|slipped through the cracks|
I was just thinking that for every bluesman or woman who makes it there are probably 100 more who are equally talented but never get to be heard by more than a few patrons at the local neighborhood bar.
I’ve been really lucky. I was around at a time when, on any given weekend in Chicago, there were more than 100 little neighborhood clubs that featured blues bands on weekends. And of coarse there were probably 100 more clubs that had music for a month or two, or on special occasions, or on an irregular basis, that no one other than the regular customers ever knew about.
Here’s a few of the thousands of performers I’ve seen that, for one reason or another, never got the break they needed to share their music with the world:
• Ike Jordan (aka The Godfather)(vocal and guitar)
Ike was a guitarist and vocalist who was a regular participant in the Sunday afternoon jams at Florence’s Lounge at 55th and Shields. This was a pretty rough club — fights broke out often — but some of the best music I ever got a chance to hear was at Florence’s.
The first time I laid eyes on Ike, I knew he must be a musician. Always in a suit with a godfather hat, always with a handkerchief sticking out of his suit pocket, and never without his trademark cigar. I don’t think I’d ever heard anyone before get such a strong, stinging, biting tone out of a guitar. Ike’s tone was very similar to Johnny "Guitar" Embry, and I’d be willing to bet that it was Ike that John was trying to sound like — real Mississippi juke-joint-style blues right in the heart of the South Side of Chicago.
I don’t know whatever became of Ike. I never knew him to have his own gig — Florence’s is the only club I ever saw him at. I’d be willing to bet he has died by now; at the time I was seeing him, 25 years ago, he looked to be in his mid-60s.
• Melvin Applewhite (vocal and guitar)
Melvin very well might still be around today. The brother of musicians Nate and Herman Applewhite, he worked as a carpenter in the daytime and played guitar at night. Melvin used to fill in regularly for Louis Myers when Louis couldn’t make his regular gig with the Aces, and he was also a regular at Florence’s, the Checkerboard and Theresa’s. If you’ve heard Little Smokey Smothers, Melvin played in the same vein. At one time it seemed as if every guitarist in Chicago had that sound — damn near anyone off the street who walked into a club played in that style. Now it’s a rare treat. Maybe if Melvin’s still around he’ll pick up the guitar and bless us with a CD.
• The Black Hillbilly (vocal and guitar)
The Black Hillbilly was one of my favorites. He did a pretty interesting mix of material. One minute he’d be singing the blues classic "That’s Alright," and the next minute he’d be doing "Jambalaya." This cat had a really down-home ’50s style — something that has pretty much just disappeared. The good news is that the Black Hillbilly is still alive. According to Z.Z. Hill Jr., who is his nephew, the Black Hillbilly is now driving a semi truck for a living. Just maybe someone with a few dollars could dig him out of retirement and get a great CD out of him.
• Earline Hooker (vocal, guitar, harmonica and drums)
Now here’s one who definitely should have been recorded back in the ’50s: Earl Hooker’s twin sister, who reportedly taught Earl how to play guitar! Unfortunately, Earline became a dope fiend, and by the time I first saw her, she was begging for money on the streets. She would come by every once in a while when I was working at Theresa’s. The door man usually wouldn’t let her in the club, because she would be hitting everyone up for money, but a few times Junior Wells told the doorman to let her in, and we would get her right up on stage. Although her playing was very rusty, you could tell that at one time she really knew what she was doing. Earline froze to death in her unheated apartment several years ago.
• Tall Leo (guitar)
This is one guy I would have given anything to see play. Unfortunately, I never could convince him to get up and sit in. Leo was a regular at Florence’s and, according to Hip Lankchan and several other reliable sources, he is the guy who taught Freddie King and Syl Johnson — among others — how to play. I haven’t seen Leo in years and have no idea what happened to him.
• L.B. Lawson (vocal)
L.B. actually did get a fairly obscure little break: He had recorded one side for Sun Records. I don’t know if it was issued when he cut it, but it has been reissued since. L.B. was a great vocalist in the B.B. King mold, but he had his own style. A really nice man who, in my mind, should have been a big star. Unfortunately, L.B. is no longer with us.
• Sam Duncan (vocal)
Now here was another great vocalist in the B.B. King style. Sam is the older brother of Little Arthur Duncan, who is only now starting to get the recognition he deserves. Sam is still with us and working as a mechanic on the West Side; in fact, Little Arthur was going to bring him by last week to take a look at my car. Maybe I could sneak him in the studio at the same time and get him to lay down a few killer vocal tracks.
• Cornell Campbell (vocal and guitar)
Now, Cornell is a great blues man. I only ran up on him a few times, but when I did, he just knocked me out. On one occasion, I caught him at the Delta Fish Market — just him by himself on guitar and vocals, patting his feet to the music. The sound was reminiscent of the early John Lee Hooker recordings. I tried to get Cornell a record deal a few years ago, but his wife will not let him out of the house — probably with good reason, because he seemed to be a pretty heavy drinker. But just maybe there is still hope for Cornell on the music scene. At least he is still alive.
There are so many more, I can’t even begin to list them all. Even now I will run up on a great singer or guitarist who has been lurking in the shadows or working a day gig and raising a family. Just a few who did not get mentioned are Big Man L.B., Prez Kenneth, Frank Jr., the Lonesome Wolf, L.C. Roby, Lady Hi-Fi, Roosevelt and Prentice Bland — the list just goes on and on.
It’s too bad that no one seems to be willing to put up the money to record these guys. In some cases it is too late; but let’s just hope that every one of the living blues men and women get the chance to record and enjoy the breaks they so richly deserve.