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Willie Mabon

Willie James Mabon, b. October 24, 1925 in Hollywood, TN, d. April 19, 1985 in Paris, France, Rhythm and blues singer, songwriter and pianist. Accompanying himself on piano and secondly on harmonica, Mabon sang in an urbane blues style similar to Charles Brown. He moved from Memphis, Tennessee, to Chicago in 1942 and was first recorded in 1949 as a member of the Blues Rockers group. After military service he became a popular entertainer in Chicago's Black Belt, and by the early 50s, was well established as an R&B singer with a number of successful records to his credit. Signed as a solo artist to Chess Records in 1951, Mabon immediately hit with a novelty blues, 'I Don't Know' (R&B number 1, 1952), a remake of a Cripple Clarence Lofton record from 1938. Mabon had other hits with 'I'm Mad' (R&B number 1, 1953), 'Poison Ivy' (R&B Top 10, 1954) and 'Seventh Son' (1955).

After leaving Chess in 1956, Mabon continued to record on various small labels, achieving success on Formal in 1962 with 'Got To Have Some'. During the 70s and 80s, he would flit back and forth between Chicago and Europe, making occasional albums for German and French labels, most of which were poorly received. He found a wider audience in Europe, playing the Montreux Jazz Festival and festivals in Berlin and Holland. A polished performer, with a measure of glossy sophistication to his singing, Mabon retained a strong affinity with the earthier aspects of the blues and was an influence upon Mose Allison.

He moved to Paris in 1972 and toured and recorded in Europe as part of promoter Jim Simpson's American Blues Legends tour, recording The Comeback for Simpson's Big Bear Records and an album for Ornament Records in 1977. He died in April 1985, after a long illness, in Paris.


Willie Mabon Biography by Bill Dahl

The sly, insinuating vocals and chunky piano style of Willie Mabon won the heart of many an R&B fan during the early '50s. His salty Chess waxings "I Don't Know," "I'm Mad," and "Poison Ivy" established the pianist as a genuine Chicago blues force, but he faded as an R&B hitmaker at the dawn of rock & roll. Mabon was already well-grounded in blues tradition from his Memphis upbringing when he hit Chicago in 1942. Schooled in jazz as well as blues, Mabon found the latter his ticket to stardom. His first sides were a 1949 78 for Apollo as Big Willie and some 1950 outings for Aristocrat and Chess with guitarist Earl Dranes as the Blues Rockers.

But Mabon's asking price for a night's work rose dramatically when his 1952 debut release on powerful Windy City DJ Al Benson's Parrot logo, "I Don't Know," topped the R&B charts for eight weeks after being sold to Chess. From then on, Mabon was a Chess artist, returning to the top R&B slot the next year with the ominous "I'm Mad" and cracking the Top Ten anew with the Mel London-penned "Poison Ivy" in 1954. Throughout his Chess tenure, piano and sax were consistently to the fore rather than guitar and harp, emphasizing Mabon's cool R&B approach. His original version of Willie Dixon's hoodoo-driven "The Seventh Son" bombed in 1955, as did the remainder of his fine Chess catalog. Mabon never regained his momentum after leaving Chess. He stopped at Federal in 1957, Mad in 1960, Formal in 1962 (where he stirred up some local sales with his leering "Got to Have Some"), and USA in 1963-1964. Mabon sat out much of the late '60s but came back strong after moving to Paris in 1972, recording and touring Europe prolifically until his death.