Flyer courtesy of Paul Sanders Jr.

Flyer courtesy of Paul Sanders Jr.

Paul Sanders Jr. and Henry (Hank) Neuberger are two old and dear friends of mine who, like me, grew up in the New York City suburbs of Westchester County. I attended Mamaroneck High School and didn’t meet Paul or Hank until our college years, but the two were close friends in the Class of 1969 at White Plains High School (WPHS) in White Plains NY. This is the story of how, in early 1969, Paul and Hank came to promote a memorable and groundbreaking show by Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy at WPHS — or “Buddy Guy High,” as the two teenage impresarios hyped it to anyone and everyone in the weeks leading up to the gig.

George “Buddy” Guy was born 7/30/1936 in Lettsworth, LA and moved to Chicago in 1957; the following year, he released his first two singles on the Cobra label (Otis Rush and Magic Sam also recorded memorably for Cobra). Beginning in 1960, Buddy recorded a string of fine singles for Chess Records, with “Stone Crazy” becoming his only Billboard R&B chart hit (#12 in ’62). Buddy’s breakthrough to the white audience began in 1968 with his Vanguard debut LP, A Man and The Blues, produced by Sam Charters and abetted by Otis Spann‘s peerless piano playing. Unless Chess, Vanguard was well-entrenched in the progressive folk/rock market (with Joan Baez, Country Joe & the Fish, et al),  and the success of A Man and The Blues led to Buddy appearing in East Coast clubs and on rock ballroom bills such as the Jefferson Airplane show I saw at Fillmore East in November 1968.

In 1969, WPHS was a three-year school with an enrollment of over 2000 students. By tradition, its annual Senior Prom was free to all students, with all costs covered by various fund-raising events created by members of the class throughout their graduation year.

Paul Sanders: “In 1966, the WPHS senior class raised so much money that they were able to book Smokey Robinson & the Miracles for the prom. In ’67, the class said ‘okay, we’re getting the Temptations‘ — which they did — and the class of ’68 followed with the Four Tops…The Buddy Guy show was part of the fund-raising effort for our prom.”

Hank Neuberger: “This was Paul and Hank educating our peers about the blues.”

Paul: “We had A Man and The Blues but that was it. We hadn’t gotten hold of any of the Chess singles yet…We became aware of the blues and of artists like Buddy Guy–”

Hank: “–the same way Mick and Keith did!”

Paul: “I’d already seen B.B. King with Big Brother & the Holding Company in ’68, and Albert King at the Village Gate on a bill with King Curtis & the Kingpins.”AManAndTheBlues

Hank: “We were hipper than the room, so to speak. We were ‘the music guys,’ we were setting the tone. The fact that we were gonna promote a Buddy Guy show meant that it was a happening thing and that the kids should come — and to our amazement, they actually did! For the whole month leading up to the show, WPHS was ‘Buddy Guy High.'”

Hank and Paul booked the show through Buddy’s manager Dick Waterman, whose Avalon Productions also represented Skip James, Son House,  and Junior Wells (and shortly Bonnie Raitt). Buddy’s fee was probably about $2500; his band likely included bassist Jack Myers, saxophonist A.C. Reed, and his brother Philip Guy on rhythm guitar. The show also included an opening act, the Cream-inspired Fluid (more like a Cream cover band, really), most of whom were classmates of mine at Mamaroneck HS. (Two members of this band, bassist/guitarist Steve Love and drummer Bryan Madey, later found some measure of fame if not fortune in the group Stories, whose “Brother Louie” became an out-of-nowhere Number One hit in 1973.)

Hank: “The WPHS auditorium was jammed to capacity, which was about 1200. Fluid played their Cream numbers for 30-40 minutes through their Marshall stacks. No one in the audience other than Paul and I had any idea who Buddy Guy was or what his music would sound like.”

Paul: “These were 15-16-17 year-old white suburban kids and this was their first encounter with the blues. To call his appearance ‘a shock to the system’ would be an understatement.

“The curtain goes up, Buddy comes out, he plugs in, opens up — maybe it was ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ [from A Man and The Blues] — and immediately goes into his second song. And after about two minutes, this big puff of white smoke started to rise from his amp. I think it was a Fender Super Reverb–in any case, it started making all kinds of noises and then just quit cold.”

Hank: “Buddy’s hittin’ it hard, kids are standing on their chairs — and when that amp blew, all the excitement just drained right out of the room. It went from screaming excitement to nothing.”

Of course, neither the promoters nor Buddy had a spare amp on hand. (“Maybe he had some extra guitar strings,” Hank recalls. “He definitely didn’t have another amp.”) But Fluid guitarist Jon Lehr stepped into the breach and graciously offered the loan of his Marshall amp for the remainder of the set.

Paul: “It may have been the first time Buddy Guy had ever plugged into a Marshall — and he made good use of it, I can assure you! Combined with his use of a 300-foot guitar cord, he had those kids in the palm of his hand.”

Hank: “The auditorium had three sections of seats. He ran up one aisle, out the right rear door, back in the left rear door, down the other aisle, and back up onto the stage — and he never stopped playing.”

Buddy Guy Today

Buddy Guy Today

Paul and Hank’s Buddy Guy show was a resounding success. It raised enough money for the WPHS senior prom committee to book not one but two national acts: The Tymes, a smooth-voiced Black vocal group who had three Top 20 Pop hits in ’63-’64 including the #1 “So Much In Love”; and the Elektra Records quasi-supergroup Rhinoceros, of “Apricot Brandy” fame. [Paul Sanders: “These acts were chosen by a vote of the whole class from a list of available acts, including Jethro Tull.”]

Two decades later, Hank Neuberger was chief engineer and studio manager at Chicago Recording Company when Buddy Guy arrived at CRC to cut some tracks. “He came in, I introduced myself, and I said: ‘Buddy, I just wanted to tell you that I promoted a show with you way back when — and I’ll never forget it, because your amp blew up five minutes into the show.’

“He looked at me and said: ‘White Plains High School?’

“And I said, ‘Well, yeah — but why would you remember that gig, more than 20 years later?’

“And Buddy said: ‘Because when your amp blows up on the second song, you’ll remember the show.”

BUDDY GUY – “MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB” [Live, 1969]

With Jack Bruce (bass), Buddy Miles (drums), Dick Heckstall-Smith (saxophone)

sweettea_On his classic 1967 album A Man And The Blues, Buddy Guy sang:

I think I’ll move back down South, where the weather suits my clothes
I done laid ’round this big city so long, man…oooh, until I almost done froze

On his new album Sweet Tea (Silvertone/Jive), Buddy Guy moves his music “back down South”–turning loose his incendiary guitar and powerfully expressive voice on a set of dirt-road rural blues originating from the hill country of North Mississippi.

This style of hill-country blues is separate and distinct from the Mississippi Delta blues pioneered by pre-war performers like Robert Johnson, Son House, and Charley Patton, and later amplified (literally and figuratively) by such Delta migrants to Chicago as Muddy Waters and Robert Nighthawk. In contrast to the familiar 12-bar blues pattern, the North Mississippi style is characterized by elongated bar lines and one- or two-chord modal forms. There is a kind of trance-inducing drone quality to these blues that seems to draw upon the music’s deepest West African wellsprings.

This album could be subtitled “Buddy Guy Sings Fat Possum,” for seven of its nine songs are taken from the repertoires of hill-country stalwarts like Robert Cage, T-Model Ford, and the late Junior Kimbrough. The musical careers of these men—along with those of R.L. Burnside, Paul “Wine” Jones, and Robert Belfour, among others—were either initiated or revived by the iconoclastic Fat Possum Records of Oxford, Mississippi. Today, Fat Possum’s catalog encompasses both raw field recordings (Junior Kimbrough’s Most Things Haven’t Worked Out, Johnny Farmer’s Wrong Doers Respect Me) and startling collaborations by country blues elders with contemporary remixers and rappers (R.L. Burnside’s Mr. Wizard, the various-artists collection New Beats From The Delta).

Jim “Jimbo” Malthus is a founding member of Squirrel Nut Zippers and the sure-handed rhythm guitarist on Sweet Tea. A native of Oxford, Mississippi, he notes that until the first Fat Possum albums arrived in 1991, “people that lived 20 miles from R.L. Burnside in Mississippi didn’t know about his music. I used to deer hunt in Holly Springs [Burnside’s home town] every year of my life, and I never knew about any juke joints around there.”

From the solo acoustic moan of “Done Got Old” to the last searing strains of his own composition “It’s A Jungle Out There,” the droning force of the hill-country style and the alternately ecstatic and agonized delivery of Buddy Guy make for one intense combination. Bassist Davey Faragher locks in with Jimbo Malthus on the hypnotic rhythms and heaving chord changes, pushed relentlessly by one of three drummers on the album—either the indigenous blues veterans Spam (of T-Model Ford’s band) and Sam Carr, or Los Angeles import Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello & the Attractions, John Hiatt).

Together, they can make the 12-minute workout “I Got To Try You Girl” seem to go by in half the time, and take Lowell Fulson’s “Tramp” to a place beyond not only his original 1967 version but those of Otis Redding and Salt-N-Pepa as well. The razor-sharp mix by album producer Dennis Herring and Clay Jones creates an almost palpably humid atmosphere, with Buddy’s voice and guitar cutting through it like summer lightning in the Mississippi night.

Born in the hamlet of Lettsworth, Louisiana on July 30, 1936, Buddy Guy has lived in Chicago since 1957. But the sound of Sweet Tea “takes me way back,” he says. Back to Lightnin’ Slim, who sat on the porch of the Lettsworth general store and played the first electric guitar Buddy ever heardback to his own early years on the rough Baton Rouge club circuit, as a fledgling guitarist in the bands of “Big Poppa” John Tilley and blues harp master Raful Neal.

“It reminds me of some of the things in the beginning—the Smokey Hoggs, the Sonny Boy Williamsons, the Lightnin’ Hopkins,” Buddy recalls. “All those people just playin’ for a drop of the dime in the hat. The Saturday night fish fries—you had fun, you woke up the next morning with a headache, you just drank the wine or the beer, grab the guitar and go doin’ it again.”

Yet Sweet Tea is not necessarily the album this artist would have made on his own. Beginning with Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues in 1991, the four-time Grammy Award winner (including Best Contemporary Blues Album in 1991, 1993 and 1995) has recorded contemporary songs by John Hiatt and Denise LaSalle alongside blues classics by Jimmy Reed and Charles Brown. His five Silvertone albums have featured guest appearances by friends ranging from Travis Tritt and Paul Rodgers to Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. (Guy’s fourth Grammy Award—Best Rock Instrumental Performance in 1996—was for “SRV Shuffle,” an all-star jam track from A Tribute To Stevie Ray Vaughan).

But Sweet Tea would be a brand-new bag for Buddy Guy, conceived and organized by his long-time fan Dennis Herring. In 1997, this well-respected producer of best-selling albums by Counting Crows and Jars of Clay had relocated his Los Angeles studio back to his home state of Mississippi.

“I just found myself getting steeped in that sound,” explains Dennis, who grew up in a small town near Tupelo. “I saw a T-Model Ford show, just him and Spam, that blew me away. You’d hear that music everywhere, almost in a subliminal way, like part of the water—yet it was a kind of music that even the general blues audience hadn’t really been exposed to.”

Herring continues: “I’ve always been a huge Buddy Guy fan, though I felt that in recent years his records had gotten very ‘studio-like.’ But about three years ago, I heard him on a live radio broadcast and he sounded so incredible”

“So in the back of my mind was the wish for Buddy to make a record in a setting that was older, more real, that would capture the energy and intensity he still has. And I wanted to see an outside artist come in and expose this hill-country style to a whole new audience. Finally, it all just clicked.”

“Buddy was a little out of his element at first,” Jimbo Malthus recalls. “He would say [referring to his classic Chess Records sessions of the early Sixties], ‘Well, the Chess brothers would make you have at least four verses before you cut a song.’ Whereas a lot of this stuff is more repetitive, more of a feeling than a particular lyric or verses, and sometimes very idiosyncratic. It would have been daunting for anyone who wasn’t familiar with the style, but Buddy just jumped right in.”

“Every time he came in the studio, it was like a gift he was pouring out. We played five or six hours straight, every night, all in one big room.”

The Sweet Tea sessions took place over ten days in July 2000, with band and producer rehearsing the songs—but not too much—for a few days before Buddy’s arrival.

“I was feelin’ just like I felt when Muddy Waters and them would call me to come in and make a session with them,” says Buddy about the deceptively casual but relentless playing of the Sweet Tea band. “I never did go in and rehearse with the Wolf, Muddy or Little Walter. They would have these other guys ready to make this session, and they would say, ‘Well, I know who’ll play it right. Call Buddy.’ And sometimes they would get me out of bed and I would go in.”

“So when these guys was brought in, I’m listenin’ at this and sayin’ “Wow, I can play this—I feel good behind this!” And whatever the song was, the guys played great.”

Buddy employed his trusty Fender Stratocaster on “80 or 90 per cent” of Sweet Tea. He loved the selection of vintage amplifiers assembled by Dennis Herring.

“He went back and pulled out some of these old amps,” Buddy enthuses. “I said, ‘Man, leave that right there!’ That’s the way amplifiers used to be—all you had to do was just go in the studio and plug it in. Those things got a tone, a tone like you can’t find in amplifiers anymore now. When Dennis brought those amps out down there, the hair stood on my head.”

In 2001, Buddy Guy is still the king of Chicago blues. But Sweet Tea shows how much more of the blues—how much more music—lives within in him, more than 40 years into his amazing career.

“You never lose things like that,” says Buddy Guy of this vivid, vital, down-home sound. “That’s the way music was before it got too much tech and too many people. People just learnt it, man, and you’d just go on and on.”

“If you came up in that time like I did, you don’t lose that, ever.”

April 14, 2009

Archives, Gigs

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[This essay was commissioned by the editors of Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey, a book published in 2003 to accompany the release of the same-titled documentary film. It was not included in the final selection and is published here for the first time.]

The first time I met the blues (to quote Buddy Guy), I was an impressionable teenager from an upper-middle class family in suburban New York. Little did I know that this music would remain an ever-present part of my life for the next four decades and profoundly shape my understanding of my country and its culture. “Blame it on the Stones,” in the words of Kris Kristofferson, for the Rolling Stones—more than any other single group or artist—were my guides and interpreters to this music, along with writers and researchers like Samuel Charters, Tony Glover, Bernie Klatzko, Paul Oliver, Robert Palmer, and Pete Welding.

These were four live performances of the blues that I will remember for as long as I live.

(1) HOWLIN’ WOLF [July 1966, Newport Folk Festival, Newport RI]

Chester Arthur Burnett a/k/a Howlin Wolf (1910-1976)

Chester Arthur Burnett a/k/a Howlin' Wolf (1910-1976)

I was one month away from turning fifteen and had just completed a summer school program at Brown University in nearby Providence. In celebration, my parents took me to the Saturday night concert of the four-day festival. The featured acts included contemporary folk stars Phil Ochs and Judy Collins; bluegrass stalwarts Jim & Jesse McReynolds; the Bahamian singer/guitarist Joseph Spence (1910-1984); and singer/harmonica player Deford Bailey (1899-1982), the first black performer to appear on the Grand Old Opry. Yet today I can’t remember anyone but Howlin’ Wolf.

In 1966, I had never heard him on record, and was only dimly aware of the inspiration his music had afforded the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, and other British invaders. Indeed, I had seen only one previous live performance of black popular music, when latter-day doo-woppers the Jive Five (featuring the great Eugene Pitt) had played the Mamaroneck (NY) High School gym earlier that year. I was, to put it mildly, utterly unprepared for what I was about to see on this night at Newport.

The curtain rose on a five-piece all-black band identically dressed in white dinner jackets, striped tuxedo pants, and carefully processed hair. They vamped on an instrumental until the sax player (almost certainly Eddie Shaw) stepped forward to introduce “The Howlin’ Wolf, ladies and genne’mens, The Howlin’ Wolf!”

Another black man appeared from stage right. He was a head taller than his accompanists, and wore striped denim overalls and an engineer’s cap set backwards on his enormous head. He was pushing an industrial-size broom and holding the microphone at the end of the handle. The sheer force of his voice overpowered most of the lyrics, half the band, and a good chunk of the p.a. system.

I didn’t recognize any of the songs he sang, and I can’t remember their titles today. What I do remember is the shock of “The Howlin’ Wolf,” whom I found simultaneously thrilling and embarrassing. It was one of those moments in life when everything you think you know—especially about music and how it works—is suddenly tossed up in the air for some serious re-evaluation. Even at fifteen, I sensed the transgressive nature of Wolf’s performance. He didn’t break through the shared assumptions and political niceties of folk music culture: He crushed them, joyfully and carelessly, under a pair of Size-16 brogans.

I was still trying to process this otherworldly spectacle when Wolf sang his last chorus and lumbered off stage. But the band kept riffing and suddenly he reappeared, riding a tiny motor scooter. He took a couple of quick spins around the stage, and then “The Howlin’ Wolf, ladies and genne’mens, The Howlin’ Wolf” was gone for good.

(2) SON HOUSE [November 1969, Beloit College, Beloit, WI]

Son House in the mid-60s

Son House in the mid-'60s

I was an eighteen-year old freshman at a small liberal-arts college set on a hill overlooking a gritty blue-collar factory town on the Wisconsin/Illinois border. I’d begun to connect the blues present to the blues past: Paul Butterfield to Little Walter, Duane Allman to Elmore James. It was my great good fortune to be attending Beloit College when the Wisconsin Delta Blues Festival — the first all-blues weekend festival ever produced in the U.S. — took place in the college Field House in the fall of 1969.

The blues men—there were no female performers—were everywhere on campus that weekend. Mississippi Fred McDowell set up at a table in the student union, his bottleneck slide riffs ringing out as the smoke curled from a cigarette stuck in the headstock of his guitar. J.B. Hutto wore a double-breasted suit the color of an orange traffic cone and a guitar strap of butcher’s twine. My dorm buddies and I sat enraptured at the feet of Mance Lipscomb, Johnny Shines, Roosevelt Sykes, and Rev. Robert Wilkins. I thought they would all live forever.

Friday and Saturday nights were devoted to formal concerts, if “formal” can describe a crowd of mostly-stoned college kids sitting cross-legged on a gym floor. On the second night, when Otis Rush cancelled, the show closed with Son House. Rediscovered in 1964, the Delta blues godfather had gone on to play Carnegie Hall and to cut a comeback album for Columbia. But I’d never heard him on record.

I don’t even remember him being introduced. Suddenly Son House was just there, as though he’d cartwheeled or teleported onto the stage, already in full cry. He slashed and flailed at his metal-bodied National guitar. He half-shouted and half-sang his fierce, apocalyptic songs: “Preachin’ The Blues,” “Death Letter,” “John The Revelator.”

Here was something quite apart from Mance Lipscomb’s avuncular warmth or Roosevelt Sykes’ ribald showmanship. Son House was scary. There were moments in this brief, explosive drama — which was something much more, or entirely other, than “music” — when I thought he might be having a heart attack or a grand mal seizure.

Poor health did, in fact, restrict his performing career after 1972. Son House died in bed in 1988 at the age of eighty-six, having outlived his most celebrated protégé, Robert Johnson, by fifty years.

(3) BUDDY GUY & JUNIOR WELLS [September 1976, The Checkerboard Lounge, Chicago, IL]

Cover of Atco LP 33-364 (1972)

Cover of Atco LP 33-364 (1972)

I was 25 years old and living in Minneapolis. I owned a bunch of blues albums and even some Chess, King, and Excello label singles. I’d seen a fair number of blues performances, including Muddy Waters singing on crutches following a near-fatal auto accident and a memorable Apollo Theater show with B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Big Mama Thornton. But I’d never set foot in a Chicago blues club patronized by black people.

One late-summer weekend, my friend Philip Dray and I drove to Chicago. Our first stop was the Jazz Record Mart, where we met the proprietor (and Delmark Records founder) Bob Koester. He invited us to join him for a visit to Buddy Guy’s Checkerboard Lounge.

The next night, we drove in Koester’s station wagon through the streets of the South Side. To a visitor from the tidy, prosperous Twin Cities, every fourth building appeared partly burned or half-demolished, the rubble awaiting removal on some uncertain future date. On East 43rd Street, Koester took care to park as closely as possible to the Checkerboard’s entrance.

A large black man silently pulled back a heavy chain that hung across the doorway. Inside, a horseshoe-shaped bar under too-bright lighting occupied the right half of the smoky, low-ceilinged room. On the left were some tables, chairs, and a low stage—or perhaps no stage, just some drums and amps set up on the cracked linoleum floor.

A jukebox emitting the loudest bass frequencies in creation played Albert King’s “Cadillac Assembly Line” in heavy rotation. There were less than 50 people in the place, and our foursome joined the half-dozen white listeners already seated. A sharply dressed black man sat drinking at the bar, red-eyed and looking vaguely pissed off. Only when he stepped to the microphone and began to sing did I recognize Junior Wells.

Buddy Guy played that night, with and without Junior, and a fine but little-remembered singer named Andrew “Big Voice” Odom (1936-1991) also sang a few numbers. The casual, matter-of-fact quality of the night—you couldn’t really call it a “show”—threw me for a loop. Already in his third professional decade, Wells was an internationally known performer with a half-dozen albums under his belt. I’d seen him earn standing ovations from white rock audiences—yet the Checkerboard Lounge regulars barely seemed to pay attention, and they didn’t give up much more for Buddy. (The prediction that, fifteen years later, the guitarist would earn a gold album and the first of four Grammy Awards would have struck all of us—black and white alike—as wildly improbable.)

But there were no hard feelings. Everyone on both sides of the bandstand, it seemed, knew the deal: The blues is its own reward. Never before had I heard this music as the soundtrack to daily life in an American urban ghettom and I never heard it quite that way again.

(4) OTIS RUSH [February 2001, The Village Underground,  New York NY]

Rush at Antones (Austin TX)

Rush at Antone's (Austin TX)

In the year that I turned fifty and he turned sixty-seven, Otis Rush made one of his increasingly rare New York appearances, at the basement-level Village Underground on West Third Street in Greenwich Village. He was then one of the greatest living blues exponents, as well as one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated. In 1993, Robert Santelli wrote: “Only among fellow blues musicians and serious fans does he remain a major blues figure, whose emotionally charged solos, achingly plaintive chord phrases, and careful attention to textural detail make him one of Chicago’s greatest guitar stylists.”

Throughout the first set, the self-absorbed crowd chattered away relentlessly—I wondered why they had bothered to pay the healthy cover charge. Rush’s band seemed intent on matching the volume of conversation with their own: They banged away busily while the leader, dignified and self-possessed as ever, delivered pro forma renditions of his Fifties classics (“Double Trouble,” “All Your Love”) and selections from more recent albums. When this unmemorable set ended, I went home. But I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that, against all odds of time and circumstance, Otis Rush was still capable of much, much more. So I put my coat back on and retraced the dozen blocks to the club.

The club was now little more than half full, and even the band had calmed down. Otis played an opening instrumental and one or two other numbers. Then he counted off a slow tempo and hit the soaring guitar intro to “Walking the Back Streets and Crying,” from his 1998 album Any Place I’m Going.

On a 1972 Stax single, Little Milton sang this song in the first person as a straightforward tale of lost love. Rush’s recording changes the key from major to minor, further slows the tempo, rewrites the bass and horn lines, and completely transforms the lyrics. (Both versions are credited to one Sandy Jones.) Now Otis Rush, in a subdued, almost conversational tone, began to relate a woman’s story of love found, rejected, and lost forever:

You know the other day a woman stopped me / She said, “Daddy, let me talk to you
“Listen baby, I ain’t beggin’ / I’m just lonesome and I’m blue
“Once I had a good man / but I didn’t know how to act
“By the time I learned my lesson / my good man wouldn’t take me back…”

And then the piteous refrain:

She said, “That was too much for me /That’s why I walk the back streets and cry
“It hurt me so bad, it hurt me so bad / to see the man I misused say goodbye…”

Otis’ voice was rich with sorrow, and his shuddering guitar lines echoed his words. As he moved into the second verse—in which the woman enlists a friend to plea for forgiveness on her behalf—I realized that the room had fallen nearly silent.

“You know I sent a friend to talk for me / She said, ‘I did the best I could’
“‘I lied like a dog for you / I just couldn’t do you no good.’
“That’s when I hit the back streets, people,  just as drunk as I could be
“The man I had misused,  he passed by, and didn’t look back at me…”

Rush dug into the first guitar solo, and his elongated, jazz-tinged phrases seemed to well up from some subterranean realm far below this basement cabaret. He stretched and sustained individual notes to their breaking point: They hung in the air just a split-second longer than you thought the laws of sound would allow, the way a Michael Jordan drive to the hoop once seemed to defy the laws of gravity.

In the third and final verse, the departed lover speaks for himself—and his pain is no less than that of the woman he’s left behind:

“He said, ‘You had the nerve to call me / Said you were lonesome as you can be
‘Last time we had an argument, you called the po-lice on me
‘They ran me out my house, people, while you stood there and grinned
‘Now the po-lice can’t help you, little girl, ‘cos they can’t bring me in’
She said, “That was too much for me / That’s why I walk the back streets and cry
“It hurt me so bad, it hurt me so bad,  to see the man I misused say goodbye…”

In his last solo, through one twelve-bar chorus after another, Otis Rush poured it on until the final flourish that signaled the song’s end. In his hands that night, “Walking the Back Streets and Crying” was a tale told with the emotional force of Shakespeare, of Greek tragedy.

Though the set wasn’t over, I wanted only to hold that transcendent moment in my heart. I climbed the basement stairs again and stepped out onto Wst Third Street, where the winter wind stung the tears that streaked my face.