Endangered Blues II : Losing Out in the 1950s

In addition to the overall American neglect of history and the arts, the natural progression of music being handed down in African American families and neighborhoods has been interrupted. And while some promoters in the majority European-American culture prize Black music, they don’t respect the people who are its creators. Disrespect and greed have led to the music ripoffs that nobody wants to talk about, but we must try to get an understanding of the history behind this.

 We only need to go back to the 1950s, when black musicians like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Fats Domino revved up the blues a little bit and created rock’n’roll. In his Sun studio in Memphis, the white promoter Sam Phillips was recording Howlin’ Wolf, Rufus Thomas, Ike Turner and other Black blues, R&B and rock’n’roll artists. Not only did he see black teenagers buying their music; white teens started combing through the R&B record bins as well. On dance floors everywhere, even in the segregated South, the music was bringing young Americans of all backgrounds together.

 There was just one obstacle to his sales. Phillips found that some white radio DJs refused to play his artists’ records, even though white fans wanted to hear them. Phillips decided to find a white artist to sing black music. Elvis Presley always acknowledged where the music came from. The tragedy was not that Elvis succeeded, but that Phillips stopped promoting the blues men. He and other white promoters went on to make a lot of money, and the originators of the music got left behind. White music biz usurpers took blues licks and lyrics without permission, failing to pay songwriters like Arthur Crudup who penned Elvis’ famous “That’s All Right.” ( See the story in  Chapple and Garofalo’s book Rock n roll is here to pay.). 

History repeated itself in the 1960s, when British rock bands rediscovered the blues and made records based on blues songs. American music media constantly credits the British invaders for popularizing blues among the white audience after the music business focus had moved on to soul and funk. And for awhile, blues leaders like Muddy Waters rode the wave. But during the 1980s and 90s, rockers and their promoters intercepted the blues, turning their backs on many black audiences who still treasured their own music.  Jim O’Neal editor of Living Blues Magazine, March/April 1990, acknowledged: “The young black bluesman has no easy road to success even when he is heard.”

 The 1969 album Fathers and Sons, produced by Marshall Chess of the famous Chess label in Chicago, features Muddy Waters playing with young white blues adopters like Paul Butterfield. On the cover, imitating Michelangelo’s painting, a Black human deity passes the spark of life to a white Adam.  Where were the African American sons and daughters of this black music god?

 Art Tipaldi’s book Children of the Blues, 2002, portrayed a few heirs, like Lonnie Brooks’ sons Ronnie and Wayne, carrying on their dad’s blues guitar tradition. But the book omitted other inheritors, replacing them with chapters on white musicians. For example, guitarist Eddie Taylor’s active musical sons were not mentioned: Eddie Jr. on guitar, Tim on drums, and stepson Larry on vocals and drums. (Daughter Demetria is now an active singer as well.) Instead, Tipaldi wrote up some white Texas musicians who learned the blues trade from Eddie Taylor Sr. and other Chicago bluesmen who played during the 1970s and 80s at Austin’s famous club, Antones. I won’t mention names.

 Chicago’s African American musicians are not much of a position to protest their lack of recognition. Over 40 years after Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the economic effects of racism continue to haunt them. Because of high unemployment and less-than-equal city services in the city’s poor black neighborhoods, wages are meager in the West and South Side clubs where musicians start their careers.

 Politicians often consider these little juke joints and lounges to have no cultural value. Brushing off protest letters from around the world and musical pleas from the blues men and women, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration in 2001 tore down the historic stores on Maxwell Street, the birthplace of electric Chicago blues. The same year, the city padlocked Gerri’s Palm Tavern, a South Side landmark where Count Basie and Muddy Waters once hung out.  

 Chicago’s downtown clubs used to be the place where black musicians could earn good money. But today’s handful of tourist blues clubs are drastically underpaying the musicians. While patrons pay $10-20 at the door, wages have dropped, not increased, over the last 20 years. Club owners have exploited rivalries among the band leaders who squabble over the handful of spots. Today most musicians are lucky to take home $60 to $100 for an evening’s work. Other tourist clubs promote and pay white imitators ahead of hometown African American heritage musicians. This has become obvious even to the conservative Chicago Tribune’s critic Kevin Williams, who mocked the “talking dog act” featuring Buddy Guy’s latest young white guitar protégé in a writeup Jan. 28, 2011.  


 Many musicians hesitate to speak out. They don’t feel they can change the rivalries or the unfair wages. When harmonica player and bandleader Billy Branch criticized the promotion of young white guitarists ahead of veteran African American players in 1998, he lost work and declined to talk any more about the issue when critic David Whiteis interviewed him in the 2006 book Chicago Blues : Portraits and Stories.

 When Larry Hill Taylor, a singer and drummer, protested and spoke to French Avergne Blues Society magazine in 2005 about working conditions in the Chicago tourist clubs, including instances of unnamed club owners paying addicted musicians in helpings of drugs instead of cash, he lost his bookings in the clubs.  Read the whole story in his autobiography, which I co-authored: www.stepsonoftheblues.com

 West and South Side heritage musicians do not have the resources to promote themselves; they stretch to even own a car and fill it with gas. Alligator Records CEO Bruce Iglauer does pay royalties to musicians. But he told an audience at the 2011 Chicago blues fest that poverty plays a part in his decisions not to record some of these local blues masters. He admits he's been criticized for these decisions.  www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/alligator-records-40th-anniversary/Content?oid=3834565

 These are a few examples of how ignorance, poverty, disrespect, racism and greed have nearly destroyed the soul of America’s greatest music. Heritage musicians are underpaid, persecuted for speaking out.  Worse, their music platforms are now being invaded by imitators from all corners of the world, who pay good money for guitars and contest slots. But no one is paying the creators of the music these imitators and hobbyists are trying to play.

 White musicians who do care about these injustices have a problem speaking out  because, as I mentioned before, the whole American arts community is underpaid.  I feel we must speak anyway. 

  NEXT:  the Un-Handy Truth about Blues Festivals.

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