Doctor Ross

Doctor Ross holding his weapon at parade rest.

Waving goodbye, the last photo taken of Dr. Ross, 1993 (photo by Dan Rose)

Playing left handed and upside down.

Some European TV Show, mid-60’s.

In his final months, still rockin’….

Charles Isaiah Ross was born in Tunica, Mississippi on October 21, 1925. That’s on Highway 61, about 40 miles south of Memphis, a few miles east of the Mississippi river. He wasn’t a real doctor, the title added to front of his name was a nickname said to come from his habit of carrying his harmonicas and a bottle of booze in a black, doctor’s bag. He was one of eleven children who grew up on a plantation, working the fields. His father Jake taught him to play harmonica. He did two stints in the army and by 1951 was back in Mississippi trying to make a living with his harmonica. Soon he was appearing on various radio stations including KFFA in Helena, Arkansas (where Sonny Boy Williamson hosted the King Biscuit Flour Hour), KLCN in Blyetheville, Arkansas, WROX in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and WDIA in Memphis where he was billed as “Medical Director of the Royal Amalgamated Association of Chitlin’ Eaters of America”. In 1951 he was one of the first musicians to be recorded by Sam Phillips at his newly christened Memphis Recording Service, and on November 21st of that year recorded several songs, two of which Phillips would send north to brothers Leonard and Phil Chess in Chicago who released them on their Chess label– Doctor Ross Boogie b/w Country Clown (Chess 1504), on which Ross was accompanied by only guitarist Wiley Galatin (although the label credited “his Jump and Jive Boys”, only Ross and Galatin can be heard on the record). It was a good a start in show biz, although not a hit, it was certainly a unique sounding record. Although quite rare today in its original Chess pressing, someone must have bought it because Phillips called Ross back for another session in early ’52, this time Ross was playing guitar himself, upside down since he was left handed, and brought along pianist Henry Hill and the clattering washboard playing of Reuben Martin. Five or more songs were recorded that day, none of which saw release until the 70’s when they’d show up on various Arhoolie and Charley albums, the best of which was a version of Polly Put The Kettle On, a song much older than the blues. A year later Phillips had Ross back in the studio again, this time without the piano player, and among the tunes he waxed were his first Sun release– Chicago Breakdown b/w Texas Hop (Sun 193), a clattering, rocking, boogie on both sides of the shellac. Another year passed, by now Ross was mastering his one man band approach to music, playing guitar, harmonica and drums simultaneously. But when Phillips recorded him in July of ’54 (only weeks before Elvis’ first session) he used Tom “Slam Hammer” Troy on second guitar and drummer Bobby Parker, although I can’t hear a second guitar, perhaps one of them was unplugged. The disc issued from that session– Boogie Disease b/w Jukebox Boogie (Sun 212) was an absolute classic, and perhaps the finest song ever written about the clap (the Flamin’ Groovies would re-arrange it and record it as Dr. Boogie on their 1971 classic Teenage Head, giving themselves writing credit). “I may get better, but I’ll never get well…gimme one of them penicillin shots”! shouts the good Doctor over a distorted blues shuffle. Phillips would record Ross only one more time in a solo session from which no discs would be issued until the titles showed up on an Arhoolie LP (and later extended CD) in the 70’s and the Charley Sun Blues Box in the 80’s.

Meanwhile, Ike Ross as his friends knew him packed up and headed north looking for work, landing in Flint, Michigan (later home to ? & the Mysterians, the greatest and longest running American rock’n’roll band ever, and Terry Knight & the Pack who would morph into Shea Stadium packing Grand Funk Railroad). Ross got a job on the G.M. assembly line, which he would hold down for the next thirty years, from here on music would be a sideline.
On the music front, in 1958, Doctor Ross tried his hand at the record biz, releasing his next disc on his own DIR (guess what that stand for?) label– Industrial Boogie b/w 32-20 (DIR 101). Although recorded with just an acoustic guitar, Industrial Boogie showed the change in his music working on the assembly line brought. His sound now had the churning, propulsive rhythm of an automobile plant. But running your own label after eight hours on the line is hard work, and he would release no more discs on DIR. In 1959 he was recording for Jack and Devora Brown’s Fortune label, and backed by a group called the Orbits, about which we know nothing other than their name, he cut his greatest masterpiece– Cat’s Squirrel b/w The Sunnyland (Fortune 857), it’s thundering beat takes the normal blues/boogie shuffle and turns it into a supercharged throb. The tune would be covered by U.K. rock bores Cream in ’68, I hope Ross got a big check out of that deal.
Doctor Ross was back in Fortune’s back room studio in 1961 where he recorded with Little Joe’s Band, a double sided winner– Cannonball b/w Number’s Blues issued on Fortune’s HiQ subsidiary (HiQ 5027), and again in ’63 recording as a one man band on Call The Doctor b/w New York Breakdown (HiQ 5033). His fourth session (date unknown) saw him backed by a group called the Disciples of Soul and the single issued as Fortune 538– Sugar Mama b/w I’d Rather Be An Old Woman’s Baby Than An Young Girl’s Slave was released. Fortune had amassed enough tunes to issue an LP, bearing the same unweildly title as his last b-side, it featured such classics as I Am Not Dead and My Black Name Ringing as well as the best of his Fortune 45’s.
By 1965 the white blues audience had “rediscovered” (as if he’d been lost) Doctor Ross, who was recorded solo at the University of Chicago and then again for the Testement label. He began doing package tours of Europe were he entertained other blues singers on the tour bus by dancing something called “The Flying Eagle”. He cut an LP on Blue Horizon called The Flying Eagle, so rare only a handful of copies have ever been seen. He also cut live LP’s in Germany, Switzerland and maybe a few others I missed out on. He even had a track on the Grammy winning LP Rare Blues in 1981. In Japan, P-Vine issued a now rare LP of his best Sun recordings. Despite all this activity he still worked at G.M. to pay the rent and it’s unlikely he ever saw any royalties other than some songwriting mechanicals for Cream’s version of Cat Squirrel. He finally retired from G.M. in 1992. A year later, a day before he was to begin filming his first film role, in Dan Rose’s Wayne County Ramblin’ (an indie feature starring Iggy Pop along with appearances by Jeff “Mono Man” Connelly, the late Bill Pietsch, the Dirtbombs’ Mick Collins, Nathaniel Mayer (the narrator), Tav Falco, Lorette Velvette, and Otha Turner amongst others), he died of a heart attack. I was supposed to have him on my radio show a few days later. Doctor Ross was as great and unique an artist as had ever been heard in American music, and one of only two to have cut sides for both Sun and Fortune Records, perhaps the two greatest and strangest labels ever (the other was Johnny Powers). An illustrated discography can be found here. Doctor Ross, they sure don’t make ’em like that anymore. Come to think of it, they only made one of ’em like that back then.

16 thoughts on “Doctor Ross”

  1. No comments? Well, I'll tell you, I had no access to that amazing east coast radio show in the '80s/'90s, growing up in LA, but once you pointed out where the files were in December, I have been having the greatest year ever listening to the old WFMU Hound shows, maybe 1 or 2 a week! Bought my first MP3 player for Christmas just to listen to the shows! THANKS BIG TIME MR HOUND!

  2. What an incredible legacy and life story. I can't imagine anyone reading your story and not lamenting and wishing that he had lived just a little bit longer . . . long enough to have been interviewed and to have had his own recollections recorded a bit. As always, thanks for another great entry, Hound

  3. Had the DJ at the local college radio station play 'Boogie Disease' last night. Great great great! I've never heard Cream's version of 'Cat Squirrel' and can't imagine how they could capture the greatness of that track. It's one of my faves on the stellar 'Jook Block Busters' comp.A shame that the Groovies wrote him out of the credits for their 'reworking' though I guess it's kind of part of the blues tradition of borrowing and blenderizing to make your own creation.So I guess that for Dr Ross neophytes like myself, the Arhoolie reissue is the best place to start?

  4. “So I guess that for Dr Ross neophytes like myself, the Arhoolie reissue is the best place to start?”I'd say the bootleg of the Fortune stuff is yr best bet followed by the Sun Blues box or the Arhoolie, depending on yr budget…

  5. Roy Hall, you're right, he did record for Sun although the four songs cut 12/12/57 weren't issued until the eighties. Actually only three have been issued, one's still in the vaults. My mistake. He did have at least four records on Fortune proper– #126 which was issued w/ two different b-sides, # 133, #139, as well as on HiQ #5045 and Strate8 #1508. For the titles check the Fortune discography at Wang Dang Dula:

  6. Hmmm…wonder how many musicians went to work for the auto plants never to be heard from again. Glad this wasn't the case with Doctor Ross. Wonderful post, I now know something about a great artist I knew nothing about before!

  7. Greetings Hound!Another great post, and beautiful tribute! Although he did win a GRAMMY eventually, for 'Good Morning Little School Girl', I don't believe he ever did get any money from Cream's cover of the earth-shattering 'Cat Squirrel'. When I was at his house, where that photo was taken, he told me that at some point in the 1970s Eric Clapton showed up at the Doctor's house in a limo, trying to invite him to a front row seat @ a Clapton Concert @ the Pine Knob Music Theatre. The good Doctor told me he chased him a way, brandishing a pistol! He was most insulted by Cream's blatant theft. I also found it of interest to have learned that he is a cousin to another one-man-band legend, from the other side of the sex; Jessie Mae Hemphill. Long live Doctor Ross – 'old soldiers never die,…' Long live Jessie Mae, too. And while I am at it, long live Bill Peitsch! Hope you are well. Plan on being back in NYC @ the end of July, hopefully get to see you! Dan Rose

  8. “, I don't believe he ever did get any money from Cream's cover of the earth-shattering 'Cat Squirrel'.”I believe that, Clapton's a notorious cheapskate.A friend of mine went on a date with him and said everywhere they went they got comped all night (free drinks, food, blow, etc.) and he didn't once leave a tip, not even for the waiter. There's a great story about him taking Hubert Sumlin down his basement and showing him all his guitars and telling him to pick which ever one he wanted. Sumlin picked an old 50's Strat. The next day Clapton sent his roadie to get it back. And he's always buying guitars and selling them as “the one he used on….”, they're all phonies! Brand new guitars he just signs the back and says he used it on some famous recording. That no-chin little prick never played an original lick in his life. I also heard his detox center is pretty much hell, they won't even spring for a subutex, don't ever go there to kick.”Jessie Mae Hemphill.”The She-Wolf! Now we're talking the real thing. I saw her in Memphis once in the early 80's and she rocked the joint.

  9. Hi Hound,Great post on DOCTOR ROSS. Met him several times when he was touring europe. I have one 78 on SUN, all his FORTUNE and DIR sides, even his BLUE HORIZON album which he signed in the late sixties as THE HARMONICA BOSS. A very authentic, modest shy musician which you won't find anymore. Also dug your older posts, especially the ones on obscure guitarists like LAFAYETTE THOMAS, PETE LEWIS, JIMMY NOLEN (i have his FIDELITY 45 but don't sell it!) and a real favorite of mine, WILD JIMMY SPRUILL (BTW, don'tthink he's the guitar player on 'ancle bracelet' by THE PYRAMIDS. on the first release on SHELL 711,BILLY MURE is mentioned as producer and arranger, so guess who's playing guitar

  10. ” even his BLUE HORIZON album which he signed in the late sixties as THE HARMONICA BOSS.”If you ever want to sell or trade that let me know….I've only seen one copy, many years ago and passed it up for $500, it's probably worth three times that now.


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