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How I Met Honeyboy

There are some similarities in how Honeyboy and I came to play music, and some interesting intersections in our lives.

Honeyboy, starting about age 8, got his early musical inspiration and encouragement from his parents. His father played guitar, banjo and fiddle at Mississippi country dances. His mother played harmonica. They had 78 records and a wind-up phonograph, so Honeyboy heard a lot of records which became part of his repertoire. They encouraged his desire to play guitar, and gave him permission to go on tour with elder blues guitarist Big Joe Williams in 1932, when Honeyboy was 17. Other than lessons learned from Big Joe, Honeyboy taught himself by watching and playing with other musicians, especially elders. In Chicago, he also studied music books. He had come to Chicago in 1946 (when he brought 15 year old Little Walter Jacobs – who became one of if not the greatest, most innovative blues harmonica players), and again in 1953 to record for Chess Records. When Honeyboy moved to Chicago in 1956, he played in a lot of taverns and hooked back up with his musician friends from Mississippi who had moved here, including harmonica giants Little Walter Jacobs, Big Walter Horton, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) and James Cotton, piano greats Sunnyland Slim Aaron Moore, and Lovie Lee, bandleaders Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, guitarists Johnny Temple, Floyd Jones, drummer Kansas City Red (Arthur Lee Stevenson) and numerous others.

I started playing harmonica at 13, after hearing music by the Beatles and Rolling Stones and then going back to records by their musical influences – blues and soul musicians, from the South and Chicago. My parents encouraged me, and although neither played music, they listened to it and took me to concerts. However, I taught myself to play harmonica from listening to records and watching musicians. I also read a couple of harmonica instruction books. I collected several thousand blues lps, many by Honeyboy’s influences and contemporaries, read all the liner notes, books and magazines available in the 1960s on the blues, and decided to move to an urban blues center such as Chicago.

Like Honeyboy when he saw Big Joe Williams play, I saw Muddy Waters twice in the 1960s, in Pittsburgh and New York City, and a show featuring Jackie Wilson, the Drifters with Ben E. King, the Manhattans, and B.B. King. These musicians’ performances caught me spellbound and were a major factor in my move to Chicago in 1972. I went to see Honeyboy at a Chicago blues bar in October 1972, because I had Honeyboy’s recording from 1953 “Drop Down Mama”, which was not issued until 1970, as the title cut of a Chess compilation of 1950’s recordings by Honeyboy and his contemporaries. I was surprised that he was still active. He and I became friends, and he invited me to visit with him and jam at his home. At the same show that I met Honeyboy, I also met blues guitarist “Blind Jim” Brewer, a Maxwell Street market regular, and became friends with him. He and Honeyboy had met nearly 30 years earlier in Saint Louis, playing on the streets.

I soon realized that if I wanted to hear Honeyboy and Jim Brewer play more often, I needed to get involved in getting them gigs. Little by little I started doing so in 1973, and on a handshake, becoming the manager of both of them. I continued to jam with Honeyboy at his house, as well as with his friends Floyd Jones and drummer Kansas City Red. We formed the Honeyboy Edwards Blues Band to get Chicago club dates. I recorded them along with Sunnyland Slim and Walter Horton, on Earwig’s second album.

In the early days I had no idea or thought that I would start a record label, or get involved as a manager of blues musicians or as a touring musician. I was a blues fanatic, and still am. Honeyboy has often said he had no idea that he would play the blues his whole life, make the records he has, made the money he has, or traveled so much of the world.

Honeyboy and I both got our early musical inspiration and encouragement from our parents. They encouraged us to go out in the world and pursue our passion for the blues. We both left home because of the blues, Honeyboy at age 17, me at age 23.

We both moved to Chicago and hung out in blues bars, and I got to know, (and eventually record) many of his contemporaries and the next generation players, by meeting them in the bars and by sitting in on harmonica with Honeyboy and a few others. He did the same from his teen years into his early 20’s in Mississippi and surrounding states. Hearing his history and music, and meeting and hearing other musicians like him, inspired me to start my record label. Knowing Honeyboy and working with him for so long, has opened doors for me, and I have opened career doors for him.

In his itinerant travels playing music across many states, he met many talent scouts and record label owners, recording for a few and missing opportunities to record for the others. His 1950s and early 1960s recordings got released during the time I have known him. I moved to Chicago, got friendly with Bob Koester, owner of the Jazz Record Mart, and Delmark Records, hung out with him many nights in blues bars, and due to his encouragement started my Earwig Music Company label in 1978. Coincidentally, Honeyboy and Big Joe Williams hung out in the Jazz Record Mart basement during the 1960s, and Big Joe made numerous records for Delmark Records, which I had in my collection before I got to Chicago.

In Chicago I got to know and associate with the various label owners and entrepreneurs. Bruce Iglauer, owner of Alligator Records, Jim and Amy O’Neal  – cofounders of Rooster Blues Records, and of Living Blues Magazine, along with Bruce Iglauer and Blues Scholar/Producer Dick Shurman, Jerry Delguidice – co-owner of the Blind Pig blues club in Ann Arbor, Michigan and then Blind Pig Records, Bruce Kaplan – owner of Flying Fish Records – my first national distributor, entrepreneur Cadillac Baby – owner of Bea and Baby Records. All these label owners had a direct bearing on my path to blues producing and owning a label and to keeping the label going over 30 years.  Honeyboy knew all these folks, most before I knew him.

Honeyboy and I have similarities in other areas as well. We both have a passion for his music his performances, and his storytelling/oral history. He has made 4 cds for my label, and he and I collaborated in his oral history – The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing – a book which took us 8 years and 2 co-authors to complete. He has played music professionally for 77 years. I have known him and played with him almost 37 years, and recorded 4 of his albums in 30 years, out of 57 I have released on the Earwig Music Company label. I have also negotiated numerous audio and film recordings by him for other producers. We have traveled all over the world together with me managing his career and playing music, with our first foreign gigs together 30 years ago, in Canada and in the Netherlands. He traveled around 13 states for 23 years before settling in Chicago in 1956. We have played in many of those same states. He often worked in a duo or trio format, and that is what we do, adding regional guitar players as accompanists. We both had to learn early on, how to be accompanists. We both take time on tour to impart our experience to younger musicians and to folks aspiring to be in the music business.

He has more street smarts, as he often reminds me, and I have more formal education, which he appreciates when it does not clash with his perceptions about a specific situation we disagree on. He is very intuitive and perceptive about people, and I have strong communication skills. Together we cover the gamut of knowledge and experience. He has lots of life wisdom and shares it.

He and I have shared life experiences. He has dealt with the loss of his son due to the consequences of drug abuse, and so have I. We both have seen the ravages of alcohol and drug abuse up close. He has lot of musical and other friends and acquaintances who have died prematurely as a result. He informally helps many around his neighborhood, and has as long as I have known him. He has been a surrogate father. For 25 of the 37 years he and I have known each other, I worked as a social worker in child welfare, specializing in work with abused and neglected children and their parents. Many of them – adults and children, had drug and alcohol problems. Some parents were blues musicians Honeyboy and I both knew. We both have dealt with musicians in our bands and recording sessions and on tour, whose substance abuse messed up their musical careers, performances, and their ability to work with bandleaders, managers and record labels. We share a belief in social justice.

We also both share a persistence and a belief in working through conflict to maintain relationships, as well as to pursue our music, together and separately. Honeyboy has a contemplative side, but does not let any stresses weigh on him a long time. He has helped me to let go of anger and to deal with other issues sometimes. We are both philosophical about life and death.

We have arguments, usually when one or both of us feels talked down to or disrespected, and sometimes about differences in the way we deal with situations we encounter in the music business or in life. We disagree sometimes about whether it is the sound man or Honeyboy himself who is causing him to be out of tune, and about whether I know anything about tuning because I do not play guitar. We also have arguments about money and about peoples’ motives in the music business. We have disputes about me asking him to do yet another media interview, and about the value to him of his doing so.

We share the joy of performance and meeting great people who become friends, even when we do not see them for years afterwards. We joke about our different tastes in women and in food and life style, about our superficial perceptions of people we see, and about the musical talents of musicians we hear. People watching is one of the fun things we do on the road. We also both enjoy talking with fans and sharing stories, though Honeyboy has a shorter time tolerance. Yet sometimes he amazes me about how long he will sit and enthrall people with his blues tales, and sometimes he will say “you can talk as long as you want, after you “get me out of here!”

His story and mine, and ours together, is about our love of making blues music, pursuing our personal and musical passions, persevering in the face of personal and business obstacles and conflicts, working hard to improve, and being committed to each other’s wellbeing and success. We also appreciate the role each of us plays on our journey. We are comrades on the blues highway. One of Honeyboy’s sayings is “The blues will keep you moving!” It certainly has for us.