You are now entering the deep end of the Pond. You are surely one of the coolest of the Cool. No doubt hip to the jive. You can click with the clique and clack with the pack. You are down with what’s up.
Pleased to meetcha.
It’s all Code Blue down here. Dive in deep. Relax and enjoy.
WALTER BROWN “BROWNIE” MCGHEE – BORN NOVEMBER 30, 1915 IN KNOXVILLE, TN. DIED FEBRUARY 16, 1996 IN OAKLAND, CA
Brownie McGhee: Born with the Blues
Probably the best known Bluesman of the Piedmont style, which is generally associated with the Carolinas, was actually born in Knoxville on November 30, 1915. He would later move to North Carolina in his mid-twenties and carry on the finger-picking Blues tradition of Rev. Gary Davis and Blind Boy Fuller, but Brownie McGhee learned to play and sing the Blues in East Tennessee.
Brownie’s father, George Duffield “Duff” McGhee was a farmer and construction worker. The McGhee family lived in several different East Tennessee towns as Duff McGhee followed the construction jobs. Brownie first went to school in Kingsport, where he also contracted polio, which left him with a severely shortened leg. Because he couldn’t walk fast enough to keep up with his friends, his brother, Granville, made him a little cart in which to push him. Using a stick to push and guide the cart, Granville acquired the nickname of “Stick” McGhee.
Growing up in a musical family and unable to get around as well as his boyhood friends, Brownie was destined to immerse himself in music. He heard records by Bessie Smith and Lonnie Johnson and Jimmie Rodgers played on his mother’s hand-cranked Victrola. His father played and sang Blues at corn shuckings and country parties. Brownie’s uncle, John Evans, played fiddle and made Brownie’s first instrument, a five-stringed banjo, from a marshmallow tin with a neck of seasoned poplar. As a youngster, Brownie fashioned an instrument out of a Prince Albert can and rubber bands, and “Duff” later bought him a toy ukulele. “My father always figured I had some rhythm.”
As his family moved to Lenoir City and Maryville and out into the country, Brownie was exposed to all kinds of music. He learned to play the piano on the one his father bought for one of his sisters. These years out in the country were musically very formative. “There was nothing out there but guitars and banjos, a few French harps [harmonicas], jews harps, and so on… I had some cousins there who played pretty good hillbilly music… Feller came out of North Carolina in one of my last years in high school. I never will forget him… called him T. T. Carter. He was a very good Blues player.”
In his late teens, he still played the piano, but he concentrated on learning to play the guitar. He played and sang in church choirs and gospel quartets and also began performing on weekends for the white visitors at the summer resorts. This experience pointed him toward his career as an entertainer when he finished school. He must have valued his education, for he returned to Kingsport and graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in 1936. He was twenty years old.
Soon after he finished school, he had an operation on his crippled leg, performed in Knoxville General Hospital as part of President Roosevelt’s “March of Dimes” campaign. He was in the hospital for nine months, and the operation proved to be a success. Brownie recalled that “for nineteen years I had walked with a crutch and a cane, and in 1937, I rid myself of that crutch and cane. I nearly took to hitch-hiking… Today instead of having my foot five inches from the ground, it’s an inch and a quarter.”
By now the guitar was his instrument of choice – “fella can’t carry a piano around on his back.” He was based for a while in Knoxville, where he ran two juke bands, playing at roadhouses, jukes and parties from his “Brownie’s Alley”, but he already had the key to the highway. “I’d just go along the highway with my guitar over my shoulder, thumbing my way. An’ when I got tired of thumbing in one direction, well, I’d just go ‘cross the road and thumb my way back!… Up and down the roads, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina… that was my education.”
While traveling the tobacco roads of North Carolina, he became friends with “Blind Boy” Fuller, who was the most popular Bluesman on the East coast. Fuller’s guitar playing style had a great influence on Brownie as well as many others. After Fuller died in 1941, his record company persuaded Brownie to record under the name “Blind Boy Fuller, No. 2” for a while. Those recordings were made in Chicago, but Brownie’s real success would come when he moved to New York and teamed up with Sonny Terry. They had met earlier in North Carolina when Terry played harmonica for “Blind Boy” Fuller.
During the 1940s, working up and down the East coast between New York and the Carolinas, Brownie worked with many of the great folk and Blues artists of that era, including Leadbelly, Bill Broonzy, Woodie Guthrie, Josh White, and Pete Seeger, as well as Sonny Terry. In 1942, he and Sonny recorded with Leadbelly on the Library of Congress label in Washington, D. C.
Brownie and Sonny adapted their style to suit their audiences. During the early 1940s, they played mostly an acoustic folk style which was then popular with mostly white audiences. In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, they also recorded electric Blues and R & B aimed at black record buyers. Some of the records from this period rank among the finest to come out of New York City in the postwar years. Brownie was also a prolific accompanist during that time, playing superb lead guitar on records by Champion Jack Dupree, Big Maybelle, Big Chief Ellis, and his brother “Stick” McGhee, whose “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” was a huge hit in 1949 and is attributed by some as being the first “R & B” record. Brownie formed The Mighty House Rockers for club dates in New Jersey during this period. Brownie and Sonny were among the first Blues artists to tour Europe during the 1950s, and they continued to do so often over the next two decades.
Brownie had other pursuits as well. From 1942 to 1950, he ran his own music school, Home of the Blues, in Harlem. He appeared in the film A Face in the Crowd (1957) and in the original Broadway productions of Finian’s Rainbow and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955-57). Brownie was on several TV shows, including Tonight with Harry Belafonte on CBS (1959). From 1962-65, he frequently toured with the Belafonte show, working theaters and concerts across the country. He appeared in other films, including a French film, called Blues Under the Skin(1972), and with Sonny Terry in Steve Martin’s first film The Jerk (1979). While touring New Zealand and Australia, Brownie appeared in a national TV commercial for Blues Filter cigarettes (1976). He later appeared on American TV as himself in episodes of Family Ties (1988) and Matlock (1989).
Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry traveled the world and made many records during the 1960s and ‘70s. Some would say the style and quality of their playing became somewhat diluted as a result, but they established their names among the best known of all Blues artists. Oddly enough, Brownie and Sonny are said to have stopped talking to each other in 1968 but continued their musical partnership till 1982 (including a performance at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville), with their drummer Styve Homnick acting as go between, or, as Brownie put it, “the Panama Canal that brought the Atlantic and the Pacific together.” Brownie made his last recording in 1985, and Sonny died a year later. Brownie made one of his final concert appearances at the 1995 Chicago Blues Festival and died of stomach cancer in Oakland, CA on February 16, 1996. Combining his finesse on guitar with the warmth of his voice and personality, he carved out a remarkable career that spanned six decades and became one of the most beloved folk Blues performers. He was inducted to the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1997.
As Brownie McGhee said, “I didn’t get the Blues. My Daddy had ’em, and my Mama had ’em, too. I was born with the Blues.” Right here in Knoxville, Tennessee.
TANGLED UP IN MO’ BETTER BLUES AND ALL THAT JAZZ
Over the years, some folks have suggested I should open up my own club, and for brief moments I have entertained the fantasy of such a place, with a neon blue sign proclaiming “Bluegill’s Lounge,” but then I would think – wait a minute, I don’t want to manage a bar or a restaurant/grill. And that would be the end of that. Here lately, though, I have pondered the fantasy of a cool Blues & Jazz club and what it would be like, in that pure fantastic realm of the ideal. Cue Wayne and Garth… Toodle-do-do… Toodle-do-do… Toodle-do-do…
First of all, someone else would manage the bar and kitchen. That’s just not my cup of tea. A good bar and kitchen are very important, though, so someone who knows what they’re doing should manage those. The bar(s) should have a good selection (doesn’t need to be the biggest or best) at reasonable prices. The food doesn’t have to be “fine dining” but something more than just burgers and fries.
Secondly, it’s gotta be non-smoking. I just can’t deal with the smoke. There could be a patio, or even a room like The Wellhas, for folks who haven’t quit yet, to go and indulge their addiction (spoken like a true former addict, right?).
The music room should, of course, have good acoustics and a good sound system with an audio engineer to operate it. And the music would never be too damn LOUD! Don’t you just hate it when you see guys in the band wearing ear plugs while they’re killing the rest of us? No, I’m not talking about a piano bar, where everyone can carry on polite conversation while the music is playing, but I don’t want to hear anything over 100 dB. That’s plenty loud enough. There could be some smaller side rooms, where the music is softer, for those folks who want to hear the music, but are more interested in conversation.
There should be a stage big enough for a 17-piece band to stretch out and not be cramped, and with an easy, ground-level load in for the band. Let there be light. Good lighting, that is, on the stage and the rest of the room. Lighting sets the mood, and everybody wants to be in a good mood.
I haven’t even mentioned the music yet (aside from stating that it shouldn’t be painfully loud), but that is the whole reason for having this ideal venue. My favorite music is Blues, Jazz, R & B, and Swing. Some other Roots music, Reggae, Latin and World rhythms are nice to spice things up every now and then. I like to imagine starting off the early evening with a calmer energy opening act, boosting the boogie energy with a second act, and maybe closing with full tilt dance music.
A dance floor is a must for any venue that presents Blues and R & B and Swing music. Dancers like to be in front of the stage, but everybody else doesn’t want them to block their view of the band. The solution to this is to have a dance floor that is a foot or two lower than the rest of the room. I’ve seen one place like this in Knoxville. The Malibu 7, formerlyHarper’s VIP, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, comes closer to being my ideal layout for club than any place in Knoxville. I helped bring Bobby Rush there a couple of times, and it was fabulous. Alas, the manager there preferred to have Hip Hop shows there. Nothing against Hip Hop or punks and whippersnappers, unless they attract hooligans, and that, of course, is what happened. I heard somebody got shot in the parking lot, and as far as I know, the place hasn’t been open since. What a waste…
Which brings us to location. Personally, I think it should be Downtown, or at least near there. Nothing against out West, which a lot of folks think is the happenin’ side of town, but I live on the East side, and I don’t like to drive that far. (If theWild Wing Café, which is all the way out to Farragut, had any Blues or Jazz, I might be tempted, but they don’t.) Now I know a lot of us of the Caucasian persuasion are scared of East Knoxville (except for me – I live here), I think it would a great place to present the music that was invented by Black people. A few years ago, I brought Zac Harmon, Little Dave Thompson, Guitar Shorty, Shantelle Hudson, and Stacy Mitchhart to The Broker, which is all the way out by Chilhowee Park. A bunch of white folk came to those shows, up to half the audience one time. They were great shows, everybody had a good time, and nobody got shot, knifed, or robbed. Believe it or not. If I win the lottery (is there any truth to that rumor that you have to play the lottery to win?), I’m going to buy the Malibu 7 and hire somebody to run the bar and kitchen.
IN THE BEGINNING…
In the beginning, Bluegill was born a Pisces on a day of a solar eclipse in the Year of the Dragon. This fact may have had a profound effect on the life of Bluegill, but that is not known for sure. Scientists, theologians, and astrologers have debated it for years, with each proponent claiming the supremacy of their own theories. The answer lies somewhere shrouded in myth and manure. Bluegill traveled a long and winding spiritual road, first as a Methodist, then United Methodist, Baptist, agnostic, Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, reformed Evangelical backslider, sorta Unitarian, Quaker, and slacker seeker, before discovering, rather by accident, the philosopher Benedict Spinoza, from whom Bluegill learned that Jim Morrison was right – you canNOT petition the Lord in prayer, so forget about beseeching God to send lawyers, guns and money whenever you find yourself in a heck of a jam. This revelation sent Bluegill into a depression, but a little St. John’s wort took care of it. Finally, it was revealed to Bluegill that it don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing. The rest is history, as they are often wont to say. To be continued…
THE FULL MONTY BLUEGILL
This merry month of May marks the 11th anniversary of Bluegill’s Pond, and so it seems appropriate to do something extra for the occasion. I might have done so for the 10th anniversary, since we love round numbers, but my Mama was gravely ill. Sadly, she did not survive that illness, and I have to admit it has been a struggle to get back into the groove of cranking out a Pond on a semi-irregular schedule. I also confess that the quality has not been up to the standards you all have come to expect from me and my crackerjack investigative team. Matter of fact (with apologies to David Crosby)…
I almost quit the Pond the other day,
Could have said it was just in my way,
But I didn’t, and I wonder why,
I wanna give it one more try
‘Cause I feel like I owe it…
… to all you wonderful readers, who have stuck with the Pond over the years. So many kind words from emails you’ve sent me in return. Other times, I’ve met some of you personally, and you’ve figured out that I was that odd fish Bluegill who sends out these goofy E-letters, and you have been very kind and encouraging, too. That reminds me of one of my favorite emails, from several years ago, that I’ll always remember – that person inquired as to whether I was male or female, and that made me feel like the most wonderfully mysterious person in the Universe.
Yep, I’ve sorta reveled in being that mystery, at least with some of you, for many of you do know me. Then as I realized that it was May of 2002 that I launched this humble publication, I started pondering what I might do to mark the occasion, and I thought you might like to know how Bluegill and Bluegill’s Pond came to be.
Back in the shrouded mists of the previous millennium – it was about 1997, I reckon – there was something called the Knoxville Blues Society, which had originated the year before. I was just a vagabond former Peace Corps Volunteer, ex-soil scientist, named Michael Gill, who had returned, after a long odyssey, to his native East Tennessee, bringing his new bride from Mississippi with him, by way of New Jersey. We were Blues fans, and we found some like-minded folks in KBS, which had a cool little monthly newsletter, called “The Blues Groove.” Back in those days, it seemed everybody had some kind of “Blue” nickname, so when I started writing articles for the “Groove,” the name Bluegill came to me, and it stuck. Seemed like a good fit.
Not long after, I was put in charge of coordinating and promoting Blues cruises on the Star of Knoxville riverboat. I liked to call it the River Blues Cruise, and it became a hit. Next thing you know, I was elected the Prez of KBS, and one of our members called and asked me if KBS could figure out a gig for a band from Boston that he liked. Of course, I didn’t know nothin’ about birthin’ no gig for a band from Boston, but I said, OK, I’ll give it a try. I reckon it must have been beginner’s luck, because every door I knocked on opened up, and so the Bruce Katz Band came and played for us in the big room upstairs at the dearly departed Patrick Sullivan’s Saloon. Easy as pie – except for having to get Bruce’s Hammond B-3 organ up those stairs! Anyway, I was hooked. I liked putting on shows for folks, and I thought – I can do this! At long last, I thought I had found my true calling in life…
In 2000, KBS put on a Blues festival in what was the brand new Old City Courtyard. There was no big highfalutin stage there then, like there is now, so a bunch of KBS members pitched in and built not one, but two stages, one for the touring bands and one for local bands. I came up with the name, Hard Knox Blues Fest, which folks seemed to like. I have sort of a knack for naming stuff, I reckon. I got to book the out-of-town acts, too: Anson Funderburgh & The Rockets with Sam Myers and the Debbie Davies Band, both from Texas; the Bruce Katz Band from Boston, and Sam Cockrell and his band from Chicago. A storm came up, which Debbie played through before it shut us down. Then Anson and Sam and the Rockets put on one heck of a show upstairs at Patrick Sullivan’s. Delbert McClinton’s saxman, Don Wise, who lived in Knoxville then, sat in with them. That was a grand time…
While I was Prez of KBS, I became allied with the East Tennessee Jazz Society, and it was through ETJS that I found out about the opening at the Knoxville Museum of Art for Alive After Five Coordinator. I was the lucky skunk that got hired. That was August, 2001, and I’ve been there ever since. It’s by far the coolest, best job I’ve ever had. It was and still is part-time, so it left me some time to fiddle around with some other projects when I could find the opportunities.
One such opportunity came up the next year. ETJS was having their meetings at The Platinum in Old City (later to be demolished when the Business Loop became the James White Parkway), and I hooked up with them to bring the Bobby Rush Revue to Knoxville. For those of you who know who Bobby Rush is, well, you know what a slammin’ show that is (the rest of y’all need to do some research and catch up). So I’m getting all excited about bringing Bobby Rush to Knoxville, when I get a phone call from Richard Pierce, a movie producer in California. He said he was working on a project that was executive produced by Martin Scorcese, a documentary film series called, simply enough, “The Blues.” He said his film was going to be called “The Road to Memphis” and was going to feature Bobby Rush, along with B. B. King and some others. He asked if I could find a “funkier” place for Bobby and the band to stay than the Downtown Hilton where I had them booked. He said they were trying for a “chitlin’ circuit” look, and he had persuaded Bobby to travel in his old tour bus for that effect. Well, I called Bobby to check and see if that was all legit, and he was OK with it, so that’s what we did. I booked the Executive Inn on Chapman Hiway, which was still orange back then, like the old Howard Johnson’s that it had been. I don’t think any of that footage made it into the actual film. But there is a lot of the show at The Platinum in the film. There are a bunch of the gold-colored posters of Bobby encircling the stage, and Bobby brought three of his “shake dancers,” too – small, medium and large! None of the footage they shot of me emceeing the show survived the cutting room floor, but I did have my 1.5 seconds of fame. After the show, there’s a brief scene of a door opening to a small office, and you see the back of a guy with a ponytail – me! – sitting at a table, right before it cuts to a tight shot of Bobby counting out C-notes. Check it out sometime. It’s a good movie.
But I digress… I almost forgot to mention that this is when and where Bluegill’s Pond came into being. Back in those days especially, Bluegill Productions, as I came to call my little side ventures, was on a shoestring budget, flying by the seat of our pants. Just coming up with the money for Bobby was tough enough, leaving nothing for advertising, aside from the aforementioned posters, which I made myself. I sent press releases out, but you just never know if you’re going to get anything from that or not. So I had a bunch of email addresses that I had acquired one way or another, and I came up with the idea of an entertainment (mostly just live music) news-E-letter. But what to call it? Bluegill… um… ah, yes!… Bluegill’s Pond, not the biggest fish or the biggest ocean, just news you can use to cruise the Blues… That was in May, 2002.
And so it began. Seemed like there was a need for more promotion for what I like to call “music for adults.” Music for kids, i.e. college-age adults and younger, gets almost all the coverage, or so it seems to me. Not that there’s anything wrong with punks and whippersnappers, but still… My experience with Blues and Jazz audiences and of course Alive After Five tells me that a lot of gray-headed people are still getting out and having some fun.
Fast forward eleven years later, it’s May, 2013, and I’ve got another cool show for you – tomorrow night. I hope you will come, even some of you punks and whippersnappers. The Stacy Mitchhart Band is coming back to town, after a few years’ hiatus. They call him “The Blues Doctor,” and he puts on one of, if not THE best show in Nashville, twice weekly at both B. B. King’s Blues Club and at Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar in Printer’s Alley. He headlined our Hard Knox Blues Bash on Market Square back in 2006, and I’ve had him several other times at the KMA for AA5 and New Year’s Eve. With a tight horn section and a Hammond B-3 organ backing him, he puts on a dynamite show in the same vein as Bobby Rush (although with no “shake dancers!”). It’s going to be at Blackstock Exchange, which was formerly The Ciderhouse, which was next to The Valarium. Yeah, I know, you’ve likely never been to any of those, but you can find it, I’m sure. It’s close to downtown, at 940 Blackstock Avenue, encircled by Broadway, 17th Street, and Western Avenue. It’s a nice big venue, and it’s non-smoking (but with a cool patio to do that, if you still haven’t quit yet). Homemade pizzas and calzones to eat. Full service bar with reasonable prices. There’s a $15 cover charge, unless you’re a member of KMA, SMBS, or KSDA (you know who you are), then it’s just $12.
Do you like Bluegill’s Pond? Bluegill? The Blues? Then I hope to see you there!
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is just about purt’ near the Full Monte Bluegill.
IDA COX, “THE UNCROWNED QUEEN OF THE BLUES”, FEBRUARY 25, 1894 – NOVEMBER 10, 1967
Ida Cox was one of the great singers of Classic Blues during the Jazz Era of the 1920s, a time when women were the most renowned Blues recording stars. She was born Ida Prather in Toccoa, Georgia, not too far from Chattanooga, the birthplace of her contemporary and friend, Bessie Smith. While many sources list the year of her birth as 1896, her grave stone in New Grey Cemetery in Knoxville says February 25, 1894.
As a child she often sang in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and at age fifteen she left home to tour with the White and Clark “Black & Tan Minstrels”. She first worked as a comedienne (black-face “topsy”), but not long afterward, in a tent in Cartersville, GA, she belted out “Put Your Arms Around Me” as a solo singer, and her career was underway. She would later recall the $14 per week she was paid, “Law, I thought that was all the money in the world.”
Her first husband, Adler Cox, a trumpet player, died in the army overseas. She later married Jesse Crump, with whom she co-wrote many of her songs. She performed for a while with Jelly Roll Morton in Atlanta and would eventually tour all over the U. S. and much of Canada in vaudeville halls and nightclubs. Much of that time she was based in Chicago, where she recorded many recordings of songs she wrote or co-wrote with her husband, including “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues”. Paramount Records billed her as “The Uncrowned Queen of the Blues”. She also formed and managed her own touring company, “Raisin’ Cain”, and later the “Dark-Town Skandals”, which were two of the flashiest all-star revues on stage at the time. Combining her singing ability and buxom beauty with a lavish sense of style in dress and presentation, she would also come to be known as “The Sepia Mae West”.
Rather unique among the Classic Blues singers, she managed to maintain her career beyond the 1920s. In 1961, retired in Knoxville, she said, “The highlight of my career was in 1939 when I sang with the Count (Basie)in the Carnegie Hall jazz concert (John Hammond’s “From Spirituals to Swing”). He was just coming up then. Now he’s in a class by himself.
“Another big performance was in 1935 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I sang for Queen Mary.
“Those were the good old days. I sang with most of the big ones, including the biggest, the king, King Oliver in Chicago. Louis (Armstrong) was just another boy blowing a horn for the King then. The King was the greatest. Now Louis is.” At another time, she also did a command performance for Eleanor Roosevelt.
She performed all the way up to April 12, 1945, where in a nightclub in Buffalo, NY, “all of a sudden I got dizzy, for all I know, I blacked out”. She sang a couple of songs on instinct, but then it ended. She had had a stroke, which would partially paralyze her face. The only kinfolk she had to go to was her daughter, Helen Goode, a schoolteacher in Knoxville. Ida herself was no stranger to Knoxville. “I knew Knoxville all right. I’d played the Gem Theater here.”
She settled into a quiet life with her daughter and son-in-law, Lacy D. Goode, at 2406 Louise Avenue in East Knoxville. She sang in the choir at Patton Street Church of God, but never soloed. After some years here, her whereabouts became unknown to the national entertainment community, and it was thought she might even be dead.
Then one day someone at the Gem Theater noticed an article and photo in “Variety” magazine asking if anyone knew where she was. There were royalties owed her froma a 1940 recording she had done with Lionel Hampton. Lynn Westergaard, a knoxville jazz enthusiast, learned of it and was fascinated that an aritst of Ida’s magnitude was living “right under our noses.” He persuaded her to let him tape her singing with pianist Charles Boyd, and he sent the tape to Riverside Records in New York. Riverside specialized in recording long forgotten jazz figures. Reluctant at first to make a record, she finally agreed when she learned that she would be accompanied by old friends: Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones, and Sammy Price. “No, I didn’t even want to make a record again. I just did this one because the people wanted me to. I hope God doesn’t think it was sin, I’ve prayed for Him to forgive me if He thinks it was.”
The resulting 1961 album, “Blues for Rampart Street”, was not a comeback attempt but a “final statement” of an artist aware of and able to make the most of her strengths as well her limitations. “I didn’t think I could do it after all these years. I surprised myself. I didn’t get hoarse once.”
“I’ve been everywhere. I’ve met a lot of people, and everybody was good to me. I never thought I’d get by that stroke. I just want to thank God for sparing me.” She was quite a lady.
Six years later, she died of cancer in Baptist Hospital on November 10, 1967. She was buried on Longview Cemetery and reinterred in New Grey Cemetery in 1992.
WHERE DA BLUES AT?
BRACKINS BLUES BAR
Any review of Knoxville area venues where you can go hear some live Blues would have to begin with Brackins Blues Bar. Owned and operated by Mark and Linda Brackins and located at 112 East Broadway in Maryville (about 17 miles from downtown Knoxville), Brackins has been THE Blues bar for several years. Lots of other places (and we’ll do our best to get to all or most of them in future installments) present Blues now and then, or even fairly often, but “Blues Is It!” – as Cincinnati native and former Knoxvillain Cheryl Renee would say – at Brackins. In fact, Mark Brackins credits Ms. Renee, “The Goddess of the Blues”, with turning Brackins into a Blues bar. When Mark and Linda first opened Brackins in May, 2002, they hadn’t planned on it specializing in any particular genre of music, but a month later Cheryl Renee’s Blues Band played there, and it’s been a Blues bar ever since.
Over the years, an impressive list of touring Blues bands have played there – Larry McCray, Magic Slim & The Teardrops, Li’l Ed & The Blues Imperials, Diunna Greenleaf, Tab Benoit, and W. C. Clark, just to name a few. You can check out a much more inclusive list on their website, www.BrackinsBar.com. Of course, it’s a coveted gig for local Blues bands as well.
Brackins has a full service bar with an impressive selection of adult beverages, and they serve up some very tasty food, as well. A friendly wait staff contributes to the good times vibe that you’ll find there. There’s a pool table in the side room, and the back porch is a nice place to stretch and relax. It is a 21 and up, smoker friendly bar, but it has hosted a smoke-free special event or two.
Alas, all has not been rosey at Brackins. Although most of the times I’ve ventured out that way, the’ve had good crowds in attendance, like a lot of other places, Brackins has taken a hit from the downturn in the economy. It’s been bad enough to give even Brackins the blues, the kind you don’t want. Rather sadly, Mark Brackins says they will have to cut way back on live music there after the first of the year, just to stay in business. He is hopeful of better days in the spring and getting back to normal and being the # 1 Blues club in Bluegill’s Pond.
“BROWNIE’S BIRTHDAY BASH”, NOVEMBER 30, 2009
Thanks to all the folks who came out to “Brownie’s Birthday Bash” at Preservation Pub on November 30. The great Bluesman and Knoxville native would have been 94 years old. The Pub was packed and rockin’ as Labron Lazenby & LA3 played two awesome sets of music. Special guest “Big Daddy” Rick Rouse sang with them during the second set, and other musicians joined in as well. It was great to see such a crowd of Blues fans together again and tearing up the floor, dancin’ the Blues. Thanks to the Pub for hosting the event which was presented by the newly formed Tennessee Valley Blues & Heritage Foundation.
BLUEGILL’S BLUES BASH
Thanks to all the folks who attended BLUEGILL’S BLUES BASH on Friday, May 15,
in the Great Hall of the Knoxville Museum of Art.
The Bash featured:
Zac Harmon, from Dallas – www.zacharmon.com
Miranda Louise, from Nashville – www.mirandalouise.com
The Stella Vees, from Lexington – www.myspace.com/thestellavees
And F.A.T.S. BBQ served up some delicious food for the occasion
We’re still looking forward to an even cooler and much bigger Blues festival here in Knoxville sometime in the future. So stay tuned. If you’re interested, please send me an email at bluegill@BluegillzzPond.com to be added to the exclusive “Blues Lovers” mailing list. You will receive updates as they occur, and we would love to hear your ideas and support for a great Blues festival.
LES PAUL – -BY ROGER “HURRICANE” WILSON (USED BY PERMISSION)
We are all saddened by the loss of the legendary Les Paul. We know that he changed the world of music with his inventions of sound on sound recording, as well as the invention of the solid body electric guitar. Many know that he crossed many boundaries by winning multiple awards for his achievements, as well as inductions to various halls of fame. Many obituaries, tributes, and eulogies are being written about Les Paul. When I was in the broadcast news business, one of my bosses told me, “If you are going to write something, tell me something I don’t know!” Well here goes! It is true that for me, being friends with a guy like Les Paul would never be an unwanted attribute, but in my case, it was truly unexpected.
In September of 2003, I was on tour in the Northeast, and I decided I wanted to catch one of Les Paul’s weekly shows in New York City. A couple of friends and I decided to make the trip to the Iridium Jazz Club near Times Square to catch Les’ show. After paying the thirty or so dollars each to get in, we were there! I was really excited to be able to catch the guy in action that I had read about for many years, plus for the years of my playing the model of guitar named after him… The Gibson Les Paul! I had determined that I was going to make this night pleasurable and go easy on myself. I wasn’t going to try to get an autograph, or get on stage, or schmooze, hustle, or do any kind of PR or music business. It was just going to be a guitar lesson for me.
The lights went down, and Tom, the sound man announced, “And now the man that has changed the course of popular music for all of us, Mr. Les Paul and his trio.” It was amazing, and I was enthralled! There he was, in the flesh… the guy that invented multi-track recording, and the solid body electric guitar. I was savoring the moment and was oblivious to everything else around me. This was what I was waiting for. After about 3 or 4 songs, Les starting cutting up with the crowd and the band. It seemed that someone on the front row was talking to him, and had said something on the order of “I play guitar too”. Les replied, “so you play too, well come on up here and show us what you can do.” At that moment, a well dressed Middle Eastern Indian gentleman approached the stage. He strapped on the guitar that Les keeps on the piano for just such occasions. I wasn’t sure what was happening here, and I was trying to figure it out. The guy started playing the introduction to T-Bone Walker’s Stormy Monday… BADLY! Now I was getting worried! The hair on the back of my neck was starting to stand up. My friends, Bobby and John, knew I was starting to get restless.
I was trying to keep from turning green and to not have my clothes split off me like The Incredible Hulk. The guy played the one song, and he was off the stage. It really wasn’t a pretty site. By this time, I was fit to be tied, mainly because I couldn’t leave this night with that vision in my head. Les resumed his show and I did eventually calm down to enjoy the rest of the set.
At the close of this, the first show, the announcement was made that CD’s could be purchased from Les’ son, Russ. I immediately went to him, bought a CD, and asked him if that last appearance had been planned. He said that they had never seen the guy before. I explained to him who I was, and that I was on tour, and that I had my first Les Paul guitar when I was 18. Russ said if he had known I was there, he would have gotten me up to jam. I immediately said, “I’m still here!” He said OK, come on back and I’ll introduce you to Dad. I was caught off guard by his response and ecstatic at the same time! When I met Les, it was like talking to an old friend. I explained to him my situation, and he seemed pleased. He said to stand by the stage and he would get me up with him. I did that and was beside myself. In the next set, he called me up with no idea of who I was or what I could do. I introduced myself to the audience over the mike telling them my name and how honored I was to be there. I immediately launched into a simple version of “Everyday I Have the Blues”, with the band following. As I played and sang, Les was smiling. After that song, he said, “Well what else ya got?” I went into a slow B.B. King Blues classic, “Sweet Little Angel”. That was exciting since, I made it to the second song!” Les and I swapped some licks back and forth. He and I were having a ball! The first guy got the hook after the first tune. When I came off stage, I was walking on air. This was a day I would never forget!
Over the next few years, I would return to jam with Les and the band another 6 times. I became friends with the band and crew, Lou, Nicki, John, Tom, and Chris. Les’ son, Russ, and I would stay in touch, and during my trips to the northeast, I would attend his Sunday night jams at various locations around northern New Jersey, and then go into the city to see Les. The stories I was hearing from him were priceless. He told me how he got Mary Ford to speak into a mike down the hall, and when he heard her voice repeated on the extra tape head he installed, he knew he had found the thing that would change music recording forever. He told Mary to grab the laundry, throw it in the car, and that they were heading to Chicago. She kept saying, “What if it doesn’t work?” During that trip from California, by the time they were in New Mexico, he was wondering if it would work. He then said, “By the time we got to Chicago, I had convinced myself that it wasn’t going to work”. He was thankful that when they drilled the first hole in a new Ampex tape recorder in Chicago to add the extra record head, that “we didn’t screw anything up!”
During another of my visits, Les simply said, “Man, if I was to ever retire, I would just die!” He was 89 then! Another time, I was helping the guys carry some gear up to the street to put in the car. After 2 shows, he had signed autographs for a line of people that circled the inside of the club. He had signed everything from guitars to pictures, to records, to pick guards, to you name it! After signing every last item, Les was still downstairs in the rest room. As I headed back in, the manager at the door with keys to lock up said, “What did you forget?” I said Les is still in the club! I ran back down and got him. I’ll never forget Les Paul holding on to my arm as we climbed the stairs at 1 A.M.
When he turned 90, it seemed that the world showed up to witness him. The crowds were lined up out the door at the Iridium on Monday nights. Interviewers from all walks of media were at the dressing room door for weeks before and after his birthday. I had the pleasure of sitting in with him 3 days before his actual 90th. The big event was a couple of weeks later at a star-studded event in Carnegie Hall.
My last visit with him was in November of 2007, at age 92. When my friend, Bobby Lyons, and I arrived at the Iridium early, Les was having his usual dinner in the dressing room. He was always eating his dinner on a turned on the side audio monitor cabinet. I always wondered why they didn’t get him a small table in there. This time, when I arrived, Les responded and waved slowly. It was a little disconcerting to me, be we left to grab a bite before the show. When I returned, I happened to be in position to help him on to the stage. He ambled to his chair, picked up his guitar, and as soon as the introduction announcement was made and the lights came up, “It Was Showtime!” He was back! I got to sit in both sets that night! After the second show, he came back into the dressing room, collapsed on the couch and said, “Man I’m Tired!” I said, “Les! Are you OK? I was really quite concerned about you earlier”. He said, “Oh yea, I’m fine. I’ve just been putting in these 14 hour days”. I replied, “14 hour days! What are you doing?” He said, “I’m still working on these guitars”. “What are you doing to them?” I asked. “I’m still trying to get that sound right!” I was amazed! This is why he would jump out of bed every morning to keep “chasing sound”.
The amazing thing about Les, is that, with as many important and well-known people that he associated and rubbed shoulders with, he would always remember the guys, like me, who loved to play guitar. He would sign guitars when I would take them in, and he would always write something nice. “Keep picking” was a favorite, but the night he wrote, “Those Were Some Great Blues!” I was pretty well knocked out. He actually confessed to me that since he was more commercially oriented, he didn’t know much about the history of the Blues. He asked me to explain it to him. I sat in the dressing room of the Iridium one night and gave him my basic simple interpretation of the origin of the Blues. He sat there listening carefully, really soaking it in. I couldn’t believe that Les Paul was actually learning something from me!
Just during the month of June this year, I attended one of Russ Paul’s jams in New Jersey. My plan was to go into New York City on the Monday afterward to see Les. Russ told me that Les hadn’t been able to make some shows in the last few weeks, and he had been in and out of the hospital. He had even missed his 94th birthday gig on June 9. I was concerned about it, but Russ said his Dad was doing better, and that he was itching to get back to work. If I knew anything at all about Les, I knew that was true. He said that his Monday gigs at the Iridium were just like celebrating New Year’s Eve every week. He proved to me many times that having a passion for something in life will keep one alive. For a guy like Les Paul, and with a life like he had, we can’t afford to mourn his loss as much as we need to celebrate his life. We need to “KEEP ON PICKING”!
Roger “Hurricane” Wilson