by David Hamburger

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This was probably the first blues tune I learned that didn’t follow the basic twelve-bar blues pattern. As usual, I ran into “Key To The Highway” first through a bona fide landmark rock LP, Derek and the Dominoes’ Layla, which includes a nine-minute version. Eric Clapton and Duane Allman take turns tearing each others’ heads off, in the best way possible, on a song credited to the mysterious “Jazz Gillum.” How could that even be a real person?

It turns out he actually was, though Mrs. Gillum, in a fit of turn-of-the-century patriotism, actually named her son William McKinley. Where the harmonica player/singer picked up the hipper handle is anyone’s guess, but that never seems to happen to people like you and me, which is really too bad. (Actually, it’s probably for the best – I don’t think, upon reflection, that I’d really want to go through the rest of my life answering to, say, “Swing Hamburger.”)

What everyone – well, everyone but me, until recently – knows is where he picked up “Key to the Highway:” off a 78 recorded by pianist and singer Charlie Segar in early 1940.

Segar’s track was in the standard 12-bar format, but Gillum recorded it just a few months later in an eight-bar form. His accompanying guitarist for the date was Big Bill Broonzy.

Broonzy in turn went on to record his own version of the song in 1941, on which he sang as well as played, with harmonica and drums for accompaniment. Broonzy’s version was successful enough to result in many people assuming him to the be the author of the song rather than the popularizer of Gillum’s compelling rewrite of a Charles Segar tune. And who can blame them? That’s a lot to remember, especially seven decades before Wikipedia. Broonzy, Gillum and, perhaps to a less successful extent, Segar, were all part of the professional, forward-looking urban blues scene in Chicago that was flourishing at a time when commercial interest in solo rural blues singers from south had fallen off precipitously. All three were active as both sidemen and solo artists, with Broonzy the most prolific of the three. His uncluttered combo sound of the early 40s presaged the explosive Chicago developments of the Fifties, but while only seventeen years separate Broonzy’s “Key to the Highway” from Little Walter’s 1958 version, the shift in energy, attitude and sheer volume is overwhelming.

To my ears, this sounds like the version Clapton drew from for his Layla performance. His vocals seem to be reaching for Little Walter’s inflection of the melody, and the heavy rhythm guitar groove on the Layla version comes straight out of Walter’s late-fifties Chicago sound. Plus, the era and attitude are right, given Clapton’s general the-grittier-the-better aesthetic in choosing influences.

Which leaves one curiosity lying chronologically in between Walter and Clapton: the Rolling Stones version, cut in 1964 but not issued at the time. In terms of mood and intensity it’s an interesting mix – for the most part it cooks on a relatively low flame, not unlike a group of guys seeking to conjure a Big Bill Broonzy vibe with electric instruments in their hands. But towards the end, the harp and guitar start to kick in a little more, and drive things with an energy creeping up onto the postwar side of things.