Memphis Blues Again

When Piano Bob and the Snowman won a prestigious W.C. Handy Award, they had no idea they'd end up duking it out with another Miami band in a Memphis alley.

"So many great things happened to us up there. I'm so sick of this whole thing," laments Ken "Snowman" Minahan, the guitar-playing half of the traditional barrelhouse, boogie-woogie blues duo of Piano Bob and the Snowman. "It's really sad that the thing everybody's going to remember is the nonsensical stuff we'd rather just put behind us."
He's referring to the back-alley brawl that broke out between him and fellow bluesman "Big Bob" Dias of the Blue Tornados. Neither man is pleased that the 13th Annual W.C. Handy Awards, held last month in Memphis, will go down in history as the ceremony where, to quote both Minahan and Dias, "the bands from Miami got into it."

This past summer "Piano Bob" Wilder and Minahan won the local amateur blues band showdown sponsored by the South Florida Blues Society and with it the right to officially represent South Florida at the prestigious national competition. At competition's end, the Miamians were informed they had been edged by one vote by a band from Phoenix. But a recount the following day revealed that the Miamians had actually won by a significant margin.

For Piano Bob and the Snowman, the national victory was sweet vindication. Winning the Handy amateur band competition means playing at the awards show with the likes of Buddy Guy, Jimmie Rogers (Muddy Waters's guitarist), and Diamond Teeth Mary. "It's like blues Mecca," explains the Snowman, noting that the audience was enthusiastic in its response to their brand of traditional barrelhouse blues. "They appreciate us a lot more [in Memphis]. Down here we get treated like background music."

While the Blue Tornados are unapologetic children of the electronic age, Big Bob is well acquainted with Piano Bob's boogie-woogie concept. "I used to host a radio show on WDNA, Morning Mojo, until they decided to take everything African-American off the air," says Big Bob. "Hell, I used to play Piano Bob's stuff on my show. He's an old, dear friend. But they're the most boring blues duo of all time. Can't even get arrested in this town -- and you can quote me on that."

The Blue Tornados had entered the local competition in 1991, finishing third behind Roach Thompson and SoBe Blues. They did not compete in 1992. "We're not part of the inner circle," asserts Big Bob, "like that hokey blues society that only stands for itself. Blues people should be truck drivers and hot dog vendors, not club owners and booking agents. There's been a lot of animosity ever since I left Roach's band three, four years ago. When I left, some people around town called me racist. I'm African-American -- my grandfather was black African. But the Blue Tornados are a band that's gonna put Miami on the map, not tear it down with all this petty bullshit. We're nationally known and this bothers people around here."

In a way, Big Bob's claim of national fame is at the heart of the Memphis brouhaha.

Back in May, the Tornados took a trip to Memphis to play the Beale Street Blues Festival at the behest of Roach Thompson, whose own band was invited but was unable to attend. According to Tornado saxophonist Steve "Speedo" Kelly, the band's official spokesman, the band was so well received at that festival that one of the event's organizers invited them back to play at the Handy Awards later in the year.

"During the course of getting ready for the show, [the show's organizers] mention that they're hurting for money," Speedo recounts. "We have a corporate sponsor, and I told them that these guys in Memphis were hurting, and that there was a real threat that maybe the show would be canceled or moved. To make a long story short, our sponsor donated $5000 to the show. We had already agreed to play. Then, the next thing I know, [Big] Bobby and I are in the car listening to the Len Pace show on WLRN, and Piano Bob and the Snowman are telling everybody that we bought our way onto the show. Bobby was real mad."

Kay Haseloff, chief administrator for the Blues Foundation, which puts on the Handy Awards, confirms that the group was in no position to turn down a $5000 gift horse, but she offers a different take on the Blue Tornados' appearance. "About three months ago the foundation started receiving all these strange calls from around the country -- North Carolina, Colorado -- inquiring about this blues band from Miami, the Blue Tornados, which was supposed to be playing at the Handy Awards. Nobody at the foundation knew who the Blue Tornados were."

Haseloff says that about two weeks before the show, one of the guest bands canceled, and they were left with an open slot. Meanwhile, she explains, the awards show's producer received a phone call that led him to believe the Blue Tornados had been booked to perform. "And three days prior to the awards, a check for $5000 arrives in a Federal Express package," says Haseloff. "Sure enough, the Blue Tornados show up the next day, pushy and intimidating, braggarts to the nth degree. There were many arguments within the foundation about whether to accept the money and what to do about the band. I was so upset and put out that we let them perform."

An article by John Floyd in the October 8 issue of the weekly Memphis Flyer jibes with Speedo Kelly's portrayal of the Blue Tornados as welcome Handy Awards benefactors, but also bolsters the assertion that they became major players at the awards only after they anted up. According to the paper, "An additional $5000 life preserver was thrown to the Foundation by the Blue Tornados, a Florida-based blues band who, once they cut the check, were then moved from a slot in the after-show jam at the Radisson to a prominent spot in the awards line-up, thus proving that money does indeed talk."

Regardless of the timing of the donation, Piano Bob and the Snowman were hurt by the sudden prominence of the Blue Tornados in an awards ceremony at which the boogie-woogie duo had overcome long odds to win the right to perform. It didn't help matters that the Blue Tornados took out an ad in the official Handy program, billing themselves as "South Florida's Blues Ambassadors."

The matter finally came to a head during the soundcheck for the show at the New Daisy Theatre in Memphis. Big Bob, a burly Vietnam vet who says he earned two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, and a Purple Heart, spotted the Snowman and, still smarting from the latter's words on the WLRN show, snarled, "You and me got a date back in Miami." The Snowman, also a hefty fellow, responded with something to the effect of, "Why wait?"

And the fisticuffs were on. The actual fight, which took place in the parking lot adjacent to the Daisy Theatre, was a fairly short-lived affair, distinguished by a nasty bite on the thumb suffered by the Snowman, which necessitated a tetanus shot and the filing of a police report.

"Who got what, I can't say," says Speedo, who was with Big Bob when the fracas occurred. "I can't say they were duking it out. All I know is, ten seconds and it's over, Bobby's on one knee, Ken's splitting."

Says Big Bob in retrospect: "I congratulate Piano Bob on winning the contest. I did the same thing on-stage at the awards. But if they would like to compete against us on any stage in this town...."

For his part, the Snowman has already put most of it behind him. "I got to sit there with Buddy Guy and his manager; the Memphis Horns presented our award. We got to play at Frank Frost's juke joint, we played on Beale Street. It was the greatest time of my life, regardless."

Adds Piano Bob, "All we wish is that whatever becomes of [the Blue Tornados] doesn't affect what becomes of us. First the organizers told us we finished second when we really won. Then this thing with Big Bob -- I've known him for a long time, never had a problem with him before. It's like we had to cross all these hurdles to get to the Holy Grail.

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