Volume II, Issue IV Winter 2003

Papa Blues
'Papa' John Creach on playing for Al Capone and Jefferson Airplane

Papa John Creach in Concert - copyright Tim Owen
In concert at the WOW Hall in Eugene, Ore. on March 1 1990
Photo by Tim Owen – Used by permission
Copyright © Tim Owen / www.liveconcertphotos.com

I was born in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, in 1917, May the 28th. So you can figure that out; that's a long ways off. Oh, I've been around a long time.

I was raised up around there, and then after that we moved into Gary, Indiana, and stayed there for a while because my dad was working in the steel mills and was a molder. When the business kind of faded out in the Pennsylvania area, then he moved into Gary's steel mill. After the steel faded out of there, we moved into Chicago and he started doing some work around there.

This interview with Papa John and Gretchen Creach was conducted over several afternoons in November, 1988, at the Summer House Inn in La Jolla, Calif., where Creach was playing an extended engagement at Elario's, the hotel's restaurant and club. The interview was done for Living Blues magazine, but Living Blues never published it. Portions of it have appeared in other stories in the years since, but this is the first time it has been published in whole. Creach passed away on Feb. 22, 1994 at the age of 76.

That's where we started going to school. Of course, we were going to school in Pennsylvania, too.

And after that, we moved to Benton Harbor, Michigan. That was where we got our little farm life. We were raising our cows and chickens and stuff like that, and Mama was canning fruit and vegetables and chickens and everything else!

We had 10 children in our family. We all helped each other – we had to to exist, especially when we were out on the farm.

We did a lot of work on the farm; I did a lot of heavy work. We were hired by a farmer to take care of the farm. The spraying and the pruning trees during the wintertime – we'd always have something to take care of. Oh, it was a big job!

Come Thanksgiving and Christmas, my mother made her own root beer, and my dad would make all the wine.

Then we moved from Michigan to Chicago. I was learning how to play violin. My uncle played the violin. When he came back from the old country [World War I], he brought a violin along with him. He was with the Merchant Marine and by him traveling all over like that he picked up this violin. He could play it pretty good, but more or less some little violin solos.

I wanted to play the violin, so I told him I'd like to have a violin to play. I guess I was around 11, 12 when I really started fooling around with the violin. My mother had a violin there for my oldest brother, but it was one of those little baby violins – it was a three-quarters, half-size. Anyway, it was too small for me, so my uncle, he gave me his violin, which was a full-size violin. I still have it, and I've used that violin to make my debuts all over the place. Later on, I got into a better violin, but it's a good violin. I just have to get it all fixed up again.

So I studied that, and then eventually I wanted to go and study heavier. In the meantime, I had the chance of a lifetime, and that was with my next-to-the-oldest sister, Ruth. She was quite a pianist. My dad spent quite a bit of money for her to learn the piano. So, Ruth played all the different classical tunes, and actually she could read. While I was studying, it gave me the chance to have an accompanist.

Papa John and Gretchen Creach - copyright Saul Smaizys
Papa John and Gretchen Creach
Photo by Saul Smaizys – Used by permission
Copyright © Saul Smaizys / triadradiorevisited.com
My parents were very religious. My older sister sang in the choir, my sister Ruth played for the (Methodist) church, and I played for the church. I played my first concert in church; I was about 14. When the people gave me a round of applause, I said, "That's IT."

After that, I got out there on my own, because I was going to these different classes and picking up information on all the different things I could about the violin. And I got into a little symphony orchestra for youngsters. After I practiced and started to playing real good, then I joined the larger symphony orchestra that was out of the musicians union, which I belonged to then.

Actually, I didn't have to pay to get in the union, because they were looking for a violinist to play in "The Dead End Kids," so they put me in the union and gave me a free ticket.

After that, I kept on and helped form a little group, a trio, the Chocolate Music Bars – guitar, bass and violin. At that particular time, there were so many ahead of me (in the symphony) and I was making more money, faster, with jazz and the more commercial music. I was about 19. We did a lot of practicing, and we sang, every one of us. We sang practically everything we played, anyway, and all of us had the good voices. We used to imitate the Ink Spots and those things like that.

We got to working in hotels. They got the cocktail lounge in the hotel. I stayed in one hotel chain for five years; I just didn't have to worry about it. See, they had 17 hotels and we just circled from one to the other – the Albert Pick chain.

Partial discography /filmography


Setting the Record Straight
Documentary about Creach's life and career
(Out of print)

A Gathering of Old Men
Actor/musical performer
(Out of print)

Les Portes Tournantes
Actor (Out of print)


Papa John Creach
1971, Grunt Records
(To hear sound clips or learn more about this release, Turbula recommends viewing its Amazon.com entry.)

1972, Grunt Records
(Out of print)

Playing My Fiddle for You
1974, Grunt Records
(Out of print)

I'm the Fiddle Man
1975, Buddah Records
(To hear sound clips or learn more about this release, Turbula recommends viewing its Amazon.com entry.)

Rock Father
1976, Buddah Records
(To hear sound clips or learn more about this release, Turbula recommends viewing its Amazon.com entry.)

The Cat and the Fiddle
1977, DJM Records
(Out of print)

1978, DJM Records
(Out of print)

Papa Blues
1992, Bee Bump Records
(To hear sound clips or learn more about this release, Turbula recommends viewing its Amazon.com entry.)

To find out-of-print recordings, Turbula recommends Gemm.com:

I got into playing the jazz. I played jazz for a good while. I did the popular stuff first. You got the "Twelfth Street Rag" and those kinds of things. Then I got to hanging around with a bunch of guys starting to playing jazz. We'd go from one place to the other and take our instruments, just perform for free.

But you'd still get in a lesson – in other words, jamming. And if the people would listen to us, we had an audience (laughs). I didn't make any money at it, but I was having a heck of a time enjoying myself at it.

After that, I was gigging. Because I knew what was out there and what I had to do to make money. And playing with some of the guys, it was working.

This was all around Chicago. When I started to traveling, I was really ready to travel. I'd go from Milwaukee, I'd go on up into Duluth, Minnesota, and all of that area, and down into Fort Wayne, Indiana, up to Michigan.

Some of the clubs were segregated. But with me, being a musician, as an entertainer, entertainers don't have to put up with so much of that. Because there you are entertaining in a club, hell, you pay no attention because the guy hired you and you still associate with the people, anyway.

Papa John Creach
A publicity photo
In Chicago and around there, I used to play those "key clubs," where they had speakeasies. If you were a member, you had a key. We were rubbing shoulders with the very rich people, because they were the only ones allowed in there. And then you had your jukebox kings and your dancers and all those different people were in that type of an operation. Al Capone, all those bad gangsters, you name 'em, they were around there. All those guys were coming through there, but they didn't stay too long. The feds were on them; they chased them right out of there.

They chased them out into Cicero, Illinois. That was really known for gangsters. They had a great club scene there. That was just like another Las Vegas – a lot of clubs like that. Here's a big club over here, got dancing and things going on, and another one down the street – just blocks and blocks of clubs.

After Prohibition, it was easier to find jobs. Of course, a lot of people weren't working because they had that crash. I was a kid when they had that crash, and I can remember my father was having a little problem, and then he started working in the steel mill.

I came out here to California around 1943. I was married then. I was 21 when I was married the first time. We were traveling all over the country. We got to where the Chocolate Music Bars was a pretty well-rehearsed group. We could just play practically anything.

But the other band members didn't want to come out to California. See, California began to boom during the war. Everybody was talking about California. A guy came back from California one time, sitting in the club, and he pulled out $10,000 cash.

I started in the military, but I got out because I had lumbago in my back. So, I landed out here in Oakland, and I worked up there. And from there, I came down to Los Angeles. I worked in Palm Springs and Riverside. I set up housekeeping in L.A. and stayed there because it was a major city and all the booking agents and the whole entertainment industry was right there.

Now, when you say you're playing commercial music you run across different songs. A country-western tune might become popular, and you're playing in a club, you have to learn it. If the blues becomes popular, and your audience is asking for it, you've got to learn it. So, it keeps you on your toes. If you don't learn it, you won't work. (Laughs). And you can't eat.

I had a trio called the Johnny Creach Trio. That was Edgar Mason on bass and Happy Joe Louis on guitar, and myself. I was traveling all over the United States. And we used to hang out in Hawaii all the time and go over there and play. I first went to Hawaii in '52. It was beautiful over there. Now, Hawaii looks just like Los Angeles. They call it a cement jungle now.

The trio made some 78s, but nothing big. We never did get into the recording industry. I don't know, we were so busy traveling. We did a few. I did "Danny Boy," I did "Indian Love Call" and those kind of recordings, and I did some jump things. I recorded for Dutone Records.

After that, I got out of having the trio and I started just doing it single. And then I played with a group called the Bits of Rhythm. I played with them for about three years, from 1949 to 1951. It was a jumping group, though. I was playing more or less classical and things like that, and coming up with some of the other stuff. Then they would do some of their comedy stuff. We had good voices in there. I could sing pretty good, too, at one time.

I first played with Eddie Vinson years ago in Denver. There was a hotel down by the Four Corners. That's where I met Eddie, and I played with him there. That was way back in the early 1950s. And after that, I played with him for Budweiser. We were all playing together on a flatbed.

But I played with so many people through the years. I knew Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, all the blues shouters and everything, T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner. I've worked with them; I can't think of them all.

I first met Gretchen [his wife of 32 years] when I came to Portland. I was working at the Tropics Club downtown. Johnny Ray, the singer, got famous there. I met her, and then I went on traveling. And we called each other back and forth. Sometimes I had a hard time getting in touch with her.

[At this point, Gretchen picks up the story:

Well, my restaurant in Portland burned down. I moved to Los Angeles, and one day – I didn't know John was divorced yet – I had a friend call his house and tell him I was in L.A. and wanted to see how he was doing. And that's when he told me his wife was gone. And that's when we started going around. And finally, he said why don't you come live with me? And then we went to Las Vegas and got married.]

There was a little time in the late 1960s where I called myself John Creach, between Johnny and Papa John as I became older.

[Gretchen: It was the Airplane that named him Papa John. The way their association came about was Joey Covington, drummer for Jefferson Airplane, met John at the musicians union in Hollywood. They would go out there to look for work. And Joey became so attached to John that he became a father figure to him. And he started calling John "Pop." And when the time came for Airplane to do things, he said to them, "Look, I know a man that would be just what we need. You need a new gimmick." They had so much money they didn't know what to do. And when John got with them, they just got carried away.]

The most challenging, besides symphonic music, was jazz. Blues is easy to play. Rock might be a bit less challenging to play than blues.

I've had a very interesting life for myself, going and playing and traveling all over and meeting different people. The public is so very interesting because you're meeting so many different people from all parts of the world. It's just really a great big opening book. It's just marvelous.

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