Casey Jones, a Chicago drummer, singer and frontman among the dwindling ranks of musicians who’ve performed with the city’s legion of blues legends, died May 3 at 77 after battling prostate cancer.
“He recorded with Howlin’ Wolf, recorded a song with Muddy Waters — giants of Chicago blues,” said Brett Bonner, editor of Mississippi-based Living Blues magazine. “He’s one of the last guys that goes back that far.”
Bruce Iglauer, founder of Chicago’s Alligator Records, called Mr. Jones “one of the great blues drummers of his generation.”
In a Facebook tribute, Iglauer said the drummer “sparked Alligator Records’ first five Albert Collins albums, all three of our Johnny Winter albums and our first releases by Lonnie Brooks.”
After many Southern-bred blues legends headed north to work in Chicago, “He was kind of the next generation to come in,” Bonner said. “He kind of added some funk.”
With Waters, he recorded “You Shook Me.” He also performed with Brooks, Willie Dixon, Otis Rush and Magic Sam. But his association with Collins lasted the longest and came at a time Collins was “at the top of his form,” Bonner said.
Mr. Jones played on six Grammy-nominated Alligator albums, including the 1985 Grammy winner “Showdown,” a “blues summit” featuring Collins, Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland. He also performed at Chicago’s Blues Fest and at the Kingston Mines.
“At Kingston Mines, he was playing every week for somebody,” said Justin O’Brien, a contributor to Living Blues. “I think he was there 25 years.”
Mr. Jones married the grit of Delta blues with the sinuousness of ’70s funk. “His bass drum-playing had that contemporary funkiness, while his hands played more traditionally,” Iglauer said. “He lifted up every song he played. And he was an excellent R&B singer.”
He was adept at the Chicago Shuffle — a style with a driving canter of a beat. “Entire record labels were being based off of that feel,” said Lance Lewis, a blues musician and manager at Kingston Mines.
Mr. Jones was a “first-call” player. When Alligator signed Collins in the late 1970s, “Casey was my first call,” Iglauer said.
As a member of Collins’ Icebreakers, he toured with the blues guitar great for about a decade, then focused on his own band and singing.
Starting out in the 1950s, Mr. Jones said he felt rich when he made his first $5 for a gig.
“Don’t give me no dollar bills,” he said in an interview with the National Association of Music Merchants. “I wanted all quarters, nickels and dimes. I wanted to go by my friends and jingle my pockets, you know, and brag.”
In a video recording of that interview, he described his glee at realizing he could sing: “They wanted me to sing ‘Lucille,’ and I hit that sucker — ‘Lucille, you won’t do your sisters will!’ ” He paused before letting loose with a screech worthy of Little Richard.
“Boy, that was the end of it, then,” he said. “I say, ‘Hey, I’m a singer.’ And it was no turning back, man.”
“If he caught your eye, he’ll pull you in, pull you in to his performance,” said Bryant Parker, a drummer known as Bryant T. who’s a son-in-law to Brooks, who died last month. He was “great, great, funny, soulful.”
Iglauer said, “He played with that same smile all the time.”
“He was always positive,” said his wife Bernice.
He had reason to be, according to Bonner: “He had his own record label. He was writing his own songs. He was producing his own records.”
A native of Nitta Yuma, Mississippi, Mr. Jones used to play with the Coleman High School band in nearby Greenville, said his daughter Judy Miller. At 13, he followed his sister Atlean Luke to Chicago. She and her husband gave young Casey his first drum set. He played in the Crane High School band.
He met Bernice when she came to hear his group play. She said a priest refused to marry them, saying they wouldn’t last six months because he was black and she was white. A minister married them in 1961, and they raised their family in Morgan Park in a home filled with cats, dogs, fish, birds. He liked big dogs, including his favorite — Soldier, a giant of a gray Great Dane.
Even if he was tired from having played a late set the night before, he’d volunteer his big musicians’ van — which sat about 12 — to take his kids and others on outings, according to his daughter Tiffany and son Rodney.
He usually played a set of Ludwig drums and sometimes had a day job driving a bus, Lewis said.
Mr. Jones is also survived by his sisters Velma Frierson and Viola Wilkerson, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Services have been held.