James “Yank” Rachell was a country blues musician who was known as the “elder statesman of the blues.” His musical career spanned seven decades, as he performed from the early 1920s until the 1990s. Although Rachell primarily was an exponent of the blues mandolin, he also played the guitar, violin, harp, and the harmonica.
Rachell was born in Brownsville, Tennessee, in 1910. He bought his first mandolin at age 8, in a trade for a pig his family had given him to raise. In the early 1920s, he started working with singer and guitarist Sleepy John Estes in the early 1920s. Shortly before delivering over two dozen titles for ARC, he discovered a talented harmonica player, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson. The two started performing together in the 1930s.
Rachell chose not to lead an unpredictable lifestyle such as most blues performers did during that time. He was happily married, enjoyed a settled family life, and was employed outside of the music industry, even during the height of his musical career.
After Sonny Boy Williamson was murdered in 1948, Rachell virtually gave up commercial performances and settled in Indianapolis. When his wife passed away in 1961, he started performing again.
Later in life, Rachell suffered from arthritis, which shortened his playing sessions. He recorded an album just before his death, “Too Hot for the Devil.” Rachell made occasional appearances up until his death in 1997, .