Blues guitarist, harmonica player
The fact that the last show Roosevelt “Booba” Barnes played before his death in 1994 was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland probably suited him just fine. A Delta bluesman through and through, Barnes’ guitar and vocal style has been likened to that of his musical idol, Howlin’ Wolf. His on-stage acrobatic antics garnered him notoriety—he was known for leaping and duckwalking about the stage and playing his guitar between his legs, behind his head and with his teeth. He spent most of his life in the blues clubs of Mississippi and Chicago but toured the United States and Europe to great reviews. The critical reviews of his one and only full-length release, The Heartbroken Man, indicated Barnes had the makings of a full-blown blues star but a reputation for being a money wangler, and his open, bitter criticism of fellow blues workers earned him a good number of important enemies. His somewhat extravagant lifestyle—he sported flashy clothes, yet drove a ratty, old van—drained whatever financial successes he happened upon as a blues player. His musicianship didn’t suffer any from his private affairs, though, and he continued to wow audiences in this country and abroad until shortly before he died.
Roosevelt Melvin Barnes was born September 25, 1936, in Longwood, Mississippi. He had visions of stardom the first time he slid his lips across a toy harmonica at age seven. Barnes received gifts of harmonicas from his brother Frank and, while learning to play the instrument, began performing for plantation owners and fellow sharecroppers. Considering the on-stage shenanigans, singular musical skills and showmanship he became known for, he must have been a spectacle even then. He mimicked what he heard on local radio station KKFA’s King Biscuit show—which exposed him to the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller)—and from locals like harp player Houston Boines and slide guitarist Boyd Gilmore. He quickly mastered them enough to earn street tips in nearby Greenville, Mississippi. Over the years, he picked up the nickname “Booba” from a brother who’d worked with booby traps in the Army. Barnes himself dropped the “y” for an “a.”
Still in his early teens, Barnes was earning money by hustling on Nelson Street—a Greenville pass known for its rough trade and blues activity—and catching and selling fish, when he wasn’t collecting 78 rpm records of blues legend Howlin’ Wolf. Barnes idolized Wolf. He was ecstatic when Wolf made a stop in a local club in 1951 and invited Barnes not only to load in the band’s gear, but to sit in on the set, as well. Barnes continued throughout his career to emulate Wolf in many ways. From his gravely voice to his sexually suggestive use of the microphone on-stage, Barnes possibly proved to be Wolf’s greatest disciple. Barnes knew it and was proud.
Born Roosevelt Melvin Barnes September 25, 1936, Longwood, MS; died April 3, 1996, Chicago, IL; ten children.
Started playing harmonica for fellow sharecroppers and plantation owners at age 7; joined Jones Brothers at age 17; learned guitar, 1960; formed his own band the Playboys, 1957-58; moved to Chicago, 1963; returned to Greenville, MS, 1971; opened Barnes’ Playboy Club in Mississippi, 1982; appeared on soundtrack Mississippi Blues, 1982; released his only record, The Heartbroken Man, 1990, Rooster Blues; relocated to Chicago in 1990; recorded for soundtrack Deep Blues, 1992; continued touring almost until his death of lung cancer in 1996.
As he boasted to Guitar Playerin a 1994 interview, “They say I sound more like Wolf than Wolf did.” And Howlin’ Wolf became fond of young Barnes, too, calling him “Little Wolf.” Barnes also was mentored by another of his idols, harmonica player Charley Booker, and often went to Greenville gigs with him.
Barnes—who was already a popular juke joint harp player at age 17—joined his brother-in-law Little Jerry Jones’ band, the Jones Brothers. The band ended up being the house band for five years at Leroy Grayson’s gritty “shack in the woods,” which all the blues giants of the time—Earl Hooker, Elmore James, Junior Parker, and Guitar Slim, among others—flocked to. Barnes reminisced about Grayson’s place in the liner notes for The Heartbroken Man. “Drinkin” that corn whiskey and gamblin’,” he remembers. “A lot of people from Arkansas come there and wouldn’t leave. They’d come on Friday and stay till Sunday morning.” Being in an established band also got him performing around more of Mississippi and Arkansas. In 1957-58, Barnes formed his own three-piece with drummer John Parker and guitarist Essie B. Cooper, and made the rounds in the Greenville clubs. He didn’t start playing guitar until he was in his mid-twenties, in 1960.
Howlin’ Wolf’s success weighed so heavily on Barnes’ vision of blues greatness that, in 1958, he left Mississippi for the big city blues tradition of Chicago, Illinois. Over the next decades, Barnes flitted between the stardom he was searching for in the Windy City and homesickness for his Mississippi Delta. In 1971, he made a long-term move back to Greenville. Chicago wasn’t as good to Barnes as it had been to Wolf, who’d ruled the Chicago blues scene. In a profile written after his death by the man who may have tolerated and believed in Barnes most, Rooster Blues’ Jim O’Neal, “He never attained top-drawer status…. Had he stayed in Mississippi he probably could have remained king of the Delta juke joints,” he wrote for Living Blues in the March/April 1997 issue. O’ Neal goes on to note that bluesfans search Mississippi for the Playboy Club, and though he’d been a subject of great interest to several documentarians down south, they had no desire to follow him to Chicago.
Back in Greenville, Barnes did reign over Nelson Street again. He played with all of the street bluesfolk—one at a time or all in the same band—including John Price, T-Model Ford, Frank Frost, and Otis Taylor. He was a regular at all the Greenville haunts, but it was a bartending musician job he had at the Flowing Fountain that inspired him to do his own thing. As quoted on his liner notes, “If I can do it for him, I can do it for myself,” he decided. So in 1982, in an old furniture store at 928 Nelson Street, Barnes’ Playboy Club was born.
If Barnes was king of Nelson Street, the Playboy Club was his throne. He owned the club every day, but he ruled Friday and Saturday nights there. He also lived—with his family—in the back of the club. French documentarian, Bertrand Tavemier and his film crew tracked Barnes down for a live performance in 1982, and three tracks were released on the film’s soundtrack, Mississippi Blues. The French crew was just the first of a slew of media who came in search of the Delta great, but their enthusiasm for his way of life couldn’t keep his attention—he needed to go back to Chicago. He felt this time would be different, that he would be treated as his fame accorded up north, and that he’d be all right because he’d be doing what he loved. So after the release in 1990 of his first and only full-length record, The Heartbroken Man, on Rooster Blues, Barnes closed the Playboy Club and left Greenville for Chicago again. As cited in O’Neal’s ’97 story, Barnes told Joe Atkins of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger that this time, Chicago would receive him “as the person I am. A star. That’s what I am.”
Having just released his big record, Barnes was at a crest. He toured heavily to all the major American blues festivals—the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival, the Ann Arbor Blues Festival and New Orleans JazzFest. He performed outrageously in B.B. King’s in Memphis, Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago, and Manny’s Car Wash in New York City. He toured Europe and received nothing but praise. One tired British journalist for R&B Juke Blues, in London, wrote that, once Barnes got on stage, “he proceeds to bounce off the walls!… I am totally exhausted, and he’s only played one number. We are treated to an hour of this… and then he reappears in a white suit for another hour’s worth.” His wild look, with his frizzy hair, iridescent suits and sequins, did the trick. His penchant for extreme showmanship endeared him to crowds, even if his sales of his autograph put them off a bit.
He tested his star power back in Chicago, though, and it didn’t turn out in his favor. After a number of on-stage snubs to long-time friends and fellow musicians, sneaky deals with promoters and producers, and stories of his armed solution to arguments, his old buddy, Delta veteran T-Model Ford worked the word on the street—Booba’d gone to Chicago and lost his mind. Barnes’ notoriety finally got the best of his band, who’d backed him all the way, and they left Chicago for Greenville in the early 1990s. The Playboys’ departure left Barnes without a band that shared his down-home passion for the gritty Delta blues.
The second time around, The Heartbroken Man defied any boundaries imposed on it by genre. Re-issued in 1995, the record garnered more widespread approval, with reviews reaching beyond the blues community. Of course all the blues publications gave it resounding approval, but it even earned notice in Option, a hip, lifestyle magazine targeted at club and dj culture. The critique in the November-December 1995 issue began, “Some blues can be so boring.” The writer continued, “… this disc gets me jumping and shouting…. This band kicks music out with no apologies and plenty of grit. Nothing fancy, just mean, physical blues.” Out of the mouths of young blues fans, and Booba Barnes has a new generation of fans.
After being diagnosed with lung cancer, Barnes still continued to perform live. His last live show was in February of 1996 at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame for an educational program about the blues and rock’s black roots. Roosevelt Melvin “Booba” Barnes died Wednesday, April 3, 1996 at a Chicago nursing home. He told a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer, a few months before his death, “You think of somethin’ and put it in there, I’m a bad man, it’ll be true.” Although he spent his life pleasing crowds, his funeral was sparsely attended by members of the blues community.
“How Many Years Must This Go On” b/w “Going Back Home,” Rooster Blues, 1987.
Deep Blues (soundtrack), Anxious/Atlantic Records, 1992.
The Heartbroken Man, Rooster Blues/Rounder Records, 1990, reissued, 1995
Mississippi Blues (soundtrack), Milan Records, 1982.
Guitar Player, July 1994, p.24;August 1996, p. 24.
Living Blues, March-April 1994, p. 72.
New York Times, 1994.
Option, November-December 1995.
Philadelphia Inquirer, January 5, 1996.
R&B Juke Blues Magazine, 1994.
South Blues Rag, June 1996.
Additional information for this profile was taken from liner notes by Jim O’Neal, The Heartbroken Man, and from Rooster Records publicity materials, 1998.
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