The two surprising early Memphis heroes behind “King King” openers

Note: This is the second in a series of profiles on the influences of “King King” by The Red Devils for the record’s 30th anniversary. #KingKingXXX

The sound of The Red Devils is the sound of Chicago on steroids — propulsive shuffle drumming and crackling harmonica, with the biting, single-string guitar solos that recall Buddy Guy at his nastiest.

What isn’t as apparent is the secret influence behind the one-two combo that kicks off “King King,” a debt owed to two almost-forgotten entertainers who embody the rowdy Memphis blues sound of the 1950s.

Joe Hill Louis and Willie Nix may not be famous pillars of Sun Records, but they sure qualify as the pedestals on which those towering Sun pillars stood. Their careers twisted and careened, and the two frequently collaborated.

Joe Hill Louis
Willie Nix

And, in a stroke of coincidence, songs by Louis and Nix were proto-versions of “Automatic” and “Goin’ to the Church,” respectively, some 40 years earlier.

Joe Hill Louis was born Leslie Hill (he took the “Louis” from boxer Joe Louis) on Sept. 23, 1921, in Raines, Tennessee, just on the south side of Memphis. But over his career, he would earn several other colorful nicknames, most famously “Joe Hill Louis, The Be-Bop Boy and His One Man Band.” (He took on the sobriquet when he replaced B.B. King as the host of WDIA radio’s “Pepticon Boy Show” in Memphis in 1950.)

Louis’ one-man band was a four-piece: vocals, harmonica, guitar and, most distinctively, his pounding drums. In the “Encyclopedia of the Blues,” Gérard Herzhaft writes, “Although his drum effects were limited, they lent his music a primitive touch. The whole thing was amplified to the point of saturation; it gave a heavy and powerful sound that was extremely effective and original.”

Beginning in 1950, Louis would begin recording with Sam Phillips at the Memphis Recording Service. His masters would be leased out to labels such as RPM-Modern and Checker/Chess records.

Vintage Hydra-Matic advertisement via

In May 1953, Louis entered the studio with harp master Walter “Shakey” Horton, Albert Williams on piano and a drummer since lost to time. On the agenda: Louis’ tribute to the first fully automatic car, the Oldsmobile Hydra-Matic, introduced in 1940. The boogie “Hydramatic Woman” owes more than a little bit — including its first line — to another Oldsmobile song, the groundbreaking “Rocket 88,” cut three years earlier with Sam Phillips at the controls1:

You women have heard of jalopies, you’ve heard the noise they make …

Then comes Joe Hill:

Well you all have heard of the hydramatic car
Take you so fast and carry you so far
It comes to women I bet you didn’t know
Hydramatic woman and she sure ain’t slow

From here, Louis slurs the words to where there is no distinction between hydramatic/automatic:

She’s hydramatic, hydramatic
She’s a hydramatic woman, fastest gal in town

What The Red Devils do to this song borders on genius. By adding two classic harmonica licks — the opening from Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Keep It To Yourself” and the solo taking flights with Little Walter’s “Off The Wall” — they crafted a signature song from a semi-obscure Memphis side.2

Coincidentally, while Lester Butler and The Red Devils were pulling and pushing “Hydramatic” to suit their needs as “Automatic,” a more traditional cover of Joe Hill Louis’ song was released the same year3 as “King King” by Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers:

The similarities between Joe Hill Louis and Willie Nix are almost scary.

Nix (nee Nicks) was born Aug. 6, 1918, in Memphis, just a few years before Louis.

While Joe Hill spent his youth busking and playing in front of hotels, Nix started his career on tour with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels as a dancing comedian.

Nix also found a slot on radio, on KXLR in Little Rock, Arkansas, and, eventually, like Louis, on WDIA.

He, too, was a multi-instrumentalist: Guitar and drums.

And by the early 1950s, Nix was also in the Sun Records stable of artists, sometimes playing drums on Joe Hill Louis recordings!

Just five months after Louis recorded “Hydramatic Woman,” Willie Nix in October 1953 found himself in a Chicago recording studio with a hit squad backing band: Snooky Pryor on harmonica, Sunnyland Slim on piano, Eddie Taylor on guitar, and Alfred Wallace on drums.

They’d lay down a song called “Just Can’t Stay,” which would become the template for The Red Devils’ “Goin’ To The Church,” credited to Lester Butler as the writer.

Nix’s number is a Frankenstein’s monster of blues tricks, riffs and fills. The song is a noisy crash between Memphis and Chicago: It double-times Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone” (the main guitar pattern and the vocal melody), with a menace borrowed from Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moanin’ at Midnight.” The story is in the vain of John Lee Hooker’s 1948 “Boogie Chillen'” and presages Magic Sam’s “I Feel So Good (I Wanna Boogie)” by several years.

But it’s Nix’s high keening vocal out of the chorus — “sure ’nuff driiiive me away!” — that stands out. The Red Devils exploit Butler’s high voice for their “Church” chorus: “people I juuusss’ can’t stay!”

The Nix original is so elementally blues that Butler may not even have figured he was lifting so much from the one song; he might have heard it as just bits and pieces of several classic numbers, as Nix’s version demonstrates.

The Red Devils were into some deep, obscure blues, as these two songs demonstrated. That the music was barely filtered through any modern considerations (no Clapton, no cover-of-a-cover-of-a-cover) gives “Automatic” and “Goin’ To The Church” a vitality that only comes from getting it straight from the source.

Unfortunately, tragedy followed Lester Butler, another bit in common with Louis and Nix: Joe Hill Louis died in 1957 of a tetanus infection (he didn’t have the money to get the vaccine).

Nix, meanwhile, had legal troubles and spent a couple of years in prison. He died of a heart attack in 1991.

More from ‘King King’

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(1) “Rocket 88,” famously called the first rock and roll record, did not spring from thin air. It bore more than a passing resemblance to yet another song, 1948’s “Cadillac Boogie” by Jimmy Liggins and his Drops Of Joy.

(2) So, what of pianist Willie Love, credited on “King King” as the author of “Automatic”? We have yet to find, in many years of searching, the Love song that would have been the inspiration for Automatic. Ironically, pianist Love also traveled in the same orbit as Joe Hill Louis and, in fact, had a group with Willie Nix, The Four Aces (with Sonny Boy Williamson 2 and and Joe Willie Wilkins). There likely were many Willie/Billy Loves in blues circles, including Billy “Red” Love, who also played with Nix and has a strange connection to “Rocket 88.”

He cut the song “Juiced” for Same Phillips, who offered it as the sequel to Jackie Brenston’s rock and roll hit. “It was decided to issue ‘Juiced’ under Jackie Brenston’s name (Chess 1472). Brenston was a better sax player than a singer and hardly had time for recording, as he was in constant demand on the road. Love was a better singer, wrote his own songs and played a mean piano. ‘Juiced’ was the finest record that Jackie Brenston never made – and that Billy Love was never credited with making.

(3) It is unclear what time of year Rod Piazza’s “Alphabet Blues” album came out in 1992, if it was before or after “King King” in July. Also unknown what the cross-pollination of songs like “Hydramatic” would have been among those California-based bands. Maybe it lends a little more credence to the idea of Joe Hill Louis as the inspiration, rather than Willie Love? Either way, Mighty Flyer guitarist Alex Schultz would team with Lester Butler five years later for 13.

Sources: Headshots of Joe Hill Louis and Willie Nix taken from “Blues Who’s Who” by Sheldon Harris. Biographical sketches taken from “Blues Who’s Who,” “Encyclopedia of the Blues” by Gérard Herzhaft, “The Big Book of Blues” by Robert Santelli, and the liner notes to “Joe Hill Louis The Be-Bop Boy with Walter Horton and Mose Vinson” (Bear Family BCD 15 524) by Steve LaVere.

Published by J.J.

Drums and barbecue ribs. Blues music.

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