Wednesday, 29 May 2024

CyberSoulMan: Blues travel log

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Sugar Pie DeSanto, one of blues' all-time greats. Courtesy photo.





I’m sitting next to the legendary Sugar Pie DeSanto on a (gulp) US Air flight still on the tarmac at the Oakland Airport.


Obscured in the pages of blues history is the fact that she was the only female artist on the 1964 American Folk Blues tour that featured Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Willie Dixon, among others.


She was one of many artists on the Chess Records roster during its heyday. Her duets with Etta James were certifiable, charting hits. Prior to that, Sugar Pie was the opening act for Soul Brother No. 1, The Godfather of Funk, Mr. James Brown.


Sugar Pie kept James on his toes in more ways than one. She set the performance bar very high for James and anyone else who has drawn top billing behind her since. It can safely be said then and now; you have to be great or foolish to dare to perform after her.


In the summer of 2007, I was able to witness the “kidding on the square” banter between Sugar Pie and rhythm and blues veterans, Ruby Andrews and Cicero Blake. They were debating who was going to open, follow and close their performance at the Chicago Blues Festival. Neither Andrews nor Blake dared to follow the Sugar!


It is just past nine in the morning and we have a long flight day ahead of us. Sugar is booked to close the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival on Friday, July 3, at 9:30 p.m., approximately 36 hours away. Our itinerary calls for us to change plans twice, in Phoenix and Chicago. We are scheduled to layover a total of three plus hours and our travel time to our final destination of Moline, Ill., is close to 10 hours.


The flight leaves the terminal on time and we settle into our seats. As we taxi down the runway at a speed that seems to me to be close to 100 miles per hour, we are suddenly thrown forward with a collective gasp as the pilot slams on the brakes.


“Ladies and gentleman, we have a computer malfunction and will be returning to the terminal to get it repaired before takeoff …”


They couldn’t repair it. Three hours later, we are hustled onto a shuttle to San Francisco. It’s 12:10 p.m. and we are trying to connect with a flight that leaves San Francisco at 1:30 p.m. I express my concern to the driver who seems noncommittal about getting us there on time.


“Oh, I don’t know whether we’ll make it or not. I can’t be speeding. I got two tickets last month and I have to observe the 65 mile per hour speed limit.”


This is not good. If we don’t make the San Francisco connection, the gig is on the line. There are no more connections to Moline that will make it in time.


My distress is soon put to the test as the driver proceeds to do 85 and 90 miles per hour all the way to San Francisco Airport. Shockingly, we arrive in just enough time to go check in, go through security and board. Yes, I did tip the very slick driver!


We have been advised that we will be staying in Chicago overnight after transferring in Las Vegas.


When we get to Las Vegas, Sugar Pie gleefully entertains herself with a couple of rounds with the one-armed jack machines stationed around the Las Vegas airport. She convinces me to drop a dollar in the penny machine. With our carryon luggage under her watch, I slip off to grab an overpriced bite.


We make it out of Las Vegas and land safely in Chicago. Bleary-eyed, we check in to the Hilton about midnight. With a 20-hour day (at least for me) concluded, we check into our rooms to grab four hours sleep for me, five for the Sugar (I have a morning routine that takes me about an hour).


The alarm hits at 4 a.m. I do my thing. I’m supposed to call Sugar Pie at 5 a.m. for her wakeup. My phone rings at 4:55 a.m. It’s the Sugar.


“What time we leavin’? Can we get some coffee?”


“I’ll be there for you at 5:45,” I reply.


We check out of the Hilton in reasonably good shape and head for the airport by foot. It’s only about a five-minute walk. We have to recheck our luggage, get boarding passes and go through security again for the puddle jump to Moline.


We grab coffee and breakfast sandwiches and are headed to sit down at our boarding gate, when we are confronted by a situational orange alert.


“Excuz meh plez. Can you help meh?”


A man with an accent out of somewhere in Africa is panhandling us with a story about having only Chinese money (he shows us a fistful of strange currency) that they won’t take. He claims massive hunger.


Partly because I empathize with his plight, partly because our food is getting cold, I give him a dollar. Three or so minutes later, it occurred to me that all he really had to do was go to the currency exchange. Did I get taken? Maybe. Was it worth the price of admission? I think so.


We finally land in Moline just before 9 am. on July 3. Our Hotel is in Bettendorf, Iowa. The hotel van swoops us up and we are checked in before 10 a.m.


We have time for a quick nap in our respective rooms. The Sugar has a radio interview scheduled for noon. Rehearsal with the band is at 2:30 p.m. The gig is at 9:30 p.m. At 9:15 the mayor of Davenport is presenting her with the key to the city as the Mississippi Valley Blues Society awards her with a Lifetime Achievement Plaque.


End of part I; to be continued next week.


Keep prayin’, keep thinkin’ those kind thoughts.


Upcoming cool events:


Sax-O-Rama, Sunday Brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. July 12, Blue Wing Saloon & Café, 9520 Main St., Upper Lake; telephone 707-275-2233.


Tutu Jones, Andrews Jr. Boy Jones, Sherman Robertson, Caravan of Allstars, Russell City Memorial Blues Band, Alvin Draper, Mike Osborne’s tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Consonance, Blues Boy Willie, Preacher Luke Scott , Hayward/Russell City Blues Festival, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday, July 12. 777 “B” St. at City Hall Plaza in Hayward. Telephone 510-836-2227.


Side of Blues, Blue Monday, 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. July 13, Blue Wing Saloon & Café, 9520 Main St., Upper Lake.


Open Mike Night, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, July 16, Blue Wing Saloon & Café, 9520 Main St., Upper Lake.


The Lost Boys, 6:30 p.m. Friday, July 17, Library Park, 200 Park St., Lakeport.


Greg Allman in Concert, 8 p.m. Saturday, July 18. Cache Creek Casino, 14455 Hwy 16, Brooks. Telephone 888-77-CACHE, online at www.cachecreek.com .


Smokey Robinson in Concert, 7:15 p.m. Saturday, July 31. Konocti Harbor Resort & Spa, 8727 Soda Bay Road, Kelseyville. Telephone 800-660-LAKE, online at www.konoctiharbor.com .


The Four Tops in Concert, 9 p.m. Saturday, July 31. Cache Creek Casino Resort, 14455 Hwy 16, Brooks. Telephone 888-77 CACHE, online at www.cachecreek.com .


T. Watts is a writer, radio host and music critic. Visit his Web site at www.teewatts.biz .

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