Charlie McCoy is a big Country music star, but he shares his name with an older Blues player who was not a star, but whose virtuoso work on hundreds of records made a huge contribution to our music. ‘Papa’ Charlie McCoy was the younger brother of renowned slide-guitarist ‘Kansas Joe’ McCoy, and his superb mandolin and guitar technique made him a much sought-after session musician on many great Blues records. From the earliest field recordings with the originators of the Blues, through the Jug Band craze, to the development of the Chicago ‘band sound’ in the 30s, Charlie’s versatility made him the ‘go-to’ guitarist and mandolin player.
Charlie was born in Jackson MS in 1909, four years after his brother Joe. In the mid-20s, Joe was making a name for himself in Memphis
and his kid brother was keen to join him, so they played together on street corners and in various jug-bands. Charlie had a superb guitar technique, and was employed on several sessions in 1928, playing mandolin behind Tommy Johnson
and Ishmon Bracey
, two guitarists from the Jackson area. Later that year, he played on ‘Corinne Corrine’ with Bo Carter
and Walter Vinson
, also from Jackson, before Charlie joined The Beale Street Jug Band with his brother Joe. Charlie was often invited to sit in with another great band, The Mississippi Sheiks, and when ‘Kansas Joe’ took up with Memphis Minnie
, he played on her records too.
One of ‘Papa Charlie’s few solo recordings, a rather familiar ‘Sweet Home Baltimore’
In 1930, Joe and Minnie married and relocated to Chicago, so Charlie tagged along. Now known as ‘Papa Charlie’, probably because of his mastery of old Delta Blues
guitar styles, he became a regular studio side-man, both with and without his brother, as the idea took hold that a ‘house band’ gave solo artists a solid platform to strut their stuff. Charlie had a light pleasant voice, and could have made more than the handful of solo records that he eventually produced, but seemed happiest backing other stars. In 1936, when Joe and Minnie had divorced, Charlie and Joe were recruited by ‘Ink’ Williams
into The Harlem Hamfats, a jazzy Blues band with New Orleans horns that played an up-tempo, good-time music that many saw as a pre-cursor of Jump-Blues. The band was very successful, but Charlie kept up his work in the studio with stars like John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson
, Peetie Wheatstraw
and Big Bill Broonzy
In 1939, the Hamfats broke up and Charlie formed his own band, Papa Charlie’s Boys, and he played alongside his brother in Big Joe’s Washboard Band. Their recording career was halted when America joined WWII, but not long after the War ended, Charlie was hospitalised with neuro-syphilis. He passed away in 1950, a few months after ‘Kansas Joe’.