Keeping a vehicle suitable for touring isnít an easy thing for a blues artist to do. Gigs donít pay very much, and there are a lot of expenses involved with life on the road. Most bands are lucky if they can scrape together a thousand dollars or so to get a van to travel in. I canít tell you how many hours Iíve sat broken down on the side of the road ó several times in sub-zero weather ó nearly freezing to death.
In 1980Ėí82 I found myself frequently working with bassist/vocalist Queen Sylvia Embry. Sylvia had recently left the Lefty Dizz band to go out on her own and become a "star" in her own right. Sylvia scraped together what little money she could and bought herself a "bluesmobile." Actually it was about a 10-year-old Dodge van that was totally rusted out. It was so rusted out that in the winter Sylvia filled all the holes in it with that "great stuff" expanding-foam insulation.
Now when I say all the holes, that is just what I mean. She even insulated the doors shut to keep the cold air out and the warm air in. Vans are hard to heat in the first place, but when you have holes in them big enough to stick your whole leg through, it can get a little chilly in the winter, not to mention the snow and rain coming in.
On our first trip out we headed to New York City to do a couple gigs. I was really surprised: The van got there and back alright. That was indeed a rare occurrence. We stopped for gas and oil on the way, and I noticed that the radiator hoses were about to blow out. I mentioned to Sylvia that she should replace them and she assured me that would be the first thing she would do when she got back to Chicago.
Hereís a couple of funny stories from the New York trip. In downtown Manhattan Sylviaís husband Phil had to use the bathroom. Knowing there was nowhere to go, and he had to go bad , he decided to use a bucket in the back of the van. To this point Phil had been driving, and we were stopped at a stoplight. Suddenly Phil handed the wheel to me while he went to the back of the van.
I had never driven the truck before, and Philís legs were about a foot longer than mine. I was fumbling with the seat when the light changed. Everyone behind us began honking, so I hit the gas. I had no idea the truck was so powerful ó we took off like we were in the Indy 500. Naturally this caught Phil in the act, and he went flying backwards with the entire contents of the bucket spilling all over himself.
Everyone had a good laugh but Phil. I was lucky he didnít kill me. I think he would have, but I was the only one who could read the map, and he needed me to get back home to Chicago.
Our first stop was Mannyís Music in downtown Manhattan. Someone had mentioned to our guitarist (who shall remain anonymous) that they had peep shows in New York where you paid a quarter and a window would come up and you could see a live sex show for a couple minutes. After our stop at Mannyís, the guitarist asked if we would mind waiting for a few minutes while he went and got some souvenirs for his kids. No problem. We werenít in a hurry.
After he had been gone about an hour, we began to worry about him. Had he gotten mugged, lost or arrested? Who knows what could happen in New York City? Finally, about an hour later he arrived, and ó surprise, no souvenirs. We asked him what happened, and he explained that while looking for souvenirs he had found a peep show and it wasnít but a quarter, although he had spent quite a few!
Our next trip was to Toronto, Canada. At this time Sylvia had dumped Phil as her husband/guitarist/driver/road manager, so we had two real guitarists with us, John Primer and Michael Robinson. We headed out on a holiday weekend ó it was a Sunday night, and most businesses would be closed on Monday. We got about as far as Gary, Indiana, and the radiator hose blew. You know ó the one I had warned her about a month earlier. Damn, she had never taken care of it.
What were we gonna do? It was a holiday weekend, we had no tools and it was getting dark. Luckily we were by an exit. Somehow the guys managed to find a 24-hour auto parts store nearby that had the parts and tools we needed. Man, were we lucky on that one. The three of us managed to change it with no problem, and off we headed.
The gig went cool although we almost got busted by the union for not being members. I donít know what Sylvia told them, but whatever it was, it worked. John, Michael and myself all shared a room, and Sylvia got the one next door. We were pretty high up in a high-rise hotel, and we were joking about what would happen if there was a fire and Sylvia had to climb down some sheets to safety. The thought of the 300-pound-plus Queen Sylvia hanging by a sheet had us in stitches.
The next morning Sylvia stopped by the room. She was looking real mad. Apparently, after hearing all the laughter, she had put her ear to the wall and heard everything we said. Damn, busted that time. Not much you can say when youíre caught red-handed.
You know, now that I think about it, the "bluesmobile" really wasnít that bad. I kind of miss the old days ó freezing my ass off in the back of a van with no heat, never knowing if you were going to make it to the next gig, living on McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken for weeks at a time, sleeping on pool tables in the bars when we couldnít afford a room.
Would I do it again? Hell, no! Was it fun? I didnít think so at the time, but now, as I look back on it ó yeah, I had fun. And look at all the good stories I got out of it. Beats working 9:00 to 5:00 at a bank, thatís for sure.