Having played the heck out of an old 45 record of Elmore James when I was not yet a teenager, imagine the thrill when I had the chance to meet Elmore’s harmonica player.
In April 2016, when I was in St. Louis capturing interviews during the annual RPMDA convention, I found time to interview a few local industry veterans, such as guitar repair tech Jimmy Gravity and music retailer Michael Fazio. Thanks to our pal and the editor of Living Blues magazine, Brett Bonner, I was also connected with Arthur Lee Williams, who among others recorded with Elmore James.
Arthur Lee met me at his front door and said it was a perfect day to be outside. I quickly took the hint and set up the camera as he donned a bright red hat. He played and told stories that kept me smiling the entire interview and when it was done asked if I could help him with a few errands. He wasn’t driving at the time and needed to pay his electric bill in town. On the way home he asked for one more stop, the liquor store. We got to his house and toasted our great decision to complete that last errand and hung out for a bit. It was during this time he put on a brown cowboy hat and let me take a few selfies, my favorite is the one in which he was looking right at me. A second after that picture was taken he busted me up by saying I would look just like a blues musician if I only had a hat.
Arthur Lee was only five years old when his uncle brought over a harmonica for him as a gift. Arthur took to the harmonica right away and made his career playing it and singing the blues. While recording with Sonny Boy Williamson, Arthur learned to create new sounds as Sonny Boy did and to express himself by writing his own songs. Over the years Arthur performed and recorded with many of the top blues musicians including Elmore James and Boo Boo Davis. Arthur also appeared in print ads for Hohner Harmonicas and other musical products.
Playing the blues was not always enough to support his family so he took what jobs he could to make ends meet, including as a heavy equipment operator on a Mississippi plantation. After a decade without performing, Arthur Lee returned to music in 1990 and was welcomed back by club owner and record executives who knew Arthur Lee had a following. Among his noted recordings are Hey Boss Man (Phillips Records) as well as Mean Disposition (Black Magic label), Ain’t Goin’ Down (Fedora Records) and Midnight Blues (Rooster Blues) released in 2001.
I felt a real sense of pride documenting some of his history and often look back fondly on that sunny day in St. Louis when Arthur Lee Williams and I sat on his front porch and laughed.
Click here to watch Arthur Lee’s full NAMM Oral History interview.
Dan Del Fiorentino