Maybe it’s good that no one seems to know the whole story of Jesse Yawn’s life. Those old-time blues men are supposed to have a bit of mystery about them, from Robert Johnson’s supposed deal with the devil to Buddy Guy’s probably apocryphal story about a passing stranger who gave him his first guitar.
Still, it’s frustrating to try to track down information about Yawn, the great blues singer who died last week. He spent his last years in Palmetto, and he was 80 years old when he died. Or maybe 79.
You call people who knew him. They have great things to say about his music and his personality, but they don’t know much about him beyond their personal experiences. They all learned about his death through Facebook. After a while, they invariably tell you, “You know who you really should talk to ...” and they give you the name of someone else who adds just another few brush strokes to the portrait.
For people around Bradenton, Jesse Yawn was a great but relatively obscure blues singer who played scattered gigs around town. He used to stop in to a blues jam at Cork’s Cigar Bar that local blues guitarist Doug Deming ran. And two years ago Yawn, an Army veteran who by that time was using a wheelchair, sang “Every Day I Have the Blues” at the Bradenton Blues Festival with Eddie Shaw, one of that year’s headliners.
“The 2013 blues festival fell on Pearl Harbor Day,” said Johnette Isham, the executive director of Realize Bradenton, which puts on the festival. “We wanted to do something with the blues and veterans, and we learned about Jesse. Even getting him on the stage was a challenge.”
Festival organizers, in fact, built a ramp just for Yawn. That’s how badly they wanted him on the blues festival stage.
He wasn’t just a local guy. Blues fans all over the country knew Jesse Yawn’s name and music.
“He was definitely known nationally, and especially in the Northeast, around the Baltimore area where he was from,” Deming said.
He was born somewhere in Florida, or so his friends believe, and apparently he was on the verge of a big break a couple of times. He was a member of the gospel group the Mighty Clouds of Joy for a while, one friend said, and according to a couple of people, a member of the Ohio Players before they got famous. He performed with George Benson and Albert King, and he performed at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. At one point, he was signed as a solo artists to Chess Records, the legendary R&B label.
“I don’t know what happened,” his friend David Earl said. “I don’t think he ever recorded for them, but I saw the publicity photos he did for Chess.”
Earl runs a blues and roots music label called Severn Records. Yawn worked on some Severn recordings as a background singer.
For many years, Yawn had a steady gig, every Wednesday night, at a club called the New Haven in Baltimore. Blues fans packed the place to hear Yawn’s sweet vocals. “It was quite a happening,” Earl recalled.
Steve Guyger, a veteran blues man who has released several albums of his own, would drive two and a half hours from Philadelphia every week to play with him. He didn’t need the work that badly. He just loved to play with Yawn.
“As a musician he was great,” Guyger said. “You could rattle off the names of any blues or rhythm and blues guy and he could sing their songs. And he was always dressed to the nines.”
Guyger compared Yawn’s singing to that of some of the greats of the 1950s and ’60s, people like Dee Clark, Jackie Wilson and Johnny Ace.
He toured Europe once, and Earl said that Yawn was popular enough there that he probably should have returned. But Yawn never made it big enough that he could quit his day job. He worked in construction, specifically in concrete. One friend said he first met Yawn when he went to visit another musician and Yawn was paving the guy’s driveway.
Some friends said Yawn returned to Florida for his health. Others say he wanted to make some money flipping houses, but the real estate bubble burst just about the time he got here.
He had some health problems after he got here. There was kidney transplant according to one friend, and some kind of surgery that didn’t go well, according to another. He used a wheelchair for years.
He had some family around here at one point, but if they’re still living or still in the area, Yawn’s friends don’t seem to know about them.
It may sound like a hard life, even a sad one, but friends say Yawn loved his life and he loved his music. He was always in an upbeat mood, he seemed to enjoy hard work, and he cherished his chances to sing.
“For me, as a sideman, he was always so easy to play with,” Deming said. “And he was always a gentleman. That’s what he was, he was a gentleman.”