Earl “Little Joe” Ayers is a blues guitarist and singer based in Holly Springs, Mississippi. For over thirty years, he was a member of the Soul Blues Boys, Junior Kimbrough’s long-time backing band.
Ayers was born in nearby Lamar and began performing at house parties in the area when he was 15. When asked what inspired him to begin playing the guitar, he replied, “It was something that other people weren’t doing.” He also saw the enjoyment that his second cousin, Lindsey Boga, and Junior Kimbrough derived from their musical pursuits, and “didn’t want to be left behind.”
Boga was a contemporary of Kimbrough’s as well as the first person he performed publicly with. Ayers bought his first guitar from Boga’s father for $4 and began learning from his second cousin. “I was around Junior about every other Sunday; I was around [Boga] every other day,” Ayers says. After Boga went into the Army, Ayers learned more from Kimbrough himself, “picking up his sound.” Ayers absorbed Kimbrough’s unique style so well that eventually Kimbrough asked him to play with him, and in 1965 he joined his band.
Calling themselves the Soul Blues Boys, the band was initially composed of Kimbrough and Ayers on guitar and George Scales on bass. Kimbrough later added a drummer to their group; John Henry Smith, John Henry McGee (both now deceased), and Calvin Jackson all served terms behind the drum kit for Kimbrough. Scales was frequently absent due to the demands of his job as a concrete finisher for a construction firm, and during his long absences, Ayers began to play bass in his place. He remained the bassist for the Soul Blues Boys until Kimbrough’s death in 1998.
Ayers toured extensively in the region with Kimbrough and company but drew the line on playing overseas as he doesn’t care for flying. They made the rounds of the festival circuits in the summertime and played at house parties and local jukes such as Marshall Scruggs’ in winter. They also frequently performed with members of the Burnside family. “It became almost like a combining thing,” Ayers recalls. “Whenever they’d have a gig, we’d get one; whenever we’d get a gig, they’d get one.“ In 1991 Ayers played bass behind Kimbrough in Robert Palmer’s documentary Deep Blues; their performance of “All Night Long” was filmed before the release of Kimbrough’s debut album of the same name on Fat Possum Records, which was also produced by Palmer.
Ayers has performed irregularly since Kimbrough’s death. In recent years he has made appearances at the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic in Potts Camp, as well as at Red’s in Clarksdale. He also occasionally sits in with fellow Hill Country blues musicians such as Kenny Brown. Having recently retired from his job as an electrician for the Holly Springs School District, he and fellow Soul Blues Boys George Scales and Calvin Jackson are discussing a possible return to full-time performing. Ayers has four children and two grandchildren; his son Trenton Ayers is also a bassist, and currently performs with the Mississippi Delta-based blues-rock band The Electric Mud. Ayers released Backatchya, a solo album, on Devil Down Records in September 2011.