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Chicago blues guitarist Jimmy ‘Fast Fingers’ Dawkins dead at 76

Jimmy Dawkins performing 2010 Bluesfest Grant Park. | Sun-Times Media

Jimmy Dawkins performing at the 2010 Bluesfest in Grant Park. | Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 15, 2013 6:46AM



Blues guitarist Jimmy Dawkins was a son of Mississippi with a stinging West Side style.

He sold out shows in Japan, received standing ovations in Switzerland and Macedonia, and won the Grand Prix du Disque de Jazz award from the Hot Club De France.

In his 1970s heyday, he had a mutual admiration society going with Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

His growling guitar seemed to say just as much in the spaces between the notes.

And though his playing earned him the nickname “Fast Fingers,” he didn’t like it. Mr. Dawkins rejected labels.

“I can play slow,” he’d say, recalled Bob Koester, owner of Delmark records, where Mr. Dawkins recorded.

Mr. Dawkins died Wednesday at age 76 at his Far South Side home.

He was “technically perfect, the quintessential, no frills Chicago player,” according to Tom Mazzolini, founder of the San Francisco Blues Festival, in a 2005 article in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper.

Fans say Mr. Dawkins helped pioneer a percussive, aggressive West Side style, in contrast to the mellower grooves of South Side Blues artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

“He had a hard, driving sound,” said Michael Frank, owner of the Earwig label, where Mr. Dawkins also recorded.

“The South Side is more harmonica, and, possibly, horn-driven,” said guitarist Billy Flynn, who started playing with Mr. Dawkins when Flynn was a starstruck 14-year-old. “West Side Blues is more guitar-driven — say, Buddy Guy vs. Sonny Boy Williamson.”

Mr. Dawkins’ lyrics also differed from the Delta-based South Side genre. Instead of relationships, “he would talk about the condition of the world,” said David Whiteis, author of the book “Chicago Blues,” and the upcoming “Southern Soul-Blues.”

His songs had titles like “Born in Poverty” and “Welfare Line.”

He didn’t clown around onstage, and considered that a form of minstrelism, said Frank.

Mr. Dawkins used spellings that some might consider anti-establishment or Afrocentric, Frank said, like “Kant Sheck Dees Bluze.”

An anchor in the recording studio, he made order out of chaos. Once, he recorded with Arthur Crudup, whose “That’s All Right Mama” was the first big hit for Elvis Presley. But Crudup didn’t want to do uptempo songs, because his wife had just died, said Koester, who owns the Jazz Record Mart.

“Jimmy really pulled the sessions together,” Koester said.

“When Jimmy toured, there was a lot of musicians who really looked up to Jimmy,” Flynn said. “John Mayall, and Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan; Jeff Beck.”

As his reputation grew, he preferred playing and singing well-paying gigs before adoring audiences in Europe, rather than the smoky little clubs of Chicago. That may have contributed to Mark Hedin calling him “perhaps the best guitar slinger most of us have never heard of” in a 2005 article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Mr. Dawkins also founded the Leric label, and recorded other blues artists. In a 2010 review of “Jimmy Dawkins Presents the Leric Story,” DownBeat magazine said “this new collection of Leric recordings proves that his ears were in the right place.”

Born in Tchula, Miss., he grew up in Pascagoula, a small town on the Gulf of Mexico.

He taught himself how to play with a guitar his mom bought from the Sears catalog, said his granddaughter, Aisha Johnson.

“He used to talk about [how] he heard the New Orleans artists, like Guitar Slim and Fats Domino; R&B artists” said music producer and historian Dick Schurman.

He followed relatives to Chicago, and fell in love with the city’s bustle, saying, “‘That’s why I left Mississipi, it’s dead!’ ’’ his granddaughter said. “He wanted to be where the action was.”

He landed a job at a box factory, she said, but worked at night playing guitar. “He couldn’t work 9 to 5, because he’ll tell the boss what to do,” she said.

Mr. Dawkins is survived by his wife, Verdia, whom he married in 1966, their daughters, Darlene Ferris and Donna Dawkins; their sons, Len and Reginald; and two more of his children, Alecia Barr and Patti Barr; 28 grandchildren, and 33 great-grandchildren.

It is fitting his services will be at House of Branch, 3125 W. Roosevelt, Aisha Johnson said.

“He loved Roosevelt Road, because when he first came to Chicago, that was where he first played.” His viewing is noon to 6 p.m. April 16 and his funeral is at 10 a.m. April 17.



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