by Stephen Calt and Gayle Wardlow
Along with Robert Johnson, who followed him by a decade, Charlie Patton was one of the two most imposing blues-men to emerge from the Mississippi Delta in the 1920s and ’30s. An itinerant guitarist and songwriter who plied his craft in the barrelhouses and juke joints of the rural South, he was the first blues musician to become a star, partly because his public persona was as large as his musical gifts. When he died in 1934, in his early 40s, he left a legacy of 50-odd recordings and a reputation as a hard-living rascal whom later generations of bluesmen and rock singers would try to emulate. Small wonder that so few succeeded. Patton had 14 wives—common-law and otherwise—and his love of drink and lust for women kept him in trouble most of his days. He was jailed by peace-minded sheriffs, shot in a roadhouse fracas and once had his throat cut by an admirer’s jealous boyfriend.
He was an original as a musician too. For blues lovers who rediscovered his genius in the ’60s, however, there were only worn 78s and his improbable legend to satisfy their curiosity. The original nickel masters of his records—issued on “race” labels for black audiences—had long since been sold for scrap, and little information about him existed. Now blues enthusiasts Calt and Wardlow have stitched together the first biography to document Patton’s rambunctious ways and musical innovations. Based on oral reminiscences collected over 10 years, their book offers a revealing picture of a world-be-damned loner (despite the wives) and the racially oppressed plantation culture whence he sprang. Patton would surely have ignored this biography (even if he had been able to read), but blues fans should welcome such a thorough, unvarnished look at a unique figure long shrouded in myth and mystery. (Rock Chapel, paper, $14.95)