In April 1964 Nehemiah ‘Skip’ James was not a happy man. Holed up in the Tunica County Hospital in north-west Mississippi, ravaged by a cancer that had left a tumorous growth on his penis, the 61-year-old had little money, few friends, fewer prospects and a simmering anger at the injustice of it all. His unfortunate affliction – which ultimately led to castration – he blamed on an ex-girlfriend against whom he vowed a murderous revenge.
A career bootlegger, pimp, gambler, gunslinger and sometime minister of the church, the stricken James was also the subject of a manhunt. Not, though, a target of federal officials or revenue agents as he initially feared (his nickname ‘Skippy’ had grown out of his frequent need to skip town when in trouble), but of a trio of young white, middle-class enthusiasts from California for whom Skip James was nothing but a mysterious name on a rare, dusty old 78 record, a phantom of the blues they wanted to track down.
Three decades earlier in 1931, James – as an adjunct to his other ‘professions’ – had been a blues singer and the 20 songs he recorded in a two-day session for Paramount in Grafton, Wisconsin (for which he was initially paid just $8 in expenses) would ultimately secure his place as one of the greatest of the Mississippi blues men. His haunting style of high-pitched singing and accomplished guitar and piano playing on songs such as I'd Rather Be The Devil, 22-20 and I'm So Glad marked him out as unique among his contemporaries.
I'm So Glad is an extraordinary example of James' prowess. If you thought pyrotechnic guitar solos only started when Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix strapped on their electric Les Pauls and Stratocasters, then think again. At a time when an acoustic guitar was merely something to accompany and drive along a song, James attacked his instrument with a fervour of speed and virtuosity of fingerpicking that had never been heard before. Even today its energy grabs you by the lapels.
I'm so glad,
And I am glad
I am glad, I'm glad
I don't know what to do
Don't know what to do
I don't know what to do
I'm tired of weepin'
Tired of moanin’
Tired of groanin’ for you
Despite his undoubted talents James failed to achieve any commercial success and when he sang I'm So Glad he clearly wasn't (who said Americans don’t do irony?). Indeed, when he played I'd Rather Be The Devil on the streets of Jackson, Mississippi, he sounded so sorrowful that spectators would offer him money to stop singing.
By the early 1960s only a handful of the ‘race’ recordings that were released as 78s survived and few had ever heard of Skip James, even though, as Stephen Calt suggests in I'd Rather Be The Devil, his fascinating 1994 biography of Skip James: “I'm So Glad and Special Rider ... was probably the greatest double-sided blues 78 ever issued.”
In 1932, just a few months after his recording session, James put the blues behind him when he suddenly left Mississippi (skipping town again?) to become a minister at his father’s church in Texas. For a while he eschewed the devil’s music in favour of spirituals, but this caused him to lose his musical mojo and it seems – in a memorable phrase from Calt’s biography – that unlike other blues legends he had ‘sold his soul to the church’.
By the time of his rediscovery in 1964 – by the trio of John Fahey, Bill Barth and Henry Vestine – James hadn’t picked up a guitar for years and, despite a dramatic appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival just a few weeks later, he was a shadow of his former self in his subsequent recordings. As he battled with his failing health he struggled to find venues to perform at and, when he did, his songs were often deemed too depressing for him to be asked back.
Help, though, was just around the corner for the Mississippi blues veteran and it came from a truly unexpected direction – from 4,500 miles away on the banks of another famous river, the Thames. Young, white, middle-class English musicians had begun to pick up on the blues through compilation ‘jazz’ LPs that began to appear in Europe in the late 1950s and early 1960s, some of which had included a handful of Skip James’ 1931 recordings. Bands such as Cream, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, the Rolling Stones and the original Fleetwood Mac mined a rich seam of newly rediscovered blues classics and that in turn sent the music back over the Atlantic, encouraging Americans to rediscover their own heritage in what became the blues revival of the 1960s.
Some of this new generation of rock musicians disappointingly failed to credit the real source of their songs but Eric Clapton gave full acknowledgement to Skip James for the 1966 Cream version of I'm So Glad – a decision that enabled James, for the only time in his life, actually to make some money from one of his songs. The $10,000 he received in royalties undoubtedly improved his quality of life before he finally succumbed to cancer on 3 October 1969.
Cream's bassist Jack Bruce, in a 1997 interview, recalled a time in the 1970s when he was playing in Philadelphia with West, Bruce and Laing: ‘I went into the dressing room and there was this little old lady sitting very uncomfortably with all the really loud music. It was Ms Skip James. She’d come along to thank me for recording that song. She said her family made more money from the version Cream did than in her late husband’s whole life as a musician. The money enabled him to have decent medical care at the end of his life.’
It seems rather churlish, given his life story, to point out that although James wrote some of the most memorable blues songs and richly deserved finally to receive royalties for one of his recordings, he didn’t write I'm So Glad – that song was in fact a reworking of So Tired, a 1927 composition by Art Sizemore and George A Little. It was, however, James’ brilliant version that lifted the song into the pantheon of the blues.
Skip James, who modestly liked to call himself ‘one of the best men who ever walked’, didn’t think much of Cream’s version of I'm So Glad, lambasting it on his death-bed. ‘They got it ass backwards,’ he said. ‘They don’t have the harmony, the rhythm. I doubled up on it. It’s too good a song to mess up like that. Nobody will ever play it like me.’
In May 2005 I was in the audience at the Royal Albert Hall waiting for Cream to come on stage for their eagerly anticipated reunion concert. Although a long-time fan – it was through listening to Cream as a 13-year-old in 1969 that I began my journey back to the blues of Robert Johnson, Bukka White and Skip James – I was worried that it might turn out to be just another Eric Clapton solo gig but with different backing musicians. But as Clapton strummed the distinctive opening chords I knew my fears were unfounded: he played a song that I had never heard him perform as a solo artist, a song that was Cream through and through. When the singing started I was in heaven and, I have to admit, the emotion of the moment caused the tears to flow.
The song? I'm So Glad. And I was.