Boogie woogie, Cincinnati style
From the Autumn 2004 issue.
Big Joe Jumps Again! Cincinnati Blues Session
By Big Joe Duskin
Yellow Dog Records: 2004
To hear sound clips or learn more about this release, Turbula recommends viewing its Amazon.com entry.
"Son, how 'bout a O.J. on the rocks?"
That's the first thing that came to mind when I saw the Yellow Dog Records' CD release, "Big Joe Jumps Again! The Cincinnati Blues Sessions," featuring singer-pianist Big Joe Duskin performing his rollicking brand of blues and boogie-woogie.
At 83, when this CD was recorded in January 2004, Big Joe's execution on the keyboard isn't as technically vigorous as it once was, but it remains vibrant and expressive in the barrelhouse vein made famous by the likes of Roosevelt Sykes and Meade Lux Lewis, a couple of Big Joe's inspirations. Moreover, Big Joe's husky baritone voice remains bold and exuberant. This album is a valuable addition to the record of regional musicians whose style of blues was forged in the 1930s and of a handful of Cincinnatians who carried on the blues tradition during its rebirth in the 1960s and 1970s.
Just as importantly, this album is a hell of a lot of fun, with its focus on old-time compositions by notables such as the aforementioned Sykes, Memphis Slim and Memphis Minnie. It stirred up a slew of memories from the days when Duskin and his band held down the Friday gig at Dollar Bill's Saloon in the mid-1970s.
Every Friday night after he'd set up his Fender Rhodes, Big Joe would amble up to the bar and request his standby O.J. on the rocks. Then, I knew he and the band were ready to cut loose. From the fall of 1976 to the winter of 1977, I worked as a waiter and bartender at Dollar Bill's, which at that time was a popular watering hole on upper Vine Street a couple blocks away from the University of Cincinnati, and right across the street from Bogart's, a rock club that's still thriving there. Dollar Bill was a loose operator in his mid-40s. His previous attempt at running a dive bar ended in bankruptcy, the latest misadventure in what he readily admitted was a series of business as well as personal failures. Undaunted, he enlisted a couple partners for a new venture, the eponymously named saloon, financed with loans at extortionist interest rates through sharks from across the river in Newport.
Howard, the proprietor of a paint store, lent a veneer of respectability and sensibility to the operation. Dollar Bill was assisted in the day-to-day management by Nickel Rick, a pharmaceutical salesman who after a failed marriage gave up his career to cast his lot in the bar business. Both were divorcees who swore never to marry again and devoted themselves religiously to partying. They hit the jackpot with the saloon. With the medical crowd at Cincinnati's hospital complex nearby, the college set, and the before- and after-show flow from Bogart's, the place was frequently flooded with customers. Fridays were the best, with the doctors and nurses getting bombed at happy hour and the professors, students and their cliques packing the joint at night to hear Big Joe and his combo. The group featured one of the smoothest blues drummers I've ever heard (believe his name was Charles) and a trumpeter who called himself "Rico," the only horn player I've every heard who managed to slip the opening line to "Jesus Christ Superstar" into every solo.
Big Joe, then in his mid-50s, was cranking, at the height of his game, having only a few years earlier revived a musical career that had been aborted by his promise to his preacherman father not to play the blues until the old man had died.
The story is alluded to in the liner notes to this CD by Larry Nager, the co-producer with William Lee Ellis, both whom play on a couple of the album's 16 cuts. The tale was more fully described in the book, "Going to Cincinnati: A History of the Blues in the Queen City," published by the University of Illinois Press in 1993 and written by Steven Tracy.
Tracy, who devotes a chapter to Duskin, was a blues harmonica prodigy as a teenager in Cincinnati. He later embarked on a career in academia and now is a professor at the University of Massachusetts. Through Tracy's prodding, Big Joe returned to playing music in public in the early 1970s, cut his first album called "Cincinnati Stomp" in 1977 with Arhoolie Records and went on to appear at blues festivals both in the United States as well as abroad.
A native of Birmingham, Ala., Big Joe honed his chops around the vibrant Cincinnati music scene of the mid- to late-1930s, when he says in the liner notes, music could be heard rippling from the town's myriad beer gardens.
The most remarkable aspect of Big Joe's career is that, rather than get the hell beat out of him by his father, Perry Duskin, for playing the devil's music, he quit playing at the age of 17. When World War II came along, he was drafted, served in Europe, and returned to become a Cincinnati policeman and eventually a mailman.
On the new CD, Joe tells a little story that revealed his dad's point of view in the song "The Preacher and the Devil's Music," on which Joe, while playing scraps of musical accompaniment, describes how he once narrowly escaped being whipped when he was caught playing the blues.
Both the liner notes and Tracy's book tell how when Joe went to his 89-year-old father to tell him he had decided to embark on the blues again, his father extracted a promise from his son not to do so until the old man was dead. Joe kept the promise only to see Perry Duskin live another 16 years, passing away in 1963. By that time, Big Joe's dreams of playing blues were in moth balls. Thankfully, for many blues fans, Joe dusted off the ivories and Tracy showed up.
Three decades later, as the album's title states, Joe is still jumpin', though it's probably better that his dad wasn't around for the recording session, which took place in a Methodist church. The first tune is Lowell Fulsom's "You're Gonna Miss Me," the unofficial theme of the CD, since it is also reprised on Track 15, closing out what is a cavalcade of blues anthems and leading to the album's last number. Appropriately, that last cut is the hymn most revered by musicians "A Closer Walk with Thee."
"Miss Me" provides a loose, swinging start. Though the piano is a bit tentative at first, Joe soon gets it rolling with his boogie bass line and his booming voice, propelled by drummer Philip Paul and bassist Ed Conley. Both are veterans of King Records' sessions when that record company was putting Cincinnati on the blues and rhythm 'n' blues map in the 1950s and '60s.
Back in the days at Dollar Bill's, Big Joe was extremely liberal about letting musicians sit in, even if they were of marginal caliber. On this CD, he gets some able assistance from rock star Peter Frampton, who now resides in Greater Cincinnati, and popular Queen City vocalist Shawna Snyder. Frampton supplies some stinging obbligato, electric licks on Memphis Slim's "Every Day I have the Blues" and Big Bill Broonzy's "Key to the Highway."
In the Bessie Smith tradition, Snyder belts out one of the empress' signature numbers, "Black Mountain Blues," on which Snyder sings, "Black Mountain people are as bad as they can be; they use gunpowder just to sweeten their tea." Co-producer Ellis provides some down-home flavor on this number with some sweet slide guitar work. Ellis is also featured on the traditional "Betty and Dupree," a story-telling blues that Big Joe handles with obvious relish.
"Black Mountain Blues" and "Betty and Dupree" reflect a more melodious style of blues heard in the '20s and '30s than the post-war Chicago-influenced approach characterized by its harder-edged electric sound.
Reminiscing on much earlier days, Big Joe uncorks a chorus of straight-up boogie-woogie on the Don Raye tune, "Down the Road a Piece," on which he sings of "old beat me daddy Slack," undoubtedly referring to the man he credits as his mentor, Freddy Slack, a white pianist whom, Tracy writes, appeared on some Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker sides in the '40s. Big Joe also provides a brief glimpse of his versatility by playing a tantalizing chorus of the Tillman-Franks-Horton country tune, "North to Alaska," about an adventurer setting out for the gold rush.
Joe kicks in his own piece, "Mean and Strange," a slow groove in which the narrator expresses his suspicion of his mate's eccentric behavior: "When I ask you to bring me my pipe, you bring me a cigar instead."
Joe's playing is at its most rambunctious and powerful when playing with a funky back beat supplied by Paul and Conley, as is the case on Memphis Minnie's "One Dirty Rat" and Lucille Bogan's "Sloppy Drunk Blues," on which Joe joyfully sings, "I'd rather be sloppy drunk, sleeping in the can, than to be out in the street, chased down by the man."
Back in the days at Dollar Bill's, I never saw Big Joe partake of anything stronger than O.J., but based on "Big Joe Jumps Again," it's obvious he's still got the juice.
Review by Michael J. Williams. Michael is a San Diego-based writer and editor.