Sunday, August 15, 2010

Joe Hill Louis

This must be the rarest post war blues record of all, Sam Phillips' first attempt to launch a label, with partner DJ Dewey Phillips.
Joe Hill Louis with one third of his one man band.
Another rare one....
Joe Hill Louis (left), Ford Nelson (piano), B.B.King in the back with guitar. Joe Hill Louis- One Man Band
The first time I heard Joe Hill Louis I didn't even know it was him. It was two tunes, both instrumentals used as filler on the Howlin' Wolf Crown LP-- Twisting and Turning and Backslide Boogie (why they used them beyond me as there was enough Wolf material in Modern/RPM/Crown's vault for at least two albums), but the snake like, twisting, wiry sound of his guitar driving his chugging, crude harmonica really got me, I spent a year with my old Harmony Silvertone trying to reproduce his tone, eventually giving up the guitar for a typer in frustration as not being able to even get close the sound he achieved. Musically speaking, if you spliced the chromosomes from John Lee Hooker, both Sonny Boy Williamsons and Dr. Ross together you'd get a sound something like Joe Hill Louis.
Joe Hill Louis was born Lester Hill, September 23, 1921 in Froggy Botttom, Tennessee, between Memphis and the Mississippi border. When his mother died and his father remarried, his new stepmother ran him off at age fourteen and the homeless youngster wandered into Memphis where he was taken in by a well to do white family-- the Canale's, big in vending machines, one of them- Drew Canale would eventually become a state senator from Shelby County. He was employed first as a houseboy and later chauffeur and would spend almost the rest of his entire life (except for a few months when he married in his mid-20's) living with and working for the Canales. It was the Canale's kids, who encouraged young Lester to throw a beating into the neighborhood bully, a punk who called himself Prince Henry, who would add the Joe Louis to his name, after the heavyweight champion.
It was his teens Joe took up music, starting on the Jew's harp, then adding harmonica, guitar and drums, and eventually figuring out that if he played them all at once he wouldn't have to split the money with a band. By 1949 he was appearing on Memphis all black WDIA, doing a ten minute lunch time blues show where he was billed as "The Be Bop Boy", although the music he played was far from what we today call Be Bop, his sound being closer to John Lee Hooker than Charlie Parker. Later, after picking up the sponsor Pepticon (an over the counter all purpose patent medicine whose main ingredient was grain alcohol), he would become the first "Pepticon Boy" (B.B. King would be the second). One friend remembered that Joe "lived on the stuff". His radio show made him a popular club attraction in Memphis where he also often appeared playing for change in Handy Park, and in the jukes and road houses outside of town. Around this time, he briefly married a woman named Ruthie or Ruthy Mae who bore him a son, but the marriage was short lived and he was soon back living with the Canales.
It was future politician Drew Canale who would be the first to record Joe Hill Louis, recording four tunes in Nashville in November of 1949 that he would sell to Columbia Records who issued Joe's Jump b/w Don't Trust Your Best Friend and Railroad Blues b/w A Jumpin' And A Shufflin' before the year ended. He plays guitar, harmonica and drums simultaneously on all four sides, which capture him a basic blues shuffle mode, using an acoustic guitar and not yet using the over distorted sound that would be a feature of his coming discs.
In early 1950 Louis had come to the attention of sound engineer Sam C. Phillips, fresh from a recent bout of electro-shock treatments for depression, Phillips who had probably heard Louis' radio show, first saw him play at a gig in Moscow, Tennessee. He was the first black artist Phillips had ever met and worked with. He remembered him as dapper, sharp, well organized, likable, very entertaining but something of a loner. Sam was attempting to start his own record label and had partnered up with the crazed Memphis radio phenomenon Dewey Phillips, who was a big fan of Louis, to create the It's The Phillips label. Sam recorded three tunes with Joe and pressed up a few copies of Boogie In The Park b/w Gotta Let You Go, leaving the third tune Nappy Headed Woman on the shelf. The resulting 78 RPM disc is so rare today you would need to trade a kidney, two Russian sex slaves and a kilo of real Chandu opium for a copy, if one ever came up for sale.
It's The Phillips label failed, but Sam kept recording Joe Hill Louis in at least sixteen more sessions between 1950-1953, at first leasing the best of the results to the brothers' Bihari in Los Angeles. The Biharis released, on their Modern label I Feel Like A Million b/w Heartache Baby (Nighttime Is The Rightime) and Boogie In The Park b/w Cold Chills in 1950, Street Walkin' Woman b/w Walkin' Talkin' Blues, Gotta Go Baby b/w Big Legged Woman, a cover of Sonny Boy Williamson's Eyesight To The Blind b/w Goin' Down Slow which added Ford Nelson on piano, as well as Peace Of Mind b/w Chocolate Blonde all in '51. A handful of unissued sides would eventually be released on budget Kent LP's in the late 60's. By 1952 Sam was sending Joe Hill Louis' masters to the Chess brothers in Chicago who released When I Am Gone (Treat Me Mean and Evil) b/w Dorothy Mae on Checker in 1952. These are all fine, rocking sides, full of distorted guitar, blaring harmonica and clattering drums done up in a truly unique style.
By late '52 Sam C. Phillips had gotten his own label Sun up and running (although he did end up in court with both the Biharis and Chess brothers over the rights to Howlin' Wolf, Jackie Breston and Rosco Gordon whom he'd been recording and leasing sides to both factions). The fifth release on Sun was Joe Hill Louis' We All Gotta Go Sometime b/w She May Be Yours (But She Comes To See Me Some Time) in January of '53. A distorted, crude, overamplfied masterpiece of shellac if I ever heard one, and I have heard a few. Despite recording a wealth of fine material with Louis including a fantastic final session in November of '52 that saw Louis backed by Big Walter Horton on harmonica and Mose Vinson on piano, he would see no more releases on Sun Records. Killer performances like Tiger Man and Hydramatic Woman (a Rocket 88 re-write) would sit in the vaults until the 1980's when Charley first released them on the Sun Blues Box (although the Japanese P-Vine label would collect the best of his Sun Recordings for the LP Be-Bop Boy in the early 80's, issued on beautifully high quality shiny black vinyl). Phillips also used him as a session man and he can be heard playing guitar on Rufus Thomas' incredible Bear Cat (The Answer To Hound Dog) and drums on Big Walter Horton's Off the Wall and guitar on Walter's Blues In My Condition and Selling My Whiskey which were leased to Modern. Phillips later stated he thought he was getting a "better sound" with Doctor Ross, another one man band recording for Sun at the time.
Like Charlie Feathers before him, frustrated by Phillips unwillingness to issue more discs he headed across town to Meteor Records, a small time operation the Bihari's had set up for their errant eldest brother Lester, who recorded two singles with Joe, issued under the moniker Chicago Sunny Boy (probably an attempt to garn sales by passing him off as one of the Sonny Boy Williamsons, his harmonica playing sounded like a crude cross between both of their styles). These fine sides (the rhythm section was dubbed onto the masters in L.A.)-- Jack Pot b/w Western Union Man and On The Floor b/w I Love My Baby, released in 1953, garned little sales, but remain high points in Joe Hill Louis' discography. Un-issued tunes from the Meteor session like Joe Hill Boogie and Good Morning Little Angel would eventually find there way to LP's on the budget Crown label (see the Pee Wee Crayton posting for more on Crown). From here Joe Hill Louis would record for tiny local labels like Rockin', Big Town, Vendor, Mimosa (which was a re-issue of the Vendor disc, which was owned by Drew Canale) and House Of Sound, most of these were cut with a full band including a tenor sax player, an obvious attempt to update his sound to compete with the onslaught of rock'n'roll. These discs all very rare, and most of them have never been re-issued. And to make the story even sadder, I don't have any of them. There was also an un-issued session cut for Duke which has never surfaced although a fantastic final un-issued session that ended up in the hands of Ace's Johnny Vincent (who never released any of it), was eventually issued in the U.K. on Westside in the nineties -- 4th & Beale, Heartache Baby, and Goin' Down To Louisiana being the best of it.
In the summer of 1957 Joe was doing some yard work for the Canales' when he cut his finger which then became infected by the fertilizer he was using. He didn't bother to get it treated and a few days later he collapsed on Beale Street. Rushed to the hospital, on Aug. 5, 1957, he died a painful death from tetanus (lock jaw) at John Gaston Hospital, where Bessie Smith had died two decades earlier.
Joe Hill Louis was remembered as a likable, humorous sort of fellow, a ladies man, and a nice guy. His music may have been too crude and distorted to be commercial, although crude and distorted didn't hurt the careers of John Lee Hooker, Lightnin' Hopkins and Howlin' Wolf, all who where enjoying good record sales during the years that Louis' discs were first released. Most likely his lack of touring, and a lack of promotion are what kept him in obscurity to all but Memphis residents to whom he was a familiar site on Beale Street, Handy Park, and on WDIA. He died too young to reap the benefits of the sixties blues revival, but his records sound better than ever today, he was a unique guitarist, and the one man band style served his unique sense of timing well, in a gloriously clattering musical racket. The cream of his Modern/Crown/Kent sides can be found on the UK Ace label's Boogie In The Park CD, while his (mostly) un-issued Sun recordings are available on the essential Sun Blues Box (Charly, the CD version expanding greatly on the original vinyl set). Although he's best remembered for putting Sam C. Phillips in the record biz, Joe Hill Louis was more than just historically important, he was one of the greats.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for inspiring me to drag out my JHL LPs for the first time in years! He's got that timelessly doomy sound...

Forgot that Sam Phillips underwent elecroshock therapy! Thanks, Hound!

Bob said...

Hound, you're better than Harvard.

skoolboy Jim said...

I think the JSP 2 cd set has most if not all of the released stuff on it that I know of. It would be great to get some unreleased Joe Hill Louis stuff if it's out there.

The Hound said...

"I think the JSP 2 cd set has most if not all of the released stuff on it that I know of."

There being no record stores in NYC that would carry such an item I checked the track listing online, with a cutoff point of '54 that would leave out the sides on Rockin', Big Town, Vendor/Mimosa and House of Sounds. Maybe some of them are on some of the Stompin' albums, I might have to make a trek to the basement where they're currently living. If I find them I'll report back.

Ken K. in NJ said...

Thanks for this rundown on his life. I was so fascinated by "Gotta Let You Go" when I first heard it years ago (on some Sun comp or other,I forget exactly where) I sat down and transcribed the lyrics. Here they are, as best as I can tell. Sing Along With Joe Hill:

Hey Caldonia
Now where in the world have you been?
Tryin to find your soul
I been here all afternoon
Tryin to get something to eat
While you’re downtown there
Drinkin wine and feelin’ fine

When I come home from work it’s all I heard
Cat told me he saw my wife downtown there
Hangin’ around those beer gardens
Drinkin’ wine and feelin’ mighty fine

Ain’t no use in you standin out there
Lookin’ at me three sheets in the wind
Cause I’ll take one of these strong chairs
And knock you on your knees
Then we all gotta go to jail
But I don’t care cause I’m tired of messin’ with you

You know when I first met you babe
I told you I’d do everything for you
Buy you fine clothes, a big automobile
Now look what you’re doin’
Ridin’ around here with these cats
In their long straight pants and their long toed shoes
Come tellin’ you that you gon’ have plenty of money
Now you know that ain’t never gonna work with the be-bop boys

I’m gonna let you go
Yes, I’m gonna let you go
You ain’t no good no more
I’m gonna let you go
Can’t stand it no way

Now look at you there baby
Now that you got plenty of money
Your clothes all stickin’ out there
Your hair all nappy there
And your clothes all torn
Where in the world you been”
I’m workin’ hard every day
You eatin’ up all my meat
Won’t get up and cook me nothin’ to eat
I’m diggin’ and slavin’ and cuttin’ up that concrete
I’ve just about got cold feet
I’m about to let that woman go
Hangin’ around these beer gardens, these garbage cans
Now look, I’m gonna talk about it now

Yes, I told your father
I told your brother
I told your mother
I’ve gotta let you go

Now look at her boy, head all nappy there
Clothes all stickin’ out there
She ain’t had her hair fixed in about seven years boy
Hangin’ round these garbage cans and everything

I ‘bout got cold feet
I’m about to let that woman go

Yes, I don’t love you no more
I don’t love you no more
I don’t love you no more
I got to let you go )

Anonymous said...

Good article as always. There were only 100 copies supposedly pressed of the Vendor 45. I believe they were pressed only for juke box use in the local Memphis area. I had an opportunity to buy a beat to shit copy of one of the Rockin 45's awhile back (the one credited to Leslie Louis). For the exhorbidant price the guy wanted for something that looked like it had been run over by a tractor trailer I took a polite pass. -Barry Soltz

Gramercy7 said...

"These discs all very rare, and most of them have never been re-issued. And to make the story even sadder, I don't have ANY of them."

A shocking admission. Hound, you have my deepest sympathy.

Jamie Garner said...

JHL's tune 'when i am gone' is one of the finest examples of raw electric guitar i've ever heard. he inspired me to buy a kick drum and make my own one-man-band many years ago- but i gave up on it after realizing i'd never come close to his cool sound.

great article, as always.

StephenX said...

thanks so much. I now have several more gems awaiting my first hearing!
"When I'm Gone" will always be in my top 10 guitar solos of all time

Anonymous said...

"There being no record stores in NYC that would carry such an item..."

Not even Midnight Records?

The Hound said...

"Not even Midnight Records?"

Place has been gone for at least six-seven years.
The never carried much in the way of blues anyway.
The best place in NYC for the good stuff is the Norton mail order service.

Unknown said...

First of all, I just want to say that I am extremely grateful for all the information and music you share with your blog. Your blog is my "homepage"! This is the first thing I see each day when I open my browser.
Unfortunately, I am receiving a warning message from my anti-viral software when I log on today with both Explorer and Chrome. The concern seemed to be with the CHEWBONE site. So I grab another laptop and come to you through Firefox and the AVG tool bar declared this site safe and free of active threats.
I want to be cautious with this and keep the laptop safe. Most of my music collection is on there. (Thanks for your large contribution and great recommendations!!)

Do you know what this warning means? Have you been informed of anyone encountering actual problems here in the last few days?

Thanks for all the work you put into managing this great blog and sharing the music.
I know that Hep can take a lot out of a person but you still have managed to create the greatest music blog I have found. There are days when great records and your humor and insight make my cup look at least half full, and that goes a long way. I hope in your own dark hours you take a little satisfaction knowing the joy you bring us.

StephenX said...

I have been receiving the same warning. I ignore it and just avoid the "chewbone" site.
I too am curious, whats up?

The Hound said...

"Do you know what this warning means? Have you been informed of anyone encountering actual problems here in the last few days?"

The problem seems to come from one of the sights that Chewbone links to, I removed the Chewbone link from this page temporarily, let me know if it helps. I don't seem to get the warning when I come to the sight.

howstean said...

Congratulations on another well written & researched article, with good pix & great song selection.

Anonymous said...

"Not even Midnight Records?"

Place has been gone for at least six-seven years.
The never carried much in the way of blues anyway.
The best place in NYC for the good stuff is the Norton mail order service.

....hard to believe that a great city like NYC doesn't have one store to get great blues music....

The Hound said...

"....hard to believe that a great city like NYC doesn't have one store to get great blues music...."

Yes, there are many things about the modern world that are hard to believe, and in context, Manhattan's metamorphosis into a suburban shopping mall isn't even close to the top of the list. I still can't get over the fact that Rush Limbaugh gets paid $25 million plus a year to do a radio show and I couldn't get a penny for mine.

Anonymous said...

Is Manitoba's bar still open? I always liked going there when i was in the East Village.

Anonymous said...

Poor guy - he was only 36 when he died ?! Of freakin Tetanus ?!

The 1950's would have been the heydey of the (at that time)absolute miracle-drug Penicillin.

It is of course pure speculation on my part, but I get the feeling that the Doctor must have done a pretty shoddy job. Call me a cynic but I'm guessing that a white patient might have had a whole better chance of surviving.

So sad . . .

The Hound said...

"Is Manitoba's bar still open? I always liked going there when i was in the East Village."

Yup, me and Roscoe sold him the joint, our place the Lakeside Lounge is three blocks north on B between 10-11th.

musique said...

thanks for all these infos! Never heard of Louis before and really enjoying his music. I linked to this post, hope that's fine for you:

tiendas eroticas said...

Oh my god, there's a lot of effective material in this post!

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