STILL RIGHT ON by Bill Greensmith & Cilla Huggins
Events surrounding Ike Turner's Kings Of Rhythm are more often than not far from straightforward. With never-ending change in personnel and an extremely complicated discography full of pseudonyms it can be a researcher's nightmare, or paradise; it all depends upon the way you look at it.
Way back in the early '70s Mike Leadbitter told me of meeting a member of the Kings Of Rhythm who was at that time living in south west London; improbable it may seem but nonetheless true. This, it turned out, was Jimmy 'Popeye' Thomas, a name which at the time meant little to me. Since Mike's death and my own increasing interest and fascination with the Kings Of Rhythm I had often reflected upon his words but as I'd not heard any mention of Jimmy thereafter I'd come to the conclusion that he must have just been passing through and was definitely not living in London town now. Or so I thought.
Whilst visiting a London pressing plant chasing copies of the Eddy Clearwater Rooster LP, Cilla Huggins happened to notice a bunch of labels bearing the name Jimmy Thomas on Osceola Records. It was too strong a coincidence for it to have been anyone other than our man. A few enquiries revealed a telephone number which of course led to none other than the same guy, what's more, living just down the road, a stone's throw from the QPR ground at Shepherds Bush in west London.And so armed to the teeth with tape recorders, records, various magazines, books, etc. etc. we descended upon Jimmy one Saturday in June 1980 for what turned out to be the first of many enlightening and memorable meetings.
Jimmy Thomas was born in Osceola, Arkansas, 20 January 1939. Raised by his uncle and aunt he was brought up on a musical diet of records by Big Maceo, Waiter Davis, Tampa Red, Sonny Boy Williamson etc. as well as hearing many of the local blues artists including Albert King, then still known as Albert Nelson. Forming a band of his own whilst still in his early teens and performing current popular vocal group and blues material, they played many of the local clubs in and around Osceola.
Upon the recommendation of Albert King Jimmy joined the extremely popular St. Louis based Kings Of Rhythm in early 1958. Closely followed by Tommy Hodge, the pair were a replacement for the recently departed Clayton Love. It was a time of a great deal of recording activity for Ike and the 'Kings' and also the start of a change in Ike's musical direction.Present at the now historic Cobra sessions in Chicago, and the vocalist on the wonderfully bizarre 'Jack Rabbit' on Stevens, Jimmy was to remain with Ike for eight years. From a popular local band through the early Ike & Tina days on the chitlin' circuit, until they became one of the top R&B acts in the country. He saw many changes in the Kings Of Rhythm including the arrival of Tina herself.
Since settling in London in 1969 he has a handful of singles and an album on Contempo behind him and currently a fine soul single on his own recently-formed Osceola Records ('Hang Right On In There', Parts 1 & 2, OSC2).
Gifted with a brilliant recall for detail and an almost unbelievable enthusiasm and patience to answer our unending questions, and made to listen to hour upon hour of records and tapes, it was a task Jimmy approached with a great deal of good humour to say the least. For instance, how many artists would phone you at eight o'clock in the morning to tell you the name of a club that had burnt down twenty years ago, the details having just returned to him in a dream?! Not many. Thanks Jim.
Bill GreensmithJimmy Thomas, London, June 1980 (Bill Greensmith)
Looking South on Highway 61 (Cilla Huggins)
'I was raised by my uncle and aunt, my mother had me when she was fourteen or something and my father, I never really knew him but I knew his family but like he split. He was married I think or something like that when he got my old lady pregnant, she was just a girl. And my grandfather was a big black man, my ancestry must be from West Africa 'cause he look like them; I've only learnt the characteristics of the people from West Africa since I've been in England.
This man he was a real rich farmer, black farmer in Osceola. Nick Thomas. And there was a lot of sons, lot of boys and they were real tearaways man. Anyway he got my old lady pregnant, she had me, he split and my uncle and aunt, my mother's sister and her husband raised me. And my mother moved to Saginaw, Mich. So that was my parents. I was still a few months old when my mother moved. I never knew my father though I knew his brothers and things, my uncles, I was never really interested in him. I don't know where he moved to, I think maybe Detroit because everybody went up North somewhere. My uncle and aunt I always knew that they weren't my mother and father, in other words there was no hiding it or nothing like that. I knew everything, they brought me up very good, told me exactly what was happening.
I don't know a great deal about the history of my family on my mother's side. I know that they were from Greenville, Miss. some of them anyway. They had a portrait that used to hang in the house of my great grandmother, she was a Seminole Indian and I know they come from Mississippi. My mother's name was Ollie Booker.
Any relation to Charley Booker?
I don't know anything about my family on my mother's side. I could have been but it's something I never did delve into. My mother used to come back once a year, holidays and things to see me. 'When I joined Ike and started travelling, played Saginaw, all my folks on my uncle's side, they were all in Saginaw. Saginaw was the place for my folks, so when I went there it was like a homecoming although I knew nothing about Saginaw. My uncle's name was Isom, Willie Isom, they called him Shag, that was because he had really shaggy hair. And the Isoms they were really great people, that was on my mother's sister's husband's side, who was acting as my father. It was like a homecoming playing Saginaw. It was as if I was playing Osceola the kind of reception. They nicknamed me Popeye as a kid, that's what they used to call me, I suppose I had tight eyes. If you're short they call you Slim, if you're slim they call you Shorty. My mother lives in California now.
So what got you interested in music?
Well shit let me see now, we would have music classes in school but you know it went in one ear and out the other. What it was as a little kid I can remember as far back as I can go. My uncle and aunt they were very much you know music, what do you call it when somebody supports music, you know local bands and things? They really dug it. That's how I come to know Albert King and people like that, old blues piano players. They bought a piano and used to have parties and things at the house, Albert and cats would come 'round man and play the piano and guitars.
And I used to sing along with the 78 records man, they used to have a collection. Wow, if I'd known then like I know now I'd have been a rich man!! They had like Walter Davis, Big Maceo, they had all them records man, Tampa Red and all that shit. When I was a little tiny kid man I used to listen to them, I used to play them. I used to really dig 'Going Down Slow' and Walter Davis. I used to like 'Detroit Blues' by Tampa Red and all them kind of things. I weren't much more than a toddler but I could remember the words, I used to learn the words man, it was great, I used to sing along with the record player.
Although they bought a piano I wasn't all that interested in learning to play it. I was interested in singing more than anything, I didn't care about playing although I could pick outtunes.
Even at the earliest age I can remember I always wanted to write the songs that I sang. Although I learnt the songs off the records and stuff I used that as a guide to teach me something new. I would go to the piano, I learnt how to play the piano, I would be trying to pick out new melodies and thinking up new words.
There was a guy, I can't remember his last name but I can see him in my mind's eye, his name was Lonzo, it was either Lonzo or Alonzo This guy man was one of the baddest piano players that I've ever heard reflecting back, maybe he wasn't all that good but to me - this guy his fingers were like ballet dancers. Anyway, Lonzo, Albert King all them guys, Hoss, there was a guy named Hoss, piano player in Osceola, he was in the time of Alvin somebody, anyway Hoss was his rival, they were supposed to be the baddest piano players around Osceola. These guys man they used to come around, my old man he bought him a electric guitar, he thought he wanted to be a little novice you know, Albert taught him a few chords and stuff but there was nothing serious, it was fun you know.
Albert Nelson, that's his real name, we used to call him Black Albert, that was his nickname around town. Everybody 'Hey Black Albert'. He used to drive a big trailer truck for a living, for his normal job, hauling seeds, cottonseeds. I was pretty young but I was a man, I knew what I was doing. Music was a natural thing, it wasn't no thing that I had to struggle to get into or nothing. And there was quite a few guys around school like me, we would just beat on tin pans, anything. You know shoo-wop, Five Royales and people like that came out, Clovers and all that.
Did you have any gospel experience?
A bit, not a lot. My gospel experience was limited to the local church which I wasn't forced to go to, which I didn't believe in anyway. I was only there for the chicks. If you didn't go to the church you were left out, you couldn't get any of the chicks because everybody had to go to church on Sunday. You know choir practices, things like that, so you want to get in the choir because that's where everybody was, you had more fun. And you get a chance to be away from home sometimes, go and visit other churches. I was never a serious gospel singer but I always loved gospel groups like the Five Blind Boys, Sam Cooke And The Soul Stirrers and all them, Mighty Clouds Of Joy.
Did you see the In The Groove Boys?
Yeah I saw the In The Groove Boys playing a lot of times. 'Cause my old man, like a town like that in the South you always get took around to these juke joints and stuff with your old man. They be drinking beer and stuff Sunday afternoon, things like that, dress me up, show me off - loved it. The T-99 that was a little bit later after I got a little bit older. There were clubs like Distance's place. Distance was a guy who had a club outside of Osceola, one of them juke joints where everybody went.
What was it like there?
Oh great man, great. Lovely hamburgers that's what I remember, I loved hamburgers. Distance had one eye.I tell you one that was real famous. In your travels did you ever hear of a club called the State Line Club, north of Blytheville? Missouri and Arkansas state line. That's where everybody used to go to get the liquor and stuff man, oh it was great. Let's see there was the State Line Club, there was Distance's, these places were outside of town. I can't remember who ran the State Line but it was a club where all the cats from Memphis and places used to come up to, like Wolf and all them guys. It was up north of Blytheville and Blytheville was eighteen miles north of Osceola and then the State Line was about three miles north of Blytheville. Blytheville is the first town you come to on Highway 6I coming south from St. Louis after you cross the Arkansas state line. Let's see, there's another place I wanted to tell you about man, this place was out on Highway 40 going west of Osceola, oh shit what was this guy's name? It'll come to me later, these joints outside town where people get in their cars ... anyway.Distance was west of town, I got him confused with another club north of town, sort of north west between Osceola and Luxora called ... a guy named Black Willie. Now Black Willie's place was another hot place man, it burnt down, it burnt down before I even left.
Would this be Willie Bloom's?
No Willie Bloom's was in town, that was our little teenage hangout. It used to be a grown up club but for some reason he turned it over to us. Oh yeah, shit Bloom's man that was our place. No playing there, it was just a cafe, just a hangout spot. It wasn't a joint but I think they used to gamble, they used to have a gambling joint somewhere in the back, back of his house somewhere but we never knew, we never went in there, we never knew about that place, we were just in the cafe part.Yeah Black Willie's was another party place everybody went there. They used to have ball games out there, every Sunday was a ball game and there was always some band, either Little Walter [Jefferson] and them, Albert King, somebody would be playing out there all the time.
Did you get name bands out there?
To us they were big names. But Albert, to me man he's the epitome of a good man, because he always tried to help us and encourage us in every way and as I understand it he's still doing things like that.Let's see, George York's place that was a cafe he also had a hotel that was right on the railroad. And I remember George York had a bald head, he was the first Kojak I'd ever seen, shaved. Real nice man, I remember his wife died when I was real, real little. And his cafe was right there on the railroad tracks. The In The Groove Boys played there. I mean every joint, all the guys who was around they played in every joint, there was no residencies, everybody moved around you know up and down Highway 6 I, out Highway 40, all the joints all in between there was loads, there was so many joints, down Wilson, Arkansas.
Oh right man, Bootlegger's Alley was like a forerunner, this was before the T-99. It survived after the T-99 but the popularity was gone. Bootlegger's Alley was this little area, one joint and a couple of houses and the joint was owned by a guy they called Bootlegger. And Bootlegger was an ugly cat man, this cat he had one eye but a really nice man, I can remember him when I was a kid. They used to gamble there all the joints would be gambling, pitching dice and shit. Then came the T-99 and everybody started going there. Bootlegger's Alley would have music, now I'm really going back now man. I was so small then my uncle would take me around and sit my little ass up on the crap table, a toddler I suppose.
What about the T-99?
In the T-99 it was fun. That's the only way you can describe it, fun. MC Reeder was the guy that owned it. MC..was kinda fat, kinda short, wore big hats. Dressed kind of smart all the time, wore string ties and he dabbled in playing saxophone. He was a novice, he dug it but he was alright, he could honk, he was a honker. Yeah, Jay McNeely that was his thing. There was one tune he would always want to play when he'd come up on stage and he used to bug us, we liked for him to come up and play with us sometime because he owned the club for a start, he paid us! 'Cornbread', that was his favourite thing and that was it, everybody would be up on they feet, everybody would be clappin' and slappin' . . . It was good fun. MC, yeah he was a great guy man.He had a beauty shop in the same building, he'd expanded man. It was a hotel, it was a beauty shop, it was a club, it was everything, gambling joint. But MC - well I don't know if I should say this - next time you meet somebody from down there you ask them if they know of this. There was a rumour that MC was supposed to have three nuts (laughing like crazy). I'm telling you it's true, he was supposed to have three nuts!! This is true, he was known for that.
How did this tie in with the beauty shop?
Oh yeah, the beauty shop. I tell you what it was, here's how it come about, the beauty shop. MC added the beauty shop on because he was screwing two sisters, right. He started screwing the older sister then he started screwing the younger sister and they were both really fine man. I'm telling you, to us they were like Marilyn Monroe didn't have nothing on them chicks. I'm sure my memory's pretty accurate on that, they were really beautiful chicks. Black chicks, fair skin chicks, big tits, everything.
Nobody could believe it. That's probably how he got that reputation of having three nuts. People would kill man, you know chicks would be jealous down there, carry knives, razors, you know what I mean they would be chasing cats with bricks (laughs), you don't cheat, if you get caught, everybody was cheating but don't get caught. Your old lady catch you cheating jack you got a real problem.
And nobody could understand it man how MC had these two chicks. He got the first one and he built the hotel. And he got the second one and he built the beauty shop and both of them was running the beauty shop. Then there was a third one called Baby Sister, she was the youngest and he had her as well and they run that whole complex for MC with MC. They were all sisters and they were all beautiful and they all knew about the other ones. Totally accepted. And we used to be man ... we'd have our tongues hanging out. After we grew up a bit then they would begin to chase us a bit. MC got toppled off his throne after a while. But that cat was known for that. That what his whole thing was supposed to have been.
I'm trying to remember about Black Matt. He was running a cafe I'm trying to remember where it was. I don't know what George York's connection was with Black Matt, there was some connection. Black Matt I know he was supposed to be working for the police, a snitch as they call it. Because everybody - there was whisky stills and shit man, people was doing bootleg liquor and stuff, all kinds of stuff was going down. But everybody knew that he was a snitch or whatever so they accepted him as that, they just knew Black Matt.
Matter of fact my old man, my uncle Shag, knocked his ass off, knocked him out, one punch put him right out (laughs). This was famous 'round town man, I'm telling you this was famous. Because Black Matt pulled a gun on my uncle, in his face, this was out at Distance's club.I can't remember what it was about but my uncle he was a really nice looking guy, he looked like a black Errol Flynn because he was fair skinned ... he really was a nice . . . chicks loved him man and I think Black Matt was really jealous of him. But he pulled this gun on him and put it in his face and snapped it. He actually pulled the trigger and it snapped, it missed. When I say missed it didn't fire and it was loaded. It went just like that man, tried to kill my uncle. And my uncle hit him and there was a crowd, everybody duckin', 'Oh my God!', whatever. My uncle didn't give him a second chance, boom, and the cat went down. They used to tell that story a lot, that was famous around town.So Black Matt wasn't exactly one of my favourite characters back in them days. I mean we didn't have anything against him and later he apologised and begged my uncle to forgive him and all of that stuff. Because my uncle, everybody liked him, he was a good lad, he was alright. And they knew Black Matt was a snitch anyway, so they cooled it out. But my uncle used to say 'Watch him man, don't you never have anything to do with that guy'.
George York he was like MC, he owned a club right on the railroad tracks, located right across from the light plant, the power plant. He was giving the guys work, between him and MC because they were the two main joints in town, they had all the connections and everything and they paid the guys, put money up for them. George York also had a hotel in the back of the place, a big hotel right along the railroad tracks.So the guys would be in town, they weren't earning no money much in them days, they probably played for fifty cents. So he was giving them food and shelter and putting money in their pockets, helping them buy their instruments and everything so he was like a godfather around town, George York. My old man he was friends with all them guys. I don't know they were like mentors, they knew him, they knew me and the situation. He was a real good guy. I mean even taking me, his wife's sister's kid, looking back on it now he was a really well respected man. Because he was a young guy, all the chicks wanted him and he was hooked up with this lady and not even his own kid and man he was really proud of me all the time.So that's how I got to know, got help from Albert King through his respect - you know because Albert's a great guy, he always tried to help somebody. Yeah, Black Albert, Big Foot Albert. Yeah Albert, everybody liked him too. He'd drive a truck all week hauling them cotton seeds and things whatever he was hauling and playing his guitar on weekends. They used to play old Hofners, I remember them big old blonde guitars they used to have, electric pickups on them, old Hofners, Epiphones things like that.I was so young man back then, and In The Groove.