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May 16-22, 2007

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Cracklin' Blues

East Bay bluesman Jimmy McCracklin still looks to the future

By Robert Feuer

At age 85, Jimmy McCracklin has met them all, played with them all, survived them all. Or something close to that. Given all his achievements, there are still some firsts left for McCracklin--his performance in Santa Rosa on May 20, for example, will be his first in Sonoma County.

McCracklin was born in Arkansas, but his music is steeped in a sound that was prevalent in the smoky, late-night juke joints of Oakland and Richmond in the 1940s and '50s. It contains a lot of the boogie-woogie piano he learned as a boy from Walter Davis, with a heavy portion of rhythm and blues.

During an interview at his home in Richmond, four gold records on the wall reflected the early afternoon sun. With his eyes receding into the past, he spoke of meeting Big Mama Thornton at Peacock Records in Houston during the early '50s and bringing her to California where she stayed with him and his wife for a long time because "she had no peoples out here."

In 1958, McCracklin was in Chicago, where he remembers "working dead-end jobs, walking around for three weeks carrying this song I wrote." He took it to Chess Records where it climbed to No. 7 on Billboard's charts, leading to an appearance on Dick Clark's American Bandstand, a first for a blues artist. "Dance records started poppin' out like hell after that," he says.

McCracklin estimates that he wrote "about nine out of every 10-and-a-half" of the songs he recorded. His compositions have been covered by the Beatles, Jerry Garcia and Janis Joplin. Otis Redding and Carla Thomas took the squabble of his song "Tramp" high up the charts in 1967.

McCracklin has recorded over 30 albums but recognition has been sluggish. In April, he received a Hall of Fame trophy at the Bay Area Black Music Awards. On his piano at home are keys to the cities of Oakland, Richmond and Sacramento. There's a picture of him at the White House with Ronald Reagan and one with former Oakland mayor Jerry Brown.

Looking forward on this sunny afternoon, McCracklin talked about his band--three horns, a guitar, bass and drums--and Sweet Nectar, a vocal group consisting of his three daughters. They have all been with him a long time. "I got to have my old band," he said, "I like to sound like I did."

McCracklin beamed. "I still love to play. I ain't never stopped. Once I stop, I'm through with it."

Jimmy McCracklin appears on Sunday, May 20, at the Last Day Saloon. Bill Noteman and the Rockets open; Bill Bowker hosts as a live radio show. 120 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. 6pm. $15. 707.545.2343.

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