Legendary bluesman Jimmy McCracklin, one of the Bay Area's most accomplished musicians, died Thursday in San Pablo after a lengthy battle with multiple health problems. He was 91.
The singer-songwriter-pianist will be best remembered for the hit 1957 single "The Walk," a tune that influenced countless other musicians, as well as for being one of the primary architects of West Coast Blues. The longtime Richmond resident spent nearly 70 years in the blues game and wrote literally hundreds of songs.
"He was absolutely one of America's greatest songwriters," says Ronnie Stewart, president of Bay Area Blues Society and the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame. "So many artists covered Jimmy McCracklin, because he was the man." Indeed, the list of top-name artists who recorded or performed McCracklin songs ranges from blues greats like B.B. King to soul stars such as Otis Redding to hip-hop queens Salt-N-Pepa. Bob Dylan cited McCracklin as a personal favorite, while many of the biggest forces in the British Invasion, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, were reportedly inspired by his work.
McCracklin was born August 13, 1921 -- at least that's the commonly accepted date, although the bluesman was known for arguing that it was incorrect. He was raised in St. Louis and joined the Navy in 1938. After World War II, he moved to Richmond and quickly become immersed in Bay Area's thriving blues scene. He backed B.B. King, L.C. Robinson and other top performers at local clubs -- most notably, Club Savoy, which McCracklin would later immortalize with his 1963 tune "Club Savoy" (better known as "Savoy's Jump").
He made his recording debut in 1945 and establish himself as a major force in the blues game in the '50s, thanks in large part to "The Walk." The rollicking, piano-driven composition, which now ranks as a blues standard, hit No. 5 on the R&B chart and No. 7 on the pop chart.
"The Walk" was such a sensation that even racial barriers couldn't stop it. McCracklin performed the single on "American Bandstand," which many authorities list as the first time a black artist played on Dick Clark's popular TV show.
McCracklin continued to find success on the charts through the '60s, with such notable tunes as "Just Got to Know" (No. 2 on the R&B charts) and the Lowell Fulson co-authored "Tramp" (a hit for both Otis Redding and Carla Thomas in 1967). In the '70s, he ran San Francisco's Continental Club and hosted such acts as Big Joe Turner and Etta James. He also remained active on the touring scene, where he inspired legions of younger blues artists.
"Jimmy remains one of my favorite songwriters," says East Bay blues harmonica standout Mark Hummel. "I've recorded three of his compositions over the years. He wrote classics."
Above the classic songs, however, was a signature sound that in large part added a new chapter in the development of the blues. The "Jimmy McCracklin Sound," as Stewart calls it, was built from prominent horn arrangements, stylish guitar leads and dominant piano work. It was so different from "Chicago Blues" -- a guitar-and-harmonica dominated style -- that it became known "West Coast Blues."
"He created certain licks and styles, and that's the ID of an artist," Stewart says. "He was one of the true innovators of West Coast Blues."
Few blues artists could claim to represent the West Coast any better than McCracklin. And very few, if any, did it for as long as McCracklin.
"Jimmy McCracklin was a major force on the West Coast blues scene and for many years a vital and vibrant part of the blues community in the East Bay," says Edward Chmelewski, president of San Francisco blues label Blind Pig Records. "He'll be missed."
Among the blues great's survivors are his wife, Beulah McCracklin, and two daughters, Linette Susan McCracklin and Patricia McCracklin Croner. Funeral arrangements are pending.
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