Born: February 21, 1903 in Syracuse SC
Died: October 27, 1962 in Indianapolis IN
Scrapper Blackwell was one of the most influential of pre-war acoustic guitarists and, along with his contemporary Lonnie Johnson, helped bring a more urbane and sophisticated sound to the blues. Blackwell is best known as one-half of a duo with pianist Leroy Carr, the two men finding a great musical chemistry that led to dozens of hit songs between 1928 and 1935.
Blackwell also recorded solo, and his jazz-influenced, single-string playing style would open the door for guitarists like Muddy Waters and Robert Nighthawk to walk through, and would directly influence the development of the Chicago style of blues music.
How Long, How Long Blues
Of Cherokee Indian and African-American descent, Francis "Scrapper" Blackwell was born one of sixteen children in rural North Carolina, but he would mostly grow up in Indianapolis, Indiana. Blackwell taught himself guitar as a child, building his first instrument out of a cigar box, a stick of wood, and some wire. He also learned to play the piano, and by his mid-teens Blackwell was performing, at least part-time, as a professional musician.
Blackwell's withdrawn and introverted personality often made him difficult to work with, but after meeting blues pianist Leroy Carr in 1928, the two found common musical ground. Blackwell was successfully supporting himself as a moonshiner at the time, and Carr had to convince him to go into the studio. The duo's first record, "How Long, How Long Blues," would become a hit, and the two musicians would collaborate on hundreds of sides until Carr's death from alcohol in 1935.
Although Blackwell was best-known as Carr's musical partner, he would also record solo, and with artists like Georgia Tom Dorsey and singer Black Bottom McPhail during this time. Blackwell's 1928 solo hit "Kokomo Blues" would later be appropriated by Kokomo Arnold as his signature song "Old Kokomo Blues." Delta blues legend Robert Johnson would use Blackwell's tune as the basis for his own "Sweet Home Chicago." After Carr's death, Blackwell would quit the music business for better than 20 years.
When interest in folk-blues and country-blues music began peaking during the late-1950s, Blackwell was "rediscovered" living in Indianapolis, working as a laborer. Convinced to return to performing and recording, Blackwell signed with Prestige/Bluesville Records and recorded an album's worth of material for the label, his skills seemingly untouched by time. Poised on the cusp of success on the level of that enjoyed by country bluesmen like Furry Lewis and Mississippi Fred McDowell, Blackwell was shot to death in an apparent mugging in 1962.
Recommended Albums: There just isn't a lot of Scrapper Blackwell music available on the market outside of his work with Leroy Carr. Yazoo's Virtuoso Guitar 1925-1934 features 14 songs drawn from Blackwell's early solo recordings, as well as collaborations with artists like Carr and McPhail. Mr. Scrapwell's Blues documents a 1961 session of original songs and some written by Carr, the album showcasing Blackwell's still-amazing six-string skills.