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John Lee Hooker
(Jim Gallert Collection)

Hastings Street breakdown

The history of Detroit blues from Black Bottom to Belle Isle.

by Keith A. Owens
7/25/00

 

 

Big Maceo was clearly the 800-pound gorilla of the scene.

 

 

See also:

Who's got the beat? (7/25/00) - Chicago may get the props, but Detroit's blues scene is alive and well today.

Boogie Chillun (8/1/00) - The history of Detroit blues, Part II: The modern Detroit blues scene includes blues festivals, The Famous Coachman, Uncle Jesse White and a move to the suburbs.

I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job,

I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job,

Tried to stay around here with the starvation mob.

I’m goin’ to get me a job, up there in Mr. Ford’s place,

Stop these eatless days from starin’ me in the face.

I’m goin’ to Detroit, get me a barrelhouse flat,

I’m goin’ to Detroit, get me a barrelhouse flat,

I would take my baby but I don’t know where she’s at.

–Blind Blake

Eatless days and hungry nights – man, if that ain’t the blues. Back in the 1920s, Blind Blake, a sophisticated guitar picker, used to sing his blues for Detroit factory workers who knew just as much about those eatless days as he did; days spent where the best meal you ever had was the one you had in a dream.

Blake sang a lot about experiences his audience could feel way down deep inside. For the black folks working the line, the sound of Blake’s voice was a comforting reminder of some of the better things about the South they’d left behind and of all the reasons why they had to leave just the same.

The Northern factories paid better than most any job a black man could obtain in the South, but they were still oppressively loud, grimy, and often brutal. Hours after a man had clocked in for a day’s work, he would come off his shift looking and feeling like a twisted rag.

It was the promise of steady, good-paying work that provided enough money for a decent living and to purchase a home that encouraged black folks to pack up and get the hell out of the South. Of course, once they got here and actually worked in those factories day after day, that’s when the Northern-style blues really kicked in. Joe L., who was never heard from much before or after this lyric, caught that feeling with a brief rhyme:

Please, Mr. Foreman, slow down that assembly line

I don’t mind workin’, but I do mind dyin’.

But daytime exhaustion lasted only until it was time to get cleaned up and dressed for the night and go spend some of that money. From the ’20s through the ’50s Black Bottom served as the heart of Detroit’s black community and Hastings Street was its main vein. At all hours of the night, up and down the strip, well-dressed folks pulsed through Black Bottom looking for a good time in one spot, then following it up with an even better one someplace else. There were house parties, rent parties, illegal drinking establishments called blind pigs, cabarets, and many, many nightclubs to choose from.

“You could go on Hastings Street any time of day or night and see people,” remembers guitarist/harmonica player Eddie “Guitar” Burns, one of the few remaining big-name artists from back in the day.

Blind pigs & boogie-woogie

Although the factories pulled them in, the city was more than a little bit nervous at the sudden influx of so many black faces. And it wasn’t just the white folks who were uneasy. What apparently bothered a fair number of middle-class Detroiters – black and white – were the wild and rowdy good times the Southern blacks brought with them.

John Fredrick Cohassey’s 1993 WSU master’s thesis, “Down on Hastings Street,” reports: “In 1916, Police Commissioner James Couzens discovered fifteen hundred saloons operating twenty-four hours a day. One thousand of these were blind pigs which operated without licenses. On Hastings, fifteen saloons existed alongside numerous restaurants and pool halls. ... Forced to stop serving alcohol due to Michigan’s prohibition law in 1918, saloon keepers and musicians resumed operations in the ever-increasing number of ‘blind pigs’ which numbered 20,000 in the city by 1925. These operations flourished in apartments and ill-ventilated cellars.

“In store front blind pigs, piano men entertained at ‘Too Tight’ or ‘Too Terrible’ parties where they played the rhythms of boogie-woogie or what southerners called ‘Fast Western.’ At these raucous affairs, barrelhouse pianists performed breakdowns, shakedowns, Calico hops, Chitterling rags and slow drags.”

It was in the blind pigs that the blues and boogie-woogie piano giants first took hold. Artists such as Will Ezell, Charlie Spand, Big Maceo Merriweather, Floyd Taylor, and later, Boogie Woogie Red, Bob Thurman and Little Eddie Boyd were standout figures as the blues scene grew.

Big Maceo was clearly the 800-pound gorilla of the blues scene. He arrived in Detroit in 1924, where he soon took to playing rent parties and disseminating his heavy-handed piano style. He dominated the scene and was one of the most influential blues and boogie-woogie pianists in Detroit, and later in Chicago where he moved in 1941 to begin his recording career. To get an idea of just how forceful a presence Merriweather actually was, this description from Paul Oliver’s The Story of the Blues manages to bring the man to life:

“His massive left hand played a thunderous boogie bass in a fashion which emphasized his origins. Maceo had a hoarse, rather gentle voice which was belied by the forcefulness of his piano playing. His ‘Worried Life Blues’ became a classic of urban blues themes and his ‘Chicago Breakdown’ one of the most dynamic recordings of boogie-woogie ever made.”

Maceo’s greatest commercial success came during his Chicago years in collaborations with guitarist Tampa Red. He was a major influence on the legendary Otis Spann and others.

One longtime Detroiter Big Maceo influenced was a man known widely as Boogie Woogie Red. Red was born Vernon Harrison in Rayville, La., on Oct. 18, 1924. He moved to Detroit with his family when he was just 2 years old in 1927.

“When he was a child, his parents used to put on house rent parties and have folks like Big Maceo there” says Fred Reif, a promoter and local blues historian who knew Red years later.

Charlie Spand, probably born around the turn of the century, was an influential ivory tickler in the late ’20s and early ’30s. He played with a strong left hand and was known as one of the earliest and best blues lyricists. The Virgin Blues Encyclopedia says “his writing skills were considerable.” Spand partnered with Chicago-based Blind Blake on such classics as “Hastings Street Blues.” His “Soon in the Morning” became a staple for blues pianists. He and Blake were an early example of the piano-guitar duo that dominated blues in these years. They also set a model of musicians working back and forth between the Windy City and the Motor City.

Another significant blues figure who made the Chicago to Detroit switch was Beulah “Sippie” Wallace, who moved here from Chicago in 1929. Known as “The Texas Nightingale,” Wallace already had an accomplished career behind her including a stint in New Orleans before moving North, and had recorded more than 40 sides. In 1929, Wallace signed a contract with RCA Victor Records. Two of the four songs she recorded for RCA were “I’m a Mighty Tight Woman,” and “You Gonna Need My Help” – sassy, double entendre tunes that have endured to this day.

Wallace was from a talented musical family; her brother George Thomas, a composer, preceded her to Detroit. She also had a sister, Hociel Thomas, a singer and pianist who stayed in Texas with a modest recording and performing career.

Paul Oliver’s The Story of the Blues offers this portrait of Wallace:

“Born at the turn of the century, Sippie Beulah Wallace had a warm-toned voice which earned her an instant success when she came to Detroit in her brother’s footsteps. Her “Special Delivery Blues” and “Suitcase Blues” had a pleasantly relaxed feeling and she sang with the slightly moaning sound of many of the Texas singers.”

Twice widowed, in 1926 and 1936, Wallace certainly had a right to sing the blues, but she stopped recording in the early ’30s. The daughter of a Baptist deacon, she performed only occasionally over the next few decades and could mostly be found playing organ and singing gospel at Detroit’s Leland Baptist Church.

It wasn’t just pianists and singers who handled the blues duty in Detroit. One notable guitarist, Calvin Frazier, moved to town during the mid-1930s to live on Russell Street. A cousin of Johnny Shines (and some say a cousin of the legendary Robert Johnson), Frazier was born in 1915 in Arkansas and had played with Johnson, the legendary Mississippi Delta bluesman. Frazier had the distinction to be recorded in 1938 by Alan Lomax for the Archive of (American) Folk Song field recordings.

While Calvin learned to play the electric guitar and maintained the highest profile, most of his family members were musicians. His father played violin, his mother bass, a sister played mandolin and a brother played guitar.

Call it Paradise

It was in the ’30s that Detroit’s blues scene began to truly thrive. Thanks both to segregation and to the end of Prohibition in 1933, the scene expanded out of blind pigs and into more respectable venues. As Cohassey notes: “Barred from nightclubs in uptown hotels and restricted to segregated Monday night dance shows at venues like the Graystone Ballroom and the Arcadia, blacks established a thriving nightlife in Paradise Valley during the thirties” that would last for the next 20 years.

As the ’40s came on and Southern folks kept roaming in, things were changing. Two streams of popular blues developed: the electric country blues which became your standard blues band, and jump blues, an energetic amalgam of jazz and blues that was the precursor to R&B. Louis Jordan is considered the prototypical jump blues artist.

Jump blues groups were hot and fast. They played good-time music dominated by horns and were dedicated to making the good times roll. Todd Rhodes, T.J. Fowler and King Porter each led major jump bands in Detroit at well-known venues such as the Flame Show Bar, Club 666 (Club Three Sixes), and Broad’s Club Zombie. Lee’s Sensation, Bizerti Bar and Club B & C were other happening spots. Both Rhodes and Fowler were on Detroit’s Sensation label. Porter was on JVB and some other labels as well.

Of the three, Rhodes was probably the most acclaimed. A well-schooled musician, Rhodes eventually joined the Springfield, Ill.-based band, McKinney’s Syncos. Once the Syncos started touring, their roster of dates took them to Detroit’s Arcadia Ballroom in the summer of 1926 for what turned out to be a very successful engagement. The next year the band became a fixture at the Graystone Ballroom and took on the name McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. Under the leadership of Don Redman, the Cotton Pickers became a jazz band of national renown, sometimes compared to the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Rhodes left the group in 1934. He went on to work with a number of other musicians and groups until around the early 1940s when he began to make the switch from sideman to bandleader. It was at this point when Rhodes would make his mark as the leader of one of the best rhythm and blues groups the city had ever seen – or would ever see again. As such, they performed in the city’s hottest clubs.

The other stream, the electric country blues, the bass, drum, guitar and harmonica outfits came into their heyday with the likes of John Lee Hooker, Eddie Burns, Washboard Willie and a host of others. And Paradise Valley was their main stomping grounds.

Wild in the Valley

“Continuous Entertainment. Never a Dull Moment. Make Your Reservations Now.”

The above ad said it all. Imagine the scene: After you check out that set at Sportree’s, maybe you want to move on down to Henry’s Swing Club (at 1700 Orleans at Madison), where Calvin Frazier and his electric guitar are gonna be tearin’ it up. And whoever’s featured at the Flame Show Bar this weekend, you know they’ve got to be hot.

“It was a whole different world back then as far as music was concerned. There was more opportunity to play,” says bluesman Johnnie Bassett, who was 19 when he played his very first club gig in Paradise Valley in the mid-’50s, backing John Lee Hooker.

Located where the downtown I-75 corridor now runs, just about any type of action you might be looking for could be found there, legal or not. Gambling. Prostitution. Whatever. If you were willing to pay for it, you could probably find it. And if you weren’t careful, you just might find a few things you weren’t looking for as well.

“Black Bottom was something else, man. Most cops didn’t even go down there,” recalls Bassett.

Sheldon Annis wrote this about the area on the album cover of Little Sonny’s very first album, Little Sonny, New King of the Blues Harmonica (released on Isaac Hayes’ Enterprise record label in the early 1970s):

“Except in the primal storefront churches, the music of Black Bottom was the blues. It blasted into the streets from the joints along Hastings, starting at Hendrie with the Corner Bar. And along down the line: Silver Grill, Jake’s Bar, Little Sam’s, Joe’s Tap Room, The Three Corner Bar, Brown’s Bar, Blue Haven, Porter Reed’s Music Bar. Early Friday morning the owner would take out a big piece of brown paper and paint NOW APPEARING/JOHN LEE HOOKER (or whoever)/FRI., SAT., AND SUN. and then tack it to the door.”

Alberta Adams remembers going down to the clubs on Hastings Street during her younger years and watching as many shows as she could – all day, every day – whenever she could manage it. For a young woman aspiring to be an entertainer, there was no better training ground than Paradise Valley, where Adams began her career in clubs in the late 1930s as a tap dancer before she moved on to become a vocalist. By 1952, Adams was working 7 days a week at Club B & C for $10 a night.

“We had chorus girls and everything. That was big time!” she recalls.

Adams’ career straddled the era of the big band and the ascendancy of the smaller combos. She sang jazz and blues but reported a special spot in her heart for the vocals of Big Joe Turner.

Blues heyday

“When I first came to town, people, I was walkin’ down Hastings Street. Everybody was talkin’ about the Henry Swing Club. I decided to drop in there that night. When I got there, I say, ‘Yes, people.’ They was really havin’ a ball!” –from “Boogie Chillun” by John Lee Hooker

It was the swirl of people and music in Paradise Valley that John Lee Hooker found when he arrived in Detroit. Hooker was born Aug. 22, 1920, in Clarksdale, Miss. He moved to Detroit around 1943, then later became known by a wide variety of aliases, including Birmingham Sam, John Lee Booker, John Lee Cooker, Johnny Lee, Johnny Williams, Delta John, Boogie Man and Texas Slim. During the 1950s, Hooker recorded under still other aliases such as Mad Man Blues and Hey Boogie, aka Boogie Now, for the Detroit-based JVB label. Hooker also recorded on a variety of other Detroit labels, including Modern, Gone, Deluxe, Hi-Q, Specialty, Fortune and Riverside.

It was his 1948 hit, “Boogie Chillun,” recorded when he was still sweeping floors in an auto factory, that put Hooker on the road to superstardom. As the lyric says, that road began on Hastings Street.

But as great as he became – he’s still a major star and the only local bluesman to get much recognition outside of Detroit – Hooker is far from the only Detroit-based bluesman of that era deserving wide recognition. There are also Burns, who played with Hooker for a number of years, Willie D. Warren, Alberta Adams and Bassett, just to name a few.

Boogie Woogie Red, in an interview with Baby Boy Warren conducted by Fred Reif, described a virtual supergroup that could easily rival a Hooker:

“At one time, we had a group that was the best in the city of Detroit,” said Red. “We had an all-star band which consisted of Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) on harp, myself on piano, Baby Boy Warren was the leader and guitar man, Little George Jackson on bass, Curtis Foster on drums, and Johnny Hooks on sax. Man, we worked all over the city, from one end of Hastings Street to the other.”

Warren, apparently excited from recalling the old days, piped up: “See, Sonny Boy was a roamer. He didn’t like to stay in one place too long. When he came back to Detroit in late ’53 or early ’54, I hired him. I was playin’ over at Joe Louis’ aunt’s bar, the Tavern Lounge. I let him sit in, and gave him a few dollars out of my pocket and then everybody started to coming in. You see, they liked the way he was blowin’. Mrs. Smith liked him personally and put his name on the payroll. We had people lined up for two blocks! They had hired policemen on the door to let so many in as they let so many out.”

Somewhere during that time, according to Reif’s information, Warren hired Calvin Frazier on guitar and added Washboard Willie on the washboard. Together, the group recorded a total of five songs; two for JVB and three more that were released a long time later.

William Paden Hensley was better known in blues circles as Washboard Willie. Hensley, who moved to Detroit from Columbus, Ga., in 1948 at the age of 38, may have been the only local practitioner of the washboard who ever gained any significant recognition. In addition to the washboard, Hensley also played the harmonica, the kazoo, traps and drums. A widely used photograph of Willie shows him working his washboard, tapping a cymbal and blowing into some type of instrument – or appliance – all at the same time. Written in large letters across the front of a huge bass drum placed on the floor directly in front of him, it says: “YES!YES!YES! The Fantabulous Washboard Willie.”

It was Hensley who gave Little Sonny, one of the best harmonica players Detroit has ever seen or produced, his very first gig. Before learning to play harmonica, Sonny worked the bars on Hastings Street and elsewhere in Black Bottom taking photographs for 50 cents. Somewhere during that time he picked up the harmonica, got good at it, then eventually went to work with Willie before forming his own band. In 1955, when Sonny Boy Williamson came through town, that was all the push Little Sonny needed to go for broke on his instrument. Annis related the following in his liner notes for Little Sonny:

“Eddie Burns and Washboard Willie were the two people that I could go around with, taking pictures. I didn’t push myself forward, but I would let them know that I could play. They let me on one time and once I was able to get on stage and perform, there wasn’t any trouble getting on the next time.”

By the late ’50s, Hastings Street was on life support, and the surrounding Paradise Valley and Black Bottom were all about to fade into the mist of history as construction on I-75, which ran through the heart of the heart of Black Bottom, began. By 1957, Hastings Street was officially written off by the City Council, which voted unanimously to change the proposed name of the freeway from the Hastings-Oakland to the Walter P. Chrysler Expressway, also known as I-75.

The blues became less a music that defined a geographic area than something that held on in spots and pockets as black Detroiters jumped in their cars and headed to other areas of town. Motown brought in a slick new pop sound that captured America. And the blues was seen as a primitive part of Americana. Sure John Lee Hooker showed up for coffeehouse gigs here and there, but a new phenomenon, the festival, began to take over.

Sippie Wallace, who had essentially shut down her career in the 1930s, was convinced by her pal Victoria Spivey to get active on the folk and blues festival circuit starting in the 1960s. Wallace became a rediscovered gem and made waves – notably at the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival with Bonnie Raitt – until her death in 1986.

Bobo brings it back

Now you can say the blues is dead if you want, because there ain’t no more Hastings Street and nobody much talks about the blues. But what is jazz? It ain’t nothin’ but the blues. And what is soul music? It ain’t nothin’ but the blues. Blues ain’t dead in Detroit because music ain’t dead. It’s all nothin’ but the blues.–Bobo Jenkins, 1970, Detroit Free Press

Bobo was an optimist. Thank goodness for that, because if it hadn’t been for Bobo Jenkins, who knows what would have happened to the blues in Detroit. In 1970, the vibrancy of Hastings Street had long ago been paved over to make way for the “progress” of I-75, and the 1967 riot was a more recent and painful memory. Coleman Young had not yet been elected mayor, and race relations in the Motor City were little more than frayed nerve endings that had been left exposed for far too long.

The 1967 violence forever erased what little remained of the perception of the smiling, contented, docile Negro. Black Power was in. The blues was seen not as an asset but a liability to the black community. The image of the poor Southern black cradling his guitar and wailing about his troubles had become an embarrassment.

To young blacks, the old guys may have deserved respect but they just weren’t hip like James Brown, who wasn’t afraid to scream that he was black and he was proud and, damn it, he was gonna say it loud.

Meanwhile, as the blues was getting left behind, Berry Gordy’s Motown hit machine was taking Detroit – and the rest of the country – by storm. As for the white folks, who had often frequented many of the clubs on Hastings Street and elsewhere throughout Black Bottom back during the ’40s and ’50s, the riot had scared the hell out of them. Without the patronage of whites, and with the changed attitudes of so many blacks, not to mention the demise of Hastings Street and the virtual disappearance of available venues for Detroit blues artists to practice their craft, the blues became the music of choice only for those most committed.

So if anybody knew the score on the blues in Detroit it was Jenkins. Jenkins moved to Detroit in 1944, after being discharged from the Army with a nagging dream of owning his own blues recording studio and label. It took him years of working in a factory, but his dream came true.

The first record released on Jenkins’ Big Star label in 1959 was his own – “You’ll Never Understand” and “Tell Me Where You Stayed Last Night.” The second record was released in 1964 by James Walton – “Tell Me What You Got” and “Shade Grove.” Bobo recorded Walton’s album in what was known as his basement “cardboard” studio, located at 5901 Antoinette. He later moved to his final destination at 4228 Joy Road. There, Jenkins was able to record a number of prominent Detroit artists, including Little Junior Cannaday, Little Daddy Walton and Sons and a number of others who were known only within the confines of Detroit.

“Now your average rock musician, he’ll tell you, ‘Man, times are bad, and people ain’t got the money to be going to clubs.’ And he’s out of work. But man, I ain’t been out of work in 20 years, because my peoples always want to hear the blues,” said Jenkins in the 1970 Free Press interview.

“Wasn’t for him, Bobo Jenkins, wouldn’t be no blues scene in Detroit,” says Clarence Butler, one of the Butler Twins who still pack ’em in regularly in the Detroit area. Jenkins, a guitar and harmonica player, recorded some of his songs on the Fortune label, then later went on to form his own label, Big Star Recording Studio. A 1974 Rolling Stone article focusing on Jenkins and the Detroit blues scene describes the studio:

“There is no better place in Detroit – maybe the world – to feel the blues than in Bobo Jenkins’ Big Star Recording Studio at 4228 Joy Road. Chairs there have lost their backs. Scraps of dirty carpet have been tacked to the walls to deaden the sound. Paint peelings hang suspended from the ceiling. Dusty cartons of records that never sold totter on the edges of shelves. On one wall, held up by nails, are yellowed publicity shots of Bobo and John Lee Hooker. On the opposite is a row of ruby-lipped cheesecakes. Ashtrays overflow. Stroh’s beer cans fill corners.’’

Before moving to Detroit, Jenkins played his guitar and harmonica in the Mississippi Delta during the 1930s and ’40s. Later, when he moved to Detroit, he worked as a filling station attendant during the ’50s while making his recordings. Jenkins was also a founding member and past president of the Detroit Blues Club, and was instrumental in putting together the short-lived Detroit Blues Festival which began on Belle Isle in 1972.

During the winter of 1972, a full season after he and promoter Fred Reif had worked together to put together the Belle Isle festival, somebody broke into the Big Star studio and stole all of the equipment. Jenkins had no insurance. What he did have, however, was a successful first album, The Life of Bobo Jenkins, which was recorded earlier that same year. The album even received some national attention from blues magazines, which prompted enough interest and sales to enable Jenkins to purchase new equipment for the studio.

Reif first heard Jenkins perform at the inaugural Detroit Blues Festival, held between Wayne State University’s Rackham Building and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Included in the show was an all-star Detroit lineup that featured Eddie Burns, Big Jack Reynolds, Little Junior Cannaday, Little Sonny, Little Daddy Walton & Sons, Mr. Bo, Washboard Willie, Little Sonny Willis and Johnnie Mae Mathews. Jim and Amy O’Neal and Bruce Iglauer, who at the time were just starting the national blues magazine “Living Blues,” wrote an article and review of the festival that appeared in the magazine’s third issue. Issues 3 and 4 also featured an interview with Bobo Jenkins. Bobo wrote his first song on Election Day in 1952, and called the song “Democrat Blues.” True to the sentiment of the blues, the song was a response to the way poor folks had been treated during Republican administrations.

“I was workin’ out to Chrysler – it was Briggs then – and I sat down at the end of the line and wrote that song,” said Jenkins in an interview with Fred Reif, recorded in 1984. “The whirrin’ of the machines gives me the beat. It’s like listening to a band play all day. Every song I ever wrote that’s any good came to me on the assembly line.”

Willie D. Warren, who moved to Detroit in 1975 from Arkansas, credits Jenkins with kick-starting his career.

“That is the man that started me out,” said Warren. “He was the first one recorded me, on the Big Star label.”

Warren said he decided to move to Detroit after calling his Cousin Ray who lived up here to find out what the blues scene here was all about.

“I called him one day and said, ‘Y’all playin the blues up there?’ He said ‘Yeah.’ So I drove up here.”

A few minutes later, Ray walks into the room to listen in on the conversation. Willie starts to tell the story about how Ray’s uncle brought Ray to see Willie so Willie could teach him how to play blues guitar.

“He (Ray’s uncle) said, ‘Muddy Waters ugly, Howlin’ Wolf ugly, and Ray ugly too, so he ought to be able to play.”

At this, Willie cracks up laughing as Ray smiles and shakes his head at the memory.

“He sure hurt my feelin’ that day,” said Ray.

“You shouldn’t worry about it,” countered Willie emphatically. “You oughta be proud of it today. The devil the one wanna be pretty. That’s why I give the devil credit; he honest about what he doin’. He just plain wrong!”

The Butler Twins, Curtis and Clarence, aren’t so sure about the devil, but they definitely want to have their names added to the long list of Bobo Jenkins enthusiasts.

“Bobo Jenkins put on a blues festival in 1972. Got kicked out of there. Then he went to where the Ren Cen is now. Then, in 1976, Bell Telephone gave it some money and it moved to around Third and Michigan. Did it there until the plaza was built around 1980, then played at the plaza for two years. In 1982 or ’83, there were 250,000 people at that blues festival over three days. That’s why I’m giving all this credit to Bobo Jenkins. He brought all this back.”

Read Part II, the Detroit blues scene today.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area freelance writer and musician.

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