Cool Fool, Blues Rockin' The Hammer

a lifetime spent living the Blues in Hamilton (The Hammer), Canada

Hamilton Spectator Review

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Bluesman’s Memoir Strikes a Chord

Chessmen bassist pens a rollicking ride through Hamilton’s music scene

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The Chessmen on the east Mountain: Richard Newell and Doug Carter, in the middle in back, aiming to be ‘the best damn blues band in the world.’

I might as well get my bias right out front. I think Doug Carter is The. Coolest. Guy. Ever.

As a callow Hamilton teen he would hitchhike to Buffalo to buy rare blues and R&B sides in the late 1950s, and sample some of that badass Buffalo blues culture, then found himself scant years later as bassist in the Chessmen, the seminal Hamilton blues band with Richard Newell, a.k.a. King Biscuit Boy.

Forty or so bands later, he was in one of Hamilton’s best-ever blues bands, Guitar Mikey & The Real Thing — which was all about dynamic range, and power, power and more power; he’d stand motionless at the back of the stage, a sardonic grin on his face as he thundered through the blooz.

He later spun off into art — he’s renowned for his drawing and printmaking now, but for a time he was into “found art”; that is, art you build and craft from stuff you just see lying around. He had a 1 1/2-storey installation 20 years or so ago in The Hamilton Spectator lobby — it was all chrome and steel and, uh, power. I can still recall the menace, malevolence and inherent mayhem in its cruel, jagged angles.

Of course, Carter’s been writing for years, both in his blog (off in which he covers blues along the border from his outpost in rural Niagara, and his Blues Rockin’ blog, which birthed this book.

And what a fine book it is. He pens an engaging, madcap journey through Hamilton musical culture, its bars, clubs, managers, musicians, agents, morals, sensibilities etc.

He’s got the Hammer sussed: On the futility a band faces in trying to pull people out to a venue on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday evening — “especially in a blue-collar town where nobody wanted to be hung over around the heavy equipment (the) next morning.”

There are also the successes that felt all the sweeter: the full clubs, the touring of Europe and the U.S. with Newell, the record deals, the potent kick of good hashish.

Carter’s got a quickstep, greasy writing style; sort of like a less-amped Hunter Thompson (and much like P.J. O’Rourke when it comes to observing the sociology of the times).

And if he’s sometimes at a loss for words (it doesn’t happen much), then a lyric by someone like J.B. Lenoir or King Biscuit Boy more than makes do.

Ah yes, Biscuit … Carter’s musical journey begins and ends with the legendary and doomed harp player-singer from East 25th Street. He was there the night in 1964 when Richie tore up Muddy Waters’ stage at Buffalo’s Bon Ton Tavern, taking over harp duties from James Cotton. And he was onstage the night of the first Blues With A Feeling, the tribute necessitated by Newell’s sudden passing in 2003 — ” … tunes Richard had been known for and that went back to our early days starting out on East 25th Street. It was a huge crowd. They dug it! And that was that.”

But perhaps not … If you go to Carter’s blog you’ll find tunes by the Chessmen, with Carter on bass and Newell singing and blowing harp. Musicologists have mentioned that it would be so easy to give them a light polish for release on CD, and that they are every bit as historically important and relevant as subsequent 1960s recordings by other blues big-timers such as Paul Butterfield (who had demons similar to Newell’s).

So here’s the thing: Carter’s penned a fabulous written history … and now’s the time to put out there the tunes from those times. Or as Muddy would sing: So many miles, so many miles to go.

Cool Fool is available at Mixed Media, 154 James St. N.; Picks And Sticks Music, 208 Locke St. S.; and

Gary Curtis is a Spectator copy editor, regular book reviewer and an inveterate blues fan.

Written by Doug Carter

October 12, 2010 at 11:47 pm

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