McCoy Brothers

McCoy Brothers - Raymond

Joe McCoy and his brother Charlie McCoy, both born on a farm near Raymond, performed and recorded widely during the pre-World War II era, but their most important legacy may rest with the songs they wrote or cowrote. These include “Corrine Corrina,” which became a folk music standard, “When the Levee Breaks,” which was covered by Led Zeppelin, and “Why Don’t You Do Right,” a hit for both blues singer Lil Green and pop star Peggy Lee.

Blues historians know little about the formative years of brothers Joe and Charlie McCoy, but their extensive recorded legacy from the late ’20s to the mid-’40s attests to their considerable instrumental, vocal and songwriting skills, as well as to their great ability to adapt to changing musical trends. Joe Wilbur McCoy was born May 11, 1905; Charlie was born May 26, 1909, according to medical records, but other sources place his birth date at c. 1911. In the 1900 census their parents, Patrick and Alice McCoy, were living near Bolton, in the same area as blues pioneers Charley Patton, Henry Sloan, and future members of the Mississippi Sheiks from the Chatmon (or Chatman) family.

The McCoy brothers were both active in Jackson blues circles, but by the late ’20s Joe moved to Memphis and soon thereafter to Chicago. In February 1928 Charlie made his debut recordings playing guitar behind Jackson area musicians Ishmon Bracey and Tommy Johnson. Charlie also recorded as a mandolinist in string bands billed as the Jackson Blue Boys, the Mississippi Blacksnakes, and the Mississippi Mud Steppers. Charlie and Bo Chatmon (later known as Bo Carter) recorded the first version of “Corrine Corrina” in December 1928. An astonishing range of artists later covered the song, including Bob Wills, Art Tatum, Bing Crosby, Muddy Waters, Big Joe Turner, Dean Martin, and Bob Dylan. In the early ’30s Charlie established himself in Chicago as an in-demand studio musician. Joe McCoy’s records were all released under pseudonyms, including Hamfat Ham, Georgia Pine Boy, Mississippi Mudder, and Mud Dauber Joe. McCoy, who also served as a preacher at times, used the name Hallelujah Joe to record sermons. He was best known, though, as “Kansas Joe,” musical and marital partner of blues star Memphis Minnie. Between 1929 and 1934 Joe appeared as a vocalist on over forty songs he recorded with Minnie. Among his many compositions was “When the Levee Breaks,'” which addressed the 1927 Mississippi River flood. The song, on which Joe sang lead vocals, was revived in 1971 by rock groupLed Zeppelin.

Joe and Charlie mixed blues, jazz, and pop music as members of the popular Harlem Hamfats from 1936 to 1939. Joe co-managed the band and sang on most of their hits, including “Oh! Red.” The brothers also recorded together in the group Big Joe and His Rhythm from 1941 to 1944, sometimes joined by Robert Lee McCoy (a.k.a. Robert Nighthawk), who was reputed to be a relative. By the late 1940s neither brother was active in music, and both died in 1950 – Joe on January 28 and Charlie on July 26. They are buried in Restvale Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.

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