J.B. Lenoir

By Victoria Black, February 1, 2010

J.B. Lenoir

J.B. Lenoir

Chicago blues man who died early. Powerful lyrics way before their time, badmouthing the police, Eisenhower, the Korean War and Vietnam too.

J.B. Lenoir was born in 1929 in Monticello, Mississippi and in his short life, (he died in 1967), he made a name for himself in Chicago, where he later moved, with his high pitched voice, zebra tuxedo and his lyrics that were full of risky social comment. He was no ordinary bluesman. His lyrics criticised everyone from his girlfriend, the police and the President of the United States. Not something that a black man did with impunity back in the 50s.

Alabama Blues
My brother was taken up for my mother, and a police officer shot him down
I can’t help but to sit down and cry sometime,
think about how my poor brother lost his life

These were not Elvis Presley lyrics.

As a young boy his father taught him to play the guitar in the style of Blind Lemon Jefferson the blues singer and guitarist from Texas, and he was actually taught by Arthur Crudup and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

In the early days in the 40s he started playing in New Orleans with Sonny Boy Williamson and Elmore James. Not a bad pedigree.

In 1949 he moved up to Chicago and Big Bill Broonzy showed him the ropes and introduced him to the blues clubs in the city. He started playing with Memphis Minnie, Big Maceo Merriweather and Muddy Waters, quickly making a name for himself.

He started making records in the late 50s for the J.O.B label and his first record was Korea Blues, which he recorded with Sunnyland Slim on the piano, Leroy Foster on guitar and Alfred Wallace on drums. J.O.B. Records was a Chicago based record label, founded by businessman Joe Brown and bluesman St. Louis Jimmy Oden in 1949. It specialized in Southern Blues and R&B.

During the 1950s Lenoir recorded on various record labels in the Chicago area including J.O.B. and Chess Records Parrot and Checker Records

J:B. Lenoir initially got into hot water initially with his controversial “Eisenhower Blues” which his record company, Parrot, forced him to re-record as “Tax Paying Blues”.

J.B: was reknowned for his showmanship on stage. His most commercially successful and enduring release was “Mamma Talk To Your Daughter”, recorded for Parrot in 1954, which reached # 11 on the Billboard R&B chart and was later recorded by many other blues and rock musicians. Lenoir’s sound was unique: his use of the saxaphone (Alex Atkins and Ernest Cotton) along with Lenoir’s hard hitting rhythm guitar with drummer Al Galvin providing the merciless beat.

By 1960 he had moved to Vee Jay Records, and in 1963 he recorded for USA Records as “J. B. Lenoir and his African Hunch Rhythm”, developing his interest in African percussion. However, he struggled to work as a professional musician and for a time took menial jobs, including working in the kitchen at the University of Illinois in Champaign. While there, he was thankfully rediscovered by Willie Dixon who recorded him with drummer Fred Below on one of the best blues albums ever made “Alabama Blues” (1965) and Down In Mississippi (1966), inspired by the Civil Rights Movement.

The albums were first released in Germany by blues promoter Horst Lippmann who was a German jazz musician, concert promoter, writer and television director, best known as promoter of the influential American Folk Blues Festival during and after the 1960s. Lenoir toured Europe, and performed in 1965 with this same American Folk Blues Festival that toured throughout Europe.

Lenoir’s songs had some uncompromising and unambiguous lyrics, particularly in his criticism of the Vietnam war:

Vietnam
Oh God if you can hear my prayer now, please help my brothers over in Vietnam
Oh God if you can hear my prayer now, please help my brothers over in Vietnam
The poor boys fightin’, killin’ and hidin’ all in holes,
Maybe killin’ their own brother, they do not know.

Mister President you always cry about peace, but you must clean up your house
before you leave
Oh how you cry about peace, but you must clean up your house
before you leave
How can you tell the world how we need peace, and you still mistreat and killin’ poor me.

and the suffering of blacks in the south:

Alabama Blues
I never will go back to Alabama, that is not the place for me
You know they killed my sister and my brother,
And the whole world let them peoples go down there free

Alabama, Alabama, why you wanna be so mean (2x)
You got my people behind a barbwire fence,
now you tryin’ to take my freedom away from me.

He didn’t even spare his own Mississippi:

Born Dead
Lord why was I born in Mississippi
when it’s so hard to get ahead
Lord why was I born in Mississippi
when it’s so hard to get ahead
Every black child born in Mississippi
you know the poor child was born dead

There is very little live footage of J.B. but there is fascinating footage made by Steve and Ronnog Deaberg who made a slightly rough and ready documentary for Swedish televison but which unfortunately never saw the light of day.

JB. Lenoir died in 1967 aged 38 from a heart attack resulting from injuries he suffered after a car accident three weeks previously, an event that was hailed as a tragedy by English bluesman John Mayall in his songs, “The Death of J.B. Lenoir” and I’m Gonna Fight for you JB”.

J.B. Lenoir features in the 2003 documentary film “The Soul of a Man”, directed by Wim Wenders, part of Martin Scorsese’s series The Blues.

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