JERRY McCAIN - DING DONG DADDY FROM A ROCK 'N' ROLL CITY! (By Pete Hoppula)
Born 19 June 1930, Gadsden, Alabama
"Do you believe rock'n'roll will thrill your soul?" - "Yeah!"
That's how Mr. "Boogie" McCain enlightened us over fifty years ago, and even though rock'n'roll was just becoming a national phenomenon in the mid 1950's, we all know how well people all around the world eventually responsed to Jerry's call. Retrospectively, maybe our hero Jerry McCain, mostly remembered now as one of the last original downhome harp blues legends, wasn't the most central key person in the creating history of rock'n'roll. Nevertheless he was a pioneer who deserves to be recognized also in this category. His music was based on traditional Southern blues and rhythm'n'blues, but it also had a brandnew approach. A fresh nuance that was aggressive and uncontrolled but in its own unique way - it was tuff stuff - and back in 1955, yet so unfamiliar.
Jerry McCain was born on June 19, 1930 in Gadsden (Etowah County), Alabama - the same place where he's still located. He even lives in the same house that he built with his father in 1950. In all probability it's the father who originated Jerry's musical awakening as well, by running his own local barbeque joint (called Green Front Cafe), and spinning there the hottest blues and r'n'b records on the jukebox. There were also a few other influential relatives: Jerry had two harmonica playing uncles and his mother played the guitar. Jerry, who was the youngest of five children, had been playing harmonica since the age of five. As a teenager he tried also with guitar, drums, jew's harp and even trumpet, until finding the crucial inspiration from artists such as Sonny Boy Williamson I, and gradually becoming a full-bodied harpist. Sonny Boy Williamson II (a.k.a. Rice Miller) also had a notable effect on him both technically and mentally - since the two had been introduced to each other during McCain's first recording session for Trumpet in 1953. Over the years, Jerry became mainly influenced by the music of Little Walter Jacobs, and in fact, again sometime in 1953, when the last mentioned was performing in Gadsden, Jerry also had a chance to become friends and even join Walter on stage for a couple of numbers. Before making any recordings, Jerry used to perform at the radio station WETO with only a jug to accompany him. His first band was founded in the early 1950's. Jerry McCain & his Trio consisted of Jerry himself on vocals and harp, Christopher Collins on guitar, and Jerry's older brothers Roosevelt and Walter, who both played drums alternately. Before the brothers came into the picture, Jerry used to know a drummer named Jean Dozier who played marching type drums, which of course didn't match McCain's style that well. It was obvious that sooner or later the young musicians also wanted to make a record. They managed to find a cheap recording machine somewhere from Alabama, and cut their own acetate version of Little Walter's "Crazy 'Bout You, Baby" which was sent to the head of Trumpet Records, Mrs. Lillian S. McMurray. She liked the song so much that she invited Jerry and the band to Jackson, MS. The first studio session at the State Furniture Co. on October 10, 1953 was strengthened by the Trumpet session men David Campbell on piano, Herman Fowlkes on bass, and Bernard "Bunny" Williams, who played the second solo instrument, tenor saxophone - a quite surprising but effective choice for the harmonica blues recordings. The captured songs were "East Of The Sun", "Wine-O-Wine", "Oh Wee Baby", and "Feel Just Like I'm In Love". The first two came out on Trumpet 217, the others are still unissued. This debut single was a regional hit (sold 2.500 copies), and Lillian gave Jerry another chance. The second and the last Trumpet session was arranged at Diamond Recording Studios, Jackson, MS on November 4, 1954. The brothers Roosevelt and Walter didn't attend this time. Collins however did, along with another guitarist J.V. Turner who had worked previously with Sonny Boy Williamson among others. Other musicians at the studio were David Campbell (pno), Raz Roseby (bs) and Junior Blackman (dms). From the five songs they cut, "Stay Out Of Automobiles" and "Love To Make Up" ended up to Trumpet 231. McMurray had bad financial troubles, and only 750 copies were pressed. Soon afterwards the Trumpet company closed its doors, and the rest of the tracks, "Middle Of The Night", "Crazy 'Bout That Mess" and "Fall Guy", remained unissued until the early 1990's. At some point in the mid-1950's Jerry and the band (Chris Collins:gtr, Robert Christian:gtr, Roosevelt McCain:dms) did an 11-song demo session in the living room of Jerry's Gadsden home using only one microphone and 1-track recorder (first issued on the White Label LP "Choo Choo Rock" in 1979). When Nashville record boss Ernie Young heard these wild rock'n'roll tapes, it didn't take long before Jerry found himself working for Excello Records. The forthcoming recordings were made mostly at the 3rd Street's Nashboro studios, and Young usually was in charge of engineering. The background group (The Upstarts) changed slightly with every session but the main players were always Collins and Christian on guitars, Ed "Skippy" Brooks on piano and Roosevelt McCain or Jimmy Sheffield on drums. The first Excello single (#2068) was released in 1955. The A-side "That's What They Want" represented Mannish Boy/I'm A Man-style slow downhome blues, while its flip, "Courtin' In A Cadillac" was already straight rock'n'roll. By 1957 this platter was followed by five more high-quality 45rpm records containing some highly enjoyable uptempo rockers such as "My Next Door Neighbor", "The Jig's Up" and "Run, Uncle John, Run!" which was Jerry's answer to Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally". McCain's working methods in the studio have always been intensive, and undoubtedly he had a clear sense of his skills right from the beginning. It's been said that besides being a hard worker, Jerry was also stubborn. He wrote and composed his own music, and at the studio he did everything exactly the way he wanted. Apparently this caused disagreements now and then with the owners of Excello. By 1960 the partnership had come to an end, and Jerry was spending most of his time in his home area of Alabama. Luckily, new recordings kept coming. Probably his most revered single of all time, "She's Tough" backed with an instrumental titled "Steady" was recorded at Homer Mylam's studio on First Avenue North in Birmingham, AL on an Ampex 3-tracker. The backing group now included L.M. Jackson on guitar, Fred Bush on piano and once again Walter McCain on drums. By this time Jerry had started a business relationship with Birmingham-based music producer Gary Sizemore whose helping hand on the management side became essential when he began to look for a new record deal and a proper company to issue his new recordings. The tapes passed from one person to another until they finally drifted to New Orleans and into the hands of Cosimo Matassa who issued them on his Rex label (#1014). It took nineteen years but eventually "She's Tough" gained also worldwide attention. However, instead of the original release, the reaction was caused by the Fabulous Thunderbirds' cover version that appeared on their debut LP "Girls Go Wild". In the end, the Rex 45, under distribution of Johnny Vincent's Ace Records, sold quite well too locally, and encouraged Jerry to return to the studio. The rest of the1960 material, including the instrumental "Rough Stuff" and boogie woogie rocker "What About You", had to wait 17 years until Gary Sizemore released them by himself on his Gas label. Sizemore was still learning the basics of management work, but somehow in 1962 he succeeded to get Jerry a record contract with OKeh Records. The recordings were made in Nashville with a large group of white, top studio musicians including Grady Martin (gtr), Lloyd Green (gtr), Floyd Cramer (pno), Boots Randolph (sax), the Anita Kerr Singers and a string section from the Nashville Symphony. Four pop-flavoured singles (including "Red Top", "Jet Stream", "Popeye", "Pop Corn" etc.) were issued within a year which all sold well. Not surprisingly, the artist himself doesn't recall seeing any money coming in. Jerry however didn't totally lose his faith in the music business, and in 1965 he continued to record new songs for Ric ("Here's Where You Get It" / "Pokey") in Nashville, and for Gary Sizemore's labels Esco ("Edna" / "She's Righteous") and Continental ("Ting-Tang-Tigalu" / "Love Me Right") in Birmingham, AL, where his back-up group featured members of the future Atlantic ho useband Cold Grits and tenor saxophonist Glen "Round Man" Lane. At Birmingham's Heart Studios Jerry also did an obscure session with white young musicians calling themselves The Shindigs (although elsewhere they were already better known as Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs). McCain's and The Shindigs' joint recording "Pussycat A-Go-Go", issued on Esco Records, was made as a tribute to Gus Gula's local "Pussycat A-Go-Go" night club. Between 1965 and 1968 Jerry was mostly working on tours and in the night club scene. During this time he accompanied many household soul-blues names like William Bell, Freddie King, and he also collaborated with vocal groups including the Temptations and the Drifters. Jerry also recorded occasionally for Stan Lewis' Jewel Records in Shreveport, LA. A total of five singles were issued, and some of them like "728 Texas (Where The Action Is)" were produced by Scotty Moore. British Polydor reissued the majority of these titles as part of its Carnival Gold Standard compilation series in 1972, and they were released again in 1987 by Charly on the LP "Midnight Beat". The next notable episode of Jerry's career took place in 1970, when he covered Guy Drake's fresh hit "Welfare Cadillac" (b/w "Funky Down Easy") for Dick Heard's Royal American Records. The recordings were done in Nashville with a local bassist, guitarist, drummer and a female keyboardist. The same unknown line-up accompanied him also on another '70 Royal American release "The Cockfight" / "I'm In Trouble". In 1972 Jewel Records let out the label's last McCain release "Somebody's Been Talking" / "Soul Spasm" which was apparently recorded already in 1967-68. In 1973 Jerry did two new singles ("Rainin' In My Heart" and "Woodpecker") for the Romulus label in Nashville, and a year later he was in the studio with the southern rock group Atlanta Rhythm Section. The album "Living Legend", containing only songs written, originally recorded or made famous by by Slim Harpo, was issued in 1978 on Zeus Records. It was followed by the LP "Blues On The Move" (Robox Records) which included new 1979 recordings, and the LP "Black Blues Is Back!" (Gas Records) containing 1975-77 recordings made in Atlanta, GA, expanded with 1960 Rex material (which were also issued on two Gas 45's in 1977). Besides playing the blues, Jerry had also a "real" dayjob. For a while he worked as a private investigator (for Williams International Detective Agency, Inc.). The company was located at the Reich Hotel in Gadsden, and worked on any type of case, either civil or criminal, specialising in domestic cases. By the early 1980's the private eye's duties however seemed to be history, and once again Jerry was mainly concentrating on music activities. Still, he didn't make any new recordings until 1984, when he visited Muscle Shoals, AL and finished a new studio album called "Bad Blues Is My Business", with Harrison Calloway's orchestra and The Muscle Shoals Horns. This outing came out a couple of years later on Bad Records, along with a pair of 45's. In 1985 he issued two more singles on Merit, and in 1989 one on Heart Records. In 1989 Jerry signed with Ichiban Records which has thus far issued six of his albums ("Blues 'n' Stuff", "Love Desperado", "Struttin' My Stuff", "I've Got The Blues All Over Me", "Retrospectives", and "American Roots : Blues"). Jerry has also released the CD "Broad Street Blues Bash", a compilation for sale at the 1997 Riverfest Event (the annual music festival in the city of Gadsden, which dedicates one day totally to Jerry, billed as "The Jerry McCain Broad Street Blues Bash"). The Mike Vernon-produced 2000 release "This Stuff Just Kills Me" on Jericho/Cello was widely recognized and praised. "Unplugged" (2001) and "Boogie Is My Name" (2004) were issued on Jerry's own Music Maker/Boogiedown Records, and both albums prove that the harp maestro is still in damn good shape for his age. On a personal level, Jerry has been married three times. His latest wife, Doris Jean Spanks, died in 1997 after a hard struggle with cancer. Jerry, 75, still lives in Gadsden, runs his own night club "Boogie McCain's", and performs here and there occasionally. Despite the long period in the music business, he has no plans to retire yet. Like the man himself says, "I guess I was born that way" - and believe me Jerry, that's certainly the right way!
Same story with illustrations: http://wangdangdula.com/jerrymccainbio.htm More info: http://www.island.net/~blues/mccain.htm
Text by Pete Hoppula
(Acknowledgments: Jerry McCain, Marc Ryan, Cub Koda, Bill Dahl, Bob Fisher, Lil' Lightnin' Meths-Guzzler, Marko Tapio & David Nelson.)
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