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Thursday, February 21, 2013

"A" Blues - Scrapper Blackwell

Francis Hillman "Scrapper" Blackwell (February 21, 1903 – October 7, 1962) was an American blues guitarist and singer; best known as half of the guitar-piano duo he formed with Leroy Carr in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he was an acoustic single-note picker in the Chicago blues and Piedmont blues style, with some critics noting that he veered towards jazz. Blackwell was born in Syracuse, North Carolina, United States as one of sixteen children of Payton and Elizabeth Blackwell. Part Cherokee, he grew up and spent most of his life in Indianapolis, Indiana. Blackwell was given the nickname, "Scrapper", by his grandmother, due to his fiery nature. His father played the fiddle, but Blackwell was a self-taught guitarist, building his first guitar out of cigar boxes, wood and wire. He also learned the piano, occasionally playing professionally. By his teens, Blackwell was a part-time musician, traveling as far as Chicago. Known for being withdrawn and hard to work with, Blackwell established a rapport with pianist Leroy Carr, whom he met in Indianapolis in the mid-1920s, creating a productive working relationship. Carr convinced Blackwell to record with him for the Vocalion label in 1928; the result was "How Long, How Long Blues", the biggest blues hit of that year. Blackwell also made solo recordings for Vocalion, including "Kokomo Blues" which was transformed into "Old Kokomo Blues" by Kokomo Arnold before being redone as "Sweet Home Chicago" by Robert Johnson. Blackwell and Carr toured throughout the American Midwest and South between 1928 and 1935 as stars of the blues scene, recording over 100 sides. Well received numbers were "Prison Bound Blues" (1928), reportedly based on Carr's own stretch of time for bootlegging, "Mean Mistreater Mama" (1934) and "Blues Before Sunrise" (1934). The duo moved to St. Louis, Missouri in the early 1930s, but were back in Indianopolis when Carr died. Blackwell made several solo excursions; a 1931 visit to Richmond, Indiana to record at Gennett studios is notable. Blackwell, dissatisfied with the lack of credit given his contributions with Carr, was remedied by Vocalion's Mayo Williams after his 1931 breakaway. In all future recordings, Blackwell received equal credit with Carr in terms of recording contracts and songwriting credits. Blackwell's last recording session with Carr was in February 1935 for the Bluebird label. The recording session ended bitterly, as both musicians left the studio mid-session and on bad terms, stemming from payment disputes. Two months later Blackwell received a phone call informing him of Carr's death due to heavy drinking and nephritis. Blackwell soon recorded a tribute to his musical partner of seven years ("My Old Pal Blues") before retiring from the music industry. Blackwell returned to music in the late 1950s and was first recorded in June 1958 by Colin C. Pomroy (those recordings were released as late as 1967 on the Collector label). Soon afterwards he was recorded by Duncan P. Schiedt for Doug Dobell's 77 Records. Scrapper Blackwell was then recorded in 1961, in Indianapolis, by a young Art Rosenbaum for the Prestige/Bluesville Records label. The story is recounted by Rosenbaum as starting three years before the recordings were made. While still growing up in his hometown of Indianapolis, an African American woman that Rosenbaum knew said he "had to meet a man that she knew, who played guitar, played blues and christian songs, they'll make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck." Rosenbaum goes into more details of meeting Blackwell; "I met the gentleman across the street from the Methodist hospital in Indianapolis". Scrapper's friend said, "well he hasn't got a guitar", so Art said "well I got a guitar." Scrapper than said that he needed some 'bird food', with Rosenbaum being confused as to what he was referring to, Scrapper continued, "you gotta get some bird food for the bird, before the bird sings... beer!" Rosenbaum said, "I'm too young!" Scrapper and his friend continued, "we'll buy the beer, you just give us some money." Art concludes the meeting, "So we did, and he started playing these beautiful blues. I didn't realize he was Scrapper Blackwell til I mentioned his name to a blues collecting friend." To which then the friend exclaimed, "you met Scrapper Blackwell!?" He was ready to resume his blues career when he was shot and killed during a mugging in an Indianapolis alley. He was 59 years old. Although the crime remains unsolved, police arrested his neighbor at the time for the murder. Blackwell is buried in New Crown Cemetery, Indianapolis.

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