Joe Willie Wilkins and Houston Stackhouse

by Arne Brogger

Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) had a syndicated radio program originating from Helena, Arkansas, on station KFFA. One of the sponsors was King Biscuit Flour. The guitar players in that band were Joe Willie Wilkins and Houston Stackhouse. If you look at the famous picture of the group, with Sonny Boy blowing harp and the drummer down center with "King Biscuit Boys" hand-painted on the Kick Bass head, you will see a very young Joe Willie and Stack standing center right.

Joe and Stack were lifelong friends, and when I met them they were living together in Joe's house along with Joe's wife, Carrie. The house was small and cluttered. The furnishing was definitely second-hand and attested to the fortunes that befall those who live and play the blues. A record player stood next to the front wall of the house and as I entered, "Smokestack Lightning" was coming form the small speaker in the front of the machine. "Howli'n Woof," as Carrie Wilkins pronounced it, provided the background music that afternoon. Aside from the sparse furnishings, boxes of unknown contents and the old record player, the house also contained the three pictures I had come to expect seeing in any house I visited in black Memphis: one of FDR, another of JFK and the third of Martin Luther King, Jr.


The day I arrived, Stack was in the backyard tending to a barbecue on which he was cooking catfish. He had made a batter (the recipe for which he would not divulge, even to Carrie Wilkins) into which he dipped each fillet before placing it on the grill. Once the batter was browned, the fish was basted with a sauce (equally secret) and cooked a bit longer. I have eaten catfish at Gallitoirs in New Orleans, at the First and Last Chance Cafe in Donnaldsonville, Louisiana, and at Positanno in New York City. None came close to the magic wrought by Houston Stackhouse.

More Than A Thousand Words...

Joe and Stackhouse had a band called the King Biscuit Boys, which consisted of the two of them on guitars, Sonny Blakes on harp, Melvin Lee on bass and Homer Lee Jackson on drums. I have a picture of this band, playing under a single light bulb, in a juke joint in northern Mississippi. They are playing on a small stage, raised all of six inches above the floor. Joe Willie is sitting on a Coca-Cola crate. It was taken decades after the famous picture in Helena, but the spirit is identical. It is a picture that is as evocative as any that hangs in a museum, a picture that one can almost hear.

On stage, Joe Willie and Stack's sense of time and place of that bygone era was evoked with a raucous reverence and unselfconscious reveling in the spirit of the moment. Whether it was a Robert Johnson tune (an artist they both new personally) like "Me And The Devil" or Sonny Boy's "Nine Below Zero," their performance was fresh and exciting.

A Guy Me And Stack Used To Know...

I remember one incident when we were playing a date somewhere in North Carolina. It was an outdoor festival and one of the performers was a young white artist who performed solo (his name escapes me). During his set, he kept time with both feet, each alternating with the beat and off-beat. It was a very visual performance, and I was standing next to Joe and Stack watching from backstage. Suddenly, Joe turned to Stack and asked, "Who does that boy remind you of?" Without hesitation, Stack said "Robert." I asked Joe who "Robert" was. He looked and me and said, "Robert Johnson, a guy me and Stack used know. He passed a long time ago." "Oh," I said.

The idea that legends like Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton (from the famous Stovall's Plantation in Mississippi, were a young McKinley Morganfield drove a tractor) and others, were contemporaries and friends (or at least acquaintances) of the members of the Caravan, was something that continually amazed me. There was, of course, no reason that it should. The blues-playing community was small and geographically confined. Even still, standing next to Joe and Stack that day in North Carolina, all I could muster at the explanation of who "Robert" was, was a simple and weak "Oh...."

Well, All Right...

Houston Stackhouse was quiet and almost shy. He was the direct counterpart to the more outgoing Joe Willie and deferred to Joe in any conversation. The bond between them was unspoken and rooted in decades of shared experience and obvious respect for the other's artistry. Stack's playing supported Joe's, and during a performance he only took a solo after receiving a nod from Joe.

At the end of a tune, Joe would sometimes ask Stack what he thought. "How was that Mr. Stackhouse...?" Stack's reply was always the same "Well, all right..." On the bus, he was referred to as "Mr. Well, all right" and endured the teasing with a good-natured grin.

I Won't Be Afraid... No, No, I Won't Shed A Tear...

In 1981, we had an invitation to play some dates in Rhode Island, ending up in Woodstock, New York, at a club called Joyous Lake. Joe Willie, who had never enjoyed good health, had by this time undergone a colostomy. When the offer for this tour came in, I had a private conversation with Carrie Wilkins before I spoke with Joe Willie. I asked her if she thought that Joe was physically up for the trip. She said "playin' is all that man talks about" and thought the trip might be a mental tonic for him. She accompanied Joe on all his dates and was the official female caretaker and nurturer for the entire Caravan. Her first responsibility, however, was always to Joe.

These East Coast dates were played with an abbreviated roster of performers that consisted of Joe Willie, Stackhouse and band, and Memphis Ma Rainey. The dates went well, and Joe seemed genuinely pleased to be out playing. The morning after the Woodstock show, I drove the entourage in a nine-passenger station wagon down to La Guardia airport for the flight back to Memphis.

On the trip down, conversation in the car fell silent after a time. I looked around the car. Everyone was asleep. Everyone except Joe Willie. I was listening to the radio quietly and watching the miles roll past. After a time, Ben E. King's "Stand By Me" came on. This was before the movie by the same name and during the time when the song was only occasionally heard on the radio. For some reason, the words had a special meaning for me at this particular listening, and when it was over, I smiled. As I did, I happened to look in the rear view mirror and saw Joe Willie smiling too. We looked at each other, smiling. Then Joe Willie said, "Man, isn't that a beautiful tune?" I nodded.

We continued on in somnolent silence until we reached the airport. Joe Willie Wilkins died a week later. Now, every time I hear that tune, I see Joe Willie's smiling face.

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