Saturday, June 28, 2008

My visit to Chicago – May 11, 1992

I recently rediscovered this story tucked in the back of a filing cabinet.

I met Rick “Cookin’” Sherry during the summer of 1991 at Blues Week in Elkins, WV. Blues Week is part of the Augusta Heritage Workshops, which offers adults the opportunity to learn and practice the artistic expression of traditional folk cultures. Students can learn blues, Cajun music, swing dance and crafts including stonemasonry, storytelling, pottery making, weaving and even log home construction.

Rick is a harmonica player from Chicago who formed the acoustic blues trio, “Jukin’ Jake and the Salty Dogs” and whose day job is teaching 8th and 10th grade science. He invited me to visit him if I was ever in town, so I called him when a business trip took me there in May 1992. He lives in “Ukrainian Village” on the South Side near Western & Chicago Avenues. He and his girlfriend Cynthia live in a 2nd floor walk-up, an old building with high ceilings, big windows and a claw foot tub.
It was a pleasant evening. People were talking to their neighbors, and an elderly couple walked past on their way to Mass. Rick and I took off in his little car for the Checkerboard Lounge. As we sped along, the warm wind rushed past and brought the city sounds close to my ears. Off the expressway and deep into the heart of the South Side we plunged. Now I’m a stranger in a strange land. The faces are all black, and mine is white.
We pull up directly across from the Checkerboard. It is 7:30 p.m. and still light outside. The club is dark. I follow Rick closely, deeply conscious of who I am and how far out of my culture I am straying. Music is playing, and that’s enough for me. I’ve read about this place, and now I have a chance to see it for myself. Rick’s friend Paul is on stage with a drummer and singer. He plays an acoustic set on Mondays. Electric blues is all you hear in most clubs these days. We listen to a couple of songs, and then I buy each of us an Old Style, a local brew.
A tall, older man strides into the club. He’s outfitted in white cowboy gear, complete with guns, boots, hat and belt. He slips on a mask as he enters the club, and Rick tells me he’s the Black Lone Ranger. After Rick does his songs, the Black Lone Ranger approaches the stage. Paul, Rick and the drummer back him up. He does “Rock Me Baby” and one other song just like it. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to laugh, applaud or do both. I try to closely observe the audience for cues without appearing to do so. He really is funny as Hell. This is one of those situations in which a foreigner (me) is at a loss. I just try to "do as the Romans do."
After Rick finishes, the MC asks him to come back another night. The Checkerboard is known as a proving ground for new musicians, and it’s a tough audience. Rick’s triumph gets a congratulatory handshake from me. Later I trade cards with and talk for awhile with Hinds. He’s a big tall man with a hat and an accent from Trinidad, his native land. First he traveled to Ontario, then New Orleans, now Chicago. I invited him to call if he comes to D.C. and tell him about the DC Blues Festival on September 12, 1992.

I wish the club had a piano, but I will get to show my chops later, at another club. The MC takes me over to meet a guy sitting in a booth. The greeting is cordial. I have no idea what this means, but I go along with it.
We get up to leave and stop briefly on the sidewalk outside the club. I introduce myself to the drummer. He has a local TV show. I also met Lefty Diz, who was to go on stage next. He told me he doesn’t drink when he’s “on the road.” Says he’s “all business” then.

Rick is waiting at his car. I realize this and begin walking across the street. I hear someone calling for me, following behind, catching up slowly. I decide now’s the time to walk quickly and get in the car. Off we go to a Mexican place.
“Biggest burritos in the world,” they’re advertized, and they are. Next we return to Rick’s apartment to pick up Cynthia and head out to the Hot House.
It’s a Monday night, and Yoko Noge and Clark Dean are playing. She plays boogie, blues and standards on the piano, and he plays soprano sax.

Yoko Noge & Clark Dean

At one point, Yoko, an oriental woman, sings “Georgia on My Mind,” both in English and in Japanese. This is a favorite of the crowd. They ask Rick to get up and play with them. Tony Manguilo is on drums. Tony owns Roses, another bar Rick is playing soon with his trio. This was another triumph for Rick, because Roses is a well-known though newer club in town.
During the break I introduce myself to Clark. I tell him I’m a piano player, and of course I’m invited to get up and play. I start with Boogie Woogie, a guaranteed hit. While I begin, I wonder what I’ll do for a second number. I noodle a bit, and then light into an energetic “Hold It.” Finally I invite Rick up to do “Sloppy Drunk,” a song we did together at Blues Week. We trade verses and instrumental breaks. All the songs generate rousing applause.

Toward the end of the next set, I’m invited up again to join the musicians on stage. Yoko asks me to play four-handed; I take the bass. I play some with her at first, then some alone. Tony on drums, Clark on sax and electric guitar, and Rick on harp. We finish with an inspired “Down Home Chicago.” Then handshakes and business cards are traded. We say goodbye and head home. I have a standing invitation to sit in with Yoko and Clark anytime I’m in Chicago.

Postscript: Rick currently plays with "The Sanctified Grumblers." Check them out, and see them play live next time you're in Chicago!

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