If there is ever a Mount Rushmore erected to celebrate the contributions of American Post War Blues Artists – and for my money, that’s a great idea – then two of the faces on that edifice would belong to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. (Okay, since you're probably wondering who are the other two faces, for me, it would be Willie Dixon and B.B. King. Argue amongst yourselves…)
Muddy and Wolf achieved their success alongside a series of band members, who, while possibly unknown at the time, would eventually read like a Who’s Who of the Blues. Many of these sidemen would leave and start their own successful bands.
The list includes: Little Water Jacobs, Jimmy Rogers, Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, Bob Margolin, Pinetop Perkins, Junior Wells, James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, Luther Johnson, Earl Hooker, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Jody Williams, Lee Cooper, Otis “Big Smokey” Smothers, Freddie Robinson, Detroit Junior, and Eddie Shaw.
Several of these great sidemen played with both of these legendary artists and Willie Dixon wrote a number of songs for each man. They both influenced an entire generation of blues and rock artists in America as well as in England and Europe. Without these men, the face of modern music in the second half of the 20th Century would be very different.
Both Wolf and Muddy needed the best musicians standing with them, and behind them, crafting that sound that made them so unique. Three of the men who helped shape that sound over the years were piano player Pinetop Perkins, drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and guitarist Hubert Sumlin and prior to their passing within eight months of each other in 2011, all three of these men gave interviews about their times near and out of the limelight to documentary filmmaker Scott Rosenbaum.
Rosenbaum has now added comments from more blues artists including the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Gregg Allman, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Tim Reynolds, Shemekia Copeland, Robby Krieger, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Joe Perry, Joe Bonamassa, Guy Davis, Walter Trout, Eric Gales, Warren Haynes, Bobby Rush, Elvin Bishop, and Johnny Winter.
The result is Sidemen: Long Road To Glory, a riveting, must-see movie about the men and women who made the blues and continue to push it forward. It’s been difficult to see until now as the film did not receive a larger distribution deal. Now that it’s available as a DVD through the website of the film, a copy was provided for me by the American Music Educators, a very cool organization run by Ellen Foster and Tina Terry of the Tina Terry Agency, who organize talk back sessions to go with screenings of the film.
I will be writing more about AME in the very near future to discuss how they connect artists with groups who want to learn about different aspects of blues and the life that the artists led. You’ll want to stay tuned to find out who is working on this great program, but SPOILER ALERT, it’s some of the people interviewed in Sidemen.
Sidemen: Long Road To Glory is bookended by scenes of Pinetop Perkins walking to a piano in an empty theatre and playing. Playing not for an audience, but for himself and the love of the music. Telling the story of the migration out of the deep South by ambitious men who were drawn to the possibility of a better life, each of the three men recognized in the film endured hardship as they established themselves in a new world.
While all three eventually entered orbit around the two biggest stars in the blues universe, one problem with being a sideman is that the spotlight doesn’t fall on you, it lights the star. The money doesn’t pour into your pocket, it flows into the stars’. The adulation is all on the other person, and while your contribution may be of utmost importance and the world may now the leader’s name, you remain completely unknown to the general public.
For any fan of the blues, this oral history is heartwarming and heartrending at the same time. The music is remarkable and the stories told by and about Perkins, Smith, and Sumlin are at turns funny, serious, and occasionally so sad that it’s hard not to cry over the way they were treated at low points in their lives.
Using some of the techniques Ken Burns has popularized by making still photos look like moving pictures and a narration by actor/comedian Marc Maron, the film moves along briskly and at no time bogs down. Using a host of interviews with key blues artists, even the most casual fan can’t hope but come away deeply impressed by their contributions.
As there are so few of the original blues artists left, those that can bridge the era of World War II and beyond, this is an important document and should be treasured for preserving their stories along with their music.
One sad fact that is driven home during the last third of the movie is, despite Hubert Sumlin’s incredible influence on lead guitarists and the way he changed the way the guitar was played in blues and rock, he is still not in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. Even though the members of The Rolling Stones revere Sumlin and have lobbied on his behalf, their pleas have been ignored.
What’s it going to take to finally enshrine the man who influenced Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and the young Jimi Hendrix?
Sidemen: Long Road To Glory is a must see for every blues fan, no question. It’s also a must see for anyone interested in the history and evolution of rock music. And it’s a must see for anyone who is a sucker for a great story of perseverance, dedication, and recovery from the hardest of times. See it in a theatre, a festival, or go ahead and shell out the bucks to buy your own copy.
You will not be sorry.