The blues originated in the Mississippi Delta in the middle to late 1800s but didn't migrate up from the South until the 1930s and 1940s. Jelly Roll Morton, W.C.Handy, and Ma Rainey all said they first heard the blues between 1901 to 1903 in Mississippi, Missouri, and Louisiana. The first blues sheet music was published in 1912; Hart Wand's "Dallas Blues" and W. C. Handy's "The Memphis Blues". The first blues recording was singer Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues" in 1920. With the African American migration from the South blues made its way to the cities of Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh.
Early Blues Singers Perform in Pittsburgh -1920s
The early blues stars appeared in Pittsburgh the 1920s at the Elmore Theater / Savoy Ballroom and at Wylie Avenue clubs. Ma Rainey, “mother of the blues” appeared in Pittsburgh several times. A young Mary Lou Williams saw "Ma Rainey" at her first appearance in Pittsburgh at the Lincoln Theater on Wylie Avenue in October of 1924. Rainey performed at the Elmore in June of 1927. In Pittsburgh Rainey met pianist Pinetop Smith who became her touring accompanist. Blues singer Bessie Smith appeared at the Lincoln Theater on March 17 1924 and sang live over radio station WCAE. The response to Bessie was so strong that she extended her shows in Pittsburgh for an extra week. Ethel Waters, the “Queen of the Blues” appeared in several productions at the Elmore in 1926 and 1928.
Boogie Woogie Originated in Pittsburgh
As the music spread Northward many regional types of blues evolved: such as the traditional Delta and Piedmont styles, the electrified blues of Chicago and Detroit, the St.Louis blues, and the Boogie Woogie. Pine Top Smith originated Boogie Woogie in Pittsburgh. He coined the term and made the first Boogie Woogie Recording in 1928. Lois Deppe who started the first African American dance band in Pittsburgh was a boogie woogie pianist who mentored pianist Earl Hines.
Lousinana Red learns the blues in the Hill District
In the 1940's Louisiana Red, who grew up in Pittsburgh's Hill District, learned the blues guitar from Crit Walters, a front porch Pittsburgh blues-man. With the help of Bill Powell of WILY radio Louisiana Red went on to become a Chess Records recording artist. Red became internationally known through his world tours and 50 blues albums. He was the winner of the prestigious W.C. Handy award.
In the 1950s rising new blues star B.B. King played at the Flamingo Roller Rink on Larimer Avenue n the East End of Pittsburgh.
Joey Covington and Papa John Creach -1960sDrummer Joey Covington of Johnstown along with Jack Casady and Jorma Kaulonen was a founding member of blues based band Hot Tuna in 1968. He began recording and playing with the Jefferson Airplane in 1969 and appeared on their albums “Volunteers”, “Bark” and “Long Long John Silver”.
It was Joey Covington who discovered violinist and Beaver Falls native John Creach, gave him the nickname Papa, and brought him into the Jefferson Airplay family. Covington invited Papa John Creach to sit in with the Airplane for a concert in 1970. The Airplane members loved Papa John’s playing and made him a permanent member of the Airplane and Hot Tuna. Covington helped Pappa John Creach put together his first solo album by selecting the songs, playing drums, and writing the top 40 single "Janitor Drives a Cadillac".
Papa John Creach became one the best known blues violinists of the 20th century as a solo artist and member of Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane. The Blues Foundation honored Papa John as an outstanding blues musician in 1993 with the W. C. Handy Award.
Blues in the 1970s
In the 1970's a lively blues/R&B club scene arose in Pittsburgh as performers the Rhythm Kings with Billy Price and Chizmo Charles launched their long careers playing at The Fox Cafe in Shadyside, Fat City in Swissvale, the Decade in Oakland and other clubs. The Decade the home base of the Mystic Knights with Warren King, Bryan Basset, and Ron Foster and later Chizmo Charles and guitarist Zack Wiesinger. Another of the popular Decade blues bands was Bon Ton Roulette with Jeff Ingersol and Gil Synder.
The owners of the Fat City Lounge began promoting blues shows with the Blues Extravaganza concert held at the Leona Theater in October of 1977 with the Night Hawks, the Billy Price Keystone Rhythm Band, and the the Rhythm Kings. At Fat City in Swissvale they presented Room Full of Blues, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Albert Collins, Albert King, and the John Cadillac Band. The Nighthawks and The Fabulous Thunderbirds made several appearances at Fat City.
Pittsburgh native Michael Frank moved to Chicago in 1972 where became the harmonica accompanist, manager, and booking agent of legendary blues-man Honeyboy Edwards to become his He performed with him in a duo and four piece band in Chicago and at colleges, clubs, and festivals around the world. Michael also managed the careers of blues-men Jim Brewer and Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis. Michael Frank founded the Earwig Music in Chicago 1978 as a record label and artist management company. He introduced blues fans to the music of a wide range of pioneering African American blues musicians hose material was not previously recorded. Earwig Music has released 57 blues, jazz, and gospel recordings by The Jelly Roll Kings, Honeyboy Edwards, Johnny Drummer, Big Jack Johnson, Jimmy Dawkins, Louisiana Red and many more. The Blues Foundation honored Michael Frank with “the Keeping the Blues Alive Award in Artist Management” in January of 2008. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Blues Blast Awards in October 2011.
Blues in the 1980's
Mancini’s Lounge in McKees Rocks became a showcase for national blues acts in 1979 and began offering a Thursday Blues night in 1980. Blues artists who appeared in the Rocks included B.B. King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Eddie Shaw, Jimmy Johnson, Mighty Joe Young, Junior Wells, J.B.Huto, the Bobby Blue Band, Son Seals, Jimmy Dawkins, Robert Luther Allison, the Nighthawks with Pittsburgh native Jimmy Thackery, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, and Roy Buchanan. Muddy Waters appeared at Mancini's four time during 1980 and 1981. Drummer Buddy Rick appeared at Mancini’s in 1980.
Gene's Blues Bar on Saw Mill Run Blvd was a blues hot spot from 1985 through 1995 where Gary Belloma and the Blue Bombers, The Mystic Knights with Chismo Charles, Glen Pavone and the Cyclones, Barbara Blue, Bob Beach appeared weekly. Other popular local blues performers in the era included guitarist Shari Richards, and Cherylann Hawk.
Blues in the 1990's through the 2000's
Blues-rock guitarist and singer-song Tony JanFlone Jr earned international recognition as a recording artist and live performer. Tony released 4 solo CDs and appeared on Kenny Blake’s jhart topping jazz albums “Interior Design” and “Rumor Has It” . Tony was featured along with other world class artists on three tribute albums to Steve Vai & Joe Satriani, Tina Turner”, and Bon Jovi”.
Bubs McKeg and James Lawson's blues band "McKeg Lawson" was a favorite act on in the Pittsburgh blues scene during the 1980s and 1990s. After Lawson's death in 1994 the "McKeg Lawson" continued for five more years. Going solo in 2000 Bubs McKeg continued to perform and record blues. Bugs won three awards from he Blues Society of Western Pennsylvania. Bubs performed at the 30th Annual Helsinki Blues Heritage Festival in Finland.
Moondog's a small 150 club in Blawnox opened by Ron Esser, began presenting national and local blues artists began in 1990. Esser presented a who's who of blues musicians such as Susan Tedeschi, Keb' Mo', Derek Trucks, Koko Taylor, Luther Allison,Jimmy Vaughn, Tommy Castro, the Nighthawks, and many more. Glen Pavone, Billy Price, Gary Belloma and the Blue Bombers, and Jill West and the Blues Attack are a few of the Pittsburgh area acts who performed at Moondog's. Esser also launched Moondog Records to produce and release recordings by Pittsburgh area blues musicians. The National Blues Foundation recognized Esser's efforts in promoting the blues awarding him the "Keeping the Blues Alive" award in 2005.
The Blue Note Cafe on East Carson Street on Pittsburgh's South Side opened in 1990. It played host Tony JanFlore Jr, Bubs McKeg, Chismo Charles, Jill West anf the Blues Attack, Wil E Tri & the Bluescasters, Five Guys Named Moe, Rodney McCoy, Eugene & the Nightcrawlers, The James King Band, Jimmy Hilton and the Ravons, Glenn Pavone & the Cyclones, Shari and Dave, The Fabulous Johnny Smoothe, sax players Robbie Klein and Kenny Blake along with other favorite blues performers for 17 years from 1990 until 2007. National acts that appeared at the Blue Note Cafe included the Uppity Blues Women, Tim Eyermann, The Assassins, and The Legendary Blues Band.
The Pittsburgh Blues Festival was founded in 1994 as fund raiser for the Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. The annual three day festival features national and Pittsburgh area blues musicians. Over $1.7 million was raised to feed those in need.
Guitarist Ernie Hawkins, after he left the Blues Bombers in 1996, became one of the foremost practitioners of the Piedmont Blues style and recorded and toured with Maria Malduar.
In 1997 Barbara Blue began her reign at the "Queen of Beale Street" in Memphis. She recorded three albums with the award winning Phantom Blues Band.
Bonedog Records and Mojo Boneyard Studios founded in 1996 by Jeff Ingersoll recorded and released CDs by pioneering artists Piney Brown, Tommy Brown, and Leon Daniels & the El Venos along with recordings from contemporary artists Craig King, Guitar Shorty, Bobby Wayne, Eugene Morgan, Jimmy, Alder, Robert Peckman, Billy Price, Dwayne Dolphin, Larry Nath James Hilton, the Mauranders and others.
Pittsburgh Blues Today
Today Pittsburgher's enjoy their blues at the annual Pittsburgh Blues Festival and on WYEP's "Blues and Rhythm Show". They follow Wil E Tri, the Blues Bombers, Jill West and the Blues Attack , Erin Burkett, the Sweatty Betty Blues Band, the Dave Iglar Band and the Jimmy Alder Band at clubs like Moondogs, Sloppy Joes, the R-Bar, and Nola's.