James "Yank" Rachell had a career as a performer that spanned nearly seventy years. Known primarily as one of the few masters of blues mandolin, he also played guitar, violin, and harmonica. His guitar and mandolin playing on John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson's records, with his driving, rhythmic style on the mandolin and his cropped, guitarlike phrases, were certainly an influence on a lot of musicians.
A gifted and innovative songwriter, Rachell's hits of his own were 'reworked' by artists such as Jimmy Rogers and Blind Boy Fuller. "She Caught the Katy," which he co-wrote with Taj Mahal and became one of Taj's most famous tunes, became a blues standard performed in, among other places, the movie "The Blues Brothers."
He was born on a farm outside Brownsville, Tennessee, on March 16, 1910, and reportedly traded one of his family's pigs for a mandolin when he was eight years old. He taught himself to play the instrument, which probably accounts for his unique approach. As a teen he often worked house parties and fish frys with his mentor, Hambone Willie Newbern. It was at one of those parties where Yank met guitarist and singer Sleepy John Estes, and the two formed a musical partnership and friendship that lasted until Estes' death in 1977.
Initially Rachell and Estes teamed up with harmonica and jug player Hammie Nixon and played through Tennessee and the South as a jug band before relocating to Memphis in the mid-20s. Then, in 1929, Rachell, Estes, and pianist Jab Jones formed the Three J's Jug Band and became a popular attraction in clubs on Beale Street during the lucrative jug band craze in Memphis. That same year they recorded for the Victor label. Their first recording, "Broken-Hearted, Ragged and Dirty Too," sold well enough that Victor brought them back to record five more songs, including the blues classic "Divin' Duck Blues" (which was covered by Muddy Waters and Lightnin' Hopkins and even Jelly Roll Morton for the Library of Congress). The group recorded a total of 14 sides credited jointly to Estes and Rachell.
With the onset of the Depression, the Three J's broke up and Rachell moved backed to Tennessee to try his hand at farming (and later got a job with the L&N Railroad), while Estes moved to Chicago. During a stopover in New York Rachell recorded 25 sides with guitarist Dan Smith for ARC in just three days, though only six of them were issued.
Around that time, Yank Rachell discovered a young harmonica player in Jackson, Tennessee named John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson. The two became friends and starting in 1933, began working at the Blue Flame Club in Jackson. They remained musical partners until Williamson's death in 1948. Williamson moved north to Chicago and after the success of Williamson's 1937 recordings for Bluebird, Rachell joined Sonny Boy in Chicago for sessions in March and June of 1938. They appeared on each other's records, with Rachell's steady mandolin and guitar playing giving Williamson a solid base from which to launch his frenetic harp solos. In 1941 they recorded 16 more songs together, including some of Yank's best - "It Seem Like a Dream," "Biscuit Baking Woman," and "Peach Tree Blues," all of them successes for both Rachell and Bluebird.
Like many bluesmen, Yank moved north to St. Louis, where he worked with Peetie Wheatstraw, but often traveled back to Tennessee to perform. He got married, settled down and started raising a family. Even during the peak of his musical career, Rachell kept his day job and did not lead "the life." After Williamson's murder in 1948, Yank drifted away from the music scene, relying solely on straight jobs to make his living. He moved permanently to Indianapolis in 1958, but after his wife died in 1961 he decided to resume performing.
He re-united with Estes and Nixon in 1962 and began playing colleges and coffeehouses. In 1964 they recorded for Delmark Records as Yank Rachell's Tennessee Jug Busters on an album entitled Mandolin Blues, which also included guitarist Mike Bloomfield. During the folk-blues revival of the late 60's and early 70's, they played major festivals in the U.S. and Europe such as the Newport Folk Festival, Chicago Blues Festival, Ann Arbor Blues Festival, and the Festival of American Folklife.
In 1973 Rachell recorded an eponymously titled album for Blue Goose Records. In 1986 he recorded Blues Mandolin Man for Blind Pig Records, where Yank is joined for the first time by a rhythm section (including his granddaughter Sheena Rachell), which was his accustomed way of playing for many years.. The album finds Yank in fine form, his voice and instrumental skills still strong and compelling. Downbeat called the album "a fun, effective presentation of old-timey music in a fresh, contemporary setting."
Also in 1986, Yank appeared in Louie Bluie, Terry Zwigoff's documentary about fellow musician Howard Armstrong. In his later years he also made albums for JSP, Wolf, and Slippery Noodle. In 1996 he recorded three songs with John Sebastian, formerly of The Lovin' Spoonful, for an album entitled I Want My Roots. At the time of his death, on April 9, 1997, he had just completed a new album called Too Hot for the Devil.