While most other blues musicians relish the chance to tour Europe and meet the high demand for classic American roots music overseas, Big George Jackson was hesitant to leave the comforts of home in Minnesota. And it literally was a comfort issue.
"We'd be put up in these little Dutch houses and other places with these tiny beds," remembered Jeremy Johnson, longtime guitarist in Jackson's band. "George just wasn't built for those tours."
At 6½ feet, Jackson loomed large literally and figuratively in the Twin Cities blues scene for five decades, singing and playing harmonica with a deep voice and gritty groove that was equal parts Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. He died unexpectedly in his sleep of natural causes Tuesday at his Brooklyn Park home.
"He went very peacefully," said his wife, Tonya Palmer-Jackson.
Jackson, 71, grew up in Minneapolis in a large, blues-loving family with seven siblings. His parents emigrated north from Mississippi and Memphis, and father Francis "FB" Jackson played harmonica and guitar at home. After becoming a dad himself, George worked a day job at Minnegasco (now CenterPoint Energy) and performed at night and on weekends.
The last of the "Big" men in Minnesota blues circles — Big John Dickerson died just two weeks ago, while Big Walter Smith passed in 2012 — he was a mainstay at Wilebski's/Blues Saloon, Famous Dave's Uptown, the Schooner Tavern and other Twin Cities venues, and at festivals such as Bayfront in Duluth, Lowertown Blues in St. Paul and the Roots, Rock & Deep Blues Fest in Minneapolis.
He was due to return to the latter event in July at the Hook & Ladder Theatre after a lull in performing since last summer, when he busted out of the pandemic lockdown for a few outdoor gigs.
"He didn't want to tour anymore, but he still loved to play locally whenever he could," said Johnson, who played with Jackson for 25 years in a long-solidified band with Phil Schmid, Dwight Dario and John Schroder.
Among their tours in the 1990s and 2000s were dates backing Louisiana blues legend Lazy Lester. In 2015, his prowess on stage won him the blues performer award from the Minnesota Blues Hall of Fame.
"The groove was everything to George," Johnson added. "If he could get people dancing, he was happy. The shows would go on for four hours straight if the crowd was hopping."
When the organizers of the annual "Last Waltz" tribute show at the Cabooze needed someone to deliver the songs of Muddy Waters, Jackson got the gig at the behest of Lamont Cranston frontman Pat Hayes.
"I liked George a lot," Hayes said Thursday. "He was a good man, and one of the top players and singers of the traditional blues. I'll miss him."
Hook & Ladder liaison Jackson Buck said the venue's staff and promoters were as fond of Big George as audiences were.
"He was just a really cordial guy to work with, very professional, easy-going and always smiling," said Buck. "He was one of the last of the authentic, old-school blues guys in town. It's really a loss."
Jackson and his band recorded four albums from 1994 to 2003, three for the Dutch record label Black & Tan. Those records were loaded with original songs written by Jackson, a talent that his wife said was one of the proudest facets of his career.
"He spent a lot of time working on songs and loved creating the words and music from scratch," Palmer-Jackson said. She also cited many hobbies that kept him busy in recent years, including learning guitar more and becoming fluent in Spanish.
Jackson is survived by seven children: Roxanne McKinney, Curtis Harper, Eric Harper, George Jackson Jr., Andrea Jackson, Marcus Jackson and Justin Palmer, plus 12 grandchildren. The family is planning a private memorial service and asking that memorial donations in his honor be made to Walker West Music Academy, 760 Selby Ave., St. Paul, MN, 55104.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658