Friday, November 13, 2009
None of the Caravan members were comfortable with air travel. It went against the laws of nature and common sense and, as was pointed out to me more than once, “...if the thing breaks down, it's not like a car. You can't just pull over and fix it. Damn thing drop like stone!” The sudden stop was in the back of everyone's mind. Furry often allowed as how he never “let his full weight down” when riding on an airplane. Others would nod in agreement. Despite the grumbling, they got on and off planes but it was made clear to me that ground transportation was by far the most preferred mode of travel.
One who complained louder than the rest was Clarence Nelson, guitar player in Joe Willie Wilkins' band. Joe had a special fondness for Clarence and insisted the he accompany Joe and his band on all dates. Clarence was cheerful enough, but displayed a certain instability of personality which manifested itself in outbursts and erratic behavior. While never violent or dangerous, he was problematic. Joe Willie, whose nickname was The Mule (like that of his former employer, Sonnyboy Williamson) would not hear of replacing him in the lineup. When Joe Willie made his mind up about something, the rest of the world had to deal with it. Stubborn didn't come close.
In 1975 we had an offer to play some dates on the west coast and would have to fly form Memphis to California where we would pick up ground transportation. The dates were booked, contracts signed and plane tickets purchased. The day before our intended departure, I got a call form Melvin Lee, Joe's bass player and chief local Caravan contact in Memphis. He informed me that Clarence was NOT going to make the trip and, further, that Joe Willie would not go if Clarence wasn't present. I got on a plane that afternoon and was met at the Memphis airport by Melvin and Homer Jackson, Joe's drummer. Melvin and Homer were collectively referred to, by everyone on the Caravan, as The Crows, a name given them by Furry when their rowdy antics, fueled by large amounts of bourbon, caused him to exclaim, “Careful fellas, we don't want no crows falling of the wire tonight”. They appeared in Melvin's Cadillac. As the sun set, we headed into Memphis to find Clarence.
Our first stop was his house. We knocked. We rang. We pleaded for him to open the door. There was not a sound from inside. “Guess he's not home...” Back in the Cadillac, we drove off to visit some his usual haunts.
Our next stop was a barbecue joint on Hernando. Homer announced that he would not cross the threshold, trip or no trip. I asked why. “Cause I don't wanna get killed.” Okay...I told Melvin that I'd be out in a minute. EXACTLY one minute. If I were any longer, he should call the police.
The place had no windows. Plywood had replaced any opening which might allow sunlight or outside scrutiny. The front of the building was painted a shade of light green with Bar B Q painted in white letters over the door. Walking in I was greeted with a blast of eye-watering ambrosia form the smoke pit. Writing about this adventure, I'm reminded of a line form Tarrintino's “True Romance” - “It ain't Whiteboy Day is it?” I could have been wearing a T-shirt with that legend inscribed. All head turned as I entered. The place measured probably twenty by twenty feet and was crowded. A knot of people standing by the jukebox regarded me closely. I looked around, no Clarence. I asked a young lady standing to my right if she had seen Clarence Nelson that evening. She looked at me with genuine discomfort.
“You the man?”
No, absolutely not. Just a friend trying to find him.
“No, I ain't seen him. Ain't been in here tonight.”
Back in the car, I asked Homer if there were any other places he would not venture that maybe we should check out.”No, everyplace else's cool.” Great.
Cruising the neighborhood, Melvin mentioned the name of some other establishment that might prove fruitful. Homer, sitting in the back seat, groaned. “You goin' in there Homer. Don't give me no shit” said Melvin. We pulled up in front of a REAL seedy looking joint, again with a hand painted sign, this one said Cold Beer – Dancing. Homer nipped smartly out of the car and disappeared through the open front door. He was in and out in less than thirty seconds. “You get to take a real good look in there, Rabbit?” said Melvin, sarcasm dripping from every word. Homer said nothing. We cruised around for another twenty minutes. “Hey, maybe he's over at Furry's” said Melvin. A long shot, but with Clarence, you never knew. We pointed the car toward Mosby Street and in ten minutes we were in front of 811 Mosby, the home of Furry Lewis.
We parked the car and headed up the walk. A single light burned in the front of the shotgun house where Furry lived. We were about thirty feet from the porch when Melvin stopped. It was by now almost 10:30 PM. “Maybe this ain't such a good idea,” he said. “We go knockin' at that door, we liable to get shot. Furry don't hear too good and he keeps a loaded pistol on the table in front. Last year he damn near emptied the thing at a neighbor who showed up one night. Didn't hit nothing. Cops came and just told him to be more careful.” We stood in silence. Nobody moved. “Yeah,” I said after some thought, “Clarence probably isn't in there anyway.” Climbing in the car, we headed back to Clarence's house for another try.
As we pulled up his block, there he was, walking down the sidewalk.
I got out of the car and called his name. He stopped and turned toward me. A big grin flashed across his face. “How you doin'!” he said and reached for my hand. I put my arm around his shoulder and we started to walk down the street together. Homer and Melvin followed in the Cadillac, cruising at about two miles an hour. I flashed on the scene from The Godfather where Michael is talking to Kate after his return from Sicily. Me and Michael Corleone, we both had to do a sales job.
I had an idea – I hoped it would work.
My wife and I used to visit a spot on Minnesota's North Shore of Lake Superior. The shore line is strewn with small smooth stones, the result of eons of lapping water. I carried one such in my pocket.
Clarence and I talked. I told him I didn't much like planes myself. But I that I had something that kept me safe, and I was gong to give it to him. It was a stone of great power, one that had been given to me by an Ojibwa woman I knew (total bullshit, but we signed contracts and shows to do). I pulled a round, flat and perfectly smooth stone from my pocket. I handed it to him. “Round” he said, “just like your soul.” He looked at me, obviously noting the surprised look on my face. “That's what my Grandma used to tell me, she had a bunch of 'em in a glass jar. Said they were like people long passed.” We looked at each other. “This one will keep you safe, Clarence” and I pressed it into his hand.
The next morning, we all left for California. Later, Homer and Melvin asked what I had said to Clarence. I told them I had given him something that would keep in safe. Melvin said it sounded like hoodoo to him.
As the plane took off, I looked over at Clarence. In his right hand he had his 'magic feather'. He was smiling.
Sunday, November 1, 2009
Furry and I met for the first time, as mentioned, in 1972 when I flew him up to Minneapolis to appear at the University of Minnesota's Whole Coffeehouse for a concert. We were close friends and associates until his death some ten years later.
Furry was about as 'authentic' as you can get. He lived a life, in the classic blues tradition, of hardship and joy. He never married and had no children. His closest relative was a niece, Roberta Glover, who lived in Memphis nearby his home on Mosby Street. He lived quietly and played for friends and acquaintances whenever asked. He was able to supplement his meager income through his artistry, but, most importantly, his music gave him an opportunity to express himself in a way that few ever get a chance to do. I came to find that Furry played for himself as much as for anyone else.
One of the first things to strike me about Furry was the fact that he never did the same song the same way twice. In all the hundreds of Furry Lewis gigs I witnessed, never, ever, did I hear an exact repeat. His music was always timely and unique, reflecting how he felt or what he was thinking at a particular moment. Oftentimes, the changes he introduced in his repertoire were done solely to entertain himself. As mentioned, Furry was always his own best audience.
He began his career playing on the Medicine Show circuit selling, among other brands, Jack Rabbit Liniment from flatbed runways in small southern towns. His job was to attract and entertain a crowd so that the more serious business of selling the goods could be done by the Pitchman. The style he evolved was one that did not depend on a microphone to pick up the nuance of his performance, rather it was one that played to the 'back of the house' in broad form, unaided by electronics. Later, after the Medicine Shows were history, he played for dances and picnics where the production values were often confined to a stage, raised two feet or so above a dirt floor. The result was that Furry never learned the fine points of using a microphone and his performances relied on the physical. Dragging his left arm across the top few strings of his guitar and moving it up and down the neck while his right hand kept the beat (check out the video below to see what I'm talking about - albeit fueled by a bit too much Ten High bourbon...), oftentimes resulted live recordings of questionable quality, but drove audiences to cheers. That was the effect he desired. Coming off stage, his vision clouded by cataracts, he would ask, “Are they standin' up?” Nine times out of ten, they were.
The hallmark of any Furry Lewis performance was the emotional intensity he delivered on stage. It was not unusual for him to 'lose it' - breaking down in tears. He was equally as likely to dissolve in laughter at one of his oft-told jokes or an incident that struck him as amusing. When he finished a set, part of Furry the man, as well as Furry the performer, had been shared with his audience. I remember one incident when Furry 'lost it'. Listening to some tapes jogged my memory. We were in Texas, playing to a very enthusiastic house, when Furry, close to the end of his set, launched into “When I Lay My Burden Down”. He always liked to close with “some religious songs” and this was one of his favorites. The chorus begins with the line”I'm goin' home to be with my Jesus...” On listening to the tape, I noticed a shrill and unusual tone to his voice as he began the second chorus. Suddenly he stopped. A chocking sob rose. A second later, he called my name. My hurried footsteps can be heard as I came from the wing to down center. Following is the verbatim exchange as caught on tape. Furry: “I done broke down.” AB: “It's okay...don't worry about it. What do you want to do?” [i.e. which tune do you want to do next] Furry: “I don't know, what should I do?” AB: “Pick “Old Rugged Cross” and we'll hang it up.” I remember thinking at the time that we didn't want to risk another vocal, that it was best to take the set out with an instrumental.
Unaware of the details of this entire exchange the audience, to their credit had the good taste to applaud loudly and appreciatively. Furry picked the “The Old Rugged Cross” slowly and dramatically and, cane in hand, hobbled off stage to a standing ovation.
Furry lost his left leg below the knee in a railroad accident in the late teens or early twenties of the last century. He told me he had been in Chicago and had hopped a freight train back to Memphis. The train was rolling through southern Illinois and was about be begin a climb up a long grade. Furry was riding between cars and lost his footing. His leg slipped into the coupling just as the train started up the grade and was crushed in the mechanism. He spent four months in the Illinois Central Railroad Hospital in Carbondale, IL and was released with a wooded prosthesis which he wore until his death some sixty years later. I have often thought of Furry lying in that hospital,enduring the loss of a limb, alone and uncomforted. I think of it particularly in reference to an incident that happened in Houston, TX in the mid '70's.
I was attending a conference of music buyers from colleges and universities from across the country. As a part of this gathering, certain artists were selected to perform a thirty minute 'showcase' of their talents for the benefit these college entertainment buyers. Furry had been one of those chosen to perform. The only other traditional Blues performers so selected were Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee. Both Furry and Sonny & Brownie had been placed on the same bill, with Sonny & Brownie going on just before Furry. Evidently, the presenters of the conference thought such a pairing would result in a 'battle of the bands' among geriatric Blues performers. I thought it was idiotic. But what could we do.
I had a meeting with some folks who were interested in presenting the Memphis Blues Caravan at a group of universities and was rushing to get to the auditorium to attend to Furry. In my haste, I fell and badly sprained my ankle. I hobbled into his dressing room. He was very concerned about what had happened to my ankle. I told him it was nothing to worry about and that he should go out there and knock 'em on their ass. He smiled and repeated a line I had heard many times before. “Don't you worry, when I get to pickin', I'm like a rabbit in a thicket...it takes a good dog to catch me.”
After the show Furry would not leave my side. He offered me the use of his cane. He told me to lean on his shoulder for support. He insisted that we go back to my room so I could lie down. I was in no position to argue as the ankle was beginning to look like a small balloon.
It took us thirty minutes to clear the door of the auditorium because of the huge clutch of adoring fans. Furry worked the crowd like a seasoned politician. When we finally got back to my room, he sat on a chair opposite the bed. He said, “I ain't goin' no where. I'm gonna sit right here and sing you some religious songs that's gonna get you well.” He was without his guitar, it had been brought back to his room by one of my associates.
Furry Lewis sat with me and sang, a Capella, one hymn after another. The pain in my throbbing ankle slowly lifted and I fell asleep. I awoke an hour or more later. The room was dark. Furry was still sitting in the chair across from the bed...watching over me.
I often wondered if anyone sang for him, in that hospital in Carbondale.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
After one of these dates, the two were at an airline ticket counter somewhere in Colorado preparing to fly home to Memphis. Furry recounted the following story to me. Furry kept his wallet in his hip pocket, wrapped in a thick rubber band. Evidently he had to open it at the counter for some reason. After his business was transacted, he left. Bukka was in back of him, next in line. A few feet from the counter, Furry realized that he had left the wallet and returned for it. According to Furry, when he got his wallet back there was $100 missing.
Ever since that day, Furry had 'a problem' with Bukka. Whether there was any truth to the story, I find hard to believe. Bukka may have been many things, but he was not a thief. Cataracts had laid claim to Furry's eyesight and a mis-count was entirely possible. The true source of the problem lay more in the realm of professional jealousy and Furry's covetousness of the spot light than any overt larceny.
One afternoon on the bus the rancor came to a head. Furry was sitting about two seats in front of Bukka. Evidently, there were some words exchanged between the tow of them. All of a sudden I heard someone shout my name. “You better get back here quick!”
I turned and headed up the aisle. There was Furry, standing by his seat with his back to me. His broad-brimmed fedora was on his heard and his cane in his left hand. In his right hand was a knife. I rushed up to him and asked what the hell was going on. Furry turned to me and said, “I ain't gonna say a word to that motherfucker, I'm just gonna cut his goddam head off!”
Bukka was smiling. “You just a silly old man” he said to Furry. I took Furry by the shoulder and asked him to sit down. He did so immediately. “Nobody gonna talk to me like that sombitch does” he said. I asked him to pocket the knife. He did so, slowly. Silence. Finally, Hammy Nixon, sitting across the aisle broke the ice. “No place here for that kinda shit. 'Sides, I hear Bukka be jealous of you cause you so good lookin'” everyone laughed. Including Furry. Bukka stared out the window.
Later, I would talk to Bukka to find out what was going on. He said he had told Furry that he thought it wasn't such a good idea that he (Furry) bother other performers while they were on stage. Furry had a bad habit of suddenly appearing from the wings sometimes during someone else's performance. He would wave his hat in the air and do a little dance. Audiences generally went nuts. That was all Furry needed. Any encouragement from an audience would cause him to run a routine into the ground.
I and others had discussions with him about this in the past. He always countered that he was “just trying to help the show.” Try as we might to explain the situation to him, he was like a bottle rocket backstage. Unpredictable. But fortunately not very fast. Eventually, someone from Joe Willie's band was assigned “Furry duty” during the show so that incidents could be kept to a minimum.
By far the most frequent victim of Furry's attention-grabbing was Memphis Ma Rainey (Lily Mae Glover). Ma's performance was theatrical and florid and always got a great response. Furry, however, had no respect for her, either as a person or as a performer. “She just an ol' barrelhouse woman. Never cut no records. Made more money on her back than standing on a stage...” After a show one night when Furry had (again) interrupted her performance with his 'hat dance' she let him have it. Back in the dressing room, she threatened to “knock you on your goddam ass if you ever try that again!” And she was more than capable of following through. In her younger days, both before and after traveling with the original Ma Rainey, she would occasionally supplement her income rolling drunks on Beale Street. A sweet person at heart – but more about her in a later post.
The squabbles. Rock stars or country Blues performers, everyone had an ego. It came with the territory.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
The day would begin with breakfast, usually a hearty affair heavy on the fried side of the menu. This would occur anytime between 5:00 and 9:00 AM depending on when we had a 'bus call'. The 'bus call' was a previously agreed upon time signaling the departure of the bus for the next gig. This call was inviolate and could not be missed. With very few exceptions, it was never a problem - most of the Caravan members were early risers regardless of when they got to bed the night before.
After check out and settled on the bus, the Caravan fell into a routine. Each member sat in their respective seat in the lounge of the bus (by the second date, each had claimed a favorite) and entertained each other as the miles rolled past.
One of the favorite pastimes was to play "the dozens" a rhyming put-down game where one member tried to top the other with a well-aimed jibe or an answer back in kind. The origin of the name of this game was something I wondered about over the years. Anyone I asked, including members of the Caravan, had no idea. The response to a casual insult was many times a curt "don't do me no dozens..." It wasn't until years later that I would learn where the term originated.
In the antebellum South, when slaves became old or enfeebled or otherwise damaged (they were chattel), they were put in groups of 12 and sold as a lot at auction. Being 'in the dozens' was a situation to be avoided at all costs and carried with it a sense of shame. In modern day, it had been softened to indicate mere discomfort at being "one-upped" by someone else. The king of dozens was, as mentioned earlier, Sleepy John Estes, the poet of the Blues.
At about 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon the call would go up to stop at a 'chicken store' to get some lunch. Simultaneously there would be a request to stop at the 'whiskey store' for fortification against the chill of the coming evening. The party had begun.
On reaching the gig, out first stop was the hotel. Check in was always an experience, both from the reaction of the desk staff, to the process of getting everyone sorted out and into their respective rooms. Red and Furry were 'roomies' as were the drummer and bass player from Joe Willie's band. Old partners for years, John and Hammy bunked together as did Stack and Joe Willie. Bukka and Clarence Nelson (Joe Willie's guitar player) had single rooms, as they desired.
After everyone was in their respective rooms, I would go over to the venue, Sound and lighting had to be checked out to be sure contract rider demands for production were met. I would also meet with the producer to see if there was any last minute press that had to be done (this was in pre-cell phone days when none of this could accomplished en route, as it can today). Soon it was time for a sound check. This would require the presence of Joe Willie's rhythm section - Joe Willie and Stackhouse, who were 'stars', didn't have to involve themselves with these details. Drums were set and mic'ed, lighting cues were discussed, the band would run through a couple of tunes to set levels and any last minute details were attended to. All this was usually finished about an hour before "doors" (when doors were opened and ticket holders where let into the house). As the auditorium filled, I went back to the hotel to round up performers and head back to the venue. We usually arrived about ten or fifteen minutes before show time.
Some promoters felt this was a bit too close for comfort but they never had cause for concern. The Caravan never missed a curtain time. If we were supposed to hit at 8:00, we hit at 8:00.
The 'opener' for the Caravan was always Piano Red. He took great pleasure in his constant reminders to the rest of the group that it we he who had the hardest job of the lot. He also suggested that any enthusiastic response that the rest of the Caravan might receive was due largely to the warm carpet that his performance spread for them. He was, more often than not, at least partly correct. Bukka White followed next, then Furry Lewis. No one wanted to follow furry.
After Furry's set we generally had an intermission and then opened back up with Sleepy John Estes and Hammy Nixon. They were followed, in many instances, by Ma Rainey (Lilly Mae Glover) backed by Joe Willie's band. Joe Willie and Stackhouse joined the band next and at the end of their set, went into 'The Saints' and were joined on stage by everyone in the Caravan.
After the show, it was party time in earnest. Backstage was usually clogged with people, a great many with guitars in hand, asking questions about everything from tuning techniques to the brand of whiskey preferred by respective performers. It was at this time that I had to be on my guard as well-intentioned youngsters badgered the performers with questions. The problem came when a few would try to cut one or two of the performers from the pack (usually Furry and/or Bukka) and spirit them away to some house or apartment for an after-hours songfest. Both performers were always game for an adventure of this sort but I had learned from experience that this meant trouble.
Though probably well intentioned, the hosts of these clandestine get-a-ways, did not have the best interests of the performers at heart. Fueled by copious amounts of booze and God knows what else, these get-togethers had the potential for real havoc. We didn't need any trouble, "a thousand miles away from home, standing in the rain..."
After the backstage shenanigans, we went back to the hotel and usually gather in one anther's rooms. The guitar would get passed from hand to hand, the bottle of Jack Daniels would slowly drain and by 1:00 or 1:30 AM, it was lights out.
The next morning we got up and did it all over again.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
On nights such as these we would leave directly after the show and rack up a couple hundred miles before stopping for a late snack. Of course 'Snack' was a total misnomer for what happened at the hands of the Caravan members in a diner. These guys could eat.
One night we played Marion, Il, a town situated in the southern part of the state. The following night we were playing Charlottesville, VA, some 800 miles away. Leaving Marion at about 11:00, we eventually pulled into a truck stop in northern Kentucky called the Cross Keys. It was close to 1:00 AM. The establishment lay at the branch of Interstates 24 and 64. Ten miles before we arrived, the CB in the bus crackled with female voices promising all manner of delights. Each lady had a 'handle' descriptive of the services provided and were actively soliciting congress with truckers inbound to the Cross Keys. Interest level on the bus increased with each mile.
The Cross Keys was huge. It held about four acres of 18 wheelers - parked one after the other. The whole scene was illuminated by mercury vapor lamps perched high atop poles scattered about. The air was gray with diesel exhaust. And hopping from cab to cab were the hookers.
We pulled up to the front and walked single file into the restaurant potion of the complex. Heads, covered in Peterbuilt, Mack and Freightliner hats, turned as we made our way. Conversation stopped. For a moment, I felt like we were from Mars and had just made landing on some strange, bizarre planet. Slowly, we settled into booths and tables. Conversation resumed, heads turned back to coffee, biscuits and gravy or whatever. A waitress approached, "What kin ah gitcha, hon...?" she said to Furry, sitting at the head of a table.
We ate. And ate. We drank coffee. We paid the check. We left.
Walking back to the bus, past the hookers flitting from cab to cab, I was about to board when one of the ladies hopped down from a cab-over-Pete parked next to us. As the driver closed the door, I noticed what was written on its side, "Sawyer Transport". And underneath, in italic script, "Truckin' For Jesus."
Stomachs full and back on the bus, we high-balled out of the Cross Keys, disappearing into the eastbound darkness. Our next stop would be somewhere past the Smokey Mountains in the first rays of dawn.
The post-show adrenalin had pretty much dissipated and the hearty fare began to have a sedative effect. By twos and threes, the members ambled off to their respective bunks and fell asleep. Aside from myself, Furry and Red were the last two left conscious in the forward lounge. Furry was the first to drop and announced that he's like to stretch out. I helped him back to his bunk. Red sat slumped in a Captain's Chair, his great stomach taut against his T-shirt. Coe College it read. He wore it everywhere. With his hat still on his head, he closed his eyes and snoozed quietly. It was 2:40 AM.
I climbed into the jump seat above and behind the driver. Looking down, I could see the soft green glow of the instrument lights and ahead, through the broad front window of the Silver Eagle, our headlights pushed down the Interstate. I asked the driver how he was doing. "Just fine..." Did he ever get tired on these long overnight runs? "Nope. Driving is what I do."
The radio was tuned to KAAY out of Little Rock or, alternatively, to KDKA, the nation's first commercial radio station, out of Pittsburgh. These were the days of Clear Channel AM radio and the two megawatt giants came in like a local station. As a young man in Minneapolis, driving my father home form work on winter nights, we would listen to KDKA's National News at 5:00 PM. And in the mid '50's, XERF, nominally out of Del Rio, TX (but really out of Ciudad Cohilla, Mexico) would blast 100,000 watts of Rock 'n Roll to eager young ears in the Heartland.
Music played from the radio. The driver and I listened in silence.
After a time, I slid out of the jump seat and stood in the stairwell leaning hands-on-chin against the Silver Eagle's broad, padded dashboard. Half a moon shown in the southern sky and the dark fields rolled on, reflected in a faint silver luminescence. America passed under my feet. Mile after mile. Vast, didn't come close. Years later at various times, I would tell newly arrived British musicians, as they made ready to embark on a first US tour, "Gentleman, you are about to have a new appreciation of the word 'distance.'"
The music from the radio played not just in our ears that night. It played in the ears of the thousands who listened, busy with business that kept them up as the hours passed. It was a tie that bound all; familiar, comfortable, entertaining. The music spoke to some, stirred memories or emotions in others, and assured the rest that they were not alone. American music, sailing through the night air.
And here they were - a bus-load of dinosaurs. Country Bluesmen, the last living relics and purveyors of one of America's greatest musical traditions. Shining the light, declining the bushel. On their way to the next gig, just 800 miles down the road.
Friday, October 2, 2009
Of night he lifted up his voice and sang,
Secure, with only two moons listening,
Until the whole harmonious landscape rang --"
Alcohol and violence were a constant in the lives of virtually every member of the Caravan. It was not unique to them, it was a byproduct of one other constant, poverty. If your life circumstances are shitty, alcohol provides an escape from those circumstances. Not that all poor people drink - or drink to excess. Far from it. Problem is, when some people drink, shit happens. And usually it's not the shit that people want. Believe me, I know. 'Nuff said.
Booze and music have always been co-ingredients in a roaring good time. Musicians have had a firm grasp on the power of the interplay between those two elements as well as an appreciation for the transformative escape provided by both. From the old song lyric, "If the river was whiskey and I was a diving duck, I'd dive to the bottom and never would come up" to the modern song title, "There Stands The Glass" - it's the same lick. Alcohol takes us someplace else. Away from where we are. Music does the same. Together, they can be a veritable magic carpet. But sometimes that carpet lands on the wrong side of the wall.
Bukka White was the only member of the Caravan to have served time in a State Penitentiary. None of the members, however, were unfamiliar with jails or the police. Bukka's crime was manslaughter and he would lager confide that his visit to Parchman wasn't his only experience behind bars. He had spent time also in the Shelby County Jail in Memphis for a similar crime. He never gave a definitive figure on the number of men he had killed. It was at least two, possibly more. He claimed that each incident was in self defense and that he 'hated to do it.' Was he, or his victim, sober when these things happened? Probably not.
John 'Piano Red' Williams also had brushes with the law. While he never admitted to having been arrested, his conversation was rife with recollections of violent encounters. I remember one exchange in particular, sitting with Red at the dining room table in my house in Minneapolis, where red was engaged in one of his winding stories of stream-of-consciousness descriptions of incidents experienced during his 80 or so years.
At this telling he described an encounter with a 'devilish rascal' who had crossed him (hummm, was anyone having a drink?). Their exchange escalated into a full -blown confrontation, forcing Red to pick up an axe handle. At this point in the story, he asked if I knew how to 'han'el' someone through the use of such a weapon.
Pleasant and friendly, Red continued in his innocent-sounding, high-pitched voice. "Well, first you him in the one arm. Him sharp, comin' down at a angle. You break they arm. Then you him on the other side, and break they other arm." Red paused, making sure that his lesson was getting through, perhaps expecting a question. "Then you take the axe han'el," he continued, in the same sweet voice, "and you hits 'em in they haid."
Joe Willie Wilkins, a pacific and gentle soul, told me of a call he got from Muddy Waters in the late '50's informing him that he (Muddy) was was sending his guitar player at the time, Pat Hare, back to Memphis. The instructions were that Joe was to arrange for Pat to 'lay low' for a while and not return to Chicago until he was sent for by Muddy. Pat had recorded for Sun Records in its early years and released a side ominously titled "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby" (re-released on Rhino in 1990). A few years later, in a jealous drunken rage he killed a woman in Chicago and was under investigation for the crime, prompting the call from Muddy. Joe related that this was not the first time such a thing had happened to Pat Hare.
Hare's name was familiar to me as I remember reading an account of his crimes in the local paper years after his Memphis visit. Auburn 'Pat' Hare killed a woman in Minneapolis under similar circumstances. He also killed a policeman sent to investigate. Hare was roaring drunk at the time. Joe Willie allowed as Pat, sober, was a quiet and unassuming guy. Drunk, he was a homicidal maniac.
Auburn 'Pat' Hare died in Minnesota's Stillwater State Penitentiary in 1980. Had alcohol not taken him there, who knows where or when he would have died.
Whiskey and fried chicken fueled the Caravan in its years on the road. From management to performers, Jack and Jim were constant companions. Looking back through the haze, it's a wonder nothing more serious occurred than a pulled knife and some threatening words (both courtesy of Furry, but more of that later).
No injuries, no cops, no blood.
With a nod to E. A. & Mr. Flood...
Monday, September 28, 2009
Flying the dates was out of the question as our budget was tight at best. We were not dealing with 'rock star' money but we had the same problems and requirements as a major rock tour. I decided that the best was to move the group was by chartered bus and struck a deal with Greyhound to provide equipment and drivers. Our first two tours were done in leased commercial coaches. This proved to both unwieldy and expensive. It also did not provide the 'comfort factor' needed for a prolonged stint on the road. By the third tour, we had wised-up and found a company out of Nashville who specialized in tour bus leasing and provided equipment with lounges, bunks, a galley and head. The real deal. They also provided a driver who would be with us for the duration of the tour and who became, usually by the second night, a huge fan AND a member of the family. In the 'destination window' up on the front of the bus, facing oncoming traffic, we put a sign that read "Heaven" - and we hit the road.
In addition to the expense of transportation, we had salaries, Per Diem, lodging, "incidentals" (i.e. beverages) and the like to deal with. Hotel rooms had to be booked, set orders and lengths had to be determined (and in some cases, negotiated), egos assuaged, etc. the job became more complex by the day. And it all had to be done before we played the first date - and that first date was in Chicago. Lucky for me, I had a well connected friend who eased the process considerably.
That friend, David Calvit, (he of the greens story) owned a company in Minneapolis called Corporate Travel. The company specialized in just that, corporate travel. Blues performers were about as far from his usual clientele as you could get.
Our first date was in Cahn Auditorium at Northwestern University. That's Chicagoland. Trying to find reasonable lodging wasn't just a chore, it was an impossibility. Eight rooms at bargain rates were not to be found. I had resigned myself to the probability of a night in Gary, IN and the resultant hour and a half ride to and from the gig. In a causal conversation with my friend, I mentioned our plight. He listened quietly. "Furry is going to on these dates, right?" he asked. "Of course." The conversation ended.
The next day he called and told me we had the rooms we needed at the Lake Shore Holiday Inn on Lake Shore Drive. From trips to Chicago I knew that this was Holiday Inn's premier property in the city.
"Sounds great...but we can afford the wood." I had visions of $130 plus per night per room (in 1973, a lot of money). I was thinking more like a no-tell in Elgin or maybe the same in Gary.
"Your rate is $35.00 per night." Holyshit.
Arriving at the hotel from Memphis, the night before the show, the marquee facing Lake Shore Drive was ablaze with the words "Welcome, Memphis Blues Caravan." We checked in to find real rock-star service. A complimentary fruit basket (with a hand written note to each artist) was in each room. Furry Lewis had his own room. It was the penthouse suite, complete with panoramic views of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Having secured commitments from the agency and the musicians who would eventually comprise the last, and only, touring ensemble of classic American country Blues, it was my job to get on the phone, start spreading the gospel and excite commercial interest in the entourage.
The first and most logical place to start, I thought, were colleges around the country. The reaction was almost uniformly positive and, God bless them, the offers started trickling in. 'Trickle' being the operative word. Again, (and again) the wisdom of this undertaking came under scrutiny. And I (we) had to closely examine the reasons for doing this. On some strange level, unarticulated in my own thoughts, a firm resolve formed. I thought about what I had seen and heard over my week or so in Memphis. I thought about what I felt as a 9-year-old and as a young man, listening. "We gotta do this..." was all I could muster to rejoin the doubts and concerns expressed by my peers. At that stage of my life I didn't have the inner dialogue, or the experience, necessary to give voice to what I truly felt.
The members of the Caravan lived hard, shitty lives full of poverty, alcohol and violence. They had persevered through crushing disappointment, been fucked over countless times. Where were the royalties? Where were the gigs? Where, oh where, was the fucking money? In the mail? Not hardly.
In the early '60's a number of the members had enjoyed a brief moment of recognition, a bit of money, some notoriety. And then it was back to pushing a broom or moving furniture or driving a truck. When Jagger and Richards first met Muddy Waters, he was standing on a ladder, painting a wall at Chess Records. And he'd had HITS. So why did these guys bother? What made them keep doing this thing so full of promise and disappointment? They had no choice. Like Mr. Hooker said, "It's in 'em and its gotta come out."
As mentioned before in this scrivening, the Blues is as self conscious as a newborn. The root of its power lies in the unintended nature of its artistry. Every member of the Caravan played for themselves, first. The audience was second. The art and magic that came out of them and spilled across the stage was almost accidental. I have a tape of a show where Furry Lewis breaks down on stage (it happened more than once, believe me). He can be heard, clearly sobbing and then speaking to me, after I rushed from the wings. "I done broke down...what should I do?" The moment had gotten the best of him, and of the audience. His were not the only tears shed that night.
Tolstoy said that art is emotion, transferred from one person to another. True art has the added power of accident - or at least lack of premeditation. Furry never intended to be overcome by the emotion fueling his performance. He usually left the stage dry-eyed. But the emotion was always there, it was in him - and it had to come out. Occasionally it got the best of him. Watching a performer who weeps at the same point, in the same song, night after night (Vegas has a couple...) may be affecting. But profoundly moving? NFW.
On some level, back then, I knew I wanted to be in the Profoundly Moving Business. Like our Japanese friend of an earlier post, I wanted audiences to be given the chance to be Very Splendid.
"We gotta do this..."
Powered by a small group of zealous agents at Schon Productions (me, Gary Marx, Sue McLean & Randy Levy), the trickle eventually became a steady stream and the first tour took shape.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Bukka's 'instrument of choice' was the National Steel Resonator Guitar, manufactured in quantity in the '20's, 30's and '40's (and, to a lesser extent, to this day) and could be had from the Sears Roebuck Catalog for about $4.50, back in the day. Favored for its volume in the days before electrical pickups, the National could easily be heard above the din of a juke joint or picnic.
I first met Bukka White in 1972. "Bukka? He's not here, He's at his office..." His wife directed me to Leath St. a few blocks away. There, in the shade, against the brick wall that was one side of the Triune Sundry store, I found Bukka. He was sitting on a plastic chair. Next to him was a wood crate that held a cooling quart of beer. Scattered about sat three or four admirers. Bukka was holding court. I introduced myself and explained the purpose of my visit, to put together a group of Memphis Blues musicians to tour the country. Bukka was cool to the idea and visibly skeptical of just who the hell I was. Some white boy with a Bright Idea. He'd heard a few of those before. "If the money's right - and I get it in front - maybe so..." That was extent of his commitment to the project.
"Okay, good enough for me. Let's see what we can do." We shook hands.
In the late '30's Bukka had done time at the notorious Parchman Farm Prison, a/k/a The Mississippi State Penitentiary. His daughter, Irene Kertchaval, told me the story. She said he won money in a crap game. The man he won it from refused to pay. Words were exchanged, the man reached down, Bukka pulled out a gun and killed him. Next stop, Parchman farm.
Parchman was less about punishment (and even less about rehabilitation) than it was about business. The ribbon-wire-enclosed 'camps' - as they were called - housed a tightly segregated population and sat amidst some 20,000 acres of cotton fields. These fields were worked by the general population and produced millions in state revenues. Established in the late a 1800's, by 1914, Parchman was single biggest business in the state of Mississippi. It was still big business some 20+ years later when Bukka arrived to serve his time for manslaughter. His crime, being a black-on-black violation, did not draw a heavy sentence and, with the help of his guitar and talent, he was paroled after serving four years.
The racial element of justice, as dispensed in pre-mid-century America, was illustrated in high relief by an incident related to me by my friend, David Calvit. He grew up in Louisiana during the period. In 1949, as a teenager, David was summoned to court for a traffic violation. Waiting to be called, he sat watching the judge deal with the docket. A case involving the knifing of one black man by another was called and the victim took the stand. "How long was the blade on the knife that the defendant used to stab you?" the judge asked. "Uh, 'bout five inches, Your Honor." The judge continued, "And how far into you did he stab that blade?" The victim looked at the judge, " Uh, 'bout four inches, I reckon."
The judge banged his gavel. "Twenty dollar fine. Five dollars per inch. Next case."
Black or white, in those days the distance between 'justice' and 'equity' grew, it seemed, apace with latitude. Vernon Presley, father of Elvis, also served time at Parchman and may well have been there at the same time as Bukka. Their paths probably never crossed due the 'separate but equal' nature of their surroundings. Vernon got two years for "uttering a false instrument" - he altered the "$2.00" to "$3.00" on a check given him in payment for a pig. The issuer of the check was a local (Tupelo, MS) big shot who sought to make an example of this dishonest 'cracker'.
My relationship with Bukka was slow to develop but eventually grew into a friendship. Early on, he displayed himself to be a man of his word. And he expected the same in return. He never had to be reminded what time the bus was leaving, when he had to be on stage or how long a set we needed. If we had a 5:00 AM departure for the next gig, he was the first man aboard.
Bukka and BB King were first cousins. In 1975 I helped organize a concert at Western Illinois University in Macomb, IL. The show consisted of Bukka White, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and BB King (whew!!). Either Willie or Muddy (I don't remember which) had played Detroit the night before and had stopped in Chicago at 5:00 AM to pick up master harp player Carry Bell, just to add a little 'weight' to his set. I have never seen musicians so psyched to play a gig as these guys were when they showed up. Bob Margolin, Muddy's guitar player for almost a decade, remembers it to this day - ask him, he's on Facebook, that playground of the middle aged (I'm there, too...) or his website, bobmargolin.com.
Bukka opened the show, followed by Willie, then Muddy and BB closed. The show started at 8:00 and BB finally came down from the stage at 1:00 AM. There were some 3,500 people in the audience, and NO ONE LEFT. At the close of the show, BB called Bukka up to acknowledge him. Bukka grabbed the mic and began to talk. He reminded BB of his first guitar, a Stella, given him by Bukka.
"You remember, B, you was so little, next to that big red Stella." There was absolute silence. BB was looking at the tops of his shoes. His eyes were filling. He looked, for all the world, like a nine- year-old boy, standing on that stage. "Yeah...I sure do remember." he finally said, and threw his arms around Bukka. The audience erupted.
With the addition of Bukka White, the core group that comprised the Memphis Blues Caravan came to be. Others would rotate through, some on a regular basis, some but once. They would include the likes of Memphis Ma Rainey, Mose Vinson, Madame Van Hunt, Sam Chatmon, and others. We'll be dealing with each, at various times, as the story continues.
[Below is Bukka's "Fast Streamline" - background music for a wonderful short by someone named Shukowinz.]
It had been almost 20 years since I had seen Hammy Nixon, more than two decades since I'd seen Sleepy John Estes. By that time ('99) they were both long gone. I last encountered Hammy on Sept. 17, 1981 when, as a pall bearer, I sat next to him at the funeral of Furry Lewis. Rufus Thomas sat on the other side of me. An Oreo Sandwich, book-ended by musical greatness. Knox Phillips (Sam's son) was in the audience, Jim Dickinson may have been there as well. Sid Selvidge and Lee Baker, torch bearers and Memphis musical luminaries, sat behind us. Hammy spoke, as did Rufus and others. I did not. Cowed by the august company and fearful of uncontrolled sobbing, I sat mute. One of my biggest regrets. But that's a story for later.
John and Hammy lived near each other in Brownsville. Squalor doesn't come close to describing their situation. Steve Tomashefsky of Delmark Records attended John's funeral in 1977 and described to me what he saw. Run-down, falling to bits, disheveled, were just some of the words I heard from him. Children with lineages of questionable origin ran about. It was said that Hammy's wife may have been John daughter, or vice-versa, or not. Who knew. But above all of this poverty and squalor rose the poetry of John's lyrics and the power of Hammy's harmonica.
The two partners had performed all over the world. They were the only members of the Caravan whom I sent to the Molde Jazz Festival who went directly to Norway, without having to stop in Washington, DC to undergo the "passport routine" (a routine I'll describe in detail in a later post). John continued to compose and recorded for Delmark Records until very late in his life. His works, most recorded for various "race" labels from 1929 to the early 40's, were covered by many popular performers. These ranged from various flamboyant American and British rock stars to the careful and poignant Ry Cooder.
John lost his sight in the 50's and depended on Hammy to shepherd him about. His disability further deepened the bond between them and Hammy was always attentive to John's needs. John suffered from a blood pressure disorder which caused him to nod off on occasion. The moniker 'Sleepy' was given him in the 40's and it stuck for life. Hammy never used the nick name and always referred to him simply as John (I can hear him say it as I write this...).
John was fascinating to talk to. His conversation bespoke his poetic bent and made it a joy to listen. I remember sitting with him on the tour bus shortly after he and Hammy had returned from a series of overseas concerts. How was it, John? "I traveled and rambled far from home. Met peoples speaking a language I have never known." John's poetic style of speech was such that, when he spoke, all the other Caravan members listened. He was treated with a reverence and respect unique among members of the group. Hammy, on the other hand, was more "one of the boys." No one ever thought twice about giving him a verbal jab and he endured it all with constant good humor.
Hammy was a large man, ample around the middle. He loved to eat. Anything left on a plate after lunch was fair game to Hammy. Backstage, he hoovered the cold cuts and fried chicken. He also suffered form considerable flatulence (yeah, well I'm terribly sorry - you'll get past it...). He had 'required seating' near the front of the bus and more than once during a tour, a groan would go up from someone followed by a "Jesus, Hammy!" The front door of the the bus was flung open as we sailed down the highway at 65 mph. Never seemed to bother John, though - a fact that further strengthened the bond between them...at least, I'm sure, from Hammy's perspective.
The road, to John and Hammy, as for many of the Caravan members, must have seemed like a Five Star vacation. Not only was there the adulation and attention, expenses were covered, there was a copious amount of liquor (not something that either John or Hammy particularly indulged in) and clean sheets and plumbing that always worked. Off the road, things were a bit different. John's Delmark Records obituary noted, "However, like many artists, he had distinct public and private selves, and the poverty and frustration in his home life have spelled out a great American tragedy." None of this want, however, marred John's persona or performance. Articulate and witty, when 'the dozens' were played on the bus, and the ball tossed to John, hoots and hollers went up, "...Whatcha gonna say to that, John!!" Everyone hung on his response and whistled and clapped as the line hit home.
[Below are John and Hammy performing Corrina Corrina in Japan in 1976, the year before John's passing. Hammy is playing harmonica and kazoo (!).]
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
"Yeah - you got any decent greens?" said Furry, bluntly. In replying, Mr. Biggs (I'm sure) thought, for one fleeting moment, that he was addressing his grandfather or perhaps an aged uncle. "Certainly, sir. Let me see what we have in the back." Moments later a large, flat cart appeared, pushed by Mr. Biggs. Piled on top were fresh, crisp greens, perhaps a bushel. Furry smiled. David and I smiled. Mr. Biggs smiled.
Examining the pile with a practiced eye, Furry made his selection and handed Mr. Biggs the three bunches of greens he had chosen. Biggs asked if there was anything else we needed. "Fatback" said Furry, "about yea..." holding up his hands to indicate size. "Of course" said Biggs. He placed the greens in a shopping cart and disappeared. We were about to make our way over to the meat counter when Biggs re-appeared. He held up two pieces of fatback, each freshly wrapped in plastic. "Like this?" he asked. Furry nodded, choosing the large of the two. Again, everybody smiled, especially the white guys and Mr. Biggs. "Corn bread" said Furry. David and I looked at each other. "Over here" said Biggs, taking Furry's arm. We followed the mountain that was Biggs and Furry in his tan fedora to the dry mix shelf. Biggs made a suggestion, "Try this..." he said to Furry, it being obvious who was involved in the decision process.
Mr. Biggs escorted us to the cashier, pushing the shopping cart carrying the greens, fatback and corn meal with one hand, the other on Furry's elbow . There was a line five deep at the only checkout lane open. Biggs walked to an empty lane, placed the items on the counter and called over his shoulder. "Jenny, can you come here a minute please?" A woman sitting in an open, elevated "office" in the corner of the store stopped what she was doing and quickly descended to the checkout area. "Can you help his gentleman?" he said, nodding to Furry.
"Of course, Mr. Biggs...."
Furry looked at Biggs, "What's you're name, boy?" I think I physically jumped at those words, as if I heard a gun shot. The idea of calling anyone of color "boy" was so foreign to my Northern ears, especially someone who looked like Mr. Biggs, that it physically startled me. David didn't blink. I quickly realized that, at age 80-something (so he claimed...), EVERYBODY was a boy to Furry, and - he was a black guy from Memphis. Not an uptight Yankee who had lived his whole white life eating white food, going to white church, white school and hanging out with his white friends. If Furry were to have spoken in 21st Century vernacular he would have said, "chill, asshole..." to my reaction.
With his cataracts and coke-bottle glasses, Furry couldn't see the name tag. "I'm Vernon," said Biggs, extending his hand. "Pleased to meet you," Furry allowed. "My pleasure" said Mr. Biggs, "y'all come back any time..."
In the music business there is a line that, when spoken with some authority, facilitates access at a show. It's a simple and declarative statement, "I'm with the band..." Leaving the Red Owl (forever known as 'Furry's Red Owl' by me and David) I felt that I truly was that...but better and more special. I was with Furry Lewis.
At 5:10 the next morning, I awoke to hear the clatter of pans in the kitchen downstairs. My wife, Dianne, gave me an "is this necessary" look. I said nothing. Closing my eyes, I went back to sleep. When I opened them again it was 7:35 and the ambrosial aroma coming from the kitchen was as wonderful as it was unusual.
Walking into the kitchen, I found Furry bustling around, wearing one of my wife's aprons. "You May Kiss The Cook" in large, red letters was the legend on the front. I said not a word. "Ain't gonna be no grits in them greens. I washed 'em in twelve waters. Yes sir, a right-smart a waters..."
Later it would be explained to me that greens had to be thoroughly rinsed (in a 'right-smart' - a lot - of 'waters') to wash away the fine sand endemic to such as leeks, greens and the like. And indeed there were no grits in them greens. They were delicious. Spiced with cayenne, properly greasy from the fatback ("if you don't use nothin' but natural lean - you can't cook no good greasy greens" as the tune goes), they were a hit. The cornbread was perfect. And David Calvit brought a gumbo, made from an old family recipe. A true feast.
[Note to readers - if there is interest in the recipe for the greens and/or the gumbo, hit the Comment button and let me know. I'll append it in the next post...complete with metric conversion for y'all in So. America and Europe. AB]
Monday, September 21, 2009
From Stackhouse's catfish to Red's barbecue, the members of the Caravan were, in their own way, gastronomes. Way before The Food Channel, Top Chief and all the other nitwit foodie propaganda, Southern cooking had long reined as a unique American cuisine. On the road, as often as not, conversation would turn to food and reminiscences of great meals. Tasty barbecue, catfish, chicken, and arcane treats like opossum, squirrel and rabbit. Each member it seemed, had a double, secret life as a chef/cook and would regale his fellows with tidbits and secrets which, when applied to a particular dish, would result in absolute perfection. Stack's catfish sauce not withstanding, Furry Lewis was also accomplished in the kitchen and on one early fall day shared two of his specialties, greens and corn bread, with me and some friends.
In 1977, during one of his many stays at my house, Furry offered to cook. The offer was prompted by a discussion of Southern recipes he had with my friend (and his) David Calvit. David was from Alexandria, LA and brought to his marriage to a Minnesota native an array of old family recipes. His wife, Gretchen, in turn brought her own considerable culinary skills to bear on the information with the result that a small, select group of us Yankees were able to sample authentic Louisiana Creole and Cajun dishes (pre-Paul Prudhomm and all that "blackened" crap) and other Southern specialities as few could at that time and place.
The discussion David and Furry shared centered around greens and their proper preparation. It was more than a discussion. I recall some disagreement between the parties concerning some rather (to my ears) arcane and subtle variations in preparation. The exchange culminated in Furry volunteering to "show us" what properly prepared greens should look and taste like. David and I were dispatched to find ingredients.
Finding greens in Minneapolis was no easy chore for a couple of white guys. Our search eventually led us to a south side Red Owl supermarket. Entering, we were greeted with an array of goods not found at Lund's, the Minneapolis middle-class food emporium we were used to. After making our way to the vegetable counter, David sorted through Collard greens and, after close examination, selected three bundles. Next, we moved to meat section and found a piece of fat-back (salt pork), as instructed. We made our purchases and returned to my house.
Furry examined the goods. The fat-back was judged too small. The greens were another story. "This is the best they had?" - the irritation showing in his voice. An artist about to create a masterpiece as important as proper greens did not want to be hampered (or sabotaged) by inferior ingredients. "That's the best they had..." David said, a bit defensively. Furry was far from pleased. "Where'd you get these?" he asked. David and I looked at each other. "A store - about three miles from here." Furry eyed us both. "Where's my hat?"
The three of us drove to the Red Owl.
We entered the store, led by Furry wearing his tan fedora and dark pinstripe suit. He had a cane in his right hand and walked with a slow, measured step. Conversation at the cash register stopped as we made our way past it, heading for the vegetables. Surveying the greens, Furry shook his head. Suddenly, a voice behind us said, "May I help you, sir?" Turning, we regarded Vernon Biggs, Store Manager (as his name tag stated). Vernon was about the size of a black Buick with a voice that commanded awed attention. He spoke directly to Furry, well aware of who in the trio was in charge. What followed was an experience I never forgot.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
When I met them they were living in a house on Carpenter Street along with Joe Willie's wife, Carrie. The house was small and cluttered, but tidy. A record player stood next to the front wall and as I entered, "Smokestack Lightning" was coming from the small speaker in the front of the machine. "Howlin' Woof", as Carrie Wilkins pronounced it, provided background music that afternoon. Aside from the sparse furnishing, boxes of unknown contents and the old record player, on one wall hung the three pictures I had come to expect seeing in any home I visited in Black Memphis - FDR, JFK and MLK.
The day I arrived, Stack was in the backyard tending to a barbecue. He was cooking catfish. He had made a batter (the recipe for which he would not divulge, even to Carrie), dipping each fillet before placing it on the grill. Once the batter was browned, the fish was basted with a sauce (equally secret) and cooked a bit longer. I have eaten catfish at Gallitoirs in New Orleans, at the First-And-Last-Chance Cafe in Donaldsonville, LA and at Positanno in New York City. Nothing comes close to the magic wrought by Houston Stackhouse.
I had seen a picture of Joe Willie and Stack, taken in the 40's at KFFA. The picture, a famous shot in Blues circles, shows Sonny Boy Williamson blowing harp, down center sits the drummer (the late Sam Carr) with "King Biscuit Boys" hand painted on the kick drum head and a very young Joe Willie Wilkins and Houston Stackhouse, standing center right, holding their guitars. As one can see from the picture, the young Joe Willie was a strikingly handsome man.
Years later, on the road with Joe Willie and the Caravan, the subject of the picture came up. Teasing Joe Willie, I remarked that he used to be a good looking guy - and asked him what happened. Joe smiled. Carrie, sitting across the room, shouted, "Good looking!? Shit, let me tell ya - I had'a pull women two-at-a-time off that motherfucker!"
Joe Willie continued to smile.
[Below is a video of Joe Willie Wilkins and Houston Stackhouse, with Stack doing the vocals.]
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Red was a large man, heavy set and powerful. He had spent years as a furniture mover and looked, even in his late 70's, as if he could toss a baby grand around. In his youth he had played various joints and whorehouses, hoboed around the south, playing where ever he could. Like most black folks named 'Red', he was an albino. He had a high pitched voice and sounded like a gentle, sweet person when he talked. Provoked, however, that sweetness could quickly disappear. I only saw that happen once, but it scared hell out of me.
We were on the road shooting part of a film for the BBC and had stopped for an alfresco lunch arranged by the producers. The film crew wandered from musician to musician during the picnic, filming and interviewing the various Caravan members. Red was seated on the ground, eating some fried chicken. Behind him, the ground sloped up a few degrees. As he sat busying himself with his food, a bottle of soda, sitting up-hill from Red, was overturned. The liquid ran down the incline, collecting around Red's large frame. Red felt the dampness spread underneath him and spun around on all fours. Joe Willie and Bukka, seeing what happened, began to laugh. His neck bulging and his face a mask of furry, Red struggled to his feet. The laughter abruptly stopped. Both men, looking truly frightened, began to back up as Red rose. They quickly began an earnest attempt to calm him with denials of responsibility and suggestions that what happened was an accident. Red, looking like a large bull with evisceration on his mind, eventually calmed down. Who knows what might have happened had they not been successful in their pleas.
But on that warm June day in 1972 Memphis, Red was nothing but friendly and outgoing. He allowed as he liked the idea of playing on the road and was ready to leave that very day. Ever the obliging host, he offered up some home brewed beer and then sat down at the piano. After two or three glasses of the stuff you were lucky to be able to stand. The room filled with neighbors, kids and old folks, ready for whatever might happen. Red's left hand rolled and pretty soon someone started the barbecue. Red played on almost every date the Caravan performed and was a pleasure to be around. Always good natured and friendly and - after the picnic incident - always treated with respect.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Ringing the bell, his wife answered and escorted us into the living room. I remember a red shag carpet, wall to wall, with spotless white painted woodwork. The furniture was comfortable and well kept and on the mantle piece were pictures of family and friends. Light green shades covered lamps at either end of the couch where Reverend Wilkins sat as we entered. The entire room seemed bathed in a serene yellow glow. Mrs. Wilkins excused herself and disappeared into the kitchen at the back of the house. Reverend Wilkins asked us to have a seat.
We described to him what we were interested in doing. He explained to us his vow to give up the "Devil's music" though we sensed that his resolve might not be totally unshakable. The Blues he performed on those early recordings were done (I was told) primarily in the Key of A. All of his religious material was done largely in the Key of E. He sat with his guitar on his lap and, after much coaching from Steve, he tuned up to A. As he struck the strings after finally tuning up, and that A chord rang through the house, his wife suddenly appeared. "Robert, you best not be doin' what I think you're doin'!" The guitar was quickly tuned down to E and the air went out of our balloon.
Reverend Wilkins told us that he would be unable to join us in this adventure but wished us well. He then proceeded to play a few tunes he had written. One of these was a song which, he announced proudly, had been done by "some English boys" - a group called The Rolling Stones. He then launched into "Prodigal Son". The tune closed with the line, "...and that's the way for us to get along." I had to agree. But there would be no Blues from Reverend Wilkins.
The next afternoon, I'd knock on the door of 1112 Walker Ave. and meet John Williams, a/k/a Memphis Piano Red.
[Below is Rev. Wilkins' son, John, doing his father's classic, "Prodigal Son."]
Monday, September 14, 2009
I was working as an agent and a few weeks earlier, by lucky chance, I saw his name listed in a Billboard publication under the Personal Appearance section. The listing showed a number in Memphis. I called and Steve Lavere answered. After a brief discussion I discovered that Furry was not just "open" to play dates, he was "wide open."
Furry lived alone in a house at 811 Mosby St. He had retired from his job as a street sweeper for the Memphis Department of Sanitation and wanted to work. I got on the phone and started telling the "Furry Lewis" story to anyone who would listen. Within three or four days I had a six day tour booked for early May. The dates played and were a resounding success.
After each show (all were within an easy drive from Minneapolis) we would return to the house where Furry would play for an hour or so, charming every one in the room. When our initial visit (a week or so) was over, Furry cried, I cried, my wife Dianne cried. I assured him that we had not seen the last of each other and a month or so later I was in Memphis and began the process of meeting his contemporaries. These encounters, facilitated by Steve, eventually resulted in the formation of The Memphis Blues Caravan, a touring entourage which included, at various times and in various combinations the likes of Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes & Hammy Nixon, Memphis Piano Red, Sam Chatmon, Memphis Ma Rainey, Big Sam Clark, Mose Vinson, Madame Van Hunt and perhaps some others - but definitely NOT the Rev. Robert Wilkins. Not for lack of effort on our part. Steve called him and asked if we could come by his house to discuss a proposition of mutual interest. He said he'd listen and on my second night in Memphis, we knocked on his door.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
"Goin' upstairs, gonna pack up all my clothes, Anybody ask about me, tell 'em I stepped outdoors..."
In retrospect, the influence exerted by this particular record collection was far-reaching. Often, we were bothered in our listening by a young man who lived in the downstairs portion of the duplex occupied by Steve and his family. He was a year younger and a grade behind us in school. As such, he was considered a "little kid" and his presence was tolerated but not encouraged. The "little kid's" name was Mark Naftalin. Mark would later go on to join a band and make some records. The band he joined, as keyboardist, was the Paul Butterfield Blues Band appearing on their first release (Born In Chicago) as well as the seminal East West, the album which truly launched the Butterfield Blues Band.
Mark has remained in the music business and currently owns Winner Records (www.winnerrecords.com). Steve, while never going into the business professionally, picked up guitar in his early teens and, listening to those early 78's, became one of the finest 12 string guitar players I've ever heard. Later, a high school classmate of ours, Dave 'Snaker' Ray, would go on to fame (but limited fortune) as one third of the influential early '60s Electra Records Blues trio, Koerner Ray & Glover. His early exposure to the Blues began with a close listening to Steve's Stinson collection. Interestingly enough, another University High School classmate of ours, Barry Hansen (a/k/a Dr. Demento of radio fame) also was influenced by this collection. Was it the collection - or something in the water at U-High...?
As a youngster and as a young man, my friends and I listened with fascination to recordings by newly re-discovered Blues artists. I often wondered what these guys were like, these guys whose music meant so much to me. I would later discover the answer to that question when I was given a front row seat to the grandest of performances - The Memphis Blues Caravan.
Sunday, September 6, 2009
"I am a Japanese. The blues was much very good, but this person listens for the first time. I am very splendid! I was impressed! Thank you!"
Famed anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, speaking of the power of myth and its diminished role in modern society, suggested that music had taken on myth’s function. Music, he argued, had the ability to suggest, with primal narrative power, the conflicting forces and ideas that lie at the foundation of society. And that is society as a whole of which he speaks - black and white. Our shared humanity.
Blues, as an art form, was created and perfected by southern Blacks. There is nothing particularly Black in its subject matter, in the general sense. But it is all about being Black in the specific sense. The Blues and being Black are inextricably linked.
The holds of slave ships carried humanity, not luggage. No pots, no pans, no family pictures, no cedar chests filled with homespun. The space for heirlooms was confined to the four or so inches between the ears of the cargo. From the physical meagerness of this beginning, came a rich treasure. Free of the intellectual constraints of European tradition and reduced to a social and economic status where they had nothing left to lose, those new arrivals eventually turned inward, unpacking what they had brought with them - their basic humanity. They set it to rhyme and meter and nestled it into twelve musical bars. In so doing, they created something that forever raised them far above the meagerness of that origin and, at the same time, gave an undeserved gift to their captors and their descendants. They made us all very splendid, indeed.
Their hometown, Memphis, TN, was chartered as a city in 1819 and is the only major US city whose name traces its origins to the African continent. Five thousand years earlier Memes, a little known warrior king, united the northern and southern kingdoms of Egypt and established a city to serve as its capital. The city was called Memphis. Situated south of the Nile delta, it occupied, in its proximity to a mighty river, the same locale (in mirror opposite), as the city which would eventually share its name. Ancient Memphis would be home to the great treasures left the world by Egyptian civilization - the Great Pyramids, The Sphynix and the Necropolis. Much of what we know of Egyptian antiquity comes from archaeological findings unearthed in and around ancient Memphis. It was an area rich in talented artisans whose craft and art accompanied the royal and wealthy on their journeys into the next world.
The local Egyptian deity in the Memphis pantheon was the god Ptah. As the patron of artists and craftsmen, Ptah was also a creator deity. According to local belief he created mankind in his heart, using his voice as the prime moving life-force. That synergy of heart and voice in old Memphis would be recreated in its present-day namesake. And it would be known as the Blues. Like the stone edifices and finely crafted art of the ancients it would become a great treasure - not one lodged in a glass case or left to fade under the elements. It would live and breath, beckon and cajole, challenge and comfort. It would be music and it would change the world.
Thursday, September 3, 2009
Seated in the brightly lit dressing room, encircled with vanity mirrors ringed with soft 40 watt bulbs, Bukka White opened the battered case holding his National Steel Guitar and quickly tuned to Spanish. Across the room Furry Lewis leaned back in his chair and announced to whomever would listen that he was READY. Joe Willie Wilkins rolled his eyes. His band perused the cold cuts on the hospitality table - inquiring where the fried chicken had gone. Someone accused Hammy Nixon of getting to it first and Sleepy John Estes allowed as that might well be what happened to the chicken. Hammy, smiling, said nothing. Piano Red, wearing his trademark dark glasses and narrow brimmed hat, sat perched on a chair, his enormous frame extending considerably from either side. Smiling and nodding at the fraternal hilarity, his fingers moved unconsciously as his hands rested on massive legs, perhaps rehearsing the opening tune of his set.
Suddenly, the stage manager's voice came over the intercom. "Five minutes, gentlemen..." Red stood immediately, the smile gone and pre-show tension showing on his usually impassive face. "Guess I better go out there and do it." All conversation stopped as Red received the full attention of everyone in the room. "Go get 'em, cud'n" Furry said as Red walked past him and disappeared out the door.
I walked Red to the stage and watched as he took his place at the piano. The curtain was closed and the area illuminated only by blue 'work lights'. The stage manager, standing next to me and wearing a headset and mic, quietly said the words which would start the process that tonight's audience had paid to witness, "House to half..." The house lights were cheated down to half strength. Once seated, Red adjusted his vocal mic, positioned himself on his seat and then turned to me and nodded. We had done this many times before and there was an unspoken agreement that nothing would happen until I received that nod. Turning to the stage manager, I in turn nodded. Holding the mouthpiece of his headset in his right hand, he whispered, "house to black...and...curtain."
Memphis Piano Red's left hand rolled like thunder as the curtain rose and the lights came up on stage. A spontaneous roar from the audience announced that the show had begun.
This is a story about the men and women who comprised The Memphis Blues Caravan, the last and only touring ensemble of American country Blues artists, the guys who originated the art-form we know as the Blues. My name is Arne Brogger. I was the guy who walked Red to that stage. But that's not important – what's important is the story I'm about to tell you.
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
As well he should. He's been doing it for almost forty years.
Standing at the corner of Beale and Main in the gloaming of the Memphis dawn, Furry Lewis could see the marquee of the shuttered Daisy Theater. Across Beale, and down a few doors, stood the long-closed Palace Theater - and just beyond, the building that housed PeeWees, the infamous barrel house that was home to Beale Street's great blues musicians. It was in the smokey and blaring Peewees, legend has it, that W.C. Handy wrote The Saint Louis Blues, using a cigar case for a table. Of Peewees, Handy wrote, "Through the swinging door passed the heroic darktown figures of an age that is now becoming fabulous. They ranged from cooks and waiters to professional gamblers, jockeys and racetrack men of the period. Glittering young devils in silk toppers and Prince Alberts drifted in and out with insolent self-assurance. Chocolate dandies with roses embroidered on cream waistcoats loitered at the bar. Now and again a fancy gal with shadowed eyes and a wedding-ring waist glanced through the doorway or ventured inside to ask if anybody had set eyes on the sweet good man who had temporarily strayed away."
Leaning on his broom, the Street must have seemed a distant memory to Lewis. The lights, the noise, the fancy dresses, the pinched-waist suits. Watches with gold chains, broad-brimmed hats and walking sticks. Hot perfumes and exotic colognes mixed with the smell of barbecue and cigars and whiskey. Swaggering and strutting, laughter and shouting - and the music. Mostly, the music. Above everything and binding it all together, the music rolled.
Sunday, August 30, 2009
On a Friday morning I headed southwest out of Nashville on I-40 (The Music Highway, as the sign said) across the Tennessee River, through the rolling Cumberlands, on down to the brown and wide Mississippi. I had promised myself this trip for years. I had fantasized about it. Obsessed over it. It was like a reverse Vision Quest. I wanted to go back, to recapture scenes that had been an important part of my life, but knowing all the while that was not possible. Most of the folks I had known were now gone. But they had stayed with me - and I thought…who knows what I thought. I knew it was a trip I had to take.
I arrived early afternoon. The first stop was the Cozy Corner Café, BBQ ribs and chicken (with a side of beans), just to get in the right frame of mind. Then up Poplar Avenue to the intersection of Manassas, where sat the global headquarters of Capitol Loans. Capitol was the pawnshop where Furry would hock his guitar every time he came off the road. When it was time to go back out again, it was up to me to "un-hock" it so that he could play the dates.
Turning on Manassas I drove one short block to Mosby Street where Furry had once lived at number 811. The house is gone, having burned down a month before he died of complications from the fire. But standing next door was its duplicate. A four-room shotgun style house. Six or eight folks were sitting on the front porch. I asked if any of them knew Furry Lewis who used to live next door. An old woman volunteered, "the gittar picker?" I nodded. "You know he gone. Passed some time ago." Yes, I know.
I looked over at the empty lot and remembered walking up on the porch, through the front door, into main room where Furry sat on his bed. A whiskey glass stood on the table next to him covered by a saucer. "Spiders" he said, "can't see too good. Don't want no surprises." That was in 1973.
It was a hot day in 1973 when I had first stood on that corner and shook hands with a legend. He was B. B. King's big cousin and had given B. B. his first guitar, a Stella. Muddy Waters would later tell me that there were licks Bukka did that he (Muddy) was still trying to figure out. And Bukka was the man who literally sang his way out of Parchman Farm Prison. I stood on the corner for a while. I took a few pictures. I could hear the rolling thunder of Aberdeen Blues and see his hands, hopping back on forth on the guitar. I got in the car and headed for Beale.
I'll appeal to your intellect
Then I'll appeal to your pride,
If that don't get it,
I'll get to your hide.
Alfred Earl Withers
1889 - 1969
I stayed two hours.
The next night caught Mose Vinson (the last surviving cat who played on the Memphis Blues Caravan) performing at the Center For Southern Folklore. The Center is run by Judy Peiser, a one-woman perpetual motion machine. "Judy, you're like crabgrass…you're everywhere." She laughed. Then she disappeared. Mose is 84 (but claims to be 105) and still plays a mean piano. I told him I always thought he had the best left hand in the business. He smiled...he was trying to remember who I was. I don't know if it ever got through.
Listening to Mose, I sat at a table with Carol Baker and one of her three sons. Carol is the widow of Lee Baker, Memphis musical powerhouse and co-founder of such influential bands as Mud Boy & The Neutrons and Moloch. Two teenaged boys murdered Lee in a botched robbery attempt. The world lost a treasure. I told Lee's son that I knew his Daddy and that he should be very proud. "I am," he said, "everyday."
And finally, there it was. Walter "Furry" Lewis, Blues Man. My pal. Wise and funny. A songster and storyteller. I stood there for a while - surrounded by ghosts - reliving an incident that occurred many, many years ago.
Furry was playing a solo date at a college. I was in the dressing room during part of his last set that night. Suddenly, I heard my name being called from the stage. I stumbled out of the dressing room and ran to the lip of the wing. Furry sat with one arm draped across his guitar; he had a gleam in his eye. "Arne," he said, "seeee that my grave is kept clean." And then went into the Blind Lemon Jefferson tune. The audience howled.
I placed a small stone on top of the marker. Then I walked back to the car.
As I crossed the Mississippi State line, some 20 miles outside downtown Memphis, I began to see billboards advertising various casinos. The frequency of these signs grew as I approach Tunica. At one point, they appeared virtually every fifty yards. Just north of the Tunica Corp. Limit, to my right I could see some of the casinos themselves, peeking above the levee, next to the mile-wide Mississippi.