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When somebody blazes a path to a highway that never end, you should appreciate 'em some - Brownie McGhee

Author Topic: Curtis Jones  (Read 1431 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Curtis Jones
« on: November 17, 2006, 11:07:04 AM »
As suggested elsewhere on WC here's an early piece of writing about Curtis Jones with the writer using a very strange premise from which to start. From Jazz Journal, March 1960. Be warned it's l-o-n-g.

Curtis Jones
Derrick Stewart-Baxter

The attack I made on the rock 'n' rollers in January brought a positive deluge of mail, mostly in praise, I am glad to say. But there were one or two readers who, while not actually disagreeing, took a rather different view. The following is an extract from a letter from a Southampton reader?it more or less sums up the attitude of the minority: "While I am certainly no lover of the commercial rock singers?no real jazz fan could be?I do feel that you are making a mountain out of a mole hill. Admittedly these performers have little or no talent, but surely we do not have to listen to them nor buy their dreadful records. I am of the opinion that it is better to ignore them entirely. If they can earn a living with so little to offer, good luck to them. Live and let live."

With due respect to those who hold such views, I nevertheless profoundly disagree. There is more to it than a few talentless youngsters earning sums entirely out of proportion to their ability. As I have tried to point out, it is because these highly publicised young men are allowed to yell themselves hoarse that the real singers suffer hardship, and many of the great bluesmen of yesterday have virtually disappeared. Some have drifted into other employment, while others. . . ?

There is, for example, the tragic case of Curtis Jones.

To the younger generation Jones's name will be unfamiliar, for none of his records have been issued in Britain, while his American discs have long since been deleted. Yet Jones, in the years between the two world wars, was one of the better singers, and an extremely fine blues pianist into the bargain.

He was born on August 18, 1906 in the small southern town of Naples. Texas. The early years were hard ones spent working on the farm which his parents owned?long, back-breaking days in the fields under the blazing sun. But this tough work had its compensations for there was always something to learn from the migratory workers and singers who rode the rods or trudged the dusty roads from one southern town to another. Their blues made a lasting impression, and became very much part of his life.

In 1916, when he was ten years old, he started to play the guitar so that he could accompany himself, and before the year was out, the urge to move having grown too strong to resist, Jones decided to run away from the restricted farm life. Dallas, a great blues centre in those days, was his objective, and it was there he settled for a number of years. His passion for the music of his people grew, the guitar was soon discarded for the piano, and the organ, although he most certainly never used this instrument for any of his records.

Curtis had various jobs, to keep himself alive, while he was busy learning all he could about the blues. It is certain that not all these jobs were pleasant ones, for the life of a coloured man in the south has never been exactly a rest cure. But the blues were a great consolation to him when he was tired and weary and Jones carried on as best he could, working and playing the blues every chance he got. It was not until 1924 that he played his first professional job. A year later he claims to have cut his first record along with an obscure pianist who went under the name of Papa Chitlins?Jones only sang, the piano being played by Chitlins.

Kansas City in the late 'twenties and mid-'thirties was a wide open town, a town of gangsters, gamblers and shakedown joints?and as a background to it all there was always music?jazz music. In most clubs and dance halls there were bands, with someone singing the blues. John Cameron Swayze, a journalist, who was there at the time has described it vividly: "More than a hundred night clubs offered live bands and orchestras. There were plates of hot spiced shrimp in the " speaks " for all who spent so much as a quarter for a spiked beer. It being night-time there were no horses to bet on, but that simply meant the dice tables got a bigger play. It was a gaudy, spectacular era and, looking back, completely incredible."

So, with so much music to be found and money to be earned playing it, Curtis set out for this wide-open city. There for a time he sang his blues and played piano, moving from club to club. In 1930 he began to travel widely round the States, for the only way to earn a living in the depression years was to move from place to place?Reno Cheyenne, Omaha, and finally New Orleans: " Where I played in a club owned by a politician."

By 1935 conditions had improved somewhat, and Jones formed a little blues group?which he held together for several years. The personnel was, Lawrence Hall, tpt; Jasper Edwards, ts; Bob Harris, d. Unfortunately, they never recorded.

Jones's real recording career began in 1937 when he moved to Chicago, and the years that followed his first Chicago date (September 28, 1937) were to be the most successful of his life. Record followed record and the sales figures increased. The high standard maintained was astounding in view of the number of titles he produced, mostly original material. A most complete listing of these recordings is to be found in Jazz Directory.

Jones's voice is rich, and full of that sad quality so often found in rural singers. At times he sounds like Leroy Carr, but he is much more earthy and shows little trace of the smoother texture of Carr's singing. There is also more than a hint of the style adopted by the late Sonny Boy Williamson, the last line of a stanza often being of uneven length and sung rapidly, almost gabbled in order to make it scan. One thing is certain, Jones could never be mistaken for an urban singer, although many of his songs deal with city problems. One of the most outstanding features of his blues is the high standard of the lyrics many stanzas being highly original folk poetry:

Love I'm without a shelter,
Please take me to your home (repeat)
'Cause the blues have got me crazy,
Out in this wide world all alone.

I've been so blue without you
Till I ain't had a bit of rest (repeat)
And to be alone without you
Seems like I'm livin' in a wilderness

One of his finest blues was Highway 51 (recorded many years later as Highway 61 by Andrew "Smokey" Hogg) which was obviously inspired by the many hours Curtis must have spent travelling along the roads seeking work:

Forgive me, honey, for all the wrong I've done,
Please forgive me, honey, for all the evil I've done,
I don't want no bad luck to come upon me
Whilst out on Highway 51.

If I should die, baby before my time,
If I should die, baby before my time,
Lay my body on 51 Highway,
That's down below the Frisco line.

Now mister bus driver, let me ride down in your blind,
Now mister bus driver, let me ride down in your blind,
And if you don't let you ride me
I'm gonna swing right on behind.

Highway 51 was one of his biggest hits, second only to the outstanding Lonesome Bedroom Blues, which he recorded a second time in 1938. On most of his recordings he used Willie Bee on guitar (a fine singer in his own right who still records) and Fred Williams on drums.

In 1941 Curtis' recording activities ceased abruptly. The exact reason is not known, but it was probably due to the fact that the Americans had other things on their mind! The war took its toll, and gradually the blues went underground, and more and more singers disappeared. Even the famous Bluebird label with its strong blues: catalogue slowly dried up and records became a mere trickle in the late 'forties?as far as blues singers were concerned, anyway. When the war ended many new singers began to appear, both rural and urban. Most of the city men, together with some of the new arrivals from the deep south, turned more to the solid beat, a beat which was later to be transformed into that debased form of blues?rock 'n' roll. With the advent of the white performer, the blues took a beating, and it is no wonder that the more sensitive and sincere artists found the going hard and that only the toughest of the pre-war bluesmen survived. Curtis was tough, his early life had taught him just how rugged the life of a coloured entertainer can be, but the breaks just didn't come his way, and gradually the slow descent began. In 1953 he obtained a date for the small Parrot label, but unfortunately the record did not have much success. He was forgotten, and others had come to take his place.

Last year the French blues authority Jacques Demetre visited America and discovered Curtis Jones living in extreme poverty. Jacques sent me much of the information contained in this article and I would like to quote from a letter I received from him recently: "You know I have just come from the States, where among all the blues singers I met, I shall never forget one of the famous ones from the 'thirties and 'forties who I found starving and crying in his lonesome bedroom, Curtis Jones. It seems that even when they are successful, the blues singers still belong to the 'underground' for nobody in the newspapers pays them any attention."

It is ironic that Curtis Jones's biggest success was Lonesome Bedroom Blues for now in an old decaying hotel (3953 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago 15) Curtis is alone, carrying on as best as he can but with little to look forward to. It is to be hoped my story will touch the heart of some blues lover and that work can be found for this great artist, and it is with this object in view that I have given his address. That then, is the position?the talentless are making the money while the great bluesmen have been driven into obscurity and poverty, for at best the blues singer earns little enough. "Live and let live" indeed?the phrase has a hollow sound.


Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Curtis Jones
« Reply #1 on: November 17, 2006, 12:06:16 PM »
Here's a not often seen Vocalion publicity shot