The Early Years of the OBBS

The Orange Blossom Blues Society is getting close to celebrating its twelfth anniversary! My, how the time has flown…  I’m going to take a few minutes and look back over the first two years for our growing enterprise. Join me for this little walk down memory lane if you will…
 
When Jeff Willey put together a new jam at Cafe Annie downtown, many blues fans and musicians who had previously only known one another from jams way back in the day or from on-line forums got to meet and play together and talk about how Central Florida ought to have an organized Blues Society.  “Big Willey” got that event started in August of 2004 and it wasn’t long before the event became ground zero for an effort to launch a real Blues Society. Some of the original conspirators included “MuDDfish Mike”, Edwards, Tim Williams, Jae Futch, Jeff and his sidekick on the Smokin’ Torps, Clay Cole, “Burnin’ Vernon” Miller, Rob Mola, and yours truly, “Bulldog Ben” Basile.
 
By the 3rd of November, Mike Edwards wrote to a contact at the Blues Foundation to inquire as to exactly what a new Blues Society had to do to affiliate. On November 10th, Tim, Burnin’ Vernon, Rob Mola, Jeff and Mr. Bulldog met before the jam, decided to actually “go for it” and passed the hat to try and raise enough cash to actually file. Mike Edwards and Jae were very much involved in these deliberations but both of them were out of town on that fateful evening.  It wasn’t long before Jae and her expert and volunteer legal consultants helped us get the papers submitted and approved; The Orange Blossom Blues Society was born on the most-auspicious day of November 16, 2004! The date was chosen deliberately, as it is the birthday of W.C. Handy, “The Father of the Blues!” Not a bad choice, if I do say so!
 
As many Central Florida blues lovers know, Jeff Willey is not only a fine musician, but an able promoter; Jeff had been hard at work for some time putting together the First Orlando Blues Festival. It worked out well that the chosen date of November 20th came around just as Jeff and the rest of the co-conspirators were able to get the OBBS up and running. The Fest was a huge success in so many ways; though a couple of hundred more attendees would have been nice, Wall Street Plaza probably couldn’t have held anymore! The crowd loved it, and some of the best talent Central Florida had to offer got to shine on-stage. The line-up for that top-shelf local event featured:
 
The Revival Band ~ “Burnin’ Vernon and Wild Blue Yonder
The Midnight Ramblers ~ Red Eye Express ~ funkUS
The Shaun Rounds Blues Band ~ Smokin’ Torps ~ Soul Cactus
The Houseshakers Reunion
 
Our fledgling Society made many new friends that weekend. And many members got started in that volunteer habit, staffing our information table and preachin’ the blues gospel to all who came anywhere near! Mark and Tommy McCoy made it to the Fest and many OBBS-folk who have become fixtures on the local blues scene were all over that show. Jann Childers was on the table for the whole day. Others, including Jerry Waller, Jim Mahoney, web designer Amado Ohland and Jim Manuel were volunteering and helping to launch committees around the time of our official birth and in those first few months of 2005.
 
The very first Election of Officers happened on December 6, 2004. Tim Williams was elected President; Mike Edwards became the General V.P.,  Jeff Willey the V.P. for Public Relations and Jae Futch got the nod as Secretary/Treasurer. Our Officers, Directors, members, friends and volunteers put in untold hours trying to “Preserve, Promote and Present” Blues Music. The first two years had many highlights and successes; it also had some tough times.
 
One highlight for many local blues-freaks would have to be Mark Hummel’s first Central Florida appearance; that show was at the now-defunct Smokee Tavern on March 3, 2005. Mark has played here just about every year since, but that first show was memorable indeed! The jams at S.T. and also at Oyster Bay in Casselberry had long and succesful runs. Those jams and the clubs which hosted them are long-gone, but those were some good times. It was at the Smokee where players like Paul Stott and JoAnna Hudson and a young Selwyn Birchwood first came into the OBBS fold; today there aren’t a whole lot of blues-folk who don’t know these fabulous artists. And there were so many others….
 
Another highlight would be the launch of the official newsletter of the Society, The Orange Blossom Special Edition. She debuted in June of 2005. The OBSE has only had two editors, yours truly and Zaida Zoller, who had the task of getting our journal into print and getting it out to the friends and members for over four years. Susan Bowman, a first-rate graphic artist AND killer bassist, handled the layout for the OBSE for many years as well.
 
Who can forget all the good times at The Alley in Sanford for the last eleven plus years? They’re still helping to keep the blues flame burnin’ bright. That fine venue opened its doors in 2005 as the OBBS was just starting to hit its stride. Blues 4 Hire, featuring Selwyn Birchwood and Jody Hudson played there, as did Stoney and the Houserockers, our own Mike Edward’s smokin’ hot band King MuDDfish and just about any other top-shelf blues band you can name.
 The fund-raiser at Virgin Records Mega Store at Downtown Disney was a very cool and very badly-needed event. Jann Childers helped to get many of our bands booked there. Soul Cactus, and Omado Ohland’s jazz-blues fusion band were among them. If I may be allowed a personal note, it was very nice to play that event with Jann. The crowd was very responsive and a fair chunk of change was garnered for the relief of those knocked flat by Katrina and Rita.
 
The Blues at the Rock series at the Hard Rock LIVE at Universal was a good undertaking. Though it had a relatively short run, it did provide five killer evenings of top-shelf blues. Catfish Charlie, the Jann Childers Blues Project, Big Rick, Blues Crew, Teague Stefan, King MuDDfish and funkUS were just some of the fine local bands that had a chance to tear the roof off the joint at the Hard Rock while we had that going on.
 
Our second Annual Business Meeting was held at the Elk’s Club on Primrose; that was the first-ever OBBS event for future-Present and newsletter Editor Zaida Zoller. The officers elected in that conclave on November 13, 2005 were: Tim Williams, who began his second term as President; Mike Edwards continued as V.P.; and Jae Futch stayed in the ever-important Secretary/Treasurer slot.
 
By now Jeff Willey was off the Board of Directors but he was still promoting some killer events. His second and final Orlando Blues Fest was held on November 19, 2005 and had one hell of a line-up: how about the Smokin’ TorpsSarasota Slim, Beautiful Bobby Blackmon and the B-3 Band, Lucky Peterson — with his Dad, James, no less — and Little Charlie and the Nightcats batting clean-up! I sure hope you didn’t miss that. The rain did little to dampen our spirits that fine Saturday. The OBBS signed up three new members and made a TON of friends; there are active members still on the roll who first learned of our existence from this event. Something I’ll always remember from that weekend: hanging out with Little Charlie and taking his band back to OIA the next morning in my taxi. And, no, I didn’t charge ’em a dime!
 
2006 was only our second full year of existence. It had some highlights too — and one unspeakable tragedy: the murder of OBBS Founding Member Tracy Bennawit. Tracy’s life was cruelly taken on the 24th of June of that year. As many of you remember, Tracy helped to design a tee shirt for us earlier in 2006 but we had not produced any of them, opting instead for a simpler one. We decided to run her design for our Members’ meeting which was held at Oyster Bay on August 19th. The sale of the shirts with her design raised a modest amount of money to benefit Tracy’s then-fourteen year-old son. I don’t think anyone who was there that summer day will ever forget that.
 
On the musical side, the last three installments of the “Blues at the Rock” series made 2006, a more-than-fine year for us. The first-ever local appearance of harp-god Jason Ricci came in November. McWells hosted that show.  (McWells has since been sold; the Freindly Confines at S. Orange and Gatlin now occupies that space.) Many, many gonzo blues shows were held at McWells over the years, most notably with super-promoter and Past-Pres Zaida Zoller. The George Linson Stage at McWells stayed pretty damn busy for quite a while. The IBC competition from this year just happened at Friendly Confines; that brought back some memories. The place still looks very much like it did “back in the day” as the biggest change after the sale was the addition of a thousand flat screen TV’s.
Some other artists who played at McWells in our early years include Bird Dog Bobby, Mark Hummel and Brevard County’s Austin Pettit Band with Debby Boyer. Gary Ingber also graced the stage at McWells; Gary didn’t make a whole lot of appearances in Greater Orlando after that show. There is now a relief fund for Central Florida musicians that was started in Gary’s name. More about that in a future post.
 The year 2006 was also notable for another reason; it was the year the society got approval to operate as a non-profit, tax-exempt entity. Tim, Jae, Mike Edwards and Zaida worked tirelessly to get us to that milestone.
 Next in this series of the history of the OBBS, we’ll cover many other, more recent events, including the Ladies of the Blues series to benefit the Gary Ingber fund, our Blues in the Schools program and much, much more. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this feature. If it helped you recall some good times and good friends from our first couple of years, that would not be a bad thing. Labor Day is right around the corner, with those crisp days (and nights) of autumn not far behind. As we draw closer to our twelfth birthday, I hope you will resolve to “jump in with both feet” and participate in your blues society. The mission of the OBBS is “to Preserve, Promote and Present” the blues. There’s a role for you to play in carrying out that mission.
 “Bulldog Ben” Basile
©2011, 2016 Benjamin Lawrence Basile
Photo credit Benjamin Lawrence Basile

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