Making a living playing the blues is a bitch at best. If you work real hard and get a good gig touring, it seems like you could possibly hit the poverty level ó if you are really lucky. Forget about health insurance or a car newer than 15 years old. If youíre not touring, the only way to make it is to have some kind of hustle on the side. Something to make ends meet when the gigs get slow.
A few bluesmen work day gigs and play nights and weekends. Johnny LittleJohn, for instance, ran a car repair shop on Chicagoís West Side. Little Arthur Duncan did concrete work. Magic Slim was a welder, Hip Linkchain a spray painter. Little Smokey Smothers was a carpenter. Jimmy Lee Robinson drives a cab. The list goes on and on.
At some point you just get too old to go out and play a gig at night, get in at three a.m. and have to get up in three hours to leave for work. If the drinking and hanging out in bars doesnít kill you, the lack of sleep probably will. Thatís where having a good hustle comes into play.
Sunnyland Slim was a good pool hustler, but he was also known to pick up loads of scrap metal to sell, and at one time owned a combination radio and TV repair place. Now that I think about it, I really donít remember anyone repairing television sets there ó I think his main source of income there was the kids playing video games. I went over one day to hang out with Sunnyland and Little Brother Montgomery, and all I heard all day was, "Hey mister, gimme a solid quarter."
Probably the most common hustle was simply to find a woman to support you. That way you can concentrate only on your music and not have to worry about paying any bills.
Unfortunately that only works for so long. Usually until the woman figures out you are using her, so itís a constant battle trying to find a new woman to pick up the slack where the old one left off. In the end that may be more work than a day gig. A lot of guys become pimps and/or drug dealers to be able to play music full time. I guess itís better off not to name names in that category ó Iíd like to live to see tomorrow.
One drummer who was working on the road with a famous blues singer used to take his prostitutes with him on the road and let them work in the town where they were playing. Not only was he making more money than the bandleader, he was taking in more than the entire bands salary per night! He had the whores driviní him around in his big Cadillac, ridiní in style.
Some guys took a more unique approach to hustling a dollar. One of these guys was my friend, Murphy D. Murphy was a rock solid bass player who worked with some of everyone, including the late Little Junior Parker. Murphyís hustle was so slick even I didnít even catch on to it until his nephew, guitarist Sam Goode, hipped me. What Murphy would do was take up a collection from the musicians in a club to get a pint of liquor to go. Drinks in the bar itself were too expensive for a musician to afford to drink all night, but a pint was only a couple of bucks to go.
Murphy would find three or four guys, collect a dollar or so from each and go get a bottle. What he was doing was collecting four or five dollars a bottle and pocketing the change. During the coarse of the night he might could collect $15 dollars, which was about what a gig would pay at that time ó and heíd get the liquor free, too!
Drummer Dino Alvarezís business card read: "Master in Music," also Auto repair, Burglar alarms, Jewelry, Boss DJ and entertainment specialist." Man, he had all the bases covered. When I lived in California they were hustliní too, although on a higher scale. Drummer Alvin Sykes business card reads: Alvin Sykes Ė Drummer Ė SS Band, Morgan Lodge 16, Funeral Directors Lic. 225, Embalmerís Lic. 7177, Diamonds-Gold Jewelry, Wholesale/Retail, SF General Hospital Director of Pathology." Whew. If that wasnít enough, the cat was into real estate, too.
Harmonica George was another one with a unique hustle. He would hang out at the Delta Fish Market or Maxwell Street selling his homemade air fresheners. Going by the name of Dr. Smell Good, George would take a bunch of little homemade, voodoo-doll-looking things and dip them in some kind or liquid air freshener or "pimp oil" from the auto parts store and sell them as air fresheners. I really donít know what he was soaking them in, but man, did they smell awful. Kind of like the can of Jinx Remover spray I bought on Maxwell Street for a dollar.
Big Smokey Smothers had an interesting hustle. I would frequently run into him on 43rd Street riding his old, beat-up balloon-tired bicycle selling ice cream bars to the neighborhood children.
Eddie C. Campbell was not without his hustles. I can remember many a time running into Eddie in a club. He would have a four-inch-thick bundle of 20-dollar bills, looking for someone to play the street card game, Three Card Monte. Itís played with three cards, two the same and one different. Your job is to guess which one is the different one while they shuffle the cards around.
It is kind of like the shell game. Of course, they always bend the corner of the card and then switch which one has the bent corner to fool you into thinking you have the right one. Usually this is played for $20 a pop, and two guys work in pairs. The partner may just happen to walk up while you are looking and decide to play. Heíll win big to sucker you into thinking you can, too. They just split your money 50/50. If the partner isnít around, usually they will let you win the first hand to draw you in. I bet I got about $100 of Eddie before he figured out that I never bet more than the first hand.
Last but not least is my good friend Leon. Leon lives in a more rural area in a small town just south of Chicago. His has got to be one of the funniest hustles I have heard of. During the winter months in his area there is a big problem with raccoons in his area. Wanting to get warm, usually they will climb up a bush or tree and get on a roof and burrow their way in to a attic of a home. Leon places a small ad in the local paper offering his services. Leonís hustle is trapping the raccoons. Whatís funny is that there isnít enough work, so Leon traps the raccoons and tells the customer he is going to release it in a forest preserve miles away. Actually, he drives just out of sight of the house and releases the raccoon in a neighboring yard. The raccoon goes back to the same house, and Leon gets another call to remove another raccoon and make another couple of dollars.
Whatís my hustle? Yeah, Iím hustlin,í too. Between running a recording studio, producing records and song-writing demos, playing live gigs and remodeling apartments 60 hours a week, my schedule is full up, not to mention writing this column.