B.B. King left a legacy as America’s Musical Goodwill Ambassador to the world: There’s going to be a killer blues session in heaven tonight


In the wake of B.B. King’s death, the mass media has focused on his legacy as the “King of the Blues,” which was earned through hard work, song writing, distinctive singing, lyrical guitar playing style and a unique ability to blend the blues with other musical styles. However, King’s most significant legacy was his struggle against hardship and poverty to become America’s musical goodwill ambassador to the world.

Blues legend B.B. King performs at the 2011 National Memorial Day Concert at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., May 29, 2011.

Blues legend B.B. King performs at the 2011 National Memorial Day Concert at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., May 29, 2011.

“B.B. King was born a sharecropper’s son in Mississippi, came of age in Memphis, Tennessee, and became the ambassador who brought his all-American music to his country and the world,” said President Barak Obama in a statement on April 15. “No one worked harder than B.B. No one inspired more up-and-coming artists. No one did more to spread the gospel of the blues. There’s going to be one killer blues session in heaven tonight.”

B.B. King died at the age of 89, while sleeping at his home in Las Vegas at about 9:40 p.m. on April 14, 2015. King continued to work until recent health problems surfaced on Oct 3, 2014. He did not feel well enough to finish his performance, at the House of Blues in Chicago. A doctor found King was dehydrated and exhausted. King cancelled the eight remaining shows of his 2014 tour, which had 70 scheduled dates. He lived with type 2 diabetes for about 30 years ago and died from a series of mini strokes. King was also hospitalized in March due to dehydration and exhaustion.

This was not the first time President Obama has honoured B.B. King for his legacy of overcoming adversity and representing America around the world. King was invited to the White House in February 2012 to perform at a concert called Red, White and Blues, which celebrated blues music and Black History Month. Buddy Guy coaxed Obama to sing a few lines of “Sweet Home Chicago”, while Mick Jagger gave him the microphone. This video shows Obama singing a short duet with B.B. King.

King’s first trip to the White House came during George Bush’s 1989 inauguration. The newly-elected president joined him onstage, playing a white Fender guitar. Under the Clinton administration, King was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors during a ceremony at the White House. In 2001, Clinton joined King onstage playing the saxophone at an event in Beverly Hills. George W. Bush pays tribute to the legacy of King in the following video. King is being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in December 2006. The medal is the highest civilian honor the U.S. government offers.

King achieved international fame over a six and a half decade career, but his commercial breakthrough occurred in 1968 at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. When King arrived, he called his road manager to say, “I think they booked us in the wrong place.” King was confused, because he saw “longhaired white people” lining up outside. Promoter Bill Graham introduced him to the sold-out crowd of enthusiastic, appreciative, younger, new fans. Everybody stood up out of respect. This was the first time King got a standing ovation before playing. He was overwhelmed and broke into tears of joy.

Poster of B.B. Kings first concert at the Fillmore in San Fransisco in 1969. Photo Credit - Smithsonian Institute

Poster of B.B. Kings first concert at the Fillmore in San Fransisco in 1969. Photo Credit – Smithsonian Institute

This was a turning point in his B.B. King’s career, because blues had been falling out of favour with African-American audiences, since the late 1950’s. The performance at the Fillmore marks a watershed in the expansion of King’s audience worldwide, and he toured the world for next 47 years. Charles Sawyer, the author of B.B. King’s 1980 biography “The Arrival of B.B. King,” said King performed 100 nights a year well into his 80s and has done about 18,000 concerts in 90 countries. This means he played more than 300 shows a year for three decades.

Sawyer observed in 1995 that King had taken over the position of America’s unofficial musical ambassador of good will from Louis Armstrong, who left the post vacant after his death in 1971. Armstrong brought ensemble jazz from the saloon to the silver screen and onto the diplomatic circuit where it became a symbol of America in the 20th century. Armstrong and King both shifted the cultural center of gravity of the world by their contributions to American music.

Several other significant events set the stage for King’s role as a musical ambassador. In 1969, King opened for the Rolling Stones on 18 of their American concerts and he appeared on The Tonight Show. After the Rolling Stones featured King, he released “The Thrill is Gone” in late 1969. King performed on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1970, giving him exposure to 50 million viewers. Finally, in 1970, “The Thrill Is Gone,” reached #3 on the R&B charts and #15 on the pop charts. The song was King’s first crossover hit, which also earned him the Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.

King played “The Thrill Is Gone” during a concert in Kinshasa, Zaire, as part of the build up to the world heavyweight fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974. King gave one of the most thrilling performances of his life before a crowd of 80,000 people. He was accompanied by James Brown and other African-American artists, who reveled in their return to the motherland.

bb-king 3oclock

The rise to fame for King began with the recording of “Three O’Clock Blues,” which entered Billboard magazine’s Rhythm and Blues charts in December 1951 .The song spent 17 weeks on the charts, including five weeks at number one and was one of the top-selling R&B records of 1952. “3 O’Clock Blues” launched King’s career and provided his first opportunity to gain a national audience. The song was first recorded by Lowell Fulson in 1946 and was released in 1948. It was Fulson’s first hit.

King had a major breakthrough in 1949, when he cut his first four tracks for Jim Bulleit’s Bullet Records and signed a contract with the Bihari Brothers’ RPM Records. The Biharis recorded “Three ‘Clock Blues in 1951. The first big break for King came in 1948, in Memphis, when he performed on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show on WDIA. As a result, King got a steady engagement at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill in West Memphis and a 10-minute spot on WDIA. King was known as the Beale Street Blues Boy, but as his popularity on WDIA increased, he shortened the name to “Blues Boy King” and B.B. King.

King married his first wife, Martha Denton on Nov. 11, 1944 in his hometown of Indianola. He hitchhiked to Memphis the first time in May, 1946, after wrecking his boss’s tractor. Once in Memphis, King found his cousin Bukka White, who was a country blues guitarist. White taught King the finer points of playing blues guitar for ten months. After returning home to be with his wife Martha, King returned to Memphis in late 1948.

B.B. King in 1971. Photo Credit - Wikimedia Commoms

B.B. King in 1971. Photo Credit – Wikimedia Commoms

Riley B. King was born on Sept. 16, 1925, to Albert and Nora Ella King, in Berclair, Miss., a hamlet outside the small town of Itta Bena in the Mississippi Delta. Albert and Nora Ella King were hardworking sharecropping farmers, who had lived in Mississippi all their lives. Nora left her husband Albert for another man when Riley was 4 years old, but she died five years later. Riley was raised by his maternal grandmother Elnora.

Riley went to Elkhorn School, which was right across the road from and affiliated with the Elkhorn Baptist Church. Nora and Elnora were very religious and Nora sang in the choir. The minister of the church, Archie Fair, taught Riley how to play the guitar and he became an important part of choir.

Young King began listening to the music at his Great Aunt Mima’s house, where he heard the music of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson on records. King dropped out of school in tenth grade and earned a living picking cotton. In his youth, King played on street corners for change and earned more in one night singing than he did in one week working in the cotton field.

BB King' marries Sue Hall in June 1958. Photo Credit - Smithsonian

BB King’ marries Sue Hall in June 1958. Photo Credit – Smithsonian

When “Three O’Clock Blues” became a hit in 1952, King divorced Martha, after eight years of marriage. One of the reasons Martha divorced King was because he was performing an average of 275 one night stands every year, all over the country. King was a major star when he married his second wife, Sue Hall, on June 4, 1958. He was divorced a second time in 1966.

King did not have any children with his wives, but he fathered 15 children with 15 different women. He is survived by 11 children. Three of them had recently petitioned to take over his affairs, asserting that King’s manager, Laverne Toney, was taking advantage of him. A Las Vegas judge rejected their petition in May, 2015.


Father of Modern Chicago Blues: Willie Dixon wrote hundreds of songs that shaped post-World War II Blues and Rock and Roll


Willie Dixon’s contribution to blues music is unparalleled, which is why he has earned the legacy of being recognized as the “Father of the Modern Chicago Blues” through hard work, talent, passion, toughness, generousity and outright tenacity.

Willie Dixon at Monterey Jazz Festival, 1981: Wikimedia Commons

Willie Dixon at Monterey Jazz Festival, 1981: Wikimedia Commons

Dixon’s most enduring contribution to the blues begins with his work for Chess Records and its subsidiary Checker Records in Chicago between 1948 and the early 1960’s. He started as a recording artist, but quickly became a full-time employee in 1951 and focused on his role as a producer, talent scout, session musician and staff songwriter.

Dixon’s talent as a songwriter was fully appreciated with the release of Muddy Waters’ recording of “Hoochie Coochie Man” in 1954. The video below is a version of the song played in 1960 at the Newport Jazz Festival. Dixon established himself as Chess Records’ most reliable songwriter with “Evil” by Howlin’ Wolf, and “My Babe” by Little Walter.

Dixon played an important role in linking the blues and rock and roll, by working with Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley in the late 1950s. Dixon’ made a major contribution to the British Invasion of American in mid-1960’s. The Rolling Stones reached No. 1 in the UK Singles Chart with their cover version of Dixon’s song “Little Red Rooster” in 1964. Led Zeppelin’s first album included Dixon’s “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, while cream played “Spoonful” and other Dixon songs. As a result, the blues boom in England was based on many songs that had been written by Dixon.

During the mid-’60s, Dixon organized the musical side of the American Folk-Blues Festival, which involved taking the top blues talent in America on a yearly tour of the European continent.  In the following video Dixon shows his mastery of the bass on a song called “Bassology”, as part of a European tour.

By the late 1950’s, Dixon started to develop his own recording career, which was put on hold when he started to work at Chess Records. His first album, Willie’s Blues, was recorded with Memphis Slim in 1959. He then recorded a series of albums in a duet format with Memphis Slim on the Folkways, Verve and Battles labels.

From the late 1960s until the middle 1970s, Dixon ran his own record label, Yambo Records. In 1970, Dixon released a number of his best known songs on his first solo album, I Am the Blues on Columbia Records. The next video is a version of “I am the Blues” sung by Dixon at the New Generation of Chicago Blues concert in Berlin in 1977.

Dixon’s health started to deteriorate in the seventies and the eighties from diabetes and he had one of his legs amputated. He had bypass surgery in 1987. But, in 1988, he released of Hidden Charms, which won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Recording. Dixon died at the age of seventy-six of heart failure at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Burbank, California on Jan. 29, 1992. He was buried in the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois. In the following video, Dixon is posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the “early influences” (pre-rock) category in 1994.

However, before Dixon died, his mission was to promote the legacy of the blues. He developed a strategic plan and founded a non-profit organization in 1987 called the Blues Heaven Foundation. The organization is designed to protect artists’ copy rights and royalties, as well as promote the blues through scholarships and educational programs.

Willie and Marie Dixon: Blues Heaven Foundation

Willie and Marie Dixon: Blues Heaven Foundation

Marie Dixon, the widow of Willie Dixon, moved operations of the foundation to the Chess Studios Building in Chicago in 1997. She bought the building and saved it from demolition. Dixon and his grandson, Alex Dixon, were inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame on April 28, 2013. Alex works at the Blues Heaven Foundation.

Blues Heaven Foundation in old Chess Records Building

Blues Heaven Foundation in old Chess Records Building

Willie Dixon was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi on July 1, 1915. His mother Daisy often rhymed the things she said, a habit Willie imitated. Dixon’s father sang blues in the field when he was working. As a teenager, Willie learned to sing harmony from local carpenter Leo Phelp and sang bass in his gospel quartet. Dixon began to adapt the poems he was writing into songs, and even sold some to local music groups.

While travelling to Chicago on the rails in 1936, Dixon was arrested for hoboing and sent to a work camp. When Dixon arrived in Chiacgo, he pursued boxing career. At 6 feet six inches tall and 250 lbs, he won the Illinois State Golden Gloves Heavyweight Championship (Novice Division) in 1937 and turned professional. Dixon’s boxing career ended after four fights, when he was cheated out of money and suspended for brawling with his managers in the boxing commissioner’s office. However, at the gym Dixon met Leonard Caston, who encouraged him to pursue a music career.

Caston and Dixon were founding members in 1939 of a group named the Five Breezes, which blended blues, jazz, and vocal harmonies. The start of World War II interrupted Dixon’s progress on the upright bass, when he was arrested for ignoring his draft papers. He was put in prison for ten months as a conscientious objector. Dixon spent a year in prison and after being released he formed a group named the Four Jumps of Jive. He then reunited with Caston and formed the Big Three Trio. The group went on to record for Columbia Records.

Big Thre Trio

Big Three Trio

In summary, Dixon’s main contributions to the development of blues are being: a master bass player, guitarist and vocalist; a prolific song writer, talent scout, producer and record company executive; and the most influential person in shaping post-World War II Chicago blues, as well as Rock and Roll.


The Blues Soul of “Billy Boy” Arnold: One of the last living Chicago Blues harmonica legends releases new album


Billy Boy Arnold, who is one of the last living Chicago Blues harmonica legends, released a new CD entitled “The Blues Soul of Billy Boy Arnold” on Oct. 21.

Billy Boy Arnold-Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Billy Boy Arnold-Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Billy Boy Arnold’s talent as a songwriter, singer, harp master and blues historian is still in full swing here,” said Duke Robillard in a press release. “On this album, he demonstrates his flair and love for many different facets of the blues. This recording is surely a remarkable achievement.”

The CD, which showcases Billy Boy’s talent as a songwriter, singer and harmonica player, was released on Edmonton-based Stony Plain Records and produced by Duke Robillard.

“I would like to thank Duke for his outstanding guitar performances and all the great musicians that made this project a success,” said Arnold.

This new CD emphasizes the soulful side of the Chicago blues that has always been a part of Arnold’s repertoire. It includes 14 songs that Arnold has always loved, in a few different genres. These songs include some Billy Boy originals, early R&B songs, blues/jazz standards and some songs from the 60’s and 70’s.

Arnold’s style is a combination of Delta-influenced blues and a more sophisticated urban sound. This style can be heard in the following song from the new album called “Worried Dream”, which is a B.B. King composition.

William “Billy Boy” Arnold was born in Chicago on Sept.  16, 1935 and began playing harmonica as a child. Arnold received informal lessons in 1948 from his near neighbour John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, shortly before his death. One afternoon Arnold and his childhood friends knocked on Sonny Boy’s door and were invited in the house. Williamson played for the boys.  Shortly after his third visit, Williamson met his untimely death in a robbery and assault. The encounter made Arnold determined to be a blues musician.

Arnold made his first recording in 1952 with “Hello Stranger” on the small Cool label, which is the record company that gave him the nickname “Billy Boy”. Initially, Arnold didn’t like the nickname, because he was 17, looked 15 and told people he was 19. Arnold looked like a teenager, but didn’t want to be known as a boy. He wanted to be recognized as a young man.

In the early 1950’s Billy Boy teamed up with a young street musician and electronics buff named Ellis McDaniel (Bo Diddley), who built an amplifier for Billy Boy out of an orange crate. Billy Boy played harmonica on Diddley’s first big hit “I’m a Man”, which was recorded by Checker (Chess) Records on March 2, 1955.

Arnold signed a solo recording contract in 1955 with Vee-Jay Records, recording the originals of “I Ain’t Got You” and “I Wish You Would”, which was the first blues session to feature an electric bass. The song quickly became a regional hit and local radio airplay for his song was heavy. Arnold began to play across the South Side of Chicago with stars like Little Walter and Junior Wells.

In the late 1950s, Arnold continued to play in Chicago clubs and record 45s. Arnold recorded his debut album entitled “More Blues From The South Side” on the Prestige label in 1963. On this album Arnold is backed by guitarist Mighty Joe Young and pianist Lafayette Leake. However, as playing opportunities began to dry up and the demands of raising a family increased, Arnold pursued a parallel career as a Chicago bus driver, truant officer and a parole officer for the State of Illinois. The following instrumental, “Playing with the Blues” was not released until the album was reissued on CD.

The first generation of British blues bands were influenced in the middle of the 1960s by Arnold’s early songs on VeeJay records. As a result, Billy Boy began to tour and record in Europe during the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s. Arnold enjoyed the greatest success of his career, with the release of “Back Where I Belong” on Alligator Records in 1993.  The popularity of the album brought Arnold back into the public eye and provided opportunities for him play at major festivals in the U.S. and Europe.

Arnold released his next album “Eldorado Cadillac” on Oct 31, 1995 on the Alligator label, which was followed by his first album on Stony Plain Records Band Boogie ’n’ Shuffle (2001), which was also produced with Duke Robillard. He released “Blue and Lonesome” featuring Tony McPhee and The Groundhogs in 2012. Arnold was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame at a ceremony on May 9, 2012 in Memphis. He was nominated for a Blues Music Award in the ‘Traditional Blues Male Artist of the Year’ category in 2014.

“El Mo” rocks on: New investor saves Toronto’s legendary music venue from closure


A new investor is buying the most important night club in Toronto’s history, El Mocambo, so the venue will not be closing its doors for good after a benefit show tonight.

“El Mocambo to be bought by Michael Wekerle of Dragons’ Den,” said Michael Wekerle on Twitter at about 11:45 am this morning. “YES it’s true.”

Micheal Wekerle: Photo Credit BNN

Micheal Wekerle: Photo Credit BNN

Wekerle, who is a co-founder and CEO of merchant bank Difference Capital and a new panelist on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, confirmed on Twitter on Dec 6. that he was saving the music venue. A press conference was held at the El Mocambo at 5:30 pm. After the event Wekerle continued to Tweet.

“I will be making a major announcement tonight at 9pm at @ElMocamboTavern!  See you all there!, he said. “No shortage of press on the purchase of the El Macombo! The iconic landmark has been saved! Thank you to everyone for the amazing responses & comments on the purchase of the @El Mocambo Tavern! Looking forward to seeing everyone there!”

Wekerle put a deposit down this morning to buy the El Mocambo. The deposit has been accepted and the sale is scheduled to close by middle of January 2015. As a condition of the sale El Mocambo must be kept as a music venue.

Tonight, the El Mocambo is hosting Light of Day, a Parkinson’s disease benefit concert, which features John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, the Pat Travers Band, Wally Palmer of the Romantics and other classic-rock acts.It was assumed the venue was closing down for good, at least temporarily, after the show. Instead, the concert will feature Wekerle being handed the keys to the building on stage.

The iconic El Mocambo neon palm tree sign was put up for sale on eBay on Oct. 21. The sign has served as a beacon for entertainment in Toronto for more than six decades.

“Is it just me or does WEK fit nicely in the sign?” said Wekerle. “A little El WEKambo??

Wekerle, who has been described as a cross between Mick Jagger and Warren Buffett, will take the El Mocambo stage to play with his band in celebration,

The El Mocambo is probably best known for the surprise show by The Rolling Stones, who performed upstairs for two nights in March 1977. The Stones billed themselves anonymously as “the Cockroaches,” but word leaked out and massive crowds turned up. The show was recorded and released as one side on a double album called “Love You Live”.

For a time, blues performers such as Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Lightening Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and Big Walter Horton were favourite attractions.

The El Mocambo has changed owners an estimated 10 times. Most recently, it was purchased by Mr. Grosso and Marco Petrucci for $2.95-million in 2012. Financial difficulties forced them to put the property back on the market in early 2014. The El Mocambo was put up for sale in March for $3.95 million.

Who is Henry Sloan? and was he the real “Father of the Delta Blues”?


One of the earliest figures in Delta Blues history is Henry Sloan, an African-American musician who lived on the Dockery Plantation near Indianola, Mississippi. Sloan could be the real “Father of the Delta Blues,” because he was an original innovator of this style and taught Charley Patton and many others to play.

Henry Sloan would entertain workers on the Dockery plantation and local Juke Joints

Henry Sloan would entertain workers on the Dockery plantation and local Juke Joints

Researcher David Evans said Sloan was born in Mississippi in 1870 and by 1900 was living in the same community as Patton near Bolton, Mississippi. Sloan moved to the Dockery Plantation near Indianola, between 1901 and 1904. This is the same time as the Patton family moved there.

Very little is known about Sloan or his life. What is known is that he taught Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Son House and many others. Most of Sloan’s music students recognize him as the originator of what became the Delta blues style.

In a previous blog I wrote that W.C. Handy said the essence of blues music was revealed to him in 1903, when he was working as a band leader in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He was passing through the little town of Tutwiler and ran into an itinerant street guitarist at the train station.

“A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages,” said Handy in his 1941 autobiography, Father of the Blues. “As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of a guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I ever heard.”

It’s quite possible that Sloan was the musician W.C. Handy heard playing guitar at the train station near Dockery Farms in 1903. The song referred to the crossing of the Southern and Yazoo & Mississippi Valley railroads in Moorhead, forty-two miles to the south. The railway was nicknamed the “Dog,” or “Yellow Dog.” Handy composed his “Yellow Dog Rag” in 1914 which later became “The Yellow Dog Blues”.

Sloan was a labourer who worked part time as musician. He was probably at least twenty years older than Patton. Sloan taught Patton and they played together for a while until Patton became so popular that he went on the road to perform for a wider audience.

Several musicians, including Tommy Johnson, said some of Patton’s songs such as “Pony Blues” were Sloan’s songs. Patton played these songs with very few changes.

Some reports indicate that Sloan also left the plantation, possibly moving to Chicago, although this cannot be confirmed and there were no further reports of what happened to him.

Evans research found that Census records suggested Sloan and his family were living around West Memphis, Arkansas in 1920. He may have been the Henry Sloan whose death, aged 78, occurred in Crittenden County on March 13, 1948.

Charlie Patton wrote songs about his impending death: Who was he living with when he died?


Common belief has it that Charlie Patton died at his home in Holly Ridge, Mississippi while being attended to by his common-law wife Bertha Lee. However, some researchers now dispute this version of events.

Lee and Patton death

Lee and Patton made the long train trip to New York to make their last recording session at Paramount on Jan. 31, 1934. The songs Patton and Lee produced during this session reveal that they were concerned about his heart trouble and worried about his impending death.

The duo created a balanced female-male sound on these recordings, especially the gospel recordings such as “Oh Death.”  In this song Patton joins Bertha Lee in singing:

Just look, just look, just look, see what the Lord done, done

Just look, just look, just look, what the Lord done, done

Just look, well, Lordy, just look, just look what the Lord done done

Lord, I know, Lord, I know my time ain’t long

It was soon one morning, oh, Lordy, when death come in the room (x3)

Lord, I know, Lord, I know my time ain’t long

Another song recorded by Patton, “Poor Me” captures his masterful guitar technique, unique vocal style and sublime lyrics which foreshadow his death. Patton creates a strange melancholy mood, which is combined in a tender love song. He mentions Bertha Lee by name.

Yes on me, it’s poor me, you must take pity on poor me

I ain’t got nobody, take pity on poor me

You may go, you may stay,

but she’ll come back some sweet day

By and by, sweet mama, by and by

Don’t the moon look pretty shinin’ down through the tree?

Oh, I can see Bertha Lee,

Lord, but she can’t see me

It is hard to say exactly what Patton means to say in this song. One interpretation could be that he is looking forward to them being together again forever in heaven. Until that time, he is watching over her. But, a more literal meaning seems to hint at a break up and reconciliation. Given, the volatile nature of the relationship, this was probably an ever-present possibility.

An interview of Lee in 1965 by Sam Charters in The Bluesmen (Oak 1967, page 56) said Charlie died while lying across her lap. Lee moved to Chicago in 1949 and remarried. She was widowed again when her second husband died. It is unknown what became of her singing career. It seems possible that she was moved by Patton’s death to rededicate herself to gospel music, and spiritual life. She died on May 10, 1975.

Patton’s death certificate shows that he died in Indianola on April 28th 1934, and not in Holly Ridge, where his grave is located. The informant listed on the certificate is WIllie Calvin, which some researchers say was Patton’s current wife. This contradicts Bertha Lee’s version of events. Some researchers now claim Patton left Bertha Lee, or she left him, after returning from New York. As a result, he started a relationship with Willie Calvin.  Given, the time that has passed since Patton’s death it is hard to determine which version of events is true.

Bertha Lee and Charlie Patton: A turbulent and volatile relationship which created a lot of great music


Bertha Lee was a classic female blues singer in the 1920’ and 1930’s from the Mississippi Delta, who was Charlie Patton’s common-law wife. Their relationship was volatile and turbulent, but was musically very creative and productive. Lee sang on twelve of Patton’s recordings, including the final session months before his death in 1934.

Bertha Lee

Lee and Patton made the long train trip to New York to make their last recording session at Paramount on Jan. 31, 1934.  These recordings clearly document Lee’s talent as a singer. In the song “Mind Reader Blues,” Lee chastises Patton, with her sultry voice, as he lovingly accompanies her on the guitar. Patton had a long-established habit of being a womanizer. The lyrics are auto-biographical and in the fourth verse Lee sings:

I remember a day when I were livin’ at Lula (Mississippi) town,

I remember a day when I were livin’ at Lula town,

my man did so many wrong things ’til I had to leave the town.

Bertha Lee Pate was born in Flora, Mississippi in 1902 and moved with her family to Lula as a young girl. Lee met Patton in 1930 and the couple settled in Holly Ridge, Mississippi in 1933. We are not sure what Patton did that they had to leave Lula Town. However, we do know their relationship was volatile and turbulent.

For example, both of them were incarcerated in a Belzoni, Mississippi jailhouse after a particularly harsh fight. Delta Blues musician Son House recalls another squabble in which Lee pinned Patton to the floor and pummelled him with her fists. However, Lee showed Patton more loyalty than any of his friends or lovers. She left stable employment in Lula to travel with Patton. Lee’s talent was recognized by Patton. But, his heart trouble may have spurred Lee to develop her singing, as a way of giving his voice a rest during performances.

Another song called “Yellow Bee” was recorded at the last session in New York City. This tune is loosely based on a popular song by Memphis Minnie called “Bumble Bee”. Patton apparently taught Lee the song prior to the recording session. The song is clearly sexual in nature and employs imagery of a long stinger, making honey, and buzzing around a hive. Lee sings lovingly to Patton, who responds to her come on in his asides during the tune.

The recordings of Lee and Patton that survive today are very poor in sound quality, because the re-released versions were produced without the original metal masters. They were sold off as scrap when Paramount went out of business. The current recordings were produced using the original 78s that were made of inferior pressing material and are scratched from being heavily played.

Patton was in poor health when he made the recordings and died three months later. Despite his heart trouble, Patton was very productive in the studio. He made 29 recordings, but only 12 were commercially released. According to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Board, at least ten of Lee and Patton’s recordings from 1934 are missing. But, it is still possible they may exist somewhere, like someone’s attic. The rest of the recordings are believed to be lost.

The number of titles Patton and Lee produced in the last session suggests that if Patton had lived he would have released more records with Bertha Lee. In addition, they would have appeared together to sing these songs in live performances. This would have led to Bertha Lee’s further success as a recording artist.