JOE HILL LOUIS - Also known as "Chicago Sunny Boy", "Johnny Lewis", "Little Joe", Joe was born Lester (or possibly
Leslie) Hill, September 23, 1921, one of four children (3 boys and a girl) in Froggy Bottom, out from Grant's Corner, near where Whitehaven, Tennessee is now, just a few miles south of Memphis,
and lived there until about a year after his mother died. His father was Robert Hill and his mother was Mary Wilson. Joe Hill Louis learned some harmonica and the guitar from Will Shade in his youth in the early
At the age of 14, after frequent
beating by his step-mother, he ran away from home to work outside the music with frequent work in streets and dives in Robinsonville, Mississippi area from circa 1935, and fell in with Billy and Drew Canale, the younger members of a well-to-do Memphis family.
The Canales cook welcomed the responsibility of looking after
the young lad and he continued to live with and work for the Canales in one household position after another for the rest of his short life. Early in his lifelong stay with the Canales he was put up to fighting a local ruffian named "Prince Henry" and came out the better, a victory which inspired the Canale boys to
name him after the then heavyweight champ. Hence the moniker which was to serve him well and stick with him to the
Joe Hill Louis' natural musical aptitude was first manifest
itself upon the jew's harp, which eventually was replaced by the harmonica, his primary and dominant instrument. The guitar and drums were added in the course of time but not without a great deal of ear-shattering displeasure from the Canales and their friends. At first, of course, his manipulation
of the three was very uncoordinated, but he eventually got it all together to the amazement of his friends and the consternation
of would-be accompanying guitarists and drummers. Rufus Thomas, the well-known record star and disc jockey reported that Joe was envied by many local musicians for his ability to earn the same amount of money that it would have taken three or four other musicians of singular talents to make. Joe could make
all that money by himself; he didn't need anyone else.
Joe Hill Louis worked outside the music at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee in the late 1930s and frequently worked with Eddie Taylor,
Willie Borum, Will Shade, Lockhart Hill and others in gambling houses, the streets in Memphis and West Memphis, Arkansas area and frequently worked as one man band in Memphis, Tennessee. He also frequently hoboed through the Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi on working in dances, suppers, ballgame intermissions in the late 1940s into the early 1950s. He recorded for Columbia Records in New York City in 1949.
He through his appearances on street corners and in Handy Park in Memphis and in juke joints and roadhouses in the surrounding countryside, Joe Hill Louis became a popular entertainer in the mod-south area in the late 1940s and it eventually opened
the doors of WDIA-Memphis, the local black radio station, for a 15-minute show for a patent medicine called Pepti-con
(from B.B. King) on which he was known as the Pep-ti-con Boy. This appellation was later replaced by "The Be-Bop Boy", as indicated by the accompanying photograph.
He through, by an informal
union, Joe is reported to have a son named Leslie Hill who was living in Chicago, Joe Hill Louis married his only wife, the former Dorothy "Ruthy" Mae Pearson, on July 25, 1952 and the following year their son was born. Named Robert, he later took Louis as a surname for himself and took name "Joe Louis" in honour
of the boxing champion. His brother was Lockhart Hill and was also an great musician. Despite Dorothy's statement that they
lived together until Joe died, the marriage may not have been one of constant satisfaction for Joe, for he was soon back with the Canales, who always had a need for a chauffeur or a houseboy, or a bartender at their frequent gatherings. He also worked intermittently for Drew in his vending machine business, packing pennies
in cigarette packages by day and playing music in the countryside juke joints and roadhouses at night.
Drew Canale, who was to become Tennessee state senator from Shelby County (Memphis and its environs) (1966-1970), was dabbling in recording in the late 1940s and claimed to have been the first to record Joe, a session which, if ever issued, has yet to be identified. Surprisingly, it was Columbia Records, that was the first to release recordings by Joe Hill Louis.
Over a period of more than three years, between March 31, 1952 and September 9, 1953, Joe Hill Louis recorded a number of sessions for Sam Phillips, alone and with accompanists, which reached release on Modern and Checker as well as on his own labels
The Phillips and Sun Records. Sometimes during the mid-1950s, Drew Canale produced a rather curious solitary release
on his own Vendor record label. The vocal was credited to Les Vendor Keyboards and contained a spoken introduction by Canal, who later confirmed that the artist was indeed Joe Hill Louis. Made exclusively for use in Canale's own jukebox and vending machine distribution business, no more than a couple of copies are known
to exist today. It was reissued from the original stampers for collectors in the mid-1970s on the Mimisa label. Canale recorded him again,
however, but by that time, Joe Hill's recording career included sessions for Meteor, Big Town, Ace, Rockin' and House Of Sound and among them are some remarkable records, the Rockin' sides being especially notable. However, this later session for Canale is believed to be Joe Hill Louis' last. A number of attempts,
different approaches, were made on a single tune, ironically entitled "late date" and though most of the session still
exists on tape, it remains unissued to this day. Joe Louis worked for the Blue Light Club in Memphis; the Brown Jug in West Memphis; the Tennessee House in West Memphis, Arkansas in the early 1950s; recorded for the Rockin' label in Memphis, Tennessee in 1952; recorded with Walter Horton for the Checker label in Chicago in 1952;
recorded with Billy Love for the Sun label in Memphis, Tennessee; recorded for Meteor label in Chicago in 1953; recorded
for Bigtown label in Memphis, Tennessee in 1954; recorded for the Ace label in West Memphis, Arkansas circa 1954; recorded for the House Of Sound label in Memphis, Tennessee in 1957.
Joe Hill Louis had
a great sense of humor and was definitely a ladies' man. He had a different woman for every day in the week. His Sunday gal was Dorothy Houston who said Joe would take her to nice quiet places: church, nice restaurants, quiet bars. He wouldn't take her to gigs as he said they were rough places where the men didn't
respect the woman. Perhaps for one of these 'dailies' Joe was doing yardwork when he badly cut his thumb and it became infected
with fertilizer. Eventually he contracted tetanus infection with which he collapsed a few days later in his car on Beale Street, beyond help. He was taken to John Gaston Hospital in Memphis, where he died August 5, 1957, loved by his friends and fellow musicians, mourned by many women, and admired much too belatedly by the
music public around the world. Joe Hill Louis is buried at the Ford Chapel Cemetery in West Junction, Tennessee. From
the late forties until 1956, Joe Hill Louis was among the most popular figures in Memphis and the rural areas of Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi.