Washboard Willie

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It wasn't until William Hensley was 31 years old that he decided to buy a washboard and begin to make music on it. He bought a wood and metal washboard, fastened a four-inch frying pan to one corner,…
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It wasn't until William Hensley was 31 years old that he decided to buy a washboard and begin to make music on it. He bought a wood and metal washboard, fastened a four-inch frying pan to one corner, put eight metal thimbles on his fingers, tied the board around his neck with a dog leash, and started beating away. As a kid growing up in Columbus, GA, there were always vaudeville acts and tent and minstrel shows coming through the area. He always loved beating on the drums or anything with a surface. He played around the Columbus area occasionally, but nothing really professionally. In 1948 he moved north to Detroit, where he had to concentrate more on making a living, than beating on his washboard, and he didn't play at all for three years. It wasn't until 1952, that he and a friend were out one night looking for John Lee Hooker, when they came upon Eddie Burns and his little group, playing at the Harlem Inn. After hearing the drummer playing out of time, Hensley got his washboard from the car, and began playing along with the band. By the second song, the bar owner offered Hensley a job playing the washboard for the weekend. The band, along with Hensley, played there for three years.

During the day he washed cars for a local auto company. One day he had this idea, while making some suds in the water, to call his band, Washboard Willie & the Super Suds of Rhythm. This first band consisted of Washboard Willie on washboard and vocals, Chuck Smith on bass, and Anthony Lewis. At first, Hensley was just beating the washboard, and tapping his foot; soon he added the bass drum, and then the snare. In 1955, Hensley gave a young upstart, Little Sonny Willis (harmonica), his first job. In 1956, Hensley recorded for Joe Von Battle at the Palmer House in Detroit. Hensley teamed-up with Calvin Frazier on guitar, to record "Cherry Red Blues" and '"Washboard Shuffle," along with "Washboard Blues Pt. 1 & 2." He continued to record for Von Battle from 1957 to 1962. The sessions included Hensley, drums, washboard, and vocals; Calvin Frazier, guitar; Boogie Woogie Red, piano; and Chuck Smith, baritone saxophone. The tape sat in the backroom of Von Battle's record shop, until George Paulus retrieved them and put them out on his Barrelhouse Records, in 1982; JSP Records from England, also released the sessions. In 1966, Willie did a session for the Herculon label, releasing "Natural Born Lover" and "Wee Baby Blues," backed by Evans McLendon on guitar, and Angelo Willis on baritone saxophone. The band was now playing seven nights a week in Detroit and Ann Arbor. In 1973, he toured with the American Blues Legends '73 Tour, traveling all over Europe. An album was released on Big Bear/Poly 2460 186 from the tour featuring Hensley, along with Lightnin' Slim, Whispering Smith, Boogie Woogie Red, Snooky Pryor, and Homesick James. By 1979, Washboard Willie wasn't playing much anymore -- only special local engagements. He was always a family man and a Sunday School teacher, and he began to enjoy his retirement. He died on August 24, 1991, at the age of 82, in Detroit.