Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
It’s often possible to find a reason a musician ended up relegated to the margins of history—they might’ve been less commercial, less photogenic, or signed to less powerful labels than the top-shelf stars of their era. But none of these things was the case for pianist Willie Mabon. The man had hits, big label support, and a unique crossover style—plus he was as suave as they come.
Willie James Mabon was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on October 24, 1925, and followed his early love of blues and jazz to Chicago in 1942. Once here, he began piano lessons, influenced by Roosevelt Sykes and Big Maceo, but his career had to wait—once he was old enough, he was off serving in World War II as a marine. The war ended in time for Mabon to return home for his 20th birthday, and he started making connections in the local music scene.
In 1947 Mabon started the Blues Rockers to show off his piano and harmonica skills, playing with guitarists Lazy Bill Lucas and Earl Dranes, among others. The group had two 78s on the Aristocrat label (which later became Chess Records), both released in 1950. They also kept playing without Mabon after he started a solo career a couple years later.
At that point Mabon was managed by Chicago DJ and promoter Al Benson, who launched the Parrot Records label in 1952. Willie Mabon & His Combo debuted on wax late that year with the Parrot single “I Don’t Know” b/w “Worry Blues,” where Mabon’s wheezy harmonica, classy vocals, and boogie-woogie piano are joined by Ernest Cotton’s tenor sax, Bill Anderson’s bass, and Bill Stepney’s drums.
Based in part on a 1935 recording of “Strut That Thing” by Chicago boogie-woogie pianist Cripple Clarence Lofton (who received no royalties), “I Don’t Know” became a huge hit after Chess acquired the songs from Parrot. It reached number one on the Billboard R&B chart and stayed there for eight weeks—Chess’s biggest success until Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. “I Don’t Know” was also one of the first R&B smashes covered by a popular white singer, though Tennessee Ernie Ford’s sanitized version wasn’t nearly as successful. Mabon’s original crossed over to white audiences, and Alan Freed played it on his early Cleveland rock radio broadcasts. Freed, the DJ who popularized the term “rock ‘n’ roll,” famously refused to air white cover versions of Black R&B numbers.
Mabon was prolific in 1953. He released the Apollo single “Bogey Man” b/w “It Keeps Raining” (billed to “Big Willie” and recorded in 1949) as well as two more records by his combo—the first, the catchy, slow-burning “I’m Mad,” also hit number one on the Billboard R&B chart, despite its murderous lyrics (“Asked my baby could she stand to see me cry / She said yes, I could stand to see you buried alive / I’m mad”). Mabon maintained a debonair persona and sang in a smooth, ingratiating voice, but he seemed partial to songs about bitterness and revenge—he tried another one on his second 1953 single, “You’re a Fool” b/w “Monday Woman,” but it didn’t catch on.
In 1954, Mabon had his last big chart success with the Mel London song “Poison Ivy” (no relation to the Leiber and Stoller hit for the Coasters), cracking the R&B Billboard top ten with a combination of urbane, jazzy vocals and a lush full-band recording. None of his subsequent Chess singles did that well, unfortunately, not even the first recording of the Willie Dixon tune “The Seventh Son”—though it would later become a classic, covered by Moses Allison, Johnny Rivers, Bill Haley & His Comets, George Thorogood, Sting, and many others.
Mabon split with Chess over a royalty dispute in 1956, working instead with smaller labels such as Mad, Solar, and Federal (who released the hep 1962 cut “Got to Have Some,” which racked up decent local sales). He had an impressive early-60s run with USA Records, often with Willie Dixon producing, but his career was slowing down. After a few quiet years, he returned to Chess (via its Checker imprint) for a lone 1969 single.
Mabon moved to Paris in 1972, the same year he remade “Poison Ivy” for the Blues on Blues label run by Chicago bassist and producer Al Smith. American blues music had exploded in popularity in Europe, and Mabon benefited from that surge in interest. He swiftly released his first proper LPs, both recorded in ’72: Willie Mabon Is Back Funky for Blues on Blues (cut in Chicago with a band that included guitarist Mighty Joe Young) and Cold Chilly Woman for French label Black & Blue.
As part of the American Blues Legends package assembled by promoter Jim Simpson, Mabon toured and recorded in Europe, and in 1973 he released the album The Comeback (recorded in London) for Simpson’s label Big Bear Records. He also performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1973 and 1978. Mabon continued to record throughout the 70s, in France and Chicago, with legends such as Jimmy Rogers, Koko Taylor, Otis Rush, and Sunnyland Slim; he also worked with French blues artists, including fellow pianist Jean-Paul Amouroux.
Mabon’s early singles and collaborations were resurfacing frequently on archival releases at the time of his death in Paris on April 19, 1985, after a long illness. His music continued to appear on compilations well into the 2010s, and it doubtless will in this new decade as well. These reissues add some much-deserved shine to Mabon’s name. Though he was eclipsed by later Chess Records stars—Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter—he was arguably just as important to that historic Chicago label. He gave Chess one of its greatest and earliest hits—and one of its greatest talents. v
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.