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  RAY CHARLES JOINS HIS BLIND, BLACK BLUESMEN IN HEAVEN.  
   
   
 

My lasting love is Ray Charles.

I love him because he was old and black and blind and cute. And beacuse Charles was a musical titan, able to command an entire stage full of musicians and lead them through hours of music despite the fact he couldn't see them. During his set, his sidemen and back-up singers would take breaks so he could to play some solo numbers, maybe "Georgia on My Mind," or "Lonely Avenue." This little, old, blind man could hold audiences transfixed with nothing more than a microphone.

Ray Charles is not just some musical dream guy. He's the gateway drug to the world of blind black singers. Why did I spend my baby-sitting money as a 12-year-old on Blind Willie Johnson records? It's all Ray Charles' fault -- well, Stevie Wonder, too. I suppose my pre-teen heart loved the idea that these men, who were so cut off from the world in one way, were able to interact with and impact the world through music. I found the notion hopelessly romantic.

So here it is. With Charles' passing, Stevie Wonder is pretty much the last of the well-known blind bluesmen who are black. He's part of an amazing -- and rather remarkable -- brotherhood. Most are guitar players, because of the economical and practical difficulties of being a street performer with a piano, but they're also the musical fathers of Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, Steve Winwood, the White Stripes, Otis Reading, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, the Black Keys and countless others.

 

Snooks Eaglin
1936-Present

Vocally, Snooks Eaglin is the closest thing we have left to Ray Charles. Known as the human jukebox in New Orleans, where Eaglin maintains a residency at local blues clubs, his repertoire is boundless

 
     

and musical knowledge is unparalleled -- and Snooks ain't a bad guitar player either.

Eaglin went blind at 19 months old after an operation for glaucoma, then spent the next two-and-a-half years in the hospital with a brain tumor. When he was five -- and finally free of the hospital -- Eaglin got his first guitar from his father. Unable to participate in activities of other boys his age, Eaglin

 
 

picked up his guitar, developed an undecipherable playing style and a repertoire that is said to exceed 2,500 songs. At 14, he dropped out of school and began to tour -- clearly, the road a perfect place for a teenage boy to become a responsible adult.

In his life, Eaglin wasn't some helpless blind genius -- he was one of the boys. Snooks tells a story about driving his band members home one night when they were all too drunk to get behind the wheel. Using the gravel on the side of the road to guide him along the route, Snooks rocketed home in the band's 1949 Studebaker, which was using piss as a coolant instead of water. Rock and Roll. Snooks billed himself as "Little Ray Charles" in the 50s, and the label isn't too far off.

Check out… Country Boy Down in New Orleans to hear Ray's influence on Snook's vocal style, especially on "Mama Don't You Tear My Clothes" and "That's All Right."

 

Blind Joe Reynolds
1900-1968

Blind Joe Reynolds wrote lots and lots of songs with some variation on these lines: "Let me tell you boys what these married women will do/ You will get your money, she will catch up to you/Man's a fool if

 
   
 

he thinks, got a whole woman to himself." Reynolds wrote "Married Man Blues," "Outside Woman Blues," "Third Street Woman Blues," "Cold Woman Blues," and "Short Dress Blues." And he sang them all in a shrieking, high-pitched voice over his rolling rhythmic slide guitar.

Blind Joe Reynolds became a street singer -- and went blind -- after being shot in the face with a shotgun. (Note to 50 Cent: Now this man was hard.) Blind Joe's real name was Joe Sheppard, but he recorded under Reynolds among other names to evade the

 
 

law. He also used his fame as a platform to mock conventional morality, the police and the legal system. He recorded a few records in 1929 and 1930 and didn't return to the recording studio again.

Check out… The Complete Works of Son House & The Great Delta Blues Singers, which doesn't appear to have an entry on Amazon.com. There aren't any re-issued Blind Joe Reynolds albums, so this is the only way to hear his songs about unfaithful women, cheating women, and gold-digging women.

 

Blind Willie Johnson
1902-1947

Many people know Blind Willie Johnson because of the song "Mother's Children Have A Hard Time." The track is a perfect introduction to Johnson because he switches from the voice he sings in most often, a

 
     

rough, roaring bass voice, into his natural smooth tenor with such ease it's hard to believe it's the same guy.

By trade, Johnson was a singing street-corner evangelist and when he calls out "Lawd" in his tortured voice in "Lord I Just Can't Keep From Crying," it's one of the most goose-bump inspiring noises you're likely to hear. Being a "Gospel Bluesman" seemed to be Johnson's destiny. His mother died when he was a baby, and his father remarried. When Johnson was about seven, his father and

 
 

stepmother were fighting and she apparently liked to throw things. Aiming at his father, she ended up throwing lye water into Johnson's eyes, blinding him.

Johnson is respected as one of the greatest bottleneck slide guitarists, though when he first started playing on street corners he played slide with a pocketknife instead of a bottleneck. Johnson had been performing for years on the street before he was brought into the studio to record for Columbia in 1927. He was brought into the studio to record three times, and then was never invited back. He continued to perform in the 30s and 40s, but when the Johnson home burned to the ground in 1947, he caught pneumonia and died from his home's ashes a week later.

Check out… Dark Was The Night if you want to see where Jack White learned how to play slide guitar.

 

Rev. Gary Davis
1896-1972

Interspersing gospel songs in his street corner sets of blues and ragtime numbers to keep the police from interrupting him, Gary Davis didn't seem like a prime candidate to become an ordained

 
     

minister.

Blind from birth and singing the blues from the age of six, by his 20s, Davis had developed a guitar technique and singing style all his own. "Cross & Evil Woman Blues" is a prime example of his amazing guitar picking style, his runs are so crisp and fast and his riffs are so rock and roll, it's shocking to

 
 

realize he recorded them in 1935. In his 30s, Davis recorded some blues and spirituals for the American Record Company label, though due to shadiness in his payment for those sessions, it would be 19 years before he would record again.

After the record company swindle, Davis became ordained and moved to Harlem in the 40s, where he continued to preach and play. The late 50's folk revival movement led to his "rediscovery" and he was invited to play the Newport Folk Festivals for years.

Check out… Harlem Street Singer for "Twelve Gates To The City," and hear every Chuck Berry riff ever recorded.

 

Blind Blake
1893-1933?

Blind Blake was the undisputed Guitar king of Chicago when he disappeared in 1932. No one really knows what happened to him, and his death became a sort of bluesman urban legend. Many told stories

 
      of his violent death, often involving being run over by a streetcar.

Before his death, Blake recorded 81 solo sides for Paramount, which are notable for his ridiculously note-packed guitar plucking. ("West Coast Blues" provides a stunning example of his guitar technique.) Though praised by the respected Rev. Gary Davis, Blind

 
 

Blake was thankfully not drawn to the Lord, and instead sang some of the dirtiest blues committed to wax. Songs like "Sweet Jivin' Mama" and "Depression's Gone from Me Blues" are just two of the many graphic songs he performed, covering sex, suicide and murder -- what's a better time than that?

Check out… Best of Blind Blake to hear the quintessential "Piedmont" bluesman.

 

Blind Willie McTell
1901-1959

Blind Willie McTell was born into a family full of musicians, and though blind from birth, grew up with an extraordinary sense of hearing, touch and the knowledge that a life in music was a viable way to

 
      make a living.

Even better, McTell knew that the business of music could be a tricky and manipulative one, so he recorded under many different names to maintain exclusive relationships with multiple labels at the same time. He used his acoustic 12-string guitar to sound like more than one instrument at once, creating a finger-picked, layered guitar sound, as on "Statesboro Blues." Bob Dylan was such a fan of his take on the blues, he wrote a song about him ("Blind Willie McTell") that featured the refrain "Nobody can sing the blues/Like Blind Willie McTell."

Check out… Atlanta Twelve String to hear the world according to McTell on tracks like "Dying

 
 

Crapshooter's Blues" and "Kill It Kid."

 

Sonny Terry
1911-1986

Sonny Terry was one of those guys who didn't turn to singing the blues until he began losing his eyesight after a farming accident when he was 14. When he lost his eyesight completely at 16 -- it was

 
     

another farming accident -- Sonny realized he wasn't cut out to become a professional farmer. Instead, he turned to singing the blues and wailing on the harmonica for money around his North Carolina home.

Apparently, the Terry's ran a pretty dangerous farm. Sonny's father, who had taught him to play the harmonica, died in an accident

 
 

on the farm. Sonny lived with his sister for a while, but soon began touring with a medicine show. The guy who ran the show, a shady character named "Doc," cheated Sonny out of his earnings. Sonny went to Doc with his pistol and threatened him, though Doc didn't take the blind kid seriously. Unfortunately for Doc, Sonny could still see shades of shadows and Doc was wearing white pants, so Sonny shot him in the leg. The moral: Don't mess with Sonny.

Because he couldn't accompany himself, Sonny teamed with some of the most influential and respected bluesmen of his time, including Blind Boy Fuller, Bull City Red, and Brownie McGhee, with whom he formed a lasting musical relationship.

Check out… McGhee and Terry's Po'Boys to hear the unique way Sonny uses his voice to mimic his harmonica licks on the title track. On "Blues for the Lowlands" Terry and McGhee show why they became so popular during the folk revival of the 50s.

 

Blind Lemon Jefferson
1897-1936

Blind Lemon Jefferson was one of seven children born on a farm in Texas in 1893. Born blind, Jefferson was unable to work on the family farm, and instead soaked up the singing of the cotton pickers and the

 
   
 

guitar style of the area's Mexican workers.

When Jefferson began singing and playing guitar at local functions, his individual style of blending the moans of the cotton pickers and the staccato of the Mexican guitar was born. Soon after, he hit the road, traveling and performing from Texas to Memphis to

 
 

Mississippi, ending up in Chicago where he began recording in 1927.

Cutting 90 songs in four years, Jefferson's records sold well immediately. He was the first truly solo male blues performer to sell well, following the success of Bessie Smith and other female vocalists, who usually sang other people's material and had full band accompaniment. Performing his own material like "Blind Lemon Jefferson's Penitentiary Blues" and "Matchbox Blues," with just his own acoustic guitar and high, plaintive voice, Jefferson proved that bluesmen were commercially viable...

...Yet tragic. Jefferson was found dead after a snowstorm in Chicago and was placed in an unmarked grave. He didn't recieve a proper burial back in Texas for a half-century after his death. Today, Jefferson's grave is marked with a line from one of his songs "See That My Grave is Kept Clean."

Check out… The Best of Blind Lemon Jefferson to hear the original version of "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" later covered by Dylan on The Times They Are A-Changing.