Wheatstraw was born William Bunch in Ripley, Tennessee but grew up in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, where his family relocated soon after his birth. Little is known of his early life, other than that he took up playing both the piano and guitar at a young age.
Bunch left Cotton Plant in 1927 and began living the life of an itinerant musician traveling throughout the Deep South. Like many African Americans of this time period, the great migration eventually drew his attention to the cities of the North. Places such as Chicago, Indianapolis and Detroit were favoured destinations, due to the wealth of employment in the factories located in these cities. St. Louis was another city that drew its share of uprooted individuals who sought a better life than that offered by the toil of sharecropping. It was in St. Louis that Bunch landed in 1929.
Having honed his musical talents while travelling, and influenced by the popularity of the Blues duet of pianist Leroy Carr and guitar player Scrapper Blackwell, Bunch found easy work in the clubs of both St. Louis and East St. Louis on the other side of the Mississippi River.
It was around this time Bunch decided to change his name to Peetie Wheatstraw. He also called himself “The Devil’s Son-in-Law” and this title is under his name starting with his earliest recordings.
Wheatstraw’s self-promotion swiftly paid off as he became a popular performer in East St. Louis, to the extent that he was asked to Chicago in 1930 to partake in recording sessions. He first entered the Vocalion Studios on August 13, 1930, and recorded a handful of numbers which included “Four O’Clock In The Morning” and “Tennessee Peaches Blues”. Over the following decade, he would make several such treks, recording over 160 sides for the Vocalion, Decca and Bluebird labels.
Wheatstraw was known for his laid-back approach and adept singing and songwriting, though his instrumental talents were average at best. His songwriting appealed to working class minorities, due to their nature of the content—he often wrote about social issues such as unemployment and public assistance. There were also pieces about the immoral ways of loose women, and true to his own self-publicity, death and the supernatural. Almost all of his songs included his trademark “Ooh, well well”, usually accentuated in the third verse, and this has been carried on by many subsequent Bluesmen, most noteworthy today being R.L. Burnside.
On his records Wheatstraw is occasionally heard playing guitar, but he usually took to the piano and required a guitarist to play with him—among his collaborators were Kokomo Arnold, Lonnie Johnson, Charlie Jordan, Charlie McCoy and Teddy Bunn, in addition to pianist Champion Jack Dupree. On some of his last dates, Peetie Wheatstraw recorded within a jazz inspired framework, collaborating with Lil Armstrong and trumpeter Jonah Jones.
Wheatstraw’s influence was enormous during the 1930s. Perhaps the most obvious example of Wheatstraw’s impact can be seen in the writings of Robert Johnson, often considered the most important Blues figure of the era. Many of Johnson’s own recordings were actually re-workings of other popular artists of the time, and he drew heavily from Wheatstraw’s repertoire.
Edited by Nagaremono on 23 May 2007, 15:16
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