Jimmy Witherspoon - Biography
By J Poet
Jimmy Witherspoon, known affectionately by friends and fans as “Spoon,” was a versatile singer at home with the blues, jazz and R&B, and made his mark in all three genres. He introduced the sanctified inflections of gospel music to the blues in the 50s, helping lay the foundation for soul music, and his big, bluesy larger than life vocals were the template for many of the R&B singers who followed in his footsteps.
Witherspoon was born in Gurdon, Arkansas on August 8, 1923 and like many African American singers, was introduced to music in a church choir, singing next to his father. He won a talent contest at five and dropped out of high school to pursue his dream of being a singer. He hitched out to Los Angeles and after sing Big Joe Turner perform, decided to become a blues man.
After a few years of working odd jobs and singing in clubs with little success, he joined the merchant marines, just before the outbreak of WWII. While stationed in Calcutta during the war, he walked in Calcutta’s Grand Hotel and heard Teddy Weatherford’s big band. He jumped on stage and started belting out Benny Goodman’s “Why Don't You Do Right?” He joined Weatherford’s band and made regular radio broadcasts with them over the U. S. Armed Forces Radio Service for the duration of the war.
Witherspoon’s mother had moved to San Francisco and when he got out of the service in 1944, he joined her there and worked in a steel mill. He landed weekend gig at The Waterfront in Vallejo, just north of San Francisco, where Jay McShann, who had one of the finest blues bands on the west coast, discovered him. His original singer, Walter Brown, had just quit and Witherspoon replaced him. One of his first recordings, a cover of Bessie Smith’s “Ain't Nobody's Business,” became a #1 R&B hit and stayed on the Billboard charts for 34 weeks, longer than any other song up to that point. With McShann, he cut tunes for Modern, Swingtime, Federal, and Chess. Some of these tracks are collected on Ain't Nobody's Business (2006 Snapper UK) and Call Me Baby (1991 Night Train).
In the early 50s, Witherspoon was a star on the R&B circuit, but as rock and roll started to dominate the R&B charts, he started moving in a more jazz oriented direction. By 1955 his band was opening shows for Miles Davis and doing sets that balanced his R&B hit with jazzier standards. He mad two well-reviewed 10” EPs for World Pacific Witherspoon in 1958, released as Singin' the Blues by Blue Note in 1998 and wowed the 1959 Monterey Jazz Festival with a band that included Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Woody Herman and Earl “Fatha” Hines. Jimmy Witherspoon At Monterey (1960 Hi Fi) became a best seller and launched his career as a jazz singer. He headlined Carnegie Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival, toured with the Count Basie Band and Buck Clayton’s All Stars and made records for several major and indie labels. His 60s albums include Spoon (1961 Reprise, 2006 Collectables) standards sung with an all star big band, Hey Mrs. Jones (1962 Reprise, 2006 Collectables) blues, big band and rock tunes given a makeover by Mr. Spoon, Roots (1962 Reprise, 2006 Collectables) jazzy renditions of blues standards including “Key to the Highway” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” Baby Baby Baby (2001 Bluesville/Original Blues Classics), Evenin' Blues (1963 Prestige/Original Blues Classics) with T Bone Walker, Blues Around the Clock (1995 Prestige/Original Blues Classics) Some of My Best Friends Are the Blues (1964 Prestige, 1994 Original Blues Classics) with a big band arranged by Benny Golson, Blue Spoon (1964 Prestige), A Blue Point of View (1965 Verve), The Blues Is Now (1967 Verve, 2005 Verve) a smoky, late night, soulful blues outing with organist Brother Jack McDuff, In and Spoonful of Soul (1968 Verve).
In 1969 the blue revival folks discovered Witherspoon and he was signed to ABC/Bluesway for Blues Singer (1970 Bluesway) cut with Harvey Mandel, Danny Kalb (Blues Project), Barry Goldberg (Electric Flag), and Charlie Musselwhite, Handbags & Gladrags (1970 Bluesway) and Huhh (1971 Bluesway). In the mid to late 70s Witherspoon hosted a late night Blues radio show and cut a pop flavored R&B set Love is a Five Letter Word (1975 Capital, 1998 Rhino). The title track became his first and only pop hit, but wasn’t a major commercial breakthrough. In the late 70s, Witherspoon had an operation for throat cancer that sidelined him for several years. When he could sing again, he had a deeper, fuller voice than before. The few albums he made in the 80s include Patcha, Patcha, All Night Long (1985 Pablo, 1996 Original Jazz Classics) a jump blues session with Big Joe Turner, and Rockin’L.A. (1988 Fantasy).
After recovering from cancer Witherspoon continued touring, but recorded less. His voice slowly lost its youthful force, although his performances still were still inspiring. Good bets: The Blues, the Whole Blues & Nothing But the Blues (1992 Indigo), Van Morrison’s A Night in San Francisco (1993 Mercury) where he’s honored as an elder statesman, Spoonful (1994 Avenue Jazz), American Blues (1995 Avenue Jazz), Live at The Mint (1996 Private Music) a set with guitarist Robben Ford which got a belated Grammy nomination for Best traditional Blues Album, and Jimmy Witherspoon with the Duke Robillard Band (2000 Stony Plain) a recording of what was probably his last live gig. He died in 1997.