"Honoring Jimmy Rogers"

by Bonnie "Queen B" Stebbins
Sponsored In Part By
Try Me?

NOTE: This article originally appeared in the April 2001 issue of The Blues Ambassador, the monthly newsletter of the Capital Area Blues Society (CABS), and is reprinted here with the permission of CABS.

For more information about CABS, please contact them at: Capital Area Blues Society, P.O. Box 1004, Okemos, MI 48805-1004 or check out their website at www.cabsblues.org.  CABS welcomes members from anywhere in the world.

Friday, February 9th.  It was a dark and stormy night.  It was raining.  It was, after all, Michigan…in the winter…at its worst.  I saw the water seeping into my basement, but there was nothing I could do.  Char (Whittaker) was here to pick me up and it was time to go to Chi-town!  With trepidation, I closed the door and left.

Not long after we passed Battle Creek, the rain turned to sleet.  The closer we got to Kalamazoo, the icier the roads got.  Oily slush from passing cars and trucks splashed on the windshield.  Char pushed the  windshield washer fluid button, but nothing happened.  Peering through the smeared window, Char pushed the button again and again.  But still nothing happened.  Did the dealership not fix the windshield washer fluid motor, after all?  Did the garage not fill the reservoir as they said they did?  With her visibility down to the lower three inches of window, it was a long, tough go until the next exit.

After buying a half-gallon of washer fluid and pouring some into the reservoir, Char tried the windshield washer fluid button again.  Had we been driving in England, we could have claimed some success, since only the passenger side sprayer worked.  Back out into the bitter cold and howling winds.   We picked away at the other sprayer with a pen to chip off the ice.  Trying the button one more time finally brought success, high fives and shouts of “Thank you, Jesus!”

As we entered Indiana, the freezing rain/sleet turned to snow.  It continued to be a driving nightmare.  Char had a stone-cold grip on the steering wheel.  If she'd had long fingernails, she'd have bled to death!  But, we were on a mission…a blues mission.  A month earlier I had received an e-mail from Tom Radai, former booking agent for Jimmy Rogers, informing all blues groups that Chicago would be honoring Jimmy by naming a street after him.  To me, it sounded like a photo op!  A writing op!  An adventure!  But, even more importantly, an historical Blues event.  After all, having a street named after a bluesician is quite an honor, especially in a big city like Chicago, the Blues capital of the world.  Only Muddy Waters had previously had that honor.  Who would be there?  What would it be like?  Would there be a big crowd?  Or, just a few people?  I had no idea what to expect.

After stopping for dinner, we finally saw the big city lights of Chicago and got checked into our hotel about 11:30 p.m. CST.  Not content to just unwind in our room after the harrowing drive, we decided to go to Reservation Blues, Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater's new club.  Reservation Blues (RB) is a small club (not much bigger than Mac's Saloon) and is tastefully decorated with an American Indian motif, reflecting Eddy's heritage.  Everything looked new and shiny.  The Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings were well into their (as it turned out) last set.  Their vocalist, whom we had not seen before, was Ernie Penniston, and he was dyn-o-mite!  Ernie has a fantastic voice and a charming stage presence.

After their set concluded (much too early for our liking), we talked with the band.  I reminded the two horn players that the last time I had seen them was at the Nudie Blues Fest a few years back.  We chuckled as one of them said, “I'd never seen so much floppin' around in my life!  Flop!  Flop!  Flop!  Everything was a-floppin'!”  We also spoke with Brock Cattanach, Managing Director of RB, who had previously been the manager at Fifth Avenue Billiards in Royal Oak.  After some photos outside the club in front of the stained glass window picturing Eddy in his Indian headdress, we hailed a cab.  I was heard to exclaim, “Shut me up, cut me off and take me home.”  However, as any good Blues fan would do, I regained my senses and we  headed for Kingston Mines (KM), where, ironically, Eddy was playing.

Kingston Mines has two stages, so there is always continuous music.   We arrived just as J. D. Williams was wrapping up his set, and, shortly thereafter, Frank Pellegrino made his usual announcements and introduction of Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater.  Doc Pellegrino is the owner of KM and Frank is his son, and they're both quite the characters.  Once you've heard Frank's gravelly voice, you won't forget it--it's unlike any other.  The last time I saw Frank, he had brown hair.  But now, it was bleached blond, and I rather liked it.  I managed to round up the two of them--not an easy task--for a photo op outside the club.  With that done, I went back inside to enjoy Eddy's Blues.

During the wee morning hours of Eddy's last set (KM is open 'til 4 a.m. on Fridays), we met Erold, who was taking Polaroid photographs of anybody that wanted to pay for one.  As we talked, we told him we would be going to the street-naming ceremony for Jimmy Rogers on Saturday afternoon, and he said he'd be there, too, with Alderman Thomas.  (I must admit that, at the time, I didn't really believe him.)  By the time the evening was over, I was calling him Elrod Blues.  I just couldn't seem to remember his real name.  Stan Mixon also came over to say “Hi!”  About a year ago, Stan, now 40, said he had had a heart attack and triple by-pass heart surgery.  He also told me that he's been playing bass again for the past month with Joanna Connor.  He was with her band when Joanna first came to national prominence, and it was good to know that he was back with them.

Eddy finished his last set and Frank Pellegrino made his final, usual announcements about upcoming shows and the standard, “If you're too drunk to drive, don't.  And, if you do, don't tell 'em where you've been drinking!”  It was time to call it a night.

Morning came way too early.   At 11:30 a.m., my son picked me up and we were on the way to see my 90-year-old aunt in Park Ridge.  I hadn't seen her in about 12 years, and we had a nice visit with her and my cousins and their kids.  Before we knew it, it was time to leave.  I was dropped off back at the hotel at 2:30 p.m. and then Char and I headed to the south side for the Jimmy Rogers street-naming ceremony.

We knew the ceremony, scheduled for 3:00 p.m., would be at the corner of 63rd and Honore.  What we didn't know was how to get there.  So, we started at the east end of 63rd (by Lake Michigan), and drove…and drove…and drove.   Finally, around 3:30 p.m., we found THE corner and pulled the car over to the curb.  But, we didn't see anybody…or anything, like a dais or banners, or hear any music.  Just as we were wondering out loud if the ceremony could be over already, a young girl came up to Char's window.  She told Char that it hadn't started yet and pointed to the vacant lot where we should park.   Suddenly, several people emerged from the house next to the lot and started introducing themselves.

We met Jimmy's son, James D. Lane, who is a righteous guitar player himself, and Mrs. Lane, Jimmy's widow, and several other family members.  We met Tom Radai, Jimmy's former booking agent, and Jim Van Drisse, both from Wisconsin.  We met Alderman Thomas and renewed our acquaintance with Erold, aka Elrod Blues (from the previous night at the Mines).  And, I met the legendary Jimmie Lee Robinson.  (More about him later.)  We learned that they were waiting for someone from the mayor's office to show up before starting the ceremony.  When it was almost 4:00, they decided to proceed without the mayor's representative.  By that time, Shirley and Robert Jr. Whitall (Big City Blues magazine) had also arrived.  All together, there were probably 40 of us in attendance.  I was dismayed and disheartened that there weren't more people.  Where were the Chicago blusicians?  Where was the media?!?!  Perhaps, they just hadn't gotten the word.

The ceremony itself was simple, but homey and heartfelt.  Tom Radai spoke, followed by James Lane, Mrs. Lane and other family members.  Alderman Thomas also offered a few words, and then produced the new street signs from his car trunk.  Shiny and bright and burnt umber in color, they read “Honorary JIMMY ROGERS St.”.    James jokingly commented about now having to go hang them all!

Upon the completion of the ceremony, we were all invited to the reception in Mrs. Lane's home, which was next to the vacant lot where we had parked.   Mrs. Lane's whole dining room table was covered with hors d'oeuvres, snack sandwiches and munchies.  Beer, wine, coffee, and pop were available.  Having gone to this event without knowing anyone other than Shirley and Robert Jr., Char and I were welcomed by the group as if we were old friends.  >From the minute we stepped over the threshold, the vibes were warm and inviting.  After about an hour of visiting, someone stated that an “Honorary JIMMY ROGERS St.” sign was already mounted at the corner!  It was covered by paper which, to make the ceremony complete, needed to be torn off.  Several family members, Alderman Thomas, Tom Radai and all the photographers bolted out the door and rushed down to the corner.  With a flourish, James Lane pulled the string that released the paper covering the sign.  Cool.  It was official.  I jokingly remarked to James that that was one less sign he had to hang!

We went back to the house to visit some more and I ended up doing an impromptu interview with Jimmie Lee Robinson, the Chicago blues cat that's been so instrumental in trying to save Maxwell Street.  He had recently ended an 81-day fast in protest of destroying such a legendary area, where blusicians had jammed every Sunday in its heyday.  Now, the University of Illinois-Chicago was going to tear it down.  I cherish my photo of him from The New York Times.  It shows Jimmie sitting on a wood crate playing his guitar.  In the background, wrecking balls are smashing the buildings.  So much for progress.

Char and I were about the last people to leave the party, around 6:30 p.m.  Back to the hotel to drop the car off and then we walked to Buddy Guy's Legends to have dinner and see Steve Arvey play.  I was surprised to see that all the tables were full at that time of the evening.  I can only guess that that may or may not be typical, but I suspect that Steve was the draw.  Playing an acoustic set, Steve had the full attention of everyone in the club.  He and I had been e-mailing each other for about a year, and this was the first time I had seen him perform live.  What a great show he put on!

We finally snagged some bar stools, and, shortly thereafter, my son and daughter-in-law joined us for dinner and Steve's final set.  Steve wrapped up his show about 8:30 p.m. and  came over to visit with us.  He told us his band (West Side Heat) will have a new CD out very soon called Live Bootleg.  I can't wait to check it out!

Around 9:30 p.m., Steve left and so did my kids.  But, the fun was only beginning!  Ron Prince & Hard Time were up next and proceeded to tear it up!  Ron's girlfriend, Sue Payne, came over to visit.  When I asked her if she wanted to sit down, she said sarcastically, “No, I've been sitting too much.”  As an aside, she told us, “That's a sexual thing.  Hah!” and then explained that she and Ron are expecting another bundle of joy in June.

Char and I met lots of other cool people that night, including Greg Saskiewicz from Aspen, CO (who was feeling nooooo pain) and Joe and Kym from Chicago.  Thinking I'd get sympathy from Greg when I told him that I'd only had two hours of sleep in two days, he giddily shouted, “Atta Girl!”  Joe's memorable (or, not) quote was, “I'm ok. So am I.”  And, after overhearing another bar patron telling someone that she worked for the city's graffiti-erasing department, she further exclaimed another memorable quote: “I have job security.  I carry a can of spray paint!”

Yeah, it was that kind of night.  The vibes were right and everyone was in a great mood.  Carl Weathersby played after Ron Prince & Hard Time and put on a helluva show.  He has improved so much since the last time I saw him about three years ago.  We closed Legends at 3 a.m. and walked the two blocks back to our hotel.  What a weekend.  With so many cherished memories, there was only one downer.  When I got home, my basement was still wet.

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