Big Walter Price and Jerry "Boogie" McCain, R.I.P.
The past month saw the passing of two bluesmen, 97-year-old Texan Big Walter Price on March 8, and Jerry McCain, the Gadsden, Alabama-based harmonica player, who died on March 28 at age 81. Neither Price nor McCain ever won much acclaim outside the South or gained much traction with the white blues market, but they made influential records and McCain was an outstanding harp player. Outside of an occasional appearance at European blues festivals, they played the "chitlin' circuit," and they both stuck with their own songs, which in McCain's case especially, were admonishing, incisive and bittersweet.
Price, who was known as “The Thunderbird,” was a local legend around Houston, where he played piano, worked as a deejay, and operated a label he called Sunshine. In 1967, Blues Unlimited reported that he was running a "14 foot square, packed to the ceiling" record store that doubled as a personal shrine. In 1956, he recorded two regional hits, “Shirley Jean,” and “Pack Fair and Square” for Peacock Records. The former became a prototype of Gulf Coast swamp pop, while the latter, featuring a scorching tenor solo from Grady Gaines, was more typical of the high energy jump blues and rock’n’roll that Price recorded in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. “Pack Fair and Square” was covered by the J. Geils Band on its debut release in 1970.
In 1965, when the English blues journalist Mike Leadbitter was in Houston, he encountered Price and wrote that his music “has always stuck with current trends. “ In other words, it wasn’t sufficiently deep blues for the Brits. But a few months later, Price sent him “a tape of himself backed by a three-piece including the really fabulous Albert Collins on guitar. This was so good," Leadbitter wrote, "that I asked Walter...to make available the great item he taped.” Leadbitter released Big Walter's “My Tears” on a long out-of-print compilation entitled Nothing But the Blues, and as you’ll hear, it’s a devastating slow blues featuring 33-year-old Collins, who was then emerging on record with instrumentals like “Frosty” and his classic vocal blues, “Dyin’ Flu.” Despite its obscurity, "My Tears" has been hailed as Albert's greatest recorded solo, though there's lots of competition for that superlative. “My Tears” seems not to have been reissued on CD, but YouTube has it in all its glory complete with Price shouting, “Take it all the way to London!”
Jerry McCain’s thick-textured tone and fluid lines made him one of Little Walter’s earliest disciples, and he laid it on the line with originals like “Courtin’ in a Cadillac,” “Things Ain’t Right,” “The Jig’s Up,” and “That’s What They Want” (aka “Money Honey”), his cynical answer song to Muddy Waters’ boastful “Manish Boy.” He warned "Stay Out of Automobiles" on his Trumpet Records debut in 1954, then made a dozen sides for Excello later in the decade, followed by sessions for Rex, Jewel, Paula and Ichiban. In 1999, Jimmie Vaughan and Johnnie Johnson backed him on This Stuff Just Kills Me, which included McCain’s topical originals, “Viagra Man” and “Burn Down the Crack House.”
As he told the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, "Most of my songs tell a story. I don't like to write a song, just to be writing a song to make some money. I have to tell a story." McCain was a favorite son of Gadsden, which presented a festival in his name, and the regional Etowah Youth Orchestra selected him as the most well-known musician from Gadsden. The EYO commissioned composer Julius Williams to write and conduct "Concerto for Blues Harmonica and Orchestra," which featured McCain at its premier during the City of Gadsden's Sesquicentennial Celebration.
“She’s Tough,” which McCain recorded in Birmingham, AL in 1961, was covered by the Fabulous Thunderbirds and became a signature tune for the harp player Kim Wilson, the T-Birds front man who's largely responsible for the renown McCain enjoys among contemporary blues players. "She's Tough" was backed with McCain's tasty instrumental “Steady,” and in 1962 he made the Gene Ammons jazz classic "Red Top" with Nashville session man Boots Randolph as "yackety" as ever on tenor saxophone.
The Gadsden Times reported that McCain remained ready for action right till the end: “You've reached the blues man Jerry ‘Boogie' McCain, the baddest harmonica player in the world,” McCain said after a bluesy riff on his home telephone's answering machine. “Talk to me.”