Arkansas's Blues Musicians
The fertile soil of the Mississippi River Delta has long produced strong yields of cotton, rice, soybeans and other crops. But much more than crops has sprouted from this land. The roots of the blues are firmly planted in this Delta soil, for it was here before the turn of the century that scholars say this music was born. The “field hands” would chant and sing out “field hollers” as they chopped and picked cotton. These “hollers,” along with other sources such as spirituals and minstrel songs, evolved into a new musical form that was later dubbed the blues. By the 1920s and 30s, highly popular blues musicians such as Robert Johnson and Peetie Wheatstraw were selling recordings of their woeful tales of loves lost and hard times endured.
During the 1930s, the blues could be found in juke joints in many small towns along the Mississippi River. But the undisputed blues music capital at the time was Helena, Arkansas, located along the Mississippi River about 80 miles southwest of Memphis. Helena’s downtown streets — Elm, Phillips, Walnut and part of Cherry — were filled with juke joints and cafes where bluesmen played all night long to packed houses. Even the sidewalks were a popular venue for many musicians. Robert Johnson, who is now regarded as one of the most influential bluesmen ever, played here at clubs such as The Hole in the Wall. Johnson influenced countless bluesman, but none more than Robert Lockwood Jr., a young man from Turkey Scratch, near Helena, who would later rise to fame with his own rendition of the blues.
Notable Blues Performers with Arkansas Ties
The list of famous blues artists who were born, lived or worked extensively in Arkansas reads like a “who’s who” of the blues. Here’s a sampling of those musicians in alphabetical order by last name.
Luther Allison was born in Widener, about 30 miles west of West Memphis, in 1939 and moved to Chicago at age 11. A self-taught guitarist, he started out playing with Howlin’ Wolf’s band and backed James Cotton. Allison was at the height of his career when he died on Aug. 12, 1997, of cancer. He was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1998.
Roy Buchanan was born in Ozark in 1939. He is considered a pioneer of the Telecaster sound. During his career, he played for Arkansas natives Dale and Ronnie Hawkins. His unique style of playing influenced such rock and roll guitarists as Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. He died in 1988.
William Lee Conley “Big Bill” Broonzy is another artist with a disputed place and date of birth. Broonzy himself claimed to be born in Scott, Miss. Blues historian Robert Reisman, after much research, believes Broonzy was born at Lake Dick in Jefferson County, Arkansas. He spent his youth in Pine Bluff where he learned to play fiddle he made from a cigar box. Broonzy performed in clubs in the Little Rock area in the 1920s before moving to Chicago. In 1928, he had a hit with “Big Bill’s Blues” on which he sang and played guitar. He made many more records and had a successful career before his death in 1958.
Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett was born at West Point, Miss., in 1910. Burnett, who is one of the great legends of the blues, was known for his electrifying showmanship. In the 1930s, he moved to Nat Phillip’s Plantation at the tiny Delta hamlet of Twist where he worked on the farm. He modeled his harmonica playing after the style of Sonny Boy Williamson II, who taught Burnett how to play when he moved to Parkin in 1933. Burnett formed a band in 1948 near West Memphis and radio station KWEM began broadcasting his live performances. He occasionally played with Williamson on KFFA in Helena and had a weekly show on KXJK radio in Forrest City. Burnett died at the age of 65 in 1976.
Sam Carr, the son of blues great Robert Nighthawk, was born in 1926 near Marvell. A mainly self-taught drummer, Carr played extensively throughout the Arkansas/Mississippi Delta region. He played often with bluesman Frank Frost and also periodically played as a member of the King Biscuit Entertainers. He died in 2009.
Ernie and Earl Cate of the Cate Brothers Band are best known for their 1970s hit “Union Man.” In addition to rock, this popular Northwest Arkansas-based group also plays a hefty amount of blues. They have played with blues diva Koko Taylor, as well as Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys. They’ve also performed for former President Clinton and play regularly in Arkansas including on occasion at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena.
Willie Cobbs was born in 1932 in the east Arkansas town of Smale. In the 1950s, he often played at the White Swan nightclub in Brinkley where he performed with such blues greats as B.B. King and Little Walter. In the 1960s, he operated the Blue Flame blues club in Stuttgart, and he later opened another club in DeWitt. He has written and recorded more than 30 singles, including “You Don’t Love Me,” which was recorded by The Allman Brothers, a famous blues/rock band.
Timothy "Little" Cooper was born in 1928 in Prattsville and grew up listening to the blues on the radio. He learned to play harmonica and began playing blues at clubs in St. Louis when he moved there in the 1950s. He recently moved back to Prattsville and performs with his band, Little Cooper and the Drifters.
James Cotton was born in 1935 in Tunica, Miss., and was inspired to play harmonica by listening to Sonny Boy Williamson on the “King Biscuit Time” show broadcast out of Helena. His parents both died when he was young so his uncle took him to meet Sonny Boy Williamson. According to his biography, Cotton played Sonny Boy’s theme song for him and they became like father and son after that. In the late 1940s, he appeared on King Biscuit Time and toured juke houses in the region with Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf and others. In the 1950s, he played clubs in the West Memphis area. He was given a 15-minute radio show at the age of 17 by West Memphis radio station KWEM. A harmonica-playing singer and songwriter, Cotton continues to perform today.
John Craig was born in Gurdon in 1945 and began playing gospel music as a child. During his career, this prolific musician played guitar with the famous rhythm and blues duo Ike and Tina Turner, and with the noted blues singer Etta James, among others. He currently lives in Little Rock.
James “Peck” Curtis was born in 1912 in Benoit, Miss., and moved to Helena in 1929. He gained fame playing drums on the “King Biscuit Time” show. Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Lockwood Jr. were key members of the original King Biscuit Entertainers studio band, joined later by Pinetop Perkins and Curtis. He died on November 1, 1970 in Helena and is buried in Magnolia Cemetery.
CeDell Davis was born in Helena in 1927 and has performed throughout the country and overseas for many years. Crippled by polio as a youngster, he is known for his unique style of playing guitar with a butter knife in a manner similar to slide guitar. He is featured on “Keep It To Yourself,” an album issued by Rooster Blues Records that contains recordings by Arkansas blues artists. He currently lives in Pine Bluff.
Larry “Totsy” Davis was born in Kansas City, Mo., in 1936 and was raised in the Little Rock, England and Pine Bluff areas. He recorded his first record, “Texas Flood,” in 1958 and it is this song for which he is best remembered. Davis, a regular performer at clubs in Little Rock and Pine Bluff, was known for his rich voice. Prior to his death in 1994, he was playing many major blues festivals and had achieved acclaim in Europe and Japan.
Frank Frost, born in 1936 in Auvergne, began his musical career playing the piano. At age 15 went to St. Louis, became a guitarist, then tours with Sam Carr and Robert Nighhawk at age 18. Frost then toured for several years with Sonny Boy Williamson, having learned the harmonica from Williamson. He worked with Williamson in the 1950s and frequently appeared with him on the “King Biscuit Time” show in the early 1960s. He also toured with Albert King, B.B. King, Little Milton and Robert Nighthawk. Frost passed away in 1999 and is buried in Helena’s Magnolia Cemetery.
Al Green was born in 1946 in Jack Nash community near Forrest City. He is best known as a gospel and soul artist, but he also has blues influences from living in the Arkansas Delta. In 1970 he released the album “Green is Blues.” He was nominated for Broadway's 1983 Tony Award as Best Actor (Musical) for "Your Arms Too Short to Box with God." Green, who is also a pastor in Memphis, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and a recipient of the 2014 Kennedy Center Honors.
Levon Helm was born in 1940 near Elaine and grew up at Turkey Scratch, west of Helena. As a child, he was influenced by Sonny Boy Williamson and he later gained fame with The Band, a famous group known for incorporating many styles, including country, rock and blues, and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. A multi-talented musician (Helm played drums, mandolin, guitar and harmonica), he was famous for his vocals and songwriting – and also found a successful career in acting, appearing in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “The Right Stuff,” and “Shooter.” He died in 2012 after battling cancer. Helm is the only artist to be honored with two Grammy awards for Best Americana Album (in 2010, when the award was first presented, and again in 2012).
Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs was born in Marksville, La., in 1930. He learned his craft in the streets of Helena, New Orleans, Memphis and St. Louis. He honed his skills on harmonica and guitar, playing with older blues musicians such as Sonny Boy Williamson II. Jacobs appeared on the “King Biscuit Time,” “Mother’s Best Flour Hour,” and the Katz Clothing Store radio shows on KFFA in Helena during the 1940s. He also worked with Houston Stackhouse at clubs in the Helena area. He died in 1968.
Elmore James, a legendary blues guitarist, was born in Richland, Miss., in 1918. He appeared on the “King Biscuit Time” show on KFFA in Helena and on the Hadacol show on KWEM radio in West Memphis during the 1940s. He also frequently worked clubs in West Memphis in the late 1940s. He died in 1963. A member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, James is known as the “King of the Slide Guitar.”
Robert Johnson, who is considered by many people to be the “King of the Delta Blues,” is believed to have been born in 1911 in Hazelhurst, Miss. Johnson attended school in Lucas, Arkansas, and frequently played at small clubs, house parties and other gatherings in the Helena area during the 1930s before his untimely death in 1938. Also, during the 30s, Johnson taught Robert Lockwood Jr., then a teenager living near Helena, how to play guitar.
Floyd Jones was born in 1917 in Marianna and learned to play guitar in the 1930s after being given one by Howlin’ Wolf. He then traveled around Arkansas and Mississippi playing at juke joints and other gatherings. He moved to Chicago in 1945 where he played in area clubs and recorded. Jones is significant for being one of the first of the new generation of electric blues artists to record in Chicago after World War II. He died in 1989.
Louis Jordan was a major recording star in the 1930s and 40s. Born in Brinkley in 1908, Jordan grew up in this east Arkansas town and was taught by his father to play clarinet. He toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels in the late 1920s and gained fame in the 1930s with his “jump-blues” style. He made many recordings, including such hits as “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” and “Caldonia” with his Tympany Five band and appeared in several films. He died in 1975 in Los Angeles and is buried in St. Louis.
Albert King was born in 1923 in Indianola, Miss., and lived and worked in Arkansas in the towns of Forrest City and Osceola. For many years he played his guitar in clubs in Osceola before gaining worldwide acclaim. He also had a great influence on many other guitarists including Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Robbie Robertson and Arkansas blues guitarist Frank “Son” Seals. King died in 1992 and is buried at Paradise Gardens near West Memphis.
B.B. King, the legendary blues singer and guitarist, got his first steady paying music job at the 16th Street Grill in West Memphis in the late 1940s. He also appeared on the Hadacol Tonic show on KWEM radio in West Memphis. In addition, he has played many clubs and other venues in Arkansas over the years.
Robert Lockwood Jr. was born in 1915 at Turkey Scratch and was an original performer along with Sonny Boy Williamson on the “King Biscuit Time” radio show at station KFFA in Helena. An accomplished blues guitarist, he later hosted the “Mother’s Best Flour Hour” show for KFFA and has made numerous recordings over the years. He also made several appearances at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena. He died in 2006 in Ohio.
Larry McCray was born in 1960 in the southern Arkansas town of Stevens and lived in this area on a farm until age 12 when he and his family moved to Saginaw, Mich. He was inspired by his older sister to play guitar and learn the blues. He was influenced by blues legends Albert Collins and Albert King and is known for his energetic live performances.
Robert Nighthawk, also known as Robert McCollum, was born in Helena in 1909. He and his brother, Percy McCollum, worked together playing for local gatherings in the early 1930s. During the 1940s and 50s, he appeared on the “Bright Star Flour” show and “Mother’s Best Flour Hour” show on KFFA radio in Helena. He died at the Helena Hospital in 1967 and is buried in Helena’s Magnolia Cemetery.
Willie Nix was born in Memphis in 1918. He appeared with Robert Lockwood Jr. on KXLR radio in Little Rock in 1947 and toured with Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Love and Joe Willie Wilkins as the Four Aces at jukes throughout the Arkansas and Mississippi region. He also hosted shows on KWEM radio in West Memphis. He died in 1991.
Junior Parker was born either in Mississippi or West Memphis, Arkansas, depending on which account of his life you read. He sang in gospel groups as a child and being the blues circuit when he was a teen. His biggest influence as a harmonica player was playing with Sonny Boy before moving to Howlin’ Wolf. He passed away at the age of 39 during surgery for a brain tumor.
Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins was born in 1913 in Belzoni, Miss., and appeared on the “Mother’s Best Flour Hour,” the “Bright Star Flour,” and the “King Biscuit Time” shows on radio station KFFA in Helena in the 1940s. An accomplished pianist and guitarist, he has also appeared at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in later years. He was the recipient of a 2005 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. He died at his home in Austin, Texas in March 2011.
Joe Bennie “Forrest City Joe” Pugh was born in 1926 in Hughes and played guitar, harmonica and piano. He was raised on various farms in the Hughes/West Memphis area and appeared with Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf on the Hadacol show on KWEM radio in West Memphis around 1949. He was also a popular performer at area juke joints. He died in 1960.
James Edward "Snooky" Pryor was born in 1921 in Lambert, Miss., and moved to Helena in 1937. His Delta blues style was influenced by Sonny Boy Williamson II. He taught himself to play drums and harmonica and worked in Arkansas, Missouri, and Illinois in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He moved to Chicago in the early 1940s and performed in area clubs. He toured extensively over the years and performed at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena. He died at age 85 in 2006.
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, a blues pioneer born in 1886, toured through Arkansas in 1930 with the Bandana Babies, a touring revue headed by Bessie Smith. During the 1930s, she formed the Arkansas Swift Foot Revue and worked theaters throughout the South. She later became known as the Mother of the Blues. She died at the age of 53 in Georgia.
Billy Lee Riley was born in 1933 in Pocahontas and grew up in the Arkansas Delta in such towns as Osceola and Forrest City. He learned to play the guitar from black farm workers. In the 1950s, he was a rockabilly pioneer with such hits as “Red Hot,” “Rock With me Baby,” and “Flyin’ Saucers Rock and Roll” on the Sun Records label in Memphis. He died in 2009 in Jonesboro.
Fenton Robinson worked with Larry “Totsy” Davis in clubs around the Little Rock area, including The Flamingo, in 1957 where they were seen by Bobby Bland. In the early 1960s, he formed his own band and regularly performed in the Little Rock area before moving to Chicago. An accomplished guitarist, he performed at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena. He died at 62 from complications of brain cancer.
Frank “Son” Seals was born in 1942 in Osceola in the back of his father’s juke joint, the Dipsy Doodle. He grew up listening to the blues played by Sonny Boy Williamson and Albert King. His father, Jim Seals, was also a great musician who taught him much. He began performing professionally at age 13 as a drummer and later guitarist with Robert Nighthawk. At 19 years old, he formed his own band to fill in at an Osceola joint called the Rebel Club. He made several recordings for Alligator Records and continued to tour until his death in 2004.
Lonnie Shields was born in 1956 in West Helena. He learned to play guitar as a child where his church background and gospel roots heavily influenced his work. His debut album "Portrait" was released in 1993 on Rooster Blues Records and won "Best Blues Album of 1993 (New Recording)" in the 1994 Living Blues Critics' Awards. He has also performed at the King Biscuit Blues Festival.
Johnny Shines learned to play guitar in the early 1930s when he was living on a farm near Hughes. During this time, Howlin’ Wolf, who was playing at local Saturday night fish fries, was his idol. He also met the blues legend, Robert Johnson, in 1932 in Helena and went on the road playing all types of venues from house parties to levee camps during the late 1930s. He made several recordings over the years and died in 1992.
Roosevelt “The Honeydripper” Sykes, who authored the essential “West Helena Blues,” was born in Elmar and grew up near Helena. He played piano and made his first recording for OKeh records in 1929. His first release, “44’ Blues,” is considered a blues standard. He continued recording and touring until his death in 1983.
Houston Stackhouse, one of the legendary Delta blues musicians, was born in Mississippi. In 1946 he moved to Helena to live near Robert Nighthawk. He performed on the “King Biscuit Time” and “Mother’s Best Flour Hour” radio shows in Helena. He played guitar, harmonica, mandolin and violin. He died in Helena at age 69 in 1980. A stage at the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena is named for him and Robert Lockwood Jr.
Arbee Stidham was born in DeValls Bluff in 1917. He played harmonica and other instruments and performed at clubs and dances in the Little Rock area in the 1930s. He formed his own band, the Southern Syncopators, before he was in his teens which backed Bessie Smith on tour during 1930-31. He also appeared on KARK radio in Little Rock in the early 1930s. In addition, he made several recordings in the 1940s in Chicago and continued recording into the 1970s. This multi-talented musician died in 1988 at the age of 71.
Johnnie Taylor was born May 5, 1934 in Crawfordsville, Arkansas and grew up in West Memphis. He performed with gospel groups as a child. His voice sounded similar to that of Sam Cooke’s and was hired to take Cook’s place with the Soul Stirrers in 1957. He became an R&B star on the Memphis Stax record label, where he was dubbed “The Philosopher of Soul.” He was also known as “The Blues Wailer.” He died in 2000.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born in 1921 in Cotton Plant and learned to sing and play guitar from her mother, Katie Bell Nubin, a traveling Holiness Church evangelist. She performed both gospel and secular music. In 1938 she signed with Decca Records, making her the first gospel artist to sign with a major label. Over the years, the accomplished guitarist and vocalist also performed with blues artists such as Muddy Waters and Louis Jordan, and jazz groups such as the Cab Calloway Revue. She became known as “the godmother of rock ‘n’ roll.” Tharpe died in Philadelphia in 1973.
Amos "Junior" Wells was born in 1934 in Memphis and was raised in the West Memphis and Marion areas. Initially taught by his cousin Junior Parker and Sonny Boy Williamson II, Wells learned to play harmonica by age seven and played in West Memphis streets for tips during the early 1940s. In the late 1940s, he moved to Chicago and worked numerous clubs there over the years. He died there in 1998 at the age of 63.
John Weston was born in 1927 in Lee County in the Arkansas Delta. Self-taught on the guitar and harmonica, he didn’t begin playing publicly in and around Marianna until the 1970s. He was the winner of the Lucille Award (named after blues singer B.B. King’s infamous guitar) in 1989, He plays guitar and harmonica and has made recordings. He has toured the U.S. and overseas. He died in June 2005.
Peetie Wheatstraw, whose real name was William Bunch, was born in Ripley, Tenn., but raised in Cotton Plant. He left Arkansas in 1927 and later settled in East St. Louis. This flamboyant singer, pianist and guitarist recorded more than 160 songs during the 1930s and gained much acclaim. He billed himself at the “Devil’s Son-In-Law” and the “High Sheriff from Hell.” He died in an auto accident in 1941 and is buried in Crowders Cemetery near Cotton Plant.
Joe Willie Wilkins played guitar as a member of the King Biscuit Entertainers on the “King Biscuit Time” show beginning in the 1940s. A native of Bobo, Miss., Wilkins spent a lot of time in Arkansas playing with Sonny Boy Williamson, Houston Stackhouse and others at juke joints and other gatherings over the years. He also lived in Helena and West Memphis at various times. “He, more than any other, influenced the development of post-war blues guitar in the Delta,” says Fred J. Hay, a blues scholar. Wilkins died in 1979 in Memphis.
Lucinda Williams was born in Lake Charles, La., in 1953 and moved with her family several times before landing in Fayetteville in 1971. In the early 1970s, she often played in clubs in Arkansas and Texas. She is known for her bluesy-country style. She recorded her first album in 1979 and it featured traditional blues and country songs. She continues to tour and make recordings. She was named by Time Magazine as “America’s best songwriter” in 2002 and has been nominated for 16 Grammy Awards, winning three.
Sonny Boy Williamson, whose real name is believed to have been either Alex or Aleck “Rice” Miller, is purported to have been born in Glendora, Miss., sometime between 1899 and 1910. He was known for his amazing ability to play harmonica and was the star of the famous “King Biscuit Time” radio show on KFFA in Helena. It is believed that he began using the name Sonny Boy Williamson in the late 1930s. The original Sonny Boy Williamson was John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, a Chicago harmonica player, who died in 1948. Williamson (Rice Miller), who is often referred to as Sonny Boy Williamson II, also made recordings on the Trumpet and Chess labels. Although he traveled extensively, including tours of Europe, he frequently returned to Helena where he died on May 25, 1965. He is buried in Tutwiler, Miss.
Jimmy Witherspoon was born in Gurdon in 1920 and began singing in church as a child. After World War II, he moved to California and played bass with many groups. He performed on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and at the Montreux Music Festival in Switzerland, and made dozens of recordings. He died Sept. 18, 1997.