Forest City Joe

Joe Bennie Pugh, b. July 10, 1926 in Hughes, AR, d. April 3, 1960 in Horseshoe Lake, AR, known as Forrest City Joe or Forest City Joe blues musician who is mainly remembered for his ability as a harmonica player. He performed with other major blues acts of the period; he was the harmonica player in Muddy Waters's first band and regularly performed in the Chicago area. Despite his meager recording career, Joe was considered one of the top harmonica players of the era.

Pugh was born in Hughes, Arkansas, near Forrest City, and was raised on a cotton farm as an uneducated field worker. As a young boy, he began helping entertainers and playing in local venues, having taught himself to play the harmonica and other instruments. In the early 1940s, Pugh expanded his touring in Arkansas. His playing was heavily influenced by John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson. Pugh imitated Williamson's style and vocals, but over time he developed his own unique sound. Later in the decade Pugh met Big Joe Williams, and the two performed together in the St. Louis area. In 1947, Pugh went under the stage name Forrest City Joe, and relocated to Chicago for performances. On December 2, 1948, Joe recorded a single in his only session at Aristocrat Records (later Chess Records). Muddy Waters was intended to be a session musician for the recording, but instead Joe was paired with J. C. Coles, a jazz guitarist, who contributed very little to the recordings. A single resulted from the sessions, but other songs were unissued because the guitarist had hindered the recordings. Joe and Waters had previously been working together in a band, and Waters remembered Joe as being a "great harp player". In 1949, shortly after Williamson's death, the single, "Memory of Sonny Boy" backed with "A Woman on Every Street", was released (credited to Forest City Joe) but was not commercially successful. Joe briefly moved to Memphis to perform on radio programs with Howlin' Wolf and Rice Miller – who had adopted the name Sonny Boy Williamson – and found employment with Willie Love's Three Aces. He returned to Chicago in 1949, and lived on South Ellis Avenue, where his home became a meeting place for fellow musicians in the area. Joe worked in a band headed by Otis Spann, which mostly performed at the Tick Tock Lounge. The band stayed together for four years, until Spann left to join Muddy Waters's new band. In 1955, Joe moved back to Arkansas and generally removed himself from the music scene, except for occasional gigs with Willie Cobbs in small venues. In August 1959, Joe was located by Alan Lomax, and he recorded for the final time for the Atlantic label. Joe started performing more and was expected to return to Chicago. However, he died on April 3, 1960, at the age of 33, when his truck flipped over after returning from a dance in Horseshoe Lake, Arkansas. The crash crushed Joe's skull, killing him instantly. In 1995, a compilation album entitled Downhome Delta Harmonica was released on the DeltaCat label. The album covers all of Joe's material along with that of another musician, Polka Dot Slim (b. Monroe Vincent, 1919–1982). 

Forest City Joe Biography by Bruce Eder

Blues harpist Forest City Joe was heavily influenced by John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson. He not only played like him, but sang like him as well. Unlike his idol, however, who was murdered on June 1, 1948, Joe lived long enough to record for the Chess brothers in the early days of their activities, when Chess was known as Aristocrat. Joe was remembered as a "great harp player" by Muddy Waters, who only missed playing at Joe's one major Chess recording session on December 2, 1948, when Joe was only 21. Joe had more of a country sound than most Chicago artists of the period, so it's surprising that the Chess brothers paired him up with J.C. Coles, a jazz guitarist of no seeming special account, who added little to a session but a few barely audible chords.

Joe Bennie Pugh was born in Hughes, AR, on July 10, 1926, to Moses Pugh and Mary Walker. He was raised in the area around Hughes and West Memphis, AR, and even as a boy played the local juke joints in the area. He hoboed his way through the state working road houses and juke joints during the 1940s, and late in the decade hooked up with Big Joe Williams, playing with him around St. Louis, MO. Beginning in 1947, he also began working the Chicago area, and a year later had his one and only session for the Chess brothers' Aristocrat label. He also appeared with Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy "Rice Miller" Williamson (aka Sonny Boy II) on radio shows in the West Memphis area.

When he returned to Chicago in 1949, he began working with the Otis Spann Combo, appearing at the Tick Tock Lounge and other clubs in the city until the mid-'50s. Pugh returned to Arkansas and gave up music, except for occasional weekend shows with Willie Cobbs, playing in pool rooms and on street corners, beginning in 1955. Pugh recorded for Atlantic Records in 1959, and was still performing until his death in 1960, in a truck accident while returning home from a dance.

Had Muddy played Forest City Joe's one and only Chess Records session, as was intended, chances are more of Joe's work would've seen the light of day, if only in an effort to scrounge up every note that Muddy ever played. But as it was, only "Memory of Sonny Boy" and "A Woman on Every Street" ever saw the light of day, and at this writing only the former has ever appeared on an American CD.

As to his extant music, "Memory of Sonny Boy" was among the first postwar tribute records from one bluesman to another (Scrapper Blackwell had done as much for Leroy Carr in the 1930s), starting a trend that continued for decade. And it's a great record, at least as far as the harp playing and the singing go. Joe's playing mimics Sonny Boy Williamson I's call-and-response harp playing, performing dazzling volume acrobatics, and his singing is also highly expressive. None of the rest is as strong, but "Shady Lane Woman" is a good, bluesy romantic lament, while "A Woman on Every Street" is the other side of the coin, and a better workout on the harp. "Sawdust Bottom" should have seen release, and "Ash Street Boogie" could've seen action if the accompaniment had been better realized. Alas, J.C. Coles was seemingly content to strum along almost inaudibly in the background -- ah, what Muddy might've done....