Located in Neshoba County in eastern Mississippi, Philadelphia is hometown to blues legend Otis Rush and country great Marty Stuart. The town became central to the civil rights movement when three activists were murdered here in 1964. Their deaths helped procure the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Blues history runs deep in the Black Prairie blues region of Macon and Noxubee County. Located in eastern Mississippi, on the Alabama border, Macon is hometown to Carey Ball, Eddy Clearwater, and Jesse Fortune. Willie King lived in nearby Prairie Point.
Carey Bell Harrington was a hard playing Chicago blues harpist from Macon, MS. His early blues influences were Big Walter Horton, Little Walter Jacobs, Sonny Boy Williamson I and Sonny Boy Williamson II. He played in Muddy Waters' and Willie Dixon's bands in the late 1960s and early 1970s before embarking on his solo career. In 1990 he recorded "Harp Attack," a collaboration with harmonica greats James Cotton, Junior Wells and Billy Branch.
Birthplace - Macon, MS
Henry Townsend has the distinction of being the only blues musician to have recorded in every decade from the 1920s through 2000s. His recording career spans from 1929 through the Grammy winning “The Last of the Great Delta Bluesmen,” with Robert Lockwood Jr., Pinetop Perkins and Honeyboy Edwards in 2006. After moving from Shelby, MS. to St. Louis as a youth, he became an integral part of the St. Louis blues scene from the 1920s through 1940s. His playing was influenced by Roosevelt Sykes and Lonnie Johnson.
Birthplace- Shelby, MS.
Chicago blues pioneer Dave Myers, along with his brother Louis, formed the Aces, the first electric blues band in Chicago in the late 1940s. The legendary Junior Wells was a member before joining Muddy Waters. Myers learned to play from Lonnie Johnson as a youth in Mississippi. An influential bass player and guitarist, Myers was a noted session player for Earl Hooker, Otis Rush and Little Walter.
Oct. 30, 1926 in Byhalia, MS.
Sep. 3, 2001 in Chicago, IL.
Riley B. 'B.B.' King is a seminal figure in the history and development of electric blues guitar. His influence on the evolution of blues and rock music is incalculable. His crisp guitar phrasing and empassioned vocals blend seamlessly to create a unique and powerful combination. Born near Itta Bena, MS. in 1925, he became immersed in Delta blues in Indianola, MS. before moving to Memphis. It was here he became known as the "Beale Street Blues Boy," or B.B. for short. He had many chart-topping R&B hits in the 1950s, and his "Live at the Regal" in 1964 is regarded as one of the greatest guitar albums of all time. His crossover hit "The Thrill Is Gone" broke him into the mainstream in 1969.
Born- Sep. 16, 1925, Berclair, MS.
Died- May 14, 2015, Las Vegas, NV.
James Cotton was one of the last links between the Delta blues and Chicago blues traditions. Influenced and taught by harmonica great Sonny Boy Williamson, Cotton first recorded for Sam Phillips on Sun Records in 1953. He replaced Little Walter in Muddy Waters band, and is heard on many of Waters' important records. He became a solo artist in 1966, forming the James Cotton Band.
Born- Tunica, MS., July 1, 1935
Died- Austin, TX., March 16, 2017
The Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia, MS. is the oldest surviving juke joint in Mississippi. The cafe has been in operation since 1948, owned by blues musician Jimmy 'Duck' Holmes. Notables who played here include Skip James, Jack Owens, Henry Stuckey, Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 (Rice Miller), and James “Son” Thomas. It's as throwback a place as you can find.
The small town of Itta Bena in Leflore County shows the impact of blight and poverty in the Mississippi Delta region. What was once a thriving town is full of empty storefronts and disrepair. B.B. King's birthplace is in nearby Berclair.
Traveling north on Highway 61, the remnants of Hurricane Harvey created storms through Lousiana and Mississippi. The vast flatness of the land was even more apparent when viewing storms in the distance. The Mississippi delta region is an actual floodplain.
John Lee Hooker, king of the Delta blues boogie, was on my bucket list of blues performers to photograph. The opportunity came at the Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival in 1999. He sat alone on stage and mesmerized the crowd.
He passed away two years later in 2001. Along with Hooker, I was lucky enough to capture many original blues legends at the end of their careers. Most of them were gone within a ten-year time period.
A small building with a huge history is Sun Studio in Memphis. The building, opened by Sam Phillips in 1950, was originally called Memphis Recording Service. It was here that Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins , Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, BB King and Howlin Wolf made their early records. Elvis made his first record here in 1953.
The studio remains in it's original condition. What's most striking is how relatively small the actual recording studio is. A lot of great music produced in such a modest room.
Big Jack Johnson was a longtime fixture in the Clarksdale, MS. blues scene. Born the son of a sharecropper in Lambert, MS. in 1939, Johnson played a raw, electrified version of Delta blues. He was a member of the Jelly Roll Kings and also had a successful solo career. As a driver for Shell Oil, his nickname was "The Oil Man."
When he had a concert in Cleveland in 1999, I picked him up at the airport. There was time to kill before his show. We stopped at a garden in Akron, Oh. He picked an apple off the tree and ate it. He was always a humble country man at heart.
Big Jack Johnson: Akron, OH, 1999
David Honeyboy Edwards embodied the itinerant blues musician. Born in Shaw, MS. in 1915, he traveled throughout the south playing delta blues. He was a friend of Robert Johnson and was recorded for the Library of Congress by folklorist Alan Lomax in 1942. Throughout his career he played in the original delta blues tradition.
When he had a show in Cleveland in 2000, I picked him up at the airport. Edwards arrived by himself from Chicago carrying his guitar case. He was 85 years old at the time. It was a fleeting glimpse into the past.
While searching for Robert Johnson's grave marker at Payne Chapel in Quito, MS., a man named Richard Johnson approached and asked "Are you looking for Robert Johnson?" He took us to a spot covered with overgrown brush. After pulling the grass aside, a marker with the name of Robert Johnson appeared. It is one of three disputed grave sites for the blues legend.
top photo: RIchard Johnson, of Quito, MS., at Payne Chapel graveyard, 2016
bottom photo: Robert Johnson grave maker, Payne Chapel graveyard, Quito, MS. 2016
The corner of Second and Church St. in Indianola, MS. has a special significance in blues history. It is where a young BB King played for tips in the early 1940s. It seems hard to imagine a time when blues musicians had to play on the street. This is where BB King honed his craft to eventually become the "King of the Blues."
Another small town in the Mississippi delta with a deep blues history is Lula. It was the home of Charley Patton and Son House in the 1930s. Frank Frost and Sam Carr also have ties to Lula in the 60s and 70s. Not much is left of the town today. Remnants of an old gas station remain on Front Ave.
The tiny town of Tutwiler, MS. looms large in the history of blues music. It was where W.C. Handy first heard a blues song 'Where the Southern Cross the Dog' being played by a man at the railway station there in 1903. A series of murals which depicts the meeting line a brick wall. The grave of Sonny Boy Williamson II is also located there.
Joe Willy "Pinetop" Perkins was a blues pianist who played in Muddy Waters band. Born in Belzoni, MS. in 1913, he won a grammy award for Best Traditional Blues Album at the age of 97, the oldest ever. In 2004 he recorded "Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas" with Honeyboy Edwards, Robert Lockwood Jr. and Henry Townsend. "Sidemen: Long Road To Glory" is an award winning documentary film about the lives of Pinetop Perkins, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith and Hubert Sumlin. One of my favorite blues photos is of Robert Lockwood Jr. and Pinetop Perkins, two of the last original bluesmen, posing together before a show at Wilbert's in Cleveland in 1998.
top photo: Robert Lockwood Jr., left, and Pinetop Perkins; Cleveland, OH. in 1998.
bottom photo: Pinetop Perkins at Pocono Blues Festival, PA. in 2000.
Robert Lockwood Jr. was one of the last great original Delta bluesmen. He let me photograph him in his latter performing years. He was my entry into blues and music photography. Mr. Lockwood was a gracious man and allowed me to photograph him in his Cleveland, OH. home several times. He was born near Helena, ARK. in 1915 and was a pioneer in amplfied blues guitar. He was a direct link to the legendary Robert Johnson. Even a young B.B. King learned from him.