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.
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."