A recent visit to Jackson, Mississippi, to participate in the dedication of the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home as a National Monument was also an occasion to experience some other notable moments in the city’s history and culture. Outside the Hilton Garden Inn, formerly the King Edward Hotel, is a historic marker identifying the building as an important location on the “Mississippi Blues Trail.” Most striking is the marker’s image of Charlie McCoy embracing his mandolin. While the inscription is mainly about the hotel as a place where some legendary blues records were made, it was McCoy who caught my eye and interest.

Jason Ankeny has written a profile of McCoy, noting that Charlie and his brother Joe were versatile musicians often accompanying some of the leading performers of the era. 

McCoy was born on May 26, 1909, in Jackson and was a self-taught guitarist and mandolinist who recorded regularly in the late 1920s, most notably with Ishmon Bracey, Tommony Johnson, Walter Vincson, the Mississippi Sheiks, Rubin Lacy, Son Spand, and many other bluesmen and women of the Delta. 

By the mid-1930s, he backed his sister-in-law, Memphis Minnie, with his high tenor voice, although this was something he was less inclined to do, preferring to remain in the background. According to Ankeny, among McCoy’s “scattered first sessions is the first known recorded rendition of the song that eventually became ‘Sweet Home Chicago.’”

McCoy had several recording sessions between 1936 and 1939 with groups such as Papa Charlie’s Boys (a reference to his nickname) and, curiously, a group called the Harlem Hamfats, which also featured his brother Joe.

The advent of World War II curtailed McCoy’s recording career and he made no more records after 1942. He died eight years later on July 26, 1950, in Chicago. No details are available about the cause of death.

It would be remiss not to include Charlie’s older brother, who became known as Kansas Joe, in this profile. He was born Wilbur “Joe” McCoy on May 11, 1905, in Raymond, Mississippi. Memphis Minnie was Joe’s wife, herself a fine guitarist and singer. The couple had a hit recording, “Bumble Bee,” in 1930. When they moved to Chicago, they were at the fulcrum of the blues scene in the city. 

After their divorce, Joe teamed up with his brother and formed the Harlem Hamfats. In 1936, they released “The Weed Smoker’s Dream,” a song they later refined and retitled “Why Don’t You Do Right?” for vocalist Lil Green in 1941. Benny Good and Peggy Lee covered the song and it became Lee’s first hit single. For years, it has been an enduring standard for McCoy. 

While Charlie entered the military, Joe’s heart condition kept him out of it. Meanwhile, he formed a band, Big Joe and his Rhythm, featuring Robert Nighthawk on harmonica and Charlie later on mandolin. 

Joe died of heart disease in Chicago in 1950, at 44, only a few months before Charlie died. They are both buried in Restvale Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.

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