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Casey Jones 5/2017

casey jones, chicago blues first call drummerMay 3, 2017 – Casey Jones (Albert Collins/Johnny Winter) was born July 26, 1939  in Nitta Yuma, Mississippi and raised in Greenville. As a kid he played with the Coleman High School band, but claimed he learned more about drumming from Little Milton’s drummer Lonnie Haynes, than from the band director

In 1956 at age 17, his sister Atlean and her husband Otis Luke enticed him with the promise of a drum kit and entry into the musician’s union, if he would move to Chicago to live with them. True to his word, they went to Frank’s Drum Shop on Wabash Ave and from there on Casey Jones played drums  in Otis’s band. His first gig with Otis Luke & the Rhythm Bombers in 1956 made him $5.

“Don’t give me no dollar bills,” he said in an interview with the National Association of Music Merchants. “I wanted all quarters, nickels and dimes. I wanted to go by my friends and jingle my pockets, you know, and brag.”In a video recording of that interview, he described his glee at realizing he could sing: “They wanted me to sing ‘Lucille,’ and I hit that sucker — ‘Lucille, you won’t do your sisters will!’ ” He paused before letting loose with a screech worthy of Little Richard. “Boy, that was the end of it, then,” he said. “I say, ‘Hey, I’m a singer.’ And it was no turning back, man.”

One auspicious 1959 night, Jones was forced to sing live for the first time when the pianist leading his band was tossed in jail. He found screaming like Little Richard was pretty enjoyable too.

A little while later he met his wife Bernice when she came to hear his group play. A priest refused to marry them, saying they wouldn’t last six months because he was black and she was white. A minister married them in 1961, and they raised their family in Morgan Park in a home filled with cats, dogs, fish, birds. He liked big dogs, including his favorite — Soldier, a giant of a gray Great Dane.

Even if he was tired from having played a late set the night before, he’d volunteer his big musicians’ van — which sat about 12 — to take his kids and others on outings, according to his daughter Tiffany and son Rodney. In slim times he took a day job driving a bus.

Early ’60s session work behind Earl Hooker, A.C. Reed, McKinley Mitchell, and Muddy Waters (1964’s “You Need Love”, Black Angel and Little Brown Bird) kept Jones busy, as did playing on the South and West sides with the likes of Otis Rush and Freddy King. In those days he also recorded with many of these guys. Between 1962 and 1964 he appeared on numerous sessions for the Age label, recording behind Earl Hooker, Ricky Allen and Reggie Boyd before becoming a “first call” player for the Alligator Record Label in the late 1970s.

Bruce Iglauer, founder of Chicago’s Alligator Records, called Jones “one of the great blues drummers of his generation.”

He had gained Bruce Iglauer’s attention by helping bail-out the faltering Lonnie Brooks session that yielded the classic “Two Headed Man” on Alligator’s nascent Living Chicago Blues series in 1978, which was nominated for a Grammy Award. “My phone ain’t never stopped ringin’ after that recording,” said Jones.

When Alligator signed Collins in the late 1970s, “Casey was my first call, for a handpicked time-keeper for Collins’ band” Iglauer said. “He sparked Alligator Records’ first five Albert Collins albums, all three of our Johnny Winter albums and our first releases by Lonnie Brooks.”

After the first line of Southern Delta-bred blues legends headed north to work in Chicago, “He was kind of the next generation to come in and kind of added some funk.”

With Muddy Waters, he recorded “You Shook Me.” He also performed with Brooks, Willie Dixon, Otis Rush and Magic Sam. But his association with Collins lasted the longest and came at a time Collins was “at the top of his form.” As a member of Collins’ Icebreakers, he toured with the blues guitar great for about a decade, after which he focused on his own band and singing.

Casey Jones played on six Grammy-nominated Alligator albums, including the 1985 Grammy winner “Showdown,” a “blues summit” featuring Collins, Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland. He also performed often at Chicago’s Blues Fest and at the Kingston Mines.

“At Kingston Mines, he was playing every week for somebody,” said Justin O’Brien, a contributor to Living Blues. “I think he was there 25 years, since he stopped touring with Albert Collins in the late 80s.”

Jones married the grit of Delta blues with the serpentine wave rhythms of ’70s funk. “His bass drum-playing had that contemporary funkiness, while his hands played more traditionally,” Iglauer said. “He lifted up every song he played. And he was an excellent R&B singer.” He was uniquely adept at the Chicago Shuffle — a style with a driving canter of a beat.

“Entire record labels were being based off of that feel,” said Lance Lewis, a blues musician and manager at Kingston Mines.

Besides Albert Collins, with whom he recorded his Frostbite and Ice Pickin‘ albums and Johnny Winter with whom he appeared on Serious Business, Guitar Slinger and True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story albums, he was also a powerful R&B singer and record producer.

As a session drummer in the 70s and 80s he worked with artists such as Lou Rawls, Otis Rush, Muddy Waters and Johnny Winter. For almost a decade he recorded and toured as the drummer of Albert Collin’s band.

After that time he started exploring his own music as he recorded 4 albums of his own works, while holding down Sunday nights at Chicago’s popular Kingston Mines nightclub for two decade or more — a period that saw his own discography grow steadily. 1987’s Solid Blue for Rooster Blues preceded the formation of his own label, Airwax Records (source of his last few CDs, including Still Kickin’,  The Crowd Pleaser and [I-94] On My Way to Chicago in 1995).

In later years he promoted himself more as vocalist, songwriter and entertainer in front of the band. He released another album in 2011, titled “Meet me at the Junction”.

On May 3, 2017 Casey passed away from prostate cancer at age 77.

 

 

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