The Source of the Blues: Memories of Jimmy Witherspoon 
By Eric Burdon

From Gadfly March 1998


Jimmy Witherspoon was born in Gurdon, Arkansas, in 1923. After serving in the merchant marines during World War II he joined Jay McShann's band in Kansas City. Along with Wynonie Harris and Joe Turner, Spoon became one of the premier practitioners of blues shouting—a powerhouse style of singing urban blues. In the late 40s and early 50s Witherspoon, recording for a variety of labels, had hits with songs such as "Ain't Nobody's Business" and "Money's Getting Cheaper." A triumphant appearance at the 1959 Monterey Jazz Festival led Witherspoon into a second career as a jazz vocalist recording standards with a variety of top flight jazz musicians. During the 70s, in addition to touring and recording, Witherspoon began acting in films. After a bout with throat cancer in the early 80s, he returned to playing live music, recording, and even acting (he appears in the 1995 film Georgia) until his death last year at 74. Eric Burdon, the author, was the singer of the British band The Animals. After fronting War, Burdon began a successful and long running career as a solo artist. He still performs regularly at clubs all around the country.

Quotation from an early memory of one of the first blues recordings that I ever heard—the lyrics went something like this:

Some like to love in the backseat of a car
Some like to love in lovers' lane
But I like it in the wee hours of the morning
When it's pouring down rain

Jimmy Witherspoon. His voice... When I was a young, serious, radical art student at Newcastle upon Tyne, Jimmy Witherspoon came into my life with a series of 45 releases and EP's. This was the voice that first put me in tune with the erotic, sexual aspect of the blues.

When at last I made my journey to the land of the blues, I never dreamt for one minute that I'd actually become friends with the guys who were my mentors, heroes and my cultural icons. His voice held a great mysticism for me, like when I first heard the voice of Elvis Presley—you knew it was coming from the source.

When I arrived in Los Angeles in the 60s I was surprised to find out that many such blues men and women had settled in the LA area. Among them were some of the greatest musical artists the country had ever produced. Out of the South and racial oppression and out of the cold weather of the Midwest, they made their way to Los Angeles, the city of the angels.

So, when Jimmy Witherspoon was discharged from the merchant marines, around 1946-47, he headed out to the coast. And that's where he was living when I ran into him one night, in a bar called The Carousel. He was sitting at the bar with another great blues icon, the great Joe Turner. I ended up stuck in between the two of them, in deep conversation. There was a blues band on the stage, ripping away, but we were so engrossed in conversation we hardly listened. The next thing I knew a big old-fashioned chromium-plated Sure microphone was pushed between us. All three of us ended up singing the blues without ever leaving the bar. This was one of the most memorable moments of my early visits to the United States. I'll never forget that night.

Later, Witherspoon and I became friends. I introduced him to Steve Gold and Jerry Goldstein, who were my managers at the time. I had just started touring with War. When War and I parted company I spent some time on the road with Spoon. He became my backstage pass to all that held wonder for me on my journey through the land of the blues. During the early 70s to mid 80s, Spoon was the one who took me there. He took me deep down into the ghetto-land of LA's Watts area, its nightclubs, hanging out and jamming with LA's best, and seeing people like Red Foxx and Louis Jordan. Outrageous nights spent with black America's swinging West Coast elite.

There was a love affair between Spoon and the club crowds. He made people feel such warmth, and he had perfect teeth, soft eyes, a powerful yet smooth face, and his songs were a working man's dreams and nightmares. They were stories of relationships between men and women—men and bitches—bitches and bastards.  But then he'd remind you, quite suddenly, in an up-tempo tune, that love was the answer, and to swing was the thing: "Have you heard the news, there's good rockin' tonight."

Oh, yeah, and let's not forget that it was Jimmy Witherspoon who gave the great Rahsaan Roland Kirk his first gig. When everyone else laughed at Rahsaan, and thought he was a clown, he jammed, night after night, for quite some time, with the great Jimmy Witherspoon.

Spoon was a great cook. A master in the kitchen. There were times when for no reason at all he would just cook for the pure joy of it. He would pour days into preparing food for one huge feast at his home in Baldwin Hills. I wouldn't hear from him for a while, and then a telephone call would come: "Hey, it's Spoon. I'm cookin'. When ya'll feel like it, why don't you come on over. Bring some friends, and a bottle of wine."

I'd drive over to the Baldwin Hills estate, park my car outside the house, and make my way through the driveway filled with Spoon's car collection, which consisted of a Cadillac Eldorado, a vintage Lincoln limousine (1962, his favorite), a Ford Mustang, and even an old motorcycle (I think it was a Harley). And there he'd be, relaxing, in his back yard overlooking L.A.X. airport, sipping Coke from his very own classic Coke dispenser. The food would be laid out in the kitchen and in the living room. There was pork; there was beef; spare ribs, collard greens, corn bread, three different kinds of beans, cabbages, fresh fruit, all kinds of wines. Some of the brands of wine would be ones that I'd turned him onto during our trips to Europe.

It was in England when he was diagnosed with cancer of the voicebox. Cancer of the throat is the death knell for a singer. When I heard the news I was quite shook up. I thought for sure this was the end of a great man's career. But this was not the case; the disease was arrested before it became too dangerous and out of control.

This incident, this flirtation with death, seemed to shake Jimmy into a new and higher level of understanding of himself and the need to preserve his voice. He came back strong, and was singing better than he ever could remember. He told me that he now could reach lower register ranges, ones he didn't even know were there before.

I remember one night at the Marquis club in London. They allowed too many people into the small room, and there was no ventilation, except for a six by six little window in the men's room at the far back of the hall behind the stage. The air was so polluted with tobacco smoke, drifting, hanging and what a wave of sweat! Jimmy and I had to stand up on the toilet seat, our heads alongside of each other, our nostrils in the air, stuck out the window, breathing in the only fresh air available.  How we made it through that night I'll never know.

Then there was this incident on stage at a festival called "The Festival of Love," which was so badly managed that we instantly called it "The Festival of Death." Jimmy was a little worried about this overzealous and loud guitar player who was in my band at that moment (who shall remain nameless). But Jimmy wouldn't stand no mess, and in front of a crowd of about 2000 people he slapped this obnoxious guitar player upside the head and sent him spinning across the stage. "That'll teach the mother to turn his volume down," said Spoon. He was a good teacher.

One time, in my lower depths, I was on the phone in the middle of the night, wired on some strange drug, and mentioned suicide as a possible option for my life. Spoon immediately got in his car, came up to my place, found the revolver that I had in my possession, and promptly disappeared with it.

Then there was the time he took me under his wing: we took flight up to northern California, and he dropped me into the fiery cauldron's core of the 60s discontent and revolt at San Quentin's "Open Day." We walked the wire outside of Death Row into the crowded yard. There I stood, with Spoon, Mohammad Ali and Curtis Mayfield. Below were the inmates, going wild. Spoon, amazingly enough, got more attention that day than even the great Ali. You see, Spoon was a local, and many of the inmates followed him, bouncing off the mesh wire that separated the men in the yard from the visitors, trying to reach him with messages or words of hope for home.  

We drank much whiskey together, along with other pleasures of the mind, body and flesh. Spoon was constant in his usage, and never faltering, it made him Stone Age.  I called him "rock of ages."

In the 1980s, Spoon had a radio show every Sunday evening at KTLA Los Angeles.  I'd be driving in off the road and tune in to listen to Spoon, his big, wide soulful voice covering the airwaves around LA. If I drove into town early enough from a California gig, I would head for Wilshire Boulevard towards KTLA. Outside would be parked his classic Lincoln limousine. One night I had a white Lincoln limousine; I drove it down to the studio, and parked it alongside of Spoon's black Lincoln limousine. In the rear of the stretch limousine I had taken a mannequin, dressed up in a hat and a fur coat, propped it up, and tied it in place with a seat belt. I went upstairs to watch him on the air. During a break, he asked me how was my wife, how was my family. I said she was fine. I said she was downstairs, in my limo, waiting. "Shit," said Spoon, "don't keep the lady waiting down there all night. I've got five minutes," he said. "Let's go down and talk to her." As we descended the stairs, Spoon told me excitedly how much he loved being a blues DJ. Then when we reached the two limousines, he pointed proudly at his, and went, "Mr. Burdon, this one's yours?" "Yes," I said. He put his hand on the handle of the rear passenger compartment of the limousine, and as he yanked open the door, the dummy, which was supposed to be my wife, fell forward and crashed onto the floor in front of his feet. He jumped back in shock and yelled at me, "You bastard, Burdon, how could you do that to me? I'll get you back; you'll see, I swear." He loved practical jokes.

But the thing I remember most about Spoon, the one time that will stay in my memory more than others, is being at TT&G studios in Hollywood, cutting a track with Spoon in the studio, along with the choir of Reverend Cleveland. Spoon was to sing the lead, and the song's title was "The Time Has Come." You see, we all live day to day, and never think of such times. But the time has come for me to say farewell to Spoon. I'll miss you.

Your mate,
Eric Victor Burdon