Charley (or Charlie) PattonPatton was born in Hinds County, Mississippi near the town of Edwards, and lived most of his life in Sunflower County in the Mississippi Delta . Most sources say he was born in 1891, but there is some debate about this, and the years 1887 and 1894 have also been suggested.
1891 (?) - April 28th 1934
1891 (?) - April 28th 1934
Though Patton was considered African-American, because of his light complexion there have been rumors that he was Mexican, or possibly a full-blood Cherokee, a theory endorsed by Howlin' Wolf. In actuality, Patton was a mix of white, black, and Cherokee (one of his grandmothers was a full-blooded Cherokee). Patton himself sang in "Down the Dirt Road Blues" of having gone to "the Nation" and "the Territo'"—meaning the Cherokee Nation portion of the Indian Territory.
If the Delta country blues has a convenient source point, it would probably be Charley Patton, its first great star. His hoarse, impassioned singing style, fluid guitar playing, and unrelenting beat made him the original king of the Delta blues. Much more than your average itinerant musician, Patton was an acknowledged celebrity and a seminal influence on musicians throughout the Delta.
Although Patton was a small man at about 5 foot 5, his gravelly voice was rumored to have been loud enough to carry 500 yards without amplification. Patton's gritty bellowing was a major influence on the singing style of his young friend Chester Burnett, who went on to gain fame in Chicago as Howlin' Wolf.
His guitar playing was no less impressive, fueled with a propulsive beat and a keen rhythmic sense that would later plant seeds in the boogie style of John Lee Hooker.
His slide work -- either played in his lap like a Hawaiian guitar and fretted with a pocket knife, or in the more conventional manner with a brass pipe for a bottleneck -- was no less inspiring, finishing vocal phrases for him and influencing contemporaries like Son House and up-and-coming youngsters like Robert Johnson.
Most of the now-common guitar gymnastics modern audiences have come to associate with the likes of a Jimi Hendrix, in fact, originated with Patton, who gained notoriety for his showmanship, often playing with the guitar down on his knees, behind his head, or behind his back.
He first recorded in 1929 for the Paramount label and, within a year's time, he was not only the largest-selling blues artist but -- in a whirlwind of recording activity -- also the music's most prolific.
No one will never know what Patton's Paramount masters really sounded like. When the company went out of business, the metal masters were sold off as scrap, some of it used to line chicken coops. All that's left are the original 78s -- rumored to have been made out of inferior pressing material commonly used to make bowling balls -- and all of them are scratched and heavily played, making all attempts at sound retrieval by current noise-reduction processing a tall order indeed.
That said, it is still music well worth seeking out and not just for its place in history. Patton's music gives us the first flowering of the Delta blues form, before it became homogenized with turnarounds and 12-bar restrictions, and few humans went at it so aggressively.
He died on the Heathman-Dedham plantation near Indianola on April 28, 1934 and is buried in Holly Ridge. A memorial headstone was erected on Patton's grave, paid for by musician John Fogerty through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund in July, 1990.