The Urbanization of Delta Blues
It's a long way from
the rich, fertile delta lands of North Little Rock, Arkansas, to the
Netherlands where he records for Dutch blues label
Black and Tan Records, but for Billy Jones it was a route of which he
never lost sight.
Born into the segregated south, he was exposed to the driving beat
of the Blues when he was still an infant. In the crib, he could
hear it as it permeated the walls against which he slept. This
sound which spoke to him gave him an early direction in life which he
has pursued to this day.
His early memories are of a juke joint from where he would draw
inspiration; the images, and the folks he knew then are the stuff of his
song. They gave him a
mind-set that would drive him to perfect his craft as a guitar slinging
Billy Jones is betting that the Blues can experience a revival of
interest. What is needed is a fresh infusion of imagination. And
to capture a bigger share of the Black music market, what is needed is
for the Blues to once again become relevant to the African American
We spoke with him
upon the release of his latest CD My Hometown.
Before we talk of how a Delta Blues artist
gets signed by a Dutch-owned label, ie Black
and Tan Records, let's talk of how you started
in this business. What was your first exposure to the Blues,
and what are some of your earliest memories of this music?
I was raised from the age of six months in my
grandfather's cafe and boarding house, The
Cedar Street Cafe - 903 Cedar Street - North Little Rock, Arkansas.
that we lived in was directly behind the wall of the main ballroom where
the juke box was. My crib was on the
other side of that wall, so as a baby I would be laying there listening
to Elmore James, Big Joe Turner, Jackie Wilson, B.
B. King, Muddy Waters,
Sam Cooke and all the blues and soul greats while the cafe customers
played records and partied well into the night. My bed would vibrate on
the bass notes. That was my first exposure to
the music. I absorbed the music as I could literally hear it in my
sleep. One of the first thoughts that I
remember having was that I wanted to be like B.B. King and Elmore James.
There was this dangerous juke-joint/nightclub place down the road from
my grandfather's cafe called Jim Lindsey's Place. Many of the big "chittlin'
circuit" stars of the day used to perform there like Howlin' Wolf, Sonny
Boy Williamson and Bobby Blue Bland. Sometimes at night when everyone
else was asleep, I would sneak out of the room and climb up high in an
old chinaberry tree and watch what was going on over at Jim Lindsey's
Place. I could hear the band from there and pretend that it was me
All the pimps, players, dealers, whores and gangsters used to
hang out there and someone was always getting shot or stabbed on a
regular basis. Remember that this was the segregated south, so whenever
someone would call for an ambulance for a shooting,
or fight, at a the
club, they would send a hearse from the black owned funeral home instead
of an ambulance. If the victim was still alive they would take them to a
black doctor. ...If not, they would take them to the funeral home.
course I thought that these were the "beautiful people" and I wanted to
be just like them when I grew up. Especially the musicians, with their
tight-legged, sharkskin suits and Stacy Adams shoes, their jewelry and
the way they wore their hair in a process. And the women! ...the way
they used to dress back then looked was so glamorous!
Of course Bobby Blue Bland's Cadillac. ..."No medical school
for me dad... I'm gonna be a blues star."
The house band for Jim Lindsey's Place lived in an upstairs room over
the club, and during the day I would go over there and try to hang out
around them. They could tell that I really wanted to be a guitar player.
There was this one musician who played at the club named Red Harpo... he
told me that he was Slim Harpo's brother. I believed him. Whether he was
or not, one thing is true, Red could play the hell out of a guitar!
... There was an air of excitement about him.
Women would fight over
him. He would let me come up to his room sometimes and talk to him
while he would sip "Golden Rod" wine on ice and play and sing for me and
show me how to play the new hit songs of the day, while I soaked-in all
the information that he was giving me about being a real musician.
By the time I was fourteen years old, I was
hanging out at 'Williams Pool Hall.'
One day this older guy pulled
up in a 1957 Chevy station wagon packed full of amplifiers, microphones
and drums He came in. He had that same
air of excitement about him that Red had. He said that he was in a band
and he had a gig booked in Lonoke, Arkasas that night and that he heard
play guitar and they were looking for a guitar player. He said that his
name was Hosea Levy and that he and his younger brother Calvin Levy
would pay me $6.00 if I played with them and Willie Cobb, Little Johnny
Taylor and Larry "Totsie" Davis that night. I
didn't tell him that I had never played in a band before. I was
fourteen years old and I was going on the
road! I was trying to be cool and I agreed to
go with him. But I was so excited to be going to play with a real band!
That was the first day that I went on the road with the Levy Brothers
Band, and the beginning of a lifetime journey into the world of the
blues . I've been on the road ever since. So it was "on the job
training" for me.
Now, how old were you when you first picked up the
guitar? How did you become this
accomplished musician that you are today?
It's hard for me to remember when I didn't have a guitar... it's just
something that I've always wanted to do.
Because I loved guitars so much, around age four, or
five years old, my uncle Vernon had given me
a little plastic toy guitar with a music-box handle that played 'Pop
Goes the Weasel' when you turned it. It was instant love.
I used to
stand in front of the juke box with that little guitar and pretend that
I was every artist whose record was playing. I was always running around
holding that guitar. I don't think I ever put it down.
I think I really started getting serious about it during the summer
between the 5th and 6th grade.
I didn't play with the other children in my neighborhood that much. I
hung around adult musicians and spent most of my time learning songs
from records and trying to sound like the guys on the recordings.
Sometimes I would hang out with the winos and perform for them.
Some of my family thought I was weird.
But music is both my occupation and my recreation. And I spent almost
every waking moment playing it and studying and imitating the artists
that I idolized. ...I guess that I was kinda weird.
How did you start to playing
gigs traveling from military installation to installation entertaining
military members and their dependents? Were
you in fact in the military at the time?
No. I was not in the military. I always regretted that I didn't join the
Air Force. I think that I would have liked it.
This was during my twenties, after I had started my own band and
was playing a lot of Rick James, Cameo, Funkadelic, Stanley Clarke,
Hendrix, Bar-Kays, Commodores, Gap, Zapp, and that kinda thing.
At that time I was being booked by this big-shot "Clive Davis"
type guy named Gene Williams, who was really hooked-up with the Grand Ol'
Opry and the Nashville scene and was managing Ferlin Husky, Claude King
and Donna Douglas, who played the part of Elly Mae on the television
show The Beverly Hillbillies.
Since he couldn't book a black band in the Country Music Capitol of the
World, he started booking me into NCO and Officer's clubs on Naval
Stations, Air Force Bases, Army Posts and military installations all
over the United States. I lived the military lifestyle without actually
being in the military. GI women are great!
I learned a lot and made a lot of friends... to this day I have the
highest respect for military personnel. They are great people. They work
hard and they play hard... and they love hard.
Where did this traveling take you?
To over 42 states... countless times. And to
many clubs and shows that were booked off-base when we were in whatever
city. I did that for ten years. I loved it!
So you weren't traveling to Europe. It wasn't
while traveling like this that you first met Jan Mittendorp of
the Black and Tan Record label? How did he come to sign you for his
I met Jan Mittendorp in 2004 when I sent a promotional
CD of my music to him.
He liked what I was doing and flew me over to
Amsterdam to record some of my songs for Black
A few months later, after the 'tha Bluez' CD
was released, I went back to do a month-long tour of Europe to support
the release. We liked each other instantly and have been working
together ever since.
He's a great guy to work with, and I have complete artistic freedom to
style my music any way that I see fit.
According to sources you have a unique take on the "corporate game"
as it pertains to the music industry. Can you share your ideas on the
recording industry in general? How did you develop this perspective on
the record industry
Let me be the first to say that I have said a lot of senseless crap in
order to get attention in my time. I'm
not sure which particular proclamation you are referring to,
but it may be the time that I said that some labels have
chosen to force feed the public old ideas rather than offer them new
ones. And that the response of the youth audience has been to ignore the
music in droves.
What I want to do is to re-introduce the young urban audience to the
music of their heritage by presenting it in a format that they can
I think that one of the reasons that the blues industry is becoming
stagnant is because many labels discourage original ideas and many label
owners are basically "wannabe"
artists and bookkeepers,
business guys who want to "handle" and "direct" their
artist's careers in order to live out their own musical fantasies by
dictating to the artist how the career ...and the music should go....sometimes before it is even written, instead of allowing the artist
to be fully creative. That makes for mediocre songs. Some want to impose
their own musical limitations into the creative process. They want the
artist to be the "idiot savant" like Blind Tom, and create these musical
masterpieces on demand, but let the label owner make all the business
decisions and of course ...handle all the money.
I have musician friends who sign with these carpet-bagger type of record
labels who have them out touring all over the world and making records.
The artists never see any reasonable amount of income for it and
don't have what they need to get by on, while the record company guys
screw them out of most of the money with the promise of those mysterious
mechanical royalties that never seem to appear. If
they do appear, then it's just enough to pay back the advance that you
probably didn't get from the record company in the first place. The
artists are like slaves to these guys. Now that's blues tradition!
Some want formulas and repetition of familiar patterns and mimicry that
they can re-package into neat little categories and sell to the public,
much like the rock guys keep re-packaging Jimi Hendrix,
and the Rasta
guys keep re-packaging Bob Marley, or the blues guys keep re-packaging
Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. That has nothing to do with art or
creativity or even music. It's just standard snake-oil sales tactics.
When I first started sending my songs out to labels in order to shop for
a recording deal, one of the biggest blues label owners in the game
wrote me and said that I had no idea about what the public, especially
the black audience wants to hear on a blues record and that I really
needed to decide if I was going to be a bluesman, or a
soul man, or a rock
guy and to stick to that one thing, because if
I released a recording with all those musical styles on one
CD, the audience would be
confused and wouldn't buy it. I think that he
seriously underestimated both the musical tastes and the intellect of
the general public.
The "My Hometown"
CD is exactly that. It's the biggest
project that I have ever been involved with. The songs on the
CD are being well received by people who
listen to all types of music... not just blues.It
was recently chosen by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Continental Airlines,
Czech Airlines and 25 other international airlines to be included in
their in-flight audio entertainment listings. If you are traveling by
airplane over the holiday season please check it out on your in-flight
audio player. The songs became available for passengers to listen to in
the month of November. (..."that's a commercial.)
This recording has been gathering very positive critical reviews
from music writers and getting high rotation international radio
airplay. They have been featured in several music publications.
They have been #1 on XM
Satellite Radio, and they are presently #6 on the Real Blues Magazine Top 100
CD's charts. ...and I'm just getting warmed up!
As much as this applies as much to the existing
Blues labels, I am certain that this take applies more to the Big
Four labels of the recording industry.
How does Jan's
In any business situation there is gonna be negotiation and compromise.
Jan is a pretty straight forward and honest guy. He's open to new
concepts and ideas and I like working with him. ...He's cool.
I'm sure that if I were signed to one of the big four that you
mentioned, that 'My Hometown' would have never seen the light of day. I
would have had to release a CD that sounds just like every other blues
CD out there. The only thing that ever
changes about some of those products is the name of the guy singing.
Now recording for Jan's label and having toured
Europe, you can certainly answer this: do you feel that the
record industry is different in Europe than it is here in the
Yes... In America the record industry has become an assembly-line,
one-beat type of thing.
All the rap songs sound the same. All the blues songs sound the same.
All the subject matter sounds the same. If one song is a hit, then there
is a rush to make every song after that sound just like that one.
In Europe the music is not shaped by trends and fads.. It's shaped by
talent.. ..and it just has to be good.
Not that I'm down on corporate American music companies, but they are
about numbers, not music. There is
plenty of great music in America, but it is coming from the home studios
and independent artists. There's some
fantastic stuff that's coming off the streets that is re-shaping the
dynamics of the industry.
Do you find the audiences here and abroad different? In what ways?
Yes... The European audience seems to listen to a wider spectrum of
music than the American audience. They
are open to all types of music and will listen to anything based on
whether they like the song or not.
I find that Americans tend to see music in the same way that they see
fashion and fads.
There is a "herd" mentality involved here where everybody wants to do
what everyone else is doing.
It's like musical segregation. If jazz is in vogue, then everyone in a
certain peer group wants to listen to only jazz. Anyone who listens
to anything different is considered un-cool by that group. Same with
blues. Same with Hip-Hop. I think that this makes for a poor musical
diet. There is something to learn from every musical genre.
I once had a friend who gave me an album of Iranian sheep herder songs.
At first listen, I dismissed it as illogical noise because I was
not familiar with the scales and melodic patterns that were being played
on what sounded to me like a banjo... I'm sure that it was an instrument
specific to the region that the music came from and not a banjo, and I
didn't understand the language that the songs were being sung. But by
the third listen I had discovered that the music was fantastic!;
the passion and intensity of the singer's
delivery was amazing... and I found myself listening to it all the time.
I ended up writing one of my most popular songs, 'Reconsider
Baby', based on what I learned from that experience. Some music critics
and scholars theorized that I had crafted the song by combining blues
with hip-hop and Latin music. I don't suppose that they have ever heard
much Iranian sheep herding music. I still have that album... it's one of
my most treasured possessions.
How did you come to refer to your music as "Bluez"? Is this to
differentiate your music from the music created by the "record
Yes, it is...I have studied many types of music, including jazz,
country, rock, funk, R&B, punk, new wave or whatever, and I wanted to
incorporate some of the elements from all of these styles into my
I didn't want to use the standard term "blues" because I realized the to
the youth audience blues equals old. I didn't want to align myself
with the "old blues guy" stereotype because this music anything but
There is no mention of the mule or the cotton or the tractor on this
project. Those are issues of today's audiences grandparents. While most
blues music is focused on the past...this is music for the 21st century.
And while most blues music is written by men for men, many of my
songs are directed to the female listener. They address some of the
social concerns and romantic intricacies of modern-day urban existence.
This music is something new and
different and delivers social commentaries and messages that the urban
audience can relate to.
Also, by creating my own musical terminology it causes the search
engines of the internet to "learn" that word and associate it with me.
So essentially I taught the search engines my name, so that if you type
Billy Jones Bluez into your computer the search engines will bring up
lots of information about my music.
How long have you worked to infuse an urban element into your music?
How has it been received by your audience?
I never intentionally set out to "urbanize" my music. I just wanted to
learn everything that I could about my craft and how to please the
audience that was in front of me that day. It was just natural
evolution. The reception has been
overwhelmingly positive from the general public... not so much by the
Can we hear more of this influence on this latest CD of yours, than on
Definitely on the My Hometown
CD. On previous releases you can hear
hints of the influence, but I had to "dumb it down" a little in order to
appease the label owners and record songs that were a little more
predictable in order to get them to release the recordings.
However, when I met Jan Mittendorp and signed with
Tan records, part of our agreement was that I
would have complete artistic freedom; I would
write the music the way that I thought it should be...
If it wasn't
too "artistic" to release, then Black
and Tan would
release it. This has been my most popular recording ever!
Although my Prime Suspect for the Blues
CD did well, there's no comparison to the response that
My Hometown is receiving.
Presently a number of Black artists are
working to merge Blues music with Hip-hop. This would include artists
such as Billy Branch, Russ Greene, Chris Thomas-King, among others. In
fact, R L Burnside even did his take on this cross-infusion of the Blues,
which was met with mixed reviews. Do you see your music going in this
What these artists understand... and the reviewers and "experts"
probably don't, is this:
Hip-Hop has evolved from blues and is very much a part of it.... Hip-Hop
is the blues of today.
If you analyze the greatest hip-hop songs of all time, like
"The Message" by
Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five, or
"How Do You Want It?"
by Tu Pac Shakur ...(which is based on the hook from
"Body Heat" by Quincy Jones), ...it's
easy to hear that these songs are pure blues with African/Jamaican bass
lines and drum beats. Of course, the stories
that these songs tell are undeniable blues themes that reach deep into
the heart of the African American experience. I love a little "gangsta"
in my blues.
Do you agree with the assertion that the white artist has been more
closely bound by tradition, whereas the Black artist has always been
more progressive in their approach to the music, looking for the "next
big thing"? This, perhaps, can be seen more in Jazz than in Blues.
Are these attempts at cross-infusion done more for the music, or is it
being done for the rewards that the urban artist seems to be enjoying,
Definitely for the music. I don't think that
it has very much to do with the "bling"....
little if anything.
Of course any artist wants to be well compensated for their work... I
But the battle between the blues purist and the blues artist has gone on
long before now. The artist wants to be artistic and create and innovate.... the purist
doesn't want anything to change. No new
instruments, no synthesizers, no drum machines, no new nothing. If Muddy
didn't do it... it's wrong.
But when Bob Dylan and Muddy Waters switched from acoustic to electric
guitar the purists said that they were ruining the art-form.
all the great classics that were created because they ignored the
"experts". I have concluded that the purists are just a handful old guys
who's opinions don't really matter.
What the artist is trying to do is stretch the boundaries of the music
and infuse elements that will appeal to a contemporary audience and to
bring something new and relevant to the table.
However, if the "experts" want to tell the artist what the song should
sound like before it is written, there probably won't be much
They won't sell many to people who buy CD's
today. If an artist can reach the public
and they love the music, then the "bling"
will be just a pleasant side-effect.
As far as the musicians that are bound by tradition, I don't think that
they are so much bound by tradition as maybe lacking in imagination and
a working knowledge of modern beats and rhythmic patterns.
In order to compete effectively in the music business you have to stay
on top of current events. That means that you have to have an understanding of contemporary
musical styles and trends.
I remember reading in a biography of Elvis that no matter where he was
he was always listening to the radio in order to monitor musical trends
and to hear what his competitors were doing. And he was Elvis!
Music is about constantly learning. Some guys don't like to put out
that extra effort to stay on top of it. They want to play the same old
stuff that they already know and pass it off as "keeping the music
alive". Many of them are taking the safe road of mimicking artist of the
past and sticking to a pre-determined formula or constantly re-recording
old songs for an old audience instead of reaching out to draw in a new
audience. Kinda like a boxer "laying on
the ropes" and making easy money and waiting for the bell.
There's nothing wrong with that, I know many who make a decent living
doing it... for a long time I did it.
But now I think have something that I want to say, and I want my music
to appeal to a mass audience.
Is this image (the rewards) a creation of the "corporate entertainment
No, it is not... it's a creation of the hip-hop industry and the age of
music video. It is an expression of what the
young black audiences wants to see. What they want to be.
One of the biggest obstacles to selling blues music to young blacks is
that the blues industry projects the images of poverty and ignorance and
servitude as part of it's selling points, and young black people
overwhelmingly reject that picture. There is an overseer mentality to
the whole scene.
The blues industry is
dominated by white males who would have us return to the days when life
was good and the negroes were happy and knew their place,
was high as a elephant's eye and all was right with the world. But
that's the story from their perspective. ..In reality, the negroes were
not happy. They were desperately poor and
suffering in the shadow of the overseer....who had all of the
"bling," by the way.
If you have ever had to be poor then you probably wouldn't want to buy
products that imply poverty.
Young black people want their heroes to be successful, tech savvy, dress
well, have money and nice cars. Not so
much "workin' for
the man" and "moseyin'
on down da road." The blues industry needs a
major image make-over in order to connect with young black America.
When I used to perform on Beale Street, besides meeting B.B. King, the
thing that stuck out most in my mind is that the primary theme/motif of
every club on Beal Street was that of an old raggedy shack or juke
Those clubs look like poverty. That's the
way the white tourist loved them
because they are reminded of when they went to some poor "colored" guy's
house or juke joint. The black tourist would see it as unpleasant
memories of a miserable childhood and say "Thank the Lord that we don't
have to live like that anymore".
I was surprised that Morgan Freeman's 'Ground Zero' club in Clarksdale,
Mississippi has that "old raggedy shack" theme also. You would think
that a rich, powerful and successful black man who opened a club in his
hometown would want to have something that his people could be proud of
and aspire to. But then, what do I know about what Morgan Freeman is
thinking. He's a legend and a genius... I'm just some guy with a guitar.
Do you feel that these urban images as it is
depicted in Hip-Hop more closely reflect the Black condition as
it exists today?
Yes... black people have worked hard to escape that lifestyle and better
their condition.The other images have nothing to do with this century.
Do you feel that the urbanization of Blues music is an effective way
of reaching a younger market? To what market are you ultimately hoping
Definitely... it's the only way to reach the younger market.
I want my music to appeal to everyone. That's what seems to be
happening. The stories that I tell on this
CD are true and universal.
all genres are embracing the music.
For those who have not seen your live show, how would you describe
what you do on stage? Can you give us an idea of the demographics of
There are so many things that go on during the show that you will just
have to come and see for yourself. Or
you can always see a sample of what I do by visiting
http://www. blackplanet. com/billyjonesbluez
I try to make a personal connection with the audience and have a lot of
fun and draw them into the performance. I want them to forget about
their problems and escape into Billy's world for a little while.
Nobody sits down on my stage except the drummer... and I'm thinking of
having him to stand-up and move around during the show.
But I haven't
figured out how to do it yet!
In light of prevailing social and economic conditions that exist
today, do you still feel that music can be a "vehicle of change"?
I know that music can be a vehicle for change. Music is a gift from the
creator who wrote the song of life. If you do
it right it gets you on a level that is primal. And the right story can
change the world.
History is littered with songs that have changed the social
consciousness of the world and made it a better place. I hope that the
stories that I tell on this recording will do something to address the
issues of the audience that it was written for.