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PCR # 101 (Vol. 3, No. 9) This edition is for the week of February 25--March 3, 2002.

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The Enlightenment by Terence Nuzum


Part 6:

Gospel blues and rural blues were styles which reflected their own different paths. Gospel's influences were spirituals more than the hollers and rags of rural blues. Gospel blues singers sang for the Lord. Rural singers sold their soul to the devil and sang of hard times. But there was yet another strain of blues, the urban blues of the big city.

Urban blues were influenced not by hollers and spirituals but instead by marching bands, ragtime, and jazz. The vocals and guitar playing were more smooth and rhythm-oriented. The lyrics, though, were just as gritty and racy. But instead of tales of temptation by the devil or hardships on the fields, it told of bright lights, big cities, wild city women, prostitutes, and all the vices that the glittering Babylons offered.

Most black Americans in the 20s & 30s did not live in or close to a big city. The few that did were performers or worked menial blue collar jobs, if that. So when rural bluesmen came to the big cities they were in awe. Here was a palace of money, easy women, good times, and opportunity. But they soon found out that when the sun went down the pretty picture easily revealed its sour core. The money turned into greed, the women were dishonest, and the opportunity was far from the good times. This awe-turned-to-shock was never more apparent then in the lyrics of Lonnie Johnson.

Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie Johnson
Alonzo "Lonnie" Johnson can probably be cited as being the first urban bluesmen. In the early twenties, Bessie Smith and "Ma" Rainey sang their proto-blues vaudeville strain but no one had really fused country rural blues with the jumpin' jive of the big city barrelhouse pianos and jazz bands. Until Lonnie Johnson that is.

Johnson's birth date is unknown and subject to argument, it ranges from 1889, 1894, 1899, to 1900. He was born into a musical family in New Orleans. He played guitar in his father's string band when he was in his teens. But in 1918 influenza wiped out most of Johnson's family prompting him and his brother James "steadyroll" to move to St. Louis and find employment in a local jazz band.

On November 4, 1925 Johnson waxed his first records for Okeh. He would go on to record 130 titles before the depression caused the recording industry to cut back in 1932. His first record "Mr. Johnson's Blues" with its b-side "Falling Rain Blues" was a hit. "Falling Rain" was covered several times during Johnson's career. From that first release his style made its self known. His voice, smooth yet commanding. His guitar, gentle and intricate. He played all the rural styles but with a smooth proficiency unheard of at the time. It was this style that influenced a young Robert Johnson (no relation) to play in the big cities.

On "Falling Rain Blues" & "Five O'clock Blues" Johnson displayed his virtuoso violin playing. By combining rural styles with big city beats and suave vocals urban blues was born.

By 1927 the music world began to take notice of Johnson's guitar talents. Jazz legend Louis Armstrong invited him to join his Hot Fives. Johnson recorded three songs with them, "I'm Not Rough", "Hotter than Hot", and "Savoy Blues". Johnson also went on to record with Duke Ellington & his Orchestra on the legendary "The Mooche". In 1928 Johnson teamed up with jazz guitarist Eddie Lang. Their duets together would inspire jazz guitar giant Django Rienhardt.

Johnson was well versed in rural styles but wanted nothing to do with that genre of the blues. When he was rediscovered in the 1960s he wanted to be distanced from the "primitives" of rural blues such as Skip James and Son House. Johnson quoted, "I sing the city blues", "My style of singing has nothing to do with the part of the country I come from".

He recorded well into the 1960s but unlike others he didn't change his style, he merely adapted it to the growing R 'n' B styles that permeated the era. He passed away in 1970. Lonnie Johnson left a musical legacy laced with the tales of big city sins. His lyrics were among the best of any artist. He often would use symbolism such as in "I Did All I Could":

Woke up this morning,
snow was on the ground
Wanted you by my side, you was no where around
Instead of helping me Baby,
it looks like you trying to drag me down.

You can treat me mean
Low down and dirty too
Someday you'll want me, when I can't use you

I did all I could, help me baby!
What more can a poor man do?

On first listen it appears to be a love song about a woman who betrayed him. But on repeated listens it can also be a message about dreams of fame and how the big city and its women crumble them to dust. Also, a recording company that didn't support the artist and when they want him he will have moved on.

Tampa Red
Tampa Red
The other early pioneer of urban blues was Hudson Whittaker also known as Tampa Red. Whittaker was born in Georgia but raised in Tampa, Florida since childhood. Because of his light complexion his grandmother nick named him Tampa Red. Whittaker moved to Chicago, the windy city, to record and there he met Georgia Tom Dorsey. They both agreed to team up and record together but they put it off for the next three years. Georgia Tom was busy penning tunes and playing in "Ma" Rainey's band. Whitakker, in the waiting period, was polishing up his guitar playing. Whittaker's style of a gentle and proficient slide guitar became his trademark and earned him the handle "The Guitar Wizard".

Whittaker visually was the archetypal urban bluesmen figure. He dressed immaculately, was well spoken, and was a master of his instrument.

Finally after a long waiting period both artists were free and Dorsey and Whittaker teamed up to record for Vocalion records in 1928. Out of this session they produced perhaps the biggest blues hit of all time "It's Tight Like That". In late 20s early 30s there wasn't a city or town you could visit without hearing the tune blasting out of some juke joint or bar. People white and black embraced it and it became a blues standard in its own right. Though it was labeled as a hokum blues tune it was saved from ridicule by Tampa Red's amazing slide guitar.

In 1932 Dorsey recorded his last blues song and then went to be "saved" by Gospel music, and Tampa Red was left to his own devices. But potent devices they were. Refusing to die with his era, he emerged as one of the first bluesmen to play on an electric guitar and scored hits all through the 1940s including "Black Angel Blues".

Lonnie Johnson and Tampa Red had pioneered and made their styles firm blueprints that urban blues would use through the following decades.

Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell
The legendary urban blues team of the era was Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell. Leroy Carr played piano and earned a reputation in Indianapolis as the city's best pianist and singer. He played many clubs and bars, which started him on the road to alcoholism.

Guitarist Francis "Scrapper" Blackwell met Carr when he was a bootlegger and Carr bought all his moonshine putting Blackwell out of business.

They formed a partnership in 1928 recording for Vocalion "How Long, How Long Blues". Carr's emotional, soothing singing, was accented by his pumping piano and Blackwell's intricate guitar picking. The record sold so well for Vocalion that the master was worn out and the song had to be re-recorded.

Carr's vocal styling influenced Robert Johnson's emotive deliveries while Blackwell influenced his atmospheric chords. Carr's "When the Sun Goes Down" became the basis for Johnson's "Love in Vain". Carr & Blackwell had their place in history as the greatest blues team, but it was cut short when in 1935 Carr's alcohol excess caught up with him and he died of acute nephritis on April 29.

The legends meet: Tampa Red with Leroy Carr in 1934
While Carr and Blackwell were an influence musically on the young Robert Johnson it was Big Bill Broonzy that possibly influenced Johnson's career moves with his rural blues rags-to-riches life style.

Born in Mississippi and raised in Arkansas, William Lee Coney Broonzy started out playing violin and waltz numbers. In 1918 he joined the army. Upon his return from the war he went to Chicago and studied the banjo of Papa Charlie Jackson. He adapted Jackson's banjo picking to his own guitar ettiquette. Broonzy joined the Hokum Boys in 1930 whose members included Georgia Tom Dorsey. The Boys had a few hits including "Eagle Riding Papa."

Big Bill Broonzy
When the Hokum Boys split up Broonzy took fellow band member Frank Brasswell with him and recorded several great guitar duets. Like Lonnie Johnson, Broonzy played country blues intertwined with urban stylings. But unlike Johnson he still sounded raw, a truly rural country boy backed by a big city band. Broonzy started out playing in the rural south and obtained his dream in the big city, stardom.

By 1937 he was recording with a drum and an electric guitar. This perhaps influenced Robert Johnson who towards the end of his life was incorporating a drummer into his club gigs.

In 1938 after John Hammond's plans fell through to include Robert Johnson in his From Spirituals to Swing concert after Johnson was murdered, he quickly added Broonzy to fill the spot. This shot Broonzy into stardom, one can only imagine what would have become of Johnson had he lived to perform there.

Broonzy unfortunately drifted towards big band numbers and his songs were never quite as potent as his earlier hits like "Good Time Tonight".

Boogie Woogie was yet another urban blues style. Boogie Woogie was like sped up ragtime with a kick. "Pinetop" Smith's "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" set the standards in the early 20s and its reissue led the revival of the early 40s, influencing the current boogie woogie artists such as Maude Lux Lewis.

Urban blues has survived over all other blues forms probably due to its accessibility and the proficiency of the artists on their instruments. Urban Blues really hit its stride in the 50's with records by the great second wave of urban bluesmen Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and B.B. King. Urban blues eventually evolved into Rock n' Roll and R 'n B of the 50s, while the rural blues influenced the rock of the 60s.

The urban blues revealed the personality of the cities they were recorded in and the artist's apprehension of big city sins. To put it simply, Urban Blues was a mirror of the big city life, women, the nightlife, money, bright lights, and fame, all the while exposing the dark underbelly of the metropolis.


NEXT: The East Coast Piedmont Blues



"The Enlightenment" is ©2002 by Terence Nuzum.  Webpage design and all graphics herein (except where otherwise noted) are creations of Nolan B. Canova.  Contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review is ©2002 by Nolan B. Canova.