New York City Blues, Larry Simon,

New York City Blues, Larry Simon with John Broven & Robert Schaffer, University Press of Mississippi

New York perhaps isn’t the first city people think of in the history of the blues – Memphis, Chicago, certainly, New Orleans maybe, but New York’s blues tradition is somewhat underappreciated.

So Larry Simon’s exploration of the history of the blues in New York from the 1940s to the 1990s provides a welcome means of redressing the balance. Simon is a New York guitarist and songwriter who has recorded and toured with many leading jazz and blues artists and is well qualified to compile this fine and engaging volume of the history of blues in his city.

The book comprises interviews with eighteen blues artists associated with New York, some done by Simon himself, some by John Broven and some by Richard Tapp and Val Wilmer. There are some wonderful photographs included, provided by Robert Schaffer and Paul Harris.

Artist interviews include well known artists like Paul Oscher, Muddy Waters’s harmonica player, John Hammond Jr., and Victoria Spivey. The Rev Gary Davis, an important figure in New York’s blues history is covered by means of fascinating reminiscences by guitarist Bob Malenky. The other interviews with artists you may not have heard of but who were important contributors to the city’s blues scene are fascinating and paint a vivid picture of not only the music scene but life in New York over the decades.

The book kicks off with a useful introduction by John Broven, influential music writer, setting the scene with a short but insightful history of the blues scene in New York, concluding that the interviews to follow represent “an astonishing cross-section of personalities who help create a niche regional tradition.”

Each of the interviews is fascinating – I did particularly enjoy a 1993 interview with “Wild Jimmy Spruill by Larry Simon. Jimmy Spruill was not an artist I was aware of, but he was a prolific studio guitarist in the 1960s and 70s with a completely original guitar style. He seems to have been a quite singular individual, all nervous energy and fast-talking. He said he played the blues, but wasn’t a bluesman. “I’m not a sad person.” It sent me scooting over to YouTube to check him out – a fine guitarist for sure and definitely underrated.

Paul Oscher’s story is interesting too – he recalls playing in the street as a 15-year-old and getting invited in to a black club and then getting up to play into a mike for the first time. “I hit that note, man. It just blew my mind because I never heard an amplified amp before.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

Most of the interviews are with men, but there are a few women represented – Victoria Spivey, Little Ann and Rose Marie McCoy. Again, I wasn’t aware of Rose Marie, but her story as a singer in the 1950s and 60s is fascinating. She was a successful song writer too, with her songs performed by artists on labels like Columbia and Okeh Records, and she had a big hit with It’s Gonna Work Out Fine when Ike and Tina Turner released it and sold over a million copies in 1961. Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor covered the song too. Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin also recorded her songs.

The book intimately and richly documents the blues in New York City in the post-war decades but does so through the stories and reflections of the men and women who performed the music. Any blues fan, or indeed, anyone interested in the history of music in America will find this a fascinating and rewarding read. As John Broven says in his introduction, “this book confirms that the New York City blues people – black and white, male and female – do matter.