Joe Hill Louis

This must be the rarest post war blues record of all, Sam Phillips’ first attempt to launch a label, with partner DJ Dewey Phillips.

Joe Hill Louis with one third of his one man band.

Another rare one….

Joe Hill Louis (left), Ford Nelson (piano), B.B.King in the back with guitar.
Joe Hill Louis- One Man Band

The first time I heard Joe Hill Louis I didn’t even know it was him. It was two tunes, both instrumentals used as filler on the Howlin’ Wolf Crown LP– Twisting and Turning and Backslide Boogie (why they used them beyond me as there was enough Wolf material in Modern/RPM/Crown’s vault for at least two albums), but the snake like, twisting, wiry sound of his guitar driving his chugging, crude harmonica really got me, I spent a year with my old Harmony Silvertone trying to reproduce his tone, eventually giving up the guitar for a typer in frustration as not being able to even get close the sound he achieved. Musically speaking, if you spliced the chromosomes from John Lee Hooker, both Sonny Boy Williamsons and Dr. Ross together you’d get a sound something like Joe Hill Louis.
Joe Hill Louis was born Lester Hill, September 23, 1921 in Froggy Botttom, Tennessee, between Memphis and the Mississippi border. When his mother died and his father remarried, his new stepmother ran him off at age fourteen and the homeless youngster wandered into Memphis where he was taken in by a well to do white family– the Canale’s, big in vending machines, one of them- Drew Canale would eventually become a state senator from Shelby County. He was employed first as a houseboy and later chauffeur and would spend almost the rest of his entire life (except for a few months when he married in his mid-20’s) living with and working for the Canales. It was the Canale’s kids, who encouraged young Lester to throw a beating into the neighborhood bully, a punk who called himself Prince Henry, who would add the Joe Louis to his name, after the heavyweight champion.
It was his teens Joe took up music, starting on the Jew’s harp, then adding harmonica, guitar and drums, and eventually figuring out that if he played them all at once he wouldn’t have to split the money with a band. By 1949 he was appearing on Memphis all black WDIA, doing a ten minute lunch time blues show where he was billed as “The Be Bop Boy”, although the music he played was far from what we today call Be Bop, his sound being closer to John Lee Hooker than Charlie Parker. Later, after picking up the sponsor Pepticon (an over the counter all purpose patent medicine whose main ingredient was grain alcohol), he would become the first “Pepticon Boy” (B.B. King would be the second). One friend remembered that Joe “lived on the stuff”. His radio show made him a popular club attraction in Memphis where he also often appeared playing for change in Handy Park, and in the jukes and road houses outside of town. Around this time, he briefly married a woman named Ruthie or Ruthy Mae who bore him a son, but the marriage was short lived and he was soon back living with the Canales.
It was future politician Drew Canale who would be the first to record Joe Hill Louis, recording four tunes in Nashville in November of 1949 that he would sell to Columbia Records who issued Joe’s Jump b/w Don’t Trust Your Best Friend and Railroad Blues b/w A Jumpin’ And A Shufflin’ before the year ended. He plays guitar, harmonica and drums simultaneously on all four sides, which capture him a basic blues shuffle mode, using an acoustic guitar and not yet using the over distorted sound that would be a feature of his coming discs.
In early 1950 Louis had come to the attention of sound engineer Sam C. Phillips, fresh from a recent bout of electro-shock treatments for depression, Phillips who had probably heard Louis’ radio show, first saw him play at a gig in Moscow, Tennessee. He was the first black artist Phillips had ever met and worked with. He remembered him as dapper, sharp, well organized, likable, very entertaining but something of a loner. Sam was attempting to start his own record label and had partnered up with the crazed Memphis radio phenomenon Dewey Phillips, who was a big fan of Louis, to create the It’s The Phillips label. Sam recorded three tunes with Joe and pressed up a few copies of Boogie In The Park b/w Gotta Let You Go, leaving the third tune Nappy Headed Woman on the shelf. The resulting 78 RPM disc is so rare today you would need to trade a kidney, two Russian sex slaves and a kilo of real Chandu opium for a copy, if one ever came up for sale.
It’s The Phillips label failed, but Sam kept recording Joe Hill Louis in at least sixteen more sessions between 1950-1953, at first leasing the best of the results to the brothers’ Bihari in Los Angeles. The Biharis released, on their Modern label I Feel Like A Million b/w Heartache Baby (Nighttime Is The Rightime) and Boogie In The Park b/w Cold Chills in 1950, Street Walkin’ Woman b/w Walkin’ Talkin’ Blues, Gotta Go Baby b/w Big Legged Woman, a cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s Eyesight To The Blind b/w Goin’ Down Slow which added Ford Nelson on piano, as well as Peace Of Mind b/w Chocolate Blonde all in ’51. A handful of unissued sides would eventually be released on budget Kent LP’s in the late 60’s. By 1952 Sam was sending Joe Hill Louis’ masters to the Chess brothers in Chicago who released When I Am Gone (Treat Me Mean and Evil) b/w Dorothy Mae on Checker in 1952. These are all fine, rocking sides, full of distorted guitar, blaring harmonica and clattering drums done up in a truly unique style.
By late ’52 Sam C. Phillips had gotten his own label Sun up and running (although he did end up in court with both the Biharis and Chess brothers over the rights to Howlin’ Wolf, Jackie Breston and Rosco Gordon whom he’d been recording and leasing sides to both factions). The fifth release on Sun was Joe Hill Louis’ We All Gotta Go Sometime b/w She May Be Yours (But She Comes To See Me Some Time) in January of ’53. A distorted, crude, overamplfied masterpiece of shellac if I ever heard one, and I have heard a few. Despite recording a wealth of fine material with Louis including a fantastic final session in November of ’52 that saw Louis backed by Big Walter Horton on harmonica and Mose Vinson on piano, he would see no more releases on Sun Records. Killer performances like Tiger Man and Hydramatic Woman (a Rocket 88 re-write) would sit in the vaults until the 1980’s when Charley first released them on the Sun Blues Box (although the Japanese P-Vine label would collect the best of his Sun Recordings for the LP Be-Bop Boy in the early 80’s, issued on beautifully high quality shiny black vinyl). Phillips also used him as a session man and he can be heard playing guitar on Rufus Thomas’ incredible Bear Cat (The Answer To Hound Dog) and drums on Big Walter Horton’s Off the Wall and guitar on Walter’s Blues In My Condition and Selling My Whiskey which were leased to Modern. Phillips later stated he thought he was getting a “better sound” with Doctor Ross, another one man band recording for Sun at the time.
Like Charlie Feathers before him, frustrated by Phillips unwillingness to issue more discs he headed across town to Meteor Records, a small time operation the Bihari’s had set up for their errant eldest brother Lester, who recorded two singles with Joe, issued under the moniker Chicago Sunny Boy (probably an attempt to garn sales by passing him off as one of the Sonny Boy Williamsons, his harmonica playing sounded like a crude cross between both of their styles). These fine sides (the rhythm section was dubbed onto the masters in L.A.)– Jack Pot b/w Western Union Man and On The Floor b/w I Love My Baby, released in 1953, garned little sales, but remain high points in Joe Hill Louis’ discography. Un-issued tunes from the Meteor session like Joe Hill Boogie and Good Morning Little Angel would eventually find there way to LP’s on the budget Crown label (see the Pee Wee Crayton posting for more on Crown). From here Joe Hill Louis would record for tiny local labels like Rockin’, Big Town, Vendor, Mimosa (which was a re-issue of the Vendor disc, which was owned by Drew Canale) and House Of Sound, most of these were cut with a full band including a tenor sax player, an obvious attempt to update his sound to compete with the onslaught of rock’n’roll. These discs all very rare, and most of them have never been re-issued. And to make the story even sadder, I don’t have any of them. There was also an un-issued session cut for Duke which has never surfaced although a fantastic final un-issued session that ended up in the hands of Ace’s Johnny Vincent (who never released any of it), was eventually issued in the U.K. on Westside in the nineties — 4th & Beale, Heartache Baby, and Goin’ Down To Louisiana being the best of it.
In the summer of 1957 Joe was doing some yard work for the Canales’ when he cut his finger which then became infected by the fertilizer he was using. He didn’t bother to get it treated and a few days later he collapsed on Beale Street. Rushed to the hospital, on Aug. 5, 1957, he died a painful death from tetanus (lock jaw) at John Gaston Hospital, where Bessie Smith had died two decades earlier.
Joe Hill Louis was remembered as a likable, humorous sort of fellow, a ladies man, and a nice guy. His music may have been too crude and distorted to be commercial, although crude and distorted didn’t hurt the careers of John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Howlin’ Wolf, all who where enjoying good record sales during the years that Louis’ discs were first released. Most likely his lack of touring, and a lack of promotion are what kept him in obscurity to all but Memphis residents to whom he was a familiar site on Beale Street, Handy Park, and on WDIA. He died too young to reap the benefits of the sixties blues revival, but his records sound better than ever today, he was a unique guitarist, and the one man band style served his unique sense of timing well, in a gloriously clattering musical racket. The cream of his Modern/Crown/Kent sides can be found on the UK Ace label’s Boogie In The Park CD, while his (mostly) un-issued Sun recordings are available on the essential Sun Blues Box (Charly, the CD version expanding greatly on the original vinyl set). Although he’s best remembered for putting Sam C. Phillips in the record biz, Joe Hill Louis was more than just historically important, he was one of the greats.
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