Born in 1930 in Gadsden, Alabama, Jerry began playing his harp and singing along with jukebox records at his fathers barbecue stand, the Green Front Cafe. McCain began playing music semi-professionally in his teens. During the 1950s he gained celebrity status in the southern jukebox market with singles such as Wine-O-Wine, Stay Out of Automobiles, Courtin’ in a Cadillac and other jaunty pieces for the Trumpet and Excello labels.
Record collectors discovering southern downhome blues in the 1960s were especially excited by his coupling of the harmonica instrumental Steady and She’s Tough (1960), a sly, sinuous blues in the manner of Jimmy Reed. And not only record collectors: She’s Tough was covered, almost 20 years later, on the first album by the Texas band the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and recalled in the title of the group’s later album Tuff Enuff.
In the 1960s McCain gigged around Alabama and Georgia and made further recordings for Okeh and Jewel, but music could not support him and he worked as a bounty hunter. Welfare Cadillac Blues (1970), a response to an implicitly racist country song, put his name back on the jukeboxes, but soon afterwards his recording career faded, not to be fully revived until the late 1980s, when he signed with the soul label Ichiban and made albums such as Love Desperado and Struttin’ My Stuff. He had to wait longer than many of his contemporaries to be invited to Europe, but after his first trip in 1990 he was often booked for festivals and club engagements.
McCain never lacked self-belief. In his youth he drove round Gadsden in an old Ford truck with the titles from his first record painted on the side, and in later years his voicemail message ran: “You’ve reached the blues man Jerry ‘Boogie’ McCain, the baddest harmonica player in the world.” He bore a striking resemblance to Sammy Davis Jr, and dressed for the stage in black and bling, sometimes wearing a holstered gun.
He could play two harmonicas at once, one with his mouth, the other with his nose. So could the better-known Sonny Boy Williamson II, who said he invented the technique, but McCain always contested that. Less of a harmonica virtuoso than Williamson, he was happiest when playing medium-tempo instrumentals, such as Steady and Red Top, with a fat sound like that of a saxophone or, as on 728 Texas (the title was the address of Jewel Records), an accordion.
His last album, This Stuff Just Kills Me (2000), was his most elaborate. McCain produced more of his topical numbers, such as Ain’t No Use for Drug Abuse, and his producer Mike Vernon drew in collaborators such as the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Jimmie Vaughan, the rhythm section of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble, and Chuck Berry’s former pianist Johnnie Johnson. Unfortunately, soon afterwards the Jericho label went out of business and the album became, almost overnight, a collector’s item. It was a turn of events that McCain viewed philosophically, as he had learned to do after many years’ experience of double-dealing record companies and unreliable managers.
He continued to work on his home ground, and in 2007 he received an Alabama folk heritage award. In 2008 he remained at the height of his powers, constantly writing and delivering amazing live performances with the energy of a teenager. Since 2008 he had appeared several times at First Friday, a monthly Gadsden street festival. His wife and daughter predeceased him.
You can also see: Jerry “Boogie” McCain and Jerry ‘Boogie’ McCain on Last.fm.
Edited by In2TheBlues on 5 Aug 2013, 10:24
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