A few transcendent moments stand out in blues history. Among these, there's Henry Townsend, in late 1937, helping Sonny Boy Williamson develop the original "Baby Please Don't Go." There's Snooky Pryor recording the first example of Chicago electric blues in 1948. There's Hubert Sumlin, the guitarist responsible for the riffs and snarl of such great '50s Howlin' Wolf cuts as "Spoonful," "Smokestack Lightnin'" and "I Ain't Superstitious." Townsend, Pryor and Sumlin are all still working, still playing the music they helped create during those crucial moments. On three successive Saturday nights this month, these legendary figures will grace the stage at BB's Jazz, Blues, & Soups: Sumlin will be there Saturday, Oct. 13; Pryor stops in next week, Oct. 20; and Townsend celebrates his 92nd birthday with a party planned for Oct. 27.
Sumlin, the baby of the three, won't turn 70 until the middle of November. His guitar-playing was as important as Wolf's guttural howl on those signature classics of the '50s. He brought to the table not only riffs that stung with originality and verve but a brilliant, shiny and nasty tone that, recycled by major players such as Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix, became one of the most influential in rock & roll history. But never mind what happened after others picked up on his techniques: An astounding guitarist, Sumlin continues to travel and record, generating his own heat as a performer without having to compete with an outsized presence such as Howlin' Wolf, whose death 25 years ago forced Sumlin to go solo. Sumlin sings now and does a credible job, but his guitar is what people want to hear. He lives up to his reputation. (Repeated attempts to contact Sumlin for an interview were unsuccessful.)
Pryor turned 80 just a few days after playing the Big Muddy Blues Festival on Labor Day in St. Louis. That show, on a hot afternoon, was a delight: Pryor's searing harmonica pierced the slippery grooves of his backup band, some members of which he hadn't met before that day. "That was not my best show," Pryor says in his hotel room afterward. "At a good show, you have the people up dancing. I was up in Pennsylvania last year at a festival, and I had people at the end who wanted to slash their wrists because they couldn't get my autograph. That's a good show."
A few hardy souls did shake their groove things at the foot of the stage, but people sitting on a grassy incline in 90-degree weather rarely get up and dance, no matter how incredible the performance. Pryor's vocals were boisterous, exuberant, playful. His harp was loud, searing, incandescent. At one point, he let the band play a song without him, and the energy level dropped measurably. "If there's other musicians around, I feel like I'm gonna do somebody in," Pryor says. "Most all the musicians are jealous of me. They don't like to run into me. Even James Cotton, when he was in his prime, didn't like that. And Jimmy Rogers, me and him growed up together until I was 16 years old. He didn't like to run into me on no bandstand. None of them do."
Pryor grew up in the Mississippi Delta and heard most of the great acoustic-blues musicians of the '30s, including Townsend, on records. He also saw Rice Miller, soon to become better known as Sonny Boy Williamson II, playing on the streets of his hometown. Williamson became his biggest influence as a player, which Pryor has always acknowledged. Pryor's career, however, didn't begin until after he was discharged from the service at the end of World War II. "I'm the one that miked the harmonica first," Pryor explains with the practiced air of one who has told the story over and over and over without ever quite thinking it's believed. "I started that when I was in the Army, around 1943. I was the bugler. After I would play those calls, there would be a little PA on that system. After I blowed my bugle through the Army PA system, I would take my harmonica and play it through there, too. I was just trying, just testing something. I remember it sounded like a saxophone to me. Then, when I came back to the United States, came back to Chicago, in November of 1945, I went downtown, 504 S. State St. in Chicago, and bought me a PA system with two speakers to it. Then I went to Maxwell Street, and I hooked up that PA system on the street. I sat out there by myself alone. And people couldn't imagine I was getting that kind of noise out of a harmonica."
Before long, he met Moody Jones, who wanted to join his band; soon thereafter, Pryor was approached by a record company: "I was 25 years old then," Pryor recalls. "I told them, 'Yeah, I want to make a record.' That's when I made "Telephone Blues" and "Snooky and Moody's Boogie." That was the first record made after the war." By "first record," Pryor means the first record to document the new amplified sound of blues that was taking Chicago by storm.
Henry Townsend doesn't remember when he first heard electric blues, but he remembers his first electric guitar. Townsend learned to play while listening to the records of such acoustic masters as Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson and especially Lonnie Johnson. He released his first record in 1929, at the tail end of the original acoustic-blues boom, but he remained a performing musician for most of the 20th century. "I can't give no dates on that [electric guitar]," he says during an interview from his modest home in North St. Louis. "My first electric guitar was from the '40s, the early '40s. That was back when amplifiers were just a little tin cabinet, about a foot long, about 6 or 8 inches deep. People was amazed. It was an improvement for a purpose. An acoustic could only cover so much territory. With this thing, it sounded terrible, but at least they could hear some of what was going on. That's why it was in a metal cabinet, so things wouldn't interfere with it. It helped some. To hear one of those amplifiers compared to what we have now, they ain't no relatives in no kind of way. They're not even ninth cousins."
Townsend has lived most of his long life here in St. Louis, but he did spend some time in Chicago after his stint in the service during World War II, so he was there for the flowering of the music scene described by Pryor. "I was amazed at it," he says. "It did a lot for me. It give me the inspiration to go ahead and work at it. It made me really want it."
Townsend doesn't perform as often as he used to. "Oh, I'll play two or three times a year," he says, "sometimes more, but that's as far as I care to go. Matter of fact, two times would be good enough for me. Father Time talks to you. If you're wise, you kind of obey."
Townsend has just finished recording a new album, My Story, which will be released this week on APO Records. Asked how he decided which songs to record after singing so many over the course of his lifetime, Townsend replies, "I don't preplan nothing. If I did, it wouldn't do me no good. Plans, for me, are a distraction. I just have to let whatever wants to come out."
Townsend, Pryor and Sumlin have figured out what they need to do to keep the music coming out of them. They have seen, heard and made some of the most exciting performances of the past century. There's no reason they should be counted out for this one.