Everybody understands the blues
Ain’t it the truth. If you’ve ever been down, sad, miserable or otherwise out of sorts, then you’ve had the blues.
Getting rid of the blues can be as simple as listening to the blues, one of the oldest American song forms and musical styles around.
“If you’re feeling low, the blues picks you up like a spirit,” says John Lee Hooker, the veteran guitarist/singer who won a 1989 Best Traditional Blues Grammy for his rendition, with Bonnie Raitt, of “I’m in the Mood.”
Blues lovers and other enthusiasts can get their fair share of a wide variety of the blues from Benson & Hedges Blues, a weeklong festival of free and ticketed blues performances that begins tonight and roars on until Sunday.
Blues greats Hooker, B.B. King, Dr. John and Stevie Ray Vaughan, along with many Los Angeles area musicians--Doug MacLeod, Bernie Pearl and Jimmy and Jeannie Cheatham among them--will take part in the festival, which will feature shows at area venues from Banger’s in Tarzana to Marla’s Memory Lane in Los Angeles. The event is highlighted by a concert by King, Hooker, Joe Cocker, John, Vaughan and Irma Thomas at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa on Saturday. That concert is also a benefit--$1 from each ticket sold will go to Shelter Partnership Inc., an umbrella organization that aids a variety of groups that work with the homeless in Los Angeles County.
The celebration, which is produced by George Wein’s Festival Productions, kicks off tonight with five “Stormy Monday” shows in nightclubs across Southern California, including guitarist MacLeod at Reuben’s in Redondo Beach, singer Dee Dee McNeil at Cafe Lido in Newport Beach and singer/guitarist Roy Gaines at Moody’s in the downtown L.A.'s Sheraton Grand Hotel.
This year marks the first time Los Angeles is a site for the festival, which debuted in St. Louis, Atlanta and New York in 1988 and will be held in five cities in 1990. “We chose Los Angeles because of its heritage in the rhythm and blues field,” says Jane Yusko, manager of the festival for Benson & Hedges.
The recognition is a long time coming as far as Johnny Otis is concerned. Otis has been an integral part of the Southland’s R&B; scene--which he defines as a mixture of “blues, jazz and gospel"-- since the mid-'40s.
“We’ve been grossly overlooked in terms our contribution to the history of rhythm and blues. Los Angeles was the one of most important and earliest incubators of R&B;,” says the man who discovered such artists as singers Charles Brown and the late Esther Phillips, and who is perhaps best known for his 1958 hit, “Willie and the Hand Jive.”
Indeed, from the mid-'40s to mid-'50s, such artists as pianist Floyd Dixon, guitarists T-Bone Walker (composer of “Stormy Monday Blues”), Lowell Fulson and Pee Wee Crayton, saxmen Louis Jordan and and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and singers Big Joe Turner and Big Mama Thornton (who wrote “Hound Dog”) either made Los Angeles their home or worked here extensively. They often performed in the Central Avenue area, long renowned for the presence of jazz giants like Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon and Art Tatum, but a showcase for many blues and R&B; musicians as well.
Bernie Pearl, who produces the annual Long Beach blues festival in September and who, in association with Festival Productions, helped coordinate talent for this week’s festival, says that while the blues scene here has rarely hit the heights of the ‘40s and ‘50s heydays, things are looking up.
“It seems like we’ve reached a stage where blues is an accepted part of the (music) scene, whereas a few years ago, it was unusual to see blues acts,” Pearl says. “And a lot of local artists like (harmonica player) James Harman and (guitarist) Phillip Walker also tour out-of-town often.”
And if blues is on the rise in the Southland--clubs such as the Music Machine, the Grand Avenue Bar and St. Mark’s spotlight blues regularly--it seems its appeal is also on the upswing on a national and international basis.
“The blues are hot,” says Hooker, whose “I’m in the Mood” was originally a Number One R&B; hit in 1951. “They’re being appreciated the way they should have been appreciated a long time ago. Young fans are coming out and everywhere I go it’s a sell-out.”
Younger artists like Vaughan and Robert Cray are in the spotlight, spreading the blues word. “People like Stevie Ray turn their audiences on to men like B.B. King, Albert Collins or whoever, and it really helps,” says Mac Rebennack, also known as Dr. John.
The Louisiana-born Rebennack has his own reasons for the enduring, although not always highly commercial, presence of the blues on the American popular music scene. “It’s real,” he says. “Anyway you chop it up, you can’t dodge this thing. Either you get real and you deal with it or you just melt. The blues is crucial chronic music. It’s like six by six--as serious as death.”
Other events on tap are the “Boat Full of Blues,” a cruise around L.A. harbor with Pearl, John Mayall and Floyd Dixon, departing from Pier 93C, San Pedro, on Friday, 8 p.m., (213) 426-4616; an evening of rare blues films screened by archivist Mark Cantor at the Laemmle’s Monica Fourplex in Santa Monica on Tuesday, 7:30 p.m., (213) 394-0741; a seminar on the “Art of Blues Songwriting,” with Johnny Otis, Dixon, and others in Kinsey Auditorium, Exposition Park, Los Angeles, on Saturday, 11 a.m., (213) 450-8859; and a tribute to the “Women in the Blues,” with Clora Bryant, Ms. Bright Eyes, Mickey Champion and more at the Palace, Hollywood, Sunday, noon, (213) 462-6031. The latter three events are free. For complete festival information: (213) 396-2797.