King Biscuit Time

Last week I presented a paper at the 2017 Delta Symposium at Arkansas State University. On the way I spent a couple of days in Helena, Arkansas, revisiting some work I did 30 years.

A high point of the trip was being interviewed by Helena radio personality Sonny Payne on the King Biscuit Time show. Sonny turned the tables on me: I’m usually the one asking the questions and “holding” the microphone. My wife and I had gone to the Delta Cultural Center in-between interviews I was doing with Helena residents. After I re-introduced myself to Sonny, he asked us to sit in on the show. It was program number 17,679!

Sonny Payne. Delta Cultural Center broadcast studio, Helena, Arkansas.

Here’s a clip from the show:

Audio clip courtesy of KFFA’s King Biscuit Time.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein


The thrill is gone: B.B. King dies

B.B. King in Atlanta, June 1991. Photo by the author.

B.B. King in Atlanta, June 1991. Photo by the author.

Lots of musicians, journalists, ethnomusicologists, and fans will be sharing memories of Riley “B.B.” King (Sept. 16, 1925 – May 14, 2015). My favorite memory that best captures King — for me — come from the musician’s 1951 New York City debut.

I wasn’t there but I did get to speak with King and someone else who was.

Robert “H-Bomb” Ferguson (1929-2006) was a boogie-woogie pianist when he met King in backstage at the Apollo Theatre Harlem. “I came out in a gray suit. He came out in a purple suit, man. This cat came on stage with a purple suit, red shirt, and green tie,” Ferguson told me in a 1990 interview.

King told Ferguson that the promoters suggested that he dress “flashy.”

“I said, man you look like a clown. Man, you look like Ringling Brothers,” Ferguson recalled. “I said, ‘Man, if we going to work together, I don’t want nobody to think I’m like you.”

According to Ferguson, King took his advice and bought a gray suit to wear on stage.

The following year I interviewed King in an Atlanta, Ga., hotel room. He remembered Ferguson and the encounter. “No, [it was] a red suit with a red tie with red shoes. Red
and black sock and black shoes,” King said. “Yeah, that’s true, they just talked about me so much, talked about me so bad that I went and changed it.”

King was a sublime entertainer — a true professional and entrepreneur. In 1991 I asked him which hat he wore most comfortably: “All I do is play Lucille,” King said with a smile, pointing toward his trademark Gibson guitar.

Thank you B, for everything.

© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein

New life for old interviews: Some Atlanta music & journalism history

Eric King and Joel (J.T. Speed) Murphy at the Blind Willie's bar, Oct. 24, 1990. Photo by author.

Eric King (front)  and Joel (J.T. Speed) Murphy at the Blind Willie’s bar, Oct. 24, 1990. My recorder is on the bar. Photo by author.

Earlier this year I began taking steps towards completing a project that had its origins back in 1990. For a few hours the evening of October 24, 1990, Eric King and I consumed a fair amount of alcohol  and talked blues music and history at the bar of his Atlanta club, Blind Willie’s. At the time, I wrote a blues column for a short-lived alt-weekly, Footnotes. I had been spending lots of time in Willie’s and I had wanted to interview King for background material for future stories. Continue reading

David “Honeyboy” Edwards, 1915-2011

I heard the news this morning that blueser David “Honeyboy” Edwards has died at age 96. I first interviewed Edwards in 1991 in Atlanta. Like all music writers who interviewed (over-interviewed) Edwards, I asked him about the night Robert Johnson died. Continue reading

Internet Autobiography: History & Prehistory

This morning I attended a blogging workshop at American University (#tbdau). Sponsored by TBD, the topic was finding your blogging voice and it gave me a chance to think about this blog and its antecedents. Continue reading

Saturday Night Live

The Silver Spring drum circle reconvened last Saturday night. My BlackBerry (and its crappy camera) and I again wandered over to the drummers after catching the great show put on by Chicago blueser Joanna Connor. Note to self: Carry a real camera in Downtown Silver Spring.

Joanna Connor. Silver Spring, Maryland. July 31, 2010. Another Blackberry fuzz shot.

Continue reading

Mose Allison & The Dream Band

Earlier this week Laura was coming home from work and she was listening to NPR’s All Things Considered. She heard a profile of pianist/keyboardist Mose Allison.  Allison has been getting a lot  airtime as he promotes his new album, The Way of the World.

Laura likes music and she really likes blues piano. About four years before we met, back when I was trying to earn a living writing about music, I was invited to a rehearsal of the one-off Willie Dixon Dream Band featuring Allison and Long John Baldry (guitar), Carey Bell (harmonica), Rob Wasserman (bass), Cash McCall (guitar), and Al Duncan (drums). Put together by the promoters of the 1991 Atlanta Benson & Hedges Blues Festival, the headline group rehearsed on June 21, 1991, the day before the festival opened. The session was held at 2:30 in the afternoon in downtown Atlanta. Once a printing plant, the one-story building had been converted into studio space. Demolished to make way for the World of Coca Cola, the neighborhood back in 1991 had streetwalkers working the alleys in the afternoon and the building’s security was a baseball bat leaning against the wall near the front door.

The band arrived in a blue van and set up their gear in a back corner studio. All I had to do was sit back and enjoy the music, ask a few questions, and take a few photos. The slides have been living in a binder along with my other materials from the 1991 festival. Here are a few shots from the rehearsal:

Mose Allison at the Roland keyboard. Atlanta 1991

Mose Allison, Long John Baldry, and Carey Bell

Mose Allison and Carey Bell

Mose Allison

Cash McCall and Rob Wasserman

Al Duncan, Cash McCall, and Rob Wasserman (left to right)

Images © 1991-2010 David S. Rotenstein

Back to the Blues, Part I

Last week folklorist Bill Ferris gave a lecture at the Library of Congress in support of his new book, Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues (2009, The University of North Carolina Press). I hadn’t really thought about how much of an influence a brief 1988 meeting with Bill in his University of Mississippi office had on my career until after his lecture ended. In the summer of 1988 I was documenting folk artists in Arkansas and my background research for the project included meeting with folks who had worked there and regionally before my arrival. Bill Ferris was one of the people and Jim O’Neal, founding editor of Living Blues magazine, was another.

I ultimately didn’t get around to documenting a whole lot of artists before leaving Arkansas to return to grad school at Penn, but I did get to do some incredible fieldwork that exposed me to Delta blues culture. I went on to write about blues culture and heritage tourism in a 1992 article, “The Helena Blues: African-American Folk Music and Cultural Tourism in Helena, Arkansas” (Southern Folklore 49, no. 2: 133-46). I also found a way to help pay for school by writing about blues (and other) musicians for several newspapers and magazines. I wrote about zydeco musician Chubby Carrier for Living Blues magazine and did interviews for the Charlotte Observer, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Great contacts with Knight-Ridder newspaper chain entertainment editors provided me with a pipeline to the chain’s wire service and my articles were picked up by newspapers from New York City to Chicago to Portland.

In the meantime I was still trying to finish my doctoral program in Folklore and Folklife at Penn. In addition to the courses tied to my area of concentration, material culture and vernacular architecture, I took ethnomusicology classes and worked as a research assistant for an ethnomusicologist writing on the history of African American spirituals. In 1992 I decided to write a class paper on the body of legends that grew up around guitarist Robert Johnson (1911-1938). I didn’t want to confine my research to the library so I called up some musicians who knew Johnson some younger artists who were influenced by his music and I interviewed them for the paper. I also could draw on interviews I had done with artists who knew Johnson but who had died prior to 1992 (see Back to the Blues, Part II).

Bill Ferris’s lecture and book got me thinking about all of the old analog recordings I have lying around. I decided to try and take some of the recordings — some were done in crowded bars,  backstage at performances, and by phone for newspaper articles to be run in advance of gigs — and find some new life for them on the Web. My first effort, the Ziggy’s Blues Web site, was up from 1995 through 2006 and it had the copy from several of my newspaper articles. Ziggy’s Blues used to be available at the Internet Archive until aftermarket domain name thieves entrepreneurs got a hold of my old domain because I let the registration lapse. Ziggy’s Blues was listed in early books documenting blues on the Web and I’d like to think it was how New York Times writer Jon Pareles found my interview with John Lee Hooker to quote in Hooker’s 2001 obituary.

My latest effort is to try and combine photos I shot in the field and on assignment with the recordings to create media for distribution on the Web. First out of the can are excerpts from my 1991 interviews with B.B. King which were done in Atlanta, Georgia. The clip is available at my Facebook page:!/video/video.php?v=1365878913118&ref=nf.