Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
Folks often ask me how I’ve come up with subjects for the Secret History of Chicago Music month after month. I have lots of answers, all of them true, including digging in record bins, falling down Internet rabbit holes, and cultivating knowledgeable friends. I’m tight with experts in several genres well represented in Chicago: big-city jazz, smooth soul, Americana-style folk, electric blues. My pal Jose Bernal, for instance, specializes in the blues as a DJ and has drummed in various blues outfits over the years (he also plays in my band Plastic Crimewave Syndicate). When I asked him about Chicago blues artists who don’t get enough love (and who haven’t been in SHoCM already), Bernal mentioned prolific guitarist Sammy Lawhorn.
That brings me to something else I often say when people get me talking about SHoCM: “I learn something from every strip I write.” It’s still true after 17 years, and I’m still in love with the whole process: discovering an artist, researching them, and then trying to assemble a cohesive history from what I’ve found. Here’s my attempt to do that for one of the great unsung blues guitarists, Sammy Lawhorn, with sincere thanks to Mr. Bernal.
Lawhorn never worked regularly as a bandleader, so he remains relatively obscure despite being one of the most frequently recorded accompanists in blues history. Like most midwest-associated blues artists of his era, he was born in the south—specifically in Little Rock, Arkansas, on July 12, 1935. He ticks another “authentic bluesman” box, having built his own diddley bow as a lad. This single-string instrument, often just a board with a length of baling wire stretched between two nails and played with a slide, introduced many musically inclined Black children to the fundamentals of blues guitar. But Lawhorn’s was different: he literally nailed baling twine to the side of his house!
Lawhorn’s parents separated when he was young, and his mother remarried and moved without him to Chicago. His grandparents raised him in Arkansas, and in Little Rock he heard the blues from local street performers and touring legends such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Lowell Fulson, and T-Bone Walker.
As a teenager Lawhorn visited the Windy City to see his mother and stepfather, and they picked up on his musical inclination and got him a ukulele, then an acoustic guitar. This inspired Lawhorn to start learning gospel tunes, and his proud mama then shelled out for an electric guitar, which was no small investment in the late 1940s—the instrument had only just been adopted by Chicago bluesmen.
After studying for a few years, during which he got guitar tips from the great Big Bill Broonzy, Lawhorn went professional in 1950 at age 15. For his first gig, he backed singer, guitarist, and harmonica player Elmore Mickle (aka Driftin’ Slim or Model “T” Slim), who also recorded with a young Ike Turner around the same time.
Soon Lawhorn found himself playing with one of the most famous blues harmonica players of all time, Sonny Boy Williamson II, appearing with him on the famous King Biscuit Time radio show. Lawhorn honed his talents further with lessons from slide guitarist Houston Stackhouse (perhaps most famous for teaching Robert Nighthawk how to play), but his music career was interrupted when he was drafted into the navy in 1953. He served in Korea as an aerial photographer, where he was wounded by enemy fire, and stayed in the service until his discharge in 1958.
Lawhorn then moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he played on his first sessions, recording with artists such as Eddie Boyd, Roy Brown, and the 5 Royales. He also worked with blues harpist Willie Cobbs, who’s credited with writing a 1960 single they both played on, “You Don’t Love Me,” which later became a blues standard. Lawhorn contributed its distinctive guitar riff, and he disputed Cobbs’s claim to be the tune’s sole author. At that point Lawhorn had already started gigging in Chicago (even though his guitar was swiped at one of his first shows here), and when he became embittered with his experience in Memphis, he moved to the Windy City.
Now a formidable, versatile guitarist, Lawhorn could effortlessly work a tremolo arm (aka a whammy bar) to achieve his expressive tone and acrobatic solos. Muddy Waters hired him in 1964, and Lawhorn stayed with the legend for almost a decade, appearing on several of his most seminal albums, including the Folk Singer in ’64 (he’s on some of the reissue bonus tracks), The Real Folk Blues in ’66, and the London Muddy Waters Sessions in ’72.
Lawhorn also had a drinking problem, unfortunately, and it was getting worse. Waters fired him in 1973 because Lawhorn had started passing out onstage or in the band van, sometimes missing gigs entirely. Later Waters reportedly called Lawhorn the best guitarist he’d ever had in his band, which makes this especially sad.
While part of Waters’s band, Lawhorn landed impressive gigs with John Lee Hooker (he and other Muddy sidemen appear on 1966’s Live at Cafe Au-Go-Go), Otis Spann, Big Mama Thornton, and Johnny Young. After Waters let him go, he appeared on albums by Junior Wells (1974’s On Tap), Koko Taylor (1975’s I Got What It Takes), and James Cotton (1987’s Take Me Back), as well as recordings by Little Mack Simmons and Jimmy Witherspoon. During this period Lawhorn also backed some of his childhood heroes onstage, including T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins, and mentored the likes of guitarist John Primer.
For the last couple decades of his life, Lawhorn struggled with arthritis, which along with his alcoholism put a serious drag on his health. The arthritis had been exacerbated by an attack in 1972, when he’d been robbed in his home—the burglar threw Lawhorn out a third-story window, breaking bones in his feet and ankles. Lawhorn persevered, though, and after appearing with pianist Pinetop Perkins on the 1978 Alligator Records compilation Living Chicago Blues Volume 3, he finally got to make an album under his own name. He cut the 1980 LP After Hours (released by Isabel Records) while touring France. It would turn out to be his only album, sadly: he’d planned a second session in 1981 in Chicago, but it never came to pass. Lawhorn died on April 29, 1990, at age 54. He lived a hard life that ended too soon, but his legacy of incredible guitar playing survives on countless blues compilations, albums, and reissues.
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.