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Year of the Rooster

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By David Whiteis

In the late 60s you could still get in trouble listening to Chicago blues. "I can remember going to a club on the west side, which was a black motorcycle gang hangout," recalls Jim O'Neal. "Morris Pejoe was playing there. And a guy walked past me; I was the only white person in the club. He kind of grumbled, 'I don' like white boys. I think I'll kill me one!' I left that place pretty quick."

O'Neal had spent most of his childhood in Mississippi and Alabama, yet he barely knew the blues when he enrolled at Northwestern University in 1966. Pepper's Lounge was located on 43rd near Vincennes, and the gangbangers patrolling their territory would hassle O'Neal and his college buddies for money. "I remember sitting in the club in Pepper's and a guy came up and started beating out a drum pattern on a table, spelling out the word beware as he was beating." Yet in most cases the blues clubs were friendly, even solicitous, toward outsiders. "Sometimes it was more uncomfortable because you couldn't get away from people. They'd want to buy you drinks all night and talk in your ear while you're trying to hear the music."

As a kid, O'Neal listened to British rock like the Rolling Stones, but in college he began to get familiar with the blues and realized that he could venture out to the south or west sides and see Howlin' Wolf, Freddie King, Otis Rush. "I had been happy listening to the white version of blues up until then. As soon as I heard Otis Rush, in particular, it made me just want to sell all my Mayall records, which I did. All the other guys who were around, too--Wolf, Hound Dog Taylor, Magic Sam--that was a much deeper, more intense experience. And especially hearing it in the black clubs on the south side and the west side, just getting to meet the musicians and see what that world was, to realize it had been there all along and no one was really documenting it like I thought it should be. It just opened up a whole new world for me."

He wasn't the first white fan to investigate Chicago blues. Bob Koester had been a south-side habitue since arriving here in 1958 from Saint Louis, where he had recorded long-ignored jazz and blues artists as head of Delmar Records. In Chicago, Koester's renamed Delmark label had become an internationally recognized jazz and blues outlet, and his Jazz Record Mart was a gathering place for fans and artists alike. "The best source for blues information at the time was Blues Unlimited, which was published in England," says O'Neal. "That seemed kind of absurd, to have to subscribe to a magazine in England to find out what was happening in your own city." The European magazines seldom wrote about live performance or gave the musicians a voice, so O'Neal and a few other true believers who hung around the Jazz Record Mart decided to start their own.

Living Blues, "A Journal of Black American Blues Tradition," debuted in spring 1970 with Howlin' Wolf on the cover, and for the next decade Jim and his first wife, Amy van Singel, concentrated on developing the magazine as a voice for blues authenticity; historical scholarship shared space with interviews and record reviews. As O'Neal was to learn, the black and white communities could differ in their ideas of authentic blues. "We put Bobby Bland on the cover of number four, and we were reviewing 45s a lot, and I was always trying to find out what the latest ones were from Memphis and down south, on the soul labels. So we did try to cover that end of it from pretty early on, and didn't meet with too much acceptance from the white blues fans who didn't regard that stuff as blues." Yet O'Neal doubts that the magazine had much of a black readership, despite a deal with the giant distributor Charles Levy Company that got it placed in south-side supermarkets and the like.

Easygoing, sincere in his admiration for the music and its people, O'Neal won the trust of local blues musicians despite a deeply ingrained suspicion of whites. "Through a process of being around me and seeing what I did with what I got, and probably seeing that I wasn't making any money on it, it didn't seem like exploitation to anyone. I guess just being willing to go to the artists' neighborhoods and their clubs and their homes, and not be apart from it--because I think blues doesn't exist just as a music, it's part of the whole culture--I at least tried to participate in it to some extent. I've heard it said about some other entrepreneurs that certain black artists didn't think they were trustworthy because they wouldn't come to them." He thinks being a southerner helped smooth his entrance as well. "There are southern mannerisms that make it easier for white and black southerners to be together; I did always feel that. I think that so many of the artists are really eager to tell their stories to someone who's empathetic, who seems to have an understanding of where they were coming from, to not be afraid to say what they want."

The O'Neals always thought there might be an untapped market for the music they heard nightly in south- and west-side clubs, the kind that was documented in Living Blues but continued to go unrecorded and unheard outside the black community. By 1979 they'd made up their minds to act on their hunch. O'Neal remembers Delmark being "in a lull at the time; I really admired what Bob had done earlier, but they weren't doing very much." After signing Carey Bell, Luther Allison, and Mighty Joe Young, U.S. labels had lost interest in Chicago blues; O'Neal felt that Alligator Records had been pursuing more commercial acts, and as a publisher of Living Blues he found himself serving as a liaison between Chicago acts and European labels.

The O'Neals struck up a partnership with Mick and Cilla Huggins, two British blues fans who now edit and publish Juke Blues Magazine. "They wanted to find a way where they could be involved with the blues scene and come to the United States regularly. As it worked out, the record company didn't make enough money for them to travel on it. But they were actually the inspiration for us finally getting into the business--I had always kind of resisted it before, 'cause I didn't have any money to begin with."

The Hugginses dreamed up the name Rooster Records because of "the general association 'rooster' has with the blues: 'The rooster crowed 'fore day,' 'Little Red Rooster'--all those images. And also Sun Records--we were all fans of the blues stuff that had been recorded on Sun. We didn't actually have the Sun rays, we just had the rooster, but the rooster looks pretty similar. Mick, who designed it, says it's pretty similar to the Kellogg's rooster too." The discovery of a Rooster Records in Vermont forced them to change it to Rooster Blues.

The first sessions took place in November 1979 with Eddy Clearwater. O'Neal says he chose the guitarist because he was solidly rooted in the Chicago tradition yet eclectic and pop enough to be palatable to a general audience. "Clearwater was the first one because I had been seeing him around in the clubs, and I realized he was a great entertainer," O'Neal recalls. "It seemed like he had some things he could put on wax that people weren't given a chance to do. He was playing all kinds of clubs--he was playing discos and rock clubs in the suburbs, blues clubs in Chicago."

That strategy would serve Rooster Blues well over the years; its releases were authentically rootsy but still had crossover appeal, especially the fierce boogie of Magic Slim and the Teardrops, a prime attraction on the south side in the 70s and early 80s. The band released Grand Slam on Rooster Blues in 1982 and have since become a major act on the international blues circuit. Two years later the label paired harmonica veteran Carey Bell with his mercurial guitar-playing son Lurrie; Son of a Gun established Lurrie as one of the hottest torchbearers of the traditionalist flame. Over the years the label has been criticized for its reluctance to impose structure or even direction on its artists, but O'Neal has never wanted to be a star maker. "I try to find music in the clubs that I like," says O'Neal, "and then try to capture that in the studio without trying to interfere with it too much. If I like it to begin with, I'm not there to mess around with it, I'm just there to see that I can try to get that element of it, and to try to spur the artist to some originality, to try to write songs and not do the same old standards that they do in the clubs." Included in the label's catalog are releases by Lonnie Shields, Eddie C. Campbell, Valerie Wellington, Roosevelt "Booba" Barnes, and James "Super Chikan" Johnson.

Like the magazine, Rooster Blues has struggled with the contradiction of being a white-owned business with a predominantly white clientele documenting and preserving what it sees as authentic African-American music. O'Neal acknowledges that most of his releases sell primarily to white fans but points out that Rooster Blues has cracked the African-American market down south with releases like Otis Clay's Soul Man--Live in Japan (1985), Lonnie Shields's Portrait (1992), Larry Davis's Funny Stuff (1982), and Johnny Rawls and L.C. Luckett's Can't Sleep at Night (1994). "I've always wanted to get more into that market," he admits. "But I like the real traditional juke-joint blues too, which doesn't have a whole lot of commercial potential in that market."

O'Neal had never considered himself a businessman, so in 1983 he sold Living Blues to the University of Mississippi's Center for the Study of Southern Culture in Oxford. He continued to edit the magazine from Chicago, but quality control suffered and readership declined. After three years he went to Oxford to regain control of the magazine, but instead the university offered him a salaried position as publications editor for the center. "Amy and I were getting a divorce," he says. "I guess the magazine had helped keep us together. We sold the house in Chicago, and I used my share, after we'd paid off all the debts we'd accumulated from Living Blues and Rooster Blues, to relocate Rooster Blues to the Delta and buy some recording equipment to start a studio."

In Mississippi, O'Neal found a mother lode of largely undocumented blues talent, but the label didn't release much until he settled in Clarksdale in 1988. He says he received a solicitation from "a committee of the mayor, the director of the Delta Blues Museum, the chamber of commerce, the local arts council, a banker, and a newspaper writer" inviting him to move the label there. "I guess they thought we were bringing big money and jobs to town, but when it turned out we needed a business loan to get started, none of the banks would help. We did end up bringing money to town via tourist dollars, something few people at the time believed would ever happen there, and putting money in the local musicians' pockets from recordings and out-of-town bookings." In Clarksdale, O'Neal opened a record store, Stackhouse Records (named for Delta bluesman Houston Stackhouse); it soon became internationally known among collectors, but as any hard-scuffling bluesman will affirm, reputation doesn't pay the bills.

By the late 90s O'Neal had come to a crossroads. He'd married Selina Basey, an intern at the Delta Blues Museum, and the couple had two children. "We had to start thinking of a better environment to raise a family," he explains. "The same factors that made Mississippi a great source of the blues also made it a harder place to live in other ways: health, education, jobs, poverty, general resources." They decided to move to Basey's hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, and O'Neal planned to relocate Rooster Blues once again. He bit the bullet and sold off his collection of blues 78s to help with a down payment on a home, but moving still exhausted the couple's financial resources. "I finally had to face the fact that I couldn't run a blues label like Rooster Blues and support a family from it, so we decided to find a buyer if we could. Several recording projects had to be put on hold and a couple of artists went to other labels while we were in limbo."

Ken Burch, a friend from O'Neal's Chicago days, came to the rescue by hooking him up with Rob Johnson, an east-coast friend of his who wanted to get into the record business. Johnson bought the label but retained O'Neal as the primary producer and talent scout, promising him complete creative control. The deal, which was finalized late last year, created a new parent company, Bottled MaJic Music, that operates out of Memphis and Port Chester, New York. The newly revitalized label has dubbed 2000 the "Year of the Rooster," launched an ambitious reissue campaign, and stepped up its efforts to release fresh product from Rooster Blues veterans and new discoveries alike. First out of the reissue chute have been Magic Slim's Grand Slam, Lonnie Shields's Portrait, and Super Chikan's 1997 debut, Blues Come Home to Roost.

The label's new lease on life has given O'Neal the chance to scour the jukes for fresh talent. He's recorded a band from Alabama and plans scouting trips to New Orleans, Florida, and Saint Louis. This spring he recorded D.C. Bellamy, a singer and guitarist he discovered at the Club Paradox in Kansas City, Kansas. The place "reminded me of a southern juke joint, or one of those clubs on the west [or south] side like back in the 70s--like the Rat Trap, or Louise's, or Theresa's, or someplace like that. And a guitar player was playing there, just playing such solid blues, the kind that I hadn't really heard much in Kansas City--one of the best places and the best bands I'd seen in a long time." Bellamy contributes a track to the label's new sampler, and O'Neal plans to release the guitarist's album this fall.

Despite O'Neal's professed mission to ferret out and record unheralded blues talent wherever he finds it, Rooster Blues has never signed a white front man, a policy that was probably more fashionable in the 60s and 70s than it is today. It's difficult to convince modern white listeners that the blues is more than "just notes" or "just a feeling," that there's a cultural and historical context inseparable from the music.

"It's completely overwhelmed right now, the general concept of what blues is," says O'Neal. "I can't fight that, so all I can do is just continue to try to record these folks, the artists I think should be recognized. I don't mind white artists playing blues, country artists, rockabilly--I like a lot of that. It's just when they tend to get promoted as authentic Delta blues artists, as if there's no difference between their culture and the black culture. It's a case of numbers, too--the numbers of white blues bands are just swelling enormously, and their access to the whole system, the publicity system, is so much greater." Of course, many contemporary black blues artists sound at least as mainstream as their white counterparts, but O'Neal insists that the distinction remains valid. "There's a connection there that white people just don't have. Where the blues came from is about being black in a predominantly white society where the power was white. And all those things haven't changed."

The blues may have more white middle-class fans than young black ones, but O'Neal is confident that the blues has a viable future as an expression of living African-American culture. Successful artists on the southern chitlin' circuit, he says, make more money than those who play the white bar circuit and draw more black kids. Some people have pigeonholed Rooster Blues as a purist's label, but O'Neal is eager to sign artists who want to take the blues in new directions.

"I'd like to see a real union of blues and hip-hop; I think a lot of it comes from the same place. I'm kind of disappointed more of it hasn't been done, but I gather that more blues has been sampled lately." O'Neal cites Chris Thomas King, an artist from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as someone pushing the stylistic envelope. "If I found someone who could do that, a good young blues/hip-hop artist, I'd probably record him....Now there's a chance. We can both record a lot of stuff that I wouldn't have been able to do, and promote it and get the artists greater recognition than I could have ever done on my own. I think the new Rooster Blues organization will probably have a pretty good chance to open things up."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jannell Turner.

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