How do you think Gus Cannon felt when, long-retired in 1963 at the age of 79, he heard The Rooftop Singers take his “Walk Right In” song — without giving him proper composer royalties — to the top of the pop charts for two consecutive weeks as the No. 1 song in America? Well, the first thing he did was to spring into action, re-recording the song on his comeback album that came out on the legendary Stax Records label out of Memphis, Tennessee. His version was hardly a hit — only 500 copies were pressed — but it did lead to what must have been a satisfying end-of-life resurgence, as the ‘60s folk boom was well under way.
“Unfortunately,” says John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records, “by the time he attempted to be part of the huge folk music boom on college campuses across the country, his vocal and instrumental powers had severely decreased. True, he did enjoy some notoriety because, after all, he was a pioneer of jug band music, but he was severely limited talent-wise as a senior citizen. In his day, though, late ‘20s on into the early ‘30s, Cannon’s Jug Stompers were the premiere jug band around, their only competition being The Memphis Jug Band.”
Born on a Mississippi plantation in 1883, a precocious 12-year-old Cannon taught himself music by inventing his own banjo-styled instrument from a frying pan and the skin of a dead raccoon. Running away at 15, he used a knife blade as a slide. Settling in Memphis in 1907 as a 24-year-old one-man band entertaining at logging mills, railroads and house parties, he met Jim Jackson and Noah Lewis.
The trio worked up their own arrangements of the popular songs of the day, blues, gospel and even hillbilly music should the need arise. Cannon, though, had a quirky talent: he could write songs. They became a popular attraction of that era’s medicine shows (traveling troupes who would entertain before hard-selling various liquids in a bottle that would cure all your ills: mostly alcohol).
When Cannon was 44, in 1927, he signed to Paramount as Banjo Joe. A year later, he looked up his old partners and went into the studio again in 1929 as Cannon’s Jug Stompers. Besides “Walk Right In,” they recorded “Big Railroad Blues,” which heavily influenced the Grateful Dead and is on a 1995 various-artists album called “The Music Never Stopped: The Roots Of The Grateful Dead.” Cannon’s songs have also been recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis, Trini Lopez, Chet Atkins, The Ventures, Janis Joplin and Sammy Davis Jr. Whether he received any publishing royalties for any of those recordings is doubtful. Tefteller thinks otherwise. “There came a period of time,” according to the respected musicologist, “that the copyrights were changed to add his name on the publishing credits.” So, depending upon the year, either he or his estate, as it were, did see some sort of recompense.
Gus Cannon died in Memphis in 1979 at the age of 96. His last years consisted of streetside scuffling for chump change as tourists would crowd Beale Street in Memphis in search of real blues. How many such tourists passed right by this aged pioneer without as much as giving him a second glance on their way to some overpriced eatery populated by cover bands possibly playing “Walk Right In” or some of his other compositions?
Nowadays, it’ll cost you from $2,000 to $3,000 to get the original “Walk Right In” on the Victor label, according to Tefteller.