Getting the Blues

Rivulets of sweat run east and west of Peter Parcek’s eyes, trickling from under the band of his porkpie hat as he squints at his guitar. His hands flow over the frets and wood with Zen-like economy. The right picks out big-boned notes while the left slides the glass tube he’s wearing on his pinkie over the strings.

“When the Saints Go Marching In” rolls out of the speakers on both sides of the stage in Allston’s Harpers Ferry. But Parcek and his band have transformed the gospel standard into something wild and fantastical, kicking its bottom with a booming New Orleans-street-parade beat and spiking its holy fervor with the slurring, sweetly intoxicating voice of blues guitar.

It’s more than the stage lights that have Parcek perspiring. He’s neck-deep into the finals of the Boston Battle of the Blues Bands, a contest that since the 1980s has pitted the region’s up-and-coming and established acts against each other for the right to travel to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. This time around, the national bout will be highly scrutinized. Congress has declared 2003 the “Year of the Blues” in an effort to honor this distinctly American music. Same for Boston’s WGBH-TV, which this fall will present Martin Scorsese’s seven-part PBS series, The Blues. Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Wim Wenders, and other blue-ribbon filmmakers have each directed segments. Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen is one of the project’s financiers, and his Seattle-based Experience Music Project, along with Sony Music and other companies, will release companion CDs, a book, DVDs, and a radio series, and send a mobile classroom cross-country.

When this night is over, Parcek’s blend of old-school melodies and modernist genre-blending will triumph. In Memphis this month, his trio will continue the little-known but surprisingly influential legacy of Boston’s blues, which has also had an impact on the likes of local musicians Peter Wolf, J. Geils, George Thorogood, and Bonnie Raitt.

“There’s a tremendous history of blues in Boston, a lineage,” Parcek says. “I feel honored to represent it.”

For most musicians and fans, Boston’s blues history begins in the mid-1960s. That’s when the men who invented the music in small southern towns, or reinvented it in the promised land of Chicago, made their first trips here. Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker played Cambridge’s Club 47 or Boston’s Paul’s Mall or the Newport Folk Festival. The visceral live performances of these architects of electric blues jolted audiences unprepared by the records they released on the Chess, Modern, and Vee-Jay labels. Even more surprising to the largely collegiate and bohemian white crowds was the arrival of rediscovered acoustic pioneers. Men like Son House, Skip James, and Mississippi John Hurt built their careers on the genre’s ground floor, and until they arrived to play the local coffeehouses, their voices and strong African-inflected guitars were heard around here only on scratchy 78 rpm recordings — relics from the ’20s and ’30s that seemed as alien as broadcasts from Mars.

None of this historical jamming means much to Weepin’ Willie Robinson, for whom the story of blues in Boston opens in the late 1950s. Robinson was fronting a band in Trenton, New Jersey, when, in 1959, the manager of Louie’s Lounge, a club near the corner of Washington Street and Massachusetts Avenue in Roxbury, heard him sing.

“She asked me if the band traveled and did we want to come to Boston,” Robinson recalls. “I said, ‘Yes,’ and she said, ‘Good. Be there on Monday.’ That was a Friday. Three days later we were in Boston, and I ain’t been back since.”

Today, Robinson himself is part of the region’s blues lore, a 76-year-old smoothie with a penchant for fedoras, dark suits, pocket handkerchiefs, and pointy-toed shoes, who hasn’t let two shootings and a stroke keep him offstage. Veterans like him know the city’s true blues story, the barely documented history written in gritty bars and passed across the color line and between generations. Robinson reminisces on the early days over breakfast at Grecian Yearning in Allston, not far from his Brighton apartment. His promotional photo hangs above our booth.

“That’s when Roxbury was cookin’, you know,” he says of the ’60s, forking into a stack of pancakes, two eggs over easy, and a side of bacon. “You had Louie’s Lounge, Basin Street South, Big Jim’s Shanty. All those places were up along or right off Washington Street. They’re all gone now, but it was swingin’ back in them days. At Basin Street you had Count Basie and Redd Foxx, and all the big stars in blues — B. B. King, Bobby Bland, Solomon Burke — came into Louie’s Lounge.”

At the time, these weren’t the stars of the emerging mainstream generation of blues fans, but the idols of almost exclusively black audiences. They played a chitlin’ circuit that extended from the deep South to the northern and western urban centers to which blacks fleeing Jim Crow had migrated. “Back then, it was rare to see a white face in one of those places,” Robinson recalls. “I didn’t see much mixing until I started emceeing at the Peppermint Lounge, near Stuart and Washington.”

The passing of a cultural torch was well under way in whiter venues like Club 47 in Harvard Square; Paul’s Mall, the Jazz Workshop, and the Unicorn along Boylston Street in Boston’s Back Bay; and at little coffeehouses around Boston and Northeastern universities. Its flames would spread across the country to help ignite the 1960s blues boom, fanned by a young freelance sportswriter from Cambridge named Dick Waterman.

Waterman was already a lover of folk music when he saw singer-guitarist Mississippi John Hurt on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, of all places. He was smitten, and in February 1964 he promoted his first engagement: a week of Hurt performances at Café Yana, a now-legendary coffeehouse just outside Kenmore Square. Within two years, Waterman was booking performances at Club 47 and the Unicorn for such acts as Son House, Bukka White, Hurt, Elizabeth Cotten, and Skip James. The few people who had heard their ancient recordings thought these musicians were dead until Waterman and others sought them out. Waterman soon had them playing clubs and colleges across the country.

Waterman’s Avalon Productions grew in the 1970s, eventually boosting a brash, blues-inspired young singer living in Cambridge named Bonnie Raitt to stardom. But in 1968, Waterman helped the music leap a generational and cultural gap when, after making a pilgrimage across the color line to Louie’s Lounge, he met singer-guitarist B. B. King and invited him to perform at a rally for presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy at Fenway Park.

“There were 40,000 people, and B. B. was great in his allotted half-hour,” Waterman recalls. “But McCarthy’s motorcade was running late, so they asked B. B. to play until McCarthy arrived.” King, who is today 77 but then was at the height of his musical prowess, held the stage for more than an hour, slaying the mostly young, liberal white audience. “B. B. has told me many times since that that’s when he got sprung from Roxbury,” Waterman says.

King’s performance opened the gates for others, too. His stinging, sustained guitar notes and unrestrained delivery were a direct link to Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and other blues-based rock bands, such as Canned Heat, featuring Arlington-raised Al Wilson on guitar. If the old-time country blues of the music’s elder statesmen seemed a bit too laid back, King and his big band came on like a soulful freight train. And plenty of musicians and fans hopped aboard.

There were already young whites playing blues in the clubs and coffeehouses, including Peter Wolf and J. Geils, who would team up to write their own page in rock history, and folk musicians Eric von Schmidt and Tom Rush. But as the ’70s began, a new underground scene blossomed. It was based on the hard and gritty urban sound that echoed in Fenway Park the day King played there and, more typically, that blared from the open doors of bars in places like Chicago, Memphis, Detroit, Harlem, and St. Louis.

Some players, both white and black, routinely led their bands between the blues clubs in Cambridge and the few then remaining in Roxbury. Guitarist Billy Colwell, a hard-ass who’d switched from psychedelic rock to blues, could command any audience. The great Luther “Georgia Boy,” “Snake,” or “Snake Boy” Johnson, a veteran of Muddy Waters’s band, relocated here and established a racially integrated group. So did another Waters alum, harmonica player “Earring” George Mayweather. The heart of this new scene beat in central Cambridge at the Candlelight Lounge, Joe’s Place, and the Speakeasy.

Harmonica player and singer James Montgomery was an English major at Boston University when he started playing with both Colwell and Johnson at places like Estelle’s in Roxbury and the Candlelight on Western Avenue. “I had moved here from Detroit because I knew about places like Club 47 and the Unicorn from picking up WBZ on my little AM radio,” Montgomery explains. “The Candlelight reminded me of a place I knew in Detroit called the Decanter. It was a little neighborhood bar. The first couple of times I went there, it was all black people who lived nearby and the white band. After a while, it caught on and became a great little melting pot.” The Candlelight is also where the James Montgomery Band, which signed a contract with Capricorn Records in 1973 and went on to national fame, was born.

When Montgomery split for the big leagues, Richard “Rosy” Rosenblatt, another BU student, was left to play with Colwell and Johnson. But soon the Candlelight closed and the scene relocated to Inman Square’s Joe’s Place, which Waterman booked. There, a kid named George Thorogood took a job as a bar back, so he could listen to and occasionally open for his idols like Chicago slideman Hound Dog Taylor. After a fire destroyed Joe’s in 1974, things moved to the Speakeasy, on Norfolk Street in Central Square.

“That was a golden era,” says Rosenblatt, who today is CEO of Wellesley Hills-based Tone-Cool Records, whose roster includes blues-influenced artists Susan Tedeschi and the North Mississippi Allstars. “It was exciting because these clubs were bringing in the second generation of electric-blues musicians. There was Otis Rush, Hubert Sumlin, Freddie King, Albert Collins. They were really great performers who came up having to win over audiences in tough little bars.”

Even the Fabulous Thunderbirds, a group of white boys from Austin, Texas, whose stripped-down approach truly defined the electric-blues sound and spirit, played the Speakeasy. Perhaps most important, Joe’s and the Speakeasy hired locally based artists like Thorogood, Raitt, singer-guitarist Paul Rishell, and Rosenblatt’s own 11th Hour Band, giving them valuable onstage experience opening for their heroes.

“That was truly it for me,” says Ronnie Earl, who was then a budding guitarist from Brooklyn attending BU and is today one of the acknowledged masters of blues string-bending. “Georgia Boy Johnson was the first real blues musician who let me sit in, and I was so happy,” remembers Earl, who now lives in Groton. “There was a lot of sharing and caring. The scene was small, and it was like we were all part of a blues family. The musicians coming through town would let me and the other new guys sit in. Great players like Otis Rush and Big Walter and J. B. Hutto. And the local guys who were ahead of me, like Duke Robillard, who was fronting Roomful of Blues; Dave Maxwell, who had played piano with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells; and Ron Levy, who toured with B. B. King. They encouraged me and would always let me sit in.

“You hear people talk about 52nd Street in New York City as a jazz mecca, with Charlie Parker and Diz? Well, that was our 52nd Street.”

Some veterans claim the Boston blues community broke up when “Speakeasy” Pete Kastanos lost the lease on his club in 1980 and eventually moved to Florida. By then the Unicorn, Jazz Workshop, Paul’s Mall, and many of the coffeehouses were gone. Club 47 had become Club Passim. But through the ’80s plenty of other places like Ed Burke’s on Huntington Avenue, Johnny D’s in Somerville’s Davis Square, Harpers Ferry, Jonathan Swift’s in Harvard Square, and Nightstage off Central Square picked up the torch.

Slowly, the business of the blues was peaking. More players sought their places on area stages. Independent record labels like Rounder in Cambridge and Alligator in Chicago signed more blues artists. College radio embraced the genre. Boston became an important stop not only for Chicago and southern bluesmen, but also for performers from the West Coast, New Orleans, Texas, even Europe.

“With the folk revival of the ’60s and the growth that happened through the ’70s and into the ’80s, Boston became one of the major blues cities in the country,” says Bruce Iglauer, president and founder of today’s leading blues label, Alligator.

Those days are past. Just a few of the clubs that supported the blues in the ’80s and early ’90s remain. New artists trying to find their way into the music often serve their apprenticeships in the far-flung suburbs without the benefit of nurturing rooms like the Speakeasy and Ed Burke’s. Established venues like Johnny D’s, Harpers Ferry, and House of Blues can’t afford to take many risks on unproven talent.

“The question isn’t whether Boston is as important as it used to be, but whether anywhere is as important as it used to be,” Iglauer laments. “Ultimately, because Boston is a university town and has a large intellectual community, it’ll remain a strong place for blues compared to many other cities.”

Rounder Records has catered to that elite blues-buying community almost exclusively — save for a handful of crossover smashes including two of George Thorogood’s early albums — for its 33-year history. “It’s a business that waxes and wanes,” says Marian Leighton-Levy, one of the label’s founders. “But one thing we’ve learned is to never write anything off, such as the success of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which began a real growth period for bluegrass. And that could account for part of the shift away from blues. That said, though, this is a really awful time for the blues.”

Peter Parcek and Weepin’ Willie Robinson have their own solutions. For Parcek, it’s a matter of artists’ making the blues speak to these times, rather than of the past. “We need to present a contemporary context for the blues,” he says earnestly.

Robinson, of course, has seen it all before. “When people’s tastes went to funk and disco and rock ‘n’ roll, the blues fell on hard times,” he observes. “But then it came back. I’m doing pretty good now, and as soon as the winter’s over and the clubs on the Cape open up, I’ll have more work again.”

So for Boston musicians like Parcek, who has the fire of the young, and Robinson, who has the resolve of the old, the beat of the blues continues. Its history — here and elsewhere — keeps being written, night by night, stage by stage, note by note.