Originally, I wasn’t going to write this article. I hate to begin any endeavor knowing that some pieces of the puzzle are missing. But in this case, I have to make an exception, hoping that by exposing the plight of this talented musician, blues fans everywhere might make a contribution to his sponsor, Music Maker Relief Foundation, earmarking their funds specifically for his benefit alone. For he is in dire need of our assistance today.
Little did I know the full extent of his troubles. Just last July, he was in great form (and spirits) at Baltimore Blues Society member Henry Slyker’s annual “Pork Related Event” at Henry’s country estate in Parkton, MD. In fact, Little Pink Anderson was dazzling both with his vocals and flawless instrumental technique on the guitar, regaling the audience with a repertoire which encompassed both traditional country blues and its modern electric counterpart. Also interspersed were soul covers, each as emotionally imbued as the originals.
After the show, I expressed to him just how I was wowed by his performance and I wondered just how a musician of his gifts could yet be undiscovered by the blues cognoscenti. “Larry, as good as you think I am, I can’t even buy my own gigs in the Carolinas. So, I’m looking forward to moving to San Diego where, I’m told, the club scene is more promising,” he said confidently. But according to Amy at Music Maker, this experiment proved of short duration and he is back scuffling on the East Coast. His cell phone answering machine still advertises him as the “Carolina Blues Man,” but there’s been nary a response for weeks when I tried to reach him. And ditto for his most recent e-mail address. So much for the promised and long awaited tete a tete. And, as of this writing, his fate is still unknown.
It would be difficult to write his life’s story without recalling his close relationship with his father, the legendary Piedmont style guitarist, Pinkney “Pink” Anderson, whose musical bag of tricks included old-timey rags, minstrel tunes, and folk ballads, and who compared favorably with the recently departed John Jackson of Fairfax, VA. So inextricably tied they were, Little Pink often thought of himself as an extension of his father and his comments bear that out. In a May interview while still in San Diego, he claimed, “I am doing my father’s music and still working toward saving my father’s music.” In 2001 he was still embroiled in preserving his old homestead in Spartanburg, SC, as a historical site. “I have a project going on to save my father’s house [250 South Forest St],” he reported on the Internet. At Atlanta’s venerable blues club, the Northside Tavern at 1058 Howell Mill Road, where he often appears, Little Pink has taken up the torch from his father, a charter member of this establishment, who christened the club in the early 70s and whose portrait conspicuously hangs there behind the bandstand on its “Wall of Fame.” As early as1963, the eight-year-old Little Pink accompanied his father on guitar and vocals in a film documentary, The Blues, produced by Samuel B. Charters.
The elder Pink Anderson had an interesting biography to say the least. Born in Laurens, SC, on February 12, 1900, he was raised in Spartanburg. As a child, he became self taught on the guitar and with the help of local Joe Wicks, who at ten taught him open tuning, soon proceeded to earn spare change playing for tips in the streets of this latter town. As a young teen, he abandoned home and went on the road for roughly 30 years (1915-45) with a succession of carnival type “snake oil purveyors” popular at the time, including Dr. W. R. Kerr’s Indian Remedy Company Medicine Show, the Frank Curry Show, the Emmet Smith Show, and the W.A. Blair Show, just to name a few. From all accounts, he, as musician, comedian, and dancer, was every bit the Bill “Bojangles” Robinson of these traveling caravans, relentlessly hawking (at a dollar a bottle) an alcohol laced “magic elixir” of dubious curative powers. While back in Spartanburg in 1916, Pink met an older, more experienced instrumentalist, the blind, Simmie Dooley, who became his mentor. Evidently, Dooley, as the authority figure, was quite the stern taskmaster, who didn’t spare the switch while correcting his young pupil in the proper method of changing chords or finger picking techniques. Simmie, with whom Pink recorded two disks (four sides) for the 14000 Columbia series in Atlanta in April, 1928, would continue to hold sway over his apprentice until his death in 1961. Over the years, Simmie and Pink would augment their meager income by playing in and around Spartanburg at picnics, dances, and house parties. Pink also in the 30s joined a large jug-type aggregate for a spell, the Spartanburg String Band.
In 1950, while entertaining at the Virginia State Fair in Charlottesville, he was surreptitiously taped by a blues aficionado, Paul Clayton, who nonetheless had Pink agree to release the material which became a Riverside LP, American Street Songs (RLP 12-611), an album which he shared with Reverend Gary Davis. Pink’s half of the undertaking, entitled Carolina Street Ballads, included classic folk songs such as “John Henry,” “The Ship Titanic,” “Wreck Of The Old 97,” and a rendition of Jimmie Rodgers’ “He’s In The Jailhouse Now.” Although now a prized collector’s item, it didn’t serve to further any new recording aspirations and, in fact, after a long hiatus, during the decade of the 50s, Pink joined up with yet another soon to be anachronismthe Chief Thundercloud Medicine Show, then still a popular attraction at county fairs throughout the South. By the late 50s however, he had to severely curtail his wandering ways due to health issues. Nevertheless, during this time frame, he took up with another Spartanburg guitarist of note, Charles Henry “Baby” Tate (1916-1972). This familiar duo became fixtures at all the regional house parties of that period.
As the 60s dawned, Pink, like so many of the surviving first generation bluesmenMississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Son House, Furry Lewis, and Sleepy John Estes-- were rediscovered during the folk revival and, at the very least, his recording career was resurrected. Although mostly home bound during the period 1961-63 (except for excursions to New York City recording facilities), he would go on to record no less than four fine traditional Piedmont blues efforts. In 1961 was issued Pink Anderson: Volume 1: Carolina Bluesman for Prestige/Bluesville (BV1038); the next year, was a live project, recorded (with Baby Tate) in Spartanburg, Pink Anderson: Carolina Medicine Show Hokum & Blues for Folkways (FS 3588); which was followed closely by Pink Anderson: Volume 2: Medicine Show Man, also for Prestige/Bluesville (BV 1051). His final album also for the latter label was The Blues Of Pink Anderson: Ballad & Folksinger, Volume 3 (BV 1071).
Although rather underappreciated stateside, Pink Anderson was revered abroad; so much so, that in 1965 guitarist and blues aficionado, Syd Barrett of Cambridge, England, out of enormous respect, borrowed his first name and juxtaposed it to that of equally obscure Tarheel street musician Floyd “Dapper Boy” Council (1911-1976) creating Pink Floyd. Few people today can recall its R&B roots (when it was lumped in together with similar British Invasion bands such as the Animals and Rolling Stones), as Pink Floyd gradually evolved into a psychedelic band and finally into an art rock group in the 70s noted for its overblown, grandiose studio arrangements.
Despite being destitute and in declining health, Pink managed to tour widely, especially on the college circuit even up to his death of a heart attack in 1974, appearing during one notable 1973 swing (with Paul Geremia as the opener) throughout the Northeast at the Salt Coffeehouse in Newport, RI, Yale University in New Haven, CT, the Folklore Center in NYC, Harpur College in Binghamton, and Kirkland College in Clinton, NY.
Alvin “Little Pink” Anderson was born in Spartanburg, SC, on July 13, 1954. Encouraged by his father who furnished him a miniature guitar (which is prominently displayed in the aforementioned documentary), he was hardly out of diapers when he was picking songs like “St. James Infirmary” and “In The Jailhouse Now,” the latter tune proving to be prophetic. Soon thereafter, he was dutifully tagging along with Pink Sr. during his last go round of the carnival circuit. Sufficiently proficient even in the electric guitar by the late 60s, Little Pink claimed to have been recruited by the then hot Atlantic recording artist, Clarence Carter (now of “Strokin’” fame) for his road band only to be summarily dismissed when the truth about his age was revealed.
But by his late teens, Little Pink began running with the wrong crowd in Spartanburg, which was involved in drugs, robberies, and burglaries. At eighteen in 1972, much to the chagrin of his father (who died while he was in prison), he was incarcerated for the first time, and spent nearly the whole decade behind bars, netting additional time for an escape attempt. But there was a silver lining to this tragic waste of a life - Little Pink was able to “woodshed” on a daily basis and perfect his guitar technique; so much so, that, according to Tim Duffy, he became a favorite of the warden, who staged many concerts for the amusement of the inmates. Little Pink was probably listening to a lot of blues as well, as his stinging staccato licks and formidable string bending abilities now strongly suggested an influence by the late Albert Collins.
In commenting upon his penitentiary years, some writers have acted as apologists for his actions - his hardscrabble existence, his doting and indulgent dad who was more in age like a grandfather, the loss of both his biological mother and stepmother by age 7, the sudden demise of blues music during that era - but now Little Pink in retrospect sums it up to a lack of maturity. “I used to think the guitar was just good to get a few extra dollars and a woman. But he [my father] told me that one day you gonna pick up that guitar and you gonna take it serious. That guitar will feed you when nothing else will,” said Little Pink in a recent interview with writer Peter Cooper of Nashville.
After his first parole in 1979, Little Pink hadn’t quite learned his lesson yet and had more brushes with the law, culminating in his arrest in 1994 for driving with a suspended license, an infraction for which he received a 33 month sentence. But he emerged in 1996 a sadder but wiser free man, who had finally put his demons to rest. “[During that last stretch] I came to terms with my life and stopped feeling sorry for myself. I stopped blaming others for my hardships,” he told writer Dave “Doc” Piltz in a live interview in Florida. Since that time, he has not only focused on perpetuating his father’s legacy but forging his own career.
True to his word, during the last ten years, he’s been all over the map, making up for so much time that was lost. Traveling often in the company of stellar harp man Freddie Vanderford, he’s a regular at the aforementioned Northside Tavern, as well as Atlanta’s other premier blues club, Blind Willie’s, and further south in Florida, he’s had engagements at the Bamboo Room in Lake Worth. Not neglecting the Northwest, he’s has headlined in major blues concerts at the University of Minnesota in 1998 (the Martin Luther King celebration), the Chicago Blues Festival in 2000, and the July 4, 2002 Mississippi Valley Blues Festival in Davenport, Iowa. And in the Carolinas, Pink still reigns supreme with regular invitations to the Charlotte Blues Festival, the Merlefest in Wilkesboro, NC, and, of course, the annual Spring Fling of his hometown, Spartanburg. Ironically, like his father, he is probably more recognized “over the pond” than in his own back yard. And among the feathers in his hat is a triumphant tour of Switzerland, capped off by a rousing reception at the Blues to Bop Festival in Lugano in 2000.
Unfortunately, despite over five decades immersed in the blues, Little Pink Anderson has precious few recordings to show for it. And what few there are can only give the listener an inkling of his prodigious vocal and instrumental talent. According to Tim Duffy, he at one time recorded a cassette, Blues Legacy, which he used as a calling card and sold out of the trunk of his car. There may not be any copies remaining. But thanks to Tim, at least his acoustic abilities are well represented, as he is joined on second guitar by Cool John Ferguson on the magnificent 2002 collaboration, Little Pink Anderson: Carolina Bluesman (Music Maker, MM CD 24), a contemplative and reflective tribute album of traditional songs handed down from father to son - “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” “Bo Weavil [Boll Weevil],” “Betty and Dupree,” as well as some of the first aforementioned songs he first learned at his father’s knee. What’s sadly missing is that definitive electric venture which amply displays his genius in this realm as well. Such a project is more than long overdue.
With the release of the CD, Little Pink Anderson has truly found redemption. He has reconciled himself with the ghost of his father. But let’s hope that it’s not too late to find his own voice, to make his mark, and to finally fulfill his separate destiny.
Larry Benicewicz, B.B.S. and BAS-Journal.