MERCY MR. PERCY, THAT IS SURELY HIM!
Wednesday, 16 May 2007 00:00
|MERCY MR. PERCY, THAT IS SURELY HIM!|
|REMEMBERING BLIND PERCY ROBINSON |
by D. Thomas Moon (used with permission)
|Blind Percy is one of the numerous shadowy prewar blues singers about whom very little has been written. Details of his life and death are cloaked in mystery and uncertainty. In fact, his very existence has been called into question in the standard discographies and reissue liner notes. He never achieved the same degree of public recognition as contemporaries Blind Lemon Jefferson or Blind Blake, and sold relatively few records during his lifetime. Nevertheless, he earned near legendary status among his musical peers by virtue of his guitar-playing skills and independent nature. |
There is but one disc bearing the sobriquet Blind Percy: “Fourteenth Street Blues” b/w “Coal River Blues” [Paramount 12584, 1927], credited to Blind Percy And His Blind Band. A look into Percy’s lyrics yields the first bit of insight into his story:
1. Fourteenth Street women don't mean no man no good. (2)
Go out and get full of liquor, wreck the whole neighborhood.
2. Let me tell you, mama, like a Dago told a Jew. (2)
If you don't want me, a cinch I don't want you.
3. It's two kind of nations I sure can't understand. (2)
That's a Chinese woman and a doggone Dago man.
4. I was born in Texas, I was raised in Tennessee. (2)
You missed a real brownie, when you picked all over me.
5. I feel like jumping through the keyhole in your door. (2)
Told me this morning, you didn't want me no more.
6. I feel like snapping my big gun in your face. (2)
Had the nerve to tell me another man got my place.
14th Street was, until recent urbanization, one of the major thoroughfares of Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market. The market, an area roughly three city blocks deep and five wide located 15 minutes west of downtown near Roosevelt, became home to a one-of-a-kind style of open-air capitalism prior to the turn of the century.
“Jewtown,” as it came to be known, was a shopping area/ weekend flea market that originally met the needs of a growing Russian and European Jewish immigrant population in the late 1800s and early 1900s. With the mass influx of African Americans from the South in the 20s and 30s, the Maxwell Street area began to take on a very different look and feel, catering to increasingly diverse segments of the population. Percy’s references to “Dagos,” “Jews,” and “Chinese women” are reflective of the multi-ethnic composition of the market crowds of his day.
Percy’s violent imagery may be fitting as well. According to reports from several musicians, onetime Maxwell Street resident and street performer Little Willie Foster, whose “Falling Rain Blues” [Blue Lake 113, Parrot 813] makes reference to his lover’s burying ground, was the perpetrator and, some years later, the victim in a shooting incident involving a love triangle much like the one Percy describes. And as it turns out, Percy wasn’t the first musician to give an account of the neighborhood’s market crowds and its trouble-prone residents. That distinction goes to Papa Charlie Jackson, whose “Maxwell Street Blues” [Paramount 12320, 1925] opens rather unsubtly with reference to a police bust and the subsequent search for an incarcerated love interest. Police suppression of unruliness in the neighborhood is also a theme taken up by Big Bill Broonzy in a graphic story recounted for The Jazz Record in the 40s [reprinted in Hodes & Hansen’s Selections From the Gutter]:
“I’ll never forget one party I was on in Chicago. It was a musicians’ party at 1112 South Washburne Street. It was free for musicians and the others had to pay. Pinky Thomas gave the party – she was the landlady of the building – and I went over with Blind Percy. He was a guitar player and I picked him up at his house and took him over. He was really blind and had to be led up the stairs. There were eight rooms and all full of people and everyone cutting up. In those days we used to keep the front rooms dark and the lamps in the other rooms. The front door was locked and the musicians used to be in the rear room nearest the back exit if anything happened. We all had a good time until about twelve o’clock when two guys got to fighting. Then everybody got into a fight and I headed for the door. I got out of there pretty fast but when I got down to the street I remembered about Blind Percy. I started back up the stairs. Somebody said, ‘You can’t go back up there,’ and I said, ‘I can’t leave a blind man up there in all that fighting.’ He said, ‘There’s Percy sitting over there on the sidewalk.’ I don’t know how he got out but he was the first one out when the fighting started. So then we headed for the courtyard in back of the apartment. They used to hang the whiskey out the window [presumably on a string or rope to avoid detection] and we went after it. A couple of others had the same idea but when we went around, they thought we were the police and ran away, so we got the gallon. By the time the police came, everybody was out, even two guys who had their legs broken, but they picked them up later in the hospital. Windows and lamps were broken and they found a lot of knives laying around and they caught the landlady and her daughter.”
While potentially rough by most accounts, Maxwell Street Market became a repository for southern black culture, especially music. It is a well-known fact that the neighborhood was home to musicians of every description, who would habitually set up in front of the houses of the principal streets to take full advantage of the dense crowds. Several sources place Percy on 14th Street, the very street he had immortalized in song. “It was different back then,” recalled Johnny Williams, a retired musician who was acquainted with Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, and “Funny Paper” Smith before migrating to Chicago from Belzoni, Mississippi in 1938. “Straight down Maxwell Street was houses all along there. We would be strung out from Newberry all the way to Sangamon. See, when you got there, you’d see who’s ever was already set up. Maybe this guy wouldn’t have but one guitar and he would say, ‘Come on, work with us,’ you know. That’s the way it would go. You had a little of all of it: country, gospel, dance music, sentimental songs, ballads, as well as blues. Not like it was later on. But a lot of the blues boys lived right there, they played together all the time. That’s why Bernie [Bernard Abrams] cut so many of us at his store there. [Abrams established the Ora Nelle label at his Maxwell Radio and Record Company, which was located on Maxwell Street. His first issue, in 1947, was by Little Walter and Othum Brown (Ora Nelle 711) and the second issue was a collaborative effort featuring Johnny Young and our informant, Johnny Williams (Ora Nelle 712, 1947)] … Percy Robinson lived at 14th Street.”
Bluesman Jimmie Lee Robinson, who grew up in this musically bountiful neighborhood, gives Percy credit for the earliest instruction on his first guitar. “The first guitar that I ever noticed was when I must have been about three,” he remembered. “A lady came to our house at 1505 Washburne with one of those shiny steel guitars with that little plate in the center around like that. I looked at that guitar and I said, ‘When I get big I’m gonna buy me a guitar.’ I couldn’t hardly wait to get me a guitar. When I was a young boy, I used to work in the alleys, pickin’ up cans and bottles and newspapers. And finally, when I was eleven years old, I went out and got me a job making 50 cents an hour as a dishwasher and a busboy at the Allerton Hotel. The first check I got I bought me a guitar. I didn’t spend not a penny on nothin’ else but the guitar first. It cost eight dollars and I bought it at a pawnshop on Harrison and State, down there where they used to have a lot of burlesque theaters in those days. It was an acoustic guitar. That’s what I played for years on the street, acoustic guitar. It didn’t even have a name probably. I was tryin’ to figure how to formulate sounds on it. I didn’t know how to tune it and there wasn’t nobody to show me. I had a music book with chords in it, but I couldn’t understand the schematic. So one night, I was sittin’ at the house and I asked my sister say, ‘Bessie, would you go with me ’round to Blind Percy’s?’ She told me she would go, so we left out of the house in the dark and we went ’round to 14th Street between Peoria and Sangamon where Percy lived. I went up to his old raggedy house and knocked on the door and his wife says, ‘Come on in, boy.’ So I went in and I asked Blind Percy could he show me how to play my guitar. He took the guitar and he tuned it [hums E A D G B E] and he started to playin’. [hums boogie woogie riff] He told me I had to learn to play chords and he showed me a C chord. When I seen that chord what he was doin’, I just left. He had showed me what I needed to know. I went home and got my music books out and played me a song that night – three changes, an old church song that they’d play at funerals.”
Percy’s ability to bridge gospel and blues motifs [not uncommon for street musicians and early blues players, who often received their early musical training in church] was inspirational to Jesse Brown, another impressionable Maxwell Street resident who found himself in transition between the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and his newfound career as a bluesman. “I saw him daily,” he related in a recent interview, “He was one of my buddies! He lived in a four-story building on 14th Street between Peoria and Sangamon, right there in the middle of the block. I lived at 1221 Peoria. We were neighbors, you know? He knew his way around. He was smart. He’d come to my house by himself all the time, knock on the door. He called himself Buddy Bear. He’d knock and shout out, “Buddy Bear!” [laughs loudly] See, the church people used to like Percy to play guitar for them, sanctified churches. He’d go to my place so they couldn’t find him. Percy’d say, ‘Man, you go there and they pat your hand, don’t give you a dime. They just pray for you.’ [laughs] We used to play together all the time, just sit up at the house and just play, you know. He and his wife, Margaret, used to sing on the street corner, out on Maxwell Street. She’d shake the cup, sing and beg and he’d have his old jazz horn [kazoo] around his neck and he’d just rap the guitar. He’d sing, play his horn, and rap his guitar. He played a lot of chord changes. He just frailed his guitar, you know? He wasn’t playing like we were, the hard blues, making his guitar sing and stuff, but he was good at what he did. I never did participate in playing on the street, though. I was too proud.”
Turning now to the music, both sides of Paramount 12584 reveal a vocalist whose phrasing and gravelly delivery are every bit in keeping with the character of a street performer, as described by our informants. The prominent kazoo and fluid strumming on “Fourteenth Street Blues” are certainly consistent with Brown’s descriptions of Percy Robinson. However, a closer listen to the flip side, “Coal River Blues,” indicates that Robinson, in all probability, is not the singer on this tune. Rather it sounds conspicuously like Blind Joe Taggart, who apparently spent some time in Chicago (see Josh White's recollections) and who is known to have recorded other secular material (Blind Joe Amos). When contrasted with Taggart’s gritty baritone, Percy's sing-song voice is a bit thinner, higher-pitched, slightly more nasal, and richer in vibrato. On “Coal River Blues,” the kazoo is also buried in the background, a further indication that Robinson may be present, though in a supporting role. [A comparable case of Paramount issuing two different vocalists under the same name on the same record may be the Bobby Grant 78 (Paramount 12595, 1927). Dr. David Evans is convinced that Grant is a pseudonym for Barbecue Bob (Robert Hicks), violating his Columbia contract, and that he is the vocalist on “Lonesome Atlanta Blues.” He hears two guitars (6-string) and assumes the other guitarist is the vocalist on the flip, “Nappy Head Blues.” Another example may be Blind Blake’s last recording (Paramount 13137, 1932), which Gayle Dean Wardlow and Stefan Grossman believe features a different artist on each side, in spite of the fact that both are credited to Blake.] Though they conceivably alternated vocals, both sides of the Blind Percy record were apparently recorded with the same lineup of musicians (appropriately, The Blind Band), featuring what sounds like Taggart’s predictable bass runs, Percy Robinson’s rhythm guitar and kazoo, and an unknown fiddle player. [I also hear a second kazoo on “Coal River Blues” sounding a facile, low-toned drone.]
A strikingly similar lineup is present on Taggart’s subsequent Paramount outing, “Been Listening All The Day” b/w “Goin’ To Rest Where Jesus Is” [Paramount 12611, 1928], which is Taggart’s first official appearance on the label, having previously recorded for Vocalion. This time, Taggart and Robinson are presumably singing in two-part, overlapping harmony (Taggart is singing the coarser, shouted lines), with the kazoo notably absent. The seamless interplay of instruments and voices would have been difficult to create ad hoc in the studio, suggesting a partnership or, at very least, a certain level of familiarity. Taggart recorded almost exclusively as a gospel singer, and, according to Jesse Brown, Blind Percy Robinson was a sometime attending and performing member of the sanctified church. Perhaps they had been performing such gospel numbers together on the streets of Chicago? [Delmark Records founder Bob Koester remembers a conversation with Big Joe Williams wherein Williams specifically disclosed to him that Taggart resided near Maxwell Street.] In subjective terms of quality, Ken Romanowski boldly asserts in his notes to DOCD 5153 that these are “two of the most intriguing recordings in the history of American folk music … a window into the immediate post Civil War period in the South when a shared black and white musical tradition existed.” While this appraisal borders on red zone romanticism, the similarity in tone and phrasing of the two street singers adds greatly to the memorable performances. Nevertheless, the subtle differences once again reiterate the separate identities of the two vocalists on Paramount 12584.
Sales of both Paramount 12584 and 12611 were most likely small in number and few copies of either record have turned up. Perhaps no more successful (five known copies?), what may be Percy’s final Paramount platter is his best known, largely due to its appearance on blues recovery reissue LPs. “Oh Oh Lonesome Blues” b/w “Pennsylvania Woman Blues” [Paramount 12968, 1929], credited to Six Cylinder Smith, is aurally similar to the aforementioned Paramount recordings. There is a strong possibility that Percy is the featured vocalist on both sides, with by now characteristic Robinson/ Taggart guitar arrangements and accompaniment from an unknown harmonica player. [Caveat: Theories such as these are nearly impossible to prove and establishing a theory can be likened to holding a plant to a stone and waiting for it to take root. Therefore, I sought second opinions from several others whose digging and weeding I have come to appreciate as I hang out in the corner of the blues garden. Dirty-fingernailed endorsements came from Dr. David Evans and George Paulus, to whom I owe great thanks. After listening to the recordings, Jesse Brown also gave an enthusiastic validation of my assumptions, exclaiming, “I’ll tell you my dear brother, that’s him! Boy, that’s him. I knew him very well. That is surely him!”]
What was Blind Percy’s final fate? No one’s certain. The crash of ’29 and the following Depression years brought an end to the first era of blues recording and Paramount folded in 1932. Nevertheless, Blind Percy Robinson remained a fixture on Maxwell Street, where numerous musicians felt and followed his influence. Jesse Brown remained tight with Robinson over the years, but his move to California and subsequent gig as Jimmy Reed’s bass player left him out of the communication loop. He remembers his last correspondence with Percy: “I think it was 1975. I was in Oakland and I got a call from Percy and his wife Margaret. They called me and told me they was in Oklahoma on their way to where I was. They called and got my address and everything. Him and her both was alive; they was long-livers. Percy’s daddy was an old man, over 100 years old. He lived there with Percy and his wife on 14th Street on the fourth floor of the building. I think he owned that building, Percy’s old daddy. But whatever happened to Percy and Margaret, I would give I don’t know what to know. I don’t know what happened to them. I wondered did they get killed on the way, or did they stop some other place and visit there. I never did hear from ’em no more. It bugged me for a long time. It had me worried. But you know, that man lived a long life. He was respected by a great many of us. It’s a shame that more people don’t know about him or his music.”
The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Paul Garon and Dr. David Evans with the transcription of the lyrics to “Fourteenth Street Blues.”