Friday, March 8, 2013

Blues Legends, Courtesy William Stout

There's good news on two fronts... Most important, granddaughter Lliralyn, the families, and the Vashon community are all slowly recovering from the horrendous trauma of Ryan’s death. People are moving past those tearful hugs and glacial silences, edging out into sunlight, laughing briefly once more.

And during the interim my other good news got even better:

It's remotely possible that a few readers of this blog may have been on board as far back as September of 2007, but for most of you my piece on artist and illustrator William Stout (go here) could provide some useful background regarding his training, subsequent experience, and present reputation.

Stout has several books in his resume, most of them dinosaur or fantasy-related. But for the past five years or so, he’s been spending his down-time hours researching, designing, and then finally painting, watercolor portraits of his favorite Bluesmen (and Women)--significant, sometimes truly legendary, African-Americans who made and played the Blues. The “comic arts” division at Abrams, respected publishers of regular Art or Photography books mostly, had issued a very successful collection of Old Time musician portraits created by maverick-gone-mainstream comix artist R. Crumb, and the Abrams editors embraced the notion of Bill’s sort-of sequel presenting a hundred Legends of the Blues.

Contract in hand, Bill worked steadily, polishing and preparing and painting his chosen hundred--ranging wide and far, Robert Petway to Robert Johnson, Cow Cow Davenport to Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters to Ethel Waters, Bessie Tucker to Bessie Smith, Lonesome Sundown to Sunnyland Slim, Georgia Tom to Mississippi Fred, and Tampa Red to Bukka White and Blues Boy King.

He also sought to line up a “name” musician or movie personage to write the book’s Introduction. As Bill says (approximately; my memory of our phone conversations): “Jimmy Page, the great guitarist and leader of Led Zeppelin, agreed to write one. So I kept painting, and three years went by, and Jimmy kept assuring me he’d send something soon... Finally, with all the paintings finished, with a week left till my contractual deadline to submit everything at once, Jimmy confessed he had written nothing and was now too busy to produce anything at all!”

Stout paused, then: “Three years, right? And suddenly he’s too busy. Well, I called just about every Arts person I knew, directors and producers and cartoonists and musicians and... nobody. No one able or willing to help. So there’s three days left... and then I thought of one more person I could ask...”

I’ll let his voice trail off, because I get to take over the story. Yeah, me, "Joliet Ed (Jr.)," a little brother to the Blues, for sure, but Bill’s grasping-at-straws last hope, and an "Old School"-credentialed friend. Bill explains the situation he’s in and tells me that if I agree to help, I’ll have three days total to come up with some wonderful intro. No time to ponder alternate possibilities, do research, interview anyone else, decide to start over. Just time to go for it--start writing and hope for the best. Oh, and as Bill sheepishly added, “If Stephan King or Jon Landis or--why not?--Spielberg suddenly calls me back with a last-minute attempt, well, I’ll have to go with the celebrity name, and scrap yours... That’s the ugly reality. Some deal, huh?”

Hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? I’m pretty sure I can come up with something, so why not try? (Besides, he’s offered me my choice of a Legends original--the art work--as thanks just for trying!)

I won’t drag the story out... Short weekend shorter, on Sunday night, half a day early, I emailed Bill with my attempt at an Introduction attached, expecting him to respond quickly with suggestions for revisions, but... Nothing, no response, complete computer silence...

No word come Monday morning, and still no word by Monday night... I figure Bill must hate it, now is so busy scrambling and arguing with Abrams that he doesn’t want to get into it with me on the phone too... I’m bummed. Hate it that I’ve failed to deliver, that I’ve let my old friend down... and of course there’s no way I’ll accept a painting as payment for failing. Moping and cursing, I drag myself off to bed.

Tuesday’s still the same. No word. Morning drags on into afternoon. Then, finally, comes the dreaded email... except... I’m reading that “Abrams loves it, no changes needed, thanks for coming through just as I knew you would,” etc. (Mr. Stout apparently is one who believes--oh, don’t we all?--that no news equals good news.)

So we are both now fair-haired boys once or again (even those of us who lack hair--naming no names, of course). Moreover, the publishers want to pay me “a small stipend” (their words), for last-ditch effort in a worthy cause perhaps. (“I want to thank the Academy--and my third wife Margo Malwear for being such a bi...ggg, uh, helpmate!”)

Anyway, smooth sailing thereafter. I do change a sentence not quite clear, but otherwise all’s well up till now, when first sample copies have arrived and been distributed only to those closely involved. In fact, I’ve just used my sprightly single one to offer discreet peeks at a few of the hundred Black and brilliant Legends (every painted image copywrited, be it known, by William Stout and Abrams Books), soon to be drawn large as well as writ, in the hallowed annals of the Blues--such a circumstance devoutly to be wished for the meager Introduction too.

Look for Legends of the Blues in alert bookstores, comix shops, and music sources--and from equivalent on-line sellers--starting in late April or early May. (And if you think this post looks wonky, you are spot on. See previous post below for explanation of sorts... which is exactly what I am out of!)


Bill said...

That pretty much sums up the dilemma that faced me, except for one factual error: I IMMEDIATELY wrote to you upon receiving and reading your spectacular intro, praising it to the heavenly skies (as it well deserved). According to Sandi (when she called to find out why I hadn't responded), after I'd explained that I did, indeed, promptly respond, she told me you apparently hadn't checked the e-mailbox of yours where my praise was still lying in wait. You sent me the intro on the afternoon of 11/25; here's my response (sent upon reading it the morning of 11/26):
Hi Ed,
That's magnificent! Full of your wit, humor, knowledge and love of the genre (and of me); basically, just what I had hoped for: a full reflection of you, as represented by your consummate skills as a writer.

I hope Abrams feels the same way! It will go out to them this morning.

Thanks, my friend. You came through like a champ.

Whose portrait would you like?


Ed Leimbacher said...

Hmmm... verry enteres-sting...a credible example of two conflicting realities. Bill rightfully defends himself against my complaint of being neglected for a whole worrisome day, and invokes the evidence which of course persuades me of his caring and the unjustness of my slightly accusatory tale.

But two facts from my reality are unfortunately also true. Sandie never told me that she called you, my friend, assuming that I would find the hoped-for email and be elated... but also cautious about revealing her intercession, knowing that I might think of her action to help me stop fretting as, also, embarrassing nd "unprofessioal."

But what really set this tale in motion is the dang-blasted second fact: Bill's first email never showed up in my in-box--whether lost in cyberspace, blocked by some vicious spam filter, hacked lose and away by a grinning gremlin, or even deleted unknowingly by a stupider version of, er, me.

So Bill was innocent, I was saddened unnecessarily, and we didn't know until now that there were differing realities. I'm glad that both versions have now been told. (Still, mine did add some suspense!)

me again said...

p.s. nice irony that this recalcitrant keyboard misspells so I now appear lazy and unprofessional

Progress Hornsby said...

I admire Mr. Stout's work, but the Ethel Waters "card" just doesn't ring tree. The Waters picture which was the source is much circulated on the net, but that's not the gap-toothed singer who was such a major influence on American popular song and its singers*---a few off the top of my head: Crosby,Lena Horne, Connee Boswell, Mel Torme, Lee Wiley, Mildred Bailey. What is the source for the Stout depiction? It's not used in her autobiography "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" or the Waters biographies in my collection.

*Gary Giddins wrote in "The Mother of Us All" chapter of Riding on a Blue Note: Waters in many respects was the mother of American popular singing, the transitional figure who combined elements of white stars such as Nora Bayes, Fannie Brice and Sophie Tucker with black rhythms, repertoire and instrumentation.

Ed Leimbacher said...

I'll email your question to Bill and I expect he'll answer you within a few days. Check back!

Progress Hornsby said...

The picture originated here:

Val-Limar Jansen is known now as ValLimar Jansen.

"Legendary blues singer" is more a publicist catch-phrase than an appropriate description for Ethel Waters. She did record blues songs, but she is a major figure in American popular song, the 32 bar variety.

Putting trust in information and images from the Internet is living dangerously. Send in the editors and fact-checkers.

This doesn't dampen my enjoyment of Mr. Sout's work, though I never saw Muddy Waters smoking a cigarette. He favored those brown Little Cigars. Howlin' Wolf and Joe Turner deserve better.

Ed Leimbacher said...

Excellent! Asked and answered, and in short order, your honor, even if you did have to do it yourself. Bill made a few odd choices, as he stated right up front, performers whose skills may have left the Blues behind, or maybe were never rooted there at all, but like his depiction of those faces that you or some other viewer could find too comical or beautiful or just not the likeness you carry around in your head, please remember it cost him a lot to get the artistic license you now seem to wish to revoke.

Progress Hornsby said...

I'd never revoke artistic or poetic license. Sometimes, though, the jazz/blues police have to pass out a speeding ticket or two.

But seriously...the Ethel Waters error stuns. This is not a question of personal taste. Surely someone at Abrams, a major arts publisher, should have been aware. Gary Giddins does not exaggerate when he calls Waters "the mother of us all" in relation to her role in shaping 20th century popular song.

Progress Hornsby said...

Another problem: That's Joe Williams, best known for his work with the Count Basie Band (1954-early 60s), and not blues legend Big Joe Williams.

This picture of Joe is likely the source for the depiction of Big Joe:

I saw multiple performances by each of the Joes. There was no mistaking one for the other.

Ed Leimbacher said...

1. Waters sang only religious music after the Graham crackers caught her soul; did that invalidate her whole prior career? You can see that she did sing some blues for Black Swan; but when Sweet Mama Stringbean had a chance to leave that life, become pop star Ethel, she seized hold with both hands.
2. Basie's Joe was tall enough to also be called Big Joe, and I can imagine some search engine failing to differentiate, which could then lead to the embarrassing situation you have described... and there I stop. It's time for the artist himself to speak up.

Progress Hornsby said...

1. I did not mean to imply that Waters' importance to the world of popular song should invalidate her period of refined "naughty blues." Certainly she belongs among Legends of the Blues. For a taste of Waters as actress and singer of the blues(!) there's an episode available of the Route 66 TV series from the early 60s in which she appears with Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Jo Jones, and the great Juano Hernández. The title is "Goodnight, Sweet Blues." (This was from her Billy Graham Crusades period.) No one who ever saw her wonderful gap-toothed smile could confuse her with anyone else.

2. Yes, Joe Williams was tall enough to be called Big Joe, but that's no excuse for using his likeness for such an important blues figure as Big Joe Williams.

I will come out and say it: Legends of the Blues shows a lack of thorough knowledge and the absence of research and fact checking. The commentaries are basically Wikipedia re-plays with no indication that the writer went beyond Google or CD booklets for information. You state the problem succinctly: "I can imagine some search engine failing to differentiate ..." Legends of the Blues is far too dependent on search engines.

Bill said...

Guilty as charged. I honestly appreciate the criticism, though. It's amazing that no one caught the two photo reference errors. It's also amazing that those two photos have been so often misidentified --- even to the point of being used as CD covers for the wrong artists!

I am seeing my editor at ComicCon. I am hoping that if there's a second edition I can make the proper corrections. There were others, by the way (misidentified images purportedly of Ida Cox and Hambone Willie Newbern) --- but I caught them in time.

1914 said...

Really great drawings. All I can say for the naming errors is , he's an artist, not a musicologist / music historian. And the publishers are what they are too. So, let's cut some slack, eh?