The news that after 23 years the Helena blues festival will no longer be free this fall didn’t come as a surprise.
The festival, which is scheduled for Oct. 8-10, has struggled for years — it couldn’t come up with a modest fee when it lost the rights to King Biscuit Blues Festival after an entertainment company bought the name of the defunct flour company in Helena — and the festival has fallen deeper into debt.
Most of the festival’s problems were self-inflicted — mismanagement, mediocre bookings — but also demographic: Blues festivals appeal to aging baby boomers, who don’t travel as much as they used to, and anyway, they’d rather spend more time with their new grandbabies than listen to another average blues band.
Festivals are shutting down across the country — the San Francisco blues festival is ending its run after more than 30 years — but the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival, as it has been called in recent years, will continue with a little help from sponsors and the state. Many poor people around Helena will probably not pay the $10 to get in, but even if attendance is down 90 percent, which is possible, the festival could still raise $100,000 from ticket sales and from vendors along Cherry Street.
The festival was started in 1986 to promote the area’s blues heritage. Several great Arkansas bluesmen were born in the area — Robert Lockwood, Robert Night-hawk, Roosevelt Sykes, George (Harmonica) Smith, Willie (Big Eyes) Smith, Sam Carr and others — and it’s still home to “King Biscuit Time” on radio station KFFA, where for many years, the King Biscuit Boys performed live. They included Lockwood, Sonny Boy Williamson, Peck Curtis and others. Sonny Boy died in the 1960s in a nearby rooming house. Robert Johnson is said to have played at a juke joint at the end of Cherry Street.
But even as the festival struggles, you can always listen at home or in your car to blues musicians with Arkansas connections. Our list of favorites of those who have called the Natural State their home:
1. Albert King, although he was born in Indianola, Miss., spent many years around Osceola and changed his name to King to cash in on B.B. King’s popularity. King Albert made many fine records — anything from Stax is worth a listen — but our favorite is “King of the Blues Guitar” (Atlantic), which is a longer version of another record from Stax called “Born Under a Bad Sign.” The Atlantic reissue is a classic from beginning to end. Besides the title tune with the immortal words, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all,” it includes “Laundromat Blues,” “Overall Junction,” “Kansas City” and much more of Albert’s great guitar playing and fine voice.
The CD is on many blues critics’ list of favorites. Also recommended: “Live Wire Blues Power” (Stax), recorded at the Fillmore West, is stunning but much too short at 38 minutes. “Blues from the Road,” recorded live at the Montreaux Blues Festival in Switzerland, is much more generous: It includes 93 minutes on two discs “That’s What the Blues is All About,” “Blues at Sunrise,” “Matchbox Holds My Clothes,” “I’ll Play the Blues for You” and more.
(King is buried near West Memphis at Paradise Gardens Cemetery off I-40 in Edmundson.)
2. Junior Parker, born in West Memphis, is perhaps Arkansas’ most important soul-blues singer whose roots are familiar only to a handful of blues scholars. (Many blues reference guides incorrectly list Clarksdale, Miss., as his birthplace.)
His “Mystery Train” on Sun Records influenced young Elvis, who is pictured with Parker and Bobby (Blue) Bland on the cover of a Rounder CD of the same name, which also features Auburn (Pat) Hare of Cherry Valley (Cross County) on guitar. Hare died in prison for killing his girlfriend. (Amazingly, the CD includes his prophetic “I’m Gonna Murder My Baby.”)
Junior Parker had a fine voice — he was often compared to B.B. King and Ray Charles — and he was a good harmonica player, but he never caught on with white audiences and died young in 1970. But he left behind several important records, such as the two-volume Duke reissues called “Junior Blues” and “Backtracking” (MCA) made mostly in the 1950s. The sound is often low-fi, but the music is excellent: “Next Time You See Me,” “Driving Wheel,” “Strange Things Happening,” “The Things I Used to Do,” “Crying for My Baby,” “I’ll Forget About You” and much more.
Parker made some excellent music in the 1960s, when he was recorded in stereo. “You Don’t Have to Be Black to Love the Blues” (Groove Merchant) is probably his best. “The Mercury Recordings” CD is also excellent. He’s one of the great Arkansas musicians who never enjoyed the recognition he deserved.
3. Junior Wells, another fine harmonica player, was also born in West Memphis. His “Voodoo Man Blues” with Buddy Guy is Delmark Records’ biggest seller. Wells’ earliest recordings are “Blues Hit Big Town,” also from Delmark, and “Calling All Blues,” his Chief, Profile and USA recordings. They’re essential, as is one of his last, the Grammy Award-winner “Come on in This House” (Telarc).
4. Howlin’ Wolf, the great Chicago bluesman who also played harmonica and the guitar, was born in Mississippi but farmed for many years on the Phillips Plantation 15 miles north of Parkin in Cross County. (Pat Hare was in his band in the late 1940s, along with Junior Parker and harmonica wizard James Cotton when they played in east Arkansas and recorded in West Memphis. That’s three harmonica players in the group.)
Wolf’s earliest recordings sprang from the fertile soil of east Arkansas. He made his earliest recording in the late 1940s and early 1950s in Memphis and West Memphis and later on Chess. His “Memphis Days, Vol. I and II” on Sun Records and “Howling Wolf Sings the Blues” on Modern are stunning, and so are his Chess recordings, especially “The Rocking Chair” album.
5. George (Harmonica) Smith, another terrific mouth harp player — Arkansas has produced a lot of them — was also a fine singer: Better than Little Walter and Big Walter, which is saying a lot. “Harmonica Ace” from Modern and “Now You Can Talk About Me” from Blind Pig are both excellent. His “Tribute to Little Walker” CD with the Muddy Waters Band is superb.
6. Frank Frost from Auvergne (Jackson County) is the last harmonica player on our list, although he also played keyboards and guitar. One of his earlier records is on Phillips International called “Hey Boss Man!” with the incomparable Big Jack Johnson on guitar and Sam Carr on drums. They also made the classic “Rockin’ the Juke Joint Down” on Earwig, which also issued Frost’s magisterial “Midnight Prowler.”
7. Robert Nighthawk, Sam Carr’s father, was a great slide guitar player who made excellent records with several Delta musicians. His “Bluebird Recordings, 1937-38,” made under his real name, Robert Lee McCoy, and his “Masters of Modern Blues” with Houston Stackhouse and others (much of it recorded across the river in Lula, Miss.) are first-rate. He also played on Maxwell Street, an old flea market in Chicago, where he was recorded in the mid-1960s. In addition to “Live on Maxwell Street, 1964” he recorded “Bricks in My Pillow” in Chicago in the 1950s.
Nighthawk spent much of his later years in Helena and Lula. He is buried near Frank Frost in Helena’s Magnolia Cemetery.
8. Robert Lockwood, who was born in Turkey Scratch near Marvell (Phillips County), played at the Helena blues festival every year. The last time was almost three years ago, just before he died at the age of 91. He played a beautiful version of “Love in Vain” by Robert Johnson, who’d taught him how to play the guitar in Helena when Lockwood was a teenager.
You can hear “Love in Vain” on Lockwood’s “Delta Crossroads” CD from Telarc on a superaudio CD.
Although he recorded in the 1940s and 1950s, he did not release an LP as a leader until 1970, when he was in his mid-50s: “Steady Rollin’ Man” from Delmark is 40 minutes of deep Arkansas blues.
He made several more records in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, including “Live in Japan” with Louis and Dave Myers on Delmark, the “Complete Trix Recordings” and “I Got to Find Me a Woman” on Verve. But for someone who performed for 70 years, his output wasn’t huge.
9. Luther Allison, who was born near Widener (St. Francis County), was a great guitar player. He made his mark in Chicago, where some of his fellow musicians considered him better than B.B. King. Allison’s “Love Me Mama,” “Live in Chicago,” “Blue Streak,” “Luther’s Blues” and “Reckless” are examples of tough Chicago blues.
Recorded in the early 1970s, “Bad News Is Coming” and “Luther’s Blues” from Gordy, a Motown subsidiary, may be Allison’s best. Although Motown wasn’t known for blues — owner Berry Gordy may have tried to cash in on B.B. King’s new popularity with whites — the label knew how to record music as well as anybody. Although the two records didn’t sell well, they still sound great today.
10. Son Seals, who was born in Osceola (Mississippi County), made a series of blistering records for Alligator back in the 1970s and 1980s and helped make blues popular with young rock fans. “The Son Seals Blues Band” and “Midnight Son” are first-rate.
11. Michael Burks is a blues artist in the Allison/Seals tradition. Burks is one of only two active bluesmen on our list. He was born in Camden, grew up in Milwaukee but now lives in North Little Rock. He’s been a regular at the Helena blues festival and Sticky Fingerz in Little Rock.
Burks has made several fine CDs for Alligator, including “I Smell Smoke,” “Make It Rain” and “Iron Man.” He’s a slash-and-burn guitar player who sounds best live. Catch him in Helena in October.
12. Larry Davis grew up in Lonoke County and made several outstanding records before his untimely passing in 1994. Stevie Ray Vaughan covered Davis’ “Texas Flood,” whose royalties should take care of Davis’ family for a long time. His “Funny Stuff” from Rooster Blues is terrific stuff with deep Delta roots that made their way to central Arkansas at least a century ago.
13. Roosevelt Sykes was born near Helena and moved to St. Louis and then Chicago and lived his final years in New Orleans.
He played a mean barrelhouse piano up and down the Delta and wrote some classic blues, including “Nightimes Is the Right Times,” “Driving Wheel,” “West Helena Blues,” “44 Blues” and others.
He can be heard on “Chicago Boogie” and on other Delmark CDs, as well as “The Honeydripper” from Smithsonian Folkways. His earliest recordings from 1929 and later are available from Document Records.
14. Cedell Davis, who now lives in a Pine Bluff nursing home, has had polio for much of his life and has been confined to a wheelchair. He plays powerful slide guitar with a butter knife and sings like someone who’s seen hard times all of his life. Davis’ music is like a low-level tornado that’s coming at you. Listen to it on three exceptional CDs, “Feel Like Doing Something Wrong,” “The Horror of It All” and “When Lightnin’ Struck the Pine.”
15. Lonnie Shields from West Helena has a big following in the Delta, although he moved to Philadelphia several years ago, trying to catch a break as a bluesman.
Shields is an impressive soul-blues singer who was influenced by such Arkansas performers as Al Green and Johnny Taylor.
Shields is now his 50s, but he hasn’t received the recognition he deserves. Almost 20 years ago, he recorded the award-wining "Portrait" on Rooster Records, which was produced by Jim O’Neal, the blues scholar who co-founded Living Blues magazine. That record was followed by "Midnight Delight," also on Rooster, which may be better than the first one.
Shields comes home now and then, but there aren’t many opportunities these days for performers like him. That’s too bad, but get his two Rooster CDs.
The list goes on: We haven’t mentioned crossover artists like Brinkley native Louis Jordan, who is in a category of his own (get his two-volume “Let the Good Times Roll: The Anthology 1938-1953” from MCA), or Camden native Little Willie John (get “All 15 of His Hit Charts 1953-1962” from King), or Helena native Jimmy McCracklin’s “The Walk,” or Gurdon native Jimmy Witherspoon, whose “Spoon Concerts,” backed by jazz greats Gerry Mulligan, Ben Webster and others, is one of the finest live records made by a jazz-blues artist. About as good as it gets.
Is that enough music?