Newton County Blues

Newton County Blues - Newton

Newton County has a dual claim to blues fame, first as the birthplace of several historical figures and later as the site of an important blues event, the Chunky Rhythm & Blues Festival. Newton County natives include record businessman H.C. Speir (1895-1972); blues singers Willie Nix (1918-1991), Andrew Brown (1937-1985) and Prez Kenneth (1933-1995); and bassist Lamar Williams (1949-1983) of the Allman Brothers Band. In the 1980s and ‘90s many top national blues acts appeared at the Chunky festival on the Richardson farm.

Newton County has had several native sons who contributed to blues history, but all moved away at an early age and became associated with other areas. For decades only one performer was identified in blues literature as having roots here: Chicago singer and bass player Kenneth Kidd, known professionally as Prez Kenneth. According to the state’s Vital Records files, he was born Kennis Kidd in Decatur on December 29, 1933; he cited Newton as his birthplace. He moved several times and ended up in Chicago in 1956. There he took up music, and even though he performed only on a part-time basis he still developed a following in collectors’ circles on the strength of his 1960s records, including “Devil Dealing.” He died on June 15, 1995.

Willie Nix (legally Nicks), an eccentric singing drummer, had his heyday in the early 1950s when he had a radio show in West Memphis and recorded for Sun, Chance and other labels in Memphis and Chicago. His career dissipated after he spent time in prison and then drifted around the country, finally settling in Leland, Mississippi, where he died on July 8, 1991. He told interviewers he was born in Memphis but official documents place his birth in Union on August 6, 1918.

Andrew Brown claimed Jackson as his hometown but he was born in Newton County on February 25, 1937. When he was nine his family moved to Chicago. Brown, a multi-instrumentalist, played blues, jazz, R&B and gospel in Chicago and its suburbs. His recordings included songs that were covered by other bluesmen, some valued collectors’ items, and albums released on European labels. On December 11, 1985, he died in Harvey, Illinois, where he had lived since 1962.

Lamar Williams, an acclaimed bassist with the Allman Brothers, Sea Level and other bands that mixed blues with rock and R&B, grew up in Handsboro (now part of Gulfport), but he was born in Decatur on January 14, 1949. He sang with his father Lemon Williams’ gospel group before he and his friend Johnnie Lee Johnson (Jaimoe) played in soul bands on the coast and later joined the Allman Brothers. Williams, a Vietnam veteran, succumbed to cancer on January 21, 1983.

Charles Evers, born in Decatur on September 11, 1922, had a multi-faceted career in politics, civil rights and business, including work promoting blues as a festival sponsor and manager of WMPR radio. In the 1920s and ’30s, many Mississippi blues artists were able to make records thanks to Henry C. Speir, who owned a record store in Jackson and acted as a “talent broker” for record companies. Speir was born in Prospect on October 6, 1895. He died on April 22, 1972.

Ted Richardson was the key figure behind the annual Chunky Rhythm & Blues Festival, which began in 1985. The festival brought in performers from around the nation over the years, and in 1989 the Newton County board of supervisors honored Richardson for his contribution to the local economy.

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