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Tail Dragger Tells All!

Liz Mandeville interviews the world famous West Side blues singer and showman, who got his moniker from Howlin’ Wolf.


Tail Dragger in suit

By Liz Mandeville

photos: Jennifer Wheeler

On a cold grey day in March 2009, I drove my little red car over to the West Side of Chicago to talk to a man I knew only by reputation and innuendo. The interview had been made possible by a young Dutch slide player I’d met while touring Europe, Peter Struijk, who’d come across the pond to play some gigs with classic blues singer James Yancy Jones, known to the world as Tail Dragger.

I found Tail Dragger, dressed in coveralls, engaged in a home improvement project. He sported a light dusting of drywall, his hands weathered and calloused. He is a tall, slender, humble sort of man who looks like he’s seen his share of late nights, at age 70. Deep shadows circled his eyes, his form curved as though from many years of bending and stooping. A respectful host, Tail Dragger made sure I had a plate of food and something to drink before he finally alighted on an old kitchen chair and began to hesitantly reveal himself to me. What he shared was a portrait of a man who never rested, who worked hard and made his way, who was hungry for life and lived every minute. In the course of four hours we discussed his lifelong love affair with the blues, his friendship with Howlin’Wolf, six marriages, three shootings and a stint in prison.

 A half gallon jug of cheap whiskey remained untouched during our interview. Tail Dragger exercised strict discipline with himself, recalling dates and details as I cajoled his past from him fact by fact. What follows is an exact transcription of the four hours we talked that Spring afternoon. I found his turn of phrase so charming, I wanted you to read it as I’d heard it. My voice is in italics; Tail Dragger is in regular script.

The Tail Dragger Interview;

What is your most recent recording and who released it? CD in 2005 and DVD  with Delmark called My Head Is Bald. (Editor’s Note: Since then, Tail Dragger has released in 2009 a live CD and DVD on Delmark, both titled Tail Dragger: Live at Rooster’s Lounge )

Tail Dragger with Band
Tail Dragger with band at Rooster's Palace: (L to R)
Kevin Shanahan, Rockin' Johnny Burgin, Martin Lang

What was your first blues experience?      Well, I been listening to blues ever since I been rememberin’.

Parents listen to it? How did you find it?  No, I put the radio in my bed with me at night.

Who was your DJ?  Randy’s Record Mart out of Memphis.

Did your family listen to blues? Mmhum, Gospel? UHmhm.

Did you get in trouble for listening to blues?  Well, they didn’t know it!

Did you start buying the records?  No. You see, back then, we had one of them wind up grampaphones, you know. So I wan’t going to buy no records and bring and put em on it, but see we had a battery radio, didn’t have no electric.

You didn’t have electricity in your house as a kid? No, unuh.

Where’d you come up? Arkansas. I came up in a little place called Oral Town, I’m from Pine Bluff, Arkansas.  So what happen, they be wondering what happened on Sunday moening, so they want to listen to them spirituals on the radio, before they went to church, but I be done played em and they wondering what happened why the batteries  down.

So did you get musical training in church? I did a little singing in church, but, not that much. My family was in the spirituals you know, they didn’t believe in no blues you know. So that was my thing when I get away from home and sing it.  So in school, I’d be goin thru the halls singing blues to the girls, you know and stuff. Hehehe.

Who was your first music concert you saw? Sonny Boy Williamson and Boyd Gilmore, together in Arkansas. They had a little club called The Jack Rabbitts, they’d be playing there on the weekends, so I’d go there.

Did you have to sneak in underage?  Nods.

Yeah but you could pass for 18? I passed. And then after it’d get late at night it’d get crowded and you get among the crowd, you know.

So you saw these two guys and got the idea you could be a singer too? I was already listening to it on the radio when I was going to school, so I was already tryin to sing.

Tail Dragger in white shirt

Who’d you like? Howlin Wolf that was my favorite! So I seen them and I’d go watch them on every Saturday night, that’s where we’d be, me and my buddies.

Did your friends want to be blues singers too? No they’d be following me cause I had the ride. See I worked for this guy he had a little International Harvester Dealer which sold tractors and trucks and so I always had me something to drive.  I worked for him after school and stuff. He’d have cars he’d been take in trade in so I’d always have me something to drive. I’d get me something off the line and drive it.

Did he know you were doing that?  Yeah, see, cause I had to get back and forth from work. But he didn’t know I was going to them other towns!

You were checking out the juke joints? This is about 18 miles from where we lived so I’d get my buddies together and we’d go.

Did your family live in town? Outside of town.

On the farm? Yeah.

But you didn’t end up a farmer.  I never planned on being one. From a little kid up, I told my grandmother, I say, when I get grown I’m leaving here. And she said “Why?” and I said “I not gonna cut no wood and if I get a wife she have to cut it.”

So I got outta there so I started messing with cars ever since I was a kid. I started working for this dealer, I go in there sweeping the floor and stuff and that how I learned mechanics.  I’d watch and ask questions. I knowed how to rebuild the inside of a motor befoe I did the outside. This guy was very talented on rebuilding engines and body work and I learned a lot from him. That’s what I did, worked on cars and stuff, ‘fore I become a singer, I worked on cars.  Then I stopped, I gave it up, singing.

The first time I came to Chicago was 1954, my mother was living here. I was still in high school. I came up to see my mom. I went back home and then I went to Texas. See I had an uncle he was a minister and he’d go around to these big church conventions and I was following him. He’d always come and get me. I guess I was one of his favorite nephews. It was my mother’s grandmother’s brother, he was my great uncle and he lived in Dallas, we lived in Arkansas. He’d come and ask my people if I could come and follow him different places. Me and my auntie would follow him around. I heard a lot of different good singers, so many I can’t recall all their names. He was a big name, always had nice cars and made a lot of money. He kept a roll of money in his sock.

Did you ever think of doing that? No, but I got two sisters in ministry.

Alright so, here you are traveling around the South, came to Chicago for a minute, but you didn’t get in the blues clubs then?

I didn’t get in then, but I did in ‘59. I left in 54 and went back to Arkansas, I Came back here in 59 and so I stayed in 59 and 60. My mother was here. I got married when I was 18, so, had a little split up with the wife so I just got mad and split town.

Behind every great blues singer there’s a bad woman!

Ha ha ha. I stayed here a couple years and see, what happen, they sent me a paper for the draft. My Grandmother mail it to me here so I left here and went to Texas. I went to Dallas. I had one uncle living in Dallas and one living in Oak Cliff a little suburb. After a while I went and reported then I went to service.

Where were you stationed? What branch? Did you serve in a war?

 Army. It was during Viet Nam War times but I ain’t never been to no war. I took my basic at Ft. Polk, LA, and then Ft. Campbell, KY. See here’s what happened, see President Kennedy had passed a law, ain’t no married men supposed to be drafted. I was still married see, I had four kids! So I got out. We had then got a divorce and I got remarried.

How many times you been married? Six times.

Shut up! Did you ever marry the same person twice? No all different. I got married my first time 58. I got married my second time, hmmm had to be, 62. Wait a minute, no, it was with my 3rd wife, that’s when I went in the service. Then when I got out of the service, I was still living in Texas, me and her separated and I left and came back here. I was being a mechanic and driving truck, I did that all my life. Down in Texas I mostly drove a truck.

Did you have children with all your wives? No.

Are any of your kids musical? I got a granddaughter, she’s into that Rap shit. She like it; I don’t dig it.

So you’re still not singing the blues, why not? Well, I had bought me a guitar. I was taking guitar lessons.  I had never thought about singing in no club. I’d go around with Wolf, follow him every where he go, you know, and stuff. In 1972, Wolf had been playing down here on Roosevelt and Washtenaw. Necktie Nate, he had a band, so we was out there drinking so he was playing Wolf stuff and I said “Man, I can sing that shit!” He say “you’re lying” so we bet us a half pint. And they called me up and the people clap their hands and I been singing ever since. I sang with Necktie Nate’s band and then Scotty and O.C., they had a band. See I was running a shop on Madison Street and what they’d do, they’d take me, we was playing on 22nd St at Lovies’ Lounge, I’d hold the door taking money on the door until later on in the night cause they knew everybody’d wait for me. I had 3, 4 cars full of people following me around. I worked on a lot of people’s cars and then they’d follow me. Actually they was using me to keep the crowds. The first band I got together, we played at the Rat Traps also on 22nd. I had Frank Thomas, he’s deceased now, Kansas City Red on drums, Little Monroe Jones he’s back in Mississippi now. He played guitar, he was real good, but he had mental problems, you know and if he didn’t take his medicine his mind wouldn’t be there, but if he take his medicine he was real good.

How about recording? I did my first recording in ‘81. I had to stop and went and got me a job, so then Mad Dog Lester he come tell me “Man why don’t you come back? You’ll lose your name.” So I decided to come back.

How’d you get your name, Tail Dragger? Howlin’ Wolf gave it to me, see I used to always be late and my time was bad, that’s how they used to call me Crawlin’ James.

What is your real name? James Yancy Jones

Pleased to meet you! I heard you got called Tail Dragger because you would lay down on the floor of the bar and push yourself around by your feet and look up the women’s skirts. No, that’s why they called me Crawlin’ James, and Wolf, he the one gave me Tail Dragger.

Because you dragged your time? Yeah and I was always late. But see, Wolf did that same thing, that crawlin’, that’s where I got it from!

So women just stand around and you…You’re not looking up there, you know, that’s what people be thinkin’, but when you out there siniging your mind is somewhere else, your mind on what your doing, you’re not thinking about stuff like that. It’s all part of the show. And that’s what people don’t understand.

Tail Dragger sings to the lady

So do you feel that you got your stage presence, a lot of your performing ideas from Howlin Wolf? Yeah.

He was your main guy?  Right.

He knew you and he liked you? He was a great guy, a lot of people didn’t understand him. They thought he was mean, he was just playin straight. If he didn’t like you he’d tell you to stay away from him. And see, if he was with his girlfriend or his wife, give him some space! Cause he didn’t want you around his woman or his wife. I knowd that, so I know what to do; when he got company back off. But a lot of ‘em, you know,  want to run up in his face and he didn’t like that. I worked with him and then when he wasn’t working he told his band to go on and help me.

So you got to play with his band? So you got to know Eddie Shaw? I didn’t use no sax player, I had Hubert Sumlin and his bass player and his drummer. Chico Chism was his drummer and Bob, I forget Bob’s last name, he died and Lafayette Leake, the one playing with Eddie Shaw now? He was riding with me that’s how he got to play with Wolf. So Lafayette Leake, Wolf told him you playin good if I ever need a bass player I’m going to hire you. That’s how he got to play with Wolf, part of me going around with him. What we used to do, by him being crippled you know, we’d be at the Oasis, we’d get out here and he’d turn flips on the floor, when he was younger. I’d put my hat out on the floor, put a little money in it and people start to put they money in there. When we got done we’d split the money. We had a little thang going, you know. After our little jobs we’d go around to where Wolf was.

Those were pretty good times for blues in Chicago.  Who else did you play with in the ‘70s? Eddie Taylor, James Scott, I had Big Leon Brooks blowin’ harmonica for me, Dave Waldman. He still play with me sometimes now, down to Buddy Guy’s because he don’t have no car and he scared to go any place but down town, you know. He just nervous he always been nervous, he was on the bus one time he thought a guy was trying to rob him he went and got off the bus. Used to play over here on the West side here and I’d have to take him home at night and all that shit, you know. If I had somebody that’s playin live on the South Side to take him home that’s good. He’d have a ride home, you know.

You started recording in ’81. Did you always record for Bob Koester? My first recording, I paid for it myself and Jimmie Dawkins was on it.

How’d you start working with Jimmie Dawkins? Well, I knew him by working on cars and stuff. Me and a guy named R. J. Harris, we had a club on Roosevelt and Western, over where the White Castle is now, called the Domino Lounge.  So he decided we were gonna do a record. So then my partner got killed.

R.J. Harris? Yeah. See what happened, when we first went in there he had a bad name. He had the money, but I had the good name. Necktie Nate had had the place with a guy called Highway Man, he’d put up the money and Necktie had the good name. Necktie messed the Highway man out of the place, after he’d got the place, he cut the man off after the man had put the money up. Somehow he got behind and we rented the place from him. Then when it come up the license time Nate wanted us to pay for it in his name. We didn’t wanna do that so we just laid there.

So now you’re in the nightclub business? Right. Then he couldn’t pay his rent and the license was up so I went to this lady across the street with the furniture store, she didn’t want nobody to have it but me.

Was she sweet on you? She was an old lady, she 70 or something. 

Hey, that doesn’t mean she couldn’t be sweet on you, she was old, not dead!  Right, but you know, she had a lot of respect  for me. I went and told her and she say “I would love for you to have it.” So there it was and we went on in there.

Then RJ, had been a drug dealer, RJ, my buddy. I said, “Man, NO!” He say “Why you so worried about your name?” and I say “Man, that’s all I got!” Goddam, you know! SO another guy had been selling drugs around there and he went on and decided he’s gonna sell them his-self; So that got him killed. They come in the place! See, I had just come off the door, when this gun man, you see, I’m gonna keep me a pistol in my pocket, but he didn’t believe in no pistol. He was kinda heavy and he believed in coming from here. (He shows fists) SO I told him, “Man I got something to do” and he went up to hold the door. Well they was waiting for him to come to the front and they come up with a ski mask and shot him. He went to run to the back where the pistol was, but they shot him; he fell on the floor and they stood up over him and shot him!

That was the thing that made your club have a notorious reputation and everybody wanted to go there? Well, no. After that we had to close it up, it had been going pretty good. But when he went into the drugs I pulled out and he put ‘em in his brother name, but they kept me around cause they didn’t understand the tavern business.

Wow, what an exciting story! Shot the guy right there in the middle of the club! You knew who these people were cause they were the opposing drug guys? What happened, I understand he had gave this boy a rock and $500, to kill him, the guy turned around a killed him, a young kid. But we know who’s behind it, cause then he went on and got killed.

So there was a war going on and you were in the middle of it!

Umhmm. That boy got killed, over territory. See I always kept my hands clean from the drugs. It’s not the life for me, you got to be a dog eat dog, you got to be cold hearted to deal with drugs. That’s why I had to let it go.

What year was that? That was in ‘83 or ‘84.

To be continued…

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