Monday, August 31, 2009
from the Summer 2000 issue of the late Blues Access magazine, Jim Dickinson, Augie Meyers, Jerry Lynn Williams, Steve Miller, and Delbert McClinton talk about their inspiration, Jimmy Reed:
Jimmy Reed, Emancipator of the South: An Oral History
By Joe Nick Patoski
It begins with the discovery of a black-and-white photograph dated 1961. The setting is Walker’s Auditorium, a chitlin’ circuit showcase for touring black musicians in Waco, Texas, the same city where a black man named Jesse Washington had been lynched 45 years earlier. In the center of the shot is the performing artist Jimmy Reed, dressed to the nines in a shiny cream-colored suit with black lapels and a black low tie, strumming a guitar and beaming a wide-open smile back at the photographer — a pure expression of some kind of ecstasy, wiggling a hip, the fingers of his left hand contorting to make a chord on the fret board while his right hand works the strings below, stroking.
In the foreground are the head and shoulders of another black man in a dark suit looking off to the side, a guy in the band you can’t see well enough to identify. Over Reed’s left shoulder in the background is a second black man in a white short-sleeved shirt, holding what appears to be another guitar. It may or may not be A.C. Reed and Eddie Taylor, two of Jimmy Reed’s sidemen, but it really doesn’t matter.
It’s the scene beyond the two microphones set up on the lip of the small stage that counts: a sea of young white faces, most of them clustered around the stage watching, others dancing, all eyes fixed on Jimmy Reed. Most all of them are males, though you can see a couple of young women among them, brazenly walking the wild side. One college-aged gentleman clutches a can of Lone Star beer, his brow furrowed, concentrating hard, really hard, as if trying to understand what it all means, working at getting into the groove. The burr-headed man next to him is bent down low towards the ground, face relaxed, lost in a dream. He already knows.
Across the stage are two boys in matching white shirts and dark ties, both resting left arms on left knees propped up on the stage, paying very close attention. The image leaves the impression that it’s still early, but by midnight, no more three hours after the moment was captured by the photographer, everyone in the picture will be foaming-at-the-mouth, stark raving mad, flat-on-their-ass shit-faced drunk, Jimmy Reed included.
But the more I look at the photograph, the more I see Jimmy Reed the liberator, as well as Jimmy Reed the showman. I’m not certain, but I’m almost absolutely positive that without Jimmy Reed, the integration of the South would have been an even far more contentious and difficult fight. By attracting and emancipating white southern youth in the late ’50s and early ’60s through music and alcohol and the fine art of having a good time, he helped set the stage for Martin Luther King. Laws legislating change eventually came in the wake of the societal crossover that was in play at the time within the realm of entertainment, thanks to Jimmy Reed and his peers. The message may have been one of pure pleasure with a subtext of celebrating being yourself (Jimmy Reed couldn’t have put on an act if he wanted to). But the effect was far more reaching.
I sought out five white musicians who were my elders when it came to learning about blues in the first place, to find out whether that’s was the way it really was.
“Lemme tell you, I know exactly where I was the first time I heard a Jimmy Reed song. I was in Fort Worth, over on the south side, I can’t remember what intersection, when ‘Honest I Do’ came on the radio. I was in the car with about three other guys, and I just went apeshit — especially at the big cymbal crash.
“It wasn’t but a few weeks later we were playing Blue Monday out at the Skyliner Ballroom [on the infamous Jacksboro Highway, the sin strip of Texas]. Jimmy Levens [the star black disc jockey on KNOK-AM] always booked us out there. He booked all those shows. Blue Monday was when blacks had the Skyliner [the rest of the week the only blacks allowed in the house were the performers and the hired help], and Jimmy would always put shows on out there.
“On this particular night, Red Prysock was out there playing, and I don’t know who all. We played out there a lot of times with Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Junior Parker, you know — in fact, I think they were there that night. But we were out there, we played on our own [with their band, the Straitjackets], so we got to stay and watch the whole show — sat right on the side of the stage, and I hear somebody playing harp. [His voice takes on this faraway wistful tone:] Do you remember the old Skyliner Ballroom? The stage was built for an orchestra, so they would hang this sheet across the back half of the stage so it wouldn’t look like such a huge stage. And Jimmy Reed comes walking out behind there playing the harmonica. And I just about shit.
“I had been playing harmonica all my life, but I was playing stuff like “Dixie,” and little Irish jigs, and “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,” shit like that. The next day, I went over to T.H. Conn music store — that’s back when harmonicas cost 75 cents apiece — and I got a few harps. I have been playing harp regularly since that day.”
“My momma used to get mad at me. They used to play him on the radio, and I’d be working at my mother’s store, and when Joe Anthony [the disc jockey who hosted the Harlem Hit Parade on KONO in San Antonio] would come on, I’d go in the back room and listen to him. She’d know where I was, and she’d find me and say, ‘Junior, get back over there!’
“First time I saw Jimmy Reed was at a theater on Telephone Road in Houston. I went there on my motor scooter — drove 200 miles from San Antonio, 35 miles an hour. There wasn’t the Interstate back then. I had an Allstate, cost me 45 cents in gas to get there and cost me $4 to get in. [The crowd] was mostly all-black. If the white people were there, they were Cajuns.”
“When I first encountered Jimmy Reed, it must have been on the radio from Dewey Phillips. Around here [Memphis, where Dickinson grew up] in the mid- to late-’50s, that’s what was going on. I didn’t understand ’til I got to Texas that the music I was hearing was not universal music. Dewey Phillips used to say ‘It’s a hit!’ and play a record, and I thought it was a hit.
“I first heard Jimmy Reed on the radio, then I spent a long time trying to do it. I saw this picture of Jimmy Reed with this rack around his neck, I thought, ‘Damn, lookit that.’ And I made me a rack out of coat hangers, like every other white boy who would tell you this story, of which there are plenty. Steve Cropper can tell you the same story. Steve Cropper used to have a Jimmy Reed amp, like me.
“I did 10 or 12 Jimmy Reed songs at my peak, and I did pretty good. I never did figure out crossharp until later. I was blowing, I was playing folk harp. I didn’t know you were supposed to suck, although the second night I saw Jimmy Reed in the flesh, I saw him play in at least five keys, using a capo on the double neck. Never changed the harmonica. I have no idea how he did that.
“The first time I saw him live was at the auditorium downtown where I saw Elvis in ‘56. This was a package show. James Brown was the headliner, must have been ’59, Bo Diddley was on it. Everybody was doing two songs tops, a big band backing them up. Jimmy Reed came out soused. He introduced ‘Goin’ To New York’ and played ‘Take Out Some Insurance,’ then kept playing. The band played an ending and he went, ‘Take out some insurance … Jimmy Reed, baby ...’ — introducing himself. They pulled him offstage, he came back onstage, it went on and on. It was a memorable thing.
“Albert King was backing him up, and Jimmy would say onstage, ‘Turn me around in G, Albert.’ He’d play some 5-4-1s and he’d miss it, and sing, ‘Turn me around again.’ That was the first time I saw Jimmy, and he was … disappointing.”
“When I eleven, I got my first guitar and that’s when I started finding Jimmy Reed records. I said, ‘Oh man, this is for me, I love this.’ Dad took me down to Montgomery Wards there on Seventh Street [in Fort Worth], bought me a Silvertone guitar, a black one that had the gold glitter thrown into the paint, had that little piece of white plastic around the edges, the case was the amplifier, you opened it up and it was painted the same way: glossy black with gold glitter thrown on it, and up in the right-hand corner this little-bitty ol’ eight-inch speaker in the case. You took the guitar out and opened the case and stood it up. And that was the amp.
“Of course I learned every damn Jimmy Reed song that ever was, then I got into Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, anything that had serious rock and roll in it. ‘Big Boss Man,’ ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’ — it had to have that kind of feel, that kind of emotion. The song was real. You felt like you were living it. Those guys were pulling it off, where they actually made you believe. It was too much for me.”
“I started listening to Jimmy Reed when I was eleven years old. I was just absolutely sucked in. It was before radio became unified. You know, Little Walter had hit records, so did Tommy Tucker [‘High-Heel Sneakers’] and Bill Doggett with ‘Honky Tonk.’ I was walking around telling everybody about Jimmy Reed, and went over to the record store and got his album and would listen to his record over and over and over, every night when I’d go to sleep. Jimmy Reed was so different than all of those people — he was so real to me, it just moved me more than anything. He was my most favorite guy.
“The tunes were really cool, the playing was so loose, it was perfect to dance to, it was different. He’s the only guy who did that stuff, really. Nobody else played like that, I don’t really know why. I don’t know why I loved it more than all other stuff, but it was my favorite thing. Jim Lowe and Kats’ Karavan [a nightly rhythm & blues show on WRR-AM in Dallas in the ’50s and ’60s] had a lot to do with that. That was the radio station we listened to every night, and — what’s the one in Tennessee? WLAC. John R. Those guys, we’d listen to that too. Everybody was into that stuff, and if you couldn’t play that stuff, you couldn’t get the gig.
“The first Jimmy Reed record [we heard] was an obscure one. It’s one of the early ones, which we referred to around here as ‘Backed Up to the Window,’ which is just a line from the second verse. That’s what everybody called it. The actual name of the song is ‘Can’t Stand to See You Go.’ There’s a mistake in the intro, one of the rare cases where he uses a guitar intro. Usually he uses the harmonica. There’s this guitar figure for the intro and whoever’s playing guitar screws it up and you hear Jimmy Reed laugh. I loved it because of that. You hear this riff, then ‘hahahahaha’ and the next start, and finally he starts to sing.
“You can’t understand maybe three words out of ten, and it’s a wonderful song. And as a stupid white kid in the suburbs of Memphis back in the ’50s, I sat there with the record until I figured out what this guy was saying, and it still didn’t make any sense. You can’t tell whether the song is about suicide or what. Great song. Harmonica sounds broken.
“That was when I started to debate what was the difference between those Jimmy Reed records and other records that represented the same genre. And I didn’t find that out until the ’70s: the difference was the engineer, a white guy, an audio designer named Bill Putnam who built Universal Studios in Chicago, where they made this stuff. He is the explanation for why Jimmy Reed sounds like it does.
“Until he got drunk, he was just a regular guy, although no way he was just a regular guy. But he wasn’t outrageous. He’d get drunk. Have you got the CD that’s got a bunch of outtakes of him on it? I’ve got it here somewhere. You need to get it because there’s no better example of what he was like when he got drunk. On this CD, they keep trying to start the song and he keeps fucking it up. [adopts voice] ‘Ohohohoh. Ah’m sorry. Ah’m sorry. I should be in the key of C, me ‘n you both are on the wild side of the count.’
“The voice that’d come out, it just don’t get no lower down. I just hung on every word he had to say. He was thrilled to death with his popularity, but all he wanted to do was drink whiskey and go out with women.
“I’ve got a microphone I’m looking at right now, big ol’ Shure 550, the kind they like to use today in videos, big ol’ mic, and I bought that one weekend when Jimmy was gonna work with us. I went so far as to rent a little Bogan PA system and bought this microphone when Jimmy Reed was coming to play.
“For the second set, he’d usually come up just drunk out of his mind — in fact, he’d usually have two or three women helping him up there — and he got up there and started to sing a song and puked right on this microphone, the very first night I got it. I’ve got it in a little showcase here. I’ve worked on that son-of-a- bitch forever with a toothbrush, I’m still not satisfied it’s cleaned. It wasn’t a full-blown ‘blowing beets,’ it was just one of them little ol’ liquid pukes that just shoot out of your throat, you know what I’m talking about? I watched it happen, I went, ‘Shit!’ What are you gonna say, man? It’s Jimmy Reed. And he’s my hero.”
“The thing that sounded so great to me as a kid was, this music sounded drunk. Which they probably were. Later, Albert King told me he was hired to keep Jimmy Reed sober. I don’t think he did a very good job, the few times I saw Jimmy Reed in the flesh.
“The second time I saw him was more reassuring, which was about ‘63 or ‘64 at Clear Pool, which was the roller-skating rink that Elvis used to rent, out on Lamar. It was an upstairs-downstairs teenage hoodlum venue for fraternity parties, that kind of stuff, and this was a fraternity party. I was playing in the opening band with Don Nix from the Mar-Keys, and I was such a purist that I missed my chance to play with Jimmy Reed. I could’ve easily stayed on the stage and played, but I thought to myself, ‘Jimmy Reed doesn’t have a piano player, there’s no piano on the records, so I’m not going to play.’ So I didn’t play. I got drunk instead.
“The piano was still on the stage. He propped himself against it, between the piano and the microphone, giving himself as little room to fall over as possible. He was wearing a custom-made suit that looked like cutaway tails, but it was made out of awning material, like canvas, bright green canvas that had snaps like a high school letter jacket and a stripe going down his pants, a plastic bow tie, and black plastic cowboy boots. He was beautiful. He was like three or four days gone, just soused. They put the guitar on him, put the harmonica rack on him and he just stood that way backstage.”
“He would sit in the hotel room, and he’d start playing and make up words. We were at a place called the White House Motel out on Main Avenue, a long time ago. We were sitting around talking, and he told me this one story, he said, ‘Man, I’d got off a gig, got in my car to go to the hotel, got about $5,000, got a bottle of whiskey, got a woman. Wake up in the morning, my car is gone, my $5,000 is gone, the woman’s gone, and the whiskey’s all gone.’
“I asked him, ‘How many times that’d happened, Jimmy?’.
“He looked at me and smiled.
“’Too many,’ he said.”
“I know that Jimmy Reed music was the most popular thing that we got requests for, because people could do the Push to it. And anytime he was in town, all the Push people, which during a particular few years there was like a religion, as is now the Shag in North Carolina, which is very, very similar, whole lot of the same steps. Hell, I worked down there and people have got gold chains around their neck with SHAG written in gold, I mean they live it, you know.
“The Push, in my opinion, is a much classier, more interesting dance than the Shag, but basically it’s the same thing.
“Used to be at the fraternity party, we’d do the third set blues, to make people leave. ‘Bout ’59, ’60, they started staying. Kids coming back from college would actually request Jimmy Reed songs. Because they wanted to do this specific dance, which in Texas was the Push Around.
“I remember the night onstage when the third or fourth person asked me to play a Jimmy Reed song. I thought, ‘Something has shifted here. Something has changed.’ We became known for doing Jimmy Reed stuff. At the same time, Steve Cropper was in a band called the Royal Spades, that became the Mar-Keys. He would stand at the microphone with a rack around his neck and try to sing Jimmy Reed songs.”
“The North Texas Push was the fuckin’ dance. Everybody loved it. It was the coolest dance I’ve ever seen, to this day. It was originally called the North Texas Push, and Jimmy Leavens at the Skyliner touted it as the greatest dance floor in Texas. That’s how I got the job warming up acts like Ray Sharp with my band. He’s losing business to the Rocket Club, so he says, ‘Jerry, what am I gonna do? Nobody’s coming to the club anymore.’
“I said, ‘Jimmy, you need to book these black artists. The big dance now is the North Texas Push, and it started up in Denton at the college, and these college kids are flipping out about this dance.’
He says, ‘Who do you have to book to get them to do that dance?’
“I says, ‘They love Jimmy Reed — Jimmy Reed, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Ike and Tina Turner.’
“He says, ‘Can you book these acts?’
“Before I could even think about it, my mouth went, ‘Yeah.’ So I went home and got out all the albums that everybody loved to dance to, and called the record labels, and found out their managers, and called them up. Ike and Tina were about eight grand, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland seven, and Jimmy Reed six. All of them you had to send half the money up front.
“Jimmy said, ‘All right, let’s book ’em up. But who should we book first?’
“I said, ‘Jimmy Reed. He is the God of North Texas Push. This is what everybody dances to.’
“He gave me the money, I got him booked in.”
“Our house was very integrated. My dad was a doctor in Dallas, and he had black lab technicians. He actually got arrested for having a race party, a Christmas party for everybody who worked in the pathology lab. In my family there were a lot of black people coming and going. T-Bone Walker used to come over to the house all the time, was a good friend of my father’s.
“My dad listened to all kinds of music — he was into recording music. He’d go into black Baptist churches and record Sister [Rosetta] Tharpe and people like that. He was recording those people for himself, just for his own collection. Anyone who was a good musician, my dad would end up knowing them. We had all of that music going on in our house all the time, but it seemed there was black music going on in everybody’s house. In a lot of ways the South was a lot hipper than the North, and in a lot of ways it was a lot worse. The segregation part was terrible, but the two cultures crossed a lot.
“When I was fourteen, my band backed up Jimmy Reed at Lou Ann’s. It was amazing. We played Jimmy Reed tunes, so getting to play with him was interesting. It was Ben E. King and Jimmy Reed. We backed up Jimmy Reed, and he was sooooo drunk. I never really got to talk to him. I didn’t even think he was even going to be able to play. He was almost unconscious before he hit the stage. He had this black guy with him, who was sort of his roadie who ran the band, and we were just little kids wearing seersucker suits and Ray Charles sunglasses trying to be cool.”
“Jimmy Reed is a phenomenal lyricist. ’Course you got to be able to understand what he’s saying. I took it real, real serious to try to understand that. I can’t think of one other person — Jimmy Reed is as unique as Bob Wills. Like with Bob Wills, you hear Bob Wills, you know it’s Bob Wills. It ain’t somebody else. Jimmy Reed, there’s just nobody sounds remotely like him.”
“Jimmy Reed, like Howlin’ Wolf, is a mystery. Because, A: what is he singing? And B: what does it mean? The simplicity of what he appears to be doing musically is, again, another mystery. Like Chuck Berry, it appears to be this very simple musical thing that every white boy of a certain generation learned how to do. And it’s not. If you watch his hands, again like Chuck Berry, watch his hands, they’re basically the same riff. Chuck Berry played it in eighth notes and it became rock and roll. The same exact pattern Jimmy Reed had been playing since God knows when. Which is a pattern. That’s why it became so accessible to a generation of white people. Chuck Berry plays it with all the eighth notes having the same value, like Billy Gibbons does. But Jimmy Reed plays it in a shuffle pattern, where the two eighth notes are divided. He also plays it slower.
“The feel for the music, the subtle laziness, the swing factor, whatever the drummer would tell you — it was in that shuffle, and the tonality of his voice. There was a back- of-the-throat, top-of-the-head sub-nasal tonality. He sounded drunk. He sounded loose. He sounded funky. All those things that I liked.
“The thing about the lick, OK, it’s obviously ‘Honky Tonk’ until you get to the five chord, which would be B7 if you’re playing the lead, the turnaround, the blues pattern. Then Jimmy Reed does something — he plays this thing, this riff, instead of the five chord, that eluded me for twenty years, I guess, until Keith Richard showed me backstage at the Astrodome. ‘This is the way you do it.’ And it is.
“That takes it across the fuckin’ ocean to another bunch of white boys, another place, hearing his mysterious drunken sound. Mystery is a real important part of it too, because it was, and is — it remains mysterious, that music pattern. In a way a lot of other blues singers don’t get to. Howlin’ Wolf, certainly, is a more drastic example, but that same sense of mystery is attached to Jimmy Reed. He’s from somewhere else.
“And it is ensemble playing. He has a band and they are in the pocket, in a way few other bands ever get to. And it sounds like morons playing on boxes, but it is in this unbelievable groove. The bass is being played by a guitar, and they’re all out of tune. They’re at least drunk, if not more, and yet somehow it comes together in this pulse that talked to a generation of white kids in a way nobody white was doing. As a musician, it gives you a workable pattern, ’cause if you can’t play it right, at least you can play it wrong and get by. They were playing on Silvertones and Kays. There weren’t any Les Pauls or Stratocasters.”
“There aren’t a lot of people who know Jimmy Reed cold. Everybody thinks they do, but they don’t even have a clue. All my rhythm guitar playing comes from Jimmy Reed records. Taj Mahal taught me the final ultissimo licks and put it all together for me.
“The simplicity of Jimmy Reed stuff and his band and what they did is just so natural, it’s great.”
“One thing: Jimmy worked a lot, he was on the road. He worked a lot, and I can only assume that everywhere else was like Texas. The college kids just fuckin’ loved him. I think it was because he was so unique. I know what an impact he made on me.
“My parents didn’t give me shit [for liking Reed] — they just didn’t understand it. ’Course I was way far gone into it before knew what I was doing. My parents never did try to stop me. They worried a hell of a lot about me. You can imagine my parents coming from where they came from [Lubbock] and all of sudden rock ‘n’ roll comes along, and then their little boy’s listening to ‘mmmrrruhhuhwuhwuhwuh’ [making a guttural sound somewhere between a Reed vocal and a mouth harp], just low-down shit.
“I played a lot of black clubs back in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and never ever one time did we catch any shit. ’Course we were there with the fuckin’ star, too, and we were playing the music pretty damn good. And at this point, everybody in the world wasn’t doing it. There weren’t that many good bands that could supply, and do it well.
“All the white folks — I mean, let’s define which white folks we’re talking about. The white folks that came out to the club, they were all into it. And at that time, it was a real novelty for a lot of people to hang out with black people. So, a lot of times, people would try to come through me or other guys in the band to get close to these guys. You know, we’d be their window into hanging with them, because we were backing them up.
“Between him and Sonny Boy, that’s how I learned to play. I’d say, ‘How’d you do that?’ ’Course you couldn’t see anything they were doing. It’s hard to say how he taught me. I wanted to know, and I had multiple opportunities to be sitting knee-to- knee with him and listen to him play. By doing that, I’d try to copy him. ’Course at the same time, I also developed my own style, so it was a good thing. I knew I was in a good place at the time.
“He was always gracious. He didn’t give me too much shit. Any time you asked him something, he was available, unless he was stoned out of his mind or he was chasing women. He did whine a lot. I think that’s why he liked to have that one-eyed bass player with him. He was a pure artist.”
“When I was writing music for Ry Cooder, doing movie soundtracks — we did ‘Streets of Fire’ — it was all futuristic ’50s music like Link Wray stuff. He wanted some kind of Jimmy Reed thing. Cooder, the way we used to do things, he’d cut a band track, then he gave it to me to write words to.
“It was pretty good for where we were and what we were doing — it was pretty Jimmy Reed-esque. It was Cooder and Tim Drummond and Jim Keltner. I’m sitting in the Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica, trying to write words to this thing. I had a couple of verses, I had an idea going. But Jimmy Reed, there was always that one-line hook that had any number of vague meanings, specific and universal and all that literary stuff, and I had to have one of those lines.
“The way I worked with Cooder. I was in the hotel room and had on headphones and a small tape recorder. I’d just play the band track over and over and write words. I’ve heard other people talk about hearing voices in their head, but it never happened to me before or since — but I swear to you as I’m sitting here now, I heard the voice of Jimmy Reed in my head sing the entire hook line, and I just wrote it down. Which is, ‘You got what you wanted but I got what you need tonight.’
“I heard the voice of Jimmy Reed sing it into my ear. I promise you.
“See, Jimmy sold a lot of records. He probably sold more records than Muddy Waters and Little Walter. In my world, Jimmy Reed had hits. ‘Big Boss Man’ was a big hit. ‘Goin’ To New York,’ ‘Honest I Do’ — just one after another. Those were hits that were played on the radio. The radio back then did play a lot of black music. Then about 1960 it got all screwed up. When WLS and Dick Biondi and those guys in Chicago and those guys on the East Coast, we used to laugh our asses off at Fabian and people like that, they were junk. That was manufactured bullshit. Jimmy Reed was real.
“When I was 13, I spent one summer in Florida and played in a band. The same thing was going on. Bands were integrating stuff, and it was touch and go. Sometimes there’d be trouble, most of the time there wasn’t. I grew up in an integrated world, so to me it seemed weird when people were trying to segregate things. At the same time, I didn’t know any black people as equals until I went to college, and I went up to the University of Wisconsin. They were the first guys I met that were as smart as me, who weren’t yard men or something, like it was in the South, especially in Texas.
“I think the music really broke down those barriers. You talk about Martin Luther King, I was a freedom rider, and I was in SNCC [Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee]. I was very involved in civil rights after I got out of Texas because I felt that segregation was really bullshit.
“It was Jimmy Reed and T-Bone Walker and Martin Luther King for me, really and truly. The music definitely broke down the barriers way before the law did, or before Martin Luther King did. Guys like Jimmy Reed were making people think. A lot of people weren’t thinking of it in terms of race and segregation, they weren’t thinking about it at all, except they liked the music and danced to it and they got down to it.”
“Jimmy Reed paid the price for being Jimmy Reed. He obviously drank himself to death, and he didn’t and couldn’t take care of business. But the thing to remember — it’s hard to keep in context now with the commercialization of rock ‘n’ roll — is that it was not popular music. It is now. But it wasn’t then. The blues never was popular. It’s a complaint, it’s a bitch, it’s a gripe.
“Jimmy Reed’s singing about the human condition. He was obviously not an establishment figure. He was talking back to the boss man: ‘You’re just tall, that’s all.’ Read his lyrics and tell me it’s not poetry. ‘Baby What You Want Me To Do,’ which if you write it out appears to make sense on two or three different levels, if you closely analyze it really doesn’t make any sense at all.
“Everybody thinks they know what it’s about, and it’s not about anything. ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ is the same thing, it’s such a simple one-line idea it means anything: ‘Bright lights, big city went to my baby’s head’ fucking says it! That’s the whole story.”
I went there with my cousin. Fats Domino was supposed to be on the show. I’ve never known why. You could see him in the wings, we were way in the back, and they said he was sick and he didn’t play. James Brown was the star. They didn’t turn on half the PA until James Brown.
“The kids in this mostly college crowd kept screaming, ‘Bring on the Bullet, bring on the Bullet.’ I didn’t know what they were talking about. After the intermission, the announcer said, ‘Now we’re going to bring on the Bullet,’ and the crowd goes crazy. And they bring on this black quadriplegic. And they put a stool in the middle of the stage, and a pillow on the stool, and a microphone in front, and they brought him on and put him on the pillow and he screamed into the microphone. That was it. ‘WAAHHHHHHHHHH!’
“The audience went nuts. Then they came on and got him.
"He was always drunk. I seen him three times—once in Houston, once in New Orleans, and in Houston again. The third time, I was onstage with him. You know, he’d walk out, sit down, set that microphone out there. I wasn’t there one night, I don’t know where it was, but Jimmy Reed was sitting up there, saying ‘I’m gonna play for ya’ll, all right.’ Turned around and just passed out. “
“My job was to make sure he had everything he needed. I brought him towels and whisky. Jimmy was doing a little heroin — you don’t have to mention that one. I guarded the door.”
“Jimmy was just drunk all the time. That was his problem. That gig I played with him was like that. He was about to pass out. That’s where he was at.”
If you could put your hand on the truth and pick it up, his voice is the closest thing to everything there is — which, if you know what that is, well, two speakers clipped together with the amp in the middle.
“Of my generation of kids who grew up in the ’50s, most of us got a guitar and learned to play ‘Honky Tonk,’ which is what it is: it is Bill Doggett’s ‘Honky Tonk.’
I don’t know if was true or not, but Albert King told me he was playing drums, that he had been Jimmy Reed’s driver, that it was his job to keep Jimmy Reed sober
this might have been a Mar-Key gig, I don’t remember. This was about the time I was playing phony Mar-Key gigs — when the Mar-Keys broke up, they all would book gigs and everybody would be a Mar-Key, anybody of a certain age group in Memphis who had an instrument was a potential Mar-Key. I played in the opening band,Nix and I were talking to him before he went on.And he didn’t have his wife with him. ‘Course, part of the mythology is his wife whispered in his ear, and all those stories. Nix would say anything to anybody and we were jiving with Jimmy and he says, ‘Jimmy, where is your wife?’ Jimmy says, [Dickinson speaks slowly] ‘She’s back at the hotel. She can make more money there than I can here.’
“We worked with Jimmy a lot, backing him up a lot back in the late ’50s and early ’60s at Jack’s Place [on the Mansfield Highway in southeast Fort Worth], where the neon sign of a kicking mule was hard to miss. If the mule was kicking, everything was cool. If it wasn’t kicking, it meant there was gonna be a raid that night. Lot of times, he and Sonny Boy [Williamson] both, we would play with them in Fort Worth or Dallas on Friday and Saturday night, and then go up to Oklahoma with ‘em to play a black club on Sunday night.
“One place I remember, in Lawton, was Mother’s Place. Beer and barbecue and blues. That’s the real deal. Jimmy used to bring this guy with him sometimes, this one-eyed bass player, Hal somebody, he was kind of his manager. I guess they were good buddies, or he — I don’t know, he waddn’t much on watching out for anybody.
Anyway, we took a station wagon up to Oklahoma. Some other black guy was with us, it might have been someone in Sonny Boy’s band. There were two carloads of us, mixed pretty evenly. There were probably ten people, half black, half white. I was sitting in the car with Jimmy, you know, and this one-eyed bass player. This guy was wanting to light a cigarette and he didn’t have a match. He reached over the front seat, tapping this black guy sleeping, wanting to get a light from him, and Jimmy reached over and knocked his hand away: ‘Leave him alone and leave him kept on sleeping.’
“And I like to have fuckin’ died. I think I was the only one that laughed.
“That was the way the talk went. ‘Leave him alone and leave him kept on sleeping.’
“I guess he didn’t like people smoking, ‘cause I’ve seen him more than once slap a cigarette out of people’s hands. No smoking on the fuckin’ bandstand.“
I said something about having to take my son to the doctor. He had his guitar with him all the time, and whatever you were talking about, he’d start singing, that knack or ability, so he sang, ‘I had to take my boy to the doctor....’
“I played a two-night stand with him at Liberty Hall in Houston in 1975 [shortly before Reed’s death]. We’d sit there on my bus and tell stories.
We called the actual riff ‘shifting’ around here. And it became ‘The Twist,’ also ‘dada dada dada dada.’ It’s the same musical notes. It’s part of the interrupted left hand boogie-woogie pattern played on the top two or three strings of the guitar. In both cases, that’s what Chuck Berry does, and that’s what Jimmy Reed does. Or that’s what they appear to do, if you’re a stupid white boy from the suburbs and you can figure out how to do that too. Soon you realize that they must be doing something else, because when you do it, it doesn’t sound like what they’re doing when they do it. And sure enough, there is a mystery to it. I did finally crack the mystery with the help, the shameful help of a teabag, but sometimes it takes our brothers from across the water to open our eyes to the truth.
“I went to Texas in 1960, assuming that music was over for me, that I was going to do something else. But in Texas I found all these people who loved Jimmy Reed, so at the cast party — I was in theater — wherever we were, we lived in this apartment on campus in Waco called the Catacombs. We had this unofficial group, the Catacombs Coon Hunters, which was me and this guy John Logan who later wrote Jack Ruby, All-American Boy, the musical that they did in Dallas, and this girl who later did dinner theater in Dallas named Sharon Bunn. We had a ‘Jimmy Reed in Life’ pact that we’d do at various social functions. It seemed odd to me to be transplanted into this group of people who all loved Jimmy Reed. But then I did see the West Texas Push, the dance that everybody did to that particular rhythm in Texas.
“It’s like with Robert Johnson and Don Law. There always has to be the white guy, like Leonard Chess was to Muddy Waters. Like Miss McMurry was to Elmore James in Jackson. There has to be that guy. In this case, it was.
“It’s primitive music, of course, with no bass. The best recordings on VeeJay were made with no bass guitar at all. It sounds like the drums are maybe boxes and the guy’s hitting it with his shoe — BUT, the sound is real good, the audio quality of this lo-fi sound has been recorded in hi-fi by this weird guy Bill Putnam who built studios. He built the studio that is now Ocean Way in Hollywood, probably the highest dollar studio in America. The current owner, one of his big selling points is that when he bought the studio, he ripped all the ’70s and ’80s treatment off the wall and went back to the original Bill Putnam room. That’s why the Rolling Stones are recording there.
“I’m sure Bill Putnam would have been more comfortable recording a string quartet. In a way, it’s like George Martin with the Beatles and those guys in lab jackets that you see in early recording pictures. They couldn’t have possibly liked the music. I doubt very seriously Bill Putnam enjoyed the experience in recording Jimmy Reed, but he recorded the crap out of him.
Here, it was a little bit different. It was called the UT, and it’s the same basic thing, but a pre-Twist.
Jerry Lynn Williams:
— this was before Gilley’s or any of that shit. [The Skyliner Ballroom] was half the size of Fort Worth. My job was to keep it slick, so he gave me a big box of Ivory Snow detergent that looked like snowflakes and I’d go out and sprinkle that on the dance floor. Boy, you could slide across that sumbitch like it was an ice pond. And I’d help him pick up the beer bottles at night, and that’s how I got the gig. He had one bad leg, Jimmy did, God bless him, and all the waitresses were a bunch of idiots and they’d leave the place a mess. This club seats 500 people, big place. And Jimmy’s out there, dragging that one bad leg out there trying to pick up all these beer bottles and carry them out to the bar. I says, ‘Jimmy, you put them away. I’ll go get ’em.’
“I started playing fraternity gigs when I was twelve years old. You had to play Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, you had to do Ray Charles, you had to do Little Walter, a little Muddy Waters, some Chuck Berry. Black music was all anybody was interested in. Even the white bands were playing black music. We were way ahead of the curve.
It’s hard to believe. There weren’t any rock ‘n’ roll bands. I think we were the second rock ‘n’ roll band in Dallas — Mario Daboub & the Nightcaps and the Marksmen Combo [Miller’s band] were the only two bands in Dallas for a really long time.
“He had muscles. You ever see his arms? He’d take his shirt off. He was built.”
“That’s how my popularity grew in the Carolinas, because I was doing all that old music there — ‘This guy comes from Texas,’ and I’m doing all this music. Hell, there was a period of years back when I didn’t have anything going, and North and South Carolina kept me alive. And I’m still a big item down there. I’ve got fans down there that’d take a bullet for me, because they like to shag to this music.
“I remember another night, at Jack’s Place, Jimmy Reed and Buster Brown. This is right when I started getting into these guys. I had harmonicas in hand, and I was determined to take every opportunity to learn something from these guys. So, before the show ever even started, I’m in the dressing room with Buster Brown and Jimmy Reed, and they’re passing a fifth of Old Granddad whiskey back and forth between ’em. And I’m like 20, 21, couldn’t drink [legally], but I’m getting that bottle double — I’m in the middle, so I’m getting it twice for every time they’re getting it once. Never saw the show. Never even made it to the opening fuckin’ note, man. I was drunk and passed out in the office at Jack’s Place.
“The only guy I know who can sing like Jimmy Reed today is Rocky Morales.”
“I got Jimmy to teach me how to play guitar.”
"Robert Johnson never played for more than fifty people at one time in his career, but the music of Robert Johnson, inexplicably, it will not go away."
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Saturday, August 15, 2009
There are cool cats and there are cool Memphis cats but no one, not Elvis, not Jerry Lee, not even the Wolf came close to epitomizing Memphis and cool like Jim Dickinson did. He was the Top Cat Daddy, an inspiration, a mentor and my friend.
If you knew his music and understood his role as one of the links between black and white culture and between blues and rock and roll, you know what I'm talking about. If he is unfamiliar to you, now's as good time as any to get to know him, even though he's checked out of the motel.
Click on the headline to link to the Memphis Commercial-Appeal's obituary.
In honor of his spirit, I share the oral history he did for me back when I was working on the Voices of Civil Rights project. His physical body may be gone, but his words and his music live on.
To passersby on the two-lane blacktop winding through the Hill Country of northern Mississippi just south of Memphis, the eclectic collection on the other side of the gate consisting of two mobile homes, a ramshackle barn, a small one-room frame house known as the Fortress of Solitude, an abandoned yellow school bus, and an ancient pre-Airstream trailer may appear to be nothing more than a duct-taped testament to Southern poverty. But as far as Jim Dickinson is concerned, he lives in the lap of luxury. The barn houses a recording studio where Dickinson, a noted Memphis musician and record producer, works. The TV is wired to cable so he can watch old black-and-white westerns and his beloved wrestling. His hound dog Lightnin' rests at his feet contentedly while his wife, Mary Lindsay, goes on and on bragging about their sons, Luther and Cody, and their band, the Northern Mississippi All-Stars--Luther's Jaguar is parked in front of their mobile home while they're on tour. The family photograph hanging among the Zebra skins and various and sundry memorabilia cluttering the walls was taken by Annie Leibowitz.
"Jim, you have everything a man could want," Bob Dylan told him when he visited the spread known as Zebra Ranch a few years back. "A man could do a lot of thinking here."
Jim Dickinson makes a passionate, articulate case for Memphis being the greatest music city in modern history. As the home of Elvis Presley, it was for all practical purposes the birthplace of rock n' roll. It is also the rich melting pot where blues, rhythm 'n' blues, and soul, hillbilly, rockabilly, and country & western mixed and blended to create the most American of sounds. To achieve this feat, Memphis musicians like Dickinson, both black and white, defied Jim Crow laws and crossed color lines out of the simple desire to make music. By doing so, they broke down barriers long before the courts or lawmakers got around to changing laws.
I was born in Little Rock, lived in Hollywood as a tiny infant for six months, moved to Chicago where I lived until I was almost 9. In 1949, we moved to Memphis, where I was actually conceived. The fifties were about to happen. The world changed in front of my eyes.
My father worked for Diamond Match Company. He'd been an executive vice-president until they closed the Chicago office. Rather than move to New York like the rest of the company did, he'd saved himself with a demotion job in South, so he could be near his family in Little Rock. Memphis was as close as he could get.
I thought we'd moved to Hell. I was a city boy. I'd spent times at my grandparents in Little Rock in the summer, so I'd been exposed to the South. We moved into what wasn't yet suburban East Memphis: there were cotton fields in front of my house and a truck farm behind it. I was coming from the National College of Education in Evanston where in the first grade I had six teachers and we changed classes. I had an arts & crafts teacher who had a navel jewel on her forehead. I came to Memphis to a school in Shelby County where they let out classes for cotton picking. I seriously thought it was a school for farmers. "Well, farmers gotta go to school somewhere. This must be it."
I really thought it'd been a terrible mistake. Gradually, I came to love it and can live only here now.
Cultural differences? My father bought this three-acre piece of property in east Memphis with a big ol' house on it. It'd been vacant for some time due to a divorce case. He had hired this black guy from the local crossroads called Orr's Corner where the blacks hung out to clean the place up when he bought it. My mother and I were still in Chicago.
We drove in the driveway for the first time, the first thing I saw was Alec. His name was Timothy Teel, but they called him Alecs because he was a smart alec. He was real short. He was the first thing I saw in my new home. He became my teacher.
He took it upon himself as part of his job to teach me the things I needed to know, and not be a smart alec Yankee kid, which I was. Alec taught me about nature and life.
He taught me how to throw a knife underhanded. How to shoot craps, play pittypat and smut. He was a great singer but he didn't play an instrument, and when he realized I wanted to play music, he brought me musicians to teach me. It was very Uncle Remus, very politically incorrect, and probably the most valuable relationship of my life outside my family.
Alec must have been in his late twenties. He was very much the young buck. They called him The Ram in the neighborhood. He stabbed a couple guys. My father had to get him out of jail periodically. He was an inspirational role model.
He was the yard man. He'd put on his white jacket and do dinner parties for my mother. His mother was a part-time maid. His wife was my baby-sitter. It was like a family deal.
My father became very much the white man of the neighborhood. We referred to the colored section as being Down The Road. It was like another world, and totally inaccessible. Old man Orr, who owned the grocery at Orr's Corner, would lend blacks money at real high interest rates, a real plantation mentality. My father developed into the anti-Mr. Orr. He was very much the Captain and was treated as such. I grew up with a very definite double standard in that way.
The single, most important motivating thing that happened to me in that same period of time was seeing the Memphis Jug Band--Will Shade, Charlie Burse, Good Kid [considered the most important jug band of all time, with roots dating back to the 1920s.] It took me years to find out who they were, but I saw them downtown with my father one Saturday afternoon. After hearing that music, other things in life didn't seem to be as important as that did. I spent the next 10, 15 years of my life, trying to find that music.
It was right down the road, literally, but I couldn't get there in 1950. A white kid couldn't go where the music was.
I'd never heard anything like it. You have to imagine what music was like in 1950. I was already interested in music and had taken music lessons. My mother was a piano player, played in the Baptist Church. I was classically trained, but I had real screwed up vision. I couldn't see multiple images and I still can't read music to this day. So at this point, in my mother's eyes, I was already a failure as a musician.
I heard some Dixieland and some boogie-woogie on the radio that had interested me. There was a piano player in Chicago called Two-Ton Baker the Music Maker, who had a radio show. I heard him playing boogie-woogie and that kind of interested me. There was no rock and roll on earth.
But when I heard Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band, it was like hearing Martians play music. It was so transcultural. He was singing, "Come on down to my house, Honey. There's nobody home but me" and playing this string tub bass, which was this string coming out of this metal washtub tied on to a broom stick while Good Kid played a washboard with drumsticks. This was not typical music that a nine year old white kid would encounter.
It utterly changed my life.
Several years later, Alec brought me a piano player to teach me. He'd work half a day on Saturday and come in hungover, wash my father's car, and get paid. On Saturdays is when he'd bring me musicians. He brought me this guy who was legendary. I don't know what his real name was. They called him Dishrag. You hear people talking about Memphis music history, talking about Dishrag. He was a notorious alcoholic and was dead drunk the day I saw him. Obviously, they'd both been up all night. Never took his overcoat or his hat off, sat down at my mother's piano, and started to play like nothing I'd ever heard.
I asked him if he knew, "Come On Down to My House, Honey, There's Nobody Home But Me", the song I'd heard Will Shade sing, which believe me, I'd never heard again. He grinned and kind of chuckled and said, "How do you know that song? That song's older than you are."
It opened him up and Dishrag showed me the thing that enabled me to learn to play the piano, the thing my mother and my other piano teacher had been incapable of doing.
He said--again, this is as politically incorrect as it could possibly be, and I have to go into ebonics--he said, "Everything in music is made up out of codes." I thought meant codes like secret codes, Captain Marvel, Morse code. Of course, he meant chords. But I thought he said it was all made up out of codes and I thought, "No wonder I can't damn well do it. My mother didn't tell me it was code. This guy's about to give me the secret here."
And he did.
He said, "You takes a note, any note"--his index finger went to an E note on the piano. "You goes three up"--and his hand went up three keys ---"And you goes four down"--and his next finger went four down. These are not musical half-steps. These are just keys on the piano. He ended up with one finger on C, one finger on E, and one finger on G--which is a major C triad. And it works anywhere on the piano--he said, "You goes three up and four down, just like poker." That's the part I never understood because that's not the way I was taught to play poker. Obviously, it was for Dishrag. You go three up and four down and it makes a code. At that point, I realized he was talking about a chord, nonetheless, he gave me the information that I needed. Because it does work anywhere on the piano, it does make a major triad, and your thumb is always on the tonic root note.
With that piece of information, with a chord in my right hand, and an octave in my left hand, that's all you need to play rock and roll. To this day, that's basically what I do. I play an octave and a major triad. If you play it back and forth between your hands, right, left, right, left, then you have a shuffle. If you play it straight, you've got eighth-note rock and roll.
That's the racial difference.
The racial difference of music is how the implied eighth-notes of rock and roll are handled. Whether it's politically incorrect or not, I don't care. It's absolutely true. Black people do it one way. White people do it another way. The difference is feeling, therefore, interior. Not to be too anthropologic.
My parents thought it was a good thing. My mother and Alec had a very special relationship. As a Christian lady, she took it upon herself to reform Alec, to give him the information and education that he had lacked in his life.
She had a picture of Shakespeare and a little miniature of Romeo and Juliet on the wall of the room my grandmother stayed in. Alec was in the room with my mother one day, looking at the picture of Shakespeare. "Who that be?" he asked. "Abraham Lincoln?"
Imagine my mother explained to Alec, who dropped out of school in the fourth grade, who Shakespeare was. This is the kind of thing I witnessed as a child.
Alec, when he came to work for us, didn't believe the world was round. As he was dusting one day, he saw a globe and asked my mother what it was. When she explained it to him, he didn't believe it. Finally she convinced him that the world was round like a ball. When I talked to him later, he explained he thought it was a ball, but that we were inside. Which does make a lot of sense.
He gave me many an important life's lesson.
Years later, I recorded him in my carport for a project I did for Beale Street redevelopment. He couldn't sing inside, and he had to work in order to sing, so he chopped wood while he sang and I recorded him. People hear the recording say it sounds like a chain gang, which is entirely different from what it really is. It's one of the best recordings I ever made.
[As a young man, Dickinson's quest forced him to cross barriers erected by segregation.]
The lines were very real and could not be crossed. Music created the problem. My parents certainly saw it as the problem. The racial situations that developed in my family were all a result of me seeking after the music.
After I'd been to college and supposedly knew better, I signed my first record deal with Ruben Cherry's Home of the Blues label. Ruben Cherry had a record store on Beale Street. 'Course, he was a white Jewish guy. Everybody on the label but me was black. I had this lame Jimmy Reed thing I was doing. He would play my tape for a roomful of people and have them guess who was singing. They'd guess everybody who was black before me. He called me Little Muddy. He used to take me to these various black functions where we'd be the only white people.
One of which was an Ike and Tina Turner Show where I ended up in this photograph I would give anything to have now, of me standing between Ike and Tina Turner. It was taken by Ernest Withers, the famous Beale Street photographer who is now a famous art photographer. Back then, he was a black society photographer.
I came home, drunk. The picture fell out of my sport coat pocket when my mother hung it up the next morning. There was hell to pay. My father said, "Don’t you realize this would ruin my business?" And it would've, then. My parents, who were good Christian people and did not think of themselves as racists, were. Our politics were never the same. The older I got, the worse it got. But the music was always the thorn of the problem.
The only time I heard my parents speak the N-word was in regards to the music, not any human being or person: "Don't go playing it." Listening to it was bad enough.
"Why do you have to play that loud N----- music?"
I tell you why. Because it was in my head and it was driving me crazy.
One of the most important things Alec showed me was WDIA, the black spot on the dial [the Memphis radio station at 1070 on the AM band that was the first radio station in America to be programmed by African-Americans for African-Americans]. This was not common knowledge in the white community in 1950. It'd just been on the air three years. When Alec came in to eat his lunch, he'd change the radio to this wonderful thing. It didn't take me long to figure it out. Everything was segregated, even the damned radio.
That's what Dewey Phillips did that in Memphis that was so revolutionary. There can be no discussion about race relations in Memphis without talking about Dewey Phillips. He's the disc jockey credited with playing Elvis Presley on the radio for the very first time. Which would have been enough, if that was all he ever did. But what Dewey did was, he created the mindset in Memphis, Tennessee that was Elvis Presley.
Elvis Presley heard "That's All Right, Mama" on Dewey Phillips' "Red, Hot & Blue" radio show on WHBQ because Dewey Phillips was the only white man who played black music. There were four radio stations that played white music for white people and two black stations that played black music for black people. Dewey Phillips would come on the air and he'd play his theme music and say, "Ho, ho, good people" because that's who Dewey was talking to--good people. He played good music for good people. He'd play Hank Williams and then he'd play Sister Rosetta Tharpe. This created a mindset in Memphis that's still there.
Until recently, we had a white county mayor and a black city mayor. Both of these mayors are roughly my age or younger. And at one six month period of time, they both quoted Dewey Phillips in the newspaper, and I don't think either one of them was aware of the fact they were quoting Dewey Phillips. Because Dewey Phillips was so powerful a force on the radio in Memphis, that everyone in the city was affected by him. Certainly every child, everybody listened to this crazy, pilled-up redneck playing this insane music.
It wasn't until I went to college in Texas that I realized everybody wasn't hearing it. I realized I had this arcane information that they didn't have, simply from listening to Dewey Phillips on the radio. The racial idea that he got across, was the idea of Elvis.
Think about the five records Elvis Presley recorded on Sun Records, 45 rpm records, two songs, one on each side. On one side of each record was a jump blues song, or "black music". On the other side was a country ballad, "white" music. This is what was happening in Memphis at the time. The urban blacks coming to town and the urban whites coming to town--rednecks, if you will--were culturally colliding. And what was coming out, was Elvis Presley.
He was not unique. He represented a lifestyle that already existed in Memphis. It was almost a racial imperative for some of these white redneck guys to play this weird black music. I know these men. And some of them are still not comfortable with it, racially, but they were compelled to do it.
It's freedom. It does the same thing to me that it does to everybody all over the world. It symbolizes individual freedom of expression and freedom. That's what it is.
To find it, it's like my first music lessons when I couldn't see the music. I would have never understood music in the European tradition. I still don't. But when I heard Afro-American music, something happened. And it wasn't just me. It was a whole generation of crazy white boys that this happened to. That's what rock and roll is. Us trying to be them.
Alec brought me a guy named Butterfly Washington, fresh off the penal farm, still had a penal farm haircut. He didn't teach me anything, he just played for me. His father owned a gambling joint down on Broad St where Alec used to go.
This is pathetic, but it's true. For a middle-class white kid in the fifties, even though this music was literally right down the road, the only way I could think of to find it was in books. So I went to the library, and sure enough there weren't any. There was a Nat Hentoff book called You Hear Me Talkin' which had one chapter about blues and jug band music with specific references to the Memphis Jug Band. So I did find what I exactly needed. But that was all there was. There were no books about the blues because white culture didn't care about the blues, and black culture was ashamed of it at this point.
When Sam Charters wrote the Book of Country Blues in 1959 it was the first book on the blues. Although it's filled with misinformation, it's still probably the best book on the rural blues. I assumed incorrectly this music was antique. I should have known from seeing Howlin' Wolf on the radio broadcasting from West Memphis, Arkansas. I didn't know who he was, but heard the music, followed the music, saw the strange black man playing, till my father came and got me, just like with the jug band.
I knew the music was there, somewhere out in the bushes, but I couldn't get to it. Through books, I thought I could. When Charters came through Memphis, being a Yankee and relatively insensitive, he cut quite a wide path. I just followed his path. By following his path I found Gus Cannon, who was first for me. He was right there, cutting somebody's yard. Gus told me where Furry [Lewis] was. Hell, I thought Furry Lewis was dead. He was sweeping Beale Street twice a day with a garbage can on wheels and a push broom. He did it for 36 years. When he retired, the city found out he had only had one leg, which made him disabled therefore unemployable, so he didn't get any of his benefits. And that's why they call it the blues.
Furry literally swept Beale Street and he was prouder of that than making records, and proudly so. I used to work with Furry and Bukka White. Right before he died I taught him to play "Sunshine of Your Love". He thought it was so funny. He could only play part of the riff, then he'd crack up.
Through Ruben Cherry's Home of the Blues record label, the music became accessible. It did become an obsession to seek out this music and try to emulate it. Rufus Thomas and I used to be on panels together and would always start arguments whether or not white people could play the blues. Towards the end of his life, we did this interview for some TV show, I realized we had both changed our minds. He used to always jump in there, "Aw, white people can't play the blues." This time, he said, "I've just changed my mind. I've decided that white people can play the blues--they can't sing it but they can play it."
I told him that I had changed my mind. That after 40 years of trying to play the blues, I'd decided that white people can't play the blues. The same thing that had changed Rufus' mind was the same thing that changed my mind, which was Stevie Ray Vaughan, who as far as I'm concerned, was playing rock and roll. Like me, he was trying, but something was coming out. It's the same with the Beastie Boys or Justin Timberlake. They can play them but they can't feel the syncopated nuance of the implied eighth-note shuffle. It is a thing that is black. And I'm sorry, but it is.
Before the Beatles, this was not all right. It was not cool to be a musician. This was socially questionable to be doing what I was doing. It was not all right to play black music, believe me. The Rolling Stones made it OK. When I was doing it in 1958 in East Memphis, it was not all right.
William Brown, who was one of the black engineers at Stax and one of the singers in the Mad Lads, a brilliant singer who's sung background on a lot of my records, told this story to someone who asked how long he'd known me. He'd said, "I've known him since we was both too young to be where we were."
He sang with his uncles then. He was the youngest person in the group. (I never told anyone why I had to play before. Interesting) There's no liquor by the drink, a lot of the entertainment was private parties. This was a high school fraternity party at this dump behind a motorcycle shop on Summer Avenue at this place called the Theatrical Arts Club, which had nothing to do with theater or art, believe me. They did have a stage and had a PA. My band played a lot of parties there. It was illegal to play racially mixed. This was an all white band that night playing behind black singers, which was illegal. William says that before the gig started, I started an argument with the guy from the fraternity because he was paying the band $15 a piece and he was paying the singers $12 a piece because they were black. I told him that my band wasn't going to perform with $12 singers. Either he was going to pay the singers $15 or my band wasn't going to play.
William never forgot it.
I didn't see any reason to pay them less than me. Certainly I wasn't as good as they were. He should've been paying me less than them.
There's a certain thing which you can only learn playing with black musicians. There's a look that a black musician can give you, when you've done something stupid, that causes you to never do that again. There's no other way to learn that. You don't have to experience that putdown more than two or three times to change your stupid white way.
I first started playing mixed when I started playing Mar-Keys jobs. The real Mar-Keys had kind of broken up and Ray Brown would take one Mar-Key and five other people and take them to Sikeston, Missouri to play for a sock hop. I did a lot of that stuff. Some of the most fun I've had in my life.
There were hassles, even up into the sixties. I remember one night, coming home from a Mar-Key gig, a mixed band in the car, and the cops, I guess, picked us up at Dyer's Drive In, the only place with a black side and a white side that stayed open late, one of the only places to get something to eat after a gig. We left some white guy off, they didn't hassle us. We left the Shann brothers somewhere downtown in one of the ghettos. They were the last two black guys in the car. When they got out, the cops drove up and rolled down the window, this big ol' redneck cop stuck his head out and says, "You might as well just go on and live with them."
That was the way it was. I was glad they drove away.
I was more afraid of cops than any of the black joints I ever went in. (NEVER SAID THIS BEFORE) The biggest hassle I had in the fifties and early sixties going into black joints was from gays. Being hit on by black homosexuals, assuming because I was white in a black joint, I must have been gay.
I think the Civil Rights movement was a little different in Memphis than it was in other places. I sang "We Shall Overcome" a couple times at folk music shows and tried to be as politically incendiary as I could be, but I didn't march or sit-in.
I was on a picnic with my then girlfriend and her family the weekend Ole Miss was integrated and we saw the helicopters go overhead. We were just south of Memphis. When I got back home, the phone had been ringing off the wall from friends who were going down to Oxford to participate in the disturbance.
You sort of didn't talk about it, not till the mid sixties. By then, I was already so entrenched in what I was doing, I was obviously a social misfit and outcast amongst my people. It wasn't an issue for me. I didn't see a choice. I saw how emotional my parents became when they watched Little Rock Central, which they both attended, integrated on television. It was difficult to deal with. I still remember my mother's preacher, who was an Ole Miss graduate, his sermon during the Ole Miss integration. It was hard for them good Christian folks to deal with. But it couldn't change how I felt about the music and what I saw as a more honest way of life.
Things changed in 1968, but again, I think things changed less in Memphis. If King had been assassinated anywhere but Memphis, it'd still be on fire. But because of Dewey Phillips and the mindset that was at work here, when King was assassinated, Detroit caught fire, Atlanta caught fire, DC caught fire, LA caught fire. But Memphis didn't burn. Because it's different.
I think it's because of Dewey Phillips. I think it's that simple. It's because of the music.
The body politic was the anchor, they were pulling it the other direction. Mr. Crump don't like it! That's what the song says, "Mr. Crump don't like it/They ain't gonna have it here."
Mr. Crump is just dead, he's not gone. Believe me, he's down there right now and he still don't like it. What it is that he don't like is what we're talking about. But, like the rest of the song says, "We don't care what Mr. Crump don't allow/We're gonna barrelhouse anyhow." That's the way Memphis is.
I honestly believe there's no place like Memphis, not racially. Today, every issue in Memphis comes down to race. The black culture is strong enough to survive, like Faulkner said. You have to look no further than rap music as proof that at this late date black culture is strong enough to do something that would be both repulsive to white people and compelling to their children. Is that not a miracle?
One of the reasons I live in Mississippi and you look around you here and see what has been depicted in the press, in both fact and fiction, as rural poverty. I don't see it as poverty. It don't look poor to me. It don't look poor compared to Watts. These people will be here after the bomb drops. It'll be cockroaches and the people in these sharecropper cabins. And their life isn't even going to change much.
Now that's not true of all of Mississippi. The Delta is mean, but it's always been mean. It's mean-spirited. It's not just the white people that are mean. Black people are mean too. The Hill Country is not that way. The Hill Country is not like the Delta because it wasn't desirable for plantation ownership. Some of these farms go back three, four generations--the black farms. There's musical families who've been here long enough to create a tradition. This was not true in the Delta because all the people were itinerant, if they weren't sharecroppers. They weren't tied to the land. The musicians weren't tied to the land. They all moved around. So there was no feeling of community like there is here. I love it here.
At least not have to answer to the man.
Again, it's the fear of the cops. It's the fear of authority.
The Hill Country hanging on to the blues tradition is some kind of miracle.
Somehow, Robert Palmer, the writer, was right. When he moved to Holly Springs, I thought he was crazy. But he was dead right. The Fat Possum label, although I disagree with them and their marketing technique of presenting the blues artist as primitive savage, a man I think of as literally a holy figure, what they've done is a miracle. First time I heard R.L. Burnside was 30 some odd years ago. Friend of mine made a tape of him. The first word out of his mouth was the N-word. I thought to myself, "God, this is so good, no one will ever hear it." Well, now, R.L. Burnside has had a career. He opened for the Beastie Boys, the Cramps--that's a miracle. And that's progress. You can't tell me it's not racial progress.
Couple years ago at the Sunflower Blues Festival which is the only Mississippi blues festival left that hasn't turned into a Bobby Rush concert--not to say there's anything wrong with Bobby Rush, he just doesn't have much to do with the Mississippi blues--I had been invited to be on some panel. My wife and I went down to Moon Lake, have a romantic night before the event. We went down into Clarksdale for breakfast in the morning. This was on the square, traditional little Mississippi restaurant. At the back table were these six big fat guzzled-gutted redneck businessmen who obviously were there every morning. Without really listening, we could hear these men talking. Within the 45 minutes it took us to eat our breakfast, these guys who I venture to say 10-15 years earlier would have been in the Klan, may have still been--one guy obviously owned the restaurant--discussed Robert Johnson and William Faulkner. These are names that would have not been spat from these men's mouths 10-15 years ago. They were discussing them both, in terms of tourism, admittedly. But they were still discussing Robert Johnson and William Faulkner as positive elements in their community.
As we left, they were standing up to leave about the same time we were, the big fat one who obviously owned the restaurant said, "You know, sometimes I have a hard time with them damn Faulkner stories. I don't understand them." This other guy, quick as a heartbeat, said, "Yeah, well, sometimes you've got to read them two or three times."
Maybe there hasn't been much progress, but anyone who says things haven't changed in Mississippi doesn't know how bad it used to be.
It was so bad, it created music and art that are second to none anywhere on earth.
The Delta blues itself was maybe 30 men for eight years. And it won't go away. Robert Johnson is on the pop charts. The Delta blues continues to be reissued, reexamined, recategorized, redocumented. How many millions of dollars did Martin Scorsese spend on putting on that extravaganza of the blues? Do you think Charley Patton thought about that? I don't. How surprised would Robert Johnson be, that he had generated $5 million in income? I think he'd be pretty surprised. But I think he would equally surprised his picture was on the front page of the Commercial-Appeal newspaper. Things have changed.
My point is, pop music is created as a disposable item. It makes you want more, like ice cream. You're not even supposed to keep it. The blues is ultimately collectable, there's a beginning and end. You can put the blues in a box in a corner and stack it up. There's something appealing about that to western man. The blues is not going to go away. The Delta blues, unlike commercial music, is art. And art endures.
There's nothing like the literary tradition here in Mississippi anywhere in America. How can you explain blues and writers? It's not just William Faulkner, it's Larry Brown. It's going on as we speak. It's because of something in the area. I think it's the spirit. I don't mean to get too metaphysical on you here, but people think it's literally in the air and the water and all that. Although that has a little to do with it--I think it has a lot to do with the altitude we're at---but I think there's a spirit. I think it comes and goes. You can always feel a little of it. As bad as Beale Street is now--it's turned into a tourist trap; anyone would admit that. I got in trouble describing it in the press as a city-owned liquor mall, but that's what it is. The racial implications of what they did with Beale Street is truly ugly--if you walk down the middle of Beale Street, especially when there's nobody there, you can still feel something. It ain't like what W.C. Handy felt. And it's not the Beale Street of Will Shade. But there's still something there and what you feel is that spirit.
Obviously it likes it here, or it wouldn't keep coming back.
Memphis is the capital of Arkansas and Mississippi. It's certainly unlike everything east of the Tennessee River. The Delta literally begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. You come down off Rabbit Ridge and there it is--the Delta. Flat. There's nothing like it in America. I can't leave. I tried to leave once and I had to come back. If I stay away from Memphis too long, I start to play really funny.
It's not just the whites reaching for the black culture, it's the blacks reaching for the white culture. It's about the collision. If you drove through the ghetto in the sixties, you heard Eric Clapton on the radio, you didn't hear Ray Charles. That's what Stax [Records] was. Stax represents the period of time where the races really met, culturally, and then, interestingly enough, went beyond each other. Which is what is happening now. What happened was special and unique. It will never go away. Isn't that the prediction of Faulkner, of Jim Bond, that it would all turn gray? Isn't that what should happen.
Justin Timberlake [of the teen singing group N'Sych] was exposed to the result of Dewey Phillips. He was certainly exposed to Al Green. He's doing the same thing Elvis did. He's using a black idea, he's singing in falsetto. What's getting him across is the way he dances. He's tremendously professional. He's crossing racial boundaries. I think it's a good thing. I don't buy into any of this exploitation crap, the white musicians exploiting the black culture. That could not be farther than what I buy into. What it's all about is the white musicians reaching for the black culture and the black musicians reaching for the white culture. If we all stay in our own backyard, what fun is that?
What was Nat King Cole if he wasn't trying to sound white? There isn't anything wrong with that. He was the first black man in Bel-Air. That was an accomplishment. He wouldn't have got there if he was singing like Howlin' Wolf. Here Johnny Ace from Memphis trying to sing like Perry Como back in the fifties. He wanted to get across. Should've kept that gun out of his mouth. That's another issue.
I was conceived in Memphis and my mother thought is was somehow pagan to be born in Memphis so I was born in Little Rock. I think I somehow belong here. I must have been supposed to see what I saw, because I saw it.
If nothing else, a lot of black pseudo-intellectuals can listen to this and be horrified.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Kokernot Field in Alpine out in Far West Texas will make you fall in love with baseball again - especially now that the Big Bend Cowboys semi pro team has been playing this summer in the so-called Continental Baseball League. The Cowboys are a throwback; the whole team's salary for the season is $25,000 and players stay with local families during home stands. (click on the headline for the Big Bend Cowboys' website)
Then again, so is Kokernot. Built of native stone and iron in 1947 by Mr. Herbert Kokernot, Jr., the owner of the storied 06 Ranch which once almost surrounded the town of Alpine, the ballpark is a miniature of the old Yankee Stadium, only fancier, with wrought iron decor that features baseballs, great sightlines, and a view that won't quit. Baseball writer Nicholas Dawidoff of Sports Illustrated called it "the loveliest ballpark in America" and the Best Little Ballpark in Texas [And Anywhere Else].
For me, going to Fenway Park or Wrigley Field is like going to church, so hallowed are the stands. But Kokernot is even better because it's the way baseball used to be. Tickets are $7. Fans with the dirtiest car win a free car wash. Girls pass the hat in the stands whenever a Cowboy hits a home run. The mountain vistas beyond the outfield wall are sublime, although the architect who built the modern high school over the right field wall obviously did not understand how sacred Kokernot Field was/is because the modern school is a real eyesore and interrupts the mountain view.
There's a real fantasy aspect to it, beginning with the team's owner, who announces the game from the press box. One of my writing workshop students sat next to a proud mother and father who'd driven 24 hours from Ohio to watch their son play.
OK, OK, maybe the fact that I was selected to throw out the first pitch of the game to promote the Way Out West Texas Book Festival influenced my enthusiasm (the pitch was hard, chest high and a little outside, but it popped when it hit the catcher's mitt). But even if I hadn't, just being there was enough to make you love the game again.
My colleague DJ Stout was at the game. He was born in Alpine. His dad was a pitcher for Mr. Herbert and his mom met his dad at Sul Ross University and used to watch Alpine Cowboys' game where she met her future husband. DJ's dad has started an Alpine Cowboys web site
and DJ is working on a book about the team for University of Texas Press. It was great watching my old friend relive so many memories. He introduced me to Chris Lacey, the grandson of Mr. Herbert, who was watching the game behind home plate.
Although Sul Ross University and local amateur teams have used the field for years (when I wrote about the ballpark for Texas Monthly back in the mid 1980s, I saw the Lobos split a doubleheader with the University of Chihuahua in international intercollegiate play), it's been more than 45 years since pro ball was played here and this season has really engaged the community and the whole Big Bend region.
You can go watch overpaid jocks in your major leagues. I'll take the Big Bend Cowboys any day. Their home field is an architectural wonder - the best baseball park in the world, according to Sports Illustrated, as is noted before the start of every game.
There's a good story about the Alpine Cowboys at the Western Canada Baseball site - http://www.attheplate.com/wcbl/teams_alpine.htm - written by Kerry Laird of the Alpine Avalanche newspaper
Here's the 1989 story from Sports Illustrated
DJ's will have Nicholas Dawidoff's story in the book.
Sunday, August 2, 2009
from the August issue of Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
No Hike for Old Men
Walking the spine of the Franklin Mountains.
By Joe Nick Patoski
Photography by Laurence Parent
I didn’t have the most difficult one-day trek in Texas in mind when I first set eyes on the Franklin Mountains 40 years ago.
I was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Texas at El Paso and came from East Texas, which is how El Pasoans refer to the rest of the state. I didn’t even know a Texas city had mountains, much less a rugged, rocky range that effectively sliced the city in two before abruptly descending into the vast basin that cradles the original Paseo del Norte part of El Paso and most of its sprawling sister city Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico — the literal tail end of the Rockies.
The mountains define El Paso and El Pasoans. What side of the mountain you come from says a lot about a person. I have never been bored looking at the Franklins. At first I would wonder about who built the roads and the tram to maintain the radio and television towers on the ridge top? Who painted the giant white letters that adorned higher points on the ridge, corresponding with the first letter of a high school below? (I was usually staring at the C of Cathedral High.)
view of the Franklin Mountains ridge line
I spent hours on the Scenic Drive overlook, day and night, taking in the most spectacular vista of a city in Texas. I drove the new Trans-Mountain Road (Loop 375) that crossed the Franklins further north via Smuggler’s Pass, and often paused at the western overlook on Transmountain for sunset. I marveled at the illuminated Christmas Star that glowed on the slope of the mountain every December. I was hooked on the jagged range that rose over 3,000 feet above the basin. What was it like up there?
I eventually rode the Wyler Aerial Tramway, the only publicly accessible aerial tramway in the state, from the eastern slope to Ranger Peak for a look-see. Then, eight years ago, I hiked to Ranger Peak from the west side with El Paso hiker Susan Larsen. On both occasions, the views were spectacular. But that narrow ridge snaking towards New Mexico tempted. How about hiking that? Several short hikes from the parking lot at Smuggler’s Pass up the nearby switchback towards the Mammoth’s Trunk further whetted my appetite.
The idea of going the distance came after surviving a three-canyon crossing in Copper Canyon in the Mexican state of Chihuahua 10 years ago. Only three of the six gringos who signed up for the 50-mile trek up and down 10,000 feet of intimidating terrain completed it. Five years ago, I hiked more than 70 miles across the Big Bend over lightly charted territory with six people including Laurence Parent, my collaborator on the books Texas Mountains, Texas Coast and Big Bend National Park, and the best hiker I know (“The Ultimate Big Bend Hike,” August 2005).
The Franklins in a day would be a cakewalk compared to those adventures. Laurence was game, so we bought airline tickets and hoped the weather would cooperate. The initial idea was to go north to south from the Transmountain Road trailhead to Scenic Drive — literally walking into the city — until I talked with John Moses, the general superintendent of the 24,000-acre Franklin Mountains State Park, which encompasses the entire mountain range and is the largest urban park in the nation.
Moses pointed out that we’d be trespassing on private property owned by media companies with broadcasting towers if we tried to start from Scenic Drive. He suggested we start at the newly acquired state park access point at the end of North Stanton Street and take Thousand Steps Trail up to Ranger Peak.
State park personnel referred me to Mike Olbrisch, a retired U.S. Army Sergeant and state park volunteer who maps and patrols trails in Franklin Mountains State Park and contributes to LocalHikes.com. Mike didn’t like the route I’d sketched out, responding bluntly to an e-mail by saying: “If you are going north to south — I will not be going along. Nothing to discuss. If I can help in any other way, let me know.”
Evidently he knew something we didn’t.
I had yet to fully appreciate Mike’s expertise. He prepped for our hike by hiking through the difficult Window north-to-south (it was doable, but barely, he reported) and improvising a route between the KFOX tower and the McKelligon Canyon saddle, where no trail existed.
The weather forecast for the December day we’d targeted was calling for winds gusting out of the southwest up to 30 mph, along with a predicted high in the mid-60s, so we took Mike’s advice. Better to have the wind at our backs going north rather than the winter sun in our face.
By the time his wife, Monika, picked us up at our motel right at 7 a.m. and drove us to the end of North Stanton Street in the newer, semi-swanky hills above Executive Center on the west side, just beyond a gated apartment complex adjacent to a city water supply tank, I was paying close attention to the retired Sarge. Mike, dressed in camo fatigues, presented Laurence and I with copies of a topo map roughly outlining the route, checked his radio to make sure it was operating, and checked his GPS for coordinates and a starting point.
The sky was clear and the winds calm when we hit the trail. Mike noted our coordinates on his GPS: N 31.80768, W 106.49986, elevation: 4,308 feet above sea level, right by the El Paso Water Utilities water tank.
Weather conditions are critical for any recreational activity in the Chihuahuan Desert, including a ridge walk. We waited until December because doing it any time from late April through mid-September added increased risk.
“Exposure is our biggest problem,” John Moses explained. “People don’t have a clue. They don’t have water and there’s no shade. It’s that 18- to 24-year-old demographic, which we’ve got plenty of at Fort Bliss.”
Franklin Mountains State Park is officially a multi-use park, but outside of McKelligon Canyon and the Tom Mays section, there is little infrastructure, which explains an annual visitor count under 50,000 and its rep as a hikers’ and mountain bikers’ park.
Most active recreationists head to the day-use-only Tom Mays section on the western side of Transmountain Road, an isolated piece of high desert foothills with paved and unpaved roads and easy trails leading to North Franklin Mountain, the highest peak in the range at 7,192 feet.
The landscape is puro desert. The vegetation is dominated by tall, spiked balls of yucca, spindly ocotillo and rigid straight sotol stalks, rising skyward from the brown and yellow rubble. Curved-claw lechuguilla grow low to the ground beneath spiky bushes of catclaw and ubiquitous pads of prickly pear. The landscape, though, is mostly rock — sharp, jagged, banded, layered, hard and crumbly rocks.
The first few hundred yards of the route to the top followed an old dirt road once maintained by the El Paso Electric Company, up the crease between Flag Hill and Crazy Cat Mountain, toward a small rock building halfway up the western slope that was once an electric company guardhouse. The view was already bigger and more expansive than from Scenic Drive or Transmountain Road.
And I was already huffing and puffing. The rock house marked the beginning of 1,000 Steps Trail, with steps etched into the steep slope. The well-maintained trail was relatively easy to negotiate, with one small stretch requiring a scramble on all fours. Tendons in the back of the calves stretched as I leaned into the mountain, remembering the wisdom of a Tarahumara Indian guide in Copper Canyon, who advised taking pasitos — little steps — and focusing on the ground directly ahead where you were about to plant your foot.
We had gained 1,000 feet when we arrived at a junction. A small sign pointing south identified Ridgeline Trail #1, leading to the Wyler Tramway and Ranger Peak. Mike asked if Laurence and I would rather hike down to Wyler and take the tram. We looked at him like he was crazy. We headed north.
Our new path on the tilted limestone ridge constantly played tricks on the eye, as if the mountain range had thrust up from the surrounding basin eons ago, then slumped on its side. The darker rocks on the lower eastern slope are Precambrian, dating more than 1 billion years, the oldest in Texas.
We all stepped nimbly along the ridge for another half-mile to an overlook where shards of metal on the steep western slope below glistened in the sunlight. They were remnants of an engine from the giant B-36 bomber that crashed into the slope during a snowstorm in 1953, killing all nine crewmen. We were 5,457 feet above sea level, N 31.80648, W 106.48598
A half-mile later, the trail disappeared and a panoramic 360-degree view enveloped us. Beyond a sheer drop-off to the east was the airport and Fort Bliss. The Wyler Tram and Ranger Peak were perched on the ridge a mile south; in the background was downtown El Paso and the wobbly streets of Juarez, which appeared calm and peaceful despite the recent rash of violence that had gripped the city and the brown lid of air pollution hovering over it.
The west side of El Paso wound around the base of the Franklins, then sprawled into the Upper Valley and the empty New Mexican desert beyond. The view took in three states, two nations, and one once-verdant river valley bursting at the seams. The newly built portion of border wall extending west from behind Mount Cristo Rey and Anapra towards Santa Teresa, and the road that parallels the international border westward towards Columbus, New Mexico, were easy to spot. Reflecting sunlight offered glimpses of the Rio Grande, channeled as it came in from New Mexico, a straight ditch as it flowed downstream east towards the Lower Valley.
The huge Jobe Concrete quarry by the Beaumont Army Medical Center, out of sight at ground level on El Paso’s east side, was plainly visible from our eagle’s perch, where we could hear the beep-beep-beeps warning of a truck backing up, and the bang and thunk of heavy machinery gouging, digging and pulverizing limestone. No matter how far away the city felt, the buzz of airplanes and jets flying overhead and the hum of automobile traffic below were constant.
We were headed beyond the next two clusters of broadcasting towers to the saddle above McKelligon Canyon, where we would pick up the Ron Coleman Trail to Smuggler’s Pass on the other side of South Franklin Mountain. That distant pinnacle appeared so far away, reaching it in a day seemed impossible, much less in a few hours.
The going was about to get tough, Mike warned us. He wasn’t kidding. When we walked on the west side of the ridge, jackets remained zipped to fend off the cool gusts. When we walked on the east side of the ridge, we were protected from the wind but exposed to full sun, moving us to peel off layers of outerwear to keep from overheating. The KFOX transmitter tower, 2.94 miles from the trailhead, required a scramble down and along the chain link fence around the facilities on the west slope, as dicey as walking along the rim rock.
We got a free pass inside the radio room where Mike checked repeaters the station allowed ham radio operators to place at the site. After leaving KFOX, we followed Mike’s lead on an informal trail as we descended, then ascended towards the next communications tower shared by several federal agencies. Laurence and Mike were leaving me lagging 25 to 50 yards back until we took a break.
The views were exhilarating, but the winds that whipped up from the southwest made me nervous. I didn’t want to get blown off the mountain. During one pause, Mike lifted a couple of rocks and pulled out three bottles of sports drink from a cache he’d created earlier.
As we neared the government repeater towers, we spotted a Border Patrol helicopter scooting along just above the ridge, pausing near the tower, landing, then ascending, a procedure made more difficult by sporadic gusts. Evidently, the pilot was practicing. When we reached the tower, we saw the landing pad, a flattened area maybe 20 square feet, that had been scratched out of the rim rock.
It was a little after high noon. We’d been on the trail almost five hours and had hiked 4.5 miles. We were 6,200 feet above sea level, the highest point on the first half of the hike. It felt like it, especially looking back to see where we had been, having gained 2,802 feet. Looking forward, beyond northeast El Paso, we could see the rise in the land mass marking Cloudcroft and the snow-capped Sierra Blanca.
The stretch from KFOX tower to the federal government repeater site had been the toughest so far, despite the refreshing pause for sports drinks. One scurry along the eastern ridge was tighter than a goat path, requiring a patient vertical scramble, Mike reminded me that it would have been even tougher doing it the other way, scrambling down. Hard as it was, we weren’t the only ones to walk the ridge: I found a dollar bill nestled in a lechuguilla cactus.
We descended down to the McKelligon Canyon saddle connecting to the ridge leading to South Mount Franklin, the tallest peak on our trek, requiring a few scurries on all fours. Even the milder inclines were testing nerves if there were patches of scree — smaller rocks that felt like ice if you hit them wrong. A few thorns insinuated themselves into hands and ankles as I not-so-nimbly stepped over and around rocks while dodging cactus. Between the slippery rubble and plain old missteps, I twice planted my left boot so haphazardly that my ankle gave way, luckily without twisting or breaking anything. Blisters were forming on both feet as my little toes rubbed against the leather with each jarring step. Calves ached. The quads in my upper thighs pulsed.
While dropping to the low point of the saddle, the amphitheater in McKelligon Canyon came into view, as did a couple park rangers who were observing us from the edge of the pavement, 1,000 feet below. Mike took more readings on his GPS. We were six miles from the trailhead, 6 hours, 12 minutes on the trail, 3 hours, 55 minutes spent hiking; 2 hours, 17 minutes at rest. We’d ascended 3,000 feet, descended 2,100 feet.
“Do you want to abort the mission here?” Mike asked. We could call it a day, satisfied we had done what we could physically do. Otherwise, we needed to keep a quick pace on the Ron Coleman Trail, which we were picking up. It was 1 p.m. and the winter sun would be gone by 5:30 p.m. The wind was blowing and high clouds were scudding past.
I hurt — not a sharp-pain or throbbing-headache hurt, just a fatigued, worn-out, too-old-for-this hurt. Thankfully, Mike admitted he was running out of gas. I was running out of gasp. But quit? No way. Laurence wasn’t complaining at all, due to occasional windows of great lighting for taking photographs, and the fact he’d hiked to the top of the 9,000-foot Santa Catalinas above Tucson the week before, and summited Longs Peak in Colorado, a 14,000-footer, a few months earlier.
We gained elevation again plodding up a series of switchbacks. At certain junctures, Mike stopped to note GPS readings, calling them on the radio to Monika or fellow ham operators Doug Rose or Reiner Junge, who were listening on their radios at home. The second-smallest toe of my left foot began to cramp. The term “bandy-legged” kept popping into my head, as in rubber band. Pangs of vertigo rose on the knife-edged ridge, which I tried to dismiss by focusing on the ground directly in front of where I was stepping.
Along the way, Mike had talked about his son in the Army, a Cavalry Scout in Iraq, and his own experiences in Iraq during the first Gulf War. He would’ve reenlisted after 9/11 if he didn’t think he was too old to be a soldier. At 52, he was in good shape, but not at fighting level, he told us.
We climbed into a narrow sliver of grasses that led to the base of what Laurence described as a “friggin’ cliff,” the 40-foot wall leading to the Window. We could go back, Mike offered, meaning two hours minimum to McKelligon Canyon. Nothing had snapped or broken, so I respectfully declined.
The trick to the scramble was to grab a hand hold on a rock, make sure it was secure, then pull yourself up, feeling for footholds wherever you could find them, hoping they wouldn’t crumble. I couldn’t look down, instead fixing my eyes on which rock to grab next, occasionally glancing up to see where Mike and Laurence had gone. I reached the Window, halfway up the wall, in a cold sweat, too exhausted and woozy to appreciate the porthole-sized opening in the wall that you could peer through, if you liked looking at precipitous drops.
We finally reached a high plateau that dropped off to the west, becoming Coronado Canyon on El Paso’s far west side, known for the distinctive vein of red ryolite in the limestone slope in the shape of a thunderbird. As we moved north, the streaks of red on the mountain grew more numerous, indicating volcanic rock, and the grasses grew thicker and more lush.
The high point on the trail, 6,600 feet, just below the FAA Towers at the pinnacle of South Franklin Mountain, was reached 8 hours and 37 minutes and 7.86 miles after we left North Stanton Street. We had ascended 5,336 feet — more than a mile — and descended 3,104 feet. Our coordinates were N 31.86424, W 106.49278. We could see Trans-Mountain Road and glimpses of the Smuggler’s Pass trailhead. The Mammoth’s Trunk, a bluff in the shape of an elephant’s head, was staring straight at us, trunk raised, with curved swirls of subdivision streets below as a backdrop.
The late afternoon light was throwing off sharp shadows, rendering the harsh desert rubble soft, gentle, and wholly magnificent. The mountains in the distance were lighting up — the Organ Mountains above Las Cruces, Sierra Blanca beyond Cloudcroft, and the Black Mountains by Silver City, New Mexico, marking the Gila Wilderness. We paused to appreciate, but just for a little bit. The light would be gone before we hit the last switchbacks down into Fusselman Canyon. Monika was waiting in the parking lot, she radioed. To the east and west, city lights twinkled as we descended, guided by flashlights.
We finished in pitch dark. Mission complete, Mike radioed to Doug and Reiner. Our coordinates were N 31.87748, W 106.49386. Elevation: 5,184 feet. We hiked 9.74 miles in 10 hours, 30 minutes, climbing 5,594 feet and descending 4,772 feet. Along the way, I collected the dollar bill found in a lechuguilla on the ridge, a cigarette butt spotted near South Mount Franklin, a rusty bottle cap picked up between the McKelligon Canyon saddle and the Window, and a piece of light aluminum fetched along the ridgeline.
Mike’s planning and knowledge of the lay of the land was invaluable. Teamwork, as always, proved essential, making any calculated risk less risky to take. Mike admitted it was his roughest hike in the 14 years since he left the service. It got Laurence to thinking he’d like to see how many of the tallest peaks in Texas you could ascend in a day.
Maybe I’ll take Laurence up on his challenge. I may be getting too old for this. Whatever happens, for the rest of my life, whenever I lay eyes on El Paso, I’ll be able to smile to myself, knowing full well what it’s like up there on the backbone of the rugged range that defines the mountain city of Texas.