Grand Rapids First Blues Band; Little Wolf and the Gullyjumpers
by Kim Rush
Born on January 16, 1917, Willie Brown, Jr. was known to most everyone in the black community of Grand Rapids as ‘Wolf’ or Little Wolf. This was a common name for numerous blues musicians. This is derived from the huge success of blues legend, Howlin’ Wolf. At times Willie even claimed that he was a relative of Howlin’ Wolf.
Regardless of his borrowed stage name, he was Grand Rapids’ most popular black blues musician from 1956 until his death in 1987, and probably the first blues musician to assemble a blues band in Grand Rapids.
Before leaving Jonesboro, Arkansas in the mid 1950s he was playing the washboard in juke joints and at house parties and had become involved with bootlegging alcohol. He was arrested and sentenced to time in the penitentiary. According to Tom Mosley, who performed in Grand Rapids with Wolf for fifteen years, Wolf had told him about beatings that were inflicted on him while in prison. These were due to arguments with prison guards and his resistance to the work demands placed upon him while incarcerated. Wolf was forced to labor in cotton fields while in prison, and initially it was a challenge he placed upon himself to prove that he could pick as much as anyone else. But when he eventually refused to work, he was beaten severely. Wolf was a big man, but prison guards once resorted to placing Wolf into a cotton sack. They then proceeded to use the force of a horse’s hoof to keep Wolf pinned to the ground while they beat him. Prison personnel applied a mixture of axle grease and baking soda to his bruises to disguise them.
When Wolf was released from prison, he was forced to leave town by the police, and he moved to Grand Rapids. This was a common practice in Grand Rapids, as well. If you broke the law, the police would put you on a train or bus to a faraway destination, with a one-way ticket, and you were demanded not to return.
Wolf first lived in Grand Rapids with his cousin Maddie Jean Jackson and her husband, until he could find work and move out on his own. Wolf loved the blues, and hooked up soon with guitarist, vocalist and harmonica player Tom Mosley, who first moved to Michigan in 1947 from Hughes, Arkansas. By the time Wolf and Tom met, Tom had already lived in Gary between 1952-1955, and had played harmonica and sung with the late blues veteran Johnny Littlejohn.
Wolf and Tom’s first engagements were at house parties and upstairs above Ted Rasberry’s Club Duke at 412 Grandville S.W. Tom sang and played guitar and also had a harmonica “wired” around his neck, as Wolf played the washboard to provide the rhythm. Duke’s upstairs location was an after-hours gambling and drinking spot with no liquor license, and occasionally the police would raid it and impose harsh fines on everyone there. In the 1960s Ted Rasberry was charged with being connected with the one of the city’s largest “numbers racket” busts in Grand Rapids history. He reportedly paid 250,000 to avoid prison time. Ted was also a huge figure in the Negro League Baseball leagues, both owning and playing for many great teams.
Because of rigid segregation and lack of access to the local job market, blacks in Grand Rapids created an alternative economy. As Ed Hunnicutt says, “we did anything and everything we could to make money back then.” There were countless “legitimate” businesses created within the pre-Civil Rights black community, but there were also large profits to be made with prostitution and gambling.
Through the years, Wolf scrambled to make a living. He worked for a short while with Tom at a foundry. Wolf was known for throwing dances around town for many years. Typically, he supplied food, drinks and music, and charged admission to these events that were very well attended. For a number of years he also demolished condemned houses and sold the scrap materials to salvage companies. He also tried his hand at bootlegging alcohol and running numbers.
He was a friend of Joshua “Pop” Haynes, a prominent landlord who reportedly owned fifty buildings at the time of his brutal murder in 1968. He owned numerous houses where the Franklin Projects were built later that same year, near the southwest corner of Franklin and Division.
Wolf would accompany Haynes on Friday evenings while he went from building to building collecting rents in exchange for a fee. The night that Haynes was murdered, Wolf had helped him collect rents. Haynes had told Wolf that he was not feeling well and went home to rest. Later that evening, police came to Wolf’s apartment to question him about the murder. Lula Gilleyhem, Hayne’s girlfriend who was living with him, was eventually charged with the murder.
Frank Lamar’s Horseshoe Bar with Little Wolf and the Gullyjumpers
Tom Mosley, Fred Johnson and Wolf on stage at the Horseshoe Bar
Wolf and Tom soon joined forces with Fred Johnson, a singer and guitarist from Mississippi. Numerous people have stated that he resembled B.B. King with his guitar playing. This was to be the core of the band until around 1970. They were also very fortunate to locate an ongoing engagement that ran from from 1956 until around 1970.
Frank Lamar had hired various types of musicians since opening his Horseshoe Bar around 1947. One of the most popular performers at his place was Bennie Keys, who had established himself as a tap dancer, drummer and vocalist in Chicago during the late 1920s. He had moved to Grand Rapids in 1937.
After migrating from the south, many blacks had rejected blues music and understandably, tried to elevate themselves with “more sophisticated” forms of music. For some, distancing yourself from the blues and the juke joint environment was perceived to be a positive step away from the times and experiences of slavery, sharecropping and a seemingly hopeless future.
However, Lamar was a blues lover at heart and sensed that there were many people in the community that missed the deep tradition and immediacy of the blues, and figured that he’d give Wolf a chance at the Horseshoe. Within months, the crowds began to gather and there were lines of people waiting to get in. Lee Virgins states that his parents would park their car in the vacinity of Lamar’s place at 333 Grandville S.W, just to watch the crowds of people that were congregating around the Horseshoe. At that time, the Horseshoe was located in a residential neighborhood, and many people walked to the bar. The building is still there, but there is only one home left standing in the immediate area of the Horseshoe.
The Horseshoe Bar in 1957
Until the early 1970s, the local musicians union would send their agents to nightclubs where large crowds were attending to check to see if the musicians were signed up with the union. As a result, in December of 1956 the union’s newsletter listed that they had acquired new members including Ed Hunnicutt, Fred Johnson, Tom Mosley, Willie Brown, and Leroy Killion. The union agent (at that time it was John Williams) would talk to the bar owner and tell them that they could not hire non-union musicians. The musicians were also forced to join the union and to pay “taxes” (dues). The agents would keep checking on the musicians and bar owners to make sure that they were compliant.
Wolf would hire sax players such as Leroy Killion, Otis Green and Waverly Darling, and eventually added a drummer and talented vocalist named Charles “Hootenpie” Kimbro. Wolf had abandoned his washboard for a set of drums. He also played the piano while Hootenpie played the drums. Another mainstay of the band was Ed Hunnicutt, a talented keyboard player from Chattanooga. At the time Ed started playing with Wolf he was barely old enough to be in a bar. Ed began to notice that the guitarists were getting most of the attention from the crowd. So, between breaks, Tom taught Ed how to play some guitar chords, and Ed soon became equally proficient on guitar and keyboards, going on to play with most of the better musicians in Grand Rapids.
Wolf’s forte was as a showman, but musicians that played with him claim that although he was not a flashy drummer , he kept steady time, and generally stuck to the blues style. He was a natural comedian and could ‘work’ the crowd and would do anything to get their attention. He would offer the drum chair to Hootenpie, then clown around on the piano, acting like he was playing with his hind end. There were some risque things Frank Lamar made him stop doing after Wolf tried them a few times.
Frank got the band a job playing in Idlewild at the Flamingo, and the band played various places in Grand Rapids like the Ferris Bar, Franklin Bar, Gussy Wussy’s on Division, as well as in Benton Harbor. They played at Roma Hall for a dance featuring Muddy Waters, where Tom met harmonica virtuoso James Cotton. Reportedly, the band started at 12.00 per man per night and ended up making 15.00 per night, at the Horseshoe.
Around 1970, Fred Johnson became unreliable in terms of showing up on time for their engagements and Lamar told Tom and Wolf that he was not going to tolerate it any longer. Tom decided to quit at that time, equally frustrated with Fred. Wolf’s tenure at the Horseshoe lasted a short while longer as he tried to build another good band. But with the loss of proficient musicians like Tom and Fred, Lamar eventually realized that it was time to make a change. Lamar approached Ed Hunnicutt with the idea of forming a jazz band with bassist Leroy Piper and drummer Cecil Burress to take over for Wolf. Ed states that people were expecting blues when they began presenting their new music and they did not draw crowds. This was the beginning of the end for the Horseshoe Bar as a place to come for good entertainment. Frank was beginning to suffer with poor health and could not be as involved with the place as he once was. He died in 1975.
From left to right Foots Brown, Eddie Ingram (seated), Wolf at the drums, Tommy Frey on guitar and Jr. Body on harmonica
Wolf regrouped quickly and started working with Fred Johnson, Jr. Body on harmonica, “Foots” Brown on guitar, Tommy Frey on bass, and his girlfriend, Eddie Ingram, supplying occasional vocal solos. They played a weekend long concert and dance at Roma Hall in the early 70s. Johnny Littlejohn was a featured entertainer for this event. Littlejohn maintained his relationship with Tom Mosley and Wolf and his band members until his death, and travelled to Grand Rapids regularly to play at the Horseshoe, staying with Tom and his family. According to an interview with Littlejohn, he had recorded in Chicago with Wolf and his band, but the tapes have not yet surfaced.
When Tom was playing with Littlejohn in Gary in the early 50s, they had a talented woman drummer that also sang and played piano. Margaret Lamar, (no relation to Frank), was a fixture on the Gary blues scene for many years, and also came to Grand Rapids to play at the Horseshoe with Wolf and his band. She would stay at the Lamar Hotel (upstairs from the Horseshoe) and became very close with Wolf’s girlfriend, Eddie. She would also stay with Eddie while in Grand Rapids, and Eddie visited her in Gary, as well.
From 1974 to 1983 Benny Keys Jr. played with Wolf’s band. Fred Johnson was with the band at the time. He was just a teenager when he started and recalls it as being an amazing experience. Wolf would rent a building to play at and have people collecting money at the door. “One place was on Jefferson near a fish place.” Fred loaned him music books and Benny also maintains that Fred “really knew what he was doing when it came to music. At that time we were playing every type of music known to man, including country and western.”
Eddie had broken off her relationship with Wolf about a year before his death. He had been abusive and jealous of her, had always cheated on her, and destroyed her eyesight in one eye during a fight. Wolf didn’t like being put out and tried desperately to get her back, but he ended up going back to his old girlfriend Mildred Smith who lived on Cass S.E. Eddie knew that he was becoming very ill with heart problems and diabetes, and he was not taking care of himself. Mildred did not want Eddie to see Wolf during that period. However, in October of 1987 Eddie received a call from Mildred notifying her that Wolf died. Eddie still had some of his clothes in her closet, and ironed his best shirt for him so that he would look nice at his funeral.