Saturday
Jan042014

Don't Start Me Talkin'

By Tom Williams


Curbside Splendor
February 2014
978-0988480445


 

Because neither Ben nor I know Las Vegas, we don't follow our usual pre-show routine of checking into the hotel and waiting for fans to find us. We're touring Las Vegas Blvd, looking among casinos, hotels and family-friendly extravaganzas for the newest Jump and Jive Juke Joint, a chain with franchises in Columbus, Denver, Orlando and right next to the Mall of America. "Jump and Jive" reminds me of swing music, not the True Delta Blues, but the promotional literature promises you can eat "authentic Dixie-fried victuals" or "soak up the southern hospitality of our full bars" and, most of all, "stomp your foot to the best roots music." And the owner, a former ad agency president from—get this—Hamilton, Ontario, simply cannot open the Las Vegas Jump and Jive Juke Joint without Brother Ben and me there to christen it. To the man he believed was only our manager, he said, "Brother Ben's the only performer who can provide the genuine roots music experience we try to provide our customers." In his guise as Wilton Mabry, Ben agreed, then told this fellow, Kent Bollinger, he'd see what he could do. The delay doubled our typical appearance fee and assured we'd be there to kick off the tour. Call Brother Ben a con man or a capitalist, Ole Br'er Rabbit and Ralph Ellison's Rinehart have nothing on him.

Ben parks the Brougham in walking distance of the miniature skyline of New York, New York and the mammoth MGM Grand, across from the Jump and Jive Juke Joint, which squats solidly on Las Vegas Boulevard South. When Ben and I get out, a man in gray slacks and a blue blazer walks forward, arms spread wide. "Brother Ben, Silent Sam," he says. "Kent Bollinger." Bald head shining, he shakes our hands. Mine hard, Ben's gingerly. Then he steers Ben toward the wooden steps that lead to a porch so country I expect yawning hounds stretched out by their masters' work-booted feet. "Buffalo, 1972," Bollinger says. "That's when I saw you with Bucketmouth. I liked Cream and Hendrix and the Stones then. But once I heard the real thing I was hooked."

"Do tell," Brother Ben says, interrupting himself with the broken, rusty cough he's been experimenting with lately, the one that scared a thousand dollars away from Mr. Habib. Sounds like a lung just shut down, it's so racked and wet, and Bollinger looks on as if what Ben's got might be catching. Still, he's doing a lot better meeting the legend than I did. I'd already met him at the audition as Wilton Mabry, but when I saw him in his plaid suit next to a Grand Prix the color of a bar of Irish Spring, I gasped, "You're Brother Ben!" Today, it's easy to see Ben in Mabry and Mabry in Ben, but that's only because I, unlike nearly everybody else, know to look.

Now Bollinger grips Ben by the arm, helping him up the steps. "Best concert I ever saw," Bollinger says. "I mean, even though it was freezing outside, I could close my eyes and believe I was somewhere like this place."

Vegas? I want to say, but Sam's no smartass. I wipe my hand over my mouth and mustache, which I'm still getting used to, as I only grow it for tours. Bollinger's gold buttons clatter on his blazer as he turns, arms and open palms directing us to take in the surroundings. "You know, when Luther Johnson played the Minneapolis opening, he said it was too real. Gave him the chills." Bollinger smiles, smoothes some stray hairs over his wide, bald head, a man pleased with his enterprise. And he's met plenty of other bluesmen. Guess that's why he's relatively cool around Ben. Now he's encouraging us to reply in kind with Houserocker Johnson. Or is it Guitar Junior he's talking about? Lots of Luthers out there. Whoever it was, I suspect he might have been messing with this Canuck. Then again, I think everyone's messing with someone in this world I live in. Sonny Boy never told a writer the same birthday twice. "They don't know me," he reportedly said.

Ben steps away, winks swiftly at me with the eye farthest from Bollinger. He bends over slowly, as if inspecting the floor, then wearily straightens only to stamp his heel against the yellow wooden planks. The thump resounds while Bollinger looks on astonished, unable to process just what the bluesman who changed his life is doing to his faux jook's porch.

"Too firm," Ben says, then fashions another tubercular cough. He stoops, hands on knees for a moment, then rises to his customary slouch. "Ever' porch from Friar's Point to Marianna so flimsy folks had to tiptoe." The pantomime he then executes makes him cackle and smack his thigh with his porkpie hat, which establishes it's time for me to smile, and I do, Jemima-big.

"I think it was that night in Buffalo where I had the idea," Bollinger says, reaching for Ben's arm. "To build these clubs that gave people a chance to experience a real life juke joint." He pauses, drags Ben along the porch and resumes. "With nothing to get in the way of their enjoyment."

I wonder if Bollinger's made it to the Delta or been inside a real jook. Many a blues lover flies to Memphis, rents a car and drives down 61, though I hear now Tunica and its casinos sits there like a juggernaut, keeping most from even making it to Clarksdale, let alone Rolling Fork or Alligator, or across the river to Sonny Boy's town, Helena. Truth is, though, Bollinger must have hired some good people to construct the building. Much study of old photographs and newsreels went into the work, maybe even a visit or two to Junior Kimbrough's place near Holly Springs. I allow my eyes to follow Bollinger's hand pointing to the Nehi, Jax and Falstaff signs, artificially rust-spotted and rakishly hung on the exterior walls, which are made of a material that looks as faded and ready to fall apart as the warped and rotted shingles of a genuine jook but is surely as sound as a dollar and will probably be around for hundreds of years. Bales of cottons are piled around the entry, with scythes and sickles and scales hung here and there. New laminated posters are tacked to the wall, advertising shows with Little Milton, Bobby Rush and Latimore, while reproductions feature Mud, Wolf and Little Walter. There's even an empty sack of Sonny Boy corn meal next to the checkerboard atop an old wooden barrel. I try to jump a white piece with a black piece but they're all lacquered in place.

Bollinger's holding open the door for Ben and going off on how the executive chef, though trained at Johnson and Wales, was born and raised in Nashville and fuses classical technique with southern staples. "But it's still down-home cookin," he says and rubs his paunch.

In "No Tellin' How Long," Ben sings of how much he likes pig feet and did claim once, in a radio interview, that he'd made many a meal of Saltines and Vienner sausages, but in truth he's one of the more rigid adherents to the food pyramid I know. Right now, for instance, the wrapper of a protein bar lies crumpled in the Brougham's ashtray. Four years ago, along with red meat, he gave up coffee and soda—both of which I drink steady until nightfall—and started drinking green tea. However, as we all three step inside the Jump and Jive, the old fraud licks his lips and says, "I hopes we gets to sample some."

"Sure," Bollinger says, his hand still clamped on Ben. "You too, Sam? You can order anything you want on us."

I nod, say, "'Preciate you," then add a "suh," because after years of practice my Midwestern tongue has managed to shape that syllable with ease.

The interior, as artificially rustic as the outside, smells somehow of creosote and spent tobacco juice, but located in the back of the first level is an elevated stage. In the two Arkansas jooks I visited—where Ben's second harpist, Heywood "Razor" Sharp could teach me how to play harp without an amplifier—no stages existed. We took up space at the rear corner of the dance floor, near enough an exit in case some shit got started. No true jook would contain all the high-priced paraphernalia that covers the walls here either. Bollinger holds Ben by the arm, tolling the costs and telling the story of how he got this and that. Considering he's been listening since as far as the Bucketmouth days, I guess it's Ben's ears alone he wants to fill. I slip off and view all the signed guitars, photos, album covers, trinkets, clothes, and other pieces of the blues as well as soul, bluegrass, folk and country memorabilia. I now read the small plaques authenticating this axe was played by T-Bone Walker, that one by Scotty Moore, this banjo by Grampa Jones. I'd kill for something of Sonny Boy's, though I'm sure all his derbies, ventilated shoes and harps were tossed out in the Helena trash the day he died. I find nothing but smile at the signed photo of Mr. Cotton and Mojo Buford's belt with enough loops to hold a dozen harps.

In all, the first floor impresses. I could do without the Blues Brothers and Slowhand on the jukebox and the taxidermy alligator behind the bar. Still, as I inhale the soft dust, I think of what Ben demonstrated earlier. It is too sturdy. Plus, it's in the middle of Las Vegas, and I doubt you could order a fried bologna sandwich here, even with Dijon and a tapenade instead of pickles and Plochman's. Then again, I recall from my marketing classes at State that there's no need for the genuine if your clientele believes what they're getting is real. I've learned that same lesson from Ben, who could have been tenured in the business and music departments and taught the best black studies class you could take.

But here's what I can't figure: Will we go over tonight? I want to believe we'll have a huge crowd of converts to Brother Ben and Silent Sam. The other B.B. lives here, though I suspect his horn-heavy shows haven't prepared anyone for us. Even played by impostors, true Delta means acoustic guitar and unamplified harp, minimal solos and some songs that will depress the shit out of you, like our version of "Stones in my Passway" and Ben's "My Mother's Crying Face." Here at the Jump and Jive, I suspect Buddy Guy could kick ass, as could some of the skinny white boys with three names and long hair and tiresome solos. But us? Shoot, if I were visiting Vegas with my fellow ophthalmologists or oral surgeons and had a choice between strippers and two preservationists of some obscure and ancient musical form, I'd be folding tens into g-strings and telling Lexus I loved her.

"Admiring the décor?" Bollinger says, clamping a hand on my shoulder, his grip so firm and sudden a "What the fuck" almost rolls out of my mouth. I chew my mustache instead. Beside him, Ben has shrunk an inch shorter than his customary slouch. "I was just telling Ben here how much we paid for that." His gesture is vague and I don't know if he's talking about Ray Charles's sunglasses or Mance Lipscombe's false teeth. It's a little dark, too, but soon I see the acoustic guitar encased in glass. Its plaque reads, "Once played on the streets of Atlanta by Blind Willie McTell." It is a twelve-string, yet—and this could be the play of shadow and my own poor vision (who would know Silent Sam wears Bausch and Lombs to correct his myopia?)—it doesn't look played enough. No nicks and scratches that would inevitably result from playing on street corners. The guitar Ben will play tonight was purchased from a pawnshop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, near the end of last year's tour. It has a nickel-sized hole in the body and a pear-shaped patch beneath the sound hole where somebody's pick wore away the lacquer. Nonetheless, when I turn to Bollinger and see his reverential eyes and fingers tapping the glass, I keep quiet my doubts about its original ownership. Man probably paid a grand for the guitar. "Purty," I say. Bollinger says, "My son got it for me. He's got a good eye for these things. He'll take over for me whenever I'm ready to call it quits." He turns to both of us, beaming. Only way his smile would be bigger is if Blind Willie's corpse lay in that glass, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn Bollinger's son was prowling the south's unmarked graves for that acquisition.

"Folks still listening to Blind Willie?" Ben says.

Wicked. Pretending he doesn't know the answer, which is of course no. Unless you're David Evans or Robert Crumb and your office is full of 78s that you never take out of their original sleeves, you might know the name McTell from the Bob Dylan song, but not the man or his music. I maintain a good collection, mostly CD's now, and I bought Blind Willie's entire works on a German import last year. I liked it the first time I listened, as I did with Gary Davis, Blind Blake, and Blind Deacon and the Professor, but I never connected with that Piedmont stuff. Always sounded too bright and busy for my ear, nowhere near as lowdown as I like.

But why's Ben digging Bollinger about Blind Willie's obscurity? I shoot him a look, but he keeps his eyes on Bollinger, who stammers and says, "I don't know." Then he rallies and rubs his hands together, saying, "Upstairs? Two more levels to go, the smoking and non-smoking dining rooms."

Now Ben looks at me, and his eyelids droop while he yawns and shows off those sleeves he wears to give the appearance of gold teeth. He claims his Biloxi dentist took a photo of him smiling, to display to patients the fruits of good hygiene. But unless they're dentures, a full set of pearly whites doesn't correspond with songs about evil-hearted women and good old gin. Now he says, "I doan know bout my partnuh, but us old folks thinkin' 'bout a little piece a nap."

"Right, right," Bollinger says. "Wouldn't want to keep you. " Either the man knows his stuff or just finished reading a chapter on Ben in an encyclopedia of the blues. I read The Blues's Who's Who back when I was a college sophomore and never dreamed I'd know the man, and it re-told the legend of young Ben and the judge and how Ben's asleep before his head hits the pillow, any time, night or day. Once he's asleep, boy, you'd better not trifle with him. It went on to detail the famous incident where he found Sleepy John Estes in his cot backstage at the '68 Ann Arbor Festival. Mississippi Fred McDowell and Big Joe Williams had to pry Ben's fingers from Sleepy John's thin neck. In that same book, though, Sleepy John was reported to possess the ability to sleep standing up. Right now, Bollinger's probably worried Ben might fall asleep standing up. He says, "Sure you don't want anything to drink?" He reaches behind the bar, pulls out an ice-covered bottle of Bud and jabs it in Ben's direction. At no time has Ben even pretended to drink what he calls that St. Louis swill. He shakes his head. "Sure?" Bollinger says. "On the house."

"Thank you but no," Ben says. "I be tired enough already."

Head down, Bollinger leaves the full bottle on the bar, then sticks his hands in his jacket pockets and escorts us toward the exit.

Ben tries to push open the door, but winds up coughing, so I finish the job, which hands me an eyeful of glare and heat tightening the skin on my face. We walk to the porch and don shades, then shake hands with Bollinger. Bollinger says, "Show starts at seven sharp, just as Mr. Mabry requested."

"We be here at six then," Ben says.

"You'll need to do a sound check?"

Ben shakes his head, takes his time to wipe his lips with a slow-moving tongue. "No suh," he says. Bollinger waits a moment, as if expecting some salty axiom after all the lip-licking preliminaries. He gets nothing, only Ben walking slowly toward the steps. Bollinger rushes forward about the time Ben grips the handrail and positions his body to descend. I start in that direction, but wait, as Bollinger says, "No warm up act, right? I remember that from the show in Buffalo." He pauses, his eyes gaining the reverence he had inside. "What did you say then? 'I smoke dynamite, drink TNT. I can do all the heating up myself.'"

Bollinger smiles as though he made up for his sound check gaffe. Then again, how would he know the schemer of schemers doesn't really need a sound check because of his near-perfect ear and because he doesn't want people to think, after forty years of performing, that he's become too professional? Sideways, Ben maneuvers down the steps, pretending to slap away my aiding hands. When we reach the bottom, we turn and wave, then make it inside the car and get it and the AC cranked up.

"Bet he tells everyone that shit," Ben says.

"What shit?"

"Best concert ever. I don't think I even played Buffalo in '72," Ben says, steering us into the flow of traffic. "Maybe that's just me growing old, though." He sighs. "Getting forgetful."

I wave my hand near the brim of his hat. "Who you trying to kid?" I say.

Behind the wheel, Ben faces me and grins, showing off the gold sleeves on his upper and lower teeth.

"What about that guitar, though?" I say. "Think it's real?"

"Pardon?" he says.

"Don't go pretending you're deaf."

"I didn't understand what you meant."

"Blind Willie's guitar," I say. "You think Bollinger's son found the real thing?"

"—Doubt that dude's even got a son." He unwraps another protein bar and tugs at it with his teeth.

"You watch, though," I say. "Bollinger won't let you leave tonight without something he can tack up next to Solomon Burke's conk comb or Big Joe Turner's shoeshine kit."

Ben laughs, puts down the protein bar. "Practically stuck that bottle down my throat." He pulls out a tape from his inside pocket, plugs it in the player. Miles Davis, "Kind of Blue." We lean back and let the frosty AC bathe our faces, forgetful of all else for the moment. Then, at a red light, Ben raises his hand to his mouth and works it there until he says, "Think he'd like these?" and shows me the gold sleeves in his palm.

 

 

Back in the hotel, two hours before the show, I'm barbering Ben. I only know one haircut, a straight baldhead administered with clippers, but neither of us ever spends much time without a brim on—porkpies and fedoras usually—and Ben started losing his hair in the seventies. Not that hair loss bothered him. Going bald spared his having to get a Jheri curl like Bobby Bland and the other B.B. and damn near everyone else.

Ben's eyes open when I cut off the clippers. "That's nice," he says, rubbing the top of his head. Silver and black hair falls as light as cigarette ash. "Razor it for me, too, Pete. Fear I got a shaky hand."

I blow stubble from the clippers' teeth into the pile of hair on Ben's sheet-covered lap. In a voice not unlike Sonny Boy's, I sing, "Razor my head for me. I fear I got a shaky hand."

"Sounds good," he says. "Been practicing for when you take over?"

Take over? I know that's a lie. And been practicing? Man, I'm always practicing, my harp, my Delta accent, trying to make it all sound true to the blues. But Ben doesn't need to know. "Naw," I say. "Just trying to make you realize you're talking in twelve bar cadence."

"Occupational hazard. Two weeks ago at the Waffle House I said, 'Two strips of bacon, na-na-na-na, nice and lean, na-na-na-na, put it on an English muffin, na-na-na-na, or you'll see a man get mean."

"Waffle House doesn't serve English muffins," I say, lathering up his head with aloe-scented Barbasol. "And I've never seen one strip of swine on your plate."

"The pig is an unclean animal. Part dog, rat and cat and not fit for eating or even to touch," he says, affecting the stern and clipped speech of one of Reverend Louis's boys.

"How much for a copy of Muhammad Speaks, Brother Shabazz?"

In the mirror, he looks me up and down. "I'll give you a two for one, 'cause you look like you need all the help you can get, brother."

Here in the Ramada, it's fine to laugh like Mrs. Owens's boy. Razor in hand, I have to wait a minute. Don't want to lop off Ben's ear. Bollinger's son might bust in and snatch it. When I'm composed enough to razor a clean stripe through the white foam, I catch a tiny glimpse of myself in the mirror and look away. On tour, I depend mostly on Ben's eye to measure if I look the part of Silent Sam. Or I'll concentrate on one feature at a time. Mustache ok? Any sleep in my eyes? Hat tilted at the most rakish angle? But I never go out of my way to examine a head to toe reflection. Like now, even though I'm in my underwear with my stage clothes sprawled on the bed, I don't risk another glance.

 

 

From backstage, the crowd looks ok, maybe three, four hundred. Definitely more than I expected. Problem isn't that they're all white—I expect that kind of crowd. What we've got tonight are young, Soloflex users, tanned and dressed in bright colors and eager to toss each other around a dance floor. The blues faithful come to exalt in the presence of an authentic artifact of some quasi-southern, quasi-African past. Tonight's crowd would make Jimmy Buffet happy. Backstage, I'm tugging at my clingy shirt, which is less the color of motor oil, and more like a pigeon's neck, when Bollinger comes over, asking if we want anything to eat or drink. I shake my head and Ben says no. "You sure?" Bollinger says. "Chef Davis's catfish just melts in your mouth." Disappointment lines his forehead a minute, but he wipes his hand across his face and comes up smiling. "Say, do you remember the series of diaper ads that featured 'Born Under a Bad Sign?'" he says.

"Sho, sho," Ben says, seated in the folding chair he'll remain in during the show. "Had them dancing babies in them, didn't they?"

"That was one of mine," Bollinger says, the gold buttons on his blazer rattling as he touches Ben's arm. "Eric, my son, played the lead."

While my hands part the stage curtains, I remember those commercials like a bad night of drinking. I was in my last bar band, Jack and the Dull Boys, in East Lansing then, and everybody wanted to hear that song and flail around like the babies in the commercials. One night I got so agitated I yelled, "Albert fucking King. Know who he is?" Someone tossed a full can of Stroh's at me. I ducked just in time.

"Anyway," Bollinger says. "I wanted to get one of your songs, Brother Ben. For GM. Either 'Old Black River' or 'Leavin on My Mind.' But Mr. Mabry and I couldn't agree on a price."

I pull back from the curtain, pleased to hear Ben, in his managerial guise, said no to the commercial exploitation of our music. At times, I feel his attitude is that after all those years of bluesmen getting shafted, including him and Bucketmouth, the only color that matters now is green. His saying no to a sure-fire profit reassures me somewhat.

"Well," Ben says. "He won't give up nothin' to nobody 'less he get what he want. But he a good man."

"A good businessman, sure." Bollinger bends down for a face to face with Ben. He clutches Ben's wrist and says, "But you don't mind the money for tonight was transferred to his account in Jackson?"

Which explains why he brought up Mabry in the first place. Most people think he's ripping us off, Mabry, which is expected from managers, but made even more mean in our case because he's a brother. Though Mabry is the name on Ben's birth certificate, he's as much a fictional character as Uncle Remus or Bigger Thomas. Ben thinks our dependence upon him makes us seem even more pathetic, which he uses to his advantage. Bollinger's present gesture seems gracious, though his schemes to acquire some object of ours for his wall are shameless, and he has no clue that the man he's talking to with such admiration and deference is also the scoundrel he mistrusts and couldn't agree to terms with all those years ago. Kind of funny, you ask me.

Ben says, "Doan you worry none. Mr. Mabry, he take good care of us. Ain't that right, Sam?"

I nod, stick my harp in front of my mouth and play, "Take Your Hand Out of My Pocket," to warm up, watching to see if Bollinger knows the tune. He stares at Ben, nods, then backs away. I look toward the audience again and note their restlessness as well as their uniform lack of anything that signals we'll be among devotees of Delta blues. Why are we here, I wonder. What am I missing or what is it that Ben's not telling me? A team of security guards takes up places before the stage, and I am pleased that of the six, two are black, ensuring there will be four living African Americans present in this building constructed in part to honor the musical contributions we've made to this great nation of ours.

 

 

Eight months is a long time to go without playing with your partner. Still, after we hit the stage—no James Brown-length intro, just Ben's backwoods one liner about smoking dynamite and drinking TNT to explain the lack of a warm up act—I feel I'm in the one place in the world I belong. I don't expect us to sound as good as when we were bringing last year's tour to a close, when our hearts practically beat the same time. But Ben hasn't varied his set list since I came on, and we catch up with one another like old friends who know each other's stories. Anyway, I'm not here to draw much attention. No Blues Blaster amplified glissandos from these ten holes. I'm here for sweetening, my harp like Henry Sims's fiddle for Charley Patton or Washboard Sam with Bukka White. I echo his turnarounds, punctuate a phrase or two, shape train sounds, and on "Back to Jackson" and "Mind Me Woman," rip solos you can time with a second hand.

About six songs in, my lips stop tingling and I'm feeling good. After a dozen, I'm sweaty under the lights, my G harp warm in my hands and my eyes shut with the effort of so many concentrated breaths. Meanwhile Ben slides that brass pipe on his pinkie over the strings, syncopated, sharp and stinging. Every backstage glance at Bollinger reveals a man clapping his hands together in ecstasy, but the Las Vegas Jump and Jive Juke Joint's first concert is lost on the people who've paid to be here. Most look on as if they know they should be respectful, but that doesn't jibe with what they consider blues, a soundtrack to beer-drinking and shaking your ass. Maybe they think since Ben's seated in his padded folding chair, his skinny body hunched over his guitar, they should also stay in their chairs. They perk up when we play "Leavin' on My Mind," likely because they recognize the opening riff as similar to "Sweet Home Chicago." When we start "Mind Me Woman," I'm glad we play no encores. With this dead-ass crowd I want to get back to the hotel soon.

Still, we need to get our first performance out of the way, so we'll be better off and ready for the next. Since Ben doesn't tell stories between songs—he's all music—we're some three numbers away from the finale. After some tepid applause, I hear someone yelling a request. I always hear such voices clearest, the rare ones belonging to those who feel we haven't done enough and that they have the right to demand more. The only album Ben and I did together, Blues At Your Request, contained one original, "Take My Chance," while the rest were covers we were always asked to play, like "Stones in My Passway," "Death Letter Blues" and "Bottle Up and Go." No such requests are hollered now by this fool, who sounds like a victim of the bar's concoctions. With names like "Rattler Juice" and "Swampwater," they all contain at least three liquors and cost ten or twelve bucks apiece.

But fuck if he's not hollering for "Soul Man." The Sam & Dave version is smoking, you ask me. The one Belushi and Ackroyd did featured some of the same Memphis players like Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn. I even know the words, having performed this song at least a dozen times in bars and frat houses for drunken white boys who played air guitar and jumped behind a mic to sing along. Now my contacts shift and settle into place over my irises as I try to locate the body attached to the voice in the crowd. Everyone's dressed alike, so it takes a few minutes to spot him. Wearing Bermudas, a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, he's clutching a sloshing glass the size of a goldfish bowl. His other hand's cupped against his mouth for amplification, and the people around him seem more amused than annoyed. Security's keeping an eye on the relics that decorate the walls. Ben counts down to "Take My Chance," but it's no use. Already other elements of the crowd have caught this bug and they're chanting "Soul Man." I can barely hear Ben's voice over the din and at one point glare at Bollinger, who stands in the wings backstage, hands jammed in his pockets. Applause accompanies the increasingly louder chants of "Soul Man." When he closes out "Take My Chance," Ben shakes his head. "Time to go," he says, even though we're one song short.

"I can play it," I say. "'Soul Man'" I've got my harp out and ready but Ben squints at me like I just arrived for my first gig.

"That," he whispers, "ain't part of the show."

We bow and make our exit in time to hear the boos.

 

 

Bollinger stands between us and the performer's exit, wiping his bald head. "I'm so sorry," he says, backing up as we bypass the dressing room. "I thought we'd have the right kind of crowd, but . . ."

"Ain't yo' fault, suh," Ben says, stooped but purposeful, holding his guitar by the neck. I'm behind him, carrying his empty case.

"But you'll come back again, won't you? Vegas is still new to what you both do. But it'll catch on." Bollinger looks behind him. With a few feet between his backside and the door, he stops. His hands come up before him and he's smiling.

"Might not be no next time," Ben says. I turn to look at him, but he winks, a sign it's all just talk.

"You'll tour again," Bollinger says, his voice pitching higher. "And when you do, can't you at least think about coming back?"

"You kin call Mr. Mabry," Ben says. "But after I talks to him I doan think he be sendin' us here no mo'."

Bollinger reaches out and his hand rests against the neck of Ben's guitar. He doesn't flinch, as would anyone who'd heard what happened to Elvin Bishop when he grabbed Ben's guitar. Instead, Bollinger stands there smiling. Now he says, "Again, I'm sorry." He pauses, one hand fondling the guitar's headstock, a Sharpie clutched in the other. "Could you perhaps leave us something to remember you by?"

I step closer and mumble, "Better open that do', Mr. Bollinger."

Ben's picking fingers find my wrist and clamp. The strength in them shouldn't surprise me, but it does. He wants me to keep cool. So I do for now. "You gon have to wait on that," Ben says, gently pulling the guitar out of Bollinger's grip. "Mebbe when I die you kin ask Sam for this here glass eye of mine. I plans to donate it to him in my will." He blinks and somehow manages to keep the pupil of his right eye fixed while the left eye fidgets about. Bollinger's hands rise slowly to his mouth. I can't tell if the gesture's from shock or if he's determining whether he should keep such an item near Ray Charles's sunglasses or near Blind Willie's guitar. Either way, Ben and I pass him and walk outside to the Brougham. Ben's straight face remains for at least a minute, far longer than I manage. When we reach the Jump and Jive parking lot, he says, "Always liked that song."

"Which song?" I say.

"You know," Ben says. "Do-do-do-do-da-do-do-da-doo, I'm a soul man."

Though my harp's in my hand, I can't make any noise but laughter.