The Harlem Hamfats: Rediscovering the real McCoys of Chicago blues

Categories: Chicago Tribune

Benefit concert aimed at honoring brothers, who formed one of the city’s first and most influential blues bands, with belated gravestones at historic Restvale Cemetery.

By MARK GUARINO, Special to the Chicago Tribune

October 1, 2010

Self-taught virtuoso musicians Joe and Charlie McCoy formed what many consider to be Chicago’s first blues band and were commercial hit-makers whose influence can be heard in the music of Louis Prima, Chuck Berry and Led Zeppelin.

But the brothers, who migrated from Memphis to Chicago’s South Side in the early 1930s, were paupers when they died in 1950. They were buried next to each other in unmarked graves at Restvale Cemetery in Alsip.

A benefit Sunday night at the Old Town School of Folk Music is aimed at changing that. Organized by Arlo Leach, a musician and former instructor at Old Town, the concert will feature both local bands and some from as far away as New York City performing the McCoys’ songs — from the country blues they started out with to the zippier, often bawdy commercial blues that gained them fame.

“So many people today have no idea of what those people went through to give their art to us. The least we can do is give them a piece of granite that says, ‘Here is a bluesman and he died,'” said blues researcher Steve Salter, one of the organizers.

Salter runs a Web site ( that documents the graves of known and lesser-known blues musicians. He became involved through the invitation of Leach, who got the idea for the concert last year when he visited Restvale, a historic cemetery where at least 22 musicians are buried, including Muddy Waters, J.B. Hutto and Hound Dog Taylor. Plot numbers were assigned to the McCoys, but upon locating them, Leach saw only two empty stretches of grass.

“I was touched they were buried next to each other. … They had a close relationship and reflected (that) by their burial spots,” said Leach, who has held similar benefit concerts that resulted in headstones for Will Shade and Earl McDonald, two early pioneers of jug band music from Memphis and Louisville, respectively.

Because they recorded before World War II and did not benefit from the electric amplification that launched the postwar careers of Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon and many others, the McCoys have less of a profile, but were no less innovative.

Before moving to Chicago, the brothers recorded separately. But it was here that they established their legacy with the Harlem Hamfats: a freewheeling, musically adventuresome dance band that infused New Orleans instrumentation, such as horns and a piano, with ragtime string instruments, including ” Kansas” Joe’s guitar and “Papa” Charlie’s mandolin.

“They were tremendously popular,” said Steve Cushing, host of “Blues Before Sunrise,” the longtime radio show heard Sunday mornings on WDCB-FM 90.9. “They were wonderful musicians. They were real masters, you could tell, from the down-home stuff to the Hamfats, they had wide-ranging tastes.”

The band recorded at the Decca studios at 666 S. Lake Shore Drive and never left the South Side, said Bob Koester, founder of the Chicago blues and jazz label Delmark Records and owner of the Jazz Record Mart in downtown Chicago. He believes the Harlem Hamfats were Chicago’s first blues band. They chose the name Harlem to appeal to New York’s larger black population, to which their records were primarily marketed.

Their hits were as numerous as they were racy. Their wicked sense of humor, as evidenced on songs like “Oh Red!” and “Let’s Get Drunk and Truck,” helped them become one of the biggest dance bands of the ’30s. Their personality greatly influenced the bawdy swing style of bandleaders like Louis Prima.

But the McCoys’ greatest legacy may be as songwriters. Before the Hamfats, the McCoys can be heard on numerous recordings as session musicians, most notably for blues singer Memphis Minnie, who was also Joe McCoy’s wife. He and Minnie co-wrote “When the Levee Breaks,” which was altered 43 years later to become a signature Led Zeppelin song; Bob Dylan altered it again four years ago for “The Levee’s Gonna Break.”

A similar recycling took place in the McCoys’ own lifetimes with the Hamfats song “The Weed Smoker’s Dream,” which Joe McCoy reworked and retitled in 1941 as “Why Don’t You Do Now?” for blues singer Lil Green. Peggy Lee and the Benny Goodman Orchestra later recorded that version for the jazz standard “Why Don’t You Do Right?” Female singers from Ella Fitzgerald to Sinead O’Connor have recorded the song over the years.

John Hasbrouck, a mandolin player and guitar teacher from Pilsen whose duo the Northside Southpaws will perform Sunday, says he is most impressed by the musicianship heard on the McCoy recordings, especially on mandolin, an instrument more associated with bluegrass than blues.

For that reason, “McCoy is a very important mandolin player in American roots music,” said Hasbrouck. “There are a lot of bluegrass mandolins but in blues, there really are far fewer recordings in that style. He really stands out.”

The benefit hopes to raise nearly $2,000 for the headstones. Leach says he tried but was unsuccessful in finding any of the brothers’ relatives.

Not much is known about their personal lives past 1944. By that time, big bands dominated the charts. Electric blues and R&B were starting to dominate “race records” — those sold only in black neighborhoods — which led to the Harlem Hamfats getting shelved.

The McCoys died six months apart. Joe McCoy went first on Jan. 28, 1950, succumbing to heart disease at 44. Charlie followed, reportedly dying of paralytic brain disease on July 26 at Cook County Hospital. He was 41.

“The end of the story isn’t they died,” said Salter, who, separately from Leach, has raised money to erect headstones for five other blues artists.

“The story is, it goes on and what they accomplished is a wonderful thing,” he said.

Salter will lead a walking tour of Restvale the afternoon of the concert.

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