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Burnside, R. L.

R. L. Burnside

Guitarist

For the Record

Selected discography

Sources

Guitarist R.L. Burnside became a pivotal figure on the contemporary blues scene during the early 1990s after more than 40 years as a musician. His albums on the Fat Possum label, including Bad Luck City in 1991 and Too Bad Jim in 1994, created a raw, edgy blues that purists loved. Both recordings also adequately capture the feeling of what it must be like to be in Junior Kimbroughs juke joint, wrote Richard Skelly of All Music Guide, where both men have been playing this kind of raw, unadulterated blues for over 30 years. By the mid 1990s, however, Burnside also showed himself willing to experiment. He recorded and toured with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, generating the blues-meets-industrial rock of A Ass Pocket of Whiskey in 1996. The album, along with the techno-tinged release Come on In in 1998, had the effect of alienating older fans while attracting younger ones. Through it all, Burnside stayed above the fray by sticking to what he does best: writing songs, singing, and playing the guitar.

It took more than 40 years for Burnsides musical career to start in earnest. Born on November 23, 1926, in Mississippi, Burnside worked as a sharecropper on a small farm as a young man. He attempted to play the harmonica but never quite mastered it. At the age of 16

For the Record

Born Robert Lee Burnside on November 23, 1926, in Mississippi; married Alice Mae Taylor, 1949; children: eight sons, four daughters.

Began playing guitar, age 16; started performing publicly, age 21; left Mississippi, traveling to Chicago and Memphis, mid 1940s; returned to Mississippi to work as a sharecropper and commercial fisherman, playing music on weekends, 1950s; recorded by George Mitchell of Arhoolie Records, 1967; toured Canada, 1969; performed with Sound Machine, 1970s-1980s; signed to Fat Possum Records, recorded Bad Luck City, 1991; released Too Bad Jim, 1994; recorded A Ass Pocket of Whiskey with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, 1996; worked with producer Tom Rothrock on Come on In, 1998; released Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down, 2000; released Well Well Well and Burnside on Burn-side, 2001.

Addresses: Record company Fat Possum Records, P.O. Box 1923, Oxford, MS 38655-1923, (662) 473-9994, website: http://www.fatpossum.com.

he began playing guitar, and by 21, he began performing in public. Burnsides father played guitar, but his biggest influences came from local players like Rainie Burnette and Jesse Vortis. His principal influence, however, was Fred McDowell. He [McDowell] was a big influence on me, Burnside told Ed Mabe of Perfect Sound Forever online. He started me. I watched him and he was the first guy I saw play the blues.

Despite Burnsides love of music, there were few opportunities to turn music into a paying occupation. Discouraged with his life as a sharecropper, Burnside moved to Chicago in the mid 1940s. There he lived with his father who had also moved to the city. Though he had put his guitar aside at the time, Burnside nonetheless absorbed the intoxicating sounds of his new environment. He also met Muddy Waters, who had married his first cousin. I was working during the day at the foundry, he recalled to Kenny Brown of Blues on Stage online, and every night Id go over to Muddys. We only lived a couple of blocks apart. He also caught Waters Friday night show at the Zanzibar and frequented Mackerel Street on Sundays to hear players like Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, and Chuck Berry. Tragically, within a year of each other, Burnsides father, uncle, and two brothers were murdered in the late 1940s. Burnside chronicles the losses on Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down. Burnside married Alice Mae Taylor in 1949; the couple had 12 children.

After returning to Mississippi in 1959, Burnside began performing at house parties and juke joints, building a local reputation. They pay about $15 or $10 for you to play all night, Burnside told Marian Montgomery of Rolling Stone.Course you get all the whiskey you want! He usually played electric guitar because of the excessive noise in the juke joints, but when George Mitchell of Arhoolie Records recorded him in 1967, Burnsides regular guitar was broken and he played an acoustic model. Because of this, Burnside would be incorrectly categorized as a solo country blues player for a number of years. The recording, however, did give the bluesman much needed exposure outside of Mississippi. In 1969, Burnside embarked on his first tour in Montreal, Canada.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Burnside played with Sound Machine, a band consisting of two of his sons, Joseph and Daniel, and then son-in-law Calvin Jackson. His real break would have to wait until the early 1990s, though, when he was featured in former New York Times critic Robert Palmers documentary, Deep Blues. Tony Nassar of the Manhattan Blues Alliance online recalled seeing the film: They find him [Burn-side] living in the kind of poverty most people can only imagine. He brings his old St. Louis Music electric guitar onto the porch of his shack (there is no other word) and launches into the hypnotic, droning Jumper on the Line. Instantly, everyone in the movie theater must have begun tapping his or her foot.

On Palmers advice, Matthew Johnson of the fledgling Fat Possum Records sought Burnside out and signed him. In 1991, with Palmer onboard as producer, Bad Luck City was released. Critics warmly embraced Bad Luck City and its follow-up, Too Bad Jim, in 1994. This was down and dirty jukebox blues, deeply felt, and music a listener could dance to. R.L. Burnside lays down some of the most funky, low down blues coming out of the Delta these days, wrote the Delta Boogie online. Too Bad Jim became one of the most influential blues albums of the 1990s. The music was raw and at times unrehearsed, giving it an immediacy lacking on heavily polished blues albums. This is unfussy music, hell, its sloppy in the best way, Nassar noted. Along with artists like Junior Kimbrough, Burnside proved that 1940s and 1950s juke joint blues still had the power to speak to contemporary listeners.

Too Bad Jim also brought Burnside to the attention of Jon Spencer of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. These seemingly incongruous players, a bluesman born in the 1920s and a post-punk indie band, joined forces in 1996 to make a record. A Ass Pocket of Whiskey retained the raw, edginess of the earlier Burnside recordings while adding a heavy dose of industrial rock. Some critics loved it. This is the real stuffraw, urgent, humorous and spiritual, wrote George H. Lewis of Popular Music and Society online. Others disliked the change, believing that Jon Spencers brashness mocked the blues form. The release of Come on In in 1998, complete with trip-hop rhythms provided by producer Tom Rothrock (who also produced Becks first album), only furthered the controversy for purists. These albums and the video for Let My Baby Ride, however, also introduced Burnside to a younger audience.

While his latest releases have been more traditional and are less likely to end up on MTV, Burnside continues to receive exposure from Its Bad You Know, featured on the television series The Sopranos. Burnside doesnt seem to worry about these controversies but keeps to what he does best: playing the blues. His no nonsense approach, coupled with his willingness to experiment, has offered a road map for revitalizing the blues for the next generation. Burnside also continues influencing the next generation by touring and releasing a steady stream of new albums, spreading the gospel of the blues and certifying himself as its emissary. I listen to a lot of music but I always just stay with the blues, he told Mabe. Its all the roots of music. Thats where all the music started from, the blues. And we got to try to keep em alive.

Selected discography

Bad Luck City, Fat Possum, 1991.

Deep Blues (soundtrack), Atlantic, 1992.

Too Bad Jim, Fat Possum, 1994.

A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, Matador, 1996.

Mr. Wizard, Fat Possum, 1997.

Come on In, Epitaph, 1998.

Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down, Fat Possum, 2000.

Well Well Well, M.C., 2001.

Burnside on Burnside, Fat Possum, 2001.

Sources

Books

Rucker, Leland, editor, MusicHound Blues: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1998.

Periodicals

Austin American-Statesman, November 30, 2000.

Dallas Morning News, December 1, 2000.

Interview, December 2000.

Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2000.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 19, 2001.

Online

A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, Popular Music and Society, http://www.findarticles.com (June 27, 2001).

R.L. Burnside, All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 6, 2001).

R.L. Burnside, Manhattan Blues Alliance, http://www.frontiernet.netTnycblues/reviewsnf.html#bum (June 25, 2001).

R.L. Burnside & Kenny Brown at The Minnesota Zoo, August 1, 1998, Blues on Stage, http://www.geocities.com/BourbonStreet/Delta/1915/burnside-intv.html (June 25, 2001).

R.L. Burnside Not Ready for Heaven Yet, Rolling Stone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com (June 25, 2001).

R.L. Burnside: One Bad-Ass Bluesman, Perfect Sound Forever, http://www.furious.com/perfect/rlburnside.html (June 6, 2001).

R.L. BurnsideToo Bad Jim, Delta Boogie, http://www.deltaboogie.com (June 27, 2001).

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

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"Burnside, R. L.." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Burnside, R. L.

R. L. Burnside

1926–2005

Musician

An era in American music ended when legendary blues guitarist R.L. Burnside passed away in 2005. A fixture on the Mississippi Delta blues scene for decades, Burnside and his gritty, growling musical style was a living link to the black musicians who originated the Delta blues back in the 1920s and from whom he first learned how to play. In the early 1990s Burnside gained fame when he was "discovered" by new generation of blues aficionados and rock and rollers. One of them, Judah Bauer of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, told Guitar Player's Jas Obrecht that Burnside was "devoted to the blues…. Hanging out with him, you really feel he's from another time and place. The past in him is big—he's a direct connection to it—and you hear it in his storytelling and phrases."

Born Robert Lee Burnside in 1926 in Lafayette County, Mississippi, Burnside spent much of his life in the northern section of the state, just outside of the unofficial borders of the region known as the Delta. A triangular basin between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, the Delta was long an impoverished, rural place, with an economy dominated by an unfair system in which whites owned the land and black sharecroppers worked it for meager wages. The blues was a musical style that emerged as a key element of African-American culture in the twentieth century, and was born in the 1920s out of the Delta's pervasive injustice and racism. "Working for the man, you couldn't say nothing but you could sing about it, ya know," Burnside told Ed Mabe in a 1999 interview that was published on the Web site Perfect Sound Forever, when asked about the starting point of the blues. "Couldn't tell him what he done wrong."

Burnside was himself a sharecropper in his earliest working years, and did not begin playing the guitar until the age of 16. He came under the influence of a neighbor, "Mississippi Fred" McDowell, who was one of the pioneers of the blues genre. (The Rolling Stones paid tribute to McDowell with a cover of his "You Gotta Move" on their 1971 LP, Sticky Fingers.) In the 1940s, lured by the promise of well-paying factory jobs, Burnside headed north to Chicago, where his father had settled. He found a thriving black musical subculture there, and often hung out with Muddy Waters, another Mississippi transplant who would come to dominate the Chicago blues scene. Waters, a legendary guitarist who was one of the first blues musicians to use an electric guitar, married Burnside's cousin.

Burnside dabbled in music when he lived in Chicago, but most of his time was devoted to a job in a foundry. He married Alice Mae Taylor in 1949, with whom he would have twelve children. Life in Chicago changed, however, when in the space of one year, Burnside's father, uncle, and two brothers were slain; his brothers were murdered on the same day in unrelated incidents. He fled the urban violence and headed back to Mississippi, where he drove a farm tractor by day and at night traveled around to play guitar in the juke joints near his home in Holly Springs, the seat of Marshall County.

In 1960 Muddy Waters played the Newport Jazz Festival, which incited widespread interest in the blues across America and Europe. Some years later, a folklorist came down to Mississippi to record Burnside and other obscure musicians who had learned from the original players back in the 1930s and 1940s. Burnside was included in this compilation record, simply titled Mississippi Delta Blues, which was issued on the Arhoolie label in 1967. He was invited to play at the occasional folk festival, and even made a tour of Canada in 1969. A few of Burnside's sons eventually followed him into a musical career and formed an act called Sound Machine. Burnside recorded with them in the late 1970s, and they occasionally performed at blues festivals in Britain and West Germany.

Burnside remained mostly unknown, however, until New York Times music critic Robert Palmer came to Mississippi to make a documentary film with Dave Stewart of the Eurhythmics. The project grew out of Palmer's 1982 book, Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta. Palmer interviewed Burnside in 1990, and the guitarist was featured in the film version of Deep Blues released the following year. Palmer also recommended Burnside to Matthew Johnson, whose Fat Possum Records out of Oxford, Mississippi, had recently been launched. Palmer wound up producing Burnside's first solo LP, Bad Luck City, also released in 1991. This was followed three years later by Too Bad Jim, which music critics deem one of the most important blues records of the decade. Burnside's raw playing style, often built around a single guitar chord, and equally gritty vocals showcased the original style of the Mississippi Delta blues in all its unvarnished glory.

Too Bad Jim racked up terrific sales for Fat Possum, and one of its fans was Jon Spencer of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. He invited Burnside and his sons' act, Sound Machine, to open for them on tour, and then Spencer and bandmates Russell Simins and Judah Bauer traveled down to Mississippi to record with Burnside. The result was A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, produced by Spencer and released on the indie-rock label Matador in 1996. A review in the Austin American-Statesman by Michael Corcoran called it "a conspiracy of overamplified boogie and drunken epithets that ended up on many critics' top 10 lists for 1996."

Burnside had been initially wary about collaborating with a group of post-punk New York City rockers, and was skeptical about the commercial viability. "When I first heard the final mix, I said to Jon, 'It ain't gonna sell nothin,'" Burnside told Obrecht in Guitar Player. "He said, 'Oh, you don't know, man!' Now it's outselling the rest of my albums." Burnside had less success with 1998's Come on In, a studio remix of some of his best-known tracks, with samples and electronic rhythms dubbed in. One of its tracks, "It's Bad You Know," earned a spot in the hit HBO mob drama The Sopranos in a third-season episode and received substantial radio airplay.

The year that Burnside turned 74, he released Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down on Fat Possum. On a couple of its tracks he revisits the tragedies of the year in which so many of his family members died unnecessarily. Subsequent issues include Burnside on Burnside, a live recording, and A Bothered Mind, which includes a track, "My Name is Robert Too," co-written with another famous fan, Robert "Kid Rock" Ritchie. On his occasional tours, Burnside played to sold-out audiences, and his family's musical heritage stretched into a fourth generation when he brought along grandson Cedric as his drummer. In mid-2005, Burnside was hospitalized in Memphis, where one of his sons ran a blues club, and died on September 1, 2005. "He never really wanted a career," said Johnson of the Fat Possum label in an interview with Spencer Leigh of London's Independent newspaper. "We just gave him one."

At a Glance …

Born Robert Lee Burnside on November 23, 1926, in Harmontown, MS; died September 1, 2005, in Memphis, TN; married Alice Mae Taylor, 1949; children: eight sons, four daughters.

Career: Sharecropper in Mississippi, early 1940s; worked in a Chicago foundry; played blues guitar at small venues in Mississippi and Chicago; recorded for Arhoolie Records, 1967; toured Canada, 1969; performed with Sound Machine, 1970s–80s; signed to Fat Possum Records, recorded Bad Luck City, 1991; recorded and toured with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, mid-1990s.

Selected discography

Albums

Bad Luck City, Fat Possum, 1991.
Deep Blues (soundtrack), Atlantic, 1992.
Too Bad Jim, Fat Possum, 1994.
A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, Matador, 1996.
Mr. Wizard, Fat Possum, 1997.
Come on In, Epitaph, 1998.
Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down, Fat Possum, 2000.
Well Well Well, M.C., 2001.
Burnside on Burnside (live), Fat Possum, 2001.
A Bothered Mind, Fat Possum, 2004.

Sources

Periodicals

Austin American-Statesman (TX), November 30, 2000, p. 6.

Daily Variety, September 2, 2005, p. 13.

Entertainment Weekly, September 16, 2005, p. 89.

Guitar Player, December 1996, p. 79.

Independent (London, England), September 3, 2005, p. 47.

New York Times, September 2, 2005.

Rolling Stone, September 22, 2005, p. 16.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 19, 2001, p. 9.

On-line

Mabe, Ed, "R.L. Burnside: One Bad-Ass Bluesman," Perfect Sound Forever, www.furious.com/perfect/rlburnside.html (November 6, 2005).

"R.L. Burnside," Fat Possum Records, www.fatpossum.com/artists/rl.html (February 15, 2006).

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