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Charlie Patton Biography

Charlie Patton, better known as Charley Patton (May 1, 1891 - April 28, 1934) is best known as an American Delta blues musician. He is considered by many to be the "Father of Delta Blues" and therefore one of the oldest known figures of American popular music. He is credited with creating an enduring body of American music and personally inspiring just about every Delta blues man (Robert Palmer, 1995). Palmer considers him among the most important musicians that America produced in the twentieth century. Many sources, including some musical releases and even his gravestone, misspell his name “Charley” even though the musician himself spelled his name “Charlie.”

Charlie Patton was one of the first mainstream stars of the Delta blues genre. Patton, who was born in Hinds County, Mississippi near Edwards, lived most of his life in Sunflower County, in the Mississippi Delta. He was born in 1891, but there is still some debate about this. In 1900, however, his family moved 100 miles north to the legendary 10,000 Acre Dockery Plantation sawmill and cotton farm near Ruleville, Mississippi. It was here that both John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf fell under the Patton spell. It was also here that Robert Johnson played his first guitar.

At Dockery, Charlie fell under the spell of Henry Sloan who had an unusual new style of playing music which we would recognize today as very early blues. Charlie followed Henry Sloan around and by the time he was about 19 in 1910 he was an accomplished performer and composer, having already composed his theme song "Pony Blues".

He was extremely popular across the U.S. South, and (in contrast to the itinerant wandering of most blues musicians of his time) was invited to perform at plantations and taverns. Long before Jimi Hendrix he was the entertainer's entertainer with dazzling showmanship, often playing guitar on his knees and behind his head, as well as behind his back. Although Patton was a small man at about 5 foot 5 and 135 pounds, the sound of his whiskey- and cigarette-scarred voice was rumored to have carried for over 500 yards without amplification. This gritty voice was a major influence in the singing style of one of his students, Howlin' Wolf.
Patton settled in Holly Ridge, Mississippi with his common-law wife and recording partner Bertha Lee in 1933. He died on the Heathman-Dedham plantation near Indianola from heart disease on April 28, 1934 and is buried in Holly Ridge (both towns are located in Sunflower County).

There apparently exists only one photograph of Charlie Patton, although its authenticity is disputed. Rights to it are owned by a collector named John Tefteller.

It is of minor debate which race Charlie Patton was. Though he was most likely African-American like most of his contemporaries in the blues field, because of his light complexion there have been rumors that he was Mexican, full-blood Cherokee (Howlin' Wolf himself endorsed this theory) and many others.

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