Today's pop, rock, and rap stars owe more to William Bunch than they could ever realize. Bunch recognized way back in the 1920s that creating a bad-ass persona would do wonders for record sales, and drawing on a shady character from Black folklore, he re-christened himself Peetie Wheatstraw, claiming (long before Robert Johnson thought of it) that he had sold his soul to the devil down at the crossroads in exchange for success as a musician. It was a great calling card, and success he had, cutting upwards of 170 tracks for the ARC, Bluebird, and Decca labels before his death in 1941, and at his peak in the 1930s, he was the equivalent of a superstar.
A down and dirty pianist and a surprisingly innovative singer (his frequent use of "oh well well" as a verbal punctuation device led to all sorts of variations by other singers), Wheatstraw was in essence the first gangsta, and his songs covered amazingly modern song topics like drug use (mostly alcohol), murder, suicide, unemployment, poverty and, of course, sex, and he was a pivotal figure in the conversion of country blues to urban themes. Wheatstraw seldom varied from his chosen template on sides like the jazz-inflected "Gangster Blues," "Chicago Mill Blues," and the jaunty (and ultimately ironic, given the terms of his demise) "Trucking Thru Traffic," which features Lonnie Johnson on guitar. Even Wheatstraw's tragic early death (he was 39 when he died) had rock star cinema written all over it, as he and his friends tried unsuccessfully to race their car through a train crossing with a train bearing down on them, finally giving, as the legend goes, the devil his due.