Tail Dragger My Head Is Bald, Live at Vern’s Friendly Tavern, Chicago
Featuring Billy Branch, Lurrie Bell, Jimmy Dawkins
Delmark DE 782
Tail Dragger - a holdout from the time when blues giants like Howlin’ Wolf and Magic Sam still ruled on the West Side. The neighborhood, the music, and the rest of the world have changed around him, but Tail Dragger still embraces the old ways. Even Tail Dragger’s original material, in which he addresses modern-day concerns, is hewn from the same raw materials utilized ‘back in the day’: loosely-swinging rhythms, snaky intertwining guitars, and often as not, a wailing amplified harp player leading the way. Ironically, he’s become unique by not changing for 40 years. Complete notes by Scott Dirks enclosed.
1. Intro 1:18
2. Sitting Here Singing My Blues 9:23
3. Talk 1:09
4. Tend To Your Business 4:22
5. Talk 0:50
6. Prison Blues 8:07
7. Talk 1:42
8. So Ezee 5:19
9. My Woman Is Gone 7:29
10. Talk 3:31
11. My Head Is Bald 8:48
12. You Gotta Go 3:38
13. Jump For Joy 3:13
Total time 60 minutes
Tail Dragger, vocals
Billy Branch, harmonica
Lurrie Bell, guitar
Jimmy Dawkins, guitar (11)
Kevin Shanahan, guitar
Bob Stroger, bass
Kenny Smith, drums
Willie Young, saxophone
Recorded live on July 16, 2005
Also available on DVD (Delmark DVD 1782)
All songs by James Y. Jones (Tail Dragger), Leric Music, BMI except 3 by Jimmy Dawkins, Leric Music, BMI.
Produced by Steve Wagner
Album Production and Supervision: Robert G. Koester and Steve Wagner
Recorded, Mixed and Mastered by Steve Wagner and Eric Butkus
Mixed and Mastered at Riverside Studio, Chicago
Photography: C Marc PoKempner 2005
Design: Dave Forte
Special thanks to our hosts the Williams family, Vern, Garland, Marie & Melvin.
Driving by it, you might think Vern’s Friendly Lounge got its name the same way 300 lb. guys get nicknamed “Tiny” – as a kind of joke, considering that it’s located in a mostly barren stretch of one of the least-welcoming-looking neighborhoods on Chicago’s rough West Side. But step inside, and you know the name is sincere. It’s a tidy, well-kept place, with some form of bright or colorful decoration just about everywhere you look, strings of Christmas lights glittering overhead, friendly faces behind the bar, a few locals drinking or chatting quietly, most everyone middle-aged or older – there’s a sense of ease that is at odds with the rough world just outside the door. In this neighborhood, Vern’s Friendly Lounge is a holdout in the area from another era.
The same can be said for Tail Dragger, a holdout from the time when blues giants like Howlin’ Wolf and Magic Sam still ruled on the West Side. The neighborhood, the music, and the rest of the world have changed around him, but Tail Dragger still embraces the old ways. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool, old-school bluesman through and through. His repertoire sounds like it came right off the jukebox at a West Side blues joint c. 1958. Even Tail Dragger’s original material, in which he sometimes addresses modern-day concerns, is hewn from the same raw materials utilized ‘back in the day’: loosely-swinging rhythms, snaky intertwining guitars, and often as not, a wailing amplified harp player leading the way. Compare that to the booming basses, robotically pounding drums, and piercing synthesizers heard in most other “blues” clubs these days, and it becomes clear just what kind of individualist Tail Dragger really is; ironically, he’s become unique by not changing for 40 years.
Tail Dragger was born James Yancy Jones in Altheimer, Arkansas in 1940, and after a couple of extended visits to Chicago in the 1950s, finally settled on the west side of the city to stay in 1966. At the time he was working mainly as an auto and truck mechanic, but after hours he frequented the neighborhood clubs, and before long was sitting in and singing with local blues bands. It was an interesting transitional time in Chicago blues; in the ‘60s, the popularity of down-home, deep blues was waning, but many of its greatest practitioners were still at the height of their powers and scuffling to make a living, so it was not unusual for a major name like Howlin’ Wolf to be found blowing the roof off a local neighborhood joint on a weeknight. As a fan of Wolf’s music since before moving to Chicago, Tail Dragger began hanging around and sitting in with the big man himself. In addition to some first-hand tutoring, it was Wolf who bestowed the stage name Jones has used ever since. While Wolf’s influence is unmistakable, Tail Dragger doesn’t usually perform much of his mentor’s material on stage, and has added so much of his own personal style and original material that there is no doubt Tail Dragger is his own man.
And while Tail Dragger is unquestionably a ‘holdout’ from a mostly-bygone era, he’s not the only one. Over the last few decades he’s developed a nose for seeking out gigs on the West Side where he can ply his trade for the fellow long-time blues lovers who remember this type of music from when it was new. At any given time, he’s usually had at least one regular residency gig at an off-the-radar West Side joint like The 5105 Club, Mary’s, The Delta Fish Market, or his current Sunday afternoon set at Vern’s Friendly Lounge, in addition to his better-publicized work at blues festivals and on the established blues club circuit. He’s also become a magnet for like-minded musicians, both young and old. Working with Tail Dragger has almost become a standard ‘rite of passage’ for younger exponents of the older Chicago blues styles; at the same time, it would be hard to find a grizzled old-timer on the Chicago blues scene who hasn’t worked with him at one time or another, starting with most of the members of Howlin’ Wolf’s old band and working outward from there.
His current band is made up of some of the best younger blues men you’re likely to find, players who have so thoroughly and completely immersed themselves in the blues tradition of Tail Dragger’s generation that they’ve made it their own. Special mention must be made of Davin “Big D” Erikson, one of the most exciting young harp players to emerge on the Chicago scene in recent years, who leads his own blues band when not working with Tail Dragger, and acts as de facto bandleader on Tail Dragger’s gigs. For one of the two nights captured here, Tail Dragger utilized another band made up from an all-star cast of players who’ve worked or recorded with him down through the years, some of whom are now well-known bandleaders in their own rights: renowned harp player Billy Branch, the fiery guitarist Lurrie Bell, former Howlin’ Wolf sax player Willie Young, the rock-solid rhythm section of Kenny Smith and Bob Stroger on drums and bass, plus Tail Dragger’s old friend, the West Side guitar legend Jimmy Dawkins. (Dawkins and his Leric label were responsible for one of Tail Dragger’s earliest recordings, the 1982 single “My Head Is Bald”- still a staple of every Tail Dragger gig.)
As anyone who has ever attended one of his gigs will tell you, no matter how strong the band, or how powerfully he belts out his blues, listening only tells part of the story – you really must witness a performance to fully appreciate the Tail Dragger experience. Like his early mentor The Wolf, there is almost nothing he won’t do – whether it’s crawling on all fours or slithering on his belly like a snake – in order to sell a song, or get his point across. And thanks to this live CD/DVD release, blues fans who may have some of his previous recordings but don’t live within driving distance of Vernon’s Friendly Lounge will finally get a chance to experience the one and only Tail Dragger in all his earthy glory.
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Call or write for a free catalog of jazz and blues:
Delmark Records • 1-800-684-3480 • 4121 N. Rockwell, Chicago, IL 60618 www.delmark.com
CP 2005 Delmark Records
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