Ohio Sings the Blues
From a historic music spot and beloved blues legend, to a singer following in her fathers footsteps, the Buckeye state keeps blues fans in tune.
Pity the lost blues musician.
He's somewhere in northwest Ohio, which is good. Here's what's bad: his directions. And club owner Henry Griffin, a cordless phone pressed to his ear as he tries to guide the lost performer to the venue, isn't proving much help.
"You see the sun, man? Drive toward the sun," Griffin says into the phone. The Mississippi native sits in a golf cart parked outside the white, cinder-block building known as Griffin's Hines Farm Blues Club: an unassuming locale in quaint Swanton Township (west of Toledo) that you've probably never heard of, but that for decades reigned as one of the best blues spots in the nation.
It seems a bit risky to suggest that someone who's lost should use the sun as a compass. As if that weren't enough, the missing musician (a band member for one of the evening's performers) only has about 30 minutes before that compass disappears into the horizon. And when the sun sets here, the rural village doesn't just go dark, it goes country dark: With only 3,500 residents and Mother Nature occupying more space than strip malls, a lack of bright lights turns the night sky into a stargazer's dream, and the roads into a wayward driver's nightmare.
But no one cares. At least, no one among the diverse crowd of Ohioans packed into Hines Farm this mild October day, who'll stay until almost midnight eating forkfuls of battered catfish and savoring blues singer E.C. Scott's growling lyrics about no-good men and backstabbing women.
"It's just one of those days when I feel like singin' the blues," she warns the hooting audience later that evening, gripping a microphone in one hand and dabbing her forehead with a towel in the other. All the members of Scott's band are perfectly positioned behind her in the dim stage light - the lost musician too, having finally arrived at the blues club, steered by the sun.
The blues could be the musical equivalent of comfort food: its ingredients a mixture of wailing guitar riffs, nearly hypnotic melodies, and confessional-style lyrics delivered with such authentic emotion they feel homemade. The result? Relatable songs that soothe the soul, turning life's ups and downs into heartfelt, yet dance-worthy tunes.
"You know why people love it? It's the fact that it tells a story, that it really talks about life," says Regina "Teeny" Tucker, a supervisor for a U.S. Department of Defense agency in Columbus by day and a blues songstress by night, winning acclaim with a smooth delivery that sparks comparisons to Etta James.
"Blues is just like country music, which tells a story, too," she says. "It's about getting up in the morning and having to go to a job you don't like. Or, having to get a divorce. It's all these stories about the things people really do have to deal with - and it lets you know that you're not the only one."
It's no wonder, then, that the music tends to turn fans into lifelong devotees. Fortunately, there are plenty of haunts around Ohio where enthusiasts can get their fix - from Pomeroy's historic Court Street Grill, which bills itself as "southeastern Ohio's home of the blues," to Cleveland's Fat Fish Blue, where iconic musician Robert Lockwood Jr., born 90 years ago in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, plies his trade every Wednesday night.
"And there are so many blues societies and festivals around," says Matthew Donahue, a pop culture professor at Bowling Green State University in Toledo, who has made it his mission to turn students on to the genre and the significance of Griffin's Hines Farm.
From the distinguished history of that northwest Ohio spot, to the legendary life of Robert Lockwood Jr., to Teeny Tucker's determined rise to fame, Ohio boasts a wealth of blues places and personalities that are as rich and engaging as the music itself.
Griffin's Hines Farm Blues Club
There's something familiar in the scenic acreage that surrounds Hines Farm. It's in the winding dirt road, the emerald stretches of grass, the John Deere tractor that sits idle in front of the blues club, and the smoke billowing from three metal barrels that have been transformed into barbecue cookers.
It's all like being down South.
"Everybody that had migrated from the south, they'd just left all those little towns down in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee â€¦ most of those folks had just left the cotton patch," says Henry Griffin, recalling his own family's move to Ohio - along with hundreds of thousands of other southern African-Americans who trekked north in the first half of the century, searching for greater economic opportunities - and their delight at finding establishments like the one begun by Frank and Sarah Hines. "They felt comfortable at places like this."
The 44-acre property still holds the small, wooden juke joint the Hineses built in 1950 - Griffin says the structure, no longer in use, is one of the oldest original juke joints still standing in America - as well as the larger, two-story blues club they built in 1955 and where Griffin still brings in blues acts once or twice a month.
"I have done my share to keep the blues alive," he says.
During the club's heyday, the farming town's convenient placement between Toledo and Detroit, two big cities whose factory jobs lured numerous Southerners, left the Hineses perfectly positioned to offer transplanted people like themselves (Frank hailed from Kentucky, Sarah from Tennessee) some authentic entertainment to remind them of home.
"When this migration of black people occurred, there was a migration of the music they carried with them, too," explains BGSU professor Donahue, who also authored I'll Take You There â€¦ An Oral and Photographic History of The Hines Farm Blues Club in 1999, which was turned into a PBS documentary.
That music, first performed by sharecroppers on plantations in the Mississippi Delta, was in plentiful supply at Hines Farm, as seen by the many black-and-white posters that today decorate the walls around the blues club's horseshoe-shaped bar. Between those advertisements, black community publications, and great word of mouth in the neighboring cities, Hines Farm lured thousands of visitors and a slew of celebrated blues acts, from national stars such as B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and Bobby "Blue" Bland, to local favorites like Art and Roman Griswald.
Such extravagant touches as an outdoor pavilion (christened with a performance by Count Basie and his orchestra in 1961) and living quarters for traveling musicians, as well as a range of entertainment that included Negro League baseball games and motorcycle derbies on the sprawling property, made the spot one of the largest and most unique blues clubs in the nation.
"It was kind of like a black country club," says Donahue.
However, between the construction of the Ohio Turnpike and the urban renewal of the late 1960s, Hines Farm eventually faded into history and fell into disrepair, as did the many popular blues clubs on Toledo's once booming Door Street. "The whole northwest Ohio blues scene is sort of a microcosm of what happened to it nationally," says Donahue.
When Henry Griffin bought the club in 1978, still carrying fond childhood memories of visiting Hines Farm with his family, "it was in super bad shape," he says. Over the years, Griffin has used money from his excavating business to renovate and reopen the club. Donahue says that those occasional concerts, along with such gatherings as Toledo's annual Rock, Rhythm and Blues Festival and local enterprises like Blue Suit Records, are helping fuel the music's resurgence in the area.
The professor, too, has played a role in the revival. "One of the classes I teach is Introduction to Popular Music," says Donahue. "I always make sure that the blues and the story of Hines Farm is part of that."
Robert Lockwood Jr.
It takes a moment to adjust to the sight of Robert Lockwood Jr., perched on a stool at Cleveland's Fat Fish Blue. It's not that he doesn't belong: In fact, many of the people seated in the audience, munching on Cajun cuisine that complements the vibrant Mardi Gras-themed dÃ©cor, came specifically to hear the 90-year-old's brand of blues, as they do every Wednesday night.
Rather, it's that the mellow-looking Lockwood - dressed head-to-toe in beige, his pageboy cap and hooded eyes tilted down as he focuses on his guitar - doesn't quite match the frenetic, neon-blue message painted on a duct right over his head, "Laissez les bon temps rouler!" ("Let the good times roll!").
And there are those melancholy lyrics:
Well I've been driftin' and shiftin'
Just like a ship out on the sea
Yeah I've been driftin' and shiftin'
Just like a ship out on the sea
You know I ain't got nobody
In this great big world to care for me.
Of course, it is just a song. The fans that "care" for Lockwood are countless, and they converge to hear him not only on this Ohio spot, but also at the Arkansas Blues & Heritage Festival every year, an event that draws blues lovers from around the globe.
"Do you know that 100,000 people go to that festival? It's one of the biggest in the world," says Lockwood, sitting at the bar during a break from his set. He takes special pride in the event, and rightly so: The gathering, formerly called the King Biscuit Blues Festival, was inspired by his influential radio show "King Biscuit Time" (named for it's sponsor), which Lockwood and revered harmonica player and singer Sonny Boy Williamson started in 1941.
"I read that B.B. King would be picking cotton somewhere in the Delta, and he would race home for lunch and go to some sharecropper's shack who had a radio, just so he could listen to Lockwood play guitar during King Biscuit Time," says Roy Book Binder, a well-known blues guitarist with his own diehard following. The Florida-based musician says Lockwood's finesse of blues chords, a talent passed down by his mythic stepfather, bluesman Robert Johnson - who, legend has it, sold his soul to the devil to learn how to play the guitar so skillfully - has inspired a string of aspiring artists over the decades.
"Every year on my birthday, B.B. King gives me a check for $1,000," Lockwood says of his most famous admirer.
Along with the adulation from colleagues, Cleveland, his home since 1960, certainly hasn't passed up the opportunity to pay homage to Lockwood.
"Do you know that I have two doctorates?" he asks, a reminder that the musician has, indeed, received honorary degrees from both Cleveland State University and Case Western Reserve University.
Lockwood's penchant for mentioning his merits - "I'm the only person in the world that plays like I play" - isn't bragging. The truth is, despite all the current acknowledgement of his achievements, Lockwood went unheralded by the general public for years.
"He was like an unsung hero of what we'd call â€˜modern blues' from the 1940s and '50s," says Book Binder. He notes that for many years, Lockwood was a session guitar player for Chicago blues giant Chess Records, performing in the background on upwards of "40 or 50 percent" of the company's recordings and helping create the sound of such luminaries as Howlin' Wolf and Little Walter at a time when often the only person credited was the star.
"I believe that if it were not for Lockwood, all those records would've sounded very different," says Book Binder. "He really is a true musical treasure."
As pressure goes, it doesn't get more intense for a singer than "Amateur Night" at the Apollo Theater.
First, there are the members of that Harlem, New York, audience, who can spot vocal weakness the way sharks sense blood in the water. Then, once a faint trace of "boo"-ing suddenly turns into a chorus of hundreds, a character named "the sandman" dances onto stage, playfully ushering off the poor soul who's struggling to keep his or her composure in front of the microphone. And it's all broadcast on national television.
So it's noteworthy that Regina "Teeny" Tucker from Columbus, belting out the beloved R&B hit "Home" by singer Stephanie Mills, won a standing ovation during her first time there in 1993.
Not to mention, Tucker got the same reaction when she returned to the stage two more times.
"The audience just went crazy," she says.
Since then, the 40-something mother of three has turned her attention to the blues, inspired by memories of her father Tommy Tucker, who won fame in 1964 with his hit song "High Heel Sneakers," which has been covered by everyone from Stevie Wonder to Paul McCartney.
"My dad had nine kids, but I'm the only one that sings or does music," says Tucker (whose sister coined her nickname, "because I had such teeny feet when I was a kid"). She attributes her interest in the sound to the quality time father and daughter spent together in her youth - the 3-year-old year old sitting on the armrest of her dad's big Cadillac as he drove, listening to his voice pour out of the radio.
Today, Tucker thinks of lyrics for her songs while driving in her car. The words, such as those for the title song from her CD, "First Class Woman" ("Listen up you men/If you want to be with me/you better be prepared to go first class"), has audiences at blues festivals and clubs across Ohio swaying in their seats. And although her father died in 1982, Tucker still finds herself in the company of such blues legends as Robert Lockwood Jr., who pulled her aside for some helpful hints after seeing Tucker perform in Cleveland. "I definitely take advice when it comes from people of his caliber," she says.
The results of that advice can be heard as far away as Europe, where Tucker has toured several times. And while she's seen a steady increase in concert attendees all across the globe, Tucker hopes that fans of every style of music will find an appreciation for the blues.
"There's a lot of people who come out to the shows and who are interested in the blues, but really, I think there should be even more," she says.
"The music really deserves a lot of respect."