Barnes, Roosevelt “Booba” 1936–1996

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Roosevelt Booba Barnes 19361996

Blues harmonica player, guitarist

Played on the Plantation

Developed Rambunctious On-Stage Persona

Heartbroken, but Famous


Roosevelt Booba Barnes made only one full-length record in his life, The Heartbroken Man, but the harmonica and guitar player was a legend in the Mississippi Delta long before anyone heard the album. Known for his outrageous on- stage persona, Barnes was brought up in the blues clubs and bars of Greenville, Mississippi, by blues legend Howlin Wolf, and made no bones about imitating him. However, he was praised on his own merits as one of the toughest postwar bluesmen of the Delta.

Played on the Plantation

Roosevelt Melvin Barnes was born September 25, 1936, on a plantation in the town of Longwood, Mississippi, about 20 miles outside Greenville. Barness family worked in local cotton fields and raised hogs for a living. Barnes lost part of a finger in a childhood encounter with a hog; as he and his father wrangled the beast in order to put a ring through its nose, it bit him. Barnes was still a child when he first began playing harmonicas that his older brother, a Negro League baseball player, sent him from the road. He became infatuated with the instrument, and soon became distracted from his work on the plantation. Often, Barnes could be found playing his harmonica and dancing between the rows of cotton instead of working. He earned his nickname, Booba, when his brother declared him worse than a booby trap, according to a Blues Notes article reprinted online at the Cascade Blues Associations website.

As a young teen, Barnes ventured out into the streets of nearby Greenville and Belzoni, intrigued by the local blues musicians there. The aspiring harmonica player caught the attention of fellow harpists and local legends Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson, as well as guitarist Elmore James. During his formative years, Barnes attempted to imitate Williamsons style. It was during this time that the teen met and became friends with legendary blues-man Howlin Wolf, and Wolf took him under his wing. Wolf nicknamed Barnes Little Wolf, because when the young man sang, his voice was indistinguishable from his mentors. They say I sound more like the Wolf than Wolf did, Barnes was quoted as saying in Guitar Player.

After a few years, Barnes began to play on his own in the blues bars on Greenvilles famed Nelson Street. At

At a Glance

Born Roosevelt Melvin Barnes on September 25, 1936, Longwood, MS; died on April 3, 1996, Chicago, IL.

Career: Started playing harmonica on a plantation at age 7; played in blues clubs as a teen in Greenville, MS; started to learn guitar in 1960; formed his own band the Playboys, 1957-58; moved to Chicago, IL, 1963; returned to Greenville, MS, 1971; opened Playboy Club in Mississippi, 1982; released The Heartbroken Man on Rooster Blues and moved to Chicago, 1990.

age 17, he was sitting in with the local bands, playing with Charlie Booker, Bill Wallace, and the Jones Brothers, who were led by Barness brother-in-law, Little Jerry Jones. The groups typically played songs by B.B. King, whose music was the rage in the South at the time. Barnes also began building his stage persona, acting crazy and swinging from the rafters in clubs while wearing outrageously colored suits.

Developed Rambunctious On-Stage Persona

Barnes followed his older brother, then playing baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals, and moved to St. Louis. The St. Louis blues scene was ruled by Albert King and Little Milton, both of whom requested the young musician to sit in with them from time to time. Frustrated that he could not find a guitarist who could play the patterns he envisioned, Barnes decided to take matters into his own hands, and learned to play the guitar.

Careful not to come off as imitating the style of any other guitarist of the time, Barnes added on-stage acrobatic antics to his guitar actleaping and duck-walking around the stage; he also played his guitar between his legs, behind his head, while lying down, and with his teeth. Barnes revealed his on-stage secret to Guitar Player: First, he said, I play from my heart. He would play a few fast songs at the start of his set, to get the crowd dancing and drinking, then would shift to hard blues as the crowd became more intoxicated. Round about 12 oclock they ready for it, see. Put it on em.

Barness time in St. Louis was dynamic but short-lived. He returned to Greenville in the early 1960s, and the harmonica became his focus once again. He played with guitarist Smokey Wilson and eventually formed his own group, the Swinging Gold Coasters. Over the years, Barnes tried several times to make it big in Chicago, a blues- music capital. When he first went there in 1963, he recorded with the Jones Brothers, but this material was never released. After an introduction by Little Jerry Jones, Barness childhood idol Little Walter befriended him, and even called him son. He finally broke up the Swinging Gold Coasters in 1968 to move to Chicago, where he worked at a steel mill and played wherever and whenever he could.

Heartbroken, but Famous

Three years later, in 1971, Barnes returned to Greenville. He picked up where he left off, playing in clubs with such artists as T-Model Ford. In 1982, Barnes converted a used furniture store at 928 Nelson Street in Greenville into his own blues bar, which became one of the hottest spots in the Mississippi Delta. Barnes was king of the Playboy Club, as he called it, and presided over the marathon, freestyle jam sessions that took place there. One such session was captured on film in the 1991 documentary Deep Blues, directed by Robert Mugge and written by blues journalist Robert Palmer. Barnes also led the bars house band, the Playboys, who became well-known beyond Nelson Street and performed throughout the United States, in the South and Midwest, and on the East Coast. Barness big-screen career also included an appearance as himself in the documentary about Robert Johnson called Hellhounds On My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson, which was also directed by Mugge.

Barness first and only full-length recording, The Heartbroken Man, was released in 1990 on the independent, start-up Rooster Blues record label. The recording was uncannily similar to Howlin Wolf at times, wrote Jas Obrecht in Guitar Player. Barnes was the first Mississippi-blues artist to record for the label, and the album gave Barnes widespread popular and critical success, and he and the Playboys toured the United States and Europe to support it.

Barnes responded to increased demand for his performances in Chicago by moving back to the city in the early 1990s, following in the footsteps of Howlin Wolf. After a year-long battle with lung cancer, the bluesman died April 3, 1996, in a Chicago nursing home. Barnes played his last show at the Rock &Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland shortly before his death.



Erlewine, Michael, Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, and Cub Koda, editors, All Music Guide to the Blues, Miller Freeman Books, 1996.

Larkin, Colin, editor, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK Ltd., 1998.


Guitar Player, August 1996, p. 24.


Cascade Blues Association, (January 7, 2002).

Bluespeak, (January 7, 2002).

Brenna Sanchez

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Barnes, Roosevelt “Booba” 1936–1996

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Barnes, Roosevelt “Booba” 1936–1996