Spoon:The Story of Jimmy Witherspoon©2001JCMarion
Jimmy Witherspoon was born in August of 1923 in Gurdon, Arkansas. He showed his musical talents early by winning a children's singing contest at the age of five. As a young teenager he knew then that rural Arkansas was not the place for him, and so he hit the roads and the rails and found his way to California. When World War II intruded on his dreams of success, he joined the Merchant Marine as a cook, and was sent to the Pacific. He had the chance to get in some singing experience for the Armed Forces Radio Service while in Calcutta, India during the war. When the war was at an end he had the opportunity to join the small band of Kansas City musician Jay McShann working on the West coast during the mid forties. He replaced Walter Brown with McShann and made his very first records with the band for the new Philo label in Los Angeles in 1945. Further records with McShann on the Mercury, Supreme and Downbeat labels followed in the late forties.
One record in particular struck gold for Witherspoon in 1947 with a release on Supreme #1506 of the tune "Ain't Nobody's Business" which was such a resounding hit that it remained his signature tune for the rest of his life. Soon after the record broke big for him Jimmy left McShann and formed his own small combo to back up his vocals. Soon he was signed to another L.A. based independent label, Modern Music which soon became Modern Records. In late 1949 he recorded "No Rollin' Blues" and "Big Fine Girl" for Modern #721. It was another solid seller for the man now known as "Spoon" and carried into 1950 as a big time R & B hit. He began a tour of Texas and the Southwest with the band of Big Jim Wynn just as his new recording for Modern was being readied for release. "Drinkin' Beer" and "Hard Working Blues" was out in March on Modern #737. In April Witherspoon joined Camille Howard, Little Willie Littlefield and Joe Liggins & His Honeydrippers on a blockbuster tour for three months across the country. In April, Aladdin Records hoping to cash in on the popularity of 'Spoon' with the R & B crowd re-releases a tune he recorded back in 1945 with Jay McShann. The song is "Confessing The Blues" and is released on #108 by the label that started out as Philo Records.
At the conclusion of the tour Witherspoon joins Camille Howard and Bull Moose Jackson & The Buffalo Bearcats for a weekend R & B show at Baltimore's Royal Theater. In mid July the 1st Annual Blues & Rhythm Jubilee is presented by Gene Norman at the Shrine Auditorium in L.A. Witherspoon appears along with Dinah Washington, Helen Humes, Roy Milton, Peewee Crayton, Roy Hawkins, Joe Lutcher and others with a "Battle of the Blues" final act. It is the biggest on stage R & B show held anywhere up until that time. Spoon continues with Camille Howard on the West coast. In August Modern Records releases "Doctor Blues" and "Don't Ever Move A Woman Into Your House" on #764. Following soon after is Modern #772 - "Failing By Degrees" and "New Orleans Woman", and soon after its release "Failing" shows promise by racking up big sales on the West Coast especially in the bay area. In October Modern Records announces plans to release an LP of R & B tunes by Witherspoon. The L.A. Sentinel's annual Christmas benefit show at the Lincoln Theater in December taps Jimmy to be a part of the big show. In November, after a lengthy tour of the country, Spoon opens a three week run at LA's Club Oasis. Soon after he joins Vido Musso, Jack McVea, and Hampton Hawes with his backup band on stage at the Avodon Ballroom. Also on the bill were Herb Fisher and Jimmy Grissom. At years end Modern releases #782 listed as by Jimmy Witherspoon & His Gal Friday - "I'm Just A Country Boy" and "There Ain't Nothing Better".
During the first weeks of 1951 Modern Records announces a special release on #793 of "Once There Lived A Fool". The flip side was "I'm Just A Ladies Man". The recordings by Witherspoon continue to sell well on the West Coast. Modern Records continues with a March release of the songs "I'm Going Around In Circles" and "You Can't Kiss A Dream Goodnight" on #806, quickly followed by #808 - "I Got A Gal Live Up On A Hill" and a remake of "Ain't Nobody's Business". Jimmy makes a month long tour of night spots in the East and then returns to Hollywood to take part in the first all Black radio program for the Mutual network which is mc'ed by Leonard Reed and stars Roy Milton and Camille Howard along with Jimmy Witherspoon. The July Cavalcade of Jazz will feature Witherspoon along with Billy Eckstine, Lionel Hampton, Joe Liggins, Roy Brown, Percy Mayfield, and Wynonie Harris. In October Modern releases #836 - "I Done Found Out" and "Fickle Woman". In early December Swing Time Records releases "How I Hate To See Christmas Come Around" and "Skidrow Blues" which is from a Supreme Records master from 1947. At year's end Modern Records issues #845 featuring the two part song - "I'm Just Wandering".
In February of 1952 Jimmy Witherspoon keeps rolling as his prolific output continues for Modern Records with #857 - "The Wind Is Blowing" and "Would My Baby make A Change". The Bay area of California continues as a good selling territory for Jimmy's records as "Wind" is a good seller in both Oakland and San Francisco. During the spring Spoon crosses the Midwest and does good business especially at the Orchid Room in Kansas City. At the end of the tour Witherspoon makes a big move and does not sign again with Modern and instead goes with Syd Nathan and his Federal records label based in Cincinnati. In August Modern releases #877 - "Love My Baby" and "Daddy Pinocchio". That month Jimmy was featured at the 3rd annual Blues and Rhythm Jubilee in Los Angeles. Floyd Dixon, Joe Houston, T-Bone Walker, Helen Humes, Peppermint Harris, and Al Hibbler also star at the big show. In September the first release for Federal Records is released on #12095 - "Foolish Prayer" and "Two Little Girls", which is followed quickly by #12099 - "Lucille" and "Blues In Trouble". The backing musicians on the sides are Jewel Grant, Floyd Turnham, and Maxwell Davis on saxes; John Anderson and Harry Parr Jones on trumpets; "Streamline" Ewing on trombone; Earl Jackson-piano; Tiny Webb-guitar; Ralph Hamilton-bass; and Robert Sims on drums. Once again Swing Time issues "How I Hate To See Christmas Come Around" on #244. At year's end Federal #12107 features "Corn Whiskey" and "Don't Tell Me Now" which is recorded with a small backing group.
In January of 1953 Modern Records brings one off the shelf with #895 - "Slow Your Speed" and "Baby Baby". In February Jimmy Witherspoon joins the Johnny Otis Orchestra along with Willie Mae Thornton for a highly anticipated tour of the West Coast. In March Federal #12118 features "Jimmy's Blues" parts 1 and 2 and is listed as by Jimmy Witherspoon & His Band. The combo includes Jesse Jones and Jimmy Allen on saxes, Buster Harding on piano, Willie Scott on bass, and drummer Mitchell Robinson. In May Modern Records releases Witherspoon's version of the gospel songs "Each Step Of The Way" and "Let Jesus Fix It For You" on #903. In June Federal Records has the new release by Jimmy on #12128 - "Back Home" and "One Fine Gal". Both were recorded during previous sessions the year before for the label. Adding to the confusion of record buyers and fans of the R & B scene, Modern Records still has some sessions by Witherspoon on the shelf and in July they release two tunes - "Oh Mother Dear Mother" and "I'll Be Right On Down" on #909. Jimmy makes his annual appearance in L.A. at the 4th Annual Rhythn & Blues Jubilee for promoter Gene Norman. The all star bill included Johnny Ace, Willie Mae Thornton, Camille Howard, Roy Milton & his Solid Senders, Helen Humes, Chuck Higgins, Marvin Phillips, The Robins, and The Flairs. At the end of the year Federal records releases #12156 - "Move Me Baby" and "Sad Life". The record is listed as by Jimmy Witherspoon & The Lamplighters, a L.A. vocal group that included future star Thurston Harris. The backing combo for this session was Bill Gaither on tenor sax; DeVonia Williams on piano; Harold Grant on guitar; Mario Delgarde on bass; and Al Bartee on drums.
During the first weeks of the new year Federal released #12155 - "Miss Miss Mistreater" and "Fast Women and Sloe Gin". "Mistreater" was from a late 1952 session and the flip side was from mid 1953. "Spoon continually tours, and this time it is throughout the Midwest which includes a three week engagement in Chicago at Cadillac Bob's Toast of the Town nightclub. The records keep coming and in March Federal #12173 is out and it features "24 Sad Hours" and "Just For You". In May, Federal releases a Lieber-Stoller tune by Jimmy called "It" and backs it with "Highway To Happiness" on #12180. While Witherspoon continues on the road another session from 1953 provides the newest Federal release of "Oh Boy" and "I Done Told You". This proved to be the last record for the Federal label by Jimmy as he is in Chicago with Leonard Chess who announces that his Checker label has signed the singer and is setting up studio time. 'Spoon returns to the West Coast for the first time in a good while and does a number of dates with Percy Mayfield including a three day weekend booking at the Savoy Ballroom. From there he goes to Las Vegas and an interesting booking along with Shirley Gunter & The Queens and Richard Lewis & his orchestra. Once again Witherspoon's seasonal recording of "How I Hate To See Christmas Come Around" will be released, this time by Hollywood Records which bought the master from Swing Time who bought it from Supreme. Jimmy closes out 1954 recording some new material for Checker Records.
Checker Records begins 1955 with "Time Brings About A Change" and "Waiting For Your Return" on #810. It becomes apparent that Jimmy Witherspoon's days as a top R & B recording attraction are over and he decides to stick to adult blues and jazz tinged up tempo tunes. The changing tastes of record buyers and the new demographics of the record buying public have dealt a cruel blow to many of the first line stars of the R & B world. Still 'Spoon continues to be a good draw and he does a week at the Apollo Theater in New York headlining with Bo Diddley. As the rock 'n roll age envelopes America Jimmy Witherspoon moves into the jazz field and finds new successes. He wraps up the year sharing the bill with Miles Davis at Chicago's Birdland night club.
Jimmy spends most of the year of 1956 perfecting his new style now that rock 'n roll has totally taken over. He is still able to get a number of bookings in night spots across the country and his old hits keep the listeners happy. In October of 1956 Jimmy signs with Atlantic records which he hopes will help his career as a vocalist now in the jazz field. In December "My Girl Ivy" and "Still In Love" are released on Atco #6084 and listed as by Jimmy and The Quintones. Atlantic also releases a 45 rpm EP called "Jimmy Witherspoon Sings New Orleans Blues" with the Wilbur DeParis band. Atlantic soon decides that Jimmy is not in their plans as they concentrate on the established stars on the label. because of this development Witherspoon moves to RCA in the spring of 1957. In June a recording session takes place in which once again a new version of "Ain't Nobody's Business" is done. The backing combo includes Count Hastings on tenor sax, Kenny Burrell on guitar, Lloyd Trotman on bass, and Joe Marshall on drums. The flip side is "Who Baby Who" and is released on Victor #20-6977. In October "All Right Miss Moore" and "When I Start To Thinking" is issued by RCA on #20-7075 and features the saxes of Bud Johnson and "Big Al" Sears, one of the most prolific session men in the fifties. In early December Jimmy is reunited with his old leader Jay McShann for a session to record a number of tunes for an upcoming LP for RCA Victor. Budd Johnson is the arranger and the musicians include a sax section of Al Sears, Heywood Henry, Seldon Powell, and Hilton Jefferson. Emmett Berry is on trumpet and J.C. Higginbotham is on trombone. The rhythm section features Kenny Burrell on guitar, Gene Ramey on bass, and Mousey Alexander on drums.
In 1958 Jimmy Witherspoon becomes a fixture on the jazz festival circuit while still maintaining his blues roots. In April he signs with a new independent called Rip Records. The label releases "Endless Sleep" and "Coming Home" on #126, and Witherspoon records songs for an LP with the orchestra of Gerald Wilson that was later issued on World Pacific label. During the summer 'Spoon moved to Challenge Records in Hollywood which recorded some sides that were never released. In 1959 he did some gigs with Jay McShann in Missouri and Kentucky and recorded for Vee-Jay records with the Riley Hampton band, and the label released "Everything But You" and "I Know I Know" on #322. An LP of his appearance at the Monterrey Jazz Festival in 1960 really launches his second career as a jazz vocalist of the first order. From that time on Jimmy Witherspoon recorded for many labels and did constant appearances at jazz festivals and clubs here and in Europe. In the early 70s he had his own radio show on KMET in L.A., and even had a part in the 1974 motion picture "The Black Godfather".
In the early nineteen eighties Jimmy Witherspoon was diagnosed with throat cancer which he survived. He overcame the damage to his vocal chords and relearned his craft, and into his seventies was still an effective performer of America's music. He made it all the way back, held in such high esteem that he received a Grammy nomination in 1996 for his version of "What A Wonderful World". He passed away a year later in September of 1997 at the age of 74 an acknowledged giant in the fields of Rhythm & Blues and Jazz and a true American original. For more than a half century Jimmy Witherspoon graced the stages and recording studios of the country and showed the world that he was indeed a talent for the ages.
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