The blues community is mourning the passing of bluesman Jimmy McCracklin, who diedThursday, Dec. 20, at Creekside Health Center in San Pablo. The prolific singer, pianist and songwriter, a longtime Richmond resident, was 91.
“He had a style that was completely his own,” singer-guitarist Sonny Rhodes said of his late friend. “It was a style that people tried to imitate, but they couldn’t even come close.”
“He was such a persuasive singer in the way he put his lyrics across,” commented Mark Naftalin, a pianist and promoter who had presented McCracklin at the Monterey Jazz Festival and Marin County Blues Festival, among other venues. “He was a real stylist.”
“A song is like a conversation, and sometimes people don’t wanna hear your conversation, but his voice would draw you in,” stated singer-guitarist Joe Louis Walker. “He just really knew how to push the punch line.”
McCracklin’s recording career spanned the years 1945 to 2010 and took him from the Club Savoy in North Richmond to the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He had been recording for over a decade when he scored his first national hit, “The Walk,” in 1958. He performed the song on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” that year, making him one of the first African-American artists, if not the first, to appear on the popular program.
His other hits included “Just Got to Know,” “Shame, Shame, Shame,” “Every Night, Every Day,” “Think” and “My Answer,” all of which he composed. He also wrote “Tramp,” a hit for his friend Lowell Fulson in 1967, again for Otis Redding and Carla Thomas later that year and for the hip-hop trio Salt-N-Pepa in 1987.
McCracklin was born James David Walker on Aug. 13, 1921, in Helena, Arkansas. He moved to St. Louis at age 9 and soon fell under the musical spell of Walter Davis, a friend of his father’s and one of the most popular blues singers, pianists and songwriters of the 1930s. Memphis Slim would become another important influence on McCracklin’s style.
After graduating from high school in St. Louis, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Because he was under 18, his mother had to sign for him to join. She had taught him to cook, and he worked in that capacity, as well as took up boxing, while in the service.
Following World War II, he divided his time between singing and boxing in Southern California before moving to Richmond in 1947. From the late ‘40s to the early ‘60s, he frequently recorded for Oakland producer Bob Geddins. During the ‘50s, McCracklin and his band, the Blues Blasters, often toured the country backing up such blues stars as Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Percy Mayfield and Joe Turner.
McCracklin was one of the greatest blues songwriters of all time, in a league with such other giants as Mayfield, Willie Dixon and the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. His tunes have been recorded by the Beatles, Los Lobos, Steve Miller and numerous others.
“He was so true about everything he wrote,” Rhodes noted. “You could look around and find these things in everyday life”
“He plays good and he sings good – and he writes better,” B.B. King said in “Jimmy Sings the Blues,” a 14-minute Bancroft Library oral history project documentary that can be viewed on YouTube.
“He’s just one of my favorite songwriters,” Bonnie Raitt said in the film.
McCracklin is survived by his daughter Linette Susan McCracklin and several stepchildren and by his grandchildren Jimmy and Sarah Busby. Funeral arrangements are pending.