The first time I met Sam Mosley, I thought of Moses.
That was twenty years ago, and Sam had less white in his whiskers than he has now. Sam laughs and smiles more than the stern lawgiver probably did.
Yet the patrician bearing, the strong visage and aura of wisdom, the personal presence, the long, grey wavy hair and beard, made me think of what the Moses of the 15th century B.C. may have looked like.
Sam Mosley is a big man, has the medium brown skin and glowing Ashkenazi eyes characteristic of the Semitic people of Israel and Egypt, Moses’s people.
Although I never met him, I had the good fortune to be in the same room, close to Muhammed Ali, on three separate occasions. When Ali was in a room, every person in the room – man, woman, and child – was compelled to look at him. Sam has that. I imagine Moses did too.
There is much talk about how divided America is today. Many speculate that we are headed for another Civil War, although that is unlikely. However, there is no doubt that our country has alarmingly bitter divisions over politics, race, social issues, even over whether to get a COVID shot.
Yet, for a few hours Friday night at the Union County Heritage Museum (UCHM), nearly 200 people came together, and were closely united. It was a diverse group: African-Americans and European-Americans, Democrats and Republicans, wealthy people and poor people, Missionary Baptists and Southern Baptists, AME Methodists and United Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, even a free-thinker or two. I happen to know a few of the people in the room at the museum don’t even like one another.
They were warmly harmonious for a couple of hours and the reason in two words: Sam Mosley.
He was honored at the November 12 event by the Union County Heritage Museum, Living Blues Magazine, and Malaco Records.
Earlier this year, Scott Barretta, of Living Blues Magazine, made several trips to New Albany to interview Sam. Jill Smith, Director of the Union County Heritage Museum, helped arrange the interviews. UCHM was also one of the sites for some remarkable images of Sam taken by photographer Bill Steber.
Scott Barretta’s story documents Sam’s 60-year career as a musician: singer, guitarist, song writer, recording artist, band leader and missionary for all that is best about Mississippi. The story in Issue #274 of Living Blues is probably 10,000 words long, and every word is the right word.[Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”]
Barretta tells Sam Mosley’s remarkable story from his childhood in rural Union County to his still-active career as one of the blues genre’s major influences in the last half century, and winner of multiple Grammy awards.
Among the most important factors in Sam’s success was his relationship with Bob Johnson, a childhood friend. They grew up together, learned music together, performed together around the United States and Europe.
After recording for some other record labels, Mosley and Johnson recorded their first LP album on the Malaco label in 1987. They stayed with Malaco and, for a time, were exclusive song writers for Malaco Together, they wrote songs performed by Malaco artists, including Bobby “Blue” Band, Little Milton, Denise LaSalle, Johnny Taylor and others.
Bobby Bland recorded over a dozen Mosley and Johnson songs, including three on a Grammy nominated album in 1999.
Sam Mosley and Bob Johnson continued to perform, record together and give live performances as the Mosley and Johnson Band.
Then, Bob Johnson had a heart attack and died on stage during a performance in 1998.
Sam Mosley still mourns Bob Johnson, as he did during remarks Friday night at UCHM. It says a lot about their friendship that Sam Mosley continues to direct half of the royalties earned to Bob Johnson’s widow, who was in the audience Friday. This includes royalties on songs Sam has written alone in the 23 years since Bob Johnson died.
“Bob and I never had a written contract,” Mosley said Friday night. “Paying the royalties to his family is just the right thing to do.”
Wolf Stephenson, owner and chief engineer for Malaco, was at the UCHM event and spoke about Mosley and Johnson and his friendship and business with them, now going back 34 years. Stephenson related several anecdotes, some funny, some sad, all fond and admiring.
Sam and the Mosley and Johnson Band, including Sam, Bob Johnson’s brothers Willie and Myles, drummer Crow Price and James Judon on keyboards concluded the program with several of their long-time favorites. I have heard Mosley and Johnson perform many times, but never better than they were Friday night at the museum.
Included in the remarkable gathering Friday were many of Sam’s relatives, several of whom traveled to New Albany from Arkansas. It was a family reunion and a community unity event, all in the same memorable few hours.
Sam Mosley was the unifying element. The music is only part of it. While his place in the Valhalla of Southern Blues music is secure, there’s much more to him than the music.
He is loved by those who know him for his complete lack of phoniness, his kindness, and generosity. A close friend of my family, who has known Sam Mosley all of her life, summed it up in a phone conversation Saturday. “Sam is just a very sweet man,” she said.
It would be interesting to have some kind of poll to pick New Albany’s favorite son. Let everyone vote, regardless of race, gender, politics, religion, etc. Who would be New Albany’s favorite son?
Some would vote for William Faulkner, winner of the Nobel Prize, one of the greatest of all American writers, who was born here. However, even those who admire him would never describe William Faulkner as “a very sweet man.” We all know better. Faulkner was essentially a good man, but he was also known for not infrequently hurting those who loved him, people he himself loved.
This is not to argue that Sam Mosley is a saint. I don’t know of any instances, but I imagine that, like most of us, he is not proud of every single thing he has said and done in his 75 years.
That said, my money would still be on Sam Mosley to be voted New Albany’s Favorite Son.