Monday, April 4, 2011

Papa Lightfoot


Pardon the crappy scan....

Same tune, different version...




Today's subject was born Alexander Lightfoot in Natchez, Mississippi on March 2, 1924, he would go through life calling himself George and recorded as Papa Lightfoot, although he would also be known Little Papa Walter and Papa George just to confuse matters.  He taught himself to play harmonica, kicked around little clubs in Natchez and New Orleans where he hooked up with Edgar Blanchard's Gondoliers, an important R&B band that featured Tommy Ridgley on piano. In 1949, with the Gondoliers he cut his first record,  recorded in Houston for Don Robey's Peacock label, backing up a singing drummer named Silver Cooks. Mr Ticket Agent Man b/w Coming Back Home while wasn't a particularly great record, it does have its charm,  but it did not sell. Probably recorded at the same session were two tracks with Lightfoot as leader-- Papa George Blues b/w Lightfoot Boogie, which were evidently released, but I know of no one who has ever seen or heard this disc. A third set of sides from the session with Edgar Blanchard as vocalist were issued under Blanchard's name-- Creole Gal Blues b/w She'll Be Mine After A While, this disc is also extremely rare and couldn't have sold more than a few hundred copies at most.  It is of interest mostly because the players are so out of tune with each other they sound drunk. Maybe all for the best, Lightfoot and Blanchard weren't a great match, Blanchard's band was urbane, and Lightfoot's own sound primitive and distorted. 
 Returning home, his next disc was issued in 1950 on the tiny Sultan label out of Natchez--Winding Ball Mama b/w Snake Hipping Daddy is again so rare I have never seen nor heard it, although one must exist since there's a  picture of it on his trail marker on the Mississippi blues trail
I include this information not because I want to see these discs on your want lists, but because I live with the dim hope that some reader somewhere, will sell, trade or better yet, give me copies of both the missing Lightfoot discs, which I will then file away and pull out and stare at, and maybe even listen to, into my waning days.
Two years later, back in New Orleans, Papa Lightfoot cut another four sides with Blanchard's band, this time they played mostly in tune.  Issued on Aladdin-- first came P.L. Blues b/w Afterwhile, followed a few months later by Jumpin' With Jarvis b/w Blue Lights which were were all instrumentals, a fast boogie on the a-side and a blues on the flip, both discs very much in the style of then chart topper Little Walter. Again these sides sold naught and it would be two more years before anyone let Papa Lightfoot near a recording studio again.  It was on April 17, 1954 in New Orleans when Papa Lightfoot cut his best session, this time for Imperial, backed by unknown musicians, he waxed the double sided distorted masterpiece Mean Ole Train b/w Wine Women Whiskey, singing through his harmonica mike, and backed by a driving beat, Papa had found his sound. Two more tracks recorded that day-- Jump The Boogie and a whacked out rendition of When The Saints Go Marching In would later see the light of day on Liberty's (which bought Imperial in the early 60's) Legendary Masters: Rural Blues series that Canned Heat's Bear Hite compiled in 1970. These four sides represent not just the best of Papa Lightfoot, but are among the crudest, most distorted, driving, and therefore best blues records ever made. His harmonica playing and singing are totally original, and the band just about thunders along behind him. 
From there, Lightfoot recorded behind Champion Jack Dupree for King, toured the south, appearing on package shows with Fats Domino and Dinah Washington, cut an un-issued session for the ultra obscure Jiffy label,  before washing up in Atlanta in 1954 for one session for Savoy where backed by Edwin "Guitar Red"Marie's band, he recut Mean Ole Train and a rockin' instrumental called Wildfire.
No matter what Wikipedia says, Lightfoot never recorded for Excello. In '54 he won a talent contest in Atlanta sponsored by middle of the road band leader Horace Heidt (who orchestra Art Carney had started with as a singing comedian) and toured theaters with Heidt's orchestra until 1958. What this music sounded like is anyone's guess, but I can only imagine what Mean Ole Train sounded like with Papa Lightfoot bellowing into his harmonica mike and Heidt's goofy arrangements behind him. Later Papa Lightfoot would tour with Smiley Lewis, appear in an obscure fifties film called Spooky Loot (1956), then he returned to Natchez where he hosted a radio show, and eventually found some sort of real job. In 1969 he recorded a pretty good album for Steve LaVere's Vault label in an attempt to build an audience amongst white blues fans. He would appear at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1970, and drop dead less than a year later from respiratory illness. The best of early Papa Lightfoot (minus the Peacock and Sultan sides) can be found on a CD bootleg called Papa Lightfoot/Sammy Meyers, the Vault material, titled Natchez Trace, has been re-issued with many extra tracks, both are fairly easy to find.  A full discography can be found here

9 comments:

Wheel said...

It is George Harmonica Smith on the picture, not Papa Lightfoot :)

The Hound said...

"It is George Harmonica Smith on the picture, not Papa Lightfoot :)"

Yr right, I'll have to go back and look for a photo of the old fart....

Johnny Pierre said...

Thanks for a great post! Nobody will be digging this shit on VHI, that's fer sure.

Anonymous said...

Great article on an even greater harp player. I got to see him at Ann Arbor in 1970 but your info on Vault records needs some updating. It was formed and owned by Jack Lewerke and Ralph Kaffel.
Sold to National Tape Distributors in 1969.
Jack Lewerke resigned as President in 1971.
In 1971, Lewerke re-purchased Vault from National Tape Distributors months before National Tape Distributors filed for bankruptcy.

Skoolboy Jim said...

Papa Lightfoot is the best! I think the Arthur Lee Williams is the only "contemporary" guy who even sounds close. Arthur played on the great Frank Frost stuff Scotty Moore produced with "My Backscratcher" which is some bad shit. He still plays in St. Louis, I think but he is getting up there. Papa Lightfoot drove an ice cream truck around Nathez and played what have been described as "rhythm sticks" for the kids, I guess. Not sure what they were though. I really hope some more Papa Lightfoot surfaces some day. The Ann Arbor stuff at least. Anyone know of any more tidbits out there. To me, no one approaches him.

Andy Schwartz said...

Just tuned in -- welcome back, Hound! Thanks for another invaluable job of research and commentary on yet another unsung hero of Our Music.

Anonymous said...

Nice article. I share your interest in the Sultan record. I know who owns the record that was used for the Blues Trail website. Unfortunately, it's the only known copy to exist among collectors.... Too bad for the both of us.

Anonymous said...

I have heard the Sultan record.it has a sax on it that knocks it down a few notches.

Anonymous said...

Thanxxx!
Papa is a great discovery.
Just wanted to say that you have Friends in Croatia: with a little help from your materials I've discovered so many great things, and, at the end, screened World's greatest sinner at music documentaries film festival which I do...hope to meet you someday, somewhere, for a drink

Toni

Let's Hear It For The Orchestra

Let's Hear It For The Orchestra
copyright Hound Archive