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Clip: David "Honeyboy" Edwards at the Chicago Blues Festival

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  • Carl Zimring
    A hero of the Delta in own right June 5, 2005 BY JEFF JOHNSON Staff Reporter David
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 5, 2005
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      A hero of the Delta in own right

      June 5, 2005

      BY JEFF JOHNSON Staff Reporter

      David "Honeyboy" Edwards has been playing and living the blues for almost
      all of his 89 years, but it's his friendship with legendary bluesman Robert
      Johnson for which he's best known.

      Edwards has grown tired of talking about the so-called King of the Delta
      Blues Singers, but it's still fascinating to listen. So we'll give him a
      break and turn to his 1997 autobiography, The World Don't Owe Me Nothing,
      for his first-person account of Johnson's final days in August 1938 in
      Greenwood, Miss.

      "Robert had got poisoned," Edwards writes. "Robert was crazy about whiskey,
      and this man was mad about Robert going with his wife. He had a friend lady
      give Robert a glass of whiskey that had poison in it. ... Robert stayed
      sick and lying around for two or three days. When I went to see him on
      Tuesday, he was really sick. He wasn't able to talk. He was bleeding at the
      mouth, heaving up and going on. ... They say at the end he was crawling
      around, crawling around like a dog, and howling."

      Did Johnson renege on some deal with the devil? Edwards doesn't buy that
      myth. He elaborates -- somewhat reluctantly -- in a phone interview.

      "He wasn't a big talker," he recalls. "He was an easygoing boy, kind of
      quiet, and I never did hear him cuss too much. He liked his women and his
      whiskey, and he was friendly, but you had to ask him questions a lot."

      Michael Frank, Edwards' longtime manager and frequent harmonica
      accompanist, says promoters use the Johnson connection to get publicity for
      Edwards' gigs, particularly in Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

      "Here [in America] he's known on his own as one of the surviving members of
      the early generation of Delta blues guitarists," he says. "And he's
      probably the most active of those survivors. In the States, I don't promote
      that [Johnson story line] unless I need press. He gets tired of being
      totally pinned on his connection to Robert. He really should be known for
      his Mississippi country blues style and as a storyteller.

      "As a live performer, he's very dynamic and exciting. He uses a lot of
      fancy tricks and runs, and his phrasing has echoes of other people but is
      really his own. You can hear Big Joe Williams and Tommy McClennan and Tommy
      Johnson [all of whom played with Edwards early in his career], but he makes
      them his own. He plays accurate, precise runs, and he's very keenly aware
      of his audience."

      Frank, who founded Chicago's Earwig Records in the early 1970s to record
      Edwards and other artists with roots deep in the blues, is putting on a
      celebratory concert Saturday night at HotHouse in advance of Edwards' 90th
      birthday on June 28. In addition, Edwards, who has lived in Chicago since
      1956, will make his annual appearance at the Chicago Blues Festival in a
      mainstage birthday celebration on Thursday night.

      At least a couple of Edwards' nonagenarian Delta blues contemporaries,
      Robert Jr. Lockwood (Johnson's stepson) and Pinetop Perkins, will not only
      attend the HotHouse event, but also perform there. Edwards recognizes that
      playing the blues is a like having a fountain of youth.

      "I believe it keeps you going after you get out there and get to playing
      professionally," he says.

      Occasionally the traveling gets him down, admits Edwards, who is scheduled
      to play some 100 dates this year, including a dozen he played during his
      tour of Germany in March.

      "When we got off the plane in Frankfurt, Germany, you couldn't see for all
      the snow and stuff," Edwards says. "They don't have gas heat over there.
      They heat with oil, and when you check in, the room is so cold, you can see
      your breath. It takes about two hours before you get comfortable."

      Those conditions are like a night at the Ritz compared to Edwards' youthful
      experiences riding the rails in his native Mississippi and nearby states.
      He'd "ride the cushions," or buy a seat on a comfortable passenger train,
      when he had some money in his pocket, and the rest of the time he'd hobo
      it, hopping freights, sometimes sitting between cars or even on top of a
      car when the boxcar door was closed.

      "I rode a lot of freight trains and made my money [playing music] on the
      streets," says Edwards, whose life story is the subject of the 2002
      documentary "Honeyboy" by Chicago filmmaker Scott Taradash. "I was a pretty
      good gambler, and I'd make money hustling, too. The hands are quicker than
      the eyes. Craps was my favoritist game. If they was shooting sixes, I had
      some of them dice that same size in my pocket, and I'd switch 'em. I
      couldn't lose."

      Edwards displays that same dexterity as a guitarist, his fingers
      unafflicted by arthritis, even though he has trouble walking. He plays both
      acoustic and electric guitar.

      "I've got a Telecaster and a metal Martin that sounds like a National, and
      I bought a 1950 ES-125 Gibson about six or seven years ago," says Edwards,
      who prefers playing acoustic guitar because, "If you get a good acoustic
      guitar, it gives you the blues sound. If you play electric, you've got
      mostly a rock 'n' roll sound. You play the blues more than one way: the
      low-down dirty shame blues or the uptempo shuffle blues, and that's the
      boogie-woogie style."

      Other musicians recognize Edwards as a rare link to the earliest recorded
      blues. The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards dropped by to jam at one 2004
      gig, and blues-rocker Kenny Wayne Shepherd included his performance with
      Edwards on an upcoming DVD. Local blues artists hold him in high esteem as

      "He's what you call from the horse's mouth," says bassist-bandleader Aron
      Burton, one of nearly two dozen musicians confirmed for the HotHouse show.
      "He's a really genuine link. It's like talking with someone from the past
      who's alive. He plays the old way, and his humor is old."

      Burton says he saw Edwards before a gig in late May at the Hideout, and the
      first thing he asked was, "How many women are up in the place?" That's par
      for the course for Honeyboy, Burton adds.

      "You can picture him in his young days," he says. "He ain't changed. He
      still likes women, like most musicians do."

      NOTE: The lineup for the HotHouse show is long and strong. More musicians
      are jumping on the bandwagon almost daily, but on board so far are
      95-year-old slide guitar master Homesick James Williamson; 91-year-old
      piano great Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins; 90-year-old guitarist Robert Jr.
      Lockwood; 86-year-old pianist Aaron Moore; Burton; drummer-guitarist Sam
      Lay; guitarist-harpist Johnny "Yard Dog" Jones; acoustic blues
      preservationists Devil in a Woodpile, with Rick Sherry, Tom Ray and Joel
      Patterson; guitarist-mandolin player Paul Kaye; soul-blues diva Liz
      Mandville Greeson; harpist Rob Stone and the C-Notes; guitarist Rocky
      Lawrence; guitarist-harpist Tom Shaka; guitarist-bassist Steve Arvey, and
      pianist James "Piano C. Red" Wheeler.

      The party also provides a chance to strap on the late-night feed bag, with
      a spaghetti dinner and trimmings from Leroy Phillips Catering for $10.

      Grant Park has the blues in all its multifaceted stages

      The Chicago Blues Festival begins Thursday on six stages in Grant Park:


      At the Juke Joint Stage
      Noon-12:30 p.m., Erwin Helfer
      1-2 p.m., Roosevelt Purifoy
      2:30-3:30 p.m., Fernando Jones
      4-4:30 p.m., Roland Tchakounte
      5-6 p.m., Chicago Blues Poetry Showcase featuring Marvin Tate, Tara Betts,
      AvantRetro, with a poem by Kim Berez, hosted by C.J. Laity

      U.S. Cellular Front Porch Stage
      1-2:30 p.m., "Blues in the Schools," "That's All Right, Mama" Arthur Big
      Boy Crudup. Stone Academy, Grant Academy, Reavis and Agassiz Elementary
      Schools featuring Erwin Helfer and Katherine Davis, Eric Noden, Les Getrex,
      Billy Branch, Doktu Rhute with the Blues Heaven Harmonica Kids and Roland
      3-4 p.m., Nick Moss & the Flip Tops
      4:30-6 p.m., From Linda's Lounge: L-Roy and the Bullet Proof Band with
      special guests Lady D, Lady Cat and Holly Maxwell

      Gibson Guitars Crossroads
      1:30-2:30 p.m., Tommy McCracken and the Force of Habit Band
      2:45-4 p.m., Grana Louise
      4:30-6 p.m., Toronzo Cannon and the Cannonball Express

      Best Buy Showcase Stage
      2-2:45 p.m., Planetary Blues
      3:30-4:15 p.m., After Midnight Blues
      4:45-5:30 p.m., Madman Blues Band
      6:15-7:15 p.m., Steepwater Band

      Route 66 Roadhouse
      Noon-1:30 p.m., "A British Perspective" featuring Mike Rowe, Bill
      Greensmith, Bob Hall, hosted by Jim O'Neal
      2-3:30 p.m., "Blues in the Schools" session

      Petrillo Music Shell
      Honoring the 40th anniversary of the "British Blues Invasion"
      6-6:50 p.m., David "Honeyboy" Edwards: 90th Birthday Celebration
      7-8:10 p.m., Kim Simmonds' Savoy Brown's 40th Year Celebration with special
      guest Bob Hall
      8:20-9:30 p.m., John Mayall and the Blues Breakers with special guest Mick


      Juke Joint Stage
      Noon-12:30 p.m., Piano Willie
      1-1:30 p.m., Eddie Taylor Jr.
      2-3 p.m., Detroit Jr.
      3:30-4 p.m., Hubert Sumlin and Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin
      4:30-5:30 p.m., Roy Meriwether

      U.S. Cellular Front Porch
      1-2 p.m., Sunnyland Slim Memorial Piano Set featuring Barrelhouse Chuck and
      Henry Gray
      2:30-4:30 p.m., Eddie Taylor Remembrance, with Little Arthur, Johnnie Mae
      Dunson, Eddie Taylor Jr., Larry Taylor, Brenda Taylor, Edna Taylor,
      Demetria Taylor and the New Legends of the Blues All-Stars
      5-6 p.m., Kim Simmonds & Bob Hall

      Gibson Guitars Crossroads
      1:30-3 p.m., Robert Jr. Lockwood
      3:30-5 p.m., Eddie Kirkland with Eddie Burns

      Best Buy Showcase
      2-2:45 p.m., Pat Smillie Band
      3:15-4 p.m., Scott Bradbury
      4:30-5:15 p.m., Latvian Blues Band with special guests
      5:45-6:30 p.m., Liz Mandville Greeson
      7-8 p.m., The Perpetrators

      Route 66 Roadhouse
      Noon-1:30 p.m., Wolf's Family Birthday Party
      2:30- 4 p.m., "Centennial Celebrations" with Henry Gray, Bob Hall, Roy
      Meriwether, Pete Crawford, and Jim O'Neal

      Petrillo Music Shell
      6-7:10 p.m., Jody Williams with the Willie Henderson Horns
      7:20-8:30 p.m., Hubert Sumlin, Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin, Pinetop
      Perkins, Willie " Big Eyes" Smith and Mookie Brill

      8:40-9:30 p.m., Koko Taylor and Her Blues Machine


      Juke Joint Stage
      Noon-1 p.m., Don Washington
      1:30-2:30 p.m., Waymon Meeks
      3-4 p.m., Jon McDonald with Eddie C. Campbell
      4:30-5:30 p.m., Bob Seeley

      U.S. Cellular Front Porch
      1-2:30 p.m., Aron Burton's salute to Jimmy Walker with Homesick James,
      Steve Freund, Tino Cortez, Jake Crosby, Glenn Davis and Aaron Moore
      3-4:30 p.m., Carey Bell with Lurrie Bell's Blues Band
      5-7 p.m., Chicago Blues Harmonica Project, 2005: Dusty Brown, Larry Cox,
      Russ Green, Little Addison and Omar Coleman with Chicago Bluesmasters

      Gibson Guitars Crossroads
      1:30-3 p.m., Linsey Alexander with Joanne Graham
      3:30-5 p.m., Latimore

      Best Buy Showcase
      1-1:45 p.m., Diamond Jim Greene
      2:30-3:15 p.m., Michael Powers
      3:45-4:45 p.m., Howard and the Whiteboys
      5:15-6:15 p.m., Noah Wotherspoon Band
      7-8 p.m., TBA

      Route 66 Roadhouse
      11 a.m.-1:30 p.m., Soul Cooking with Marie Dixon, Koko Taylor and Katherine

      2:30-3:30 p.m., "Cultural Tourism: the Authenticity of the Blues"

      Petrillo Music Shell
      5-6:15 p.m., Erwin Helfer and His Boogie Woogie Ensemble
      6:25-7:50 p.m., Billy Branch and the Sons of the Blues with special guests
      Pete Crawford, Lurrie Bell and Steve Freund
      8-9:30 p.m., Buddy Guy


      Juke Joint Stage
      Noon-1 p.m., Frank "Little Sonny" Scott Jr. and Dancin' Perkins
      1:30-2:30 p.m., TBA
      3-3:30 p.m., Lucky Peterson
      4-5 p.m., Carlos Johnson

      U.S. Cellular Front Porch
      1-2 p.m., Victory Travelers
      2:30-3:30 p.m., Geraldine and Donald Gay
      4-5:30 p.m., Calvin Cooke
      6-7 p.m., George Stancell

      Gibson Guitars Crossroads
      1:30-3 p.m., Sharrie Williams and the Wise Guys
      3:30-5 p.m., Fernest Arceneaux and the Thunders

      Route 66 Roadhouse
      Noon-1:30 p.m., "Songwriters" with George Jackson, Bruce Bromberg, Bob
      Jones, hosted by Larry Hoffman
      2:30-3:30 p.m., an hour with Al Bell

      Best Buy Showcase
      1-1:45 p.m., Steve Arvey and Kraig Kenning
      2:30-3:15 p.m., Big G and the Real Deal
      3:45-4:30 p.m., Kenny "Blues Boss" Wayne
      5-5:45 p.m., Matt Besey
      6:15-7:15 p.m., Molly Nova & the Hawk

      Petrillo Music Shell
      5-6:30 p.m., Howard Scott and his Southside Review featuring Miss Jessi and
      Stan Mosely
      6:40-8:10 p.m., Lucky Peterson Band
      8:20-9:30 p.m., Mavis Staples


      When: 6 p.m. Thursday, Chicago Blues Festival, Petrillo Music Shell, Grant
      When: 10 p.m. Saturday, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo
      Tickets: Free (CBF); $20 in advance, or $25 at the door (HH)
      Phone: (312) 362-9707 (HH)
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