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The movie “Tail Dragger” recalls Chicago as the capital of the blues

Filmmaker Kevin Mukherji’s new documentary ‘Tail Dragger’ tells the story of an 82-year-old blues singer who was a protege of Howlin’ Wolf and whose career harkens back to the heyday of blues clubs on the west and south sides of Chicago.

“I first met Tail Dragger almost 30 years ago,” Mukherji told an audience Saturday after the film premiered at Classic Cinemas Lake Theater in Oak Park. “I’ve been filming his performances for 25 years.”

Tail Dragger, real name James Yancy Jones, represents one of the last direct ties to an era when booze flowed and musicians fueled the nocturnal reverie that helped Chicago claim its place among the world’s capitals of blues.

“I’m still here above ground,” Jones told fans during a Q&A after the screening.

I asked Jones how his music celebrates fun when so many people associate the blues with sadness.

“The blues makes me feel good,” he replied. “The blues is happy music. You have ups and downs. Life is like that. You take the bitter with the sweet.

“Tail Dragger” chronicles how Jones visited relatives in Chicago from his native Arkansas as a teenager in the 1950s. He settled permanently in the Windy City in 1966 after a stint in the U.S. Army.

He worked entire days driving trucks and fixing cars and stayed out until the wee hours of the morning learning to play and sing the blues. Live blues music was great entertainment for people after a long day or week of work.

In its heyday, it must have seemed like there was a blues club on every corner in some part of Chicago.

“I grew up on the South Side,” “Tail Dragger” producer John McNaughton said Saturday. “Muddy (Waters) and Howlin’ Wolf, they lived not too far from me.”

McNaughton directed, co-wrote and co-produced his first feature film, “Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer”, released in 1986. His other films include “Mad Dog and Glory” (1993) and “Wild Things” (1998).

McNaughton said he helped Mukherji make “Tail Dragger” because Jones has such a compelling story to tell.

“He’s got a huge personality,” McNaughton said. “Telling stories is what I do for a living, and this man is a story.”

Mukherji, 59, has appeared as an actor in numerous films and TV shows and directed several films, including “We Are One”, a 2017 documentary starring Harold Ramis, Jimmy Carter, Forest Whitaker and d ‘others.

Mukherji directed “Death and Taxis”, a 2007 film starring Tail Dragger in an acting role. Emmy-nominated and longtime Ravinia Festival communications director Nick Pullia wrote “Death and Taxis” and hosted Saturday’s premiere.

Mukherji said shooting this film in Tennessee and Arkansas 15 years ago strengthened his resolve to make a film about Tail Dragger’s life.

“We have to be good friends,” Mukherji said. “It’s a passionate project, which comes straight from the heart.

I appear briefly in “Tail Dragger”, talking about Jones’ influence as a performer and the history of blues music in Chicago. Mukherji reached out after he read a column that I wrote about how blues music could be used as an educational tool to help bridge America’s racial divide.

I met Jones in 2020 during the first months of the pandemic at his home on the North Side of Chicago. COVID-19 had turned his life upside down. Restrictions on group gatherings had deprived him of opportunities to perform in public. He has no performances scheduled in the Chicago area, he said Saturday, but is expected to play in Finland in January.

Chicago blues singer James Yancy Jones, better known as Tail Dragger, at his home in Chicago's Austin neighborhood in 2020.

Jones has recorded six albums, including two for Chicago’s Delmark Records, but his legacy is more as a live performer than a recording artist. He told the audience on Saturday that he never wrote lyrics before recording songs in the studio, he just made them up on the spot.

“You have nothing to write,” he said. “You don’t have to write life. You live life every day. When I write a song, it happened to someone I know. That’s how I feel.”

Mukherji said he wanted “Tail Dragger” to be a biography, not a music documentary.

“I didn’t want it to be just for the music,” he said. “His life is more than just music. I had to find a balance between the music and the story of his life.

The most dramatic part of the story happened in 1993, when Jones shot and killed Boston Blackie, another Chicago blues artist. Jones claimed self-defense, was convicted of second degree murder and served 17 months in prison.

The two men were embroiled in a dispute over $70 in payments owed to musicians after the 1993 Chicago Blues Festival, Jones said. He avoided Blackie for weeks, he said, but Blackie confronted him one night at a club. He lunged at Jones with a knife, Jones pulled out a gun and shot Blackie in the eye.

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“It wasn’t something I wanted to do,” Jones said Saturday. “I asked the man to please leave me alone. Everyone was laughing at me, ‘He’s scared, he’s running away.’ I was running because I didn’t want to hurt him. I knew I had no other choice. »

The murder adds to Jones’ mystique. He was given the name Tail Dragger by Howlin’ Wolf, whose real name was Chester Arthur Burnett (1910-1976). Jones met Wolf in the late 1960s in Chicago.

He got the name for two reasons. First, Jones often showed up late for gigs because he was working days off, he said, and second, he was slow to learn musical timing because he initially listened to what the guitarist was playing at the place of the band timekeeper, the drummer.

Mukherji said he is working with streaming services to distribute “Tail Dragger” in early 2023. The 90-minute film is entertaining and well-paced.

“What fascinated me the most about Tail Dragger was his life journey,” Mukherji said. “He never gave up. No matter how hard things got, he kept going. That’s something we can all learn from.

Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.

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