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When you think of cities rich with rhythm and blues history; New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago, or Nashville first come to mind. The upper Delta of Arkansas, specifically Pine Bluff, tends to be overlooked. This is a region that deserves to also top the charts.
Known for ducks, barbecue, great pie, and flat open roads, this area of Jefferson County holds a history with contributions to the expansion and opportunity of Black musicians, and deep roots in rhythm and blues music history.
Blues artists with Jefferson County Roots
George Thomas Jr.: The pianist, songwriter and father of boogie-woogie music was born in the Plum Bayou region and recorded the first boogie-woogie songs. His mother was born in a contraband camp under the watchful eye of Union Soldiers.
Cedell Davis: After contracting polio at age 10, he had to relearn how to play the guitar with a new method of playing it upside down using a butter knife. A tragic accident in the 1950s left him partially paralyzed, but he kept playing with the greats, moved to Pine Bluff and performed in local clubs.
Queen Sylvia Embry: The Chicago blues powerhouse broke proverbial walls when she formed her own band and featured herself as a player.
Charles Bell: Following college, he worked at the arsenal in Pine Bluff during WWII, then went on to have seven Top 10 hits on the billboard charts, like “Merry Christmas Baby,” “Driftin’ Blues,” and “Please Come Home for Christmas.”
Bobby Rush started his career as a teenager at Jitterbugs in downtown Pine Bluff, when they paid his wages in hamburgers, chitlins, and quarters. Then, he moved “up South” to Chicago and played with some of the greatest musicians, making hits and performing on the biggest stages. He is a member of the Blues Hall of Fame and received his first Grammy at the age of 83.
Elmore James: As he went out on his own to begin his career, he lived with his cousin in Pine Bluff, who is said to have taught him to play slide guitar, his adopted signature style.
Larry “Totsie” Davis wrote “Texas Flood,” a blues song covered by many artists, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, who made it a hit. He also wrote several hits for B.B. King, resulting in four W.C. Handy awards in 1982.
Miles Davis: As a child, he spent summers with his grandad in Pine Bluff, fishing on Nobles Lake. He later wrote a blues album called, “Kind Of Blue,” inspired by those summers and a woman he would hear singing at church. It is the most successful blues album to date.
Vernon Garrett toured with the Swan Silvertones, a classic gospel group. But his smooth voice on the 1970s single “I’m At The Crossroad” turned into a billboard hit and expanded his fame through the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Joshua Altheimer moved to Chicago in the 1920s to rip the ivory keys to boogie-woogie blues as the genre was taking off. Some called him the greatest blues pianist.
Beulah “Sippie” Wallace has more record sales than any other blues singer from 1920 to 1930.
James “Taildragger” Jones was born in Altheimer and known as a young child to sneak into the Jackrabbit Club, but the early influence of blues music, even if he had to sneak it, set him up to perform in the Chicago blues circuit.
Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl McVoy: Carl was a local boy and cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis. The two spent their summers playing piano, with McVoy teaching Lewis the boogie-woogie style. Lewis went back to Louisiana, played gospel music and developed into the rock ‘n’ roll singer of songs like “Great Balls of Fire.” Carl hit the billboards with rockabilly hits like “Tootsie”, and “You Are My Sunshine.”
Mayo “Ink” Williams was one of the first three black football players in the NFL in 1923. But he loved music, and Paramount Music needed someone to lead the “race records” department. He was the first African American to produce for a white record company and deemed the “most successful producer for music by black musicians from the 1920s-1940s.”
Trumpeter Clark Terry made his first horn out of junkyard parts but made a career out of the pipes of the trumpet and bugle. From 1960 to 1972, he played on “The Tonight Show” and then formed a traveling band.
Morris Hayes was the longest-standing member of Prince’s band and served as his bandleader. Gospel music inspired Hayes, and he learned to play the piano. Then, in 1992, while playing with another band, Prince heard him and pulled him for his band, using the words of a conversation between the two to write the hit “Facedown.”
Now, if you’ve read all that and aren’t tapping your toes and ready to hit the road with a new playlist, then it’s time to keep digging and plan a road trip. I know firsthand the team at Explore Pine Bluff will host you well and connect all the dots. There are so many more artists, but you will have to listen to WA&P radio show to catch the rest of the stories of Pine Bluff blues music history.
Keisha (Pittman) McKinney lives in South Arkansas with her husband and sweet Boxer, Bailey and one-year-old son! Keisha is passionate about connecting people and building community, seeking solutions to the everyday big and small things, and encouraging others through the mundane, hard, and typical that life often brings. She put her communications background to work as a former Non-profit Executive Director, college recruiter and fundraiser, and Digital Media Director at a large church in Northwest Arkansas. Now she is using all of those experiences through McKinney Media Solutions and her blog @bigpittstop which includes daily adventures, cooking escapades, #bigsisterchats, the social justice cases on her heart, and all that she is learning as a #boymom!