Ross, Isaiah “Doc” 1925–1993
Isaiah “Doc” Ross 1925–1993
Blues harmonica player, one-man band
“I’m kind of like the little boy from the West; I’m different from the rest,” said Isaiah “Doc” Ross in an interview quoted on the All Music Guide website. Indeed, there has never been another blues musician quite like him. Ross was a one-man band, playing harmonica, guitar, bass drum, and high-hat all at the same time, at parties in his native Mississippi Delta and later in Memphis and his adopted hometown of Flint, Michigan. He played the harmonica, held in a rack around his neck, with the low notes to the right, opposite to the position of virtually every other player, and he played his guitar with his left hand (and upside-down, with the neck pointed downward and forward like that of a classical violin player’s instrument). Ross’s career encompassed the whole modern history of the blues, from its Delta beginnings to the later era of festivals and blues revivalism.
Ross was born in the heart of the Delta, in Tunica, Mississippi, on October 21, 1925. His grandparents were Native Americans, and he was one of 11 children raised on a Tunica County farm. Ross was something of a musical prodigy. He learned to play the harmonica at age six, and by the time he was nine he was performing in local churches. Two years later he was working Tunica roadhouses and juke joints with another local musician, George P. Jackson. In the late 1930s Ross’s name spread to other parts of Mississippi as he toured with the Barber Parker Silver Kings Band to play for dances around the state. In the early 1940s he was active once again in the Tunica area, sometimes as a solo entertainer.
In 1943 Ross entered the U.S. Army, serving in the Philippines and in the Pacific Theater until 1947. His musical abilities frequently came in handy for entertaining his fellow troops. Blues authorities disagree as to where and why Ross obtained the nickname “Doctor” (or “Doc;” most often he appeared as “Dr. Ross, the Harmonica Boss”). According to Blues Who’s Who author Sheldon Harris, it may have been the result of medical skills he learned in the army. All Music Guide’s Jason Ankeny concurred with MusicHound that it was because he carried his harmonicas in an old-fashioned doctor’s bag. And French blues historian Gérard Herzhaft declared that it was simply “because of his particular abilities to cure people.”
Back in Tunica after his warservice years, Ross tried to settle down on a farm. But he didn’t stay away from music for long. In 1947 he appeared on the Clarksdale, Mississippi, radio station WROX, and once again he found himself in demand at dances around the Delta. In Helena, Arkansas, Ross headed a band called Doc Ross & His Jump and Jive Boys, performing on the Katz Clothing Store Show on radio station KFFA, and he worked such venues as the Owl Cafe, the Hole-in-the-Wall, and Isidore’s Bar. In 1950 Ross appeared on a different KFFA show, King Biscuit Time, in collaboration with Sonny Boy Williamson—a bluesman who influenced Ross’s own repertoire more than any other. Ross rejoined the army for a second stint in 1950 and 1951, and this time when he returned home, he gravitated to the big city of Memphis, Tennessee.
There Ross appeared on the powerhouse radio station WDIA, the first in the country to broadcast in an
Born on October 21,1925, in Tunica, MS; died on May 28, 1993, in Flint, Ml; married twice; two children. Military Service: U.S. Army in Philippines/Pacific Theater, 1943-47; U.S. Army, 1950-51.
Career: Blues singer, 1940s-54, 1958-93; toured Mississippi with band, late 1940s; appeared on WROX radio, Clarkdale, MS, 1947; performed around Mississippi River Delta, late 1940s; appeared on WDIA radio; performed in unique one-man band style in Memphis, early 1950s; recorded for Chess and Sun labels, Memphis, 1951-54; General Motors, custodian, 1954-58; DIR record label, founder, 1958; recorded for Fortune and Hi-Q labels, 1959-63,1971; appeared at Ann Arbor Blues and jazz Festival, 1973.
entirely black-oriented format. He was a familiar fixture in the city’s streets and watering holes, with his now-perfected one-man-band act in full swing. Ross had begun to amass a collection of original songs by this time; his trademark was perhaps “The Boogie Disease,” in which he enthusiastically affirmed, “I may get better, but I’ll never get well.” In 1951 Ross and his band recorded for the Chess label, and from 1951 to 1954 he was associated with Memphis’s Sun label. Historian Robert Palmer wrote in Deep Blues that Ross’s recordings “rock furiously.” According to the All Music Guide website, Ross’s unique instrumental techniques resulted in a completely distinctive sound.
During the early 1950s Ross also toured in a wide orbit around Memphis with a group called the King Biscuit Boys. He had his own show, the Doc Ross Show, on radio station WDIA in 1953 and 1954. But just as his fame was increasing to a point where he might have rivaled his Memphis contemporary B.B. King, Ross left Memphis for Flint, Michigan, and a janitorial job at a General Motors factory there.
There may have been several reasons for such a move. First, Ross was newly married in 1954 (a first marriage in 1952 had ended the following year), and he and his wife were raising a family. Second, he was depressed by the increasingly violent atmosphere of Memphis’s nightclubs; later in life he said that he had witnessed several killings and wanted no more of performing in such surroundings. Finally, Ross is said to have been irritated by the way the Sun label had turned more and more of its resources, including profits generated by Ross’s own recordings, into promoting the work of white rock-and-roller Elvis Presley. Ross also claimed that he had originated the Muddy Waters piece “Rollin’ Stone” and the rock group Cream’s “Cat Squirrel,” but had never been properly compensated for either.
But once again the pattern asserted itself; Ross couldn’t stay away from music for long. He formed his own small recording label, DIR, in Flint in 1958, and recorded for the large Detroit independent labels Fortune and Hi-Q between 1959 and 1963, and again in 1971. Ross made solo appearances around southeastern Michigan into the 1990s, sometimes irritating promoters by refusing to perform when he wanted to watch the Detroit Tigers play baseball. But Ross was increasingly becoming an object of interest to younger blues fans interested in the music’s roots. He toured England and continental Europe in 1965, 1972 (making several recordings in Germany and England), and 1977.
College students in the United States and Europe took to Ross’s music; he appeared at several of the large blues festivals of the early rock era, including the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival in 1973. Ross also recorded several new albums, beginning with the 1965 LP Call the Doctor. He was recorded live at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 1977, and his 1981 LP Rare Blues won a Grammy Award. Flint honored him with a live radio show toward the end of his life, and after his death on May 28, 1993, the city’s Mott Community College named a scholarship fund after him.
Boogie Disease, Arhoolie, 1954.
Call the Doctor, Testament, 1965.
Doctor Ross, The Harmonica Boss, Fortune, 1972.
His First Recordings, Arhoolie, 1972.
Live at Montreux, Atlantic, 1975.
I Want All My Friends to Know, JSP, 1994.
Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who’s Who, Da Capo, 1991.
Herzhaft, Gérard, Encyclopedia of the Blues, 2nd ed., trans. Brigitte Debord, University of Arkansas Press, 1997.
Palmer, Robert, Deep Blues, Penguin, 1981.
Rucker, Leland, ed., MusicHound Blues: The Essential Guide, Visible Ink, 1998.
“Doctor Ross,” “Dr. Isaiah Ross,” All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (March 26, 2003).
—James M. Manheim
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