Born: April 8, 1908 | Died: 1960 Primary Instrument: Guitar, acoustic
Tommy McClennan - Blues Singer, guitarist
For a short time, Tommy McClennan had the world of blues in the palm of his hand. Tracked down in rural Mississippi by Bluebird Records, the most prestigious blues label of the day, signed to a recording contract, and brought to Chicago, McClennan escaped the grueling existence of a black farm hand almost effortlessly. In Chicago, he met all the leading blues musicians of the time, including the Chicago blues Godfathers, Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red.
In just over two years with Bluebird, he recorded 40 songs. Then abruptly McClennan's alcoholism gained the upper hand. After February of 1942, he never recorded again. Over the next ten years he performed sporadically in clubs and on the streets. Eventually he vanished so completely into Chicago's poor, black underclass that his death has never been confirmed. The 40 songs he left behind, however, reveal the unique talent of a powerful blues singer.
Little is known about Tommy McClennan's early life. He was born sometime in April 1908 in Yazoo County, Mississippi, probably on the J.F. Sligh farm, where he was raised. It is assumed that he started playing guitar as a teenager. He performed on the streets of Yazoo City, nine miles from the Sligh farm, in the 1920s. Before long he was playing with other local musicians. Booker Miller remembered traveling with McClennan in the late 1920s. Mississippi singer-guitarist David Honeyboy Edwards played with McClennan around the town of Greenwood, Mississippi. McClennan also played house parties regularly enough in Itta Bena, Mississippi, with Robert Petway that Edwards would later say the two men had the same style.
Sometime in the late 1930s, Big Bill Broonzy, a Mississippi bluesman then based in Chicago, told Lester Melrose about McClennan. Melrose was a white music store owner and music publisher who ran the Chicago offices of RCA Victor's Bluebird label. Melrose became so enthusiastic about recording McClennan that he made up his mind to drive down to Yazoo City and bring him back to Chicago to record. Somehow Melrose managed to get McClennan up to Chicago. The new Bluebird artist was a small man with a compact frame. The one surviving photo of him shows a man dressed in a stylish suit with wide lapels, a striped silk tie, a Panama hat tilted at a jaunty angle, who peers off camera without a trace of emotion. McClennan's first Bluebird session was held on November 2, 1939. It was just Tommy and his guitar. The session produced stark discordant music that was very much out of character for the label that had produced smooth, accomplished, almost pop performances by musicians like Jr. Gillum, Fats Waller, and Tampa Red.
McClennan cut some of his most popular numbers at that first session, including Whiskey Head Woman and New Shake 'Em On Down, closely modeled on Bukka White's hit, Shake 'Em On Down. Another tune he cut at the first session was the controversial Bottle Up And Go. Over the next two years, McClennan performed four more sessions for Bluebird, in May and December 1940, and September 1941. At the latter, he recorded Cross Cut Saw Blues, later covered by numerous artists. His final session at Bluebird took place on February 20, 1942 in Chicago. He cut eight tracks-the number he always cut-with the same forceful singing and rough n' ready guitar he had displayed on other outings. When his session was over, Tommy joined his old friend Robert Petway who was recording in the same studio just afterwards. He took the vocal on Petway's Boogie Woogie Woman. It was destined to be his last appearance on record. Bluebird dropped him from their roster of artists not much later. His drinking had made him too unreliable.
Cut loose by his record company, McClennan declined deeper into alcoholism over the next decade. He performed less and less. After a while he simply disappeared into the black slums of Chicago. According to blues researcher Gayle Wardlow, McClennan died destitute in the early 1960s. It is impossible to say for sure as no death record exists.
Tommy McClennan represented the end of a line-the rough and tumble country blues musician accompanied by his own acoustic guitar. By the end of the 1940s, that sound, the sound of Charley Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson, was overtaken by a new sound. It was just as raw but played on electric guitars. McClennan's legacy was his influence on later artists like Muddy Waters and the songs he left behind.
Source: Gerald E. Brennan