Saturday, September 26, 2009

All Around Man

Lexington, Mississippi bluesman Lonnie Pitchford died of AIDS in 1998, a month beyond his 43rd birthday. If you've read the chapter on Pitchford in Robert Nicholson's book Mississippi Blues Today!, you might find it amazing that he lived as long as he did. Nicholson recounts, in jaw-dropping fashion, his unsuccesful attempt to keep up with the hard-living, pleasure-seeking Pitchford for 24 hours. Nicholson's night with Pitchford involved copious amounts of lying and alcohol, refueled by a visit to the bootlegger in the middle of the night. Although Pitchford stayed up until dawn drinking, Nicholson was amazed that he was up at 9:00 AM with a bottle of Colt 45 and Oprah on the TV.

At the Sunflower River Blues Festival in Clarksdale one year (I don't quite remember which) in the early nineties, Pitchford was all over the place - performing, listening, helping out, wandering around. And every time I saw him, he always seemed pretty drunk. But he was incredibly patient with one of his mentors, Eugene Powell, who recorded before World War II as Sonny Boy Nelson. The very elderly Powell was still able to play sing his blues and play guitar, but was no longer able to tune his instrument. When Pitchford realized that Powell was having trouble, he mounted the stage, tuned his teacher's guitar, and handed it back. Powell, probably acting on instinct, immediately reached out and turned one of the tuning pegs, destroying the younger man's work. Pitchford sighed, took the guitar back, and retuned it.

Pitchford's other mentor was the great Robert Lockwood, Jr., often called "Robert Junior" Lockwood, since his mother was the girlfriend of Robert Johnson. Many bluesmen hung around Robert Johnson and picked up licks and techniques. Lockwood was, however, apparently the only musician whom Johnson taught directly. He learned well, amplified Johnson's lessons (listen to "Talk a Little Walk With Me" from Lockwood's first recording session in 1941), and, years later, passed the lessons on to Lonnie. The beautiful "See See Rider" from Pitchford's only full-length album, All Around Man, illustrates the Lockwood influence on Lonnie's playing.

The name of that Rooster Blues album is appropriate - not only because Pitchford performs Bo Carter's wonderfully dirty song of the same name, but because he covers so many musical bases. When he first came to the attention of the larger blues community, Pitchford was known for two things: his moving, virtuoso performances on the "diddley bow," the one-string guitar, and for his precise and passionate renditions of Robert Johnson's songs. All Around Man presents Pitchford in those two settings, as well as the Robert Lockwood-influenced style mentioned above, the haunting hill country style he apparently learned from his father, as a modern blues electric guitarist in front of a band, and even as a jazz/funk soloist (on Donnie Hathaway's "The Ghetto"). And he's the best of the three bassists that appear on the album. He sounds totally natural and convincing on all of this. The only setting in which he disappoints is as a jazzy piano soloist; he doesn't have either the chops or musical knowledge to make much of "My Sunny," his simplification of the Bobby Hebb tune.

Although All Around Man is his only album, Pitchford contributed tracks to the German "Living Country Blues" series (partially reissued on Evidence), the concert that produced the Columbia album Roots of Rhythm & Blues: A Tribute to the Robert Johnson Era, the Deep Blues soundtrack, and volume one of the National Downhome Blues Festival albums on Southland. But one of my most highly prized records is an LP of gorgeous Mississippi gospel by The Star Lite Singers. One of the Star Lites was the Rev. Charles Pitchford; he recruited his brother to play guitar and bass on their Footprint of Jesus album. I bought this record in Clarksdale around 1992; I suspect that not many people outside of Mississippi have heard it. Lonnie doesn't solo, but every shuffle rhythm and fill he plays is just perfect.

Charles officiated at his brother's funeral when the end came. Years ago, I read an online account of the service, but it has since been lost somewhere in the tubes of the interweb. But from what I remember, Rev. Pitchford's funeral sermon was unapologetic, even defiant, about his brother's lifestyle, taking the position that Lonnie was given the talent to play and sing the blues by God, and that he followed his path as well he was able. With any great artist, it's hard to know how much we can separate the man and music. If Lonnie Pitchford hadn't lived so fast and so hard, maybe his music wouldn't be so moving. But, hearing "See See Rider," "Lonesome Blues," or "Don't You Do That No More," it's hard not to regret the mode of living that brought early death to such a talent.


Chris Albertson said...

Thank you, Jeff, for that well-written, informative and thoughtful piece on Lonnie Pitchford. You don't post to your blog often, but when you do, it's always worth reading at least once. This one will be [i]re[/i]-read by me, at least once.

Anonymous said...

I recently stopped in Ebenezer Ms to pay my respects ... gorgeous, well -kept cemetery, Elmore James nearby and Lonnie buried in his family's plot ... gravestone has a one string affixed a diddly-bo ... church service was in session.... felt like Lonnie and family were 'there' ... Terrific player, died too young.