Really The Blues
An American Original, This Music Born of Heartbreak But Full of Joy Is Ultimately Simple Yet Hard to Define
T. Brooks Shepard
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98
The warmth, the coziness, the golden glow of the red and amber stage lights suffusing every corner of the room of Lee's Unleaded Blues Cocktail Lounge that greets you as you step 'cross the threshold--is this what the blues is about? The red fringe framing two small South Side Chicago bars and pretty bartenders named Cookie and Lovie, smiling and serving it up good to you--is this not the blues?
Maybe it's that prettified, no, glamorized older bunch sitting in the middle, or is it the guy by the door in work clothes and the sweet sisters at the other bar dressed casually and looking blasé, while everybody grooves to the blues beat of Gaylord, "The Arkansas Belly Roller."
Actually, it's all that. It's blues, with that magnanimous "back in the day" conviviality that cements the music's first function. That is, to entertain, and not complain--even while we all agree there is plenty to complain about. The blues is the encyclopedia of human frailty, but that is not its raison d'etre.
The blues is about that mesmerizing moment when we know that we are one. That is its first function and the reason why the blues lives.
You see, behind any present manifestation of the time-honored art form--be it a street-corner musician singing for change, or Madison Avenue blues created for mass consumption--the basic truth is that there are only three kinds of people in the world: those that have, those that had and those that are going to get the blues.
While a technical definition can be succinct--familiar chord progression, repeated lyrics, flatted notes in the melody and harmony, insistent beat--the form as a whole is nowhere near that simplistic. The blues is rhythm and dance, fast or slow, voices plaintive, mournful, exuberant and funny. The blues is American poetry set to the music of human emotion. Sophistication and sentimentality, sensuality and blunt braggadocio, rebellion and resignation, desperation and hope are all inside its simple three-line stanza.
Maybe the best way to know the blues is to go out and meet it. Like jazz in New York City, the blues is especially alive today in Chicago, and Riley B. King (better known as B.B.) is one reason. You can hear it when B.B. breaks into "Sweet Little Angel" and the ladies scream on his quintessential Live At The Regal (MCA), recorded in that Chicago performance space in 1964.
In Wheelin' on Beale, the story of WDIA-Memphis, "The Nation's First All-Black Radio Station," (Pharos Books, 1992), Louis Caston, the radio engineer, noted B.B.'s 1948 arrival this way: "There is a general kernel of agreement by those closest to the scene that he actually did come in out of the rain one day with his guitar wrapped in an old newspaper to protect it." The blues brims with folklore.
At 73 and working more than 300 days a year, King attributes his longevity to an honest approach to his music: "I kinda stayed true to what I believed in all the times I couldn't get paid for it and had to do it for less than what it was worth." The blues endures.
B.B. counts jazz musicians--Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Harry James, the Big Band leaders--among his show-business role models. "I stayed with the code I believed in, like uniforms on the stage, using good musicianship on the stage, never using foul language on the stage, and no drinking and smoking on stage," he says. "Play the best you can, treat the people the best you can, and try to make a show--a show." The blues can be uncomplicated.
Chicago blues musician-entrepreneur George "Buddy" Guy is a show business success, but getting there was no cakewalk. Born in Lettsworth, Louisiana, in 1936, the self-taught guitarist and owner of the internationally renowned Chicago blues club Buddy Guy's Legends moved to the Windy City to support his family after his mother had a stroke.
"I came to Chicago in September of 1957 and until the first of the year I was walking up and down the streets of Chicago," Buddy recalls, "no relatives whatsoever, trying to find any type job I could. If I could have found any kind of career-type job, I wouldn't be talking to you now." The blues frequently involves desperation.
He was headed back to Louisiana when a stranger, after hearing Buddy play, took him to the now defunct 708 Club, on Chicago's East Side, and introduced him to the vocalist Otis Rush, who let Buddy do a tune. Whereupon, the club owner said, "Whoever that is, hire him."
"I didn't know that I was hired when I walked off the stage and the fans were asking me: 'Who are you? How come I don't know about you? Where have you been playin?'" I said, 'Man, I'm just hungry,' " Buddy recalls. "Twenty minutes later, I walked outside the club and somebody slapped me upside the head. All I could hear was bells ringing." It was Chicago blues icon Muddy Waters, who'd gotten out of bed to give Buddy the once-over.
"He told me, 'Don't even think about going back to Louisiana.' He said, 'You hungry?' I said, 'Not now. I've met you.' He made me get in the back of a red 1958 Chevrolet station wagon, got me a sandwich and made me eat it, and the next Wednesday I was down at that place. I never did get the stranger's name," he said. "I've tried to find him but I don't know who he is to this day." The blues is a mystery.
Legends was not Guy's first venture. He opened the Checkerboard Lounge in 1972. "In the Sixties they had blues clubs on every corner of the black areas of Chicago and all of them was closing," he recalls. "And I remembered the club where Muddy Waters slapped me and I said, 'Where is the next Buddy Guy going to come to in Chicago, be playin' good and have somebody slap him?' " But running the club wasn't easy. .
"I opened up the Checkerboard in my neighborhood because I wanted to keep the blues down here. I had iron gates, but they had a tool to twist that gate off. I couldn't leave any package goods. I'd leave the cash register drawer open, had to open up the cigarette machine every night, put all the cigarettes in a sack and take them home," Buddy recounts. "They broke in there so much, I put a sign on the front door sayin' Don't tear my door down. Go to the back, it's open."
Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed--they all played his joint. Capacity 90 people. When the Rolling Stones, longtime devotees of the Chicago bluesmen, played there, they had such a large entourage and so much security that Buddy recounts, "I only got three fans in there. I always say I had the biggest bands in the world and didn't make a nickel. But, it got a lot of publicity for the club."
Relinquishing control of the Checkerboard in 1985 was an authentic blues moment. "My wife used to look at me at home and tell me, 'You don't look right in the face. Why don't you go get you a banking account and your life savings and open another club?' And I just got up and did it," the four-time Grammy Award winner recalls. He started Buddy Guy's Legends, which has added a humidor featuring Legendary, the Buddy Guy signature cigar, made by Markus International.
Of the impact of the blues, he says: "If you listen to it, you'll hear something that's coming your way. Rich people get divorced and rich people fall in love, so we sing about the separation, the get-together and everything else. You can deny that, you can turn your back on that all you want. But, it's there. Oh, yeah." The blues are universal.
The four-time Grammy Award winner, composer, musician and showman Robert Cray is a master of the blues and a dedicated American intellect who has a deep understanding of and commitment to his art. "Blues is the basis of all American music and the backbone of the rock-and-roll thing," he says unequivocally.
Although his parents dug the blues, Robert didn't appreciate the music immediately. "I was about 16 years old and found a Howlin' Wolf record in the house. It was called "Smoke Stack Lightnin'" and it scared the hell out of me. He was doing his Wolf Moan. After that, I got into listening to other records that I found in the house, like Muddy Waters and B.B. King. Then I tried to learn more about the history of the music and started reading books. I became a fanatic after that," he says. The blues knows no generational boundaries.
"The reason why I like to associate myself with the music is because when you're singing a blues song about a sad situation, it brings it to the forefront and, by sharing it with everybody, makes them feel better," the Georgia-born, Mercury recording artist says.
Born in 1935, Koko Taylor is the reigning "Queen Of The Chicago Blues." The Memphis native grew up listening to B.B. King on the radio. "When I was growing up, there was blues and gospel--that's all there was," she says. "My inspiration and encouragement all came from Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie."
When Koko arrived in Chicago in the '60s, she found a job as a domestic worker for "some rich white people" on the city's North Shore. At night, she and her old man would hang out where the music was. "They started calling me up on stage. And, this was for my own enjoyment. I was having a good time," she says.
The late, great composer-arranger-producer-blues bass-playin' archetype Willie Dixon "took me by the hand" and made Koko see blues as a business. Dixon wrote "Wang Dang Doodle" for Taylor in 1964. She kept her day job "until 'Wang Dang Doodle' went gold and I knew it was time for me to put that mop bucket down. And I hit the road and I been on the road ever since."
The outspoken Alligator Records recording artist, who has played for George Bush and Bill and Hillary Clinton, has one Grammy and nine nominations, 14 W. C. Handy Awards (named for the father of the blues) and is a member of the Blues Hall of Fame, has a beef with black radio stations. "The young people never have a chance to hear the blues, and you can't blame them for that. They only know about what they hear, and if you don't advertise nothing but steak and chicken, how do people know about neck bones and pig ears?" Koko declares.
It's a position she shares with Guy, who says, "You can put out a rock record or a rap record and you can hear it on any radio station. But you can't drive down the street and hear Muddy Waters or the Wolf or John Lee Hooker on those stations. But I don't give up easy, and hopefully, something might happen and this music will never die."
It's always gratifying when one of your musical heroes gets a Grammy. You feel as if you got one, too. After 40 years in show business and nine nominations, Taj Mahal finally won the Grammy for best blues album, in 1997, for his compact disc, Senor Blues, on the Private Music label. The man's whole life has been about music.
"I grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, listening to the blues," Mahal says. "Back then, people traveled with the music inside them. You weren't dependent on the radio to play what you liked. When you went into the record store John Lee Hooker was up front, Muddy Waters was up front, Jimmy Reed and B.B. King were up front. And when my parents had a party, people would bring their records and you had everything from Count Basie to Wynonie Harris" (a blues shouter who is not related to today's pop singer).
"I like lots of things that have traditional backgrounds," Mahal says. "That's one of the reasons I'm enjoying cigars these days. Because, man, I mean I used to pick tobacco in the Connecticut Valley. When I was a little boy, I used to sit on the curbside and watch the big boys and big girls going off to work on tobacco, talking and laughing. I couldn't wait to go pick tobacco because back then, you could make $900, $1,300 ina summer. I would walk in the house with my chest stuck out and throw two, three hundred dollars on the table for Momma. Back in the '50s that was some serious money. I was a man."
Mahal, who smokes Matacan maduros, started on La Unica 100s and enjoys Dominican and Honduran tobaccos. "I dig Hoyo de Monterrey, Montecruz, Joya de Nicaragua. Robustos. And, if I have time, I smoke big gauges: 52 ring, 8 to 8 1/2 inches," he notes.
His own man, the 56-year-old Taj bridles at the notion that a bluesman must be limited to traditional notions and 12-bar formats. "I'm sorry that I don't meet your criteria of a blues man: that [I don't have] an IQ of minus 1,000, that I've seen [more than just] the butt end of a mule and that I don't look down at my feet every time I stand in front of a white man. Some people think that that's the real blues."
The debate over the meaning of the blues can become comical. "I remember a bunch of Englishmen saying that Taj Mahal is not a proper bluesman. I said, 'What do you do?' One said, 'Well, I happen to be an ethnomusicologist.' I said, 'Excuse me, what the hell is that?'"
Taj Mahal was hardly immune to the allure of Chicago blues. "I was influenced by Chicago blues in many ways. I've been influenced by Muddy Waters," he says. "Muddy Waters was one of the first to put together an electric band with two guitars, bass drums and/or harmonica, saxophone and horns. He is primarily the stamp for rhythm and blues and then the standard for white musicians to play the rock and roll thing. A lot of people picked up from there. I play both electric and acoustic harp, both electric and acoustic guitar with different styles: the Howlin' Wolf style, the Muddy Waters style--those musicians are the ones that excited me in the Chicago style."
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