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I've Got A Mind To Ramble
Whenever I get a message to call Keith Clements, I am quick to return it because he always has something going on that piques my interest and, of course, this time was no exception. He asked me if I wanted to be a contributing writer to "I've Got a Mind to Ramble" column that he has been writing for so many years. I was shocked and honored and humbly accepted without hesitation.
Thank you, Keith, for this opportunity and for selflessly sharing the wealth of knowledge and perspective that you have on the Louisville Blues scene. It's sure been fun reading your column all these years. Can't wait until your next project is done so I can learn more from you. I have always enjoyed your writing.
By the time it really sunk in that I was going to write this column, the deadline was coming up fast and I'd changed my mind at least a dozen times about what to write.
I had every intention of talking to some local blues musicians as to extract some inspiration from them about what's hot and what's not around town and what projects they are working on, but I got sidetracked.
Then I thought that maybe I should write about my latest blues injection at the Robert Cray Concert at Horse Shoe. I have never seen Young Bob so candid and playful with the audience. He usually just talks with his guitar; either way I'm happy. I enjoyed his sense of humor and he looked like he was having fun. Of course, his band and his voice were stellar. Yep, definitely worth the trip across that bridge mess.
Now with some upcoming memorials for Jim Rosen, I get to thinking about times past and places long forgotten by many and never known by many others. My mind wonders back to a time when there was the quintessential neighborhood bar at the corner of Pope and Frankfort Avenue called Barry's.
On any given Thursday night in 1987 at Barry's, the sounds of Da Mudcats wafted out onto the sidewalk and across the street to the fire station, nudging the senses of the firemen on duty that evening, as they listened from their side of the street. The front window of the bar sweated as profusely as Gene Wickliffe, the drummer for Da Mudcats, as he pounded his snare drum, holding steady on a brisk blues shuffle.
Gene "Big Watch" Wickliffe was the name that Jim Rosen hung on him. It took Gene two years of playing every Thursday night and most weekends at Barry's with us to commit to being in the band but we finally got him to say he was a Mudcat.
Barry's had a beautifully carved mahogany bar that consumed the left side of the room. Behind the bar there was mahogany shelving, displaying both top shelf and rot-gut whiskeys, all designed to make you forget your troubles for awhile.
Mirrors on the wall reflected the bare, dim light bulbs that dangled from the ceiling on cords. Scattered throughout the room, they seemed to dance in time to the band pumping and thumping out the boogie.
Blind Kenny sat in his spot at the corner of the bar and Barry poured him a cold draft as they bobbed their heads to the music and talked about their day. Kenny sat facing straight into the bar, groping for his drink, listening to Da Mudcat Blues Band. He rarely looked toward the band but we knew he was listening.
A few people wandered in and out as more old friends, new friends and future friends assembled at the oddly shaped tables scattered about the room. Back in the corner at the end of the bar, there was a big corner booth, red leather, paired with a wobbly round table. The people sitting there didn't seem to care as they drank their brew, ate and smoked their Marlboros, listening to the band play their blues.
There was a kitchen in the back of an adjacent room. The front of that room was set up with some long tables and aluminum chairs and a couple of pool tables. Patrons could play pool and enjoy the band by way of the huge opening in the wall between the rooms.
There were four or five empty shot glasses and a couple of empty Heinekens sitting on the sill of the opening and it was only the first set. Standing next to the parade of glasses and beer bottles was Jim Rosen, harmonica player extraordinaire. That is where he stood every Thursday night at Barry's, playing his blues like tomorrow may never come.
Jim was wearing a blue silk shirt, a pair of $500 Italian shoes, no socks, and a pair of worn-out blue jeans with a hole in the knee and frazzled edges at the ankle. He was one of those people that when he walked into a room the air popped; he just had that energy about him.
Next to him was an open briefcase filled with Lee Oskar harmonicas, a couple packs of cigarettes and a .38 snub nose. I used to get chills when I looked into that brief case and saw that pistol. I also used to worry that he'd get loaded one night and grab the pistol, mistaking it for a harmonica and, bang, I'm dead. I stood right next to him; it was an honest concern.
Larry Holt stood on the other side of me at Barry's where he thumped his bass and people watched. Funny how he could absorb the activity in a room and still never miss a note. I liked that about him and I think it made him play better. Larry always played to the room and he played a five-string bass.
Riding the rail to the right of Larry was Rob Pickett on guitar. Jim Rosen liked to call him Rob "Big Nickel" Pickett. I introduced him one night as Rob "Big Pickle" Pickett and Jim exploded with laughter. Rob didn't miss a beat; he thanked me and giggled. I'm pretty sure he'll answer to either one of those names these days.
Set up sideways on the stage was Doug P. Lamb on keyboard. He could lay down the boogie on the keys and sing very well, really a talented guy. He'd sound real good as long as he didn't match Jim shot for shot. The girls liked him quite a bit, so Rosen would call him "Romeo."
Since Jim had a name for everyone, I was not to be overlooked by any means. Most of the time he would introduce me as Suzannnnnne O'Neil. I can still hear him saying that. He would draw the "Anne" part out as long as possible to accent it.
We were Da Mudcats and we played a major part in that smoky scene at Barry's every Thursday night and most weekends back in those days. We had some fabulous times together.
Somehow the recipe for blues stew hit the mark back then at Barry's – part good food and liquor, part location and part a band who loved to play the blues together.
It was an effervescent whirl of blues, booze, late nights and long days, and whenever I look back on it I can smile and thank the Almighty that I lived through it.