Sunday, June 08, 2014

Celebrating Father’s Day - Some Fatherly Influences on Today’s Blues Performers

Shemekia Copeland at 2005 Hot August Blues
The first time I saw Shemekia Copeland sing the blues, she was with her father, the late Johnny Copeland. Even as a teenager opening for her very proud father, Shemekia had a presence, poise and maturity as a singer and as Bill Wax commented that evening at Tornado Alley in Wheaton, MD, that Shemekia reminded him of a young Irma Thomas. After her father’s untimely passing, Shemekia emerged on her own as a major blues talent. She is among the most prominent women blues performers of today and the late Koko Taylor’s family were among those who anointed her as successor to Koko, a Queen of the Blues. Being a woman and solely a vocalist, Shemekia perhaps benefited from not being in her father’s musical shadow. Yet, her father was an important part of her personal and music development, and Johnny Copeland’s Ghetto Child remains a signature part of her live performances. Shemekia (who will be at the Tinner Hill Blues Festival on Friday, June 13 at the State Theatre) now records for Telarc. However, her first four recordings were for Alligator, and the compilation Deluxe Edition is a fine retrospective of the music Shemekia Copeland recorded for Alligator and serves as a welcome starting point to her powerful blues. 
Two sons of the legendary Muddy Waters, Big Bill Morganfield and Mud Morganfield, have established themselves as blues artists. In contrast to Shemekia, their musical performances reflect the music of their father, Muddy Waters. Also in contrast to Shemekia’s father, Muddy played a less significant role as they were growing up. In an interview with Ben Lazarus of the British newspaper The Telegraph (May 7, 2014 issue), Waters’ oldest son, Larry ‘Mud’ Morganfield noted that Muddy Waters was on the road often when he was growing up, and after his parents split up, his mother’s brothers played a great role in Mud’s upbringing. As Lazarus observed, Mud initially ran from the blues “go[ing] to business school and driv[ing] trucks to make a living, but he realized he wanted to leave his own legacy and not just live in the shadow of his father.” He has established himself as a strong performer of blues in the manner of his famous dad. The relationship was reflected in the title of his 2011 Severn Records release, Son of the Seventh Son

About Son of the Seventh Son, I wrote (in my review), “Mud does a strong job of conjuring up his late father’s blues and the backing band certainly contributes to the overall feel of this band. Certainly if there can be “Blues Brothers” tribute bands, the eldest son of one of the greatest blues artists can do his part in keeping his father’s sound alive, especially when he contributes a number of strong originals that he ably performs. While he may not be an original performer, Mud Morganfield certain- ly is keeping his legendary father’s sound alive, supported by an excellent band.” 

Eddie Taylor Jr at 2006 Pocono Blues Fest
Shemekia Copeland and Mud Morganfield provide two different examples of children of blues artists today playing the blues. Not all children front bands. Kenny ‘Beedy Eyes’ Smith is the son of the late Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith, who anchored the drum chair for Muddy Waters for a couple decades and then anchored the Legendary Blues Band. In his later years, Willie took up harmonica, with his son Kenny taking up his father’s drum chair. Kenny is among the most in demand drummers for straight Chicago blues recordings, having recorded with his father, Lurrie Bell, the Heritage Blues Orchestra (scheduled for the Pennsylvania Blues Festival), bassist Bob Stroger, Chris Harper, and Mississippi Heat (with whom he regularly plays and who will be at the Tinner Hill Blues Festival). 

Kenny Smith is not the only blues drummer son of a famous blues artist. Tim Taylor is another drummer who has made his mark in the blues world. Tim is the son of legendary blues singer and guitarist Eddie Taylor (best known for playing with Jimmy Reed) and along with his brother Eddie Jr, half-brother Larry, and sister Demetria, Tim has carried on the tradition of the Chicago blues. Tim has recorded with brother Eddie Jr., who plays the Delta-rooted Chicago blues style for which his father was known. Of one of Eddie Taylor, Jr.’s albums I opined, “This is a solid, traditionally oriented blues recording. He sings from the heart and plays the old school style of Chicago blues guitar that fewer and fewer still play.” Eddie Jr. brings his solid approach while playing behind Demetria on her Delmark album Bad Girl, which has a nice mix of blues songs that indicates a bit of the influence of the unrelated Koko Taylor. 

Teeny Tucker at 2009 DC Blues Festival
Like Shemekia Copeland, Teeny Tucker is the daughter of a blues legend. Her father was Tommy Tucker of Hi-Heel Sneakers fame, although he passed away in 1982, long before Teeny started singing professionally. While growing up singing in church choirs, in the past two decades she has become one of the finest vocalists in the blues world, possessing a forceful and expressive voice that exhibits not simply her power as a singer, but her phrasing, vocal dynamics and controlled pitch. Listening to her, one hears a wide range of influences including such legendary figures as Koko Taylor, Christine Kittrell, Lavern Baker and Big Maybelle, but like them she has developed into her own compelling sound. Her most recent album, Voodoo to Do You, is a strong collection of performances that includes her renditions of songs associated with Koko Taylor - Voodoo Woman, Howlin’ Wolf - Commit a Crime, and Christine Kittrell -a marvelous rendition of Lieber & Stoller’s I’m a Woman (many know this from Peggy Lee, but Kittrell first recorded this). In addition to Voodoo Woman, several songs (but not all) have a voodoo theme, including Love Spell, and Is Your Voodoo Workin’. The album also includes strong acoustic performances of Skip James’ Hard Time Killing Floor Blues and Rev. Gary Davis’ Death Have No Mercy. Both are wonderfully sung and enhanced by the playing of guitarist Robert Hughes. Teeny headlines the Saturday afternoon performances at the Tinner Hill Blues Festival in Falls Church. 
Billy Branch and Lurrie Bell at 2012 Pennsylvania Blues Festival
Lurrie Bell, son of harmonica legend Carey Bell, first emerged in a group, Sons of the Blues, that also included Willie Dixon’s son Freddie Dixon and harmonica wizard Billy Branch. Playing a different instrument from his father enabled Lurrie to develop his own musical persona, which has been exhibited on a number of excellent blues albums that included collaborations with his late father.
Bernard Allison also had some collaborations with his father, Luther. Since Luther passed away, Bernard plays and sings in the same high energy, rocking style of his father and has incorporated several of his father’s songs in his performances. Ronnie Baker Brooks and Wayne Baker Brooks both spent time playing with their father, Lonnie Brooks (Baker is Lonnie’s real last name).
While they continue to perform with their father (who has limited his performances in recent years), they both have started their own careers with their own approaches rooted in their father’s music. One also cannot forget Eddie ‘Vaan’ Shaw, son of saxophonist Eddie Shaw. Magic Sam and Hubert Sumlin, Vaan’s guitar became a mainstay of his father’s band and has been for many years.  Vaan has recorded two albums on hisown for the Austrian Wolf label and can be heard on the recordings of his Blues Hall of Fame father. 
Vann and Eddie Shaw at 2013 Pennsylvania Blues Festival
There are, of course, more sons and daughters of the blues. In Chicago, Elmore James, Jr., plays a mix of straight Chicago blues and some of his father’s slide guitar blues, although his slide playing and vocals owes a bit to Elmore's cousin, Homesick James. In New Orleans, one can hear, Guitar Slim Jr. who also brings a personal approach to his legendary father’s songs as well as other blues tunes. Shawn Holt, son of the late Magic Slim, recently won the Blues Music Award for Best Debut album, Daddy Told Me. This is a strong recording, very much in the vein of his father, with driving medium tempo shuffles and slow-drag, bump and grind blues. On this CD, Shawn is perpetuating Magic Slim’s legacy and also shows he is, himself, a significant voice for today’s blues. In the Northern Mississippi hill country, Shardé Turner leads the fife and drum band her grandfather Otha Turner led for many years, while the children and grandchildren of Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside continue playing music extending this deep blues tradition.

One other blues child to mention is harmonica player Rip Lee Pryor. Rip Lee is the son of Snooky Pryor, who was amongst the first post-war Chicago blues artists to record. Rip played guitar with his father, but has become a harmonica player whose style is similar to his father’s. Oddly, Rip Lee’s interest in blues started in a period when Snooky had withdrawn from the music business. Rip Lee’s recent debut recording Nobody But Me, on Electro-Fi, displays a pretty straight-forward approach to the blues as he plays harmonica on a rack and lays down simple guitar backing. Significant influences on his music include his father and John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson. As Scott Bock observes in his liner notes to the release, Rip Lee has a pretty stripped down sound resulting in a straight dose of classic Chicago blues. (Rip Lee Pryor and Shawn Holt will be appearing at the Pennsylvania Blues Festival at Pennsylvania’s Blue Mountain Ski Resort in late July.)

This post has appeared in the June 2014 Capital Blues Messenger, the DC Blues Society's newsletter.

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