Boogie Chilluns Playhouse by Donnie Williams
-Subtitled: when the internet doesn't have all the answers
I found this song off the album 'Fernwood Rhythm 'N' Blues From Memphis'. I originally bought this album to get a song by Willie Cobb (see this post on You Don't Love Me, Baby). I finally got around to sorting the rest of it, and I got to this song that I kept coming back to listen to. It has some similarities with Mississippi Hill Country blues, in that it vamps with sparse vocals. A harmonica and saxophone line bring in different layers, providing a driving melodic line that the vocals do not carry. It has a hypnotic groove punctuated by occasional stops, the electric guitar sustaining a note until the drums kick back in. It was a surprise find from this album, and one I wanted to write about.
The challenge? There is very little I could find about the artist, Donnie Williams. Most references to the song point to a John Lee Hooker song called 'Boogie Chillen' written in 1948. There are some rhythmic similarities, the vamp or repetition of the song. John Lee Hooker's version is just his voice, guitar, and foot stomps without any additional instrumentation. The stops are evident as well, with great opportunities for rhythmic play (from a dancer's perspective).
Wikipedia does have an article on the song itself. Like my initial reactions, "it resembles early North Mississippi Hill country blues rather than the boogie-woogie piano-derived style of the 1930s and 1940s". The chillen/chillun part of the name comes from 'is a phonetical approximation of Hooker's pronunciation of "children"'.
Donnie Williams' version, recorded in 1964, is almost certainly a cover of Hooker's. While the lyrics are absent or don't line up, the characteristic groove of the song is hard to dismiss. 'Boogie Chillen' has been extensively covered, ultimately leading to a suit against ZZ Top for their song 'La Grange', a suit that was settled out of court in 1997. Congress, in 1998, amended the Copyright Act protections for 'many songs recorded before 1978 from entering the public domain'.
As far as the album, Steve Leggett has a review on Allmusic.com, saying this history of the album stems from a garage recording studio set up by Slim Wallace on Fernwood Street in Memphis. Most of the songs apparently never saw reprinting after their initial release. Fernwood also had subsidiary studios, Pure Gold among them, and it was on the Pure Gold label that 'Boogie Chilluns Playhouse' was released.
I couldn't find anything more on Donnie Williams. As far as I could find he had two songs cut on the subsidiary of Fernwood. I really enjoy this recording, and it was a good exercise in research where the information isn't readily available. Hopefully someone will be able to find something more on this artist.