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Earlier this summer, Rolling Stone published a special section called “The Blues Today” that presumed to report the state of blues music in America, as well as to name the “essential” 25 blues albums of all time. The section, however, was as notable for those it neglected as for those it included. Blues icon John Lee Hooker, in his trademark fedora and zombie frown, was there, as was Chicago guitar great Buddy Guy. So were Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards and pop singer Bonnie Raitt. Here, then, according to the editors of Rolling Stone, are the three categories that define the entire blues genre: old coots still dusty from the Delta, fierce big-city guitar virtuosos, and the white rock stars that both inspired.
Missing from the roster was Jimmy Witherspoon, the legendary blues singer who died last September without much fanfare RS gave him exactly one sentence for an obit. Witherspoon got the bum’s rush because his kind of blues didn’t fit into the magazine’s matrix or into Dan Ackroyd’s House of Blues aesthetic; he sang an urbane, sophisticated, and gently swinging music called West Coast blues.
Unlike the blues of the eastern North and South, West Coast blues has a smooth, jazzy feel driven more by horn and piano than by guitar. Although the music occasionally jumps Witherspoon’s live rendition of “Good Rockin’ Tonight” on the album The Spoon Concerts almost knocks the walls down West Coast blues singers, immaculately dressed men like Count Basie’s frontman Jimmy Rushing, Ray Charles (who got his start in Seattle), Joe Williams, and Witherspoon’s hero Big Joe Turner, were gentlemen as fond of warming the house with a ballad as they were of lighting it on fire. (West Coast blues even gets marketed as lounge, as evidenced by Capitol’s re-release of Nat Cole, Charles Brown, and other smoothies as The Cocktail Combos.) They came out of bustling towns such as Kansas City and Oklahoma City, and were about as rural as Yankee Stadium. As John Tynan puts it in the original liner notes to Singin’ the Blues, the Witherspoon album just reissued by Blue Note, West Coast blues “is oriented more in the hurly-burly living of townsfolk than in the legato existence of country life.”
Fortunately, Witherspoon or “Spoon” as he was known lives on in Singin’ the Blues, his finest sounding album, as well as his other recordings, which offer an opportunity to demolish the rock-press criteria that measure blues credibility by an artist’s jail or rehab resume. Witherspoon was born in a small Arkansas town in 1923, and by age 7, he was singing in the choir of his Baptist church, which considered “blues,” in Witherspoon’s recollection, “a dirty word.” At 18, he joined the Merchant Marines, and while on leave in India he stopped in a hotel where he found the American jazz pianist Teddy Weatherford playing swing. Witherspoon asked to sing with the band, and he never looked back. When he returned home in 1944, he went to San Francisco, where he got a gig with the great Kansas City jazz pianist Jay McShann.
The booming economy of postwar California was like a magnet for black Americans migrating to find jobs; it became the birthplace of West Coast blues. It was blues with polished edges, although its urbanity didn’t mean the music lacked rhythm. As music historian and novelist Albert Murray noted in his classic work Stomping the Blues, blues music is dance music, from Hooker’s boogie-woogie to the swing of B.B. King’s guitar. As Witherspoon gems like “Hootie Blues” and “Then the Lights Go Out” still prove, West Coast blues swungeven if it was with a slow, steamy saunter rather than in-your-face honking.
Witherspoon’s work with Jay McShann (who is still active, last seen playing for jazz buff Clint Eastwood at Carnegie Hall) is documented on the multiple-CD packages Kansas City Blues and The Mercury Blues and Rhythm story, but for an affordable introduction, try Goin’ to Kansas City Blues. Blessed with a voice that soothed like butterscotch ice cream while conveying urban grit, Witherspoon made slow burners such as “Confessin’ the Blues” and ballads like “I Want a Little Girl” his own. In 1949 he cut “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” which would become a signature song for him. The song climbed to No. 1 on the R&B chart and stayed there for 34 weeks, longer than any previous record.
For almost the next 50 years, Witherspoon would record several brilliant records covering blues, jazz, and gospel, working with such jazz musicians as Earl Hines, Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, and Coleman Hawkins, and blues greats T-Bone Walker, Charles Brown, and guitarist Robben Ford. He even cut some tracks with rockers Joe Walsh and Van Morrison. In the early ’80s, throat cancer left his voice ragged, but he never stopped working; he even appeared in the film Georgia. After sharing the stage with Van Morrison an appearance immortalized on Morrison’s 1994 album A Night in San Francisco he made a solid live album, his last recording, in 1996.
Singin’ the Blues, recorded in 1958, is a wonderful epitaph to Witherspoon’s career, and a good place for beginners to get to know Witherspoon and the West Coast blues in general. It is far and away the best sounding recording in his catalogue; modern remastering brings the band including legendary trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison on several cuts into your living room; Witherspoon’s sultry vocal is way out front in the mix. “All That’s Good,” “Spoon’s Blues,” and “It Ain’t What Your Thinkin’” are all standard blues about bein’ done wrong, gettin’ some lovin’, and havin’ a good time, and as such don’t offer a lot of surprises.
Yet, in the age of art-school-inspired bands like Radiohead and REM striving for opacity, there’s a gut-cleansing purity to a line like “I’m lookin’ for a woman who ain’t never been kissed/Who likes ‘Ain’t Nobody’s’ /So I won’t have to use my fist/When I been drinkin’.” (That’s “When I’ve Been Drinkin’.” And before the feminists get out their pens, it should be added that the song was first sung in 1949 by Numa Lee Davis the version is available on the Kansas City Blues CD set whose victim was a man.) Indeed, Singin’ the Blues may be nothing more, but is certainly not less, than a timeless and tireless America music idiom, as classic and built to last as the works of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, or Sinatra. The critic Mark Steyn nicely noted in a recent article about the death of Sinatra that bored rock artists either decide to stay kids (the Stones, Madonna) or hop from genre to genre without mastering any (the Pumpkins, Madonna), while great jazz vocalists spend lifetimes trying to master their forms.
It’s a crime that, even in the marginal reaches of the blues press, Witherspoon’s name is already fading fast. A few months ago, Keith Richards, one of Rolling Stone’s official bluesmen, expressed outrage at the ageism of rock ‘n’ roll. Why, he asked, should people be laughing at his and fellow grandparent Mick Jagger’s playing music, when no one smirked at all the elder statesmen of the blues? Maybe it’s because, Rolling Stone notwithstanding, blues giants like Jimmy Witherspoon have achieved something more substantial, mature, and timeless than Richards ever will.CP