Jimmy Witherspoon (1923-1997) had one of the most distinctive styles of all blues singers. He was a crooner, and he was a shouter; it depended on what approach a particular song called for. His baritone voice could be smooth as single-malt Scotch, though he often adopted, as Leonard Feather put it, “a rasping erotic timbre [that] brings an unremitting sense of conviction to his every phrase.” And, throughout a career that spanned half a century, Witherspoon sang with untutored blues musicians and with some of the world’s greatest jazz instrumentalists. He was at home in both worlds, though the jazzmen seemed better attuned to his deliciously delayed phrasing.
The vocalist was born in Gurdon, Arkansas, and began singing in church at age 6. He moved to Los Angeles in the late Thirties and was washing dishes at local drugstore in 1941, the year he saw his idol, blues shouter Joe Turner, performing at the Mayan Theater in the cast of Duke Ellington’s short-lived musical Jump for Joy. Pioneering electric blues guitarist T-Bone Walker encouraged the fledgling singer by inviting him to sit in with his band.
At the outbreak of World War II, Witherspoon enlisted in the merchant marine. During his service as a cook, he was stationed for a period in Calcutta, India, where he regularly sat with a band at the Grand Hotel Winder Garden led by expatriate pianist Teddy Weatherford. In 1945, he moved in with his mother in the San Francisco Bay Area and landed a singing gig at the Waterfront Café in nearby Vallejo. Pianist Jay McShann passed through Vallejo the following year without a band vocalist. His star singer, Walter Brown, had left not long before, and Brown’s replacement, Blues Bailey, had just bolted to join Charlie Barnet. Witherspoon asked to sit in with McShann’s band at Vallejo’s Casino Ballroom.
“He came up and sang ‘Wee Baby Blues’ [the Joe Turner hit] and a couple of other numbers and got a nice hand,” McShann recalled. ’Spoon, as he was fondly known, officially joined the band the next night in Stockton, California and remained a member for three years. The singer appeared on several dozen McShann 78s for such labels as Philo, Mercury, and Swing Time.
Backed by McShann, Witherspoon had his first—and biggest—hit in 1949 with the two-part “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” on Supreme Records. The eight-bar blues, also known as “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-Ness if I Do” was first popularized by Bessie Smith in 1923. Witherspoon’s version rose to number one on Billboard’s Best Selling Retail Race Records chart and remained his signature song. Four more Top Ten hits followed: “In the Evening” on Supreme in 1949, “No Rollin’ Blues” and “Big Fine Girl,” both on Modern in 1949 (and both recorded in front of an effusive live audience), and “The Wind Is Blowin’” on Modern in 1952. A gap of 23 years followed. Witherspoon finally returned to the r&b chart in 1975 with “Love Is a Five Letter World” on Capitol, though it stalled at a modest number 31.
’Spoon’s close association with jazz began in 1956 when producer David Axelrod surrounded him with such players as Harry “Sweets” Edison, Teddy Edwards, and Hampton Hawes for a World-Pacific album titled There’s Good Rockin’ Tonight. Three years later the singer made a triumphant appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival backed by Roy Eldridge, Woody Herman, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Earl Hines, and others. ’Spoon recorded albums for Reprise, Prestige, and Bluesway in the Sixties, for United Artists, Blue Note, Capitol, and L.A. International in the Seventies, Muse and Fantasy in the Eighties, and On the Spot and Stony Plain in the Nineties.
In 1972, Witherspoon discovered the brilliant young guitarist Robben Ford and featured him on record and on the road for two years. The vocalist was diagnosed with throat cancer in the early Eighties. Radiation treatments saved his life, but changed his voice. His upper register was ravaged, though his bottom range was extended. ’Spoon remained an active performer until his death.