As the jukebox king of downstate Decatur, Illinois, he would hand me piles of scratchy 45s too hacked up to be of any further use on the Seeburgs and Wurlitzers he serviced. At the age of four, with the unstinting encouragement of my mother (whose tastes ran more towards Louis Jordan and Les Paul), I was seduced by Lloyd Price, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Coasters, the Drifters, and Elvis Presley.
I would bring the precious records back home to Chicago (where I was born) and proceeded to spin them endlessly on my $29 record player, its leaden tonearm digging new gouges into the battered platters (I still can’t hear Bobby Darin’s “Mack The Knife” without anticipating the major skip marring my original EP).
My musical education picked up speed as I squandered my daily lunch money inside the myriad record stores surrounding Metro High School in the Loop, always choosing to explore the past rather than listen to the latest FM rock hits like my classmates. As my ears opened ever wider, I progressed from Chuck Berry, Ricky Nelson and Carl Perkins to the Clovers, Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner to B.B., Freddy and Albert King to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter. The melismatic intensity of soul music simultaneously invaded my expanding world: Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding—and of course, the mighty Motown roster (Junior Walker and Marvin Gaye were my initial favorites).
At Columbia College, I was convinced Chicago would open its collective civic arms to a new blues and soul deejay (from youth springs incredible naivete), so I majored in radio. I conducted my first interview in 1975 with Roy Montrell, a veteran New Orleans guitarist then touring as a sideman with Fats Domino, airing the results on the college in-house “radio station” (where it was probably ignored by a half-dozen groggy students in the campus cafeteria). There have been a few hundred more since then. From 1979 to 1981, I deejayed for real at WVVX-FM, an oldies station in suburban Highland Park, holding down the Saturday overnight shift (midnight-6 a.m.!).
Since I always possessed a natural ability to write, it made sense to cover blues for the campus newspaper. After graduation, I submitted a record review to the Illinois Entertainer, a free monthly music publication. They never ran it but soon allowed me the opportunity to write numerous blues features and reviews. I free-lanced for the Entertainer from 1978 to 1993; for those last four years I did a monthly blues column for them as well.
Also in 1978, I began writing record reviews and features for Living Blues magazine, then headquartered in Chicago. Things were different then—you did it strictly for the love of the music, since there was no payment involved. But the connection offered priceless experience and an opportunity to learn more. I began writing on a regular basis for Goldmine, a national music collector’s magazine, in 1981. (removed the rest of this graph, replaced by) These days, I write a regular CD reissue column for Blues Revue magazine as well as features and reviews, and contribute articles to several other publications, all on a free-lance basis.
I began writing liner notes for albums in 1985. Jimmy Johnson’s Bar Room Preacher on Alligator was the first to hit the shelves with my annotation, when vinyl was still the leading medium. I had found my niche. By the mid-‘90s, with the blessed advent of the compact disc, I was writing nearly as many liner notes as articles. From 1990 to 1997, I freelanced for the Chicago Tribune, writing a recurring blues column for the last three-and-a-half years I was there. When they abruptly canceled the column, I abruptly quit writing for the paper with no regrets whatsoever. Now they're bankrupt. (Hmmmm.)
Altogether, I’ve written hundreds of liner notes for major labels (Universal, Rhino, Sony/Legacy, Motown, EMI, The Right Stuff, PolyGram, Arista, BMG/Buddha, Virgin/The Right Stuff) and top independent firms (Bear Family, Shout! Factory, Sundazed, Fuel 2000, Collectors' Choice, Ace, Delmark, Jamie/Guyden, Great American Music, Brunswick, Airline, Collectables, Westside, Earwig, Blue Bella, Varese Sarabande, Empire Musicwerks) located both here and overseas. Reissues are now my primary focus. In addition to annotating blues, R&B, soul, rockabilly, and vintage rock discs, I’ve compiled or co-compiled CDs for Rhino, MCA, Fuel 2000, Virgin/The Right Stuff, Hip-O, Great American Music, Ace, and Varese Sarabande.
In 1998, I was nominated for a GRAMMY® in the Album Notes category for my contribution to Rhino’s boxed set Ray Charles Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection (my section paid tribute to his legendary sax section). In 2000, I received a Keepin’ the Blues Alive Award for journalism from the Blues Foundation in Memphis. And in November of 2001, Krause Publications released Motown: The Golden Years, my first full-length book, with candid color photos by esteemed former Motown promo guru Weldon A. McDougal III. Recently, I've co-written the liner notes for all of Hip-O Select's acclaimed The Complete Motown Singles CD boxed sets, as well as Bear Family's five-CD Hank Ballard & the Midnighters box Nothing But Good 1952-1962.
Thanks, Uncle Joe!