The Early Years of the Orange Blossom Blues Society

The Early Years of the Orange Blossom Blues Society

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

Jeff Willey and Those Smokin’ Torps Are Killin’ It in Central Florida

Jeff Willey and Those Smokin’ Torps Are Killin’ It in Central Florida

Jeff and his top-flight band The Smokin’ Torpedoes are well-known to lovers of live music here in Central Florida. Jeff is very good at his craft. By that, I don’t mean only the musical side; he’s a very capable promoter and has shown over and over that he’s got the mojo to plan it, promote it, sing it and play it and I love to watch him do it. All of it.

I first met Jeff back in 2004 when ten or so blues-focused musicians and supporters met to talk about the blues music we love so well and explore ways to help the blues thrive in Central Florida. Those early days at Cafe Annie were so much fun. Here’s a minor miracle for you: the memories of some of those jams way back when are still very vivid in my fast-failing, whiskey-soaked brain today.

The upshot of all of that was the founding of the Orange Blossom Blues Society. The OBBS is still trying to carry on its mission to “Preserve, Promote and Present” the blues in our part of the Sunshine State. Being a part of that was an awesome thing. And still is.

One of the things that made that time so good and satisfying as I look back is that it’s how I met some of the local blues musicians and supporters who have become my good friends over the last twelve years. I will be posting soon with more about the effort to get the blues crowd in and around Orlando to link up and pull in the same direction. There were so many people who put their “time and treasure” into that effort. And the OBBS is still going strong twelve years later.

One other thing about our merry band of blusers here in Central Florida: The showcase event for the OBBS is the local or first round of the International Blues Competition and that is happening tomorrow, Sunday August 7th, beginning at 2 PM. Details here.

I had to mention the early days of the OBBS as that’s how my path crossed with Jeff’s originally. My main reason for putting together this more modest post is simply to spotlight Mr. Willey and those Smokin’ Torps who have played a large role in moving the Central Florida blues scene forward. The line up has changed, has changed more than once. Some of those Smokin’ Torps have come and gone. And come again. But their brand of authentic, classic, semi-laid back blues has been consistently good and has made them one of the best damn bands anywhere in Florida.

The Torps are an ambitious, hard-workin’ band. I follow their bookings and catch them playing out every chance I get. If you’d like to have a look at their calendar, just follow this link.

If you’re familiar with Jeff Willey and those Smokin’ Torps he fronts, you don’t need Ol’ Bulldog here to tell you how good they are. If you’re not familiar with them, you should be! Have a look at the calendar and catch one of their shows soon; you’ll be mighty glad you did.

 

“Bulldog Ben” Basile

 

Photo credit Benjamin Lawrence Basile

 

 

Harp god James Cotton turns 81 today!

Harp god James Cotton turns 81 today!

July 1, 2016

Blues harmonica legend James Cotton turns 81 today. James is the real deal, having grown up in Mississippi under the tutelage of Sonny Boy Williamson. James ran away from home at the age of seven and was deeply immersed in the blues from that time on. No one else has that kind of amazing blues pedigree; it’s a seriously over-worked phrase, but Mr. Cotton truly is one-of-a-kind.

I had the privilege to meet James after a show at the now-defunct Disney Institute back in 1996. (The D.I. has since been transformed into a massive Time Share Resort.) The back stage meet and greet had been arranged for me by my friend David McElroy who was the Director of the Theater project there. I’ll always be grateful for David’s consideration; the conversation I had with this living legend of the blues is one of the best moments of my musical career. A wonderful time in many ways.

James had been an able vocalist for his whole career and so we were taken aback when he struggled mightily to sing; it was shortly after that performance that he had to permanently stop singing because of serious problems with his vocal cords.

I just had to post tonight and wish Mr. Superharp a very happy 81st birthday. James was known for playing, recording and touring like a madman since 1953 but has now downshifted just a bit. I wish him good health and continued success on his day today.

 

The Death of Singer Christina Grimmie

Rising star Christina Grimmie made a name for herself after her run on NBC’s The Voice back in 2014, though she was not a new performer at that time by any means. Her murder at The Plaza Live was shocking and although she was not an artist that I follow, it was chilling to read the news the next morning, as I have been in that Orlando landmark many times; it was one of the venues where many of us in the blues community have played or shown up to support one another or have gone to see nationally-known acts. It was inconceivable that an artist would be shot dead there by an obsessed fan, but that’s exactly what happened.

Because there are thousands upon thousands of places on the net that tell every detail of that sad story, I’ll not rehash the killing. But this piece in Rolling Stone treats the story with a wide-angle lens, talking about that zone where social media, super-stardom,  and obsession meet and what that means for artists and fans.

This is not to down-play in any way the shock and mind-numbing grief that must have ripped through the hearts of her family, friends and fans. But an even crazier and more shocking event was about to play out in Orlando. Our community, the Nation and even the world have been fixated on the this bizarre and heart-breaking story: the massacre of 49 people at Pulse, a nightclub on Orlando’s south side.

Love My Blues with a Little o’ This Mixed In

Love My Blues with a Little o’ This Mixed In

I love to talk about the blues and some of the other genres we often associate with it. I have a fascination with those “cross-over zones” where the blues “come together” with other great genres of American music.

Although I get that music transcends our labels, it’s also true that artists, critics and fans need to throw around some terms to help us make sense of it all.

For some reason this idea of “cross-over zones” has become a BIG deal for me. I think of the “blues-country zone”  and artists like the great Jimmy Rogers, Lee Roy Parnell, his harp-playin’ bro Rob Roy Parnell and others.

In that very cool “blues-jazz” fusion zone, you’ve got people like Joe Williams (not “BIG Joe”, the other guy) Count Basie, and modern ones like Jimmy Witherspoon and Robben Ford. And I must not leave out Billie Holiday or the late Eva Cassidy.

Speaking of modern artists, John Mayer is amazingly adept at fusing, Rock, Pop, Jazz and Blues; I’m not sure if anyone is as good at that as he is.

Mississippi blues man “Little Milton” Campbell was often described as a “soul-blues” fusionist and I’d put Bobby Rush and Bobby “Blue” Bland in that category as well. Seeing Bobby Bland live here in Barnett Park in Orlando was quite a thrill for me. That was back in ’97 if my memory is working.

Then there’s that whole “blues-rock” thing; that zone really sets me off! There are so many greats who have “hung out” in this awesome zone! I’ll name only a few here: Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray, Walter Trout, Joe Bonamassa, Jimmy Thackery, and of course, Jimi Hendrix! What a line-up that is! Stevie Ray also loved jazz, of course and was a BIG fan of jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell.

Having said all that, I probably hang out more in the “blues-folk” zone than any other one! I play acoustic a lot, partly because it’s so easy to do, what with the minimum of gear that’s needed, etc., and partially because here in Central Florida, the “Friends of Florida Folk” are so active and sponsor so many great shows, fests and activities.

Josh White might just be the “best of the bunch” when it comes to artists who had one foot in the folk world and the other one in the blues. Josh Sr., I mean.

His “set list” and mine would have a rather large overlap; he did a lot of spirituals and gospel as well! As many of my friends know, I got my start singing in our family gospel quartet at the age of six and sang in church choirs and youth chorales all the way up until college. (And that’s where the I got bit by the “blues bug”; more about that in a minute.)

Josh White was well-known as a New York folk-blues singer and guitarist who helped “get the blues over” with a fan base that was already “tuned-in” to folk music. Because his work featured liberal helpings of gospel, he was sometimes billed as “Joshua White, the Singing Christian”.

Josh died in New York in 1969 and his son, Josh White Jr., has followed in his father’s footsteps, performing originals and much of his father’s material as well.

In 1973 as was a 17 year old music-lovin’ frosh at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa when Josh Jr. came to campus to play as one of our Student Activity Concerts. My room mate had just begun to introduce me to Muddy Waters, harmonica wizard Little Walter and some of those cats; thanks again, Dr. Carver! I was already into Johnny Winter and had been introduced to the music of Willie Dixon in the same way as so many other white suburban kids, via Led Zep records. So you might say that I was really ready for a life-changing experience, and that’s the best way to describe what happened to me that night in the Dining Commons there in my freshman year! I’ve been a confirmed blues freak ever since and began performing the blues in the mid ’90s.

I do feel as though I owe a real debt of gratitude to Josh White Jr. for the show that night. No doubt I’m only one of many white middle-class kids who may never have “discovered” this most incredible genre of American music if Josh had not been booked to play at our schools. Josh spent years in the ’70s and ’80s playing hundreds of college campuses, a fact of which he is quite justifiably proud. And I and many others today love and support and play the blues because Josh booked so many of those college dates. Thank you, sir!

Josh’s home page has a fine bio, of course, and one on his Dad as well. His site is here.

To have a look at the site for the “Friends of Florida Folk”, the outstanding non-profit org here in the Sunshine State working tirelessly to promote and preserve folk music, click here.

At the end of the day, all authentic genres of music are merely branches off the same tree. These days, we often lump all of it together under the term Americana. I like the term. But until terms and labels which have been in use for a couple of centuries lose all meaning, it’s good-and useful-to break it down, take a closer look and remember why we love the music so well.