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The Roots of Leroy Pierson
by Michael Kuelker

The story of bluesman-musicologist Leroy Pierson has been told in the St. Louis print media many times over the last 25 years. There is still much to tell, and rather than publish another paraphrase-plus-quotes survey of his extensive resume as a musician, collector and writer, the BluesLetter in this instance sacrifices some detail and narrows the focus on a theme. We inquire about the formations of Leroy Pierson-what his draw was to the blues and how he negotiated his way among the still-living taproots of blues, those foundational musicians from whom he learned bits of life and music to forge a life which keeps coming back to the blues. The conversation has special emphasis on those epiphanies which are part of what anyone who is passionate about any craft would term 'the calling.'

The interview was conducted at Pierson's St. Louis home in January 1999. Leroy Jodie Pierson was born in 1947 to a middle class family in north St. Louis. His home life gave him a firm and fertile grounding in music. His father had been a western swing musician and played a lot of black music at the house, where Pierson heard the likes of Jimmy Rushing, Count Basie, Joe Williams, among many eclectic sounds, including the early, free-form days of radio. Family outings included trips to jazz clubs to see John Coltrane, Muddy Waters and Albert King.

When I was a kid, I used to listen to a lot of blues. I didn't understand that it was blues. To me it was more pop music because I didn't understand categorizations of music when I was seven, eight, nine years old. I was also listening to Gabriel [a KATZ deejay], used to listen to him every night. Gabriel would play the weirdest mess of stuff. I mean, one minute he'd play James Brown, the next minute he'd play George Jones, the next minute he'd play the Howlin' Wolf. So I knew that I loved Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and these people, but I didn't know they represented a different form.

There was also KXLW, which had a daytime license; they had to go off the air when the sun went down. They had a fella on named Jimmy Bishop in the afternoons. Best deejay I ever heard in my life, bar none. When I was on the radio [his "The Baby Face Leroy Blues Hour"] I stole 90% of my patter from Jimmy Bishop. All that ho-mommy-oh stuff, that style is all Jimmy Bishop. Gabriel was always a humorous disc jockey, but he wouldn't do any slick patter. I always liked that patter business

When I was 13 years old I started dating a girl whose brother liked blues. He gave me an album called Lightning Hopkins in New York and said, "Listen to this." That was the profound experience for me. I came home, I listened to the record, I did not like the record. But I was absolutely fascinated by the guy's guitar playing. The more I listened to the guitar playing, the more I became fascinated with his voice and what he was saying, too. Even though that album is one of the worst introductions you could have to country blues, that was special to me. All of a sudden I understood that there was a form out there, a tradition out there that was deep and wide and a long standing thing.

So at that point I started buying Lightning Hopkins records. And buying any other records that had 'blues' on the cover. That was a period of time when there were two phenomena going on in white pop music. One was the death of rock and roll as I knew it, with Elvis going into the Army and Chuck going into the prison and all that terrible music that happened in the early 1960s. But there was something else going on that I found fascinating, which was what they called at the time the hootenanny music. It was folk music. There used to be a program on television, 'Hootenanny,' for an hour, and you'd watch the whole hour and see 58 minutes of drivel, most times, but you might see two minutes of something really just paralyzing and beautiful. Bunch of jerks on, and then boom-you'd see Jersey Lone Cat Fuller.

I liked the idea of people accompanying themselves. Blues musicians, and beyond that classic rhythm and blues musicians, all do play their own instruments. They all do. Even the ones that get to a point that the public doesn't realize that. A guy like Al Green, who goes out and just sings now, started with a guitar around his neck. I had a real respect for people who could sing and play. Jerry Lee Lewis was more impressive to me than the Fabians and those kinda cats.

Leroy picked up the guitar when he was 14, the same time as his schoolmates at Country Day. His record collecting began two years later. When he got a drivers license, he went straight to Future City, Illinois (north of Cairo). Going door to door, just as Henry Townsend suggested he should, Pierson bought blues and gospel sides priced at fifty cents each and went home with a trunk jammed with records. He was eventually expelled from Country Day and finished his high school education at McCluer.

Country Day, like the great majority of the schools at the time, was a racist institution to the core. We had many teachers at Country Day who had been active CIA. Revolution in Guatemala-half the school would empty out, the teachers were all gone. Right wing... I've kept some textbooks just to prove to people how crazy it was. One of my textbooks was called The Protracted Conflict, which was published by the John Birch Society, about the evils of communism. I had teachers telling me in class that there were 60,000 Chinese communist troops training in Mexico to take over Texas. And here this was supposed to be the greatest center of learning in St. Louis? Supposed to be this great school and people are talking like this. I didn't let that bother me. We had teachers who were liberals, too, so I got the other side of the coin. But, there was a fella in my class that I greatly admired-I went to the first New York Folk Festival in 1965 with him, and we saw Mance Lipscomb and Mississippi John Hurt and Muddy Waters, just a whole heap of people. His mother was Sue Shear, who just passed away, who was a big political force in the Democratic party. Well, Sue Shear had arranged Dr. Martin Luther King to speak at Temple Israel for a fund-raising event, and Dr. King was going to be in town for three days. When we found out that King was coming, we just about died. We thought, wow, this is the greatest thing that could possibly happen. Her son said to me, 'Do you think it would be possible for him to speak here at Country Day?' And I said, 'Why not?' Surely he would like to talk to future leaders of the community in terms of purse strings. So she went to the headmaster and asked about this and was shown the door-quick. In such a way that-[pause]. I don't want to get into it because then I'll start getting mad...

I was kicked out of my first coming out party, my first debutante ball. I was kicked out of it for dancing with one of the black singers. I was thrown out of Old Warson Country Club. I'm in a tuxedo, 15 years old. I danced with one of the five Dutones, you know, one of the gals that used to do "Shake a Tail Feather." Got thrown out of the place.

Country Day was full of very rich people. Everyday we'd get the same message at chapel every morning. The speeches always came down to one thing, which was: You people in this room are the future presidents of corporations, governors, ambassadors, you are the best of the best. [He pauses.] I bought that. I thought, I'm in the best school, I'm getting the best education I could possibly get. I'm gonna really be something. But when it came down to it, and I could see that the political thing was not what I liked-I was going one way, the school was going another-when I was kicked out of Country Day, and I was given the end of a boot, I rejected everything about that experience. I decided in my mind that I was not interested in wealth, and I was not interested in people that controlled wealth. I didn't want to be around them. I didn't respect them. What I did respect was people that had nothing who made something of themselves. Lightning Hopkins, Fred McDowell, Johnny Shines. Especially Henry Townsend. Henry didn't even have any schooling. Henry didn't have anything. Left home at eight years old, walking to St. Louis. You can't imagine how I identified with Henry Townsend, how I wanted to be like Henry Townsend. Henry can take a car apart and put it back together, and he can take a computer apart and put it together. He reads like a whiz, intelligent as he can be. And when I look back at it, these kids that I went to school with, they're all millionaires. To me that's something I left when I was 16 years old. That's what attracted me to Kingston [Jamaica]. Here's people who can take naught and naught-and make one.

So I had an attitude, and my attitude was that everything I've been told was wrong, and that the really good people had to sweat and suffer to get where they got. And I think a lot of that is why I liked the blues so much. When I was at Country Day I had a person tell me something I never forgot. His name was Herr Battenberg, the German teacher, very fine man. He said, 'Leroy, you're really messing your life up.' I said, What do you mean? He said, 'Well, I've noticed something about you. You're not a gifted student. You're a good student, but not gifted. Every time I give you a choice to do something simple or something hard, you choose the hard thing. You're not going to get ahead that way.' In many ways over the years, I've thought back on that. Maybe that's why I decided to become a bluesman. Because it was impossible: a white kid that went to Country Day? It's like the total opposite of everything I was trained for. I was trained to be a stock broker or something like that.

Pierson attended Beloit University in Wisconsin, where he studied English and promoted shows of the era's movers and shakers of blues. A partial roster includes shows by Son House, Arthur Crudup, Fred McDowell, Junior Wells, B.B. King, J.B. Hutto, Johnny Young, Johnny Littlejohn, Carey Bell, Eddie Taylor, Furry Lewis, Robert Pete Williams, Mance Lipscomb, Roosevelt Sykes, Lazy Bill Lucas, and Sunnyland Slim. The first time Pierson appeared on stage was when Son House beckoned him at Beloit to play "Back back train and get your load." The immersion in blues culture led him along unexpected paths, even to a Baptist church. Substituting at the suggestion of his ill friend, who was himself filling a temporary position because the church had expelled its last regular preacher, Pierson delivered three Sundays' worth of sermons for fifty dollars a pop . By 1970, during his last semester-Pierson withdrew three credit hours short of graduating-he promoted a three-day, 18-act blues event.

I didn't really start playing [the guitar] till I got to college. The promoting was really the key to all the personal experiences. It's one thing to get next to an artist and say 'hey, I love your stuff.' It's another thing to get next to an artist when you've got a thousand dollars in your back pocket for him. You get their attention a lot quicker like that. So I would bring all my favorite people up to Beloit and then the ones I really liked, I would get close to them and start visiting them at home.

The first show I did had four acts in it. Son House, Fred McDowell, Arthur Crudup and Junior Wells. Then the last show I did, my last semester, we had 18 acts in a three-day show. It was everybody and their dog. We'd try to do some different things in the shows. The program was supposed to be Son House for half an hour, Arthur Crudup for half an hour, Fred McDowell for half an hour. But backstage before they went out, McDowell was playing gospel tunes on the guitar and they were all harmonizing McDowell. And I said, why don't you do a gospel thing at the end. Well, they ended up onstage with the gospel thing for an hour and a half. People just loved it. It was kind of unbelievable, this guy who was the so-called father of folk blues onstage with the so-called father of rock and roll and my favorite guitar player in the world at the time, which was Fred McDowell. I just thought Fred was the greatest damn guitar player I had ever heard in my life. I still think that rhythmically, the guy is the best. I was severely pumped up.

That gave me a feeling that it was okay to take risks with these guys. In ensuing programs, I would often pair people that weren't used to playing together and get good results. I did a show with Fred McDowell and Sunnyland Slim playing together, and they really played together. Mance Lipscomb with Robert Wilkins.

On the trimester system at Beloit, students could accelerate their education or schedule off semesters. Starting in 1968, Pierson took advantage of the flexibility by scheduling semesters off for trips through the South to gain a parallel education as well as to acquire collectible records.

Everybody I met [at the Beloit blues shows], they'd say, well, why don't you visit me. I sort of had a circuit. I'd go to Memphis first, and I'd go see Robert Wilkins. Then I would leave out of there, late in the evening, and I would go see Fred; Fred was only 30 miles from Memphis, in Como. I'd spend three or four days with Fred, and then I would go to Jackson. Johnny Temple [who was associated with the McCoy family, a premier instrumental group] was down in Jackson at the time. Johnny Temple could sit down with the guitar and play you Neapolitan folk songs. He could play you Sicilian folk tunes and make you cry, singing in Italian. Overwhelming musicianship. He wrote the tune 'Louise,' which I just recorded recently.

Normally, then I would go to Meridian. That's where Gayle Dean Wardlow was at. [A country blues specialist, Wardlow collaborated with Stephen Calt on King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton. More recently, Wardlow wrote Chasin' That Devil's Music: Searching for the Blues, published by Miller Freeman Books, which includes a CD of rare songs.] I would go through there and talk to him. I learned a lot from talking with him. What I was trying to do was find out where Gayle had been. And then I would take a map-seriously-and I would mark where Gayle had been, and then I would not go where Gayle had been. To look for records. If I went where he hadn't been, I'd make out.

Then I would go to Holt, Alabama, to visit Johnny Shines. Johnny had moved from Chicago to Holt, Alabama, around 1969. I learned more guitar from Johnny than anybody else because he knew more guitar. Even though I liked Fred McDowell's guitar playing better, Shines was somebody you could learn from. Because he'd say, no, don't do it that way, do it this way.

From those experiences, then, I got to where some of those guys trusted me pretty well. Fred would ask me to play with him, or Johnny would ask me to play with him. At the time I thought I was helping 'em out. In retrospect I realize how much they were helping me out. I was not adding too much to their act. I may have thought I was, I may have been trying hard, but they were being very sweet to me, you know?

It was like I had a calling. I literally could not force myself to think of anything else. I just couldn't. It's like I had the boogie disease, which is why my first record company was called Boogie Disease Records. 'You boogie for the doctor, you boogie for the nurse, you keep on boogie-ing till they put you in the hearse': [lyrics by] Doctor Ross. That's the way I felt. I couldn't stop thinking about this music, I couldn't stop thinking about these people. I couldn't stop thinking about the guitars. I couldn't stop thinking about the records. And I just wanted all these experiences. I felt really bad that I missed so many good opportunities. I was too young. Henry Stucky [pronounced STOO-kee] died in 1959. This is a guy we all should have heard, but Henry never recorded. Henry's the guy who taught Skip James. Tommy Johnson died in 1956, when I was nine years old. I wish I had been able to see some of those guys. As it was, I felt very, very fortunate. To me-and I was living in a fool's paradise-Fred McDowell and Johnny Shines were the biggest stars in the world. To me, it was bigger than the Beatles, much more important than the Beatles.

At this time, Pierson started establishing himself as a writer, contributing pieces to Living Blues, Blues World and Blues Unlimited, and in 1972, he penned liner notes for The Great Blues Men, a Vanguard album, the first example in a resume which numbers over 50 album credits. With that double LP release, Pierson asked for, and received, the inclusion of Johnny Shines' "Dynaflow," a cut that he calls, next to Baby Face Leroy's "Rollin' and Tumblin'", the "greatest piece of blues music recorded in my lifetime." He set up Boogie Disease Records for a one-off compilation called Take a Little Walk With Me: The Blues in Chicago 1948-1957, which was released in 1976. (The source material for the double album was Pierson's own collection of records. In a similar fashion, but with compensation coming on the front end, Pierson has leased rare reggae sides to record companies for releases of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, U Roy and others as well as blues 78s, at $85 per, to Yazoo.) All 500 copies of Take A Little Walk With Me sold within a month. That same year, he founded Nighthawk Records, first releasing regional compilations of blues. In the late 1970s, seeing a ground floor opportunity for the business, they began delving into Jamaican culture. Pierson would later sell out his interest and remain with Nighthawk doing production and discographical work on releases of the Itals, Justin Hinds, and the Gladiators as well as for genre-defining compilations Knotty Vision, Wiser Dread and Calling Rastafari. Nighthawk issued Pierson's only album, Rusty Nail, in 1988, but the partnership ended by the late 1980s.

I was over at a friend's house one night and he said, 'I think you'll like this.' He handed me Blackheart Man by Bunny Wailer. I loved that record, from the first time I heard it. The second record was Legalize It [Peter Tosh]. The third record was Rastaman Vibration [Bob Marley]. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Not like it was a new kind of music. I didn't see it that way. I saw this as an extension of what I was already into. One of the prime moments during my first research trip to Jamaica [1980] was when I said to Bunny Wailer, 'Bunny, how would you describe yourself musically?' He said, 'I'm just another blues singer.'

There's a big connection between the two musics, which I'm only now beginning to exploit personally. [He picks up a National Steel guitar and begins to pick.] Blues: monotonic, alternating bass-from the oom-pah, German band music, which was very popular in this country after the Civil War. In Jamaica, you hear this [he strums]. Hear how it's the same beat? Now listen. [And so it goes, with a fresh demonstration on the guitar.] Hear the reggae beat in that? Still has the alternating; has one more note in it. I'm starting to use that bass line in a lot of what I do, not just my electric music but my acoustic music. Nobody else does that, so I'm kind of proud of it.

I became so passionate about reggae that it's like what happened to me with blues. I was compelled. And I knew the timing was right. I had missed out on Tommy Johnson and these other guys. But I wasn't gonna miss out on reggae, I was gonna be there. I wanted to know those people. The only way I could think to do it, and here's the manipulative side of me, is to sell that record label to Bob Schoenfeld.

A lot of the stuff that's happened, it's like magic. I wanted to go to Sunsplash [the reggae festival held in 1979 in Montego Bay, Jamaica], and out of the blue this guy, Joe Pfeffer [the editor of a magazine which folded before its first issue was published], calls me and says, 'Do you think you'd like to go down to Sunsplash?' Would I like to cover Sunsplash and get paid for it? Years later, and I don't want to sound like some kind of mystic idiot over here but it's the God's truth, in 1985, I was on this floor, on my knees, praying. I was so miserable and so depressed. And I said, God, if you want me to do what I'm doing, then you've got to let me know. I'm not lying: While I was praying, the phone rang, and it was Joe Wilson [on behalf of the National Council for Traditional Arts] in D.C. He says, 'Do you think you'd like to play 56 shows playing rockabilly in Jamaica next month?' [He pauses.] When I need the kick, I get the kick. Whenever I need something to keep me in it, something happens.

Are you playing the music because you have a passion for it, or are you playing the music for a paycheck? When you have the calling, it doesn't make any difference whether you've got the gig. You're gonna have that guitar in your hands and you're gonna being doing it, whether you have the job or not.

Leroy Pierson has a job playing solo country blues at BB's Jazz Blues and Soups every Friday from 8-9:30 p.m. His studio work has never stopped, but most of it remains unreleased. In any event, Rusty Nail will be reissued this year on Blueberry Hill Records. His guitar work can be heard on Henry Townsend's 88 Blues, also on the Blueberry Hill label.

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