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James “Taildragger” Jones

Updated: Apr 11

After decades spent performing the Blues, James “Tail Dragger” Jones is best remembered for his magnetic performances and his decorated career as one of the last true Chicago Blues musicians of the genre’s golden era.

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James Yancey Jones was born on September 30, 1940, on a farm in Altheimer, Arkansas, just across the river from Pine Bluff, to Pearl Robinson and Haywood Jones Jr. His parents soon separated, and Jones was raised by his grandparents. Jones fell in love with the blues at a young age. He listened to blues music on his family’s battery-powered radio so often in secret that his family was unable to listen to gospel music on Sunday mornings before church. Jones grew up sneaking into Delta juke joints like The Jack Rabbit Club in Pine Bluff, where he saw blues stars like Sonny Boy Williamson II, Elmore James, and Boyd Gilmore perform.

In 1966, after serving in the Army, Jones relocated to Chicago. Jones performed at blues clubs and worked as an auto mechanic until he met his mentor and hero, Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett. Burnett allowed Jones to sit in (a blues tradition that allows musicians in the room to get on stage and perform with the band for a song or two) at his concerts. Always “dressed to the nines” in his cowboy hat, boots, and Kentucky bowtie, Jones emulated Burnett’s floor routine, crawling on all fours among the audience of Chicago blues clubs. Burnett even nicknamed him “TailDragger” because he often arrived late to their performances.

Jones’ raw and gritty singing style also paid homage to “Sonny Boy” Williamson, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and other musicians he admired. He later concentrated on developing his signature “low-down” Chicago-style blues. By the early 1970s, Jones had become a full-time singer, backed by noteworthy musicians like Willie Kent, Hubert Sumlin, Carey Bell, Kansas City Red, Little Mack Simmons, Big Leon Brooks, and Eddie Shaw. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Jones performed regularly at blues clubs all across Chicago and released several singles. 

On July 11, 1993, in Chicago, Jones shot and killed blues artist Benjamin “Boston Blackie” Houston, after a heated dispute over payment when they both appeared at the Chicago Blues Festival a month earlier. Jones claimed he acted in self-defense. He was convicted of second-degree murder and served 17 months of his four-year prison sentence. After his conviction, Jones returned to the Blues scene quickly drawing eager audiences in the U.S. which also allowed him to travel to Europe and South America. He built a dedicated following in several countries and was treated with distinction because of his authentic blues stylings and performances.

In 1996, he released his debut album, Crawlin' Kingsnake, as part of St. George Records. In 1998, Jones played a show for a group of shackled inmates at the Cook County Jail on the 25th anniversary of the day he went to prison. In 1998, he released his second album American People after signing with Delmark Records. In 2005, a DVD entitled My Head Is Bald: Live at Vern's Friendly Lounge, was released which was met with enthusiastic reviews among blues audiences worldwide. In 2009, his album Live at Rooster's Lounge was released by Delmark Records. In 2012, Jones worked alongside Bob Corritore, releasing the Longtime Friends in the Blues CD and a DVD. In the summer of 2021, Jones performed a concert via live telecast for Pine Bluff and Delta audiences. The following year the world wide premier of a documentary, TailDragger: The Journey of a Bluesman, was released showcasing his life and musical career. It featured national and international performances of his as well as numerous interviews. Further highlighting his talents, Jones also had television/movie credits in Two Rivers (1999), Death and Taxis (2007), Lomax (2014), and Chicago Taxi (2018). 

On September 4, 2023, Jones died of natural causes. After decades spent performing the Blues, Jones is best remembered for his magnetic performances and his decorated career as one of the last Chicago Blues musicians of the genre’s golden era. He is survived by his wife, Bertha, six children, two stepchildren, 25 grandchildren, and many great-grandchildren.


Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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