I am Born, but ---
I Ain’t Nothing but a Teenybopper
To earn my living, it is sometimes necessary for me to study English as well as other languages. I don’t mind a bit – I read all the time and it seems that there are always new words to learn, new roots to explore. But I am a little worried, however, that one of my favorite English words has passed from popular usage and may eventually fall out of the dictionary altogether, if it hasn’t already (and I have not peeked).
The word is teenybopper. I am one of the few people around who still use the word because that is what I am.
A teenybopper is a girl (or in my case, a grown woman) who left a good job in the city to visit Liverpool and take the Magical Mystery Tour, seeing all the homes where the Beatles grew up, in the process landing herself a Scouse boyfriend so that, upon her return to the States, when he rings her up, it sounds eerily as though John Lennon is speaking.
A teenybopper much prefers to say “the States” instead of “America.” It just sounds groovier. And when a teenybopper returns to the States, she can write “colour” for “color” and “favourite” for “favorite” and think she is oh, so hip, even if she is no hipper than before she went abroad.
No question, I am one old teenybopper. But to begin my life at the beginning of my life, that is how I came to consciousness and that is most likely how I will lose it. Teenybopper is a frame of mind as much as a label. I hung around musicians for a while when I was younger, booked bands into a seedy nightclub that became famous after I left it (don’t cha know), and “managed” that great euphemism “talent” for the standard percentage of the musicians’ gross revenues. I hung around that darling Doc Pomus (composer with Mort Schuman of “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me”) until he hired me in some jumped-up but silly capacity. And Dr. John the Night Tripper even answered my office phone one night, looked me dead in the eye and said, “Here, it’s for you.” (Although this was the extent of our personal interaction from that day to this, I was quite impressed that he knew the call was for me.)
But I also gave growing up a shot, and did not like it all that much.
Hence the retreat. I will no doubt die clinging to my life-long bias against men who wear white socks with black shoes simply because Sixteen Magazine once printed that this fashion faux pas was one of Paul McCartney’s pet peeves. He also did not drink milk, and I never drink milk, except in my tea, as does Her Majesty ER II. Teenybopper tenure has let me truly be me: a girl like you, a brown-eyed girl, a young girl, a younger girl, and a lovergirl, not to mention a scatterling of Africa. As well as: cold as ice, frozen, dirty-sweet, hungry, wonderful tonight, and urgent. I share with others of my ilk the knowledge of how Brian Jones really died; that Lou Christie, who had a hit with “Lightning Strikes” but not with his follow-up single (which I much preferred) “Rhapsody in the Rain” once owned a pet ocelot; and how there can never, ever be another Jimi Hendrix. Among other things I don’t need to know, I know: that the little blonde girl from the movie Exodus dated Macca and thought he was “fab”; that Elton John wrote “Tiny Dancer” for Genie the tailor; that Cher sang back-up with Darlene Love for Phil Spector; that Phil kept Ronnie locked up in the mansion decades before Tommy did it to Mariah; that Al Kooper, who played organ on “Like a Rolling Stone,” and was replaced by David Clayton-Thomas in Blood, Sweat and Tears and discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd in Georgia, was once known as the “true blue Jew”; that the connection between Duane Allman and Felix Cavaliere was a brilliant black-haired Bronx-born woman , now deceased, who loved tunafish and wrote the first hit record for the aforementioned Blood, Sweat and Tears; that one of Hollywood’s busiest soundtrack composers, the recently deceased Michael Kamen, used to front something called the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble; that DJ Allison (the “Nightbird”) Steele’s favorite group was the Moody Blues, and all the names of the Beatles’ parents and siblings. Beyond knowing this miasma of drivel, I awake every day hoping that I will never have to hear the Bee Gees again.
I can even tell you, without having conducted statistical analysis, that the vast majority of the most desirable musicians in the world at some point in their lives have become romantically involved with girls named Linda. My will contains a clause disinheriting my only sibling should he ever do the same foolhardy thing. Adolescents can be so stubborn.
(As far back as I can remember, music was for me a bridge into a foggy ‘nother land. I must have enjoyed both music and food tremendously, because the first song I can remember singing to myself went something like this:
Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, jingle all the way
Oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh-ayy!
Bells on bobtails ring,
Making spare ribs rice.
Let me explain. In the neighborhood where I grew up, there was one unshakeable custom which nearly all families observed: Chinese food on Sunday night. We consumed it either in a local restaurant or at home and, back then, before I ever visited Hong Kong or had Chinese friends and knew any better, egg rolls, spare ribs and fried rice were the delicacies of choice. Whatever else “Jingle Bells” may have been about, it was to me, first and always, about Chinese food.)
It takes an unusual confluence of guilelessness, guts and futility to be a ‘bopper. We are not groupies – just ask Miss Pamela Des Barres, who had all the fun, while we teenyboppers were dumb enough to believe our male pals who rang us up, claiming to be Hendrix just saying hello. We were the ones who stood around and flashed our badges from Datebook Magazine at security so we could interview the performers, while frantically eyeing the groupies who went through the backstage doors minus any pass. I saw these girl-visions, these impossibly beautiful nymphettes, for the first time when the (Young) Rascals cancelled a performance at Westbury Music Fair and I had to watch the Yardbirds perform instead. (What a pity!) The Rascals were always canceling their shows, but I no longer hold that against them. It has been revealed over the course of time how busy they were, not to mention what “Groovin’ on a Sunday afternoon” really meant. Another euphemism. Sunday afternoons were the only times they could see their girlfriends; the fact that they turned an ode to afternoon delight into one of the most enduring and freshest blue-eyed soul hits ever produced was just luck, I guess. The Rascals made some other fine records before they followed Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons into national notoriety as a legendary oldies band. As a burgeoning bopper, I nicknamed their leader Felix “Ecstasy” Cavaliere because he loved that word so much he used it in almost every song he wrote. SLACSAR (that’s Rascals spelt backwards) Publishing, Inc., did nearly as much for sex education in the urban Northeast United States as the precocious horny girls who went to Catholic school and let the rest of us in on the secret. There was one wild girl named Josephine, whose parents yanked her out of our co-ed junior high and sent her to the Sisters. I remember sitting around someone’s living room while Josephine used the Rascals’ “A Girl Like You” to define, explain and illustrate an erection:
Must be you-ooo—
Who brings out this feeling in me
Must be you-ooo
Who fills me confidently
Must be you-ooo
Who brings the best out in me…..
You—ooooo --- nobody but you!
I thought this was disgusting and found it hard to grasp at first.
But here was an exciting new concept to add to the already established doctrine of “ecstasy” which, Felix made me see, had something to do with the culmination of romantic love and orgasm, neither or which, of course, we knew much about at the time. Well, the then-popular novel, The World of Suzy Wong, hinted at the latter by using the word “cataclysm” – I do remember going to the dictionary for that one.
So there we were, a bunch of baby boppers, waiting for our first dose of ecstasy in the form of a “cataclysm,” preferably with Macca or the Rascals’ Eddie, or Peter Sabatino of the Vagrants (Lesley West’s first band). I much preferred little Eddie because, you see, it takes more maturity than a teenybopper possesses to appreciate fully the charms of a Felix or a John Lennon. They were men. When one is only ten or twelve years old, fellows like these can seem a bit overwhelming, even unattractive. First, Jimi Hendrix had to arrive back home in the States, via his rightful recognition in London as a major new talent, to do his number on the sweet young things, after Eric Burdon lit the flame and stirred our pot. And, combined, their nightscope accuracy was 100%. (By the way, even after long inquiry and my most recent trip to England, I still cannot tell my friends the secret with which I have been tantalizing them for the past three years: exactly what was it that Eric Burdon did with the raw eggs he broke over the bodies of his lovers?) Men like these were, to us little Northeast schoolgirls, the equivalent of what Howlin’ Wolf and Merle Haggard must have been to Southern girls: scary. And make no mistake, we didn’t want the Monkees or David Cassidy – we lusted after Gordon Lightfoot, Stevie Winwood and Donovan.
What we hadn’t attained yet was the full-blown maturity one needs to appreciate all past, present and deceased members of the Band, a maturity I confess I did not possess when I saw them back Bob Dylan at his historic New Year’s Eve concert at the Academy of Music long ago. Levon Helm, who was there from the start, and will figure prominently in this account (though not in the same way he figures prominently in his own written account of his years with the Band!) has been quoted as saying, “The Band never got attacked by groupies.” This may seem far-fetched but I can state with certainty that the Band surely had no teenyboppers in their stable. They were men who didn’t dress fine, and not glamorous enough for us.
Levon came from a place called Turkey Scratch, somewhere just outside the town of Helena, Arkansas, and the remaining Band member’s beginnings are too well-known to repeat here. Let me just begin my tale by saying –
I got the call!
And when I got the call, I was up in Ottawa studying blues on the diatonic, or ten-hole, harmonica, which I had been doing for about four months. “We will be teaching harp to little kids in the Mississippi Delta,” coaxed the executive producer of the Sonny Boy Williamson Harp Summit and Teach-In. “And at night we will be jamming in Memphis and Helena, Arkansas!” Although it may be the home of the blues, the only gut-level Babinski reflex that the city of Memphis, Tennessee incites in a teenybopper is to recognize that it was recently home to the late Jeff Buckley, talented son of our beloved and too early-late Tim Buckley, who during his brief fame easily snatched the Wistful Waif Award away from Donovan. She did not need to coax me very much.
Well, you take a true teenybopper, age her a good many years, plunk her down in the great Dominion of Canada and invite her to a blues harp shindig, and what do you get? Not only do you get a rather learned Band fan who regrets all those missed opportunities, you get visions of arriving in the sweltering Delta a la Robbie Robertson, resembling a Russian refugee in a heavy overcoat, just like when he got his call – the Hawk, Ronnie Hawkins, calling 16-year-old Robbie up in Toronto and saying, “Okay, kid, you wanna be in the band? I’m sending you bus fare to Arkansas.”
Like young Robbie 30 years earlier, what more could one desire? Like him, I was on my way, even if I had to pay, on my way to the great Mystery, the catacombs of Cataclysm, the evil and the Ecstasy, everything I was raised for as a true teenybopper – men, music and moonshine – the Delta!
But wait! I’ve been here before!
Bluesmen all know, or know of, each other. Blues harp men know every nuance of technique, every lick and riff, every competitor, progenitor and imitator who has been here and gone, is here already, or might be coming round the corner. They know the classic songs, the legend of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil, the original heroes such as Sonny Boy Williamson II (whom we were there to honor that weekend), as well as every other musician who ever bent a note.
But I was just a blues baby, a lil ole gal only recently “recalled to life” as Charles Dickens would say, after burying the blues way back of my head during all the years that have passed since I used to book blues bands into Tramps in New York City (before it was famous). I had changed careers since then and spent much time abroad – there was no doubt that with all the Tom Waits, Terence Trent D’Arby and Tears for Fears enveloping me for eons, I had buried the blues way down in Jumpsturdyland – just taking them out occasionally to dust the blues broom.
So I had come “a far piece,” as Faulkner’s Lena Grove would say, when I arrived in Memphis on the eve of the Sonny Boy Williamson Harp Summit and Teach-in last December. It was billed as an ambitious project drawing some of the best harpists from around the country to teach small children (some said to be Sonny Boy’s direct descendants) how to play harmonica at the Black Bayou Elementary School in Williamson’s hometown of Glendora, Mississippi. For those who do not know, Sonny Boy Williamson II (yes, there were two) was almost as fascinating a character as Robert Johnson. Born in a year unknown, he was one of the first musicians to excel on harp as a lead instrument, and throughout his long and lucky life played with everyone. He was not merely a prodigy and virtuoso – his talents extended to writing and interpreting classics that have been adapted by rockers around the world, especially 1960’s England. “Don’t start me to talkin’,” he sang, “I’ll tell effithing I know!” “Fattening Frogs for Snakes,” “Your Funeral and My Trial,” “Same Girl,” “Help Me.” Perhaps fittingly, his original harmonica may be viewed in the Bluesville Museum housed within one of the casinos that now provide 99% of Tunica, Mississippi’s economic prosperity. If you can call it a museum – I like it because it plays an endless loop of The Last Waltz. Robbie and that scarf!
After six months of practice and plenty of book learning about blues harp, I brought nothing meaningful whatsoever to the conference, just a desire to help out, learn technique and experience a weekend of ear candy. There were plenty of other amateurs too, some from as far away as Caracas. Amateur or pro, all the musicians donated their time and energy to the kids of Glendora, many covering their own travel expenses. The bluesmen brought their axes, their favorite microphones, their customized amp cases and the CD’s they sell from their trucks, and they all knew each other. They were oh, so knowledgeable about Sonny Boy Williamson and the blues.
But what the men don’t know, the little girls understand.
I can barely play harp in cross position. (This is not something one does with the legs. Rather, “cross harp” is a way of playing holes 2 through 6 on the diatonic harmonica that changes the key to a blues scale.) I can’t bend any note lower than 3-draw worth a damn, but I wore earrings crafted of Turkish gold to the Friday night kickoff gig at B.B. King’s nightclub on Beale Street. Never having visited Memphis before, I found this to be a funky and brilliant place; it would be months before I learned the local lore that “only tourists go there.”
But can one be a tourist if one drives 60 miles each way every weekend?
Before the show began, our troupe found some fine seats and I watched the dance floor, especially one couple wearing what any urban guerilla might mistake for park ranger uniforms. It turns out that they are not park rangers, but Rose and her husband Mac from Jackson, Tennessee, always dress alike.
Rose stopped the show, dancing to “Owner of A Lonely Heart.” Now perhaps I am not quite the hoofer she is, but you would never catch me dancing to that song. How charming, I thought, these Memphis people are not musical snobs! The crowd roared for Rose, but went absolutely wild when Mac joined her. Part of their routine is a long pause, followed by smooth, gliding steps and belligerent fake fucking moves. They must be the best, and best-known, club dancers in the entire South. When Rose cried out for the crowd to join her, they obeyed. She had almost 30 people line-dancing to Kool and the Gang before “Celebrate” was over. Mac leaned over the dance floor like a border collie, stationary although clearly in charge, just watching his herd. Young local girls who resembled Phoebe Cates and Sophie B. Hawkins could do nothing with their lithe bodies until Rose took them and lined them up. When a teenage kid approached her, she grabbed his behind and yelled, “I got a man!” She beckons people from the ground floor as well as the balcony whenever she wants company or Mac is sitting one out. And he always wears a hat.
The undeservedly local Junkyardmen featuring harpist extraordinaire Billy Gibson opened the set and backed the guest stars for the evening. I’ve got to fancy a band who sings, “I’m a Junkyardman, I’m a Junkyardman, Honey, take your time Cos all my best parts is used.”
New Orleans Rockin’ Jake Jacobs opened his set with Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” stomping around in a shiny black suit and white fedora. (On the way down to the gig, Rockin’ Jake taught me his first rule of playing: “Floss, brush, and rinse!”)
Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone, quite plausibly the Kris Kristofferson of the harp world, came onstage to blow some brilliant trills and triplets in his tribute to Sonny Boy. One thing is for sure about this man: he does not hurry himself along. Somebody later grumbled a bit grudgingly and not without envy, I thought, that Sansone is so cool he is almost too cool. He mumbles some of his lyrics. But what women at B.B.’s cared? They just stared.
Blind Mississippi Morris, born in Clarksdale, but gigging regularly around the States and Europe these days, whipped out his Hohner Golden Melody and wailed some singular stuff: “Highway 61,” “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and other chestnuts. When we were introduced, he told me I’d be “bending by the weekend.” While a teenybopper instinctively comprehends the word “bend” in the sense in which Bob Marley famously used it, professional harpmen do not. For diatonic harmonica players, bending is an important technical requirement, the mouth’s manipulation of indrawn air that produces several “missing” notes, the notes, in fact, which are blue to the bone. I learned a lot about the Golden Melody from Morris: how purty it sounds, how it radiates tone but is not recommended for beginners or those with little or no lung power. Morris said to me, “You go get a Big River for seven and a half dollars; yore just a child.” Later, he would sing “Little Red Rooster” whenever I was around and teach me what the lyrics meant, but I confess that I am still a bit confused about why it is too lazy to cross the road.
With all the traveling, teaching and talking going on during the weekend, I didn’t get to practice much, but by Monday noon, I guess I fulfilled Morris’ promise when I performed live on the historic King Biscuit Time, Radio Station KFFA 1330, Helena, Arkansas, at the invitation of show host “Sunshine” Sonny Payne. As blues scholars know, this is the radio program on which Williamson first guested and then became a regular, after bags of King Biscuit Flour began flying off the shelves.
Visiting the new, lovingly decorated building from which King Biscuit Time is broadcast daily was our second trip to Helena, Arkansas. Talk about history! Not only is funky, charming Helena the location of the Sonny Boy Blues Society and Bubba’s Blues Shoppe but, to a teenybopper, its two most notable contributions to the world of music are Levon Helm and the “Hawk,” Ronnie (“Who do you love?”) Hawkins. Well, Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, but I bet if you lived there you had to ride the buggy into Helena for your feed and seed of a Saturday. Teenyboppers know that the Hawk, a fierce ladies’ man who was first turned out by his babysitter not ten miles from where I was then sitting, actually went on to discover the original Hawks, who became the Band, long before Bob Dylan did, paid all the outstanding telephone bills left by John and Yoko at the Hawkins home in Toronto, boasts of sexual staying power second only to Kristofferson’s, and performed with his old back-up boys at Winterland in The Last Waltz. A place that generated the likes of that was our destination on Saturday night. If, of course, we could first find our little schoolhouse.
So what exactly happened down at Black Bayou Elementary School that weekend, on the anniversary of Sonny Boy Williamson’s birthday? Glendora’s Mayor Johnny Thomas and Principal Hull Franklin had arranged for their first- through sixth-graders to come into school and learn some harp. The school itself, a one-storey building with eight classrooms, is located in a field about ten miles from any place most Americans would recognize as a town and Mississippi’s budget, or lack thereof, was about to shut it down.
Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the country and Glendora itself looks unchanged from the days before juice flooded the delta. Property values? Maybe in a soft currency. A couple of what folks used to call “filling stations” and a grocery store with a hinged door that makes the strange sound a door makes only when it’s constructed half of wood and half of screen. This was not the stylized and funny-looking South of ramshackle houses with cars on blocks in the front yard, the South of Bobbie Ann Mason and Dorothy Allison. No one here owns a car. When I first saw it, I thought that the Glendora Municipal Building resembled an antebellum cookhouse. The little girls’ room in Black Bayou Elementary School offered its students no toilet tissue. I didn’t go into that little grocery store because I feared I might see something we don’t have up north called horehound candy and I might think of the novel Andersonville; I feared my heart might break.
How many years ago had the people at Woodstock yelled, “Two days of fun and music and nothing but fun and music”? Add some lower education and that’s why we were in Mississsippi.
When it all began late Saturday morning, amidst almost unimaginable chaos, Mayor Thomas and Principal Franklin welcomed the musicians and the whole gang got down to work. There was Paul DeLay out of Portland, the harp man’s harpist, a champion among bluesmen who on both days graciously accepted the largest group of students, and taught them some (I thought) advanced playing techniques. For instance, I was noodling about in his class when he instructed us that you can bend any note from 1 to 6 down, and any note from 7 to 10 up. And here I had been thinking that you can’t touch the 5! DeLay jazzed those kids, to the point where as they crowded around him for autographs on Sunday afternoon, they were blowing well enough to make me cringe with Ican’tdoitness.
Down the hall was Steve Cheseborough, a true scholar, a guy whose blues erudition is cemented by his status as columnist for Living Blues Magazine as well as a graduate student at Ole Miss’s superb Center for the Study of Southern Culture. He may in fact be the blues equivalent of a teenybopper with a graduate degree: one goes to Cheseborough to find out who originally sang “Polly Put the Kettle On,” on what label and in what year.
Each teacher encountered at least one kid who demonstrated ability unexpected in a beginner. This made the pitfalls worthwhile for everybody: the opportunity to inspire, to light a flame, to encourage. And the pitfalls were aplenty, if petty: lunch was late and the children were of course served first so there were some powerful hungry harpmen around, the plant was hot and unventilated, the Glendora restaurateur who was supposed to supply lunch ran out of vittles, and our Executive Producer was unable to attend. But listening to Blind Mississippi Morris, himself a prolific granddad, can stave off anybody’s hunger for a while.
None of the children had any prior experience on the harp. Two of the event’s corporate sponsors, including the Southern Music Network, each donated a case of one hundred harps, and these kids were so happy to receive them. Unfortunately, quite a few forgot to bring them back the next day. But amid the predictable shrieks of “She took my chair!” there was some damn good improv going on. Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes had the smarts to teach his class outdoors – from across a cottonfield, I could hear him exhorting his students not to “ever give up this little harp. It will take you wherever you want to go. If you aint got no shoes, you can get you some shoes with your harp.” A master showman as well as orator, Barnes whipped out an accordion too.
These kids may well be Sonny Boy Williamson’s descendants, for many of them hollered that they wanted to be with their cousins and, as we engraved their names on their “diplomas,” it became evident that many of them were indeed related. I didn’t meet any students named Williamson but neither did I run into any Snopeses.
As someone who at least resembled a grown-up, though, I received lots of personalized instruction. (Let us also not overlook the fact that I was the only girl in the bunch.) Apologies if I am mistaken on this point, but I believe it was a nice Georgia lad who explained that one can get purer bends using the tongue blocking method than by lipping. Why? Because you fold your tongue in half and get a more precise covering of the embouchere! Then there was Fast Eddie Galvin, an adoring disciple of Junior Wells, from Virginia. He taught his kids how to “kiss” their harps, making little smacking, smooching sounds that geckos are known for, and he demonstrated birdcalls in the harp’s upper registers. The kids were so turned on that little John Jeffers had everyone autograph his T-shirt and I nicknamed him the “Trickster” because he was so good for a player of only two days. And William McIntire, who did not make it on Saturday but showed up for class on Sunday, loved playing the harmonica so much that his mama made sure he got his certificate of completion just like the rest of the kids.
One harpman imparted a unique approach to bending when I questioned him. “It’s all in the back of your mouth where you make the sound ‘K,’” he said. “What? Kuh? Kuh, kuh? Huh?” “Yes,” he said, “that’s where the control comes from.” As I roamed the school’s corridors asking various players how can they talk while simultaneously inhaling, every single one of them demonstrated for me – the lot of them sounding like so many goof-offs on helium.
Charlie Sayles, from Washington, DC, told the film crew interviewing him that he thought of Sonny Boy Williamson as a friend when he listened to him, laughing at his “goat” references and other amusements. Sayles grew up in Massachusetts listening to Patti Page; as a suave Northerner, he had always thought that harmonica was just some twanging hillbilly thing. Until he heard Sonny Boy do “Bye Bye Burdon” with the Yardbirds. Now, any self-respecting teenybopper knows the difference between the Yardbirds and the Animals, but Charlie wasn’t that far off. I happen to own a recording of Sonny Boy singing this song with the Animals, wherein Eric Burdon sings right back, “Bye Bye Sonny.” But guess what, he did it with the Yardbirds too. Hey, wish I could say the same thing! Confidentially, Sayles imparted to me his secret to playing: you’ve got to be in control of your band. That’s the whole thing – how to control them, slow them down, lead them. I thought this bit of advice rather advanced for someone in my position, but he cautioned, “Never you mind. As long as you’re in charge, you’ll be all right.”
On Saturday night, the blues harpmen jammed at the Sonny Boy Blues Society, a cute little joint on Helena’s Cherry Street, possessing none of Beale Street’s glamor, or former glamor if you will – but if you swill, look out! I had my first taste of something Southern down there; I’m not exactly sure what it was, but someone handed me a bottle wrapped in paper with a cap marked XXX! Corn likker? White lightning? Faulkner’s famous Memphis red whiskey? Who knows, but its backwoods snap sure curled my Yankee toes. I took one sip and the dimples started shining. I loved it and hoped that, perhaps, since it hits you right in the diaphragm (and I do mean the one we all have above the waist), it might increase my lung power. It was about as much fun passing that bottle back and forth with the boys as it had been at high school basement parties, the teenybopper’s raison d’etre. Backstage, a colleague and I were going over some paperwork when a musician I had not heard before took the stage: the sweet-natured Mark Sallings, from down near Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, and for whom the Hawk used to babysit! I had drunk just enough cornpone, or whatever it was, to start hollering at this news when I learned it – the two words “Hawk” and “babysitter” used in the same sentence tending to wipe out all claims to sanity, since it was Ronnie Hawkins’ babysitter who turned him out initially down there in Turkey Scratch but, as you can see, I was all wrong. This was not what Sallings was telling me. No. This unassuming country boy, who bears a distant but visible resemblance to Roy Orbison, fronts the Famous Unknowns, and is another of those guys as skilled on chromatic harp as he is on diatonic. His second number was a wailful original called “Blue Acres” – that’s when the papers I was perusing nearly flew across the room. I could hear Mark’s every note just fine from where I was, and I was stunned. With a dirge so mournful, I wouldn’t mind Mark Sallings being in my number when the saints go marching in.
Rumor circulated late Saturday afternoon that Sugar Blue’s plane from Chicago had landed, so that evening I wore a hand-painted Balinese shirt and enormoust gold earrings shaped like dice. This was big stuff. Don’t believe that the other harp men really know what this guy’s version of the Williamson classic “Help Me” does to the little girls:
Bring me my nightshirt
Put on your morning gown
Bring me my nightshirt
Put on your morning gown
I’m not sleepy
I feel like lying down.
Maybe it’s his leather cap that does the girls in. Getting antsy around midnight, I decided that if he wasn’t going to play “Help Me” in Helena, I’d just have to pack my morning gown and bring it to school the next day. But hallelujah, he did show up, along with Frank Frost and Sam Carr and a mean-looking Houston Stackhouse, Jr. Sugar was worth the wait, too. The great harpists expressed a wide divergence of opinion on his unique style of playing, from “too technical and pure” to “absolutely breathtaking.” I even got him to play my harp back at the hotel after I mangled the riff he so brilliantly executed on the Stones’ “Miss You.” I simply had to show him that I knew his music; my one teeny-B regret was that I had no convenient girlfriend to phone up and squeal to: “Guess who I’m with!?”
You know a gig is great when you see one luminary onstage filming other luminaries in action. Johnny Sansone did just that Saturday night when Sallings pulled out his sax and played with Arthur Williams, Sugar Blue and Charlie Sayles. I had not expected anything to sound or feel better than the performance in Memphis Friday, but in many ways this did, and I never even got to hear “Help Me.” Of course, the true teenybopper would rather hang out with Sugar Blue at 3:00AM in the hotel lobby than hear him perform anyway, so it was kind of a wash.
The harpists might be bluesologists, but not one of them knew whereof I got my moniker, Jumpsturdy, a lapse I found quite surprising at the time but no longer do. Is New Orleans R & B so removed from the arcana of pure blues that no one knows, or has even heard of, Mac Rebennack’s first Atco release, Dr. John the Night Tripper, Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya? Atco was sort of the psychedelic subsidiary of Jerry Wexler’s Atlantic Records -- he of the infamous “I stole Aretha from Columbia and gave her her first hit because they didn’t know what to do with her” coup – one of the few non-musicians to have deserved his Brass Note on Beale Street – no small change, he. This Mac Rebennack of whom I speak even stole Levon Helm’s girl once, generating one of his (Dr. John’s) biggest hits:
You came here with my best friend Jim
Now here I am
Trying to steal you away from him
Oh, but if I don’t do it, you know somebody else will
Now here we were down in the Delta, not 300 miles from New Orleans’ Ninth Ward and next door to Levon’s Turkey Scratch, and the harpmen said, “Jumpsturdy? I heard of Rock Steady but I aint never heard of Jumpsturdy.” A parenthetical note is in order here, and it cannot fit in a footnote. When a ghostwriter found him and started him to talking, Dr. John couldn’t no ways tell everything he knew, he knew so much. In his autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon, the Doctor relates very funkily how he began his convoluted career as a pianist and guitarist in the New Orleans clubs and recording studios of the 1950’s, later working with such greats as Allen Toussaint, Lee Dorsey, all the Neville Brothers and the Meters before crossing over into psychedelia in 1967 with his witch doctor thang. If he aint R & B, he’s something else again. He might not play blues harp, but his duet with Etta James of “I’d Rather Go Blind” is one of the most unforgettable pairings in the history of Southern soul.
So is there an element of soul lacking in bluesology? You wouldn’t think so to hear these guys on their chromes, diatonics, and vocals, but I really don’t know. It didn’t sound to me as though the rhythm was missing. But –
As we were crossing the Old Man on the way to Helena on Saturday night, we passed a strange, anachronistic-looking casino on the Mississippi side. It was not too far from the casino on Tennessee Williams’ tragic Moon Lake, where Blanche Dubois’ young lover shot himself during the waltz, a lake now developed into a sportsman’s paradise, bereft of blackjack for decades. (When a Southern man as sweet as cherry pie drove me back there on our way to Memphis, I remembered the waltz from the movie soundtrack and hummed it for him at the top of my lungs.) But on Saturday evening as we passed the Lady Luck casino, it was advertising Morris Day and the Tyme. From Prince’s stable, he once had a national hit called “Jungle Love.” Some of us in the car driving west on a bridge across the Mississippi River to Helena, Arkansas, on a Saturday night remembered that hit, some of us did not, and some of us didn’t even know who Prince was, let alone Morris Day.
“Hooey!” I thought. “Good thing I’m still a teenybopper.”
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