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Big Joe Williams

The little record store at Vandeventer and Olive had apparently bought a truckload of Columbia 78's, mostly hispanic and other foreign series. But included were a lot of "race" records by Big Bill, Memphis Minnie, Blind Boy Fuller, and Joe Williams. It was 1951 and the old 10" records were being dumped industry-wide. At two-bits each I bought at least one copy of each coupling.

I had a few of Big Joe's Bluebirds but this was my first realization of just how great he was. A year later I was in the record business and learned that he had recorded again for Trumpet and that he played a 9-string guitar.

After Charlie O'Brien discovered all those old St.Louis blues artists (Henry Brown, Edith,Mary & Stump Johnson, Speckled Red etc.) and word got around that some kid with a new record label, out at Delmar & DeBalivere was interested in old bluesmen, Big Joe showed up one day with a dogeared old Columbia flyer with his photo to prove that he was "the real "Joe Williams". He invited me to come to a relative's house on Biddle Street to hear him.

When I showed up I was escorted to a shabbily-roofed backyard to listen to him play with a mentally-challenged harmonicist, "wild child? ", and his cousin J.D."Jelly Jaw" Short who doubled racked harmonica and guitar, usually seconding Joe's lead. I never expected to hear such music in the flesh.

Of course I had to record Joe and J.D. so every time one of them came by the shop, a payment was made on this account. J.D. stayed busy supporting himself and his very young lady by scavenging alleys in what must have been the oldest operating light truck in the mound city area. The two musicians played for tips in hillbilly taverns weekend nights. A dangerous way for black guys to try to earn some money. Anyway, Joe came to the shop more often.

Joe had a contract with Vee-Jay so we had to put off the sessions until it expired. (I saw a statement that they had pressed 2000 78's and 1000 45's.)

Joe was amused that I had so many blues records in my collection and one day went thru it, A to Z, playing sides that he'd request and rewarding me with background on most of the artists. "Sleepy John Estes is still alive in Brownsville,Tennessee...Memphis Minnie still plays in Chicago...Blind Boy Fuller's name isn't J.B.Long (as I had it filed)...Blind Joe Taggart lives near Maxwell Street in Chicago...some of those Memphis Jug Band people still live near Handy Park down there...St.Louis/Blue Belle Bessie (Mae) Smith was my old lady - I got some of Baby Please Don't Go from her - made her mad..."

I wish I could remember it all. I didn't believe him about Estes because Big Bill said John was an old man when he was a kid on a track-laying gang. It turned out Big Bill was, shall we say, legendafying. I didn't have the money to go looking for talent outside talent-rich St.Louis and I wasn't keen on a trip to Jim Crow country anyway.

As time went on I rented a Crown tape recorder and a good mike to record the Dixie Stompers in concert at Westminster College. Speckled Red, Big Joe and J.D. Short went along to play intermissions but I was so intent on trying to record a seven-piece jazz band that I stupidly didn't record them. I applied the rental to purchase of the equipment and we began to do sessions at the store.
I believe the first date was with both guys, but J.D. wouldn't let me owe him so, regrettably. we never did another with him. But Joe reversed the account balance and I wound up owing him money -- which he collected regularly.

At about this time, Paul Breidenbach discovered our upstairs store, walked in one day asking if I had any old records by Mississippi John Hurt. He'd heard a track on a Folkways anthology. Paul was in a bluegrass band. I learned about bluegrass music from Paul and his friend, John Harford, an art student at Washington U. whose hobby was Mississippi riverboats. They came by one day and recorded perhaps an hour of stuff - noncontractual. Paul invited us to use his parents' home in U-City for a session. (You can tell thesetracks by the less vibrant acoustics.)

At some point we did an extensive interview of Joe and Paul and John can be heard quizzing Joe.

We tried to have blues sessions at the artist's studio where I lived and did business, with Red, Joe, j.D.,and others. The $1 admission went to the musicians but it was a miserable failure. The white world wasn't quite ready for the blues yet.

Throughout his life, Big Joe travelled from door-to-door. It seems that he had relatives everywhere! But he'd drink too much, get ornery, and have to change towns - quarterly if not monthly.

The Gaslight Bar on Olive east of Grand had been the Bal Tabarin in the 20's where Bix used to jam after his gig with the Frank Trumbauer band across the street at the Arcadia Ballroom. Owner Jay Landesman had made Gaslight the abode of the city's bohemians (That was before the beat generation had been defined -- and the bohemians seemed to have more money than the beats.) Folk singers from the new Elektra label provided color. Jay knew his jazz and the house pianist was Tommy Wolf who frequently accompanied Fran Landesman, his wife. They wrote Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most and recorded it around this time.

When the Poetry-Jazz scene occurred Jay brought Kenneth Rexroth to the Gaslight. Rexroth knew his blues and, somehow, had heard that Big Joe was living in St.Louis and insisted that Joe be given a Monday night gig. By the time I was contacted, Joe had split town but they liked Speckled Red as a replacement. Unfortunately, I met Red at one corner and he awaited me at another, so it never happened.

Gaslight changed its marquee to Compass Theater, brought the Compass Players from Chicago, so the blues didn't break out on Olive Street.

Joe eventually went West to Texas and California to record for Arhoolie, I moved to Chicago.

-Bob Koester