Monday, May 19, 2008

"Hey, Boss Man, Can You Hear Me When I Call?"

The Socializing Wolf Man
Listening to Jimmy Reed. One of his best, "Ain't That Loving You, Baby," with Eddie "Playboy" Taylor and Vernell Fournier, who was also Ahmad Jamal's drummer on that fine Pershing Room LP, and it plays on still and it still plays on with Jimmy still ridin' high and lonesome out in front of his various sidekicks, the most special of whom was Eddie Taylor--unfortunately for Eddie, who was one of the supreme blues guitarist in the world, he was Siamese-twinned to Jimmy--he tried to make it as Playboy Taylor but he always had to go back to Jimmy for his most fame. Eddie and Jimmy used to argue over who the hell invented that Jimmy Reed lug-a-lug-dub, little rockin' Jimmy beat, that pushin' beat, with Eddie claiming he invented it and Jimmy just laughin' and sayin' "That's OK, I know who invented it, I know it was me, and that's that, though I love Eddie."

Now, "Shoot My Baby" is playin' and I'm feelin' light and jumpy and doin' a little shakin' in my sacroiliac and then things are still and Jimmy starts unwinding a chanty whammer-jammer of an exotic winged tune that sings in my ear like a god-damn African-call-and-response melody, a reverberating cave-like thing Jimmy calls "Little Rain," and wow, how lost in the past of both the blues and rock and roll Jimmy has become.

I just finished reading Will Romano's biography of Jimmy, Big Boss Man, from Backbeat Books out of San Francisco. I didn't like the first part of it; it was too detailed and the details were filled with Will's own personal Jimmy-Reed reasoning and mimicky talkin', you know, tryin' to write Old South drawal, and, yes, Will loves Jimmy and I don't deny him that, but he took a little too much time trying to convince himself, I think, though he was acting like he was giving added sources in the Reed saga in his effort in trying to convince Reedites of how important Jimmy was to rock and roll and every damn kind of music that came after him, including the Rolling Bones (Stoneds), though, sorry, Will, old-timer Reed fans knew all along and ever since about Jimmy--and we didn't need a Long Island dude to understand Jimmy so particularly for us--even the info in the first part of Will's book is rehash, his interpretation gathered from a limited number of dudes who knew Jimmy, including Jimmy Reed, Jr. The second part of the book, about Jimmy's final years, is pretty neat and was certainly, some of it, news to me, especially about the unique sort of wandering in off the night way Jimmy "passed on" as we politely say--though "when you're dead you're dead." However, one punch in the gut against Will is that he never met Jimmy or Mama Reed--but anyway, the second part of the book is much better, much more straightly presented--especially the recount of Jimmy's last gig and death in Oakland--so the book is worth the money just for the second part alone.

I find New York City blues fans are a little overbearing in their need to show how hip they are to a blues evolution that started way back afore they were knee-high to grasshoppers. Like Will here; he means well, but, I laugh when he gets harmonica technical noting which positions on the harp Jimmy's blowin' in and how Jimmy's using his tongue on one spot in one tune--hey, Will, OK, pal, so you are technically hip to harmonica tunings and positions and shit--it's obvious Will has a knowledge of harmonicas and guitars and he's oh so purely technical when it comes to the various musicians who backed Jimmy over the years, but, hey, blah, blah, blah, Will.
Jimmy near the end; playing that cheap-ass Ariel guitar.

One night, it was early spring though still kind'a chilly, a frisky kind of chilly, you know, and I was a senior in college, sittin' around doin' nothin'--I was tryin' to write poems that year--trying desperately to get published, which I did, eventually, in the Piggott, Arkansas, newspaper, my first two poems ever published--shilly-shallying, wasting away the night, sipping on Cherry Kijafa and thinkin' about the girl I loved back home--in the arms of another man, it turned out--when from out of the evenin' blue came my old pal JDD rushin' up, I heard his Chevvy comin' up the street, recognized it easily because of the glass-pack muffler he'd customized it up with--customizing old USA heavy-metal cars was a big hobby among young Texas dudes in those days. And JDD comes running like a banshee up the stairs and then he's bangin' on my door and I let him in and he immediately starts babbling, "You're always braggin' about how you know the blues and you're a blues pianist and braggin' all the fuckin' time about it, so now's your chance to prove it." "What's'chu talkin' 'bout, Jay-Dee-Dee?" "Sonny Boy Williamson. We've got him over at the American Legion now--but he's got no back-up band but there's a piano there, so come on, I rushed my ass over here sayin' I knew a blues pianist." So I put my best duds on and hopped in JDD's Chevvy and off we went to the American Legion Hall where JDD's frat-rat fraternity was having a whing-ding. I walked in. The joint was packed. And there was Sonny Boy. Yep, it was him alright, not a fake, the real one, Number 2, Aleck "Rice" Miller (or Ford--or whatever the hell his real name was--it wasn't important, he was Sonny Boy Williamson, and that's all that mattered), and he was there drunk with his harmonica his bowler hat but just compin' away over in a corner by an old beat up low-boy piano.

"Hey, Sonny Man, how'ya doin'?" "Fine, man, you the piano man?" "Yeah, I'll do my best--what say we try one quick--you call it." "You know any'a my tunes?" "Yeah, man, I know a lot of 'em, 'Decoration Day,' '9 Below Zero,' 'Your Funeral My Trial.'" Sonny started playin'--blowin' his harp. I was stuck--I didn't know what key he was in so I tried finding it and thought I found it in F but it wasn't F it was E but somehow I faked my way through it--and then Sonny Boy just went right on into the next tune still in E--I finally realized it was E and again I faked some E chords, I hate playing in E because of the 5 being B, too many sharps and flats for my young Middle-C-playin' self--but, who cared, we made it through about 10 tunes and then we all were pretty sloppy drunk and we trundled over to the frat house where they'd set up a game of poker, which Sonny Boy quickly got involved in, me sitting by him at the poker table and getting wiped out the first hand--Sonny threw a ten-dollar bill over at me. "Here, boy, you needs some more money and I got plenty." With that he took out a roll of bills big enough to choke down the meanest alligator as he's making one of his killing snaps for a gulp of dinner--certainly big enough to choke the proverbial horse. "You know what a Jewish bankroll is?" Sonny asked me. I didn't. "Look." With that he showed me that a five-hundred-dollar bill was wrapped around the top of his wad. "See that five-hun'durd dollah bill, boy? Then look here." He pulled the five-hundred-dollar bill back a bit and every bill under it was a one-dollar bill. "That's a Jewish bankroll. Five-hundred on top a whole mess'a ones."

That night ended up with me, another blues nutjob, and Sonny Boy in that frat house bathroom. Sonny Boy took us in there to show us some harp tricks--he said the acoustics were best in bathrooms--and that was my first and only harmonica lesson--Sonny Boy took me and this other white boy through all his "suckin' and blowin'" principles, how to hold the harp between your thumb and forefinger and then cup the other hand (Sonny Boy had very long slender hands) around in front where you can use it like a trumpet or trombone player uses a plunger--then on and on, playing as he taught us, going through making an O with your lips to get punchy jazz sounds and suckin' broad out the left side of your mouth to get the blue notes, to get the bends into the blue flatted 5ths and 7ths--but hell, I'm sounding like Will Romano now--and believe me, Sonny didn't teach no top or middle or bottom positions.

Anyway, I ended up stayin' with Sonny Boy Williamson #2, Aleck Rice Ford Miller, for the rest of that night, then over to my apartment house for a big breakfast of grits (Sonny Boy had a box of grits with him) (ain't groceries), fatback, bread fried in the bacon drippings with a fried egg on top of it. Then Sonny Boy's manager, Mr. Charles is all I knew him by, mentioned that Jimmy Reed was playing over in Arlington, Texas, that night and that Al (Jimmy's manager Al Smith) had invited Sonny Boy to drop by and say hi. "I ain't sittin' in, that's for sure." "No, Aleck, you're not sittin' in." "I ain't playin' for no free. I can't do that, man, and survive." "Don't worry, Aleck, you ain't gonna have to play?" "I don't even want'a go--can we sneak in?" "Yeah, don't worry, we'll just drop in and say hi to Al and the boys." "I wanna take this white boy here with us?" "OK, bring the white boy along." I was the white boy, and we piled into Miller's new Buick (there was a pistol in the divider by the driver's seat--I saw it plain as day--it was loaded, too, I could see it was loaded). "You better sheathed that thing, Aleck, put it under the seat." The pistol stayed right where it was.

We drove like bats out of hell down the freeway into Dallas then on the Turnpike over to Arlington, 'bout half way between Dallas and Fort Worth at the Hi-Hat Club on old Highway 80, a nightclub among a whole row of nightclubs that were in that area in those days, including Pappy's Showland and the Alhambra Club--old time strip clubs that had dancing between strip shows--Evelyn West and her Treasure Chest often appeared at these old highway nightclubs. The Hi-Hat was a white club that featured black music--they had black nights at the club but most of the time it was a white club. We drove up and Sonny Boy started driving straight for the back almost crashing into a Cox fence. "Where the hell's the alley, man?" "There ain't no alley, Aleck." He parked it right there. Bam. He turned off the motor, got out of the car, and that was that. I noticed as I got out of the back seat the pistol was no longer in the divider there. I assumed Sonny Boy was carrying it.

So we went around to the back door of the Hi Hat. I was pretty excited. I'd seen Jimmy years before out at the Casino Club on Lake Worth, but I'd never gotten to meet him.

We went in through the kitchen. Al Smith came out, decked out sweetly to the nines, as nattily attired as I'd ever seen a dude, and he was all glad-hand and he and Sonny's manager jived and then we all went down a hallway, past the kitchen, and into a small green room. There they were. My first sight of the world of the world's greatest blues groover--and certainly a musician who'd been my mentor since I'd first heard his records on the radio back as far as 1954 or maybe even a year or so earlier--I may have heard John Brim's "Gary Stomp" but I didn't know Jimmy Reed was playing the harp on it and Eddie Taylor was playing the guitar--on the Parrott label. And there was Jimmy. He was sitting in a chair wearing a red suit, wearing red shoes, and holding his Kay (Jimmy Reed model) guitar and playin' an occasional lick on it. Mama Reed was there. She was talkin' with the musicians, Al Duncan the drummer, and I suspect it was Eddie Taylor, though I think it was Lefty Bates--it was very confusing and my eyes were popped wide open and my brain was just clickin' on how the hell do I just fall in with these my blues heroes--holy shit, then I realized I was standin' in the presence of two of the greatest American bluesmen ever--inventors of the god-damn music. Sonny Boy stopped and wouldn't enter the room. "That motha'fucker drunk?" "Come on, Aleck, just say hello." "Fuck, man, that motha'fucker's drunk." And, yes, Jimmy was drunk--I don't think any of us white boys knew at that time about Jimmy's epilepsy--I may have read about it, but it slipped my mind until after he died and then I knew he was a serious epileptic--plus a serious alcoholic, too. I asked Al Smith if I could just run in and shake Jimmy's hand at least, and he hollered, "Hey, Jimmy, this white boy wants to shake your hand." "Sure," Jimmy said, "Where's a white boy, some white boys ain't bad, you know, I've known some white boys that was pure...." "Pure shit," somebody in the band said. "Naw, now come on, be nice. Jimmy likes to be a gentleman to everybody that likes his music, so hey, white boy, how you doin'?" His grasp was meanly firm--in fact, hurting firm--Jimmy had a powerful grip. His eyes were watery. He was unsteady as hell. He held my hand a long time, grinning at me, as if posing for a photo-op with me--then he suddenly just dropped my hand and almost fell off his chair. "Come on, let's get the fuck out'of here," Sonny Boy said and he was soon headin' back up the hall. Al Smith came runnin' out after him. "Sonny, Jimmy's alright." "The fuck he is, man, he's fucked totally up. I ain't. I wanna be fucked up, too--'sides, I'm gettin' me some white pussy tonight." With that we went back out to Sonny Boy's Buick and they took me into Dallas and dropped me off on the corner of Commerce and Ervay in the dead middle of a Dallas evening. They went on off into that night and that's the last time I ever saw either Sonny Boy or Jimmy Reed again. Next thing I knew Sonny Boy was dead--in the sixties--Jimmy lived on through trial and high and lonesome times and so many hush-hushes, but he traveled on down the blues highway until '76 when he went into to this white boy's apartment, fell back on the bed sayin' he was tired as hell, and that was it. The white boy he was staying with said he looked over at Jimmy lying there on the bed and he knew he was dead. He was dead just like that. He had played a gig that very night back in San Francisco.
Aleck "Rice" "Miller" Ford blowin' his harmonica.

for The Daily Growler

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Marybeth said...

Surreal, man. How do you just fall into these things?

Marybeth said...

p.s. I especially like Sonny Boy because we share a name. The anglicized version, that my family uses, of our Welsh surname is embedded in his real name. And I know you are familiar with partially Welsh women.