R. L. Burnside

Blues singer bemused by his success
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The Independent Online

The blues singer and guitarist R.L. Burnside was unknown until he was 65 years old. In 1991, following an appearance in the documentary film Deep Blues, he recorded a series of albums which were appreciated by the rock cognoscenti. He was totally bemused by his popularity and Matthew Johnson, the owner of Fat Possum records, commented, "He never really wanted a career. We just gave him one."

Robert Lee Burnside was born in 1926 in Harmontown in the Mississippi Delta and he spent much of his early life sharecropping. In 1944 his family moved to Chicago in the hope of better employment but within a year, his father, two brothers and two uncles had been killed in various incidents. Burnside found work in a glass factory and watched the blues singer Muddy Waters in local clubs (Waters was married bigamously to Burnside's cousin).

Moving back to the Mississippi in 1946, Burnside shot a man during a craps game. When the man died, in a novel defence Burnside claimed, "I just shot him in the head. His death was between him and the Lord." He was released after six months to work on a plantation.

Burnside did not play the guitar in public until he was 21 and his biggest influence was a neighbour, Mississippi Fred McDowell. Despite some reports, McDowell never gave him lessons. Burnside copied what he saw other musicians playing, but he did not master more than a few basic chords. He married in 1949 and raised a large family, having 12 children in all. By the late 1950s, he was working as a farm labourer during the week and performing in juke joints at the weekend. He made his first record in 1967 and then became part of a family group, the Sound Machine.

In 1991 the New York Times journalist Robert Palmer told Burnside's story in the book Deep Blues, and he was featured in an accompanying television documentary. Palmer also persuaded the Fat Possum label to record Burnside. The first albums, Bad Luck City (1991) and Too Bad Jim (1992), had a spontaneous feel rather like John Lee Hooker's, but Burnside droned and largely played around one chord.

When he toured with the Jon Spencer Blues Experience, they were entranced by his smutty conversation. As a result, they recorded A Ass Pocket of Whiskey (1996), in which his anecdotes were merged with electronic sounds. The controversial cover showed Burnside, with his belt off, about to beat two white girls. His wife, Alice Mae, was furious when she saw the cover and heard its contents, chastising him for "telling them nasty stories in public".

The album and the similar follow-ups, Come On In (1998) and Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down (2000) turned Burnside into an MTV personality. His album Acoustic Stories (1997) was more akin to his regular stage act. Burnside's successful songs included "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues", "Rollin' Tumblin'" and "Shuck Dub", the last of which was on the best-selling soundtrack album from the TV series The Sopranos.

Spencer Leigh