How Black Lives Are Important To Me
Without being political, I feel it now important that I weigh in on the current tense racial controversy that is now occurring in our country and around the world. From the beginning of my musical career, starting from my first guitar lessons at age 9, black musicians were the ones that influenced and inspired me from Day 1. They were always the ones that accepted me later on in my career. When I was in the 4th grade, my dad had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized for about four months. This left my mom having to work her full time job along with the chore of raising me. One story I heard about was when she was meeting with a black gentleman at a government agency in New Jersey to discuss any public assistance that may or may not have been available. During their conversation, the subject came up of whether or not I could or should continue with my guitar lessons.This wonderful man said that my guitar lessons were the one thing that should not stop. I get emotional just thinking about that. From the first B.B. King lick I heard at age 15 through now, black musicians have been my biggest influences, whether I knew it or not. Even during the English Invasion of the early 60’s I was, as many were, influenced by black music. That’s another story for another millenium.
From the time I sat down at age 21 with 75 year old Georgia Bluesman, Willie Guy Rainey, I was always encouraged to keep going. He called me “New Jersey”. He said, “New Jersey… we’re gonna go play the Blues and drive that car until the wheels fall off!” My first recording sessions also began at age 21 playing guitar on albums and 45rpm records with black gospel groups, as well as performing with them at iconic Atlanta black churches deeply embedded in the Civil Rights movement. The late Reverend Joseph Lowery and Georgia Congressman John Lewis were in the audience now and then. I would later remind them of that when we would meet up later during my broadcasting career. Some of those early 70’s recording sessions surfaced as a result of legendary R&B producer Fred Mendohlson, of the famous black R&B record label, Savoy Records. He took a liking to me and gave me a shot. As time went on, I had opportunities to open shows, perform on festivals, and occasionally sit in with black musicians who were pioneers and legends. Never once did they not encourage me or make me feel inferior. Not so with many (not all) white musicians, booking agents, venue owners, promoters, and DJ’s. Along the way, there were some self appointed divas and so called music industry authorities who made it a point to snub, badmouth, ignore, or at least attempt to stand in the way. They know who they are. It didn’t work.
There are so many wonderful interactions I could list, but a few included the time in Cleveland, that early Delta Bluesman Robert Johnson’s adopted son, Robert Lockwood, Jr. looked me in the eye on his 88th birthday and said “Don’t Quit”! There is the time when my friend and Jimi Hendrix’ brother-in law, Guitar Shorty, sat with me for dinner when we opened for him in Chicago. He then turned me on to a gig the next week in Indiana that he had to cancel due to a tour schedule change.The time my youngest son and I had breakfast with the legendary Pinetop Perkins in Clarksdale, MS. also rates high on the list. Early Sun Records artist, Little Milton, got me onstage with him in Florida, as did longtime Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin, a favorite of Eric Clapton, by inviting me up during his set in Ohio in 2008. That was where I met longtime Muddy Waters band member, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, who I toured with four times as a duo and recorded a live CD with in 2010 in Pennsylvania. I owe a big Thank You to his manager, Patricia Morgan for making that happen. When opening in Chicago for the wonderful Austin artist, W.C. Clark, as he was walking onstage for his set as I was walking off he told me, “We’re all in this thing together.” I’m sure he told Stevie Ray Vaughn that somewhere along the line, someone who he greatly inspired and influenced.
Several times have I been grateful to do full sets with my good friends, Johnny Rawls, Dr. Mac Arnold, Carl Weathersby, Robert Lee Coleman, Little Jimmy Reed, along with James and Lucky Peterson. Another great memory was when the late harmonica master, Carey Bell, who heard one of my solo acoustic sets in Florida literally told me, “Man, I could do some shit witch you”! Other wonderful interactions over the years include Magic Slim, Bobby Rush, Snooky Pryor, Kenny Neal, Jimmy Lee Robinson, Sonny Rhodes, Cephas & Wiggins, Luther “Houserocker” Johnson, Sandra Hall, Francine Reed, Larry McCray, Lazy Lester, Bob Stroger, Bernard Allison, Larry Garner, James Armstrong, Eddie Shaw, Eddie Kirkland, Dave Myers, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, and the late Oklahoma Bluesman, D.C. Minner, where my 15 year involvement with he and his widow, Selby Minner’s 30 years of the Rentiesville Dusk ’til Dawn Blues Festival got me to the Oklahoma Blues Hall of Fame. I don’t claim to be a true Blues musician, but when I sat in with the iconic North Mississippi Bluesman, Junior Kimbrough, at his Holly Springs, MS juke joint back in the 90’s and he asked me, “Boy! How do you play the Blues like that and not drink!” That made me feel pretty damned good! Not that I searched for or deserved any or all of what I just told you, but it happened anyway. So there’s that!