Blues Power

Although the legendary Blind Willie McTell spent time here in the '30s, Miami has never been a major blues center. In fact Miami is unusual in that a thriving soul and R&B scene actually preceded a blues scene of any importance. In the mid-'60s R&B flourished in Overtown clubs such as the Night Beat and the Continental Club, drawing a host of national acts and enthusiastic crowds. Sam Cooke hit town regularly, even choosing to record his classic 1963 Live at the Harlem Square Club at that famed North Miami hall, while native sons Sam & Dave went on to fame at Stax Records with a string of hit singles that helped define the label's raw, stripped down approach.

That period's heyday is foremost in the mind of Austrian-born restaurateur and blues enthusiast Harald Neuweg, who is once again presenting his annual blues festival this weekend in Coral Gables. In addition Satchmo, Neuweg's new blues club, is set to open in tandem, providing Miami with another live venue. Slated to appear at Blues Fest '99 are several generations of Florida blues acts, from '60s veterans Charles Atkins and Clifford Hawkins to '80s revivalists Iko-Iko and "Piano Bob" Wilder. What they all share is a kinship for the R&B spirit that held sway more than three decades ago.

An initial inspiration for many of the newer recruits to the blues came from late '70s white outfits like Washington, D.C.'s Nighthawks, Austin, Texas's Fabulous Thunderbirds, and Providence, Rhode Island's Roomful of Blues -- all of whom took a modern approach to the genre, adding soul tunes to their repertoires and mixing in a rock approach.

Speaking for this younger group, "Piano Bob" Wilder (who will be performing with the Jumpstreet 88s) explains: "As all of us got more into it, we got more into the history of it as well."

As time went on, the members of this new wave moved on to explore the roots of the blues, delving into the original sources, and studying the seminal recordings of giants like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Little Walter. As audience interest and the number of clubs featuring blues music expanded throughout the '80s, many local R&B artists from the '60s (such as Bobby Stringer and Joey Gilmore) came out of retirement, adapting their styles to this new taste for blues.

Since that initial burst of activity, the blues scene in South Florida has undergone a period of contraction. Airplay, once fairly substantial on public radio stations like WDNA-FM (88.9) and WLRN-FM (91.3), has been drastically cut back, while the number of clubs featuring blues has declined as well. Still Wilder insists that things are better than before the early '80s. He is encouraged by the swing music revival and hopes it will lead to a new crop of young fans discovering the blues. Furthermore he cites Blues Fest as proof of the local scene's health.

One of the highlights of this concert should be the appearance of Charles Atkins, a hard-driving pianist whose gruff vocals are reminiscent of Big Joe Turner. Atkins is a teacher at Florida State University, but if that vocation seems a bit genteel for a bluesman, his past history is more than tough enough. By the early '60s he had become a local legend on the Florida chitlin circuit, even inciting the awestruck (and underage) Gregg and Duane Allman to sneak into his shows and sit in with his band. One night in a Daytona Beach nightclub, however, Atkins made a fateful career decision. An angry husband appeared in front of the stage midset, accused Atkins of sleeping with his wife, and fired a gun at him. The bullet failed to do much damage.

"It must have hit something else first, because it didn't have any force. It just hit me in the leg and fell to the floor," Atkins remembers. Just exactly what that "something else" was is unclear, but he took it to be a powerful message from above. "That was a sign," he says, and one he interpreted as a command to stop playing the blues.

It wasn't until 1989 that Atkins began performing again. Living in Los Angeles and despondent over the state of his life, he phoned a close friend from his childhood, Bob Greenlee (now the owner of Orlando's King Snake Records), looking for direction.

Laughing, Atkins recalls the conversation. "'Do what you're good at!' Bob told me. 'What's that?' I asked. 'Why, the blues!'"

Currently leading the Blues Boys, a five-piece outfit, Atkins describes the feelings that go into his musicianship: "The blues is a music of the heart of a common person. When you play the blues, it's hard to separate yourself from your listener. You can't rise above your listener. You can never leave them where they don't know what's going on like you can with jazz. You've got to reach out, bring them in. There's a sense of nearness."

Although Atkins may not be a fan of avant-garde jazz improvisers, he has nothing but respect for them. "It takes nerves of steel to be a jazz virtuoso," he declares, because of the speed involved and the complex syncopations. "But with the blues you're more even on the beat. You can whine and groan on the beat. With the blues you can be a sick person and play it well."

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