Born August 8, 1923, in Gurdon, AR; served in the merchant marines, 1941-44. Addresses: Record company--Private Music, 9014 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90069.
One of the last of the great post-war blues shouters, Jimmy Witherspoon, or 'Spoon, as he's known throughout the jazz and blues world, performs with no signs of slowing down. Sidelined at times by illness and tough times, the soulful singer who helped introduce gospel inflections to jazz and blues rhythms has persevered. His 1996 album, Live at the Mint, was nominated for a Grammy and he continues to perform for old fans as well as legions of newer fans curious to hear one of the original voices of blues influenced jazz. More than any other male singer, Witherspoon straddled the line between blues and jazz, becoming an integral participant in the history of both of these classic genres of American music.
Born August 8, 1923, in Gurdon, Arkansas, the young James Witherspoon sang in church choirs much like his railroad worker father. Confidence came early as he won first prize in a singing competition at the age of five. While in his midteens, Witherspoon decided to try his luck pursuing a singing career and ran away to Los Angeles. It was there that he decided to become a blues singer after seeing a performance by Big Joe Turner. "I like Jimmy Rushing, but Joe Turner was my idol," he told Arnold Shaw, author of Honkers and Shouters, "I knew him from `Wee Baby Blues'.... He's a blues singer. Before that, I didn't dig the blues because I'd been told it was a dirty word. You couldn't sing in church and sing the blues."
Bouncing around from job to job and not having much success as a singer, Witherspoon joined the merchant marines in 1941. As a cook and a steward, Witherspoon didn't pursue singing until one night while on leave in Calcutta, India. There he found Chicago pianist Teddy Weatherford performing with a big band and decided to sit in. "They were playing Benny Goodman's `Why Don't You Do Right?,'" he told Shaw, "so I walked up and sang with them." Witherspoon's performance was so well received, his confidence was instantly boosted; he knew he could make it as a singer.
By the time his stint in the merchant marines ended, Witherspoon's mother had moved to San Francisco where he joined her in 1944. With a day job as a boiler in a steel mill, Witherspoon would sing on weekends at a club called The Waterfront in nearby Vallejo, California. While singing at the club one night, Witherspoon got his big break when he was heard by bandleader Jay McShann. McShann led one of the finest blues bands of the era, rivaling that of the great Count Basie, and had been a starting point for the young Charlie Parker before the alto saxophonist went to New York to help usher in the language of bebop. McShann and his original singer, Walter Brown, who together wrote their hits "Confessin' the Blues" and "Hootie's Blues," had a falling out leading McShann to recruit Witherspoon. At least on one tune, Witherspoon was persuaded to imitate Brown's style. "Jay McShann told me," Witherspoon recalled to Shaw, "`Spoon, they know me by `Confessin the Blues,' so sing it with Brown's sound, but the rest, you go your own way.'"
Witherspoon eventually did go his own way with, leaving McShann's band after a few years to record as a soloist for the Supreme label. In 1949, after a few recordings that went nowhere, 'Spoon recorded a version of "Ain't Nobody's Business," a song originally recorded by blues singer Bessie Smith in 1922. 'Spoon's version, which would become his signature song and featured McShann and others from the old band, went to number one on the R&B charts and stayed on the charts for 34 months, longer than any previous R&B tune. Witherspoon's next release, "In the Evening When the Sun Goes Down," reached the number five spot. Following this, 'Spoon released a number of albums on a variety of labels including Modern, Federal, and the legendary Chess label. Unlike his idol, the blues shouter Big Joe Turner, Witherspoon had difficulty making the transition to rock n' roll, which by then was sweeping the country. Turner, whose hits included "Shake, Rattle, and Roll," "Honey Hush," and "Flip, Flop and Fly," was considered a sort of father figure in the burgeoning rock n' roll scene, where Witherspoon's rich, smooth vocals were more suited to jazz.
Virtually ignored by jazz and rock audiences and with financial hardships stalling large, swinging blues bands like McShann's, the rest of the 1950s found Witherspoon playing the chitlin circuit, a network of small black-owned clubs that played to mostly black audiences. For a while he played bass and sang at a club in Newport, Kentucky in a small band that also featured famed blues pianist Charles Brown. In 1959, however, 'Spoon was invited to appear at the Monterey Jazz Festival with an all-star group that included tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, trumpeter Roy Eldridge, alto saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, clarinetist Woody Herman, trombonist Urbie Green, and pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines. The electrifying performance, recorded and released as Jimmy Witherspoon at Monterey, propelled Witherspoon into the limelight as one of the leading singers of blues-laced jazz and put his career back on track. 'Spoon landed a recording contract with Atlantic, began to sing for larger crowds, and was featured in Jon Hendricks's historic program, "Evolution of the Blues," at the 1960 Monterey Jazz Festival.
Like most jazz and blues performers, Witherspoon was especially successful in Europe and toured and recorded there many times since the early 1960s. Although he continued to record and tour, success on the record charts proved elusive for Witherspoon. In the 1970s, while hosting a late night radio blues program in Los Angeles and appearing in the film The Black Godfather, Witherspoon had his first chart success since 1960 with the song, "Love is a Five Letter Word" on Capitol Records. The song hit number 31 on the R&B charts but did little in raising the status of Witherspoon's career. He continued, however, to record and perform for enthusiastic, albeit smaller, audiences.
In the late 1970s, Witherspoon was diagnosed with throat cancer and faced the possibility of never being able to sing again. For a while he couldn't even swallow. A throat operation and radiation treatment in England kept Witherspoon out of recording studios and clubs for a few years and took its toll on the veteran singer's dynamic style. "I had to learn to sing all over again," he confessed to Joel Silver in a Private Music promotional biography. After getting his singing back to where it was, Witherspoon noticed he could now reach a lower vocal register that before his operation was unattainable.
The mid-1990s found Witherspoon at his most active, including touring with singer Van Morrison, in support of Morrison's A Night in San Francisco album, on which Witherspoon appeared, as well as his own headlining gigs to promote reissues of earlier Witherspoon albums and recent releases. One such album, a live album with guitarist Robben Ford, entitled Live at the Mint, was the most welcome. A return to his roots but with a more upbeat feel, courtesy of Ford and his band, Witherspoon shouts through lively renditions of songs, some of which he'd been singing for more than 40 years. "`Spoon's swinging Jazz sensibilities are front and center on songs like Basie's `Goin' to Chicago" and his signature tune, `Ain't Nobody's Business,'" wrote DownBeat reviewer Michael Point, "but he's lost none of his ability to drop down into a convincing blues mood, as amply demonstrated by his powerful renditions of `Goin' Down Slow' and an assortment of Big Bill Broonzy classics."
Live at the Mint went on to be nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues recording only to lose out to harmonica player Junior Wells. Still, the warm reception to the album and Grammy nomination did much to introduce--or reintroduce-- Witherspoon to a group of fans.
by Brian Escamilla
Jimmy Witherspoon's Career
Began singing in Vallejo, CA nightclub, 1944; joined bandleader Jay McShann's band, 1944; left McShann's band and started solo career, 1948--; recorded hit song, "Ain't Nobody's Business," 1949; performed at 1959 Monterey Jazz Festival; appeared in film, The Black Godfather, 1974; returned to charts with "Love is a Five Letter Word," 1974; diagnosed with and treated for throat cancer, late 1970s; recorded and toured with Van Morrison, 1994; album Live at the Mint, on Private Music label.
- Selective Works
- (With Jay McShann) Goin to Kansas City Blues, RCA, 1958.
- 'Spoon Concerts, Fantasy, 1959.
- Evening' Blues, Original Blues Classics, 1963.
- Baby, Baby, Baby, Original Blues Classics, 1963.
- Spoon's Life, Evidence, 1980.
- (Wth Big Joe Turner) Patcha, Patcha All Night Long, Original Jazz Classics, 1985.
- (Wth Panama Francis) Savoy Sultans, Black and Blue, 1980.
- Rockin' L.A., Fantasy, 1989.
- Blowin' in from Kansas City, Flair, 1991.
- Blues, the Whole Blues, and Nothin' but the Blues, Indigo, 1992.
- (With Jay McShann) Jimmy Witherspoon/Jay McShann, Black Lion, 1992.
- Spoonful, Avenue Jazz, 1994.
- (With Van Morrison) A Night in San Francisco, Polydor, 1994.
- Spoon's Blues, Stony Plain, 1995.
- (With Howard Scott) American Blues, Avenue Jazz, 1995.
- (With Groove Holmes) Spoon and Groove, Tradition/Rykodisc, 1996.
- Live at the Mint, Private Music, 1996.
- Spoon So Easy: The Chess Recordings, Chess.
- Carr, Ian, et al., Jazz: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 1995.
- Crowther, Bruce and Mike Pinfold, The Jazz Singers: From Ragtime to the New Wave, Blandford Press, 1986.
- Herzhaft, Gerard, Encyclopedia of the Blues, University of Arkansas Press, 1992.
- Santelli, Robert, The Big Book of Blues, Penguin Books, 1993.
- Shaw, Arnold, Honkers and Shouters: The Golden Years of Rhythm & Blues, Collier Books, 1978.
- Sonnier, Austin, Jr., A Guide to the Blues, Greenwood Press, 1994.
- Periodicals DownBeat, May 1996, p. 57.
- Living Blues, July/August 1994, p. 102; July/August 1995, p. 97; May/June 1996, p.91.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from the liner notes of The Mercury Blues 'N' Rhythm Story, 1945-1955, Mercury, 1996, by Dick Shurman; and the Jimmy Witherspoon page of the Private Music label's website.