Mention Nashville and the first thing that enters most minds will be Country Music and the Grand Ole Opry. Then again, for true believers the city is also the nation’s centre for Bible publishing. Perhaps less well-known but in striking contrast to God and double-knit suits is that throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, Nashville was also the home of a thriving blues and R&B recording industry. Principal among the labels were Bullet, Republic, Tennessee, Nashboro and Excello, with a welter of smaller ones such as World, Mecca, J-B and Cheker.
Detroit in the 1940s and ‘50s didn’t have a thriving record industry like Chicago. Detroit artists went there because that’s where the companies were. Even musicologist Alan Lomax made just one visit for the Library of Congress in 1938, when he recorded Calvin Frazier and Sampson Pittman. Nevertheless, enterprising individuals like Jack and Devora Brown, Bernard Besman and Joe Von Battle did their best to reflect the city’s musical talent.
Like Memphis, Tennessee, Atlanta was a staging post for itinerant musicians and like Memphis, it was home to an impressive number of guitarists who established a very distinctive style of playing that became synonymous with the city. It was also the location for the first country blues artist, Ed Andrews, to be recorded. Three years later, Julius Daniels was the first Carolina bluesman to record. Atlanta was also a recording centre for out-of-state artists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bo Carter, the Memphis Jug Band, Blind Willie Johnson and Hambone Willie Newbern. A further school of blues gathered around Peg Leg Howell and Eddie Anthony.
‘The blues come to Texas, loping like a mule,’ Blind Lemon Jefferson sang through a shower of surface noise as he made his recording debut in March 1926. He established the primacy of Texas blues musicians that continued unchallenged for the next 30 years, encompassing the likes of Henry ‘Ragtime’ Thomas, Texas Alexander, T-Bone Walker, Smokey Hogg, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Clarence Garlow, Lil’ Son Jackson, Lowell Fulson and Frankie Lee Sims. Other famous musicians recorded when they were passing through Texas, and that included Lonnie Johnson, Walter Davis, The Mississippi Sheiks, Robert Johnson, Roy Brown, Joe Turner, Honeyboy Edwards, Memphis Slim and Jimmy McCracklin.
Memphis was the town blues musicians passed through on their way to Chicago. But some of them stayed and the record companies sent their mobile units to record them. Over a three-year period from 1927, an astonishing amount of talent was recorded: local stars like the Memphis Jug Band, Frank Stokes, Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Jim Jackson, Furry Lewis, Robert Wilkins, Bukka White, Memphis Minnie, Joe Callicott and Sleepy John Estes.
People call Chicago The Home Of The Blues. It may not be where the blues came from but it s where the blues came to live. It’s the place where Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Reed laid down the songs that inspired the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds. The blues was the bedrock on which Jimmy Page created Led Zeppelin, the band that helped to change pop music forever. Chicago was the mecca for Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Elmore James and a host of others who arrived in the city to make their fortune. The process had begun decades earlier, when record companies first came to town.