long as I can remember, I've loved storytellers. I'm sure that's
why the Blues always hit me where I live. There's nothing quite
like having your life spelled out in three-quarter time or laid
bare in a twelve-bar blues. And from my experience, no one has
ever been more adept at capturing life experiences through the
turn of a phrase than Willie Dixon.
Considered by many as the most prolific writer
of his time, Willie had an innate ability to recognize, summarize
and then transcribe the human condition. It was a straightforward
approach that even the 'loneliest manor the coldest woman' could
aspire to, or just as readily, plumb the depths of... And when
combined with his wicked sense of humor, Dixons legend grew.
Double entendres became his art form, innuendo his straight razor.
So it shouldnt come as any surprise why fans and music lovers
to this day, feel that the Blues begin and end with Willie Dixon.
He was the Master.
Not to mention a gracious man and a truly gifted
teller of tales, Willie once held me spell-bound for the better part
of an afternoon recounting his once amazing, albeit abbreviated,
boxing career back in the late 1930s. He was quite proud of the fact
he had been an Illinois Golden Gloves Champion as a youth, but like
most of Willies stories, it didnt end there.
You see, one of the so-called benefits of being
a bright, young amateur champ in 1937, presented Willie with an
once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He would be given the chance to
train with the man they called the 'Brown Bomber.' That's right,
Willie Dixon was about to become the next sparring partner to
the heavyweight champion of the world, Joe Louis.
I could almost see the old, grainy 16MM film footage playing back
in his head as Willie looked through his past, when he turned
to me, smiled and confided, "After sparring with Louis, I
knew from that point on, and for the rest of my life, that I wanted
to be......a songwriter."
Maybe it was my desire to document a rare piece
of history or more likely just capture the moment, but when that
grin split across Willie's face, there it was; the Blues in black
and white, or in this case, black and blue.
When talking with blues players, one of my favorite
questions is, "What was the rowdiest club or venue that you
ever remember playing?" The answers I've received are the
stuff of legends.
Hubert Sumlin, guitarist with Howlin' Wolf for some twenty-five years,
was playing in a small roadhouse about the time 'Evil' was hitting
the charts. A packed house was normal for the Wolf and a lot of
people were pressed against the front of the slightly elevated
stage. Literally face-to-face with the crowd, Hubert had just
strummed the opening chords of the song when he heard a pop-pop-pow...staccato,
echo through the room. "I thought it was just firecrackers
really, you know, that place was full of folks, man."
One unfortunate concert attendee standing directly
in front of Hubert, contorted, swayed backward, then lurched violently
forward right onto the stage, and directly into Hubert and his
guitar. "I'm pushing him, man and everytime I pushed him...
He's dead! He's dead! This guy lighted him up, man. The first
guy I ever seen man. I had a Gibson guitar, I'll never forget
it. The guitar went that way, the neck went that way and I went
this way, man."
On hands and knees, Hubert found his way through
the kitchen and into a back bedroom and hid beneath the bed until
the police arrived. He laughs about it now but the memory is crystal
clear, "When the Wolf went to holler 'Evil' that's when the
shots started back there."
Whiskey, women and money, too much, not enough
or any combination of the three has been the flash point for some
of our greatest blues recordings; not to mention fist fights;
barroom brawls and gun play.
David 'Honeyboy' Edwards is one of America's living treasures and one
of the last of our founding fathers of traditional blues. His
road has been filled with adventure, hardships and more than a
few, near-death experiences.
Honeyboy says onetime at a picnic in Tennessee,
"they had a big table, gambling, shooting dice," as
the liquor flowed and money changed hands he recalled, "they
got to arguing, fighting." One excitable patron upset that
snake eyes always seemed focused on him, registered a complaint.
Edwards remembers it as an extremely large-caliber complaint.
"The pistols were shooting." and just like in the movies,
the first thing that happened, "they shot the light out."
Honeyboy was standing close by when the opening
salvo got everyones attention. "Money was all on the table
and every time the pistol would shoot, it would light up the table
and I was trying to grab the money." Ducking down to just
above eye level with the gaming surface and to avoid any possible
stray round or ricochet, he would wait. "Every time somebody'd
shoot," he said, "it'd throw a big light. I'm betting
he's probably still seeing those muzzle flashes just inches from
his head, when he adds, "That's when I could see, when ones
Think about that, he would stand, scoop up as
much of the cash as he could before ducking back beneath the table.
He repeated this scenario multiple times until the gunmen emptied
their revolvers. Honeyboy shook his head as he remembered, "I
coulda' got shot, I coulda' got killed. I was young and crazy,
I was just taking that chance of getting that money or die, you
Naturally, my follow-up question was, "How
much did you get?" Honeyboy laughed and said, "Oh, it
wasn't that much, fifteen or twenty dollars, trying to get all
that change up, you know."
Chicago has always been the northern Mecca for blues musicians. When James
'Snooky' Pryor arrived there in the late 40's he found that names
of clubs often lived up to their reputations.
"There was one down there on Maxwell
(Street) called 'The Bucket O' Blood. You was lucky to come out
alive when you go in there." Another establishment Snooky
talked about and that I immediately tore up the directions to,
"they used to call it the One Way Inn and it was terrible,
too. One evening they got to fightin' and some guy throw'd a five
gallon gas can in there, you know. Throw'd a match in and about
fifteen people got burned up." Reflecting on his near-death
experience and mode of escape, Snooky breathed easier, "I
got out and was glad to get out. I went out a window."
Horror stories about Chicago clubs and bars are
abundant. Would-be tough guys brandished everything from ice picks,
meat cleavers to the ever popular hog leg. Charlie Musselwhite
once said he had to crawl from the I Spy Lounge when a brawl broke
out and people started shooting. He bumped into another guy, also
on all fours, also headed for the door --- Otis Rush.
You remember what I said about beginning and ending
with Willie Dixon? Well he also shared some of his memories from
Chicago's rough side. "I was working on Madison Street, during
the time of the war and on the stage we had a little Italian girl
singing, up there. A bunch of sailors came in, I guess it was
Willie's voice changed octaves as he did his
best Southern sailor impersonation. "Hey, what the hell is
she doin' up there, singing with them guys? And that started it.
Then, this little chick, she jumps out and gives
them a piece of her mind." Willie, now shaking his head continued,
"One or two of the guys went out and come back and they must
have brought the whole, damn Navy."
Even I know this situation is not going to be
pleasant, but Willie started smiling as he relived the memory.
"And boy, the first thing somebody did was put out the lights."
The big man's starting to giggle like a schoolgirl
and its infectious. "From then on nobody could see
a damn thing, and fightin' like hell."
As a former boxer in this predicament, Willie's
ring experience really payed off. "I had this big (standup)
bass and I'm trying to get behind the piano, I figure if I get
back there and pull this bass in front of me, you know?"
Talk about your seasoned professional.
"I'm trying to get behind the piano,
in the dark and the damned saxophone player hit me in the nose
with his saxophone. One side of my face was folded up so damn
big. I'm trying to holler and tell this guy who I am and he's
fighting me with this damn saxophone until finally somebody turned
on the lights."
As these first person accounts attest, the Blues
are so much more than a reflection of musical styles. 'Pinetop'
Perkins, said it best, "Blues is a feeling. Sometimes you
get down there and can't get things together. You got the Blues
and you sit down and play 'em off. If your girl quit you or somethin'
like that man, now you know you got the Blues."
It seems that the Blues touch us all differently.
Some are uplifted while some are humbled, some blues make us laugh
and even the legendary Chicago harp player, James Cotton said,
"sometimes they make me cry." Whatever the blues do
for you, make note of it. Theres a story there, and God
knows we can all use a good story.