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Mary had a little lamb, it's feets was white as snow

Author Topic: With Lightnin' In Oakland  (Read 3638 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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With Lightnin' In Oakland
« on: May 31, 2006, 12:33:09 PM »
Thumbing through issues of Blues Unlimited in search of a particular review I was reminded of something which appeared in issue 74 (July 1970). It is prefaced by a note from the editors thus: "George Adins is probably the bluesmen's favourite European. Since 1959 he has made regular 'pilgrimages' - as he calls them - to the blues centres and has found a unique place in the hearts of men like Lightnin' and Muddy, men who do not proffer their friendship easily. George reminds us, if we need it, that one of the all time greatest bluesmen is still around, completely unaffected by our acclaim (which if you think, may be why he gets it!)"

What follows is lengthy but I think insightful, so stick with it folk.

With LIGHTNIN' in Oakland
BY GEORGE ADINS

Most of our people when they go on pilgrimage stick to the same place every year. My favourite place is none other than Houston, Texas, where lives a man I met for the first time back in 1959 who became a kind of guardian angel to me. Unfortunately when I was over last Sam "Lightnin"' Hopkins wasn't in Houston so I had to break with the tradition. Several weeks before I left Sam sent a letter telling me he'd been invited by his two cousins living in Oakland to come over and do some concerts in the Oakland - San Francisco area. He asked me to come to Oakland and spend some time with him. I arrived late at night and next morning called his cousin on the 'phone. I was told he had just gone to his other cousins. I got a cab and found Sam sitting waiting on the porch. After two years it was nice to see him again. I got a cold drink (it sure was hot for December!) and was surprised not to see his wife. She might join us later from Houston where she was taking care of business. She never did. Sam was worried as no contracts had been signed. Everyone who knows him knows also that Sam is not the man to be rushed or fooled with. He likes so much better to lay in bed in Houston watching TV, to go for a walk, or drive his car very slowly through the coloured section. Looking for work we traveled to San Diego, Sacramento, Da Costa visiting clubs and colleges where Sam could possibly be booked in. Sam seldom left the car and while his cousin discussed business he complained of the wasted time!

Sam would pick me up at my motel about noon each day and after getting a pint of Canadian Club to sip at home as we listened to his records. He played the two Jewel LPs and seemed very satisfied with them...he particularly likes his "Long Way From Home" which put him in a sad mood. He'd hold his head muttering inaudibly, presumably thinking of Houston and Antoinette whom he had to leave behind. His cousin was very busy since he was in charge of publicity and made the posters himself. Sometimes we worked late in the night after a date.

The great moment came at 5 o'clock when we drove to Ruthie's Inn, a small joint which happened to be the HQ of L. C. Robinson, a west-coast blues singer-guitarist who specialises in Hawaiian! L.C.s combo would open the night and he was to introduce Lightnin Hopkins to the audience. Lightnin' was the guest star but from the start he overshadowed L.C. and I witnessed a kind of competition between them. Obviously disappointed by Lightnin's success L.C. tried to mess up the amplifier (his own) which Lightnin' had to use as he couldn't carry his own equipment. Sam remained quiet while L.C. was at work, then said through the mike, "L.C. you trying to mess that thing up, you better stay off that thing; you are my friend and you sure gonna help me." An observation a la Hopkins which made L.C. apologise, though he still didn't like the way the people clapped and shouted as Lightnin' sat there on his chair strumming that guitar and singing poetically.

Everytime I see Lightnin' onstage it's a new experience. When you see him walk on you know something is going to happen. While he sets his strings he'll say it takes a lot of time for him to start; but once he's started it takes a lot of time to stop him! He'd start mostly with "Rocky Mountains" which made him famous among the blues singers - I remember one night in Boston when Muddy Waters and I were waiting for the first plane to Chicago, I played some of the tapes made at Ruthie's. When he heard "Rocky Mountain" Muddy said "this is the first recording of Lightnin's that I heard and it sure is one of his best". Lightnin' seems to put every bone of his body into each performance, diving deep in his memory for a kind of blues that makes up a life story. He feels more at ease in front of a coloured audience; he can talk to his people, tell them what is on his mind, build up stories that mean nothing to a white but make a Negro jump outa his seat. His comments on some of the lyrics in his song is the work of an exceptional observer. His "Back Door Friend" was introduced each night with comment that had hilarious reactions from the coloured people. And the voice making the comments and singing the lyrics is without doubt the most moving and genuine in the blues today.

His repertoire is one of the richest in the blues and he has no trouble playing for two hours. He did many familiar pieces which were a joy - "Hello Central", "Give me back that wig", "Katie Mae", "Short haired woman" and many others including some I never heard him do such as "My starter won't work", "What'd I Say" and "How many more years". His "I Wonder" is not a blues but a story Lightnin' sings with depth and sincerity, even tenderness - if proof still is needed, this song ranks Lightnin' among the greatest blues singers that ever lived. When the late wee wee hours came and people got up to go Lightnin' would shout "You don't have to go folks, Lightnin' ain't tired yet and I'll do a fast number that'll make you feel good.

When Lightnin' was off one night we went to hear Big Mama Thornton and her Hounddogs at the Madrague, a large hippie hangout mostly attended by whites. She had George Smith on harp and was in big shape, making the whole place rock. Lightnin' was to play the same place the next night and those hippies hung on his every word. Having a lot of trouble with his amp he decided to play straight - an opportunity to hear his old stuff "Automobile", "Bluebird", "See See Rider", "Mr Charlie's Farm" and "Play with your poodle". Some of his family were in the audience answering Lightnin's comments; this really worked on him and Sam went quite wild after a while!

It was after that night Lightnin' had one of his freaks. Some girls came up after the show and we all went in his cousins car; Sam told him to get liquor and food as he wanted to have real fun. This wasn't too much to the cousin's liking but he didn't say no. Actually it was a mad night which showed us Sam dance the boogaloo and the black bottom...it ended at 7 in the morning almost in a fight as the girls started arguing about their husbands.

The two following nights he was booked into the Fillmore Auditorium but unfortunately I couldn't be there. As he drove me back to the hotel in 'Frisco (I had to take an early 'plane to Chicago) he said, "Be sweet" and as I took my leave "say hello to the people over there from poor Lightnin"' I swore I'd be back the next year..... cause I just can't stay away too long, from a wonderful man who stands high above all the other country artists active today.
« Last Edit: May 31, 2006, 12:54:02 PM by Bunker Hill »

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: With Lightnin' In Oakland
« Reply #1 on: June 01, 2006, 11:36:52 AM »
Man, that's good stuff Bunker Hill, thanks so much for that. Just reading it wants me to break out my Lightnin' recordings which I haven't heard in a bit. Almost unconscious to me Lightnin' is one of my favourite musicians. His playing in 'E' is always so aggressive & poetic. What is it, 'Blues with a Feeling' from the Rhino collection 'Mojo Hand?' where he's sitting in a club & giving a little poem/speech with fast answering licks on the guitar before he breaks in to the tune . . . that's pure heaven. Thanks again.
No problem, after not having read it since the issue dropped through my door all those decades ago I found it far more "thought provoking" than I ever remembered it as being! ;D Georges (correct spelling) was an amazingly modest guy. Not many folk realise that Muddy Waters asked him to be godfather to his daughter Cookie, a role that he performed assiduously for forty years, right up to his death in late 1990s.

Offline snakehips

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Re: With Lightnin' In Oakland
« Reply #2 on: June 03, 2006, 01:20:57 AM »
Hi there !

"Rocky Mountain" - I believe the actual track name is "I Can't Stay Here In Your Town".
The "Rocky Mountain" lyrics appear in the first verse while the " I can't stay in your town" bit is in the second verse.

Its got Thunder Smith on the piano. Great track.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: With Lightnin' In Oakland
« Reply #3 on: June 03, 2006, 02:11:17 AM »
"Rocky Mountain" - I believe the actual track name is "I Can't Stay Here In Your Town".
The "Rocky Mountain" lyrics appear in the first verse while the " I can't stay in your town" bit is in the second verse.
Its got Thunder Smith on the piano. Great track.
Absolutely correct in every detail (recorded 9 November 1946). However the actual title on the Aladdin 78 is Rocky Mountain Blues and was retitled as I Can't Stay In Your Town when it was first released on LP in mid-late 50s (Lightnin' & The Blues, Imperial LP 9211). One can only surmise that somebody at Imperial decided it made better sense to call it that. When LH came to re-record it for Bluesville (1960) and Prestige (1964) it was also titled Rocky Mountain Blues. So our intrepid Belgian was not at fault in reporting the song as "Rocky Mountains".

Offline Richard

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Re: With Lightnin' In Oakland
« Reply #4 on: June 03, 2006, 09:25:23 AM »
By coincidence, I've included West Coast Blues on a new piano show - great pair.
(That's enough of that. Ed)

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: With Lightnin' In Oakland
« Reply #5 on: June 03, 2006, 10:02:02 AM »
By coincidence, I've included West Coast Blues on a new piano show - great pair.
IMHO Wilson "Thunder" Smith is one of the great forgottens. To the best of my knowledge (which isn't that far reaching) he has only ever been acknowledged with an entry in blues encyclopedias, who's who etc once, way back in 1972 in Karel Bogaert's Blues Lexicon, but I'd happily stand corrected on this.

I reckon that in one form or another have everything he recorded either under his own name or as accompanist. Not difficult given he came to a "sticky end" in 1965.:(
« Last Edit: June 03, 2006, 10:03:19 AM by Bunker Hill »

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: With Lightnin' In Oakland
« Reply #6 on: June 03, 2006, 10:34:19 AM »
Whilst in a Hopkins thread, for another purpose I cobbled together (from a variety of sources) a complete LH chronological session discography (1946-1980) which naturally took into account those in the role of accompanist to others.

It is a 26 page PDF document and I'd gladly pass this on to anybody interested in such, but it is now three years old and probably in need of update.:)

Send me a PM with an email address and I'll attach it.

Offline Richard

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Re: With Lightnin' In Oakland
« Reply #7 on: June 03, 2006, 01:17:21 PM »
Back to Thunder Smith... all I ever found out was that he enjoyed a drink  :P  and was known to be violent at times, I assume after the aforsaid drink...  :-X
(That's enough of that. Ed)

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: With Lightnin' In Oakland
« Reply #8 on: June 03, 2006, 11:53:36 PM »
That's about the sum of it, I'll have to check it out but from memory his demise was reported in Blues Unlimited at the time as being the result of getting into a drunken altercation with a drummer.

Offline Richard

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Re: With Lightnin' In Oakland
« Reply #9 on: June 04, 2006, 10:43:07 AM »
Well, it wasn't me  ;)
(That's enough of that. Ed)

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: With Lightnin' In Oakland
« Reply #10 on: June 07, 2006, 01:18:27 PM »
Ever since this thread turned to the topic of Thunder Smith something has been nagging away at me about an item read long ago. The lightbulb finally glowed and here it is from Blues Unlimited 46 (Sept 1967 p. 7-8):

Mrs. Cullen Rediscovered
Mike Leadbitter
At the corner of Alabama and Burkett in Houston is a neat building with a sign in the yard announcing that S.J. Cullum ? Dentist, resides within. Larry [Skoog - BH] and I arrived at this address feeling very pleased with ourselves for it had taken days of questions to find it. At last we had found Mrs. Anne Cullen ? a legend among blues collectors. We walked into the office and then out back where we found Mrs. Cullum. She invited us inside the house and answered our questions.

This fascinating woman's real name is Lola Anne Cullum, though she was known to the industry as Lola Cullen. Born in the country at Waimer, Texas, she is now late in years and recovering from a serious operation which has slowed her down. She has always been interested in blues and had a good ear for music. This interest lead her to try her hand at booking and managing artists when she settled in Houston.

While visiting San Antonio, she went to a night club with some friends and saw Amos Milburn. She was very impressed by his performance and found out that he too lived in Houston. She asked him to come round when he was home next and when he arrived she made some crude paper-backed tapes of his songs and sent them to Aladdin Records. In September 1946 she and Amos went to the Coast and he cut the first of many enormously popular records. Impressed by Lola s scouting talents., Aladdin asked her to find more Texas talent and by asking around, she heard that people sang on the street around Dowling. She went down there and found Lightnin Hopkins and Texas Alexander, who in turn introduced her to Thunder Smith and Luther Stoneham. These people all came round to her home and practised while she taped their performances, and gave them money and new clothes.

Frightened by Texas, who she learned had just come out of the penitentiary, she went back to the Coast in November with Thunder and Lightnin only to see Aladdin. It was in the studio that the duo got their nicknames "Wilson made thunder on the piano ? Sam was Lightnin' on guitar". Hopkins' records were also popular and Lola was in business However, she didn't bother about Sam too much and instead managed Amos, who by 1948 was riding high. Both he and Lola made a lot of money and she booked him into nearly all the big night-spots in the country, including New York's 'Apollo' and the 'Million Club' in Los Angles. When Amos' contract with her came up for renewal she found out that he had got too big. The people on the Coast squeezed her out and she was left with nothing.

Back in Houston she carried on with her booking agency, dealing with people like Lester Williams, Percy Henderson, Thunder Smith and Vivianne Greene, whom she described as a fine pianist. In 1951 the record bug got her and she formed her own company, calling it the Artist Record Co., or just A.R.C. Sessions were held at ACA and Gold Star with Johnny Brown, a blues guitarist and Mr. Honey ? "Honey Edwards from Memphis" ? who was passing through Houston at the time. A record by Mr. Honey [accomp by Thunder  - BH] was issued but she could not get any distribution or airplay and A.R.C. folded almost at once. Soon afterwards she found that Roby's new 'Buffalo Booking Agency' was taking away her artists and business and eventually she abandoned music for ever.

All that remains today is a chest-of-drawers full of old acetates, broken records and tangled, brittle tapes. Among all this are some fine performances by people like Thunder and Luther Stoneham, as well as other titles by Mr. Honey. Perhaps one day someone with more time will sort through all this before it ends up in the trash can.

 


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