J.B. Lenoir Biography

5 March 1929, Monticello, Mississippi, USA, d. 29 April 1967, Champaign, Illinois, USA. Christened with initials, Lenoir was taught to play the guitar by his father, Dewitt. Other acknowledged influences were Blind Lemon Jefferson, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup and Lightnin’ Hopkins, with the latter’s single-string runs and verse tags becoming an integral part of the mature Lenoir style. He relocated to Chicago in 1949, and was befriended by ‘ Big’ Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie. Having leased his first recordings to Chess Records in 1952, label owner Joe Brown issued Lenoir’s first success, ‘The Mojo Boogie’, on JOB Records in 1953. A propulsive dance piece sung in a high, keening tenor, it typified an important element of Lenoir’s repertoire. The second main element was exhibited the following year with the release on Parrot Records of ‘Eisenhower Blues’, an uncompromising comment upon economic hardship, which the singer laid at the President’s door. Also released that year, ‘Mama Talk To Your Daughter’ was another light-hearted boogie that became his signature tune, its ebullience mirrored by Lenoir’s penchant for wearing zebra-striped jackets on stage.

Subsequent records for Chess neglected the serious side of his writing, attempts at emulating previous successes taking preference over more sober themes such as ‘We Can’t Go On This Way’ and ‘Laid Off Blues’. Lenoir revealed that seriousness in an interview with Paul Oliver in 1960; this mood was in turn reflected in a series of recordings initiated by Willie Dixon and released to coincide with his appearance at the 1965 American Folk Blues Festival tour of Europe. Alabama Blues perfectly reconciled the two extremes of his style, remakes of ‘The Mojo Boogie’ and ‘Talk To Your Daughter’ tempering the stark reality of the title song, ‘Born Dead’ and ‘Down In Mississippi’, in which Lenoir, with both passion and dignity, evoked America’s civil rights struggle of the time. The great benefit that might have accrued from what, in hindsight, was the masterwork of his career, was prevented by his tragic death in a car crash.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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