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Roosevelt Sykes Put The ‘Blue’ In The Blues

Original Blues Classics

If you think the Blues world consists of tortured men and women crying their hearts out over lost loves and wasted lives, you need to check out Roosevelt Sykes. He was a cigar chomping, rollicking mountain of good natured, good timing, fun loving entertainment. And he often needed a parental warning.

Elmar, Arkansas-born barrelhouse pianist and vocalist Roosevelt Sykes was known as “The Honeydripper.” He was also known for ‘working blue.’ Don’t know what that means?

In the 1940s and 1950s strip joints would bathe strippers in blue light when they got to the raciest part of their act. That is why we use terms like ‘blue humor’ and ‘working blue.’

Sykes was born in 1906 and was still playing in the 1970s after starting his career in the immediate post World War One era. It was at age 15 that Roosevelt set out on the road playing a circuit that concentrated on sawmill, turpentine and levee camps that had all male populations and so it should be no surprise that Sykes delighted in hilariously risqué lyrics laced with double-entendre gems.

After he started recording for Okeh Records in 1929, racy lyrics remained a frequent part of Roosevelt’s repertoire.

Okeh was one of the “race records” labels, aimed at an all African-American audience. Because of the racist attitudes of the time, combined with White exploitation of minorities, race records labels could and did push the limits that were strongly maintained in main stream entertainment.

Classics of Roosevelt Sykes boundary pushing double-entendre were "Dirty Mother for You," "Ice Cream Freezer," and "Peeping Tom." But he was also known for writing some other, more acceptable Blues classics like “Night Time is the Right Time,” “44 Blues,” and “Driving Wheel.”

Sykes spent the immediate post World War Two era playing the Chicago clubs, but as Electric Blues took over more and more, Sykes career slowed down and he spent the 1960s recording for labels like Delmark and Folkways that were hurrying to document a fading Blues past.

Roosevelt Sykes lived out his final years in New Orleans with occasional forays out to play in small clubs around the country. He died after a heart attack in 1983 and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1999.

Blind Pig records recently released a live recording that Roosevelt Sykes did in 1977, appropriately, at the Blind Pig Café in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Enjoy a track from that recording, called Roosevelt Sykes, The Original Honeydripper, this week on The Nine O’clock Blues.

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