Monday, September 28, 2009

Gonna shake 'em on down...

Once the initial dates were booked, the job of logistics became daunting. We had to move some twelve performers, a road manager and various pieces of equipment, from Memphis to the first date and then on to the next.

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

Hit the road...but why?

Why should I do this - why get involved in a task that offered a ton of work with little reward? Was ANYBODY going to get rich behind this? Probably not. My fellows at the agency had a finite amount of time to devote to doing what we did. We booked shows - each one of which would occur once in an eternity and then we had to do it all over again. Booking the Caravan would consume resources...of time, of money and involve an 'education' process to boot. It was much easier to book dates on 'popular' acts, (the forgettable and forgotten Mason Proffit, or Crow, or the nascent John Denver), than on a bunch of geriatric Blues musicians. Returning from Memphis, my first sales job was with the principals of Schon Productions, the agency I worked for. And then, with my fellow agents. We, all of us, worked on commission and the twenty minutes spent on 'selling' a date on, say, Crow, versus the hour or three to do the same for the Caravan, could not be ignored. To his great credit, Rand Levy, the agency principal, 'got it' and gave his okay.

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 White - and the National Steel. The 'last' Samurai

Booker T. Washington "Bukka" White was born in Cleveland, MS in 1905 - or in Aberdeen, MS, or...? No one seems too sure. But it's a minor matter. What's important is what he gave the world after those humble beginnings, where ever they may have been.

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,

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.]

Gathering the Samurai...Sleepy John & Hammy

Brownsville, TN lies east of Memphis, just off Interstate 40 - The Music Highway. In 1999, (holyshit...a decade ago??) I took the exit to Brownsville on my way back to Nashville from Memphis. I was looking for a right-hand road.

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 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

More about Furry's greens - I'm with the band...

Mr. Biggs towered over the trio in front of the stack of greens at the south side Red Owl supermarket. "Can I help you with anything?" Furry Lewis, my friend David Calvit, and I all turned to behold the enormous store manager.

"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

Cookin'...Furry's greens...

We'll get back to the 'Samurai search' but first, a few thoughts on food.

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

Gathering the Samurai - Joe Willie Wikins & Houston Stackhouse

Joe Willie and Stack were lifelong friends and had deservedly substantial reputations gained as the guitar players and vocalists in (Rice Miller) Sonny Boy Williamson's King Biscuit Band. As such, they were featured performers on the seminal King Biscuit Flour radio program broadcast on station KFFA from Helena, AR in the forties. The first electric guitar Muddy Waters ever heard was played by Joe Willie and/or Stack.

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

Gathering the Samurai - Memphis Piano Red

Red's house on Walker had a covered porch where he spent most of his time when the weather was warm. He was sitting there when I arrived and I was quickly invited inside. To the left as you entered sat an upright piano and across the room was a couch and various chairs, arranged 'audience' style, facing the piano.

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

Gathering the Samurai - Rev. Robert Wilkins

We stood at Reverend Robert Wilkins' door. This was the first visit to potential members of what would become The Memphis Blues Caravan. Wilkins had recorded some powerful sides in the late 20's and early 30's for "race labels" and had enjoyed great success. Unfortunately for the Blues world, he "head the call" and became ordained as a Minister in the mid thirties. He vowed never to play the Blues again.

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

Gathering the Samurai - Furry Lewis

Furry Lewis stepped off a plane from Memphis on May 3, 1972. Until that moment, I had never laid eyes on an authentic 'country Bluesman.' I collected his bag, together with a beat-up guitar case (black, with a white, hand-painted crescent moon and stars on one side and the legend, 'Furry Lewis - Memphis, Tenn' on the other) and we drove back to my house in SW Minneapolis. Later that day we sat in my living room and he asked if I would like to hear a tune. As the house filled with the ringing of that open E-tuned guitar and the slap of his slide on its neck, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. The first tune was free - and I was hooked.

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..."

My introduction to the Blues came as a 9-year-old boy listening to old Stinson78's from a collection titled "Negro Sinful Songs as Sung by Huddie 'Leadbelly' Ledbetter." They belonged to the father of my 4th grade classmate, Steve Thomes, and we almost wore them out listening time and again. Waiting until his parents were safely out of the house, we would sneak into the den and pull out the album and listen for hours. "Fannin Street" was a fave, with its salacious lyric being of special appeal to a 9 year-old's know the one, about the woman who "...lives on the backside of the jail...."

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 ( 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!"

The Blues is the voice of the heart - we respond to it, regardless of background or nationality. It is unafraid to speak what is felt and does so without shame or artifice. It is as self-conscious as a newborn. Its scope is inclusive, it does not separate people emotionally. Blues is human music - at once approachable and warm, welcoming and understanding. It opens its arms and lakes the listener in. Speaking to that common core shared by all mankind - our joy, our pain, our longings and out desires, the Blues has become great and important because it dwells on the primal. The power if this fact was grasped completely by the American artists who later helped invent jazz,country and, eventually, rock 'n roll. The leap from the early Blues verse, echoing out of Mississippi, "Baby, please don't go..." to Motown's unashamed statement, "Ain't too proud to beg, sweet darlin'" is as short as it is simple.

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.


Standing there watching Red I almost wondered aloud at my good fortune. I was hangin' with the guys...guys from Memphis. Blues players. The best in the business - practitioners of the art form they helped to invent. A race of dinosaurs, rare and unique - and about to disappear forever.

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

November - 1975

The Memphis Blues Caravan was about to take the stage.

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

July - 1964

3:15 AM - Two full hours before the hot sun of Memphis would show its face. Straw bristles of a push broom scratch on the dry, uneven pavement of the gutter. Broken bottles, paper cups and assorted litter roll in front of it like a great, gray wave of the discarded as Memphis Sanitation employee, Walter 'Furry' Lewis shepherds the growing pile of debris on its trip down Main toward Beale. At the corner stands a trash can, awaiting the fruits of Lewis' efforts. Once reached, and with the practiced movements of a dancer, the accumulation expertly disappears into the galvanized circumference. No wasted motion, no missed items. The man knows what he's doing.

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.