would be different.
“It was all made out of junk. He was a junkman during the day. He went around and collected stuff out of trash cans or whatever and I guess was selling the stuff. At least toward the end, he lived in a house that had no electricity or heat. He just survived there somehow.”
Uncle Jessie was typical of many older bluesmen, who didn’t follow a particular chord change structure. His musicians, Jeff Grand on guitar, Betty Brownlee on bass, and Dawson on the drums, had to feel when the changes were coming. He changed when the time felt right, and that made it right.
“He was a fascinating individual,” Spider said. “He had an unusual self-taught style on the piano and a very unusual voice. He sang so high that some people, on his recordings, thought it was a woman. Luckily, one CD was put together. It’s too bad there weren’t more recordings made. He was one of the best.”
Jessie’s interracial band – Grand and Brownlee are white – was a good example of the blending of colors and ages happening at the time.
Motor City Josh experienced that as he got his start in the early ‘90s.
“Little Mac Collins, Uncle Jessie, Willie D. Warren, Mr. Bo … I played with all those guys,” Josh said. “It was real cool. They were all real nice to me. They could tell that I had been studying the blues and practicing. They knew I liked it, and that I had a natural feel for it, so they invited me in.
“You could sit in with them. Some of them gave me some tips or pointers or suggestions along the way. They were all real nice to me. Nobody was ever a jerk. Nobody was ever rude.
“I feel very fortunate to have been around for part of that when all those guys were still around.”
It was 1988 when Mike Boulan of No Cover Records discovered the blues, specifically at Famous Coachman’s Indoor Blues Festival at St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit. He saw many of Detroit’s local performers and was impressed.
“I didn’t realize they were not national acts, at the time,” Boulan said. “They sounded the same (as the national acts) and I just didn’t even get it at first.
“Robert Noll Blues Mission was hosting the show and backing up a lot of the out-of-town performers who were on the bill, people who wouldn’t have a band. Mr. Bo was there, I helped him carry his amp in. Buddy Fowlkes was there.
“The big turning point was James (Glass), because I was still new to the blues and the fact that James played Jimi Hendrix music really well (impressed me).”
About a year later, Boulan saw Glass at a jam in Royal Oak.
“The Bluesbusters used to play there, with Jim McCarty, Billy Landless, and Martin Gross on drums and Emmanuel Garza on the other guitar. It was a jam and James was sitting in. They would have other regulars there like Bobby East.
“Once I saw James play, I started going regularly. Ironically, I got to know James a little bit and he came over my house. It was a pivotal moment, because I had a small recording setup here. I was recording my friend playing guitar. James saw the two microphones and the little cassette deck and he said, ‘You need to come down and record my band.’ And the rest is pretty much history. That’s how it all started.”
Boulan started his label and the first release was 1995’s “Can’t Get You Off My Mind” by the Detroit Blues Band, which included McCarty, who had gotten his start years earlier with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.
Since then, No Cover has had about 130 releases, by many of Detroit’s best blues artists.
Boulan’s happy he has been able to document their music for posterity.
“That is more of a driving factor than money, the money just barely keeps me alive,” he said. “The monetary (part) is driving me to quit. But getting it all down for posterity is driving me to keep doing it. There are a lot of unrecognized significant blues artists passing away right before my eyes. Some of them, their only recordings are with me, or, some of their only recordings in the last 20 or 30 years.
“I am real close with some of them. Billy (Davis) in particular. I feel like he is part of my family.
“I was fortunate enough to realize it all the way through. Whenever those times of frustration would come up, that would often run through my mind. Hey, you know this is a limited time offer. Enjoy it while you can.”
Detroit Blues Society
Boulan is one of the many individuals who have made the Detroit Blues Society a successful entity.
Although the amount of blues venues is dwindling, membership in the society is on the rise.
“The Detroit Blues Society has just under 600 card-carrying members, which is way above 10 years ago,” said Wolfgang Spider, DBS board member and former society president. “We have some pretty energetic people.”
The DBS hosts a monthly meeting and jam session, except during the summer months; a series at the Scarab Club in Detroit, typically two in the spring and two in the fall; and hosts the Detroit River Blues Cruise.
The DBS sponsors the Black History Month Series in Monroe, which has concerts every week during February, including a large event at the end of the month.
The DBS also hosts the Detroit Blues Challenge. Winners in the band and solo/duo categories advance to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis each year.
“That’s a big series,” Spider said. “Before (DBS volunteer) Steve Allen took that over, it either wasn’t being done or was done in one event. Now, it’s done as a series and is probably one the most elaborate processes used by anybody in the country.
“We sponsor one band and one solo/duo act to go to Memphis. The DBS supports their expenses. We raise money for them and give them what we can raise and the rest of it is up to them.”
The DBS benefits from the Anti-Freeze Blues Festival at the Magic Bag in Ferndale each January, which features national and local acts.
The society has also initiated a Headstone Project that has placed markers on the graves of Uncle Jessie White, Clarence and Curtis Butler, Calvin Frazier, and Louis “Mr. Bo” Collins. Plans are to dedicate markers for Vernon “Boogie Woogie Red” Harrison, Little Jr. Cannaday and Duke Dawson this year.
Prior to the formal Headstone Project, DBS members individually spearheaded efforts to put markers on the graves of Eddie “Son” House and Willie D. Warren.
The DBS was originally formed in 1985 as The Detroit Country and Classic Blues Society, whose members shared a love of acoustic blues music. Within a few years, electric blues was included and the society’s name changed accordingly.
About 10 years ago, a group called the Attic Dwellers formed at the Attic Bar to recreate the original DBS’ informal acoustic jams with visiting musicians. Although the Attic closed in 2007, the group continues to meet and enjoy acoustic blues each month year round, usually at Paycheck’s Lounge in Hamtramck.
There are still blues clubs in the Detroit metro area that host blues either full- or part-time.
The Blue Goose Inn in St. Clair Shores has been a longtime haven for blues lovers. Other clubs that host blues include Nancy Whiskey Pub in Detroit, Guy Hollerin’s in Ann Arbor, Bachelor One in Keego Harbor, the Crystal Bar in Westland, Shelly Kelly’s in Fraser, and Cooley Lake Inn in Commerce Township. Callahan’s Music Hall in Auburn Hills presents mostly national acts.
Eddie Burns, Johnnie Bassett, Little Jr. Cannaday and Duke Dawson are Detroit blues legends who have recently passed.
But, there are still plenty of talented artists in the area.
|Duke Dawson (BluesPhotos by Don McGhee)|
Veteran performers still active include Billy Davis, Charles “Buddy” Smith, Sweet Claudette, Harmonica Shah, and Emmanuel Young, who often performs with Howard Glazer and the EL 34s.
Other standouts (not previously mentioned) include Bobby Murray, Robert Penn, the Flying Crowbars (featuring Erich Goebel and James Cloyd), Chris Canas, Brett Lucas, Thornetta Davis, the Bluescasters, The Alligators, Cathy “Diva” Davis, Motor City Kings, the Blues Owls, Curtis Sumter, Front Street Blues Band, Lenny Watkins, RJ Spangler, Garfield Angove, Big Al Grebovic, Red Redding, David Gerald, Luther Badman Keith, Broken Arrow Blues Band, the Boa Constrictors, and others too numerous to mention (apologies if you are not on the list).
Some -- John Latini, Pete “Big Dog” Fetters, Paul Miles, Sweet Willie Tea, Carl Henry, and Mike Espy and Yakety Yak -- specialize in acoustic blues. Others -- Larry McCray, Lady X and the Sunshine Band, and the Rusty Wright Band – are talented folks from just outside the Detroit area.
|Bobby Murray (Photo by Mike Klewicki)|
“My God, we have a level of musicians here that is par excellence,” Bobby Murray said. “That’s what inspires me. There are so many wonderful players around. And the beauty of a lot of Detroit musicians is a genuine ability to switch genres without jamming gears. It’s like when somebody plays blues, they can really play blues. Or when they play jazz, they can really play jazz. When they play rock ‘n’ roll, or if they play country …
“I think it is really cool and a lot of it has to do with the migration of the auto (workers) from the South, all that cool rock ‘n’ roll, country and R&B that came on up as a consequence of that. We have this cool musical gumbo here that is incredible, and that’s one thing I am proud to be associated with and really glad to be a part of.”
Murray was the guitarist for the late Etta James for over 20 years. He’s played on Grammy winning albums with Etta and B.B. King. He grew up with Robert Cray. This is a man who has performed all around the world. And he remains impressed with Detroit’s talent base.
“There’s no place better,” Murray said. “There might be places that are bigger, but whether it is New York or Chicago or Los Angeles or San Francisco … Detroit takes a back seat to no one.
“Chicago is blues headquarters, but the talent level of musicians, man we’re there with anyone.”
If there’s anything that can inspire hope in dark days, it’s youthful enthusiasm.
And, Detroit has a crop of young blues musicians coming up that are turning heads.
Motor City Josh has had an up-close look at the development of some of them, including guitarist Johnny Rhoades and bassist Alex Lyon. He’s been a mentor to both.
“I think Johnny is the best blues guitar player in Detroit, period,” Josh said. “Hands down. He’s not the best blues singer or entertainer, but I think he’s the best blues guitar player. I don’t know anybody who can touch him for playing the blues.”
He’s known Lyon, 21, his whole life. Josh often uses Lyon as a session musician at his Sound Shop Studio.
“He’s my best friend’s son. He grew up around this blues scene with me his whole life. He went on the road with me for the first time when he was 14. He was good enough when he was 14. He can play this style as good as anybody, pretty much, around here.”
Others include guitarist Ari Teitel, and singer-guitarists Jimmy Alter, Jason “J-Bone” Bone, Nick Tavarias, and Carlton Washington.
“Carlton obviously has real talent and he’s also taken the time to get a formal education in music,” Boulan said. “And now he’s spending as much time as he can around the significant blues artists of the current scene, soaking up everything, and his talent is rapidly progressing. He’s definitely going to be known.
“Jimmy Alter has recently appeared on the scene and he’s doing the same thing, hanging out with Carlton, J-Bone and those guys. They are studying other blues artists and they are very serious about what they are doing.”
J-Bone and the other younger players have made positive impressions of many of the veteran performers.
“J-Bone is a real bad a--. His Albert Collins is amazing and he’s got his own style too, but I can tell AC is his man,” said Murray, who played with Collins. “He plays his a-- off.”
Boulan has hope for the future of the blues in Detroit.
“I’m optimistic because I see the new pack of young players,” he said. “And the blues has gone through lulls, peaks and valleys in the past, and I think just this is one of those.
“When I first came on the scene as a 21-year-old, I wasn’t even a musician. And it was astonishing to all the old musicians that me and my friends were so into it, because we were the only ones. There was nobody my age who was going at that time. So, to see all these young players now shows more promise than then.”
“What makes me feel good is I always keep running into young people, whether they are listeners or musicians or fans of the genre, that really care about this stuff, and that’s what gives me hope.”
On the web: Detroit Blues Society: www.detroitbluessociety.org; No Cover Records: www.nocover.net; Motor City Blues Project: http://www.wcsx.com/blues/; Motor City Josh/Sound Shop Studio: www.motorcityjosh.com
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