Blues Musicians

Arkansas: A Cradle of the Blues

The fertile soil of the Mississippi River Delta has long produced strong yields of cotton, rice, soybeans and other crops. But much more than crops has sprouted from this land. The roots of the blues are firmly planted in this Delta soil, for it was here before the turn of the century that scholars say this music was born. The “field hands” would chant and sing out “field hollers” as they chopped and picked cotton. These “hollers,” along with other sources such as spirituals and minstrel songs, evolved into a new musical form that was later dubbed the blues. By the 1920s and 30s, highly popular blues musicians such as Robert Johnson and Peetie Wheatstraw were selling recordings of their woeful tales of loves lost and hard times endured.

During the 1930s, the blues could be found in juke joints in many small towns along the Mississippi River. But the undisputed blues music capital at the time was Helena, Arkansas, located along the Mississippi River about 80 miles southwest of Memphis. Helena’s downtown streets — Elm, Phillips, Walnut and part of Cherry — were filled with juke joints and cafes where bluesmen played all night long to packed houses. Even the sidewalks were a popular venue for many musicians. Robert Johnson, who is now regarded as one of the most influential bluesmen ever, played here at clubs such as The Hole in the Wall. Johnson influenced countless bluesman, but none more than Robert Lockwood Jr., a young man from Turkey Scratch, near Helena, who would later rise to fame with his own rendition of the blues.

Notable Blues Performers with Arkansas Ties

The list of famous blues artists who were born, lived or worked extensively in Arkansas reads like a “who’s who” of the blues. Here’s a sampling of those musicians in alphabetical order by last name.

Luther Allison was born in Widener, about 30 miles west of West Memphis, in 1939 and moved to Chicago at age 11. A self-taught guitarist, he started out playing with Howlin’ Wolf’s band and backed James Cotton. Allison was at the height of his career when he died on Aug. 12, 1997, of cancer. He was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1998.

Roy Buchanan was born in Ozark in 1939.  He is considered a pioneer of the Telecaster sound.  During his career, he played for Arkansas natives Dale and Ronnie Hawkins. His unique style of playing influenced such rock and roll guitarists as Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. He died in 1988.

William Lee Conley “Big Bill” Broonzy is another artist with a disputed place and date of birth. Broonzy himself claimed to be born in Scott, Miss. Blues historian Robert Reisman, after much research, believes Broonzy was born at Lake Dick in Jefferson County, Arkansas.  He spent his youth in Pine Bluff where he learned to play fiddle he made from a cigar box. Broonzy performed in clubs in the Little Rock area in the 1920s before moving to Chicago. In 1928, he had a hit with “Big Bill’s Blues” on which he sang and played guitar. He made many more records and had a successful career before his death in 1958.

Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett was born at West Point, Miss., in 1910. Burnett, who is one of the great legends of the blues, was known for his electrifying showmanship. In the 1930s, he moved to Nat Phillip’s Plantation at the tiny Delta hamlet of Twist where he worked on the farm. He modeled his harmonica playing after the style of Sonny Boy Williamson II, who taught Burnett how to play when he moved to Parkin in 1933. Burnett formed a band in 1948 near West Memphis and radio station KWEM began broadcasting his live performances.  He occasionally played with Williamson on KFFA in Helena and had a weekly show on KXJK radio in Forrest City. Burnett died at the age of 65 in 1976.

Sam Carr, the son of blues great Robert Nighthawk, was born in 1926 near Marvell.  A mainly self-taught drummer, Carr played extensively throughout the Arkansas/Mississippi Delta region. He played often with bluesman Frank Frost and also periodically played as a member of the King Biscuit Entertainers. He died in 2009.

Ernie and Earl Cate of the Cate Brothers Band are best known for their 1970s hit “Union Man.” In addition to rock, this popular Northwest Arkansas-based group also plays a hefty amount of blues. They have played with blues diva Koko Taylor, as well as Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys. They’ve also performed for former President Clinton and play regularly in Arkansas including on occasion at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena.

Willie Cobbs was born in 1932 in the east Arkansas town of Smale. In the 1950s, he often played at the White Swan nightclub in Brinkley where he performed with such blues greats as B.B. King and Little Walter. In the 1960s, he operated the Blue Flame blues club in Stuttgart, and he later opened another club in DeWitt. He has written and recorded more than 30 singles, including “You Don’t Love Me,” which was recorded by The Allman Brothers, a famous blues/rock band. 

Timothy "Little" Cooper was born in 1928 in Prattsville and grew up listening to the blues on the radio. He learned to play harmonica and began playing blues at clubs in St. Louis when he moved there in the 1950s. He recently moved back to Prattsville and performs with his band, Little Cooper and the Drifters.

James Cotton was born in 1935 in Tunica, Miss., and was inspired to play harmonica by listening to Sonny Boy Williamson on the “King Biscuit Time” show broadcast out of Helena. His parents both died when he was young so his uncle took him to meet Sonny Boy Williamson.  According to his biography, Cotton played Sonny Boy’s theme song for him and they became like father and son after that. In the late 1940s, he appeared on King Biscuit Time and toured juke houses in the region with Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf and others. In the 1950s, he played clubs in the West Memphis area. He was given a 15-minute radio show at the age of 17 by West Memphis radio station KWEM. A harmonica-playing singer and songwriter, Cotton continues to perform today.

John Craig was born in Gurdon in 1945 and began playing gospel music as a child. During his career, this prolific musician played guitar with the famous rhythm and blues duo Ike and Tina Turner, and with the noted blues singer Etta James, among others.  He currently lives in Little Rock.

James “Peck” Curtis was born in 1912 in Benoit, Miss., and moved to Helena in 1929. He gained fame playing drums on the “King Biscuit Time” show. Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Lockwood Jr. were key members of the original King Biscuit Entertainers studio band, joined later by Pinetop Perkins and Curtis.  He died on November 1, 1970 in Helena and is buried in Magnolia Cemetery.

CeDell Davis was born in Helena in 1927 and has performed throughout the country and overseas for many years. Crippled by polio as a youngster, he is known for his unique style of playing guitar with a butter knife in a manner similar to slide guitar. He is featured on “Keep It To Yourself,” an album issued by Rooster Blues Records that contains recordings by Arkansas blues artists.  He currently lives in Pine Bluff.

Larry “Totsy” Davis was born in Kansas City, Mo., in 1936 and was raised in the Little Rock, England and Pine Bluff areas. He recorded his first record, “Texas Flood,” in 1958 and it is this song for which he is best remembered. Davis, a regular performer at clubs in Little Rock and Pine Bluff, was known for his rich voice. Prior to his death in 1994, he was playing many major blues festivals and had achieved acclaim in Europe and Japan.