Doin’ The Buffalo Shuffle!
Live At the Bon Ton, Buffalo, New York, 1964
Were we excited?
Were we scared?
Shitless, looking out at that audience obviously wondering what the hell a bunch of white kids from Canada thought they were up to–blowin’ the Blues–on stage–
WITH MUDDY WATERS!
Last thing I expected of that evening in the fall of 1964 was to find myself with buddies Richard
Newell, Paul Cronkwright and Ronnie Copple on stage in front of a black audience at The Bon Ton, the Jazz and Blues club on the Niagara Frontier, or possibly in all of up-state New York, maybe the top Blues club anywhere along the shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario combined, but definitely the place to be where it counted most: East Ferrie and Waverly Streets, the black heart of downtown Buffalo, where people lived and loved the Blues every day of their eye-popping, ass-shaking, jive-motherfucking lives.
For a moment the only rhythm in the room was the noise of our knees knocking, our only accompaniment,
the whole damned room holding its breath
and then Richard started singing & blowing harp
& we fell into the groove behind Muddy’s drummer
S. P. Leary
because our drummer was back home with a not-tonight-honey headache or on a can’t-get-out-of-it night shift pumping gas or maybe just pulling his dip-stick while unknowingly beginning
a lifetime of lying abed wondering where he’d been the night the rest of us, The Chessmen-less-one, a hard-driving, blue-eyed Blues band from Hamilton Ontario Canada, got to play for the first time on-stage with an official Chicago Blues drummer,
& did he know what to do!
Shake my nerves & rattle my brain
And there sitting, watching, off to one side of the stage was the great Muddy Waters HIMSELF, elegant, wearing a sharp, shiny, shark-skin, pearl-grey suit, matching shirt and tie like he’d just stepped out of the city’s finest haberdashery. And a brand new, fresh DO. (To quote J. B. Lenoir: “don’t you touch my head ‘cause I just got a fresh process” = “DO” for which the do-rag is an essential element to hold it all together while everything sets—the process was done at the local barbershop. It de-kinked kinky hair and it built it up into a magnificent pompadour like the male version of a woman’s beehive)
& a black beauty queen on Muddy’s natty arm.
Our hero—our idol—the singer and band leader and slide guitar master on dozens of records
stored in closets and on shelves in our bedrooms back home. The #1 Mississippi, electric Bluesman—watching—US!
How had the world come to this?
Dig: Richard Newell sitting in his funky little kitchen on East 25th Street, the middle of Hamilton
Mountain, not really a mountain even, just a bend in the long curve of the Niagara Escarpment
from up-state New York, winding through South Ontario before petering out under the waters of Lake Huron,
& Rich is listening to WINE
WINE in BUFFALO
AM radio that runs down at sundown
& “The Hound”
an upcoming engagement by Muddy Waters at the Bon Ton
the very next weekend.
At last an opportunity to see Muddy live and on his turf in a black American neighbourhood, in front of people who had bought his records for years and made them R&B hits before white kids had been told “to go make that noise” in the garage or the basement or anywhere away from here. Before Elvis shook a hip. When it was the real shit, played in a way that left no doubt what that “Hound Dog” had been sniffin’ aroun’ after.
Sure, we’d seen Muddy and his band before. The previous year: 1963.
At the First Floor Club
During the reign of The Lord’s Day Act, the whole damn Province locked up on Sundays tighter than a parson’s pucker, no booze allowed to interfere with religious observance and the Holy Day beginning at the tick of twelve o’clock Saturday night.
And The First Floor Club, bless them, essentially a coffee-house featuring acoustic folk music…“and isn’t the Blues, really, when you come right down to it, the folk music of our African American neighbours to the south?”
Which is to say a roomful of white folks smiling politely with their hands clasped on table tops being confronted with a genuine, electrified, Chicago-style Blues
Chicago! The Windy City! The City of Broad Shoulders, thick steaks and thicker pizzas and Jazz bars and south-side Blues bands who, finding themselves in
uptight Toronto, played reserved, tenuous versions
of songs that should have rocked out, should have screamed at those white folkies to get up and let their backbones slip. Okay, enjoyable
and exciting for dedicated fans (hell, we couldn’t believe Muddy had even showed up in Toronto) but still leaving us craving the real thing in it’s own element.
By the time the weekend came ‘round Richard had organized wheels and with a few other guys, yours truly included, shuffled off to Buffalo.
The Bon Ton had been a jumpin’, with-it place for Jazz and R&B since back in the ‘50s. The club was on Woodlawn Avenue in the city’s black district: Heading
through the door we right-away realized we were the only white people in the club—
BUT WHO CARES?
there was Muddy Waters up in the far corner of the club &
NO COVER- JUST BUY BEER &
there was Muddy’s band up on the bandstand getting ready to play the first set &
MAN WHAT A SET
—everything we could have hoped for: the soon-to-be-legendary piano player, Otis Spann, rollin’ up the keyboard in his trademark
style, his left hand holding down the shuffle boogie beat and his right hand sprinkling showers of high notes in answer to the guitars, James Cotton riffin’ on his harp, Muddy sashaying his slide guitar along with those mighty vocals (man what a powerful voice he had; strong enough to cut through the noise of a raucous room with a piss-ant sound system) and James “Pee Wee” Madison on guitar, Milton Rector on bass and the aforementioned
S. P. Leary knockin’ out that Chicago-outta’-Mississippi shuffle beat.
In the course of a typical night for the best portion of each set Muddy sits out, moving about the packed room, chatting at tables, mingling with the club’s patrons while on stage the vocals are handled alternately between Otis Spann and James Cotton. Then for the conclusion
of each long set Muddy joins the band on stage for steaming readings of his repertoire staples.
This was the real thing, the Blues where and as they should and have been played, but all fresh to us white Canuck kids back then. End of the first set and our pianist, Paul Kronkwright
was either so pissed or so full of piss he went over to where the band was sitting and talked Muddy into letting Richard play part of the next set. Man, what was he thinking?
What WAS Muddy thinking? Maybe here’s some fun to break up the evening…send these, wise-ass kids back to Canada with their tails between their legs. Before we knew it we were up there fingering our instruments, looking at a sea of black faces looking back at us with The hell? written on each and every one.
& then we were off–
Richard led us through a mini-set of our best non-Muddy tunes, like
Lonesome Sundown’s “Gonna Stick To Ya’ Baby” and
Billy Boy Arnold’s “Wish You Would”
& when we finished the audience applauded.
In particular they applauded that harmonica playing white kid from Canada who could sing real good too. Actually the applause was thunderous, and appreciative, especially after Rich had sung and played harp. The thrill of our young lifetimes!
When James Cotton came back on stage he was all business now and maybe a little jealous of the attention Rich had received. Out came the classics.
first some Little Walter stuff:
”Off The Wall”
and then into Sonny Boy Williamson II’s:
“Fattenin’ Frogs For Snakes” &
“Don’t Start Me To Talkin’ ”
—blowin’ his ass off like we hadn’t heard him do earlier
in the evening, using classic tricks like sticking the harp in his mouth sideways and using his nose to blow through the reeds. Cotton sure improved his playing for the rest of that evening, taking it to another level. Even though Richard only blew a few tunes, it was enough to impress James Cotton. At the end of the night the experienced Blues man told Rich that he was going to remember him. Over the years they met again several times and sure enough Cotton did remember the harmonica playing white kid from the Bon Ton.
We stayed to watch through the last set. How could we do anything else? Otis and James each sang a couple of tunes, Otis to our shock getting off the piano to do a James Brown imitation compete with slide/shuffle dancin’ and splits and a whole bunch of that James Brown shtick, though I don’t remember him doing the feeling-faint-and-throwing-a-cloak-over-his-shoulders bit. Then Muddy came back playing his hits.
And finally, THE FINALE. The highlight of a night that set the crowd to howling: Muddy singing
“Mannish Boy”. He started with his back to the audience, hardly moving, a slight sway to the shoulders, a little swing to the hips.
he’s playing with us, and something else
he turns around
there’s a bulge at the front of his trousers
a significant bulge
at the back of the room they stand up on their chairs to see,
climb up on the tables even
Muddy playing with this thing in his “pocket”
thrusting his pelvis at the audience
Did I previously call Muddy elegant?
& did I mention the audience was can’t-get-enough screamin’ out loud?
I know I was sittin’ there open-mouthed, dumb-struck, and what-the-fuck?
he reached way in his pocket & brought out a long-neck beer bottle
holding it up for the audience to see
The song done, they go straight to their theme, Jimmy Smith’s “Back At The Chicken Shack” and the audience is out of its hand-smackin’, mouth-whistlin’, foot-stompin’, motherlovin’,
collective mind. We’re on our feet, The Chessmen, the audience, not wanting it to end, ever. When the dust settled people come over to shake our hands, wish us well. Muddy won’t remember that night but I always will. Always.
What a feeling
What a rush.
“Sweet Home Chicago”
All that encouragement, from the audience, from the band and from Muddy himself, had us believing, man, that we really could. Little old us, a bunch of white kids from nowhere Canada, not just could but would blow good, authentic Blues.