Blues Brief - April 23rd
On this date in 1955, one of the most successful songs ever to come from the Chess brothers’ Chicago blues empire first hit the top of Billboard’s Rhythm & Blues chart. Ray Charles first transformed a hymn into blues, reworking “It Must Be Jesus” into “I Got a Woman.” Founding Father of Chicago blues Willie Dixon had re-imagined Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s gospel great “This Train” in the same manner. He converted Sister Rosetta’s heaven-bound train with no sinners on board into a woman who couldn’t stand no cheaters. Just a few days earlier, Charles new song hit the charts. “Little Walter” Jacobs brought his band - Dixon, Robert Lockwood, Fred Below, and stand-in Leonard Caston - into the studio to do the same.
Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs was a harmonica wizard. He was born in Louisiana, had played and wandered around New Orleans, Memphis, Helena, and St Louis before settling in Chicago, eventually coming to Chess and then it’s subsidiary Checker. He recorded “Juke” in 1952, the only harmonica instrumental to this day to ever top the charts. He was also a Founding Father, first backing Muddy Waters acoustically, and then amplifying the harp to create new sounds and compete with the powerful guitars of Muddy and Jimmy Rogers as a member of the Waters’ legendary band (Rogers, Otis Spann, Dixon, Elgin Evans) and as a session player for many Chess classics. In terms of total hits (fourteen top tens) Walter became more successful than Waters or Howlin’ Wolf. As a bandleader, he was a perfectionist.
As he did for Muddy Waters and other Chess artists, Willie Dixon played double bass on this Checker recording. Unlike his unmatched blues compositions ("Hoochie Coochie Man", "I Just Want to Make Love to You", "Little Red Rooster", "Spoonful", and so many others) this was the only one recorded for Chess/Checker to hit the top of a Billboard chart.
Robert “Junior” Lockwood’s mother had lived with soul-selling legend Robert Johnson for ten years. Lockwood was his stepson and only direct student and protégé. He began travelling and performing around the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta region at 15, partnering with Sonny Boy Williamson II on the King Biscuit Time shows from Helena Arkansas. In 1950 he brought all of that heritage and skill to Chicago, recording for Chess with Williamson then joining Little Walter’s band.
Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston was born and raised in southern Mississippi, except for two years in Chicago. As a teen he learned how to play guitar, but fell in love with piano blues and learned to play them. He moved back to Chicago as an adult, met Willie Dixon through brother Arthur Dixon and played with the legend in The Five Breezes. Working with Gene Gilmore and Robert Nighthawk, he recorded two of the earliest songs commemorating Natchez Mississippi’s Rhythm Club fire, just weeks after the disaster in 1940 that killed over 200 people. Having lived in Natchez, he certainly knew the place and possibly some of the victims. As one of The Rhythm Rascals Trio he toured Europe as a USO act, but reunited with Dixon after the war, recording for Columbia and Okeh in The Big Three Trio. Although most of his work to date had been on piano, he played guitar on the track. Walter’s regular guitarist Luther Tucker is not on the record.
Drummer Fred Below was the only Chicago native in the group. Learning how to play drums in high school, he was drafted into the Army during World War II but played in a military band and stayed in Germany after the war. He moved back to Chicago and was quickly snapped up by Junior Wells. When Little Walter left Muddy Waters’ band he took Below with him. Wells stepped in as Muddy’s harp player. Perfectionist Jacobs knew the best - Below was also a Founding Father, credited with creating the offbeat rhythm of Chicago blues and influencing future rock ‘n roll songs. He further added to his story and rock ‘n roll history as the drummer on Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” in 1958.
The song was released in February 1955, hit the charts in March, and stayed at the top of the Rhythm and Blues Chart until the end of May. Dozens of artists and bands have covered it, from fellow Checker artist Dale Hawkins to The Animals , George Thorogood, The Grateful Dead, and of course, Elvis.
Recorded for Checker Records by Little Walter and his band on April 23, 1955 - “My Babe”