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The history of Detroit blues, Part II: Blues festivals, The Famous Coachman, Uncle Jesse White and a move to the suburbs.
Keith A. Owens
"I rediscovered him living in a housing project in Inkster."
Detroit blues historically has been largely a music of African-American migrants from the South — from Big Maceo to John Lee Hooker to Bobo Jenkins. Even more recent figures such as the Butler Twins and Willie D. Warren, a pioneer in use of electric bass guitar with Otis Rush in the 1950s, moved from the South and ended up in Detroit in the 1970s.
Most locally born musicians have been jazzmen or fell into the R&B bag. Still, growing local blues artists is not a futile labor. Juanita McCray, Robert Jones and Thornetta Davis stand out as Detroit natives who have taken on the blues mantle. And a growing number of young white musicians and racially mixed acts — some of them refugees from the rock arena — such as Jim McCarty, Mr. B, the Detroit Blues Band and Mudpuppy have maintained a fresh and powerful blues presence.
Still, Curtis Butler of the Butler Twins is adamant about the need to acknowledge the African-American roots of the blues, which he thinks tend to get glossed over these days. He remembers a gig he was playing when a young white kid proceeded to lecture him in alcohol-drenched words about how the late Stevie Ray Vaughan had invented the blues. “I said, ‘Listen, boy, the blues is the only thing a black man can call his own. Stevie Ray Vaughan never picked cotton. The blues come out of slavery. Don’t you never say that.’”
The Butler Twins were preceded on the local scene by another pair of brothers. The Collins brothers — Louis, known as “Mr. Bo,” and McKindley, known as “Little Mac” — maintain that connection to the roots of the music. Mr. Bo, whose guitar sound bore a strong resemblance to that of B.B. King (so much so that some say it may have hindered his career), was a fixture on the Detroit blues scene for most of the years after he moved to Detroit from Mississippi in 1950 at the age of 18. He recorded with such Detroit labels as Blues Boys, Big D, and Gold Top. He won the Detroit Blues Society Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996, and died not long thereafter. Little Mac, who played both guitar and bass and made a memorable appearance at the 1973 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, was also a regular performer around the Detroit area until his death, not long after his brother’s, in 1997.
John Sinclair, a ’60s political activist, poet and music impresario, first made his presence felt as manager of the MC5 rock band, then moved on to promoting blues and jazz. Sinclair’s introduction to the blues came when he was a kid listening to well-known WJLB-AM radio host “Frantic” Ernie Durham, who played the hits of such big-time blues names as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. For Sinclair, a white kid listening to the blues and absorbing the music as much as he did, Durham’s show was a transforming experience.
In an effort to expose others to the music that had affected him so deeply, Sinclair co-founded the original Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival with Peter Andrews in 1972. “We met a guy who inherited a bit of money and wanted to know what to do with it,” says Sinclair. Although the original incarnation of the festival only lasted for two years — 1972 and 1973 — it is widely regarded as one of the largest and most influential such festivals anywhere in the country.
“There were people who the bluest they would get would be the Yardbirds and the Allman Brothers,” says Sinclair. “That was the fun part of it, turning on young people to folks they never heard of.”
More than any other festival, the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival featured a wide variety of talent from both music worlds, and Sinclair took great pleasure in putting together totally unpredictable lineups that still managed to work. For example, Saturday night’s lineup in 1972 featured Little Sonny, Doctor John, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Pharoah Sanders. That same three-day festival featured Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Otis Rush, Hound Dog Taylor, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bonnie Raitt and Sippie Wallace.
The following year the show was headlined by Ray Charles, Charles Mingus, Big Walter Horton and Jimmy Reed, but the hit of that year’s festival was a blues musician by the name of One String Sam. He wailed on that one string, particularly with a tune “I Need $100,” that was included on a record of the festival’s acts.
“I rediscovered him living in a housing project in Inkster,” said Sinclair.
By 1974, Ann Arbor wasn’t enthusiastic about continuing to support the festival, so it was moved for one last show to Windsor. “We basically were bankrupted by that time and had to shut it down,” said Sinclair. And just as quickly as it had started, the best music festival of its kind screeched to a sudden halt. The shame of it wasn’t just the vacuum left by the absence of such a great festival, but that without festivals, there really wasn’t much opportunity for Detroit blues artists to play other than in a handful of blind pigs, cabarets and clubs.
But not everyone was willing to just sit around and watch the blues disappear. Especially not Famous Coachman.
The Coachman cometh
“People don’t know what I went through, man, to keep the blues alive,” says Coachman, sitting behind the counter of his record store, Coachman’s Records, which he has owned in one form or another since 1954. “I promised Bobo Jenkins on his dying bed that I’d keep the blues alive. He passed away in 1984, and I’m proud today of what I’m doing with the blues.”
To step inside Coachman’s record store is to step into a potent combination of blues history and modern-day reality. The neighborhood surrounding the store is in ragged disrepair, and occasionally someone may come through the door to ask Coachman’s help with one thing or another. More often than not, the request may be for a few dollars. Knowing virtually everyone who visits his store on a first-name basis, Coachman usually knows what the problem is before the request gets made — and he helps out if he can.
The store itself is cramped with memorabilia; old album covers, CDs, new releases, family photos, photos taken of Coachman with various blues celebrities, and just plain stuff. After spending close to 50 years running the shop, it’s not surprising that he has managed to store such an incredible collection of material. On one wall is a poster of hip-hop artist Lil’ Kim. Elsewhere are posters of Millie Jackson, Isiah Thomas and The New Life Community Choir.
Even if you never saw the man, anyone who ever heard Coachman on the radio would be able to pick him out of a crowded room the moment he began to talk, with that trademark voice full of down-home grit and gravel. It’s a voice tailor-made for the blues. And starting in 1976, for 21 years on WDET-FM 101.9, Coachman hosted the country’s longest continuously running blues radio show.
He would routinely shout out to some of his buddies over the air, share his thoughts on a particular topic or interject some spontaneous lyrics of his own during the middle of a song. Then, once his blues show wound down to a close during the wee hours of Sunday morning, Famous Coachman transformed into Brother Coachman, shifting the focus of the music from blues to inspirational. However on public radio it couldn’t be called inspirational or gospel, so Brother Coachman decided to name the program, “Positive Music With A Message.”
“I told ’em my religion wouldn’t allow me to play blues on Sunday morning,” he said.
Coachman’s show was readily identifiable with his deep, rough-hewn voice. He could be counted on to play “Three O’ Clock Blues” every Sunday, right at 3 a.m. The show was as much Coachman’s personality as it was the music.
Years ago, when Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were still a vibrant reality, Coachman’s store was called Sugar Hill Records. The building was originally used as an appliance repair shop, but Coachman altered it a bit when he disconnected the speakers from a large, old-fashioned radio that he had found, hooked those speakers up over the door of the shop, and began broadcasting the blues.
Coachman began doing a show out of the tiny shop for WGPR-FM 107.5; later he moved the show to the studios of WDET-FM.
Coachman recalls that it took a lot of work to put the blues message on the air every week.
“I was producing the show, carrying my own records and everything. … Now they (WDET-FM) have one of the best blues libraries in the Midwest,” says Coachman.
Over the years it’s hard to estimate how many local blues musicians were steered home from their weekly late night gigs just by the sound of the gravel in Coachman’s voice. Thinking back on it, Coachman has to laugh. “I used to bring a lot of you home drunk.”
On the road
They love Uncle Jesse White in Germany. The Butler Twins took London by storm. Little Sonny is huge in Japan. Johnnie Bassett has performed to appreciative audiences around the country and the world. The same goes for Alberta Adams and other local blues acts. All around the globe, the sound of Detroit blues is being heard, acknowledged and appreciated as one of the best.
So where is the best place to get a taste of today’s Detroit blues scene? The suburbs — Royal Oak, Pontiac, Novi, St. Clair Shores. Somewhere out there, where all of the newest blues clubs have been built and where the majority of Detroit blues bands are performing when they’re not on the road. Meanwhile, the legendary Soup Kitchen closed its doors for good at the end of July 1999.
Detroit blues doesn’t live in Detroit anymore — but it still lives.
One way or another, in one form or another, in one place or another, Detroit blues has always managed to find a way to survive. The blues is stubborn like that.
Speaking of stubborn, some blues boosters such as Soup Kitchen owner Brian McDonald managed to continue drawing people downtown — both black and white — for more than 20 years during a period when many had written the city off as dead. McDonald, who bought the Soup Kitchen Saloon in 1974, made a conscious decision to keep his establishment in the city as a sign of commitment and belief that better days were ahead.
“If the city loses this, they will lose something that’s hard to put a dollar value on,” said McDonald in an interview several months before the Soup Kitchen closed in anticipation of the upcoming riverfront casino development.
A native Detroiter, McDonald’s roots in the city run deep. His grandfather ran a bakery in the downtown area near the turn of the century. “There wasn’t much of a local scene when I first started out,” he said. “There were the older guys looking for a place to play. The blues bars around were mostly black-owned. I was kind of the oddity, the white kid trying to start a blues club.”
But in the end, it was the Soup Kitchen that outlasted them all. Over the years, McDonald developed the Soup Kitchen into a major blues destination that hosted major names in the business such as Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon and Robert Jr. Lockwood.
Outside of the rather meager club circuit of the time, the house parties picked up the slack. For at least five years during the late ’70s and early ‘80s, one of the best-known house party jams around was hosted by pianist Uncle Jesse White at his house on 29th Street near Michigan Avenue. Except for the Soup Kitchen and a handful of other neighborhood clubs such as Ethel’s on Mack, or Phelp’s Lounge on Oakland, there weren’t many other places in the city to play the blues. But every single weekend Uncle Jesse’s come-one, come-all jam session would start off sometime on Saturday and wouldn’t rest until Monday.
Every weekend, White’s small house would become the gravitational center of the Detroit blues universe, drawing every blues musician in town to come and play until they got tired. Sometimes the Butler Twins wouldn’t even bother going home when the jam was through. They would just crash on a sofa or whatever space might be available.
“They all used to come by my house,” says White. “John Lee Hooker. Eddie Burns. Johnnie Bassett. It was just like a nightclub at my house. I got ‘em all started playin’ the blues. That’s why I call it the 29th Street Band. That’s where it all started.”
Another well-known local bluesman who got his start in Detroit at Uncle Jesse’s jam sessions is Johnny “Yard Dog” Jones. Yard Dog, who started out playing gospel guitar, came to Detroit in 1971. Soon thereafter he met Bobo Jenkins and joined his band. Several years later Jenkins happened to overhear Yard Dog singing and convinced him to start singing onstage as well. A winner of the prestigious W.C. Handy Award, Yard Dog has apparently backed away from the blues temporarily, according to a report in a recent issue of Big City Blues magazine, and has taken on a 60-hour-a-week welding job.
As for Uncle Jesse, his days of working long hours at a day job are behind him. Jesse White grew up near Jackson, Miss., and can still remember what it was like plowing the field behind a mule for 50 cents a day. “We had it hard comin’ up. I didn’t have it easy in this life,” he said.
He made more money playing the blues in nightclubs at $5 per night than he did walking around behind that mule. But the South being what it was at that time, Jesse still couldn’t afford to ditch the mule for the blues, at least not right away. By the time he was 30, Jesse left Mississippi and moved to Detroit in 1950. But he didn’t start playing the blues again until nearly 20 years later. During that period he was so busy with running gambling houses and a few other activities that he didn’t have time to play. But that eventually changed, and Jesse’s house jams became so popular that the word spread to a local young musician, reputed to be guitarist Redford Steve, who decided to come and see what the scene was about for himself.
Jesse remembers a young white kid coming up to him and asking if he would be interested in playing at the Attic Bar in Hamtramck. That invitation was extended more than 12 years ago, and Jesse has been a regular at the Attic until recently. As for the old house on 29th Street near Michigan, it has since been torn down. Jesse can’t remember exactly when that happened.
Joe Van Bael, one of the previous owners of the Attic, which is currently for sale, has heard the stories about the jam sessions that used to go on there. “Clarence (Butler) said that John Lee Hooker played at those house parties. That’s the story that’s been passed along, anyway,” he said.
One thing that’s for sure is that the Attic has been a blues bar ever since Jesse started playing there in 1986. Before Jesse, the Attic tried a variety of musical forms that didn’t quite take hold. A harmonica player that Joe remembers as someone named Darien James was a regular back then, but then he missed a night and Jesse was slotted in. That was the end of Darien James. “Every once in a while we’d try different things and the customers pretty much shut it down. They said, ‘This is bullshit! This is a blues bar!’ Because of Uncle Jesse White.”
“Any musician who’s been around this city for a while and who’s serious played at Uncle Jesse White’s house on 29th Street,” says JoAnne Korczynska, host of “Highway 61,” a weekly blues program broadcast from Henry Ford Community College on WHFR-FM 89.3. “Everybody used to want to go and hang out at Uncle Jesse’s house. It was the thing to do.”
There aren’t many local figures who are more enthusiastic about the music than Korczynska, who is also a contributing editor with Big City Blues magazine. Anyone who knows her knows she will enthuse about the blues scene for as long as anyone is willing to listen.
“First of all, I am a real patriot of Detroit music. I think we have some of the finest blues anywhere,” she said. “The only unfortunate thing is, we’ve been known for things other than the blues. The other thing is, we don’t have a district.”
There’s never been a need for a district because Detroit was built for cars, not public transit, says Korczynska. Even though not everyone has a car, the intrinsic automotive mentality nevertheless dictates that Detroiters can drive wherever they want to go, so why concentrate anything in one area? Considering the success of the districts in the cities that have them, the answer should be obvious. For one thing, the lack of a focus point makes the scene harder to market.
“I think the blues have not been marketed well in general, but in Detroit particularly,’’ says WDET-FM’s Robert Jones, whose “Blues From the Lowlands” airs Saturday mornings on WDET-FM. Jones (no relation to Yard Dog), a practitioner of acoustic country blues, has been broadcasting the program for 15 years.
Jones says, “I think Detroit blues is now as healthy as it’s ever been,” echoing a viewpoint voiced by a number of other longtime local blues performers. “Blues (in Detroit) probably hit its low point when Motown hit its high point.”
Jones has performed around the country and overseas. He is one of Detroit’s few solo blues artists who needs only his guitar, his voice and his wonderful storytelling ability to educate and entertain at the same time. Jones said he basically stumbled on his storytelling skills “by accident” when he got a call to do an open mic night at the Soup Kitchen some years ago. He recalls not having enough material to fill out an evening. So, he did what most musicians learn how to do at some point or another — he improvised. Now, the ongoing dialogue with the audience is an indispensable part of his show.
“I’ve always been interested in the blues as a cultural piece,” says Jones. Because of his interest in blues as culture, he doesn’t mind confessing that he has a problem with some of the more recent blues venues to hit the scene such as the House of Blues chain and various imitations on that theme. For Jones’ taste, these clubs are “Too big, too bright, too clean, too corporate.” In Jones’ opinion, blues wasn’t meant to be experienced in such a context.
But the less-than-authentic environment promoted by certain venues doesn’t mean the blues itself is in any danger. “Blues doesn’t need to go anywhere. It doesn’t need to be saved. It’s still a part of human life,” he said. “Lord only knows what the next step’s gonna be, but we just try.”
Mark Pasman, who has hosted the “The Motor City Blues Project” on WCSX-FM 94.7 for more than 12 years and plays lead guitar in Mudpuppy, a Detroit-based blues and roots band, agrees that the blues is essentially healthy, largely because of the strength of local talent. “I can tell you honestly that every year I see a lot of bands that are doing some really good recordings,” he said. “I would stack them up against anything I’ve seen.”
As for why Detroit still doesn’t seem to be getting the national recognition of a Chicago or New Orleans, Pasman suspects it has something to do with the lack of a strong local record label. “We’ve never had a good blues label out of Detroit. There’s been no Alligator. There’s been no Blind Pig.’’
However, few would argue that musicians such as Johnnie Bassett are some of the biggest reasons why Detroit is starting to turn heads. Featured last year on the cover of the national magazine Living Blues, Bassett is finally beginning to receive the recognition that has been paid for in full by a lifetime full of dues.
“There aren’t that many of us left, man,” he says, sitting at a table in the Music Menu Café where he and his band, the Blues Insurgents, regularly perform when not on the road. All those road miles at this advanced stage in his life have started to take a toll, and Bassett has been trying to scale back the roadwork a bit. Nevertheless, despite the sometimes vicious pace, the work has managed to pay off in the form of wider recognition and appreciation for Bassett’s smooth, jazz-influenced sound.
He traces his signature sound back to the ’60s when he started doing organ gigs that necessitated adding jazz to the mix of blues and R&B he’d been playing. Since there were hardly any places to just play blues during the ’70s, musicians who could mix it up with variety fared better.
Bassett first became interested in playing music as a young boy in Florida while watching the musicians perform at his grandmother’s backyard parties. He moved to Detroit when he was 9 and eventually attended Condon Intermediate School where he learned to play clarinet, alto sax, vibes, guitar and harmonica. Once out of high school and on the professional circuit, Bassett remembers the music life as a very different scene from today.
“Back then there was a lot of house parties. When you weren’t working a gig, the next best thing was to play a house party. They’d usually last a weekend. They’d charge to get in, serve a meal. ... Those were good times,” says Bassett.
As for today, just to show how much the scene has changed and how much festivals and suburban clubs play into the life of the blues, he says, “If I had to depend on black people’s support, I wouldn’t hit a note.”
The new scene
There’s no doubting that the complexion of blues audiences and supporters of today has changed noticeably since the days when John Lee Hooker was still a local attraction. Depending on who you ask, it’s either a shame that more black folks don’t patronize their own music, or it’s indicative that the blues has expanded beyond its traditional base to be appreciated by a wider range of people. Nevertheless, the growing popularity of and support for the blues has been good overall for blues musicians. Though some may gripe among themselves about the suburban scene and how much it differs from the city, few are willing to bite the hand that pays the bills. More clubs, wherever they are located, means more work to go around for more musicians, which means more chances to get paid and attract attention.
But a new generation of young white blues players gets much of the attention. Deserved or not, it rankles some of the older generation who paid their dues during tougher times.
“These young guys here, they don’t know the blues,” said Chicago Pete, whose given name is Alford Harrell. “They don’t know the conception of the blues. Most of them ain’t never had the blues ’cause they’ve been given everything they wanted all their lives.”
A bass player and vocalist originally from Tennessee, Pete began his blues career in Chicago before moving to Detroit. He and others see the influence of rock music taking over the blues to the point where some musicians who call themselves blues artists don’t really know what it is they’re playing.
Pete, now 68 years old, doesn’t know exactly how long he’s been in Detroit, only that it’s been a long time — at least since the 1970s. During that time, he has come to the conclusion that the best way for a Detroit blues artist to make a successful career is to do what John Lee Hooker did: get out of town.
“Around here in Detroit, they don’t give you your propers no matter how good you are,” he said. “They won’t play your records on the radio here. If I go to Toronto, I can hear them playin’ my songs on the radio, but they don’t play ’em here. If you wanna keep your career going, you gonna have to make a move.”
Eddie Burns, one who didn’t make a move, is a pioneer who has watched others reap rewards that well should have come his way.
“They playin’ politics with our music,” he said. “Eric Clapton making more money than B.B. (King). They figure all of us are damned fools. … You looking at a legend, but you also looking at a man been badly wounded.”
Detroit Blues Society President Ed Schenk is well aware of the cost that has been exacted from so many of the older blues musicians, and the resulting bitterness, but he has a slightly different view of the scene as it stands today.
“It’s as strong as it’s ever been. I think the reason it is so strong is because the (Detroit) artists of today grew up watching the old guys, like Mr. Bo and Uncle Jesse, not Stevie Ray Vaughan. They’re learning their craft from the originals.”
Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-based freelance writer and blues musician.
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