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Livin with the Blues in Salina
When Stan Ricker called to ask me to fly out for a two-day blues event organized by Chad Kassem of Blue Heaven Studios in Salina, Kansas, it didnt take me long to say yes. Chad, the founder of Acoustic Sounds, probably the largest source of high quality LPs and CDs in the world, purchased a beautiful old four-story church in Salina a few years ago. Since then, he has gone to heroic measures to convert it into a world-class recording studio and concert hall. Chad has worked tirelessly to bring predominantly aging blues artistsmany of whom are under-recognized, most of whom have been grievously underpaid, and nearly all of whom have had very hard livesinto his studio to be recorded in state-of-the-art sound, so that their artistry can be preserved for posterity. In addition, he has now produced three annual concerts. This years concert, "Blues Masters at the Crossroads," was a resounding success for both music and the human spirit. Just ask anyone who was fortunate enough to have been present.
This year, Chad asked Stan Ricker, the consummate master of the craft of mastering LPs, to record these blues masters in the studio with the direct-to-disk LP cutting technique. This was a chance to make real recording history, since some of these gentlemen had never been recorded with state-of-the-art sound, and none of them have ever been recorded direct-to-disk. Furthermore, the direct-to-disk technique has not been used for audio recording for many years, to the authors knowledge.
LPs are usually cut from an analog tape. The direct-to-disk technique eliminates intervening storage media, and gets us closer to the performance by cutting the master LP lacquer in real time during the performance, straight from the microphones through the electronics to the cutter head that inscribes the grooves in the soft LP master lacquer. Many feel that this purist technique results in the finest possible recorded sound quality, but note that an entire record side has to be done in a single take, which can make life very difficult for the poor engineer on the receiving end of the feed. Stan made it look easy, which is the hallmark of a true professional.
Chad also asked Stan to record portions of the live performances direct-to-disk, as an experiment. To the authors knowledge, direct-to-disk recording has always been done under controlled conditions, in that the musicians could be asked to be silent between cuts, they could be asked to redo a record side if necessary, and any audience had to remain silent. This was certainly true of the studio recordings described above, but with a concert in front of an appreciative audience, there are no retakes and little margin for error. Stan had to roll with the punches, and punches there were. He had to deal with ad hoc events, with playing that was more energetic than in rehearsal, with songs of varying length, and with sudden foot stomps from musicians that in one case sent the cutting stylus airborne. Every side was a flying start, with the sound brought up in the lead-in groove. Unlike perhaps any record youve ever heard, audience noise, applause, or music was recorded in the lead-in and lead-out grooves, as well as in the "spiral" between cuts. This may or may not result in pressings that will actually be released, but if they are, it will be a first. No one has been brave (crazy?) enough to authorize or to attempt this type of recording under such conditions. Chad showed a real sense of adventure in trying it at all. Stan boldly went where no one had gone before, and (to all appearances) came out unscathed.
The combined opportunity to see what magic Chad had wrought in the
middle of Kansas, to meet some phenomenal blues artists and watch them play and sing their
hearts out, and to see Stan make recording history, was more than enough for me. When Chad
said "Just get yourself here, and well take care of you," he wasnt
kidding: I wound up living pretty comfortably in the basement of the church, enjoyed three
great meals a day in the churchs large and rather chaotic kitchen, and lived and
breathed the blues for three solid days. As George "Wild Child" Butler pointed
out, "Youre getting the blues right where it started. It started in the
The effort that Chad has put into Blue Heaven Studios really shows. He spent approximately $60,000 on the electrical service alone, with dedicated transformers outside and some very serious wiring inside (some of which serves elsewhere as very robust underwater cable). Chad put an order of magnitude more money into the recording studio within the church. The initial transformation into a world-class studio was wrought by Neil Muncy. Studio manager John Brandt made later modifications. The church is enormous, "a treasure trove of hidey places" according to Stan, but big as this multistory edifice is, every room seems to serve a purpose. And as Stan so succinctly put it, that purpose is to realize "Music and recording technology melded together in Salina."
On Saturday morning, I found myself having breakfast with no less than six of the pioneers of the blues. Despite their hard lives and the number of times they have been cheated out of what was rightfully theirs, I found these gentlemen to be generally personable, witty, loquacious, and full of good stories (some of which are definitely unsuitable for reproduction here).
Lazy Lester, when asked by someone if you needed a harmonica to play the blues, said "No, youve got everything you need, this [pointing to his heart], this [pointing to his mouth], and this [pointing to his brain]." When asked if it was difficult to sing the blues, he replied, "Theres nothin to it. Just jump in, start it up, and haul ass." He told me that "Ive only got one life story, and you can only turn it around twice. Ive worked a hundred years, and havent made any money. Thats it." And the sad part of it is, for many of these artists and others like them, that is it. (I later found out that one of the other musicians, who put on an absolutely astounding show for us, cannot afford to own a car. Thats a tragic state of affairs and a sad commentary on the music business.)
The day before the first concert, Lester quipped, "Tomorrow, were kickin butt and takin names." Does that sound lazy to you? I didnt think so. Lester is a very friendly, low-key, and humorous guy. When describing his job, he noted that "Being a musician is a lot like working in a fish market. Its a dirty job, but someones got to do it." As someone who once worked as a lumberjack in Louisiana, Lester is no stranger to dirty jobs.
Weepin Willie Robinson told me that he spent part of his childhood in Winter Garden, Florida. In 1939, when he was 13, he was living with his father in a shack beside a graveyard. The shack was also the storage area for bodies scheduled for burial the next day, which must have made for some pretty bad dreams. Later that same year, his father put him on a truck bound for a farm in New Jersey where they needed some extra hands, and that was the last he saw of him. His mother had died three years earlier. While living down south, Willie got to know water moccasins, cottonmouths, and all sorts of other nasty snakes (as did I, as a kid growing up in nearby Winter Park). Willie noted that "The rattler is the only snake that will warn you to get away," a quality Ill bet he wishes was shared by some of the human snakes-in-the-grass he ran across later during his many years working Boston nightclubs. He described a rough-and-tumble life of being stabbed, shot twice, and dealing with various neer-do-wells in the tougher neighborhoods of Boston. But he also made a lot of friends, and sooner or later people started leaving him alone. He got his start in music while working with B.B. King as an emcee, knowing he could sing but initially too scared to do so. Today, at age 74, he is a sensation as a blues singer in Boston.
At age 87, Pinetop Perkins was the oldest musician in this event. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend some time talking to him alone, and he proved to be a very gracious and gentle man. He dropped out of school in the fourth grade to drive a mule. He was apparently quite good at this, and it helped to support his family. He later drove a tractor on a government farm, which gave him special dispensation from serving in the Army. After we wandered outside so he could smoke, he noted, "My mother got me started smoking when I was nine. Now Im 87, and Im still doing it." He went to work rebuilding pianos, which led to playing pianos. He ultimately spent eleven years playing with Muddy Waters, as well as with B.B. King and "all the greats." Pinetop received a National Heritage Fellow award a few weeks before coming to Salina and showing us all why hes so revered and loved.
George "Wild Child" Butler proved to be very friendly, despite his mildly menacing moniker. He told a story about a song that he wrote called "Hippies Playground," which apparently had developed some notoriety. Years ago, when he was scheduled to play this song at a university in the South, he was stopped en route by state troopers who wanted to know how much he was being paid to play. They paid him not to play, and told him that he could play whatever he wanted to two miles down the road. He noted that just before coming to Salina hed been to Omaha, where his usual late-night musicians schedule was totally thrown out of whack by a Thursday-evening concert that he performed from 5:30-8:30 p.m., for people who had to go to work the next day. He seemed quite blown away by the fact that he was going to bed at 9:30 p.m., which is usually when hes getting ready to go to work. (As to me, my usual early schedule was thrown entirely out of whack in the other direction in Salina while getting onto the musicians schedule.) Wild Child, a harmonica player par excellence, has toured with Jimmy Rogers and Lightnin Hopkins, and according to the folks at Blue Heaven is one of the most underrated blues performers today. He was also one of the kids of this group, at age 64. I went nuts over his performances in rehearsal and concert, of which more below.
Henry Gray proved to be the hardest one of the group to bring out in conversation. He told me about his concerts in Paris last year with the Rolling Stones. After Salina, he was due to head back to Paris with his own band. When I pressed him regarding his favorite brand of piano, Henry merely opined, "I just want it to be in tune." Henry was one of the biggest blues pianists in Chicago in the 50s. He recorded with Bo Diddley, Little Walter, and many others, and played with Howlin Wolf from 1956 to 1968. In the year 2000, the man is still in high demand, and I found out why during his astounding performances.
Harry "Big Daddy" Hypolite spoke Creole as a young child in Louisiana, and did not learn English until he went to Catholic school at the age of six. Like Pinetop Perkins, Harry dropped out of school in the fourth grade, after which he chopped sugar cane, dug sweet potatoes, and picked cotton. An amazing guitarist, he plays blues and zydeco. He played with Clifton Chenier, "The King of Zydeco," for many years. Harry notes, "Ive had a hard life. I never made any money," but youd have never known it from his attitude in Salina, which was entirely upbeat and friendly, almost radiant. Harry and Stan became fast friends, which shows what good taste Harry has in people.
Doug MacLeod was the only white musician featured, and was the only one not originally from the South. Doug was born in New York, grew up in St. Louis, and currently lives in Los Angeles. Doug is bright, friendly, and makes you feel right at home from the get-go. He served admirably as the emcee during the concerts on Friday and Saturday nights, as well as demonstrating his chops as a guitarist, singer and storyteller. Quips Doug, "The blues is the only thing I know where you can tell a group of people how sorry you feel for yourself for four-and-a-half minutes, then have them give you applause." Hes seen a lot of applause in his years of playing with Bo Diddley, Hubert Sumlin, Junior Wells, and other greats. Doug got a lot of musical time in while in the Navy, noting that "I joined the Navy to see the world, and all I saw was San Diego, Memphis and Norfolk [Virginia]." He kept the crowd in stitches.
The Rehearsals and the Studio D-2-D Sessions
Imagine your own private concert, given by some of the greatest living blues legends in the world. Thats what it was like on Thursday evening and Friday and Saturday afternoons. There were many times when some of the greatest blues anywhere was emanating from the Blue Heaven stage, and only a handful of us sitting in the church pews, just letting the sound wash over us.
Stan cut eight direct-to-disk sides during the "studio" sessions. According to Chad, seven of them are great, which probably ranks as an unheard-of success ratio in the tricky world of D-2-D recording. These historic recordings were made of Pinetop Perkins, Lazy Lester, Henry Gray, and Wild Child Butler, and they will soon be release1d and available from Acoustic Sounds. David Baker and Katsuhiko Naito, two respected recording engineers from New York, were in charge of the mixing board and the audio taping, and provided the feed to Stans equipment. Between David, Katsuhiko, and Stan, some hot tracks were laid down on tape and disk for posterity.
I had the distinct privilege of listening to the musicians, photographing them, having leisurely chats with them, giving Stan an occasional hand with the lacquers and the helium tanks that provide cooling for the cutter head, getting to know the other photographers, and generally steeping myself in the blues for three days. Eat your hearts out, dear readers.
The special effects photos that you see accompanying this article were shot through filters graciously provided by audiophile and outstanding professional photographer Peter Damroth. I would like to thank Peter for his generosity in loaning these to me, for his friendship during this event, and for his kind words about my photographic skills. I told him that years of Formula One and Indy car photography have imbued my index finger with a good sense of timing.
At one point Stan wandered by and saw me sitting in one of the pews, scribbling notes furiously. Stan: "Whatcha doin?" Dave: "Just writing down a few notes." Stan: "E-flat, or F?"
The Concerts: Quite a Crowd in Blue(s) Heaven
I had a front row seat during both concerts, and seeing these gentlemen perform from such a vantage point was a rare privilege. The place was packed both nights with very appreciative fans. It was a BLAST.
Doug MacLeod opened the first night, showing himself to be a very expressive musician who can develop an instant rapport with his audience. His ever-changing facial expressions kept pace with his propulsive acoustic guitar-driven rhythms, alternately revealing effort, sheer joy, and intense concentration. He exhibited very dexterous picking and strumming, and an obvious love of his craft. Doug has an uncanny ability to directly communicate joy and intelligence to his audience, with his face mimicking every strum of the guitar (at one point, he briefly went cross-eyed). He also proved to be one great slide guitar artist. By the end of his show, Id made plans to go see him at McCabes in Santa Monica later in October.
Pinetop Perkins was resplendent in a shiny reddish-purple striped suit, a red hat, and a piano-keyboard tie. He was classy and understated, with a kindly stage presence. He made good eye contact with those in the front row, and let the crowd know that "Well, I am the blues, I tell ya." He just rolled off the blues, very calmly and unassumingly, letting the music speak for itself. He did some slow tunes and he did some rollicking tunes, and he really got the crowd going, clapping along and singing, "I got my mojo workin." At age 87, he showed off his great pipes as he belted out "Kansas City" without the slightest hesitation. This blues master received three standing ovations from a very happy crowd.
Jimmy D. Lane and Blue Earth (drummer and bass player) backed up Pinetop. Jimmy is the Music Director of Blue Heaven Studios, and a great musician. He opened for Pinetop with some fabulous electric blues.
Lazy Lester hit the stage, with Henry Gray on piano and Harry Hypolite on guitar. As Lester unrolled the cable for his harmonica mike, he noted that, "When youve got a long cord, sometimes it gets tangled up." Lester proved to be a great harmonica player and vocalist, pleasing the crowd with some down and dirty, gritty blues numbers. The trio of musicians played some raucous, way-up-tempo numbers that got the crowd worked up into a lather. When asking the crowd, "Is it blues yet?" Lester got a resounding "Yeah!" that ricocheted around the church.
Weepin Willie Robinson came on stage with a cane, but as soon as he started singing he morphed into a high-energy phenomenon. Willie is an incredible singer, and probably the most extroverted of the group. He struck quite a figure in his three-piece suit, impeccable hat, and jewelry. He got the crowd going with "Fever," a song that was popularized by Peggy Lee. At one point, Willie and Harry Hypolite came down off the stage. Willie was literally singing two feet off my left shoulder, and Harry was performing his guitar pyrotechnics about three feet in front of my nose. Willie admonished the crowd, "Just because Im over 70, dont think Im a dirty old man," and then proved that he was, as he sang to a female member of a video crew who was shooting from the front of the aisle. Willie did an extended solo with the audience, dancing with a number of women, then did a song in which the words "good night" seemed to drag on forever. He also did a surprise ending that I wont give away.
Thus ended the first concert. Stan was looking pretty happy with his experimental direct-to-disk efforts. (As noted earlier, this may or may not result in pressings that will actually be released.) By 2 am, we were both ready to call it a day.
Lazy Lester opened on the second night, at one point noting that "W.C. Handy wrote this song, and weve been trying to sing it ever since." We got some good acoustic guitar from Lester this time. At the end of his set, Lester noted that "I did the playin and you did the listenin. Thank you.."
Henry Gray, mostly quite sedate, really got the place rockin with his boogie woogie. He brought the house down with "Tutti Frutti." He just cranked out the tunes, only occasionally breaking into a smile. I guess that by now, hes used to crowds going ape-shit over his music. We were lucky to have this legend of blues piano in Salina on this night.
Wild Child Butler bounded onto the stage sporting what looked like a cartridge belt, but it turned out to be a harmonica belt. With the appropriate harmonica always ready, Wild Child put on an astounding show. In my opinion, this fellow deserves to be ranked right up at the top of todays blues masters. Wild Childs harmonica playing and singing really hit me where I live. I recommend running right out and buying his recordings, and giving him all the support you can. And keep your eye on Wild Childs lead guitarist, Aaron Ron Griggs. Aaron grew up listening to Wild Childs recordings, and fantasized about playing in his band. At the young age of 22, Aaron is living that fantasy. Aaron's guitar work was fluid, dexterous, and suffused with feeling. I see great things in his future.
Harry Hypolite was about as animated as Henry Gray was reserved. Harrys personality just beamed out from the stage, and it wasnt hard to tell that he loves to entertain. Harry is a modern Cajun Chuck Berry... a guitar picker extraordinaire. Harry was grinning, grimacing, and clearly having a ball, and he had the body language to accompany his guitar mastery. He really cranked on his Gibson 335 solid-body guitar (the B. B. King "Lucille" edition without the f-holes). He did some behind-the-back playing that drove the crowd wild. Not to be outdone, Jimmy D. Lane played his guitar with his teeth. Or maybe thats how he always flosses.
Toward the end of Harrys set, a chair was placed at the base of the stage. Myra Taylor, a famed Kansas City singer whose only substantive recording since the 1940s was done this year at Blue Heaven, got up from her seat in the front pew, sat down in that chair, and showed us how beautiful her voice still is at age 84. She proved to be a real ball of fire while singing duets with Harry. The concert ended on a high note, with heartfelt thanks from the musicians to Chad Kassem, who made it all possible. Emcee Doug MacLeod sent everyone home feeling great.
Stan was really hummin in his efforts to make good direct-to-disk recordings while flying by the seat of his pants. The biggest problem that Stan faced was that, in doing this recording, he needed to be able to see the performers, so that he could telI, for example, when a loud drum solo was about to commence. His video feed showed the main performer, but not the entire band, so he had to rely on the view through the window of the recording booth, back over his shoulder. The fact that he pulled this all off at all, with all of the difficulties involved, and with members of the video crew constantly running through his field of vision, shows real professionalism. I cant wait to hear the results for myself. While these may never be released, you, dear reader, will soon be able to purchase direct-to-disk recordings from the studio sessions.
In an informal decompression session that lasted until 3 am, we talked about the highlights of the concert. Chad agonized about a few mistakes that were made, especially since he plans to produce a DVD. But someone pointed out that the nearly 400 people in the audience each night had an absolute ball, and the mistakes went unnoticed. The place was still packed at 1:00 am, when the concert ended. In my opinion, Chad shouldnt be too worried about anything that happened. Hes got a lot of great audio and video material, including interviews with the artists, to use in creating what should be an outstanding DVD. I saw some of the video that was captured using a crane above Pinetop Perkins, looking down on the keyboard as he played, and it was quite mesmerizing.
Chad kept the ticket prices reasonable, so that the average person could enjoy the concert. His outlay was at least twice what he took in from the sale of tickets and other items, but that didnt seem to overly concern him. What did concern him was preserving the blues. Please give him your support when the resulting products come out. For more details on the concerts and upcoming releases, check out www.blueheavenstudios.com. The D-2-D studio recordings ought to be astounding, and Ill be reporting on how they sound in a future article.
An Invitation to Kansas City
I met Ramonda Doakes, the director of the Mutual Musicians Foundation in Kansas City. It started in the 20s as the Black Musicians Union Hall Local 627, and today it serves as a home for traveling musicians, especially those who have lost their remaining family ties through too long a life on the road. It is "the only place that truly belongs to them," according to Ramonda. The foundation puts a roof over musicians heads, takes care of them, buys them medicine, and helps to reconnect them with whatever family members they may have remaining. In the 30s and 40s, "everyone" was a member, including Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Big Joe Turner, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, etc. It is the first place where Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie played together. It lost its union status in 1970, when the black and white unions merged. The musicians have had a jam session there every Saturday night since the 20s. 92-year-old Claude "Fiddler" Williams still plays there, and he still runs up and down the stairs, according to Ramonda. Carmel Jones recently came home from Europe to die there, since he had no family left. The building is the only federal landmark in Kansas City. The foundation is unendowed, and Ramonda runs it on money from the musicians dues and on proceeds from the Saturday night jam sessions.
Some people call Ramonda crazy, but I call her dedicated and driven. She began her career as a ballet dancer, and later taught economics, African history, and other subjects at the University of Kansas. But at the age of 50, this non-musician has renounced academia to run this foundation on a shoestring. She would like to establish an endowment, but has had no luck to date. She has also not been able to afford a web site. What originally drove her to this lunacy? I dont know, but I sure do admire her spirit and sincerity. Ramonda sincerely wants to help these musicians, to provide them with a home, and to maintain the decades-old tradition of the Mutual Musicians Foundation.
Ramonda has not sought significant outside help. She observes that, after well-meaning outsiders have come and gone, there is usually nothing left of what it was that they were trying to preserve in the first place. She bemoans the fact that the U.S. doesnt always do too well in preserving its culture. For instance, there is almost nothing left of the 18th and Vine district in Kansas City. As to Chad, Ramonda was effusive: "Chad, what hes doing, its incredible, I love it." As to the musicians, she remarked on "what you can get from them when you give them the space to give it." She was attending the concert just to soak up the music and enjoy it, and was certainly not there to advertise her plight. But once I discovered who she was, we started talking, and all of this just came pouring out. I plan to visit Kansas City and provide you with a complete story in the not-too-distant future.
During intermission on the second night, I had a very nice talk with Rowena Stewart, director of the American Jazz Museum, also in Kansas City. This institution has a 500-seat theater, and they have a major event planned for summer 2002. Go to www.americanjazzmuseum.com or to www.kcjazz.com for more details. Rowena concluded our chat by saying that shed "roll out the red carpet" for me in K.C., so that I could bring their story to you. Sounds like a plan to me.
If it werent for Stans invitation, I never would have gone to Salina. This event will live in my memory forever, and I thank Stan from the bottom of my heart. Stan, may your cutting stylus always be hot, and may your grooves always be cool.
My hat is off to Chad for all that he has accomplished, and for all that he plans to do. He has more than paid society back for whatever, ahem, transgressions may or may not have been a part of his long-ago youth in Louisiana. Keep it up, Chad! Youre on a roll. I never thought that I could have three days of heaven in the middle of Kansas.