Peetie Wheatstraw

Complete Works, Vol. 7

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Volume seven in Document's complete Peetie Wheatstraw chronology contains his last 23 recordings which were made in New York and Chicago during the years 1940 and 1941. Instrumentally, this album is similar to volume six in that Wheatstraw is backed by blues and jazz musicians who deliver a more varied series of performances, breaking what some may regard as the textural and melodic predictability of his many previous recordings. Peetie's accompanists include pianists Lil Hardin Armstrong and Jack Dupree, trumpeter Jonah Jones, drummer O'Neil Spencer, blues harpist Robert Lee McCoy, and an unidentified tenor saxophonist on the "Old Organ Blues," the eerily titled "Hearse Man Blues," and "Bring Me Flowers While I'm Living." Jones' trumpet obligato is at times arrestingly beautiful, and these laid-back recordings hint at where Peetie was headed as an artist. He could have done very well in the postwar era, easing into what the industry began calling rhythm & blues, and very likely becoming a hero of early rock & roll. His sudden death, brought on by reckless driving and the legalized liquor he so emphatically prized over prohibition hooch, was a terrible tragedy for his family, his friends, and posterity. Peetie and his wife lived at 468A North Third Street in East St. Louis. Horrifically, the car crash that took his life occurred less than a block away from home, and his wife witnessed the accident without at first realizing that he had been in the car. It was Sunday, December 21, 1941, and Peetie was celebrating his 39th birthday. Intending to track down some good liquor, he piled into a Buick for a joyride with his friends Will Rainey, Ronnie Self, and Big Joe Williams, after inviting Teddy Darby along for the ride with the words "C'mon, let's go blow this Buick out." Darby declined the offer and they drove off in search of booze. A little later, Joe (who according to his own recollection was inebriated and getting "evil") stumbled out of the Buick to catch a streetcar to his home in St. Louis. Glancing through the window of the Buick he saw Peetie sitting in the back seat, smiling and strumming his guitar. What happened next is a tragically over-the-top drunk driving story. It was 11:30 A.M. and the rolling party was heading back home. Attempting at high speed to round a curve in Third Street near Illinois Avenue, whoever was behind the wheel lost control as the Buick careened up an embankment and smack into the back end of an immobile Louisville & Nashville Railroad freight train with such force that ten cars moved 25 feet. All three men were thrown from the car, Rainey and Ronnie were killed instantly, and Peetie died in a hospital nearly five hours later. This story differs from the widely circulated legend of a daredevil racing to beat a locomotive at a crossing, but the results were the same. At the time of his death, Wheatstraw was one of Decca's best-selling blues artists, still considered worthy competition for Bluebird's star, singing pianist Walter Davis. The range of Peetie's influence was profound and included Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Big Joe Williams, Georgia Slim, B.B. King, and most emphatically, James Sherrill, aka Peanut the Kidnapper. Artists whose billing included references to Wheatstraw were Floyd "Dipper Boy" Council ("The Devil's Daddy-In-Law"); Jimmie Gordon ("Peetie Wheatstraw's Brother"); Robert Lee McCoy ("Peetie's Boy"), and Harmon Ray, billed either as Herman "Peetie Wheatstraw" Ray or "Peetie Wheatstraw's Buddy." The Wheatstraw legend refuses to die, and as his records continue to be reissued, no label has come close to honoring this artist so thoroughly as Document has with its seven-volume set of his complete recorded works in chronological order.

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