Often, when you take the time to study the stories behind musicians, especially the Blues performers who began their careers prior to the Second World War, it can break your heart to see how such popular players of their time can easily be forgotten. Changes in musical tastes can be fickle and following the War, many acoustic Country Blues artists were no longer in favor. It's a tale that can be told over and over again. Many of these artists have been lost forever; yet, a select few found resurrection during the Blues Revival of the late-50s and early-60s. Though it took a few years longer for him to make his return, this same scenario can certainly be associated with guitarist Eugene Powell. Recording a handful of numbers for the Bluebird label in 1936, he was often found working alongside renowned musicians such as the Mississippi Sheiks, Houston Stackhouse and Robert Nighthawk, only to disappear for more than 30 years before being "rediscovered".
Eugene Powell's story begins in Utica, Mississippi on December 23, 1908. He was the product of an inter-racial affair between his African-American mother, Rosie Taylor, who worked as a house servant, and a white man named Emmitt Powell. Eugene hardly ever saw his father as he and his mother lived on a plantation outside of Shelby, Mississippi.
At an early age, Eugene began to show interest in music. At the age of seven, his mother purchased a guitar for him through the Sears Roebuck catalog for the price of $3. Powell would often tell interviewers that it took him just three days to teach himself how to play the instrument. One thing is for sure, he was such a capable musician by this age that he began to work as a novelty act playing at picnics, and even entertained the guards and prisoners at the nearby Parchman Farm. It was said that many of the prisoners were so taken by the talent of such a youngster that it often left them with tears in their eyes. Eugene also would play with his half-brother, mandolinist, Bernie "Sugar" Wilson. This was a partnership that would continue off and on for the next decade, until Wilson was murdered in the late-1920s.
Though music may have played a strong part in the life of young Eugene Powell, he was still just a child not yet in his teens. As is true with all boys this age, there is a great deal of roughhousing in their games. And, it was during such play that Powell was involved in an accident with a bow-and-arrow which left him blinded in his right eye. In 1920, the family moved to Hollandale, Mississippi and it was there that Powell first came into contact with the famed Chatmon Family. Sitting at the feet of the family patriarch and former slave, Henderson Chatmon, Powell, along with other such noted future Bluesmen as, Walter Vincson, Bo Carter and Charley Patton, fine-tuned their talents. Chatmon's sons, along with Vincson, would form the Mississippi Sheiks, who to this day are considered the most successful recording group in the state's history, having first laid tracks in 1930. By this time, Powell was beginning to work under the name of Sonny Boy Nelson, a name he took in recognition of his stepfather Sid Nelson. He would often join the Sheiks on many of their performances over the following decade. He would also work with pianist Richard "Hacksaw" Harney and vocalist "Mississippi Matilda", whom he later married.
A proficient musician, Powell could play a number of different instruments, including the banjo, mandolin, fiddle and harmonica. He also modified his guitar by placing an aluminum plate into the sound-hole of his Silvertone to create the effects of a resonator and added a seventh string to develop his own unique sound.
In 1936, Powell, along with Matilda, Willie Harris and the Chatmons traveled to New Orleans to record for the Bluebird label. Setting up at the St. Charles Hotel, Powell cut six sides during these sessions under the moniker Sonny Boy Nelson. Among these numbers were classics such as "Street Walkin' Woman" and "Pony Blues". He also accompanied Matilda on four tracks and harmonica player Robert Hill on 10 more. It would be another 34 years before Eugene Powell would have the opportunity to record again.
As his family began to grow, Powell decided to step away from being a full-time musician. They moved to Greenville in the early 1940s, where he took employment at the local John Deere plant. But, he did not turn his back on music altogether, running a juke joint in his spare time and finding himself playing along with various styles of musicians due to the decrease in the popularity for acoustic music.
By the early 1960s, Powell had given up on performing. Matilda had left him in 1952, taking the children with her to Chicago. The Blues resurgence of the 1960s appeared to be bypassing Eugene Powell. But in 1970, his old friend Sam Chatmon convinced Powell to join him as he traveled to Washington, D.C., to perform at the Festival of American Folklife. Powell's performances went over very well and he was invited to return to the festival in 1972. Both years were recorded by the Adelphi label, yet only tracks from the 1972 performance have ever been released. It was quite evident that Powell was still a strong performer and he received many invitations over the following two decades to appear at festivals around the world. But, many of these requests went unfulfilled, as Powell was reluctant to leave his invalid wife Carrie alone for long periods of time. He also made a number of trips into the recording studio, but a great deal of this material still has yet to be released. The Italian label, Albatross, did release an album titled "Police In Mississippi Blues" in 1975, which was the only complete album to be released under his name during his lifetime.
In 1978, Powell participated in the documentary film by Alan Lomax, "The Land Where The Blues Began". He was also a featured subject for the book, "Mississippi Triangle" by Worth Long and in an article printed in National Geographic.
By 1990, Eugene Powell's health began to deteriorate; yet he still continued to perform. His playing inspired many Bluesmen, and toward the end of his life, younger musicians such as Lonnie Pitchford, Keb' Mo' and Alvin Youngblood Hart all acknowledged influences from Powell. He broke his hip in early 1998 and was eventually placed in the Arnold Avenue Nursing Home in Greenville to recuperate.
While in the home, Powell's own residence was broken into and all of his guitars were stolen. In an attempt to replace his instruments, in September 1998, novelist Worth Long presented to him a new Fender 12-string guitar. Also while recovering in Greenville, Powell was presented with a special lifetime achievement award.
In October 1998, a tribute show was held at the Walnut Street Bait Shop to celebrate the life of Eugene Powell. Sponsored by Peavey Electronics, the Music Maker Relief Foundation and numerous fans, Powell was honored by performances from his friends that included, T-Model Ford, Willie Foster and Little Bill Wallace. Powell joined his friends onstage during the event, which proved to be his final performance.
Eugene Powell died in Greenville's Delta Regional Medical Center on November 4, 1998. He was survived by his third wife Lois, one son, five daughters and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Powell was buried in nearby Metcalfe, Mississippi in the Evergreen Cemetery. His headstone bears three quotes, but the most appropriate reads: "A guitar virtuoso his music touched people the world over".
by Greg Johnson, courtesy of the Cascade Blues Association (www.cascadeblues.org). Article Reprint from the October 2001 BluesNotes.
Full Name: Eugene "Sonny Boy Nelson" Powell
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