Jimmy McCracklin (1921–2012)

aka: James David Walker

Jimmy McCracklin was a renowned blues musician, singer, music industry entrepreneur, and songwriter. His hundreds of songwriting credits include his own recording of “The Walk,” which was a Top 10 hit for him in 1958, and “Tramp,” which was a Top 5 rhythm and blues (R&B) hit twice in 1967, first for Lowell Fulson and then as a duet by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. McCracklin steadfastly claimed to have composed, uncredited, his friend B. B. King’s blues standard “The Thrill Is Gone,” although that claim remains contested. McCracklin is characterized as having played West Coast blues, a style associated mainly with African-American musicians who, like McCracklin, migrated to the San Francisco Bay Area of California during the 1940s. However, he insisted that such regional distinctions were meaningless: “There’s no West Coast blues, no Arkansas blues, no Southern blues. Blues is a feeling. Blues is the blues.”

Jimmy McCracklin was born James David Walker on August 13, 1921, in Helena (Phillips County). He was adopted by his stepfather Berry McCracklin Sr. and lived on a farm in Phillips County, along with nine siblings (two brothers and seven sisters). His song “Arkansas (Parts 1 and 2),” recorded in 1965, recalls his rural upbringing. At about age ten, he moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to live with the brother of his mother, Emma. While there, he trained as a boxer and learned to play piano from the esteemed blues musician Walter Davis, who was a friend of his stepfather.

McCracklin enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1941 and, by the mid-1940s, was living in southern California. His boxing career ended when he was injured in an automobile accident, after which he committed himself to developing his considerable musical talents to pursue a career in the music industry. In 1947, he relocated to Richmond, California, a small city north of Oakland on San Francisco’s East Bay, where he resided for much of the rest of his life. At various times, he owned some popular Bay Area dance clubs, as many as nine small record labels, and two music publishing companies, but he made his real mark as a pianist, singer, and songwriter. Perhaps his biggest and best-known hit recording was “The Walk.” On April 5, 1958, he performed it on one of the earliest national broadcasts of American Bandstand, sharing the stage with Paul Anka, the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Shirelles.

McCracklin enjoyed an unusually long career, performing and recording into his late eighties. His last album, Hey Baby, which he co-produced, was recorded and released in 2010. He was honored many times for his lifelong contributions to blues and R&B. In 1990, he received recognition from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation as a member of its second class of Pioneer Award recipients, along with Ray Charles, Albert King, Curtis Mayfield, and other notables. He also received a music legend award at the 2003 California Music Awards and the 2007 Living Legend and Hall of Fame award at the Bay Area Black Music Awards. In 2008, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. His many admirers include Elvin Bishop, Bob Dylan, and Bonnie Raitt. B. B. King ranked him among the three greatest blues and R&B songwriters of all time.

McCracklin faced progressively worsening health conditions during his elder years. He died on December 20, 2012, at Creekside Health Center in San Pablo, California. His wife, Beulah, preceded him in death in 2008. His survivors included their daughter Linette Susan (Sue) McCracklin, a professional singer who performed often with her father, and several stepchildren and grandchildren. He and his wife are buried in Sacramento Valley National Cemetery.

For additional information:
Herzhaft, Gérard.  Encyclopedia of the Blues. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1997.

“Interview: Jimmy McCracklin.” Sidewalks Entertainment. http://www.sidewalkstv.com/interview-jimmy-mccracklin/ (accessed September 11, 2017).

McCracklin, Jimmy D. Interviewed by Caroline Crawford and Ronnie Stewart, March 14, 2002. Regional Oral History Office. Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Selvin, Joel. “Richmond’s Jimmy McCracklin, A Top-Rank Bluesman for Many Years Isn’t Coming Back—He Never Left.” SFGate, March 1, 2007. http://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Richmond-s-Jimmy-McCracklin-a-top-rank-bluesman-2614492.php (accessed September 11, 2017).

Slotnik, Daniel E. “Jimmy McCracklin, R&B Singer and Songwriter, Dies at 91.” New York Times, December 22, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/arts/music/jimmy-mccracklin-rb-singer-and-songwriter-dies-at-91.html (accessed September 11, 2017).

Greg A. Phelps
Lindsey Wilson College


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