James "Yank" Rachell was the primary exponent of blues mandolin, although he also played guitar, violin, harp and sang expertly well. Born on a farm outside Brownsville, Tennessee, Yank Rachell picked up the mandolin at the age of eight, mainly teaching himself; an early encounter with "Hambone" Willie Newbern early on helped him as well. Rachell began to work dances with singer and guitarist Sleepy John Estes in the early '20s. In early 1929, he co-formed the Three J's Jug Band with Estes and pianist Jab Jones. The Three J's Jug Band were an instant hit and managed to work the dances during the lucrative jug-band craze in Memphis and traveled often to Paducah, Kentucky. The group recorded 14 sides credited jointly to Estes and Rachell for Victor for 1929 and 1930.
After the record business was flattened by the depression, the Three J's broke up. Estes and harmonica player Hammie Nixon went on to Chicago to seek their fortune in the nightclubs, but Yank Rachell decided to try his hand at farming and also worked for the L&N Railroad. Ironically, it was Rachell who was next to record -- during a stopover in New York Rachell teamed up with guitarist Dan Smith and laid down 25 titles for ARC in just three days, though only six of them were issued.
Shortly before the ARC date, Yank Rachell had discovered a kid harmonica player that he believed had real talent, John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson. They worked together at the Blue Flame Club in Jackson, Tennessee starting in 1933. In 1934 Williamson went north to Chicago. With the success of Williamson's first Bluebird dates of 1937, Rachell decided to join Sonny Boy in Chicago for sessions in March and June of 1938. Yank Rachell also contributed four sides of his own to each session, and then 16 more in 1941 with Sonny Boy backing him up. Some of the 1941 tracks are among his best: "It Seem Like a Dream," "Biscuit Baking Woman," and "Peach Tree Blues" were all successes for both Rachell and Bluebird.
But in 1938, while working in St. Louis with Peetie Wheatstraw, Yank Rachell had married and started to raise a family. During the peak of his musical career, Rachell kept his day job and did not lead "the life," at least not the same one that claimed his friend Sonny Boy Williamson on June 1, 1948. After Williamson's murder, Rachell drifted away from music and relied solely on straight jobs to make his living, settling permanently in Indianapolis in 1958. His wife passed away in 1961, and afterward he began to resume performing. In 1962, Rachell was re-united with Nixon and Estes, and the three of them began tearing up the college and coffeehouse circuit, recording for Delmark as Yank Rachell's Tennessee Jug Busters. Estes died in 1977, and from that time Rachell worked mainly as a solo act. Yank Rachell was a long-time regular at the Slippery Noodle in Indianapolis, and recorded only sporadically in his last years. Nonetheless, he was working on a new album when he died at age 87. ~ Uncle Dave Lewis