(With apologies to Buddy Guy for the title…)
‘Whatcha gotta do, darlin’,’ drawled the musician, tilting his hat to a jaunty angle that surely once upon a time had the girls falling at his feet. His guitar swung easily, slung around his neck with a kind of casual ease. ‘Is jus’ go out there an’ take whatcha know is yours fer the takin’. An’ more than anythin’ else, be happy. Why, I’m damn near eighty five years old an’ do I look unhappy to you?”
He smiled, then. A wrinkled, old-man smile and I was completely captivated. This man was David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards, a blues man from Mississippi. This man was a contemporary of Robert Johnson – actually with him on the night Johnson drank poisoned whisky and slid, just as he had allegedly requested in his deal with the devil, straight into blues history. This man was eighty three years old and he was still touring. He was performing in a small pub on the banks of the River Tyne – a long, long way from the vastness of the Mississippi Delta. He was taking his break between sets and, at my then-husband’s urging, I had shyly gone over to talk to him. He was completely amazing. It was an incredible conversation with a remarkable man. For reference, he carried on touring into his nineties, announcing his retirement in July 2011 at the age of ninety six, finally passing away a month later. I was genuinely sad when he passed away and grateful beyond measure that I was gifted with seeing him perform.
He seemed to enjoy talking to me, too. I can’t think why. I hadn’t done anything with my life. I said this to him and his brow wrinkled even more than it was already. ‘Whatcha mean?’ The question was easy enough, but the answer was complicated. Suddenly, I felt drawn into a confidence with a man I’d barely heard of and had only met a few minutes earlier. The packed little room faded into obscurity and for a brief moment, there was just me and this extraordinary blues guitarist.
I told him. Not everything, of course, but the summary version. ‘Oh,’ I said airily, with my best rueful smile. ‘I’ve thrown away and restarted my life about four times. All because of following my heart.’
‘Ain’t nothin’ wrong with followin’ your heart.’ He nodded, sagely. ‘It makes a change to talk to someone who ain’t scared to do it.’ He put a hand gently on my shoulder. ‘Ya happy now?’
Yes, I confirmed. I was happy. Another dazzle of that smile.
‘Then it’s all been worth it, right? Life ain’t about the place ya go to. It’s about the way ya get there. Don’tcha ever forget that.’
I didn’t ever forget that.
He asked me for my name. Later on in the set, he dedicated a track to me.
Honeyboy Edwards is just one of the remarkable artists I’ve been privileged to see perform before they died. Hubert Sumlin, Jet Harris, Gary Moore… all of these people. A few hours out of their lives that I got to see and each one was something special. Hubert Sumlin’s performance of Smokestack Lightnin’ was outstanding. (As a trivia note – when Sumlin died, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards paid his funeral costs).
The trip to see Jet Harris was a comedy adventure in its own right. My ex-husband, who is responsible for taking me to see all these artists – something I will be eternally grateful for – is a bassist and he is also quite a lot older than me. As such, Jet Harris, former bass player with the Shadows, was his hero when the ex was growing up and the reason he decided to play bass.
‘He was cool,’ ex used to say. ‘He got all the girls.’
So there we are, one Easter weekend, and he gets super-excited because Jet Harris is playing a gig down in Scarborough. In the same tone as an over-excited six year old, he said ‘shall we go shall we go shall we go shall we go shall we go shall we go shall we go?’ until I frog-marched him to the car. All the way down to Scarborough he rambled on an on about Jet Harris being the ‘good looking one with the amazing hair who got all the girls’.
We arrived at the venue. Without being disparaging, it was… a bingo hall on the seafront. Smoking certainly hadn’t been banned there, so an acrid, curling mist licked at the interior of this place. The smell of beer and cigarettes… and ex was almost visibly bouncing in his seat.
On came this little, bald-headed fella. I thought ‘ah, he’s here to announce the act’, and cast a glance at ex.
‘Don’t,’ he said, through clenched teeth, ‘say anything.’
The little bald fella was Jet Harris. I confess, I may have fallen off my chair laughing. I got back on it soon enough, because he may no longer have been in possession of amazing hair, but my word he was spectacular.
I’m still a fan of these guys. I have a lot of blues in my collection and I don’t listen to it anywhere near as much as I should. Whenever on of my blues tracks comes on shuffle play, I always think of those words from Honeyboy Edwards.
An’ more than anythin’ else, be happy.
Edited after coming home and finding this on YouTube.