Willie Joe Duncan & his Unitar

Willie Joe Duncan, his Unitar and the horse he rode in on.

Bob “Froggy” Landers classic with Willie Joe Duncan & his Unitar

Rene Hall instrumental with Willie Joe.

Willie Joe (1988) and the b- side of Cherokee Dance.

Although he only made one and a half singles, there are some people out there, me for instance, that have spent an inordinate amount of their life wondering, just who the fuck was Willie Joe Duncan? It wasn’t hard to figure out what a Unitar is. A Unitar is a home made one string electric guitar. Willie Joe Duncan was remembered by many folks in Chicago who saw him in the early 50’s playing on Maxwell Street with Jimmy Reed. Jimmy Reed, who called Willie Joe by the nickname Jody, reminisced about Duncan in his final interview (Living Blues #1, June 1975):

“…he was doin this old crazy thing, with this one strand of wire, he wasn’t lettin’ me lose him nowhere; now, how he was catchin’ me on that one strand of broom wire I don’t know! But he was doing it all right. He could play that string of wire with a bottle, if he didn’t do it with his finger he’d do it with a little old piece of leather on his finger or something he’d pick it with. But on that one strand of wire on that board he could find whatever I was playin’ on that guitar. Now that was somethin’ I sure hated to lose. Yeah, I hated to lose Jody because it just was a crazy old thing”.

The last thing Jimmy Reed heard about his old busking partner “Jody” was that Duncan had taken up preaching in California. He hadn’t seen Willie Joe since 1955 when Duncan left Chicago for the coast, taking his crazy, one stringed instrument with him. Having settled somewhere in the greater L.A. area, in 1956, Duncan recorded with Bob “Froggy” Landers appearing on Landers’ classic– Cherokee Dance (Specialty), his rockin’, distorted, Unitar was the most predominate instrument on the record. On the b-side was Unitar Rock which was credited only to Willie Joe & his Unitar. It’s a classic of instrumental rock’n’roll, proving, less is more…but we already knew that. Bob “Froggy” Landers would go on to make one more record– River Rock parts 1 and 2 for Ensign on which he is backed by a band called the Cough Drops, but Willie Joe was nowhere to be heard.

Guitarist/A&R man/producer Rene Hall, one of rock’n’roll’s greatest unheralded guitar players brought Willie Joe back into the studio in 1957 to re-cut Unitar Rock under the title of Twitchy and it appeared on the flip side of Rene’s instrumental single Flippin’, also released on Specialty. And that, dear readers, appeared to be the extent of Willie Joe Duncan’s musical career. Or so it seemed.
The other day I was browsing the Roots & Rhythm mail order catalog that arrived via e-mail and something caught my eye (the one that’s permanently bloodshot)– One String Blues Masters (Delta Cat 1001). A new CD on a label I never heard of. In the brief description of the CD were the words– “Willie Joe Duncan & his Unitar, previously un-issued 1988 recordings“. Needless to say, out came the credit card, and for $16.98 + $5.00 for priority shipping, I am now the proud owner of the complete recorded works of Willie Joe and his Unitar, as well as One String Sam, Eddie “One String” Jones, and Louis Dotson. The later name being completely new to me. Pardon me, I’m going to pull five strings off my Telecaster now… I’m back, that felt good.
So what are these 1988 tracks with Willie Joe Duncan? Recorded in East Palo Alto, California, by a guy named Charlie Lange, we get Willie Joe talking about Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters (whom he claims to have played with), and some unheard recordings where Willie Joe is backed by Chester D. Wilson on guitar, Lone Cat on harmonica and Willie G. on spoons. I have never heard of these three, but while they may not be Rene Hall or Froggy Landers, they do a nice job of backing up Willie Joe, all playing in pretty much the style of Jimmy Reed. There’s several instrumental jams, which are very loose and yet another instrumental using the riff that we know of as Unitar Rock and/or Twitchy, this time called Joe Duncan Instrumental. There’s also a jam in which he basically recreates what he sounded like playing on Maxwell Street with Jimmy Reed (Chester and Lone Cat filling in for the long gone Reed), called Key Of Jimmy Reed. Had Duncan never moved to L.A., Jimmy Reed’s records, might have sounded quite different. Perhaps they would have a Unitar on them. Back to the One String Blues Masters CD –I’m glad I bought it. It’s a bit short on liner notes and photos, in fact there’s no liner notes at all or even a booklet. But you do get One String Sam’s classic I Need $100, originally released on J-V-B, (owned by Joe Van Battle, who recorded John Lee Hooker’s first sides, I guess he figured if he did so well with a guy who knew one chord, a guy with one string couldnt’ miss. Anyway, it’s said to be Don Van Vliet’s favorite record, although don’t ask me who said it, I forgot, still it’s a classic by any one’s standards, and these parenthesis are making me claustrophobic). It’s also as rare as an honest politician. Personally, I wish the whole package was on vinyl, but clocking in at eighty minutes it would have to have been a two record set (or thirteen 78’s) which economically was probably not feasible. Of course if you don’t own the original 78 or 45 (does it exist on 45?) of One String Sam’s I Need $100 b/w My Baby Ooo, which, unless you’re extremely lucky, you could never find for a mere $100 nowadays, this compilation is double essential. There’s also a live version from the ’73 Ann Arbor Blues Festival and two other tracks from the same date. There’s really not a bad track on this CD, although One String Sam and the Specialty sides from Willie Joe are the best things here, Eddie “One String” Jones’ Rollin’ & Tumblin’ is excellent, as is his version of The Dozens, although it’s admittedly a hard song to fuck up.
There’s no law (yet) that says you need six strings on a guitar. Keith Richard played some of his best stuff with five, the live version of Midnight Rambler for example. Tiny Grimes and Alton Delmore used four, Big Joe Williams played with ten strings, in his case it being like a twelve string minus two, not a regular guitar plus four (does that make sense, if not, send me a telegram and I’ll explain it). But when you get down to one string, you really need some imagination. Willie Joe Duncan had that and more. He had a distorted, dirty, sound to go with his unique style. Now what became of the guy? This liner note-less CD does not tell us. If anyone knows please write in and tell me.
Note: if I’m steppin’ on any toes here with posting the sounds, e-mail me direct and I’ll yank ’em. I figure this blog thing is like radio, if you hear a tune and like it, you’ll go buy it. I certainly wouldn’t want to hurt Willie Joe’s royalty statement. Or hurt a label with the good taste to release Willie Joe Duncan and One String Sam records.

This Week’s Five Pack….

So what’s in this week’s five pack of scratchy 45’s? From the top we find somebody with the catchy nome-du-disque of The Creep on the Oakridge label, both unknown entities to me, The tune is a snappy little rocker called Betty Lou’s Got A New Tattoo. It’s basically a take off on Bobby Freeman’s Betty Lou Got A New Pair Of Shoes, but better, and dumber. In her time Betty Lou might’ve seemed like quite a gal but nowadays it’d be harder to find a Betty Lou without a tattoo. The tune might be familiar as it’s been in the A-Bones set for several decades. Maybe they should find something to rhyme with “Betty Lou got her labia pierced….” as a way of making it more timely.
Another unknown group are Pat & the Satellites who cut this wild rocker, Jupiter C, for Atco in the early sixties. This was on the very first cassette Bob Quine ever made for me, and since that fateful day it has been one of my favorites. Like I said last week, I just love rockin’ instrumentals and this sits near the very top of what Phil Schaap would call “the pantheon of sides”. I think that means it’s a good ‘un.
Mr. Wiggles was a pimp from Norfolk, Virginia. A good place to be a pimp since it’s basically one big Navy port and full of horny sailors (it was also something of a hotbed of rockabilly, Gene Vincent & the Blue Caps, Janis Martin and the Rock-A-Teens all hail from the area). Herr Wiggles issued this homage to his bad self on his own Golden Triangle label– Homeboy. What a classic– I love his anti-materialistic stance stated over the fade– “I don’t want no Cadillac, all I need is a mule….”.Mr. Wiggles also issued a strange LP about the Clifford Irving/Howard Hughes scandal in the early 70’s, I almost sold my copy on Ebay, luckily the buyer never sent the cash and while I was holding on to it for him an article on Mr. Wiggles appeared in Living Blues magazine with the Howard Hughes disc pictured prominently. Some day I’ll play the damn thing. I got to find it first, it’s in a stack of unfiled LP’s in the basement somewhere.
Bob “Froggy” Landers’ Cherokee Dance first entered my life on the old Specialty Doo-Wop LP that Dr. Demento compiled in the early 70’s. Long out of print, every tune on it is a classic, although some titles like Roddy Jackson’s “Moose On The Loose” (see the “Call Of The Wild” posting back in Oct.) are pretty far from doo wop. Anyway, I eventually tracked down the 45 and it has improved my quality of life considerably. That’s Willie Joe Duncan playing his Unitar (a one string guitar) that gives the record its distinctive, almost fuzz tone sound. Willie Joe played on Chicago’s Maxwell Street with Jimmy Reed before heading for the coast and briefly ending up in Landers’ band the Cough Drops. He’s featured on the b-side- Unitar Rock, a tune that was re-recorded by the under rated guitarist Rene Hall who brought Willie Joe back into the studio and issued the title (also on Specialty) as Twitchy. See if you can tell the difference in the two versions. Landers cut another disc– River Rock Part One b/w River Rock Part Two for Ensign, an early Herb Albert/Jerry Moss (of A&M fame) label, but something’s missing— the Unitar!
Had they kept Willie Joe in the group the second single would have also ended up in the aforementioned P.O.S. (pantheon of sides), but instead it resides in the ‘for Froggy Landers completists only’ category.
Winding up this week is a platter from the Santa Clara, California label Blue Moon, one of the coolest labels of all time. They released such uber-classics as Johnny Amelio’s Jugue (what be a Jugue? my guess is he’s saying Juke and the person in charge of typing the record label messed up), and Linda & the Epics’ Gonna Be Loved and our current topic: Cecil Collins & the Fretts’ Rock’n Baby (as another aside they also were the first label to release Jimmy Bowen’s I’m Sticking With You which became a hit when leased to Roulette, it was the label’s only real hit). The Fretts’ disc made today’s list because I just got it yesterday. I like everything about this record from the primitive guitar chords that open the disc to the honking sax solo. I even love the way off key girl’s harmony voice comes in right at the last verse as if she had gotten to the session a verse late. Oddly enough, this one was picked up by the jazz label Verve for distribution. Perhaps they were preparing the promo department for their future signing– Velvet Underground?

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