blues in the
You got to get low-down to play the blues, and you canít get down much lower than a good old South Side Chicago ghetto basement. I have a lot of fond memories of one basement in particular. It was in a funky tenement building on the corner of 46th and Cottage Grove, and the caretaker and building manager was blues and boogie pianist Jimmy Walker.
I donít recall how I hooked up with Jimmy, but it was probably through his long-time guitarist Pete Crawford. The year was 1975 and I had just recently arrived in Chicago to play the blues. Pete and Jimmy would rehearse once a week in Jimmyís basement, and I was invited to bring my drums, hang out and play some blues.
I didnít really know what to expect. I had never been in a South Side apartment building before, and they all looked pretty dangerous and scary to me at that point. Jimmyís building looked especially forbidding: It was extremely run down, with broken bottles and papers strewn all over the street and in the areas where perhaps grass had grown a lifetime ago.
I entered Jimmyís place through a rickety old door, and was I in for a shock! Man, was it funky! Talk about culture shock for a 21-year-old kid from the West Coast who had never seen anything this bad in all his life. The floor was rough wooden planks and looked to be 2,000 years old. I donít think the hall had been swept or the walls painted at least since before World War II. Good thing the rats were sleeping, or Iíd have been right back in my car and on my way home.
I knocked on Jimmyís door and he soon appeared to let me in. Wow, his apartment was worse than the hall! Itís been nearly 27 years, but I still remember what a rat-hole it was. The only lighting was stark bare bulbs hanging by frayed wires from the ceiling. All the plaster was falling off the walls, stuff was piled everywhere and there must have been a two-inch layer of dust covering everything in the apartment.
I excused myself to use the bathroom and couldnít help but notice the seemingly 35- or 40-year-old boxes of soap and washing powder sitting on the shelves, unused since the day heíd bought them. Iím pretty sure they had stopped making Gold Dust Twins soap back in the í40s, but Jimmyís bathroom was fully stocked.
Pretty soon Pete and Billy Branch arrived and we headed for the basement. If the building was funky, I sure wasnít prepared for the elevator ride to the basement. The building was very old and had no stairway to the basement. You had to get downstairs in an ancient freight elevator. The elevator was old and decrepit, like a small wooden jail cell. It was run not by electricity but by pulling a rope which I assume was hooked to some sort of block-and-tackle up above.
I still remember Jimmy chomping on his trademark cigar and tugging the rope. The elevator would move a few feet, then heíd pull some more and the elevator would creak and groan and weíd go down or up a few more feet till finally arriving at our destination. There wasnít much in the basement, just an old upright piano, a small table and a couple chairs and a drinking fountain that also doubled as a urinal.
This was also my first time running across Billy Branch. I had only read about him in Living Blues magazine and how he had stolen the show at a Little Mack Simmons "Battle of the Harmonicas." Billy and I hit it off pretty good from the first meeting. It turned out that he was living in the YMCA on 53rd street and I was just 2 blocks away in the Elmo Apartments (more like the Roach Motel).
Pretty soon Billy and I became regular running buddies, hanging out every day and running with John Brim Jr. and a guitarist by the name of Johnny Swede, trying to cut heads at every jam session we could get to. I ran into Billy a couple nights ago, and one of the first things he said was, "Man, remember the time we cut [James] Cottonís head over at Peyton Place?" We did, too ó burnt him good. They didnít even see that one cominí. All of us were in our early 20s, and they never really expected that we could play some blues, let alone blow Cotton away. I have to admit, that was the worst I had ever heard Cotton sound, though.
Anyway, back to the basement: I got a call from Jimmy one day and he was all excited. He had run into R&B vocalist Little Miss Cornshucks at the grocery store. I donít think anyone had seen her in years ó she had just kind of dropped off the face of the earth. Jimmy had big plans to stage a comeback for her, so he had invited her to one of our weekly rehearsals.
When I arrived, Little Miss Cornshucks and another lady friend were already there. We ran over a few tunes while they listened and had a few drinks. They were drinking white port and lemon juice (also known as "shake and bake"), if I remember correctly. After an hour or so, Jimmy asked Little Miss Cornshucks to do one.
I was really interested to hear her sing. I knew she had made a lot of records in the í50s, and I was excited about being a part of her comeback. Well, Jimmy gave her the mike, and the next thing I knew she had snatched off her wig and thrown it on the ground, singiní bald headed! So much for her comeback ó I never saw or heard about her again.
One night during rehearsal we were interrupted by what appeared to be a prehistoric cave man who popped out of the dark shadows of the basement, waving his arms and mumbling at Jimmy. Billy really seemed to freak out about it. If youíve ever seen the cover of Sonny Boy Williamsonís Down and Out Blues, you get the idea ó except this guy was a lot funkier looking.
"What was that?" Billy mumbled after he left. Jimmy said that the guy lived in the coal bin. The coal bin was just a dark hole in the wall, kind of like a cave ó no light, no nothing ó and just a dirt floor, in an area of the building where the coal was stored back in the day. Apparently the guy was homeless, and years ago Jimmy had kind of taken him in and let him sleep in the coal bin to keep from freezing to death. He stayed more or less locked in as a prisoner ó Jimmy would chain up the elevator after using it at night, and there was no other way out. As far as I could tell this guy hadnít bathed in 50 years: He was barefooted, his hair was all matted and his clothes were just filthy rags falling off his body.
We tried to peek in the cave as we left, but it was too dark in there and all we could see was some old scraps of aluminum foil and papers on the floor. Someone asked, "Is he in there now?" Jimmy replied, "Yup." "Oh shit, letís get out of here before he pops out again!"