One of the all-time top harmonica numbers in the blues is surely Jerry McCain's instrumental "Steady", waxed 40 years ago. For out-and-out tone, intensity and imagination, "Steady" ranks up there along with Walter Horton's "Easy", George Smith's "Blues in the Dark" and several of Little Walter's finest.
Unfortunately for Jerry, much of his reputation has been based on 2 sides he cut for Rex in 1960, one being "Steady" and the flipside number "She's Tough" (a vocal with a harp break as ferocious as the playing on Steady). McCain's career as a bluesman began years prior to Steady and deserves a closer examination because the quality of the recorded work is so high. McCain's recorded work must also be measured through its lyrical content, since much of the material deals with real-life ironies served up with a humourous twist.
EARLY INFLUENCES (1930 - 1954):
Jerry McCain is alive and well today, and he continues to make music with a consistency that belies his long tenure in the business. McCain hails from Alabama, a state not necessarily noted as a breeding ground for harmonica players and he still resides there today.
Born in 1930, music came naturally to Jerry. He was playing the harp by the time he was 5, and as a youngster played on the street in Gadsden, his home town. Early influences were his guitar-playing mother, a couple of harmonica-playing uncles, and some local musicians whom Jerry followed around town until they let him play with them. Recorded influences during Jerry’s younger years may have been artists like John Lee Williamson (Sonny Boy 1) and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. The dominant Chicago-based artists like Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf however, would not have had records issued until Jerry was almost twenty and it is likely that his harmonica style was already well-formed by that time.
Much of the printed record on Jerry McCain has emphasized the importance of Little Walter as an influence on his playing. Allegedly, sometime in 1953, Little Walter arrived in Gadsden to play a concert. During his stay, Walter was chauffered around by Jerry and his brother to help secure some moonshine. Later when the concert played, Walter took a break and Jerry got up on stage and blew some mean harp, surprising the audience who thought it was Walter.
According to California blues DJ Rockin’ Ralph Parker however, the Little Walter influences are not so. In a recent telephone conversation with McCain, Jerry told Ralph that his harmonica style developed long before Walter’s emergence. Jerry stated that Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) was a larger influence on him since Lillian McMurray (the owner of Trumpet Records) had introduced him to Sonny Boy when Jerry made his first records for Trumpet.
In 1953, Jerry cut a demo record "Crazy Bout You Baby" and sent it to Lillian McMurray in Jackson, Mississippi. McMurray’s Trumpet label had already launched the recording careers of Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller). Trumpet liked the demo enough to summon Jerry for a session, and in October 1953, McCain cut 4 sides for the label. Two titles were released, "East of the Sun" and "Wine-o-Wine" which sold well enough for Trumpet to set up another session a year later. From the second session, Jerry recorded five titles and Trumpet issued "Stay Out of Automobiles" and "Love to Make Up" before going bankrupt.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of Jerry's Trumpet titles, is the pairing of harmonica with saxophone. These instruments normally compete with each other, and the combination is unusual for a blues recording. On "East of the Sun", McCain's harp is used to carry the lead while the saxophone comps as a rhythm instrument, then halfway through the song McCain comps with his harp while the sax takes a brief solo. The number is taken at a plodding tempo and sounds as if it was poorly rehearsed, with the saxophone being badly out of tune with the rest of the band. In spite of the rough sound of the band, McCain's harmonica playing and sly vocals save the record.
"Wine-o-Wine", the other title from the first session does not fare much differently, and is marred by the rhythm section dropping out almost completely while the saxophone player takes a solo. This was no doubt due to the poor quality of the recording equipment that Trumpet used. The other band members would have to walk away from the microphone while an instrument was soloing, to allow it to be audible with any semblance of fidelity. It is worth noting that "East of the Sun" has some aural similarity to the early Howlin' Wolf titles that Sun Records had recorded just a year or two earlier.
Both of these titles however, establish McCain's ability to inject an easy-going manner into a song, and his off-beat way of phrasing would become a signature on all of his recordings to the present day. In spite of the underrecorded sound and the casual musicianship, these songs retain performances that are worth listening to because they demonstrate an approach to the blues that was quite different to the heavy pounding beat and doomy aura that pervaded much of the Mississippi music from that period.
The second Trumpet session in late 1954 is better recorded than it's predecessor and by this time McCain was beginning to "spice" the lyrics of his material with commentary on social situations. "Stay Out of Automobiles" deals with the dilemma of adolescent women in parked cars, and McCain makes reference to the hit song "Annie Had a Baby" from Hank Ballard, to make his point.
The tempos of the songs from this session are taken at a relatively fast clip and it is quite obvious why McCain was using the middle pseudonymn of "Boogie". The absence of the saxophone on the session gives the guitarist (J.V. Turner - a first rate Trumpet session man who had played on Rice Miller's early sides) more freedom to carry the simple boogie beat, and the sparse but effective instrumental lineup allows McCain to showcase more of his harmonica chops. At this time Jerry was not yet playing in the close-miked style that was becoming featured on other blues recordings, but it is obvious from these sides that he was in full command of his instrument.
EXCELLO RECORDS AND CADILLACS (1955 - 1957): While the second Trumpet session showed promise artistically for Jerry, historically it was to be Trumpet's last venture in the recording business. It was 1955 before he got to record again, this time with Ernie Young's Excello label from Nashville. Excello records gained fame due to the presence of some of it's better-known artists like Slim Harpo and Lightnin' Slim, but the Excello catalogue held an extremely diversified roster of talent, blues and otherwise, and Jerry McCain would contribute to its legend no less than any of the others.
McCain recorded for Excello as Jerry McCain and His Upstarts, and the band name was appropriate. While his labelmates Lightnin' Slim and Lonesome Sundown were putting down sides that dealt with boilerplate blues themes like getting drunk, being thrown in jail, and losing your girl, McCain shot directly from the hip and introduced the modern "golddigging" woman.
His release of "That's What They Want" nails to the wall, the familiar theme of a guy with an empty wallet and his ability to "get a chick". The lyrics to this song proclaim "Money Honey, That's what they want !" Taken to the same tune as Muddy Water's "Mannish Boy" (and Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man"), That's What They Want is not merely a slavish imitation of Muddy's hit. Instead it's a clever cover that manages to combine the lyrical theme and hard hitting beat of the original. McCain's genius here is that he brings the song off as a straight blues while at the same time delivering it in an almost slapstick manner.
Another Excello title from the same time, "Courtin' in a Cadillac" describes Jerry's main accessory, the Coupe De Ville convertible. Several of McCain's other titles have the Cadillac theme, and the song underscores the importance of expensive Detroit iron to a hipster's lifestyle. If anything, this song is a social commentary on the culture of the times, since the Cadillacs of the 1950's and 1960's were some of the largest passenger vehicles built in the USA, and were certainly the most flamboyant display of wealth, implied or real.
No less important than the lyrics on Courtin' in a Cadillac is McCain's fine harp blowing. By this time (1955-56), Jerry was displaying a forceful approach in his playing with much of the tone and similar mannerisms of Little Walter. A good example of this is the tune "Run Uncle John Run". It's a simple boogie number with the patented southern piano/guitar rhythm combination supporting the harmonica on top. On this song, McCain demonstrates the classic tremelo or warbling sound that Walter carried off to such perfection.
Another interesting facet of McCain's Excello sessions is the melding of several blues styles. It appears that Excello was making a deliberate attempt to capture elements of the Chicago Chess sound (Little Walter and Muddy) while retaining a southern feeling like Modern Records was getting from some of their Mississippi artists (Drifting Slim, Boyd Gilmore and Elmore James). All of McCain's Excello sessions occured in Nashville, and the recording setting no doubt influenced the musical direction that this material took. The recording studio used for these sessions was none other than Ernie's Record Mart, the retail store owned by label owner Ernie Young. (In comparison, some of the other Excello artists - Lightnin' Slim, Lazy Lester, Lonesome Sundown - were recorded by producer Jay Miller in Louisiana, then shipped for release to Ernie Young.)
While McCain's recordings never directly copied the Chess sound, neither did they have the hard-edged flavour of the born-in-the-delta bluesman. It is McCain's ability to integrate his influences and then patronize them back to their sources that makes his music so satisfying. Jerry recorded a dozen sides for Excello during his two-year tenure with the label, and while some of Excello's other artists were having more commercial success at the time, McCain's sides rank musically, among the label's best.
During 1956 and 1957, McCain made several sides for the While Label in Gadsden Alabama, his home town. According to Leadbitter & Slaven's "Blues Records 1943 - 1970", the session recorded McCain singing and playing harp, with backing from guitar and drums. This material was reissued on compact disc recently, under the AVI/Excello label.
STEADY AT THE REX (1960): In 1960, Jerry cut his classic harmonica instrumental "Steady", backed with the upbeat vocal title "She's Tough", for the Rex Label. By this time, Jerry had been befriended by Gary Sizemore, a music producer from Birmingham, who remains associated with McCain's career to the present day.
Demonstrating the axiom that "Simple is Best", Steady was recorded in a small studio direct to 3-track tape, with piano, guitar, bass and drums supporting his harp. This song opens with Jerry wailing his harmonica directly into the microphone and the effect immediately freezes the listener's spine. The tempo is medium-paced and Jerry carries the entire tune with his harp lead, making octave leaps with the easiest of effort. The most noticeable facet of Steady however, is Jerry's magnificent tone. Clear and almost vibratoless, McCain gives his harmonica a piercing sustain that is unrivalled. While the harmonica tone pays tribute to Jerry's influences, the song is Jerry's original all the way.
Any blues afficianado who has not had the opportunity to hear Steady, would be well-advised to acquire the recording as soon as possible. Only a handful of other records in the history of the blues can generate such excitement.
Steady appeared as Rex 1014. Although it was produced by Gary Sizemore in Birmingham Alabama, the 45 rpm label had the words "New Orleans, La." directly underneath the Rex crown logo. The tune was released by Johnny Vincent, owner of the Ace Records label, which oddly enough, was based in Jackson, Mississippi. Vincent was a veteren of the southern blues market, having been a jukebox operator, record store owner, and a salesman for another famous label, Specialty Records (which was based in New Orleans). Vincent knew what constituted talent (he had been responsible for Guitar Slim's fame at Specialty) and understood harmonica blues, since Ace already had several good harmonica titles in their catalogue from Sammy Myers, Schoolboy Cleve, and Lightnin' Slim.
No less a great record that Steady, is the flipside "She's Tough". On this outing Jerry proves what a fine vocalist he is, while leaving enough time on the recording to blast out a harmonica solo that permanently pastes itself to the listener's brain cells. Years after She's Tough was cut, the blues band The Fabulous Thunderbirds would pay tribute to Jerry by re-recording the song. Jerry again would reprise the song on "Blues Tribute" recorded for the Ichiban Blues label.
OKEH RECORDS (1962): Jerry recorded 4 more titles from the same period that were released on the Gas label but these are quite rare and only recently have they been re-released. His next label Okeh records, which had been acquired by the CBS corporation, had a legacy that dated back to the 1920's and included a huge catalogue of pre-war blues and jazz recordings, as well as some unique but less-numerous post-war recordings (Johnny Shines, Muddy Waters). Oddly enough, in 1962, Okeh was primarily a label that featured middle-of-the-road country and easy-listening music with crossover artists like piano player Floyd Cramer, saxophonist Boots Randolph, and the Anita Kerr singers. Kerr herself later made a career as a gospel singer and sponsor of orange juice on television. This was not music that would appeal to a hard-core blues audience.
Nevertheless, Gary Sizemore procured a contract with Okeh, presumably that would earn Jerry some well-deserved income, and Jerry recorded the Lionel Hampton warhorse "Red Top", backed by Cramer, Randolph, Joe Perkins, Grady Martin, Henry Strzelecki and the Anita Kerr Singers. Red Top made the Billboard charts, a first for Jerry McCain, and a rare accomplishment for any blues player. Jerry also recorded the instrumental "Jet Stream", and "Twist 62" for Okeh. The latter title was an obvious attempt by Okeh to cash in on the current dance mania in popular teen music. Neither title however, was of much commercial success.
JEWEL RECORDS (1965 - 1968): By the middle 1960's, both rock & roll as it existed in the USA, and the blues, were being threatened by the sudden rise in popularity of British-born pop bands. (The exception to this was Motown, not regarded as a blues label). This change in the musical climate no doubt impacted McCain's ability to attract a record label that was interested in southern blues, but he continued to make his employ as a musician and became a backing member on tour with groups like the Temptations, the Drifters and Freddy King.
After the Okeh sessions, Jerry continued to record sporadically under his own name and to perform as a stage act in the south. He made several fine sides for Stan Lewis' Jewel label between 1965 and 1968. Among these are the instrumental 728 Texas (the address of Jewel Records in Shreveport), Sugar Baby and Honky Tonk (the Bill Doggett instrumental). Each of these displays Jerry's great harmonica work. Polydor in Europe re-released the Jewel titles on long play vinyl as part of a short-lived blues series in the early 1970's, but they quickly vanished.
1970's TO THE PRESENT: Jerry never lost his talent nor his sense of humour, and his knack for staying on top of current events was documented in his controversial 1970's recording "Welfare Cadillac Blues". After 1970 however, there is a dearth of recorded work either as a leader, or as a sideman until the end of the decade. In 1981, one reissue album, "Choo Choo Rock" appeared under White Label music but the music on it was taken from recordings made in the middle 1950's. It was not until 1989, that Jerry McCain the recording artist resurfaced when he signed a contract with the Ichiban Blues label. This resulted in at least 4 albums/CD's of material that covered blues, soul and some more recent genres. All of the Ichiban recordings retain Jerry's magnificent harp blowing featured at last in digital quality sound, and his sense of humour reflected in the lyrics is as strong as it was in the middle 1950's.
Consider the themes implied by the titles in some of the Ichiban material: "Sue Somebody", "Burn the Crackhouse Down", "Love Makin' Showdown". The latter with it's sultry gyrating rhythm and burning eerie melody, could serve easily as the theme song for any of a dozen Hollywood features from the last decade, that have dealt with settings on the American south.
On "Blues Tribute" from the Retropectives compilation CD, McCain serves up a great five minute history of the modern blues, with references musically and lyrically to Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Jr. Parker, Sonny Boy Williamson (Willie Rice Miller), and lastly to himself by echoing the "She's Tough" theme. And anyone who thinks Steady was the last great harmonica recording, should listen to the six minute plus "Tumblin' in the Sea."
Fortunately for blues fans, the blues in it's raw uncompromised form survives today in the music of Jerry McCain. Gadsden Alabama recently honoured Jerry McCain by including a Jerry McCain day at its yearly four day Riverfest music event. Jerry is a living icon of the greatest American musical genre, and few artists have been better suited to be a blues ambassador than Jerry McCain.
DISCOGRAPHY: Various - " Strange Kind of Feelin ", Jerry McCain & Others; Trumpet AA701 Also released as Alligator ALCD 2701 (Contains 3 artists: Tiny Kennedy, Clayton Love, Jerry Boogie McCain. These are Jerry's earliest recordings for the Trumpet label in 1953 & 1954)
Various - " Located in the Record Center of the South "; ACE CDCHD 686 (UK) (Contains a good mix of Excello's stable, Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Earl Gaines, Guitar Gable, Lonesome Sundown, and Jerry McCain. First-class assembly of some rarer titles)
Various - " Deep Harmonica Blues "; ACE CDCHD 604 (UK) (Contains some fine early harp playing, mostly from the Excello label, including McCain's sides from middle 1950's. Rice Miller, Baby Boy Warren, Little Sonny, Whispering Smith, Lightnin' Slim, Jimmy Anderson, Slim Harpo)
Jerry McCain - " That's What they Want: The Best of Jerry McCain "; AVI-Excello 4211 (Contains all of the Excello material. Some overlap with the two ACE compilations mentioned above. Also contains material from the mid-50's White Label recordings.)
Various - " Tuff Enuff-The Ace Blues Masters Vol 3 "; West Side WESM 570 (UK) (From the original Ace Records label of Jackson, Mississippi. Contains "Steady" and "She's Tough". Other rare sides by Jesse Allen, Schoolboy Cleve, Sammy Myers, and Buddy Guy's earliest recordings.)
Jerry McCain - " Good Stuff "; Varese Vintage 6022 (Covers the period from 1960 - 1984. Includes "Steady" & "She's Tough" and 2 more from 1960 released on the Gas label, "What About You" and "Rough Stuff". Also contains Jerry's semi-political "Welfare Cadillac Blues" from 1970).
Various - " Blues Masters, Vol 4: Harmonica Classics "; Rhino R2 71124 (Good rounded collection of mostly Chicago-based harp players. Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, James Cotton, Jr. Wells, Snooky Pryor, Walter Horton, Jimmy Reed, Charlie Musselwhite, plus Jerry McCain's classic "Steady")
Jerry McCain - " Blues 'n' Stuff "; Ichiban
Jerry McCain - " Strange King of Feelin' "; Acoustic Archives
Jerry McCain - " Love Desperado "; Wild Dog Blues 9008 (Rounder)
Jerry McCain - " Struttin' My Stuff "; Wild Dog Blues 9020 (Rounder)
Jerry McCain - " I've Got Blues All Over Me "; Wild Dog Blues
Jerry McCain - " Retrospectives "; Ichiban ICH 1516-2 (A compilation of sides from Jerry's several sessions for Ichiban in Atlanta, from late 1980's - 90's. Several different musical formats - not just standard blues - but all of it features Jerry's fabulous harp playing and Jerry supplies vocals with humourous commentary on dealing with life's problems, contemporary or otherwise. Great sound.)
Jerry McCain - " Broad Street Blues Bash "; Sizemore Music
JERRY McCAIN ON THE WORLD WIDE WEB: Blues fans are urged to check out Jerry's promotional site, run by Sizemore Music
There's a complilation of some Jewel sides not listed here called Mignight Beat and these were sides recorded in the 60's, and the title song may be the very first time that harmonica played thru a Leslie has ever been recorded. He's definitely an unsung hero and most people know of his tune She's Tough thru the T-Birds and the flip side of that Rex 45, Steady is an all time instrumental classic. There was also two other tunes from that session later released by Gary Sizemore on a 45 in the early 80's. ---------- Sincerely, Barbeque Bob Maglinte Boston, MA http://www.barbequebob.com CD available at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/bbmaglinte
That is the nicest tone I have ever heard, just beautiful. I can't believe I've never heard of him before. I've just read on the Youtube comments for this that he used a Gretsch Amp...does anyone know if this is true and what mic he used? ---------- Oisin
A bit of trivia not widely known about Jerry is that he was/is a great bass fisherman. (I'm assuming he's still alive over there in Gadsden) If a fish so much as breathed near a plastic worm out there on a deep underwater ledge the hook was in and it was "fish on". ---------- "The degree of someone's "open mindedness" will be in direct proportion to how much they agree or disagree with the issue being discussed"...William F. Buckley
My personal fave of Boogie McCain’s songs is Honky Tonk Parts 1 & 2, which is a remake of Bill Doggett’s instrumental hit from 1956. Check out Boogie’s version - it’s a really fun cut to play on a Bb harp.
And here’s a link to purchase the book about Boogie. https://www.amazon.com/Life-Times-Jerry-Boogie-McCain-ebook/dp/B009EC3OIA/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3937GC1EG4RHA&keywords=Jerry+mccain&qid=1683644207&s=digital-text&sprefix=erry+mccain%2Cdigital-text%2C327&sr=1-1