Friday, 5 October 2012 | Art Schuna
Samuel Charters is a noted blues scholar and author, record producer, musician and poet. He first became interested in the blues after listening to Bessie Smith’s version of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out.” He soon became a record collector and began playing jazz clarinet. While in the Army in the early 1950s he ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee. This led to an interest in politics, but as he did not feel he could run for political office he began writing about black music as a means of fighting racism. His book, “The Country Bluesmen” was published in 1959, one of the earliest books on the blues. Charlie Musselwhite told me in an interview that this book was important in his becoming a bluesman. He was living in Memphis and read the book. Then he discovered that many of the bluesmen included in the book were still living in Memphis. He tracked down many of them from Charter’s book. Perhaps the most instrumental to his future career was Will Shade, who played a number of instruments but was best known for his work on harmonica. In the 1950s Charter began to search for African American bluesmen and did field recordings of them for the Folkways label. One of his early successes was the rediscovery of Lightnin’ Hopkins. He recorded him in his home using a single microphone and a portable tape recorder. In this interview, Sam describes holding the microphone and moving it from Lightnin’s guitar to his face depending on whether he was singing or doing a guitar instrumental break. The Smithsonian-Folkways recording “Lightnin’ Hopkins” is still in press and is an amazing record given the conditions under which it was recorded and worth seeking out. He recorded quite a number of blues musicians including Pink Anderson, Billy Boy Arnold, Baby Tate, Homesick James, Jesse Fuller, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Otis Spann, Juke Boy Bonner, Robert Pete Williams, Big Joe Williams, Siegel-Schwall Band, Eddie Boyd, Otis Rush, Champion Jack Dupree and Memphis Willie B to name just a few. He also produced all of Country Joe & The Fish’s LPs. Perhaps one of his most important production achievements was the Chicago/The Blues/Today! series which was originally released as 3 LPs on the Vanguard label in the mid-1960s. This is essential blues that belongs in every blues fans collection. Each LP/CD featured 3 bands, many of them not under contract at the time, and is a remarkable document of the vitality of Chicago blues in the 1960s.