That’s my new blues name. Everyone we met in Mississippi gave themselves a name, so why not me? Blues names are different from nicknames – the kind you get stuck with, like toilet paper on the bottom of your shoe. They’re conscious, self-selected and meant to get conversations started.
As soon as his set at Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero blues club was over, the host – a tall, thin man named Razorblade – sat down next to us at the bar. Within minutes he told us that he calls himself Razorblade because he’s a sharp dresser. His wife, who wasn’t there, makes sure he’s put together proper before he goes on stage. On the night in question, he was wearing a gold suit with a purple t-shirt. Razorblade also told us that Red’s, a juke joint down the street, would be hopping the next night.
Red, of Red’s fame, is not a redhead. And he did not volunteer the source of his name. But he did tell us to pull a chair up to the space heater when we arrived at his club. There were only five customers at nine o’clock that night; Red’s doesn’t get going until later. Which explained why it looked abandoned when I knocked on the door – sofas outside on the sidewalk getting rained on, windows boarded up.
Red’s is the kind of place that, the minute you enter, you start sizing up your escape route should there be a fire. Which isn’t that far-fetched. I did pull up a chair next to Red, but the space heater’s pilot light shot straight out, horizontally, so I kept a nervous eye on it all night.
Gary forgot all about fire hazards when a man named Dingo offered to share a bottle of Christian Brother’s brandy. It was too big to hide in a paper bag, like all the other liquor being poured into plastic cups at Red’s that night. Turns out Dingo picked his name on account of the boots – which he always wears. Another sharp dresser, and a good dancer too.
He introduced us to Watermelon Slim, whose name was instantly understandable. He’s played with the likes of Bonnie Raitt but is just as enthusiastic to sit in with the bar band at Red’s: the All Night Long Blues Band. Not at all pretentious, he shouted out a welcome to his new friends from Beaufort, South Carolina when he pulled out his slide guitar. Just before he leaned into the microphone to say he’s been to South Carolina a couple of times. “Liked it enough. Just never had a chance to piss there.”
The best name of the night had to belong to the hottest bass player in all of Clarksdale. Just as it’s a good thing codes enforcement doesn’t seem to exist in Mississippi, it’s a good thing cops don’t frequent juke joints. Because then magical moments like listening to Kingfish sit in with the All Night Blues Band wouldn’t happen. He couldn’t have been five feet tall and when I asked Dingo how old the kid was, he guessed thirteen. I wanted to take him home with me. Dingo asked me if I was sure; he’d eat me out of house and home.
Let’s just say Kingfish didn’t get his name because he’s bird-like in any way. Nor does he yet have the stage presence of B.B. King or Watermelon Slim. But he made the audience put down their Christian Brother’s brandy and listen. The kid’s that amazing. After he played a few songs, Dingo told him the gal from South Carolina wants to know how old he was. I could hear his answer clear over at the space heater. “Eleven. Sir.” And then he had to go home.