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Jimmy T99 Nelson, a Blues Legend and the Songs that Made Him Famous

by DAVID VEST

You passed me flying in my brand new Oldsmobile Yes you passed me flying in my brand new Oldsmobile Your hair all messed up and some playboy at the wheel

Between 1951 and 1961, Jimmy T99 Nelson cut some of the greatest sides in the history of rock and roll or, as it was known in those days, rhythm and blues. Two of his tunes were substantial hits: “T99 Blues” and “Meet Me With Your Black Dress On,” one of the sexiest performances ever recorded. Most of the others, every bit as good, never got played on the radio or promoted effectively. Had people heard them, they would have stormed record stores to buy them.

There’s no need to doubt it. As of this November 4, half a century later, the songs that established T99 as a blues legend will be available for the first time “officially” on CD, from Ace Records. The sound is wonderful, and some of the tracks have never been commercially available in any format.

Those who get this CD and play it will realize before the opening number ends that Jimmy T99 Nelson is not only the last of the great blues shouters, he should have been and with any luck easily could have been a major rock star of both the Fifties and early Sixties.

This is hard-hitting stuff, crisp as newly minted money and with a groove that won’t quit.

T99 is often compared to his mentor, Big Joe Turner. Since I performed with both of them, I feel qualified to say for the record that in my opinion Jimmy Nelson is every bit Joe Turner’s equal, and then some. While it is true that Big Joe came first and that T99 learned from him and in some ways modeled himself on Turner, it is also undeniably true that Nelson’s achievement, which is ongoing, extends well beyond his master’s reach.

For one thing, as he also demonstrated on his more recent albums, Nelson not only has a magnificent voice, he is a great songwriter as well. Of the 23 selections on CRY HARD LUCK, 22 are Nelson originals. The alternate takes are wonderful, especially the originally unreleased take of “T99 Blues,” with completely different lyrics as great if not greater than the other more familiar set.

This collection can only enlarge the already near-mythical status of Jimmy T99 Nelson. He is, after all, a figure whose legend is as large as the country that produced him, elevated him, relegated him to obscurity and then rediscovered him. This is a man who actually hoboed virtually coast-to-coast during Segregation, picked fruit to survive in California, worked with Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, made records in a bathroom, performed at the Apollo Theater, poured cement to build the Astrodome and recently had his picture taken backstage with Elvis Costello, who by all accounts was thrilled to meet him.

At major blues festivals in Europe and America Nelson has been a real knockout artist since his return to the scene. His comeback album, “Rockin’ and Shoutin’ the Blues,” was hugely successful and his latest effort, “Take Your Pick,” may be even better.

I was invited to write the liner notes for “Take Your Pick” and I have written elsewhere [on rebelangel.com] about working with T99 on a still-unreleased session in Houston with Milton Hopkins on guitar. Perhaps that one, too, will see the light of day eventually. I hope so, because Jimmy’s singing on it is absolutely superb.

How sweet it is that Jimmy Nelson has lived long enough not only to see his lifetime contribution recognized but to remind us of what making music’s really all about. B.B. King may be the undisputed king of the blues, but the greatest living blues shouter by far is Jimmy T99 Nelson. In this so-called Year of the Blues there could be no more essential collection than T99’s Cry Hard Luck.

Ace has done right by the music. One can only complain that they could certainly do better by the artist.

Jimmy Nelson, who is alive and well in Houston, was not consulted on this project. Why not? The failure to enlist the input of a living artist when putting together a major retrospective of his work is hard to justify.

Rather than interview T99 himself for the liner notes, Ace simply went online and cribbed (without asking permission) from Jeffery St. Clair’s definitive CounterPunch interview with the Jimmy.

When I called Jimmy Nelson to congratulate him, he had not even received a copy of the CD.

DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, just released a scorching new CD, Way Down Here.

He can be reached at: davidvest@springmail.com

Visit his website at http://www.rebelangel.com

 

DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, have just released a scorching new CD, Serve Me Right to Shuffle. His essay on Tammy Wynette is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on art, music and sex, Serpents in the Garden.

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