Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Bobby Rush’s Down In Louisiana is up for a Grammy
And the winner is…THE BLUES!
Grammy-winning blues songwriter Abrahamson celebrates Bobby’s nomination with a nostalgic remembrance of “Chicken Heads” and its impact on the genre
by Terry Abrahamson
It was May, 1974. Harvard Square. And as I rounded that bend on Mass Ave across from Charlie’s Place, my jaw hit the pavement. I knew - for that one brief moment - Boston was the greatest Blues town in America, and not just because of 50 local white-boy bands like Sunnyland Train and James Montgomery and a lonesome acoustic-playin’ harp-blowin’ kid named Thorogood, all of who had seemingly dropped from the sky to serve as the self-appointed trustees of the immortality of Sonny Boy Williamson and Elmore James. And not just because it was the base of operations for Dick Waterman who had carried lost treasures like Son House and Skip James on his back, out of oblivion and into the pantheon of Rock and Roll (and he didn’t do a bad job with Buddy & Junior or Bonnie Raitt either). No, Boston -- which included Cambridge across the river, where our story unfolds -- had something else over my beloved Sweet Home Chicago. Boston had an appreciation -- spiking at that time to near-adoration -- for the Chicago Blues men who barely drew flies when they ventured north of Roosevelt Road. Guys like Jimmy “Fast Fingers” Dawkins and J.B. Hutto and Mighty Joe Young. HOLY *#@%!!! Here Mighty Joe had a line that stretched from the door of Charlie’s, down the street and around the corner toward Elsie’s. “Great God Almighty” I thought, “If they could see this back home at Wise Fool’s Pub. A line around the block to hear ‘Chicken Heads’!”
“Chicken Heads” -- as far as my buddy Gary and I were concerned -- was Mighty Joe’s signature song; it was the song we showed up for, waited for, shouted for. Forty years on, I can see Joe wrapped in a sleeveless Play-Doh colored leisure suit, rotating his Black Jell-O hips, crooning:
Little Girl, Little Girl, you sure can cook,
Little Girl, Little Girl, you got me hooked.
When you cook that chicken, save me the head,
I should be workin’ but I’m home in bed.
Minutes later, I learned that the biggest crowd ever to fill Charlie’s -- undoubtedly the biggest New England crowd ever to hear “Chicken Heads” -- was actually there for the headliner, a guy I’d never heard of named Bruce Springsteen. But so what! Good for “Chicken Heads” and good for Mighty Joe - finally getting a little well-deserved recognition.
Decades later, I learned that “Chicken Heads” wasn’t even written by Mighty Joe Young at all, but by his fellow Louisiana native, Bobby Rush. And here Bobby Rush was living in my native Chicago, having relocated north to expand his musical horizons from the Southern chitlin’ circuit and to open a BBQ joint featuring his own homemade hot link sausages. And maybe served with some chicken heads on the side.
And this Sunday, January 26, with a little help from a
Tennessee keyboardist/human Jiffy Pop/Memphis producer named
Paul Brown, Bobby Rush might just bag himself a Grammy for his excellent
CD Down in Louisiana.
And if he doesn’t, well he and Paul still get to walk the red
carpet. And they still got their nomination, which is more than Bruce
Springsteen got -- at least this year.
When you grab your copy of Down in Louisiana -- and shame on you if you don’t! -- you won’t find “Chicken Heads” on the song list. But “Chicken Heads” is all over that music like turquoise polyester on Mighty Joe. The same smoky, swampy, bluesy, greasy funk that used to pull Gary and I out of our seats on Lincoln Avenue and deposit us onto a sloping, rotting porch on the outskirts of Shreveport will leave you feeling like you survived a knife fight with an alligator only to find yourself passing him a jar in a rusted-out Electra resting precariously on cinderblocks under the Dan Ryan.
As collaborators, Bobby Rush and Paul Brown go back together 14 years. As musicologists, they go back nearly a century. “You Just Like a Dresser” mines the lyrical “your love is like a faucet” metaphors that Bobby traces to the 1920s. “Rainin’ in My Heart” echoes the hopefulness of “Trouble in Mind.” “Don’t You Cry” suggests a “Sittin’ on Top of the World” that must’ve entered Howlin’ Wolf’s psyche light years south of 21st and Michigan. “What is the Blues?” starts as a “botheration on your mind” that sets out on an unmarked dirt road and slowly slinks northward, curling up 30 years later at the feet of Muddy Waters. “Swing Low” puts Bobby at the pulpit, leading a street corner revival in the church of Rev. Gary Davis. And “Rock this House” rolls away the stone and brings us to our feet for a rockin’ resurrection of the Average White Band.
“Homeless” is how Paul Brown describes his one-time living situation. I, for one, don’t buy it. He didn’t produce a record like Down in Louisiana without having a life-long home in the Blues, or in the heart of Bobby Rush, where he’s in good company among Bobby’s fellow collaborator Dr. John and fellow Louisianans Allen Toussaint and The Meters, who Bobby and Paul will be hanging with in Hollywood this Grammy week.
Win or lose next Sunday, Down in Louisiana is a victory. Sure, it’s a big victory for Bobby and Paul. But it’s also a big victory for Mighty Joe, Jimmy Dawkins and J.B. Hutto. And it’s reason to celebrate for Sunnyland Train, James Montgomery and George Thorogood; and for every axe grinder who ever lugged his shit from bar to bar, barely covering the gas money, for the chance to keep the Blues alive and to give Boston its moment to bask in the light of the Delta sun.
Check back for PART 2 of Terry’s series on Bobby Rush.
Terry Abrahamson won a Grammy by writing songs for Muddy Waters. He helped launch George Thorogood’s career and created John Lee Hooker’s first radio commercial, which are just a few of his accomplishments. Terry also is a playwright and author of the photography book, In The Belly of The Blues – Chicago to Boston to L.A. 1969 to 1983 -- A Memoir.