Tommie Pruitt was born in Ellisville, Mississippi on April 17, 1933. His father, Joe Pruitt, was a fiddler, harmonica player and tap dancer who enlisted his 11 children to sing in front of downtown Laurel businesses for tips but died when Tommy was only three. Pruitt’s older brother “Baby Ruth” was an accomplished blues guitarist who traveled widely “like Robert Johnson,” and like Johnson died at a young age after an acquaintance mistook him for an intruder. Another brother, Willie, played what Pruitt recalls as “Spanish” music.
As a child, Pruitt tried to learn how to play his brother’s guitar, but after discovering his guitar out of tune his brother removed it from the house. Pruitt compensated for this by creating on the side of his house his own stringed instrument, or “diddley bow,” which he recalls playing like a string bass. He later created a four-string guitar from screen wire, a board, and a cigar box.
Pruitt recalls that many people at the time played improvised instruments, including washtub basses, washboards, and “harmonicas” made from paper and combs. He often played with local white musicians, including one-man-band Red Pulliam, who ran the Choo-Choo Grill.
Pruitt recalls hearing records by Blind Lemon Jefferson and Peetie Wheatstraw on the “graphophone,” and one of the first songs he played was the traditional blues “Baby Please Don’t Go.” His tastes leaned to more modern sounds, though, and some of his favorite artists he recalls hearing over Nashville’s WLAC and local jukeboxes were Percy Mayfield, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Bull Moose Jackson.
Pruitt married his wife Verta in December 1950, and soon after received his first real guitar and amplifier. His sister, a singer with the USO, helped him get booked at the Star Theater on Mobile Street in Hattiesburg, where he soon began playing regularly as a backing musician at talent shows. He began playing in the area with his own group and for a while worked with the Rhythm Aces out of Bogalusa. He played popular ‘50s rock and roll for white audiences in Laurel at the VFW, American Legion, and Shriners’ halls.
His manager “Monie Rahm,” who owned the Cotton Bowl in Laurel, booked him across the state as well as in Alabama and Louisiana, and he was particularly popular on the coast. During the ‘60s Pruitt toured with artists included Bo Diddley, the Five Royals, and Ernie K. Doe, and appeared on shows together with Ike & Tina Turner, Ivory Joe Hunter, and Solomon Burke.
In 1975 Pruitt himself opened a blues club, “The Blue Poodle,” in Ellisville, and recalls that at the time there were many blues musicians in the area. He sold the club several years later. In early 2007 he was actively renovating an old service station in Laurel into a blues club.
For the past decades, Pruitt has led his band the Rhythm Rockers, playing largely in the Laurel/Hattiesburg area, but also touring out of state to festivals. The band plays a wide range of songs including originals, covers of songs by Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, and B.B. King, and pop standards including “Summertime” and “Misty.” Pruitt is proud of his abilities to cover a wide range of material. “I mix it all up… and try to play something for everybody,” he says. “I’ve been playing sixty years, so I know how to feel out what people out there like.”
See also: Pruitt’s personal website and Facebook site