We had a good time in Port St. Joe, Cape San Blas, and Indian Pass during Spring Break: sunny weather, pristine beaches, friendly people, kayaking, swimming, and selling Secrets of San Blas. I'll try to launch a video next week. Meanwhile, it's good to be back home again. Here I am at the first visitors center just over the Florida state line in Alabama on Route 231.
I don't consider myself a mystery reader, i.e., I don't devour them like free peanuts at Five Guys Burgers and Fries; but, now that I look at my book shelves, there are a lot of mysteries there. And if you ask me to recall whodunit in any of them, I'd be hard put to tell you.
But I do remember the settings: the mystical Buddhist backdrop of John Burdett and Sonchai Jitpleecheep's Bangkok, the fourth in the series which I'm reading now; the haunted bayous of James Lee Burke and Dave Robicheaux's New Iberia parish; the bustling, vibrant enclaves of Tarquin Hall and Vish Puri's Delhi; the dangerous streets and hip heydays of Chester Himes and Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones' Harlem; the blue collar bleakness of Dennis Lehane and Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro's Boston; the segregated slough of Walter Mosley and Easy Rawlins' post-war Los Angeles; the Scandanavian chill of Jo Nesbo and Harry Hole's modern-day Oslo; just to name a few.
So that's why I read them: for that strong sense of time and place that takes you beyond the plot and characters to a new land now uncovered by the author and discovered by the reader often for the first time. It's heady stuff--a real empathetic experience--finding not only the facts of somewhere else, but also the true feeling of its culture and people. That's what I've tried to evoke about the 1930s' small-town Florida in Secrets of San Blas, how it really was in the Panhandle before the highrises and the condos and the snowbirds and the ever-encroaching crunch of commercialism.
Spring has sprung here in the South. My third book, Secrets of St. Vincent, is off to the publisher, and I'm getting ready to return to the forgotten coast for spring break. I'll keep you posted on my trip and some of the people I'll be talking to there. Here's the crabapple tree in my front yard.
February was southern soul music month for me, since I took in two festivals that showcased the talents of some of today's best southern soul performers.
On February 11, Bobby Rush headlined a show with Denise LaSalle, Latimore, and Theodis Ealey at the VBC in Huntsville, Alabama. The show was well-paced, unlike some of these festivals where it takes forever to change band set-ups. Theodis Ealey led off, and I must say that he stole the show. His band sounded great, with the addition of two members from the recently-deceased Marvin Sease's band. Both Marvin and Theodis are among the more polished of the southern soul singers, with Theodis being a bit more pop and novelty oriented, now resting precariously on his "Stand Up In It" laurels. Denise LaSalle, at 72, still sings with a powerful, blues voice, but all too often relies on her more raunchy material to keep the audience envolved, when she really doesn't need to. Latimore always sounds good and always boasts a solid, Miami-based ensemble. Some of his new material is quite strong, but he has to sing the hits--and you just have to wonder how many times he has had to do "Let's Straighten It Out." Bobby Rush remains Bobby Rush--thank goodness. There are still the sexy dancing girls, "Sue," the giant panties, and Bobby's constant jiving--a modern day Cab Calloway, commanding the stage with an ever-present double entendre smirk.
On February 26, it was on to Nashville for the Nashville Blues Festival downtown at the Municipal Auditorium. This was one of Julius Lewis' "The Blues Is Alright" productions that carries a revolving stable of southern soul perfomers as it tours around the country. Like all Lewis shows, this one was well-run and fast-paced, sometimes too fast, as it seemed performers barely had a chance to warm up before they were unceremoniously repladed by the next act. This becomes frustrating after seven bands, but that's the nature of the festival format, so...we continue paying to hear a very few hits from a lot of stars. Sheba Potts-Wright did a good job of warming up the audience. Yet to break out with a really big hit, she continues to provide sold blues and true southern charm. Theodis Ealey was the only performer common to both the Huntsville and Nashville shows, and, as in Huntsville, his was one of the more entertaining acts of the evening. Mel Waiters kept the heat on with his sing-along brand of party songs and a tight band, but I do wish he would give up his preaching rant at each show. As someone behind me yelled, "Save it for church, Mel, we came to hear the blues." O.B. Buchana has always been one of my favorite young southern soul artists, but he's best in a club setting where he can work the audience slowly into a frenzy. He just didn't have enough time to do that in this short set. Sir Charles Jones is another younger southern soul singer, often leaning over the line into smooth R&B. The ladies seem to like him, but I've never been enthralled. For some reason, his performance was cut even shorter than the others, so the ladies didn't have a chance to get too heated up this evening. Shirley Brown remains one of the sweetest voices, male or female, in southern soul music, and she still sounds great singing her big hit "Woman to Woman" for the thousandth time. The show was headlined by the soul legend Bobby "Blue" Bland--"the world's greatest blues singer," according to band leader Joe Hardin's enthusiatic introduction. At 82, the power and smoothness of his voice have diminished, of course, but not the timing and charm of the performance. The band, under Hardin's continuing direction, was, as expected, well-rehearsed and sharp, with Bobby's son Rodd driving them on with his powerful and proficent drumming. Several of the big hits were sung, to the audience's delight, despite Bobby occasionally forgetting phrases or dropping band breaks. A scary moment occurred backstage, after most of the audience had exited the hall and the band was leaving the stage. Bobby slipped and fell a few steps down the stairs from the bandstand. His valet quickly righted him, and the valet, Bobby's wife and son hurried to help him, shakened but apparently not injured, into his wheelchair and back to the waiting tour bus.
Welcome to my blog about two of my favorite things: books and blues. I write books about the blues and other topics.
My first book, entitled Soul of the Man: Bobby "Blue" Bland, is the first book-length biography of the blues legend. It was published in 2010 by the University Press of Mississippi.
My second book is entitled Secrets of San Blas, a historical mystery based on an actual murder that occurred at the Cape San Blas Lighthouse, near Port St. Joe, Florida, in 1938. It was published a few days ago by Pineapple Press. Two of the main characters in this book are Gabriel White and Reggie Robinson, two itinerent bluesmen who are based on a pair of actual blues singers, Gabriel Brown and Rochelle French, who lived and worked in Florida in the 1930s and 1940s. Zora Neale Hurston, who was from nearby Eatonville, and Alan Lomax interviewed and recorded them for the Library of Congress in 1935. Here she is with the two performers in a photograph now in the archives of the Library of Congress. The recordings are still available from Interstate Music Ltd. and remain surprisingly fresh. If you want to find out more about these characters and who butchered the assistant lighthouse keeper, read Secrets of San Blas.
Charles Farley is an author who lives and writes in Huntsville, Alabama.