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‘T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness’: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s

Portrait of Gladys Bentley

Long before Hollywood manufactured the rebel as a spoilt white kid slouching in a windbreaker, a group of African-American women were breaking taboos and living hard rebellious lives as queer Blues divas during the 1910s and 1920s. On every level, these women: Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter and Gladys Bentley could have given that poor sulky white boy a reason for rebellion.

They were black in a segregated and racist America; they were women in a sexist and patriarchal world; they were queer when being lesbian, gay or bi-sexual was considered by many as anathema. Each one of these women were genuine rebels, who were a heck of a lot more rebellious than anything promoted by our anodyne pop culture these days.

When you hear Ma Rainey sing “Prove It On Me Blues” you know she doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks, she is just telling it how it is:

They said I do it, ain’t nobody caught me.
Sure got to prove it on me.
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends.
They must’ve been women, cause I don’t like no men.

The song refers to incident when Rainey was busted for indecency at an all girl party in 1925. Rainey was the “Mother of the Blues,” who discovered Bessie Smith—the “Empress of the Blues” who went on to eclipse her mentor, and save Paramount records from going bust with such risque songs as “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl”. While Alberta Hunter lived openly with her lover, and Gladys Bentley was a “bulldagger” who dressed in a white tuxedo and top hat and “flirted outrageously” with the women in her audience.

T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s is a short documentary that examines and careers of Rainey, Smith, Hunter, Bentley and co. Made in 2011 by Robert Philipson the film documents how:

The 1920s saw a revolution in technology, the advent of the recording industry, that created the first class of African-American women to sing their way to fame and fortune. Blues divas such as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Alberta Hunter created and promoted a working-class vision of blues life that provided an alternative to the Victorian gentility of middle-class manners. In their lives and music, blues women presented themselves as strong, independent women who lived hard lives and were unapologetic about their unconventional choices in clothes, recreational activities, and bed partners. Blues singers disseminated a Black feminism that celebrated emotional resilience and sexual pleasure, no matter the source.


Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
A Dark Korner in the Blues Room: Another view of the ‘Founding Father of British Blues’ (Part 2)
02:17 pm


The Rolling Stones
Alexis Korner

This is a guest post by Stephen W Parsons. Read part one of A Dark Korner in the Blues Room: A dissenting view of the ‘Founding Father of British Blues.

By 1961 Alexis Korner had created a successful Trojan-horse musical outfit with a floating roster of talented players including Jack Bruce and Charlie Watts. In order to get plenty of work they sometimes masqueraded as a New Orleans jazz band but Korner knew which way the wind was blowing and made sure the band kept one foot in the blues.

When Brian Jones saw them play in his home town he realized that it was actually possible to play blues music and make money while doing so. He made a beeline for the suave and charismatic bandleader at an after-gig drinking session and pestered him with questions. Korner responded by inviting the young man to stay with him in London. The historical narrative is that Korner helped to create a stage character for Jones as a slide player named “Elmo Lewis” who opened shows as a solo performer and then introduced him to a couple of other blues crazy lads named Mick and Keith. He also generously donated his drummer to Brian’s new outfit: The Rolling Stones. This would all have been contemplated and planned during late night jamming sessions fuelled by hashish and vintage wine. Korner considered himself to be a connoisseur of both relaxants.

The older man had clearly seen something of himself in his young apprentice’s cultured manner and slightly shifty sense of mischief. As an amateur psychologist he must also have noticed the swarm of unresolved complexes beneath Jones’s polite veneer. Nevertheless he took the time to instruct his protégé on the subtleties of running a profitable blues band and I suspect he found it an interesting experiment. But there was a profound difference between the two men. Jones had talent, an abundance of it, and a face for the sixties. Despite a disgraceful four decades-long campaign by the remaining Rolling Stones to denigrate his abilities, both the records and surviving footage tell a different story. He also looked the business when the Glimmer Twins were still pimply young wannabees impersonating their American heroes such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. In the live arena he projected a concentrated sexual atmosphere that would set young girls squirming in their seats.

No wonder the others resented him, exploited his personality defects and got rid of him at the earliest opportunity.

We now enter the thick fog of Pygmalion territory, of stewardship and responsibility, accompanied by Henry Higgins, Charles Manson, Svengali, Lermontov from The Red Shoes, and Hannibal Lecter, whose most terrible achievement was the manipulation of his psycho-analytical client roster to create other serial killers. It’s a place where nothing can be verified, only inferred, because the bond between sorcerer and apprentice is unspoken. In my own experience the best musical mentors teach mostly by example, make a few pertinent critical comments and stay well-clear of giving advice on personal matters. To step further is to invite what mind doctors call transference and unless the mentor is of sound and balanced character then this is very dangerous territory indeed. 

Korner’s experiment with Jones and company was an undoubted success, but I suspect that the meteoric rise of his young acolytes actually shook him to the core. Imagine being in the right place at exactly the right time without the talent or the image to really get in the game, never mind profit from it. Condemned to be, at best, a “talismanic figure” to the real stars, sidelined and footnoted by history—always a bridesmaid never the bride.

Korner was intelligent and self-aware enough to see it all coming. The music he had preached and championed as a youthful outsider was suddenly mainstream entertainment. It was confirmed in 1964 when the Stones topped the pop charts for the first time with a slice of raw blues. “Little Red Rooster,” featuring the moaning slide guitar of Elmo Lewis, blared out from every juke box and transistor radio in the land. Overnight Alexis Korner, at 33 years of age, had become a respected veteran.

How that must have hurt.

By 1969 Brian Jones was dead in the swimming pool, but the blues explosion was continuing to reverberate. It had also cast a beneficial spotlight back on the surviving American blues legends who were finding new audiences, and better paydays, in Britain and Europe. Alexis Korner played generous host and “fun guide” to these veteran performers when they came through London. One time the Muddy Waters’ whole band spent the night at his Bayswater flat.

Domestically his reputation as the godfather of the blues scene was now under threat. It was his sole medal from the revolution he had put so much energy into and a new contender, with more musical ability, was emerging. His name was John Mayall and he had assembled a star-studded blues band that actually sold records. Jack Bruce had jumped ship from Korner’s outfit in 1965 putting his considerable talent behind Mayall and his new guitar hero, Eric Clapton, before forming the first ever supergroup: Cream.

Jack, Eric and Ginger Baker, who also had a brief stint with the Korner roadshow, took a pocket storm of dynamic blues back to America and broke every box office record as they did so. The previous arrival of British beat groups such as The Rolling Stones and The Animals had provided an interesting hybrid of pop/rhythm and blues for the US teens but nothing to match the scale and solemn intensity of Cream in full flow.

While his ex-sidemen were busy tearing up the world, Alexis Korner was still playing the same round of pubs and clubs and the hot young players were now looking elsewhere for career platforms. Mick Taylor had gravitated to Mayall’s band before moving on and up to The Rolling Stones. Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green on guitar and vocals were adding a strangely dignified lyricism to the 12 bar cannon and Jimmy Page was envisioning an outfit that would expertly blend hard rock, eastern scales and psychedelic music with the dirty soul of the blues. It would be an outfit that rendered all sterile arguments about “the real thing” totally redundant.

Korner woke up one morning and found a 15-year-old boy of mixed race sleeping on his sofa. Andy Fraser was a musical prodigy, who was already playing bass guitar in John Mayall’s band and dating Korner’s daughter Sappho. In his recent autobiography Fraser writes that Korner was ‘almost a father figure’ to him. I am sure Brian Jones would have said the same if he’d lived long enough to write a book about himself.

Korner took the boy under his wing and, as with Jones, introduced him to other brilliant teenage talents who had come under his tutelage: Paul Rodgers, Simon Kirk and Paul Kossoff. He blessed this outfit with the inspired band name Free. It was the Rolling Stones story all over again. The young band members were bound for glory, but like all aspects of the Korner narrative there was a curse alongside the blessing. His professional advice ladled out between fat hash joints was now tainted with a bitterness: there were “breadheads” everywhere, musicians were selling out, becoming pop stars rather than soulful players and, after Plant left him in the lurch, blaming much of the decline on the all-conquering Led Zeppelin. He was filling the impressionable young man’s head with impossible notions of purity which have troubled him, and dogged his career ever since.  The kid had it all. He could compose hit songs, arrange like a musician twice his age, play piano and was a bass giant with a firm reductive style. Check out Free’s biggest hit “All Right Now,” where he has the steely nerve to lay out of the song’s verses then come thundering in with an irresistible bass line on the chorus. 

Free should have been superstars, but Andy Fraser carried his Korner-nurtured demons into the Free camp. They played magnificently and fought like alley cats–broke up–reformed –broke up again and reformed without Frazer before mutating into Bad Company, which signed with Led Zeppelin’s record company and prospered. Their original guitar player Paul Kossoff didn’t live to see the good times. He died on an aeroplane from a heart attack brought on by hard drug abuse.

I first met Korner in 1973 when I sang in a band formed by Andy Fraser: The Sharks. Fraser was heavy company to say the least. I lived in his country cottage for a few months. The House of Usher must have been a more pleasant abode; long silences, abrupt mood swings and a superior air were the hallmarks of the Fraser experience. He was twenty years old at the time, a year younger than me, and acting out like an embryonic Phil Spector.

Every so often we would swing over to Korner’s London flat to pick up a block of black hash. I loathed that place. It had a fusty quality, with Korner radiantly charming at its center. He monopolized the conversation and what used to be known as “mind games” were the order of the day. Even casual, offhand remarks were loaded traps for the unwary. Kossoff was present a couple of times but in no state to chat. Korner’s two teenage sons Nico and Damien were also usually in attendance. It seemed obvious to me that the father of British Blues was keen surround himself with younger men who were easily impressed by his undoubted intelligence and ability to express himself with a sage-like clarity. I had met a few sophisticated bullshitters before so I was impervious to his cultured performance. Others didn’t seem to be so lucky.

Fraser didn’t last long with The Sharks and, despite my enormous respect for his talent, I wasn’t sorry to see him go and, as far as I was concerned, Alexis Korner went with him.

Five years later Korner reappeared in my life when, by coincidence, we were both signed to the same management company. The financial success of his unmusical activities on radio and television had mellowed him somewhat; he seemed less imposing and a little fragile. A long term combination of drink and dope will do that to a person. His musical ventures from that period to the end of his life consisted mainly of profitable European tours in a series of duos with highly talented younger players such as Peter Thorup and Colin Hogkinson.

When I sang with Ginger Baker in the 1970s, Alexis Korner played at Ginger’s 40th birthday party in a duo with Steve Marriott. Despite Marriott’s spine-tingling voice, they were sloppy and disappointing. I remember asking my own mentor, the Grand Master of Percussion, for his view on Korner and it is the pragmatic Ginger who gets the last word on the matter:

‘Musical tosser who surrounds himself with talent so he can look cool’

This is a guest post by SWP aka Snips/Stephen W Parsons/Steve, the founder of the Scorpionics self-improvement system. He sang for various beat groups until 1982 and then pursued a more successful career as a composer for hire until 2004. Since then he has voyaged into peculiar seas. His latest musical adventure is The Presence LDN which will be releasing product in October 2013. His younger, and more handsome self can be seen singing with Ginger Baker in the video below:

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
A Dark Korner in the Blues Room: A dissenting view of the ‘Founding Father of British Blues’
09:42 am


Robert Plant
Alexis Korner

This is a guest post by Stephen W Parsons

Alexis Korner, born 1928, died 1984, was a minor figure on the British jazz, blues and rock scene but a major influence on many of its young players as they were hungrily transforming themselves into superstars. He was a middling talent at best with a limited musical ability redeemed by, when on pitch, a warm husky voice and an engaging performance persona, which remained patently intact both off-stage and on. The voice was indeed a seductive instrument and in later years it opened the door to lucrative voiceovers for commercials and work as a presenter on both Radio and TV.  My first memory of the man was as the leader of a shabby-looking house band, who played in a cardboard cabin on a children’s show called 5 O’ Clock Club

Wikipedia, well-researched books on the period and general critical opinion are all agreed that Korner was a “founding father of British blues music,” an all around good guy and a beneficial mentor to emerging talent.

I beg to differ but before we get to the murky heart of the matter, the casualty list, and the body count, we must examine the historical set and setting.

You may think, from the 21st Century perspective, that the ‘British Blues Boom’ of the 1960s and 70s was simply a genre “of its time” like swing music or punk. This would be a severe underestimation of its latent vitality. Crinkly veterans such as The Rolling Stones are carving out substantial profits and Fleetwood Mac, which still contains three stalwarts of the Brit blues explosion, is on its way back to the marketplace in a big way. Industry analysts estimate that, were Led Zeppelin to reform tomorrow and an announce a 24 date world tour, the combined earnings of such a venture and its concurrent media heat would cast a long shadow over the current crop of musical superstars such as Jay-Z, One Direction, Adele or Mumford and Sons.

Alexis Korner, inadvertently, played a small part in the development of the mighty Led Zeppelin. He discovered Robert Plant during the Summer of Love and decided to build a musical venture around the handsome and talented young performer. They formed a duo and Korner decided to self-finance an album. Only two tracks were recorded before wild fate intervened. Jimmy Page, having just been rebuffed by the supremely talented Terry Reid, was searching for a singer to front The New Yardbirds, and intervened with a better offer. The two songs recorded by Korner and Plant, “Steal Away” and “Operator” are in circulation and demonstrate the wisdom of Plant’s career choice. Terry developed into a fine musical talent but never hit the heights, or the record sales, of his teenage years. He always claims that he doesn’t regret joining the proto Led Zeppelin – but I’ll bet that he does.

Alexis Korner did eventually receive a rather odd payoff from this particular setback. In 1975 his outfit the Collective Consciousness Society, a group comprised of top British session players and produced by pop supremo Mickie Most, recorded a corny big band-style instrumental version of the Led Zeppelin/Willie Dixon song “Whole Lotta Love.” It was picked up as a theme tune for the BBC’s premier British chart show and went on to become his biggest hit. He neither sang, nor performed on the track. 

The story of the all embracing blues room, and in particular the Alexis corner of it, raises an obvious question mark which must be answered: How in the hell did the anguished wail of hoodoo blues crawl its way from the Nile Delta of antiquity into the dreams of middle class, suburban British teenagers during the middle of the 20th century?     

Vooudon prophet M. Bertiaux and inspired musicians such as Sun Ra, Pharaoh Saunders and Lee “Scratch” Perry all refer obliquely to the Afro-Atlantian tradition, by which they mean that a thing of great value was carried by the Nubian slaves on their flight from Egypt. It was something invisible and intangible, yet it provided an inner source of vitality and a succour to sweeten the hardships endured while escaping from captivity. The technical name for the expression of this spirit is Misraim.

We know it as the blues.

It came to America with the slaves and put down roots in the plantations, then spread to the carnivals and juke joints and finally blossomed into jazz. Wherever there was a need for low-down, dirty music—the blues was always present. After the Second World War, African-Americans began to lose the taste for it. By the mid 1950’s they were looking for upbeat entertainment that didn’t stink of the cotton fields. Dirt music had spread its wings from the South to Chicago and found a temple at Chess Records. While upscale “colored” entertainers such as Louis Armstrong and the ruthless Nat King Cole were busy courting the white audience, blues masters such as Muddy Waters, BB King and Howling Wolf were producing startling music for a declining audience. As the decade came to a close they were reduced to eking out a living on the Chitlin’ Circuit, which was as appetizing as it sounds. They stared in stupefied amazement at young kids named Elvis and Buddy Holly who were aping their stage personas and shook their heads at newcomers from their own side of the fence such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley, who were going head to head with the white boys over this new-fangled hybrid thing called Rock and Roll.

What none of these people knew was that the blues had up and left.

One part of it flew straight into the hands of a Mr. Berry Gordy, who had recently been dreaming about using it to make something powerful, elegant and profitable like the cars that rolled off the streamlined Detroit conveyor belt.

The other part hitched a ride to Britain and Europe in the form of grooved shellac. American recordings were considered rare and precious gems in a drab, postwar Britain. The vibrant sounds of Armstong, Kid Ory and Bessie Smith were not available from the monopolistic state broadcaster. It was gramophones in otherwise sedate front room parlors that sparked a noisy revolution. “Trad” jazz bands and crude skiffle groups sprung up like a wildfire, taking the livelier end of the tradition into pubs, clubs and dance halls. It summoned a diverse crowd to these smoke-filled rooms: Left Wing ‘ban the bomb’ types, working class people who liked “a knees up,” earnest intellectuals, part-time bohemians and run down Aristocrats on the lookout for something new and slightly daring to tickle their jaded fancy.     

There were those among them who began to search out, and value above all else, primitive field recordings by artists like the sublime Robert Johnson. Alexis Korner was an energetic and enthusiastic member of this elite group. It was here, right at the beginning of the development of British Blues, that an intellectual faultline occurred. A strange kind of inverted snobbery developed as to what exactly was “the real thing.”

Doubt had entered the blues room. 

Of course the great apocryphal story on blues authenticity concerns Sleepy John Estes. He was one of the many great folk artists recorded ‘in the field’ by pioneer archivist Alan Lomax and when his sensuous recorded music began to gather followers, Lomax invited him to play at Carnegie Hall. It’s said that Sleepy John bought himself a sharp suit, an electric guitar and a two-piece band to accompany him when he hit the Big Apple. Unfortunately Lomax was concerned that this would compromise the naturalistic vision he was selling to the predominantly white audience. Sleepy John was convinced to dump the suit, the amplifier and the sidemen; put on a work shirt and sit on a bale of hay.

The notion of an archetypal purity in the dirt soon became a siren call across Britain attracting a new breed of audience members to the Alexis Korner shows: sincere young men with longer than average hair, a distinctive dress sense and a polite soft spoken manner.

One of them was Brian Jones.


This is a guest post by SWP aka Snips/Stephen W Parsons/Steve is the founder of the Scorpionics self-improvement system. He sang for various beat groups until 1982 and then pursued a more successful career as a composer for hire until 2004. Since then he has voyaged into peculiar seas. His latest musical adventure is The Presence LDN which will be releasing product in October 2013. His younger, and more handsome self can be seen singing with Ginger Baker here.

Below, Alexis Korner with Steve Marriott in 1975:

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
You got the blues: Alan Lomax’s incredibly massive archive of American blues music is coming online
08:08 am


Alan Lomax

Alan Lomax blues recordings
As NPR’s show “The Record” reported last year, a massive collection of important American folk music recordings is now available on the Internet for anyone to enjoy:

Folklorist Alan Lomax spent his career documenting folk music traditions from around the world. Now thousands of the songs and interviews he recorded are available for free online, many for the first time. It’s part of what Lomax envisioned for the collection—long before the age of the Internet.

Lomax recorded a staggering amount of folk music. He worked from the 1930s to the ‘90s, and traveled from the Deep South to the mountains of West Virginia, all the way to Europe, the Caribbean and Asia. When it came time to bring all of those hours of sound into the digital era, the people in charge of the Lomax archive weren’t quite sure how to tackle the problem.

“We err on the side of doing the maximum amount possible,” says Don Fleming, executive director of the Association for Cultural Equity, the nonprofit organization Lomax founded in New York in the ‘80s. Fleming and a small staff made up mostly of volunteers have digitized and posted some 17,000 sound recordings.

“For the first time, everything that we’ve digitized of Alan’s field recording trips are online, on our website,” says Fleming. “It’s every take, all the way through. False takes, interviews, music.”

Most of the archive consists of audio recordings, and they’ll keep any music ethnographer busy for quite some time. Starting in the late 1970s, however, Lomax incorporated video recordings into his researches, and they’re available too.

Below are two remarkable videos from the collection.

Dennis McGee, “Vous M’avez Donne Vôtre Parole (You Gave Me Your Word),” (Eunice, Louisiana, 1983):

Belton Sutherland, improvised blues (Canton, Mississippi, September 3, 1978):

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
Happy Birthday Muddy Waters: Watch his legendary performance at the Blues Summit in Chicago 1974

McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters born ninety-nine years ago today, at Jug’s Corner, Issaquena County, Mississippi. The legendary Father of Chicago Blues and influence on artists from Jimi Hendrix to The Rolling Stones, Angus Young to Led Zeppelin

Muddy Waters had always wanted to be a great musician, as he once told writer Charles Shaar Murray for the N.M.E. in 1977:

“....ever since I can remember, this is what I wanted to be. Something outstanding. If I couldn’t make it in music, I’d be a big preacher, a great ball player.

“I didn’t want to grow up with no one knowin’ me but the neighborhood people. I wanted the world to know a lot about me. I thank God I got it through…”

Nearly thirty years after his death, Waters is still as relevant, and as important, as Murray summed up back in 1977:

“The reason that Muddy Waters is still a great and not just an honored ancestor, a museum grandaddy, is that no one can do it like Muddy Waters.

And somehow I don’t think anyone will.”

And here’s the proof, Muddy Waters at the Blues Summit in Chicago from 1974, with Dr. John, Michael Bloomfield, Koko Taylor, Junior Wells and many more.

Bonus clip from ‘Beat Club’ 1970, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Blues Singer Lester Chambers: Reality of the Music Industry for the 99%

Lester Chambers, former lead singer of The Chambers Brothers, highlights the hard reality of the record company’s exploitation of its artists. Chambers sang such hits as “Time Has come Today”, “People Get Ready”, “Uptown”, “I Can’t Turn You Loose” and “Funky”, went for almost thirty years without seeing a royalty check, and has still to see the majority of payment due to him for all of his recordings.

Chambers has suffered great hardship over the years through no fault of his own, and was most recently sleeping in a rehearsal room, until Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon offered to pay his rent on a home for him and his son in 2010.

Last year, Chambers was inducted into the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame, which is an honor, but hardly full recompense for all the years of being screwed over by record companies.

I AM the former Lead Singer of a 60’s BAND. I performed before thousands at Atlanta Pop 2, Miami Pop, Newport Pop, Atlantic Pop. I did NOT squander my money on drugs or a fancy home. I went from 1967-1994 before I saw my first Royalty Check.

The Music Giants I recorded with only paid me for 7 of my Albums.

I have NEVER seen a penny in Royalties from my other 10 Albums I recorded. Our Hit Song was licensed to over 100 Films, T.V. & Commercials WITHOUT our permission. One Major TV Network used our song for a national Commercial and my payment was $625. dollars. I am now 72, trying to live on $1200 a month. Sweet Relief, a music charity is taking donations for me.

Only the 1% of Artist can afford to sue.

I AM THE 99%

Check here for the Lester Chambers’ Sweet Relief Charity Fund.

The Chambers Brothers perform “The Time Has Come Today”.

With thanks to Charles Shaar Murray

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Solar Skeletons Coming to Save the Planet

Solar Skeletons consists of French duo TZII and RIPIT, who brought their musical talents together in January 2006 to create “a conceptual band with no limit of genre nor process.” Their music fused Industrial Minimalism with Blues, and a dash of psychedelia.

They sell their wares with a mix of tongue-in-cheek and sci-fi babble:

The Dead Sons of the Sun are roaming the Earth, choosing the musical weapon to convince the so-called human intelligence to fight if they can’t love each other. After conquering Mars and Pluto, they chose the East Coast of the USA to land and start their crusade. Their Head Quarters is now established in Brussels. They will blind the audience with raw rays of unseen light, and preach through distorted music clichés. The absurdity of human beings needs to be shown by pointing its most obvious form: religion, drugs, love etc… After being reprogrammed, humans will be able to save their planet.

Best stick to the tunes, guys, which are hypnotic, addictive and exceedingly tasty.

Bonus Solar Suns track after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment