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WALTON, MERCY DEE

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WALTON, MERCY DEE (1915–1962). Mercy Dee Walton, pianist, was born in Waco on August 30, 1915. He was the son of Fred and Bessie (Wade) Walton. His parents worked on farms in the bottomlands of the Brazos River, and Mercy Dee was destined for a similar life when at the age of thirteen he began to learn to play the piano, inspired by the music he heard at local house parties. The greatest influence on him was the unrecorded Delois Maxey, but other (equally unrecorded) Texas pianists also made some contribution: Son Brewster from Waco, Pinetop Shorty, Willy Woodson, Sonny Vee and "Big Hand" Joe Thomas in Fort Worth, Son Putney in Dallas, and Bob Jackson in Marlin—all little more than names now—and the Grey Ghost (Roosevelt T. Williams) who emerged from obscurity only after Mercy Dee's death. All of these men followed the same pattern of life, wintering in the cities and touring through the state during harvest time.

In the late 1930s Mercy Dee moved to California, where he worked on farms up and down the Central Valley while performing in local bars and clubs for the region's black farmworkers. In 1949 he recorded for the Fresno-based Spire label and had an immediate hit with "Lonesome Cabin Blues," which reached Number 7 in the R&B charts. This success attracted the attention of the larger Los Angeles–based Imperial label, which signed him and recorded two sessions of twelve titles in 1950. No hits emerged, however, and by 1952 he was recording for Specialty, another Los Angeles label. His first track for them, "One Room Country Shack," was a hit in 1953, reaching Number 8 on the R&B charts.

This success led to a great change in his career; he had, for a while at least, become a nationally-known artist, and he worked with various package shows touring the country. But his two other Specialty issues were less successful and he was dropped by the label. A recording for the small Rhythm label in 1954 had little impact, but in 1955 he recorded for the Flair label, part of the Modern Records stable in Los Angeles. These recordings were much more in the R&B style but did nothing to restore Walton's career to the heights of "One Room Country Shack." He returned to his earlier situation of supplementing his earnings from music with agricultural work and settled in the Stockton, California, area.

In 1961 he came to the attention of Chris Strachwitz, owner of the Arhoolie label. A series of sessions that year with sympathetic backing by guitarist K. C. Douglas, harmonica player Sidney Maiden, and drummer Otis Cherry produced albums on the Arhoolie and Bluesville labels. Soon afterwards Walton suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in hospital in Murphys, California, on December 2, 1962. He was a fine piano player in the barrelhouse style and a strong if not terribly expressive singer. His main claim to fame lies in his lyrics, which are largely based on his own experiences and those of his primary audience and are full of witty and striking ideas.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

: Hank Davis, "Mercy Dee Walton," Living Blues 77 (December 1987). Bob Groom, "Mercy Dee," Blues-Link 4 and 5 (1974). Sheldon Harris, Blues Who's Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1979). Chris Strachwitz, "Tribute to Mercy Dee Walton," Rhythm & Blues 61 (July 1963)

Ray Astbury

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Ray Astbury, "WALTON, MERCY DEE," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fwabv), accessed December 22, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on October 29, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.