Mark Camarigg is publications manager and former assistant editor for Living Blues Magazine and chairs The Center for the Study of Southern Culture’s annual Blues Symposium at The University of Mississippi. He is one of the editors of Blues Unlimited: Essential Interviews from the Original Blues Magazine. He answered some questions about this collection.
Q: What was your first exposure to Blues Unlimited Magazine?
Mark Camarigg: I discovered Blues Unlimited while researching at the Blues Archive here at the University of Mississippi. Robert Palmer briefly referenced it in his book Deep Blues. As a historian, I found the magazine fascinating and eventually read every issue. I was amazed at the information I found including some of the first descriptions of Son House, Robert Johnson’s death certificate, and early concert reviews of Little Walter, Buddy Guy and Magic Sam, among others. Regular contributors to the magazine included many established blues scholars such as Paul Oliver, John Broven, and David Evans.
I was familiar with blues historiography to recognize there was a lot of primary research within the pages of Blues Unlimited. I also knew this small British magazine had limited reach here in the US and that younger generations of blues scholars would enjoy reading these interviews. Eventually, I contacted some of the original writers and editors, including my co-editor Bill Greensmith, who had possession of the magazine’s archive and photos and had a BU book project in mind. Throughout the years, a lot of information has been gleaned from the pages of Blues Unlimited, but only acknowledged in footnotes. Bill and I both felt the pioneering work and research within BU deserved more formal recognition.
Q: How big of a project was it to choose which of these interviews should be put into the book?
Camarigg: Former BU editors Bill Greensmith and Mike Rowe were very familiar with the contents of the entire run of the magazine and had interviews in mind for a book. Naturally, we wanted to include some star power with names like Freddie King and Albert Collins, but more often, the best interviews were with lesser-known artists. Some great information comes from the artists in the background.
One of the best blues interviews I’ve read is a 40,000-word piece Blues Unlimited ran on a singer named Jimmy Thomas that we’ve included in the book. Thomas grew up in Arkansas and sang for Ike Turner’s band in St. Louis. His attention to detail and insights about the inner workings of a traveling band is riveting in both its frankness and humor.
We collected a representative overview of the magazine’s interviews and highlighted some historically neglected blues scenes, including St. Louis, Detroit, and Arkansas, a state whose contribution to the blues is often overlooked. The scenes in West Memphis and Osceola, Arkansas in the 50s, for example, were as vibrant as anything happening in Memphis and Mississippi. Music recordings from these areas are rare, so historians have generally ignored them. Fortunately, BU documented some of these musicians. BU founding editor Mike Leadbitter, in particular, did a lot of research in the Arkansas Delta before his death in 1974.
Ultimately, BU writers and editors revered these musicians and let them tell their story in an unfiltered manner. Hopefully, readers are inspired to track down recordings by Juke Boy Bonner or Louis Myers after reading their interviews.
Q: How was Blues Unlimited different than other music magazines that covered blues artists?
Camarigg: Blues Unlimited ran extensive interviews with the artists, letting them expound on a variety of topics and provide depth to their life histories. Interviews often ran over multiple issues. The writers also had a deep knowledge of the subject matter, so their questions elicited new details. Essentially, these early blues journalists connected dots between the various musicians, musical styles, and locales.
American blues musicians opened up and spoke very freely with British journalists. Perhaps they were flattered that writers were traveling from Europe to get their story. There was an obvious intimacy with the artists that transcended the page. Readers were often encouraged to contact the musicians and it was not uncommon for BU to publish the address or phone number of a musician. In an early example of crowdfunding, BU readers each contributed $1 to finance the production of Juke Boy Bonner’s 45-rpm single “Runnin’ Shoes”/”Yakin’ in My Plans.”
There was also a strong interest in blues discography in the magazine. From the start, Blues Unlimited compiled discographies on many artists and constantly updated lists of recordings with each issue. That was not an exclusively British practice, but Blues Unlimited spurred this activity within the blues genre. One explanation for that focus is that records were the primary commodity British music fans could access. Blues performances were rare in Europe and there was not much hardcore blues on the radio – all of which makes the publication of a blues magazine by a couple of guys in a small seaside town in England in 1963 even more compelling.
Q: Blues Unlimited was founded in the UK. Was there something about British blues enthusiasts that made the discovery and promotion of American roots music more possible?
Camarigg: When starting Blues Unlimited, Mike Leadbitter and Simon Napier could draw from a tradition of music journals in Europe. There was the Belgian magazine, Rhythm & Blues Panorama, the French jazz journal, Jazz Hot, and the Swiss magazine Jazz Statistics. Of course, British blues researcher Paul Oliver was regularly published in Jazz Monthly by that time, also. The timing was right for a magazine devoted specifically to blues music and unlike most journalists, Simon and Mike weren’t coming to the blues from jazz, but getting there via Little Richard and Chuck Berry. It was a new generation of blues fandom.
Interestingly, a comparable blues journal is not published in America (Living Blues) until nearly eight years after Blues Unlimited’s start. Americans took blues music and the musicians for granted, if they considered them at all. Perhaps segregation in America, at that time, had something to do with it as well. American audiences were tuned into a folk tradition by the early 60s, but not especially black folk music like the blues.
Q: Over the years, with so many interviews, some of the interview subjects would make a few extravagant claims. Do you have a favorite story?
Camarigg: There are quite a few in the book. A story about Jimmy Reed having a little too much to drink and swiping a guy’s car has a really funny ending. Then there’s one about Ike Turner paying a couple of his band members to steal some new tires for his Cadillac. But one that stands out involves a high-speed car chase with Moody Jones and his cousin, Floyd, getting shot at by a bar owner for messing with his wife. They somehow pop a u-turn in an alley way as the bullets fly! Interestingly, the story never ran in Blues Unlimited and only appears in the book because all of the participants are long gone.