Jenkins moved to Detroit in 1944, after being discharged from the Army with a nagging dream of owning his own blues recording studio and label. It took him years of working in a factory, but his dream came true. The first record released on Jenkins’ Big Star label in 1959 was his own – “You’ll Never Understand” and “Tell Me Where You Stayed Last Night.” The second record was released in 1964 by James Walton – “Tell Me What You Got” and “Shade Grove.” Bobo recorded Walton’s album in what was known as his basement “cardboard” studio, located at 5901 Antoinette. He later moved to his final destination at 4228 Joy Road. There, Jenkins was able to record a number of prominent Detroit artists, including Little Junior Cannaday, Little Daddy Walton and Sons and a number of others who were known only within the confines of Detroit.
“Now your average rock musician, he’ll tell you, ‘Man, times are bad, and people ain’t got the money to be going to clubs.’ And he’s out of work. But man, I ain’t been out of work in 20 years, because my peoples always want to hear the blues,” said Jenkins in the 1970 Free Press interview.
“Wasn’t for him, Bobo Jenkins, wouldn’t be no blues scene in Detroit,” says Clarence Butler, one of the Butler Twins who still pack ’em in regularly in the Detroit area. Jenkins, a guitar and harmonica player, recorded some of his songs on the Fortune label, then later went on to form his own label, Big Star Recording Studio. A 1974 Rolling Stone article focusing on Jenkins and the Detroit blues scene describes the studio:
“There is no better place in Detroit – maybe the world – to feel the blues than in Bobo Jenkins’ Big Star Recording Studio at 4228 Joy Road. Chairs there have lost their backs. Scraps of dirty carpet have been tacked to the walls to deaden the sound. Paint peelings hang suspended from the ceiling. Dusty cartons of records that never sold totter on the edges of shelves. On one wall, held up by nails, are yellowed publicity shots of Bobo and John Lee Hooker. On the opposite is a row of ruby-lipped cheesecakes. Ashtrays overflow. Stroh’s beer cans fill corners.’’
Before moving to Detroit, Jenkins played his guitar and harmonica in the Mississippi Delta during the 1930s and ’40s. Later, when he moved to Detroit, he worked as a filling station attendant during the ’50s while making his recordings. Jenkins was also a founding member and past president of the Detroit Blues Club, and was instrumental in putting together the short-lived Detroit Blues Festival which began on Belle Isle in 1972.
During the winter of 1972, a full season after he and promoter Fred Reif had worked together to put together the Belle Isle festival, somebody broke into the Big Star studio and stole all of the equipment. Jenkins had no insurance. What he did have, however, was a successful first album, The Life of Bobo Jenkins, which was recorded earlier that same year. The album even received some national attention from blues magazines, which prompted enough interest and sales to enable Jenkins to purchase new equipment for the studio.
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