Usually, Lloyd Allen, the dynamic singer and guitar slinger for the Cannonballs, the seminal Northwest blues band, is, among his many other talents, a walking fashion statement.
But on this Independence Day evening at the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Allen wisely chose to tone down (for him anyway) his attire. Even the flamboyant Allen knew there was no way he could compete with the splendor of the Cannonballs’ guest singer for the night, the Jimmy T99 Nelson, the greatest living blues shouter and one of the true progenitors of rock and roll.
Midway through the Cannonballs’ rollicking set Nelson strolled onto the stage in a cerulean-colored suit that shimmered so brightly it looked as if it had just been painted by Raphael. Adorned with a captain’s cap and fighter pilot shades, T99 looked like he was ready to rock all night. And damned if he didn’t! Indeed, the 83-year old blues shouter dominated the stage not only with the Cannonballs, but with a host of other top-notch acts, including guitarist Duke Robillard, piano player Marcia Ball and harp master Paul DeLay, stealing the show at what has become one of the nation’s biggest blues festivals.
Nelson grabbed the microphone, waved one of his big paws at the crowd, then turned and chided the band. “Slow it down, boys, I’m gettin’ too old to sing it that fast. Heh, heh.” The little chuckle told the whole story. There was nobody on that stage who was going to outpace Nelson on this night. “The older a blues singer gets, the better he sounds!” Nelson told me later. “It’s all those life experiences, man.”
With David Vest on piano, you could almost imagine you were hearing Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson in their prime, back when the R&B sound was being invented and ripped apart at the same time. Vest can do almost anything with a keyboard. But he’d met his match with Nelson. Nothing he did with those keys on this night could detour much attention from the magic and power of Nelson’s voice. Vest knew it too. You could see him smiling as Nelson ripped through Shake, Rattle and Roll, manhandling the band and hypnotizing the audience. This was no surprise to Vest. The two were old friends from Houston, where Vest had played piano in Nelson’s band in the 1990s, as T-99 resurrected a career that had lain dormant for nearly 30 years.
Nelson is known as a blues shouter. But it’s a misnomer. Shouter gives the impression of a singer who attracts attention by uncontrolled screaming. Like, say, Janis Joplin. That’s not T99. Nelson brings the whole package. He can be as smooth as Jackie Wilson, as nuanced as his friend Percy Mayfield and urgent as Wynonie Harris. Nelson earned his stripes singing a variety of styles, from straight blues and jump blues to big band and swing to R&B and soul crooner. “It all depended on the audience, man,” Nelson told me. “Back then some of those white cats couldn’t really understand the blues. You had to sing them something they could relate to.”
On this Independence Day night, the largely white audience would have adored anything Nelson chose to sing for them. By the time Nelson finished Flip, Flop and Fly and Roll ‘Em Pete, the crowd was in a frenzy, begging Nelson for more. But he just smiled, waved, and strolled off the stage. “You got to know when to walk off,” Nelson said later. “You’ve got to leave them wanting more. That’s one of the great secrets of life in the music business.”
Jimmy Nelson has a lifetime of those secrets and on Saturday afternoon he shared a few with me and Kimberly, along with David Vest and Teresa McMahill. We spent a couple of hours together at Pete’s Coffee House in downtown Portland.
The first thing you notice about Jimmy, when he removes his ubiquitous shades, are his extraordinary eyes: light hazel in color, clear as crystal, lively, intelligent, and impish. He was in Portland as an emergency replacement for Ruth Brown, who’d been taken ill. He flew into Portland expected to stay a day. Instead, after his blow out opening night performance with Duke Robillard, the promoters had demanded that he stay around for the entire five days of the festival. He’d brought one set of day clothes and his blue suit. He’d left his razor in Houston. He stayed five days and tore the place up each afternoon and evening.
“Man, I only have that one suit,” Nelson joked. “If I don’t change it soon, people are going to think I’m poor.”
That wasn’t going to be a possibility. Jimmy Nelson could look sharp in coveralls.
These days Nelson is marketed as “the Texas blues singer.” But he’s really an all-American musician, who was able to absorb the gospel sound, west coast blues and New Orleans R&B and transform it into his own unique, vibrant style. He was born in Philly, in 1918. It was a musical family, but a divided one. His father, Big Boy Nelson, was a featured sax player in Doc Hodges’ band for many years. But Jimmy’s father wasn’t around very much. “He met my mother at a dance where he was playing sax,” Nelson recalled. “And they got together hot-and-heavy right away, you know, and he dropped his seed and that was about it. When I was young, he didn’t even come around to buy us milk. But, man, he always fascinated me. Leading the life of a musician.”
His mother, Florence, was a singer and a very good one by his account. But she was religious and stuck to gospel songs and church settings. “She didn’t play no clubs,” says Nelson. “She didn’t go for that. And she didn’t like my father and didn’t want me to be a musician. She wanted something better for me, I guess, and she got me in one of those ‘Holy Roly’ churches in Chester, Pennsylvania. She told me if I ever got in show business she’d whup me.”
But the blues had captured Nelson’s heart and soul and, at the same time, he was growing more and more curious about his father’s life. “One day I hopped a street car in south Philly to a sale at a music store,” Nelson said. “I bought a clarinet for $4.50 and then on the way home I bought this kitten. My mother came home from work. She saw the clarinet and the kitten, grabbed them, went up to the second story window and threw them out on to the sidewalk. That like to broke my heart, man. And I decided to leave right then. Everybody was always kicking my dad down to me. But I wanted to find out what show biz was like.”
Most people think that the blues traveled north, from the Mississippi Delta up through Memphis and St. Louis to Chicago. Much of it did, of course. But not all of it. Jimmy Nelson was one of those who went West. Many of the R&B greats, such as Big Joe Turner and Nat King Cole, headed to California. So too did many of the Texas blues musicians, such as T-Bone Walker and Pee Wee Crayton. That blend of Texas jump blues and swing and urban R&B melded to form a West Coast sound that was not only distinct from what was being produced by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf in Chicago at roughly the same period but rivaled it in quality.
So at the age of 17, Jimmy hopped a train and headed for the Pacific Coast. “I went with my friend Head, who knew everything about riding trains,” Nelson said. “But he didn’t tell me how dangerous it was, especially on a passenger train. We was hiding between cars and you know if one of those guards, one the bulls, found a black man crouched down there they’d just shoot them and leave them lying by the rails.”
Jimmy eventually made it all the way to Seattle. He was headed for Port Orchard, a small town on the Olympic Peninsula to see his Uncle Jimmy Luck. He took the Ferry from Bremerton across Puget Sound. “I didn’t have his address,” Nelson said. “But he was the only black man in that town, so he was easy to find.”
Jimmy stayed with his uncle only a couple of weeks before he headed south. “I roomed with him and his girlfriend until she got frisky, started looking for some fresh meat, you know?” Nelson said. “So I decided I need to get out of there before any trouble started.”
“How old were you then Jimmy, you must’ve been very young,” Kimberly asked.
Nelson’s face expanded into a devilish grin. “Oh, I was old enough for that honey, believe me, I sure was.”
He landed in Sacramento, where he soon got a job in the fields, toiling as a farmworker picking tomatoes, cotton, strawberries, and hops. “Oh mercy it was hot down there in those fields,” Nelson said. “But I didn’t mind the work. I was glad to be on my own and have some money.”
One night he ventured into an Oakland club and heard Big Joe Turner, fronting the Kansas City Rockers. “It turned my life around” Nelson said. “We were listening to this band and they were pretty good, but then the biggest man I’d ever seen in my life stepped out on stage. He opened his arms wide and started to sing the blues and man I said that’s for me. That man stood flat-footed and delivered the blues, man! He didn’t need a microphone; he didn’t need nothing. I said to myself, this guy’s got something I need to have. That was Big Joe Turner. He was my inspiration to be a singer.”
Eventually, Jimmy and Turner would become fast friends. They would perform together, travel together and drink together. “Booze, that was Big Joe’s sickness,” Nelson said. “He would drink and drink. Anything and everything. But he had a magic trick. He’d eat a lot. Oh, he’d eat mountains of food. And it kept him from passing out from the booze, you know. We were working in Mississippi once. There was this great smell coming up the steps of the hotel. We went down to see what was cooking. It was a big pot of chitlins. Joe bought the whole pot. And we ate all those chitlins with mustard. Oh, they was good, and we used to laugh about that day for years. Chitlins and hot mustard, Oh yeah.”
Sometimes the food didn’t do the trick and Turner would get so drunk that he couldn’t perform. On a few occasions, Nelson would go on stage for Joe. Sometimes, usually in rural outpost, Nelson would actually go on stage as Joe Turner. “In a lot of towns in California people think I’m Joe Turner,” Nelson said. “Clubs would hire me because I sounded like Joe, and Joe would be too juiced to make the gig. I did all of Joe’s numbers.”
“Do you think the music business treated Joe right?” Vest asked.
“Hell no,” Jimmy said, slapping the table. “Joe Turner never did get his royalties. Look at all those hits: ‘Lucille,’ ‘Piney Town Blues,’ ‘Wee Baby Blues,’ ‘Shake Rattle and Roll’. And he didn’t see hardly nothing. You know Joe couldn’t even write his name. That’s why he always had his valet with him. But they robbed him because of that. All those guys was robbed.”
In the mid-1940s, Nelson began entering singing competitions, going up against the likes of that Bay Area great, Jimmy Witherspoon. At that point his talent may have been raw, but it was also evident to anyone with a feel for the new urban blues sound. He recorded a few songs for the small Oliet label, but back then Jimmy was more interested in performing than recording. He soon landed a gig at a Richmond club called the Tapper’s Inn, where he both sang and served as emcee. “I remember the night T-Bone Walker first came there to play,” Nelson said. “He’d let it be known that he thought I talked too much when I gave the introductions. So when it came time to time to introduce him later that night all I said was ‘T-Bone Walker.’ Oh was he ever mad. He thought he deserved more fanfare than that. But we worked it out. We never had no problems after that. And T-Bone could play some guitar, man. People thought he was half-crazy, wailing away with a guitar that’s got electricity flowing through it, and then plucking those strings with his tongue. It looked like he’d kill himself.”
Many of the West Coast scene’s best blues artists passed through Tapper’s Inn, including Pee Wee Crayton, Percy Mayfield, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, and Lowell Fulson. “Those were the tender days of the blues,” Nelson said. “Those old-timers could lay on the blues. Make you cry, if they wanted. I remember Ivory Joe Hunter. That man had the biggest feet in the world. When he sat on the bandstand, he didn’t need no drummer. He’d just slap his foot and everybody’d start dancing to that stomping. And some night poor Lowell Fulson would come down with his guitar. They wouldn’t let him sit in, because he was never in key and couldn’t sing hardly at all. Finally, this guy from LA got Lowell, gave him this chic-a-boom beat, and he put that in Everyday I’ve Got the Blues and went flying to the top. I’m so proud of Lowell. These white cats who play the blues today think they doin’ blues. But a lot of them just don’t have the feel, you know? It’s a shame they didn’t get to see people like Big Joe or Pee Wee.”
Jimmy’s best friend in Oakland was Percy Mayfield, the brilliant songwriter and singer. “Oh Percy was great, but you know a lot people couldn’t stand to be around him because he talked so much,” Nelson said. “I mean he just couldn’t stay quiet. Percy and I were in the Masonic Lodge together. But I didn’t get to see him much because he was in the higher orders, in the inner sanctum. But Percy could be cheap too. One time I had to borrow his bus to take my band down to San Diego. He wasn’t using it. But he still charged me $100. Oh, I loved Percy Mayfield like a brother, though.”
Later Jimmy moved across the bay to the Long Bar Showboat Club on Fillmore Avenue in San Francisco, a fully integrated club with Chinese bartenders. “That was one wildest places, man,” said Nelson. “And they worked you hard. The music would start at 9 PM and continue straight through until 10 in the morning. They demanded three new songs a week from the singers, four new songs from the band and even new songs from the shake-dancers.”
It was here that Nelson became friends with Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. By all accounts, Holiday was treated roughly by the management. “Billie, oh she would cry and cry,” Nelson recalled. “Finally the owner got mad at her and paid her off in one-dollar bills…700 one-dollar bills. And he made her sit there and count them. That was cold, man.”
Louis Armstrong was one of the original vitamin freaks and had something of a mean streak, particularly with women. “I never seen anyone pop as many pills as Louis Armstrong,” Nelson said, shaking his head. “A big plate filled with all these different kinds of vitamins and stuff. Whew. You know Louis could be kind of rough on the ladies. But Louis’ wife Lucille didn’t stand for that. She carried a knife and told Louis if he hit her she’d cut him.”
There were legendary singing contests at the Long Bar. “We was into cutting heads back then,” Nelson said. “You know what cutting heads is? It was like a heavyweight fight on stage. You wanted to take on the top singer and cut his head on stage, man. I mean crack his skull open, upstage him, take his spot. Me and PeeWee Crayton and Percy Mayfield used to go at it with cats like Wynonie Harris. O-boy, nobody dressed like Wynonie Harris. And his songs, they had some crude, cussin’ stuff in there. But he was a mean man. Really mean to people. You know I was always thought you had to be nice. You can’t go around stepping on peoples’ heads when you climb to the top cause there won’t be no one around when you hit bottom. When Wynonie hit bottom there wasn’t nobody there.”
One day in 1951, Jimmy got a call from the Bihari Brothers, owners of Modern Records, asking him to perform at the at club in Oakland with the Peter Rabbit Trio. That night they recorded four songs. Six weeks later “T-99 Blues” (named after an old highway running out of Ft. Worth) hit the airwaves and Nelson was the hottest property in R&B. The emphasis here is on property. It’s the old story of the relentless exploitation of black musicians and songwriters. His record was a big hit, but Nelson was pinned down at the Long Bar for another year. “I wanted to go on tour and take advantage of my record” Nelson recalls. “So I told the owner of the Long Bar that I needed to leave. He said, ‘Son, come here, I want to show you something. This is a contract. You can’t leave now.’ That was an early lesson in how the music business owns you.”
Like other blues artists of his time, Nelson also didn’t see much profit from the brisk sales of his record, which climbed to the top of the charts. “We just wanted to make records to advertise ourselves and our club dates,” Nelson recalled. “We didn’t know these records were going all over the country. And, of course, it wasn’t in the Bihari Brothers’ interest to tell us. Eventually, I learned from that, man, about the copyright laws. But only after everything died down.”
When Nelson was finally free to hit the road, he got signed up with Los Angeles promoter Ben Waller. One of the first thing’s Waller did was to take Nelson to a tailor. “I go out to the tailor’s shop,” Nelson said. “My eyes got big. I saw all this material. I want that blue one, that gold one, that white one. Back in those days, black cats dressed sharp and sing your ass off. So I got to DC with all of these suits and then I got my first paycheck. And it wasn’t much. And I called Ben Waller said, where’s the rest of my money? And he says, in those suits. And then there was his 15 percent off the top. Early lessons in the music biz, man. Lots of tickets being sold, lots of money being made, but not by the singer.”
Things haven’t changed much. These days recording artists are routinely socked with the bills for overpriced videos deemed necessary to sell their records.
For the next two years, Nelson toured the country at a grueling pace, playing the Apollo in Harlem and the Howard Theater in Washington, DC. The constant touring meant that Nelson didn’t have time to record any new songs and left him too tired to write new music.
Nelson’s voice has been a touchstone for some of the great singers who’ve followed him, perhaps none more so than B.B. King. Indeed, the success of T-99 Blues prompted the Bihari Brothers to summon the young BB King from Memphis to Los Angeles for a recording session. Those cuts have been reissued and if you listen to them, along with T-99 Blues, you’ll hear how deftly King incorporated Nelson’s stylings into his own vocal approach, creating one of the signature sounds of Post-WW II blues. Many years later King told Nelson: “If it hadn’t been for singers like you, I would not have gotten in the business.”
When the Bihari Brothers latched on to BB, they ended up letting Jimmy go. “The Bihari Brothers said they wanted to record this kid from Memphis,” Nelson says. “And that was BB King. Those sessions turned out one, two, three, four, five hit records in a row. ‘It was three-o’clock in the morning…’ Oh, yeah, BB was on his way. And it wasn’t long before I got my ‘Dear John’ letter from them. They didn’t have that much money and decided to put it all in promoting BB. But I’m not bitter about it. I see BB from time to time and we chuckle about those days. He says, he wouldn’t have made it without singers like me, without the money the Biharis made off of T99 Blues. But I look back and say, it all works out in the end. BB became one big star and we’ve all been able to enjoy that great music.”
“Yeah, but the Bihari Brothers blew it, Jimmy,” Vest said. “They could have signed you and BB and had you recording great songs for them for the next fifty years.”
I asked him what he thought about the advent of rock and roll and whether he felt ripped off that the white bands were making so much money off of black music. “Oh, man, that was nothing,” he said. “We’d been doing rock ‘n roll forever before those guys came along, Wynonie Harris, Big Joe, even Fats Waller. They rocked long before Elvis. I did like that Little Richard, though. I met him in a club in Atlanta. This was before I knew he was that way, if you know what I mean. He took us upstairs and said, ‘Have some of this.’ I drank it, thinking it was water, you know, but that stuff was the sweetest white lightning I’d ever tasted. And I just kept drinking it. Here’s a secret for you: put a little grape juice in there with that stuff and you could go all night.” Nelson playfully flicks his index finger up and down. “Heh, heh. But, you know, Richard got to the point where he stopped writing and doing new material. He’s spent years and years performing the same old stuff and it shows. I can’t do that.”
In 1955, Nelson settled in Houston, where he became, along with Lightnin’ Hopkins, Eddie Cleanhead Vinson and T-Bone Walker, one of the giants of the Texas blues scene. While in Texas, he continued to record, including the remarkable “Free and Easy Mind” for Chess. He also fell in love with the woman who would become his wife, Nettie. But with the advent of rock and roll, blues wasn’t attracting as much attention or money. Records and club dates didn’t pay the bills, so Nelson got a fulltime job at Hartney Construction Company, where he worked for the next 20 years as a bricklayer and mason. He’s very proud of pouring the concrete for the Astrodome and not very impressed with the Astro’s new digs, Enron/Minute Maid Field.
“There came a time when working construction paid more money than playing music and when you’re married you’ve got to think about those things,” Nelson said.
Over the next couple of decades, Nelson’s chops weren’t idle. He played local clubs in the Houston area and he continued to perfect his songwriting skills. Jimmy Nelson isn’t just one of the greatest blues singers of his time. He’s also one of the great songwriters in the history of the genre, including such standouts as “Meet Me with Your Black Dress On”, “House of Blues” and “Free and Easy Mind.” His songs can be ironic, funny, chilling, heartbreaking, raunchy and just flat out rocking. “I don’t look back,” Nelson said. “I don’t have any interest in redoing T-99 Blues. I’m writing new kinds of music. My new songs are 7 chorus long. Now songs that long can get boring. So you have to work in some channels and utilize the band. Put some solos in there. The older I got the more I knew how to write. When I was young, I just put a bunch of silly things together. And if nothing comes to you, you get a block, just take another drink, and shout the blues, man. It’ll be alright.”
In 1998, Jimmy Nelson made an audacious return to the recording studio, producing Rockin’ and Shoutin’ the Blues released by Rounder. This 9-song CD featured five new songs by Nelson and extensively rearranged covers of Leroy Carr’s seminal How Long Blues, Doc Pomus’ Boogie Woogie Country Girl and his old friend Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson’s, Sweet Mr. Cleanhead. Jimmy was backed by a first-rate band of Texas musicians, led by the great guitarist Clarence Hollimon along with two horn players from Roomful of Blues, Rich Lataille and Doug James. The music sounds new and fresh, the band finds deep grooves and stays in them. Even so, Nelson dominates the record with a voice that is both polished and thunderous, sly, and playful.
The record was nominated for five W.C. Handy Awards, the Grammy’s of the blues. Nelson was invited to Memphis for the awards show. “I can’t brag on Memphis,” Nelson said. “My trip to Memphis was miserable. I paid my airfare, cab fare, and hotel at $190 a night. They didn’t pay the entertainers. I wish they wouldn’t nominate me anymore. I’ll go broke. I wondered why the Bobby Blue Bland and Etta James were reluctant to go down. Now I know.”
Nelson also says that Rounder didn’t do much to promote the CD. “Yeah, they didn’t treat me right,” Nelson said. “They sent out thousands of copies of the cover with my picture on it, but the CD inside was religious music. Can you imagine that?”
Later that summer Nelson released a CD titled “Take Your Pick”, featuring Duke Robillard on guitar. “After all these years, I finally found out the secret of life,” Nelson said. “Own your own record label. My session cost $10,000. If I find a penny on the ground, it goes to my sessions. I pay the fees and the musicians and I can do what I like.”
On the closing night of the blues festival the skies above Portland opened and the rains came pouring down. The crowd of 10,000 or so huddled together, grooving to Marcia Ball and her scorching band. Midway through her set, she brought out Nelson, looking splendid in that same blue suit. Jimmy ripped through two smoking blues and then waved good-bye. But the crowd wouldn’t let him go. They demanded more and he gave it to them.
There were many there who’d probably never heard of Jimmy T-99 Nelson before that stormy night. And that’s a damn shame, a sign of how quickly the living history of the blues can evaporate even among connoisseurs. But it only took a few moments for that sound to be resurrected and taken to heart. Those rain-soaked blues fans left in amazement, with no doubt that they’d just seduced by a legend.
A condensed version of this essay appeared in the liner notes of Cry Hard Luck: The RPM and Kent Recordings 1951-61 (Ace).