With a bellowing voice and masterful piano playing, Mercy Dee Walton emerged as an early influence in rhythm and blues not only in Waco but across the country. Towering figures such as Ma Rainey and Fats Domino are rightfully remembered as foundational for the blues and later rock n’ roll, but artists with less recording opportunities, like Walton, also shaped the country’s music scene in the early twentieth century.
Walton grew up on the water. His parents, Fred and Bessie Walton, worked on a small farm on the banks of Brazos in Waco and welcomed their son on August 30, 1915. Though a young Mercy Dee Walton worked the corn and cotton fields, he found himself captivated by local music. Aspiring musicians traversed Texas, performing on stages and in homes for little to nothing. Thirteen-year-old Walton listened, soaking in soulful vocals and rhythmic instrumentals. The blues artists he heard told stories of hardship and of love to steel guitar and striking barrelhouse piano arrangements. Searching for his own voice, Walton began to play piano and sing the blues at ten-cent house parties, where locals could pay a dime to hear the young artist hone his skills.
Waco’s own musicians influenced Walton’s sound. Unrecorded artists, such as Pete the Grey Ghost and Delois Maxey, impacted his style and song. Though many blues artists of the early twentieth century never recorded albums, their artistry formed other musicians. When Walton witnessed Maxey’s piano expertise at house parties, for example, he modeled his own playing after him. Others also influenced his sound, including Waco and Marlin piano players Son Brewster and Bob Jackson. Though labels never captured their talents, their inflections remained present in the work of later blues musicians.
Audiences certainly understood the talent of these rising artists. As Walton grew in popularity, he moved from intimate venues to larger crowds in Fort Worth. In the early 1930s, he took the stage at the Dixie and Bryson Taverns. Other emerging musicians, such as Pinetop Shorty, joined him. After playing the Texas circuit, Walton decided to move westward to an up-and-coming music metropolis, Los Angeles, in the late 1930s.
While playing around Fresno, Chester Lu, an executive at a smaller recording label called Spire Company, heard Walton’s talent. Walton recorded his first song “Lonesome Cabin Blues” with Spire. Though the song rose to the top ten on R&B charts, Walton’s performances and albums did not result in financial prosperity. As he sang about his troubles on stage, they persisted in his life as he continued to labor for little pay. For instance, at one venue, Walton performed for a few dollars and a hot meal. Agricultural work provided supplemental income as Walton continued to pursue his musical career, and he often performed at bars where Black farmworkers gathered to listen to lyrics that illustrated their experiences.
After reaching number seven on the charts with “Lonesome Cabin Blues,” Walton cut a record with Imperial Records. The songs never charted, and Walton did not record any more songs with Imperial. Things changed when Walton joined Specialty Records. He recorded his hit song “One Room Country Shack” in May 1952, and garnered national attention. He briefly toured with the popular Jay McNeely Band, whose smooth saxophone sound skyrocketed the group to the top of the Billboard charts. A long way from the Texas circuit, Walton traveled across the country, singing popular tracks, such as “Roamin’ Blues” and “Romp & Stomp Blues,” in auditoriums for large crowds. One song that captured fans’ attention was “Rent Man Blues,” which featured Walton’s wife, Thelma Walton, who received the pseudonym Lady Fox on the record.
Walton cut more records with Specialty, but none accumulated extensive recognition. Notably, payola, the practice of bribing radio hosts to play certain songs to increase an artist’s popularity and a label’s success, ran rampant throughout Walton’s career. Though he recorded with two small labels, Rhythm and Flair, in the mid-1950s, his albums did not reach previous heights on the charts. He moved to Stockton, California, where he continued agricultural work and played music on a smaller scale.
Though Walton’s recording opportunities seemed to decline over time, in 1961, record producer and blues fan Chris Strachwitz began to record with Walton on his newly founded label, Arhoolie. With his remarkable barrelhouse piano style, Walton put down multiple tracks with Strachwitz. Tragically, as his career seemed to be resurging in the recording studio, Walton died suddenly in December 1962. Though his recordings remain few, his conceptions of rhythm and blues live on, shaping artists in Waco and beyond.