"Philadelphia" Jerry Ricks has taken the art of blues guitar to new levels with his two groundbreaking releases for the Rooster Blues label. Raised in the City of Brotherly Love, Ricks has been splitting his time between Philadelphia and parts north during summer and Mississippi during the winter in recent years. Ricks got his master's degree in acoustic blues by hanging out with the likes of Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and other 1960s blues revival folk-blues musicians when they came to coffeehouses and small bars in Philadelphia. These were artists who were both great names and great personalities: Son House, Jesse Fuller, Libba Cotten, Lightnin' Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and others who were around for the 1960s folk and blues revival. In his capacity as booking manager for the Second Fret Coffee House in Philadelphia from 1960 to 1966, he had the chance to learn and practice "hangout-ology" with all the above-mentioned bluesmen and Cotten and other blueswomen.
Ricks was born May 22, 1940, in Philadelphia. He began playing guitar around Philadelphia area coffeehouses in the late '50s. "I played trumpet as a child and then switched over to the guitar because I used to watch people playing guitar in the streets," Ricks recalled in a late '90s interview. Lonnie Johnson and a few other classic bluesmen showed Ricks his first few blues chords while he was learning to play guitar. After traveling with Buddy Guy's band to East Africa in 1969 on behalf of the U.S. State Department, he caught the travel bug. He did some field research in Arkansas in 1970 for the Smithsonian Institution, working under Ralph Rinzler, and then departed for Europe.
Unlike other bluesmen who came up in a less progressive era, Ricks didn't leave the U.S. because he found the racial atmosphere too oppressive at home, as did people like Memphis Slim and, later, Luther Allison. (To be fair, Allison and Memphis Slim both found more work in Paris.) "I wanted my kids to be able to learn a foreign language," he said, "and it was good for me, 'cause there were like five blues people in all of Europe. I got married and divorced while I was over there, and after my divorce, I stayed there." Ricks said he got to know so many of the classic acoustic bluesmen on good terms because the performers would typically have "residency" shows at the Second Fret in Philadelphia. "I lived a couple of blocks away, so they would stay at my house. Acts at that time would have to play a minimum of two or three weeks, so I had them all day and all night for almost a month. We brought in Reverend Gary Davis, Jesse Fuller, Sleepy John Estes, and later, in 1963, we had Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James."
Ricks has two albums out on the Rooster Blues label, the critically acclaimed Deep in the Well and Many Miles of Blues, a 2000 release. Deep in the Well, released in 1998, garnered Ricks W.C. Handy Blues Award nominations in three categories: Acoustic Blues Artist of the Year; Acoustic Album of the Year, and Comeback Blues Album of the Year, the last because Ricks had spent so much time overseas and American audiences were largely unfamiliar with him. Despite a 13-album discography in Europe, Deep in the Well was Ricks' first U.S. release. He credits the great classic bluesmen of the 1960s for helping him to keep the faith (and enthusiasm) for live performing through the years. "I already knew how to play guitar when I met a lot of them," he explained, "and I had figured out a lot of stuff from their old records. Mainly, they talked to me about how to keep my head together and not run off on some kind of trip."