Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
By Terry Abrahamson
A Bullet for Lassie -- the Broadway musical I was born to write. Starring Billy Flynn as Doc Weaver, the venerable black & white TV veterinarian who mysteriously appears at Sugar Williams’ apartment on South Maryland Avenue after Lassie, who Sugar rescued from the South Woodlawn Collie Shelter, takes a stray bullet through the frontroom window of her third floor walkup.
As Doc rolls up his sleeves to dig out the slug, a violent
thunderstorm cuts the power, leaving his surgical skills to the mercy of
the only illumination avail-able: the lightning. Undaunted, he grips the
scalpel, faltering only when, as if summoned by the rumbling heavens,
the far-off wail of Otis Rush catches his ears; the blues legend is
flamebroiling “So Many Roads” down to a writhing muscle of sizzle and
grizzle and calls Doc Weaver’s name. But after a pensive faraway gaze,
Doc shakes it off….or does he?
Marveling at the touch and rhythm with which he tends to the wound, Sugar remarks “Look at you! I swear, the Lord musta put you on this Earth to be a doctor!” “The Lord, young lady,” Doc murmurs, eyeing the slug in his open palm as it catches the storm’s fleeting shimmer, “put me on this Earth to play the Blues. See….”
As the wound is dressed, the tale is told: of a young boy’s dream to be the White Bukka White, and how that dream went dead and buried the night Pa Weaver passed unexpectedly, and 15-year-old Doc had to take the nightshift up at the Asbestos Mill so’s he could put himself through Veterinary School to save the Weaver Homestead from foreclosure.
Once Lassie is saved, Doc waves off Sugar’s Discover card, muttering something about having “a date with a cross-eyed cat.” Too embarrassed to accept a freebie, Sugar disappears into a spare room, returning with a weathered hollowbody guitar. “Then take this; belonged to my stepbaby grandpa, Blind Evil Junior. Won it in a dice game from a man name of Otis Rush.” Eyeing the axe reverently, Doc echoes the master’s name; then, with unconvincing nonchalance, “You don’t say.”
Moments later, stepping out onto the awning-covered stoop, Doc Weaver, lifts the caseless relic by the neck and creaks out the hint of a smile. “Not quite the old steelbody. Then, neither am I.” That’s when the lightning bolt hits, and 100 million volts light up the Barnyard Sawbones like the Comiskey scoreboard after a Ted Kluzewski grand slam. When Doc is revived several minutes later, he grabs the still-smoking guitar, and rips into “Good Navigator.”
Sugar Williams, and every member of the opening night audience, trembles in the presence of the essence of his smoldering iridescence.
And the storm clears and the blue moon shines, and the whole South Side, from Roosevelt to Morgan Park does the Wah Watusi.
Well guess what? It’s not happening. No Doc Weaver musical, no matter how much Billy Flynn looks the part.
Billy Flynn has bigger catfish to fry, namely his new CD, Lonesome Highway. So if he can’t be my stepping stone to fame; he’s going to be his own. And yes, it is possible to be your own stepping stone. I saw a guy do it on the Ed Sullivan Show. He was from one of those countries that has since thrown out the White guys and changed its name.
The first time I saw Billy Flynn, I was way ahead of the curve on the Racial Profiling craze that’s now The Rage. I mean, if I was at a Blues Festival and Bobby Rush or Eddy Clearwater walked by, I’d have thought “Blues Singer.” But Billy Flynn? “Hmmm,” I’d have thought, “looks like kindly vet who still makes housecalls; probably at the Blues Fest in case one of the police horses steps in a pothole.”
Then Billy Flynn got up onstage and strapped on his guitar and stepped to the mic and the Blues oozed out of him and tore out of him and exploded out of him and made me ashamed that, way back when I was four years old, I’d been watching Lassie instead of listening to Earl Hooker or Magic Sam or Albert King or Lee Dorsey.
deserves a listen, and a second, and it really oughta be listened
to hot out of the plastic CD case, so you can actually be looking at the
Delmark Records logo while you listen….which might be as close as you’re
gonna get to being back at Johnny Pepper’s Lounge in the days when this
stuff wouldn’t have been considered a treasure trove. At Johnny
Pepper’s, this all would’ve been just what you expected to hear.
Billy Flynn is not the savior delivering the future of the Blues. He’s the sage celebrating the Blues just the way they are, and the way they were back then; and it makes me embarrassed that I ever seriously entertained, and responded to, the interview question “What do you see as the future of the Blues?” Damn! Didn’t the Blues give us Son House and Wynonie Harris and Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and Koko Taylor and Rock & Roll??? Who cares what the future of the Blues is? Can’t we just enjoy what’s there and love the livin’ heck out of everything the Blues has given us already (as if any of us will live long enough to get to it all!)? Lonesome Highway says “Hell yeah!”
And yes, you can Wah Watusi to “Good Navigator.” I checked it against an Orlons video. Just back off from powerhouse singer Deitra Farr on this one: she’s written in on my dance card with a permanent Sharpie, and her first of two guest vocal turns leaves no doubt that she is indeed the undisputed Queen of South Side Surfing Soul.
Seamlessly moving from a Malibu pipeline to an Englewood alley, “If It Wasn’t For the Blues” surrounds us with the old grey porches of them three story courtyard buildings packed with the neighbors swingin’ and swayin’ as Billy’s Blues rain down like honey - that is if a honey drop had a serrated edge.
The title cut is the Billy Flynn I fell in love with - the “Otis Rush Will Never Die, at least not while Billy Flynn has anything to do with it” cut. I know it’s Billy, but all I see is that guy with the pinned white collar, the skinny black tie and the perfect hair that nobody - not even Otis himself - should ever have smothered with a cowboy hat.
“Never Had a Chance” is a midnight joyride through Memphis. True, the lyrical message makes “Born Under a Bad Sign” feel, by comparison, like “Cele-brate,” but, as Bukka White himself woulda said, “I’m lovin’ the schadenfreude,” driven by horn men Doug Corcoran and Christopher Neal, and Roosevelt Purifoy on organ. Sorry, Billy, but hearing about your dead-end job and dead-on-arrival romance never felt better.
My default ringtone is “Heart Full of Soul.” In another life, I’m positive it shares a Yardbirds LP with “Waiting Game” a jackhammer boogie, complete with Billy’s “Dig this, Keith Relf” harp, that could give Mount Rushmore a John Lee stutter.
“Hold On” is Deitra and Billy taking Jimmy Reed’s “Hush Hush’ to choich; and E.G. McDaniel’s bass is determined to keep the parishioners on their feet a-swingin’ and a-swayin’.
“Jackson Street” climbs out of the Way-Back Machine, lassos us with Billy’s shredding slide guitar and harp that sweet-talks it all from start to finish, pulls us back in and lands us at 2120 South Michigan in 1954 where we can bask in the soft blue light of the smiles of the Gods of Chicago Blues.
The lyrics of Lonesome Highway are honest and authentic and the songs could’ve been covered by B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Lowell Fulson….and, yeah, Otis Rush. Seventeen songs might sound like a lot. But for a whole lotta years, I’ve made a ritual out of checking The ITunes Store every few weeks to see if there was ever gonna be anything new from Billy Flynn – I’m not counting his work on the Cadillac Records soundtrack -- so I feel like I’m owed this many tracks, and I can’t help but wonder about the songs he had to cut. He wrote 16 of them -- and threw in a slashing take on Ramsey Lewis’ “The In Crowd” -- and “all killer, no filler” never rang truer.
Delivered by a master Chicago Blues man in the hands of a great production team (Billy, Steve Wagner, Dick Shurman, Bob Koester) and stamped with that Delmark pedigree, Lonesome Highway is a deep Blue diamond rich with facets that reveal themselves anew listen after listen.
And someday, those 17 songs just might become the perfect soundtrack to a Broadway show. Just don’t lose the mustache, Billy. Or the specs. Or the down-the-middle part. Or the weathered old hollowbody.
Terry Abrahamson’s songs have been recorded by Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter, Prince, Joan Jett, Bob Margolin, Long Tall Deb, Clarence Clemons, Derrick Procell among others. “Bus Driver,” co-written with Muddy, won him a Grammy. His photographic memoir, “In the Belly of the Blues” is part of the permanent collection of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. His kids book, “The Blues Parade,” is due out later this year. Terry is a proud and frequent contributor to Chicago Blues Guide.