James Yancey Jones, known professionally as Tail Dragger Jones, was a notable American Chicago blues singer. Born on September 30, 1940, in Altheimer, Arkansas, he left an indelible mark on the blues scene. His career spanned several decades, during which he released four albums and became associated with a tragic incident that led to his brief incarceration.
Early Life and Musical Beginnings
James Yancey Jones had a challenging start in life. His parents separated when he was just a baby, and he was raised by his grandparents. Despite the hardships, he developed a deep love for blues music from an early age. In secret, he would listen to blues on his family’s battery-powered radio, even if it meant the batteries were too low for the rest of the family to enjoy gospel music before Sunday church.
As a young boy, Jones had the opportunity to witness legendary blues musicians in action. He saw performances by Sonny Boy Williamson II and Boyd Gilmore at a small club named Jack Rabbitts in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. These experiences left a lasting impression on him and fueled his passion for the blues.
From Crawlin’ James to Tail Dragger
In 1966, Jones made a pivotal move to Chicago, where he worked as an auto mechanic. It was in the Windy City that he began pursuing his musical dreams. What truly set him on his blues path was his admiration for the great Howlin’ Wolf. Howlin’ Wolf allowed Jones to join him on stage at concerts, and this mentorship had a profound impact on his style. Influenced by the raw, gritty sounds of blues legends like Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, and Willie Dixon, Jones honed his own distinctive “low-down” Chicago blues style.
Initially, he was known as “Crawlin’ James” due to his habit of crawling around on stage during performances. However, his late arrivals at gigs led Howlin’ Wolf to give him the nickname “Tail Dragger.” It was a moniker that would stick with him throughout his career.
A Blues Career Takes Flight
By the early 1970s, Jones had transitioned into a full-time blues singer. He collaborated with notable backing musicians, including Willie Kent, Hubert Sumlin, Carey Bell, Kansas City Red, Little Mack Simmons, Big Leon Brooks, and Eddie Shaw. These partnerships contributed to his distinctive sound and growing reputation in the Chicago blues scene.
Tragic Incident and Imprisonment
In July 1993, tragedy struck when Jones was involved in a fatal dispute with fellow blues artist Boston Blackie. The dispute had simmered for a month, originating from a payment disagreement during their joint appearance at the Chicago Blues Festival. Jones maintained that he acted in self-defense, but he was convicted of second-degree murder. This resulted in a 17-month prison sentence out of a total four-year term.
Despite the setback, Jones remained a fixture in Chicago blues clubs throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He released several singles, although commercial success eluded him. It wasn’t until 1996, at the age of 56, that his debut album “Crawlin’ Kingsnake” was released by St. George Records. This was followed by “American People” in 1998, released by Delmark Records. In 2005, a DVD titled “My Head Is Bald: Live at Vern’s Friendly Lounge” was released. “Live at Rooster’s Lounge” came out in 2009, also on Delmark Records. Notably, his collaboration with Bob Corritore resulted in the 2012 CD and DVD release titled “Longtime Friends in the Blues.”
The End of an Era
James “Tail Dragger” Jones passed away in September 2023 at the age of 82. His contributions to the world of Chicago blues will always be remembered, and his unique style will continue to inspire blues enthusiasts for generations to come.
Family and Personal Life
In addition to his musical career, Jones led a colorful personal life. He was married six times and had numerous children, leaving behind a legacy both on and off the stage.