Blues Musician. Regarded as "The Father of Delta Blues". He was an inaugural inductee into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980. Patton was born near Edwards, Mississippi, of mixed African, Cherokee, and Caucasian descent. Around 1900 the family moved to the Dockery Plantation, a 10,000-acre cotton farm in Sunflower County known for the fair treatment of its workers, and this would be his home base most of his life. As a child he would sneak away to watch the sharecroppers' Saturday night dances, through which he fell under the spell of a mysterious old musician named Henry Sloan, his first teacher. Patton's father, a church elder, whipped him when he learned of the boy's fascination with "the devil's music", but later had a change of heart and bought him his first guitar. He took it with him into the fields where he was supposed to be working and was soon the main attraction at the Dockery dances. Physically slight in person (5'5" and 135 pounds), Patton was a larger-than-life performer whose snarling baritone voice could command the largest venues without amplification. He drove audiences wild with his violent polyrhythmic dance beats, stomping his feet while picking, sliding and slapping his guitar for half an hour at a stretch; then to lighten the mood he'd perform stunts such as playing the guitar behind his head or sticking it between his legs and pretending to ride it like a mule. As his notoriety spread through the Delta during the World War I era, he attracted a group of younger musicians that included his first great protégés, Willie Brown and Tommy Johnson. By the mid-1920s Patton was a star in Mississippi, and one of the few early bluesmen able to make a good living from his music. No more busking on street corners for him - he played scheduled gigs for white as well as black audiences, and supplemented this income by giving guitar lessons. He wore nice suits, drove a new car every year, and decorated his favorite guitar with gold coins. Otherwise he was tight with his money, using it to bankroll a personal independence enjoyed by few African-Americans in the South at that time. If he was an alcoholic, as is generally assumed, he didn't allow it to interfere with his business as a professional entertainer. Chasing women was his greatest weakness. He was married eight times and had innumerable flings before settling (more or less) with singer Bertha Lee in the 1930s. His exotic looks and charisma made him a magnet for the opposite sex and aroused the ire of their menfolk. This culminated in a 1929 incident where Patton was nearly killed outside a juke joint by a jealous husband who slashed his neck with a razor. Every now and then his conscience would overwhelm him and he would go up into the hills east of the Delta and preach the Bible, though these moods never lasted long. (A sample of his preaching can be heard in his 1929 recording "You're Gonna Need Somebody When You Die"). Patton began his recording career after learning of Tommy Johnson's hit single with "Big Road Blues" (1928), a song he had taught Johnson a decade earlier. He contacted Jackson, Mississippi talent scout H.C. Speir and was enthusiastically recommended to Paramount Records. The label considered Patton their greatest find since Blind Lemon Jefferson. He cut 42 issued sides for them between June of 1929 and the Summer of 1930, followed by 12 released songs for Vocalion Records in January and February 1934. The best of them include his signature hit "Pony Blues", the epic two-part "High Water Everywhere", "A Spoonful Blues", "Down the Dirt Road", "Banty Rooster Blues", "Prayer of Death", "Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues", "Shake It and Break It", and "Tom Rushen Blues". The dates of his discography show how close he came to never recording at all. The 1929 Wall Street Crash followed hard on his debut and the ensuing Depression virtually silenced the country blues market for a few years. (Paramount Records folded in 1932). When conditions had improved enough for Vocalion to summon Patton to their New York City studio, he was ailing from a chronic heart condition. He died just two months later, at his home in Indianola, Mississippi. In 1990, John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival fame bought a tombstone for Patton's unmarked grave at Holly Ridge Cemetery. Like many important artists Charley Patton straddled two creative eras. He was raised in the fading days of the American "songster" tradition and his live repertory encompassed folk, spirituals, cowboy songs, Tin Pan Alley, and anything else his audiences wanted to hear. He wrote songs about current events and some of his lyrics - the ones that can be deciphered through his often incomprehensible diction - have a satirical edge. It has been argued that had he lived a little longer he could have become a crossover folk star like Lead Belly. But it is for the blues that Patton is celebrated, and where he left his deepest mark. More than any single performer he defined the raw, intense sound of Delta Blues and either personally mentored or influenced all the subsequent greats of the genre. Son House, Howlin' Wolf, Big Joe Williams, Bukka White, Robert Johnson, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Elmore James are among those whose blues styles can be traced back to Patton. A remastered 2001 edition of his complete recordings, "Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues", won three Grammy Awards, including one for Best Historical Album.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards
Bertha Lee Pate Patton