Tommy McClennan


photograph of Tommy McClennan

Tommy McClennan (January 4, 1905 – May 9, 1961) was an American Delta blues singer and guitarist.

Tommy McClennan was born in Yazoo City in April of 1908, according to Big Bill Broonzy in his book "Big Bill Blues." However, McClennan's death certificate cites his birthplace as Durant (Holmes County) and the date as January 4, 1905." He played and sang blues in a rough, energetic style.

He made a series of recordings for Bluebird Records from 1939 through 1942 and regularly played with his friend Robert Petway. He can be heard shouting in the background on Petway's 1942 recording "Boogie Woogie Woman". McClennan made an immediate impact in 1940 with his recordings of "Shake 'Em on Down", "Bottle It Up and Go", "Whiskey Head Woman" and "New Highway No.51".
He left a powerful legacy that included "Cross Cut Saw Blues" later covered by Albert King, "My baby's gone" (covered and adapted by Moon Mullican), "Deep Blue Sea Blues" (aka "Catfish Blues"), and others whose lasting power has been evidenced through the repertoires and re-recordings of other artists. McClennan's "I'm A Guitar King" was included on the 1959 collection issued by Folkways Records, The Country Blues.

His name was variously spelled McClinton, McLindon, McCleland, and McClenan on documents, although the McClennan spelling was used on all of his recordings. Other bluesmen remembered him from elsewhere in the Delta, including Bolivar County and Vance, but he was best known around Greenwood, where Booker Miller, a protege of Charley Patton, knew him as "Sugar," and Yazoo City, where local resident Herman Bennett, Jr., and others called him "Bottle Up," after his most popular song, “Bottle It Up and Go.” When Miller quit playing in 1937, he sold his guitar to McClennan. In the Greenwood area, McClennan's performing partners included Robert Petway and Honeyboy Edwards. When Samuel Charters traveled to Yazoo City doing research for his book "The Country Blues" in the 1950s, he learned that McClennan had lived on the Sligh plantation and liked to hang out on Water Street at the Ren Theater, an adjacent barroom, and a pool hall. Bennett also recalled him from the Cotton Club, a popular blues spot on Champlin Avenue.
McClennan began his recording career in 1939 after white Chicago record producer Lester Melrose came looking for him. Broonzy recounted that Melrose had to make a hurried exit when his presence angered locals who thought he was recruiting laborers to leave Mississippi. In Chicago McClennan, “one of the most ferocious blues singers to get near a microphone,” in the words of Charters, unleashed his gruff, unbridled blues in the studio, sometimes further energizing the recordings with lively comments urging himself on. According to Broonzy, McClennan was chased from a Chicago party when revelers objected to the controversial lyrics McClennan sang in “Bottle It Up and Go.” McClennan's friend Robert Petway also recorded sixteen songs for Bluebird. Petway (aka Petaway or Pettiway) shared a similar, if less rough-hewn and exuberant, performing style with McClennan. They were of similar diminutive height and were sometimes taken to be brothers. Their recording careers both ended in 1942, although Bluebird and RCA Victor continued to release McClennan singles for several years. McClennan moved to Chicago but there are few reports of him performing there. The last time Honeyboy Edwards saw him, McClennan was drinking heavily and living in a hobo jungle. McClennan died of bronchopneumonia in Chicago on May 9, 1961.

"He had a different style of playing a guitar" Big Bill Broonzy remarked drily. "You just make the chords and change when you feel like changing"
In John Fahey's "Screaming and Hollerin' the Blues" there is an interview conducted with Booker Miller, who was a contemporary of Charlie Patton, he makes mention of someone who is most likely Tommy McClennan, though he does not know his name: "... and I saw another fella he put some records out, they (him and Willie Brown) be together, but he be by himself when I see him, they called him "Sugar"... I ain't never known him as nothing but Sugar, he put out a record called Bottle Up and Go... I sold him my guitar."
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