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Sweet Home: April 2010

| April 1, 2010 | 1 Comment

At The Gates Of Dawn

A home represents the place where you feel nurtured and secure. It’s the one place where you know you are valued. Chicago offers the blues a home on many levels, but there’s no place where it’s valued more than on Steve Cushing‘s “Blues Before Sunrise” radio program. For 30 years, Cushing has explored the richness of pre-World War II and early post-war blues with music and interviews during his five-hour, weekly program. Nationally syndicated by 75 stations, “Blues Before Sunrise” attracts blues fans and scholars all over the country but it remains a Chicago institution. Last month, the influence and reach of Cushing’s program just grew even wider with the publication of Blues Before Sunrise: The Radio Interviews (University Of Illinois Press).

“I’ve had these interviews in the archives for years, but it took me four years to write intros for all the transcripts,” says Cushing. “I had three considerations when selecting what interviews to include: Number one is that they were long-form interviews at least 90 minutes long; two, they had to be good; three, the subject had never been documented before.”

Those criteria left chapters about eight significant but little-known musicians and four chapters about a club owner, a DJ, and a record producer. “I’ve done about 150 interviews for the show, I wanted to present things we’ve done on the air as well as other aspects of the industry,” he says. “The first two book segments cover blues singers from the pre-war and post-war eras. 1965 is the cut-off point because by that time, rock was in full bloom and after that time, the artists were influenced more by rock than blues.”

At 245 pages, Blues Before Sunrise: The Radio Interviews supplies an accessible archive of blues history. And you don’t have to be a well-versed blues fan to enjoy it. Cushing arranges the musicians by dividing them into “Ancient Age,” for pre-WWII performers, “Postwar Glory” for the musicians who worked during the late ’40s and ’50s, and “Esoterica” for non-artists. Each chapter has an introduction and the questions Cushing posed to the artist along with the answers. Most of the people featured died over the last two decades and their interviews provide a peek into a time and lifestyle that no longer exists. Besides insight into the creation of classic blues tunes and the stories behind blues sessions, shows, and juke joints, Blues Before Sunrise offers history that is rarely examined.

You may not have ever heard about Yank Rachell and other rare, blues mandolinists, but Rachell’s fascinating account of trading a pig to get his first mandolin and playing alongside Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Jr. Lockwood, opens the book. Other standout interviews are Alberta Hunter and how she recorded before microphones (singing through a hole in the wall while a machine cut the wax), and Tommy Brown, the main influence on James Brown, who was married to Anna Mae Bullock (Tina Turner) before Ike. Brown convinced Ike to pay for their divorce so that Ike could marry Tina.

Of all the book’s interviews, Cushing says Hunter was the most memorable. Besides Ethel Waters, Hunter was the only singer whose career managed to transcend the classic blues era of the ’20s and ’30s. “Alberta was notoriously reluctant to talk about her life,” says Cushing. “She opened up with me because I knew what I was talking about and she had just gotten out of the hospital and was in the mood to look back. Her interview was the most unforgettable because of the process I had to go through to get it. I talked to lots of people and jumped through many hoops to interview her.”

Another interview Cushing will never forget is Texan pianist Grey Ghost, who graces the book’s cover. “Grey Ghost was an itinerant piano player and they had a high mortality rate,” he says. “Women were crazy about these piano players. Their husbands and boyfriends were jealous and they’d kill them. Grey Ghost gives the rules for safe living for piano players.

“This book isn’t just about these musicians’ careers, it’s about the world they lived in.”

Cushing attended the “University Of Bronzeville” to gain his far-reaching blues knowledge. Veteran listeners called into the show supplying background, obscure artists, and definitions for cultural references in the songs. Over the years, his listeners have helped introduce him to a world he only vaguely knew and now he returns the favor for readers of this book, which is first in a trilogy. “I look at Blues Before Sunrise as the first installment in a series of three books,” says Cushing. “I’m putting together the next one and it’s called Tales Of The Blues Revival. It’s about when white folks started getting interested in the blues, causing a tidal wave of blues enthusiasm and research in the late ’50s and early ’60s.”

This is also the era Cushing grew up in, which has profoundly influenced his musical tastes. “I started playing drums in grade school and all the music I listened to was directly descended from the blues,” he says. “Musicians I liked were Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jefferson Airplane. It was early rock and I was able to trace it back to the blues. I didn’t know there was a tradition of sitting in with blues artists but I did. I worked as a drummer for a living for years. I played with Smokey Smothers, Magic Slim, Lee Jackson, Good Rockin’ Charles.”

Today, Cushing doesn’t listen to any music made after 1965, especially current blues. “What’s being passed off as blues now has nothing to do with the blues I like,” he says. “The music that I like has subtlety and nuance and all that’s gone from music today.”

— Rosalind Cummings-Yeates

Category: Columns, Monthly, Sweet Home

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  1. Steve Pasek says:

    Steve, all respect, but the “purist” attitude that only old blues is good blues and that “there’s no nuance” to modern blues is nonsense and counter-productive, unless, of course, you want the blues to be a museum piece. There is plenty of good blues being made today, which may not be to your taste, but don’t insult an entire generation by suggesting that none of them have any subtlety, because that just plain isn’t true, and you should know that even if you don’t want to admit it. I haven’t seen you out at a club in years, so I don’t know on what you are basing that opinion, anyway.

    Glad to hear that the interviews will be available for future generations to experience and enjoy, and always loved your show, and your dedication to artists who are under-appreciated, especially Louis Jordan.

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