Born: August 8, 1923 | Died: September, 1997 Primary Instrument: Vocal
One of the great post-war blues shouters, Jimmy Witherspoon, or 'Spoon, as he's known throughout the jazz and blues world, straddled the line between blues and jazz, becoming an integral participant in the history of both of these classic genres of American music.
Born August 8, 1923, in Gurdon, Arkansas, the young James Witherspoon sang in church choirs much like his railroad worker father. Confidence came early as he won first prize in a singing competition at the age of five. While in his teens, Witherspoon decided to try his luck pursuing a singing career and ran away to Los Angeles. It was there that he decided to become a blues singer after seeing a performance by Big Joe Turner.
Bouncing around from job to job and not having much success as a singer, Witherspoon joined the merchant marines in 1941. Moving to San Francisco in 1944, Witherspoon would sing on weekends at a club called The Waterfront in nearby Vallejo, California. Witherspoon got his big break when he was heard by bandleader Jay McShann, with whom he spent close to four years. Witherspoon eventually did go his own way with, leaving McShann's band to record as a soloist for the Supreme label. In 1949, after a few recordings that went nowhere, 'Spoon recorded a version of Ain't Nobody's Business, which would become his signature song and featured McShann and others from the old band, went to number one on the R&B charts and stayed on the charts for 34 months, longer than any previous R&B tune. Witherspoon's next release, In the Evening When the Sun Goes Down, reached the number five spot, following this, 'Spoon released a number of albums on a variety of labels including Modern, Federal, and the legendary Chess label.
Virtually ignored by jazz and rock audiences and with financial hardships stalling large, swinging blues bands like McShann's, the rest of the 1950s found Witherspoon playing the chitlin circuit, a network of small black-owned clubs that played to mostly black audiences. For a while he played bass and sang at a club in Newport, Kentucky in a small band that also featured famed blues pianist Charles Brown. In 1959, however, 'Spoon was invited to appear at the Monterey Jazz Festival with an all-star group that included tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, trumpeter Roy Eldridge, alto saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, clarinetist Woody Herman, trombonist Urbie Green, and pianist Earl Fatha Hines. The electrifying performance, recorded and released as “Jimmy Witherspoon at Monterey,” propelled Witherspoon into the limelight as one of the leading singers of blues-laced jazz and put his career back on track. 'Spoon landed a recording contract with Atlantic, began to sing for larger crowds, and was featured in Jon Hendricks's historic program, Evolution of the Blues, at the 1960 Monterey Jazz Festival. These live recordings are available as “The Spoon Concerts.”
Like most jazz and blues performers, Witherspoon was especially successful in Europe and toured and recorded there many times since the early 1960s. Although he continued to record and tour, success on the record charts proved elusive for Witherspoon. In the 1970s, while hosting a late night radio blues program in Los Angeles, Witherspoon had his first chart success since 1960 with the song, Love is a Five Letter Word on Capitol Records. He continued, however, to record and perform for enthusiastic, albeit smaller, audiences.
In the late 1970s, Witherspoon was diagnosed with throat cancer and faced the possibility of never being able to sing again. For a while he couldn't even swallow. A throat operation and radiation treatment in England kept Witherspoon out of recording studios and clubs for a few years and took its toll on the veteran singer's dynamic style. After getting his singing back to where it was, Witherspoon noticed he could now reach a lower vocal register that before his operation was unattainable. Witherspoon forged ahead and went on to cut a remarkable 1986 album Midnight Lady Called The Blues, written and produced by Dr. John and Doc Pomus.
The1990s found Witherspoon at his most active, including touring with singer Van Morrison, in support of Morrison's “A Night in San Francisco,” album, on which Witherspoon appeared, as well as his own headlining gigs to promote reissues of earlier Witherspoon albums and recent releases. One such album, a live album with guitarist Robben Ford, entitled “Live at the Mint,” was the most welcome. A return to his roots but with a more upbeat feel, courtesy of Ford and his band, Witherspoon shouts through lively renditions of songs, some of which he'd been singing for more than 40 years. `Spoon's swinging Jazz sensibilities are front and center on songs like Basie's `Goin' to Chicago and his signature tune, `Ain't Nobody's Business,' wrote DownBeat reviewer Michael Point, but he's lost none of his ability to drop down into a convincing blues mood, as amply demonstrated by his powerful renditions of `Goin' Down Slow' and an assortment of Big Bill Broonzy classics.
Live at the Mint went on to be nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues recording only to lose out to harmonica player Junior Wells. Still, the warm reception to the album and Grammy nomination did much to introduce- -or reintroduce-- Witherspoon to a group of fans.
. He re-teamed with guitarist Robben Ford for Live At The Notodden Blues Festival, and cut a 1992 album The Blues, The Whole Blues and Nothin' But The Blues for Indigo Records. Spoon's last recording Spoon's Blues for Stony Plain Records featured Duke Robillard and his band with special guest Long John Baldry.
Jimmy Witherspoon passed away in September of 1997 at the age of 74 an acknowledged giant in the fields of Rhythm & Blues and Jazz and a true American original. For more than a half century Jimmy Witherspoon graced the stages and recording studios of the country and showed the world that he was indeed a talent for the ages.
Source: James Nadal