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I've Got A Mind To Ramble
You're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone—The Life and Times of Jim Rosen. Part II
>By Mike Suttles
"Play it like you live it!" Jim Rosen's longtime bandmate in daMudcats Blues Band, Rob Pickett, can still hear Rosen holler that at him on stage. trying to push him to greater heights when the band was playing gigs. Pickett and Gene Wickliffe, the two players from the Rosen era who are still playing in da udcats fondly remember a man who was driven to make the band the best in the city. And it was.
If you asked most people who were familiar with the blues and overall music scene in Louisville at that time, they would tell you that daMudcats were the best band around and that Jim Rosen was the number one reason why. He was absolutely a virtuoso on the blues harp. He could play anything from the real Chicago blues to a hard rocking song to a beautiful romantic ballad all the while adding that touch of jazz improvisation that he learned early on in his musical upbringing.
As great as his harp playing was, it was the charisma that oozed from his pores that many of us remember. Burly, raspy voiced, long dark curly hair and a laugh that could go on for days, Rosen culled friendships with people from all walks of life. He could converse with doctors, lawyers and regular folk. Didn't matter who you were.
Susan O'Neil, longtime singer with daMudcats, puts it in very simple terms. "Jim Rosen had the IT factor." O'Neal became visibly emotional reminiscing about her long-time friend. To those who were not close with Jim Rosen, he could seem intimidating and brusque. O'Neal agreed that was the case but was quick to say that "he had such a large heart and if he was a friend, you would have a friend for life." At the end of all of the interviews I did for this story, I asked the question, what one thing about Rosen did the interviewee want people to know. They all had variations on the same answer. Jim Rosen was a misunderstood man who had a heart of gold, was a friend in the real sense of the word and was generous to a fault.
It was Jim, Susan O'Neal and guitarist Andy Brauner who got together to form the daMudcats. Over the course of the next few months, different players came and went until they had a steady nucleus of Rosen, O'Neil, Wickliffe and Pickett. Eventually Larry Holt joined as the bass player. Through the next decade or so, they added three more bass players, a keyboardist and O'Neal left due to family obligations.
The band's first gig was at a tailgating party at a University of Louisville football game at old Cardinal Stadium. O'Neil, Wickliffe and Pickett remember it well and not in a positive light. They were not to be deterred. They continued to hone their sound, playing every gig they could until eventually they became as good as it got in this city. I often wondered why they didn't try to branch out and possibly tour around the region and maybe nationally. Once I became friends with Jim, it seemed to me that he might be a little insecure about doing the road thing. Both Marty Rosen and Gene Wickliffe didn't feel that way. They both thought it was the fact that unlike today, where the internet makes it easy to find places to play, Rosen didn't feel he could do it justice being the band manager and the harp player.
Longtime friend Phil Haas shed a different light on it. In late 1989, Rosen married Kim Newton, his life's soulmate. Haas told me that the couple had decided to move to Chicago, New York or LA so that Rosen could try his luck at the big time. Tragically, Kim was killed in a car wreck just a couple months after they were married. After that, Rosen didn't have it in him to make that attempt.
Rosen was devastated by Kim's death. He stopped playing for a couple weeks and at times he was at a loss as to what to do. But it was the music that pulled him through. Kerry Ferrell, close friend of Jim's said that Jim told him that there would never be anyone in his life again like Kim. Rosen continued to be haunted by her death during his career and refused to play songs that were Kim's favorites.
I met Jim one night in late 1990 at Barry's where daMudcats were the house band. I had seen the band play numerous times around town and was so impressed with them and especially Rosen. I can't remember the particular circumstances of our meeting but in no time we became friends.
Obviously there was the common love of the blues that we connected over. But it was far deeper than that. Irreverence, sarcasm, quick with laughter over a good story, copius amounts of time spent at the bar and a like-mindedness on a number of other things were just as important as the blues. In fact, I'm 100% sure Jim and I became close because I looked at him as a friend and not just a musician.
There was a six-month period around 1995 when both of us were between girlfriends that the bond between us was cemented. We were hanging together a lot. Going to concerts (the Allman Brothers and Aretha at the Palace stick out), checking out ballgames, shooting pool. Jim fancied himself a pool player while I fancied myself someone who could talk trash enough to throw him off his game. We spent countless hours at the pool hall laughing and cracking on each other and probably ended up even. I'm honored to have his cues to this day.
While playing in the Budweiser tent at the state fair in August 1996, Rosen complained of pain in his back. He visited the doctor and it was then he was diagnosed with Stage IV renal carcinoma. Within a few days he had one kidney removed and began a bout with chemo. The survival rate for that kind of cancer was not good. He even told Pickett and Wickliffe that he was going to quit the band so as to not hold them back. They were able to convince him to stay. Throughout his last 18 months Rosen played when he was able and when he couldn't, others would sit in for him.
Even though he attempted to hide it, in late summer of '97 it was obvious to me that his health was deteriorating. daMudcats had never missed playing the Garvin Gate Blues Festival. I talked with Jim about whether he felt like he could play. "You better put my ass on there and right in front of one of the headliners!" was his response. I'm still in awe of his playing that night. He simply showed everyone that he was one of the best harp players in the world. At the end of the show he had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance. Rosen's last public gig was New Year's Eve at The Rud. Less than two months later, he passed away very peacefully. There was a memorial service soon but since he donated his body to UL, a year later his ashes were buried in the garden at the Unitarian Church. It was the first time my daughter had seen her Dad cry.
"You're gonna miss me when I'm gone," Jim Rosen told us. He was right. Lots of folk do. I always will.