WILLIE MABON (By Phil Davies)
Born Willie James Mabon, 24 October 1925, Hollywood, Tennessee
Willie taught himself rudimentary piano skills in Tennessee and took formal lessons when his family moved to Chicago in 1942.His roots lay in boogie woogie and jazz styles. He was heavily influenced by Cripple Clarence Lofton,Big Maceo, Roosevelt Sykes and Charles Brown. He spent the latter part of WW2 in the US Marines, before returning to the local club scene in the Windy City. He recorded as Big Willie for the Apollo label in 1949 and also joined guitarist Earl Dranes in the Blues Rockers on Aristocrat (Leonard Chess bought a handful of masters from dj Al Benson). He worked regularly in the black clubs and his asking price for a night's work rose dramatically when his 1952 debut release on powerful local deejay Al Bensons Parrot logo, I Don't Know (penned by Mabon/Thomas) topped the R&B charts for eight weeks after being sold to Chess. Hymie Weiss, the NY Chess distributor, was responsible for the record's success in Harlem (via 50 dollar "handshakes" ie an early form of p ayola) which he claimed helped to break the record nationwide.
The novelty blues song was adapted from a 1938 Cripple Clarence Lofton song. A few cover versions popped up with Tennessee Ernie Ford covering it in his boogie phase on Capitol. Mabon made a few thousand dollars off Chess from sales (and could rely on them for rent money and xmas hampers for awhile) but like many artists of the era depended on increased takings at the box office to make a tidy living. Some of his contemporaries allege he took a gun to the Chess office to get more of his dues (the Chess finances being controversial even back then). Willie's widow and the Chess family deny it ever happened. Chess were naive in the publishing world then and sold the rights to I Don't Know to another company Republic Music. Later they established Arc Music to make money from publishing, this lack of foresight back then cost themselves and Willie in particular plenty of money. By not signing up with BMI Mabon missed out on much of the monies earned from Ford's cover.
At the end of 53 Willie was listed in a jukebox poll amongst the most promising, best artist and best record, tellingly in 1954 the more hard hiting r&b sounds of Little Walter and Howlin Wolf polled higher.
Willie was a handsome stylish man who always looked sharp in his tuxedo. His sly, insinuating vocals and chunky piano style won the heart of many an R&B fan during the early '50s. His other Chess r&b hits I'm Mad (number 1 in 1953) and Mel London's Poison Ivy (number 8 in 1954) established the pianist as a genuine Chicago blues force (listed in Cash Box's top 25 R &B stars of 1955 along with Muddy, Wolf, Walter and Lowell Fulson), but he faded as an R&B hitmaker as rock & roll ruled the waves . Chess were crafty enough to record a female answer to I'm Mad, I'm Glad by Mitzi Mars. Throughout his Chess tenure, piano and sax were consistently to the fore rather than guitar and harp, emphasizing Mabon's cool R&B approach. Willie's original version ofWillie Dixon's hoodoo-driven The Seventh Son was less successful in 1955, the remainder of his fine Chess catalogue also missed out on the rock n roll boom.
Willie never regained his momentum after leaving Chess in 1956. He stopped at Federal in 1957, Mad in 1960, Formal in 1962 (where he stirred up some local sales with his leering "Got to Have Some"), and USA in 1963-64. Willie sat out much of the late '60s but came back strong after moving to Paris in 1972, recording and touring Europe prolifically until his death. He played many of the big European festivals in Montreux, Berlin and Holland.
MCA need to put out a decent compilation of his seminal sides instead of continually repackaging Muddy, Wolf, Chuck n Bo. The fact that artists as diverse as Screamin Jay Hawkins, BB & Freddie King, Bill Wyman, Rod Stewart, the Blues Band, the Blues Brothers and Eddy Clearwater (to name a few) have covered Willie's songs shows that there's a market out there for fans seeking out the originals.
7th Son - deleted 1993 Charly 16 track Chess compilation (alt of I'm Mad)
otherwise expensive 4cd compilations like MCA's Chess Blues or Rock Rhythm N Roll.
Ace have a fine House Rockin Blues VA Chess anthology cd with Poison Ivy on it
Indigo's superb cheap 3cd box R & B Hits of 52 has I Don't Know
There are many later Mabon cds out there (which I haven't heard)
The Tennessee Ernie Ford I Don't Know cover can be found on the Capitol Ultimate 2cd. Screamin' Jay's epic 7 minute version is on SJH Live Olympia Paris 1998 2cd on Last Call records (is that our French SAOers in the background? ;-))
Thanks to AMG
Spinning Blues Into Gold -Chess Records by Nadine Cohodas, Aurum Press, 2000
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