TRUE BLUE from Ellis Kell
A TRUE BLUES LEGEND COMES HOME…Wes ‘Big Daddy’ Cooper knows Barbecue and Blues, and both with a capital ‘B’! Mr. Cooper has been one of the Quad Cities’ best known chefs for many years, and been designated as one of the ‘honorary contest judges’ for the first annual River Rockin’ Ribfest in LeClaire Park, August 27, 28 and 29. In a recent conversation at his home in Rock Island, Mr. Cooper and I talked about the ‘good old days’ at the Morocco Club in the West End of Rock Island. I can still remember my father riding down 9th street, and stopping to visit for a while with Mr. Roy Morrison, who ran the Morocco for years. I can still remember the smell of sweet, smoked ribs in the night air… and Mr. Morrison bringing bottles of Pepsi out for us on the front steps of the Morocco Club. They are just early ‘blue tattoos’ on my memory, I guess.
The Blues and Jazz jam sessions at the Morocco Club ‘went all night long,’ according to Mr. Cooper, who also blew a little sax at some of those sessions. These were the nights in the 1940’s and 50’s when you might see anyone there from the great Nat King Cole and his trio, sitting in with drummer and local bandleader Moe Payton, world-renowned entertainers such as Pat Patrick, Cab Calloway, actor Tim Moore (of early TV’s ‘Amos & Andy’ fame), to members of the legendary Muddy Waters Band, including blues harp master James Cotton, Pat Hare and most notably Rock Island’s own Francis ‘Francie’ Clay. Clay was an integral part of the signature Muddy Waters sound that evolved and was recorded for posterity at Chicago famed Chess Records, in the period from 1957 - 1967. This essential Blues trademark sound is showcased on "Muddy Waters: His Best, 1956 to 1964," from MCA/Chess Records, part of the Chess 50th Anniversary series from MCA.
A few years ago I had the distinct pleasure of meeting and talking with Francis Clay’s sister, Ms. Rosalie (Clay) Smith, who still lives here in Rock Island, and she provided me with a couple classic photos of Mr. Clay along with some very proud memories of her brother and his career in music. I remember how she smiled big when we talked about how great it would be if Francis could return for one of our annual blues festivals in July. Now Francis Clay, 74 years old, will return home to the area from California for this year’s Mississippi Valley Blues Festival. There he will FINALLY be acknowledged and honored here in the place of his birth. It is an acknowledgment and tribute that is long, long overdue - but thank God, its better late than never.
Born in Rock Island in 1923, he began performing at the age five on guitar, and by ten he was a work on a homemade practice pad with a pair of drumsticks he himself carved. By 1938 he was performing jazz with Pat Patrick’s band which, at the time, featured Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. 1940 saw the formation of Francis Clay and His Syncopated Rhythm, and Clay went on to perform on riverboats, the vaudeville scene and the Austin Brothers Circus. It was in 1957 that Clay would team up with Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Pat Hare, James Cotton, and sometimes the late Jimmy Rogers, in what many would argue was the greatest Blues band of all times. Their 1960 live album from the Newport Jazz Festival is a world classic, and showcases Clay’s signature percussion technique, which has always been rooted in jazz.
Francis Clay went on to perform with Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, Big Mama Thornton, Otis Spann, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Earl Hooker, Victoria Spivey, James Cotton, Joni Mitchell and Clifton Chenier. 1967 he co-founded the James Cotton Band. He continues to play on occasion to this day, in and around the San Francisco area where he resides. In 1995 he was honored on the west coast at a benefit concert that featured Lowell Fulson, Lady Bianca, Elvin Bishop, Nick Gravenites, Boz Scaggs, Tommy Castro and Alvin Youngblood Hart.
This month’s True Blue salutes the musical contribution of Francis ‘Francie’ Clay, a true-blue Rock Island original and universal Blues and jazz treasure. His technique and syncopated stylings have no doubt influenced and inspired a multitude of up-and-coming young drummers, and the landmark recordings which feature his drumming will forever remain some of the most prized works in the halls of the Blues archives. For more on Francis Clay on the web, visit: http://www.bluespower.com/a-fc.htm, or http://home.earthlink.net/~americanlg/francis_clay.html
(Black & white photo of Francis Clay, Pat Hare, Muddy Waters and James Cotton courtesy of Mr. Clay’s sister, Rosalie (Clay) Smith of Rock Island.)
Quad Cities Blues fans will soon see two new faces in the line-up for area favorites the Blue Fins. Former The Tourists and The Sides keyboard and saxman Brian Schou has hired on, along with former Pink Cadillac and Bad Apple bassman and vocalist Mike Frank. Both musicians will no doubt stir in new seasonings and fresh stock to this already popular QC Blues stew. Blue Fins alumni returning in this reincarnation include Todd Vermeulen on guitar, Ric Burris on harmonica and vocals, and Mark Terrell on drums. Watch for ‘em soon at your favorite nightspot, and don’t forget to get out and support live Blues in the clubs!
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