Nathaniel Hawthorne “Nat” Reese was born March 4, 1924 in Salem, Virginia to Thomas Walker Reese and Rosa Sylvester Caroline Wilson Reese. Thomas was originally from Montgomery, Alabama, and Rosa from Bessemer, Alabama. The family had previously lived in Florida and Georgia before coming to Virginia to, as Nat puts it, “get away from the cotton fields.” In Salem, the Reeses lived on Water Street while his father drove a truck for a coal and ice company by day, and operated a small store, covering the evening shift every night until 8pm. Rosa kept a cow and sold milk and butter at the family’s store. Both parents were musical, Nat’s father played guitar and his mother the concertina. Nat recalls learning “Life Is Like a Mountain Railroad” at his mother’s knee.
One Sunday after church, a visiting preacher told Nat’s father that there was plenty of money to be made in the coal fields of West Virginia. After an exploratory trip, the family moved to Itman, in Wyoming County, West Virginia when Nat was five. Thomas took a job at the shop of the Virginian Railroad for $2.64 a day, a position he held for 30 years. Nat began to show musical talent on his father’s guitar, so, on time payments, Thomas bought him a Martin Tiple – a 12-string instrument of Argentine origin popular at the time — and Nat quickly developed real proficiency.
Nat began to learn songs from itinerant black musicians who rode the rails throughout the mountain coal camps, company towns that were divided into “colored,” white, and Italian sections. If a worker was killed in the mines or on the railroad, the company would allow his widow to remain in company housing and operate it as a business to compensate for the loss of the spouse’s income. Food was served in these places, moonshine could be had, and these traveling musicians entertained there on Friday and Saturday nights. It was at these rowdy “juke joints” that young Nat was exposed to the blues, and conversely to country music at similar establishments frequented by whites – “honky-tonks” — since the itinerant musicians played both black and white venues and developed repertoires tailored for both audiences.
When Nat was nine, a train engineer told Thomas he had heard that Nat could play, and asked if he might be willing to perform at a local school for the then princely sum of six dollars. Nat’s parents talked it over in front of Nat that night at the supper table. “Ask the boy,” his mother suggested. “Yeah! It don’t make me no difference!” was Nat’s reply, “I’ll play anywhere! Railroad, riverbank, on the train, off the train, don’t make no difference!” This engagement led to a long string of performances at coal camps in the region such as Black Bottom, Fireco, Pineville, Welch, and others, usually as the warm-up entertainment at speaking engagements given by visiting executives of the coal companies. Nat sang songs he had learned from the itinerant coal camp musicians, his parents, radio broadcasts, and from 78rpm records played on the family’s spring-wound Victrola, such as “The Preacher and the Bear”, “Corrina, Corrina”, and “My Blue Heaven.”
About the same time, Nat took to sitting on the railroad track in front of a house where a gospel quartet comprised of miners and railroad workers gathered to practice. When one of the vocalists was killed in the mine, young Nat was asked to join since he possessed a fine high-tenor voice, and already knew all their songs from listening in. The three adult members assured Nat’s parents they would be responsible for their “little brother” when the group traveled the region. About the time Nat’s voice began to change, Edward Buford, the leader of the Kings of Harmony Gospel Quartet, moved from Alabama to Slab Fork, east of Beckley, and gave Nat his first formal singing instruction, greatly improving Nat’s skill as a gospel quartet singer.
In 1939, at the urging of Reverend McClure of Itman, Nat joined his brother Thomas, and John and Walter Mozelle to form the Harmonizing Four Gospel Quartet. This group toured throughout the region traveling to Nashville, Knoxville, North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. Nat recalls that the group assiduously avoided South Carolina because of the intense racism there at the time: “Gospel (singing) was a form of therapy (against) a sick body of men. You had to have somethin’ to believe in. What you can’t change, you try to outlive it.” The quartet would typically appear on the radio in a town early in the morning, and then visit several churches in the afternoon and evening. Nat remembers these churches as being so full “there was people cryin’ shoutin’ praisin’ God . . . peepin’ in the windows!” And wistfully adds, “Those were some times.” Poor congregations would put food in the collection in lieu of money, and the quartet would often trade donated food for gasoline. The Harmonizing Four were contemporaries and friends of such notable groups as the Golden Gate Quartet, and the original Fairfield Four. Nat also met a minister’s daughter, Bessie Smith, and the two were married by a white preacher, Reverend Jones – not the Reverend Jones that appears in “I Ain’t Gonna Throw It Away” Nat assures us! Nat and Bessie were blessed with three boys and a girl, and adopted a child in 48 years of marriage before Bessie passed away in 1996.
Nat always showed promise in visual arts as well, and he enrolled in commercial art classes at Bluefield State College. It was then that Nat began to play his blues in more secular venues, sometimes playing behind chicken wire. At one such engagement, Nat noticed two men in front of the stage arguing over a woman. Nat heard a loud bang and looked down to see a hole in the front of his guitar. He pushed the guitar forward to inspect the instrument and found a splintered hole as big as a golf ball on the backside, and blood on his shirt. Nat checked himself to discover he had only been grazed, but quickly left the establishment telling the manager, “John more, Bill more, Jack more . . . but I ain’t playing here no more!” In 1939, Nat first met and performed with multi-instrumentalist Howard Armstrong, who was traveling through and playing the coal camp circuit from his home in Tennessee. The duo was to perform together with increasing regularity over the next sixty-five years until Armstrong’s death in 2003.
The Harmonizing Four disbanded for World War II when Nat served in the Army and regrouped following the war. In 1948, Nat went north to take advantage of the post-war boom and worked for Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna, New York for four years, before settling in Mt. Clemens, Michigan where he drove an excavator for a construction company and exercised his natural artistic talent as a sign painter. During these years, Nat’s new gospel quartet – the Heavenly Gospel Singers — participated annually at the Gospel Contest held in Detroit and frequently won 2nd or 3rd place. The Reese home was a popular gathering spot for gospel singers from all over the country, and Nat met and befriended the legendary gospel composer Thomas A. Dorsey of Chicago.
In 1961, Nat and his family returned to Princeton, West Virginia. Nat went to work in local industry and repaired radios and television sets as a sideline. He also began to perform regularly as a duo with Howard Armstrong and the pair toured Europe in 1959, 1961, 1962, 1963, and again in 1980 performing in Switzerland, Belgium, France, and behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany. Since his retirement, Nat remains musically active, performing at festivals and as a guest instructor at universities throughout the US, and is a gifted painter.
- THE PREACHER AND THE BEAR George Fairman/ ASCAP
The Preacher and the Bear, one of the most popular comic songs of the early twentieth century, is credited to George Fairman (1881-1962) of Front Royal, Virginia.I first heard “The Preacher and the Bear” from one of the old guitar players that came through from Mississippi or Alabama. These players would come through these little coal camps and they would ask, “Where is the place you go on a Friday night?” All the workers knew what they were — they were traveling musicians, ridin’ the rails. They would come in on box cars, coal cars, and some of them would ride the bottom part of the passenger train. Blind Charlie, he was one of the guys I learned a lot of the blues from. He could hop a train! Yes, with a guitar on his back and a white cane in his left hand, he could actually hop a train. He’d push that white cane down through his belt and put that guitar on his back. He’d listen to the train, and say, “How many tracks is that train over?” Whoever was there would tell him, “It’s the third track, two over from you.” And see, those tracks were six feet apart. The engineers knew these guys and they would slow the train down. So he’d take his stick and hold it up like this and it would bup-bup-bup-bup along the side of the train. And then he would start running along the side of the car and hold his hand up and soon as the edge of the car passed he would reach up and grab that handle and pull his self up! I seen it more times than I got fingers and toes! It was a wonder man.
- JUST A DREAM William Lee Conley “Big Bill” Broonzy/ Universal MCA Music Publishing
Originally performed by Big Bill Broonzy (1893-1958) as “Just A Dream On My Mind.”I was about 18 years old and I heard a song almost like “Just a Dream” and I never could get the right tone and the right sound of the verse so I made up the rest of it. It wasn’t that version, it was another song, but it ended up what I call “Just a Dream.”
- EXACTLY LIKE YOU Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh / EMI Music
Written by the gifted songwriting team of Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh, “Exactly Like You” premiered in the 1930 Broadway production “International Revue.” Nat learned it from several 78rpm recordings by different bands.
- THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE Billy Higgins and W. Benton Overstreet / Such Sweet Thunder
First recorded in 1921 by blues singer Ethel Waters, this song became an instant classic. Several other hit versions were recorded by both black and white artists for decades, most notably Ruth Etting in 1923, Ted Lewis and Marion Harris in 1924, Sophie Tucker in 1928, Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa in 1941, as well as later versions by Sidney Bechet, Fats Waller, Artie Shaw, Dinah Washington, and Billie Holiday. Nat’s version was most inspired by Fats Waller’s 78rpm recording.
- TAKE MY HAND, PRECIOUS LORD Thomas Dorsey / Tamerlane Publishing (BMI)
Take My Hand, Precious Lord was written by famed Chicago gospel songwriter Thomas Dorsey (1899-1993), who also composed Peace In The Valley, and earlier in his career, secular dance tunes such as It’s Tight Like That (1928) which eventually sold 7 million copes of sheet music. This hymn was a favorite of Martin Luther King, and was famously performed by Mahalia Jackson.Did you know Dorsey was a blues and swing musician? And that verse that I use: “Precious Lord, I love your name/Looking back from which I came,” you’ll never see it written in hymnals. And about 18 years ago I asked him how come they never published that verse. I knew him, you see, ‘cause I was in the Gospel field for 28 years. He said that he added that verse later. He played it over the radio out of Chicago. I was in Mt. Clemens, Michigan and I heard it. And they said, “The father of this song is gonna’ sing a new verse.” And I liked it better than the whole other part of the song. I love that verse – it’s got feeling in it, man. Tears come to my eyes when I sing that song.
- DOWN AND OUT BLUES Arthur L. Sizemore/ MPL Communications, Inc.
The Down and Out Blues was popularized by blues harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson, who fronted the King Biscuit Time radio program with Robert Lockwood in the early 1940’s.Back in 19 and 81, I was teaching a blues class up at Elkins College. And John Cephas said to me, “Nat, you ought to hear this fellow play this piece. And I can’t recall his name, but he was singing that Down And Out Blues. So Cephas says “Nat, you ought to be able to do something with that. You got one of the most original blues voices that I ever heard in my life. There’s something about your voice that I ain’t got and a lot of these other guys ain’t got either.” And I said, “Well, I come from old stock and somewhere I learned something from somebody or stole something from somebody. But I got it and I’m using it!? So, I rearranged it to my style.
- ‘TAIN’T NOBODY’S BUSINESS IF I DO Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins/ Lucky Guitar Music
Nat learned this classic off of a Billy Holiday recording.
- JUICE HEADED WOMAN RL Jones/ Lucky Guitar Music
Juice Headed Woman is credited to the late North Carolina blues man Robert Jones, a.k.a. “Guitar Gabriel.”You remember how late at night you could listen to different stations from Tennessee, Alabama and other places? Well, one night I heard this song about three times. I played what I remembered and then made up the rest.
- LAUNDROMAT BLUES Sandy Jones Jr. / Irving Music Inc. (BMI)
First recorded by Winston-Salem, North Carolina group The Five Royales in 1953. Though primarily a gospel group, they also recorded several secular and rather risqué numbers such as this one for a different market segment.
This song was also recorded by Albert King. I knew Albert, played on same stage with him at a festival at Philadelphia and down in Mississippi. In fact, I think he might have learned this song from me!
- I AIN’T GONNA THROW IT AWAY Howard Armstrong
This song was written by Nat’s late performing partner, the great Howard Armstrong. Howard’s version has many more verses, some of which his wife Barbara Ward Armstrong has described as “naughty.” Nat often liked to perform this song as a sing along, as he does on this version, recorded live at the Prism Coffeehouse in Charlottesville, in 2005.This is by Howard Armstrong, he passed away about a year and a half ago. Howard and I were the last of the old black string band musicians in these parts. People just always fell in love with this song. It’s more comical than anything else, like a comedian song.
- KEY TO THE HIGHWAY Big Bill Broonzy (William Lee Conley Broonzy)/ Songs of Universal Inc.
Another classic from Broonzy’s catalogue, a standard for many blues musicians. Nat learned his version from an early recording.
- TOO MANY BAD HABITS Johnny Nicholas/ Dynaflo Music
Johnny Nicholas, the creator of this irreverent number, owns and runs a café outside of Fredericksburg, Texas.I was awful cautious never to use profanity in my songs. I don’t use it. I do a family show, and you can bring your children to my show. Too Many Bad Habits is as far as I ever bend over with a song. And a lot of times I won’t do it until the last part of my concert, and if I see a child in the audience I won’t sing it. I know that might make me too of a high-handed of a guy, but that’s just the way I am. And I won’t change on that.
- DON’T DECEIVE ME (PLEASE DON’T GO) Chuck Willis/ Tideland Music
Don’t Deceive Me, written and originally recorded by Chuck Willis in 1953, was one of the final big hits for Atlantic Records by Virginia’s own Ruth Brown.This piece of Please Don’t Leave Me, Please Don’t Go I learned back when I was working for Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna, New York. It was about 1948 and I was sitting at a bar in Buffalo, New York, and I heard it on the jukebox. It was right around the corner from where I lived. I had a room on the second floor. I’d get off the bus in front of the bar and go in and unwind. That was where I first heard “Don’t leave me, don’t deceive me, please don’t go.” It was playing when I went in and then somebody else played it, and I said, “Boy, that’s a pretty song!” Then nobody played it for a while so I went up and got me a bunch of nickels from the bartender. I played it about ten or fifteen times! Those people in the restaurant were shaking their heads. I know they said, “I wish he’d hurry up and get through playing that!” Because I’d punch it three, over and over, and I learned that song sitting there drinking Velvet Beer!
- ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh / EMI Music
Another tune from the composing duo of Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh, written in 1929 and subsequently recorded by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald among others.I got that from a record of Erskine Hawkins, then Duke Ellington. I learned some of his jazz chords, his piano jazz chords. That’s where I heard the “bob-a-dee-be-bop-be” scat.
- SLIPPIN’ AROUND B.B. King/ BMG Music
This song was written by B.B. King as “Sneakin’ Around With You.” Nat has always sung it as “Slippin’ Around.”I got that from one of BB King’s shows I saw on TV. My grandson recorded it for me. It’s one of the songs BB likes to sing.
- SAVE A SEAT FOR ME Clifford Driver / (ASCAP)
That was from Archie Brownlee with the Five Blind Boys out of Mississippi, not the ones from Alabama. He died in 1955 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Archie’s real name was Wickerson, I mean his blood people. He was raised by the Brownlee family in Shady Side, Michigan. Archie would come up to Detroit every year to sing in that quartet contest downtown. Archie would come over to the house three and four days a week and just set around and play music and sing. He was sitting there singing The Lord’s Prayer and he said, “I got a good song!” He sung it over and over again. One of his buddies was a baritone. So Archie started singing it again and he started singing that baritone part and I started singing tenor and playing the guitar. Then it began to kind of sink in a little bit. I began to like it. Then I fell in love with it. And that’s how I learned it, singing it with Archie in my house. That was on Mullet Street in Mt. Clemens, back in 1955.