Episode 166 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Crossroads”, Cream, the myth of Robert Johnson, and whether white men can sing the blues. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.
Patreon backers also have a forty-eight-minute bonus episode available, on “Tip-Toe Thru’ the Tulips” by Tiny Tim.
Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/
I talk about an interview with Clapton from 1967, I meant 1968. I mention a Graham Bond live recording from 1953, and of course meant 1963. I say Paul Jones was on vocals in the Powerhouse sessions. Steve Winwood was on vocals, and Jones was on harmonica.
As I say at the end, the main resource you need to get if you enjoyed this episode is Brother Robert by Annye Anderson, Robert Johnson’s stepsister.
There are three Mixcloud mixes this time. As there are so many songs by Cream, Robert Johnson, John Mayall, and Graham Bond excerpted, and Mixcloud won’t allow more than four songs by the same artist in any mix, I’ve had to post the songs not in quite the same order in which they appear in the podcast. But the mixes are here — one, two, three.
This article on Mack McCormick gives a fuller explanation of the problems with his research and behaviour.
The other books I used for the Robert Johnson sections were McCormick’s Biography of a Phantom; Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, by Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow; Searching for Robert Johnson by Peter Guralnick; and Escaping the Delta by Elijah Wald. I can recommend all of these subject to the caveats at the end of the episode.
The information on Cream comes mostly from Cream: How Eric Clapton Took the World by Storm by Dave Thompson. I also used Ginger Baker: Hellraiser by Ginger Baker and Ginette Baker, Mr Showbiz by Stephen Dando-Collins, Motherless Child by Paul Scott, and Alexis Korner: The Biography by Harry Shapiro.
The best collection of Cream’s work is the four-CD set Those Were the Days, which contains every track the group ever released while they were together (though only the stereo mixes of the albums, and a couple of tracks are in slightly different edits from the originals).
You can get Johnson’s music on many budget compilation records, as it’s in the public domain in the EU, but the double CD collection produced by Steve LaVere for Sony in 2011 is, despite the problems that come from it being associated with LaVere, far and away the best option — the remasters have a clarity that’s worlds ahead of even the 1990s CD version it replaced.
And for a good single-CD introduction to the Delta blues musicians and songsters who were Johnson’s peers and inspirations, Back to the Crossroads: The Roots of Robert Johnson, compiled by Elijah Wald as a companion to his book on Johnson, can’t be beaten, and contains many of the tracks excerpted in this episode.
This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?
Before we start, a quick note that this episode contains discussion of racism, drug addiction, and early death. There’s also a brief mention of death in childbirth and infant mortality.
It’s been a while since we looked at the British blues movement, and at the blues in general, so some of you may find some of what follows familiar, as we’re going to look at some things we’ve talked about previously, but from a different angle.
In 1968, the Bonzo Dog Band, a comedy musical band that have been described as the missing link between the Beatles and the Monty Python team, released a track called “Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?”:
[Excerpt: The Bonzo Dog Band, “Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?”]
That track was mocking a discussion that was very prominent in Britain’s music magazines around that time. 1968 saw the rise of a *lot* of British bands who started out as blues bands, though many of them went on to different styles of music — Fleetwood Mac, Ten Years After, Jethro Tull, Chicken Shack and others were all becoming popular among the kind of people who read the music magazines, and so the question was being asked — can white men sing the blues?
Of course, the answer to that question was obvious. After all, white men *invented* the blues.
Before we get any further at all, I have to make clear that I do *not* mean that white people created blues music. But “the blues” as a category, and particularly the idea of it as a music made largely by solo male performers playing guitar… that was created and shaped by the actions of white male record executives.
There is no consensus as to when or how the blues as a genre started — as we often say in this podcast “there is no first anything”, but like every genre it seems to have come from multiple sources. In the case of the blues, there’s probably some influence from African music by way of field chants sung by enslaved people, possibly some influence from Arabic music as well, definitely some influence from the Irish and British folk songs that by the late nineteenth century were developing into what we now call country music, a lot from ragtime, and a lot of influence from vaudeville and minstrel songs — which in turn themselves were all very influenced by all those other things.
Probably the first published composition to show any real influence of the blues is from 1904, a ragtime piano piece by James Chapman and Leroy Smith, “One O’ Them Things”:
[Excerpt: “One O’ Them Things”]
That’s not very recognisable as a blues piece yet, but it is more-or-less a twelve-bar blues. But the blues developed, and it developed as a result of a series of commercial waves.
The first of these came in 1914, with the success of W.C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues”, which when it was recorded by the Victor Military Band for a phonograph cylinder became what is generally considered the first blues record proper:
[Excerpt: The Victor Military Band, “Memphis Blues”]
The famous dancers Vernon and Irene Castle came up with a dance, the foxtrot — which Vernon Castle later admitted was largely inspired by Black dancers — to be danced to the “Memphis Blues”, and the foxtrot soon overtook the tango, which the Castles had introduced to the US the previous year, to become the most popular dance in America for the best part of three decades. And with that came an explosion in blues in the Handy style, cranked out by every music publisher.
While the blues was a style largely created by Black performers and writers, the segregated nature of the American music industry at the time meant that most vocal performances of these early blues that were captured on record were by white performers, Black vocalists at this time only rarely getting the chance to record.
The first blues record with a Black vocalist is also technically the first British blues record. A group of Black musicians, apparently mostly American but led by a Jamaican pianist, played at Ciro’s Club in London, and recorded many tracks in Britain, under a name which I’m not going to say in full — it started with Ciro’s Club, and continued alliteratively with another word starting with C, a slur for Black people. In 1917 they recorded a vocal version of “St. Louis Blues”, another W.C. Handy composition:
[Excerpt: Ciro’s Club C**n Orchestra, “St. Louis Blues”]
The first American Black blues vocal didn’t come until two years later, when Bert Williams, a Black minstrel-show performer who like many Black performers of his era performed in blackface even though he was Black, recorded “I’m Sorry I Ain’t Got It You Could Have It If I Had It Blues,”
[Excerpt: Bert Williams, “I’m Sorry I Ain’t Got It You Could Have It If I Had It Blues,”]
But it wasn’t until 1920 that the second, bigger, wave of popularity started for the blues, and this time it started with the first record of a Black *woman* singing the blues — Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues”:
[Excerpt: Mamie Smith, “Crazy Blues”]
You can hear the difference between that and anything we’ve heard up to that point — that’s the first record that anyone from our perspective, a hundred and three years later, would listen to and say that it bore any resemblance to what we think of as the blues — so much so that many places still credit it as the first ever blues record.
And there’s a reason for that. “Crazy Blues” was one of those records that separates the music industry into before and after, like “Rock Around the Clock”, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, Sgt Pepper, or “Rapper’s Delight”. It sold seventy-five thousand copies in its first month — a massive number by the standards of 1920 — and purportedly went on to sell over a million copies.
Sales figures and market analysis weren’t really a thing in the same way in 1920, but even so it became very obvious that “Crazy Blues” was a big hit, and that unlike pretty much any other previous records, it was a big hit among Black listeners, which meant that there was a market for music aimed at Black people that was going untapped. Soon all the major record labels were setting up subsidiaries devoted to what they called “race music”, music made by and for Black people.
And this sees the birth of what is now known as “classic blues”, but at the time (and for decades after) was just what people thought of when they thought of “the blues” as a genre. This was music primarily sung by female vaudeville artists backed by jazz bands, people like Ma Rainey (whose earliest recordings featured Louis Armstrong in her backing band):
[Excerpt: Ma Rainey, “See See Rider Blues”]
And Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues”, who had a massive career in the 1920s before the Great Depression caused many of these “race record” labels to fold, but who carried on performing well into the 1930s — her last recording was in 1933, produced by John Hammond, with a backing band including Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden:
[Excerpt: Bessie Smith, “Give Me a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer”]
It wouldn’t be until several years after the boom started by Mamie Smith that any record companies turned to recording Black men singing the blues accompanied by guitar or banjo. The first record of this type is probably “Norfolk Blues” by Reese DuPree from 1924:
[Excerpt: Reese DuPree, “Norfolk Blues”]
And there were occasional other records of this type, like “Airy Man Blues” by Papa Charlie Jackson, who was advertised as the “only man living who sings, self-accompanied, for Blues records.”
[Excerpt: Papa Charlie Jackson, “Airy Man Blues”]
But contrary to the way these are seen today, at the time they weren’t seen as being in some way “authentic”, or “folk music”. Indeed, there are many quotes from folk-music collectors of the time (sadly all of them using so many slurs that it’s impossible for me to accurately quote them) saying that when people sang the blues, that wasn’t authentic Black folk music at all but an adulteration from commercial music — they’d clearly, according to these folk-music scholars, learned the blues style from records and sheet music rather than as part of an oral tradition.
Most of these performers were people who recorded blues as part of a wider range of material, like Blind Blake, who recorded some blues music but whose best work was his ragtime guitar instrumentals:
[Excerpt: Blind Blake, “Southern Rag”]
But it was when Blind Lemon Jefferson started recording for Paramount records in 1926 that the image of the blues as we now think of it took shape. His first record, “Got the Blues”, was a massive success:
[Excerpt: Blind Lemon Jefferson, “Got the Blues”]
And this resulted in many labels, especially Paramount, signing up pretty much every Black man with a guitar they could find in the hopes of finding another Blind Lemon Jefferson.
But the thing is, this generation of people making blues records, and the generation that followed them, didn’t think of themselves as “blues singers” or “bluesmen”. They were songsters. Songsters were entertainers, and their job was to sing and play whatever the audiences would want to hear. That included the blues, of course, but it also included… well, every song anyone would want to hear. They’d perform old folk songs, vaudeville songs, songs that they’d heard on the radio or the jukebox — whatever the audience wanted. Robert Johnson, for example, was known to particularly love playing polka music, and also adored the records of Jimmie Rodgers, the first country music superstar. In 1941, when Alan Lomax first recorded Muddy Waters, he asked Waters what kind of songs he normally played in performances, and he was given a list that included “Home on the Range”, Gene Autry’s “I’ve Got Spurs That Jingle Jangle Jingle”, and Glenn Miller’s “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”.
We have few recordings of these people performing this kind of song though. One of the few we have is Big Bill Broonzy, who was just about the only artist of this type not to get pigeonholed as just a blues singer, even though blues is what made him famous, and who later in his career managed to record songs like the Tin Pan Alley standard “The Glory of Love”:
[Excerpt: Big Bill Broonzy, “The Glory of Love”]
But for the most part, the image we have of the blues comes down to one man, Arthur Laibley, a sales manager for the Wisconsin Chair Company.
The Wisconsin Chair Company was, as the name would suggest, a company that started out making wooden chairs, but it had branched out into other forms of wooden furniture — including, for a brief time, large wooden phonographs. And, like several other manufacturers, like the Radio Corporation of America — RCA — and the Gramophone Company, which became EMI, they realised that if they were going to sell the hardware it made sense to sell the software as well, and had started up Paramount Records, which bought up a small label, Black Swan, and soon became the biggest manufacturer of records for the Black market, putting out roughly a quarter of all “race records” released between 1922 and 1932.
At first, most of these were produced by a Black talent scout, J. Mayo Williams, who had been the first person to record Ma Rainey, Papa Charlie Jackson, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, but in 1927 Williams left Paramount, and the job of supervising sessions went to Arthur Laibley, though according to some sources a lot of the actual production work was done by Aletha Dickerson, Williams’ former assistant, who was almost certainly the first Black woman to be what we would now think of as a record producer.
Williams had been interested in recording all kinds of music by Black performers, but when Laibley got a solo Black man into the studio, what he wanted more than anything was for him to record the blues, ideally in a style as close as possible to that of Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Laibley didn’t have a very hands-on approach to recording — indeed Paramount had very little concern about the quality of their product anyway, and Paramount’s records are notorious for having been put out on poor-quality shellac and recorded badly — and he only occasionally made actual suggestions as to what kind of songs his performers should write — for example he asked Son House to write something that sounded like Blind Lemon Jefferson, which led to House writing and recording “Mississippi County Farm Blues”, which steals the tune of Jefferson’s “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”:
[Excerpt: Son House, “Mississippi County Farm Blues”]
When Skip James wanted to record a cover of James Wiggins’ “Forty-Four Blues”, Laibley suggested that instead he should do a song about a different gun, and so James recorded “Twenty-Two Twenty Blues”:
[Excerpt: Skip James, “Twenty-Two Twenty Blues”]
And Laibley also suggested that James write a song about the Depression, which led to one of the greatest blues records ever, “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”:
[Excerpt: Skip James, “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”]
These musicians knew that they were getting paid only for issued sides, and that Laibley wanted only blues from them, and so that’s what they gave him. Even when it was a performer like Charlie Patton. (Incidentally, for those reading this as a transcript rather than listening to it, Patton’s name is more usually spelled ending in ey, but as far as I can tell ie was his preferred spelling and that’s what I’m using).
Charlie Patton was best known as an entertainer, first and foremost — someone who would do song-and-dance routines, joke around, play guitar behind his head. He was a clown on stage, so much so that when Son House finally heard some of Patton’s records, in the mid-sixties, decades after the fact, he was astonished that Patton could actually play well. Even though House had been in the room when some of the records were made, his memory of Patton was of someone who acted the fool on stage.
That’s definitely not the impression you get from the Charlie Patton on record:
[Excerpt: Charlie Patton, “Poor Me”]
Patton is, as far as can be discerned, the person who was most influential in creating the music that became called the “Delta blues”. Not a lot is known about Patton’s life, but he was almost certainly the half-brother of the Chatmon brothers, who made hundreds of records, most notably as members of the Mississippi Sheiks:
[Excerpt: The Mississippi Sheiks, “Sitting on Top of the World”]
In the 1890s, Patton’s family moved to Sunflower County, Mississippi, and he lived in and around that county until his death in 1934. Patton learned to play guitar from a musician called Henry Sloan, and then Patton became a mentor figure to a *lot* of other musicians in and around the plantation on which his family lived. Some of the musicians who grew up in the immediate area around Patton included Tommy Johnson:
[Excerpt: Tommy Johnson, “Big Road Blues”]
[Excerpt: The Staple Singers, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”]
[Excerpt: Robert Johnson, “Crossroads”]
Willie Brown, a musician who didn’t record much, but who played a lot with Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson and who we just heard Johnson sing about:
[Excerpt: Willie Brown, “M&O Blues”]
And Chester Burnett, who went on to become known as Howlin’ Wolf, and whose vocal style was equally inspired by Patton and by the country star Jimmie Rodgers:
[Excerpt: Howlin’ Wolf, “Smokestack Lightnin'”]
Once Patton started his own recording career for Paramount, he also started working as a talent scout for them, and it was him who brought Son House to Paramount. Soon after the Depression hit, Paramount stopped recording, and so from 1930 through 1934 Patton didn’t make any records. He was tracked down by an A&R man in January 1934 and recorded one final session:
[Excerpt, Charlie Patton, “34 Blues”]
But he died of heart failure two months later.
But his influence spread through his proteges, and they themselves influenced other musicians from the area who came along a little after, like Robert Lockwood and Muddy Waters. This music — or that portion of it that was considered worth recording by white record producers, only a tiny, unrepresentative, portion of their vast performing repertoires — became known as the Delta Blues, and when some of these musicians moved to Chicago and started performing with electric instruments, it became Chicago Blues.
And as far as people like John Mayall in Britain were concerned, Delta and Chicago Blues *were* the blues:
[Excerpt: John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, “It Ain’t Right”]
John Mayall was one of the first of the British blues obsessives, and for a long time thought of himself as the only one. While we’ve looked before at the growth of the London blues scene, Mayall wasn’t from London — he was born in Macclesfield and grew up in Cheadle Hulme, both relatively well-off suburbs of Manchester, and after being conscripted and doing two years in the Army, he had become an art student at Manchester College of Art, what is now Manchester Metropolitan University.
Mayall had been a blues fan from the late 1940s, writing off to the US to order records that hadn’t been released in the UK, and by most accounts by the late fifties he’d put together the biggest blues collection in Britain by quite some way. Not only that, but he had one of the earliest home tape recorders, and every night he would record radio stations from Continental Europe which were broadcasting for American service personnel, so he’d amassed mountains of recordings, often unlabelled, of obscure blues records that nobody else in the UK knew about.
He was also an accomplished pianist and guitar player, and in 1956 he and his drummer friend Peter Ward had put together a band called the Powerhouse Four (the other two members rotated on a regular basis) mostly to play lunchtime jazz sessions at the art college. Mayall also started putting on jam sessions at a youth club in Wythenshawe, where he met another drummer named Hughie Flint. Over the late fifties and into the early sixties, Mayall more or less by himself built up a small blues scene in Manchester. The Manchester blues scene was so enthusiastic, in fact, that when the American Folk Blues Festival, an annual European tour which initially featured Willie Dixon, Memhis Slim, T-Bone Walker, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and John Lee Hooker, first toured Europe, the only UK date it played was at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, and people like Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones and Jimmy Page had to travel up from London to see it.
But still, the number of blues fans in Manchester, while proportionally large, was objectively small enough that Mayall was captivated by an article in Melody Maker which talked about Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies’ new band Blues Incorporated and how it was playing electric blues, the same music he was making in Manchester. He later talked about how the article had made him think that maybe now people would know what he was talking about.
He started travelling down to London to play gigs for the London blues scene, and inviting Korner up to Manchester to play shows there. Soon Mayall had moved down to London. Korner introduced Mayall to Davey Graham, the great folk guitarist, with whom Korner had recently recorded as a duo:
[Excerpt: Alexis Korner and Davey Graham, “3/4 AD”]
Mayall and Graham performed together as a duo for a while, but Graham was a natural solo artist if ever there was one. Slowly Mayall put a band together in London. On drums was his old friend Peter Ward, who’d moved down from Manchester with him. On bass was John McVie, who at the time knew nothing about blues — he’d been playing in a Shadows-style instrumental group — but Mayall gave him a stack of blues records to listen to to get the feeling. And on guitar was Bernie Watson, who had previously played with Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages.
In late 1963, Mike Vernon, a blues fan who had previously published a Yardbirds fanzine, got a job working for Decca records, and immediately started signing his favourite acts from the London blues circuit. The first act he signed was John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, and they recorded a single, “Crawling up a Hill”:
[Excerpt: John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, “Crawling up a Hill (45 version)”]
Mayall later called that a “clumsy, half-witted attempt at autobiographical comment”, and it sold only five hundred copies. It would be the only record the Bluesbreakers would make with Watson, who soon left the band to be replaced by Roger Dean (not the same Roger Dean who later went on to design prog rock album covers).
The second group to be signed by Mike Vernon to Decca was the Graham Bond Organisation.
We’ve talked about the Graham Bond Organisation in passing several times, but not for a while and not in any great detail, so it’s worth pulling everything we’ve said about them so far together and going through it in a little more detail.
The Graham Bond Organisation, like the Rolling Stones, grew out of Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. As we heard in the episode on “I Wanna Be Your Man” a couple of years ago, Blues Incorporated had been started by Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies, and at the time we’re joining them in 1962 featured a drummer called Charlie Watts, a pianist called Dave Stevens, and saxophone player Dick Heckstall-Smith, as well as frequent guest performers like a singer who called himself Mike Jagger, and another one, Roderick Stewart.
That group finally found themselves the perfect bass player when Dick Heckstall-Smith put together a one-off group of jazz players to play an event at Cambridge University. At the gig, a little Scottish man came up to the group and told them he played bass and asked if he could sit in. They told him to bring along his instrument to their second set, that night, and he did actually bring along a double bass. Their bluff having been called, they decided to play the most complicated, difficult, piece they knew in order to throw the kid off — the drummer, a trad jazz player named Ginger Baker, didn’t like performing with random sit-in guests — but astonishingly he turned out to be really good.
Heckstall-Smith took down the bass player’s name and phone number and invited him to a jam session with Blues Incorporated. After that jam session, Jack Bruce quickly became the group’s full-time bass player.
Bruce had started out as a classical cellist, but had switched to the double bass inspired by Bach, who he referred to as “the guv’nor of all bass players”. His playing up to this point had mostly been in trad jazz bands, and he knew nothing of the blues, but he quickly got the hang of the genre.
Bruce’s first show with Blues Incorporated was a BBC recording:
[Excerpt: Blues Incorporated, “Hoochie Coochie Man (BBC session)”]
According to at least one source it was not being asked to take part in that session that made young Mike Jagger decide there was no future for him with Blues Incorporated and to spend more time with his other group, the Rollin’ Stones.
Soon after, Charlie Watts would join him, for almost the opposite reason — Watts didn’t want to be in a band that was getting as big as Blues Incorporated were. They were starting to do more BBC sessions and get more gigs, and having to join the Musicians’ Union. That seemed like a lot of work. Far better to join a band like the Rollin’ Stones that wasn’t going anywhere.
Because of Watts’ decision to give up on potential stardom to become a Rollin’ Stone, they needed a new drummer, and luckily the best drummer on the scene was available. But then the best drummer on the scene was *always* available.
Ginger Baker had first played with Dick Heckstall-Smith several years earlier, in a trad group called the Storyville Jazzmen. There Baker had become obsessed with the New Orleans jazz drummer Baby Dodds, who had played with Louis Armstrong in the 1920s. Sadly because of 1920s recording technology, he hadn’t been able to play a full kit on the recordings with Armstrong, being limited to percussion on just a woodblock, but you can hear his drumming style much better in this version of “At the Jazz Band Ball” from 1947, with Mugsy Spanier, Jack Teagarden, Cyrus St. Clair and Hank Duncan:
[Excerpt: “At the Jazz Band Ball”]
Baker had taken Dobbs’ style and run with it, and had quickly become known as the single best player, bar none, on the London jazz scene — he’d become an accomplished player in multiple styles, and was also fluent in reading music and arranging. He’d also, though, become known as the single person on the entire scene who was most difficult to get along with. He resigned from his first band onstage, shouting “You can stick your band up your arse”, after the band’s leader had had enough of him incorporating bebop influences into their trad style. Another time, when touring with Diz Disley’s band, he was dumped in Germany with no money and no way to get home, because the band were so sick of him.
Sometimes this was because of his temper and his unwillingness to suffer fools — and he saw everyone else he ever met as a fool — and sometimes it was because of his own rigorous musical ideas. He wanted to play music *his* way, and wouldn’t listen to anyone who told him different.
Both of these things got worse after he fell under the influence of a man named Phil Seaman, one of the only drummers that Baker respected at all. Seaman introduced Baker to African drumming, and Baker started incorporating complex polyrhythms into his playing as a result. Seaman also though introduced Baker to heroin, and while being a heroin addict in the UK in the 1960s was not as difficult as it later became — both heroin and cocaine were available on prescription to registered addicts, and Baker got both, which meant that many of the problems that come from criminalisation of these drugs didn’t affect addicts in the same way — but it still did not, by all accounts, make him an easier person to get along with.
But he *was* a fantastic drummer. As Dick Heckstall-Smith said “With the advent of Ginger, the classic Blues Incorporated line-up, one which I think could not be bettered, was set”
But Alexis Korner decided that the group could be bettered, and he had some backers within the band. One of the other bands on the scene was the Don Rendell Quintet, a group that played soul jazz — that style of jazz that bridged modern jazz and R&B, the kind of music that Ray Charles and Herbie Hancock played:
[Excerpt: The Don Rendell Quintet, “Manumission”]
The Don Rendell Quintet included a fantastic multi-instrumentalist, Graham Bond, who doubled on keyboards and saxophone, and Bond had been playing occasional experimental gigs with the Johnny Burch Octet — a group led by another member of the Rendell Quartet featuring Heckstall-Smith, Bruce, Baker, and a few other musicians, doing wholly-improvised music.
Heckstall-Smith, Bruce, and Baker all enjoyed playing with Bond, and when Korner decided to bring him into the band, they were all very keen. But Cyril Davies, the co-leader of the band with Korner, was furious at the idea. Davies wanted to play strict Chicago and Delta blues, and had no truck with other forms of music like R&B and jazz. To his mind it was bad enough that they had a sax player. But the idea that they would bring in Bond, who played sax and… *Hammond* organ? Well, that was practically blasphemy. Davies quit the group at the mere suggestion.
Bond was soon in the band, and he, Bruce, and Baker were playing together a *lot*. As well as performing with Blues Incorporated, they continued playing in the Johnny Burch Octet, and they also started performing as the Graham Bond Trio. Sometimes the Graham Bond Trio would be Blues Incorporated’s opening act, and on more than one occasion the Graham Bond Trio, Blues Incorporated, and the Johnny Burch Octet all had gigs in different parts of London on the same night and they’d have to frantically get from one to the other.
The Graham Bond Trio also had fans in Manchester, thanks to the local blues scene there and their connection with Blues Incorporated, and one night in February 1963 the trio played a gig there. They realised afterwards that by playing as a trio they’d made £70, when they were lucky to make £20 from a gig with Blues Incorporated or the Octet, because there were so many members in those bands.
Bond wanted to make real money, and at the next rehearsal of Blues Incorporated he announced to Korner that he, Bruce, and Baker were quitting the band — which was news to Bruce and Baker, who he hadn’t bothered consulting. Baker, indeed, was in the toilet when the announcement was made and came out to find it a done deal. He was going to kick up a fuss and say he hadn’t been consulted, but Korner’s reaction sealed the deal. As Baker later said “‘he said “it’s really good you’re doing this thing with Graham, and I wish you the best of luck” and all that. And it was a bit difficult to turn round and say, “Well, I don’t really want to leave the band, you know.”’”
The Graham Bond Trio struggled at first to get the gigs they were expecting, but that started to change when in April 1963 they became the Graham Bond Quartet, with the addition of virtuoso guitarist John McLaughlin. The Quartet soon became one of the hottest bands on the London R&B scene, and when Duffy Power, a Larry Parnes teen idol who wanted to move into R&B, asked his record label to get him a good R&B band to back him on a Beatles cover, it was the Graham Bond Quartet who obliged:
[Excerpt: Duffy Power, “I Saw Her Standing There”]
The Quartet also backed Power on a package tour with other Parnes acts, but they were also still performing their own blend of hard jazz and blues, as can be heard in this recording of the group live in June 1953:
[Excerpt: The Graham Bond Quartet, “Ho Ho Country Kicking Blues (Live at Klooks Kleek)”]
But that lineup of the group didn’t last very long. According to the way Baker told the story, he fired McLaughlin from the group, after being irritated by McLaughlin complaining about something on a day when Baker was out of cocaine and in no mood to hear anyone else’s complaints. As Baker said “We lost a great guitar player and I lost a good friend.”
But the Trio soon became a Quartet again, as Dick Heckstall-Smith, who Baker had wanted in the band from the start, joined on saxophone to replace McLaughlin’s guitar. But they were no longer called the Graham Bond Quartet. Partly because Heckstall-Smith joining allowed Bond to concentrate just on his keyboard playing, but one suspects partly to protect against any future lineup changes, the group were now The Graham Bond ORGANisation — emphasis on the organ.
The new lineup of the group got signed to Decca by Vernon, and were soon recording their first single, “Long Tall Shorty”:
[Excerpt: The Graham Bond Organisation, “Long Tall Shorty”]
They recorded a few other songs which made their way onto an EP and an R&B compilation, and toured intensively in early 1964, as well as backing up Power on his follow-up to “I Saw Her Standing There”, his version of “Parchman Farm”:
[Excerpt: Duffy Power, “Parchman Farm”]
They also appeared in a film, just like the Beatles, though it was possibly not quite as artistically successful as “A Hard Day’s Night”:
[Excerpt: Gonks Go Beat trailer]
Gonks Go Beat is one of the most bizarre films of the sixties. It’s a far-future remake of Romeo and Juliet. where the two star-crossed lovers are from opposing countries — Beatland and Ballad Isle — who only communicate once a year in an annual song contest which acts as their version of a war, and is overseen by “Mr. A&R”, played by Frank Thornton, who would later star in Are You Being Served? Carry On star Kenneth Connor is sent by aliens to try to bring peace to the two warring countries, on pain of exile to Planet Gonk, a planet inhabited solely by Gonks (a kind of novelty toy for which there was a short-lived craze then). Along the way Connor encounters such luminaries of British light entertainment as Terry Scott and Arthur Mullard, as well as musical performances by Lulu, the Nashville Teens, and of course the Graham Bond Organisation, whose performance gets them a telling-off from a teacher:
[Excerpt: Gonks Go Beat!]
The group as a group only performed one song in this cinematic masterpiece, but Baker also made an appearance in a “drum battle” sequence where eight drummers played together:
[Excerpt: Gonks Go Beat drum battle]
The other drummers in that scene included, as well as some lesser-known players, Andy White who had played on the single version of “Love Me Do”, Bobby Graham, who played on hits by the Kinks and the Dave Clark Five, and Ronnie Verrell, who did the drumming for Animal in the Muppet Show.
Also in summer 1964, the group performed at the Fourth National Jazz & Blues Festival in Richmond — the festival co-founded by Chris Barber that would evolve into the Reading Festival. The Yardbirds were on the bill, and at the end of their set they invited Bond, Baker, Bruce, Georgie Fame, and Mike Vernon onto the stage with them, making that the first time that Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Jack Bruce were all on stage together.
Soon after that, the Graham Bond Organisation got a new manager, Robert Stigwood. Things hadn’t been working out for them at Decca, and Stigwood soon got the group signed to EMI, and became their producer as well. Their first single under Stigwood’s management was a cover version of the theme tune to the Debbie Reynolds film “Tammy”. While that film had given Tamla records its name, the song was hardly an R&B classic:
[Excerpt: The Graham Bond Organisation, “Tammy”]
That record didn’t chart, but Stigwood put the group out on the road as part of the disastrous Chuck Berry tour we heard about in the episode on “All You Need is Love”, which led to the bankruptcy of Robert Stigwood Associates. The Organisation moved over to Stigwood’s new company, the Robert Stigwood Organisation, and Stigwood continued to be the credited producer of their records, though after the “Tammy” disaster they decided they were going to take charge themselves of the actual music.
Their first album, The Sound of 65, was recorded in a single three-hour session, and they mostly ran through their standard set — a mixture of the same songs everyone else on the circuit was playing, like “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “Got My Mojo Working”, and “Wade in the Water”, and originals like Bruce’s “Train Time”:
[Excerpt: The Graham Bond Organisation, “Train Time”]
Through 1965 they kept working. They released a non-album single, “Lease on Love”, which is generally considered to be the first pop record to feature a Mellotron:
[Excerpt: The Graham Bond Organisation, “Lease on Love”]
and Bond and Baker also backed another Stigwood act, Winston G, on his debut single:
[Excerpt: Winston G, “Please Don’t Say”]
But the group were developing severe tensions. Bruce and Baker had started out friendly, but by this time they hated each other. Bruce said he couldn’t hear his own playing over Baker’s loud drumming, Baker thought that Bruce was far too fussy a player and should try to play simpler lines. They’d both try to throw each other during performances, altering arrangements on the fly and playing things that would trip the other player up.
And *neither* of them were particularly keen on Bond’s new love of the Mellotron, which was all over their second album, giving it a distinctly proto-prog feel at times:
[Excerpt: The Graham Bond Organisation, “Baby Can it Be True?”]
Eventually at a gig in Golders Green, Baker started throwing drumsticks at Bruce’s head while Bruce was trying to play a bass solo. Bruce retaliated by throwing his bass at Baker, and then jumping on him and starting a fistfight which had to be broken up by the venue security.
Baker fired Bruce from the band, but Bruce kept turning up to gigs anyway, arguing that Baker had no right to sack him as it was a democracy. Baker always claimed that in fact Bond had wanted to sack Bruce but hadn’t wanted to get his hands dirty, and insisted that Baker do it, but neither Bond nor Heckstall-Smith objected when Bruce turned up for the next couple of gigs. So Baker took matters into his own hands, He pulled out a knife and told Bruce “If you show up at one more gig, this is going in you.”
Within days, Bruce was playing with John Mayall, whose Bluesbreakers had gone through some lineup changes by this point.
Roger Dean had only played with the Bluesbreakers for a short time before Mayall had replaced him. Mayall had not been impressed with Eric Clapton’s playing with the Yardbirds at first — even though graffiti saying “Clapton is God” was already starting to appear around London — but he had been *very* impressed with Clapton’s playing on “Got to Hurry”, the B-side to “For Your Love”:
[Excerpt: The Yardbirds, “Got to Hurry”]
When he discovered that Clapton had quit the band, he sprang into action and quickly recruited him to replace Dean. Clapton knew he had made the right choice when a month after he’d joined, the group got the word that Bob Dylan had been so impressed with Mayall’s single “Crawling up a Hill” — the one that nobody liked, not even Mayall himself — that he wanted to jam with Mayall and his band in the studio. Clapton of course went along:
[Excerpt: Bob Dylan and the Bluesbreakers, “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”]
That was, of course, the session we’ve talked about in the Velvet Underground episode and elsewhere of which little other than that survives, and which Nico attended.
At this point, Mayall didn’t have a record contract, his experience recording with Mike Vernon having been no more successful than the Bond group’s had been. But soon he got a one-off deal — as a solo artist, not with the Bluesbreakers — with Immediate Records. Clapton was the only member of the group to play on the single, which was produced by Immediate’s house producer Jimmy Page:
[Excerpt: John Mayall, “I’m Your Witchdoctor”]
Page was impressed enough with Clapton’s playing that he invited him round to Page’s house to jam together. But what Clapton didn’t know was that Page was taping their jam sessions, and that he handed those tapes over to Immediate Records — whether he was forced to by his contract with the label or whether that had been his plan all along depends on whose story you believe, but Clapton never truly forgave him. Page and Clapton’s guitar-only jams had overdubs by Bill Wyman, Ian Stewart, and drummer Chris Winter, and have been endlessly repackaged on blues compilations ever since:
[Excerpt: Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton, “Draggin’ My Tail”]
But Mayall was having problems with John McVie, who had started to drink too much, and as soon as he found out that Jack Bruce was sacked by the Graham Bond Organisation, Mayall got in touch with Bruce and got him to join the band in McVie’s place. Everyone was agreed that this lineup of the band — Mayall, Clapton, Bruce, and Hughie Flint — was going places:
[Excerpt: John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Jack Bruce, “Hoochie Coochie Man”]
Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to last long. Clapton, while he thought that Bruce was the greatest bass player he’d ever worked with, had other plans. He was going to leave the country and travel the world as a peripatetic busker. He was off on his travels, never to return.
Luckily, Mayall had someone even better waiting in the wings. A young man had, according to Mayall, “kept coming down to all the gigs and saying, “Hey, what are you doing with him?” – referring to whichever guitarist was onstage that night – “I’m much better than he is. Why don’t you let me play guitar for you?” He got really quite nasty about it, so finally, I let him sit in. And he was brilliant.”
Peter Green was probably the best blues guitarist in London at that time, but this lineup of the Bluesbreakers only lasted a handful of gigs — Clapton discovered that busking in Greece wasn’t as much fun as being called God in London, and came back very soon after he’d left. Mayall had told him that he could have his old job back when he got back, and so Green was out and Clapton was back in.
And soon the Bluesbreakers’ revolving door revolved again. Manfred Mann had just had a big hit with “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”, the same song we heard Dylan playing earlier:
[Excerpt: Manfred Mann, “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”]
But their guitarist, Mike Vickers, had quit. Tom McGuinness, their bass player, had taken the opportunity to switch back to guitar — the instrument he’d played in his first band with his friend Eric Clapton — but that left them short a bass player. Manfred Mann were essentially the same kind of band as the Graham Bond Organisation — a Hammond-led group of virtuoso multi-instrumentalists who played everything from hardcore Delta blues to complex modern jazz — but unlike the Bond group they also had a string of massive pop hits, and so made a lot more money. The combination was irresistible to Bruce, and he joined the band just before they recorded an EP of jazz instrumental versions of recent hits:
[Excerpt: Manfred Mann, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”]
Bruce had also been encouraged by Robert Stigwood to do a solo project, and so at the same time as he joined Manfred Mann, he also put out a solo single, “Drinkin’ and Gamblin'”
[Excerpt: Jack Bruce, “Drinkin’ and Gamblin'”]
But of course, the reason Bruce had joined Manfred Mann was that they were having pop hits as well as playing jazz, and soon they did just that, with Bruce playing on their number one hit “Pretty Flamingo”:
[Excerpt: Manfred Mann, “Pretty Flamingo”]
So John McVie was back in the Bluesbreakers, promising to keep his drinking under control.
Mike Vernon still thought that Mayall had potential, but the people at Decca didn’t agree, so Vernon got Mayall and Clapton — but not the other band members — to record a single for a small indie label he ran as a side project:
[Excerpt: John Mayall and Eric Clapton, “Bernard Jenkins”]
That label normally only released records in print runs of ninety-nine copies, because once you hit a hundred copies you had to pay tax on them, but there was so much demand for that single that they ended up pressing up five hundred copies, making it the label’s biggest seller ever. Vernon eventually convinced the heads at Decca that the Bluesbreakers could be truly big, and so he got the OK to record the album that would generally be considered the greatest British blues album of all time — Blues Breakers, also known as the Beano album because of Clapton reading a copy of the British kids’ comic The Beano in the group photo on the front.
[Excerpt: John Mayall with Eric Clapton, “Ramblin’ On My Mind”]
The album was a mixture of originals by Mayall and the standard repertoire of every blues or R&B band on the circuit — songs like “Parchman Farm” and “What’d I Say” — but what made the album unique was Clapton’s guitar tone. Much to the chagrin of Vernon, and of engineer Gus Dudgeon, Clapton insisted on playing at the same volume that he would on stage. Vernon later said of Dudgeon “I can remember seeing his face the very first time Clapton plugged into the Marshall stack and turned it up and started playing at the sort of volume he was going to play. You could almost see Gus’s eyes meet over the middle of his nose, and it was almost like he was just going to fall over from the sheer power of it all. But after an enormous amount of fiddling around and moving amps around, we got a sound that worked.”
[Excerpt: John Mayall with Eric Clapton, “Hideaway”]
But by the time the album cane out. Clapton was no longer with the Bluesbreakers.
The Graham Bond Organisation had struggled on for a while after Bruce’s departure. They brought in a trumpet player, Mike Falana, and even had a hit record — or at least, the B-side of a hit record.
The Who had just put out a hit single, “Substitute”, on Robert Stigwood’s record label, Reaction:
[Excerpt: The Who, “Substitute”]
But, as you’ll hear in episode 183, they had moved to Reaction Records after a falling out with their previous label, and with Shel Talmy their previous producer.
The problem was, when “Substitute” was released, it had as its B-side a song called “Circles” (also known as “Instant Party — it’s been released under both names). They’d recorded an earlier version of the song for Talmy, and just as “Substitute” was starting to chart, Talmy got an injunction against the record and it had to be pulled.
Reaction couldn’t afford to lose the big hit record they’d spent money promoting, so they needed to put it out with a new B-side. But the Who hadn’t got any unreleased recordings.
But the Graham Bond Organisation had, and indeed they had an unreleased *instrumental*. So “Waltz For a Pig” became the B-side to a top-five single, credited to The Who Orchestra:
[Excerpt: The Who Orchestra, “Waltz For a Pig”]
That record provided the catalyst for the formation of Cream, because Ginger Baker had written the song, and got £1,350 for it, which he used to buy a new car.
Baker had, for some time, been wanting to get out of the Graham Bond Organisation. He was trying to get off heroin — though he would make many efforts to get clean over the decades, with little success — while Bond was starting to use it far more heavily, and was also using acid and getting heavily into mysticism, which Baker despised.
Baker may have had the idea for what he did next from an article in one of the music papers. John Entwistle of the Who would often tell a story about an article in Melody Maker — though I’ve not been able to track down the article itself to get the full details — in which musicians were asked to name which of their peers they’d put into a “super-group”. He didn’t remember the full details, but he did remember that the consensus choice had had Eric Clapton on lead guitar, himself on bass, and Ginger Baker on drums. As he said later “I don’t remember who else was voted in, but a few months later, the Cream came along, and I did wonder if somebody was maybe believing too much of their own press”.
Incidentally, like The Buffalo Springfield and The Pink Floyd, Cream, the band we are about to meet, had releases both with and without the definite article, and Eric Clapton at least seems always to talk about them as “the Cream” even decades later, but they’re primarily known as just Cream these days.
Baker, having had enough of the Bond group, decided to drive up to Oxford to see Clapton playing with the Bluesbreakers. Clapton invited him to sit in for a couple of songs, and by all accounts the band sounded far better than they had previously. Clapton and Baker could obviously play well together, and Baker offered Clapton a lift back to London in his new car, and on the drive back asked Clapton if he wanted to form a new band.
Clapton was as impressed by Baker’s financial skills as he was by his musicianship. He said later “Musicians didn’t have cars. You all got in a van.” Clearly a musician who was *actually driving a new car he owned* was going places. He agreed to Baker’s plan. But of course they needed a bass player, and Clapton thought he had the perfect solution — “What about Jack?”
Clapton knew that Bruce had been a member of the Graham Bond Organisation, but didn’t know why he’d left the band — he wasn’t particularly clued in to what the wider music scene was doing, and all he knew was that Bruce had played with both him and Baker, and that he was the best bass player he’d ever played with.
And Bruce *was* arguably the best bass player in London at that point, and he was starting to pick up session work as well as his work with Manfred Mann. For example it’s him playing on the theme tune to “After The Fox” with Peter Sellers, the Hollies, and the song’s composer Burt Bacharach:
[Excerpt: The Hollies with Peter Sellers, “After the Fox”]
Clapton was insistent. Baker’s idea was that the band should be the best musicians around. That meant they needed the *best* musicians around, not the second best. If Jack Bruce wasn’t joining, Eric Clapton wasn’t joining either.
Baker very reluctantly agreed, and went round to see Bruce the next day — according to Baker it was in a spirit of generosity and giving Bruce one more chance, while according to Bruce he came round to eat humble pie and beg for forgiveness. Either way, Bruce agreed to join the band.
The three met up for a rehearsal at Baker’s home, and immediately Bruce and Baker started fighting, but also immediately they realised that they were great at playing together — so great that they named themselves the Cream, as they were the cream of musicians on the scene.
They knew they had something, but they didn’t know what. At first they considered making their performances into Dada projects, inspired by the early-twentieth-century art movement. They liked a band that had just started to make waves, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band — who had originally been called the Bonzo Dog Dada Band — and they bought some props with the vague idea of using them on stage in the same way the Bonzos did. But as they played together they realised that they needed to do something different from that.
At first, they thought they needed a fourth member — a keyboard player. Graham Bond’s name was brought up, but Clapton vetoed him. Clapton wanted Steve Winwood, the keyboard player and vocalist with the Spencer Davis Group.
Indeed, Winwood was present at what was originally intended to be the first recording session the trio would play. Joe Boyd had asked Eric Clapton to round up a bunch of players to record some filler tracks for an Elektra blues compilation, and Clapton had asked Bruce and Baker to join him, Paul Jones on vocals, Winwood on Hammond and Clapton’s friend Ben Palmer on piano for the session.
Indeed, given that none of the original trio were keen on singing, that Paul Jones was just about to leave Manfred Mann, and that we know Clapton wanted Winwood in the band, one has to wonder if Clapton at least half-intended for this to be the eventual lineup of the band. If he did, that plan was foiled by Baker’s refusal to take part in the session.
Instead, this one-off band, named The Powerhouse, featured Pete York, the drummer from the Spencer Davis Group, on the session, which produced the first recording of Clapton playing on the Robert Johnson song originally titled “Cross Road Blues” but now generally better known just as “Crossroads”:
[Excerpt: The Powerhouse, “Crossroads”]
We talked about Robert Johnson a little back in episode ninety-seven, but other than Bob Dylan, who was inspired by his lyrics, we had seen very little influence from Johnson up to this point, but he’s going to be a major influence on rock guitar for the next few years, so we should talk about him a little here.
It’s often said that nobody knew anything about Robert Johnson, that he was almost a phantom other than his records which existed outside of any context as artefacts of their own. That’s… not really the case. Johnson had died a little less than thirty years earlier, at only twenty-seven years old. Most of his half-siblings and step-siblings were alive, as were his son, his stepson, and dozens of musicians he’d played with over the years, women he’d had affairs with, and other assorted friends and relatives.
What people mean is that information about Johnson’s life was not yet known by people they consider important — which is to say white blues scholars and musicians. Indeed, almost everything people like that — people like *me* — know of the facts of Johnson’s life has only become known to us in the last four years. If, as some people had expected, I’d started this series with an episode on Johnson, I’d have had to redo the whole thing because of the information that’s made its way to the public since then.
But here’s what was known — or thought — by white blues scholars in 1966.
Johnson was, according to them, a field hand from somewhere in Mississippi, who played the guitar in between working on the cotton fields. He had done two recording sessions, in 1936 and 1937. One song from his first session, “Terraplane Blues”, had been a very minor hit by blues standards:
[Excerpt: Robert Johnson, “Terraplane Blues”]
That had sold well — nobody knows how well, but maybe as many as ten thousand copies, and it was certainly a record people knew in 1937 if they liked the Delta blues, but ten thousand copies total is nowhere near the sales of really successful records, and none of the follow-ups had sold anything like that much — many of them had sold in the hundreds rather than the thousands.
As Elijah Wald, one of Johnson’s biographers put it “knowing about Johnson and Muddy Waters but not about Leroy Carr or Dinah Washington was like knowing about, say, the Sir Douglas Quintet but not knowing about the Beatles” — though *I* would add that the Sir Douglas Quintet were much bigger during the sixties than Johnson was during his lifetime.
One of the few white people who had noticed Johnson’s existence at all was John Hammond, and he’d written a brief review of Johnson’s first two singles under a pseudonym in a Communist newspaper. I’m going to quote it here, but the word he used to talk about Black people was considered correct then but isn’t now, so I’ll substitute Black for that word:
“Before closing we cannot help but call your attention to the greatest [Black] blues singer who has cropped up in recent years, Robert Johnson. Recording them in deepest Mississippi, Vocalion has certainly done right by us and by the tunes “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” and “Terraplane Blues”, to name only two of the four sides already released, sung to his own guitar accompaniment. Johnson makes Leadbelly sound like an accomplished poseur”
Hammond had tried to get Johnson to perform at the Spirituals to Swing concerts we talked about in the very first episodes of the podcast, but he’d discovered that he’d died shortly before. He got Big Bill Broonzy instead, and played a couple of Johnson’s records from a record player on the stage.
Hammond introduced those recordings with a speech:
“It is tragic that an American audience could not have been found seven or eight years ago for a concert of this kind. Bessie Smith was still at the height of her career and Joe Smith, probably the greatest trumpet player America ever knew, would still have been around to play obbligatos for her…dozens of other artists could have been there in the flesh. But that audience as well as this one would not have been able to hear Robert Johnson sing and play the blues on his guitar, for at that time Johnson was just an unknown hand on a Robinsonville, Mississippi plantation.
Robert Johnson was going to be the big surprise of the evening for this audience at Carnegie Hall. I know him only from his Vocalion blues records and from the tall, exciting tales the recording engineers and supervisors used to bring about him from the improvised studios in Dallas and San Antonio. I don’t believe Johnson had ever worked as a professional musician anywhere, and it still knocks me over when I think of how lucky it is that a talent like his ever found its way onto phonograph records. We will have to be content with playing two of his records, the old “Walkin’ Blues” and the new, unreleased, “Preachin’ Blues”, because Robert Johnson died last week at the precise moment when Vocalion scouts finally reached him and told him that he was booked to appear at Carnegie Hall on December 23. He was in his middle twenties and nobody seems to know what caused his death.”
And that was, for the most part, the end of Robert Johnson’s impact on the culture for a generation. The Lomaxes went down to Clarksdale, Mississippi a couple of years later — reports vary as to whether this was to see if they could find Johnson, who they were unaware was dead, or to find information out about him, and they did end up recording a young singer named Muddy Waters for the Library of Congress, including Waters’ rendition of “32-20 Blues”, Johnson’s reworking of Skip James’ “Twenty-Two Twenty Blues”:
[Excerpt: Muddy Waters, “32-20 Blues”]
But Johnson’s records remained unavailable after their initial release until 1959, when the blues scholar Samuel Charters published the book The Country Blues, which was the first book-length treatment ever of Delta blues. Sixteen years later Charters said “I shouldn’t have written The Country Blues when I did; since I really didn’t know enough, but I felt I couldn’t afford to wait. So The Country Blues was two things. It was a romanticization of certain aspects of black life in an effort to force the white society to reconsider some of its racial attitudes, and on the other hand it was a cry for help. I wanted hundreds of people to go out and interview the surviving blues artists. I wanted people to record them and document their lives, their environment, and their music, not only so that their story would be preserved but also so they’d get a little money and a little recognition in their last years.”
Charters talked about Johnson in the book, as one of the performers who played “minor roles in the story of the blues”, and said that almost nothing was known about his life. He talked about how he had been poisoned by his common-law wife, about how his records were recorded in a pool hall, and said “The finest of Robert Johnson’s blues have a brooding sense of torment and despair. The blues has become a personified figure of despondency.”
Along with Charters’ book came a compilation album of the same name, and that included the first ever reissue of one of Johnson’s tracks, “Preaching Blues”:
[Excerpt: Robert Johnson, “Preaching Blues”]
Two years later, John Hammond, who had remained an ardent fan of Johnson, had Columbia put out the King of the Delta Blues Singers album. At the time no white blues scholars knew what Johnson looked like and they had no photos of him, so a generic painting of a poor-looking Black man with a guitar was used for the cover.
The liner note to King of the Delta Blues Singers talked about how Johnson was seventeen or eighteen when he made his recordings, how he was “dead before he reached his twenty-first birthday, poisoned by a jealous girlfriend”, how he had “seldom, if ever, been away from the plantation in Robinsville, Mississippi, where he was born and raised”, and how he had had such stage fright that when he was asked to play in front of other musicians, he’d turned to face a wall so he couldn’t see them.
And that would be all that any of the members of the Powerhouse would know about Johnson. Maybe they’d also heard the rumours that were starting to spread that Johnson had got his guitar-playing skills by selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads at midnight, but that would have been all they knew when they recorded their filler track for Elektra:
[Excerpt: The Powerhouse, “Crossroads”]
Either way, the Powerhouse lineup only lasted for that one session — the group eventually decided that a simple trio would be best for the music they wanted to play. Clapton had seen Buddy Guy touring with just a bass player and drummer a year earlier, and had liked the idea of the freedom that gave him as a guitarist.
The group soon took on Robert Stigwood as a manager, which caused more arguments between Bruce and Baker. Bruce was convinced that if they were doing an all-for-one one-for-all thing they should also manage themselves, but Baker pointed out that that was a daft idea when they could get one of the biggest managers in the country to look after them.
A bigger argument, which almost killed the group before it started, happened when Baker told journalist Chris Welch of the Melody Maker about their plans. In an echo of the way that he and Bruce had been resigned from Blues Incorporated without being consulted, now with no discussion Manfred Mann and John Mayall were reading in the papers that their band members were quitting before those members had bothered to mention it.
Mayall was furious, especially since the album Clapton had played on hadn’t yet come out. Clapton was supposed to work a month’s notice while Mayall found another guitarist, but Mayall spent two weeks begging Peter Green to rejoin the band. Green was less than eager — after all, he’d been fired pretty much straight away earlier — but Mayall eventually persuaded him. The second he did, Mayall turned round to Clapton and told him he didn’t have to work the rest of his notice — he’d found another guitar player and Clapton was fired:
[Excerpt: John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, “Dust My Blues”]
Manfred Mann meanwhile took on the Beatles’ friend Klaus Voorman to replace Bruce. Voorman would remain with the band until the end, and like Green was for Mayall, Voorman was in some ways a better fit for Manfred Mann than Bruce was. In particular he could double on flute, as he did for example on their hit version of Bob Dylan’s “The Mighty Quinn”:
[Excerpt: Manfred Mann “The Mighty Quinn”]
The new group, The Cream, were of course signed in the UK to Stigwood’s Reaction label. Other than the Who, who only stuck around for one album, Reaction was not a very successful label. Its biggest signing was a former keyboard player for Screaming Lord Sutch, who recorded for them under the names Paul Dean and Oscar, but who later became known as Paul Nicholas and had a successful career in musical theatre and sitcom. Nicholas never had any hits for Reaction, but he did release one interesting record, in 1967:
[Excerpt: Oscar, “Over the Wall We Go”]
That was one of the earliest songwriting attempts by a young man who had recently named himself David Bowie.
Now the group were public, they started inviting journalists to their rehearsals, which were mostly spent trying to combine their disparate musical influences — Clapton was bringing in old Robert Johnson and Son House songs, while Bruce was thinking of the band as being somewhat akin to Ornette Coleman. Bruce had also started writing original material for the group, starting with a song called “NSU”:
[Excerpt: Cream, “NSU”]
Apparently most people thought that song was about the NSU Quickly Moped, but Bruce was actually writing about non-specific urethritis. As he said later “it was about a member of the band who had this venereal disease. I can’t tell you which one… except he played guitar.”
The group basically took over all the venues that the Graham Bond Organisation had previously played, though while the Graham Bond Organisation had been getting paid £40 between four of them, Cream were getting £45 between three of them. It soon became clear that they were worth far, far, more than that.
Clapton had started to change his playing style drastically to fit the other two. As he put it at the time, “My whole musical attitude has changed. I listen to the same sounds and records, but with a different ear. I’m no longer trying to play like anything but a white man. The time is overdue when people should play like they are, and what colour they are.”
But more important than that, he was trying to play *better* than the other two. As the group’s friend, the TV director Tony Palmer, put it “They realised, quite early on, that they didn’t like each other and, to some extent, that helped them become the great group they became. And it was perfectly clear when you watched them, I think, that they’re not wanting to be outplayed by the other two. And that’s what made them really fire off.”
According to Baker (other sources put this event later), even before they released their first single, Bruce had been trying to persuade Clapton to replace Baker — though how likely this is given that in every other story about band troubles it’s always Baker who’s trying to kick someone out, I don’t know. They stayed together with a promise that everything about the band would be split equally — except the songwriting.
Baker thought that since both he and Bruce were composers, and since nobody in the band was a lyricist, they should bring in the poet Pete Brown, who the Graham Bond Organisation had sometimes backed doing his beat poetry, to write lyrics for them, and split the songwriting credits and royalties equally four ways. As Baker put it in his autobiography: “I invited him to come and write some songs with us, ‘us’ being the operative word! We were at a studio in Haverstock Hill and, although Pete had never met Jack or Eric before, they went off together and wrote ‘Wrapping Paper’. It was the most awful song and had absolutely nothing to do with what Cream was doing, but it got released.”
It did indeed get released, as the group’s first single — but while “Wrapping Paper” is not really indicative of what Cream would do later, it’s not as bad as its reputation, and it suggests that the idea of them being a dada group influenced by the Bonzo Dog Band might have still been in the back of some of their minds:
[Excerpt: Cream, “Wrapping Paper”]
Baker said “I was amazed to see that the songwriting was credited to Bruce and Brown – no mention of Eric or me. There was a big row, but I had promised I would never hit Jack again, though I often had to resort to drinking loads of alcohol instead in order to finish the session.”
Baker did though start writing material on his own — with Bruce’s wife writing the lyrics.
Incidentally, I should note here that Pete Brown died in the early stages of me writing this episode. Normally I’d mention that at the end of an episode, when I’m wrapping things up, but because of the way this one is structured there’s not really a good place for me to do so. Also because of the way this episode is structured , there’s not really as much space given to the importance his lyrics had to Cream’s success, so I’m going to acknowledge that here too.
“Wrapping Paper” was meant to be released at the same time as the group did their first big nationwide tour. That tour was a typical package tour of the time, and Cream were third on the bill. At the bottom were bands called MI-5 and The Fruit-Eating Bears (not the same Fruit-Eating Bears who were a punk band in the seventies who recorded “Door in My Face” — those Fruit-Eating Bears took the original, even less-known, group’s name), Then was Oscar, then Max Wall, an old music-hall comedian born in 1908, then the Magic Lanterns, a band that at various times featured Albert Hammond, Godley and Creme of 10CC, and a bass player called Oz Osbourne whose playing in the band caused a lot of confusion for future music historians who thought he was Ozzy Osbourne.
Above Cream were the Merseys — the band formerly known as the Merseybeats — who’d just had a big hit with “Sorrow”:
[Excerpt: The Merseys, “Sorrow”]
And topping the bill were The Who, whose “I’m a Boy” was being released on Reaction simultaneously with “Wrapping Paper” and Oscar’s latest single:
[Excerpt: The Who, “I’m a Boy”]
But everything went wrong. First there was a problem at the pressing plant which meant that ten thousand copies of “Wrapping Paper” had to be thrown out and the release rescheduled for a month later. Then the Who got an offer to do a ten-day US tour, and cancelled the entire UK tour — only to then discover that a problem with their work permits meant they couldn’t play the US tour anyway.
Instead, Cream quickly booked a lot of gigs in smaller venues while they waited for the revised release date of their first single. And on October the first, at a gig at the London Polytechnic, Chas Chandler asked if a new guitarist he was managing could sit in. As always, Ginger Baker didn’t want to, but Clapton and Bruce thought it might be fun. After all, Clapton was “God”, right? He could outplay anyone.
We don’t have recordings of that night, but we do have recordings of that guitarist playing the song he played that night on other occasions:
[Excerpt: Jimi Hendrix, “Killing Floor”]
There was a new God in town.
Every guitarist in London was astonished and upset at the arrival of Hendrix — Jeff Beck said “Suddenly, you couldn’t do anything remotely flash or clever, because people would just say you were ripping Hendrix off.”
There had been a rivalry between the London guitarists. Up to that point there were basically six electric guitarists in London who mattered as far as innovation on the instrument went — Clapton, Beck, Jimmy Page, Peter Green, Pete Townshend, and Dave Davies. As soon as Hendrix turned up, there was only one.
Clapton didn’t take it well, *at all*. He started trying to imitate Hendrix’s guitar style in rehearsals, much to Bruce and Baker’s disgust. Within a few months he’d grown his hair out into a curly perm inspired by Hendrix’s Afro — he would tell everyone who listened that he was actually copying Bob Dylan’s hairstyle, saying “I liked Dylan’s hair I went and had my hair curled. Then Jimi came on with the curly hair and his band did it to complete the image, and everybody else did it because they dug Jimi and other people did it cos they dug me, I guess. It became quite a trend in England to have curly hair.”
Except of course that Hendrix had his Afro *before* Clapton. According to Bruce “When Jimi Hendrix came on the scene, Eric said ‘One of us has to have a hairdo like that.’ I said, ‘OK, so long as it isn’t me,’ so Eric went and got a perm.”
There’s a *fascinating* interview from 1967, which I can’t quote here because Clapton liberally uses racial slurs and also swears a lot, but you can find online if you search for the phrase “And Jimi came over and exploited that to the limit”. In that, Clapton makes roughly three overlapping claims. The first is the rather patronising one that Hendrix was “a beautiful guitar player for his age” (Hendrix was three years older than Clapton). The second is the claim that Hendrix’s showmanship was in direct opposition to his musicianship, that when Hendrix did all his chitlin’ circuit tricks he’d look at the audience reaction and only really respected people who were listening rather than those who were impressed by pyrotechnics — that one may well have been true, but given some of what I’m going to talk about later, it also reads to me very much as if Clapton was projecting his own feelings about his own audience onto Hendrix. And finally, Clapton claimed that the main reason everyone was impressed by Hendrix is that in Britain everyone believed that Black men had large penises.
Meanwhile, Cream were in the middle of recording their debut album, Fresh Cream, and “Wrapping Paper” had come out to excruciatingly bad reviews. Jack Bruce remembered performing the single on Ready, Steady, Go! and his old bandmates Manfred Mann also being on the show. He said “You could see them giving us looks, as if to say, ‘They’ve blown it.'”
“Wrapping Paper” only reached number thirty-four on the charts, but the second single did much better:
[Excerpt: The Cream, “I Feel Free”]
“I Feel Free” was another song by Brown and Bruce, with Bruce on lead vocals, and it did much better in the charts, reaching number eleven. It was left off the album, as was “Wrapping Paper”, and so Fresh Cream was a mixture of five originals, including Baker’s extended drum solo “Toad”, and five blues covers — two of which, including a Robert Johnson one, had group members adding themselves to the credits as arrangers to get some of the songwriting money.
Stigwood seemed to be losing interest in Cream even before they’d really started. In January 1967 he entered into the agreement with Brian Epstein that we talked about in the episode on “All You Need is Love”, and started managing NEMS artists. He signed the minor Merseybeat star Billy J. Kramer to Reaction and had him record a single for the label:
[Excerpt: Billy J Kramer, “Town of Tuxley Toymaker”]
That was written by three of the members of a new band that Stigwood had signed to NEMS — but not to his own record label, which he eventually wound down as his new signing took up more of his attention:
[Excerpt: The Bee Gees, “New York Mining Disaster 1941”]
The Bee Gees would of course go on to have massive success and be Stigwood’s biggest clients, but at the time Cream resented them for taking Stigwood’s focus away from them.
Ahmet Ertegun was also getting a bit annoyed by Stigwood’s loss of focus. Atlantic were distributing Cream’s records in the US, and were about to release the first album over there, and he wanted Cream to play US dates in order to promote the record, but Stigwood just didn’t seem that bothered. Eventually, though, they did get a series of US dates organised — nine days performing five times a day for five minutes a time on a Murray the K package show in New York with Simon and Garfunkel, Mitch Ryder, Wilson Pickett, Smokey Robinson, Phil Ochs, and a disparate bunch of other acts.
Cream were actually only on there because Mitch Ryder really didn’t want to do it. Ryder had told his agent to just keep making ridiculous demands until Murray the K said no, but Murray the K had been desperate to get him. Ryder had demanded a ridiculous fee, Murray had said yes. Ryder had demanded that his dressing room be repainted in blue. Murray had said yes. Finally Ryder had demanded that the Who, who had never played in the US before, also be on the bill, and Murray had said yes to that as well.
So Ryder’s agent had called Robert Stigwood, who was handling the Who’s bookings, and told him the situation — Mitch Ryder really didn’t want to do it, so Stigwood should make demands for the Who that would mean they wouldn’t play, so then Ryder wouldn’t have to. So Stigwood demanded $5000 for the Who — a ridiculous sum. Murray agreed. So Stigwood added on that the Who would only do it if the Cream were also on the bill, and they’d cost another $2,500. Murray agreed to that. And so both Cream and the Who ended up making their American debuts in front of a load of bemused teenage kids who were there to see pop stars.
As John Entwistle described it “we’d done all the silly tours and mad packages, where you go out and find you’re supporting a dancing bear and a juggler. But Cream had never been in that environment – the Bluesbreakers, Graham Bond, the Yardbirds, they were club bands, playing to audiences who knew what they were about, and suddenly they were dropped into this Christmas Pantomime environment, with a couple of thousand thirteen-year-olds eating sweets and reading comics. It really was rather ridiculous.”
As it turned out as well, the teenagers were unimpressed enough by the lineup that Murray didn’t make anything like the money he’d expected, and none of the acts ended up getting paid at all, except the Who, whose manager Chris Stamp had insisted on per diems because they didn’t have enough money to eat.
After that run of gigs, though, Cream were booked into Atlantic’s studios for a session with Ahmet Ertegum producing them. That only produced one track, but a month later they flew back to the US to record more there, this time with the legendary Tom Dowd engineering and Ertegun’s choice of producer, Felix Pappalardi, who had recently produced the debut album by the Youngbloods:
[Excerpt: The Youngbloods, “Get Together”]
Pappalardi almost immediately proved his worth to the band. The group had been playing a version of an old blues standard, “Hey Lawdy Mama”, but after the first day’s sessions Pappalardi had taken a copy of the instrumental track back home, and with his wife Gail Collins had written a new lyric and melody line to the track. The result, “Strange Brew”, became the group’s next single, and another UK top twenty hit:
[Excerpt: Cream, “Strange Brew”]
Bruce was never quite happy with the changes though, saying “There’s a bum note in there, and it annoys me every time I hear it. They grafted these lyrics on top of the backing track, and it had a different chord change. If you listen to the song, it sounds like I’m playing the wrong bass line. That’s because I’m playing a different tune! I cringe every time I hear it”
There were other problems as well. By this time Cream had realised that they needed to do different things in the studio and live — they could show off their playing on stage, but they needed to have songs that would stand up to repeated listens in the studio, and were working on their songcraft. Baker said “There were two bands. A lot of the studio stuff we hardly ever played live.”
Ertegun, though, thought he’d signed a blues band and thought the music they were working on was “psychedelic hogwash” (other sources credit that comment to Jerry Wexler rather than Ertegun, but neither man was happy with the material). On top of that, all he’d really known about the band when he’d signed them was that Clapton was the former guitarist with the Yardbirds and John Mayall. He was the star of the group, so why was the bass player doing most of the singing?
The album, eventually titled Disraeli Gears, was many things, but it wasn’t a blues album. It had songs like “Tales of Brave Ulysses” which featured a wah-wah pedal, mostly because Clapton had heard that Hendrix had just bought one; SWLABR” which Bruce later said was inspired by the Monkees; a version of the old music-hall song “Your Baby’s Gone Down the Plug-Hole”, retitled “Mother’s Lament”; and the song that Ertegun and Wexler detested most of all, “Sunshine of Your Love”:
[Excerpt: Cream, “Sunshine of Your Love”]
That had started out as a riff that Bruce had been playing on a double-bass, which Brown had found difficult to set lyrics to, until they got to the end of an all-night writing session and, staring out the window, Brown wrote the line “It’s getting near dawn and lights close their tired eyes”.
Clapton later added the chorus music, and the song had been in the group’s set for a while before they took it into the studio, where Tom Dowd made the crucial suggestion that Ginger Baker play the downbeat rather than the backbeat. This fit well with Baker’s jazz-influenced style — it was the kind of thing that a lot of swing bands would do — but Ertegun still hated the track. It was only when Otis Redding and Booker T. Jones heard it and thought it was great that Ertegun relented and allowed it to be released at all. Released as the second single from the album, several months after the album’s release, it became the group’s first and biggest US hit, reaching number five more than a year after it was recorded:
[Excerpt: Cream, “Sunshine of Your Love”]
But it took a long time for that hit to happen, and in summer 1967 there was serious consideration given to splitting up the band. And Jack Bruce even had another offer. Peter Green had quit John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers after Mayall had fired his friend, Mayall’s latest drummer Mick Fleetwood, and he was trying to put together his own supergroup in the manner of Cream, with the best players and singers on the scene. He got in Aynsley Dunbar on drums, Brian Auger on keyboards (though Auger can’t be heard on the recordings that have surfaced, but Green said he was there), Bruce on bass and piano, and the Jeff Beck Group’s singer on vocals to form Crazy Blue:
[Excerpt: Crazy Blue, “Stone Crazy”]
Unfortunately at this point everyone had so many entanglements and contracts that the record never came out, and Green had to get a new lineup for his supergroup, who debuted only a few days after that session. Rod Stewart and the rest had all lost their chance to be in the band that became Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac.
But soon after that, Cream made their first appearance at the Fillmore, and suddenly everything changed. In the UK they’d been used to playing relatively short club sets, and their only US appearances previously had had them playing only one song a show. But at the Fillmore they were expected to play for hours, and so they had to stretch out. As Bruce said “When we hit the Fillmore, we started to play those long improvisations . . . because we didn’t know hardly any songs! It was partly a repertoire, and partly a product of the times, because all the audiences were stoned out of their collective bonces.”
The group went down a storm at the Fillmore, and what had been a one-week residency at one venue ended up becoming a major US tour, with the band being booked for long residencies in other major cities as a result of the Fillmore audience. When the tour hit New York, Clapton guested with Aretha Franklin on the track “Good to Me as I Am to You” on her Lady Soul album:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “Good to Me as I Am to You”]
and also guested on the Mothers of Invention’s We’re Only In It For The Money, though only speaking, not playing guitar:
[Excerpt: The Mothers of Invention, “Are You Hung Up?”]
While Clapton was on that album, Jimi Hendrix, who wasn’t, was on the cover, a parody of the Sgt Pepper cover.
For much of the rest of the year and early into 1968, Cream led a strange double life. In Britain they were a pop group — on the hip end of pop, the art school end, but definitely in the light entertainment industry. They played the Saville Theatre with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the Marine Ballroom at the end of Morecambe Pier, and the Silver Blades Ice Rink in Streatham. They also made a guest appearance on Twice A Fortnight, a comedy show directed by Tony Palmer, a friend of Clapton’s who later went on to be one of the most important rock music documentary makers of all time, and starring Bill Oddie, Graeme Garden, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones.
That Twice A Fortnight appearance actually ended with Baker being rushed to hospital, with what was at first believed to be an ulcer — he had all the symptoms — but which turned out actually to be exhaustion.
But Baker was only in hospital for a week before it was back on the treadmill, and this time back to the US, where rather than being pop they were playing to a rock audience who wanted their extended solos and jamming. This disparity is reflected in their next album, Wheels of Fire, which they worked on through most of 1967 and early 1968. This was a double-album, and disc one was mostly made up of relatively short songs recorded in the studio by “the Cream Quartet” — the three members of the group plus Pappalardi. As Clapton later said “The strange thing about Cream was that every time we went into the studios to record, we formed another group, adding violins or another guitar or something.”
These tracks were layered, orchestrated, pop songs that made use of Bruce and Pappalardi’s multi-instrumental abilities and the eight-track equipment that Atlantic had (at a time when the best studios in the UK were still on four-track). Bruce added cello, calliope, and recorder, Pappalardi viola, tonette, and trumpet, and Baker played a variety of tuned percussion as well as his drumkit. This disc was made up almost entirely of originals — four by Bruce and Brown, and three by Baker and the group’s friend Mike Taylor — plus two blues covers suggested by Clapton, who was still not writing material himself.
Disc two, on the other hand, featured the core trio just playing their normal instruments, live in San Francisco. It was labelled as “Live at the Fillmore”, but in fact three of the four tracks were recorded at the Winterland Ballroom. Side two features two extended improvisations — a seven-minute version of “Train Time”, the song Bruce had written for the Graham Bond Organisation, and a sixteen-minute version of Baker’s drum solo “Toad”.
Side one, meanwhile, spotlighted Clapton on two blues tracks, a seventeen-minute version of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful”, which they’d already recorded in a much shorter studio version on Fresh Cream, and a relatively concise, four-minute, version of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads”:
[Excerpt: Cream, “Crossroads”]
While that didn’t give the group the excuse for ultra-extended soloing the way some of the other tracks they recorded did, it did become Clapton’s signature song, and possibly his most definitive guitar performance — so much so that there’s an often-told story about the great Irish blues guitarist Rory Gallagher being told he played “Crossroads” better than Clapton and replying “but Eric wrote it!”
Crossroads also became the title track to Clapton’s career-spanning 1988 box set, and is still arguably the best example of him as a pure guitarist on record:
[Excerpt: Cream, “Crossroads”]
Those recordings, according to Bruce, were “a fair representation of the band on an average night, but not on one of the nights when we really took off”. The rest of the band agreed — their best shows were never recorded.
And there were a *lot* of shows. Those San Francisco shows were recorded on a long tour to promote Disraeli Gears, and they played more than seventy shows in four months.
But the shows were getting worse and worse. It was apparent that the audience was there to see the great musicians they’d heard about, but not actually to listen to the music. At one show they were drowned out by screaming feedback, and the audience loved it. Another show, the vocal mics didn’t work. The audience didn’t mind. Another show, Clapton’s guitar wasn’t in the mix. The audience didn’t care.
The group hated performing for people who weren’t listening, and started to play badly as a result — if the audience didn’t care, why would they? They were on a grinding treadmill, and getting on each other’s nerves. Bruce and Baker were arguing about everything from politics (Baker was right-wing and Bruce was a leftist) to the PA systems. All of them were suffering from exhaustion, especially Baker. Bruce said later “I’m sure that a lot of people came to see Cream to see if Ginger would die. Whereas they’d go to see other bands because they thought the singer was sexy, they’d come and see us and shout through the window, ‘You gonna die tonight, Ginger?'”
And there was another issue, too. Clapton was starting to think that maybe the whole direction the group were going in was wrong.
In late 1967, a tape had started to circulate in British music circles, of some new songs by Bob Dylan, who hadn’t released any music since a motorcycle accident the previous year:
[Excerpt: Bob Dylan and the Band, “The Mighty Quinn”]
Originally, the only copy was in the hands of Manfred Mann, who’d been sent it in the hope that they might have a hit with some of the songs, as they had with “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”, and “Just Like a Woman”. Dylan had said in 1965 that of all the people who’d covered his songs, the best was Manfred Mann, and they did indeed record “The Mighty Quinn” and have a number one with it. But slowly more copies started to circulate, and more musicians started covering songs from it. The recording was *full* of great songs:
[Excerpt: Bob Dylan and the Band, “This Wheel’s on Fire”]
Not only that, Clapton soon got an advance copy of the first album by Dylan’s backing band on those tapes, a band who just called themselves The Band, and that contained remakes of some of those Dylan songs but also new originals like “The Weight”:
[Excerpt: The Band, “The Weight”]
This music, which we’ll be hearing more about next episode, had nothing to do with seventeen-minute drum solos or psychedelia. This, Clapton knew, was the music he actually wanted to be making. Maybe it was the music he *would* have been making if they’d got Steve Winwood in the band like he’d wanted at the start. He’d play the record, and the tape of Dylan’s new songs, over and over on the tour, wishing he was doing that instead.
Matters came to a head when Bruce suggested to Baker that the group needed their own PA system rather than using the awful venue ones. Baker, who was the band member most interested in their financial well-being, told him they couldn’t afford one, and Bruce was horrified. What were they even doing this for if they were working themselves to death, having massive hit records, and still couldn’t afford basic equipment?
Bruce said he was going home, and made his way to the airport, where two of the band’s roadies found him and basically forced him to go back and play that night’s gig. But they cancelled the next ten days’ worth of shows.
That was in April 1968. But after those ten days, the group were back on the road, slogging their way through the rest of the US tour until June.
Their next single, “Anyone For Tennis”, released while they were still working on the Wheels of Fire album, barely scraped the top forty in the UK and didn’t even make the hot one hundred in the US. To my ears, it shows the influence of their friends the Bonzo Dog Band again, with the recorder part sounding not dissimilar to the Bonzos’ recent hit “I’m the Urban Spaceman”:
[Excerpt: Cream, “Anyone For Tennis”]
But the fundamental problem was, as Noel Redding said, that “The things that killed Cream were the same that killed Jimi. If one person had booed while Jack was tuning his bass, or Eric hit a bum note, then they’d have known that people still cared about what they played. Instead, they were allowed to get away with everything, until finally it didn’t matter what they did. And the moment they realised that, it was the end. ”
The killer blow came when someone else expressed that for the first time in print. Jon Landau wrote a devastating review of the group in Rolling Stone that said in part “the greatest pitfall that stands before them is that an over-accepting audience in the United States will lull them into a complacency in which they increase their virtuosity at the expense of their own involvement. It would not be difficult for a group of this caliber to start making it all sound like scales.”
According to Clapton, he literally fainted when he read that review.
They put the finishing touches on Wheels Of Fire, and it was released to a mixed reception. “White Room”, a Bruce and Brown song that was the single from the album, became a minor hit in the UK but a top ten hit in the US:
[Excerpt: Cream, “White Room”]
But most people seemed to think it was an album of two halves, and only liked one of the halves — to the extent that in Britain, Polydor, their new label, released it as two single discs as well as a double album, so people wouldn’t have to buy the one they didn’t like. Rolling Stone loved the live disc, saying “This is the kind of thing that people who have seen Cream perform walk away raving about, and it’s good to, at last, have it on a record”, but they absolutely savaged the studio disc, saying “Cream is good at a number of things; unfortunately songwriting and recording are not among them.”
The album was released in July 1968, and went to number one in the US album charts. “Sunshine of Your Love” reentered the charts and belatedly became a massive hit, and Cream were finally having the massive commercial success they’d expected from the start.
But on the thirteenth of July, they announced they were splitting. They were going to do a final US tour at the end of the year, and release a contractual obligation album, and that was it.
That album, Goodbye, came out in 1969, and had three studio tracks, one written by each member, and three live tracks. The studio tracks included “Badge”, a song Clapton had written with his good friend George Harrison, and which became the group’s last single, making the top twenty in the UK but only number sixty in the US:
[Excerpt: Cream, “Badge”]
While the live tracks included Bruce and Brown’s “Politician” and two old blues songs, Skip James’ “I’m So Glad”, and “Sittin’ on Top of the World”. Those songs were also included in the group’s final live show (other than a brief 2005 reunion) at the Royal Albert Hall, which was filmed by Tony Palmer for a documentary:
[Excerpt: Cream, “Sittin’ on Top of the World (live Albert Hall)”]
That’s where we’ll be leaving Cream for now, but the members of the group will all turn up in future episodes, and we’ll continue their stories then.
But another story also continued — the story of Robert Johnson. Because the King of the Delta Blues Singers album had sparked a concerted search for information about Johnson among the community of white blues scholars and musicians, and people like Al Wilson of Canned Heat, Gayle Dean Wardlow, Paul Oliver, Peter Guralnick, Steve LaVere, and Mack McCormick started investigating Johnson’s life and writing articles and books on him.
This investigation, at least initially, took a lot of time, and involved very few clues — one way that McCormick tracked down information was writing down every single reference to a place name in any of Johnson’s songs and then travelling to all those places, knocking on doors and asking people if they remembered a blues singer called Robert Johnson who’d been there thirty or so years earlier. This was time-consuming and slow going, and the information we have now took literally decades of work, but because of that work we now have, in the public domain, more reliable information about Johnson than pretty much any other Delta blues singer of his generation.
But it took a while to separate the wheat from the chaff. Johnson was a man who, like many of us, was different around different people — just as for any of us our persona on social media is different from how we are when talking with our closest friends or romantic partners, and that again is different from how we are at work or how we are when talking to our grandparents. And so at first the information seemed to make Johnson more unknowable, rather than more known, as utterly contradictory information came through different sources.
This was combined with the inherent unreliability of the information — and again this unreliability has many different causes. There were people who simply remembered things badly, there were people who exaggerated their own role in the story for their own reputation — “I taught him everything he knew!” — people who didn’t want to speak to a strange white person they’d never met before, people who wanted to string these rather gullible young white men along and see what nonsense they could get them to believe, people who decided that they should just say whatever the young white kids giving them money wanted to hear whether it was true or not, people who told the truth but used idioms that weren’t familiar to people of a radically different background, and every other way in which facts can be confused.
So for example, Son House talked to some researchers about how he’d known Robert Johnson when Johnson was just a kid, and he’d tried to play the guitar and been terrible, but then he’d gone away, come back, and been astonishingly good. This was mixed in the researchers’ minds — not in anything House actually said, though what House said was inaccurate in itself — with a story that was told by relatives of another bluesman named Johnson — Tommy Johnson — which said that he’d sold his soul to the Devil. Add in a few references to crossroads and the Devil in Johnson’s songs, and it soon became a legend, one known by everyone who knows of Johnson at all, that he’d been a terrible guitar player until he’d gone to a crossroads at midnight. There a strange black figure had retuned his guitar, giving him the power to play better than any man alive, in exchange for his soul.
The more prosaic truth, that when House first met Johnson Johnson was an early-career professional in his late teens, who was a decent player but completely outshone by the much more experienced House, so Johnson went off and spent several months taking lessons from a more accomplished player and practising constantly and got better, is rather less well-known.
So, let’s take an abbreviated look at the actual life of Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues singers:
[Excerpt: Robert Johnson, “Cross Road Blues”]
Robert Johnson would not even have been born were it not for white men trying to steal from Black men.
One of the facts about the segregation-era South that is not as widely known among white people as perhaps it should be is the extent to which lynching was an *economic* tool of exploitation. It was not, as films usually portray, the poorest Black men who were lynched for the most part. Rather it was those who had managed to get something for themselves — a plot of land, a small business — that a rich white man wanted.
The normal thing was that the white man would make some kind of accusation against the Black man — usually that the Black man had been trying to have sex with a white woman. This would anger the other white people, they would brutally murder the Black man, and the white man would be able to get the Black man’s possessions after he died, buying them from the state for a fraction of what they were worth.
So in 1906 when Joseph Marchetti accosted Charles Dodds, a farmer who owned a small piece of land, in the street and accused him of talking to a white woman — the woman in question was actually mixed-race, as was Dodds himself, and there were rumours that Marchetti had an interest in her — and slashed at Dodds’ face with a knife, Dodds knew what was coming. He quickly ran home, explained the situation to his wife, and hid himself in a bramble thicket so thick that it would appear that nobody could get in there.
He waited in the brambles for almost two weeks until the lynch mob finally gave up looking for him, and then made his escape — dressed in women’s clothes, in case they were still looking for him. Dodds moved to Memphis and changed his name to Spencer. He and his wife still loved each other, but they couldn’t be together, and Spencer remarried twice — his second wife died after they had two children, and he married again and had two more.
He and his wife Julia had had five children, and in 1911, five years after they split up Julia had a sixth with her new partner, Noah Johnson. As a single mother, Julia had sent several of her older children to live with their father and his new wife, because they were doing better financially, and when her relationship with Johnson got bad she turned to her ex-husband for help for herself, their youngest child, and her child by another man.
Spencer took his ex-wife’s son in, and Julia stayed at least for a while with him (and longer with her older daughter Carrie). Robert took on the name Robert Spencer, and as he grew up Spencer taught him the rudiments of music — Spencer played guitar and fiddle, and was a big fan of country music, especially Fiddlin’ John Carson and Uncle Dave Macon, and that would have been the music he taught his stepson to play:
[Excerpt: Uncle Dave Macon, “Death of John Henry”]
Robert’s older half-brother, Charles Spencer Jr, known as Son, also played music, both guitar and piano, and there’s a photo of him in a suit, wearing a hat, playing a guitar with his wife by his side which looks *spookily* like the most famous photo of his brother.
Son also taught Robert some of what he knew on the guitar, and introduced him to a lot of music — Son was a big fan of country music, like his father, but also liked ragtime and jazz, especially Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong.
While he was being brought up in Memphis, Robert also went to school, which set him apart from a lot of the other Delta blues singers, many of whom were illiterate, or who had been taught at most to write their names. Robert’s stepfather was a skilled tradesman, and that seems to have been his plan for his son.
Robert lived with his stepfather and his children until 1919, when his mother remarried and came to take her eight-year-old son back to live on a plantation in Arkansas, before moving again to Robinsonville, Mississippi. At this point, and until he was a teenager, Robert still had no idea that the man he knew as his father wasn’t his biological father, and still called himself Robert Spencer. And he seemed to want to be more like his father and family in Memphis than the field hands he was now living among. He hated having to work the fields, and would complain about how much he missed Memphis with its music and the big-city life. He also became a voracious reader, and would often carry a notebook in which he’d jot ideas.
But his Memphis family weren’t completely out of his life — he would visit them whenever he could, often staying for long periods, and he became determined that he was going to be a musician, not a farmhand. His older sister Carrie moved back to the Delta to be with her mother and brother, and when his mother’s new husband wouldn’t buy him a guitar, first Robert built himself a diddley bow — a rudimentary string instrument — and then he and Carrie built a cigar-box guitar, before Carrie helped him save up enough to buy a real one.
He had a boost in his musical education when Willie Brown moved to Robinsonville:
[Excerpt: Willie Brown, “M&O Blues”]
Young Robert started learning from Brown, and sneaking out to watch him perform. Robert’s mother’s husband profoundly disapproved of him trying to make a living as a musician, but by the time he was seventeen he was playing in juke joints, playing whatever music people wanted to hear — he’d play blues, folk songs, ragtime, polkas, and he particularly enjoyed the music of Jimmie Rodgers, the first big country music star:
[Excerpt: Jimmie Rodgers, “Waiting for a Train”]
It also seems to be around this time that he discovered who his biological father was, and started referring to himself as Robert Johnson as well as Robert Spencer — and this seems at least in part to have been as a way of making himself more like two of his other musical idols, Tommy Johnson, the blues singer we’ve mentioned a couple of times already, and Lonnie Johnson, who straddled the line between blues, pop, and jazz, and influenced everyone from Elvis Presley (who recorded his “Tomorrow Night”) and Lonnie Donegan, who named himself after him, to Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, and who recorded guest guitar with Louis Armstrong in the late twenties:
[Excerpt: Lonnie Johnson and Louis Armstrong, “Hotter Than That”]
Robert would often refer to himself as “one of the Johnson boys”, hoping that people would associate him with the more famous musicians.
He was a decent but not great guitarist and singer, making a living but not standing out — this is the period Son House talked about later, where Johnson tried to challenge House as to who was the better guitarist but was wildly outplayed and seemed incompetent by House’s standards. But then just before he turned eighteen, he married a fourteen-year-old girl he was in love with, and settled down and started mostly doing field hand work to support his new wife.
She got pregnant and went off to stay with family to have the baby. When it was about due, Robert hitch-hiked up to be there for the birth, but took some time out to play in a few juke-joints along the way and have a little fun, as a teenager would do.
He got there to find his wife and baby had died in childbirth, and her family were blaming his playing “the Devil’s music” for him not having been there, and maybe for her death itself.
He was utterly devastated, and this seems to have changed his personality totally. He moved back in with his mother and her husband, but he was getting drunk and into fights with the older man, and regularly disappeared for days and weeks at a time. But he stayed around the plantations because there were so many musicians there to learn from. Willie Brown had introduced him to a variety of great musicians who Brown played with, including Charlie Patton:
[Excerpt: Charlie Patton, “You’re Gonna Need Somebody When You Die”]
And Son House:
[Excerpt: Son House, “Preaching the Blues”]
Johnson was at this point *obsessed* with music — after the death of his wife and child, he had nothing else in his life and he was absolutely driven.
But he was also driven to find his own birth father, and so he made his way to the small town where he’d been born, to search for Noah Johnson.
He didn’t find him, but he *did* find an older man, Ike Zimmerman, who took him in for the best part of a year, and spent that year teaching him to play guitar better. The two used to go out to a nearby graveyard every night to play guitar together, because it was a quiet place where you wouldn’t disturb anyone. It’s this year, and the massive improvement in Johnson’s technique that resulted, plus Johnson’s changed personality as a result of the tragedy he’d suffered, that lent some tiny plausibility to the posthumous rumours that he’d sold his soul to the Devil.
Around this time Johnson got a girl — a friend of Zimmerman’s daughter — pregnant. She had the baby but refused to marry him because he was living an immoral vagabond life. Instead he married another, older, woman, and moved in with her in Clarksdale, but the marriage soon ended as Johnson became an itinerant musician, and his second wife died in 1933, less than two years after they married, apparently without him knowing or caring. He also never seems to have seen his son Claud — indeed Johnson’s family often claimed (and his surviving stepsister still does) that Claud’s claim to be Johnson’s son was fictitious, because they never heard mention of him until the 1990s.
The first evidence we have of Johnson’s music on record is not actually a recording by him, but by his friend Johnnie Temple:
[Excerpt: Johnnie Temple, “Lead Pencil Blues”]
The boogie bass pattern on that record is something that Temple would always later say had been taught him by Johnson.
For the most part, though, Johnson was very secretive about his playing. He loved to play for audiences, but if he ever saw another musician watching him too closely he’d turn around and hide his fingers, so nobody could learn his tricks. one of the few musicians he ever taught anything to was Robert Jr. Lockwood, the son of one of Johnson’s many girlfriends, who Johnson regarded as his stepson and helped build his first guitar:
[Excerpt: Robert Jr Lockwood, “Steady Rollin’ Man”]
Lockwood would go on to play with Sonny Boy Williamson II, before having a career of his own.
In 1936, Johnson auditioned for Vocalion Records, and went to San Antonio, where they had a makeshift studio in two rented rooms, to record for them over Thanksgiving. They were recording in San Antonio because there was a large Mexican population, and so it was a good place to find Mexican musicians. Over the few days in which Johnson’s first set of recording sessions took place, they recorded many other musicians — the way labels making music for minority populations would operate in those days was that they would book a room somewhere and get as many local musicians as they could in the area to record in extended sessions that would give them material to release for six months or a year.
This led to a myth that grew up — that Johnson recorded while facing a corner to get a better sound. In fact, Johnson recorded perfectly normally, facing a microphone in the middle of one room while the engineers worked the disc-cutter in the other. The only time he faced a corner was when the engineers invited in some of the Mexican musicians to hear their new discovery — Johnson didn’t want to show them his playing.
As always, the record company weren’t interested in Johnson’s performances of Gene Autry or Jimmie Rodgers songs — they wanted original material, not the covers of pop hits that made up the bulk of Johnson’s performances. So he obliged. In these initial sessions, over the course of a few days, Johnson recorded sixteen songs, two takes of each, including songs like “Cross Road Blues”, “Ramblin’ on My Mind”, “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom”, “Sweet Home Chicago” and his one hit, “Terraplane Blues”, all of which became blues standards after they were rediscovered, as well as more idiosyncratic songs like “They’re Red Hot”, inspired by the local cuisine:
[Excerpt: Robert Johnson, “They’re Red Hot”]
These songs are noteworthy because Johnson did two takes of each, and the songs were more or less identical each time. This was very, very unusual for Delta blues performers. Normally, Delta blues singers would alter their songs every time — they were part of a folk tradition, and they used floating verses and improvised depending on how they felt at the time.
Johnson, on the other hand, was slightly younger and more modern than the previous Delta musicians. He’d grown up in a world where music came on records and the radio, and a song was the same every time you listened to it. He could also read and write — unlike most of his contemporaries Johnson was fully literate and a voracious reader, and would write down his lyrics.
Johnson’s songs were still very heavily inspired by other musicians’ work. Compare for example Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago”:
[Excerpt: Robert Johnson, “Sweet Home Chicago”]
With Kokomo Arnold’s “Old Original Kokomo Blues”:
[Excerpt: Kokomo Arnold, “Old Original Kokomo Blues”]
But in general, Johnson’s songs have more of a coherent, thought-out feel than those of people like Charlie Patton, Skip James, or Son House.
Similarly, his “Come on In My Kitchen”, while lyrically distinct, clearly owes a lot to “Sitting on Top of the World”, the song first recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks:
[Excerpt: Robert Johnson, “Come on In My Kitchen”]
After those recordings, Johnson started to travel even more widely than he had before, often accompanied by a friend, another musician named Johnny Shines. Shines, like Lockwood, learned from Johnson, and the two were travelling companions off and on for two years. Shines was particularly impressed by Johnson’s ability to play contrapuntal lines on the guitar. At the time, most songsters would perform with a second guitarist — the one on vocals would play rhythm parts, while the other would play lead. Johnson, though, had learned piano and had particularly long fingers, as well as a sharp musical mind and dedication. He was playing the kind of parts on guitar that a piano player would play — playing a melodic bass line and picking out chordal melodies at the same time.
Johnson would often strike out on his own though, because one of the things people remembered about him — along with that he was a womaniser, a reader, and that he had an eidetic memory for music and could play any song after hearing it once — was that he was extremely quiet, didn’t like to get emotionally close to other people, and preferred his own company.
So when Johnson made his second trip to Texas to record, this time to Dallas in June 1937, Shines went part of the way with him, but he ended up making the last leg of the journey alone. That time, rather than recording Mexican artists, the record label were mostly recording Western Swing artists, including a session by the Light Crust Dough Boys, the band that Bob Wills had formed which we talked about back in episode three, though Wills had left by the time they recorded this session:
[Excerpt: The Light Crust Doughboys, “Sitting on Top of the World”]
The songs that Johnson recorded at this session would again include several songs that became blues classics, including “Me and the Devil Blues” and “Love in Vain”:
[Excerpt: Robert Johnson, “Love in Vain”]
But by this time, blues listeners were more interested in full-band city blues than solo acoustic performers, and none of these recordings did very well. Six months later, Columbia Records bought Vocalion, and shut down the budget subsidiaries on which Johnson’s records had most of their sales. Johnson was never invited back to record again.
For a big chunk of what turned out to be the last year of his life, Johnson and Shines travelled further than Johnson had ever been before. A cousin of Shines’ had killed a man in self-defence, and had been advised that the best thing he could do would be to leave the US altogether, so Johnson, Shines, and Shines’ cousin made a trip to Canada, by their usual methods of hitch-hiking, taking trains, and paying their way by performance. They travelled through St. Louis, Chicago, and Detroit, before hitting Canada, where they performed on a nationally-broadcast gospel radio show. Then Johnson and Shines headed back South to New York.
In Harlem, Johnson met another musician, who invited him to play his electric guitar, but after trying it, Johnson said he “couldn’t make it sing like he wanted” and preferred his acoustic. Given the location and the time period, and the small number of people playing electric guitar in late 1937 and early 1938, it seems fairly likely that this other musician, whose name Shines didn’t get, was Charlie Christian, who we talked about in the very first episode, and it’s rather sad to think that if he had only known it, John Hammond, who knew Christian, could have met Johnson that night, and Johnson’s subsequent life could have been very different, and possibly much longer.
Because on August the 16th 1938, Robert Johnson died of what was probably poisoning, probably poisoned by the jealous partner of a woman he’d been interested in:
[Excerpt: Robert Johnson, “Love in Vain”]
I say he was “probably” poisoned by a jealous partner, because in 2019 the most detailed account of that poisoning so far was published, in Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow’s biography of Johnson, which is an exemplary piece of work and the most detailed book yet on the subject.
And then *last month* it came out that that account was false, because it was based on reports by Mack McCormick.
McCormick was one of the most dedicated of all white blues scholars, and he made more contributions to the general public’s knowledge of Robert Johnson than almost anyone else. In the 1970s he tracked down many of Johnson’s surviving friends and relatives, and interviewed them for what he planned to be the definitive biography of Johnson, Biography of a Phantom.
McCormick got Johnson’s half-sister Carrie Thompson, the woman who’d helped him build his first guitar, and who before the discovery of Claud Johnson was presumed to be his heir, to do some interviews with him, and to sign a document saying that he had the right to use those interviews for his book. He also “borrowed” her family photos, including photos of Johnson which had never been published. Then another white blues scholar, Steve LaVere, came along and did the same thing.
LaVere also “offered” to help Thompson claim the copyrights in her brother’s work, which turned out, according to Thompson’s surviving half-sister Annye, to mean assigning LaVere most of her rights. But LaVere was at least interested in doing something with Johnson’s music. There’d been a second album rounding up the tracks that hadn’t been on King of the Delta Blues Singers, but LaVere wanted to do more — working with John Hammond he tried to put together a box set containing every recording that Johnson had made, including all the outtakes. It would have liner notes by LaVere, and feature a photo Thompson had lent him:
[Excerpt: Robert Johnson, “Love in Vain”]
That box set was meant to come out in 1975. It came out in 1990, and the reason was Mack McCormick.
McCormick had a reputation as being possibly the best blues scholar in the world, but he was also someone with serious problems. He was furious that LaVere was pushing in to what he considered “his” territory, and started threatening Columbia records, firstly using the real documents that Thompson had signed, later using other, more expansive, documents he forged, to claim he had the rights to Johnson’s life story and the photos they were going to use.
He also started to claim that he’d discovered extra heirs of Johnson’s, who needed to be included in any legal settlement. McCormick held up the release — and any royalties going to Thompson — until 1990, by which point Thompson herself was dead. And legal repercussions continued on until the year 2000, two white men, neither of whom had ever met Robert Johnson or even known about him until long after his death, fighting over who got to own Johnson’s sister’s family photos, and which of them owned the “rights” to Johnson’s life.
While Thompson had lent the two men several photos, this legal wrangling meant that none saw publication until 1986, after Thompson’s death and more than a decade after she’d first loaned her photos out. Until then, the wider world had no idea what Robert Johnson looked like. since then, two more photos have been published, and there are rumours of a fourth in McCormick’s collection.
When the box set did come out in 1990 it sold a million copies and won a Grammy. But Thompson had died seven years earlier, and her last years were spent distraught, as she was caught in a legal battle between two white men who she regarded as both being thieves and con artists out to exploit her dead brother. McCormick even started to claim that the Robert Johnson we know about wasn’t the real Robert Johnson — that he’d discovered another Robert Johnson who was the one who made the records — just to throw LaVere off.
LaVere and McCormick both died in 2015, about a month apart, and McCormick’s biography, which he’d been working on since the early 1970s, was left unfinished. It was finally published last month, by the Smithsonian Institute, after a *major* effort of going through McCormick’s archives.
But what was published wasn’t the complete book. Part of this was at the request of Johnson’s surviving stepsister Annye Anderson. As the editors say in the afterword to the book “Mrs. Anderson requested that the Smithsonian transfer McCormick’s interviews of her sisters Carrie Thompson and Bessie Hines to the control of her family as well. For Anderson, what McCormick and LaVere took from her sisters—not simply through the financial losses accrued through legal costs, but also the years of stress, anxiety, sadness, nightmares, and trauma—delegitimizes any signed agreement between them and McCormick. In respect for her wishes, we expunged the stories her sisters provided to McCormick from this publication and have restricted public access to them.”
But also the editors discovered, and revealed in conjunction with the book’s release, that masses of what McCormick had been touting for years as his discoveries — including his story of how Johnson was murdered — were simply false, pure fabrications he’d made up because of his paranoid belief that other historians were stealing his work. The preeminent historian of Robert Johnson, the man who’d dedicated more than forty years to finding every detail of his life, had poisoned the well of history so thoroughly we may never fully know exactly what parts of the Robert Johnson story we have now are true.
That book, as it’s available now, is incomplete but very valuable as a historical document, and edited with as much sensitivity as is possible. It’s one of three books published in the last four years that have between them remade our understanding of Robert Johnson. One of the others is Conforth and Wardlow’s book, which I’ll also link in the notes. But there’s one final one that *needs* mentioning here:
[Excerpt: Robert Johnson, “Cross Road Blues”]
Annye Anderson, Johnson’s stepsister, is still alive and in her nineties. In 2020, she wrote a book, Brother Robert, telling her side of the story — both all her recollections of her big brother’s life, and the story of how white men who wrote blues music history destroyed her beloved sister’s life in order to profit from her dead brother, while his family got no money but unending trauma. It’s a heart-rending book.
And it’s especially so when I consider my own position. I am a white man writing music history. I will literally profit from this episode — I make my living doing this podcast. I believe what I’m doing with this podcast is, on balance, a good thing. But I’m sure that McCormick and LaVere could have said the same. Towards the end of Anderson’s book she says “I understand that Steve LaVere has gone on, and Mack McCormick, too. But there are others and always will be: white men who don’t know us and think they own us. Steve LaVere may be resting in a golden casket that Brother Robert bought him.”
I think it is incumbent on me — I think it’s *absolutely* necessary, given the story I’ve just told, to end this episode with a commercial of sorts. If you’ve been interested at all in anything I’ve said about Robert Johnson, then go out and buy a copy of Brother Robert by Annye Andreson, the last living person with a strong familial connection to Johnson, and read *her* words and *her* story.
I said at the beginning that white men invented the blues. And they did. The *music* was created by Black people, but everything we know about the genre and its history has been shaped by the tastes, the prejudices, and the misconceptions of white men like Arthur Laibley, John Hammond, John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Steve LaVere, Mack McCormick… and now me. You’ve heard what a white man has to say about this, now go and read what a Black woman who was actually there says, and pay her to do so. It won’t fix a historical injustice, but it’s a start.
[Excerpt: Robert Johnson, “Love in Vain” into theme music.]