Alabama bluesman Jerry "Boogie" McCain (1930-2012) is a prolific songwriter and one the world's most influential amplified harmonica players. His songs are admired for their humorous social commentary and natural vocal delivery as well as for their innovative harmonica leads. Critics regard his 1960 instrumental Steady as a blues harmonica classic. Although McCain has continued to adapt with the times, his musical standards and lyrical wit have remained consistent throughout his career.
Jerry "Boogie" McCain was born June 19, 1930, in Gadsden, Etowah County. At birth McCain was named Paul Edward, but his parents Marcellas and Cynthia Nickols McCain called him Jerry from infancy. He was the youngest of five siblings. Both former sharecroppers from Talladega County, Cynthia played guitar with her sister at the Holiness church and Marcellas kept a Rockola jukebox at his barbecue stand. Jerry began playing harmonica at the age of five, developing his skills by playing with other musicians on the streets of Gadsden. As a teenager, he performed on the local radio station WETO, accompanied by friends playing a jug and washboard to keep the beat. He earned the nickname "Boogie" for his facility with up-tempo rhythmic melodies. McCain dropped out of Carver High School in the ninth grade. He later worked as a bounty hunter, delivered furniture, and worked at a foundry in Gadsden.
In 1953, McCain's talent for mimicry and parody led to his first record when he met his harmonica hero, Marion Walter "Little Walter" Jacobs, in Gadsden. Young Jerry surprised Little Walter with a new twist on one of Little Walter's own hit songs, recasting himself as the hero who makes Little Walter's "light burn so dim." Little Walter was so amused by McCain's audacity, and impressed with his harmonica skills, that he started calling him "Junior." McCain then sent a recording of the tune to Lillian McMurray of Trumpet Records. After listening to McCain's demo of Little Walter's "Crazy 'Bout You Baby," McMurray invited McCain to Jackson, Mississippi, where he recorded his first two sides, "Wine-o-Wine" and "East of the Sun" in the back of her furniture store.
Jerry's next records were produced by the Excello label in Nashville between 1955 and 1957, including "Courtin' in a Cadillac" and his take-off on Muddy Waters's "Mannish Boy" called "That's What They Want (Money Honey)." Originally marketed as singles, his 12 Excello songs were re-released together in 1995 on a CD titled That's What They Want: The Best of Jerry McCain.
In the late 1950s, McCain put together a band to make a recording in his Gadsden living room. Gathered around one microphone, they recorded 11 single-track songs, including "Geronimo Rock," "My Next Door Neighbor," "Rock & Roll Ball," and other high-energy tunes later released collectively in 1981 as an unauthorized bootleg record called Choo Choo Rock. The songs were later officially released as singles on the Excello label.
McCain recorded his most famous single, "She's Tough," and its flipside, "Steady," in 1960 at Homer Mylam's studio above Britling's Cafeteria on 1st Avenue North in Birmingham. The respected producer Cosimo Matassa released "Steady"/"She's Tough" on his New Orleans label, Rex. "She's Tough" eventually earned even greater renown than "Steady" when the Fabulous Thunderbirds covered it in 1980. In another Birmingham venture, McCain recorded several original songs, including "Soul Shag" and "Pussycat-a-Go-Go," at Heart Studio with a band called the Shindigs, who would later gain fame as Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs.
McCain supported the goals of the civil rights movement but did not consider himself a part of it. Believing that dangerous times warranted armed self defense, he could not commit to non‑violence because he knew his instinct would be to fight back if he were attacked. Still, he admired the discipline of non‑violent friends and family who participated in Gadsden's civil rights struggles. When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in Gadsden on June 21, 1963, McCain joined the caravan that escorted King safely from Birmingham to Gadsden's Galilee Baptist Church.
Throughout his career, McCain moved from label to label, recording mostly original material, usually with small independent companies hoping to make it big. Jewel, Gas, Continental, Romulus, Royal American, and Esco all produced Jerry "Boogie" McCain singles from the 1950s through the 1970s. The most established label was Okeh, a subsidiary of Columbia Records, and McCain's recording of Lionel Hampton's "Red Top" for the label made the Billboard charts. McCain's instrumental song "Jet Stream," released on Okeh in 1962, was praised by critics and included Boots Randolph on saxophone.
McCain has continued to write songs and play music. He has toured with the Temptations and recorded with the Muscle Shoals Horns. He has performed in Europe and in a variety of venues across the United States. Since 1989, he has worked primarily with Ichiban Records of Atlanta, with whom he has released several albums, in addition to working on side projects. He has continually updated his themes to reflect the times, with songs in the 1990s including "Sue Somebody," "Burn the Crackhouse Down," and "Viagra Man."
McCain has been honored with numerous awards, including an Alabama Folk Heritage Award in 2007. In 2008, he produced a two-volume greatest hits CD called Better Late Than Never on his own label, Boogiedown Records. As of spring 2009, McCain is reportedly working on a final album, All Good Things Must Come to an End.
One room of his Gadsden home is devoted to ephemera documenting his long career. Intermingled with handbills and album covers are plaques and tributes McCain has received over the years. Dozens of "blown out" harmonicas are suspended from the ceiling, which is lined with posters of his shows from past decades in his "harmonica graveyard." He was married three times and had two daughters. McCain died March 28, 2012, in Gadsden and was buried in Rainbow Memorial Gardens.
Published November 30, 2009
Last updated April 25, 2012