We'll be publishing River Bottom Blues - the 1st book in The Crime Fighting Bluesmen series by Ricky Bush - on Wednesday 11th March and today we are delighted to reveal the cover and publish an exclusive extract from this extraordinary book...
Mitty Andersen knows that rising blues star Bobby Tarleton didn’t die of a heroin overdose. He’d blown enough blues harmonica notes with Bobby to know that he’d never let anything get in the way of his music. MItty suspects foul play and he’s determined to put his investigative skills to work to find out what really happened.
The last words J.P. Dillon heard before the ice pick slammed into his chest and pierced his heart were, “You’ll be playing with the Devil now, blues boy.”
Twenty minutes earlier, he held a mesmerized crowd of blues fans and harmonica aficionados in his grasp as he coaxed solid, soulful tones from his instrument for an encore at Rhoda’s Roadhouse. “His People,” as he called his fans, packed Chicago’s best-known blues club to standing room only and yelled for more.
He blew the final notes of his signature tune, “Baby Get Your Head Straight” and stepped from the small stage and ran the gauntlet of back slaps and handshakes. A strong arm hooked his elbow and yanked him towards a table surrounded by music industry types. A French documentary producer, who had filmed the night’s performance, wore a smile as he towed J.P. along and yapped at him in broken English. J.P. understood every third word. He wriggled free of the foreigner and headed to the back door, followed by his drummer, Fat Frank, who was also yapping at him.
“Hey, J.P., don’t you think you should go over and talk with Frenchie and his friends? He’s gonna make you a star, man.”
Peter Stiml had been in Chicago for a month, documenting the city’s blues scene. European blues fans couldn’t get enough of Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker and other blues musicians. They had been touring overseas presenting a totally different style of music to sold-out auditoriums crammed with enthusiastic fans.
A couple of English chaps named Mick Jagger and Keith Richards formed a group called The Rolling Stones, named after Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone Blues,” recorded back in 1950. The band’s songs became major hits in the UK and their manager had them booked for their first U.S. tour. Columbia records signed Eric Burdon and his group, The Animals, who had built up a solid following in London by singing such blues standards like “House of the Rising Sun”. They also had their sights set on a summer tour of the States.
Stiml had his hand on a strong pulse and he wanted to chase the potential before it weakened. He rounded up a film crew to seek out the music on its own turf and bring the results back to his people. Nothing prepared him for the lack of appreciation the musicians suffered on home ground in the U.S. Musicians who were idolized in Europe were relegated to small clubs in America and few white people ventured into such places to hear le blues. He discovered a society of racial segregation, where Negroes could not share dining counters, drinking fountains or restrooms with white patrons. In Europe, these musicians stayed in the swishest hotels and ate in the finest restaurants. Venues like London’s Fairfield Hall were usually home to classical concerts, not music from Chicago and the Mississippi Delta, but the blues men were enthusiastically welcomed even there. They were featured on television and radio shows in London, Paris, Brussels, Hamburg, Stockholm and other cities throughout Europe.
This epiphany did little to dampen his enthusiasm and he found tonight’s show exhilarating. He had high hopes that his project would shine a light on the Chicago blues musicians and perhaps raise their status even in their own, largely indifferent country. He was sure his efforts would be handsomely rewarded back in Europe.
J.P. Dillon had been tapped to accompany the next group of Chicago musicians to tour Europe. J.P.’s first studio sessions last year had two songs that reached the top ten on the rhythm and blues charts in the UK, and Peter had bought a box full of the records and distributed them to friends in Paris and London, and the bluesman was beginning to gain a favorable reputation even before his arrival. Peter fell instantly in love with the sound of the blues harmonica—or blues harp, as they called it here—because it was the perfect, wailing vehicle to express the deep, often sorrowful, feeling of the music.
He was in the midst of authenticity at Rhoda’s Roadhouse on South Michigan Avenue, which had a reputation as the club that tolerated nothing but the blues. Proprietor Rhoda Williams had unplugged many an amplifier that dared to blast out anything but the real stuff. Her club could accommodate a little more than a hundred customers, or on a night like tonight, a hundred and fifty with standing room only. She kept it clean, because she wanted the ladies of the neighborhood to feel welcome.
“I’ve had enough of that stuff,” J.P. said as holy hell broke loose close to the stage. Someone was screaming “the devil did this,” “the devil did that” and raising a general ruckus. Both he and Fat Frank turned in time to see the club’s bouncer, Big Bo Bo, drag a slender, wiry black man across the top of a table, scattering longneck beer bottles, mixed drinks, and alarmed patrons across the room. The bouncer had both arms of the instigator pulled back, but the man kicked over another table and yanked loose long enough to grab a beer bottle and smash it over Bo Bo’s head. The big man shook the broken glass from his hair, grabbed the troublemaker around the neck and swiftly heaved him through the front door. When Big Bo Bo re-entered, tables were uprighted, and replacement beverages were issued.
“Guess the devil made him do it,” J.P. shrugged as he swung open the back door to a cool breeze that whipped the sweat from his brow. He carefully settled a Fedora on his head.
“You know, I do remember that cat sitting at that front table staring a hole into you,” said Fat Frank. Fat Frank had hopes of his own. He knew that if J.P. hit the big time that he would too and might get a chance to record some of his own songs for these funny French talking guys who loved the blues.
The wind whipped at the Fedora and J.P. grabbed his hat. “Those fellows are all nice and everything, but they drive me nuts with all the questions about how I play the harp and do this with it and that with it. I just blow, damn it! They want to know if Little Walter influenced me. Hell, no, he didn’t. We came up blowing at about the same time. I’ve got my own style. And who my mama and papa was is none of their cotton pickin’ business.”
“By the way,” Fat Frank said, “why’d you go and tell them how you picked cotton down in Mississippi? Hell, J.P., you were born in the 9th Ward of New Orleans just down the block from me. You ain’t never picked no cotton in your life.”
They had both moved up to Chicago together for one reason, and that was to play music. They were tired of playing on New Orleans’ street corners, with Fat Frank beating on cardboard boxes and trash cans to keep time and J.P. blowing his soul. A guitar player sometimes joined them and they’d really make a racket and draw a pretty good crowd, who would pitch nickels, dimes and quarters into their tip jar.
J.P.’s laugh boomed down the alley, “That’s the kind of crap they want to hear, so why should I disappoint them? Those guys that went over there in ’62 had to fight promoters to keep from having to suit up in farm overalls and straw hats. Have you ever seen me in a pair of overalls? Man, my suits are Brooks Brothers. You can see your face in the shine on my shoes. Th is Fedora on my head sure the hell ain’t made of no damned straw. But they think if you ain’t no share-cropping farmer from Mississippi, then you ain’t no bluesman.”
Fat Frank watched his, tall, skinny, life-long friend walk down the dark alley and asked, “Where are you heading?”
“I’m calling it a night. I’m walking over to cousin Leroy’s,” he said. Leroy’s place was only three blocks from Rhoda’s on 14th Street.
A half of block down the dark alley, J.P. heard the tap, tap, tap of shoes behind him and he turned, but he could see no one in the darkness. He walked on and the tapping resumed.
He stopped, feeling spooked, and said, “Who the hell is back there? Fat Frank?”
The voice that answered said, “We are here to help rid the world of the friends of Satan, who corrupt the innocent by playing his music on his instrument.”
J.P. could barely make out the man’s figure as he stepped in close enough for him to smell the whiskey on his breath. Another drunk idiot, he thought.
Fat Frank walked back into the club and forgot just how smoky it could get. He snatched one more beer from the bar and headed over to Peter Stiml’s table to offer apologies for J.P.—and a white lie that his buddy felt ill and had gone home to bed. The Frenchman smiled and said something, and Fat Frank had a harder time understanding him than J.P. did. But Stiml’s smile and a hardy handshake indicated that the excuse was accepted.
They filed out onto the sidewalk, and Frank was flattered to have the film camera in his face. Everyone turned when they heard a woman shriek. Fat Frank saw his childhood friend stagger towards him with bloody hands clutching his chest. The film crew captured the final moments of J.P. Dillon’s life as he collapsed into his drummer’s outstretched arms, with Fat Frank yelling, “Cut that damn camera off, Frenchie, or I’ll give you a reason to have the blues.”
Wild eyes, searching for an answer, looked into Fat Frank’s. J.P. opened his mouth and tried to say something. Frank whispered, “Shhhh. It’ll be alright, J.P. It’ll be alright.” He turned and shouted, “Has someone called an ambulance! Damn it! Someone call an ambulance.”
He pressed hard on J.P.’s chest, which was seeping blood and had soaked the white shirt. Rhoda gazed at them both in a state of shock. J.P. had played her club every Tuesday night for three years and she thought of the two men as brothers.
She tried not to look at the spreading crimson pool of blood around the two men as she put a hand on Fat Frank’s shoulder. “An ambulance is on the way.”
She looked into the wide eyes staring back at her, and J.P. said softly, “I see angels coming for me.”
J.P. Dillon joined the ranks of Sonny Boy Williamson I and Henry “Pot” Strong on a list of unsolved murders on the streets of Chicago—a list of blues harmonica musicians.
Bombs could have exploded. The roof could have caved in. I wouldn’t have noticed. I was in the zone; that rare state of mind when an inner force takes over, the music flows, every note lands effortlessly, exactly where it should, and the musical tones wash down through the body and… well, musicians know what I’m talking about. We were cooking with gas and the audience was eating it up.
Deep into nailing a solo that Little Walter made famous, I spotted Pete Bolden walking through the front door of Little Queenie’s, all one hundred and thirty-five pounds of him. The man was still as skinny as a stack of dimes. Suddenly, the zone crapped out and I couldn’t coax the right tones or hit the right notes to save my soul.
Pete Bolden hadn’t shown himself in a club in at least fifteen years, since he got married, got religion and got off booze and drugs; not in that particular order. Seeing him threw me off my feed and shocked the zone out of me. It took the rest of the set to get my groove back.
Pete was a prodigy—a fellow blues folks called the “Real Deal”. He was black, he could sing and he blew the blues harp as if his life depended on it. Back in the day his life did depend on his skills.
He had a natural talent and he taught me how to play tongue-blocked notes, how to create phrases and just how to suck the thing to get the fattest tone from the instrument. He was not successful teaching me to sing. Pete could sing like an angel or a devil, depending on the tune, but all I managed were froggy croaks.
He knew no limits, and that applied not only to musical boundaries, but to his indiscriminate taste for anything that altered his state of mind. All it took was, “Hey Pete, this’ll get you high” and it didn’t matter what manner of high he was being offered. He was in.
Most of his fans didn’t notice his decline. They would claim that he was stellar up until he dropped out of sight.
We blues harp nuts knew, though. We could tell when that something that separated him from the rest of us began to dissipate. Oh, he could still blow and sing. Man, could he sing, but there was something missing from his harp playing and it saddened us to see it leave him.
Anyway, he’d caught himself in time, assisted by a wonderful wife and soul mate and Jesus Christ. He was alive and well and walking through the doors of Little Queenie’s.
Little Queenie’s received accolades year after year as one of Houston’s Best Blues Clubs. Most of us considered Queenie’s, The Big Easy over on Kirby, and Shakespeare’s Pub as the only blues clubs in town; the ones that booked the most blues, anyway. There used to be more venues, but most were booking an eclectic roster of bands. Few of them were blues bands, even if they had blues in their name. The new House of Blues followed their corporate policy of going the rock route with popular flavor-of-the-month bands. Few national blues stars made Houston a destination any longer, and Little Queenie’s just wasn’t big enough for the big boys to play. But occasionally a few blues veterans cut their fees to play the club and support Franklin.
Franklin Pierce bought the club back in the early ‘80s when Stevie Ray Vaughan and his brother’s Fabulous Thunderbirds were leading a mini-resurgence in the interest in blues music. Little Queenie’s successfully rode the crest of the wave.
Nowadays, we heard the same complaint coming from his lips, “All I’m doing is subsidizing y’all’s habit. I’m going broke here just so y’all can listen to the blues and play the blues. Y’all are just having a good time on my dime.”
He repeated the last part of his mantra often. I told him that I was going to write a blues song based on that theme.
“You’ll have to split the royalties with me,” he said.
Truth was that Franklin—you didn’t dare call him Frank and you’d get punched calling him Frankie—was a baby boomer who fell under the spell of the blues just like the rest of us. English cats like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton brought juiced up versions of Chicago blues back to our shores and slapped us around with it until we went out and bought Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James; and the blues gate opened.
Franklin never did drink much. In fact, he had once been into competitive body building and still kept in good enough shape to serve as his own bouncer. Few challenged him. He turned me into a gym rat for a while, but I never tried to keep pace with him. I do just enough nowadays to keep the ol’ body from turning to milk toast.
The club had always been a neighborhood bar, but was just short of a dive when Franklin bought it and set to renovating it himself.
“I don’t want to pretty it up too much,” he’d tell us when we’d drop by to lend a hand and get a few free cold ones for our effort. He always kept a drum kit and a couple of amps set up and we would all jam at quitting time.
He prettied it up enough that our girlfriends or wives didn’t mind spending an evening there, if they could handle listening to stone, solid blues, because that is all Franklin allowed anyone to play in his club.
Little Queenie’s was juke joint chic without being pretentious. The club could accommodate 250 patrons comfortably and was laid out with a square floor plan. Along two walls he built booths made of oak and layered with enough coats of varnish to make a sailor envious.
He designed a modular stage. When all the modules were used, a band like Calvin Owens’ could fit an entire orchestra on it with room to spare. When he wanted more seating for his patrons, he would break down, fold up and store the modules against the wall. He stuck the dance floor in the back. Some bands complained, but no one’s big, tail-shaking butt blocked anyone’s view of the action on the stage.
He brought in chrome-trimmed, Formica-topped tables, and padded chairs that he picked up from a ‘50s era downtown diner that had given way to urban renewal. Progress. Urban renewal was squeezing him too. Little Queenie’s was close to the downtown renovation and he had what was now prime real estate.
His pride and joy was a highly polished mahogany bar with shiny brass rails that had come from the officer’s’ club at a military base in San Antonio. He never did tell us what he bid at the auction, but we know he paid way more than he planned.
Franklin had to have that bar. It came from the base where his dad spent the latter part of his career, and Franklin often pointed to the spot where he figured his dad’s elbows had been propped many a night.
Franklin’s father had risen to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and was a casualty of the Vietnam War before most of the country knew any U.S. troops were even over there. Franklin had followed his dad into the same war and had gotten back stateside about the time the rest of us were draft age. He didn’t come back a bitter vet, but a devoted patriot and he proudly flew the Stars and Stripes outside of Little Queenie’s. Run down the U.S.A. in front of Franklin and you’d find out what kind of damage his twenty-inch biceps would do to your face.
The bar is where I found Pete Bolden resting his elbows at the end of our set.
“Hey, Peter, what in the blue blazes brings you out?” I said. We didn’t grab and hug because we saw each other often and when the urge struck, I would venture into the Third Ward and listen to one of his Sunday sermons.
“Y’all sound pretty solid, Mitty. How’d you talk Rolf into playing lead guitar for you?” His curt little smile appeared to some as smart-assed. I always called his smile mischievous; he curled his lips slightly without exposing his teeth. No one came any friendlier than Pete Bolden.
“Billy couldn’t make it and Rolf owed him one, so I got blessed with a bit of blues royalty tonight,” I said. “It’ll be business as usual next Tuesday. That’s not what brought you out, though, is it?”
“I knew you wouldn’t or couldn’t answer a cell phone in here, but this isn’t something that I would have phoned in anyway,” Pete said slowly. “Listen Mitty, Bobby T is dead.”
I was shocked, stunned speechless as Pete filled me in on the details. Pete’s eyes always had a sad-looking slope to them, but they bogged heavily and filled with moisture as he told me about our good friend.
“Jean called about an hour ago and told me about it. His band was playing up in Kansas City and they were waiting for Bobby to get back to the stage for the second set and went looking for him after fifteen minutes. You know Bobby T; he’s never late after a break. He’s usually hassling and fining his band mates for that crap. He’d never leave the band hanging.”
“Alright, already… heart attack? What?” “Bobby T died from a heroin overdose.”
“Bullshit! With a capital B,” I said as Pete cringed. My quick temper was about to get the better of me. “Bobby never touched that stuff. He wasn’t even smoking pot anymore. Come on, Pete. What the hell are you talking about?”
“His drummer, Jake—you know Jake don’t you?—he found him on the stairs of the hotel they were staying at next door to the club. He still had a needle in his arm.
“I know, I know,” he said when he saw my eyes widen. “Bobby T would faint at the sight of a needle. But, you know Mitty, we haven’t seen him for some time and take it from an old junkie, it can change people. Doesn’t take much for the Big H to jump on your back and grab the driver’s seat.”
“Not Bobby T,” I said, mad that Pete would even suggest it. “He had the strongest constitution of anyone I’ve ever known.”
“Don’t shoot the messenger,” Pete said. “I’m just giving you the facts of what happened up there in KC.”
“I’m not shooting anyone, and Bobby T was not shooting dope, and I know that you know better, too, Pete Bolden.” I glared in Pete’s direction and waved off a waitress taking drink orders.
Franklin came over to tell me how well he thought the band and I did.
“Mighty fine blowing, there, Mitty boy. You keep that up and I just might have to give you guys a regular weekend slot.”
I rounded up musicians during the week and we hosted a jam once a month. Once in a blue moon, Franklin would toss us a weekend bone.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Franklin said when he spotted Pete Bolden on the Captain’s Chair next to me. “Sweet Pete Bolden. I haven’t seen your ass in what? Ten years or so? Great to see you, dude. You’re not off the wagon or anything like that are you?”
Franklin swept him off his chair, squeezed him and had Pete’s eyes bulging. This time his smile showed teeth.
“Hell, no, I haven’t fell off my wagon,” Pete said when Franklin relaxed his bear hug. “If I ever do, though, I’ll have Little Queenie’s host the event. I’m sorry to show up here after all this time and be the bearer of bad news.”
Franklin stared at Pete in much the same way I had when he heard the news about Bobby Tarleton. Bobby had blown more than a few blues harp notes at Little Queenie’s over the years and had helped Franklin get the club off the ground.
“What the hell, Pete,” Franklin said. “He wasn’t no junkie. How the hell could something like that happen?”
“I only know what Jean told me on the phone.” Pete said. “And I didn’t want to piss Franklin off. I don’t know what happened or what to think about it.”
Franklin looked at me, with watery eyes, searching for an answer, and I could tell that he was choking up over the death of our good friend.
I looked at both of them and said, “I damn well know this; no overdose of drugs took him out. Something evil came Bobby T’s way.”