Original Chicago Blues. Part 1
Updated January 13 2017.
Check the video below for King Oliver with Louis Armstrong on slide whistle, Tampa Red and Georgia Tom.
But, first, a mention of Mayo ‘Jay’ Williams, neglectfully not included.
Surprisingly, most of the earliest blues recordings, you’ll find, were made in New York City. Perhaps to Chicago’s chagrin, it was New York, up to around 1920, which must take the mantle of being America’s first great urban blues recording centre.
This was helped by the first Great Migration, where some 1.6 million African Americans moved North to South, between 1910 and 1930. Many settled in the New York district of Harlem, where the Harlem stride piano style and, famously, piano-based jazz developed. Other Southern blacks moved to northern cities like Philadelphia and Detroit; but the majority moved to the mid-West, with a few hundred thousand of these social and economic migrants ending up in Chicago. More, of course, would regularly follow. Therefore, on the coat-tails of those first New York blues recordings, Chicago blues was born. Chicago would soon become America’s biggest and most important urban blues centre.
The YouTube clip above is solely about Lester Melrose’s part in the first era of Chicago blues – from about 1923 to the 1940s. However, the post here touches on the man who Melrose superseded, Jay Mayo Williams, simply because my film doesn’t mention Williams. Lester Melrose actually talent-spotted and produced records for Jay Mayo Williams during the first half of the 1920s, and ultimately became the more influential of the two Chicago blues pioneers.At the time of producing the soundtrack to this clip, I was researching for my book, America’s Gift, and in the process of discovering an even earlier Father of Chicago Blues than Lester Melrose. This, of course, was Jay Mayo Williams.
I later discovered that while Lester Melrose dominated the second half of the Original Chicago Blues era, it was Jay Mayo Williams who governed the first half.
For that reason I described Melrose in the video as a father of Chicago blues rather than the father. And while, unfortunately, I don’t mention Williams in the clip, I do write about him in my book and gladly feature him here.
So, who exactly was Jay Mayo Williams? A former African-American professional footballer, Jay had moved north as a boy, from Arkansas to Illinois, around 1901. With Jay’s father murdered down South, the child relocated, aged seven, with his mother, to her home town of Monmouth, Illinois. After service in World War One, J. Mayo Williams became one of just three black athletes to play in the debut season of America’s National Football League. Another of these footballers was Paul Robeson, the great singer, movie star and Civil Rights pioneer.
In 1924, Jay Williams joined Paramount in Chicago as a talent scout and supervisor of recording sessions, later starting the short-lived Black Patti label (named after the famous African-American opera singer Sissieretta Jones) in 1927. Williams was then involved with the Brunswick, Vocalion and Decca labels.
Blues artists Jay Mayo signed and recorded included Ma Rainey, and Papa Charlie Jackson, the first commercially successful self-accompanied blues solo artist.
Mayo Williams was so successful in getting talented black blues artists to put ink to paper to sign contracts (in those days before ballpoints), he became known as ‘Ink’ Williams.
Other blues icons recorded by Ink in Chicago included Alberta Hunter, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Cow Cow (Charles) Davenport, Tampa Red, Thomas Dorsey, Jelly Roll Morton, Ida Cox, King Oliver, Freddy Keppard, Clarence ‘Pinetop’ Smith and Leroy Carr.
Like most industries, though, the music business was seriously affected, in 1929, by the Wall Street Crash, and Ink Williams was briefly forced to go back to football, coaching in Atlanta. Halfway through the Great Depression, however, in 1934, Williams returned to the record industry to head Decca’s Race Records division. Here he was responsible for recording names such as Blind Boy Fuller, Roosevelt Sykes, Sleepy John Estes, Kokomo Arnold, Peetie Wheatstraw, Amos Easton (Bumble Bee Slim), amongst others, and gospel pioneers Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson.
Ink Williams was the most successful ‘Race records’ producer of his era, breaking all the previous sales records for the blues genre. But while Jay Ink Williams dominated the early Chicago Blues scene from 1924 to about 1928, the rest of the era belonged to Lester Melrose. Indeed, Lester used to consult and produce blues records for Williams in those early days, as a freelance A&R man and record producer.
Therefore, I now regard Lester Melrose and Jay Williams as the two fathers of the first era of Chicago blues. Obviously, the second era of the 1950s has different heroes. I only wish I had known more about Jay Ink Williams when I made the radio broadcast, the voice-over of which dictated what appeared in the film.
Thanks for this wide ranging view on a fascinating era in blues history. Given the tragic early death of many of these blues greats, it is sad to think just how much more potential groundbreaking these performers would have produced with the advantages of modern healthcare.
So true, Dianne. Blues would be totally different I'm sure had these pioneers reached the allotted three and a half score years. Thanks for taking the trouble to comment.