Jones County Blues – Laurel
The Laurel area, a hub of musical activity in southeast Mississippi, has been home to a number of noted blues performers including harmonica player Sam Myers, singer Albennie Jones, and guitarist Blind Roosevelt Graves. R&B, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll producer Johnny Vincent, who founded Ace Records in Jackson in 1955, got his start selling records in Laurel. One of Mississippi’s most popular blues events, the Laurel Mother’s Day Blues Festival, began its long run here in 1987.
Laurel and Jones County performers have traveled far and wide to sing the blues, while local nightclubs and festivals have continued to celebrate the blues here at home. One of the first local musicians to record was guitarist Blind Roosevelt Graves (1909-1962) from Summerland. He and his tambourine-playing brother, Uaroy (also called Aaron), recorded in 1929 for Paramount Records and in 1936 for A.R.C. They often performed for tips on the streets of Laurel. The Nelson brothers Elijah (“Professor”), a trombonist, band director, and music teacher, and Romie, who played cornet and other instruments, were noted minstrel show performers who lived in Laurel. Elijah and another brother, tuba player Lamar “Buck” Nelson, began traveling with shows prior to World War I, sometimes joined by clarinetist Arnett Nelson (c. 1890-1959) from Ellisville. Arnett played alto saxophone on many blues and jazz records in Chicago in the 1930s, as did Laurel native Andrew “Goon” Gardner (1916-1975) in the 1940s and ‘50s.
Sam Myers (1936-2006) performed for years in Jackson with Elmore James and others, and made his first record there in 1957 for John Vincent Imbragulio’s Ace label. Imbragulio, aka Johnny Vincent (1925-2000), started out selling used 78s from the jukebox of his parents’ Laurel restaurant. Myers later toured widely with Anson Funderburgh & the Rockets from Dallas. Eastabuchie native Leo “Lucky Lopez” Evans (1937-2004), who played guitar with Myers and others in Mississippi, moved to Milwaukee and later recorded several albums in England. Albennie Jones (1914-1989), from Errata, sang in church in Gulfport before she launched a blues career in New York in the 1930s. On some of her 1940s records she was accompanied by jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie. Another Jones Countian, Roland “Boy Blue” Hayes (c. 1922-1980), son of local musician Doc Hayes, moved to Arkansas, where he recorded as a singer and harmonicist for folklorist Alan Lomax in 1959.
A stalwart on the local blues scene for over sixty years, Ellisville native Tommie “T-Bone” Pruitt (b. 1933), led the Rhythm Rockers band and played guitar with Bo Diddley, the Rhythm Aces, the Five Royales, and others. Harmonica player Lee “Tennessee” Crisp (1912-1993), who performed locally with Pruitt in the 1970s and ‘80s, once toured Europe with the Mississippi Delta Blues Band. He was a protégé of Tennessee bluesman Sleepy John Estes. Jasper County native L. C. Ulmer (b. 1928), a multi-instrumentalist, performed across the country for decades, often as a one-man band, before settling in Ellisville in 2002. He began a belated recording career after his return to Mississippi. Venues for blues in Laurel have included the Cotton Bowl, Paradise, Top Hat, Blade’s, Playhouse, Skylark, Elks Club, American Legion, Civic Center, and Navy Yard dance hall.