The Mississippi Sheiks were a popular guitar and fiddle group of the 1930s. They were notable mostly for playing country blues, but were adept at many styles of United States popular music of the time, and their records were bought by both black and white audiences. Country blues is often seen as being the domain of individual musicians, a stereotype propagated by the way such enigmatic delta blues performers such as Robert Johnson and Charley Patton have entered the popular consciousness.
Of the smaller number of groups playing at the time, the Mississippi Sheiks are among the better known and most influential.
The Mississippi Sheiks consisted mainly of the Chatmon family, who came from Bolton, Mississippi and were well known throughout the Mississippi Delta; the father of the family had been a "musicianer" during times of black slavery, and his children carried on a keen musical spirit. Their most famous (although by no means permanent) member was Armenter Chatmon, better known as Bo Carter, who managed a successful solo career as well as playing with the Sheiks, which may have contributed to their success. The band named themselves after Rudolph Valentino's film The Sheik (1921).
When the band first recorded in 1930, the line-up consisted of Carter with Lonnie and Sam Chatmon, and Walter Vinson. Charlie McCoy (not to be confused with Charlie McCoy, a later American musician) played later, when Bo Carter and Sam Chatmon ceased playing full time. It was Lonnie Chatmon and Vinson who formed the real centre of the group.
Bo Carter's solo work is notable for being extremely sexually suggestive in songs such as 'My Pencil Won't Write No More' and this is carried on to an extent with the group; however, like Carter himself the Mississippi Sheiks never concerned themselves entirely with smut. Primarily they were a dance band, and they earned their chief income by playing at dances; Paul Oliver describes them as having "sweeter, lilting melodies" (71) in comparison to the furious intensity of individual blues players like Robert Johnson and Skip James. They toured throughout the South of the USA, but also reached as far north as Chicago and New York.
Their first and biggest success was 'Sitting On Top Of The World' (1930), later to be covered by Howling Wolf. This song would also be covered by musicians as diverse as Harry Belafonte and Frank Sinatra on one hand and Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead on the other. Throughout their five active years they recorded over seventy songs for the Okeh, Paramount and Bluebird record labels.
When the band dissolved in 1935 the Chatmon brothers gave up music and returned to being farmers, the most common occupation of black people in Mississippi. Sam Chatmon made more recordings in the 1960s, but apart from that no members had any real success. Bo Carter died in 1964, destitute.