Wednesday, June 1, 1994

The Chicago Blues Festival

Here I am at the "mother" of all blues festivals, The Chicago Blues Festival (thanks to the generous encouragement of a wonderful lady called Rosemary). First night we signed up for the bus tour of South Side clubs which was sponsored by the Theresa Needham Foundation – she had been a great support to all the early bluesmen who arrived in Chicago in the fifties and now they wanted to convert her old club into some kind of social centre. Anyway, it was a great opportunity to see three clubs in one night (four, if you count Buddy Guy’s Legends where the tour started). The first club was called the Cuddle Inn and it will always occupy a special place in my heart because the style of guitar playing I heard there just made me realize that without even trying, I have developed a style which is closer to what I heard in those South Side clubs than what I hear from Toronto’s most accomplished blues guitarists. Interesting, considering my style evolved with hardly any influences – no blues record collection, no blues bands coming through town, and only one blues radio show on the French CBC. The singer at the Cuddle Inn was Johnny Laws which I would never have remembered if it hadn’t been painted on his old Cadillac convertible parked right in front of the club. Back in Toronto, I was trying to tell someone about the singer and couldn’t remember his name but the person I was talking to said right away “Was it Johnny Laws?” because he’s been playing that room for years. He was terrific – the way he worked the crowd – but as I saw over the next few days, that’s standard issue for a blues act. You say “how about the band!!! Give it up for the band. . .” then the band says “Let’s hear it for . . . whoever” and pretty soon they have the audience applauding themselves. The Cuddle Inn was really a hole in the wall and yet very big on premiums and merchandise – they hade these special foam holders for beer cans with their logo on it. Everybody got a bumper sticker. We got back on this old schoolbus with quite a cross section of blues devotees (including an entire Italian blues band); and went off to a couple of other rooms, the Celebrity Lounge and the Checkerboard, both similar establishments with similar shows. Each club synchronized their show with the bus arrivals and departures so that the minute we all got seated it was Showtime and they brought out all their special guests and put on a great show for us. We traveled to clubs on the North Side and the West Side as well.

I wanted to go to B.L.U.E.S. to see Jimmy Johnson because I had been playing a song of his for years. As we drove up, John Valenteyn said there he is – and he was standing outside the club on his break. We spoke to him and I asked if I could make a request. He said sure and I asked for “Strange How I Miss You”. This is a song I performed for years without knowing who wrote and/or sang it. But Jimmy doesn’t even remember right away. Then he turns to the drummer and says “. . . when I haven’t even lost you yet”. Jimmy says "naw, we don't do that anymore" but during his set he played a tune with exactly the same chord changes…only different lyrics and melody.

Then we got in a cab to come back to the hotel and the cab driver asked if we were in town for the bluesfest and told us not to miss Vernon Garett who was on the next day.

The last night we went to a club that was very different that the others and we saw Aaron Burton, Albert Collins’ old bass player backing up a guitarist called Jack Johnson. He had a very powerful style of guitar.