JB Lenoir (the JB doesn’t stand for anything, the last name pronounced len-Or), was born in Monticello, Mississippi, March 5, 1929. Sometimes his name was spelled Lenore on record labels. He spent some time in New Orleans, where he picked up guitar tips from Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, and played with Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) and Elmore James. He moved to Chicago in 1949 and was mentored by Big Bill Broonzy. Playing the clubs in Chicago he came to the attention of some small labels, on his first session he was backed by Snooky Pryor on harp, Sunnyland Slim on piano and Eddie Taylor on guitar, the two songs recorded — In The Evening and Please Don’t Go Away were issued on the Negro Rhythm label on an LP that appeared in 1950 and is incredibly rare.
The same year he recorded a session for Joe Brown’s tiny, JOB label, the results which were leased out to Chess who issued them in 1950. One of these — Korea Blues
was a minor hit. He recorded sides for JOB in 51-52, then moved to Al Benson’s Parrot label in 1954 where he recorded another minor hit– I’m In Korea
b/w Eisenhower Blues, giving him a reputation of something of an early “protest” singer, although the summation of his “protest” songs were the aforementioned two tunes, he wouldn’t bother with such material for another decade. His next Parrot single–Mama Talk To Your Daughter
b/w Man Watch Your Woman came out in October of 1954 and showed some signs of real genius. The a-side was a mid-tempo rocker that featured J.B. Brown (from Elmore James’ Broomdusters) blaring, out of tune saxophone, while JB’s guitar solo, heard almost near the end of the song is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever heard. He simply thwonks the same chord exactly twenty times in a row with no variation in tone or timing, then plays a short turn-around. Brilliant! The first time I heard it, it made me laugh out loud. It’s rare to hear a musician with a sense of humor in their playing. His next Parrot session produced a sound alike single- Mama, Your Daughter’s Going To Miss Me b/w What Have I Done, along with the wonderful Give Me One More Shot
which would later appear on a Chess LP. His final Parrot disc–Fine Girls b/w I Lost My Baby appeared in late ’55, the same year he was signed by the Chess brothers to their Checker label. His first Checker single which was issued at the end of ’56 was a real winner– Don’t Touch My Head
b/w I’ve Been Down So Long. The a-side is one of the best protest songs ever written about a hair-do (“Don’t touch my head/cause I just got a bad process”). When I Am Drinking
, one of his best booze tunes was also recorded at this session although it sat in the vault until issued in the 70’s. Checker issued two more singles with Lenoir– (Mama) What About Your Daughter b/w Five Long Years (’56) and over a year later Daddy Talk To Your Son b/w I Don’t Know. Both a-sides are re-writes of Mama, Talk To Your Daughter, but not quite as good. Chess didn’t issue most of what they recorded on Lenoir until the 1970s when they issued a two record set of his best recordings (here
scroll down, the URL and password are in the comments section). Sides like Voodoo Boogie
and JB’s Rock
are solid blues rockers and would have sounded great on 78 RPM blasting out of juke boxes but these discs would go un-heard until after JB’s death. By the end of the 50’s, Chess cut him loose. For most artists, their time on Chess was the high spot of the career both musically and commercially, but Lenoir was just coming into his own.
After leaving Chess he recorded a single in 1959 for Shad– Louella b/w Back Door, and another for Vee Jay in 1960, the rocker Do What I Say
b/w Oh Baby, an interesting attempt at re-writing Ray Charles’ What’d I Say. JB Lenoir really starts developing his unique sound with an unusual session for USA in 1962 billed to JB Lenoir and His African Hunch Rhythm which produced the incredible I Sing ‘Em The Way I Feel
b/w I Feel So Good
. The African inflected rhythm section added another dimension to his music, with the primitive drumming on I Sing ‘Em The Way I Feel, he pioneered a sound that the rest of the world would eventually know under the marketing moniker of “world beat”. This sound was familiar in the Mississippi hill country for two hundred years, maybe more, and would sound familiar to anyone who has heard the music of Otha Turner or Sid Hemphill, men who carried on the tradition of African-American fife and drum music (Turner playing well into the 21st century). Where Lenoir first heard it is anyone’s guess.
As the “folk blues” world began providing better paying work for musicians deemed “folk” by white college students, JB traded in his electric guitar for an acoustic, and got a record deal with Polydor’s Crusade subsidiary for whom he cut two LP’s, the first Vietnam Blues
is an attempt to market Lenoir as a “protest singer” to the folk audience, the second LP JB Lenoir
(re-issued as Born Dead
and Down In Mississippi
) is something of a minor masterpiece. Issued in ’66, this discs shows Lenoir really getting into his “African Hunch rhythm”, a fact belayed by the name of his publishing company– Ghana Music. His guitar playing is full of subtlety, deceptively simple and effective. Like Jimmy Reed his playing was both percussive and hypnotic. Even the move to acoustic guitar didn’t remove his edge. This is the album that really gave the white college audience it’s first glimpse of JB Lenoir. From that LP, there are some re-makes of earlier material– Feel So Good
, Mojo Boogie
, Talk To Your Daughter
, Feelin’ Good
, as well as newer tunes like Down In Mississippi
, Born Dead
, and If I Get Lucky
. This record also foreshadows the sound of Ali Toure Faraka, the guitarist from Mali who was influenced by John Lee Hooker. Sadly, it would be his last recording session.
JB Lenoir’s career was slowly but surely moving forward, each record deal was with a larger, better distributed company, and he had toured Europe in 1965 where he was developing a good following. John Mayall had become something of a mentor for him in the U.K. giving him great cache with blues fans. Things were looking good for JB Lenoir career wise, the white blues audience was just starting to develop in the U.S. and he was in excellent field position to capitalize on the situation. Unfortunately a 1967 car accident killed him, he was only 38 when he died.
In the years after his death, virtually every session he ever recorded, alternate takes and all would eventually become available around the world, kicked off by the Checker LP Natural Man in 68 and the aforementioned two disc set from Chess in ’72. The Checker, Parrot and JOB sides are easier to find (on re-issue CD) now than when he was alive.
Two interesting pieces of JB Lenoir ephemera also surfaced in recent years. First is the short film made in the early 60’s by photographer Peter Amft, a Swedish fan who made a brief color film on JB in his Zebra striped jacket (second from bottom), this was later included in the Wim Wenders part of the stupid PBS TV documentary Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues (which included Tom Jones but didn’t mention Jimmy Reed, although I must admit prejudice
since the book that was released to cash in on the TV show carried an article I wrote but was never paid for, ripped off by the bug-eyed freak Holly Warren whose name is on the contract that she had no intention of honoring).
Another interesting recording was issued in 2003 on the obscure Fuel label, it was from a tape made in 1963 at a small club called Nina’s Lounge in Chicago and features JB Lenoir playing live to a tiny crowd (the CD’s eighteen tunes are split between Lenoir, Sunnyland Slim and JohnLee Granderson with a teenage Mike Bloomfield).Some highlights are I Want To Know, I Had My Touble, Louise, and Mojo Boogie, all done pretty much solo, and he sounds great. There just aren’t many live recordings of the great blues men in their prime, so this one is quite a find.
Notice how his guitar sounds exactly like it does on the Parrot and Checker singles.
Had he lived, JB Lenoir would have no doubt developed a larger (white) following and maybe even made a few bucks. It was not to be. There just wasn’t many happy endings for blues singers.