Billy Jones: The Urbanization of Delta Blues
“ What I want to do is to re-introduce the young urban audience to the music of their heritage by presenting it in a format that they can appreciate. ”
It's a long way from the rich, fertile delta lands of North Little Rock, Ark., to the Netherlands, where Billy Jones records for Dutch blues label Black and Tan Records, but it was a route of which he never lost sight.
Born into the segregated south, he was exposed to the driving beat of the blues when he was still an infant. In the crib, he could hear it as it permeated the walls against which he slept. This sound which spoke to him gave him an early direction in life he has pursued to this day.
His early memories are of a juke joint where he would draw inspiration; the images, and the folks he knew then are the stuff of his songs. They gave him a mind-set that would drive him to perfect his craft as a guitar slinging blues man.
Billy Jones is betting that the blues can experience a revival of interestwhat is needed is a fresh infusion of imagination. And to capture a bigger share of the Black music market, what is needed is for the blues to once again become relevant to the African-American experience.
All About Jazz: Before we talk of how a Delta blues artist gets signed by a Dutch-owned label, i.e., Black and Tan Records, let's talk of how you started in this business. What was your first exposure to the blues, and what are some of your earliest memories of this music?
Billy Jones: I was raised from the age of six months in my grandfather's cafe and boarding house, The Cedar Street Cafe903 Cedar StreetNorth Little Rock, Ark. The room that we lived in was directly behind the wall of the main ballroom where the jukebox was. My crib was on the other side of that wall, so as a baby I would be laying there listening to Elmore James, Big Joe Turner, Jackie Wilson, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke and all the blues and soul greats while the cafe customers played records and partied well into the night. My bed would vibrate on the bass notes.
That was my first exposure to the music. I absorbed the music as I could literally hear it in my sleep. One of the first thoughts that I remember having was that I wanted to be like B.B. King and Elmore James.
There was this dangerous juke-joint/nightclub place down the road from my grandfather's cafe called Jim Lindsey's Place. Many of the big "chittlin' circuit" stars of the day used to perform there, like Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Bobby Blue Bland. Sometimes at night when everyone else was asleep, I would sneak out of the room and climb up high in an old chinaberry tree and watch what was going on over at Jim Lindsey's Place. I could hear the band from there and pretend that it was me onstage.
All the pimps, players, dealers, whores and gangsters used to hang out there and someone was always getting shot or stabbed on a regular basis. Remember that this was the segregated south, so whenever someone would call for an ambulance for a shooting, or fight, at a club, they would send a hearse from the black-owned funeral home instead of an ambulance. If the victim was still alive they would take them to a black doctor ... If not, they would take them to the funeral home.
Of course, I thought that these were the "beautiful people" and I wanted to be just like them when I grew up. Especially the musicians, with their tight-legged, sharkskin suits and Stacy Adams shoes, their jewelry and the way they wore their hair in a process. And the women! The way they used to dress back then looked so glamorous! Of course, Bobby "Blue" Bland's Cadillac ... "No medical school for me dad ... I'm gonna be a blues star."
The house band for Jim Lindsey's Place lived in an upstairs room over the club, and during the day I would go over there and try to hang out around them. They could tell that I really wanted to be a guitarist.
There was this one musician who played at the club named Red Harpo ... he told me that he was Slim Harpo's brother. I believed him. Whether he was or not, one thing is true, Red could play the hell out of a guitar! ... There was an air of excitement about him. Women would fight over him. He would let me come up to his room sometimes and talk to him, while he would sip "Golden Rod" wine on ice and play and sing for me, and show me how to play the new hit songs of the day, while I soaked-in all the information that he was giving me about being a real musician.
By the time I was 14-years old, I was hanging out at "Williams Pool Hall." One day, this older guy pulled up in a 1957 Chevy station wagon packed full of amplifiers, microphones and drums. He came in. He had that same air of excitement about him that Red had. He said that he was in a band and he had a gig booked in Lonoke, Ark., that night and that he heard me play guitar and they were looking for a guitarist. He said that his name was Hosea Levy and that he and his younger brother Calvin Levy would pay me $6 if I played with them and Willie Cobb, Little Johnny Taylor and Larry "Totsie" Davis that night. I didn't tell him that I had never played in a band before. I was 14-years old and I was going on the road! I was trying to be cool and I agreed to go with him. But I was so excited to be going to play with a real band!
That was the first day that I went on the road with the Levy Brothers Band, and the beginning of a lifetime journey into the world of the blues. I've been on the road ever since. So it was "on the job training" for me.