The given name of Daddy Stovepipe was Johnny Watson; among other aliases he worked under during his long life were "Jimmy Watson" and the "Rev. Alfred Pitts." Born in Mobile, Alabama in 1867, Daddy Stovepipe may well have been the earliest-born blues performer to record. His career began around 1900 in Mexico as a twelve-string guitarist in early mariachi bands. Ultimately Daddy Stovepipe established himself as an entertainer with the Rabbit's Foot Minstrels, a southern traveling tent show that also gave rise to the careers of Ma Rainey, Jaybird Coleman, Brownie McGhee, Louis Jordan, Jim Jackson, and others. Settling into the role of a one-man band, Daddy Stovepipe worked as an itinerant street musician, centering around Maxwell Street in Chicago. On May 10, 1924 Daddy Stovepipe made his way to Richmond, Indiana and cut the first pair of 16 extant tracks that he would record in the 78 era. These are indeed among the most primitive blues performances on record, with "Sundown Blues" played in a jaunty 6/8 time. In July 1927 Gennett's mobile unit recorded Daddy Stovepipe in Birmingham, Alabama with a whistler named Whistlin' Pete, about whom nothing else is known. Issued as by "Sunny Jim and Whistlin' Joe", these sides are even more of a guilty pleasure than the first two, despite their extreme rarity.
In 1931 Daddy Stovepipe was recorded by the ARC mobile facility in Chicago for Vocalion's race series. Here he was partnered by Mississippi Sarah, in real life Sarah Watson and "Mrs." Daddy Stovepipe. She was a good singer and an expert jug player, and the married couple's humorous back and forth banter make the 12 sides they made together a very special side attraction in recorded blues. Eight titles were made by the duo in Chicago in 1931, and the remaining four followed in 1935 for Bluebird. Afterward, the "Stovepipes" settled down in Greenville, Mississippi and Daddy Stovepipe went to work away from music, but Sarah Watson's unexpected death in 1937 sent her husband back out on the road.
In subsequent years it appears that Daddy Stovepipe was playing in the American Southwest and in Mexico. For a time in the 1940s Daddy Stovepipe played in zydeco bands in Louisiana and Texas, and by 1948 he was back up on Maxwell Street, where he was working at the time of his rediscovery. He reappears once again before the microphone in 1960, recording such unpromising fare as his versions of "Tennessee Waltz" and the jump tune "Monkey and the Baboon." By that point he was 93 years old and not sounding particularly great. Daddy Stovepipe died just three years later after surgery to remove his gall bladder led to bronchial pneumonia. He had been born during the first days of reconstruction, and died the same month as President John F. Kennedy.
Johnny "Daddy Stovepipe" Watson should not be confused with Cincinnati-based one-man-band Sam Jones, who recorded under the odd name of Stovepipe No. 1. Nor should he be confused with McKinley Peebles, who recorded as Sweet Papa Stovepipe.