Nine O'clock Blues: Dr. Isaiah Ross
Given the nature of the street performer’s world, it’s not surprising that one man bands were common on the streets. In the ‘20s through the ‘50s most played in a style that grew out of the traditions of minstrelsy and medicine shows. One notable exception was Dr. Isaiah Ross.
He was part of a group of street performers that were a rare breed, one man bands who were Blues musicians first and foremost.
Dr. Ross was born on a hard scrabble farm in Tunica, Mississippi, in 1925. Part Native American, he came from a large family with parents who worked hard in the fields. While his father worked, Isaiah would sneak his father’s harmonica and he taught himself to play by the age of 9.
After one of his older sisters was married she bought him his own harmonica and he played anytime for anyone he could. He didn’t like hard work and, sick and tired of being told to put down the instrument and do his farm chores, he decided he wanted to be a musician when he grew up. He started playing with guitarist Wiley Galatin and by the time Ross was 18 he had picked up guitar. Years later he added drums and his one man band was complete.
Like many Blues artists, Dr. Isaiah Ross didn’t make a fulltime living in music until late in life. From 1943 until 1951 he was in the Army and later he moved to Flint, Michigan to work at General Motors.
It was in the Army the Ross got the nickname Doctor due to the fact that he had a large number of medical books that he carried with him. Whether Ross had any inclination toward becoming a Doctor or just wanted the information I have no idea and he is not known to have remarked about it.
Dr. Isaiah Ross was heavily inspired by Sonny Boy Williamson I, often playing at the same radio stations as Williamson. Ross’ developed a style every bit as vigorous as Sonny Boy. Combining that power and intensity with the multiple instruments of a one man band makes Dr. Isaiah Ross one of a kind. But he is anything but one faceted and many of his recorded tracks are solo vocal and harmonica, reflecting the early love of the Blues harp that first led Ross to be a musician. After coming to the notice of Blues fans in the mid 1960s Ross recorded and performed regularly until his death in 1993.
Dr. Ross is seen here in a dub from a VHS tape at 1984's National Downhome Blues Festival playing Sonny Boy Williamson's "Biscuit Baking Woman":
This week on the Nine O’clock Blues we’ll hear a couple of songs from Dr. Isaiah Ross’ 1965 LP Call the Doctor, recorded for Testament Records.
Also on this week: tracks by B. B. King, Magic Slim & the Teardrops, Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings and Albert Cummings.
Albert Cummings comes at the Blues from anything but a traditional angle. The Massachusetts native switched from guitar to banjo when he was 12 and got heavily into Bluegrass. He only returned to guitar and moved to the Blues when he was 19.
The change was inspired by hearing Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Now that is far more typical, many are playing Blues because of SRV. One fun note about Cummings is that he is an expert homebuilder and has won awards for his houses. Due to building his construction business, Albert Cummings only came to full time recording and touring when he was 27 years old in the mid-1990s.