Long ago, in the formative years of the Blues Roadhouse, I wrote about blues shouters, that category of big-voiced blues singers that has all but disappeared, but can still provide some of the best blues listening around.
That early post focused on one of my very favorite musical personalities, Big Joe Turner, and his larger-than-life persona and vocal style. Since then, I’ve focused more on new album releases, with new music for blues and roots fans.
But it’s time to offer something old again. Yes, there are legions of younger artists on the stage, but it can be refreshing to revisit some of the great artists of the past, whose music is timeless in its emotional impact. There’s plenty of good music that’s waiting to be heard again.
Which brings me to another great blues shouter — Jimmy Witherspoon. He’s not exactly a household name when you think of the blues, but his rich and powerful voice dug deep into the music — it was smooth, silky and soulful. Just the first few notes of a song were enough to announce his vocal presence.
And for a time, his was one of the biggest voices in the blues — literally and figuratively.
Witherspoon was born in Gurdon, Ark., in 1920, and like so many blues and soul singers whose roots were in the church, he sang in the choir as a youngster. His mother, Eva Witherspoon, was a church pianist.
His singing first attracted attention on U.S. Armed Forces Radio during World War II. Witherspoon was serving in the Merchant Marines, and during shore leave in India, sang with Teddy Weatherford‘s band. He cut his first records with Jay McShann‘s band in 1945.
In 1949, Witherspoon had his first hit — the now-classic “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” which would become his signature tune. In 1950 he hit with “No Rollin’ Blues” and “Big Fine Girl,” songs that became standards in his body of work, along with another that he wrote — “Times Gettin’ Tougher Than Tough”.
In the early post-war years, Witherspoon enjoyed tremendous popularity, but the style faded somewhat in the 1950s. Following a brief but dynamic appearance at the 1959 Monterey Jazz Festival, the resulting live LP — Jimmy Witherspoon at the Monterey Jazz Festival — gave his career new life.
That was the album that first brought him to my attention, and the music is just as powerful today — more than a half-century later. He was surrounded by a handful of great jazz musicians at that festival — trumpeter Roy Eldridge, both Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins on tenor sax, clarinetist Woody Herman, pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, bassist Vernon Alley, and drummer Mel Lewis.
Although that set only lasted 25 minutes with five songs, Witherspoon’s inspired performance was the hit of the festival.
That legendary album is usually now found paired with another exciting live concert two months later, “Jimmy Witherspoon at the Renaissance” packaged together as “The Concerts.” This second set features more stellar backers — Webster, baritonist Gerry Mulligan, pianist Jimmy Rowles, bassist Leroy Vinnegar, and drummer Lewis again.
‘Spoon has a pretty large body of work available, but if you can find only these two albums, you’ll treat yourself to some of the finest blues you’ll ever hear, from a singer who’s at the top of his game, driven hard by some of the finest musicians of the day. His voice was big and bold, but he could bring it down to a whisper or raise it to a falsetto for emphasis. He could work a lyric with impeccable diction and still take you down home with his passion.
His career rose and fell over the years, as tastes and audiences changed. But Jimmy Witherspoon never changed his ability to find the deepest of blues in his artistry. He died in 1997.
One quick note: I included his mother’s name up above because on of one of the songs on the Monterey album, Witherspoon introduces her. She was seeing him perform for the first time, and he introduces her by name during the set.
Another quick note: Witherspoon’s grandson, Ahkello Witherspoon, is an NFL football player, currently a cornerback on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster. No word on whether or not he sings.
Here are a few videos I could find that I think represent Witherspoon’s great talents. The first is a live performance of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” the second is “Nothing’s Changed,” featuring a young Robben Ford, and the third is a recording (audio only) of the classic blues “CC Rider” (first recorded in 1924 by Ma Rainey), featuring simply gorgeous trumpet work by a player I couldn’t identify. But it’s simply a terrific rendition, as the trumpet weaves in and out of the vocals, a deep blue counterpoint to ‘Spoon’s magnificent voice. Enjoy!