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Chicago blues singer James “Tail Dragger” Jones dies at 82

James “Tail Dragger” Jones performed regularly at Chicago blues clubs for decades, wearing a cowboy hat, sometimes chomping on a thick cigar, and singing with a voice that the Tribune described in 2006 as a “frog croaking.”

“Tail Dragger was an incredibly raw, real blues singer who lacked showbiz polish,” said blues guitarist Johnny Burgin, who supported Jones for years. “He always said, ‘The blues is real,’ and he didn’t exaggerate that.”

Jones, 82, died of natural causes Sept. 4 at West Suburban Hospital in Oak Park, his daughter, Mary Bohlar, said. She was a longtime resident of the West Side’s Austin neighborhood.

Born in Altheimer, Arkansas, James Yancy Jones was raised by his paternal grandparents on a farm near Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Bohlar said. He got his first taste of blues music while visiting his mother in Chicago, but his grandparents discouraged him from pursuing the genre.

“His grandparents were Christian, church-going people, and (to them) any other music was the devil’s music,” Bohlar said. “He smelled a whiff of sadness and it put him in a trance. He wanted to sing the blues. So he was sneaking into clubs when he was underage, and that’s when he saw some blues singers and said, ‘I’ve got to do this.’ “It’s like it touched your soul.”

After a stint in the army, Jones moved to Chicago’s West Side in 1966 and began working as an auto mechanic and truck driver, while also singing locally. Jones soon met legendary blues singer and guitarist Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett, who began allowing Jones to perform with him on stage.

Burnett nicknamed Jones “Tail Dragger” because his day job frequently caused him to arrive late for gigs. This was also a reference to his unorthodox musical timing, as he would usually follow the band’s guitarist rather than the drummer, who would give time to a band.

Chicago blues harmonica player and singer Billy Branch said of Jones: “He was a true original and pure, authentic, unadulterated, in-your-face West Coast blues.” “He was the last of the era of the old blues greats, and of course he did a lot of Howlin’ Wolf songs. And he said Howlin’ Wolf gave him that name (Tail Dragger), but you know, he was a brave, tough, headstrong man, and what you saw is what you got.”

Burgin praised Jones’ stage presence; this sometimes included crawling on stage while singing. For decades, he performed at clubs such as Kingston Mines, Buddy Guy’s Legends and Vern’s Friendly Lounge.

“I saw him slowly walk onto the stage, sit down, glare at the audience, and a few seconds later the crowd went wild,” Burgin said. “Their performances were almost shamanistic.”

Following Chicago’s annual Blues Festival in 1993, Jones got into a violent argument with blues guitarist Bennie “Boston Blackie” Houston. The dispute was over money, Jones told the Tribune in 2006, and it escalated into deadly violence, with Jones shooting Houston in the face. Jones claimed that a knife-wielding Houston cornered him outside a concert and that Jones only fired in self-defense.

The court found Jones guilty of second-degree murder and he spent 17 months of his four-year sentence in an Illinois prison. After his release, Jones continued performing.

In 1996, Jones’ debut album “Crawlin’ Kingsnake” was released. Three more albums followed; The last one was published in 2012.

“The blues is nothing but a story about life,” Jones told the Tribune in 2006. “You think about life and then you sing about it.”

Chicago blues harpist Martin Lang described Jones as “the Virgil ‘Inferno’ to my Dante in the blues.”

“He knew everyone and everything, and he knew music very well. “And the foundation of my blues knowledge came from him,” Lang said. “And he had high standards; he took music very, very seriously. He’s the type of guy we’ll never see again. We’ll see musicians who play the blues and are good at it, but blues players like Tail Dragger are extinct. ”

In 2003, Tribune critic Kevin McKeough compared Jones’ role as the charismatic showman to the “scream-note melodramatic used by many young blues guitarists.”

“The difference an entertainer could make was obvious… as Tail Dragger, a.k.a. James Yancy Jones, prowled the audience on his knees, groaning and growling at women in the crowd, as the band ripped the music off its hinges behind him,” McKeough wrote. . “Tail Dragger’s performance shamelessly imitated the legendary Howling Wolf in voice and appearance, while his very brief appearance was equally electrifying.”

In addition to his performances in Chicago, Jones also toured Europe and South America, performing until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“I miss you, but what can I do?” “A lot of people get onstage like it’s important,” he told the Tribune in 2020. You need people, they don’t need you. You should blend in with the crowd. Howlin’ Wolf taught me that.

Jones performed at Taste of Chicago Austin in 2022. Also that year, actor and filmmaker Kevin Mukherji released an 88-minute documentary about Jones titled “Tail Dragger.”

“The blues make me feel good,” Jones told the Tribune in November 2022. “Blues is happy music. You have your ups and downs. That’s how life is. You take the bitter with the sweet.

Jones was married many times. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Bertha; three other daughters, Karen Ellis, Wanda Jones and Rachel Davis; two sons, Curtis Goodlow and Ezera Daniels; stepdaughter Lisa White; stepson Todd White; 25 grandchildren; many great-grandchildren; two brothers, Kenneth Day and Timothy Day; and two sisters, Doris Hollin and Brenda Day.

Services were done.

Bob Goldsborough is a freelance reporter.

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