Back to the blues we go for this installment of Rebirth of the Cool.
The story of Robert Pete Williams echoes the story of many of the great bluesmen: born in Louisiana in 1914, Williams grew up poor and uneducated. He was discovered in Angola prison, while serving time for killing a man, by a pair of ethnomusicologists who pressured the parole board for a pardon. He played the 1964 Newport Folk Festival alongside the likes of “re-discovered” greats like Skip James, Son House and others, heralding the height of the 1960s blues revival.
“Grown So Ugly” is probably Williams’ best-known song, thanks to the next two acts we’ll talk about. Williams had a percussive style of guitar-playing and his singing style could call up the grit of Howlin’ Wolf one moment and the haunting falsetto of Skip James the next.
In 1967, Captain Beefheart brought his Magic Band and his husky yelp to the song and turned it into a jazzy cry.
The version recorded by the Black Keys in 2004 is, essentially, a cover of a cover, taking their cues from the Beefheart rendition. The Keys, of course, add a lot of low end to the song, bringing out a darkness that can easily be overlooked in the original and the Beefheart version.