Highway 61, "the blues highway," is lined with the birthplaces of blues, R&B, and gospel artists all along its route in Mississippi, and even small communities such as Alligator share in this proud musical legacy. Performers born or raised around Alligator include blues guitarists George "G. P." Jackson and Robert "Bilbo" Walker, singer Johnny Drummer (Thessex Johns), and the gospel and R&B group the Kelly Brothers. Delta blues icon Robert Johnson also lived in this area in 1930.
Alligator has a blues history that rivals that of many a larger town. Once a bustling business center, Alligator has had entertainment spots in town in addition to outlying country juke joints, plantation house parties and storefronts where musicians played as they traversed the surrounding Bolivar-Coahoma County communities, including Duncan, Shelby, New Africa and Clarksdale. The most famous area resident, Robert Johnson (c. 1911-1938), was enumerated (as a farmer) along with his wife Virginia, his half-sister Bessie Hines and her husband Granville in this district of Bolivar County in the U.S. census of 1930. Johnson left after Virginia died in childbirth that year and went on to a storied career as a rambling blues bard, creating a body of recorded work in 1936-37 that laid a cornerstone for much of the blues and rock music that followed. Among the many blues guitarists influenced by Johnson was Alligator native George “G. P.” Jackson (1920-1990). Jackson moved as a youngster to Tunica County, where he saw Johnson and learned from another guitarist, Wiley Gatlin. In 1951 Jackson relocated to Kansas City, where he worked as an auto mechanic by day while playing blues at night. Once known as “Kansas City Bo Diddley,” Jackson played both current hits and older-style Delta blues, and recorded and toured in the U.S. and Europe.
Robert “Bilbo” Walker, born on the Borden plantation in the New Africa area in 1937, grew up hearing acoustic blues around Alligator, before local musicians had amplified their instruments. Revelers juked to the music of guitarists Richard Veal and “Kokomo” and harmonica player Howard T. Johnson, Walker recalled. Walker, later billed as “Chuck Berry Jr.,” developed his own famously entertaining juke joint show by adding a rock ’n’ roll edge to his deep Delta blues. During stays in Chicago and Bakersfield, California, Walker, a cotton farmer and perpetual traveler, continued to return home to perform and farm, and made his first recording in Clarksdale in 1993.
Thessex Johns, who named himself “Johnny Drummer” while playing drums in Chicago, was born in Alligator in 1938. His stepfather, acoustic guitarist Daddy Hall, and Hall’s brothers Willie B. and Hollis played locally, and Drummer’s cousin, Tenry Johns (aka “King Kong Rocker,” b. 1946), had a band in Shelby before moving to Chicago. Drummer sang in Alligator’s Pleasant Valley Church with cousins Andrew (1932-2005), Curtis (b. 1935), and Robert Kelly (b. 1937), who also migrated to Chicago. The Kelly Brothers recorded both gospel and rhythm & blues, sometimes billed as the King Pins. Drummer performed as a sideman and bandleader while working at times for the Board of Education and the Chicago Police Department. Enhancing his stage act with keyboards and harmonica, he became a steady attraction in the South Side blues clubs, known primarily for his soulful singing. His recordings have been released in Europe and the U.S.
George Jackson recorded his only full album, Sweet Down Home Delta Blues, in Kansas City in 1985.
Robert “Bilbo” Walker recorded the CDs Promised Land and Rock the Night for Rooster Blues Records.
Johnny Drummer recorded several CDs for Earwig Records following the 45 “The Fire is Gone” on the Arpco label.
The Kelly Brothers (Andrew, Robert and Curtis Kelly, Offe Reece and T. C. Lee) began recording gospel music in Chicago in 1954. Signed by Federal Records as a gospel act in 1960, the group also recorded R&B as the King Pins. Their single “It Won’t Be This Way (Always)” hit the Billboard charts in 1963. Andrew’s son, Vance Kelly, became a Chicago blues singer and guitarist with several CDs to his credit.
content © Mississippi Blues Commission
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