Peetie Wheatstraw Biography
In the early years of the Blues, it was a common practice for many artists to resort to gimmicks to help them draw crowds from the poor field hands or factory workers looking for a good time to spend their hard-earned wages during the weekend. Some used showmanship as in the case of Charley Patton who astonished his listeners with stunts such as playing his instrument between his legs or behind his head. Many others utilized tales of supernatural qualities to gain attention to themselves. This is perhaps best acknowledged by the crossroads myth employed by both Tommy Johnson and Robert Johnson. Both were said to have met the Devil at such a location at midnight, handing him their guitars and allowing him to tune it to give them unheard of skills in exchange for their souls. Neither artist denied this tale. And, why should they when it helped draw interest in their music and brought money to their pockets.
Peetie Wheatstraw also emphasized a relationship with the Prince of Darkness as a means to attract an audience. An enormously popular musician during the 1930s, he often publicized himself as the "The Devil's Son-In-Law" or the "High Sheriff of Hell." Eventually, like Robert Johnson before him, if he had indeed sold his soul, his time came due, leaving this world at a much too early age and at the height of his career.
Wheatstraw began life on December 21, 1902. Born William Bunch in Ripley, Tennessee, his family relocated to Cotton Plant, Arkansas soon after his birth. Little if anything is known of his early life, other than he took up playing both the piano and guitar at a young age.
In 1927, William Bunch decided to leave Cotton Plant 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 favored destinations, due to the wealth of employment in the factories located in these cities. St. Louis, Missouri was another city that drew its share of uprooted individuals who sought a better life than the toil of sharecropping. And, it was here that Bunch landed in 1929 and remained for the rest of his life.
His travels during the previous two years had paid off in terms that he was now a capable musician and was able to find work easily in the clubs on both sides of the Mississippi River, in St. Louis and Fast St. Louis, Illinois. He decided to start his tenure here afresh and renamed himself Peetie Wheatstraw upon his arrival; a moniker that he took from an old African-American folktale. And, he also began to employ the supernatural myths for his background as well.
When Wheatstraw moved to St. Louis, he was fascinated by the popularity of the Blues duet of pianist Leroy Carr and guitar player Scrapper Blackwell. Based out of Indianapolis, the pair was extremely successful as recording artists with numbers such as "How Long, How Long" and "Blues Before Sunrise". They served as the model grouping that Wheatstraw wished to employ, a feat that seemed perfectly fit for his own playing, since he could handle both instruments himself. St. Louis was a haven for adept musicians and during his career, he frequently worked with stellar guitarists the likes of, Lonnie Johnson, Kokomo Arnold, Charley Jordan, Bumble Bee Slim, Willie Fields and Charlie McCoy. And, although the piano was his prime instrument, he would also occasionally team as a guitarist himself with pianist, Barrelhouse Buck. But, despite his fondness for the Carr / Blackwell sound, legendary St. Louis Bluesman Henry Townsend noted in his autobiography that Wheatstraw preferred to perform alone, especially without guitarists.
Though it was unusual for Wheatstraw to travel very far outside of the immediate St. Louis area, he drew enough attention that he was asked to come to Chicago in 1930 to lay down recordings. He first entered the Vocalion Studios on August 13, 1939, 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 location, Decca and Bluebird labels. Almost all of his recorded pieces featured him on the piano, rarely performing as a guitarist at these sessions.
Peetie Wheatstraw, though perhaps only a mediocre instrumentalist at best, was quite an adept vocalist and songwriter. He was known for his laid-back vocal approach, capable of covering an incredible range. Also, unusual for a Blues musician of that time, were songs featuring structured instrumental intros, setting a mood for the ensuing lyrics. It was an approach that would be followed successfully by later pianist/vocalists, Champion Jack Dupree and Charles Brown.
His songwriting appealed to the working class minorities of the time, due to their nature of the content. He wrote about social issues such as unemployment and public assistance (this was during The Great Depression, remember). 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 statement of, "Oh, well well," usually accentuated in the third verse. And, though it sounds like a simple gesture, it too has been carried on by many subsequent Bluesmen, most noteworthy today being R.L. Burnside.
Wheatstraw's influence was enormous during the 1930s. It was suggested that his urbanized sound brought forth a decline in interest of Country Blues for a time. 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. Songs such as "Terraplane Blues", "Stones In My Passway" and "Milkcow Calf's Blues" were derived from Wheatstraw recordings, "Police Station Blues" and "So Long Blues". Others such as Johnson's, "I'm A Steady Rollin' Man" and "Little Queen Of Spades", were also revamped from Wheatstraw, too ("Johnnie Blues", "King Of Spades" and "Ain't It A Pity And A Shame"). But, Robert Johnson was not alone when lifting ideas in this manner, it was a common practice and many of these themes can be traced even beyond Wheatstraw himself. But. with the incredible popularity that Peetie Wheatstraw achieved during his lifetime. It is not surprising to see the impact he left on others. It seemed the only thing that prevented him from becoming even more popular was The Depression itself, causing fewer recordings to be made due to expenses.
He was still riding the crest of his success when he met his premature demise. On December 21, 1941, he was driving in East St. Louis when his vehicle was struck by an oncoming train at a crossing. He was only 39. And, perhaps it is only fitting for one who associated himself with the Devil firsthand to meet his own death at a crossroads in the end.
Wheatstraw's death drew very little attention at the time. But, his music left its mark. Ralph Ellison based a character in his groundbreaking novel, "Invisible Man", on the musician. And, his laidback approach could be heard for years to come in the stylings of Bluesmen like Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters. It was because of artists like Peetie Wheatstraw that St. Louis was an important musical locale during the 1930s, and he'll always be remembered as one of its greatest sons.
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Born Too Late | Reviewer: Beale Gibson | 3/21/13
I was born in 1942, and I was born too late for the best of the Blues. Some say the Devil owns my soul, too. What some folks don't know would fill a book. Petie Wheatstraw, we miss you.
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