Little Brother Montgomery and Roosevelt Sykes rank among the greatest blues pianists of the 20th century and had unusually long and prolific careers. Both men were born in 1906, passed away in the early 1980's and began their careers within a year of each other; Sykes made his debut in 1929 while Montgomery made his in 1930. Both men also chose to record their versions of “44 blues” at their debut sessions,; Sykes cutting it first in 1929 as "Forty- Four Blues" and following year by Montgomery as “Vicksburg Blues.”
Roosevelt Sykes was born on January 31, 1906 in Elmar, Arkansas although he was raised in St. Louis. He learned to play the organ in church. This allowed him to move over to the piano. He soon began to work in barrelhouses and jukes in Helena, Arkansas often working with pianist Lee Green. He kept St. Louis as his base of operation, but frequently traveled to Memphis and Chicago in the late 20's. His version of "Forty-Four Blues" was released on the Okeh Record label (1929). This helped to establish his reputation as one of the best blues pianists.
The origins of „44 Blues” have been traced back to early 1920s Louisiana. Its earlier form was sometimes referred to, was a piano-driven "barrelhouse honky-tonk blues" that was performed as an instrumental. Little Brother Montgomery taught it to another blues pianist along the way by the name of Lee Green; Green, in turn, taught it to Roosevelt Sykes. As Sykes explained: "He was the first guy I ever heard play the ’44 Blues.’ Several people had been playing it through the country of course — Little Brother Montgomery and several others, but nobody had ever recorded it and there was no words to it, no words or lyrics at all. So Lee Green, he took a lot of time out to teach me how to play it."
Roosevelt Sykes - .44 Blues
It was not until after Sykes recorded "44 Blues" that Green and Montgomery recorded their versions of "The Forty-Fours." While instrumentally both were similar to Sykes' version, the subject matter and lyrics were different. Lee Green recorded his version, titled "Number Forty-Four Blues" , two months after Sykes. About one year later, Little Brother Montgomery recorded his version titled "Vicksburg Blues". Of the three, Roosevelt Sykes' version was the most popular and "was to be far more influential than Green's version." "[Sykes' lyrics] played on the differing interpretations of the phrase 'forty-fours' — the train number 44, the .44 caliber revolver and the 'little cabin' on which was the number 44, presumably a prison cell." "Undoubtedly, these overlays of meaning generally appealed to other singers, accounting for the frequent use of Sykes' lyrics."
Lee Green - Number Forty-Four Blues
Montgomery was born in the town of Kentwood, Louisiana, a sawmill town near the Mississippi Border, across Lake Pontchartrain from the city of New Orleans, where he spent much of his childhood. As a child he looked like his father, Harper Montgomery, and was called Little Brother Harper. The name evolved into Little Brother Montgomery, a nickname which stuck. He started playing piano at the age of 4, and by age 11 he was playing at various barrelhouses in Louisiana. His own musical influences were Jelly Roll Morton who used visit the Montgomery household...Little Brother Montgomery recorded his version titled "Vicksburg Blues" in september 1930 (Paramount).
Little Brother Montgomery
Leothus Lee Green was born in Mississippi around 1900, Green worked as a clothes presser in Vicksburg while perfecting his piano technique. Soon Leothus was traveling throughout the Lower Mississippi River Basin, earning a living by playing piano for the people. Montgomery knew him in Vicksburg, and claimed to have taught him the "44 Blues" in Sondheimer, LA, back in 1922... Excepting for a brief excursion to New York in August 1937, Green performed and recorded mainly in or near Chicago.
James Wigging - Forty Four Blues
In 1954, when Howlin' Wolf recorded his version, "Forty Four" took on a new outlook. Howlin Wolf's version differs immensely from the first recorded version by Roosevelt Sykes. Backing Wolf, who sang and played harmonica, were Hubert Sumlin and Jody Williams (electric guitars), Otis Spann (piano), Willie Dixon (bass), and Earl Phillips (drums). Together they transformed "Forty Four" into a Chicago blues, with prominent guitar lines and an insistent "martial shuffle on the snare drum plus a bass drum that slammed down like an industrial punch-press."
It was around well before Sykes, and it's known by several different versions of the title. There's "Forty Four," "44 Blues," "The Forty Fours" and "44 Pistols." But for the most part, everything after Wolf is in line with his additions because that beat is impossible to deny.
Howlin' Wolf - Forty Four
Forty Four (author unknown)
If de people'll jes gimme Des a liddle bit o' peace, I'll tell 'em what happen To de Chief o' Perlice. He met a robber Right at de dō'! An' de robber, he shot 'im Wid a forty-fō'! He shot dat Perliceman. He shot 'im shō'! What did he shoot 'im wid? A forty-fō'. Dey sent fer de Doctah An' de Doctah he come. He come in a hurry, He come in a run. He come wid his instriments Right in his han', To progue an' find Dat forty-fō', Man! De Doctah he progued; He progued 'im shō'! But he jes couldn' find Dat forty-fō'. Dey sent fer de Preachah, An' de preachah he come. He come in a walk, An' he come in to talk. He come wid 'is Bible, Right in 'is han', An' he read from dat chapter, Forty-fō', Man! Dat Preachah, he read. He read, I know. What Chapter did he read frum? 'Twus Forty-fō'!
Memphis Slim - .44 Blues
44 Blues lyrics by Roosevelt Sykes
Well I walked all night long, with my .44 in my hand (2x) Now I was looking for my woman, found her with another man Well I wore my .44 so long, Lord it made my shoulder sore (2x) After I do what I want to, ain't gonna wear my .44 no more Now I heard my baby say, she heard that 44 whistle blow (2x) Lord it sounds like, ain't gonna blow that whistle no more Now I got a little cabin, and it's number 44 (2x) Lord I wake up every morning, the wolf be scratching on my door
Number Forty Four Blues lyrics by Leothus Lee Green
Ah, my baby cryin and Ididn’t hear the 44 whistle blowin when she blows Ah, my baby cryin and I hear the 44 whistle when she blows And then I feel mistreated and your sweet mama bound to go. Ah, baby, when you get lonely and think you want to go Yes, baby when you get lonely and think that you want to go You know that you ain’t no better, mama Than the black woman that I had before Some of these mornins mama, baby and it won’t be long Ah some of these mornins, baby and it won’t be long You gonna look for your daddy, baby, and I’m goin to be gone. I got blues will last me nine months from today. Baby, I got blues will last me nine months from today. I’m gonna get my sweet woman to drive my blues away.
Little Brother Montgomery
Vicksburg Blues lyrics by Little Brother Montgomery
I got the Vicksburg Blues and I sing ‘em and ache everywhere I go I got the Vicksburg Blues and I sing ‘em and ache where I go And the reason I sing ’em is my baby didn’t want me know more I got the Vicksburg Blues and I sing ‘em and ache where I sleep I got the Vicksburg Blues and I sing ‘em and ache where I sleep And the reason I sing ‘em is to give my poor soul ease [Piano solo] * Now mama I ain’t gonna be your lowdown dog no more And I don’t like this old place, mama, and Lord and I never will And I don’t like this old place, mama, and Lord and I never will All I can sit right here and look at Vicksburg on the hill
Little Brother Montgomery - Vicksburg Blues
Forty Four lyrics by Howlin Wolf
I wore my .44 so long, I've made my shoulder sore. I wore my .44 so long, I done made my shoulder sore. Well, I'm wondrin everybody, where'd my baby go. Well, I'm so mad this mornin, I don't know where in the world to go. Well, I'm so mad this mornin, I don't know where in the world to go. Well, I'm lookin for me some money, pawned gun to have some gold.