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Tommy McClennan biography



Tommy McClennan was born on the J.E. Sligh Farm near Yazoo City, Mississippi, on April 8, 1908. While growing up, he taught himself to play guitar influenced by Delta masters Rubin Lacy, Charley Patton, Ishman Bracey and Tommy Johnson. At a young age he began to play on the streets of Greenwood, Miss. for nickels and dimes, while working the cotton fields during the day. Later he worked in juke joints and for dance parties, playing both the guitar and the piano (an instrument that Honeyboy Edwards claims he only knew three or so numbers on, and those not too well). It was during this time that the young Honeyboy was first learning the guitar, and he began to follow McClennan and his running-partner Robert Petway every chance he could. McClennan was a small man, standing just 4 feet 10 and weighing somewhere around 133 pounds; a size that definitely belied the powerful voice he possessed. Petway was approximately the same size, and Honeyboy Edwards claimed that when they were together, it appeared as if two midgets were walking down the street. Honeyboy also states that Tommy was unable to find a hat that would fit him due to his size; most of which hung down over his ears. McClennan was married to a woman by the name of Ophelia and they had two children, Bubba and Carrie Mae. Throughout his life, he was also a sickly man, who may have suffered from tuberculosis, and he was definitely plagued by chronic alcoholism. In 1938, Lester Melrose of Bluebird Records in Chicago, working on a tip from Big Bill Broonzy, went to the Delta in search of Tommy McClennan. Despite Broonzy's warnings about plantation owners and Northerners who appeared to be seeking new employees from the fields for their factories in the big cities, Melrose made the trip on his own. When he began to ask of McClennan's whereabouts, he was run off the plantation sans his automobile. Eventually he did locate McClennan, and in 1939 they laid down the tracks of Tommy's first recording session in Chicago on November 22nd. This session would prove to be McClennan's most important, solely due to the inclusion of his signature piece, "Bottle It Up And Go". Though the song was most likely a common theme throughout the South before this session, it made quite a commotion among the African-American audiences of the North with its inclusion of the term "nigger". Big Bill Broonzy had attempted to heed McClennan to avoid using the word, warning him about the attitudes of the North and what was deemed acceptable. However, Tommy refused to abide the warning, declaring he would record and sing the song his own way. In one fabled story, Broonzy recalled attending a party with McClennan. The place had reached a jovial pace when Tommy decided to sing "Bottle It Up And Go". Upon hearing the lyrics, the crowd became irate and reportedly threw McClennan and Broonzy out a window. Luckily for them, they were on the first floor. There would be four more sessions with Bluebird over the next two years. Tommy found a great deal of success with jukeboxes in the South, scoring hits with "Cotton Patch Blues", "Cross Cut Saw Blues", "Whisky Head Woman" and "Deep Sea Blues" (a reworking of his friend Robert Petway's acclaimed "Catfish Blues"). But, musical tastes began to change and the advent of the second World War brought about restrictions on the materials used to make records. After recording 41 sides of his own, McClennan's final recording was on Petway's "Boogie Woogie Woman" on February 20, 1942. At this point, Melrose had decided to release McClennan from his services, citing his unreliability and alcoholism. McClennan seemed to disappear from the public's attention soon afterwards, with an occasional club performance here and there in Chicago. Petway's career had also reached its zenith, after only 14 recorded sides for Bluebird (but unlike McClennan, this was due more to the change in record buyers' musical tastes). Honeyboy Edwards would later recall in his biography running into McClennan again, in 1962. Destitute and living in a truck trailer he had converted into a makeshift house, Edwards attempted to bring McClennan back to the stage. His unskilled guitar playing was now clearly absent, but his mighty vocals remained. And McClennan's constant desire for alcohol had not diminished either; a fact that rekindled the word of his unreliability and ultimately brought forth an end to this second opportunity at fame. Edwards returned him to his life in the slums, and shortly afterwards, McClennan took sick and was hospitalized. Unable to speak at all, McClennan died there, alone and penniless in 1962. In retrospect McClennan's music can now be considered as some of the most compelling and important of its period, alongside the recognized legends, Son House, Robert Johnson, and Charley Patton. His classic "Bottle It Up And Go" also remains one of the true classics of Country Blues, covered many times by numerous artists. His recordings of "Cross Cut Saw Blues" proved to be an influential number for the West Memphis guitar legend Albert King, as did his "New Highway 51" for a young folk musician named Bob Dylan. All 42 recordings, including Petway's "Boogie Woogie Woman", have been remastered and are available on the excellent RCA release, "The Bluebird Recordings 1939 -1942".