Five reasons why Memphis should get props for the blues

Another great conversation between KPLU’s Kirsten Kendrick and Nick Morrison. Enjoy!

Five reasons why Memphis should get props for the blues

By Kirsten Kendrick and Nick Morrison

A blues joint on Beale Street in Memphis, Tenn. Bo Nash / Flickr


Memphis, Tenn., is known as the birthplace of rock ‘n roll. But KPLU’s Nick Morrison says it should also be known for the blues.

Nick gives five examples of how Memphis and its neighbor, West Memphis, Ark., rank right up there with the Mississippi Delta and Chicago when it comes to launching the careers of influential blues artists.

I always learn a lot when Nick and I talk about the blues. There is so much history and so much good music.

A tale of two cities and two radio stations

This time around, I learned that there are two radio stations where many blues legends got their starts. One is KWEM in West Memphis, Arkansas. That’s where Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson II had radio shows.

Nick says B.B. King got his first exposure to a broad public on Sonny Boy Williamson’s show on KWEM. He later went to have his own show on the Memphis station WDIA (and that’s where Riley B. King became B.B. King).

Five songs that highlight Memphis blues

Below are five songs that Nick chose to highlight the impact Memphis and West Memphis had on the blues. My two favorites on the list are from Sonny Boy Williamson and B.B. King.

Williamson’s “Mighty Long Time” is very sparse (a sorrowful voice, harmonica and bass played by mouth), but it’s very powerful. It evoked some strong emotions in me – see what it does for you. And, you’ll be amazed by the high-pitched voice of a young B.B. King in “Crying Won’t Help You.”


  • Cannon’s Jug Stompers – Album: Complete Works, 1927-1930. Song: Prison Wall Blues
  • Sleepy John Estes – Album: I Ain’t Gonna Be Worried No More 1929-1941. Song: Milk Cow Blues
  • Sonny Boy Williamson II – Album: King Biscuit Time. Song: Mighty Long Time
  • Howlin’ Wolf – Album: Memphis Days: Definitive Edition, Vol. 1. Song: How Many More Years
  • B.B. King – Album: Original Greatest Hits. Song: Crying Won’t Help You

For links to the music and history of the artists, go to Nick’s blog post on A Blog Supreme/NPR Jazz

If you love the blues, be sure to check out the All Blues show with your host John Kessler every Saturday and Sunday night from 6 p.m. to midnight on 88.5 KPLU – and streaming live at

Humor in jazz: puttin’ on the wits

Another great conversation between KPLU’s Nick Morrison and Kirsten Kendrick. Enjoy!

Humor in jazz: puttin’ on the wits

Jazz great Mose Allison, one of the artists in this survey of humorous jazz songs. AP
April is National Humor Month. So, Nick and I thought we’d explore the funny side of jazz.Here are  five jazz artists known for their wit as well as their jazz chops.

Humor is subjective, though, so to make this list as much fun as possible, be sure to go to the ‘Comments’ section below and recommend some jazz songs that make you laugh. Share a smile.

1: Your Feet’s Too Big—Fats Waller—The Very Best Of Fats Waller—RCA


Just mention Fats Waller’s name to a jazz fan and the reaction will be a smile.  At least.  Not only was Waller a hugely influential jazz pianist, he could pack more joy into a song than anyone.  In lesser hands, Your Feet’s Too Big (1936) probably would have been just another novelty song that would eventually disappear, but Fats made it a classic.

2: I’m Hip—Dave Frishberg—Classics—Concord


Dave Frishberg began his career as a pianist, working with artists including Zoot Sims, Carmen McRae and Ben Webster, but he’s become best-known for his songwriting, which is often quite humorous.  For I’m Hip, Dave collaborated with another very witty singer/pianist/songwriter, Bob Dorough.  The song is a delightful skewering of people (and you’ve met ‘em) who are trying so hard to be hip, they have to tell you how hip they are…which, as we all know, is decidedly un-hip.

3: The Shape Of Things—Blossom Dearie—Blossom Time At Ronnie Scott’s—Universal


Although Blossom Dearie was an accomplished jazz pianist, it is her voice that immortalizes her.  Stephen Holden of The New York Times wrote this about Dearie’s vocal style: “Rarely raising her sly, kittenish voice, Ms. Dearie confided song lyrics in a playful style below whose surface layers of insinuation lurked. ”  Insinuation lurks like crazy in The ShapeOf Things, written by Fiddler On The Roof lyricist, Sheldon Harnick.  If you just listen to the melody, the song sounds like an old English folk song about true love; but when you listen to the words, you find that it’s something quite different.  And quite funny, in a rather bizarre sort of way.

4: Certified Senior Citizen—Mose Allison—The Earth Wants You—Blue Note


Over the past 50 years, singer/pianist, Mose Allison, has commented on the human condition in a number of great songs, many of which are also quite humorous.

In Certified Senior Citizen, released in 1993, Mose gives notice to the world that, even though he’s getting older, he’s not getting out of the way. As time goes along, this could become a ‘boomer’ anthem.

5: You’re Outta Here (Minor Drag)—Lorraine Feather—New York City Drag—Rhombus Records


Lorraine Feather was born into jazz.  Her father was a famous jazz writer (Leonard Feather), her mother was a big-band singer and her godmother was Billie Holiday. Combining those genes and influences, Lorraine has become one of today’s wittiest jazz singer/songwriters. You’re Outta Here comes from her 2001 CD, New York City Drag.

For this CD, Lorraine took instrumental songs by Fats Waller (yes, here comes Fats, again) and put lyrics to them.  You’re Outta Here is based on Waller’s composition, The Minor Drag.

Five songs that give the blues a modern-day makeover

Time to feature another great conversation between KPLU’s Morning Edition Host Kirsten Kendrick and producer Nick Morrison. Today they take a look at blues musicians putting a modern day twist to their recordings.


Mississippi blues master R.L. Burnside matches up with rapper Lyrics Born for a new take on the genre, a melding of modern and classic styles. zzazazz / Flickr


I’ll admit I wasn’t a big fan of the blues before I started working here at KPLU. I didn’t know much about the music. But that changed when I started listening to the blues songs we play. I discovered I really like the blues and the bare-bones, gritty nature of it. So, why mess that up with a fancy remix, right? Wrong.

There is a new trend of techno-blues out there and I have to say I am fascinated by it. I hope you will be too.

I learned about blues musicians delving into the world of remixing and sampling from KPLU’s Nick Morrison. He and I do occasional interviews about music and the blues is Nick’s favorite kind of music. He’s enjoyed seeing it evolve from acoustic blues, to electric blues, to rock blues.

He was particularly interested in finding out how the newest studio technology has impacted the blues. It’s the topic of the latest monthly list Nick wrote for NPR’s music website.

1. Little Axe – Ride On – The Wolf That House Built


Little Axe is the brainchild of singer-guitarist Skip MacDonald and producer Adrian Sherwood. MacDonald was part of the original studio rhythm section for Sugarhill Records, and can be heard on early rap recordings by the likes of Grandmaster Flash and The Sugarhill Gang. Little Axe created a template for reimagining and remixing the blues. “Ride On” features samples of Leadbelly’s “Ride On” from his Library of Congress recordings and also weaves in some Howlin’ Wolf.

2. R.L. Burnside (featuring Lyrics Born) – Someday Baby – A Bothered Mind


“Someday Baby” has been recorded several times since it was first laid down by Sleepy John Estes in 1935. In this version, Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside enlists the services of rapper Lyrics Born to turn this classic blues into an exercise in call-and-response between yesterday and today.

3. Tangle Eye – Work Song – Alan Lomax’s Southern Journey Remixed


Scott Billington and Steve Reynolds are musicians and producers who collaborate as Tangle Eye. They had the delightful idea of adding instrumentation, rhythm tracks and samples to some of the a cappella field recordings made by folklorist Alan Lomax in the 1940s and ‘50s. “Work Song” is their remix of a song called “Rosie” (hear the song) sung by a prison work gang led by a man named C.B. “88” Cook.

4. Slo Leak – Drunk – When the Clock Strikes 12


Slo Leak is guitarist, producer and vocalist Danny Kortchmar and guitarist-vocalist Charlie Karp. Kortchmar spent years in the L.A. rock scene, where he worked with artists such as Jackson Browne and Carole King, but he evidently always had one foot in the blues. Since the late 1990s, Slo Leak has been successfully applying modern studio techniques to blues and R&B. “Drunk” was originally performed by Joe Liggins and The Honeydrippers, a popular jump-blues band in the 1940s and ‘50s. Kortchmar and Karp sample some of that original recording and drag a few other surprises into the performance.

5. Euphoria – Back Against the Wall – Precious Time


This takes elements of the blues all the way into the world of electronica, as performed by the group Euphoria. The sound of Ken Ramm’s slide guitar and Howard Levy’s harmonica evolved out of a long blues tradition. Grafting those sounds onto a dance beat is an experiment, just as it was an experiment the first time a blues guitarist slid the neck of a broken bottle up the fretboard of an acoustic guitar, just to see what it would sound like.