Big Joe Williams


Unissued Chicago Blues of the 50's from Cobra & JOB (Flyright FLY 577, 1981)






1. Cottage Grove

2. Meet Me In The Bottom

3. Bessemer Baby

4. Baby Please Don't Go - take 1, take 2

5. Highway 49

6. Shake Your Boogie

7. Jump Baby Jump




1. Mean Mistreater

2. Prison Bound



3. Keep Drinkin'

4. Boogie



5. I Wonder What's The Matter

6. Best Girl I Ever Had


At first sight, the bringing together of Big Joe Williams, Little Brother Montgomery and Memphis Slim on one compilation may prove for incongruity of style but, between them, these three gentlemen undeniably provide the needed links with those long dead blues peers of 50 years ago. Without wishing to over romanticise their importance, I think it's fair to say that Williams, Montgomery and Slim represent a very significant portion of blues history and, whatever your taste in the music, acknowledgement, at least, should be given to these three veterans for the part they have played in it.

The life of Joseph Lee 'Big Joe' Williams might be better described as a biography of a super-tramp(with apologies to W. H. Davies). He was born on October 16, 1903 in the Piney Woods area of Crawford, Mississippi As soon as he was old enough he was put to work alongside his 15 brothers and sisters picking cotton, the only source of family income. After a few years of this he became increasingly restless 'I left home, run off to the levee camps. I was about 12 years old then, I went to a camp in Greenville, Mississippi . . .', he recalled 40 years later. There began the itinerant existence which took him through States as diverse as Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia, either manual labouring on lumber-camps and railroad gangs or else earning dimes at country suppers and honky-tonks playing his guitar (which he had been 'fooling' with since he was six) for the clientele. Inevitably, this way of life for a rather dangerous well being, fracas seemed to be the order of the day for Joe, once incarcerating him in the notorious Parchman Farm. On another occasion his guitar met the head of a policeman which, apart from landing him in jail, ruined his most prized possession. From the remnants of this and other similarly damaged instruments he produced a 9-string model (two extra treble plus one bass) thereby creating for himself a unique design, variants of which he still plays today. His eventful travels also crossed the path of the famous Rabbit's Foot Minstrels, whom he joined for a while, and, later in Atlanta during 1930, he played with the Birmingham Jug Band and probably took part in their Okeh recordings that year.

Two years later, after nearly 20 years of hoboing and still under 30, Joe arrived in St. Louis where he set up house with blues singer Bessie Mae Smith and worked the clubs with resident bluesmen Walter Davis, Henry Townsend and Robert Lee McCoy. In 1935, through the efforts of Walter Davis, Big Joe Williams embarked upon a recording career which was to carry him through to the present day. Over those subsequent years he continued as before: rambling, recording, wandering,recording, Mississippi - St. Louis - Chicago - California (where he spent another term in jail aged56) - New York, as a look at his post-war discography, especially that of the 50s and 60s, will aver.

The nine tracks present on this compilation are something of a mystery. Recorded in Chicago between1956 and 1958 by Eli Toscano for his Cobra label, they were neither released nor afforded master numbers and as far as anyone knew never existed! A further intrigue is the unidentified pianist, who sounds suspiciously like Erwin Heifer and, if compared to the recordings Heifer made with Williams during 1957, this aural identification seems likely but no means certain. If this is so, then it may even settle a date of mid-to-late 1957 on these recordings. Speculation apart, what we do have is some vintage Big Joe Williams(frantic flaying and picking of the treble strings, toothless, southern accent with its Peetie Wheatstrawesque falsetto verse endings( and, if the pianist sounds too ordered behind all this frantic activity, that he stays the course, is nothing short of miraculous! One wonders what the Magic Sam/Otis Rush buyers would have made of this strange country blues sound had Toscano released these sides on Cobra. 'Jump Baby Jump' and 'Shake Your Boogie' are based on John Lee Williamson's 'Sonny Boy's-Jump', whilst 'Meet Me In the Bottom', though managing to use the same tune, is Curley Weaver's 'Oh Lordy Mama'. The strangely titled 'Cottage Grove' is apparently a street in Chicago, Cottage Grove Avenue, and was originally recorded by Joe in 1952 for Art Rupe's Specialty label. 'Baby Please Don't Go' is always, rightly, identified with Big Joe Williams,though the item itself is from the same stable as 'Don't Ease Me In/Don't Leave Me Here': a common stock song performed by the songsters of the south and may have been heard by Joe in his earlier travels. An artist from whom Big Joe Williams has very rarely taken material is the voluminous Leroy Carr, so to find two Carr numbers, 'Mean Mistreater' and 'Prison Bound', cut atone, short session, is surprising and may be as a result of the pianist present.

These sides were recorded some 20 or more years ago. During that time Big Joe Williams has also taken in Europe as part of his 'hoboing' circuit and, now 77, the years of hard travelling have sadly told on the man but, fortunately, not on his music.

Eurreal Wilford 'Little Brother' Montgomery also hailed from a large family, one of 10. He was born to Harper and Dicey Montgomery on April 18, 1906 in Kentwood, Louisiana. His parents were both musicians and by the time he was five he was playing proficient piano. Some years later he came under the influence of Cooney Vaughan who's 'Tremblin' Blues' was to be the basis of Montgomery's style. Little Brother, like Big Joe, left home before he was a teenager and headed for the honky-tonks of Louisiana, working his way to New Orleans. There he joined the band of Clarence Dusdune which included trumpeter Lee Collins who, in his autobiography, remember 'stealing' Brother from Dusdune for use in his own band. In 1928 Little Brother left New Orleans for Chicago and two years later cut his now famous 'Vicksburg Blues' for Paramount. The success of this tune was to ensure his future as both recording artist and performer.

Little Brother's two offerings here date from a session on October 5, 1953 for Joe Brown's JOB label. 'Boogie' (261 1) is a reworking of his 'Farish Street Jive' and the inclusion of a drummer makes it very reminiscent of his Atlantic version of a few years earlier. 'Keep Drinkin' (2610) has been recorded by him on previous occasions and shows to good advantage the wistful, bitter-sweet voice which makes any Montgomery recording instantly recognisable. The unobtrusive, at times almost inaudible, electric guitar on these tracks, though not identified, is aurally by Little Son Joe, who recorded two subsequent titles at this session, and, with Memphis Minnie, recorded four others prior to Little Brother's tracks.

Recently, Little Brother Montgomery has suffered several minor heart attacks but when he was in London (1980) his dexterity when performing numbers like the foregoing, I'm pleased to say, gave no hint of these ailments.

Memphis Slim, Big Joe's junior by 12 years and Montgomery's by 9, has become synonymous with the Paris night-club style of blues rather than the barrelhouse brand he played in his youth. Slim, a lean stooped individual was born Peter Chatman in Memphis, Tennessee on September 3, 1915 and taught himself piano at the age of seven. Unlike the other previously discussed artists, he did have a formal education, not leaving home until he was 16. For six years he worked the dance halls and turpentine camps around Tennessee, finally finding his way to Chicago in 1937. He arrived in the city at a time when artists like Sonny Boy Williamson, Tampa Red, Washboard Sam, Jazz Gillum and Big Bill Broonzy were dominating the town's club and recording scene and found no trouble in obtaining work as a blues pianist.

The past 40 years have definitely been a success story for Memphis Slim but many would say to the detriment of his music, so it's pleasing to discover two previously unknown 1950s Eli Toscano recordings which do justice to Memphis Slim the bluesman.

Alan Balfour, January, 1981