Thursday, January 19, 2012

Robert Belfour - The Lone Wolf

But at the time I couldn’t find a handy retort, a concrete example of such an accomplished player, who, for some rea-son, slipped through the cracks; that is, until I found Robert “Wolfman” Belfour, not long ago. Now, it’s a fact that he has had some notoriety of late, having recorded a couple of fine albums for Fat Possum. But this reclusive and reluctant Delta blues guitarist probably would have never been discovered had he not, at his wife’s urging, gone to downtown Memphis and played gratis in Handy Park. Otherwise, he’d still be home on his front porch picking his blues in total obscurity. And there must be others out there just like him who never had the temerity to make a public appearance. Thankfully, someone, before it was too late, found this diamond in the rough.The always impeccably attired Robert Belfour, although he plays in a totally different genre - Delta blues - often with a slide, reminds me quite a bit about our recently dearly departed national treasure of bluesman, the Piedmont blues singer/guitarist, John Jackson. Preferring to just play rather than put on a show, both artists are/were pictures of intense concentration, with eyes closed, deeply focused and immersed in the songs. Serious and business-like, they go about the job at hand, caring much less if they display a dynamic stage presence--their style--than conveying the substance of the music itself. And both, espousing an open tuning technique, prefer to play solo, since the two, although unable to read music, could provide all the essentials. “You know I play by single notes and right along with them the rhythm and bass myself. Then, I change when I want to, making it hard for anyone to follow me,” said Robert. A good example of his adherence to this individualistic approach was recently when he appeared with fellow Delta bluesman (with whom he sometimes travels in tandem as part of a Fat Possum promotional tour), James “T-Model” Ford, at Baltimore’s Ottobar, a spacious uptown room normally catering to “alternative bands.” During his set, Robert could certainly have availed himself of “Spam,” Ford’s longtime, highly demonstrative percussionist, who probably wouldn’t have minded, but, instead chose to go on, as usual, unaccompanied. And that is why, along with his inclination for solitary travel, I suggested the moniker “Lone Wolf” rather than “Wolfman.” But more about his colorful nickname later.
Robert Belfour’s story begins with his birth on September 11, 1940 in Holly Springs, MS, and it is a tale not unlike a lot of those classic blues biographies that commenced in Mississippi during the tail end of the Great Depression. Of humble origins, the Belfour family lived in a wooden “plank” house without the modern conveniences that we take for granted - electricity (which necessitated oil lamps and wood-burning stoves) and running water. “I guess we were a little better off than other folk because my father wasn’t a sharecropper. He actually rented a parcel of land from the Hurdle cotton plantation a few miles away,” said Robert. From most accounts, his father was quite a musician and spent a lot of time honing his prodigious skills on wooden guitar which had a metal cone-type device, a resonator, for amplifying the sound. “It was old timey blues he was playing, like way back when Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton were around,” he said. But, nonetheless, the young lad was hooked and hounded his father for the opportunity to try it on his own. Finally, he relented when his son was but seven years old. “When I first tried to play the regular way, it was too large to handle; so I had to put it on my lap and strum it like that,” added Robert.
In 1953, his dad and mother separated and he moved with the latter and two brothers to Red Banks, in the “hill country” a few miles from Highway 78. Because even the new home was not wired, his mother bought a battery-powered radio to entertain the household and it soon became a source of inspiration to the young Robert, just on the verge of adolescence. “Yeah, it opened a new world to me. By that time, blues was on the air from Memphis and we got WDIA with disk jockeys like Rufus Thomas and Nat D. Williams. B.B. King also had a show sponsored by Hadacol and there was gospel music on Sundays,” said Robert.

WDIA at 1070 AM, which billed itself as “America’s first black radio station” actually began as a weakly transmitted C&W venture (730 AM) in 1947. But when its white ownership, including principals John Pepper and Bert Ferguson, after a trial run, discovered that it could tap into a huge Afro-American market, the station soon applied to the FCC to increase its power to the maximum allowed 50,000 watts. For optimal effect, its antenna was beamed directly south to the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf Coast. In fact, so strong was its signal, that WDIA claimed to have reached as much as 10% of the black population of the entire nation.

At about the time that Robert Belfour began listening to clear channel WDIA (1954), some of the original disk jockeys there had already achieved a legendary status (and following), such as the aforementioned Nat D. Williams, the emcee of “Tan Town Jubilee,” and Rufus Thomas, who presided over both the 15-minute “Sepia Swing Club” and the two-hour, late night show, “Hoot ‘N’ Holler.” This was the same Rufus Thomas who went on to record with Sun records - “Bearcat” - and later Stax -“Walking the Dog.” Although B.B. King shamelessly plugged the folk remedy Hadacol during his daily, 15-minute segment, the station’s bread and butter commodity was actually another similar cure-all of dubious repute - Pepticol. A good portion of Sunday was devoted to spiritual music and was invariably the domain of former blues singer, the now-Reverend Dwight “Gatemouth” Moore. Oddly enough, in the early days of this trailblazing initiative, there was a Baltimore connection, a DJ, the irrepressible motor mouth, Maurice “Hot Rod” Hulbert, who later in the mid-50s moved over to Charm City’s WEBB (1360 AM) and who was forever immortalized by Savoy records honker and ubiquitous session man, Hal Singer, with his eponymous instrumental in 1955.

Suffice it to say that the newly emerging, electrified crop of second generation blues figures regularly broadcast over WDIA, including Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnett) and Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield), had a profound effect on the young Robert Belfour and he became thoroughly familiar with their repertoire. Although now he was without a guitar, one song in particular, “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” impelled him to take matters into his own hands, much to the chagrin of his mother. “I began pulling the metal wire off the bails of hay and nailing them up on the sides of the house, plucking them like an instrument,” he said.

However, he did not have continue very much longer in this makeshift manner, as his father passed away shortly thereafter, leaving his trusty guitar to his son. “I worked hard as a farmer. But it seemed that with every spare moment I was trying to teach myself something. I learned how to find and make the chords and how to tune it. And once I was able to do it right, I never forgot it. Even today, when I take a break from it for a while, I can just pick it up without skipping a beat. But back then, I just couldn’t let it alone,” Robert asserted.

In 1960, tough times again struck the Delta and this new recession almost rivaled that of the Great Depression. His brother found his now newly married sibling employment as a laborer for the Choctaw Construction Company (for which he would toil off and on for 35 years) based in Memphis, a job which entailed a brutal daily commute of one hundred miles, round trip. “In those days, you had to do what you had to do to survive,” he said.

But eventually the grind exacted its toll, prompting Robert Belfour and his bride, Norene, to move to Memphis in 1968. Ironically, just after settling there, he was laid off and had to accept a succession of odd jobs, including security guard and truck driver of materials to building sites. Against Robert’s wishes, his chronically ill wife in the late 70s began working as a cook at Ronnie Grisanti & Sons restaurant at Marshall Avenue and Union, the same street where nearby was situated the famed Sun Studio of the recently late Sam C. Phillips. When Grisanti’s later relocated to historic Beale St., she also tagged along. It was there that she noticed that a number of bluesmen, like harp player Blind Mississippi Morris and the mysterious guitarist Uncle Ben and others, some of decidedly lesser skills than her husband, were plying their trade as street singers. Returning home many an evening, she prodded her husband to do the same, but for a long period, the shy and retiring guitarist gently rebuffed her entreaties. It wasn’t until 1981 that Robert Belfour mustered enough courage to demonstrate his remarkable guitar work to the public, first at Handy Park. There, after hearing his plaintive howls, an admiring German tour guide christened him “Wolfman,” a name which, the more he thought about it, seemed to suit him. And subsequently, he attracted the attention of Joe Savage, who was instrumental in introducing him to the Handy Museum on 4th St, where he became fixture playing concerts.

Moreover, he became (and still is) an institution on Beale St., itself, performing at the Rum Boogie, the Hard Rock Café, and B.B. King’s Club. “I remember entertaining indoors at the Blues City Café [138 Beale St.] one cold December day and hearing the news about the death of Albert King [December 21, 1992], who had played there just one week before me. It was such a shock to realize that he was gone,” said Robert. Not only Beale St. beckoned but other gigs about town. “A fan of mine in a rock band introduced me to Murphy’s uptown [Murphy’s Public House at 1589 Madison Avenue] and I wound up being there on Fridays and Saturdays for about ten years [late 80s-90s],” said Robert.

Needless to say, such an extraordinary talent as Robert Belfour could not long escape the discerning ears of local record producers, including that of Dr. Dave Evans of Memphis State University, who took an early interest in this new kid on the block of Beale St. Longtime musicologist Evans had lovingly recorded (even singles) many of the obscure musicians of the Delta region on his High Water label in the 70s and 80s, a project supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. Some of these indigenous artists who probably would never have been approached by a major label, included harmonica player, Hammie Nixon, The Hollywood All Stars, Little Applewhite, guitarists Jessie Mae Hemphill and Rainie Burnett, saxophonist Raymond & Lillie Hill, the Fieldstones, and guitarist Junior Kimbrough, the latter who “woodshedded” with Robert Belfour on many occasion, before the latter’s “coming out.”

Dave Evans, assuming the role of benefactor and mentor, first introduced Robert Belfour to the listening audience of Memphis during his regular 7-9 p.m. time slot over WEVL FM, a station still noted for its blues programming. And later he served as an intermediary, securing for Robert a junket abroad to Germany in the early 90s under the auspices of heralded Teutonic booking agent, Ewe Gleisch, who accompanied the then-novice voyager to all his gigs. It would be the first of many trips to Europe, which have included Switzerland, France (Paris), and Scandinavia - Norway (2002). “I’ve gotten kind of independent over the years and even drive myself to the airport and leave my van on the lot if I’m not gone too long a time,” said Robert, who lost his beloved wife a couple of years ago.

The dawn of the 90s also began a flurry of recording. In Memphis, Dave Evans, perhaps to take advantage of Robert’s triumphant tour “over the pond,” taped an album’s worth of material which he leased to the German record label, Hot Fox. Entitled The Spirit of Blues Lives On, it sold moderately well, especially overseas, but Robert is still disappointed that it never saw the light of day stateside. Another 90s project, which included Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins and begun at the celebrated Sun Studio was an album for none other than Johnny Rivers, the same stellar guitarist who had such runaway chartmaking hits in the 60s as “Memphis,” “Poor Side Of Town,” “Secret Agent Man,” and “Summer Rain,” all on Imperial. When asked how he got embroiled in an undertaking involving such diverse artists, Robert seemed puzzled as to an explanation. “We finished it at B.B. King’s place on Beale. I guess it was supposed to be a blues album. And wouldn’t you know it. I never even got a copy,” he said dejectedly.

But recognition was just around the corner. Now, quite established as a local legend, Robert Belfour was brought to the attention of Oxford, MS - headquartered Fat Possum, a still up-and-coming blues label, which specializes in living music from this region (in fact still releasing vinyl singles on its For The Love Of Jesus subsidiary), including Cedell Davis, Junior Kimbrough, Robert Cage, the Jelly Roll Kings (Frank Frost, Big Jack Johnson, and Sam Carr), and the aforementioned T-Model Ford, as well as blues patriarchs who have passed on - Furry Lewis, Robert Pete Williams, Scott Dunbar, and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Lately, Fat Possum has branched out to embrace even rockabilly (Hasil Adkins) and soul (Solomon Burke).
By 2002, Robert had recorded his first domestic release for Fat Possum, What’s Wrong With You (80336) and its reception was so favorable that Pushin’ My Luck (80369) followed quickly on its heels in April of the very next year. With a major label backing him, blues fans are beginning to stand up and take notice. But aside from national distribution, Robert attributes his success as a bluesman to two main factors, the first being originality and the second his style. “I try not to rehash all the old songs, especially when I go into the studio. There are only two songs on both of these albums combined that anyone has ever done previously - ‘Done Got Old,’ which I used to practice with Junior Kimbrough and ‘Black Mattie’,” said Robert. In such up-tempo numbers like the latter, Robert plays in an unusual fashion for the genre. “I call it cross tuning. It gives the song a different twist, Spanish-like. Don’t ask me how I picked it up. But it sure seems to work with the listeners,” he added.

Talking to this gentleman of the old school recently, I detected a little regret in his voice, perhaps a hint of self-reproach that he didn’t make his entrance a little bit sooner. But he is no longer going to let any grass grow beneath his feet. “I’ll even book myself if I have to,” he said, accepting any and all offers to appear, no matter how small the venue in order to “get out there.” And true to his word, even as this article was being written, he had performed at the Fort Lauderdale Blues Festival and flown to London for just one gig, opening for Koko Taylor. But Montana, as a destination, was sure a surprise to me and I tried to envision him teaching a bunch of rough and rowdy rodeo hounds the rudiments of Delta guitar licks. It must be true then that even cowboys get the blues. For if he can make a just a few converts in this stronghold of Bud-swilling, country line dancing rednecks, just think how much easier his task will be to make believers of the rest of us. And of them you can count me first. Larry Benicewicz

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ben Prestage

“When my father was growing up in Mississippi,” states Ben, “ they never had running water and the only electricity was one light bulb that hung from the ceiling, but they had it better than some of their neighbors, because they didn’t have dirt floors. I grew up in rural Florida, on a 14-mile-long dirt road, near the headwaters of the Everglades. It was 7 miles either direction to the nearest paved road, and when you got to pavement, you still weren't near a town. It was panther, gator, and cottonmouth country. Out there, there was only one kind of music in the house. Whether it was being played on an instrument, or on a recording, it was Blues.

“One day though, in my early teens, I went to help a neighbor build a chicken-coop on his property. When we went inside to eat lunch, I asked him about a banjo I saw in the corner. He picked it up and I heard Bluegrass music for the first time. He was from a musical family and learned old-time banjo from his father from the South Ohio/North Kentucky hills. He lived half a mile away, but it was so quiet out there, you could hear that banjo all the way to my house, if he was on his porch and I was on mine.. He made homemede wine with my dad and when he’d come over, he’d bring his banjo and show me how to pick with my fingers instead of a plectrum.”

Later while living in Memphis, Prestage became a busker (street performer) on historic Beale Street. This is where he perfected his drum-kit. "I played out there a few times with nothing but a guitar and my voice. Once people heard me they liked it, but it was hard to get them on my side of the street with all the other music going on down there. There were some other guys out there who played drums with their feet, and they always got people's attention. I started playing drums with my feet as an attention grabber but soon found out that the drums played with foot pedals actually enhaced my music dramatically. Not only were people listening and buyin' discs, they were now dancing and hollerin' to boot. Now I am to the point where, if you close your eyes, you would think there was a professional drummer with a full-size drumkit behind me. I learned alot from the guys I shared the street with, including John Lowe, (inventor of the Lowebow, a type of diddley-bow that I play), Robert Belfour, and Richard Johnston." Ben returned to Memphis over the next few years for the International Blues Challenge (the world's largest gathering of Blues musicians) and within three consecutive years took he 4th, 3rd, and 2nd place. He is also the only two-time recipient of the Lyon/Pitchford Award for "Best Diddley-Bow Player." Ben's interesting approach to instrumentation, (fingerstyle guitar, harmonica, banjo, lap-steel, fiddle, resonator guitar, foot-drums, vocals, and his award-winning original songwriting (recipient of "The Most Unique Performer" at "The Song- writers' Showcase of America") has earned him invitations to perform across North America, Europe, and as far as North Africa. All awards aside, he has proven himself, through his live performances, to be the future of American Blues, Roots Music, Americana and is one of today’s most talented outsider.