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Jesse Fortune, “the singing barber,” collapses on stage and dies at age 79
Photo by: Michael Kurgansky
Blues singer Jesse Fortune, best known for his work with Willie Dixon and the often-covered song “Too Many Cooks”, collapsed on stage while performing at Gene’s Playmate Lounge, 4239 W. Cermak Ave, on Chicago’s West Side, on Sunday night, August 30, 2009. He was taken by paramedics to Mt. Sinai hospital and was pronounced dead at 12:51 a.m. on August 31. The cause of death was coronary atherosclerosis, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office. Funeral service announcements are pending.
Mr. Fortune was born on February 28, 1930 in Macon, Mississippi and grew up near Hattiesburg. A huge fan of B.B. King, who influenced his powerful vocal style, Fortune moved to Chicago in 1952. He became one of Willie Dixon’s favorite singers, who produced, recorded and wrote songs for him. The singer worked all over town in the ‘50s-‘60s with Dixon, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Big Walter Horton, Otis Clay, Lonnie Brooks and Eddy Clearwater, to name a few. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, he retired from singing and opened a barber shop at 134 S. Pulaski, where his customers often asked him to sing and gave him the moniker, “the singing barber.” Fortune made a comeback in the ‘90s and Delmark recorded his Fortune Tellin’ Man LP in 1993. Produced by Dave Specter, who wrote the title track and played on it with his band, the disc revived the singer's career.
Pat Smillie, a Chicago blues/R&B singer who often worked with Mr. Fortune, pays tribute to his friend, below.
Jesse Fortune at Reggie's club for Delmark Night, June 13, 2009. Photo by: Michael Kurgansky
It is with deep regret that I report that our good friend, Jesse Fortune, has died. He collapsed onstage while performing at Gene's Playmate Lounge on Chicago's West Side on Sunday, August 30.
Jesse's 1963 hit "Too Many Cooks" was written especially for him by the great Willie Dixon (and featured a young Buddy Guy on guitar). The Robert Cray Band also had a hit with their version of "Too Many Cooks" in the early ‘80s. Jesse often stated "I never made a quarter off that record."
In August 2005, my band had the great pleasure of opening for the Robert Cray Band at the Park West in Chicago. I invited Jesse as my personal guest. Jesse really enjoyed the show!
Later that year, I tracked down a CD copy of Jesse's original (long out-of-print) 1963 version of "Too Many Cooks" (USA label) and I brought it to Jesse at his barber shop on Pulaski Ave. Jesse was so tickled, he locked up the shop and we sat and listened to it together over and over again that afternoon.
Jesse was always so gracious, whenever I called him up, he would come out to my show and sing a few songs with my band. Over the years, he made countless appearances with us. His performances were always a highlight of the night. He performed with us at clubs such as The Checkerboard Lounge, Riverdale Marina, Redfish, Cafe Penelope, Blue Bayou and many others.
Whenever Jesse would give a show of his own (which was infrequently) he would pull out all the stops. He would often hire me to run the PA system for him, he'd print up pluggers, gather a variety of West Side performers to appear as guest stars, and sell raffle tickets. At one show, I remember Jesse raffled off a brand new TV set!!! He was Old School all the way.
Over the years, I often talked to Jesse about his plans of recording some of his original material. In the 1990s, he did an album with Delmark Records called Fortune Tellin’ Man, (the title track was written for him by blues guitarist Dave Specter). More recently, he appeared as a guest vocalist on Jimmy Burns' Delmark release Live at B.L.U.E.S. CD/DVD.
Jesse was one of the last great stand-up blues singers. He didn't play an instrument; he didn't need to. That voice was all he needed.
R.I.P. Jesse --- Pat Smillie