Jamie Isonhood

Pianist & Singer, Yazoo City

Jamie Earl Isonhood was born in Benton in Yazoo County in 1944. An only child, he grew up in the Yazoo City area with his grandparents while his mother worked in Jackson and then later Memphis. He learned to play the piano on his own when he was five years old, and his first music teacher dismissed him after just two lessons after recognizing that he’d already developed his own style. He later learned to read music but has otherwise had very little formal training.

As a youngster, Isonhood began playing school dances and other functions, and while in junior high began sitting in at a rural honky-tonk—his grandmother only found out about this after she discovered money he made playing the honky-tonk hidden under his mattress. He played largely solo on piano and vocals around Yazoo City and performed around the region with a band based out of Kosciusko and the Greenwood-based rockabilly group of Mack Allen Smith.

The wide range of Isonhood’s contemporary repertoire reflects his lifelong interest in a broad array of music. As a youngster, he listened intensely to country, R&B, pop, and everything else over the radio, and often visited the blues clubs on Water Street in Yazoo City. At the Silver Slipper, he saw shows by artists including Muddy Waters, Ruth Brown, Jimmy Reed, and Slim Harpo. He didn’t play at these clubs while in high school, but often sat in at blues clubs upon subsequent visits.

After graduating from high school in 1961 Isonhood joined his mother in Memphis and was soon successful in finding work in local clubs. Around 1963 Isonhood was hired as the pianist in the house band of Sonic Studios, which was opened in 1962 by Roland Janes, who worked as the house guitarist at Sun Records for many years. The other members of the band were bassist Prentiss McPhail, drummer Danny Taylor, and guitarist Travis Wammack. The band worked five days a week, and in addition to various walk-in and demo work, they cut singles behind by well-known artists including Narvel Felts, Matt Lucas, and Wammack, who later found success with instrumentals, including the song “Scratchy.”

Isonhood left Sonic after about a year and formed his own four-piece band, called “Jamie and the Blackhawks” in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, which worked in the broader region through the ‘70s. Locally he played at clubs including the Vapors, Hernando’s Hideaway, the American Club, and El Capitan, but recalls that it was necessary to leave music-rich Memphis to make any real money; his booking agents placed the band as far away as Las Vegas and Reno. The band occasionally worked behind established stars such as Jerry Wallace and Ace Cannon, and Isonhood has warm recollections of his friend and major influence Jerry Lee Lewis sitting in with the band in Memphis, sometimes even on drums.

Isonhood continued working occasionally as a studio musician and appeared on records by artists including the Box Tops, Ace Cannon, the Amazing Rhythm Aces, Tony Joe White, Bobby Wood, and Barry “Bird” Burton, Billy Adams, and Bill Yates. In the late ‘60s, Isonhood recorded his first single, “Candy Man” b/w “What You’re Doing to Me,” for the MGM label under the name “Jamie & Blackhawks.” He cut a second single, “Lonely Weekends” b/w “Man Woman and a Bottle,” under his own name in the mid-to-late ‘70s for the Memphis-based Coleman label.

In the late ’70s, Isonhood relocated to Portland, Oregon, and worked with bands in the northwest and Canada as well as in recording studios for several years. Following the death of his mother in 1983 he returned to Memphis and shortly thereafter moved back to Yazoo City. Since then he has maintained a busy schedule in the region, playing at various clubs and restaurants, and is particularly popular as a solo performer at private parties. Since the early 2000s, he has played regularly for the Thursday night dance evenings at Lillo’s Restaurant in Leland. He plays both solo and with a band, usually drummer Louis “Bubba” Hubbard, bassist Ralph Marr, saxist Leonard “Mac” MacIntosh, and, occasionally, guitarist Harry “Bub” Branton.

In 1989 Isonhood appeared in the film Miss Firecracker, shot largely in Yazoo City, and also wrote the film’s theme song, “She’s a Firecracker,” which was performed by both lead actor Trey Wilson as well as in an instrumental version by an orchestra. In 2007 Isonhood celebrated the release of his first CD, I Played My Blues in Memphis, which features thirteen songs in a variety of styles including the self-penned title track. Produced in Memphis by Roland Janes at Sam Phillips Recording Services, the CD reunites Isonhood with fellow Sonic studio band members Travis Wammack and Prentiss McPhail.

– Scott Barretta

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