Jimmy Witherspoon Biography

James Witherspoon, 8 August 1923, Gurdon, Arkansas, USA, d. 18 September 1997, Los Angeles, California, USA. Witherspoon crossed over into rock, jazz and R&B territory, but his deep and mellow voice placed him ultimately as a fine blues singer. He sang in his local Baptist church from the age of seven. From 1941-43 he was in the Merchant Marines and, during stopovers in Calcutta, he found himself singing the blues with a band led by Teddy Weatherford. In 1944, he replaced Walter Brown in the Jay McShann band at Vallejo, California, and toured with it for the next four years. In 1949 he had his first hit, ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business (Parts 1 & 2)’, which stayed on the Billboard chart for 34 weeks. Other recordings at the time with bands led by Jimmy ‘Maxwell Street’ Davis are fine examples of rollicking west coast R&B (collected as Who’s Been Jivin’ You). Witherspoon’s popularity as an R&B singer faded during the course of the 50s, but he made a great impression on jazz listeners at the Monterey Jazz Festival in October 1959, performing with a group that included Ben Webster. Other collaborations with jazz artists included Some Of My Best Friends Are The Blues, with horns and strings arranged and conducted by Benny Golson, and a guest performance on Jon Hendricks’ Evolution Of The Blues Song. He won the Down Beat critics’ poll as a ‘new star’ in 1961. Frequent tours of Europe followed, beginning in 1961 with a Buck Clayton group and later with Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Earl Hines and Woody Herman. He also did community work, including singing in prisons.

In the early 70s he gave up touring for a sedentary job as a blues disc jockey on the radio station KMET in Los Angeles, but resumed active music thanks to the encouragement of Eric Burdon. During his touring with Burdon he introduced a young Robben Ford as his guitarist and toured Japan and the Far East. In 1974 his ‘Love Is A Five Letter Word’ was a hit, though some fans regretted his neglect of the blues. A record with the Savoy Sultans in 1980 was a spirited attempt to recall a bygone era. Despite suffering from throat cancer since the early 80s, Witherspoon continued to perform live and record the occasional studio set. The Blues, The Whole Blues And Nothin’ But The Blues, released in 1992, was the first album on Mike Vernon’s new label Indigo. Witherspoon, who died in 1997, was revered by generations during different eras and his name was often cited as a major influence during the 60s beat boom; his work is destined to endure.


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


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