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I started a quest to find terrific blues music and incredible musicianship when I was just a little kid. I also have a tremendous appreciation of fine musical instruments and equipment. One of my greatest joys all of my life was sharing my finds with my friends. I'm now publishing my journey. I hope that you come along!

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Friday, September 28, 2012

Willie Jitterbug Webb

What ho, another great Texas bluesman? The largest state has produced quite a few great players in this genre, and fans of Jitterbug Webb can only hope that one day he will receive the recognition and status of T-Bone Walker or Johnny Winter. After all, neither of these stellar Texas blues guitar giants can claim that they backed up the Monkees. Born William or "Willie," he picked up the nickname of "Jitterbug" quite early in the game because he happened to be one of those babies who learns to walk early and how to jump around only a few days later. Since he never seemed to sit still, his mother and grandmother discovered music as a kind of distraction, or hopefully even an aural sedative. His mother played piano, mostly gospel, but also some down-home blues. One of Webb's earliest memories was, at six, listening to his mother playing 78s by the classic blues artist Peetie Wheatstraw. She encouraged the young Jitterbug to take trumpet and guitar lessons, beginning at the age of nine. The church featured heavily in his upbringing, and he sang in the youth choir in San Antonio. But like his mom, he had antennae out and ready for the so-called music of the devil: jazz and blues. As a teenager in the early '50s, he went to many concerts such as the Jazz at the Philharmonic extravaganzas and gigs featuring the smooth singer Arthur Prysock, the one and only Louis Armstrong, R&B pioneer Louis Jordan, and others. Radio was also an important factor, introducing him to artists such as the blues shouter Big Joe Turner, as well as essential recording artists of the day such as Clyde McPhatter, Johnny Ace, and of course guitarist T-Bone Walker, who seems to have had the same relationship with the Texas blues scene that Moses had with the Ten Commandments. Groundwork was being laid for a musical career via going to gigs, but the next important part of this foundation was personal contact with real working musicians. When he was still a child, Jitterbug had a neighbor who was a landlord, and one of his tenants was none other than Big Walter "Thunderbird" Price, at that point in the midst of an extended San Antonio residency. Jitterbug had ambitions to become this man's guitarist, and even secured an audition although it is not known for sure whether Price was aware that the pimply picker was all of 13 years old. At any rate, he didn't cut the audition, although it was only a year later when Webb actually became a professional musician. Ironically, it would take 40 years for him to be reunited with the man who had turned him down, when Webb and Price headlined a blues festival in San Antonio in 1994. Webb formed his own band at 14, optimistically naming it the Five Stars. These original members, hardly stars of any sort but worth mentioning for historical purposes, were Walter Johnson on sax and keyboards, Billy Wilson on tenor sax, Mack Wilson on trombone but later switching to drums, Robert Boyd on drums, and McCarly Luke on alto sax and vocals. The group did become popular around the San Antonio area in the late '50s, playing clubs, dancehalls, and military bases. In 1956, the band went to Houston and recorded two numbers for the Duke/Peacock label. "I cannot remember the names of the tunes," Webb admitted in what perhaps was a senior moment in an extended interview, but the recordings never saw the light of day, whatever they were. Had the tracks been released, it might have established Webb as one of the youngest blues artists to ever record, give or take a Shuggie Otis. Tenor sax player Jimmy Johnson, who would later record on many sessions for the Motown label, was a major influence on Webb at the time, teaching him just about everything he would ever learn about jazz, which he managed to incorporate into his blues playing. Webb headed west in 1958 with fellow bluesman and friend Ricky Aguary to see what they could get happening on the West Coast. A band developed, Ricky Aguary & the Keys, whose success could be judged by how often the members wound up sleeping on the beach. Not exactly thrilled with these accommodations at the age of 17, Webb limped back home grabbed a gig with the local band Charlie & the Jives. It turned out to be a good time to be in the Alamo city, as the '60s music scene began exploding with blend of R&B, Southern soul, and Tex-Mex. Local artists Webb performed with during this period included Cora Woods, Freddy Fender, Doug Sahm, Johnny Olen, Augie Meyers, Rocky Morales, and Charlie Alvarado. With the latter artist, Webb recorded for the Harlem label in the early '60s. This was the Charlie & the Jives band that had kept Webb from being washed off like driftwood while he tried to get a good night's sleep. The San Antonio audience demanded versatility. Musicians couldn't just get by on being funky, they also had to whip off conjuntos, boleros, or polkas. Bands had to know all the new rock & roll hits as well. Jitterbug reformed the Five Stars band and began touring farther afield, as far north as Illinois and south as Louisiana. During the course of these road tours, Webb encountered the equally roaming bandleader Ike Turner several times, and eventually Webb would be hired on the spot after being asked to sit in with Turner's band at a nightclub in the steaming south central district of Los Angeles in 1966. Turner's Kings of Rhythm band also included tenor saxophonist Clifford Solomon, keyboardist Ernest Lane, trumpeter Gabriel Flemings, and baritone saxophonist Johnny Williams; as well as Webb, Turner, and last but hardly least, the dynamite singer Tina Turner. Webb's chores would change from lead to rhythm guitar during the course of the show as the various performers made their star entrances. Webb also recorded with Ike Turner during this time at the leader's studio in California. Webb finally left the revue over money worries, despite the fact that the hit "River Deep, Mountain High" was flowing on the radio and peaking on the charts. It was back to his homeground of making music, good old San Antonio. He took up right where he had left off on that local scene, and in 1968 he got a call from several ex-members of Turner's band who were performing in Houston under the name of Sam & the Good-Timers. Sam was bassist and vocalist Sam Rhodes. Webb again tried the West Coast, this time doing better than a blanket of sand by meeting up with the R&B bandleader and legend Johnny Otis. He also began recording regularly in Los Angeles, cutting sides with bluesmen Lowell Fulson and Charles Brown for Savoy. Under the direction of Maxwell Davis, Webb and his sidemen became a house band for this label, which recorded much classic jazz, blues, and R&B material. Webb also recorded with gospel singer Charles May, also for Savoy. Meanwhile Webb's band was burning the midnight candle at all the local nightclubs, playing gigs, and rubbing shoulders with artists such as soul singer and songwriter Percy Mayfield and rock legend Little Richard. According to the latter artist, who was also an early employer of Jimi Hendrix, Webb was the "funkiest guitar player in the world." Richard offered Webb a job in his band several times, but it was always turned down as the guitarist preferred being the bandleader himself. It was during one of the Good-Timers' nightclub residencies that the band came to the attention of the pre-fabricated rock group the Monkees, who went to hear Webb and his cohorts almost every night for two weeks before inviting the band on a Monkees' tour. In 1970, following a month of rehearsals, the bands began their combined tour, the Good-Timers also playing their own opening set on an itinerary that took Webb farther away from Texas than he had ever been before, including countries such as France and Tunisia. Prestigious television work also came along, including the Tonight Show, the Joey Bishop Show, and an episode of Music Scene with host David Steinberg that was coincidentally the last live show that the famous comedian Groucho Marx would be featured on. Out of the past came contact Johnny Otis, who hired Webb to play guitar on a tour with himself, Joe Turner, and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson. It was the ill health of his father that brought Webb back to San Antonio after several more fruitful years on the West Coast. As a musician in the '80s, he became more of a weekend warrior and formed several business ventures in order to survive. He took the idea of an alternative to the music business very seriously, studying both real estate and financial management. He wound opening his own bar, dry cleaner, and liquor store, none of which satisfied or eliminated his love of music, although it might have been convenient for getting drunk and/or doing the laundry. Webb recalled that during this period in his life he constantly had music going through his head, and "finally just submitted to the calling..." He formed the Super Crew in 1987, mixing together both youngsters and veterans of the Texas music scene, including Albert Gotson on bass, Robert Benitez on tenor sax, Chip Skaggs on trombone, Al Garcia on drums, and James Morales on trumpet. The music Webb was hearing in his head must have been predominantly tunes of his own invention, because from the late '80s on he began composing prolifically. His most famous song is entitled "That's the Way Life Is." Webb was nominated and crowned "the Blues King" during a 1994 San Antonio city festival, receiving a special proclamation from the mayor, but more importantly sharing billing with another blues king, B.B. King. A few years later, Webb contracted cancer. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi

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