Big Boy Ben

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The subject of pseudonyms used by blues recording artists is a fascinating field of research, the most common reward being the important realization that a totally obscure recording artist with a strange…
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The subject of pseudonyms used by blues recording artists is a fascinating field of research, the most common reward being the important realization that a totally obscure recording artist with a strange name is actually another performer, perhaps even more obscure and with an even stranger name. Mainly inspiring the deceptions was the prolific bluesman or woman's desire to take advantage of recording opportunities outside the realm of a current contract agreements. Sometimes blues or so-called "race" artists recorded under other names in order to appear a bit less black and perhaps garner a wider audience as a result. The case of Big Boy Ben fits neither criteria, and in fact is downright bizarre. A pair of recordings released in late '20s under that name in the Gennett race series, then reissued on the Varsity catalog in 1940, is one thing for sure, and that is the world's only hermaphroditic blues record. That's not because the lyrics have to do with a combined male and female creature; that would not be so rare, and is actually the subject of not one but several classic blues songs. No, the Big Boy Ben platter was truly a combined male and female creation. A male singer was featured on the first side, a female on the other. Inexplicably, both sides were credited to Big Boy Ben, on both the Gennett and Varsity versions. No explanation for this marketing strategy has ever been offered, nor would one ever be accepted.

Fortunately for the future of civilization, the actual identities of Mr. and Mrs. Big Boy Ben have been revealed. James Cole was responsible for the tune "Mistreated the Only Friend You Had," perhaps a direct message to the Gennett honchos who decided to release this song under a pseudonym. Female vocalist Lena Matlock took care of business on the flip side with some sage advice entitled "Mama Keep Your Yes Ma'am Clean." Cole was better known as a violinist, often working in bands with Tommie Bradley. This is an extremely rare example of Cole on his own, and the reception the record received indicates his interest in being a sideman was well placed. "The first side is very poor," critic Joe Shephard wrote in Jazz Information. This critic was much more fond of Matlock on the other side, and was observant enough to notice the difference between the two singers who were being promoted under the same name (not bad powers of observation for a music critic): "...On the second the singer is different, a woman, and good...." The excellent Matlock's main performing partner was Willie "Scarecrow" Owens, a disturbing fellow sometimes just known as "the Scarecrow." "Easy Creeping Mama" and "Want Your Ashes Hauled" were two of their recordings, obviously describing different aspects of their relationship. Her sole recording on her own was the delightful "Stop Bitin' Other Women in the Back," first released in 1930.