When blues vocalist Larry “Big Twist” Nolan died of heart failure early in the morning of Wednesday, March 14, the blues world lost one of its most beloved, ebullient spirits. Locally we lost a good deal more; Twist was a uniquely homegrown product of southern Illinois, a source of regional pride for an entire generation of blues fans who either went to school or worked around the Carbondale area in the early and mid-1970s.
Like many bluesmen who seem to feel that a touch of mystery is essential, Twist was somewhat vague about where he was born, but sources at Alligator Records say it was Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1937. “He claimed to be a Hoosier at times,” says guitarist Pete Special, who first encountered the big blues shouter in 1970, performing on a stage protected by chicken wire in a tough little southern Illinois roadhouse called Lyin’ Sam’s.
At that time Twist was drumming and singing in a three-piece R & B band. He’d been living in Murphysboro, Illinois, for most of his life, and was just about the only black performer on the downstate roadhouse circuit. Special remembers that Twist sang a wide variety of songs but even then bent everything to his own style: a deep-chested roar in the tradition of Big Joe Turner and the other great blues shouters, laced with a good-humored rapport with the audience that served him well in various flatland venues. As a black man singing the blues for a predominantly country audience, Twist was an anomaly “in more ways than one,” Special recalls.
Nobody ever figured out why Twist had taken it upon himself to break into music on that circuit, but he’d established a considerable local reputation by the time Special caught up with him. At the time Special was hanging out around the Carbondale area with tenor saxophonist Terry Ogolini; they soon put together a rowdy little R & B band called Pontiac Jones, and seeing Twist was like the realization of a dream. “When we saw Twist we said, ‘My God, that’s the real thing! If we could only have a singer like that, we could make real music!’ He was everything we admired and looked up to; he had that magic.”
Hoping against hope, Special and Ogolini timidly suggested to Twist that he might like to jam with Pontiac Jones sometime; they were flabbergasted when he began showing up at various Carbondale clubs and sitting in with them. Apparently Twist was getting restless with the roadhouse circuit, sensing it was something of a dead end. The enthusiasm and lofty ambitions of these young musicians intrigued him, and to everyone’s delight, they found each other musically compatible. Within a year they were Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows.
That name was rooted in some important downstate blues history. The original Mellow Fellows, led by keyboardist Ronald West, had been the house band in the 50s at the New Orleans Club in Colp, Illinois, where big-name artists like Ike Turner, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and others stopped in on their way to Chicago. West was a good friend of Twist’s, and it seemed only natural to revive and carry on the name. As it happened, West and another original Mellow Fellow, vocalist Martin Allbritton, soon joined the new aggregation.
It didn’t take long for the band to start getting restless with the limited opportunities downstate Illinois had to offer. In Special’s words: “We literally outgrew the area in terms of what we felt we could do.” Chicago was the logical next step. Although Twist, a devoted family man, was initially hesitant to leave, the group decided to head north in the late 70s. Special remembers that they were “shocked” by their almost immediate success in Chicago; they played to packed houses, Flying Fish Records soon approached them with a contract, and before long they were a major blues attraction in Chicago and beyond. By the time they signed on with Alligator Records in 1982, they were among the top-ranked acts in blues.
In many ways, though, Twist never left home. His wife and children remained downstate, and Special recalls that anytime the band’s itinerary took them within a couple hundred miles of Illinois, “we might wake up in Murphysboro.” Although Twist’s music was slick and driving in the classic big-city style, his concerts often had the air of a small town, too; it was always Old Home Week for people who’d gotten their first taste of the blues years ago, hearing Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows in Carbondale. Many had been students at Southern Illinois University there, and his music–in a very real sense–was a kind of tribal drum that linked them to their past and to each other. It’s not surprising that his following was among the most loyal, close-knit, and affectionate of any in blues.
Twist had always been a big man, but after his kidneys failed and he went on dialysis about two and a half years ago, he began looking haggard and, after a while, emaciated. Longtime followers were shocked at his appearance toward the end, but his voice never seemed to falter, and he never even considered slowing down. His last gig was Saturday, March 10, in Aspen, Colorado.
Despite Twist’s success as a recording artist and performer, there’s insufficient money to pay the funeral expenses. Friends and admirers have organized a benefit concert for this Sunday, March 25, at 7:30 at B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera, 1124 W. Belmont. It will feature the Mellow Fellows, Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, and the Kinsey Report with Big Daddy Kinsey. Tickets are $12; for further information, call 525-8989.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin–Photo Reserve.