Clark County was the birthplace of a man who witnessed and contributed to the 1940s blues movement.

Clark County was the birthplace of a man who witnessed and contributed to the 1940s blues movement.
James “Jimmy” Witherspoon was born in Gurdon in 1921, the son of Leonard and Eva Tatum Witherspoon. His father, who passed away early into Witherspoon’s childhood, was a brakeman for Missouri Pacific Railroad while his mother was a church pianist.
A deeply religious woman, Eva ardently disapproved of blues music, which she found to be “dirty” and unrefined.
Nevertheless, Witherspoon’s love of blues continued through listening to radio and local jukeboxes. Both of his parents had been in the First Baptist Church’s choir and at the age of five, he also joined, further honing his ability with a dream of one day singing professionally.
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Witherspoon won a singing contest in Clark County around this same time.
He left for Los Angeles in the mid-1930s and found work as a drugstore dishwasher. During this period, the city’s Central Avenue was a haven for blues and jazz lovers, with several clubs populating the thoroughfare. Witherspoon took full advantage when he was not working. It was in these clubs however that Witherspoon found not just his favorite music, but his idol behind it all, a singer named Big Joe Turner, who in 1987 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his contributions.
With his idol’s support, Witherspoon began establishing himself in the music scene. He rapidly became a hit with audiences.
In 1941, Witherspoon became a cook with the U.S Merchant Marines and was part of ship voyages in Asia. He continued to participate in music whenever possible.
In Calcutta during shore leave, he performed with jazz pianist Teddy Weatherford. Their collaboration was heard by American troops through the U.S. Armed Forces Radio Service and provided Witherspoon his biggest audience up to that point. He was discharged in 1943.
Witherspoon, also known as “Spoon,” returned to California and joined a jazz band led by pianist Jay McShann. He served as lead singer of McShann’s group for a number of years. In 1948, Witherspoon and the band released a cover of the Bessie Smith song, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” The following year, the tune went on to top Billboard Magazine’s R&B chart for “race records” and remained there for 34 weeks. It was the best selling R&B record of 1949. The song is now considered Witherspoon’s signature piece of work.
Other hits for Witherspoon included “No Rollin’ Blues,” “Big Fine Girl,” and, in collaboration with the Gene Gilbeaux Quartet, “Failing by Degrees” and “New Orleans Woman.”
As the 1950s came, so did the emergence of rock and roll and Witherspoon’s success started to diminish. In 1959, he began a comeback with his album “Jimmy Witherspoon at the Monterey Jazz Festival.” The recording was live and also reportedly the first time his mother saw him in concert.
Throughout the 1960s, Witherspoon toured and recorded regularly, often playing with distinguished jazz musicians. For the next two decades, he released a staggering number of LPs, including “Evenin’ Blues,” “Blues Around the Clock,” “Blue Spoon,” “Some of My Best Friends Are the Blues,” “Blues for Easy Livers,” “In Person,” “Spoonful of Soul,” “Guilty,” “Spoonful Avenue,” and “Live Crosscut.”
In 1965, Witherspoon’s single “You’re Next” was ranked at number 98 in the U.S. Pop music charts. A decade later, he returned to the rankings at number 31 with the single “Love is a Five Letter Word.” The former piece stayed on the chart for a week while the latter remained for 14.
Witherspoon tried acting in his career, appearing in three films: 1974’s “The Black Godfather, 1990’s “To Sleep with Anger,' and “Georgia” in 1995.
In the 1980s, “Spoon” was diagnosed with throat cancer. He underwent operations and hospitalizations throughout the decade, never allowing it to hinder his touring and recording commitments. His vocal chords, however, were affected because of the treatments.
The illness returned in the 1990s and in 1997, Witherspoon died in his sleep at his Los Angeles home. His obituary stated that he was survived by his wife, two siblings, three children, and four grandchildren.
In 2011, Witherspoon’s version of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame as part of its singles category.