“My ‘scratchin’’ style came about because I sat down one day, I didn’t know what to play. It really came from ‘Kansas City’, that ‘chicka-chick-chick’. The guy who recorded me said ‘I don’t want that!’… I said ‘I’m gonna play what I want to play, if you don’t like it, forget about it... I got a name for scratchin!’”
That was how Wild Jimmy Spruill (June 9th, 1934 - February 15th, 1996) described his playing style to researcher John Broven, in 1986. He went on to explain it as “…up and down strokes, but I knew how to choke the strings… you had to choke all the way down the neck to get that scratchin’ sound. Then I bent the notes, eight notes above from where I started… you know, ‘Eeeeooowwww’ back down. It’s hard if you don’t know how to do it, but to me it come natural. It was my own sound. I don’t go behind nobody… if I can’t be my own person, I don’t bother with it!”
Virtually everything we know about Jimmy Spruill is based on two interviews he gave, fairly late in his life/career - in Juke Blues (Autumn 1986, John Broven with Paul Harris & Richard Tapp) and Living Blues (May/June 1994, Margey Peters) - plus his many and various entries/namechecks in Vols 1 & 2 of Blues Records (1987 and 1994, respectively). In the following liner notes, all quotes are taken from these interviews (NB: in a couple of instances, extracts from separate quotes have been dovetailed together to facilitate continuity).
In broad brush stroke terms, Spruill’s interviews serve to confirm that he arrived in New York in 1955, where - between the mid 50s and mid 70s - he carved out an unlikely career as a well-respected and consistently busy session guitarist (in all, he reckoned that he played in excess of three thousand sessions). Unlikely, only because he insisted that he’d had no real experience prior to playing his first session… and yet he clearly possessed a signature style which marked him out as rather different to his contemporaries. However, as was the case with so many session musicians of the era he paid scant attention to detail, and he never kept copies of any of the records on which he featured - even his own, solo releases. Consequently, although he was almost unfeasibly prolific - notably for Bobby and Danny Robinson’s group of labels, including Fire, Fury, Enjoy, Everlast and Vim - there are massive gaps in Spruill’s known ‘Discography’.
In general, all he could remember with conviction were the hits, and whilst he readily recalled an impressive list of artists with whom he’d recorded, he was often unsure precisely which of their other releases he’d played on. Indeed, in some cases, he would be booked to overdub guitar onto a half-finished backing track and never actually met the artist - as he recalled:
“Sometimes you go in, and they don’t even tell you the name of the artist. I have to hear the record, then I know… if I could hear the record, I could tell you exactly what I did. They (i.e. many of the other tracks) were done on the same sessions… I remember the ones that were selling, but if it wasn’t selling, I don’t remember…” Elsewhere, on a myriad other sessions, he was working with artists he’d never heard of: “There was a white group, can’t think of their name… they came from New Jersey, older guys… I played on sessions white Rock & Roll guys… didn’t know their names, I just happened to be the guitar player…” Moreover, he was active at a time when accurately written session personnel details simply didn’t exist… which sadly means that the full extent of Spruill’s legacy will almost certainly now never be fully known.
This compilation attempts to present as comprehensive an overview of Jimmy’s early career as is possible, within the confines of what we do know. No.1s are juxtaposed comfortably alongside relatively obscure collectors’ items, and his percussive, rhythmic, scratchy style runs rampant throughout. And whilst it may be incomplete, this remains a truly formidable body of work, and will hopefully go some way towards providing a renewed focus on an oft overlooked, and largely forgotten, early guitar hero.
Spruill came from traditionally humble beginnings, as he recalled: “I was born in the country, in North Carolina… June 9, 1934. My parents were James Spruill and Georgia Anna Spruill. He was a sharecropper, growing corn and stuff like that, watermelons, cotton. The land was so small, he shared… then we moved into town for a while, Washington. I had a happy childhood… we were poor but sometimes we ate cornbread, syrup and lard, all mixed together, fried - they called it home-cooked bread. It was hard times, man!”
Some sources suggest that his unusual surname (NB: John Broven confirms that Jimmy himself pronounced it “Spu-ril”) came via a German slavemaster, a century or so earlier, and may have been derived from ‘Spurill’. However, the name Spruill itself can be traced back to Scotland, in the Middle Ages, and was introduced into America in the 17th Century, when an eminent Scottish physician, Dr Godfrey Spruill, emigrated to Virginia before settling in Tyrrell County, North Carolina. In due course, his son, Joseph, would become Tyrrell County’s mayor, magistrate and chief of militia; this being the case, it seems a reasonable bet that Wild Jimmy’s own family tree may just have brushed shoulders with that of the pioneering Dr Godfrey.
To continue Spruill’s narrative: “I went up to about Grade 8 at school, but we kept moving all the time. We moved from North Carolina to Norfolk, Virginia, to Maryland. We were so poor we didn’t stay in one place for long. My father got hurt in a cotton gin… he couldn’t work no more… my mama had to take care of everything.”
“Where I got my music, was from the movies - Roy Rogers, Gene Autry. That’s where I got started from… I play Country & Western, also… a little bit of Jazz, Calypso - anything but Classics. I never liked The Blues too much… I liked Country & Western. I was about twelve years old when I started to take an interest in the guitar… I made my first guitar out of a cigar box and a rubber band. It was never in tune, but I made it! I made the guitar because I never had any money… I could get a kinda sound out of that, never could tune it, but I’d tighten it up as well as I could. The first proper guitar I had was a Harmony with a big hollow body… an old fellow gave it to me. Nobody taught me… like I said, I liked Gene Autry and Roy Rogers… I just liked the sound of string music. A little Stella was the first guitar I bought… Old Stella, they call it. I got that and I came to New York, and that’s where it all began…”
In answer to the question as to whether he was playing music before he came to New York: “No, no… picking cotton. That’s right, picking cotton and tobacco - a farm boy. Then I started working on my mama’s clocks, and fixing everything around the house. One thing maybe caused me to do that was my nerves killing me… I had that, then I started makin’ things… I love to do things with my hands, and also with my mind, ’cause you can’t do nothing with your hands, less you have a good mind to do it.
“People started to say, ‘Oh, he’s different.’ And they were right, I was different… I could learn things other people couldn’t learn, quickly. So I always stayed by myself most of the time… I didn’t have time to play around. I would do a lot of them ‘odds’n’ends’ jobs… dig a ditch, if someone wanted me to dig a ditch, or plaster a ceiling, or anything like that. I never had a job… I make my own work… do all my own thing…”
However, he went on to add that prior to his arrival in New York, he’d: “…played house parties, night fish fries, outdoor things for people around their pools…a lot of things like that...”