Only the hiss and crackle that bedevilled his original recordings for many years has prevented Charley Patton from receiving the same adulation that surrounds the cult of Robert Johnson. His recordings are now 'cleaned up' by the wonders of digital technology, and in recent years Patton has finally begun to receive his due – for, by any estimation, he was one of the most significant and influential bluesmen of them all with a valid claim to be the true 'King of the Delta blues'.
Born in southern Mississippi on the Heron plantation between Bolton and Raymond, various dates have been given for his birth ranging between 1881 and 1891, although the latter is now generally accepted as correct. The spelling of his name has also been the subject of scholarly dispute – 'Charley' is now widely used, although Patton himself favoured 'Charlie'.
What we do know with some certainty is that, sometime towards the end of the 1890s, his sharecropping parents moved north to Ruleville to work on the Will Dockery Plantation, which had opened for business in 1895. There, the young Patton became fascinated by the playing of the guitarist Henry Sloan, whom he followed around and soon copied. By his late teens he was by all accounts already a precociously fine performer and songwriter. Around 1910, he hooked up with the guitarist Willie Brown, who later accompanied him on many of his recordings, and he was soon exerting an influence on other guitarists, such as Tommy Johnson, who moved to the Ruleville vicinity sometime around 1913 and added a version of Patton's Pony Blues to his repertoire.
Patton and Brown wandered all around the Delta, travelling north to Memphis and as far west as Arkansas and Louisiana, playing plantation picnics and dances with various musicians, including members of the Chatmon family, to whom Patton was related. By 1926, a young Robert Johnson was following them around, eagerly picking up all the guitar tips he could. Yet, despite his wanderings, Patton remained based on the plantations. He left Dockery’s at the end of 1921 and moved to the Cottondale plantation, but was thrown off it by the owner only months later for beating his wife (one of several) in a drunken frenzy. He moved on again, but by 1924 was back at Dockery’s, which he used as a base for the next five years while wandering nomadically and playing throughout the Delta and the hill country around Vicksburg, as well as making trips further afield to New Orleans, St Louis, Milwaukee and Chicago. Intriguingly, when he died (by which time he was living on the Heathman-Dedham plantation near Indianola), his death certificate listed his occupation not as ‘musician’ but 'farmer'.
He made his first recordings in 1929 after he had written to Mississippi music store owner and part-time talent scout H.C. (Henry) Speir, asking if he could arrange for him to record. Speir travelled to Dockery's to hear him and then recommended him first to Victor, who rejected him, and then to Paramount, who invited him to travel 750 miles north to Richmond, Indiana, where he recorded fourteen sides in a single day on 14 June 1929, earning $700, at $50 a song. He was invited to record again three months later, this time at Paramount's new studio in Grafton, Wisconsin, where he cut twenty-two more sides, some with minimal accompaniment from fiddler Henry Sims. The tracks from both sessions bristle with an intensity that is huge and unforgettable, and belies the fact that he was only five foot, five inches tall and weighed 135 pounds. It was said that his voice could carry 500 yards without amplification, and his gritty singing was an influence on Howlin' Wolf – just one of the many bluesmen who fell under his spell.
The 1929 recordings, most of which were released as 78rpm singles, made him the biggest-selling blues singer of his time, but his showmanship had already made him a Delta celebrity before he even entered a studio. ‘Charley Patton was a clowning man with a guitar,’ Sam Chatmon recalled. ‘He be in there putting his guitar all between his legs, carry it behind his head, lay down on the floor and never stopped picking’. All this almost half a century before Jimi Hendrix, of course. Other accounts recall a dapper, raffish figure who enjoyed his fame and was a noted womanizer and drinker. ‘He was a nice guy but he just loved the bottle,’ Howlin' Wolf recalled. ‘Like all the rest of the musicians he was a great drinker. I did know him to play good and everybody liked him. He was a mixed-breed fellow, a light-skinned guy’. Wolf suggested he looked like a Puerto Rican and many have suspected that he had some Mexican blood in him. Honeyboy Edwards reckoned ‘Charlie always had a lot of women. Men didn't like him much because all the women was fools over him.’
After his two 1929 sessions, he recorded again for Paramount the next year with Willie Brown and Son House accompanying him, but the onset of the Depression meant that he didn’t cut his fourth and final session until a couple of months before his death in 1934, when he travelled to New York and recorded around twenty-five sides for the American Record Company over three days. Several of the tracks also featured the voice of his last wife Bertha Lee, but only ten sides were ever released. In line with common practice at the time, when the released sides failed to sell in sufficient quantities, the rest were routinely destroyed.
It is unfortunate that the masters of his 1929–30 recordings have not survived, for when Paramount went out of business the metal masters were sold off as scrap to line chicken coops. Hence the Patton recordings we have are all taken from the original scratched and heavily played 78s and, although digital noise-reduction processes have greatly improved the sound, even modern technology has not been able to restore the quality to its original pristine state.
By the time of his 1934 recordings, his voice was a lesser instrument, possibly due to a drunken incident in which an assailant had slashed his throat with a knife the previous year, damaging his vocal folds in the process.
Nevertheless, he still left an extraordinary body of work, such as the featured ‘Banty Rooster Blues’, ‘Moon Going Down’ and ‘I’m Going Home’, a spiritual recalled from his childhood and embellished by his own infrequent attempts at being a preacher like his father. Patton was a man of his times and also sung ballads and songster pieces, and covered other hits of the day, such as Sophie Tucker's ‘Some Of These Days’. His songs describe a narrowly defined landscape of cotton towns, plantations, southern railway lines and the local jail that you could almost call parochial.
He died on the Heathman-Dedham plantation, near Indianola, on April 28, 1934, and is buried in Holly Ridge (both towns are in Sunflower County). His death certificate states that he died of a mitral valve disorder.