Photos and Text
by Larry Benicewicz
Nowadays, you can’t really report about Captain Luke without mentioning his partner, Macavine Hayes. Since the departure of Guitar Gabriel (see Part I), they have become increasingly inseparable and even have toured in tandem both here and abroad on many occasions.
True bluesmen they both are but as alike as yin and yang. Firstly, Captain Luke, though pushing 80 is still a sharp dresser, the proverbial paragon of sartorial splendor. Hardly ever without his vest and tie, his yachting cap is always kept a bright white, his shirt starched, and his pants pleated; whereas his longtime colleague appears always disheveled or rumpled as if he had just gotten out of bed. In addition, Captain Luke always prides himself on keeping fit (which may explain his longevity) and, as mentioned before, he was a jogger until a knee injury prevented him from further exercising in this manner. Even when taking a nip, he partakes in moderation. Not so with Macavine, who is an inveterate chain smoker and serial drinker and thus appears older than his 64 years. These two deeply rooted habits may also explain why his gravelly, whisky voice is the antithesis of Luke’s mellow, resonant baritone. But despite their differences, they need each other. Macavine’s a great guitar accompanist and Luke’s a fine crooner and together they make beautiful blues music. That’s for sure.
Unlike Captain Luke, who is articulate and can produce a fairly straightforward, detailed, linear narrative of his life (despite the many humorous digressions and anecdotes), Macavine Hayes presents a challenge to any reviewer and for many reasons. First and foremost, his thick accent with odd cadences (he may be of West Indian ancestry) coupled with his raspy voice make him fairly unintelligible to anyone save his closest associates. “I interviewed him for three hours one day and I was only able to decipher about eight sentences,” said Baltimore Blues Society’s Henry Slyker, who is on the board of directors and financial advisor to Music Maker Relief Foundation. Denise, the wife of Tim Duffy, the founder of this charitable organization, told me that his speech was something I’d have to get used to. But after having spent nearly a day with this obliging, good-natured, actually endearing chap with such a sunny disposition, I wondered just how much longer it would take to become accustomed to his dauntingly husky delivery, try as he might to communicate with me. It was particularly frustrating when he’d launch into a droll blues story and then utter a punch line, which was invariably incomprehensible to me, but after which both he and Luke would slap their knees in a grand guffaw. I didn’t want to spoil things by not laughing along with them.
Macavine Hayes, also unlike his counterpart, also does not care too much about volunteering information. It’s not that he, like the fairly expansive Captain Luke, is not proud of his heritage, it’s just that Macavine is probably more interested in living for today, for the moment to be exact. He’ll answer direct questions with regard to his past exploits without any embellishments but obviously he’s more concerned about where the soiree will be held that day. Let’s say that he’s the classic example, the epitome of the hard drinking, hard living bluesman. “Show me the way to the next whisky bar. Oh, don’t ask why” - if I can borrow a line from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, which was immortalized by the late Jim Morrison of the Doors, who tragically ascribed to a similar philosophy.
And as a result of his numerous encounters with the bottle over the years, Macavine had lost some of his memory. His lifestyle definitely had taken its toll on his faculties. But there were enough indelible recollections remaining with which I could construct a modest biography.
Macavine Hayes was born June 3, 1943 in the small town of Jasper, FL, in Hamilton County, which is situated near the Georgia border about halfway between Tallahassee and Jacksonville. He was the oldest of ten children - five boys and five girls - in a family that was dirt poor; so much so that they all had to sharecrop in order to survive. According to him, as young boy, some summers he would go to his grandfather’s farm down south in Marathon where he would listen to an old Victrola playing Blind Boy Fuller 78s. This is in turn inspired him to take up the guitar with which he would join relatives at cookouts, rent parties, and fish fries, playing music from dusk to dawn. In the early 50s, his father bought a portable radio and soon he was listening to late night broadcasts over the highly influential WLAC, a clear channel, far reaching 50,000 watt powerhouse out of Nashville, one of the first stations to promote black music over the airwaves. Ironically, for the most part, they were the white pioneering DJs - Gene Nobles, Bill “Hoss” Allen, and John R. (Richbourg) - who were plugging R&B and gospel records which could be then purchased via mail order from Randy’s (Randy Wood, founder of Dot Records) Record Shop in Gallatin, TN, or Ernie’s (Ernie Young, head of Nashboro records - Excello, Nashboro, Nasco) Record Mart in Nashville. “As far as blues went, I really liked the music of B.B. King, Jimmy Reed, and John Lee Hooker. But I also went for gospel groups like the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama,” said Macavine, who, along with Adolphus Bell, a one-man-band (and another artist on the Music Maker roster), would accompany this latter renowned spiritual quintet to Australia for a concert four decades later. In fact, the Five Blind Boys cast such a spell over this young listener, that he soon joined a local quartet as both singer and guitarist - the Gospel Crusaders.
In the early 60s came a fateful meeting in Tampa, FL, with Guitar Gabriel, who convinced him to chuck everything and hit the road for fun and adventure. It was to be a firm friendship which endured until the latter’s death in 1996. According to Macavine, they led a hobo’s existence for about a decade playing for tips on street corners, picking up gigs in drink houses, and finding lodging catch as catch can in the Southeast - Atlanta and Augusta, GA, North and South Carolina, and, of course, Florida.
By the mid-70s, the duo, evidently tiring of this peripatetic existence, had settled down in Winston-Salem, NC, and according to Tim Duffy actually started a drink house of their own on Claremont St, where they, themselves, would entertain the customers. “I can tell you that sometime after I got back from New York to take care of my father (1972), they became a real [sic] popular act. There was a lot of competition between us,” said Captain Luke. When Tim Duffy “discovered” Guitar Gabriel in that run down drink house in 1989, the encounter not only led to Captain Luke but also to another seasoned veteran of the same scene - Macavine.
In fact, Tim thought so highly of this “find” that he saw fit to record him in 2000, which resulted in his first and only album - Macavine Hayes: Drinkhouse on the Music Maker label (MM CD 53) - a 2005 release which is still in print. Macavine is joined on this project by Tim Duffy and the aforementioned Cool John Ferguson on guitars, as well as Michael Parrish on piano, Ardie Dean on drums, and the ubiquitous Whistlin’ Britches (Haskel Thompson) with his percussive “mouth clicking.”
This CD is about as “down home” as it gets. Macavine is not a virtuoso on the guitar and he never pretended to be. For the most part, he strums along rhythmically to his singing, rather than picks. And when he does attempt a few string bending riffs, he, to his credit, stays well within himself, never tackling a too ambitious solo. The supporting cast sympathetically backs him, stays in the background, and never tries to show him up. But this raw and rough hewn approach is the real thing, eminently more preferable than a slick studio production of today which is customarily replete with overdubs and other sophisticated special effects. This is the music that clients expect to hear live and direct in a drink house. And this spontaneity, still a bit ragged around the edges, is an essential ingredient which is missing, or I should say electronically deleted, in most latter day recordings.
In Drinkhouse, Macavine pays homage to the three great musical influences of his life. First, the early traditional blues, perhaps that he heard over his grandfather’s Victrola, are represented by “Matchbox Blues” and “Snatch That Thing.” Secondly, there are many examples of material that may have been aired over WLAC in the 50s, when Macavine became enthralled with more modern blues and R&B - Chuck Berry’s “Goodbye Johnny B.Goode,” Rosco Gordon’s signature “Just A Little Bit,” Ray Charles’s 1953 “Comeback Baby,” and Lloyd Price’s “Miss Claudie,” a version of his “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” Another candidate of this collection - “Have You Ever Been Mistreated?” - might actually be a variation of pianist Eddie Boyd’s “Five Long Years” from this same era. Finally in tribute to his gospel years, Macavine includes no less than three spiritual numbers - “I Got Jesus,” “Where Jesus Is,” and “God Is Real.” “We’d play blues in the drink house on Saturday nights and the next day we’d be performing in church,” said Macavine with a wink. By the way, “Snatch That Thing” is included in the recently released DixieFrog (French) CD compilation, Drink House/Church House, which ably acknowledges this phenomenon, as does a 2003 Martin Scorsese hosted documentary, The Blues: A Musical Journey on PBS, featuring Bobby Rush in the Richard Pearce directed episode, The Road To Memphis.
Both Captain Luke and Macavine would have been greatly disappointed if they, the self-styled ambassadors of goodwill for Winston Salem, could not have personally escorted us to a real drink house, the ultimate purpose of our journey. So, after all the interviews were exhausted, Captain Luke and Macavine hopped in the Buick and both said in unison, “Follow us.” We expected that the drive wouldn’t be much of a challenge; after all, we were tailing a soon to be octogenarian. But we soon found out that the good Captain had a lead foot. And, despite the fact that Guy had a fully loaded, brand new rental, we still might have lost them had they not pulled up to a convenience store to pick up a pack of smokes for Macavine. After a long ride through a residential area, we finally turned into a driveway on the outskirts of town and I wondered to myself why we were again stopping. Then Captain Luke got out and hollered, “We’re here.”
Along side of us was an abandoned 70s vintage car in front of a dilapidated, weather beaten garage and Captain Luke directed us to an unmarked storm door to what appeared to be a carport which was now enclosed. This was, indeed, the drink house.
Upon entering, we saw on the left an apparatus which was either a PA system or DJ equipment and perhaps a half dozen round tables clustered together on a concrete floor, each without matching chairs or tablecloths. To the rear and on the right was a tiny unisex toilet. And on the left, a refrigerator/freezer contained an ample supply of cheap beer. Between the two, was a TV set, seemingly placed on a stand as an afterthought. Nothing fancy here and absolutely nothing hanging on the walls - logos, advertisements, neons, etc. to suggest that this was a saloon. Save for the surplus of furniture, it could have passed for any family’s den or sheltered patio.
We were greeted by the middle-aged proprietress of this establishment, Marian, a mild mannered, affable woman who seemed a bit world weary. Although she was friendly enough, you got the feeling that she was also “no nonsense,” that you wouldn’t want cross this formidable figure when push came to shove. Since we had never been in such an urban (or maybe in this case suburban) juke joint, we naturally peppered her with questions about how it functioned. Yes, she lived close at hand in the adjacent main house which was ordinarily off limits to the customers, who were mostly her age or older. Although she was open for business at all hours nearly every day, most clients come later in the day and leave in the wee hours of the morning. If she weren’t open, there were several other “discrete” drink houses, equally camouflaged, in the vicinity that might be. “And don’t even ask about tabs here. It’s cash on the barrelhead or you don’t leave,” she said with a feigned menacing gesture, her hands on her hips. But I know she meant it.
In the meantime, Macavine and Captain Luke were making themselves at home, each with a cold brew. For them, it was like being at home and they were completely comfortable in these surroundings (whereas I felt like I was stepping on eggshells). After a couple of beers, Macavine left to bring in his amplifier and guitar. “Might as well show you how it really is,” said the Captain. Soon the duo was serenading us with a fine rendition of Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie.” But they weren’t through with the demonstration just yet. “Marian, bring us a little of your home made special, baby,” added Captain Luke with a sly smile. Call it what you will - mountain dew, white lightning, or corn liquor - whatever it was, it packed a wallop. If 100 proof meant 50% alcohol, this concoction must have been at least 150 proof. I could not drink more than one swallow.
The Captain and especially Macavine had no such problems imbibing a few shots of this fire water. Evidently, this particular libation had always been a staple of the drink house, an easily affordable high and thus a popular request. No wonder that there were so few bars in Winston-Salem or in North Carolina for that matter. But it still seemed odd that such private lounges were not scrutinized more by the authorities, or even raided for serving such alcoholic beverages which were not taxed. Does anyone remember the “revenuers” pursuing the bootleggers in such movies as Thunder Road?
But I guess this laissez faire policy is what makes the drink house what it is - an institution unique to the South, which one day, I’m sure, will go the way of brothels of yore. Coming back to Baltimore with its well regulated, and for the most part, expensive watering holes was comparable to returning to another planet. I remembered how much ruckus and public outcry there is every time someone here proposes an after hours joint or even to extend an existing bar’s hours of operation. I’m just grateful that Captain Luke and Macavine Hayes graciously showed me how another, less fortunate, segment of society manages to get by.
----- Larry Benicewicz, Baltimore Blues Society
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