MUSIC

Robert Ross Never Thought It Would Be this Hard for this Long

On playing guitar with the blues greats as a “White Boy Lost in the Blues” (and being ignored by Jimi Hendrix)

by

When Robert Ross and his guitar take the stage in Memphis the first week of May, he will carry with him the dust of a vanished New York City club scene and the ghosts of legends with whom he has played for over half a century in a most unforgiving game. The blues.

More than 30 years ago, during a break between songs at a Lower East Side parlor salon on Orchard Street, Ross said to me of his journey, “You don’t think it’s going to be this hard for this long.” I had befriended Ross when he played Baltimore with slide guitar great J.B. Hutto in the early 1980s; in NYC I invited him to a friend’s apartment to play a few songs between readings of poetry and short fiction and plates of crab cakes brought north from Baltimore in a plastic cooler. By then, he’d already been playing professionally for two decades.

All these years later, Ross is hoping that the International Blues Challenge, on Memphis’s Beale Street, will provide the break he’s been reaching for (so close, so very close) for more than half his life. Born in Brooklyn’s old Beth El Hospital 72 years ago and raised in Queens, he made it to this year’s IBC (the Blues Foundation’s signature event) after winning a regional competition near his home, in Boynton Beach, Florida. “When I was coming up, every club advertised in the Village Voice,” Ross tells me, rattling off the names of his favorite joints: the Bottom Line, Folk City, Tramps, Dan Lynch, Lone Star Cafe, the Village Gate, Max’s Kansas City, various locations of the Ritz, the quickly shuttered Pop’s Place, and Manny’s Car Wash. “All gone,” he adds, from his home in the Sunshine state. “But I’m still standing.”

Gone like the blues giants with whom Ross played on those Gotham stages and elsewhere: from Hubert Sumlin to Lazy Lester, John Brim, “The Chief” Eddie Clearwater, Louisiana Red, Sunnyland Slim, Eddie Kirkland, Lightning Hopkins, Homesick James, and Otis Rush, among many others. “I have just about every booking calendar going back to the late ’70s,” he says. “I played with or opened for a lot of people.” Ross has been pursuing the echt of genuine blues since the days when white kids in England made them popular in the mainstream for a long, sustained moment of feedback during his days as a student at Queens College. He has since traveled the world, guitar in hand, a hunk of metal on his pinky to play slide: an obscure practitioner—despite being inducted into the New York Blues Hall of Fame, in 2011—of a marginalized art form.

“Understanding the masters,” explains Ross, “is different from learning to play and sing and write like they did.” And oh, the masters at whose feet he learned, touring with J.B. Hutto, opening for John Lee Hooker, and, very early on, performing with such old school blues royalty as Big Mama Thornton, Victoria Spivey, and Big Maybelle. “In 1969, I didn’t even know who Big Maybelle was,” says Ross, who backed her up that year with his Tangerine Blues Band. “She sang with a hard edge, grit, and gravel when she needed to emphasize something. A titanic voice, but she could sing sweetly, too.”

Although Ross briefly jammed with (and was ignored by) Jimi Hendrix during Easter week ’68 at a Greenwich Village go-go club called the Eighth Wonder (both he and Hendrix had turns in groups backing singer Curtis Knight), it was playing with the blues shouter from 12th Street and Vine in Kansas City that tops Ross’s cache of professional memories. “Playing behind Big Joe Turner at Folk City [Manhattan] was one of the greatest thrills of my life,” says Ross of the man who hit it big with “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Flip Flop and Fly,” and with whom Ross went on to perform and record in 1978.  “It was a weeklong gig. It wasn’t too long after he’d had a stroke, but the voice was still titanic.”

And who did Ross have to thank for the honor of that gig? The great songwriter, blues shouter, and Brooklynite Doc Pomus [born Jerome Solon Felder, 1925–1991], who said that without Big Joe, “rock and roll would never have happened.” Pomus had cautioned Ross against playing one of his own songs (based on the Fats Waller tune Black and Blue), called White Boy Lost in the Blues. Booking managers have never rated high in Ross’s (or many other musicians’) estimations, but Doc Pomus most certainly did. Ross’s lyrics flip the originals, written by a white man, Harry Brooks, and a Black man, Andy Razaf, and later famously covered by Louis Armstrong. Ross says his interpretation—“for some time, it was my signature song”—talks about what he has experienced: “reverse racial prejudice in the blues business.”

Musically, Ross built the song around a Blind Willie Johnson lick from the song Mississippi Blues, with the turnaround borrowed from a Count Basie tune. Lyrically, it’s a memoir: “I’m black inside, it’s just my skin is lily-white, when I get low down, the world says I ain’t got the right.…” “Doc could be brutally honest but the tone of his voice had genuine concern for me,” says Ross. “He was offering his wisdom and experience to help me avoid making a mistake that might sidetrack my career. He told me, ‘You’re gonna have a lot of trouble with that song. Some people ain’t gonna like it. You never picked cotton.’”

Nope, thought Ross, I have not—Cotton? I’m a Jew from New York!

Ross has dealt with the “white guys can’t sing the blues” prejudice throughout his career. “One club owner told me in no uncertain terms that he was no longer booking me because, ‘White guys just don’t sing the blues as well as Black guys,’” Ross tells me. He says he then told the man, “That may well be, but how many Black musicians can sing as well as Muddy Waters or B.B King—not too many.” He released White Boy Lost in the Blues on a 1981 Baron Records EP. Though it proved a crowd-pleaser, he hasn’t dusted it off in some time, saying in retrospect, “Maybe Doc was right after all. Hell, he usually was.”

And maybe the locomotive called Freddie King (1934–1976) was, too. “My band [Firewater] opened for Freddie at some club, either late ’69 or early ’70—it might have been Queens or Nassau County,” recalls Ross. “We played our hearts out. I remember that we did a version of ‘Texas,’ which the Electric Flag recorded on their A Long Time Comin’ debut.” The song, Ross says, was likely a tribute to King, born on a farm in Gilmer, Texas, during the Great Depression, before moving to the south side of Chicago with his family as a teenager. After Firewater’s set, Ross was talking to some folks in the corner when, he says, “I felt a big, meaty hand on my back. I turned around. It was Freddie King, all six-foot-four-inches of him. I was just shocked that he had come over to me. He shook my hand and said, ‘I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your guitar playing. You are really a very good player.’” To which all Ross could reply to the man heralded as one of the three “Kings of the Blues” (along with B.B. and Albert) was, “Thank you very much, Freddie.”

Ross has a guitar case (a solid body Carvin is his go-to workhorse; for slide, a Gibson SG) full of such tales: stories of traveling with bona fide bluesmen and -women from whom he absorbed everything he could. The list includes Homesick James, Junior Wells, Matt Guitar Murphy, James Cotton, Pittsburgh-born jazz drummer Art Blakey, and, even further removed from Mississippi or Chicago, a private chat with John Lennon.

Ross was performing with Curtis Knight’s group Tribe at an Apollo Theater benefit for prisoners at Attica, the upstate New York penitentiary where a September 1971 riot left 43 dead. Tribe had just released the single “Attica,” and the rumor was that Lennon—who released his own song about the carnage a year later—might show up. He did, and, says Ross, brought some very good reefer with him. The native New Yorker not only found himself sharing a joint with the former Beatle, but—to his later mortification—realized that in his marijuana haze he’d been explaining music theory to the founder of the Fab Four. “God, what an idiot I am,” exclaims Ross, telling the story a half-century later. “In the midst of a terrific conversation, I insulted one of the greatest songwriters in the history of the Western world. He got up and walked away.”

And then there was Washboard Doc, a throwback to the jug band days of Ma Rainey. “Doc and I played in Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park,” says Ross of Joseph Doctor, born in 1911 on Johns Island, South Carolina, and dying in Brooklyn, in 1988. “A very distinguished old gentleman, very proper and respectable—always wore a very old tuxedo and a starched white shirt. The shirt was always buttoned right up to his neck no matter how hot it was outside.” Ross was introduced to Doc by the guitarist’s longtime bandmate Bill Dicey, a Maryland-born harmonica player who died of cancer in 1993. Doc “scrubbed” the washboard with thimbles on his fingers and accompanied himself with a small cymbal and pots and pans, very much the one-man-band busker. Ross accompanied Doc on a lot of old-time songs from the early days of commercial blues—the ’20s and ’30s—in en plein air sets in the park, as well as at Folk City and private parties.

Rub-a-dub-dub, baby. A gig is a gig. Like the time in the mid-1970s when Ross sold a song to a puppeteer, having scoured the classifieds of the Village Voice for work. “I went to his apartment, I’m pretty sure it was in the Village. Very small but neat. He had a bunch of cowboy puppets—they were twice as big as I expected—and wanted a song for one of them to sing,” says Ross, who doesn’t remember how much he got paid and did not attend the performance. The song was called “Palomino,” in which, notes Ross, “the horse is the hero.”

Washboards, lectures on cultural appropriation when it comes to the blues, gigs at nursing homes where half the audience is asleep, and low-rent Howdy Doody shows. Ah, showbiz! “My entire life I have been moved by music, thrilled by it, chilled by it, choked up by it, and tickled by it,” Ross says. “Through some of the journey I was lost. I had no idea if I would play the blues, the whole blues, and nothing but the blues, or rock and roll in all its variations. But I stuck with what I loved and got me an education in hard-knocks-blues adversity.” In Memphis, Ross will be one of a hundred competitors fighting it out in brackets as intense as those in the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament. Perhaps even more than Doc Pomus, he owes that chance not to a musician but to Hall of Fame ballplayer Ted Williams, the “Splendid Splinter.”

Over the summer of 1965, Ross attended a Williams baseball camp in Massachusetts for kids who believed they were good enough to dream, or if they weren’t, dreamed anyway. “I was 16 and talked my parents into sending me. I desperately wanted to be a big-league ballplayer,” says Ross, who’d been given an eight-dollar acoustic about the same time, but wasn’t serious about it. On the final day of camp, all the kids stood in line to have the last man to bat .400 in the major leagues critique their swings. One by one, they’d step to the plate, take their cuts, and the Fenway icon would pass judgment.

And, one by one—Voila!—kids heretofore flummoxed were smashing the ball to all fields. “Guys who couldn’t buy a base hit with a government grant would suddenly be hitting screaming line drives,” remembers Ross. Then it was young Robert’s turn. He couldn’t wait, he said, “for the doctor to fix what ails my hitting. I wanna be a feared slugger!” Ross hit a nubbler to the mound, fouled one to the top of the batting cage, and swung at and missed another. Turning to Williams for the insight that only a man with 20/10 vision and a .344 lifetime batting average could provide, Ross waited for the diagnosis. “He said, ‘Kid, you have a perfect swing. I have no idea why you can’t  hit the ball.’”

And that was it.

“I owe my music career to Ted Williams’s analysis of my swing,” concludes Ross. “A year later, I decided to swing with the blues. One dream dies, another dream is born.”   ❖

Rafael Alvarez met Robert Ross in 1981 when Alvarez was covering blues for the Baltimore Sun. A former staff writer for the HBO drama The Wire, Alvarez is the author of a dozen books, both fiction and nonfiction, about Baltimore.

Highlights