Pontotoc County Blues
Pontotoc County's wide-ranging musical legacy encompasses African American blues from Baby Face Leroy Foster, Lee Gates, R. C. Weatherall, and Terry "Harmonica" Bean as well as music by white artists who combined blues or R&B with country, rock 'n' roll, pop, or gospel, including Harmonica Frank Floyd, Jim Weatherly, Delaney Bramlett, and Cordell Jackson. African American theatrical and classical vocalist Ruby Elzy also featured some blues and spirituals in her stage repertoire.
Pontotoc County musicians have rendered variations of the blues in a diverse array of settings, both geographically and stylistically, from Chicago blues to Broadway, from medicine shows to rock concerts. Baby Face Leroy Foster (1923-1958) was heralded for his work with the Muddy Waters band as well as for his own recordings that adapted the raw blues of Mississippi to the electric sound of Chicago. Foster, a drummer and guitarist, was born in Winston County and later resided in Algoma, just south of Pontotoc. Juilliard-trained diva Ruby Elzy (1908-1943), born in Pontotoc, was a renowned classical singer who performed in the original Broadway cast of Porgy and Bess and sang “St. Louis Blues” in the 1941 movie Birth of the Blues.
Harmonica Frank Floyd (c. 1908-1984), played blues, country, and medicine show tunes, performing on guitar and harmonica simultaneously. His 1951-54 records for the Chess and Sun labels so mystified record buyers that many thought he was black until he turned up in 1972 to begin a new career, sometimes traveling as the only white performer in a caravan of old-time blues musicians. Floyd was born in Toccopola, west of Pontotoc, according to most biographies. Pontotoc-born Cordell Miller Jackson (1923-2004), dubbed "Guitar Granny" in her senior years, rocked audiences with a rough-and-ready blend of blues and country that made her a cult figure among rockabilly fanatics. Jackson founded her own label, Moon Records, in 1956 in Memphis.
Terry "Harmonica" Bean (b. 1961), a baseball star in high school, created a one-man guitar-and-harmonica act in the 1990s. He recorded several CDs and began traveling to festivals from coast to coast and overseas while continuing to work in a Pontotoc furniture factory. His father, Eddie Bean, and his brothers Jerry Lee and Jimmy also performed. Jerry Lee sang with the local Legends of the Blues group. Lee Gates, one of Milwaukee's premier blues artists, was born near Pontotoc in 1937. Gates, his guitar-playing brothers George, Ozell and Bobby Joe, and a cousin from New Albany, Hugh West Souter, all moved to Wisconsin. Gates' parents, Brice and Inez, were also guitarists.
Pontotoc native Jim Weatherly (b. 1943), a celebrated Ole Miss quarterback, played rock, R&B, and blues with his first bands, the Empaladors in high school and the Vegas in college. He became a successful country songwriter, and several tunes, including “Midnight Train to Georgia,” also became smash hits for soul singer Gladys Knight. Rock icon Delaney Bramlett (1939-2008) learned to play the blues from Pontotoc bluesman R. C. Weatherall (1927-2008). Bramlett immortalized Weatherall in the song “Poor Elijah” on the Delaney & Bonnie album On Tour With Eric Clapton. On his final CD, A New Kind of Blues, Bramlett paid tribute to his home town with the song “Pontotoc.”
content © Mississippi Blues Commission
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