Obscure Papa Lightfoot energized Lester Butler’s sound

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

This story was written for NoFightin.com by Tom Harold. Learn more about Harold at www.tomharold.com.

You can start naming harp players to a blues fan: Little Walter, Big Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson …

But Papa Lightfoot?

You might stump a few people on that one, yet he was one of Lester Butler’s influences, and for very good reason. Little known in his day, and not much better known these days, Papa Lightfoot’s sparse prints leave a blues trail worth following.

Born Alexander Lightfoot in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1924, Lightfoot is a bit of a shadowy figure in the blues world (he was known as “George” or “Papa George” around Natchez). He recorded only a handful of singles in his prime, hardly enough to gather into one whole album, and the fresh album of recordings in 1969 which could have delivered him into the blues revival of the era was made moot by his death only two years following.

Alexander “George” Lightfoot. Photo by Steve LaVere / Living Blues Magazine, via “Blues Who’s Who” by Sheldon Harris

While his recorded output was low, the impression it left was deep. Steve LaVere of Living Blues wrote in 1973 that Lightfoot was, “One of the most original and imaginative harmonica players in Rhythm & Blues.” And blues and jazz record producer Pete Welding said, “Lightfoot’s slashing, fertile, imaginative playing on ‘Saints’ is simply astonishing, totally without precedent in the blues … what is most remarkable about his playing here is the harmonic daring, unflagging ingenuity, and rhythmic subtlety which inform his improvisations and which makes his instrumental solos on this number among the most brilliant ever recorded.”

The “Saints” that Welding referred to is an Imperial recording from 1954, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” While the title may call to mind quaint parlor standards, in Lightfoot’s hands it becomes rocking, jump-time piece, his gravelly voice matching the punch of the drums and leading from one energetic verse to the next inspired solo.

Indeed, Lightfoot’s early recordings are generally marked by his rough-hewn vocals, and his harp was often overdriven to the point where it often matched that same growl.

Hearing his stomping shuffles or flashing swing tunes, it is easy to understand how Butler could be entranced by him. When Hightone Records released “13 featuring Lester Butler,” their write-up on Butler stated:

“After moving to Los Angeles, he became infatuated with the blues, listening especially to Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Dr. Ross and Papa Lightfoot, all of whom influenced his harmonica technique.”

The overall style of Lightfoot’s early recordings, such as “Wine, Women & Whiskey,” do more than hint at stylistic similarities in both the subject matter and the playing concerning both artists. When he wanted, Lightfoot could play as low and dirty as anyone else, and The Red Devils excelled at that as well. “Jump the Boogie” is another Lightfoot shuffle that would sound right at home as a Devils track, including the intro that’s reminiscent of the Devils’ “Automatic.”

The rough vocals, in-the-red harmonica and throbbing rhythm of Papa George’s shuffles reminds one of the sort of sound that came out of the King King club when the Devils were in the house.

From the recorded output of The Red Devils and Lester, there are no obviously direct copies of licks from Papa Lightfoot that Lester used, although his playing on the 1998 Finis Tasby song “Jump Children” has a few elements that are stylistically similar to Lightfoot’s own work on swing tunes. Play the Tasby tune and then Lightfoot’s “Jumpin’ with Jarvis” and check it out yourself.

“Jump Children”
“Jumpin’ with Jarvis”

Neither Lightfoot nor Butler ultimately achieved a large recorded output, unfortunately. For Lightfoot this was due in part to the fact that during his prime his recordings were sparse, made for mainly smaller labels that did not have the ability to promote their artists heavily.

Even with his considerable skills, touring with the Horace Heidt Orchestra and playing as far away as New Orleans, the harpist was not able to make a steady living at music and found work outside music. He was a radio DJ for C&G Grocery where he “played the washboard and sticks, sang and played harp and even did the commercials and announcements too.”1 As if to underscore his relative obscurity, he was remembered by local residents for playing harmonica and bones while selling snow cones from his stand.2

Aside from external factors, personal issues are reported to have had an effect on Lightfoot’s career, perhaps a faint echo to Butler’s life and career as well. LaVere reports an “inability to take care of himself,” as a reason for LaVere not pursuing further work with him and that “he was very easy to get along with and work with when he was feeling well, but, alas, that was his problem and he mistreated himself to his dying day.”

In fact, after tracking down Lightfoot for the “Natchez Trace” recordings, LaVere secured Lightfoot a spot at the prestigious Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1970, which catapulted him toward an enthusiastic and very large audience. However, his penchant for poor self-care rose again, and “his performance was severely dampened by intestinal ailments incurred while trying to eat as much spicy soup as his old friend Big Joe Turner, who was also on the bill that year and whom he hadn’t seen in many years.”

Papa Lightfoot, penciled in for a Sunday night performance at the 1970 Ann Arbor Blues Festival.

LaVere added further that, “Eventually his inability to take care of himself got the best of me, and after another try or two to work with him, communications between us ceased.”

It was one year later that the harpist died of respiratory and cardiac arrest on Nov. 28, 1971, at only 47 years old.

Fortunately, Lightfoot did not escape the studio entirely, and with the relative scarcity of
his recordings it is easy to compile recommended essential listening. There are only two recordings that can readily be obtained. The first is “Blues Harmonica Wizards, Papa Lightfoot & Sammy Myers,” a compendium of the two artists on a single album. The 15 tracks featuring Papa Lightfoot feature him in two roles, both as the lead singer and harpist as well as providing backing for singers such as Champion Jack Dupree. These sides are his early work from the 1940s and ’50s. Issued on the Official label #5254, it is several of these recordings that inspired LaVere to go looking for him and record him in 1969.

The second album is “Goin’ Back to Natchez Trace.” This was the effort recorded and produced by Steve LaVere after he discovered Lightfoot in 1969. The CD reissue is of the original Vault LP “Natchez Trace,” and includes five additional previously unreleased music tracks plus one spoken word track by Lightfoot. It was issued by Ace CDCHD 548. Lightfoot is front and center for this recording. The backing band was assembled by LaVere.

If you can only purchase one, hearing Lightfoot in his early recordings provides the best glimpse of his abilities and makes it obvious why LaVere hunted him down in the first place. Though the recording quality is not as good as the “Natchez” album, Lightfoot is in his prime, his ingenuity and energy shining brilliantly. “Wine, Women & Whiskey” is a solid shuffle in the best of the tradition featuring Lightfoot on both harp and vocals. Instrumentally, the Natchez native shows off his considerable skills on tunes like “Wild Fire” and “Jumpin’ with Jarvis,” knocking it out of the park and driving home the point that you don’t have to play like Little Walter to be able to swing like hell on the harmonica.

The influences

From Billy Boy Arnold to Joe Hill Louis and Willie Nix, learn more about the influences behind “King King.”

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(1) From the liner notes to the Ace album “Goin’ Back to the Natchez Trace.”

(2) From Living Blues Magazine No. 233, October 2014.

Published by J.J.

Drums and barbecue ribs. Blues music.

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