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August 2021

Lonnie Pitchford
All Around Man
Rooster Blues Records

Lonie Pitchford

Iím not sure when I first heard Lonnie Pitchford play. I know I read about him in one of the first issues of Living Blues that I read, but I didnít really comprehend what he was capable of. The first time I heard him play was on the soundtrack of Deep Blues in the early í90s. If youíve never heard that album, you need to add it to your must-hear list. He was also on a Robert Johnson tribute album released by Columbia around the same time period. I really liked what I heard, and when I actually saw the Deep Blues documentary, I was amazed by his playing on the guitar and the diddley bow.

Pitchford hailed from Lexington, Mississippi, which is about an hour northwest of Jackson. He was a bit of a musical prodigy, but most importantly he was a protťgť of Robert Lockwood, Jr. (Robert Johnsonís stepson), who taught Pitchford how to play guitar in Johnsonís style. Lockwood was one of the few guitarists who learned directly from Johnson. Pitchford also learned from others like Johnny Shines and Eugene Powell.

Though he learned from those masters, Pitchford also was talented enough to add his own sound into the mix, and his energy and enthusiasm was palpable when one heard and watched him play. Though I was able to see and hear him play on those few tracks and the occasional documentary on blues music presented on Public Television, usually during Black History Month, I really think he would have certainly benefitted from additional recordings, especially during the renewed interested in Robert Johnsonís music stimulated by the re-release of his recordings in the early í90s. But Pitchford was unable to catch the break he needed. His performances were mostly limited to the southeastern part of the country, which limited his exposure to a wider audience.

Fortunately, in 1994, Pitchford was able to release an album on Rooster Blues Records called All Around Man. When I heard about it, I actually drove to Clarksdale (a three hour trip) to Rooster Blues founder Jim OíNealís Stackhouse Records store. It was hard to find locally and I didnít want to wait the 4-6 weeks for my copy to come in the mail, plus I always found plenty of other neat blues-related albums, books, and magazines while I was there. I picked up a cassette copy (my preferred format at the time).

The album title was pretty appropriate for Lonnie Pitchford. He was a skilled carpenter as well as a skilled musician, and the tools of both trades were featured prominently on the album cover. The album itself reflected Pitchfordís ďall aroundĒ abilities. There are acoustic blues (via guitar and diddley bow), some electric blues of the Hill Country, urban varieties (with funk mixed in), and even a bit of jazz.

Pitchford covers songs from a host of composers, too --- Johnson, Lockwood, Bo Carter, Willie Dixon, Donny Hathaway, Bobby Hebb, Muddy Waters, and even a song by Elmore James, recorded only as an instrumental by James. He plays piano on one track as well, though his guitar work is the most compelling aspect of his abilities. His vocals are also a treat, a nice, warm style that fits well with all of the selections.

One of the things I remember about the reviews of All Around Man when it was initially released was that it was too busy, with too many tracks (19) and would have benefitted from staying in one particular style. Iíve never understood that view of an artist; if they can play in a variety of blues styles, then let them play. To these ears, it was just fine. It seemed to me at the time that Lonnie Pitchford had a lot to say and was making up for lost time and maybe a few previously missed opportunities.

In retrospect, most critics probably have a different opinion because at the time no one knew that Pitchford would be dead in just four years at the age of 43 from complications from AIDS. Pitchford lived a pretty hard life, similar to many of his influences, and suffered the consequences of that lifestyle at a far too young age. Heís buried in Holmes County, Mississippi at the Newport Baptist Church near Ebenezer, just a few feet from the grave of Elmore James. His headstone features a diddley bow on the right side of the marker.

I recently tracked down a CD copy of All Around Man after many years of searching for a price that wouldnít force me to refinance my house. True to form, once I located my copy, it seems like many other copies became available for a very reasonable price. If youíre not familiar with this great artist, this album truly captures the width and breadth of his talents and can be tracked pretty easily now.

--- Graham Clarke

 

 

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