I’m a Bluesman
Lot of friends and family have come and gone
Left me here to sing this song
That’s why I’m a Bluesman
Yes, I’m a Bluesman
And I want the world to know just why
I’m a Bluesman (from a song I wrote in 2012)
To paraphrase the great Bluesman, Michael Bloomfield, the Blues has been a major part of the soundtrack of my existence. As I have written previously, the Blues was the perfect solace for my soul when my Father was murdered when I was eight. By the time, I was about 15 years old, I was actively playing what I consider to be the roots of all the best American music has to offer, the Blues.
By the time I was in my Senior year of High School, I had met many acoustic solo Blues/Ragtime players such as Furry Lewis, Bukka White and Roy Bookbinder, among many. Vastly important to me was Virginia Songster/Bluesman, John Jackson, who I met at the 1974 Old Dominion Folk Festival. John was a gravedigger who since the mid-sixties had dug fewer and fewer graves. He actually created a sort of business digging graves with friends and locals around his Fairfax, VA home. John welcomed me into his home for dinner and guitar pulls. He was a warm, welcoming man who treated me like family. His Blind Blake-influenced guitar work was daunting and he was infinitely patient in demonstrating his technique. No matter what, he was always kind and encouraging to my efforts.
John and I had many encounters and he taught me a great lesson in the late 1980’s, when he came to see me play at a Downtown Norfolk, Virginia Nightclub. I had placed him on the guest list. He still paid the cover the club was charging despite my protests. He said, “You’ve paid to see me play, haven’t you?” A class act. I look forward to seeing him again in Heaven
Because of John’s example and my desire to be another Robert Johnson (Huge belly laugh on that one!) most of my playing leaned towards the solo artist format. It was also hard to find a band that wanted to play hard Blues. That changed in 1976, when I was 19.
A Blues fan friend of mine, Norfolk Charles Olivenbaum, showed me the classified section of the local Norfolk paper, the Virginian Pilot. I believe it was late July 1976. The ad said:
“Wanted musicians for Chicago-style Blues Band. Call Tommy at….”
Immediate sensory overload for my nineteen year old brain. I called the writer of the ad that night. His name was Tommy Parker.
Tommy was 29 and ten years my senior. In our many early phone conversations I found that Tommy was also from Norfolk and had been playing Blues and Soul music for over 15 years. While residing in Boston, he had a remarkable chance to jam with the Father of the Electric Blues Guitar,
T-Bone Walker. During that tenure he also had met our mutual idol, Chicago Bluesman Otis Rush, and had become friends with former Muddy Waters Guitarist, Luther “Snake Boy” Johnson, who died in March of ‘76. I tried to not sound impressed in my responses. After all, my cool factor was in training or at least I thought it was.
After preliminary meetings in my room at my Mother’s house, we met up with a Bass player Martin Spencer and Drummer, Mark Brownell. We made a date to play together in my Mother’s garage. My Mother was the most tolerant human being that I have ever known. My family’s garage was a Mecca for every band I had from Junior High school to this particular moment in time.
The four of us had never played together before, but the magic was immediate. We had the makings of a great Blues band. We played within and beyond our abilities. At the third rehearsal, the Norfolk Police showed up. Most of the neighbors had been tolerant over the years, with the exception of one. My Mother asked the Officer in front of her what would happen if she told us to continue playing? The Officer informed my Mother of the potential for her arrest.
That ended the use of our family garage at Newell Ave in Norfolk. For some reason, lost to my memory, we decided to call our band The Jade Brothers Blues Band.
For the next year and a half, I learned the Blues from Tommy Parker. We played a wide variety of bars and events. We even played the Blues for Chuck Robb when he was running for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia.
Because of my lifelong fear of driving, Tommy would pick me up for rehearsals and take me to gigs. Tommy Parker was the soul of generosity and shared so much music and knowledge with me. I wish I could say I was a gracious student, but I was more than a bit of a hyper-intelligent brat. But I do remember and cherish the conversations I had with Tommy. We discussed everything from God to the Blues.
Reflecting on my relationships with musicians over the years, I have my share of regrets that I was a foolish kid at times. We are all human. Ultimately, though I have no regrets over the shared sense of community that occurs when a band successfully performs. Put a blues band on the road and they become a pack.
That sense of community has continued in the years that followed after playing with Tommy. From songwriting lessons from Allen Sykes to guitar lessons from folks like Manny Doell, Woody Nordan and Hubert Sumlin to backing Wilson Pickett on guitar on the chitlin’ circuit. As I get older, I cherish my interactions with Bluesman Bob Margolin. Bob made me come out and play the Blues with him in 2012 a few days after my nephew Sean was killed in Benghazi. Blues is aural medicine.
South Carolina Bluesman, Dr. Mac Arnold, is like a Father to me. It is always an honor to share a stage with Mac. If you love blues, and don’t know Dr. Mac Arnold, you should check him out. The many days I have spent in Mac’s company are moments that I will forever cherish.
If I listed every musician that had an impact on me in the process of playing music this article would be a novel. The guys I play with in North Carolina, The instigators, continue that community.
In closing, to play the Blues, you have to love and live them as a reflection of your own existence. You can not ever hope to be a B.B. King or a Muddy Waters.
On April 17, 2019, Tommy Parker died from complications from a long standing medical condition.
Tommy was not only a great bluesman, but was a scholar, a computer programming expert, a College Professor, a historian and one of the most remarkable human beings that I have been blessed to know.
My three longest friendships, the others being Allen Sykes and Woody Nordan, all came to fruition in the Summer of 1976. Our ranks are now down by one. God wanted to bring another guitar slinger back home. Keep playing that sweet music Tommy until we meet again.