Thursday, October 11, 2007

Book Report: "40 Years With The Blues Legends" By Deacon Jones

the highway scribe would like to gather up his red Fender Starcaster and his 22 watt amplifier and go over to Deacon Jones’ place for a jam.

That way he would be associated with Jones, and all the legends Jones has jammed with and recounted in his charming autobiography,"The Blues Man: 40 Years with the Blues Legends."

That way the highway scribe could tell his grandchildren he’d jammed with a guy who’d jammed with all those famous guys.

Which would be an improvement on the scribe’s current career trajectory.

But seriously, Jones’ story is a lot like the blues itself. It's sad, but it sounds good so that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“I guess the only reason that I haven’t given in is because I don’t know how to quit. I’m sort of like a Timex watch; I take a licking, but I keep on ticking. I just hope and pray that one day the sun will shine on Deacon Jones and I’ll finally get lucky and hit it big. It seems that every time I’m near the top, something goes wrong and I fall down again.”

Here’s a gentleman who has played with Baby Huey and The Babysitters, The Impressions, Curtis Mayfield, John Lee Hooker, Freddie King, Elvin Bishop, Buddy Miles, Greg Allman, Willie Dixon, Carlos Santana and a veritable who’s who? of sixties/seventies music stars.

It’s a classic story about the music industry.

Says Deacon (with the help of an able M. Jonathan Hayes):

“In 1965, we finally settled into a regular gig at the Thumbs Up on the North Side. They started us off at one night a week, $5 each, and all we could drink. And everyone wants to know why I got to be an alcoholic.”

Keeping in mind that Melvyn’s story (that’s his real name) winds through the early ’60s and is still unspooling, drugs and booze are a part of things, given the predilections of his lively and special generation.

Here’s an accounting of an all-star jam with Buddy Miles, Noel Redding [Hendrix’ bassman] Eric Clapton, and Deacon’s boss at the time, Freddie King.

“The music and the vibes were just blowing everyone away. Eric was a monster on guitar but he was pretty blitzed. During the performance, he came over and sat down on the organ bench next to me on my right side. It was pretty cool except that he started leaning into me while I was trying to play, bumping into my right arm during my solos. I was whispering to him out of the side of his mouth. “ Eric, Eric, I can’t play.”

“Oh, sorry mate, sorry,” he would gurgle and sit up straight for a moment. It was hilarious. Soon he was tilting to the side gain, leaning into me."

That was the joy, but in the crazy world of endless travel, shoestring budgets, and reckless lifestyles, there was much sadness for Deacon, too.

Jones, who was born in Richmond, Indiana while the gale winds of World War II were blowing full force, headed north to Chicago at a tender age with a very large fellow from the neighborhood named Jimmy Ramey, who took the show name of Baby Huey and sang for “The Babysitters” of which Deacon formed a part.

Maybe you have to be a music junkie to enjoy Jones’ stories about how this guy did not like to practice, or that guy couldn’t remember the lyrics, or couldn’t play lest he was stoned out of his mind or had some fried chicken first, but the book contains lots of personal peculiarities of people elevated by stardom who are really, just people.

Freddie King, for example, was a great lead guitarist, but couldn’t “chord” very well, which is a way of saying he loved the spotlight, but wasn’t crazy about driving the band with a little mundane dirty work.

Ramey, who only knew two numbers when the joint venture began (“Peanut Butter” and “Wiggle Wobble”), “was kind of lazy when it came to learning new songs. I told him he had to know more songs if he was going to make it with any band. We learned, ‘Go, Gorilla, Go’, by the Ideals, and some Four Tops, James Brown, Stevie Wonder songs. The number one song we learned that always got the crowd going was Stevie Wonder’s ‘Uptight, Everything is Alright’ .”

highwayscribery includes the anecdote because it shows the book for what it is: a recounting from the stage and from the rehearsal room by a craftsman in pop and blues, rather than a conceptual rambling about the black roots of music, slave canticles and what have you.

Deacon went on stage and played songs. That was and is his life and through him the reader learns the nuts and bolts of performing at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre and how perilous it could be when the organ player printed up a few shirts to make an extra buck selling them outside the show.

Ramey liked his drugs apparently, though Jones never specifies. He recounts how he’s was having cereal for breakfast one morning at Baby Huey’s place when his “drug kit” fell out of the Wheaties box when Deacon turned it over to fill his bowl.

“All of a sudden there was a loud demanding knock at the door. A big voice yelled, ‘ Chicago Police - open the door - now.’ Ramey calmly dropped his kit back into the box and the wax paper on top of it. Someone opened the door and in comes all these burly task force narcotics officers with bullet proof vests, holding semi-automatic guns and big pistols. One of them barked, ‘ Freeze. Don’t noboby move!’

“Ramey looked up and said nonchalantly, ‘ Can I finish my breakfast?’

“ A cop said, ‘ Yeah smart ass. Go ahead’.”

“The man” looked everywhere in that place, except the Wheaties box.

But Ramey could not escape himself and died of an overdose just when Curtis Mayfield was about to make him a star.

A lot of tragedy. Dennis Moore, drummer for The Babysitters dropped out of school so he could go to Paris with the band. There they were a smash with the crowde and press, but had failed to get a contract and came home empty-handed.

For Moore, it was worse. The Viet Nam War was happening and leaving school cost him his draft exempt status. He served, but came back and found he could not play anymore and killed himself.

“A drummer is the only musician who can’t put his instrument away for a couple of years an come back. Everyone else can quit and come back and continue where he left off but the drummer.”

And there’s lots more where that came from. Deacon got his job with the Impressions when the backing band was killed in a car accident rushing to a gig, weighted down with musical equipment.

Jones was hitched well to Freddie King’s rising star, although there were always the attendant ambiguities of the artistic life.

They opened for Grand Funk Railroad at the height of that band’s popularity, which, for those of you who don’t remember, was considerable. The ticket played Madison Square Garden and rocked the house, according to Deacon who made $35 for the night.

“It didn’t matter that it was a huge show before a zillion people with news reporters, celebrities, flashbulbs clicking the whole night, interviewers in our dressing room after the show, pictures in the papers the next day. The fans didn’t know that I didn’t have a nickel to my name. They didn’t know that I lived hand to mouth at home and on the road. I probably slept on a box spring that night. I was an organ sideman with nothing living the glamorous life on the road with a superstar.”

But even that came to an end. Again, with superstardom within a finger’s length, King died at the age of 41, leaving Jones to start all over again.

And start he did, introducing himself to the legendary John Lee Hooker and asking to sit in for one night that turned into many.

Again, Jones was close, but left without that fat cigar. He has some complaints about these big boys, their broken promises, the waiting until the next big break that never came, but that’s the arts. Deacon takes his space to gripe, but it is only a way of completing a picture mostly filled with the privilege of having talent and shared it with others in similar possession.

Hayes lets Jones tell it his way and Jones tells it well, in an authentic voice, carrying many a keen observation.

It’s not all music because when you’ve lived through such times and such people, you’ve been a part of history, too. A historical event is something that encompasses everybody, not just the direct protagonists.

For instance, while students and radicals were demonstrating at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley declared martial law.

“I was driving my station wagon one night, back to the house where we were all living near Hyde Park. I pulled up to a stoplight and heard chinka chinka chinka right next tome and I thought, what the hell is that? I looked over and a Sherman tank had pulled up along side of me - on Garfield Boulevard. A soldier’s head was sticking out of the little hole on the top of the tank and he was looking over at me. He pointed to his watch and I yelled out, ‘I know, I got 10 minutes.’

“He said, ‘You got far to go?’

“I said, ‘Just two minutes and I’ll be home.’

“He said, ‘You better hurry,’ and hurry I did.”

Deacon Jones is a black man and the story is laced with occurrences that could happen to a black man, without the organmeister necessarily pointing it out. In just one anecdote does he air his despair.

It involves a car trip from Los Angeles to South Carolina with a quarter pound of weed stashed somewhere in the vehicle and a New Mexico State patrolman. Without probably cause, but highly suspicious, the officer is unable to break the cool musicians’ united front.

Sending Jones back to the car, the cop begins to work over drummer Jeff Miller, a white guy, trying to “divide and conquer,” offering to let him go and arrest the black guys if he’d share the secret about where the drugs were.

“[A]ny time you’re looking at a police officer who has an American flag on his collar and handcuffs for a tie tac, he’s not going to take a bag of weed over there and dump it out. And by trying to divide us racially, you could tell he was a racist. He didn’t like two white guys and two black guys traveling together...

...He was the nightmare of America."

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