Big Boss Man
To me, the late 1940s were one of the most fascinating times in American music history, especially for black music. In the music of guys like Louis Jordan or Louis Armstrong, you can hear snatches of everything that came before and the seeds of everything that has come since. Old-timey New Orleans jazz, gospel and Tin Pan Alley pop on the one hand, and the first rumblings of rock and roll, soul, R&B and even hip-hop on the other. (Don't believe me about the hip-hop? Check out Jordan's "Saturday Night Fish Fry." If that's not extremely old-school rap, then what is it?)
And don't believe the hype about Elvis's "All Right Mama," Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" or even Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner's "Rocket 88." Rock and roll was already a few years old by the time each of those tunes was recorded. Go listen to the competing versions of "Good Rockin' Tonight" by Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris, as well as the rest of those men's late-'40s output, and then tell me it's not rock and roll. (Or, for that matter, Houston guitarist Goree Carter's 1949 recording of "Rock Awhile," which the late New York Times pop critic Robert Palmer believed to be the first real rock song.)
Houston's own Jimmy "T-99" Nelson -- born in Philadelphia in either 1928 or 1919 -- is one of the last living embodiments to that most fertile era, a guy who predates and outlived Elvis P. long enough to win the effusive praises of Elvis C. (Though he's much younger, I would lump Dr. John in a similar artistic category.) A friend and protégé of rock pioneer Big Joe Turner who has recorded for Modern Records, Rounder and his own label in his 64-year professional career, Nelson creates music ranging from suave blues to highball-sipping pop-jazz standards to raucous old-time rock and roll, all of it infused with his amazing songwriting sensibility. (And all of it on offer on his new aptly titled album, The Legend.)
Just bring up Nelson to Roger Wood, sometime Press contributor and award-winning author/chronicler of the Houston blues scene, and listen to the enthusiasm in his voice. "Here's what I love about Jimmy," he says, the smile audible over the phone. "You go over to his house, and he's 80-something years old, and he's sitting there at that cluttered table of his in his wife-beater, just moving words around. Still writing, man. I can only hope to have that kind of dedication -- I imagine when I get to his age I'll just be sitting around drooling."
And on the scorching afternoon when I arrive at Nelson's house -- a brick duplex over where the Museum District slowly transforms into the Third Ward, it's just as Wood predicted, right down to the wife-beater. Though heavy-set, and suffering from a bum knee, Nelson still looks fit enough to pass for a former prizefighter. He's even fitter mentally. His catlike eyes are windows into a mind as agile as that of few other men, be they his age or five decades younger.
And sure enough he's still moving those words around. He's got a big binder of them open now and he flips through the pages -- his lyrics are printed on them in huge typed letters, which is fitting because his Big Joe Turner-like voice delivers them aloud in a 28-point type as well.
He cracks open one of the Heinekens Racket brought along ("Thanks a lot," he says. "You're my kind of reporter!") and takes me through the pages. "I've got so many songs I sometimes forget some of 'em," he says. His speaking voice is just like his singing voice: mostly booming but with a little bit of a sweet trill to it. "Now here's a song. A friend of mine" -- bluesman Pete Mayes -- "owns the Double Bayou ranch, and I wrote a song about the Double Bayou Dance Hall there. I'm tryin' to find out what they have out there to eat, and I hear they have sweet potato pies "
He flips a few pages and comes across the lyrics to a song by somebody else he wants to record. "Remember this one? [Sings] 'If I could be with you, one hour tonight.' "
I tell him no. "Come on, you've got to get hip now. That's an old song. Louis Armstrong did that many years ago. I've got to learn the phrasing of all the songs in this book here." He flips a few pages. "Here's 'My Wife's Outside Man.' It's too long, I've got to cut it short. When you've got a set of verses it's entirely too long, so what you need is a short intro, two verses at the top, guitar solo in the middle, one chorus and then two verses taken out -- that gives you about three minutes, 38 seconds. I'll have to arrange it like that, you see And then use those extra lyrics for another song!"
When Nelson records someone else's song, he completely revises it however he sees fit. No matter if it's a standard like "How Long Blues" or "Sweet Mr. Cleanhead," both of which he recorded (and augmented with mildly racy lyrics) with a band full of ex-Roomful of Blues-ers on 1999's Rounder release Rockin' and Shoutin' the Blues. This time around, with the August release of The Legend, the all-star band (guitarist Duke Robillard, Sax Gordon, arranger/trombonist Carl Querfurth) returns, but the album's coming out on Nelson's own Nettie Marie label. And this time the old jazz vocals standard "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" gets the T-99 treatment.
"I rewrote that song. I had always wondered why no black cats ever did that song. I found out -- in that song, they have the word 'mammy.' Forget that for a black man." (He changed it to "big mama" on one line and "my mother" on another.) "And then this line 'Take me back to where I belong.' Forget that, because no black man wants to be told where he belong." (T-99's version: "I find magic in your southern charms.")
A version of Jordan's calypso tune "Run Joe" is another of The Legend's three covers, and it illustrates one of the keystones to Nelson's musical philosophy. "I made the calypso element more pronounced," he says. "When Louis Jordan did it, he made it too fast. To me, when you do music fast you lose all feeling. On that song, you can't understand what the hell he's saying. You're going, 'What'd he say, what'd he say,' all through the tune. But if you bounce it, then everybody can understand what the lyrics are. When I listen to a song I'm not just listening to the music or how the music marries the lyrics. I listen to what the lyrics say and what they mean. Louis Armstrong was hard to understand because he slurred a lot of the lyrics. And he came up with this scat business -- ba-ba-dee-dee-daayyy -- and that was okay, but when you charge people $18 for a CD, you've got to give 'em something."
I ask him if he's heard of screw music. He hasn't, so I explain it to him: It's the slowed-down rap designed for people to listen to while high on cough syrup. "Hmm, that's an interesting idea. Might work as a novelty, but I can't see it doing much in the nightclubs."
And re-creating a nightclub ambience is what his records are all about. Though he's comfortable being described as a blues singer, his albums all have a variety of tempos, song forms and textures. "When I hear an album and the damn thing is so long and it's the same thing from top to bottom, it's monotonous to me. When I do an album, I do it just like it's in a nightclub. You want that atmosphere."
One prominent person who fell under Nelson's spell is Elvis Costello, who played Nelson's "I'm Sure Going to Miss Show Business" over the loudspeakers at the close of every show on his 2003 world tour. "I had never met him, but I was taken to his concert by Professor Wood, who told me I'd get a big surprise," Nelson remembers. "And I told [Wood], 'His music's too loud for me.' I was sittin' in the balcony. When the show was over, he was wrappin' up and he put on a song. And I heard my music: [singing] 'Oh, how I'm gonna miss show business.' And [Wood] told me he plays that when the show is over every night. I watched people leaving, and they would stop and listen to my stuff. So I went backstage and met Elvis and we had a ball. He told me, 'Jimmy, I play your stuff all over the world.' And that was so nice of him to say that. Here lately my name is gettin' out there where it's never been."
Egg's on my face. Through my editing error last week, we left out By the End of Tonight, this year's winner as the Best New Act in the Press Music Awards. For those not in the know, BTEOT is a young Alvin-based instrumental prog-rock quartet whose new record, A Tribute to Tigers, helped punch their ticket to this past year's South By Southwest. They are somewhat comparable to Austinites Explosions in the Sky (whose music provided much of the sonic backdrop for Friday Night Lights), with a big part of the difference coming from the fact that BTEOT's drummer Jeff Wilson plays an unusual kit. It's not a toy drum kit, as it is often described, but a regular drum set with a pint-sized kick-drum. (Wilson needs a close-in drum set because he has tendonitis, the band's Web site explains.) Sorry, fellows, and congratulations on your well-deserved win.
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