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Maxwell Street Blues: Remembering Jimmie Lee Robinson

Guitarist, bassist, and singer Jimmie Lee Robinson, active on the Chicago blues scene since the 1940s, died on Saturday, July 6th, 2002. Early this year Jimmie Lee was diagnosed with a large malignant tumor in his sinuses, which he had removed at the end of April. He began gigging again almost immediately, playing at a celebration of his 72nd birthday at the Deep Blue club in Schaumburg just four days after his surgery, but apparently the cancer had already spread to other parts of his body, and his health deteriorated rapidly over the following months.

For those who aren't familiar with him or his music, Jimmie's blues resume was long and illustrious. Born in Chicago's Cook County hospital and raised in the nearby Maxwell Street neighborhood, he began playing guitar on the bustling Maxwell Street market scene when he was in his early teens in the mid 1940s. By the late '40s he was good enough to have played behind blues legends Memphis Minnie and Big Bill Broonzy among others. Around 1950 he formed his first band, The Every Hour Blues Boys, which consisted of Frank "Sonny" Scott (still one of his best friends) on drums, with Jimmie Lee and a young Freddie King sharing guitars and vocals. In the mid 1950s Jimmie was playing on local gigs with Elmore James when Little Walter recruited him into his band, where he spent the next few years. He recorded on a couple of sessions with Little Walter, appearing on "Confessing The Blues", "Temperature", "Ah'w Baby" and several other of Walter's well-known recordings. He also moonlighted on sessions with his long-time friend Eddie Taylor on the Vee Jay label. In the late '50s Jimmie left Walter's band and joined up with Magic Sam for a while, and around this time cut a few singles of his own for the local Bandera label (backed by Luther Tucker and Eddie Clearwater, among others.) It was for Bandera that Jimmie Lee recorded his single "Times Getting Harder" and "Twist it Baby", notable now because future Delmark label-mate Jimmy Burns was then a member of The Medallionaires vocal group that provided the backing vocals.

In the '60s he played and / or recorded with Willie Mabon, Sunnyland Slim, Mighty Joe Young, Shakey Jake, Howlin' Wolf among many others, and made it over to Europe as part of the 1965 American Folk Blues Festival with John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Big Walter Horton, Big Mama Thornton, Eddie Boyd, et al, but eventually retired from music as a full time pursuit and opened a candy store on Chicago's South Side. During the '70s he played part time, often with his friend Little Willie Anderson (a disciple of Jimmie Lee's former employer Little Walter), made it over to Europe for a few more tours, and recorded sporadically, but by the '80s had almost completely abandoned his music.

When I met him in the late '80s, he was working as a cab driver; I encouraged him to get back into music, and invited him out to sit in on the regular gigs I was then doing at a club called Lilly's with The Ice Cream Men. This led to appearances on the Chicago Blues Festival in 1991 and '93, and eventually to Jimmie Lee's his first full-length album, Lonely Traveler released on Delmark in 1994 to widespread praise. He took off from there and started working again pretty regularly, but found it both financially and artistically advantageous to work as an acoustic solo artist rather than in a full band setting as he had for most of his professional career. Over the last decade he stayed busy doing festivals and short tours, including numerous trips overseas, and released four or five CDs of mostly acoustic material on various labels, including his own Amina Records. He retired from cab driving, but continued to drive his cab, emblazoned on the sides with "Delmark Recording Artist Jimmie Lee Robinson - The Lonely Traveler", around town as a rolling advertisement for his musical comeback. In addition to his own recordings, he also occasionally recorded as a sideman for several of his old friends and musical cronies on the Chicago blues scene.

In the early 1990s he wholeheartedly threw his support behind the fight to preserve what little remained of the historic Maxwell Street neighborhood he grew up in during the '30s and '40s, and became one of the most active and vocal spokespersons for this cause in his final years.

At some point fairly early in his musical career he converted to the Muslim faith and adopted the name Latif Aliomar. But to the end, his close friends and musical family knew him as Jimmie Lee, one of the kindest and gentlest souls on the Chicago blues scene. Jimmie Lee Robinson was 72 years old.

Scott Dirks is the co-author, with Tony Glover and Ward Gaines, of the recent book

Blues With A Feeling - The Little Walter Story, Routledge Press, 2002.

(Above photo by James Fraher)