Wes Race Turns 60
By Dave Ranney
I never thought Wes Race would make it to 60. Too much alcohol, I said, too many late nights in smoky bars. Too much running around with Fort Worth's up-to-no-good hipster blues crowd.
But he did, and to celebrate he arranged for a bunch of his musician friends — Fort Worth's James Hinkle, Ed Lively and Johnny Mack; Austin residents Mike Buck, Eve Monsees and Ponty Bone; and, from Wichita, Kan., Lewis Cowdrey - to open for Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials at Rosa's, a blues club on Chicago's north side.
The idea was to see what would happen when his Texas friends (Cowdrey grew up around Lubbock) encountered the Chicago club scene and vice versa. Sort of a Johnny "Guitar" Watson meets Magic Sam thing.
Wes' son, Wesley, who lives in Wichita, served as the group's de facto tour manager.
The Texans left in a big van; Wes, Wesley, Lewis and I went in a mini-van.
Wes grew up in Wichita, but he's no stranger to Chicago. He lived on the city's South Side from 1970 to 1975 and, as legend has it, went on to became Hound Dog Taylor's trusted chauffeur, had a hand in launching Alligator Records, steered the young label toward Son Seals, and was in the studio for the Delmark Records sessions that produced J.B. Hutto's "Slidewinder" and Jimmy Dawkins' "All for Business."
Wes was also a key player in The Blues Amalgamated, a loose-knit group of white blues enthusiasts who frequented Chicago's blues clubs, which, in those days, were all but segregated.
"Wes was the one who was always getting the group together. He always had some place for us to go," said Bob Koester, a Blues Amalgamated member who started and still owns Delmark Records, one of the nation's premier blues labels.
"(Wife) Sue and I never would have gone to as many clubs as we did if it hadn't been for Wes," he said. Back in 1975, The Blues Amalgamated gathered at the 1815 Club for what turned out to be Howlin' Wolf's last performance.
Wes, Wesley, Lewis and I stayed with the Koesters. Above my bed was a framed, black-and-white photograph of James Cotton playing with Junior Wells at Theresa's Lounge in 1976.
The band stayed downtown at the Inn of Chicago, missing out on the Koesters, who were fabulous hosts and wonderful storytellers.
I loved Bob's account of his meeting up with Roosevelt Sykes somewhere in the Deep South. Roosevelt was wearing a fez.
"He was light-skinned, so it let him pass for an Arab. He could go anywhere he wanted," said Bob, who still gets mad when he looks back on all the prejudice his artists have put up with over the years,
Just as outrageous: A New Orleans club owner once made Louis Armstrong's white drummer, Barrett Deems, wear blackface because he feared the consequences of booking an integrated band.
Deems has three albums on Delmark, Sykes has five.
The label's all-time best sellers, Bob said, are Junior Wells' "Hoodoo Man" and Magic Sam's "West Side Soul." Bob "supervised production" on both.
"I can't record a band that doesn't have a good leader," he said. "Sam and Junior were leaders. Junior was one of the best."
Bob was quick to point out that traditional jazz was — and remains — his first love. Nobody, I suspect, misses the old 78s more than Bob.
""I'm a traddy," he said.
Jazz Record MartLewis and I spent a Thursday afternoon with Bob, first touring the Delmark offices and recording studio and then, with much hold-on-to-your-wallet trepidation, shopping at the incredible Jazz Record Mart, which is huge, thoroughly stocked and reasonably priced.
Bob bought the store in 1959, back when it was Seymour's Jazz Record Mart. His former employees include Charlie Musselwhite, Mike Bloomfield, current Delmark recording artist Dave Specter; Bruce Iglauer, who started Alligator Records; Michael Franks, who launched the Earwig label; and Amy van Singel and Jim O'Neal, who got Living Blues magazine off the ground.
It didn't take long for me to drop $93 on Jay McShann and Milt Buckner's "Kansas City Memories," Earl 'Fatha' Hines' "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," Jack McDuff's second album (CD), "Tough 'Duff," Sonny Clark's "Sonny' Crib," Deep Blue Organ Trio's "Deep Blue Bruise" on Delmark, a collection of Willie "The Lion" Smith tunes, and a couple Hammond B3 compilations.
That's more jazz than blues, but I blew my budget before I even set foot in the blues section!
Bright BoysThat night, the band played a solid five-song set at a jam session at Rosa's.
By then, Wes had given the band a name: The Bright Boys. It seems that back when he lived in Chicago, light-skinned blacks were referred to as "yellow," but in Fort Worth they were called 'bright."
Everyone in the band is white, so they became The Bright Boys.
After Rosa's, we all went to the B.L.U.E.S. on Halstead club, where
J.W. Williams, a bassist in Junior Wells and Buddy Guy's bands in the 1970s, was fronting a band that included one and sometimes two Japanese guitarists who replicated one master's licks after another.
I wondered if they'd take on Hound Dog Taylor, whose legacy, some would say, most defies imitation. They didn't.
The next morning, I overheard Wes and Lewis discussing blues lyrics.
Lewis: "People hear the music, they don't hear the poetry."
Three different coversFriday afternoon had been set aside for hitting the used record shops. Eve recommended a place on Madison Street called Out of the Past Records. Wes had never heard of it, but we - Wes, Eve, Mike and I - went anyway.
The place had no fewer than 100,000 albums and 45s, but only about a tenth of the inventory was sorted by genre. We were there for about two hours and barely scratched the surface.
Wes picked up Dinah Washington's "Late, Late Show," Boogaloo Joe Jones' "Boogaloo Joe," Bunky Green's "Testifyin' Time," and George Benson's first album, "The Boss Guitar of. . ." with Jack McDuff.
I went for the cassettes: Jimmy Smith and Kenny Burrell's "Keep on Comin'," Johnny Hodges' "Live at the Sportpalast, Berlin," Hodges and Wild Bill Davis' "In a Mellotone," and Johnny 'Guitar' Watson's "Getting' Down With. . . ."
On the way back to the hotel, we played the Johnny "Guitar" Watson tape, which, much to my surprise, was guitar-less.
"He doesn't play guitar on that album," Eve said, matter of factly. "Just piano."
But the cover art, I argued, featured a naked woman straddling a guitar.
"That album had three different covers," she said, not missing a beat.
Wes was impressed. "She sure knows her stuff," he said afterward. The scary thing is she's only 24 years old!
ShowtimeThe Koesters love movies. In their basement, they've have created a mini theatre, complete with a floor-to-ceiling screen, a projector room, and rows of couches and easy chairs. On Friday nights, the neighborhood - anybody, really — is free to drop in for a full-length movie, preceded by a cartoon and a short feature. Sometimes, one or two people show up; other times, the room is full.
Bob said he has 800 films. I believe him. Big grey metal canisters line the basement walls as well as one of the walls in my room and one is Lewis' room. The collection includes two copies of the Beatles' "Hard Day's Night."
"It's better than the other one," Bob said, referring to the Fab Four's "Help!"
Since there were so many blues lovers in the house, Bob showed a 1930s-40s collection of performances by Pigmeat Markham, Lonnie Johnson, Victoria Spivey, Tiny Grimes, Dinah Washington, Ethel Waters, Mahalia Jackson backed by Barney Kessel and Shelly Manne, and the one and only Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who held a guitar but didn't play it.
I felt like I was in a museum that Bob had somehow brought to life.
Wes wasn't there. He'd gone to the airport to pick up his friend, Fast Black, winner of the Fort Worth Miss Exotic Dancer crown in 2000.
When he returned, Wes, Wesley, Fast Black and I left for a place called Wallace's Catfish Corner, which is known for its fish dinners and, weather permitting, outdoor jam sessions on Friday nights. Lewis rode with Rick Kreher and Dick Shurman and Dick's girlfriend, Diane. They'd joined us at the Koesters.
These days, Shurman is perhaps best known for producing Johnny Winter, but he's also worked with Magic Sam, Albert Collins, Otis Rush, Earl Hooker, Magic Slim, Fenton Robinson and Roy Buchanan. He's written liner notes for dozens of albums, including Delmark's "Magic Sam Live at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival" and MCA's 2000 reissue of B.B. King's "Live at the Regal.
Rick played guitar in Muddy Waters' last road band, later serving a pallbearer at Waters' funeral.
"I wish I'd spent more time with him," Rick said. "But you know how it is, I was just a 20-year-old kid, he was in his 60s."
The White Boys?When we got to Wallace's Catfish Corner, the parking lot was packed and for whatever reason, the jam session appeared to have been called off. The decision was made to go straight to a Lee's Unleaded Blues, a real-deal blues club on the South Side.
"Lee's Unleaded used to be a place called Queen Bee's," Wes said. "It's the only place that Hound Dog ever called me from. It was 10:15 p.m. He said 'Wesley, get down here.' It was just him and Pinetop Perkins, they were doing a duo thing that night."
Earlier in the week, Wesley had made table reservations and arranged for the band to take part in the club's Friday night jam session. Our arrival did not go unnoticed since the place was close to standing-room-only and, except for the house band's guitarist, we were the lone integrators. Our tables were front row center, making for a bit of a spectacle as we made our way to our seats.
After the next song, the guitarist welcomed us and let the audience know that the musicians among us would be playing later on.
"What's the name of the band?" he asked.
It was a nice ice-breaker but as the night wore on, it became apparent that this was the house band's jam session and that its leader, a local soul-blues singer who calls himself Super Percy, was none too thrilled with sharing the stage with a bunch of interlopers.
Wesley had cleared the appearance with the club owner, but the club owner, I'm guessing, hadn't cleared it with Super Percy. The band finished its set, took a 30-minute break, and then played for another hour before giving it up for the Bright Boys.
I was worried. This was clearly an upscale rhythm and blues crowd; not a gritty blues crowd. And Super Percy was putting out bad vibes.
But these guys are pros — James spent three years in Marcia Ball's band; Ponty was with Joe Ely for seven years; Lewis and Jimmy Vaughan were in Storm for five years before Vaughan assembled the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and Mike, of course, was the drummer on the T-Birds' first two albums, played in Doug Sahm's bands and still tours with the LeRoi Brothers. Between them, I figured, they'd each played no less than a thousand gigs, large and small. Eve was the youngster, but she clearly has the chops.
James started things off with a blistering, heavy-on-the-Johnny "Guitar" Watson version of "I Hear Stories," a tune from his latest CD. The place went nuts. Lewis was next with one of his Little Walter-meets-Frank Frost tunes, then Ponty pulled out rousing a version of Clifton Chenier's "Don't You Lie to Me," that seemed to strike a chord with every Southerner in the house.
Armed with a Magic Sam tune, Eve was due up next and with the way things were going, she was sure to blow the roof off. But Super Percy had had enough.
"(Give it up) one time for the Texas Rockers," he said, using a microphone that overrode the sound system. Apparently, he'd not been privy to the earlier line about the Bright Boys.
James pleaded Eve's case, but Super Percy wouldn't budge. This was his turf and he'd shared it long enough.
"I had a good time with y'all," he said. "You sounded good, y'all. . . ."
Super Percy paused, searching for just the right words.
". . . got soul."
With that, the Bright Boys were through for the night. But Super Percy & Co. didn't retake the stage; no, he let the house DJ play funk-and-R&B CDs for the next 20 minutes, which, though nobody said anything, was a little insulting.
To their credit, the Bright Boys took their seats and enjoyed the rest of the evening. Super Percy played another set. The place closed at 2 a.m.
Afterward, Wes was upset that Eve had been shorted. He said Super Percy wasn't about to be shown up by someone - a woman no less - half his age. "If I'd known he was going to do that, I'd have greased his palm," Wes said.
But Rick said that in all his years on the Chicago club scene, he'd never seen a whole band give up the whole stage to a bunch of out-of-towners they'd never heard of. He thought Super Percy had bent over backward for the Bright Boys. He's probably right.
I need to be clear about something here. Lee's Unleaded was a very nice place. Everybody there was super accommodating. I had three people shake my hand and say "Welcome to Chicago." Some folks who'd brought in a big tray of chicken wings asked if I wanted some.
Now, I don't know the first thing about Fort Worth's club scene, but I'm familiar with Wichita's and I can't honestly say there isn't a black club that's as open to all as Lee's Unleaded. Next time you're in Chicago, check it out.
On to Rosa'sWe'd been out for three nights in a row, so most of Saturday was spent resting up for the birthday gig at Rosa's.
That afternoon, Lewis called Eddie Taylor Jr. and asked if he'd like to do a duo thing with him. They'd be the opening act.
"I'd seen Eddie when he was playing guitar in Jimmy Burns' band. I thought he was really good, so I went up and introduced myself. He said he was Eddie Taylor Jr. and I said, 'Oh, man, I played with your dad!" Lewis said. "He's worked really hard to carry on his dad's legacy. I really admire him for that."
Wes said Lewis' pairing up with Eddie was a "stroke of genius," and, indeed, they played a beautiful set Eddie Taylor Sr./Jimmy Reed-inspired blues. It was perfect.
Much of The Blues Amalgamated was in attendance there: Wes, Bob and Sue Koester, Dick Shurman, Rick Kreher, Alligator Records' Bruce Iglauer, and Steve Tomashefsky, who's produced Otis Rush, Jimmy Dawkins, Sleepy John Estes and Jimmy Johnson. Also there were "Blues Before Sunrise" producer Steve Cushing, Jillina Arrigo, who used to book Magic Slim and Little Milton, and Eddie C. Campbell, who played guitar with Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed and Willie Dixon before fronting a band of his own.
I chatted with Dick about the future of the music business since the CD sales are fast being taken over by the Internet outfits — iTunes and the like — that let customers buy one or two songs at a buck apiece rather than shelling out $15-$17 for a whole CD.
(Not too long ago, Joe Ely told Texas Monthly magazine that he figures the CD will be around for about five more years.)
Dick said records labels would be well-advised to go back to the days when they whet the market's appetite with two or three singles before releasing an album.
The Bright Boys opened a six-tune set with Eve taking on Snooky Pryor's "How'd You Learn to Shake It Like That," followed by James' version of Muddy Waters' "You're Gonna Miss Me" and Pony Bone doing Memphis Slim's "Beer Drinkin' Woman," which I later learned dates back to when he and Lewis were in Lewis & The Legends. Eve came back with Magic Sam's "Everything's Gonna Be All Right," and then James invited Larry Williams, aka Muddy Waters Jr., to sit in.
Williams, who says he's Waters' oldest son, performed "Sail On" and "Got My Mojo Working."
Apparently, there's a bit of a debate over Muddy Jr.'s lineage since his father would have been 40 when he born. So it's a little hard to believe he's his father's oldest male offspring. Then again, Big Bill Morganfield says he was born in 1956, a year after Muddy Jr.
All I know is that Muddy Jr. certainly acts, looks and sounds like Muddy Sr. There were a few times, however, I thought he went a little too far in imitating Muddy Sr.
Afterward, Bob said he advised Muddy Jr.'s manager to drop the Muddy-Sr. shtick.
"He's a good singer, he doesn't need to do that," he said. "He should do his own thing."
Little Ed and Blues Imperials were up next. They rocked.
Sue said she was struck by how much Little Ed reminded her of J.B. Hutto, who, of course, was Little' Ed's uncle.
Wes, too, was impressed. "He was standing shoulder to shoulder with J.B. and Hound Dog," he said afterward.
Around 1 a.m., I went outside for some air and found Bob resting against a car a few steps past the front door. We were talking when a young couple arrived. Bob knew them.
"You should have been here earlier," he said. "I saw something I've never seen before - a blues band with an accordion."
The couple expressed regret.
"And you know what?" Bob said. "They were good."
I'd say that was the birthday present Wes was looking for.