The Atlanta Bluesmen: Curley Weaver

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    Curley Weaver was one of Atlanta’s most beloved bluesmen and, for decades, Blind Willie McTell’s close friend. He was an exceptionally skilled guitar soloist, with a slide and without, and recorded many records on his own and as a sideman to Blind Willie McTell, Fred McMullen, Buddy Moss, Ruth Willis, and others.  He was also an essential part of two of the best string bands of prewar blues, the Georgia Cotton Pickers and Georgia Browns.

    Born on March 25, 1906, Curley James Weaver was raised around Walnut Grove, Georgia. He was childhood friends with Robert and Charlie Hicks, who would make records as Barbecue Bob and Laughing Charlie Lincoln. Weaver’s mother, Savannah “Dip” Weaver, played guitar and taught the three youngsters frailing techniques and open-G tuning. After the Hicks brothers moved to Atlanta, Weaver played house parties and dances with Eddie Mapp, a gifted young harmonica player who excelled at everything from slow, mournful blues to rollicking train imitations.

    In 1925 Weaver and Mapp moved to Atlanta, where the Hicks brothers, who’d yet to record, befriended them. With his easygoing personality and knack for accompanying others, Weaver became a favorite among local musicians. Their associate Buddy Moss told Blues Unlimited magazine, “I think people liked Curley best. Curley was a guy, he could really raise behind you and he could take up the slack. You didn’t have to wait for him.” Weaver’s daughter, Cora Mae, was born in May 1926 and spent her childhood in Walnut Grove.

    Barbecue Bob arranged for Weaver to record his first 78s for Columbia Records in October 1928. Played without a slide, his first recording, “Sweet Petunia,” was a cover of a song Lucille Bogan had recorded in 1927. Vocally, his performance resembled country musician Jimmie Rodgers, who was enormously popular at the time. The record’s flip side, “No No Blues,” was pure Curley Weaver, with snapping bass strings, driving strums, and the light, wavering slide sound that would become the most distinctive aspect of his guitar style. As his slider reached its notes, Weaver would often give it a short, rapid shake to create a propulsive, wobbling sound. He achieved superb sonic balance between bass and treble, probably using his bare thumb on the bass strings while plucking slid notes with his index, middle, and ring fingers. Few other guitarists played slide this way, and by the mid 1930s this sound had pretty much vanished from the blues. But Weaver was far more than a one-lick wonder with the slider.

    Curley Weaver, Eddie Mapp, and guitarists Guy Lumpkin and Slim Barton travelled to Long Island City, New York, in May 1929 to record for the QRS label. A single Weaver 78 resulted from the session – “Dirty Deal Blues,” performed alone, backed with “It’s the Best Stuff Yet” with Mapp on harmonica. During these sessions, Mapp would cut his only records as a leader. He had sole credit for the harmonica train song “Riding the Blinds.” On the flip side, he accompanied Guy Lumpkin on “Decatur Street Drag,” which showcased terrific boogie guitar lines. The harmonica ace also cut five sides credited to Slim Barton & Eddie Mapp, including instrumental covers of “Careless Love” and the Tampa Red-Georgia Tom Dorsey hit “It’s Tight Like That.” Among the musicians at the QRS sessions, only Curley Weaver would record again. Lumpkin and Barton faded from view, and Eddie Mapp was murdered two years later on a seedy Atlanta street corner.

    Curley Weaver teamed with Barbecue Bob and Buddy Moss on his next releases. In one of the great prewar blues sessions, the trio recorded in Atlanta’s Campbell Hotel in December 1930 as the Georgia Cotton Pickers. Weaver played brilliant, sparking slide through all four of their songs: “I’m on My Way Down Home,” the Blind Blake-inspired “Diddle-Da-Diddle,” “She Looks So Good,” and “She’s Coming Back Some Cold Rainy Day,” set to the familiar “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” melody. Barbecue Bob played guitar alongside Weaver at this session, while Moss blew hamonica. High-water marks of prewar string-band blues recordings, these would be Barbecue Bob’s final sides.

    In October 1931, Weaver accompanied his friend Blind Willie McTell on record for the first time. On “Low Rider’s Blues,” Weaver soloed with a slider as McTell shouted encouragement. The duo also backed Atlanta-based blues singer Ruth Willis on her OKeh releases “Low Down Blues” and “Merciful Blues.” Two days later, Weaver recorded a pair of outstanding vocal duets with Clarence Moore, “Baby Boogie Woogie” and “Wild Cat Kitten.” On these tracks his once-wavering slide style was replaced with dead-on intonation worthy of Tampa Red. A prime researcher of early Georgia blues, Peter Lowry wrote me letter explaining that Weaver had altered his playing style in the early 1930s, switching “from the ‘country’ frailing style he’d learned from Dip to the fingerpicked ‘Piedmont’ style that swept over the Southeast during the late 1920s and early ’30s. This is likely the result of his moving permanently to Atlanta, with the change in audience from Newton County to a broader urban one. Additionally, meeting up with folks like Moss, McTell, and McMullen, plus the impact of phonograph records on player and audience no doubt had an impact. You give the people what they want!”

    A 1930s ad for the Perfect label. Top row: Spark Plug Smith, Weaver and McMullen, Curley Weaver, and Ruth Willis. Bottom row: Buddy Moss, Coot Grant and Sox Wilson, Fred McMullen, Joshua White.

    .Weaver played exceptional slide at the marathon January 1933 American Record Company sessions held in New York City with Buddy Moss, Fred McMullen, and Ruth Willis. On January 16th, his first day as leader, he re-cut “No No Blues,” revisiting the idiosyncratic slide style he’d used five years earlier on the original version and doing a lovely falsetto chorus. The next day, he covered a song he’d played as part of the Georgia Cotton Pickers, “Some Cold Rainy Day,” with Ruth Willis adding vocal harmonies. Issued by Banner, Melotone, Oriole, Perfect, and Romeo, this song was credited “Curley Weaver and Ruth Willis.” On the final days of sessions, January 19th, Weaver recorded “Tippin’ Tom” b/w “Birmingham Gambler” under his own name, and then joined Fred McMullen and Buddy Moss to record as the Georgia Browns.

    Like the Georgia Cotton Pickers 78s, the Georgia Browns records are fabulous samples of string-band juke music. The goodtime instrumentals “Tampa Strut” and “Decatur Street 81” displayed the guitarists’ unstoppable rhythmic feel and bottleneck finesse, as well as Moss’ mournful harmonica solos. “Next Door Man” featured Weaver playing in standard tuning while McMullen bottlenecked in open G. McMullen sang “Joker Man Blues” and “Next Door Man,” which came out on Vocalion credited to “Jim Miller.” McMullen, who was a regular at the 81 Theater and may have been from Macon, also fronted on several tracks during the 1933 sessions; his “Wait and Listen” bears a similarity to Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues.” On “Rolling Mama,” McMullen and Weaver soloed simultaneously with fingers and slide. In the Perfect label’s publicity photos taken around this time, Curley Weaver held an oddly shaped Kay-Kraft archtop model that had been introduced in 1930, while McMullen held a standard roundhole acoustic. (The fact that Weaver, Moss, and Josh White are all seen holding a Kay archtop in their publicity photos suggests that the guitar may have been a photographer’s prop.) The January 1933 sessions would mark the end of Fred McMullen’s recording career.

    Curley Weaver returned to New York City in September 1933 for a week of sessions in the company of Blind Willie McTell and Buddy Moss. McTell played second guitar on records credited to Curley Weaver and Buddy Moss, who in turn backed McTell on two-dozen gospel and blues selections. As David Evans writes in his excellent liner notes for the Columbia two-CD set The Definitive Blind Willie McTell, “Weaver’s work on second guitar, and occasionally second voice, is stunning throughout the session, whether he plays in slide style or fretting with his fingers. He is generally in a different key position or tuning from McTell and provides either a contrasting part or a more complex version of McTell’s part that cuts through the fuller sound of the 12-string. These tracks represent some of the high points in blues duet recording, ranking with the best pieces by the Beale Street Sheiks, Tommy Johnson and Charlie McCoy, or Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe.” Of the seven songs Weaver recorded under his own name, only one 78 – “Black Woman” b/w “City Cell Blues” was released. McTell’s “Don’t You See How This World Made a Change,” with Weaver adding guitar and vocals, came out on Vocalion credited to “Blind Willie and Partner.”

    In 1934 Weaver and his girlfriend Cora Thomson moved in with Blind Willie and Ruth McTell at 381 Houston Street N.W. in Atlanta. The couples lived together for several years. On Saturdays, Weaver would often play with McTell at matinees at the 81 Theater. Recording executive Mayo Williams caught a performance there in 1935 and invited Weaver and the McTells to Chicago to record for Decca Records. Weaver joined McTell on “Bell Street Blues” and several other tunes, finessing quick-fingered solos behind McTell’s 12-string bass parts and rhythm. McTell, in turn, backed Weaver on a half-dozen blues as well, including a rare appearance on 6-string guitar on two of Weaver’s best records, “Tricks Ain’t Walking No More” and a cover of Buddy Moss’ “Oh Lawdy Mama.” All six of Weaver’s Chicago recordings came out on 78.

    It would be 14 years before Curley Weaver would record again. During the ensuing years, McTell and Weaver continued to perform together in Atlanta and on the road. “They were very good friends,” Willie’s wife Kate Mctell recalled. “Willie would do most of the leading when they played together, and he was always the manager. He would always book the recordings or wherever they play at. And they would pay Willie, and then Willie would pay Curley.”

    Soon after World War II broke out, Weaver journeyed back to Walnut Grove to visit his mother and daughter Cora Mae. In her January 1998 Living Blues story, Cora Mae Bryant, who also sang the blues, told David Nelson: “I’ll tell you about the time when he came down and stayed awhile with his mother. That’s when I went back to Atlanta with him. I was 16 years old. And we went up in Alman, Georgia, and he flagged the train down. He took his red handkerchief out of his pocket, and he held it up. Train kept a brakin’ down, slowed on down, and we got on the train. A lot of soldiers was on the train. And they wanted him to play the guitar, and they give him money, you know. I’ll never forget the song he started singin’: ‘I Got the Key to the Highway.’ He started singin’ that. And we went on to Atlanta and I stayed up there with him about two weeks. And that’s when I met Blind Willie McTell. It wasn’t no clubs in Atlanta nobody was playin’ in, not then, not as I know of. I went with my father down in an alley one time, he played down there. Out in somebody’s yard. And he played at a big house there on Butler Street. I never did see him play around no clubs. People were having parties at their house. Everybody gathered up and just played. They was drinkin’ their liquor there, though.”

    McTell and Weaver recorded together for the last time in May 1949. Atlanta’s black radio station announced that Regal Records was auditioning country blues guitarists, and  Blind Willie McTell and Curley Weaver answered the call. All totaled, they recorded twenty blues and gospel selections at a studio on Edgewood Avenue. Weaver recorded three selections with McTell’s support, singing with a strong voice on “Wee Midnight Hours,” “Brown Skin Woman,” and “I Keep on Drinkin’.” Several months later, Weaver recorded four songs on guitar for New York’s Sittin’ In With label. “My Baby’s Gone” b/w “Ticket Agent” came out as the first 78, followed by “Some Rainy Day” b/w “Trixie.” These would be Curley Weaver’s last recordings.

    After that, Cora Mae Bryant told David Nelson, “He stay in Atlanta mostly, but when he did come here to Almon to stay with his mother – I think it was 1950 – they was pickin’ cotton and he’d be on the cotton truck. The truck would go around to pick up a lot of peoples over there in Almon, you know, around Conyers, and come by our house. We’d get on that truck, get off that truck and go out there on the end of the field by ourself, you know, and pick cotton. I had some liquor, you know. I brought him liquor about every day. He always called me Baby. He said, ‘Baby, what you got in that sack?’ I said, ‘Yassir. You know your pint of liquor in there.’ I’d get that pint of liquor, boy, hand it to him, he’d take the top off, hand it back to me. I’d get a little sip. Put it back in his sack. Throw his sack on his back. He’d sing, ‘Your day now brownskin woman. Be mine some day.’ Folks’d get on out there then.”

    Weaver continued to perform. “I followed him around up until his illness,” Cora Mae said. “We’d go to fish fries and barbecues, and we’d sing together when we get there. Just different places, parties. Conyers, Loganville, and Covington, Oxford – we be around together. It’s like people give fish fries and barbecues, they sold fish and hot dogs. Wasn’t no beer back there, you know, but plenty corn liquor. My daddy used to get to that party, everbody want to buy him some liquor, to get in the chair and play. He’d say, ‘One at a time.’ ‘Mr. Curley, play me something.’ ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute now. What you want to hear, right there? What you want to hear? All right, I’m gonna get around to y’all now.’ [Laughs.] They loved Curley Weaver. From here to Conyers, everybody around there, they know him.

    “It’d be him and Buddy Moss – he’d some down some time and be with him. You get them to together, and there’s a man in Atlanta, his name was Johnny Guthrie. He never did do no recording. You get them three guitars together: oooweee! Boy, some music’s goin’ on. And you couldn’t hear nothin’ on the floor but just shoe heels, hittin’ the floor. Folks be just a dancin’, havin’ a good time. Some of ’em, you know, would act sort of naughty, but he’ll pick up his chair and his guitar and get on that corner, and say, ‘One monkey don’t stop no show.’ Keep on playin’. He look at ’em, he smile and keep a-playin’. Especially when them young women get to flirtin’ with him. He’ll smile at ’em.” Curley Weaver reportedly retired from music when his eyesight failed later in the 1950s.

    He died on September 20, 1962, and was buried in a rural churchyard in Almon, Georgia. Pete Lowry paid for his original tombstone, which had “Tricks Ain’t Walking No More” etched beneath the name.

    The Atlanta Bluesmen continues here: Buddy Moss

    Thanks to David Nelson and Living Blues magazine for the Cora Mae Bryant quotes, and  to George Mitchell, Pete Lowry, Bruce Bastin, David Evans, and Sam Charters for their pioneering work researching Georgia blues! For an excellent illustrated Fred McMullen discography, see http://www.wirz.de/music/mcmulfrm.htm.

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    © 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.

     

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