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Reviewed by:
  • Blues Before Sunrise: The Radio Interviews
  • Edward Komara
Blues Before Sunrise: The Radio Interviews. By Steve Cushing. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010. [xiv, 256 p. ISBN 9780252033018 (hardcover), $75; ISBN 9780252077180 (paperback), $25.] Illustrations.

Since 1980 Steve Cushing has produced and hosted his blues radio program "Blues Before Sunrise," broadcast initially only through WBEZ-FM in Chicago, then nationwide for the last 17 years through national syndication. As a longtime fixture on late-night Chicago radio, the show has gathered a devoted local following. In his afterword on the history of the program, Cushing refers to his "University of Bronze ville," the listeners who called him at the station offering song requests, explanations of obscure lyrics, and tips and leads to what [End Page 308] may have happened to long-forgotten blues figures. The show's format has featured commentary, the occasional interview, and of course gobs of blues. If interested Notes readers can't find a local radio station offering "Blues Before Sunrise," they can listen to it through the websites of many of the broadcasting stations.

The book Blues Before Sunrise: The Radio Interviews publishes transcriptions of twelve interviews that originally aired on Cushing's show. The speakers range from the legendary (singer Alberta Hunter, singer/guitarist Jesse Thomas) to the local (guitarist Little Hudson, entrepreneur Cadillac Baby). The recording dates span from 1982 (disc jockey Richard Stamz) to 2000 (guitarist Jody Williams). If the interview approach bears resemblance to that of any one magazine, it would have to be to the Living Blues interview format established by Jim O'Neal (who writes an admiring introduction to this book). At least for the people included here, Cushing seems to have found and spoken with each of them before most magazines did, if they ever did (the exceptions being record producer Ralph Bass, musicians John and Grace Brim, Cadillac Baby, and Jody Williams). Alberta Hunter, to be sure, has long been the subject of many articles and book chapters during her long career, but her interview is a rare example of her in conversation—and a valuable one because of the 1920s blues singers and musicians she remembered.

While those interviewees who had made commercial records will be of prime interest to readers picking up the book, the lesser known "esoterica" (as Cushing refers to some of them) tell some of the more fascinating stories. Cadillac Baby explained why he began his "Show Lounge" as an American Veterans club for returning World War II soldiers because it was cheaper than getting a tavern license. Richard Stamz discusses payola from the disc jockey's perspective. Singer and composer Tommy Brown tells one near-unbelievable story after another: how he influenced James Brown and Johnny Ray, how he knocked down Ike Turner in a hotel room with a judo chop and then gave him his wife, and that he is the composer of Bill Doggett's hit record "Honky Tonk." If these tales seem like shameless self-promotion, they indeed are, serving to embed the teller's name in the listener's memory, and to hustle for the next big deal. Blues singers and musicians have been calling attention to themselves in such ways ever since the first blues songs were sung. Cushing's book of interviews captures this assertive lightning in twelve different bottles.

Edward Komara
SUNY Potsdam


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pp. 308-309
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