Sunday, October 18, 2009

Reflections on Sam Carr

On September 19, I traveled to Media, Pennsylvania to attend a fund-raising party held by guitarist Lonnie Shields for Sam Carr, the famous Delta drummer.
Having written a magazine article about Shields, I knew how he felt about Carr. When Shields was a teen-ager in West Helena, Arkansas, Carr had introduced him to the blues and had schooled him in it by taking him to Delta juke joints.
This was the third party Shields had thrown to raise mony for the ailing 83-year-old drummer, and I could see his enthusiasm as he carted out steaming trays of chicken and ribs to serve the approximately 90 guests gathered in his backyard. He seemed even more enthusiastic when he stepped onto his back porch to join musicians who were entertaining those guests with blues music.
We should have known the festive atmosphere was too good to last. Two days later, Carr died of congestive heart failure. "God works his own magic," Shields concluded later. "You have no idea when he's going to call you in."
I had never met Sam Carr. I interviewed him briefly over the phone for the article on Shields. I also wrote an obituary on Carr for the same magazine. Through these experiences, I developed some idea as to who the man was. And he was different things to different people.
Carr was an influential musician who happened to be the son of another influential musician, guitarist Robert Nighthawk, who played with Joe Williams and Sonny Boy Williamson. Carr was also a bandleader and businessman, having organized and headed The Jelly Roll Kings with Big Jack Johnson and Frank Frost. He was also a mentor and teacher to musicians like Shields and guitarist singer Dave Riley, with whom he toured in his later years.
But to Maie Smith, Group Tour Manager of the Delta Blues Museum in Clarkesdale, Mississippi, Carr was “the fish man” who would come to her town of Rich, Mississippi to sell his catch of the day. Smith did not know he even played music--let alone was a major player of the blues--until she enrolled at Ol' Miss as a young woman and ran across his name in a book while working in the Blues Archives there.
“I was shocked,” she recalled. “It was amazing that I grew up around there and didn’t have no idea that he was so well known.”
Ora Young knew Carr as the uncle who livened up her summers.
“I was proud of him, we enjoyed it," recalled Young, who frequently made summer trips to Mississippi to visit her relatives while growing up in Chicago. "Through him we got a chance to meet a lot of people we wouldn’t have met, like Pinetop Perkins, Little Milton, Albert King, Bobby Rush, and Otis Clay."
Shields was fascinated with groups such as Earth, Wind and Fire and the Isley Brothers when he knew Carr as a teen-ager. Carr was the one who told him he needed to move past those groups to play the blues--then brought him to local juke joints so he could learn how.
"He was a teacher if you listen to him but most of the time I wouldn't listen," Shields recalled. "I would try to do it my way and not his way. That's when he'd say I didn't listen. But nowadays I wish I had listened to him."
During my interview with him, Carr recalled how he used to mentor younger musicians. “I don’t try to discourage them from playing what they want to play because that’s what they’re going to play anyhow," he said. "At least that’s what they’re going to try to play.”


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ronnie Baker Brooks

Folks, had a chance to talk to Ronnie Baker Brooks during a break between sets at Warmdaddy's, the popular Philadelphia blues club, on Sept 25. Guitar in hand, Brooks crescendoed by walking around the restaurant Buddy Guy style, serenading guests with blistering guitar solos. He didn't miss a beat as he stepped behind the bar, poured a drink down his throat and headed back to the stage.

I asked Brooks about his musical influences and any upcoming plans he might have to perform with his famous father (Lonnie Brooks) and brother (Wayne Baker Brooks.) Here is what he said:

Brooks: “What I try to do is combine what I learn and what I was influenced by as a kid and update it. And try to incorporate that be the bridge from the old school to the new school and the new school to the old school. That’s what I try to do.

BBP: What would you say some of your influences are, some of your greatest influences.

Brooks: My dad, of course, Lonnie Brooks, Albert Collins, B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King, Buddy Guy, Luther Allison, I can go on and on, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, people like that.

BBP: I know you like to get out in the crowd, I really enjoyed when you were behind the bar and everything, how long have you been doing that and does it get this reaction everywhere you go?

Brooks: It’s a different reaction every night. It’s my way of getting a free drink (laughs). I hope I get a free drink they might charge me tonight.

BBP: And what are some of the greatest things you learned from your father? Some of the most important things?

BROOKS: Be a man first, and know how to work my crowd…and get better and he gave me good work ethics and told me to be a man first. My dad’s my friend, my mentor and my dad?

BBP: What’s over the horizon?

BROOKS: I don’t know, man, I just like to see people happy with the music, you know. If I can play for the rest of my life and make people happy playin’ I’m fine. Of course I’m like everyone else I want a song that everyone can relate to, everybody can feel but, right now, I’m great, just playing the blues.

BBP: Anything new with the Rhythm and Blues Revue (Tommy Castro, Deanna Bogart, Magic Dick and others)?

BROOKS: No, I just did last tour with them. I’m hoping we can do something together but we have to talk and see what’s going to happen with that, so I had a great time with that I would like to do some more but it’s kind of hard to keep a band and do that as well. My guys’ gotta eat too.

BBP: Anything new with your dad and Wayne?

BROOKS: We’re playing in the Blues Cruise next month. We’re going on a blues cruise together it’s the first time we’ve played together in ten years. So I’m looking forward to that.

BBP: What are we going to hear?

BROOKS: Something new, old and something (laughs). I’m looking forward to that, man, I haven’t played with my dad in ten years so, you know, uh, he’s 76 years old and he taught me, man, he taught me everything I know, so it’s going to be interesting for me and the fans. I hope they enjoy it!