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.
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
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'
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
How we made it through that night I'll never
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
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
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.