Jimmy T99 Nelson

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Listen to Jimmy T-99 Nelson on Free & Easy Mind

Get the Butter From the Duck: A Session with Blues Legend Jimmy "T-99" Nelson
Originally published in Living Blues

When Jimmy Nelson settled in Houston over 40 years ago, he was already a name to reckon with on the blues circuit, having scored top ten success on the R&B charts in 1951 with his signature song, "T-99 Blues," followed by "Meet Me with Your Black Dress On," one of the sexiest records ever made. He was not only a great singer, with a voice to rival his mentor, Big Joe Turner, he had also established himself as a prolific writer of classic blues numbers (with "songwriting skills second to none," according to Ray Topping).

Nelson's admirers have long included some of the biggest names in the business. One of T-99's strongest fans from the outset was his Modern/RPM label-mate B. B. King, who told him, "If it hadn't been for singers like you, I would not have gotten in the business."

A vocalist with great power and tremendous emotional depth (his voice is widely regarded as one of the great blues instruments), Nelson has recorded most often in the classic R&B combo format -- piano, acoustic bass, guitar, drums, and horn section. As with the legendary Joe Turner/Pete Johnson collaborations, the piano or the sax is usually spotlighted, with the guitar serving as part of the ensemble rather than dominating.

Born in Philadelphia on April 7, 1928, and raised there, Jimmy got restless as a young man and actually did something many blues artists only sing about -- he hopped a freight train heading west, ending up in the Bay Area, which was jumping with post-war rhythm and blues music. There he met Big Joe Turner (at the Trapper's Inn in Oakland) and rubbed shoulders with Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong at the Long Bar Showboat in San Francisco. Nelson signed with Modern/RPM in June 1951, and cut his first sides (including "T-99 Blues") after hours in the Clef Club, backed by the Peter Rabbit Trio.

With the breakout success of "T-99 Blues," Jimmy was booked by the Ben Waller Agency out of Los Angeles and toured with the biggest names in the business. He more than held his own, from Fillmore Street in San Francisco to the Apollo Theatre in Harlem -- and the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., where he first teamed up with Houston sax legend and longtime friend Arnett Cobb. In 1952, back in the Bay Area, Nelson recorded his second major hit, "Meet Me With Your Black Dress On." This time the session was held in a bathroom, "for the acoustics." More touring followed, leading to a full season in New Orleans at the Dew Drop Inn and tours of Mississippi and Tennessee with Lowell Fulson and Roy Brown. He decided to put down roots in Houston in 1955.

Nelson's first hit after relocating to Houston was "Free and Easy Mind," a regional best seller for Chess. Nelson had chosen to work with producer Steve Poncio rather than the better-known Don Robey, because although Robey ruled the Duke and Peacock empire, "I had heard these stories from Little Richard and Big Mama Thornton about not getting paid," says Nelson. In recent years, basking in a world-wide revival of interest in Texas music and in his own brand of the blues, T-99 has made fabulously successful appearances at festivals in Europe, Chicago, and Long Beach, California.

A comeback album is already in the pipeline with Florida-based producer/engineer/guitarist Port Barlow, whose last project was a highly-successful album for native Houstonian Floyd Dixon, Wake Up and Live! on Alligator. T-99 recorded several tracks for the new album at Sound Arts in Houston. Barlow and legendary bandleader/guitarist Milton Hopkins (formerly with B.B. King, Dinah Washington, and Little Richard) are helping Nelson recreate that classic late-forties urban blues sound. Everything is live and real-time, with an acoustic bass, a grand piano, three horns, and vintage tube pre-amps.

Nelson's unique way with words is evident at the Houston session, as he cajoles and encourages musicians to give him the sound and feel he wants. "Bass man!" he calls from the vocal booth. "Why don't you just sit down and relax, baby? Just sit down on the stool - there you go, there you go - now, cross your legs and just play the blues for Jimmy. All right? Huh? Are we together? You're a sweet man, you know that? You in there! Come on with it!"

Nelson is irresistible. By this time the grin on bassist Johnny Falk's face is ear-to-ear. During a guitar solo by Hopkins -- a one-take thing of beauty -- Nelson cries out: "Oh, yes - get the butter from the duck!" The newly-completed album, recorded in California as well as in Houston, demonstrates that Nelson continues to be a strong and prolific songwriter. His songs have always been known for developing their subjects in depth. "I like for my songs to have seven verses," he says. Whether he sings about "getting down on a turkey leg bone" or meeting that woman "with the short, tight, black dress on," he sings with feeling, wit, and sophisticated humor.

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