A love of the blues unearths some historical diamonds

Discovering Albert Collins’ real name was a big deal for Victoria music historian Eric LeBlanc.

Collins, as blues fans know, was the Texas guitar slinger known as “The Master of the Telecaster” and “The Houston Twister.” The musician, who died in 1993, was admired for his fiery, exciting performances.

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Do you know his real name? It’s Albert Gene Drewery. Collins’ real name wasn’t public until the 2013 publication of Blues: A Regional Experience, which LeBlanc wrote with Bob Eagle, an Australian lawyer and music researcher.

“This book is full of this s--t!” said LeBlanc, a energetic 67-year-old prone to enthused utterances.

At 598 pages and weighing more than a kilogram, Blues: A Regional Experience isn’t for the garden-variety music fan. It’s a dense reference book stuffed with genealogical information: birth and death dates are the biggies here. If you know people craving to know when Johnny (Big Moose) Walker shuffled off this mortal coil, or when Devonia “Lady Dee” was born, Blues: A Regional Experience is the Christmas gift for them.

Several things make the book remarkable. The authors’ years of scrupulous research — cutting through generations of hearsay and even deliberate exaggerations from both artists and agents — draws biographical dates they’ve collected since the 1960s. There are more than 400,000 entries in LeBlanc’s biographical database alone. Birth and death certificates, census records and old newspapers were carefully scrutinized.

LeBlanc and Eagle structured their book in an unusual and innovative way. Rather than the typical A-to-Z approach favoured by most encyclopedia-type reference books, they’ve organized artists by regions, or “ecoregions” as they’re called in Blues: A Regional Experience.

Such an approach makes sense, since distinct styles within musical genres are typically tied to regions. Thus, for example, one section is dedicated to blues artists from the Chapparral and Oak Woods region of California; another groups together musicians from Lousiana’s Eastern Piney Woods area.

“You go, ‘Look, born in the same area [of Philadelphia] is Solomon Burke, the same as Billie Holiday. Billie Holiday and Solomon Burke. You would never make this connection with a dictionary/encyclopedia. I’ve always been interested in this stuff,” LeBlanc said.

If some of this sounds a bit, well, obsessive — that’s because it is. LeBlanc, native Montrealer, started doing this kind of geneological music research half a century ago.

He remembers first getting hooked on the blues in 1958 when CBC Radio broadcast Blind Willie Johnson’s haunting 1927 recording, Dark was the Night, Coal was the Ground. Johnson mostly played for people on street corners; some believe on this recording he used a knife on his guitar strings instead of a bottleneck slide.

“Have you ever heard it?” exclaimed LeBlanc. “Oh my God! I’ll send you an MP3. I couldn’t believe it man! I’d never heard music like this in my life.”

That Dark was the Night, Coal was the Ground stood out for LeBlanc isn’t surprising, given the 1958 hit parade was dominated by fluffy ditties such as All I Have to Do is Dream by the Everly Brothers and Yakety Yak by The Coasters. LeBlanc immediately sent away for a Folkways recording that included not only Johnson’s song but hard-core blues by Bessie Smith, Blind Willie McTell and Ma Rainey.

As a young man, LeBlanc’s passion for music extended to running a Montreal dance hall, The Dirty Apple, with his brother. They hired acts such as King Curtis and Joe Tex. Years later, as a researcher, LeBlanc discovered Curtis’s real name: Curtis Montgomery (not Curtis Ousley, as some believe). He triumphantly passed that info-nugget to The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz.

This intrepid music detective has had other coups over the years. He and Bob Eagle were part of the team that discovered the answer to a long-sought question: when did Blind Lemon Jefferson die? For folk into blues researchers this was something of a holy grail, given that Jefferson is arguably the most famous country bluesman of all time. They discovered his date of death (it was Dec. 19, 1929) by poring over documents in Illinois state archives on every Jefferson who died in Chicago during the month of December that year.

In recognition of his researching efforts, LeBlanc received the Keeping the Blues Alive Award from the Blues Foundation, which produces the W.C. Handy Blues Awards. Before retiring in 2005, he was a librarian for the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, headquartered at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Saanich.

When I asked what drives him to research the people who played and sang the blues, LeBlanc hesitated only a second. Curiosity. A desire to unearth the truth about an important — but sometimes marginalized — segment of musical history.

LeBlanc added: “You just want to know more.”

 

Note: Blues: A Regional Experience is available in Victoria at Munro’s Books. Eric LeBlanc teaches jazz history at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. His radio program, Let the Good Times Roll, airs on CFUV Radio on Wednesday nights.

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