21 February 1903
Darlington County, South Carolina, United States
7 October 1962 (aged 59)
Francis Hillman "Scrapper" Blackwell (February 21, 1903 – October 7, 1962) was an American blues guitarist and singer, best known as half of the guitar-piano duo Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell, he formed with Leroy Carr, in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He was an acoustic single-note picker in the Chicago blues and Piedmont blues styles. Some critics have noted that he veered towards jazz.
Blackwell was born in Syracuse, South Carolina, one of sixteen children of Payton and Elizabeth Blackwell. He was part Cherokee. He grew up and spent most of his life in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was given the nickname "Scrapper" by his grandmother, because of his fiery nature. His father played the fiddle, but Blackwell was a self-taught guitarist, building his first guitar out of a cigar box, wood and wire. He also learned to play the piano, occasionally performing professionally. By his teens, Blackwell was a part-time musician, traveling as far as Chicago. He was known for being withdrawn and hard to work with, but he established a rapport with the pianist Leroy Carr, whom he met in Indianapolis in the mid-1920s, and they had a productive working relationship. Carr convinced Blackwell to record with him for Vocalion Records in 1928; the result was "How Long, How Long Blues", the biggest blues hit of that year.
Blackwell also made solo recordings for Vocalion, including "Kokomo Blues", which was transformed into "Old Kokomo Blues" by Kokomo Arnold and later reworked as "Sweet Home Chicago" by Robert Johnson. Blackwell and Carr toured throughout the American Midwest and South between 1928 and 1935 as stars of the blues circuit, recording over 100 sides. "Prison Bound Blues" (1928), "Mean Mistreater Mama" (1934), and "Blues Before Sunrise" (1934) were popular tracks.
Blackwell made several solo excursions. A 1931 visit to Richmond, Indiana, to record at Gennett studios is notable. Blackwell was dissatisfied with the lack of credit given his contributions with Carr; the situation was remedied by Vocalion's Mayo Williams after his 1931 breakaway: in all future recordings, Blackwell and Carr received equal songwriting credits and equal status in recording contracts. Blackwell's last recording session with Carr was in February 1935, for Bluebird Records. The session ended bitterly, as both musicians left the studio mid-session and on bad terms, stemming from payment disputes. Two months later Blackwell received a phone call informing him of Carr's death due to heavy drinking and nephritis. Blackwell soon recorded a tribute to his musical partner of seven years ("My Old Pal Blues") and then seemingly retired from the music industry.
Blackwell returned to music in the late 1950s. He was recorded by Colin C. Pomroy in June 1958 (those recordings were released in 1967 on the Collector label). Soon afterwards he was recorded by Duncan P. Schiedt for Doug Dobell's 77 Records.
Blackwell was then recorded in 1961, in Indianapolis, by the young Art Rosenbaum for the Prestige/Bluesville Records label. The story was recounted by Rosenbaum as starting three years before the recordings were made. When he was growing up in Indianapolis, Rosenbaum knew an African-American woman who said that he "had to meet a man that she knew, who played guitar, played blues and christian songs, they'll make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck." Rosenbaum subsequently met Blackwell: "I met the gentleman across the street from the Methodist hospital in Indianapolis". Blackwell's friend said, "well he hasn't got a guitar", so Rosenbaum said, "well I got a guitar." Blackwell than said that he needed some "bird food". Rosenbaum did not understand what he was referring to, so Blackwell explained, "you gotta get some bird food for the bird, before the bird sings… beer!" Rosenbaum said, "I'm too young!" Blackwell continued, "we'll buy the beer, you just give us some money." Rosenbaum recalled, "So we did, and he started playing these beautiful blues. I didn't realize he was Scrapper Blackwell til I mentioned his name to a blues collecting friend", when the friend exclaimed, "you met Scrapper Blackwell!?"
Blackwell was ready to resume his blues career when he was shot and killed in a mugging in an Indianapolis alley. He was 59 years old. The police arrested his neighbor at the time for the murder, but the crime remains unsolved. Blackwell is buried in New Crown Cemetery, in Indianapolis.
Blues Before Sunrise (77 Records, 1960)
Mr. Scrapper's Blues (Bluesville, 1962)
The Blues of Brooks Berry & Scrapper Blackwell: My Heart Struck Sorrow (Bluesville, 1963)
The Virtuoso Guitar of Scrapper Blackwell (Yazoo, 1970)
Naptown Blues 1929–1934, Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell (Yazoo, 1973)
Blues That Make Me Cry (Agram, 1981)
Great Piano-Guitar Duets (1929–1935), Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell (Old Tramp, 1987)
Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell 1929–1935 (Best of Blues, 1989)
Scrapper Blackwell with Brooks Berry (Document, 1994)
Complete Recorded Works, Vols. 1 and 2 (Document, 1996)
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