There are two legendary books on the music scene in Chicago. Chicago Breakdown by Mike Rowe describes the blues perspective while Chicago Soul by Robert Pruter describes the soul and R & B perspective. One might think that these are two different worlds, when in fact it is the same thing, but in two consecutive time and development eras. It’s the 60’s which is the white spot. Rowe stop too early and Pruter do well categorical borderlines, which excludes more than clarifies. There is a troublesome void as a result and where many fine artists disappeared for us who are not living in Chicago or just stuck to Delmark and Alligator.
Jefferson has early interest in this particular period in Chicago during the 60s which might be called the great transition, when the blues from its rural delta background evolved into a more urban and gospel influenced style. We have got the development described in interviews with Denise LaSalle, Lee Shot Williams, Ricky Allen, Jimmy Johnson and others, ie, those who then stood for the new. Here we introduce one more artist of the same generation, namely Cicero Blake. He has never had a hit list, yet he has been so successful that he has always been able to record ever since 1962 until now in the style known as soul blues. He has followed the companies active in the style; Susie Q, Ace, Mardi Gras and now CDS. He has a classic in his belt with the song Dip My Dipper of 1985, a precursor to today’s uncensored and very popular filthy language.
Interview of this long established soul/blues artist by Mike Stephenson took place in Chicago at Wallace’s Catfish Corner restaurant on the West side of the city in June 2009. Many thanks go to Jim Feeney for arranging the interview for Blues & Rhythm.
Interview with Cicero Blake
I was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1938 some seventy three years ago and I came to Chicago in 1952 as a teenager, and as a matter of fact it’s ironic, where we are sitting at right now I grew up right down the street across Washington there. It used to be a drug store and me and my girlfriend who I met in high school used to come here and get milk shakes and stuff like that. Before I came to Chicago, when I was in Jackson, I used to sing in Grammar school. We used to have a programme every Friday and all the kids that had a talent used to take part, and I used to participate by getting up and singing.
At the time I did nothing but country and western music because back then basically all you could listen to in a lot of cases was country and western, and I was always impressed by the Grand Ol’ Opry people like Little Jimmy Dickens, Hank Williams, all of them and I got stuck on that and that’s what I would do is a country and western song. I wasn’t into gospel at that time, but a little later on I got with a gospel group. I went with them and I wasn’t nothing but a little shorty and the group was called The True Believers.
When I moved to Chicago I formed a doo wop group at Marshall High School and that was basically the beginning of me doing something different. I left Jackson to come to Chicago because my mother and father lived here and I was actually raised by my grandmother who lived in Jackson. Once I became fifteen I wanted to join my parents, because to that point there had never been a close relationship between us. I used to walk from down the street there to Fifth Avenue and a street car ran through there called the Big Red and I would jump on the street car and ride down to Marshall High School, and by the time the conductor caught up with me it was time for me to jump off. They were the good old days. I have one sister and she passed away in 1995. As a matter of fact that was a kinda difficult period for me as my sister passed, and my mother in ’97, and my father died in ’99, and then 2001 I was diagnosed with colon cancer. So everything was like two years apart.
Photo: Paul Harris
That doo wop group I formed at Marshall High was first called the Goldentones and then I left the group and went into the air force, and then the name was changed because Herb Kent started managing the group and they changed the name to The Kool Gents. I still continued to perform when I went into the service. I was with what they called the Tops And Blue Revue where we would travel all around Europe playing service and officers’ clubs and stuff like that. It was then that I started to become a solo artist, and when I got out I came back to Chicago. I tried to get back into the group singing thing but it didn’t work for me. It was then that I started to become a solo artist, this was in 1958 when I got out of the air force. I never did any recordings with that doo wop group.
In 1958 I started going around to the different clubs in Chicago and sitting in with different bands. The one I worked most with was led by a guy named Sam Chatman. I was singing regular stuff back then, stuff like Sam Cooke, Chuck Jackson, what we call soul singing, so basically that is what I started doing. Down the street here there was a big skating rink and they used to have shows come in there, and they had Little Willie John with the Johnnie Otis band and I was there with my girlfriend and I said that I was going to ask them if I could sing, and I went up to Johnnie Otis and asked him if I could sing and he was fine with that, and he asked me what I wanted to sing. But at that time I only knew one blues type song, and that was by Ivory Jo Hunter called ‘I Need You So’ and that was the first appearance I ever did in the city of Chicago.
I met a promoter here by the name of Leo Austell and I did some early recordings on his label. He had a label called Renee and Brain Storm but I was based on the Renee label along with Betty Everett before she went to Vee Jay, The Chi Lites and the Emotions we all had the same manager. Most of my early stuff in the sixties was done with Leo Austell. I did ‘Sad Feeling’, ‘Should I Go’, ‘Could This Be Love’ and ‘Here Comes The Heartaches’. I didn’t wrote most of those tunes but I did write ‘Here Comes The Heartaches’, and then I wrote ‘See What Tomorrow Brings’. As a matter of fact I’m thinking of re recording ‘Here Comes The Heartaches’ soon as it was a good song for me. It was on the Tower label, which was a subsidiary of Capita at that time. They would record you, and the promoter would take it and lease it to other companies, so whatever they had put into the session they would get back, but the artist got nothing.
These recordings were done in Chicago and they came out on 45s and they did well locally. I used to record all the time at Universal. The song ‘Sad Feeling’ did pretty good for me outside of Chicago, and that song was written by Barrett Strong. As a matter of fact I recorded two of his songs, the other being ‘You Gonna Be Sorry’ I think in about 1964. He did some things for Motown. Some of the musicians on those sessions was Willie Henderson, Charles Handley, Tom Tom, they all helped to arrange my stuff. I wasn’t working a whole lot in music at that time. I was trying to combine being a family man and an entertainer so therefore I had to get me a job to support my family. I recorded my first record in 1962 and that came out on the Success label out of Des Moines, Iowa.
I was with Leo Austell at that time and a guy by the name of Bill Laskey picked it up and put it on Success, that was ‘Should I Go’ and on that session Lefty Dizz and his band played on there. In 1967 I recorded for Brunswick ‘You Got Me Walking’ and “A Woman Needs To Be Loved’. See, Tyrone Davis recorded ‘A Woman Needs To Be Loved’ and at the time Brunswick thought that would be the hit side of the record but then I think a disc jockey out of Houston Texas, he flipped it and started playing ‘Can I Change My Mind’ and that hit big so Brunswick thought ‘A Woman Needs To Be Loved’ was still a good song and they asked me to record it.
(Photo: Tommy Löfgren)
At this time I was singing in the clubs and at the time I had the type of job in that what I would do was to work a three to eleven shift, so when I got off from work I still had plenty of time to get to the clubs because at that time the clubs didn’t close until four in the morning. Some of the clubs I played was The Trocadera, The Persian Ballroom, The Savoy Ballroom. At that time there were lots of clubs and there was no problem in finding a gig because you could book into social clubs. There were lots of them at the time, and they would have affairs and you could book two of them in one night, you’d do one and rush to the other. To me that was the fun days. The first gig I played and got paid for was right across the street at the Fifth Avenue Ballroom. They had Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and lots of the blues cats there.
Back then I was hanging out with Tyrone Davis and others and I used to go to the clubs and watch Tyrone Davis perform. They had a thing with Tyrone Davis, Harold Burrage and Otis Clay and I used to go into the clubs and watch them, but at that time they didn’t know me, but at that time I was travelling all over the country with Sonny Thompson’s band. I was with Sonny Thompson for about four years touring the country, but the local Chicago cats were not aware of this. I was like low key. I never got excited about what I was doing like ‘Hey, I’m Cicero Blake, look at me.’ I never had that attitude.
When I would go out I would find me a seat and enjoy what was going on in the club. If there was somebody that knew me and recognised me that was fine I would keep myself to myself and that’s the way I have always been. I was told a lot of times that I don’t act like an entertainer and I used to say what is an entertainer supposed to act like. Some entertainers when they got big used to not allow people to speak to them because they thought they were so big, but I never felt that way because I used to look at it like this, as how could I act that way towards the public as they are the ones that are feeding me and clothing me and my children and paying my rent, so how can I act funny with them. That’s the way I have always been. I have never considered myself as a star. Cicero Blake is just Cicero Blake.
When I was with Sonny Thompson and on the road with him we had a package of artists. We did things with James Brown, Hank Ballard, Chuck Jackson, Dee Clark, some of everybody. What would happen is that we would tour and Sonny had the band and so we all worked together. The tours took us to the Apollo Theatre, The Howard Theatre, The Royal, The Uptown, we did all of that. The majority of the musicians in Sonny’s band was from Chicago, and Sonny had a station wagon and the other musicians had cars to get to the gigs, and that’s what I would do with a couple of the guys in the band riding with me, and we would all meet up at the gig. We never had a big tour bus. I was working a day job at this time also, for a health care company, and I would accumulate leave time and when I had to travel and be gone for a few days I would use up the leave time.
My first 45 was ‘Don’t Do This To Me’ which was on Success and the first album I did was called ‘Too Hip To Be Happy’ which had ‘Dip My Dipper’ and I covered a Gladys Knight And The Pips song ‘Use My Imagination’, I did Albert King’s ‘Oh Pretty Woman’, I did a tune called ‘School Of Life’ that was recorded by Tommy Tate. All of that was on Valley Vue in about 1988, and it was recorded here in Chicago. Bob Jones had written most of all of my material. It seemed that both he and I had the right combination to hook up, and most of the songs that have been successful for me are ones that Bob wrote. The follow up album called ‘Just One Of Those Things’ on Valley Vue, which I think came out in 1993 and Bob wrote just about every song on that CD. I covered two songs Albert King’s ‘Laundromat Blues’ and ‘As The Years Go Passing’ and most everything else on there was original from Bob Jones. That was recorded in Chicago as well, at Paul Serrano’s studio. ‘Dip My Dipper’ really broke it open for me and put me out there and that made me a bad guy. That song is known around the world the only problem with it was a lot of the radio stations would not touch it and play it as they said it was too suggestive, but I can’t see that. The only thing I can think is that there is a lot of guilty people out there and they didn’t want to hear it. Now it’s something different on the radio stations and it makes that number sound like a gospel thing. That number led to a lot of work for me all over the country especially down south.
At the time I had a band called Machine Company, and Ronnie Hicks he put all that music together for the Valley Vue CDs and Bob Jones supervised it. The only thing that was wrong is that Valley Vue did not promote the CDs. Hillery Johnson, who I had known for years, was at Valley Vue and what happened, I met a promoter from Ace Records, Johnny Vincent’s label down in Jackson, his name was Xavier and he went to Valley Vue to be the promotion man for that southern area and he did a great job for me. Meanwhile Hillery Johnson had hired a guy named Stan Layton in charge of promotion and he came from companies like MCA, so what I was doing was brand new to Stan as he wasn’t used to promoting that kind of stuff, so his concept was kinda messed up. He didn’t want to sell to the ma and pa stores he wanted bigger accounts like Best Buy stuff but the record was strictly a ma and pa type record. Now they may not create a big order at one time but they was consistent at ordering 25 or 30 CDs at a time, but that wasn’t Stan’s thing. Then he wanted Xavier to report every Monday but Xavier felt that he shouldn’t do that if he didn’t have anything to report, so Stan didn’t like that and he got rid of Xavier. Stan knew nothing about promoting that type of record. Me and Hillery are still friends but that turned me a little sour as I knew that the ‘To Hip To Be Happy’ CD was going to be to biggest one of my career.
A few years later I did connect with Johnny Vincent. He had always treated me like I was one of his artists and he was the best guy in the record business that I have ever met because Johnny looked out for his artists. I could get most everything I wanted from him. So I ended up recording for him. I did ‘Wives Night Out’ and ‘Stand By Me’ CD I recorded both of those albums in his studio in Mississippi. ‘Wives Night Out’ did ok but I think we had more success with ‘Stand By Me’. When Johnny went out of business, Malaco than picked both of the albums up and that helped them sell and they got better distribution. On the ‘Stand By Me’ album I had numbers on there written by both Bob Jones like ‘I Got To Talk To Your Man’ and ‘Somebody Is Telling Our Business’, and Ronnie Lovejoy, ‘Great Pretender’ and ‘This Time Around’. Both albums led to more work for me down south, but before those albums came out I was working a lot anyway.
That song ‘I’m Into Something’ did good for me before those albums came out. I then recorded ‘Ain’t Nothing Wrong’ album on the Mardis Gras label. I did that for a guy named Senator Jones who worked for Mardis Gras. I have just recorded another CD called ‘It’s You I Need’ with Senator Jones and just after that he died. I recorded some of those CDs at Senator Jones’ house, he had a studio there. At the same time Sir Charles Jones has a set up in his house, so we finished the ‘Ain’t Nothing Wrong’ CD at his place. On the ‘It’s You I Need’ CD it says that all the numbers were written by Bob Jones, but that is a mistake. That number was written by James Griffin out of Mississippi, but when they did the label they put Bob down as the writer and there was another guy from Chicago that wrote some of the other stuff on the CD so it was a misprint. Bob had about three songs on that CD. Matter of fact I’m working on a new CD and I’m thinking of going to Houston to record it for CDS Records, that’s the label Nellie ‘Tiger’ Travis is recording for.
The label has recorded Stan Mosley and he now has a hit record with them. They are able to get good radio airplay. We’ve got the material all ready for the release and we are thinking of re releasing some of the stuff from the ‘Just One Of Those Things’ CD, because there was so much good stuff on that CD but it never got exposed. The Grapevine label put out a CD of all my old 45s called ‘Here Come The Heartaches’ from the sixties up to the seventies. I agreed to that. They came to Chicago and I met them and we worked out a deal for that CD. I thought that I ain’t made me no money from them recordings over the years so lets go with this deal, but I heard the label went under. The bootleggers are a real problem so what I do is copy some of my old records and sell them and I think why can’t I bootleg myself? At least I get some money from it.
I had a real bad traffic accident in 2004 when I had to have both of my hips replaced and that was rough. I was a passenger in the car, and the guy that was driving he stayed in the hospital about three days and I was there five months. I am still waiting on surgery on one of my legs. They are going to have to replace a pin in there and this has been holding me up recording wise. We are planning on doing a benefit thing soon for the band of Koko Taylor who were also badly hurt in a road accident. It’s going to be at the Harold Washington Theatre here in Chicago. Like I was saying, since 2001 I’ve had it tough. I had colon cancer and had surgery and chemo and in 2003. There was signs that it had shown up on my liver so I had to go in and have to remove some of that and have chemo and all that, and then in 2004 I had the accident. I guess there must be a reason why I was able to survive all this. There have been other artists who have had cancer since I had it and they have gone. I have been through all of this but my name is still there and I’ve never been forgotten. I was at the Chicago Blues Festival last year with Koko Taylor and Sugar Pie Desanto. I worked with the band that Willie Henderson had put together.
I still live in Chicago but further north in the city than when I first came here. My real name is my name. I am a junior, my dad’s name was Cicero and it’s just by chance that there is a street and a city named that too. People think that I used the name Cicero because of the same named area here in Chicago, but Cicero is my real name.