The term ‘Blues Shouter’ means something more than the sum of the two individual words. It is true that most Blues Shouters belt out their songs at constant full volume, with very little regard for vocal dynamics. But to really qualify for the title, a performer also has to project a fervour and energy into their delivery that gets the audience on their feet and creates a certain electricity in the air. It is not that these people are incapable of singing quietly, it’s more that they can’t help themselves once they get going, lost in the moment, at the centre of the cyclone, given over to the power of the music.
When The States was suffering the economic depression of the early 30s, not many people were buying record players and records sales ‘fell of a cliff’, compared to the heady days of ‘the roaring 20s’. However, live music was not so badly affected, and by the mid-30s many big bands were pounding the highways and filling dance-halls everywhere, playing the up-tempo ‘swing’ music that got people out onto the floor.
In 1929, pianist Bill ‘Count’ Basie and singer Jimmy Rushing had joined Bennie Molen’s band in Kansas City, and when Bennie passed away a few years later, the Count took over, with ‘Mr. Five-by-Five’ out front. Jimmy’s voice was so loud he barely needed a microphone, and his extrovert stage presence generated huge excitement on the crowd. Their ‘Kansas City Stomp’ style is a direct fore-runner of ‘Jump-Blues’ which is itself in direct line of descent to ‘Rock’n’Roll’. Jay McShann was also leading a swing band out of Kansas City and in 1938, Big Joe Turner took the Kansas sound to Carnegie Hall for the ‘Spirituals to Swing‘ concert. In the years before WWII, many of the great ‘big bands’ led by Benny Goodman, Tiny Bradshaw, Chick Webb, and Lucky Millinder, had ‘shouters’ out front. Artie Shaw and the incomparable ‘Duke’ Ellington always remained rather more melodic, but even the Duke hired Big Joe for his touring ‘Jump For Joy Revue’.
Mr. Five-by-Five & Count Basie (but without a microphone!)
Music was important in maintaining public morale during the War years, but record production was badly hit by a shortage of shellac and also by the ‘Petrillo Ban‘. Live music gave people a chance to forget their troubles, and ‘Jump-Blues’ gave them plenty to get excited about. Many musicians had been drafted and war shortages meant big-bands could not afford to tour anyway, so small groups like Louis Jordan‘s Tympani Five showed the way forward with constant touring and 54 chart hits in the decade from 1942. This was the heyday of Blues Shouters, with great singers like Walter Brown, Jimmy Witherspoon and ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson fronting Jay McShann’s cut down combo, Big Joe Turner and Helen Humes singing for Count Basie, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Wynonie Harris appearing with Lucky Millinder. All these singers went on to big solo careers in the 50s as their style became known as ‘R&B’, but without exception they could belt out a Blues.
Louis Jordan Lets the Good Times Roll, (again no mic!)
In early 50s Atlanta, an exotic cross-dressing Blues Shouter called Billy Wright had some success with his high-energy piano and sax-driven records and some of that image rubbed off on his protegé Little Richard, who took up the banner enthusiastically. When Big Joe Turner’s 1954 record ‘Shake Rattle an’ Roll’ was covered by Bill Haley, this crossover to the mainstream meant the evolution from the Shouters to Jump-Blues to Rock’n’Roll was complete. Perhaps the best example of a ‘Blues Shouter’ in the literal sense was Big Joe Williams, the eccentric Mississippi Bluesman who always went his own way, to the extent that almost nobody could play with him, and he was consistently loud! He fashioned a nine-string guitar, and when he electrified it he nailed tin plates and beer cans to his amp to give a strange buzzing reverb effect. He bashed his guitar like a drum, his heavy thumb made bass players run for cover and his voice sounded like a chainsaw, so if you want to see a Blues Shouter that defies the stereotype of a smooth performer in front of a well-drilled band, check out Big Joe Williams, not Big Joe Turner!