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Yank Rachell

James A. Rachel, b. March 16, 1910 in Brownsville, TN, d. April 9, 1997 in Indianapolis, IN, country blues musician who has been called an "elder statesman of the blues." His career as a performer spanned nearly seventy years, from the late 1920s to the 1990s. Rachell learned mandolin from his uncle Daniel Taylor and later extended his talents to include guitar, harmonica and violin. He worked on the L&N railroad as a track hand in his early years, supplementing his income by playing local dances and parties in the company of local artists such as Hambone Willie Newbern. Rachell seems to have been doubling as a talent scout when he recorded with Sleepy John Estes in 1929. Later, he formed a partnership with Dan Smith and worked on record with John Lee 'Sonny Boy' Williamson. Recordings under his own name appeared on labels such as Victor Records, Vocalion Records and Banner and between 1938 and 1941 he recorded 24 titles for the famous Bluebird Records label. Despite all this activity Rachell was never able to survive as a full-time musician and often worked as a farmer. He returned to music, along with Estes and Hammie Nixon, with the revival of interest in blues in the early 60s. During that period he appeared at festivals, clubs and concerts, and recorded again for Delmark Records in 1964. He had completed a new album shortly before his death in April 1997.


Yank Rachell Biography by Uncle Dave Lewis

James "Yank" Rachell was the primary exponent of blues mandolin, although he also played guitar, violin, harp and sang expertly well. Born on a farm outside Brownsville, Tennessee, Yank Rachell picked up the mandolin at the age of eight, mainly teaching himself; an early encounter with "Hambone" Willie Newbern early on helped him as well. Rachell began to work dances with singer and guitarist Sleepy John Estes in the early '20s. In early 1929, he co-formed the Three J's Jug Band with Estes and pianist Jab Jones. The Three J's Jug Band were an instant hit and managed to work the dances during the lucrative jug-band craze in Memphis and traveled often to Paducah, Kentucky. The group recorded 14 sides credited jointly to Estes and Rachell for Victor for 1929 and 1930.

After the record business was flattened by the depression, the Three J's broke up. Estes and harmonica player Hammie Nixon went on to Chicago to seek their fortune in the nightclubs, but Yank Rachell decided to try his hand at farming and also worked for the L&N Railroad. Ironically, it was Rachell who was next to record -- during a stopover in New York Rachell teamed up with guitarist Dan Smith and laid down 25 titles for ARC in just three days, though only six of them were issued.

Shortly before the ARC date, Yank Rachell had discovered a kid harmonica player that he believed had real talent, John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson. They worked together at the Blue Flame Club in Jackson, Tennessee starting in 1933. In 1934 Williamson went north to Chicago. With the success of Williamson's first Bluebird dates of 1937, Rachell decided to join Sonny Boy in Chicago for sessions in March and June of 1938. Yank Rachell also contributed four sides of his own to each session, and then 16 more in 1941 with Sonny Boy backing him up. Some of the 1941 tracks are among his best: "It Seem Like a Dream," "Biscuit Baking Woman," and "Peach Tree Blues" were all successes for both Rachell and Bluebird.

But in 1938, while working in St. Louis with Peetie Wheatstraw, Yank Rachell had married and started to raise a family. During the peak of his musical career, Rachell kept his day job and did not lead "the life," at least not the same one that claimed his friend Sonny Boy Williamson on June 1, 1948. After Williamson's murder, Rachell drifted away from music and relied solely on straight jobs to make his living, settling permanently in Indianapolis in 1958. His wife passed away in 1961, and afterward he began to resume performing. In 1962, Rachell was re-united with Nixon and Estes, and the three of them began tearing up the college and coffeehouse circuit, recording for Delmark as Yank Rachell's Tennessee Jug Busters. Estes died in 1977, and from that time Rachell worked mainly as a solo act. Yank Rachell was a long-time regular at the Slippery Noodle in Indianapolis, and recorded only sporadically in his last years. Nonetheless, he was working on a new album when he died at age 87.