K.C. DOUGLAS (By Dominic Turner)
Born Born K.C. Clanton, 21 November 1913, Sharon, Mississippi
Despite originally hailing from the Mississippi-Tennessee border just 50 miles from Memphis, K.C. Douglas was to become one of the last great rural blues guitarists of the post-war West Coast blues scene. His principal claim to fame concerns having written and recorded the renowned "Mercury Blues", a real gutbucket blues tune subsequently covered by artists as disparate as the Steve Miller Band, Alan Jackson (a no. 1 country hit in 1992), Canned Heat, Norton Buffalo and David Lindley. But the K.C. Douglas story runs a shade deeper than that. Born into a strict Baptist family, and baptised with just the initials "K.C.", Douglas grew up on a Mississippi farm. His father was a minister with a deep distrust of the blues and all that it represented. But the eastern Mississippi was blues territory "par excellence", and almost inevitably the young Douglas developed a deep curiosity for the recordings of Son House, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Tommy McClennan. He was mesmerised by one man in particular: the legendary Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson.
Having worked from an early age as a farmhand, K.C. left home at the relatively late age of 21 to seek more lucrative employment in the Mississippi towns of Grenada and Carthage. Throughout the 1930s, he worked in saw-mills, on railroads, in construction teams, and briefly even earned a living as a buck dancer. But it was music that held the greatest fascination for Douglas, and on acquiring a guitar in 1936, he began learning the fundamentals of the instrument from his uncle. However, it was a meeting later that year with idol Tommy Johnson in Jackson, Mississippi, that convinced Douglas that his future was as a blues performer. Johnson taught him the secrets of his dazzling guitar technique, and the two busked together on street corners and at parties.
By the end of the war years, Douglas had moved to California to work in the Kaiser naval shipyard as a government recruit. He soon became a central figure on the San Francisco/Oakland blues scene, and formed a band called the Lumberjacks in 1947. His nimble guitar-picking and warm baritone vocals, still very reminiscent of Tommy Johnson, proved quite popular, and he became a fixture in the Bay Area clubs. Douglas's debut recordings were issued on the local Downtown label in 1948, and in 1949 he had a minor hit with "Mercury Boogie", subsequently renamed "Mercury Blues". The recording featured harmonica player Sidney Maiden, and Douglas accompanied his heartfelt vocal on a guitar loaned to him by Lowell Fulson. The Ford Motor Company bought the rights to the song in 1998.
Still, this success did not provide economic security for Douglas and he continued to work as a labourer throughout the '50s and '60s, using music to supplement his income. By now a prolific songwriter, he recorded additional material for Arhoolie owner Chris Strachwitz in 1960-63 (Strachwitz later leased the resulting albums to Bluesville), and backed bluesman Mercy Dee at about this time.
Douglas also went on to record for Fantasy towards the end of the decade, but did not reach the height of his fame until 1970, when he appeared at the Berkeley Blues Festival. However, age was now upon him, and he succumbed to a fatal heart attack in October 1975 at Berkeley. Fittingly, his body was taken back to Mississippi for burial at Pleasant Green Cemetery.
a.. K.C.'s Blues (Bluesville/OBC)
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