Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Dr. S.O. Feelgood: The Doctor is In
It is Sunday afternoon at the American Legion Post in Silver Spring and a jam hosted by the D.C. Blues Society is in full swing. Among the musicians that come and go, a steady presence holds sway on the drums.
Studied and serious, Chett Hines holds down the bottom through a number of well-known blues standards. But he later shows us another side of himself when he takes the mike and—behind a slow blues crawl from the band—slides into “I’ll Drink Your Bathwater, Baby” a boisterous romp of a song about the virtues of drinking your woman’s bathwater. A burly man, it is personality rather than size that allows him to take control the stage and the house. Men guffaw and ladies squeal as he uses a barrage of slurping noises to emphasize his point that drinking a woman’s bathwater is the only way a real man can show his love.
Better known as Dr. S.O. Feelgood, 64-year-old Chett Hines is a one-man entertainment package. A drummer since the age of 12, Hines is now lead singer for the Dr. S.O. Feelgood Band and Show, a Washington-area based group that plays an average of 140-150 gigs a year in the east and midwest.
“Well, the Doctor I believe is out of the Mississippi Delta and he’s got a lot of those roots in his singing and in his feeling, and it is what he brings to the table,” says guitarist Bill Bates, who plays in Hines’ band along with with bassist Kenny Johnson and drummer Mike Elam. “And what we try to do is back him up to the best of our ability. We’re always keeping an eye on what he’s doing.”
But Hines can also serve as a deejay and master of ceremonies, roles he frequently adopts for the DC Blues Society. In October the D.C. Blues Society tapped him to host “Battle of the Bands,” an annual event held to determine which group will represent the D.C. area at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis next February.
The Pascagoula, Mississippi born Hines admits his love for the blues but adds that his tastes are “all over the map.” With more than 10,000 CD’s and 7,000 albums covering every genre of music, his record collection reflects that statement. “I’m still one of those people with eight tracks and cassettes and reel-to-reel because I listen to where my mood is,” he said.
Still, he has a special love for the singers of the 1960’s and 1970’s. “Simply put, they were characters musically in and of themselves,” he says. “Unlike—and I’m not indicting every musician today—but many musicians today are cookie cutter musicians. An artist comes out today with a hit song, and immediately the record companies feel like their artists have to do that same thing, follow that same track. And I understand the economics of why they do it, but it doesn’t add anything to developing and creating an artist. Whereas those people like Otis Redding, like a Joe Tex, Solomon Burke (who died in October at the age of 70), Teddy Pendergrass, these people had musical signatures in terms of their sound, their personality.”
He uses some original material, such as “Jump Down, Turn Around, Kick a Hole in the Wall,” a lively crowd pleaser which recently drew audience participation when he performed it during Blue Monday, a blues show held weekly at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest Washington. “I tell people you may not know it, but you’re not going to come and see me and sit around and watch me, okay?” he says. “You’re going to get involved in what I do.”
“Bathwater Blues” is not a Dr. S.O. Feelgood original, he says. “Some people come back to me, you know, and say ‘Oh, I bought a copy of that, but it didn’t sound anything like what you did.’ I say ‘well, that’s because, you know, I’ve rearranged it and done some things with it that made it my own.”
The group is working on a C.D. that will feature original material, says Johnson. “We’re going to try and self-produce because it’s hard dealing with record companies. They want to change it. They want to put you commercial.”
Hines doesn’t use a set list when he performs.
“Literally ninety per cent of the time, I don’t know what I’m going to do until the moment that I’m doing it,” he says.
Johnson and Elam figure out what song is coming next by listening to Hines. “And we pick the wrong one,” laughs Johnson. “Most of the time, I can hear the dialogue, and I say ‘okay, this is what we’re going to do.’ And usually I can pick it up through the dialogue.”
When they do get it wrong, “he’ll cut it, and we’ll start all over again,” Elam adds.
After leaving Mississippi at the age of ten, Hines finally came to Washington in 1959 after stints in Greenville, North Carolina and Richmond, Virginia.
At 14 he bought his first drum set, a Kelly Green four-piece, from “Quick Cash Kelly’s,” a pawn shop near the Navy Yard in Southeast Washington.
He began playing professionally at 18. “Up and down 14th Street, H Street, Kennedy Street, I mean young guys could go and ply their trade and learn,” he recalls. “And that was a significant learning ground, unlike the jam situations of today. I went in as somebody who thought they were a young hot shot, knowing what they were doing and the reality was I didn’t know squat. And they were very quick to let you know that you didn’t know squat. But they were just as quick to train you.”
A bass player named Fat Fanny who was well-known around the D.C. area paid him particular attention.
“Fanny was a kind of kick-butt, take-no-prisoners type of person,” Hines recalls. “But when you sit down behind a drum kit with him, in a few minutes he knew whether you had any chops at all and he could run you through crapola that you’d never heard of, and demand that you find a way to keep up, find a way to lock into the groove. As soon as you’d lock into the groove, he would change the groove, send you someplace else, and ask you ‘what’s your problem?’ ”
Hines went on playing the local D.C. club scene: the Blue Angel on 14th Street, the Coco Lounge on H Street. He joined bands with names like Eddie King and his Court and the Royal Tones.
He adopted the “Dr. S.O. Feelgood” persona about 20 years ago. There were other “Dr. Feelgoods” on the scene at the time, and Hines took a couple of extra steps—or, more accurately, added a couple of letters¬—to make his stage name stand out.
“The S-period, O-period is what separates me, as far as identity is concerned, from the rest,” he explains.
“And the ‘S’ does have its significance. But as I often say, when people ask me what does the “S” and the “O” stand for, I only tell women and woman want-to-be’s,” he adds with a laugh. “So, in this particular case, it remains anonymous.”
Once he adopted his stage name, he initially stayed on the drums, but eventually picked up a mike after club owners told him “we would much prefer to have you out front than sitting back there behind a kit.”
In addition to performing and hosting events, Hines coordinates the D.C. chapter of Blues in the Schools, a nationwide program designed to foster appreciation of blues among young people. As coordinator, Hines visits area schools, often accompanied by musicians, some of them nationally known.
But, to Dr. S.O. Feelgood, the stage brings a special passion.
“I want to live out the life of Elmore James,” Hines says. “Elmore James declared that, when he died, he wanted to die on stage. He thought that was the ultimate way to go. Just coincidently, he died on stage. Had a heart attack. But, hey, listen, what better way to go?”