Johnnie Shines and Roy Rogers
I had had this idea about featuring an entire festival of the slide guitar, because I loved the sound and it
seemed to belong to the blues. I called my favorite and, certainly, the festival’s favorite slide player, Roy
Rogers, for his picks, and his availability.
He told me he could not do it because he was booked in Florida, but his favorites were Johnnie Shines
(although he had had a stroke recently and Roy wasn’t sure he was able to get around on the slide
yet); John Mooney from Florida, and our own Robert Lowry from Santa Cruz. I had a good week on the
phone, nailing down all three, and called Roy after getting off the phone with Mrs. Shines, who said that
Johnnie traveled with a fine young protégé of his, Kent DuChine; and some days, could still play “pretty
damn good”. Roy called me out, saying I must be lying. I reeled off the home phone numbers and said I
was sorry he was gonna miss a cool show, but I still needed a 2nd bill and who would he recommend? He
asked for a couple days to think about it.
Two days later, Roy’s agent called, “What the &*#) did you do, Gehrke?”
“Wadda you mean?” I asked.
“Roy just postponed his five gig Florida tour!”
“What the hell…”
“To play your goddamn festival with goddamn Johnnie Shines!” Roy’s agent snarled. “Are you gonna
“No” I admitted. I had always wanted to headline someone exactly like Johnnie Shines. Robert Johnson’s
favorite touring partner, for God’s sake! All our fans would expect it.
“Are you gonna fly them out, and rent them a back line?”
I figured that the correct answer for that one was a yes.
We had a wonderful show. Maybe some a’ you guys remember it. John Mooney was a young solo
powerhouse, full of stories backstage about Son House in Buffalo, and being his “please-go-get-this” boy
for Son for a couple years. Robert Lowery brought his partner, harp player Virgil Thresher (I hope I have
that name right), and added to his local stature. Roy seemed deeply honored to share the stage with an
idol of his, and humbled to have been the reason for this (unfortunately) last visit to the West Coast of
the very definition of the phrase “a living legend”. Johnnie fell asleep right beside the stage in front of
God and everyone. Kent said “don’t worry, he’s just getting’ ready.” And he played a bunch of “pretty
damn good” slide. Almost impossible to do, it seemed, with a stroke–affected left hand. The Festival was
on a Sunday that year, I don’t remember why, and I had gotten Johnnie and Kent rooms at the Fairmont,
and had booked the SJSU Student Union Amphitheater on that Monday noon for a question and answer
session with the students, if Johnnie felt up to it. Amazingly, some 100 or more fans and students turned
up and had the best questions imaginable. I made a tape of it I gotta post here or transcribe sometime.
Johnnie had a great time. Particularly telling about life as a black musician in the south in the ‘teens and
twenties. And lots about being on the road with Robert. Johnnie had three college degrees, and was
a deeply intelligent man. Only thing that kinda pissed him off was that Alabama had just hired an old
French guy to be their “Blues Ambassador”. “French!” he said. Kent said on the side that Johnnie wasn’t
the only one in Alabama who thought Mr. Shines would have been a much better pick.
A few years later, Roy did headline the FBF and I caught him backstage, in a classroom playing an old,
out of tune piano. I thought it was a Shines song, and asked him.
‘Yeah,” he said.
“That was some kind of a great day, man.”
R. L. BURNSIDE
R. L. Burnside was a dream come true to a Blues Festival booker on a college campus, fighting the irritating “the blues is old folk’s music” clichés that you heard from students all the time. R. L. was anything but old folk’s music. Initially discovered by Robert Palmer in his “Deep Blues” film documentary which also featured Junior Kimborough, R. L.’s Holly Springs, Mississippi neighbor, whose roadhouse was legendary among boogie and “git down” blues lovers. On a total whim, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, a seriously demented Brooklyn rock and blues group on tour in Florida got Burnside’s phone number from information, and talked their way into R.L.’s living room, where they recorded a weekend of jams. “Ass Pocket Of Whiskey”, the ultimate release, made it onto the rock and roll charts where it stayed for a long time. It was crazy, wild, totally primitive music. It defined the simple three piece loud! band music so popular in Southern Roadhouses. R. L.’s group had two guitars and drums. No bass. They really, really ROCKED, dudes!
The first year Burnside had to cancel because of the death of a young grandson. We luckily were able to get the Holmes Brothers to substitute at the last minute; and we got a 40’ long piece of butcher paper which we put out on the stage between sets all day, so that our fans could sign and send condolence wishes to R. L. and his family. I believe we had over 1,000 signatures on that folded up piece of butcher paper we sent to the agency to be forwarded on to the Burnsides. His wife had said to call again next year. When we called the agent the next year, we were given R.L.’s home phone number. We were thanked profusely, and told that R. L. would accept the same money we had offered before (his popularity had just blown up in the ensuing year after the release of the album, and his fee had tripled), and when was the date?
When I picked up R.L. and Kenny Brown (a killer blues player from Mississippi himself and R.L.’s favorite partner) at the airport, they said that Cedric, one of R. L.’s grandsons and a fine drummer, had hit them up for more money at the airport, and been sent home. Kenny said that “any drummer’d probably do just fine” and they started working with Roy Bailey’s drummer to sit in for Cedric. It was just dynamite music, impossible not to shake your butt all over the festival grounds. One time, I looked out at the audience and saw almost every guitarist who I respected in the South Bay in the front of the stage, with their jaws just laying out there on the ground. Not being a guitarist, I don’t know why or what he was doing, but it just seemed so PERFECT. Fifty solid years of getting everyone in a plywood building up and dancing and sweating and forgetting about their cares. It was a heavenly mission R. L. was on. A primitive musical genius on the level of Anthony Braxton or Eric Dolphy! Kenny Brown is still doing it down in Mississippi, and Cedric Burnside has won Blues Music Awards and garnered Grammy nominations, but no one kicked ass like R.L. Maybe no one ever will.
Bo Diddley is about the coolest dude I ever booked or worked with. The first time he played the FBF he was a last minute add-on. In the area and interested in picking up a few bucks. I believe we paid Bo 1K and the agent 1k. Bo never advanced the show at all. We had been told by the agent that he was “cranky”, would only play 45 minutes with no encore, would not sign anything unless paid, and that we had better get a real good band to back him up.
He was a delight. Got to the stage himself. Had heard of Tim Kihatsu, whose Rat Band backed him up. Bo played over 75 minutes. During the encore he went back and edged the drummer out of his chair, and took over the drums for another 30 minutes. Brilliant thing was that the songs were really, really old Chicago classics, that I had never heard before, the crowd had never heard before, and Tim’s band had definitely never heard before. Bo signed everything, no hassles, got the Rat Band’s number, shook hands around, and disappeared with his cash.
The second time he graced our stage, he got paid a lot more money, but was every bit as cool. He brought along the brilliant Jon Paris, a great blues/rock guitarist from NYC. Bo played all his own s**t though. His lady manager was the keyboard player, and she and the bandleader/bassist had something they wanted to do in San Francisco (I think). Their roadie approached me just before the third act started, asking if Bo could go before Tommy Castro, because the show was “moving so slow”. That was a FIRST for me! No one had ever dared to try to change the order of one of my shows in over 30 years doin’ this. I told him the order would stay exactly the same and if we had any problems, I’d put Tommy on for two sets, pay Tommy Bo’s money, and try to sue to get my money back from Bo’s deposit (admittedly hard to do in New York state). Never heard any more about it. Bo had a special rider, in that he asked for 25 festival t-shirts, in varying sizes, to be in his dressing room, when he arrived. That was also completely new to me, and, of course, I had ‘em when I welcomed him to his dressing area. I had to ask, though, “Why 25 of these, Mr. Diddley? I mean they are pretty good but…”. He looked at me from a long way off, and said “I’ve got 19 grandchildren, man.” Nuff said. Coolest dude you ever met. Really friendly. Went out and sat on the bench by the bag check and pat down site, and signed, and shook hands, and laughed, and signed. Benny Mendez (RIP) said that he was dead certain at one point that Bo was gonna search a few backpacks and ice-chests. Did I mention that he was the coolest of guys?