Tuesday, January 8, 2019

JD's History/Music Corner: Big Walter Horton, Muddy Waters, Ricky Nelson

More posts migrating from G+. Hope you like em!

Let's talk about "Big" Walter Horton!

Also sometimes known as "Shakey" Horton.

Born in 1921, his early career is a little shady - he made several claims about his early life that are unsubstantiated (like playing with the Memphis Jug Band before he turned 10) or extremely unlikely (teaching harmonica techniques to Sonny Boy Williamson, who was older than Horton). The earliest recording of Horton dates from 1939, when he backed Little Buddy Doyle on Okeh Records. However, poor health and a lack of steady pay led him to leave the music industry for almost a decade. Still, he was one of the first Sun Records recording artists.

In the 1950s he was a regular in the Chicago blues scene, frequently playing with other Memphis and Mississippi Delta musicians who had moved north. From there he became attached to several acts that took him to the UK and through the blues festival circuit. He can be seen playing with John Lee Hooker in the street market scene in The Blues Brothers. He died in 1981, only a year after the film was released.

Although he only released six albums in his lifetime, Horton was a pioneer in "amplified" blues harmonica and the establishment of a unique American sound. Here he is in 1970 in Copenhagen playing with Willie Dixon, who said he was "the greatest ever".


Let's talk about Muddy Waters!

Born McKinley Morganfield (a great name) in 1913 (we think - his gravestone says 1915, his marriage license says 1913, the census says 1914), he grew up in Stovall, Mississippi, a town still operated on the plantation system despite slavery's end 50 years previously. He bought his first guitar at age 17. "I sold the last horse that we had. Made about fifteen dollars for him, gave my grandmother seven dollars and fifty cents, I kept seven-fifty and paid about two-fifty for that guitar. It was a Stella. The people ordered them from Sears-Roebuck in Chicago." he recalled. His first gigs were on the Stovall Plantation itself.

As a Southern blues musician Waters of course was inspired by the genius of Robert Johnson. He made a splash locally, but became the Muddy Waters we know today when he moved to Chicago in 1943. There is simply no alternative: Muddy Waters is the founding father of the Chicago blues sound, developing a unique style in collaboration with guitarist Jimmy Rogers (no connection to the white country bluesman Jimmie Rodgers). He began in the rowdy clubs operated by Big Bill Broonzy, himself a seminal bluesman. In 1948 he switched to the electric guitar, feeling that the loud, raucous dance halls were no place for an acoustic guitar. The Chicago blues electric guitar would eventually become one of the key elements of rock and roll. Several recording contracts around that time didn't materialize, with his music being shelved. Eventually Chess Records gave Waters a chance, and as he made hit after hit, they let him bring his own band into the studio. By the early 1950s, Waters was releasing showstopper after showstopper, including "Hoochie Coochie Man", "I Just Want To Make Love To You" and "I'm Ready". Interestingly, the songs that were the biggest hits for him were also the most macho, having a swagger that many of Waters' songs didn't have. Waters is also credited with introducing England to the electric blues sound in 1958.

Although Chess Records would shelve Waters in the late 1960s, unlike many other black artists working in this period, Waters was continuously acknowledged by the many branches of music that he had influenced, and had little trouble finding work or connections. His Grammy awards came in the 1970s with upscale live recordings. He died in his sleep, of heart failure, in 1983. He was (probably) 60 years old.

This is one of my favorite Muddy Waters recording, from 1949. You can hear the unique sound of the early electric guitar used in his unique style.


Let's talk about....Ricky Nelson!

Ricky Nelson has to be considered one of the most iconic performers of the 20th century - exerting major influence over the sitcom, pop music, country music, and rock and roll music at the last historical moment when all these disparate fields could be reasonably combined in one person's life.

Along with his brother, Ricky Nelson made his entertainment debut at age 8 in 1949, playing himself in the radio sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Before 1949, he had been portrayed - for five whole years! - by a professional child actor. The show was well established by the time Ricky came along, but was also ready to make a big jump to television. After a film version as a test (Here Come The Nelsons), the television version of Ozzie and Harriet was launched to major acclaim. It lasted for fourteen years - in Ricky's life, this was from age 11 to age 25.

Ricky Nelson was described by many as introverted, quiet, shy, somewhat mysterious and "odd", but very likeable and pleasant. During his youth he attended Hollywood High, but against his father's wishes decided not to attend college. He was already making $100,000 a year at age 18, he reasoned. What was the point?

To impress a girl he was dating who was an Elvis Presley fan, at age 16, he said that he would make a record. Using his entertainment contacts, he got a one-record deal with Verve. Verve was an established jazz label, but in 1957 they could see that the growing youth market was key and wanted a young singer they could groom into a star. Ricky was ideal since he brought with him all the fans of his radio and television shows. He recorded "I'm Walkin'", the Fats Domino standard, and "A Teenager's Romance". During summer vacation in 1957 he played state and county fairs across the Midwest; back in Los Angeles, he played at a high school lunch assembly and the grounds were swamped with screaming teenage girls. The album was a smash. His father, always astute in business, pulled Ricky from Verve when there was a conflict over royalties, and signed him at Imperial Records. Nelson also was dissatisfied with the older style of jazz and vocals that he had been performing and took on a band that was his age (17-18) to play rock and roll music. His music became such a success that the Ozzie and Harriet television show would now end each episode with a performance by Ricky.

In the late 1950s, Ricky Nelson was the dominant force in white rock and roll music, charting more hits than Elvis Presley, who had been inducted into the Army and did not have the time to produce. Nelson expanded his television presence to boost his music career, and appeared in John Ford's classic Rio Bravo. He changed his name to "Rick Nelson" in 1961, on his 21st birthday. It didn't stick. He did get married to Kris Harmon that year - like marrying a Kardashian today, she immediately became a character on Ozzie and Harriet and would later appear in other television shows like Adam-12, though her acting career never developed to the degree her husband's did. (She is a well-known "American primitive" painter, though, and, yes, the older sister of NCIS star Mark Harmon.)

Beatlemania and the psychedelia of late-60s rock and roll pushed Nelson to the side of pop and rock's development, but he landed on his feet, helping to form the "California sound" of country music along with the Eagles, Jackson Browne, and Linda Ronstadt. Increasingly bitter over an audience that would not support his experimentation with new music, his last hit was the vicious "Garden Party" in 1972. His relentless touring in an attempt to re-create his music career was devastating to his marriage; after a five-year, extremely bitter custody and property battle, he and Harmon were divorced in December 1982. (The lawyers alone took over a million dollars.) Nelson was killed in a plane crash in 1985. He was only 45.

At the time, and for many years, Ricky Nelson was dismissed as a manufactured pop singer, a teen idol created entirely by television. However, I feel that's an unfair characterization. He started his entertainment career as part of one of the last "family businesses" that the entertainment industry had before corporatization nearly eliminated them. Nelson's development as a musician was entirely self-driven; he could have simply been satisfied as a TV and movie star and been extremely successful. Again and again, Ricky Nelson proved that he could make his mark wherever he went. Love his work or hate it, he's a key player in mid-20th century culture.

My favorite Ricky Nelson song is "Lonesome Town". You can buy his entire output from 1955 to 1960 for $4 on Amazon: http://a.co/aZDjCBq