"I'll miss the one-night stands / travelin' from town to town / the friendly faces / and the hecklin' clowns / racin' down the road to make the gig on time / the highway patrol and the soul food signs / I dig the backstage smoke / before the show goes on / the MCs jokin' and carryin' on / these and other things can be a part of my heart's memory." Jimmy "T-99" Nelson, "I'll Miss Show Business"
Life did not cheat Jimmy "T-99" Nelson, who passed away last Sunday at 88. After rolling out of his native Philadelphia in the Great Depression, Nelson went on to write a nightlife column for a California newspaper, pal around with Percy Mayfield in Oakland, mentor Big Joe Turner across America and hobnob with Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday in San Francisco.
He topped the R&B charts in the early '50s with "T-99 Blues," the woozy little West Coast-style piano/guitar number with catchy backing vocals that furnished his nickname. His generation helped morph 1940s swing and jump blues into rock and roll, and Nelson is one of the forgotten heroes of that transformation.
Jimmy "T-99" Nelson
Eventually the broad-shouldered, cat-eyed Nelson settled in Houston, where he took a job pouring concrete and helped build the Astrodome. After taking a couple of decades off from recording, if not performing, he went back into the studio in the 1990s. His comeback was a smashing success.
Records like Rockin' and Shoutin' the Blues, Take Your Pick and The Legend got him nominated for Handy Awards and punched his ticket to festival gigs from Europe to the West Coast. His old recordings were rereleased in a quality package called Cry Hard Luck. And Elvis Costello would adopt Nelson's "I'll Miss Show Business" as his 2002 world tour's unofficial theme song.
When Nelson's time came to die, he even swindled the reaper out of an extra year. "He was diagnosed with cancer and given ten days or two weeks to live back in August of last year," says Nelson's close friend and Houston blues scholar Dr. Roger Wood. "You or me or any other man probably would have just gone ahead and died. Not Jimmy he was like an old oak tree goin' down slow."
Nelson's powerhouse, Big Joe Turner-style vocals drew most of what shamefully insufficient ink he got in his lifetime, but his songwriting was even better, and his name deserves to be known far and wide. He was up there with guys like Percy Mayfield and Doc Pomus as one of the greatest lyricists in the history of the blues.
"I've been trying to push that idea on people for a long time," says Rhode Island-based trombonist Carl Querfurth, a longtime Roomful of Blues member who played on and helped produce Nelson's late-period albums. "He's so creative, his language is so different than anybody else's. He had a way of crafting a song that was totally unique, his concept of what the language is and how you can use words.
"It's so fantastic, and no one really appreciated that," Querfurth continues. "Well, some did, but people in the industry didn't really get it, I don't think."
Take Nelson's neglected, world-weary Yuletide lament "By Christmas I'll Be Home," which features this immortal, Tom Waits-worthy verse: "Tired of being a you-can't-tell-me-nothin', just-won't-listen old jackass, fightin' this cold world alone / after I screw my head on straight, by Christmas I'll be home."
That's just one killer verse among many; why isn't that song in the national Christmas repertoire yet? And how did he make all those syllables fit?
"He used to tell me about how he would write songs with Percy Mayfield, and their ideas about where the vocal rhythm should go," says Querfurth. "His phrasing, I hear it when I hear Percy Mayfield, too. You look at their words on paper [and] you wouldn't think they would fit, but Jimmy makes them fit. In the studio, he would show me his lyrics and say, 'Carl, here's the third verse.'
"I would say, 'Jimmy, there's no way that will all fit in there.' But it would."
The day after Nelson's death, Wood broke out a bottle of whiskey, cued up Nelson's complete recorded works on his iPod and settled in his dark living room alone. To him, "I'll Miss Show Business" still sounded every bit the classic American song it did when released in 1999.
"It's got so much of humanity in it," Wood says. "Yeah, it's just the entertainment segment, the blues segment, but it's like this. Jimmy loved life and he loved people and he loved all the stuff he talks about in that song: the backstage smoke, racing down the road to make the gig on time, the MC cracking jokes out on the stage, the pretty girls on the front row waiting to see the band, getting home to his wife. Hearing yesterday, it hit me that it was like a Shakespeare play it's got all of humanity in it. No knock on Jimmy's brothers and sisters in the local scene, but few people wrote songs like that."
Nelson was also a master of rewriting standards. In his hands, songs like "How Long Blues," "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying," "Sweet Mr. Cleanhead" and "Sleepy Time Down South" were totally transformed. He had no qualms about adding his own, often raunchy, lyrics, or switching up the tempo or arrangements.
Take "Cabaret," for example. In Nelson's Dirty South version of the 1966 Broadway number set in the Weimar Republic, he encourages people to "shut off your computers" and "that hot Web page" and get out into the clubs, where you can hear music and eat gumbo and fried fish and drink wine.
"Don't get pissed off by the prophet of doom," he urges. "And have him pee on your parade / put some fun back in your life oh lonesome one / zydeco the night away old lonesome one / get yourself to this French Quarter cabaret."
His rewrites totally reinvigorate the songs; you come away thinking his version was the first, and best.
"It's very common for blues acts of his generation to do standards," Wood says. "But rarely ever does anyone take a standard and add not just a line, but verses and verses of detail, and you hear 'em and think, 'Those are the best lyrics in the whole song, and that song's been around for 60 years.'"
He enhanced them so much he deserved partial songwriting credit and he knew it, too.
"He would say, 'Isn't there something I can do to get my name on there?' remembers Querfurth. "I told him that he would have to get in touch with the guy that originally wrote it, and most of them weren't around anymore, and their executors weren't gonna let anybody put their name on anything. It's a tough deal, 'cause he wrote some great new lyrics for some of those songs."
Nelson was among the most urbane of bluesmen, a suave and sophisticated cat in the tradition founded by Leroy Carr that extended through Jimmie Rushing, T-Bone Walker and Cleanhead Vinson. In his youth, and as attested to by the singles collected on Cry Hard Luck, he rocked and rolled alongside pioneers like Roy Brown, Big Joe Turner and Wynonie Harris, but as he aged, he often favored even older styles.
And man, did he sport some amazing Depression-era hepcat lingo. At one session, guitarist Milton Hopkins hit a lick Nelson dug so much he shouted, "That's the way to get the butter from the duck, son!" Guitarist Sean Carney collected a few Jimmy-isms, such as "We're gonna give the babies away," "My vines have tender grapes," "I'll say a Chinese prayer for you" and "Watch your black language!"
Querfurth remembers another.
"'While the flava lasts,'" he recalls Nelson as fond of saying. "He would just say that off the cuff in any instance: 'While the flava lasts.'" Indeed, his business card bears the Zen-like legend "The blues is a feelin' as long as the flavor lasts."
Querfurth thinks Nelson's long hiatus from music during the late '50s and '60s fixed him permanently in an earlier time. "He never went through that period of modernizing, which was great," he says.
Or maybe Nelson was just stubborn.
"I don't know if it was actually that or if it was that you just weren't gonna change the way he thought," Querfurth says. "He was definitely a guy who did everything his own way and was not gonna be twisted and contorted by whatever was around him."
When I visited with him at his Third Ward duplex on Calumet Street almost exactly two years ago, Nelson was as much the creative dynamo as ever. His cluttered home was piled high with papers and binders full of lyrics, song fragments he tinkered with each and every day.
The day I was there, he was working on a song about a day at Pete Mayes's Double Bayou Dance Hall, making sure he had all the details in order, right down to the homemade sweet potato pies.
"I just wrote an e-mail to some of the guys that played with us on those albums, and I told them I felt like there were probably albums and albums worth of stuff that he never got to do," Querfurth says.
And it could be that Nelson wouldn't have had it any other way. Years ago, he shared his philosophy with an interviewer like this: "You got to know when to walk off. You've got to leave them wanting more."
And even though he spent damn near 90 years on this planet, he certainly did just that.
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