J.B. Lenoir

Atypical bluesman backed high-pitched vocals with a boogie-influenced sound tinged with traces of jazz.

b. March 5, 1929 in Monticello, MS, d. April 15, 1967 in Champaign, IL, blues guitarist and singer-songwriter, active in the Chicago blues scene in the 1950s and 1960s. Christened with initials, Lenoir was taught to play the guitar by his father, Dewitt. Other acknowledged influences were Blind Lemon Jefferson, Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup and Lightnin' Hopkins, with the latter's single-string runs and verse tags becoming an integral part of the mature Lenoir style. He relocated to Chicago in 1949, and was befriended by ' Big' Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie. Having leased his first recordings to Chess Records in 1952, label owner Joe Brown issued Lenoir's first success, 'The Mojo Boogie', on JOB Records in 1953. A propulsive dance piece sung in a high, keening tenor, it typified an important element of Lenoir's repertoire. The second main element was exhibited the following year with the release on Parrot Records of 'Eisenhower Blues', an uncompromising comment upon economic hardship, which the singer laid at the President's door. Also released that year, 'Mama Talk To Your Daughter' was another light-hearted boogie that became his signature tune, its ebullience mirrored by Lenoir's penchant for wearing zebra-striped jackets on stage.

Subsequent records for Chess neglected the serious side of his writing, attempts at emulating previous successes taking preference over more sober themes such as 'We Can't Go On This Way' and 'Laid Off Blues'. Lenoir revealed that seriousness in an interview with Paul Oliver in 1960; this mood was in turn reflected in a series of recordings initiated by Willie Dixon and released to coincide with his appearance at the 1965 American Folk Blues Festival tour of Europe. Alabama Blues perfectly reconciled the two extremes of his style, remakes of 'The Mojo Boogie' and 'Talk To Your Daughter' tempering the stark reality of the title song, 'Born Dead' and 'Down In Mississippi', in which Lenoir, with both passion and dignity, evoked America's civil rights struggle of the time. The great benefit that might have accrued from what, in hindsight, was the masterwork of his career, was prevented by his tragic death in a car crash.

J.B. Lenoir Biography by Bill Dahl

Newcomers to his considerable legacy could be forgiven for questioning J.B. Lenoir's gender upon first hearing his rocking waxings. Lenoir's exceptionally high-pitched vocal range is a fooler, but it only adds to the singular appeal of his music. His politically charged "Eisenhower Blues" allegedly caused all sorts of nasty repercussions upon its 1954 emergence on Al Benson's Parrot logo (it was quickly pulled off the shelves and replaced with Lenoir's less controversially titled "Tax Paying Blues").

J.B. (that was his entire legal handle) fell under the spell of Blind Lemon Jefferson as a wee lad, thanks to his guitar-wielding dad. Lightnin' Hopkins and Arthur Crudup were also cited as early influences. Lenoir spent time in New Orleans before arriving in Chicago in the late '40s. Boogie grooves were integral to Lenoir's infectious routine from the get-go, although his first single for Chess in 1951, "Korea Blues," was another slice of topical commentary. From late 1951 to 1953, he waxed several dates for Joe Brown's JOB logo in the company of pianist Sunnyland Slim, drummer Alfred Wallace, and on the romping "The Mojo," saxophonist J.T. Brown.

Lenoir waxed his most enduring piece, the infectious (and often-covered) "Mama Talk to Your Daughter," in 1954 for Al Benson's Parrot label. Lenoir's 1954-1955 Parrot output and 1955-1958 Checker catalog contained a raft of terrific performances, including a humorously defiant "Don't Touch My Head" (detailing his brand-new process hairdo) and "Natural Man." Lenoir's sound was unique: saxes (usually Alex Atkins and Ernest Cotton) wailed in unison behind Lenoir's boogie-driven rhythm guitar as drummer Al Galvin pounded out a rudimentary backbeat everywhere but where it customarily lays. Somehow, it all fit together.

Scattered singles for Shad in 1958 and Vee-Jay two years later kept Lenoir's name in the public eye. His music was growing substantially by the time he hooked up with USA Records in 1963 (witness the 45's billing: J.B. Lenoir & his African Hunch Rhythm). Even more unusual were the two acoustic albums he cut for German blues promoter Horst Lippmann in 1965 and 1966. Alabama Blues! and Down in Mississippi were done in Chicago under Willie Dixon's supervision, Lenoir now free to elaborate on whatever troubled his mind ("Alabama March," "Vietnam Blues," "Shot on James Meredith").

Little did Lenoir know his time was quickly running out. By the time of his 1967 death, the guitarist had moved to downstate Champaign -- and that's where he died, probably as a delayed result of an auto accident he was involved in three weeks prior to his actual death.