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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."

Joe Louis Walker, a Verve recording artist and guitarist of the highest order, remains positive about the future of the blues. "The blues is expanding big-time. There's a million blues bands and half a million little blues labels," Walker enthuses. "To me a blues song is just like Shakespeare, and more than the songs, it's the people that play it. You see, the blues is synonymous with credibility. That's why so many rock stars want to be associated with the blues; they want the credibility."

That is not to say the blues is the exclusive domain of blacks. This music exults in the unification of human spirit and would be diminished, indeed, if a white cat like Kim Wilson, harmonica player and vocalist leader of The Fabulous Thunderbirds, were excluded.

Wilson, who records on Windham Hill, was inspired by a bluesman he calls his second father: Muddy Waters. "I picked up the harmonica one day," Kim recalls. "And after a year, I was playing with all my heroes. People like Eddie Taylor, John Lee Hooker and Albert Collins."

Plain-spoken, Wilson says, "I chose the blues because it had everything for me. It had the balls, it had the emotion, it had the musical expertise, the great lyrics. I felt that I was born to play it." A dead-up fan of Buddy Guy's Legends, he says, "I've always regretted that I didn't catch Chicago in its heyday. That was in the '60s and I was too young."

When you raise the subject of what's happening in the blues today, you discover in Wilson the fierce traditionalist who is among the keepers of the flame. "I see a lot of people attempting to capitalize on a bygone era and a commercialization of blues, using 'B' players in museum-like and pseudo-Disneyland kind of settings where people think they are hearing the real shit and they're not," the 47-year-old declares. "I put myself in a spot where I could play with all my heroes and, consequently, I'm deep on their side," Kim stresses. "All these kids want to do is play rock music and ride a tour bus. Now, I sound like an old fart, but I can see Muddy Waters saying the same thing 25 years ago. The problem is there's this pseudo-blues thing going on that has nothing to do with the blues. They think they're playing the blues, but they're not. You got to live it!"

A devotee of the late Chicago vocalist-guitarist Jimmy Rodgers, for whom he was a pall-bearer last fall, Wilson laments the changing of the guard. "All the 'A'-team guys, the guys that originated the Chicago style, are either gone or too old to play, except for a very few. "

Three men who have successfully walked the fine line on which love of the blues and business acumen coexist are Isaac Tigrett, Bruce Iglauer and Barry Dolins.

Isaac Tigrett, the 48-year-old founder of the Hard Rock Cafe and the House of Blues, is a Southern Baptist turned Hindu, who was born in Chicago but raised in Jackson, Tennessee. "They're down there prayin' for me in Jackson right now," says Tigrett. "I come from a long line of Southern Baptist ministers, preachers and lawyers who think I'll burn in hell for the rest of eternity. I didn't live beneath the bible belt, I lived underneath the buckle. That's where I come from."

Suffocating at 16, he split. "Why do you think I got outta town? The place was driving me crazy," he says. Tigrett went to London to live with his father, where, he says, he "got plugged into the raging, wonderful London of the Sixties. All of a sudden there was a revolution going on and I became a Hendrix fanatic and followed him all over the place."

In 1971, Tigrett, 22 at the time, and partner Peter Morton opened the first of the now ubiquitous Hard Rock Cafes, in London's Hyde Park section. Named for the era's electronic music, it honors heroes of Tigrett, like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix.

In 1992, Tigrett started the House of Blues in a small building in Cambridge's Harvard Square, just outside of Boston. With sister clubs in Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Orlando, Florida, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and a new club set to open in March in Las Vegas, this highest of concept music venues has survived. Isaac says, "I knew I wanted to get into the live music business and I knew I wanted to elevate [public] consciousness of the great men and women of the blues who are not mainstream or known for their contributions. "

Located in Marina City, the Chicago House of Blues, with its 12 private boxes in a 2,000-seat concert hall, 300-seat restaurant, and hundreds of pieces of American folk art, has to be the grandest megastore-blues club. "That's my juke joint opera house for the blues," Tigrett says. "It was very exciting to build because blues is the original American opera. Chicago is probably the greatest living home of the blues."

More than 5,000 pieces of art are spread among all of the House of Blues venues. The collection, considered to be one of the largest of its kind, is described by Tigrett as "visual blues." "I primarily collect portraits of African-American artists from Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Louisiana. Most of these gentlemen are a dying breed; these people don't have galleries or agents," Tigrett notes. "They create because God put that gene in them that says, 'Express yourself.'"

Tigrett is not overly worried about the future of the art, however. "Every kid who is plays the guitar today anywhere in the world, or is learning the guitar, is playing 12-bar blues," Tigrett says. "That's how you learn to play the guitar. So the musicians pay great homage to the blues and its influence on [other] music."

Bruce Iglauer, the 51-year-old president and chief executive officer of Chicago's Alligator Records, has his own passionate perspective on the blues. Iglauer left his mailroom gig in 1971 to start Alligator, which has become the industry's largest independent blues label, with 10 to 12 albums released a year and a catalogue of more than 160 albums.

A self-described "naive white kid from the suburbs," Bruce says, "I grew up in Michigan, in Cincinnati and Wisconsin but I came to Chicago specifically for the blues. I had just graduated from college, I was 22. I never thought I was going to come here to stay forever. I got hooked very fast but I never thought this would be my whole life."

Iglauer started Alligator because "I was a fan then, I'm a fan now. I've gotten to know record artists who I've loved, admired, and whose music I am moved by. It's a hugely emotionally rewarding business."

Not a die-hard purist, Iglauer nevertheless bristles with annoyance at the superficial exploitation of blues, epitomized by its use as background music for product advertising. "Like jazz, it has been able to be adapted into the music and the popular culture vocabulary. At least the outside of it has," the record producer says. "It's frustrating to me how many television commercials I see now that use that little riff that people associate with a Muddy Waters record as shorthand for 'we're going to get gritty; we're going to get serious; we're going to get down with our own bad selves.' It's like holding up a sheepskin and saying, 'Here's a sheep.' It's very much the outside of what's going on."

Iglauer laments the way the music has been adulterated for popular consumption: "Blues has more and more been perceived as a simple structure on which you can do classy guitar solos. Blues, as a music, is first a music of rhythm and words, of tension and release. The great blues artists have not been great because they could whip out a terrific solo. In fact, many of the most popular blues records have no solos at all. It's singing from beginning to end. And it's always been about storytelling and the ability to create a catharsis in the listener."

Like Iglauer, Barry Dolins helps bring blues to the masses. He is the founder of the internationally renowned Chicago Blues Festival, an annual four-day panorama of blues styles and talent that runs the gamut from the famous to the unknown. Last year, performers on five stages drew a total audience of more than 700,000, making the extravaganza the largest blues event in the United States.

Dolins was an instructor at Chicago's Loyola University when he wrote a grant proposal for a series of six blues minifestivals, in 1984, during the administration of Harold Washington. The third festival, an outdoor event, turned out to be the precursor of the current blues spectacular. "I've been here ever since," the 49-year-old Dolins says.

Over the years, Dolins has presented such artists as Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Koko Taylor, Willie Dixon, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Addressing the ongoing popularity of the blues, Barry says, "The late Mama Yancy told me 25 years ago that the blues is people letting their hair down and having a good time. That translates across all race, creeds and colors."

Dolins, deputy director of the mayor's Office of Special Events, points out that Chicago's heritage of recording has helped make the city the blues mecca. "This is the independent-record-label capital of the world, going all the way back to the 1920s up through the postwar era with companies like VeeJay and Chess."

"Even today," Dolins adds, "Alligator, Earwig and Blind Pig are centered here in Chicago. So, with the record companies and clubs located here, this is where the performers came to live." With more than two dozen blues clubs in Chicago, "there's a blues festival in Chicago every night of the year," he says.

But as the ranks of old bluesmen diminish, who will come up to keep that eternal festival alive? A new generation of artists is providing the energy that will generate the momentum necessary to sustain the music in the new century. Three such hot commodities are Keb' Mo', the 1996 Grammy winner, who records for Sony #550 Music/Okeh; Paul Delay, who records for Evidence Records; and Deborah Coleman, who records for Blind Pig Records.

Such talent needs fertile soil in which to blossom, which is why the endurance of the blues also depends on people like Lee Gray from Fort Adams, Mississippi ,who moved to Chicago in 1967 and, with her husband, opened Lee's Unleaded Blues Cocktail Lounge on the South Side. Lee started her club because, she says, "I enjoy entertaining. Lee's Unleaded gives a lot of local entertainers a chance to perform. It gives people a chance to come and sing, like Pat Scott, Little Al and 'Leroy Jones, The Junk Yard Dog.' "

It's clear that this magical, ethereal art form depends on so many talents and tender mercies for its survival, but the question remains: what is the blues? Well, one thing is for sure: the blues does not discriminate. There is magic and something authentic that reaches out and touches each and every one of us. As the late and great musician-philosopher Dexter Gordon once said to me, with emphasis, clarity, patience and finality, in answer to my myriad of musical questions, as we sat alone in the back of a nearly empty jet on a flight from Paris to Palma, Spain: "It's all the blues, T."

T. Brooks Shepard, a music producer and freelance writer, profiled Dizzy Gillespie in the May/June 1997 issue of Cigar Aficionado.

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