Keeping up with the Joneses
Things are beginning to happen for local blues stalwarts Tutu and Andrew "Junior Boy" Jones. Tutu has been in Memphis, where his latest album, Blue Texas Soul, on the Bullseye Blues label, was nominated for a W.C. Handy Award. Although he was edged out by Austinite W.C. Clark's similarly titled Texas Soul, he stayed busy as a presenter, handing an award to Willie Mae Bland, wife of smooth urban blues archetype Bobby Blue Bland, who won in the Best Soul-Blues category. Junior Boy has been on tour in support of his latest effort, I Need Time, on JSP. Tutu and Andrew are two singer-guitarists whose last names are the same, who are not related (well, perhaps distantly, they conjecture), and who are very different sorts of people. One is built like a football player but is calm and reflective, while the other is wiry and moves around like a fidgety cat. Their careers have rarely been conjunctive, though both are Dallas-bred and literally grew up with the blues.
Tutu's dad, Johnny, played guitar with singer Ernie Johnson, among others, and his mom not only sang but played a mean set of drums. There were always instruments in the house, and Johnson--along with masters like Freddie King and Little Joe Blue--was a frequent houseguest. Tutu could keep the beat on a drum kit's snare and ride cymbal before he could reach the bass drum and high-hat pedals with his feet. When you're that small, no one trusts you with a guitar--particularly the pricey Gibsons favored by King and Blue--so he drew frets on a plank and strung rubber bands from nails driven in either end. He couldn't hear his makeshift instrument, but he could groove to the vibrations of the plucked rubber bands as he jammed along with his parents and their houseguests.
Soon he had a "box" (acoustic) guitar with which to practice and had grown enough to drum for musically inclined uncles Curly "Barefoot" Miller, keyboardist V.C. Andrews, and guitarist L.C. Andrews. The latter led the local R&B group the Four Deuces and was the first to use Tutu on club dates. V.C. followed, and it was with him that the young Tutu got turned on to stylists like postwar bluesman Frankie Lee Sims.
"I'm 10, 11 years old, and I'm workin' in these clubs," remembers Tutu. "My mother's older brother V.C. and I are workin' at Flossie's Place [1726 Hall] when two guys pop up in a great big ol' antique-ass Cadillac, a '57 with the fishtails. They buzz up, gets out of the car, and I asked my uncle, 'Who's these guys?' He said, 'this our guitarist, George Sims--Frankie Lee Sims' son.' The other guy was Cookbread, a ol' runnin' buddy of Frankie's. Well, George sounded just like his dad. Sometimes we'd bring Cookie [Cookbread] up, and he sang like Frankie too. We'd do [Sims'] 'Lucky Mae Blues' and 'Walkin' With Frankie,' and John Lee Hooker's 'Boogie Chillun.' George could hit all those things, man. That's where I learned about the old school of the blues, messin' with George Sims."
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"When you worked with my uncles, you had to work hard or they'd dog your ass!" Tutu says with a laugh. "They came up hard workin', out of the cotton fields, so any energy I'm blessed with didn't come to me just by watchin' Freddie and Joe Blue; it came natural to me through my genes, my blood.
"My daddy and I worked together a while," he continues. "I played drums and sang, he played guitar, and we had this guy who wasn't a cousin but whose uncle had married into our family, Joe Gibson, on bass. V.C. died and left me all his equipment, so we put together the Father & Son band and started playin' for my other uncle, Sonny, over on Lamar at the H&W Club. We did blues, Sam Cooke, Teddy Pendergrass, and time to time we'd have somebody like L.C. or Cookie stop by [to] do some tunes."
In spring of '79, Tutu joined R.L. Griffin's Dallas City Superstars; often the band did shows with both Griffin and Z.Z. Hill, playing mostly in the Southwest but occasionally venturing as far out as Colorado, where they once opened a show for Natalie Cole. Tutu lacks the rigorous road stories common to many musicians--Griffin and Hill had been around too long to take to the road unless it paid decently and involved sensible time/distance factors. Tutu liked the sightseeing and soon developed an expert's knowledge of Motel 6s from a considered position. Griffin, who admired Tutu for helping bring home the family bacon at such a young age, kept his young drummer from debauchery or knowledge thereof.
By the mid-80s, Tutu was drumming for Al "TNT" Braggs and Little Joe Blue, who told him he should be fronting his own band. Strat in hand, Tutu started honing his act at the fairly historic The House That Jock Build on South Central, heading up the Right Time Showband. Soon he was opening shows for Clarence Carter, Denise Lasalle, and local soulster Charlie Roberson and started showing up at blues jams on the north side of town.
It was there that he began to set himself apart. With a mastery of soul-blues, straight blues, and rock 'n' roll, Tutu was more versatile than your average jammer. Local blues maven Don O, who has parlayed his tenure as DJ on KNON's weekly "Best of the Blues" broadcast into a position of some influence in blues circles, gave Tutu his first write-up (in Jam magazine) and began dropping his name to cognoscenti. Soon afterward, no less a light than Bruce Iglauer of the Chicago label Alligator came to town to personally scope Tutu. Hearing him at a bar on Maple, Iglauer decreed Jones "not ready" (as did local label Topcat) and went back to Chicago.
That's like waving a "Go" flag at John Stedman, whose UK label JSP makes a specialty of recording bluesmen who are "not ready." When Stedman gets word regarding acts about whom Yank labels are dithering, he fires off a check to the artist for a self-produced album that JSP then issues.
Mere mention of this trusting tack causes an American label--who would spend more but want to ride herd on the production--to pale, but Stedman's faith in Tutu paid off. Not only did the guitarist bring his 1994 debut I'm For Real in on time and at budget, but the album received unanimous praise in blues mags. With JSP, Tutu was instantly overseas, and soon he had Euro-tours and UK blues fests under his belt.
Tutu was ready after all. To JSP's credit, the label allows its artists to take a better offer, should one come along. JSP let Tutu go when he got such an offer from Rounder/Bullseye, for whom he cut Blue Texas Soul in 1996.
Blue Texas Soul was one of the Handy nominees for Best Soul-Blues Album this year. (Handys aren't universally beloved in blues circles, and in fact were the subject of a Living Blues letters column slugfest almost as bloody as the magazine's ongoing can-whites-play-the-blues fray. The best way to look at them is as more Memphis tourism than real blues. But they're less disgusting than the Grammys and don't really hurt anyone.)
Andrew "Junior Boy" Jones is a few years older than Tutu. His earliest memories are of his Arlington Park childhood, which he wistfully recalls as happy and carefree until his parents separated. He and his mother moved to East Dallas.
The move "wasn't really a bad thing, because there's a lot of music history came out of there," says Andrew. "Bobby Patterson, Al 'TNT' Braggs and his brothers James and Floyd, and Lee Lamont, who had a hit out, 'Mommy Look The Man Is Crying.' There was an older guy lived next door who played guitar, and James Braggs and him used to sit together in the back yard and strum, which kind of inspired me to want to play. And I'd hear about Al Braggs, because he was tourin' with Bobby Bland all durin' that time. I was a kid, a young kid."
Before Andrew was born, his mother had sung with reedman Adolphus Sneed's Southern Swingsters combo. Sneed, who crops up in scads of Texas music stories, remained such a friend of the family that Andrew dubbed him "Uncle Sneed." He encouraged Andrew's musical bent and bought him an electric guitar.
Down the street lived another saxman, Sleepy Clemons, who heard Andrew practicing and stopped by to ask Ms. Jones if she'd let him rehearse with--and maybe join--the band he was in. She consented, so off went Andrew to join the Thunderbirds (which included bassist Finis Tasby, today of the L.A. blues scene). Andrew's first date with the band was a one-off backing Jimmy McCracklin, but their regular frontman was Freddie King. Their preferred place to hang was 4th Avenue, in South Dallas.
"This was the 'hood, man," laughs Andrew. "This was South Dallas, and it was a different culture than the one I'd been brought up in. It was guys drinkin' durin' the day, drinkin' wine and practicin' their instruments. Lotta girls runnin' in and out. When Lowell Fulson came to town, that's where he stayed. I met Lowell, met Big Joe Turner--big huge guy in his undershirt. Freddie King'd be there, hair all up in a rag 'cause the [hair-straightening] 'process' was the style back then. There were always places to play and people comin' through town. James Brown'd be at the Pussycat-A-Go-Go on Bexar, Ray Charles'd be at the Empire Room. Ike and Tina Turner stayed for long periods of time here back then. I was kind of in awe. See, my uncle's scene had been more conservative. His situation was big band and black tie. Well, this was blues and R&B."
With King and the Thunderbirds, Andrew played tank towns all over Texas and Oklahoma. King teased him relentlessly, and once gleefully scarfed down a sack lunch of ham sandwiches Ms. Jones had packed expressly for her son, but Andrew sensed that the big bluesman was keeping a close eye on him.
Andrew eventually jumped ship to join the Bobby Patterson's Mustangs. At the time the group was with Jetstar, the R&B wing of local label Abnak. Flush behind "Western Union" ('67) by the Five Americans, the label's main act, Abnak could fund what seemed to Andrew a cake deal.
"We were on a salary just to rehearse," he says. "They had a buildin' with a rehearsal space on Ross, and we'd go there five days a week and rehearse all day. [Label founder] John Abner Sr. would come in and listen, and so did Dale Hawkins, who was doin' their producin'. We took breaks, there was a recreation room, and we'd shoot pool and drink a whole lot of pop. We rehearsed six months before they even let us out of the buildin'." Patterson and the Mustangs played showy soul-pop at frat parties and on local TV. They cut Jetstar 45s (DJ copies on orange vinyl!) that sold well regionally.
"But the deal didn't work out with Abnak," grins Andrew. "We were too young and wild for 'em."
The Hendrix era had arrived, but Andrew shunned the fuzzed-out Hendrix sound, opting for cleaner tones. He played the Red Jacket (not the present one on Greenville Ave., but the original establishment on Maple) and the Ali Baba, and in '73 rejoined Freddie King. King's "Goin' Down" (1971) had hit big with the rock crowd, and he and Andrew opened shows for ZZ Top, Little Feat, Tower of Power, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
One night in Cleveland, the band members were loading their tour bus and cranking the engine, which--lacking a functional muffler--was rather loud. People in the tenement they were parked next to hurled down protests and insults. The band hurled them back, provoking a platoon of Clevelanders wielding baseball bats and tire chains to pour out of the building. Andrew threw up his arms to ward off a bat blow and saw stars as the bat bounced off his hand. Clutching his ballooning hand, he saw the bat again descending, this time right toward his face.
"Right then I saw this shape--and it was Freddie!" Andrew recalls. "He stepped in right in front of me, took the lick, and started punchin' this guy just like a big ol' boxer. Took the lick and kept on strokin'." King held Cleveland at bay until the arrival of the constabulary, who seemed disinclined to arrest any of the home team, but did confiscate the bats and chains. The bluesmen went on their way.
In early '76, Andrew got bronchitis and had to lay off the road a while. Later that year, Freddie King died. Andrew's next project was a power-funk band, the Creators. "We signed with RCA for a year and then self-destructed," Andrew recounts.
In the '80s, Andrew played for soul-blues slickster Johnnie Taylor. In 1987 he went to L.A. to team with the Silent Partners, with whom he accompanied Katie Webster on Alligator's Swamp Boogie Queen, then joined harp blower Charlie Musselwhite.
"Memphis Charlie" (as he was once billed) helped create the new and present blues millennium in Chicago, and then moved to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, where he was too busy being true to the blues to become a hippie. Andrew worked with Musselwhite for eight years and was on three of his Alligator albums, including 1993's In My Time.
Andrew returned to Dallas and fell in with the Lowlifers, an excellent band cored around bassist Hal Harris, backing R.L. Griffin at the Blues Palace several times weekly. Since Griffin often doesn't come onstage till well into the night, the Lowlifers' (usually) instrumental opening set gave Andrew what may have been his best setting in which to really stretch on guitar. Freed of the strictures of backing a frontman, he revealed an oft-breathtaking ability as a soloist, with an improvisational vigor and a sense of dynamics that brought to mind Cornell Dupree, Larry Carlton, and even Jerry Garcia more than it did your average bluesbanger. This fell right in step with the reason he came back to Dallas in the first place: to start his own thing. For him, the Lowlifers were a good place to hone his skills; at least for the nonce, he felt himself "not ready."
No doubt hearing his cue, John Stedman stormed in, checkbook cocked. He and Andrew powwowed at blues hangout Greenville Bar and Grill; shortly after, Andrew cut his debut CD, I Need Time, for JSP, and things started happening quickly.
Ron Levy, who produced Tutu Jones' Bullseye CD, came to Dallas to do sessions with Andrew, Henry Qualls, and other locals for a regional blues series he was developing. While here he produced Smokey Wilson's Man From Mars, employing as sidemen both Andrew on guitar and Andrew's son, Christole, on bass. (Amusingly, liner credits lopped off the last name of drummer Charles "Sugar Boy" Meyers, and surnamed him Jones, too!) The regional blues material will surface on Cannonball, a new label co-formed by Levy. Replaying their move on Tutu, Bullseye signed Andrew away from JSP; I Need Time will be rereleased under the Bullseye imprint.
There are, however, still plenty of JSP originals left, and Andrew, in the time-honored tradition, is taking to the road to sell them with Ronnie Bramhall's Blues Revue--featuring Andrew "Junior Boy" Jones. Taking to the highway in Andrew's new GM van, the group will go east through the South, up the coast to New York, and then through the Gloom Belt to Chicago, where they'll play the club B.L.U.E.S. (Ballsy step, that last: Chicago's the one place where a blues person's being from Texas can be more of a minus than a plus.)
Both Tutu and Andrew "Junior Boy" have shared parallels that go far beyond the same name or a coincidental bit of help from a nurturing British label with a love of the blues. Both men are restless, creative Dallasites standing at the edge of an acclaim far greater than hometown glory. They spent their lives growing up with the blues, and now it's time for blues to grow with the Joneses.
Tutu Jones plays at Muddy Waters Friday, May 23.
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