JACKSON, Miss. – James Lewis Carter “T-Model” Ford, a hard-living blues singer who taught himself to play guitar when he was 58 years old and his fifth wife left him, died Tuesday at his home in Greenville, Miss.
His age was uncertain. Washington County Coroner Methel Johnson said the family told her Ford was born in 1924 and had already had his birthday this year, which would have made him 89. But a blues expert and longtime friend, Roger Stolle (STOW-lee), said Ford didn’t remember what year he was born and claimed to be 93.
Johnson told The Associated Press that Ford had been under hospice care and died of respiratory failure shortly after 10 a.m. Tuesday. She said he was at home with several relatives, including his wife, Estella Ford.
Stolle, who owns a Clarksdale, Miss., store called Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, accompanied Ford and other blues men when they toured Europe in 2009. He also traveled with Ford to gigs in New York.
“He was known as one of the last really authentic Mississippi blues men,” Stolle told AP on Tuesday. “He has a story and could back it up.”
When Ford was young, he served two years of a 10-year prison sentence for killing a man in self-defense, and he had scars on his ankles from serving on a prison chain gang, Stolle said.
Ford had six wives and 26 children, Stolle said. When Ford’s fifth wife left him, she gave him a guitar as a parting gift.
“He stayed up all night drinking white whiskey,” or moonshine, “and playing the guitar,” Stolle said. “He kind of went on from there.”
Ford started his blues career by playing at private parties and at juke joints in Greenville.
“He’d play late, then he’d spray himself with a bunch of mosquito spray and sleep in his van,” Stolle said.
Stolle said Ford recorded seven albums with three labels, including three albums with Fat Possum Records in Oxford, Miss.
Clarksdale Mayor Bill Luckett, who co-owns the city’s Ground Zero Blues Club with actor Morgan Freeman, said Ford was “a master of old-school blues” with an international following.
“His music would take you right back to the heart and soul of the Delta, back in the day,” Luckett said.
Ford would show up for gigs early and often play longer than expected, even when he started experiencing heart problems in recent years, Stolle said. Ford would also swig Jack Daniels on stage and chat with the audience. Often, he’d pick out a happy-looking couple that included an attractive woman and would talk directly to the man.
“He’d say, ‘You’d better put your stamp on her because if she flags my train, I’m going to let her ride,” Stolle said. “He’d do it with a gleam in his eye and a smile. He could get away with a lot.”