Jimmy Rogers on Songwriting, Muddy Waters, and Chicago Blues

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    Jimmy Rogers openerAn under-sung hero of the blues, Jimmy Rogers played an essential role in creating the electrified, band-oriented postwar Chicago sound. He was best known for playing guitar in Muddy Waters’ lineups during the Chess Records era, but Rogers was also an accomplished solo artist and the composer of the blues classics “Walking By Myself,” “Ludella,” “Chicago Bound,” and “That’s All Right.”

    He was born James A. Lane in Ruleville, Mississippi, on June 3, 1924. “One guy that my mother stayed around with was Henry Rogers,” he explained. “I grabbed his name when I became a professional musician, and began performing under the name.” His first instrument was harmonica. After living in Atlanta, Memphis, West Memphis, and St. Louis, Rogers moved to Chicago in the early 1940s. In 1945, he began associating with Muddy Waters, whom he coached on guitar. Rogers blew harmonica in their earliest lineup, while Muddy and Claude “Blue Smitty” Smith handled guitars. Eventually Baby Face Leroy Foster became their first drummer. When Smith departed, Rogers brought in teenage harmonica ace Little Walter Jacobs and began concentrating on guitar. In short order, this lineup became Chicago’s cutting-edge blues band, rivaled only by Elmore James’ Broomdusters on a good night. “There were four of us,” Waters told Down Beat magazine, “and that’s when we began hitting heavy. Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, and myself, we would go around looking for bands that were playing. We called ourselves ‘the Headhunters,’ ’cause we’d go in [to clubs] and if we got the chance we were gonna burn ’em.” As ferociously good as this lineup was, Leonard Chess did not initially allow them to record together.

    Jimmy Rogers launched his recording career with Little Walter at his side, cutting the 1948 single “Little Store Blues” for the tiny Ora Nelle label. At his next session as a leader, in 1949, he cut his original version of “Ludella” with Muddy, Walter, and bassist Ernest “Big” Crawford. That year he also accompanied Muddy Waters as a sideman on “Screaming and Crying,” which initially came out on the Aristocrat label, soon renamed Chess Records. For the next half-decade, Rogers was a mainstay of the Waters band onstage and in the studio. That’s Jimmy playing first or second guitar on Muddy’s “Baby Please Don’t Go,” “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “I’m Ready,” “Trouble No More,” and “Got My Mojo Working.” Around late 1956, Jimmy departed the Waters band to go solo, but the two remained close friends.

    Beginning with 1950’s “That’s All Right” b/w “Ludella,” Jimmy Rogers’ Chess 78s rank right up there with Muddy’s as some of the finest examples of postwar Chicago blues. Among the highlights are 1950’s “Goin’ Away Blues,” 1954’s “Chicago Bound” and “Sloppy Drunk,” with backing by Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, and 1956’s “Walking By Myself,” Rogers’ highest-charting record. With the advent of rock and roll, blues record sales diminished, and after a final Chess single in 1959, Rogers did not record again until the 1970s, when he cut the Gold-Tailed Bird album for Shelter Records. He rejoined Muddy Waters in 1978 for the I’m Ready album and tour. Rogers released several albums later in life, notably 1990’s Ludella and 1994’s Blue Bird. MCA/Chess released the two-CD Jimmy Rogers: Complete Chess Recordings in 1997, the year he died.

    This previously unpublished interview with Jimmy Rogers took place on August 28, 1996. At the time we spoke, he was living with his family on South Honore Street in Chicago.

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    I’d like to ask you about songwriting.

    If it’s something that you want to do, you just concentrate on that. The way it starts is you get an idea, a punchline or something, and it sticks with you. It just goes with you. And then you put that little piece aside and get something else to match it, on and on. It takes a long time to write a good song. You can’t do it overnight, no.

    Do you ever come up with the music before you have the right words?

    Oh, you play by sound. You learn to play by sound before you learn to arrange or write. You gotta learn your axe, whatever it is – harmonica or guitar, piano, whatever you play. You gotta learn how to play the instrument first, and then after a while you have space there to start what you call writin’. Then you write, and then you gotta analyze what you’ve written and weigh it out, see if it makes sense. It’s a long-term situation.

    Are most of your songs true-life stories?

    Well, some of them was, and some I just visualized. You know, you don’t live everything that you hear or everything that you write about. Some of the things I’ve said I’ve experienced a lot – quite a bit of my life is the story, but not everything.

    Like “Chicago Bound” . . .

    Yeah, well, that song was put together from way back – Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, all around different places I’ve been. You put those pieces together as you go along, and eventually you fit it. It’s like a puzzle. It’s very, very complicated to write a meaningful song. That’s the way you do that. I just realized a lot of that stuff, and some I experienced, you know. So put that together and keep addin’ until you come up with something that’s important. Listen to people’s conversations – you listen to that, and see the reaction of people that you associate with, people that you become involved with, and all that stuff. It’s just a big puzzle there, but it’s very important. It was important to me enough to make me just forget about a lot of things that youngsters can run across. I wanted to arrange and write music, and that’s what I did, so it’s very, very, very important.

    You go way back with recording. You even worked with Big Crawford.

    Oh, yeah. I worked with Big Crawford.

    What kind of guy was he?

    He was a nice guy. He big and tall – big, tall guy. He weighed about 300-and-some pounds, and he stood about 6 ’5″ or something like that. He was a big, huge guy, like Willie Dixon. And I think Crawford was a little taller than Dixon was. He was very tall – big guy, man.

    Was he soft-spoken?

    Yeah, he talked normal. I’d see him all the time, and we would talk, crack jokes and fool around together. And man, we was concentrating on arranging. We were all doin’ the same thing together. Muddy, Walter. Me and Muddy would be there arranging. That’s where we got Walter into arranging songs like Muddy and I would do it. I would explain to Muddy – we’d see each other every day. It was just something I wanted to do. If I get an idea about some lyrics or something, I’d put them together by myself. You have to be by yourself, mostly. And when you get it kind of halfway lined up like you want to, then you would consult with your partner about it and you work on it.

    Would Muddy bring you some of the songs he was working on?

    Yeah. Well, I would do the same thing.

    Would you more or less be finished with the song before you’d show it to the other guy?

    We deal with it with just the two of us. I mean, Walter would be there, but he wouldn’t say anything. He just be listening and be there, and we’d be sittin’ down. He wasn’t much of a songwriter, Walter wasn’t, but he was a good player. But he would just be there. He wouldn’t interfere with us. He might get up and walk out or something, and go on wherever he had in mind to go, and we would still be doing this, working on arranging this stuff. That’s what we would do all the time. Every day we would do that – just about every day.

    Where would you meet?

    Over at his house. Muddy was livin’ on the West Side, over at 13th Street – 1851 West 13th Street. That’s where he was livin’ at during that time. I was down there on Peoria Street, down in what they later called “Jew Town.” It’s walking distance – I could walk from my house to Muddy’s in about ten, twelve minutes. At the most it would be fifteen minutes to walk there. Well, it really was a long ways to walk, but it wasn’t worth paying streetcar fare to ride down there because it wasn’t far enough.

    Would you keep a guitar at Muddy’s house?

    We’d have a guitar at my house and he’d have a guitar over at his house, or whatever. Uh-huh.

    Were you serious about rehearsing?

    Very serious, yes. It was the most serious thing that I had going in my life at that time. That’s what kept me out of a lot of the different mischievous things that youngsters will get into, because that kept me busy doing that. That was more important to me than breaking out a window or doing the dumb things like kids do.

    How did Little Walter wind up playing guitar on a Muddy’s “Honey Bee”?

    Well, he was practicin’ and wanted to play. He would practice along with what we were doing, take a guitar and play around with it. After he learnt a few chords on it – notes and stuff. We were just really into the music, man. We wanted to do it. That’s really what we did.

    When did you meet Baby Face Leroy Foster?

    I met Baby Face even before Walter came to Chicago. I met Walter down in Saint Louis the first time. He was just out from Louisiana. He was down in Memphis and around Helena, places like that. He was a young dude, about 16 or 17, long in there, when we first met up. He was interested in playing, because he’d be around with Sonny Boy – Rice Miller – all those guys there. He’d be around with Peck and Robert Junior [Lockwood]. He would just hang around with Sonny Boy because he was interested in playing the harmonica, and he was trying to learn every phrase he could get. And Rice Miller – that’s Sonny Boy – was pretty good at that type of situation. He’d just hang around with him and follow him.

    So Rice Miller would show Little Walter stuff?

    We would show him licks, yeah. And once he’d hear it, it would psych him up in his mind to practice on it. When he’d get off by himself, he would do it. Rice wouldn’t even be around, maybe. But he’d just hang around and play around and be around where he be at all the time. He’d follow him around from one gig to another. Rice Miller loved to gamble. He would get the band started up and play a few numbers there for a while. The next thing you know, Sonny Boy would be gone in the house back there where they gamblin’ – got cards and dice and stuff. He’d be back there hustlin’ where they be playin’, tryin’ to make some money. Sometimes he’d spend all the workin’ pay that night [chuckles]. He’d do that sometimes. Oh, that was funny. Yeah, he would gamble off all the money – it wasn’t too much, but the little money what it was, he’d throw it away. And then sometimes he’d win. They’d have little feuds, little arguments about it sometimes. Guys want their little money, and Sonny Boy was bad about doin’ that. He was known to gamble a lot, and he’d mess up his money – anybody’s money, if he had it. So they’d have arguments sometime about that. But they got along okay. They stuck it on out.

    Yeah. Baby Face Leroy, he was from Memphis.

    Was he a cut-up?

    How’s that?

    Did he like to clown around?

    Not really. He was okay. He’d be around with us. He’d enjoy being around us every day, where we was gigging at or wherever. He would learn some songs, different lyrics and whatever. We’d just jam. I was playing harmonica some, and Baby Face would sing. Muddy, he would sing and play the bottom on the guitar. That was our pleasure thing. That’s what we’d really dig. Yeah.

    Did you ever record on harmonica with Muddy?

    No. Back there I played the guitar when we started to recordin’. I was full time on guitar. Well, I was on the guitar a long time. After Muddy came in, he liked to play Robert Johnson style, Houston Stackhouse and all those guys down there in Mississippi. He would try to play Son House and all those guys. Those are the guys that he learnt and copied from. He came to Chicago, and he just concentrated with us on Robert Johnson style. I was familiar with Robert’s style a little bit, you know. He’s blues, man, and he had a lot of riffs and whatever, and I was interested in the stuff. You have to be interested in the type of stuff that you really workin’ on. ’Cause if you don’t, man, it’s just like a lot of songs might be good songs, but they don’t really ring a bell with me. Just like somebody called a name or whatever – “Hello, my name is John Doe” or something. I mean, I just hear it and go on, think about something else. But Robert, I liked his style, I liked the way he played. Him, along with a bunch of other guys that I knew about back then. Lot of Johnsons, a lot of people that I knew about that was playin’. I was just interested in what they was doin’.

    What kind of a musician was Blue Smitty?

    Blue Smitty. Well, he was a guy come like Baby Face Leroy. He would learn how to play and sing pretty good, but he just really wasn’t up on music too tough like we were. Yeah. He wasn’t really all into it. Nah, he had a good job, day job, and that’s what he really concentrate on. We’d play around in the spare time, like a vacation time or whatever, and he’d be around with us like that. But when the job’s time for him, he’d go to work. And we was out there night and day, out there runnin’ around tryin’ to learn. I was really tryin’ to learn about the places and the musicians and stuff, and Blue Smitty would probably be home or gone to work or whatever. He wasn’t hangin’ with us too tough like that.

    Whatever happened to him?

    Last I heard of Blue Smitty, he was livin’ in Chicago Heights. He’s out there somewhere. I haven’t saw Blue Smitty – it’s been about maybe six or seven years. But he was out there. He left from out of Chicago, went to one of the suburbs out there, him and his family. I think he bought a building out there.

    What happened to Baby Face Leroy Foster?

    Baby Face, he died a long time ago. Baby Face died, I would say, in the early ’60s. Yeah, he died around ’61 or ’62 – somewhere along in there.

    I want to ask you about one of my favorite musicians, Big Bill Broonzy.

    Oh, Broonzy – yeah! He was an old-timer, Big Bill.

    Wasn’t he hot in the 1920s and ’30s?

    Oh, he was pretty hot like Tampa Red. Big Bill, Tampa Red, and Big Maceo, all those guys. They was hot way back at that time.

    Nobody could swing like Big Maceo.

    Yeah, he could swing. He had some good riffs on the piano. He was good, man. He had a real heavy left hand, but that’s where his power was and harmonizing. But after later years he would drink pretty heavy too, and it kind of affect him. He had two or three different heart attacks, and then he went into strokes and stuff. Whiskey really messed him around.

    Is it true that when Tampa Red’s wife passed away, he lost some of what he had?

    Yeah, like he lost his right hand, man, after she passed. I been to their house a lot of times.

    Wasn’t that a place where musicians would go to hang out and rehearse?

    Well, me and Johnny and Baby Face Leroy, we would do it. We would hang around there.

    Are you talking about Blind Johnny Davis?

    Johnny Jones. He was a piano player too. In fact, after Big Maceo had a stroke and lost power in his left hand, Johnny was really on that style that Big Maceo played on, and Johnny played behind Tampa. He played on some records with Tampa [1949-1952], the later years after that. He played with him a long time, maybe three or four years, I’d say.

    Did you see Tampa when he was in his prime?

    Oh, yeah. Tampa used to go up in New York, different places. Maine, New Hampshire, down in St. Louis, places like that. I saw him a lot of places, a lot of times.

    Man, that band you put together with Muddy sure sounded different than what was being played around town before that.

    [Laughs.] We worked on that, concentrated on that. Fit it in. That’s what the concentration consist of. If you listen and you concentrate on something, when you get pretty close to it, you have the right ideas and harmonize with the guys that you been around with, the different parts the guys are playin’ fit in. That’s where you get your harmony from. That’s all I did, was concentrate on that.

    Were there times in the studio where you and Muddy really felt like you hit it, like, “This is it – this song is important”?

    Yeah, we did that a lot of times. When you play out in the public like we was doin’, around small crowds or whatever, you could just about tell when you hit a nerve there. That’s what you concentrate on.

    What was the studio environment like back then compared to today?

    Well, to me, they just changed the system. But to me it works no different too much in studio action. Not too much. As far as I’m concerned about it, they take your voice and your music and turn it around and they do different things with it after you gone. You lay the tracks down and get it set up like you want it, and then you go on. Then those guys in the studio there, they works with it, do a lot of different things with it. Sometimes it’s okay, and then sometimes I really don’t appreciate the way they do it. But that’s the system – that’s the way they do it. So they put the money up, and I hope the best from them then.

    A lot of writers credit you with being one of the fathers of the Chicago blues guitar sound.

    Yeah, I’ve really heard that. I understand it.

    What does that mean to you?

    Well, it’s the truth. I was back when Memphis Minnie and Big Bill and Tampa Red and all those guys, Big Maceo, they were playin’. When I came in the picture, they was the older guys. They had been around different places. They was more familiar with it than I was. I was interested in learning and trying to build. See, I was mostly like a creator – that’s what I was about. Creatin’ sounds. When I’d hear something – I do it right now – I’d hear different sounds and I’d see what way it should fit with the guy that’s doin’ it. If it’s different, it’s not my prerogative. Sometimes I don’t care about the way he’d arrange it. If it was me, I would do it a different way sometime. And then sometime I’d hear stuff that’s right on the button or pretty close, but you still can see in there where they should have did such-and-such a thing, you know. Always can do that somewhere.

    What were the best guitar and amp to use for recording sessions back then?

    At that time I was a Gibson man – Gibson guitars. I like the Silvertone guitars and Gibson. Gibson was my favorite guitar.

    What kind of Gibson?

    Well, I had an old L-5. That was a good guitar. I had several nice guitars. That was way before all this fancy stuff, these little guitars come out – Les Pauls and all that stuff, Rickenbacker and different things like that. That was way before that stuff came out. But, see, Gibson was a standard guitar.

    Did you use an L-5 in the studio when you were cutting your own records for Chess?

    Yeah, I did that. I used it in the studios a lot until it got kind of bad, and then I had to put it in the shop and get it repaired. You couldn’t fix ’em around Chicago. You had to send it to Kalamazoo, Michigan. Send it off, and you might get it back and you might not. Mm hmm.

    What were the best kind of amps to use?

    Gibson, I would say. That was my first one and second one. I had a lot of different amps. After later years they started making Fender, and then I got hold to one of those tweed Fenders.

    Like a Fender Reverb?

    No, it wasn’t a Reverb. They had a reverb unit that you could attach to it, a little box like a radio. You had to get that box to get your reverb, because they hadn’t start putting it in the amplifiers during that time. So I would get that box. See, we would get just about everything that we needed between two places in Chicago where you could get instruments. One is 1800 South Halsted Street – Maury’s Music – and then you could go down Lyon and Healy down on Wabash downtown.

    Lyon and Healy used to make guitars too.

    That’s right. So there used to be those two places where we would get ’em.

    Were you ever much of a slide player?

    Nah. When I was a kid I used to used to take me a shoe-polish bottle and put strings on the wall on the outside of the house and slide that. We used to do that. That what inspired me to concentrate on Robert Johnson and style that he had with those broom wires on the wall with the slide. It didn’t really do too much for me, because there wasn’t enough there for me.

    Did they used to call those wall-mounted instruments “diddley bows”?

    Yeah, that’s what they did call ’em. Yeah.

    Where did you learn about tuning down your guitar strings to play bass?

    Oh, well, that came in for harmony. You could tune your guitar way down to low G, and you got a basic sound, but you gotta use heavy strings. So we did that. I had a boy called Robert Woodfork. He used to play with me [in 1952 and ’53], and that’s the way he had his guitar tuned. He’s dead too. But he started tuning down to a low G and the guitar had pretty heavy strings on. You could get a basic sound out of it too. But the point was there you couldn’t go too loud, because the amplifiers they was makin’, they wasn’t too powerful. You used to bust a speaker quick like that. [Laughs.]

    Was it fairly loud in the nightclubs you guys used to play?

    Well, no. They started comin’ in later years. After we electrified guitars, it was always like a acoustic sound in those clubs. You could hear, but it wasn’t loud. [When] the crowds commenced getting bigger and more noisy, you could be playin’ a number and the people was noisy, and you really couldn’t cut through too well.

    Buddy Guy told me that back then, the Chicago blues guitarists played sitting down.

    Well, we did. We played sittin’ down all the time.

    When did you start playing standing up?

    Later years people started performin’. Like you stand up and you get applause for standing up.

    What did you think when younger players like Otis Rush and Magic Sam and Buddy Guy came along?

    When those guys came in the picture, we was already moving. We was doin’ our thing.

    Around Chicago, you were the most famous musicians in blues music.

    [Laughs heartily.] Yeah. They used to come around, a bunch of guys. Some of them now I can remember, and some of them I can’t. But there was a whole lot of musicians used to come around. Most of ’em is passed on. The Myers brothers – Dave and Louis Myers. Junior Wells – he was a young guy who was playing harmonica. He was playin’ like John Lee Williams style [John Lee Williamson, a.k.a. Sonny Boy Williamson I]. Junior, he’s still around now. I see him a lot. We still get together, like Buddy, we do. We still get together and laugh about this stuff, times that have passed on. Yeah. I seen so many guys. Some of them made it, and a lot of them didn’t ever make it. Some of them died, some of them changed and went doin’ other things. They’d disappear, you know, like that.

    Some of them got married.

    Some of them got married [laughs] and had a houseful of kids and stuff. Yeah.

    Who’s the best piano man you ever worked with?

    I worked with quite a few different piano players, yeah. Well, way back at that time, I would say Walter Davis is a good piano player in his style, the way he played.

    He goes way back. He played with Lucille Bogan for a while.

    That’s right, man.

    No, I’ve heard of her, but I didn’t ever hear her play. But I heard that she was pretty good. But I’d see Walter. I didn’t really be around him too much. I’d be around him and I’d listen to him, to some of his licks. Yeah. So that was the first piano that really caught my ear. Big Maceo was the next one. He was the next guy in line during my time that was really cookin’. Big Maceo, he was good, man. Then Memphis Slim. I heard him in later years. He started popping up pretty good. Yeah, Peter Chatman from Memphis. I heard him – he was pretty good too. Slim got to be real good. He just died a few years back. He left the States and went to Europe, and that’s where he made his career over there. He was a big man over in that country. So I had a lot of fun with Slim too. Uh-huh.Tell me about Elgin Evans and Fred Below.

    Elgin Evans, he was a drummer. Fred Below could play, but he was like a jazz drummer. He was wantin’ to be a jazz drummer – that’s what he was plannin’ to be. But blues came in around the time he came out of the Army. The blues was movin’ in and getting in the limelight – that was before rock and roll. Below wanted to learn how to play background like Elgin, but he didn’t know those crashes and rolls and turnarounds. Elgin taught him a lot about that.

    Elgin was a fine drummer.

    Yeah. Below would sometimes be comin’ to work, man. Elgin be so sleepy, say, “Man, that boy was at my house at ten o’clock this morning, man, and had me up all day with a practice pad on the bed. Teachin’ him to crash and roll and count. Man, he worried me around there until about four or five o’clock.” We’d laugh about that. But he learnt to roll and crash and follow-up and whatever. That’s what he was really interested in was that. And with what he had in the jazz, he turned out to be a better drummer than Elgin was, because he was younger and he had more speed. He turned out to be a real good drummer. He worked at times with me, with Muddy, and then Walter came in and he started to playin’ with him. And he was with the Aces, they called them – Below, Dave, and Louis, and all those guys there, they was playin’ around with Junior Wells. They had that band first, Junior did. After they got started playing around little clubs, and they would play after-hours stuff the way we was playin’. They was on the kick that we played – that’s where they would play.

    And then after Walter came in and got that band, well, it wasn’t too hard for them to do it, because that’s what they’d been doin’. But Walter, he wasn’t too good at meditatin’ [mediating] and tryin’ to train guys to play, because he was a follower himself and playin’ that lead instrument. He’d run off a lot, and his timin’ was really kind of rough. We got him pretty well into the timing, because he was playin’ by himself [at first]. When you play music by yourself, you’re playin’ the lead and followin’ and skippin’, and that’s the way he learnt to play. He was good, but he didn’t have his face, really. So we got him down a little bit, got him on the count pretty close, as close as we could get him to be with what he had. So we had fun. We had really a lot of fun.

    Where do you think guitar shuffles came from?

    Ah, guitar shuffles. Oh, man, I didn’t really know what it was about when we was doin’ it. It’s just somethin’ that came to, and they started callin’ it the shuffle. It was a shuffle. I really started playin’ a lot of shuffles on the guitar, but we didn’t call it no shuffle. We just called it a boogie-woogie. [Laughs.] That’s what we would call it – boogie woogie. Yeah. Then they started calling it a shuffle.

    Were you around when Henry Strong was playing harmonica?

    Yeah. Well, that was later years. He wasn’t with us too long before that old lady killed him. His old lady cut him to death. He was just gettin’ the hang with us. See, the Army grabbed Junior – we had Junior Wells – and they’d taken him in the Army. We had to get somebody, and Henry Strong – everybody called him “Pot” – we all knew him. We got him, round him up, and he started playin’ with us. He was getting’ a little better and a little better. He didn’t never get really strong with it, but he was gettin’ there. We was puttin’ him on the road. We were fixin’ to take him on the road the time his old lady killed him. She cut a main artery in his neck somewhere.

    Was this at a gig?

    No, he was at home. Yeah, I carried him home that night, dropped him off. They was into it that night when we got off of work. His old lady and him was into it. I dropped him off at home, and then after I dropped him off, Elgin came over to my house, Friday mornin’, and told me that Muddy had sent him over to get me to try to find a harmonica player. He said, “Pot’s dead.” I said, “Oh, man.”

    Did Pot’s wife go to jail?

    She went to jail – her mother carried her to jail – but she got out on bond and they switched it around, man. There was nobody there ready to fight for him, pull for him, you know. Back during that time money was kind of scarce. Muddy wasn’t gonna spend no money on it. Just wasn’t nobody really to speak up for Henry Strong. His mother was down South. She didn’t have anything. The people that she [Strong’s wife] knew had a little money and pulled a few strings, and they got out of it pretty easy.

    After you left the band, did you and Muddy stay friends?

    Oh, man, Muddy would be at my house or I’d be over there to his house. We were never angry about that, no. I was just trying to better my condition – that’s all. See, I had kids growing up. Now they’s thirty-five and forty years old. And they was little fellas then. Financial, I got lucky there – it wasn’t lucky, but I was fortunate enough to get a little money, my wife and I, and we went into women and children’s clothing business. I was doing pretty good at that until Martin Luther King got killed and they started looting and messin’ up Chicago. They got me. I spent a lot of money on that stuff, man. I lost stock. I used to spend $1000, $1200 back during that time – that’s pretty good money to lay out there, pay your overhead too. I just had to spend a lot of money when this jumped off, and all this stuff got wiped out there.

    And that’s when you went to work with Shelter Records?

    Yeah, I went with Shelter – me and Freddy King. Freddy King introduced me to – what is this boy’s name? Leon Russell and all those guys in California.

    Did Freddy King really stand out as a guitarist in those days?

    He turned out to be real good. He was good. Uh-huh. Because I learned him a lot of stuff off a guitar. I learned him a lot of my type of stuff on the guitar, yeah. [Laughs.] Yeah, he would do it. He was good!

    Bob Margolin, who played with Muddy . . .

    Yeah, Bob Margolin. He picked up a lot of ideas with me there.

    And he credits you too.

    Yeah.

    He heard Muddy tell someone that the best song he ever wrote was “Screamin’ and Cryin’.”

    Yeah, I remember that one.

    Do you know why Muddy might have said that?

    Well, it’s a feeling, I guess, he had. We got in there and built around him there. We did a good job with that song. Well, it’s just like me with “That’s All Right” and the other songs. You feel something that’s true for you, and you just get into it and go on and do it. That’s the way we did that.

    What did you think of Eric Clapton’s blues covers on his From the Cradle album?

    Yeah, I mean I been on Eric a long time.

    Did you like those records?

    Yeah. Some of those numbers were real nice. He had some real good cuts in there. Eric, he’s a good player, the stuff that he can pick up off these guys that is playin’ the blues, you know. That type of guitar, he’s good, and he’s a good player. And he’s a good guy, as far as I know of him. We been around together a lot, and he’s got ideas off of me. So we get along real good today. And Mick Jagger. Mick Jagger is a Wildman. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards – all those guys, man, I meet those guys a lot. We get together and talk. We have fun.

    You were talking about when you were young and really liked Big Bill Broonzy. When you finally had a chance to meet him, did he live up to your expectations?

    Oh, yeah. I was young. He would tell me and kind of give Muddy advice about things he should do in Europe and different places like that, how you supposed to deal with these people. He was going to Europe then, Bill was, and he’d give us the best advice that he could about how things were at that time. He was one of those guys that really got out from behind the Iron Curtain. He got to Europe and he learned his way around. Everything he told us really worked out that way. He said the records that we was makin’ was gettin’ over there in different places. And we didn’t even know about it, you know. So he was over there and he would tell us about it. Bill, he sold records here in the States, but he never was like Robert Johnson here in the States. But he sold quite a bit of records in this United States here, and then he got hooked up over there in Europe with this dude who booked us over there. What the hell was that guy’s name? He used to book us all over there. Holy shoot. He was from Germany.

    Horst Lippmann?

    Horst Lippman – that’s it! Yeah. See, Lippmann, he did a lot of stuff with Chess back during that time, forming those records and making deals and stuff. Lippmann was the one that put us through over there. We didn’t know about it, but Chess knew what he was doin’.

    If someone were to put together a Best of Jimmy Rogers CD, what songs would have to go on there?

    Of my material?

    Yes, favorites that you have.

    Yeah, well, if I could find the players that fit it. It’s kind of hard to get now those guys that really knows about that type of stuff. It’s kind of hard to find ’em, but there’s some out there. Get the right guys, and we’d go on and record it. Yeah, I would do it. There’s a possibility I would do it.

    Back in the 1950s, were the Headhunters as tough as everybody says they were?

    Well, [laughs] they said that. They called us the Headhunters.

    That was you, Muddy, and Walter.

    That’s right. The three of us. That’s right.

    Is that because you’d go around trying to cut people?

    Well, they do it right today. Guys will try – they call it “cut your head.” But we was doin’ it before. Back during that time, we’d go down to where musicians were at night and cut their heads. The three of us hanged together most times. We kept Walter interested in doing this stuff, and he’d hang right with us. We’d get in the car, the three of us, just throw our amplifiers in the back, and run from one joint to the other and have fun. Go in there, pretty nice crowd, we go in there. The guys know about us. We’d go in there and sit around a little while, talk to the club owner. It wasn’t no money. See, we was on the road, goin’ around like that, different places. We was makin’ pretty good money, they called it. We wouldn’t want the gig. We’d know the guy [who owned the bar], sit in, have a few drinks and chit-chat, and then we’d go onstage and play a number or two – something like that. Yeah. So that’s what they called us – cut their heads and stuff.

    Of all the recording sessions you’ve been part of, do any stand out as being your favorites?

    We did some good sessions! [Laughs.] A lot of great sessions, man. One, I don’t know. There’s quite a few sessions. I really appreciate a lot of that Chess stuff. We got together, man, and had some good fun in the studio. We’d stay there all night. Sometimes we’d be in there a couple of days at Chess Studio. Just come by home and change clothes or something, take a bath, and go right back.

    Were things pretty loose there? Could you have a drink?

    Yeah, you could have your drink. But I wasn’t really wasn’t too hard up on – we wasn’t too hung up on whiskey too much. No. We would drink, but we could always control it, you know. We didn’t have no problem with that. Never had no problem. Walter, he got kind of wild with whiskey and reefers later years. You know, he got with his buddies. You know, you start meeting people that lead you different ways when that come around. Yeah, but we didn’t never get into it. Like now, I take it or leave it. Sometime I take a beer or something, a couple of shots of whiskey, in the night, and I forget about it. I don’t care about it. The music makes me happy. And when the guys start playing good, that’s what I’m interested in.

    Do you play guitar at home very much?

    I practice around home. I practice around the house here quite a bit, yes, me and my son.

    James D. Lane?

    Yeah.

    Do you two play out in public much?

    Uh, well, I gotta go to St. Louis tonight.

    What stands out about your son’s guitar playing?

    Well, he’s a young player that’s comin’ up. A lot of these guys now around Chicago and different places are learnin’ to play pretty good. My son, he’s one that wants to do it, so I give him a chance.

    Does he play your songs?

    Yeah, he plays my songs real good! All his life he been doin’ that stuff.

    Do you have other children who play?

    No. I got one daughter. She got two little portable pianos, and man, she’s trying to learn it. But she’s not too good, no. She just fool around with it in her spare time. But she might take off – you never know.

    Back in the 1950s, did you use guitar picks?

    Back then it was big Fender picks. I’d never use a straight pick, but I’d use one, two, three, four – like that, on your fingers. Call ’em thimble picks, like.

    Thumb picks?

    Thumb picks and fingerpicks too.

    Is that so you’d be louder in the clubs?

    And more clear.

    Those things could fall off too.

    If you don’t put them on right, yeah. There’s a certain way you have to put them on and set them.

    Were they made out of metal?

    Metal, yeah. The thumbpicks mostly are like plastic, but the other picks, they was metal.

    Weren’t guitar strings pretty bad back then too? Like those Black Diamonds.

    Black Diamond guitars strings, yeah, they was good. Ernie Ball and all. Black Diamond was the standard string, but they was a pretty heavy guitar string. Yeah.

    Well, Jimmy, this gives me a lot of stuff to work with. I sure appreciate your taking the time to talk with me.

    That’s good, man! I really appreciate it. You’re takin’ me way back here. [Laughs.] Twenty or thirty years, man.

     

    For more on Chicago Blues:

    Otis Rush: The Complete Living Blues Interview

    Papa Charlie Jackson: The First Popular Male Blues Singer

    Tampa Red: The Guitar Wizard

    Willie Dixon on Songwriting, Bass Playing, and the Blues

    Johnny Shines: The Complete Living Blues Interview

    “Dust My Broom”: The Story of a Song

    “Rollin’ and Tumblin’: The Story of a Song

    Transatlantic Blues: How Britain’s Blues Boom Saved American Rock and Roll

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    © 2012 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.

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      2 comments on “Jimmy Rogers on Songwriting, Muddy Waters, and Chicago Blues

      1. Alan Balfour on said:

        Excellent. Am I correct in surmising this was never published as I can’t find an entry for it in Robert Ford’s Blues Bibliography? I can’t believe you were unable to find a magazine unwilling to give this space!

        Keep ‘em coming.

      2. Wayne Goins on said:

        Jas, you are the absolute best…much luv to u and all u do!!!

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