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Blues and the Storytellers
That Lived Them....

by Tim Mattox

a collage of blues artists

s 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, Dixon’s legend grew. Double entendres became his art form, innuendo his straight razor. So it shouldn’t 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.

Willie Dixon

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 Willie’s stories, it didn’t 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.

Charlie Musselwhite

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.

Honeyboy Edwards

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 one’s shoot."

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 know?"

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."

Snooky Pryor

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 Southern sailors."

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 it’s 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."

the writer with 'Pinetop' Perkins

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. There’s a story there, and God knows we can all use a good story.

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