By Larry Benicewicz


Country harp player extraordinaire Jerry McCain reminds me very much of his contemporary, Leslie Johnson, better known as Lazy Lester. Both are real throwbacks to an earlier generation of blues players and crusty survivors of whatever fate has dealt out to them. Ageless wonders, their bodies are still lean, lanky, and sinewy wind machines of perpetual motion, although, Jerry, much to his chagrin, recently aggravated an old lower back injury at the Baltimore Blues Society's Alonzo's Picnic on the Labor Day Weekend while doing his usual, highly active stage routine, a misfortune which forced the cancellation of his scheduled junket abroad to Finland.

Stylistically, both Jerry and Lester play a brand of traditional harmonica licks which, though raw and rough around the edges, get the job done. McCain's brand certainly is more of the raucous, exuberant and "in your face" style than the understated and obviously more subtle approach of the latter's Swamp Blues. But most importantly the two are able to convey the feeling of the song through their masterful control of the instrument, a threshold which separates the men from the boys. In short, they play with an exceptional amount of soul.

Finally, both Jerry and Lester, speaking from a perspective of fifty years in the blues business have become philosophers. And possessed of wry wits, neither is afraid to express his opinion. When I booked Lester at the Cat's Eye Pub in Baltimore on a Sunday night, I told him that many in the potential walk-up audience had balked at paying the five dollar admission to his show and, instead, went around the block to the Full Moon Saloon's blues jam, normally a no-cover affair. "Well, I been over there before. I guess they'd rather hear noise for free," he said with a knowing wink.

In like manner, Jerry McCain, also speaks his mind on any subject, from music to current events. And talk about blues stories. When interviewing these two seasoned old pros, one had better be prepared with a pile of 90 minute cassettes because they will quickly go off on a tangent, embellishing upon some ancient exploit, usually of the macho variety, a showdown wherein they invariably steal the thunder from another renowned figure. And even when I'm able to eventually return them to the topic at hand, I still find it difficult to separate truth from fiction, so incredible are some of the tales these two will tell. So, I'll just do my able best at reporting and issue a caveat--reader beware.

Jerry McCain was born on June 19, 1930 and still abides in Gadsden, AL, a small town in the northeast of that state equidistant between Huntsville and Birmingham. One of five children, he grew up in rather humble circumstances. "We was po', po'. When he was younger, my father was a sharecropper that worked a mule to death in Talladega. That's where the race course is now but then it was a cotton track. In fact, he might have plowed it, too," said Jerry.

Jerry's first exposure to blues came in the form of two popular itinerant street musicians that would regularly traverse the streets of his neighborhood. "They were sort of a Mutt and Jeff. The tall one was named Chick and the other Shorty. They'd play off each other and were so good and tight that they'd never ever have to buy a drink," said Jerry. Just a child, he'd follow this "dynamic duo" all around town and to humor him they would let him sit in and accompany them--up to a point. "One night, they led me to a liquor house and I had to stay outside and listen to them because I was too young to enter. I was never so scared in my life, so traumatized, because I used to believe in those stories about boogie bears and goblins and the such," he added in his thick Alabama accent.

Nonetheless, Jerry persevered and he, himself, became a familiar character in Gadsden, hanging on corners and serenading the passers-by for tips. Eventually in his teens he earned a regular radio slot over local station WETO fronting a jug band, which included a rubboard and a fretless homemade bass that Jerry fashioned out of an inner tube (for the strings), a board, and a five-gallon tin (bottom). From his depiction, this show seemed to follow a a format similar to the storied King Biscuit Time which then featured harp great Sonny Boy Williamson II (Aleck Miller), guitarist Willie Love, and drummer James "Peck" Curtis, and carried over KFFA in Helena, AR, beginning in 1941, when "race music" could first be listened to over the airwaves. "Back in the 30s, when I was growing up, the only way this music was heard was in the juke joints. Otherwise, it was Country and Western performers like Tennessee Ernie Ford," Jerry said.

For years, Jerry, hoping for a chance at a recording contract, was obsessed with cutting a record and after saving enough money would often journey over to a studio on Shuler Ave in Alabama City to make an 78 rpm acetate which he would mail away to any record label that might give it a listen. "It was like goin' fishin'. It seemed like years before I finally got a bite. I received a lot of replies but no takers," said Jerry.

One lucky break came in the early 50s, when he was spending a good bit of time at Will and Elmer's Cafe in Gadsden and was shopping for the right guitarist. "I was looking for someone who could not only play a shuffle but could also make the changes in the right places. This guy, Christopher Collins, came along. At first I had my doubts when he said he was from Wood's Bend in Cherokee County, which is really in the woods. But after my audition, I finally found the right man," said Jerry. And local carpenter, Preacher Hart, must have agreed as well because he took the money from a divorce settlement and invested it in buying the equipment for Jerry's band--amplifiers, microphones, and drums--in exchange for being its manager.

Jerry remembered being heavily influenced by Little Walter (Jacobs) who had a big hit in 1952 on Checker records (a subsidiary of Chess), "Juke" bw "Can't Hold Out Much Longer (758)." In fact, Jerry had met the celebrated harp player, a troubled genius with an equally legendary aggressive and quarrelsome nature, when he paid a call to Gadsden on a promotional tour for that very same chartmaker. "Walter came to town to play just down the road from us and the first thing he'd ask anyone was where he could get his hands on some corn liquor. He didn't like that store-bought stuff. So, my brother Roosevelt, we called him Snook, before the show drove him around with me in the back seat to all the local bootleggers. I started singing and doing "Can't Hold Out" and Walter was impressed enough to start calling me "Junior" and let me sit in at his concert. He was such a gracious person to let me strut my stuff like I did. He wasn't at all like Little Sonny[Aaron Willis, born in Greensboro, AL, in 1932 who recorded for Duke, JVB, and Excello] who was suspicious of me and afraid I'd show him up in Detroit a little later on, which I did, especially when I played the harmonica with my nose," said Jerry. After Little Walter's visit, Jerry became inspired to write and remembered composing "Wine-o-wine," while sitting on the bank of a creek.

Then, one of the Deep South independent labels that Jerry McCain was so assiduously courting was that of the Diamond Recording, Inc. run by Lillian McMurry. She had a small, primitive studio in the back of her furniture store on Farish St. in downtown Jackson, MS, and managed to release over a 100 or so disks, mostly 78 rpm, in the very late 40s to mid-50s on Trumpet, including outstanding efforts by country blues artists like Elmore James and the aforementioned Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Love. Her distribution network was always inadequate and when she did record a winner, she would most likely lease the master to another Jackson-based producer, Johnny Vincent (Imbragulio), who, as former producer for Art Rupe of Specialty (he recorded Guitar Slim's "The Things That I Used To Do") had many connections in the industry and who also would often avail himself of her facility, as well as Cosimo Matassa's J&M studio at Dumaine and Rampart in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Among McMurry's personal triumphs on Trumpet were Elmore James's signature "Dust My Broom" and Williamson's "No Nights By Myself," released, respectively, as #508 and #511 on Vincent's Ace label.

Evidently, after hearing a demo proferred by McCain, she agreed to give the band a look-see, an audition which would entail a round trip of over 600 miles from Gadsden. "I had a good group with Bernard Williams on tenor, Dave Campbell on piano, Herman Fowlkes on bass, and old standby, Chris Carter, on guitar; that is, everybody except my older brother, Walter, who couldn't drum worth shit, but thought he was the boss of this outfit because he owned a car," said Jerry.

A session was arranged for October 10, 1953 and four sides were recorded including "East Of The Sun" and "Wine-o-Wine," which were issued as Trumpet 217. "Everybody always speaks highly of Lillian McMurry and how fair she was, but the deal she offered me was a half-cent a record sold. I know that it wasn't a smash but, even if it were, how's any artist gonna make any money that way. You be the judge," he exclaimed.

When Jerry recalled his first single, he seemed almost embarrassed by his youthful, nasal voice--all high regester notes, but the record sold substantially enough in the region to warrant another trip to the studio just over a year after his first, November 4, 1954. This lineup also included Williams, Campbell, and Collins, but added J.V. Turner on second guitar, Raz Roseby on bass, and Junior Blackman on drums, who replaced brother Walter. Five songs were cut and another single was released, "Stay Out Of Automobiles" bw "Love To Make Up (Trumpet 231)," the former comedic tune another Jerry McCain composition. "That song was dedicated to all the car trouble we had in that old Dodge just getting over to Jackson to record. We had so many blow outs with those bald tires that I thought people were shootin' at us. When I look back on it, I wonder how we made it," said Jerry with a hearty laugh.

And commenting about the sessions, themselves, Jerry was never at a loss for words. "I don't think I was ever so nervous as when I was over in Jackson. Now, don't get me wrong. We had racism over in Alabama, but nowhere like in Mississippi. I half expected the Ku Klux Klan or a lynch mob to show up at the furniture store. I was shaking so much I could hardly stand up and kept watchin' my back," he said.

After surviving the evening, Jerry remembered the next day running into the cantankerous harp exponent Sonny Boy Williamson, who offered him some "tea" at a small cafe near the store on Farish St. "He's the second one I think to recognize my talent by calling me 'Junior.' But I declined his drink when he pulled out his bottle of whisky and set it on the table in that booth. That was his idea of tea, not mine," said Jerry about the bluesman who was in town during both of Jerry's visits to the studio and, in fact, used the very same sidemen who, outside of Collins, were probably some of McMurry's standby house musicians.

"Stay Out Of Automobiles" fared no better than his first attempt and as one of McMurry's last releases remains a cherished collector's item, especially on a vinyl 45 rpm. Not long after, Diamond Recording, Inc. went belly up, another mom and pop label falling victim to companies better able to deliver their merchandise to a national market.

According to the Bible of all blues discographies, Blues Records, 1943-1970, published first by the late Mike Ledbitter, all of the material of McCain's two sessions appeared on a Trumpet LP 701. If so, it would be the Holy Grail of record collectors, fetching, perhaps, thousands of dollars. Having attended hundreds of record conventions during my lifetime, I can truthfully say that I don't think any such animal exists, as independent labels of that era were much more interested in supplying jukeboxes. When queried about the subject, McCain seemed to recall a compilation LP. Both of us would appreciate anyone shedding light on this matter.

Nevertheless, McCain's nine-track Trumpet output was augmented by five tracks by Tiny Kennedy and pianist Clayton Love and reissued as a CD, Strange Kind Of Feelin', on the Acoustic Archive label in 1990 and I agree with its reviewer in DIScoveries magazine, retro rocker Cub Koda--formerly of Brownsville Station (yes, he wrote "Smokin'In The Boys Room") and who at one time toured, fronting the late Hound Dog Taylor's rhythm section of bassist Brewer Phillips and drummer Ted Harvey--that McCain, as instrumentalist, actually plays second fiddle on these selections to Chris Collins, who, in the foreground, shines as lead guitarist. Jerry, himself, never liked this particular CD for an entirely different reason. "If I have the majority of the tracks on it why did they put this other guy's face on the cover like it was his album? What kind of deal is that?" he added with a voice filled with disgust.

But, despite his lack of success with Trumpet, Jerry McCain was far from throwing in the towel on his recording career. "We weren't that famous, actually kind of scuffling then, but we kept on giggin' in places like Rome, GA, and Birmingham, AL. I was just trying to keep the band together," said Jerry.

However, it wasn't long before Jerry received a phone call that really boosted his career and from none other than Ernie Young of Nashboro records in Nashville. Ernie founded his independent label in the early 50s at first concentrating upon gospel music, but as blues gradually became more in demand, he assigned yet a second logo, Excello, to handle area artists such as Louis Brooks and the Hightoppers, Good Rockin' Sam Beasley with Kid King's Combo, Earl Gaines, and Arthur Gunter, who scored with "Baby Let's Play House" (later covered by Elvis on Sun) as 2047 in 1955. Not only did Young have a lock on a lot of local talent but also by mid-decade he would add that of South Louisiana through a partnership with prolific producer J.D. Miller, who had a studio in Crowley and leased Excello the masters of Lazy Lester, Lightnin' Slim (Otis Hicks), Lonesome Sundown (Cornelius Green), Guitar Gable (Gabriel Perrodin) and King Karl (Bernard Jolivette), Carol Fran, Charles Sheffield, Leroy Washington, and Jimmy Anderson. By the end of the 50s, Young would have soul stylists in his fold like Larry Birdsong, Lillian Offitt, and Roscoe Shelton and even vocal groups like the Marigolds, who charted with "Rollin' Stone (2078)" in 1955 and the Gladiolas who achieved the sensation, "Little Darlin' (2101)" in 1957. In fact, before the 50s expired, Young's label attracted white singers as well and he created the quasi-pop label Nasco to accomodate newcomers like the Crescendos, who authored the '57 blockbuster "Oh Julie (6004)" and legendary South Louisiana drummer, Warren Storm, whose "Prisoner's Song (6015)" made the national Top 100 in 1958.

Indeed, Ernie Young's Nashboro records was a formidable operation which made the small-time Trumpet pale by comparison. Not only did Young have a great distribution system in place but also he had an ace in the hole--advertisement and promotion. As a sponsor, he plugged his product relentlessly over radio station WLAC, a clear channel 50,000 watt powerhouse, whose range, especially at night, would encompass a good third of the U.S. And pioneering R&B DJ's like Hoss Allen, John R. (Richbourg), Herman Grizzard, and Gene Nobles would publicize all of Excello's new singles as well as those of Randy Wood's Dot label which could then be bought by mail order from, respectively, Ernie's (Young) Record Mart in Nashville and Randy's Record Shop in Gallatin. In short, as far as being a player in music game, Ernie Young had all his bases covered and when he beckoned, few, including Jerry McCain, refused his overtures to record.

Over a span of three years years, 1955 to 1957, Jerry McCain and his band, the Upstarts, cut no less than a half-dozen singles for Young, all in Nashville, including some memorable pieces like his first and now classic "Courtin' In A Cadillac (2068)" and later "Run, Uncle John! Run (2081)." Generally speaking, most of his endeavors of this era were upbeat numbers verging on rock and roll and many had a decided comic bent with a philosophic "sadder but wiser" life lesson prevailing.

In the studio, Ernie "the dictator (to use Jerry's expression)," tried to keep the music stark, simple, and uncomplicated, often just employing three musicians to back his harmonica player, like Robert Christian or Chris Collins on guitar, Skippy Brooks on piano (so-named because of a pronounced limp), and brother Roosevelt McCain on percussion, who kept beat with a folded magazine. And since he was a "control freak," Young often was at odds with Jerry's own perception about how things should be done. "One thing we went around and around with was the volume on the bass. He wanted the bass in the background with the sound level down and I wanted it more out front and louder because we weren't getting enough bottom to the record," said Jerry, who to his perpetual regret had to, in addition, sign over the publishing rights of these compositions to Ernie's Excellorec Music.

Although the dozen sides recorded in Nashville were sufficient for an album, none was ever envisioned and McCain had to wait until a CD, That's What They Want: The Best Of Jerry McCain was issued by AVI/Excello in 1995. Record executive Ray Harris, superagent Seymour Heller (Liberace), and writer Ed Cobb ("Dirty Water" and "Every Little Bit Hurts") of the AVI entertainment group in the late 70s bought the entire Excello catalogue and Woodland Studio from the Crescent Corporation (to which they were originally sold by Ernie Young) and then sought to repackage the masters, a commitment which for rather arcane financial reasons was never fully realized. Not long after the initial releases of this series, including McCain's, AVI sold the Excello inventory to Rhino, the famous oldies label, and they reissued the same assemblage as CD 70896.

Undoubtedly Jerry's frustration with the Excello sessions led to his undertaking a home recording project back in Gadsden during 1956-57 which eventually yielded eleven sides, many of them wild stompers, which did not see the light of day until 1981 when a Dutch record entrepreneur, Martin Van Olderen (spelling?), inquired about them and issued them on White Label (LP 9966) as Choo Choo Rock, a transaction which, to say the least, never sat well with Jerry. "He said he was a fan and he offered to give me three hundred fifty dollars[in advance for royalties] for the tape. And like a fool I mailed it to him. Then came the LP, which surprised the hell out of me. And since then, I've never heard from him and never been able to contact him. As far as I know, this crook's been selling the thing overseas for the last twenty years," said Jerry ruefully. Later, when Jerry began traveling overseas, his Dutch booking agent, Helma Vogel, of Bluebird corroborated his appraisal of the producer. But, by then, the damage had already been done.

By 1959, Jerry had acquired an agent/manager, Gary Sizemore, with whom he had an often stormy 26-year relationship, which lasted until the mid-80s. But at least at the outset they were both on the same page and agreed that another trip to the studio was long overdue. A session ensued on First Ave in Birmingham in a small room over Brittney's, a neighborhood cafe, with engineer Homer Milam at the console. This taping resulted in seven sides altogether, six of which would be released. Sizemore not only had his own publishing--Starland--but also a batch of minor labels, including Gas, Continental, and Romulus. In fact, Sizemore released two singles on Gas from this date in 1960--"Steady (alt. take)" bw "Delta Boogie (1101)" and "Ruff Stuff (Tuff Stuff)" bw "What About You (1002)." The best two selections of the lot--"She's Tough" and "Steady"--were set aside and then shipped to Johnny Vincent and Ace records of Jackson, MS.

Under normal circumstances, Vincent would have released this single on Ace, or his subsidiary, Vin. Somehow, he saw fit to issue it on Rex, a label he merely distributed. Perhaps, he was disgruntled that he didn't receive the publishing rights--Ace--as was the general rule and it didn't really matter that much to him where it eventually appeared. Unfortunately, since he is recently departed, he is no longer available to clarify this mystery.

Rex records, founded in the late 50s by the esteemed engineer and producer, Cosimo Matassa of New Orleans, was conceived more as noble gesture on his part with the intention to use it as a vehicle to support and promote Crescent City performers not under contract to other labels. On its roster were Big Easy luminaries like Dr. John (Mac Rebennack), Chuck Carbo (of the Spiders), Lee Dorsey (before "Ya Ya"), Jeannie Lynn, and the Emeralds vocal group. With one exception, Earl King's tour de force, "Darling Honey Angel Child (1015)," which was tied to Ace, all of Rex's titles bore Cosimo's publishing--Pontchartrain Music, BMI. And as far as I know, Jerry McCain is the only non-New Orleans artist to be included among the twenty or so releases of the short-lived experiment of Rex.

And nor could Cosimo Matassa shed any light about this anomaly when contacted recently. "We were flying by the seat of our pants back then. I'm not even sure if I have all the paperwork in order as far as affiliation with BMI. Perhaps I should look into it," he said.

Despite the Rex association, the great blues shuffle that packed such a wallop, "She's Tough," was a solid hit, selling moderately well throughout the South. It has since become a blues standard, particularly since it was covered by the Fabulous Thunderbirds in 1980 on Takoma (TAS 8001), a rendition which really jump started their careers and greased the skids for an easy segue into their monster "Tuff Enuff" in 1986 on CBS Associated Records (ZS4 O5838).

Now, up to this point, Jerry, step by step, was building a reputation upon delivering the goods as far as down home music was concerned and he was finally reaching the audience that appreciated his brand of gut-bucket, low down, and rough-hewn blues. But his next trip to the studio would signal a radically new departure in his maturation process--a move that astonished him as it might the readers. Could slick, polished, and refined be uttered in the same breath as Jerry McCain? Better believe it.



Evidently agent Gary Sizemore by now had developed enough clout in the industry to approach the big boys--the major labels--about a recording contract for his client, Jerry. And he succeeded in landing the largest of fishes--Columbia, and "race label" subsidiary, OKeh.

In the early 60s, Columbia was riding high on the national charts, especially with country music, because they had a whole stable full of artists who, with the help of their production crew, would be able to cross over to a broad "pop" audience. Contributing in no small measure to this phenomenon was the A&R team of Don Law and Frank Jones. Ironically, both had long careers in the R&B field before handling the bulk of Columbia's C&W duties during this era. In fact, it was roving recording specialist Don Law of the American Record Corporation who made the only masters (for Vocalion) of the now-mythological Robert Johnson, crowned the King of the Delta Blues Singers, taping him on two separate occasions--in a seedy hotel room in San Antonio in 1936 and in the back of a Dallas office building in 1937. Indeed, a couple of Christmases ago, this Johnson 60s album on Columbia (CL 1654) was reissued on CD and outsold all other holiday offerings of any label, which led to a lot of head scratching among record moguls and a reappraisal of inventories. But few if any bluesmen could ever challenge the enduring mystique of the enigmatic guitarist who claimed to have a "Hellhound On My Trail."

But by this time, the dynamic duo of Don Law and Frank Jones had largely abandoned producing for R&B and OKeh, except for sporadic forays like Doctor Feelgood and the Interns ("What's Up, Doc" and "Mister Moonlight," the latter covered by the Beatles), leaving this race auxiliary to young turks like the Windy City's Carl Davis (Major Lance, Billy Butler, Ted Taylor, and Walter Jackson) and instead concentrated their energies upon hillbilly acts. In the time frame when Jerry McCain had come into Columbia's fold, this tandem had overseen some of the most huge C&W hits ever, including Ray Price's "Burning Memories," Lefty Frizzell's "Saginaw, Michigan," Claude King's "Wolverton Mountain," Stonewall Jackson's "Don't Be Angry, " Marty Robbins's "Ribbon of Darkness" and "Ruby Ann," and Johnny Cash's "Ring Of Fire" and "Understand Your Man."

And being a pop label, Columbia's bottom line was always sales, which meant watering down the product for better public consumption. For example, Don Law and Frank Jones did not hesitate to introduce Danny Davis's Nashville Brass to augment the arrangement of Cash's "Ring Of Fire," although a horn section in a country ballad was rather unheard of in those days, an addition which instead hearkened back to the 40s swing music of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys (remember "San Antonio Rose"?). But, nonetheless, it worked, prompting even more experiments to take the rough edges off these rural recordings.

Also at Jones' and Law's disposal to further dilute the deliveries of these rubes were a whole arsenal of polished musicians of Music Row in Nashville, including guitarist Grady Martin, highly respected Floyd Cramer on piano, and the redoubtable Boots Randolph on tenor. Indeed, the latter two as solo performers had scored on their own--Cramer with "Last Date" and "On The Rebound" for RCA and Randy "Boots" Randolph with "Yakety Sax" for Monument, the latter a hot instrumental which later became the theme song for the long running, late night television program, Benny Hill Show. And if this assortment of professionals was not enough to smooth out any unfinished undertaking, one could easily supply strings and then call upon the Anita Kerr Singers to provide a syrupy and saccharin vocal chorus--more often than not the accoustical wallpaper behind this stellar supporting cast.

Of course, all of these components became much more easier to manipulate with the advent of multi-tracking in recording. No longer was it necessary at one sitting to assemble the whole multitude in the studio. A good engineer could record them separately and add them to the mix at his discretion.

This aforementioned aggregrate was employed in virtually hundreds of recordings originating in Nashville in the late 50s and 60s. Not only were they backing C&W giants like Patsy Cline (Decca), Jim Reeves (RCA), and Bill Anderson (Decca) but also pop stars like Roy Orbison (Monument), Brenda Lee (Decca), and Elvis Presley (RCA). So this production team was what Jerry McCain was confronting when he signed a contract with Columbia (OKeh) in 1962. Whereas Law and Jones had the intention to convert C&W acts into mass appeal, they wanted to do likewise with the rudimentary R&B of this Alabama born harp player, hoping for even more cross-over wonders.

"They wanted me to do mostly instrumentals but I insisted on doing vocals," said Jerry, whose first attempt on OKeh was "Red Top," a tune written by the illustrious vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and popularized by his former sideman, the late saxophonist Arnett Cobb, who also recorded solo for OKeh in the 50s. Despite Jerry's protestations, Jones and Law eventually won out and "Red Top (7150)" with a breezy harmonica passage against a wall of sound became the prototype of all four of his OKeh releases during 1962 which were divided among two recording sessions. And the flip of "Red Top" was the bouncy "Twist 62," a blatant ploy to cash in on the dance craze sweeping the nation.

Of the singles issued by Okeh, Jerry preferred the funky ditty, "Jet Stream (7158)," yet another slick instrumental set against a background of the Anita Kerr singers who were so overdubbed that they sounded like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But by his last single, it was clear that both McCain, now buried deep in the mix and sounding very much out of his element, and Law and Jones had run out of fresh ideas. OKeh 7170 was another doubled-sided instrumental whose melodies were appropriated from other sources. "Hop Stroll" was a regurgitated "Fannie Mae" made famous by the late harp player Buster Brown on Bobby Robinson's Fire label in 1959 and "Turn The Lights On Popeye," another strategem to please the dance crowd, was nothing more than a repackaged 1961 rocker by Bobby Blue Bland, "Turn On Your Lovelight," for Don Robey's Houston-based Duke records.

Be careful for what you wish for was probably the moral to Jerry McCain's venture with a major label, an experience which proved to be a double-edged sword. On one hand was the prestige of being associated with such a renowned company, but on the other was the lack of control, the endless compromising in the studio. To add insult to injury, Jerry, after his stint with Okeh had terminated, was presented with a statement of $33,000 for the costs incurred in staging such an elaborate endeavor. And Jerry, himself, felt that he was blindsided, assuming that Columbia, since they invited him to record, would pick up the tab. "I think I still owe them about $938 out of that deal and they finally stopped calling," said Jerry, who, as usual received no royalties. Needless to say, he emerged a sadder but wiser man from this experience.

But he was not about to totally abandon reaching the pop market with this Music City cast of characters. Regular "Nashville Cats" like the aforementioned Martin and Cramer decided to form their own label, Rik, in the mid-60s and, remembering the potential that Jerry displayed during his sessions with them, invited him back for an encore. However, his solitary single release with them (#65 in 1965)--"Here's Where You Get It" bw "Pokey"--fared no better than the previous four Okeh 45's. "It didn't matter if it sold or not. I wasn't going to get a nickel out of it anyway and never have," said Jerry.

After this flirtation and failure with mainstream music, it was back to square one and Gary Sizemore hoped that history could repeat itself by rerecording Jerry at the site of his successful "She's Tough" on Rex records, Homer Milam's facility above Brittney's restaurant on First Avenue in downtown Birmingham. But, alas, the old magic could not be mustered and "Love Me Right" bw "Ting-tang-tu," released on Sizemore's Continental label (#777) created hardly a stir on the R&B surveys.

But in all honesty, both Jerry and his agent/manager by that time (1965) were swimming against the tide. Blues was on its way out, being replaced in the black community by a more sophisticated and cosmopolitan sound--soul music. The younger generation wanted to forget about or repress their roots--the cotton fields, the hardships, poverty, and oppression--and embrace the new lifestyle reflected in such refined urban rhythms of the day. To further emphasize this subtle shift in public tastes after mid-decade, one could count the number of national blues hits on one hand--Slim Harpo's (James Moore) "Baby Scratch My Back (Excello 2273, 1966)," guitarist Lowell Fulson's "Tramp (Kent 456, 1966)," and B.B. King's "Paying The Cost To Be The Boss (Bluesway 61015, 1967)," "Why I Sing The Blues (61024, 1969)," and "The Thrill Is Gone (61032, 1969)." But even these anomalies did not adhere to the standard 12-bar blues format and lush strings were even added to King's later efforts like "Thrill." In fact, most of these songs were so uncharacteristic of classic blues that a duo like Otis Redding and Carla Thomas could easily transform Fulson's "Tramp" into a soul standard. Oddly enough, in order to survive then as a bluesman, one had to become someone decidely different.

One of the last producers not to give up on the viability of blues at this juncture was former talent scout and A&R man (he first introduced Lowell Fulson to Chess records of Chicago), Stan Lewis, who ran Jewel records (with subsidiaries Paula and Ronn and later Whit, after Lionel Whitfield productions) out of Shreveport, LA. After founding the label in 1965, Lewis had also dabbled in soul (the Carter Brothers, Bobby Powell, and the Uniques), C&W (Ben Gabus and Joe Stampley), and Swamp Pop (Bobby Charles, the author of Bill Haley's "Later Alligator," Fats Domino's "Walking To New Orleans," and Clarence "Frogman" Henry's "But I Do"). Ironically, Lewis would not savor his greatest triumph until he recorded Baton Rouge's John Fred's (Gourrier) novelty "Judy In Disguise (With Glasses) (Paula 282)," in the fall of 1967. With the windfall profits from this huge smash, he was able to attract or keep a whole host of blues figures (his first love) on his labels, including Buster Benton, Ted Taylor, Bobby Rush, Peppermint Harris (Nelson), Joe Turner, Charles Brown, Albert Washington, Little Johnny Taylor, George "Wild Child" Butler, Frank Frost, Ray Agee, Eddie Lang, Lightnin' Hopkins, Big Mack, and his personal favorite, Lowell Fulson.

But even Lewis, the blues purist, in order to stay afloat financially, had to make concessions to please the public's fickle palate, often resorting to gimmicks like the wah-wah pedal in Fulson's first LP for Jewel, In A Heavy Bag (note the title) or in general putting his contractees in incongruous musical settings. Nonetheless, his was a formidable roster of mostly down-home, southern blues giants and certainly rivaled the stable of that of the Windy City's Chess which, by that time, had just about folded its tent in the vain pursuit of that same goal.

It was Jerry who first contacted Lewis and found that his reputation had preceded him. "Yeah, he had not only heard of me but he invited me to record, sending me over to Tyler, Texas in this white boy's studio that he had in his house. I can still remember that long bus ride all alone and then being holed up in this hot, jive ass, fleabag hotel room during the sessions," recalled Jerry. His first recording for Lewis was the instrumental titled "728 Texas (Where The Action Is)" bw "Homogenized Love (Jewel 753)," the former referring to the address of Stan Lewis's headquarters in Shreveport. "On that 'Texas' thing it sort of reminded me of 'Jetstream' because I was also using a double reed harmonica, but not the original 'cause I had bought that one for just 98 cents. Lewis liked playing this tune in particular over the radio, since it was free advertising for his outfit," added Jerry.

In all in the period 1965 to 1968, Jerry McCain released a total of five singles for Jewel and talked at length about a fierce rivalry between himself and another contemporary, the prolific Jewel records harp ace, the late Frank Frost, who originally hailed from Auvergne, AK, but had long since settled in Lula, MS, in the Delta by the time he signed with Lewis in 1966. Frost also played in a similar rough-hewn style as McCain which he had learned first from Little Willie Foster in St. Louis in 1951 and later as longtime guitarist (with Sam Carr on drums) in Sonny Boy Williamson's (Aleck Miller) band in the 50s. By 1962, Frost (who doubled on keyboards), Carr, and guitarist Jack Johnson had recorded as the Nighthawks for Sam Phillips (of Sun records fame) in Memphis at his new facility (near the site of the old shrine on Union) on Madison Ave, releasing an LP, Big Boss Man, and the single, "Jelly Roll King (Phillips International #3578)," which, with the addition of an "s," eventually became the name of this trio as they later in the 80s and 90s toured and recorded for Chicago blues fan, Michael Frank, and his Earwig label. "You know I can recall cutting tunes like 'Honky Tonk' and 'Midnight Beat' in Memphis and Frank Frost would be there and he'd turn around and copy my riffs. I'd hear them later on what he was puttin' out," claimed Jerry. There may have been some truth to his accusations, since Frost did rather shamelessly plagiarize Slim Harpo's "Baby Scratch My Back" with his first release for Jewel, "My Back Scratcher (765)." But there was more than just a little borrowing going on back then, and blues was no exception, before the days when copyright violations in music were assiduously prosecuted and severe penalties for such infringements were rarely meted out.

In this regard, I asked Jerry why Lewis never issued an LP of his material, since he had repackaged Frank Frost's total output of thirteen tracks (which was produced by none other than Scotty Moore, Elvis's erstwhile legendary guitarist) and released a CD in 1991 on Paula--Jelly Roll Blues. Jerry, who had precisely the same number in the can as his longtime competitor, was quick to respond. "What difference does it make? I wrote all the songs and they slapped someone else's on them. Above all, I ain't got the publishing anyhow," he said. And Jerry might have a point. If one were to scrutinize his last release in 1972 (recorded in 1968), "Soul Spasm" bw "Somebody's Been Talking (828)," he would plainly see that the writer credits were divided between Jerry and, respectively, Carlton McWilliams and Gene Hays. The publishing, itself, is shared by that of producers Clinton Moon and Al Gardner (Moonsong) and Lewis (Su-Ma). Even if Lewis were to extend the same favor to Jerry as with Frank Frost, there wouldn't be enough residuals available to make it worthwhile, at least for the artist.

And speaking of money, I was curious whether Jerry, under such circumstances, could have been self-supporting as a musician. "Hell, no. I was still giggin' as best I could. But for about ten years from the late 50s to the late 60s, I was doing detective work, actually as a bounty hunter. And I was packin', too,--a nine millimeter and a twelve-gauge shotgun. This white guy I was working for, Ace Williams, he sent me all over, even to Ohio, to haul in bail jumpers," said Jerry. But he had to quit this "distasteful business (to use his own words)" because of an incident wherein his boss demanded that Jerry bind up in chains a fugitive from justice. This "order" came after the unfortunate, young black man had already been placed in handcuffs. "I refused to honor that ridiculous request. If he were white I think it would have been a different story. Acey wanted to know if I were some Black Panther or something like that. And I told him that I wasn't a Muslim either, just a black man with a conscience," he added.

This conversation in turn led to a discussion about racism in general during the 60s and whether he had directly experienced it. With Jerry, this topic really touched a nerve. "I remember one time. It must have been at the very end of my years with Excello 'cause it happened outside of Nashville. Anyway, we were pulled over maybe for following too closely. And I just about whipped my gun out 'til I saw the cop's badge. Anyway, he took me behind the car and just kept busting me in my lip. I had to take it 'cause else I would have been a dead man," said Jerry. Then I inquired about accomodations at overnight venues and he was quick to respond with a rueful laugh. "You'd better find some friends[to stay with] because one night Gary Sizemore found me a gig and I wound up eating my supper in the boiler room of a 'whites only' hotel," he replied.

Actually, as the 70s dawned, Jerry's next appointment the studio would be civil rights related. About that time frame, C&W artist, Guy Drake, recorded "Welfare Cadillac" for the red, white, and blue logo of the Nashville-based Royal American records (RA-1), a narrative which described how a recipient on the dole, on public assistance, managed to afford a luxury automobile. This highly controversial and thinly disguised racist propaganda became a rallying cry for all the right-wing alarmists of that tumultuous period in U.S. history, who bought the platter by the thousands. In fact, it became such a sensation that it was rerecorded by Travis Bell for Imperial (66432-S) in order to reach a wider market. The sales of this item, arranged by Jerry "When You're Hot, You're Hot" Reed and engineered by the aforementioned Scotty Moore, even outpaced its predecessor.

Again, it was Gary Sizemore who landed Jerry McCain this recording deal and arranged a session at the Boutwell studio in downtown Birmingham, Al. Seizing upon an opportunity to right a wrong, Jerry hastily recorded a response to Drake's misguided political message--"Welfare Cadillac Blues (Royal American 4)"-- a parody in which he adds the line, "Yeah, it's an Eldorado, too," followed by a hearty "Heh, Heh, Heh," taunting the listeners. "It must have become a quite a comedy hit, especially with black people, 'cause I heard them trying to imitate my own laugh at the end. In fact, I heard it up in Detroit, although they didn't know even who was singing it," said Jerry.

But little did Jerry know that with the release of his second Royal American single, "The Cockfight" bw "I'm In Trouble (#14)," that his heretofore prodigious recording career would come to such an abrupt halt. Due to a combination of circumstances, the rest of the 70s and much of the 80s would be a struggle for him. And for much of this time, he would be down, but not out. All along, he persevered and never lost faith in himself. And, ultimately, he would be rewarded for his tenacity.


As the 70s dawned, it was a struggle for any bluesman to survive and Jerry McCain, all his talent not withstanding, was no exception. But not only were the blues suffering, it was live music of all genres that would now play a back seat role to the insidious rhythms of disco music that were inexorably taking hold of the nation.

But, perhaps, for Jerry it was even a worse situation because being tied to Gary Sizemore, he was not his own man and free to make any personal decisions about his future. "Gary was pretty slick. I had to wait for him to call all the shots. He had this five year contract with me with an option that automatically renewed itself after each expiration. I felt like an indentured servant," he admitted. This ironclad agreement was a double-edged sword. At times, Sizemore was a player and had many connections in the industry, even representing SSgt Barry Sadler, who scored a national smash with "The Ballad Of The Green Berets" on RCA in the late 60s and Sammi Smith, the one-hit country wonder, who took Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through The Night" on Mega to the top of the charts in the early 70s. When he was hot, he was hot, but in the 70s, he was decidedly not.

As the decade wore on, scuffling became the name of the game. Jerry, resisting the temptation of a steady day job, accepted any and all offers to perform. One such gig took him to Dalton, GA, where a promoter recruited local musicians to back him, warming up the audience for a professional wrestling venue, which must have been comparable to a recent engagement by comic/boogie pianist Reverend Billy C. Wirtz, who for a spell served as the house band for the wildly popular weekly TV broadcast of the World Wide Wrestling Federation. But for Jerry it proved to be a short lived stint. "I had trouble with my sidemen from the beginning. They just wouldn't cooperate. I guess they were jealous that an outsider like me was getting top billing," he said.

Throughout the rest of the 70s, Jerry didn't issue a record. "I guess people must have thought that I had disappeared off the face of the earth," he said.

Sizemore did finally secure a session for him at famed Muscle Shoals (AL) studio in 1983 where he recorded "53 Year Old Man" and "I'm Waiting For Jesus," featuring the late great Eddie Hinton on lead guitar. In fact the latter song with religious overtones may have prompted Decatur, GA, gospel purveyor, Wendel Parker, to later negotiate (1986) and finally purchase the tapes and then release Bad Blues Is My Business (LP 30001) on his Bad label, an auxiliary to his regular spiritual line--Surfine. Although blues was experiencing somewhat of a resurgence at this time, this particular project, without proper promotion or distribution, never really had a chance to succeed and the two singles--"She Tore Me Up (1001)" and the aforementioned "53 Year Old Man (1002)" came and went without much notice.

Sizemore, instead, decided to sit on a lot of other recorded material of this era and release it at his discretion. One such undertaking was a series of Georgia recordings, including a remake of "She's Tuff" and "Soul Shag" (in a "Got My Mojo Workin'" groove) the single of which was utilized to market the CD, Soul Shag (on Heart) in 1990 not only to capitalize on Jerry's new-found notoriety but also to cash in on the dance craze sweeping the seaside resorts in and around Myrtle Beach, SC. Another album followed close on its heels, Good Stuff, which repackaged many of Jerry's oldies but goodies. But during the 80s, both Sizemore's reluctance to record and his inability to produce an album that would return Jerry to the spotlight led to the bitter dissolution of their long, love-hate relationship.

By mid-decade, now a free agent, Jerry was solicited by Kirby Kinnman who ran the Equity label headquartered in Atlanta. "I had gotten rid of Gary. It was true. But I wasn't really overjoyed at this deal either because I knew Kirby was an associate of his. In fact, I was really suspicious. But he kept after me," said Jerry. In 1987 or thereabouts, Jerry traveled to Nashville to record Blues On THe Move which included at least one topical song which would always be Jerry's trademark--"The Cost Of Livin' Is Too High." Unfortunately, no more details of his endeavor can be related, as even Jerry does not possess a copy. And the scarcity of the disk can serve as a testament to its sales.

Despite the failure of these two disks, his fans knew he was back in circulation and recognition was slowly coming his way. In 1987, he was called upon to compete against other harmonica legends of the day at the storied Fillmore Auditorium in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco. There he acquitted himself quite ably on the same stage as Sammy Myers, Rod Piazza, Lazy Lester, and Rick Estrin of Little Charlie & the Nightcats. But in the process, he caught pneumonia (a long and involved story) which Jerry thinks contributed to a stroke three weeks later. On the brink of a comeback, it was quite a setback for a year or so.

Back on his feet by the late 80s, he remained the optimist. But as far as career aspirations went, Jerry realized that he would have to take a new approach. Blues was back in vogue and he wanted to hop on the same bandwagon with others of his generation who were experiencing a rediscovery during this period. But this entailed being the aggressor rather than than passively waiting for the phone to ring.

He decided to call Englishman John Abbey who both founded (in the mid-80s) and ran Ichiban records out of Atlanta, GA. At the time Ichiban (which means #1 in Japanese) was one of the R&B/blues giants of the country, rivaling Malaco, Black Top, and Alligator in sales. Even now, it's difficult to believe it's all gone--defunct with Abbey back in England beset by creditors probably on both continents. But back then Ichiban was releasing scores of albums and over a hundred singles with an roll call roster of national characters--Jean "Mr. Big Stuff" Knight, Little Johnny Taylor, Blues Boy Willie, Artie White, Willie Clayton, Buster Benton, Ben E. King, Millie Jackson, and Tyrone "Can I Change My Mind" Davis. In fact, it was the last refuge of the 45 rpm up to the label's demise in 2001. And in its heyday it was viable enough to distribute at least five star-studded subsidiaries--WRC (Wilbe Recording Corporation) with William Bell, Urgent! with Bobby Rush, Triune with O.C. Smith and actor Cuba Gooding, After Hours with John Ellison, and Wild Dog, eventually with Jerry McCain.

Aimed at the hip, black urban, sophisticated market, Ichiban nonetheless made its bread and butter off rather raunchy or risque numbers like " (Let's Go) Smoke Some Pot (96-359)" by Dash Rip Rock, "Shit List" by Travis Haddix (93-278), "Bring The Beef Home to Me (90-212)" by Trudy Lynn, "Jack You Up (90-204)" by Chick "Mr. Stoop Down" Willis, and still a perennial seller--Clarence Carter's inimitable "Strokin' (86-108)." Indeed, such a steady stream of salacious selections of the Ichiban catalogue probably inspired Jerry to give Abbey a call. Such racy and suggestive lyrics were right up his alley because no one loves freedom of expression better in this particular realm than our hero.

Jerry did not have to plead his case to Abbey. "He cut me off. He told me I didn't need to explain who I was. He had heard all about me. He welcomed me on board," said the harmonica ace.

In all during a four year stretch from 1989 until 1993, Jerry recorded no less than four albums for Ichiban at its Atlanta studio. And thinks that there were possibly as many as five singles issued. "At least there were that many on the jukebox at the American Legion Hall where I hung out in Gadsden," he said.

Although now with a major label, Jerry never seemed quite at ease with his supporting cast and entirely satisfied with the results. "It kinda felt too slick and held back," he said. And the critics also seemed to second his emotion. Although none of the CDs were out and out panned, they received nothing more than a lukewarm response from reviewers. For example Bill Dahl in his critique of Blues 'N' Stuff (1989) explains that "there's nothing aboard this okay outing that would suggest how amazing McCain's early work for Trumpet, Excello, and Rex was." In Love Desperado of 1992, Dahl goes on to say that the "releases for Ichiban are certainly competent but that insane energy level that marked his Excello output of the 50s is ancient history--and so too, for the most part, is the gleeful irreverence that made his early sides such a delight." Our own Larry Hoffman of the Baltimore Blues Society in his summary of 1992's Struttin' My Stuff offers the most favorable comments, calling McCain's harp work "traditional and solid" and a "fine set of funky, urban blues." No major critic saw fit to discuss the merits of I've Got The Blues All Over Me in 1993, Jerry's last offering for Abbey and Ichiban on Wild Dog.

What could have been a fine vehicle, Ichiban, for presenting the true essence of Jerry McCain and putting him in a proper setting where he could perform at his unrestrained best came up short of expectations for everyone. And to boot, Jerry was presented a $35,000 bill (as yet unpaid) for his efforts. But at least his involvement with such a major label put him back on the map. He was finally back in the public eye and that meant it was also time to hit the road and do some touring.

Now represented by Helma Vogel of the Bluebird Booking Agency in Holland, Jerry was invited overseas for the first time in 1990 which included stops in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. Next there was Italy, France (Paris), and Switzerland. It's all a blur now because he's been across the pond so often. But Jerry does remember an embarrassing incident in the early 90s in Holland (Blues Estafette in the Utrecht?) wherein John Abbey during a hotel visit played with this harmonica carrier and absent-mindedly placed each harp back in the wrong receptacle. "Here I was on Dutch TV and in front of a big crowd and I couldn't play any song in the right key without fumbling around. I just about killed that man that night," said Jerry. As mentioned before, only a chronic back condition forced a recent cancellation of a junket to Finland.

By the mid-nineties, Jerry was becoming a household name in blues circles and accepted invitations for a flurry of festivals both here and abroad. Stateside he played at the Chicago Blues Festival of 1990 and later the Mississippi River Blues Festival in Moline, IL. Of course in Alabama he's always been considered a state treasure and has been a fixture at Birmingham's prestigious City Stages jamboree (which has included the likes of James Brown and Buddy Guy) and also Huntsville's annual Down Home Blues Fest.

Even old record producers like Sizemore and Stan Lewis of Jewel/Paula/Ronn (now Sue records) of Shreveport, LA, were dredging up long lost studio tapes to test the public's interest. In fact, the latter exec released Jerry's version of Bill Doggett's "Honky Tonk (Jewel 874)" on a marble colored vinyl single and coupled it with Buddy Ace's "I Just Love Your Funky Soul." In the Deep South old habits like vinyl, cassettes, and two-sided singles still die hard. If one side doesn't make the grade Mr. DJ, merely flip it over.

In 1998, guitarist Timothy Duffy and wife Denise, blues fans representing Music Maker Relief foundation, an non-profit organization dedicated to keeping alive Southern musical traditions and helping its artists to survive, paid a visit to Jerry in Gadsden in hopes of being able to record him for posterity. In short, all thought it would be a great idea, especially the totally acoustic part (without amps), and Tim summoned musician friends Microwave Dave (guitar) and Ardie Dean (drums) to round out the session which was held in a rented hotel room. The outcome wasn't a polished product by any stretch (all single takes) but at least it gave the listener a glimpse of what real down home juke blues is all about. This fine CD, Jerry "Boogie" McCain Unplugged, was eventually released on Music Maker Recordings & Boogie Down Records (Jerry's own label) in 2001.

As usual, Jerry included among his compositions one of a topical nature--"Sexual Harrassment"--but the key song of whole batch was "Excited By Your Charms" which excited guitarist John Primer to the extent that when he heard the demo proffered by Tim Duffy, he contacted buddy Mike Vernon, the same of Blue Horizon and Code Blue fame, who was now producing for Jericho Cello, a division of Sire-London, which was under the aegis of Warner Music. All agreed that Jerry McCain was long overdue for a real thorough, professional touch.

No one could dispute that with the release in 2000 of This Stuff Just Kills Me (Jericho Cello 90005-2), that Jerry McCain had not finally arrived. It was simply a monumental project which was lovingly recorded over a two year period in four state of the art facilities--Hit Shack and Congress House in Austin, Ardent in Memphis, and the Time Zone in Chicago. Cameos were volunteered by a slew of hall of fame performers including guitarists Anson Funderburgh, Jimmie Vaughan, Primer, and Jake (the former child prodigy) Andrews. On keyboards were Carl Sonny Leyland and the legendary (Chuck Berry accompanist) Johnnie Johnson. Anchoring the rhythm section were ex-Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble's bassist, Tommy Shannon, and drummer Chris Layton. All in all, it was an assemblage worthy of a blues pantheon who paid a fitting tribute to a long unacknowledged master of the blues harp.

Again, Jerry demonstrates his prodigious songwriting skills with more of his signature songs dealing with current issues--"Viagra Man" and "Ain't No Use For Drug Abuse." But, in reality, all the compositions shine.

Just when another trip to the studio was in order, Jerry received word that Jericho Cello had folded. And, amazingly enough, this CD, This Stuff Just Kills Me, his pride and joy and chef d'oeuvre, is now already out of print. And if he doesn't find another way to repackage this item, he'll soon be left without a most imposing and impressive calling card.

"Larry, it's the story of my life. Just when I thought I finally got the break I was looking for, I get double-crossed or disappointed in a big way," said Jerry.

"Don't let it get you down too much. You've still got a lot left in the tank," I said.

"Don't worry 'bout me. I'm Jerry McCain the Viagra Man. I'll show them mother fuckers I ain't through yet. I guarantee you. I'll be back," he said. And I wouldn't want to bet against him or, heaven forbid, even get in his way.

---------Larry Benicewicz, B.B.S.