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.
AAJ: How old were you when you first picked up the guitar? How did you become this accomplished musician that you are today?
BJ: It's hard for me to remember when I didn't have a guitar ... it's just something that I've always wanted to do.
Because I loved guitars so much, around age four or five years old, my uncle Vernon had given me a little plastic toy guitar with a music-box handle that played "Pop Goes the Weasel" when you turned it. It was instant love. I used to stand in front of the jukebox with that little guitar and pretend that I was every artist whose record was playing. I was always running around holding that guitar. I don't think I ever put it down.
I think I really started getting serious about it during the summer between the fifth and sixth grade. I didn't play with the other children in my neighborhood that much. I hung around adult musicians and spent most of my time learning songs from records and trying to sound like the guys on the recordings. Sometimes I would hang out with the winos and perform for them. Some of my family thought I was weird. But music is both my occupation and my recreation. And I spent almost every waking moment playing it and studying and imitating the artists that I idolized ... I guess that I was kinda weird.
AAJ: How did you start to play gigs traveling from military installation to installation, entertaining military members and their dependents? Were you in the military at the time?
BJ: No, I was not in the military. I always regretted that I didn't join the Air Force. I think that I would have liked it. This was during my 20s, after I had started my own band and was playing a lot of Rick James, Cameo, Funkadelic, Stanley Clarke, and Hendrix, Bar-Kays, Commodores, Gap, Zapp and that kinda thing.
At that time, I was being booked by this big-shot "Clive Davis"-type guy named Gene Williams, who was really hooked-up with the Grand Ol' Opry and the Nashville scene and was managing Ferlin Husky, Claude King and Donna Douglas, who played the part of Elli Mae on the television show The Beverly Hillbillies.
Since he couldn't book a black band in the "Country Music Capitol of the World," he started booking me into NCO and officer's clubs on naval stations, Air Force bases, Army posts and military installations all over the United States. I lived the military lifestyle without actually being in the military. GI women are great!
I learned a lot and made a lot of friends ... to this day I have the highest respect for military personnel. They are great people. They work hard and they play hard ... and they love hard.
AAJ: Where did this traveling take you?
BJ: To over 42 states ... countless times. And to many clubs and shows that were booked off-base when we were in whatever city. I did that for 10 years. I loved it!
AAJ: So you weren't traveling to Europe. Was it while traveling like this that you first met Jan Mittendorp of the Black and Tan Record label? How did he come to sign you for his label?
BJ: I met Jan Mittendorp in 2004 when I sent a promotional CD of my music to him. He liked what I was doing and flew me over to Amsterdam to record some of my songs for Black and Tan Records.
A few months later, after the Tha' Bluez CD was released, I went back to do a month-long tour of Europe to support the release. We liked each other instantly and have been working together ever since.
He's a great guy to work with, and I have complete artistic freedom to style my music any way that I see fit.
AAJ: According to sources, you have a unique take on the "corporate game" as it pertains to the music industry. Can you share your ideas on the recording industry in general? How did you develop this perspective on the record industry?
BJ: Let me be the first to say that I have said a lot of senseless crap in order to get attention in my time. I'm not sure which particular proclamation you are referring to, but it may be the time that I said that some labels have chosen to force feed the public old ideas rather than offer them new ones. And that the response of the youth audience has been to ignore the music in droves.
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.
I think that one of the reasons that the blues industry is becoming stagnant is because many labels discourage original ideas and many label owners are basically "wannabe" artists and bookkeepers, business guys who want to "handle" and "direct" their artist's careers in order to live out their own musical fantasies by dictating to the artist how the career ... and the music should go ... sometimes before it is even written, instead of allowing the artist to be fully creative. That makes for mediocre songs.
Some want to impose their own musical limitations into the creative process. They want the artist to be the "idiot savant" like Blind Tom, and create these musical masterpieces on demand, but let the label owner make all the business decisions and of course ... handle all the money.
I have musician friends who sign with these carpet-bagger types of record labels who have them out touring all over the world and making records. The artists never see any reasonable amount of income for it and don't have what they need to get by on, while the record company guys screw them out of most of the money with the promise of those mysterious mechanical royalties that never seem to appear. If they do appear, then it's just enough to pay back the advance that you probably didn't get from the record company in the first place. The artists are like slaves to these guys. Now that's (the) blues tradition!
Some want formulas and repetition of familiar patterns and mimicry that they can re-package into neat little categories and sell to the public, much like the rock guys keep re-packaging Jimi Hendrix; and the Rasta guys keep re-packaging Bob Marley; or the blues guys keep re-packaging Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. That has nothing to do with art or creativity or even music. It's just standard snake-oil sales tactics.
When I first started sending my songs out to labels in order to shop for a recording deal, one of the biggest blues label owners in the game wrote me and said that I had no idea about what the public, especially the black audience, wants to hear on a blues record and that I really needed to decide if I was going to be a bluesman, a soul man, or a rock guy and to stick to that one thing, because if I released a recording with all those musical styles on one CD, the audience would be confused and wouldn't buy it. I think that he seriously underestimated both the musical tastes and the intellect of the general public.
The my Hometown CD is exactly that. It's the biggest project that I have ever been involved with. The songs on the CD are being well received by people who listen to all types of music ... not just blues. It was recently chosen by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Continental Airlines, Czech Airlines and 25 other international airlines to be included in their in-flight audio entertainment listings. If you are traveling by airplane over the holiday season please check it out on your in-flight audio player. The songs became available for passengers to listen to in the month of November.
This recording has been gathering very positive critical reviews from music writers and getting high rotation international radio airplay. (The songs on the CD) have been featured in several music publications, they have been no. 1 on XM Satellite Radio, and they are presently no. 6 on the Real Blues Magazine Top 100 CD's charts ... and I'm just getting warmed up!
As much as this applies as much to the existing blues labels, I am certain that this take applies more to the Big Four labels of the recording industry. How does Jan's approach differ?
In any business situation, there is going to be negotiation and compromise. Jan is a pretty straight-forward and honest guy. He's open to new concepts and ideas and I like working with him ... he's cool.
I'm sure that if I were signed to one of the big four that you mentioned, that my Hometown would have never seen the light of day. I would have had to release a CD that sounds just like every other blues CD out there. The only thing that ever changes about some of those products is the name of the guy singing.
AAJ: Recording for Jan's label and having toured Europe, you can certainly answer this: do you feel that the record industry is different in Europe than it is here in the States?
BJ: Yes ... in America the record industry has become an assembly-line, one-beat type of thing.
All the rap songs sound the same. All the blues songs sound the same. All the subject matter sounds the same. If one song is a hit, then there is a rush to make every song after that sound just like that one.
In Europe, the music is not shaped by trends and fads. It's shaped by talent. And it just has to be good.
Not that I'm down on corporate American music companies, but they are about numbers, not music. There is plenty of great music in America, but it is coming from the home studios and independent artists. There's some fantastic stuff that's coming off the streets that is re-shaping the dynamics of the industry.
AAJ: Do you find the audiences here and abroad different; and if so, in what ways?
BJ: Yes. The European audience seems to listen to a wider spectrum of music than the American audience. They are open to all types of music and will listen to anything based on whether they like the song or not.
I find that Americans tend to see music in the same way that they see fashion and fads. There is a "herd" mentality involved here where everybody wants to do what everyone else is doing.
It's like musical segregation. If jazz is in vogue, then everyone in a certain peer group wants to listen to only jazz. Anyone who listens to anything different is considered un-cool by that group; same with blues; same with hip-hop. I think that this makes for a poor musical diet. There is something to learn from every musical genre.
I once had a friend who gave me an album of Iranian sheep herder songs. At first listen, I dismissed it as illogical noise because I was not familiar with the scales and melodic patterns that were being played on what sounded to me like a banjo. I'm sure that it was an instrument specific to the region that the music came from and not a banjo, and I didn't understand the language that the songs were being sung.
But by the third listen, I had discovered that the music was fantastic! The passion and intensity of the singer's delivery was amazing, and I found myself listening to it all the time. I ended up writing one of my most popular songs, "Reconsider Baby," (on his 2005 Black and Tan Records release Tha' Bluez) based on what I learned from that experience. Some music critics and scholars theorized that I had crafted the song by combining blues with hip-hop and Latin music. I don't suppose that they have ever heard much Iranian sheep herding music. I still have that albumit's one of my most treasured possessions.
AAJ: How did you come to refer to your music as "Bluez"? Is this to differentiate your music from the music created by the record industry?
BJ: Yes, it is. I have studied many types of music, including jazz, country, rock, funk, R&B, punk, new wave or whatever, and I wanted to incorporate some of the elements from all of these styles into my original music.
I didn't want to use the standard term "blues" because I realized to the youth audience blues equals old. I didn't want to align myself with the "old blues guy" stereotype because this music is anything but that.
There is no mention of the mule or the cotton or the tractor on this project. Those are issues of today's audience's grandparents. While most blues music is focused on the past, this is music for the 21st century. And while most blues music is written by men for men, many of my songs are directed to the female listener. They address some of the social concerns and romantic intricacies of modern-day urban existence. This music is something new and different and delivers social commentaries and messages that the urban audience can relate to.
Also, by creating my own musical terminology it causes the search engines of the Internet to "learn" that word and associate it with me. So essentially I taught the search engines my name, so that if you type Billy Jones Bluez into your computer, the search engines will bring up lots of information about my music.
AAJ: How long have you worked to infuse an urban element into your music? How has it been received by your audience?
BJ: I never intentionally set out to "urbanize" my music. I just wanted to learn everything that I could about my craft and how to please the audience that was in front of me that day. It was just natural evolution. The reception has been overwhelmingly positive from the general public ... not so much by the blues purists.
AAJ: Can we hear more of this influence on this latest CD of yours, than on your previous?
BJ: Definitely, on the my Hometown CD, on previous releases, you can hear hints of the influence, but I had to "dumb it down" a little in order to appease the label owners and record songs that were a little more predictable in order to get them to release the recordings.
However, when I met Jan Mittendorp and signed with Black and Tan records, part of our agreement was that I would have complete artistic freedom; I would write the music the way that I thought it should be ... If it wasn't too "artistic" to release, then Black and Tan would release it. This has been my most popular recording ever! Although my Prime Suspect for the Blues (Cyborg-Blue, 2001) CD did well, there's no comparison to the response that my Hometown is receiving.
AAJ: Presently a number of Black artists are working to merge Blues music with hip-hop. This would include artists such as Billy Branch, Russ Greene, Chris Thomas-King, among others. In fact, R.L. Burnside even did his take on this cross-infusion of the blues, which was met with mixed reviews. Do you see your music going in this direction?
BJ: What these artists understand ... and the reviewers and "experts" probably don't, is this: hip-hop has evolved from blues and is very much a part of it. Hip-hop is the blues of today.
If you analyze the greatest hip-hop songs of all time, like "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, or "How Do You Want It?" by Tupac Shakur (which is based on the hook from "Body Heat" by Quincy Jones), it's easy to hear that these songs are pure blues with African/Jamaican bass lines and drum beats. Of course, the stories that these songs tell are undeniable blues themes that reach deep into the heart of the African American experience. I love a little "gangsta" in my blues.
AAJ: Do you agree with the assertion that the white artist has been more closely bound by tradition, whereas the Black artist has always been more progressive in their approach to the music, looking for the "next big thing"? This, perhaps, can be seen more in jazz than in the blues. Are these attempts at cross-infusion done more for the music, or is it being done for the rewards that the urban artist seems to be enjoying, the "bling"?
BJ: Definitely for the music. I don't think that it has very much to do with the "bling" ... little if anything. Of course, any artist wants to be well compensated for their work. I certainly do.
But the battle between the blues purist and the blues artist has gone on long before now. The artist wants to be artistic and create and innovate ... the purist doesn't want anything to change. No new instruments, no synthesizers, no drum machines, no new nothing. If Muddy didn't do itit's wrong.
But when Bob Dylan and Muddy Waters switched from acoustic to electric guitar, the purists said that they were ruining the art-form. Look at all the great classics that were created because they ignored the "experts." I have concluded that the purists are just a handful old guys whose opinions don't really matter.
What the artist is trying to do is stretch the boundaries of the music and infuse elements that will appeal to a contemporary audience and to bring something new and relevant to the table.
However, if the "experts" want to tell the artist what the song should sound like before it is written, there probably won't be much "bling" forthcoming. They won't sell many to people who buy CDs today. If an artist can reach the public and they love the music, then the "bling" will be just a pleasant side-effect.
As far as the musicians that are bound by tradition, I don't think that they are so much bound by tradition as maybe lacking in imagination and a working knowledge of modern beats and rhythmic patterns.
In order to compete effectively in the music business you have to stay on top of current events. That means that you have to have an understanding of contemporary musical styles and trends. I remember reading in a biography of Elvis that no matter where he was, he was always listening to the radio in order to monitor musical trends and to hear what his competitors were doing. And he was Elvis!
Music is about constantly learning. Some guys don't like to put out that extra effort to stay on top of it. They want to play the same old stuff that they already know and pass it off as "keeping the music alive." Many of them are taking the safe road of mimicking artist of the past and sticking to a pre-determined formula or constantly re-recording old songs for an old audience instead of reaching out to draw in a new audience.
Kinda like a boxer "laying on the ropes" and making easy money and waiting for the bell.
There's nothing wrong with that, I know many who make a decent living doing it ... for a long time, I did it. But now I think have something that I want to say, and I want my music to appeal to a mass audience.
AAJ: Regarding these rewards, is this image a creation of the "corporate entertainment business"?
BJ: No, it is not ... it's a creation of the hip-hop industry and the age of music video. It is an expression of what the young black audiences wants to see. What they want to be.
One of the biggest obstacles to selling blues music to young blacks is that the blues industry projects the images of poverty and ignorance and servitude as part of its selling points, and young black people overwhelmingly reject that picture. There is an overseer mentality to the whole scene.
The blues industry is dominated by white males who would have us return to the days when life was good and the Negroes were happy and knew their place; the cotton was high as an elephant's eye and all was right with the world. But that's the story from their perspective.
In reality, the Negroes were not happy. They were desperately poor and suffering in the shadow of the overseer ... who had all of the "bling," by the way. If you have ever had to be poor, then you probably wouldn't want to buy products that imply poverty.
Young black people want their heroes to be successful, tech savvy, dress well, and have money and nice cars. Not so much "workin' for the man" and "moseyin' on down da road." The blues industry needs a major image make-over in order to connect with young black America.
When I used to perform on Beale Street, besides meeting B.B. King, the thing that stuck out most in my mind is that the primary theme/motif of every club on Beale Street was that of an old raggedy shack or juke joint. Those clubs look like poverty. That's the way the white tourist loved them because they are reminded of when they went to some poor "colored" guy's house or juke joint. The black tourist would see it as unpleasant memories of a miserable childhood and say "Thank the Lord that we don't have to live like that anymore."
I was surprised that Morgan Freeman's "Ground Zero" club in Clarksdale, Miss., has that "old raggedy shack" theme also. You would think that a rich, powerfuland successfulblack man who opened a club in his hometown would want to have something that his people could be proud of and aspire to. But then, what do I know about what Morgan Freeman is thinking? He's a legend and a genius ... I'm just some guy with a guitar.
AAJ: Do you feel that these urban images as it is depicted in hip-hop more closely reflect the Black condition as it exists today?
BJ: Yes. Black people have worked hard to escape that lifestyle and better their condition. The other images have nothing to do with this century.
AAJ: Do you feel that the urbanization of blues music is an effective way of reaching a younger market? To what market are you ultimately hoping to appeal?
BJ: Definitely, it's the only way to reach the younger market. I want my music to appeal to everyone. That's what seems to be happening. The stories that I tell on this CD are true and universal. People across all genres are embracing the music.
AAJ: For those who have not seen your live show, how would you describe what you do on stage? Can you give us an idea of the demographics of your audience?
BJ: There are so many things that go on during the show that you will just have to come and see for yourself. Or you can always see a sample of what I do by visiting www.blackplanet.com/billyjonesbluez
I try to make a personal connection with the audience and have a lot of fun and draw them into the performance. I want them to forget about their problems and escape into Billy's world for a little while.
Nobody sits down on my stage except the drummer and I'm thinking of having him stand-up and move around during the show. But I haven't figured out how to do it yet!
AAJ: In light of the prevailing social and economic conditions that exist today, do you still feel that music can be a "vehicle of change"?
BJ: I know that music can be a vehicle for change. Music is a gift from the creator who wrote the song of life. If you do it right, it gets you on a level that is primal. And the right story can change the world.
History is littered with songs that have changed the social consciousness of the world and made it a better place. I hope that the stories that I tell on this recording will do something to address the issues of the audience that it was written for.
Billy Jones, my Hometown (Black and Tan, 2007)
Billy Jones, Tha' Blues (Black and Tan, 2005)
Billy Jones, Live - On the Road (Cyborg-Blue, 2002)
Billy Jones, Prime Suspect for the Blues (Cyborg-Blue,2001)
Courtesy of Billy Jones