Songs in the Key of Blue

Imagine there were a scale for calibrating shades of blue (the state of mind, not the color). Losing your woman (or man, the blues being an equal opportunity affliction) to the IRS auditor who just put a lien on your house and ran over your dog while repossessing your pink Cadillac would be a ten. Not having a date on a night when the only thing on TV is a repeat of the sole episode of Saturday Night Live you've already seen in the past three years would be a one, or possibly a one-point-five if the musical guest plays rap. Winning the National Blues Foundation's prestigious B.B. King Lucille award as the best amateur band in the land of the red, white, and blues, and then being told there wasn't enough green left in the budget to fly you to Memphis to pick up the damn award, would have to register at least a six.

That is exactly the predicament facing the Roach Thompson Blues Band as they scramble to scrape up enough scratch to make it to the W.C. Handy Awards at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, officially accept their benediction as best amateur blues band in America, and play a set for the customary audience of record company execs and blues luminaries.

Roach and company have already made the trek once. After winning the local contest at Tobacco Road on June 30, the band and the South Florida Blues Society put together their own version of the Magic Bus, chartering one of the lumbering giants and roaring off to Elvisville with a crowd of 36 blues-hungry revelers in tow, including singer Lynne Noble, Zeta-4 DJ Kimba, and noted Hobbit-impersonator Mark Weiser. The Miami-based musicians and their entourage generated a buzz wherever they went, especially after blistering through a set at the Memphis Blues Fest. That performance garnered special mention in the following day's newspaper, and a representative from Seagram's, a corporate sponsor of the fest and underwriter of a big-budget, ten-city blues tour, allowed as how two acts at the affair had impressed him - Rufus Thomas and Roach Thompson - and that he would not be surprised to see the Miami boys on next year's Seagram's tour. From that moment on, the R.T.B.B. was the band to watch. They won the amateur competition over 26 other combos, some of whom had beaten 50 or more regional competitors just to reach the finals. An invitation to B.B. King's nightclub arrived and, trophy in hand, the Miami contingent marched down Beale Street to B.B.'s place, 36 strong.

Everywhere the band went they felt the eyes of their fellow musicians upon them. A hastily arranged gig at McNeil's resulted in the second-highest till in that popular establishment's history. A documentary radio crew from Japan wanted an interview, and insisted on conducting it in front of a statue of Elvis. They were very concerned about whether drummer Freddy Scott found enough time to play golf with all of this music going on.

Even though the band got an early tip-off that all was not 100 percent well when the cash award they received was less than half the sum originally promised, and posters from earlier W.C. Handy Awards were thrown in to help make up the difference, Roach and the busload of merry bluesfolk returned to South Florida feeling wearily triumphant. They were, after all, the best amateur blues band in the nation. Ahead of them were eight hours of studio time at Malaco Records (Little Milton's label) in Jackson, Mississippi, probable invitations to perform at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the Chicago Blues Festival, and the crown jewel of the package, an all-expenses-paid trip to Memphis to officially accept their award at the W.C. Handy bash. Unfortunately, this is where Cinderella loses the slipper. Due to the last-minute failure of corporate bankrollers Miller Brewing and VH-1 (who were to broadcast the ceremony nationally) to sign on the dotted line in time, the W.C. Handy folks and the National Blues Foundation suddenly found themselves short about $200,000. Goodbye, all-expenses-paid tickets. Hello, blues.

Aw, mama, can this really be the end, to be stuck inside Miami with the Memphis blues again? (Sorry, B.D.) Of course not. These are veteran amateur bluesmen, and they are not about to just curse their luck and punt. They have, with the help of a loose confederation of local merchants and the South Florida Blues Society, launched a counteroffensive to drum up enough dough to get them to the promised land.

Broward's R&B stronghold, Cheers, has agreed to sponsor two tickets to the awards, which is an especially magnanimous gesture considering that the Roach Thompson Blues Band has yet to play that venue (although they are planning to do so ASAP). Hollywood's Club M has agreed to chip in for at least half on another one. Tobacco Road raffled off a pass good for one year's free admission and donated the proceeds to the cause, but the Miami bluesmen are still shy a shitload of Somalians.

Given their victory in the national competition, and the acclaim and the complications it has wrought, it is ironic that the band only learned of the contest two days before the local competition was held. "It was the Friday night before the Sunday of the contest," relates harmonica player Jack Bluni. "My wife had seen a promotional flyer at one of our shows somewhere and sent it in. We forgot all about it until I saw an ad in New Times. I told the rest of the guys about it. At first no one wanted to do it - you know, the word amateur, we don't consider ourselves amateurs by any means - but when they heard some of the other bands that were entering, they decided to give it a shot. We literally worked out our setlist while we sat there Sunday night waiting to go on."

The Road was crowded, even by its own sardinian standards, and the contest generated beaucoups of hearty blues. "Based on what we saw at the national competition, there were several bands down here that could have more than held their own," says Bluni. The Roach Thompson Blues Band won, with SoBe Blues and Big Bob and the Blue Tornadoes finishing runners-up. As any follower of the local blues scene can attest, none of these bands is amateur in the strictest sense of the word. But the National Blues Foundation accepts as amateur any band without a current album or major-label contract whose players earn less than 50 percent of their income from music. Because the members of the Roach Thompson outfit have day gigs ranging from driving trucks to teaching kids with learning disabilities, and since the band has no album in pressing or under production, they decided they could live with the amateur tag if it meant a shot at a record deal and an appearance at the W.C. Handy shindig.

Winning the award has earned the band substantial notoriety locally. Recent gigs at Club M and the Road were packed, and R.T.B.B. was even invited to participate in the Firemen's Horse Parade. It's a mighty long way from house band at a Holiday Inn (the group's first regular gig) to cruising down Flagler Street in an antique fire truck surrounded by Hooters girls, and the Roach Thompson Blues Band is enjoying the ride. Who could blame them for wondering just how much gas it would take to get a hook-and-ladder all the way to Memphis?


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