As I’ve written in these pages before (O&S#12), Roy Dunn was a major resource for me throughout the Atlanta vicinity… what card-carrying folklorists refer to as a primary informant, but he was also my friend. I never knew how he “found” people for me, but he did… and they were not all guitar players, either! The piano has had an equally long pedigree in the blues to the guitar, but in the SE it just was not recorded in anywhere the same density. While one may speak (correctly, I believe) of a Piedmont style of blues guitar playing, the same cannot be said for the piano because we just do not have sufficient examples from which to make such generalizations. The record companies in the twenties and thirties just didn’t pick up on area blues pianists (although we know from anecdote that they existed), focusing on the Blakes, Mosses, Whites, and Fullers instead. Atlanta has been a cosmopolitan city for centuries (especially for the South) and commercial recordings were done there in great numbers – some say that it was the first center for OTM/C&W recordings before Nashville’s rise after WW II. And not just White traditional musics and blues; there were sessions featuring dance bands, popular singers, and religious material, both Black and White. Blues pianists are notable for their absence. There were such theatres as the 81 and the 91 for Black vaudeville in the 20s and they had orchestras of varying sizes, or pianists for the shows, but few recorded… even Eddie Haywood, Sr. was poorly represented on wax. But the piano was there.
The second pianist that Roy put me in touch with was a man named Eddie Lee Person in 1973. He worked then for a security agency (he offered to get me a pistol to carry in my van as he felt that I was woefully “protected” with just two dogs!) and claimed to have recorded for Aladdin Records somewhere in the late forties or so, possibly as a side-man. (I don’t have my Aladdin/Imperial discography here, so I cannot troll and see if there were any sides done in Atlanta around then by any R’n’B artists.) This is where John Burrison comes into the picture once again. Who might he be, you may well ask! John is the head of the folklore section of the English Department (where they were normally planted) at Georgia State University in Atlanta. “So what”, you might declare! See, I carried a bunch of guitars with me in my van, but any sort of piano was out-of-the-question back then. (Have you ever tried to lug a piano to the crossroads?) What a university like GA State has is a Music Department… and, oh boy, do they have pianos. Good ones, too… in tune! It was via John’s interdepartmental efforts that I was able to record a couple of pianists in Atlanta, for he was able to book one of the practice rooms for us in an evening. So, in this case, John, Eddie, and I proceeded to the Music Dept. one late afternoon after Eddie got off work and proceeded to record seventeen selections. They ran the gamut from “After Hours” and “Key to the Highway” to “Please Send Me Someone to Love” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”. Eddie Lee was a relatively smooth pianist and singer, capable of playing lounges in the city, but also capable of good blues and boogies. The following year I tried to contact him, but his telephone number had been disconnected and Eddie Lee Person became another fleeting figure not to be heard from again. He was worthy.
The first pianist that Roy put me with was a man named Tommie Lee Russell – why I put him second in this will become understood as you read on. Tommie was idiosyncratic, “breaking time” with great abandon, but playing with great fire and interest. It was with Russell that John Burrison’s services were first utilized in gaining entry to a good piano in late 1972, this time during the afternoon (I recorded Sam Swanson [O&S 45] later that day when he got off work). Tommie was a real mix and match affair as a player, quite rough and ready in a fashion similar to a less sophisticated Piano Red (!), one of his influences. Due to his facial Bell’s Palsy (my diagnosis… hey, I went to medical school for a couple of years!), he claimed that he didn’t sing – he did play “After Hours” (surprise!) and “Goin’ Downtown, Buying Me a Rocking Chair”, as well as a bunch of blues and boogies. Roy was there, but couldn’t figure how to play along, even when I tuned his guitar to the piano… beyond his capabilities. Bastin was impressed enough by the tapes to decide to include him in the Chapel Hill festival lineup on the Thursday night along with Frank Edwards, Roy, and Guitar Shorty, where he did nine songs and even sang a few! He was well received… boogie piano always is. Later in my trip I recorded him at home on his electronic organ – I think it was a Wurlitzer, Dad.
Even later that same day in December of 1972 I recorded Charlie Russell, a cousin to Tommy, who was a guitarist/singer who also played a little bit of harp. Yet another “Key to the Highway”, but something interesting… Jimmy Reed tunes. I know, big deal! They were interesting because Charlie wasn’t aware that there was more than one guitarist on the records and so attempted to play ALL the parts himself, resulting in interesting versions of “You Don’t Have to Go” and “Ain’t That Lovin’ You, Baby” among the nine selections recorded for me. But that’s not all from the Russells, folks! Tommie took me the following year (1973) to meet his mother, Mattie, and it was more than just a nice gesture. She was a staunch church-goer who once had been in the chorus line for shows at the 81 Theatre on Peachtree Street behind such luminaries as Bessie Smith in the thirties. She also played guitar. I recorded her doing some church songs all decked out in her Sunday-go-to-meeting finest (including wig). Then she roared into some blues and old dance tunes, some learned from “an old Geechie” in her youth!! What a surprise… eleven great pieces! That was another busy day for the Uher as I later did Tommie Lee at home, as already mentioned, as well as my second session with “Sam” Swanson (O&S 45). The next time that I was in Atlanta, I went by his place and was told that he had had strokes and died that winter, and the trail was broken (1).
There was one other church woman that I had the pleasure of meeting and recording – one Sister Susie Weaver Young, an evangelist and singer who used to go up under the viaduct by Georgia State to preach, sing, and beat her bass drum to attract attention and to accompany her singing. Sr. Young had done radio broadcasting in the forties in Atlanta and was trying to collect enough money to build herself a church on the empty lot next to her apartment. She was also a very hip older lady! She told Bruce and I that we should be doing more than what we were doing, and should go out dancing and meet some ladies (for a wife, no doubt). As far as she was concerned, there was nothing against dancing in her Bible and that two unattached young men (then) should go out on the town! My kind of religious advice, but are both of us are dancing-impaired (there really is no such dance as The Funky Honky!), so we couldn’t take her advice. I did, in later times, though.
I met and interviewed many more folks than I recorded. They included the noted DJ, Zenas Sears, a very important figure in post-war Black radio, and early R’n’B as well: Grady “Fats” Jackson, a sax player who had traveled with Little Walter and Elmore James (I got to him through Lockwood [O&S 39, 40]): Rev. C.J. Johnson of Savoy Records LP fame and a lined-out hymns included: Alex Williams, a singer/guitarist and radio repair man who recorded the answer record “The Thrill Ain’t Gone” on his own label which had then been picked up for wider distribution by Jewel Records: the legendary Billy Wright… the list goes on. All were truly wonderful people and more than helpful, and they all deserve my greatest thanks for their contributions to my “work”!
- (1) Mattie Russell was the only female guitarist that I recorded: George Higgs (O&S 42) mentioned one near him in NC, but I was not able to link up with her. They existed at one time… the mother of Richard and Willie Trice, Lula Mae Couch, had been a guitarist and once quietly sang a few verses of “Freight Train” that weren’t in Libba Cotton’s expurgated version – this after Bruce and I mentioned the song in her presence! And she was not unique, from what we could gather… sadly, never could get her to do it on tape, though!
Peter B. Lowry
Published: B&R 250 (June 2010) p. 7. Edited.