It has been just about five years since the
Suncoast Blues Society produced
its first outdoor event. It was a pleasant, if not spectacular promotion. We
called it "Basket-O-Blues" and it took place at Williams Park in
St. Pete. The crowd of blues lovers included quite a few “residents” of the
park. As soon as they found out we were giving away free soda pop, (thanks to
Dave Mamber) they started ambling up for drinks. Some of them came back many
times, but we had plenty and didn’t set any limits. I asked one guy who came
by for maybe his tenth Pepsi if that was all he had had to eat that day and he
nodded his head.
The Straight Up Blues Band was playing on stage when a large man with a big smile and an imposing presence walked up and told me he wanted his friend, Curtis, to play with the band. He said his name was Big Joe. He had a gleam in his eye. (I don’t know why he picked me unless it’s just my general aura of competence and authority.)
Not knowing Joe or Curtis and whether Curtis could really play or not, I punted. “I’m not the man here,” I told Joe. “Well who is then?” he demanded. I directed him to our esteemed President, Larry Lisk, who graciously explained that Joe would have to get permission from the band for Curtis to jam. Big Joe sauntered over to the stage and approached the leader. I guess he got a “no” because before long he was back at the soda pop table again, telling me that his friend Curtis had to jam with the band. “He’s real good,” Joe said, his eyes smiling. “You can trust me. I’m a preacher.”
He went on to explain that he was a self-ordained preacher who ministered to the transients and homeless folks living in the park. “This is my church” he said, waving his arm over the park. I repeated Larry’s advice to get permission from the bandleader and Joe headed back to the stage. He was not taking "no" for an answer.
I got busy handing out cans of soda and lost sight of him so I was quite surprised when a few minutes later, bandleader Ralph Straight, announced that a young fellow named Curtis was going to come up and jam with the band. Curtis climbed on stage and the band swung into its next number. Curtis whipped out his harmonica and started blowing. And man, could he blow! It took a few bars for him to get into the song, but when he did, it was pretty hot stuff. The band members were looking at Curtis as he played, obviously impressed. Big Joe stood by the side of the stage, beaming.
After his number, Curtis returned to earth from the stage, but before he left, Ralph asked him for his phone number and indicated he might be interested in having Curtis play with the band on a regular basis. Big Joe and Curtis were all smiles afterwards. “I told you he could play,” Big Joe chided me. “You’re not lyin’”, I told Joe as he walked away.
And that’s almost the end of the story. I hoped I’d hear that Curtis got the job and made it out of the park. I even called the number he left to check it out later, but the man who answered said Curtis hadn’t been there in a while. And Ralph never heard from him again. Blues stories don’t always have happy endings.
But I’ll always remember that fine day in the park, listening to Curtis play his harmonica on stage for his friends and those of us there for those magic moments. And I’ll never forget Big Joe and that gleam in his eyes.