March 2006

by Larry Benicewicz

Guitar Gabriel,1992, Winston-Salem, Photo: Tim Duffy

Drink Small, 1988, Baltimore,
Photo: Larry B.

Neal Pattman, Charlotte,NC,
Photo: Tim Duffy

John Dee Holeman, 1996,
Photo: Axel Küstner

Guy Fay with
Baltimore Blues Society T-Shirt,
Photo: Larry B.

Philippe Langlois,
(Dixiefrog Records) and Larry,
Photo: Carol Campbell

Pork related event,
Photo: Larry B.

Pork related event,
Photo: Larry B.

I first heard of Tim Duffy, 41, the driving force behind Music Maker Relief Foundation, through harp legend, Jerry McCain, of Gadsden, AL, who, despite having recorded prolifically over a long life in music, is still not quite a household name in blues circles. I first encountered Jerry at the Baltimore Blues Society’s annual outing, vintage 2001, of Alonzo’s Picnic, wherein he headlined with the still acrobatic guitar great, Roy Gaines. Since then I have struck up a close friendship with the gregarious harmonica player which is much like the relationship he shares today with his mentor, Tim.

“Way back when, Tim and his wife, Denise, came knocking at my door and asked if they could help me in any way,” said Jerry, who had always been suspicious of (and rightly so) of any record man magnanimously offering his assistance, so many times had he been taken advantage of in the past. But Tim nonetheless earned his trust, so much so, that Jerry agreed to do an acoustic project (with Tim’s sympathetic accompaniment on guitar) at an area motel. Recorded on Tim’s DAT device, this undertaking was titled appropriately, Jerry “Boogie” McCain: Unplugged (MMCD 21). Furthermore, Tim was instrumental (and cited as executive producer) in the fruition of a 2000 endeavor, arguably Jerry McCain’s masterpiece, This Stuff Just Kills Me, which boasted of a stellar supporting cast of Anson Funderburgh, Jimmie Vaughan, Johnnie Johnson (Chuck Berry’s longtime pianist), and the Double Trouble rhythm section of Chris Layton on drums and Tommy Shannon on bass. Moreover, when this Mike Vernon (of Blue Horizon fame) engineered affair faced early extinction, as the label (Jericho/Cello, a division of Warner Bros./Sire) went belly up, Tim Duffy saw fit to keep this chef d’oeuvre (now as MMCD 10) permanently in print in the Music Maker’s catalogue (which now numbers 55 albums), as well as Jerry’s aforementioned CD and the less ambitious, but equally fine, recent electric effort, Boogie Is My Name (MMCD 35).

I never really made the connection of Tim’s stewardship of the Music Maker Relief Foundation until this past July when Henry Slyker, a Baltimore Blues Society member, invited me to his ninth annual Pork Related Event, a happening catered by Andy Nelson’s of Cockeysville mobile bar-b-cue wagon. Held on the grounds of his spacious, country estate in Parkton, MD, it had the flavor, both literally and figuratively, of the former Alonzo’s rural pig roast. In years gone by, Henry had drawn entertainment from a pool of local performers including the dynamic Washington, D.C.-based duo of Warner Williams and Jay Summerour as the Little Bit A Blues, but lately, he had focused on showcasing exclusively Music Maker sponsored artists such as Piedmont guitar exemplar John Dee Holeman (b. 1929 in Orange County, NC).  On this year’s slate he called upon two more of Tim Duffy’s proteges, Cool John Ferguson of Beaufort, SC, and Little Pink Anderson of Spartanburg of the same state. I was not only impressed with the breadth of their repertoire but also by their virtuosity. And I wondered to myself how these two guitar wizards well into middle age could have not yet been discovered and embraced by the national blues community. Before leaving I promised to help rectify their relative anonymity with future write-ups.

I asked Henry how he became involved in promulgating this noble organization and he related to me that while he was in Atlanta a few years back visiting his hospitalized father, the latter apprised him of an article extolling the amazing two finger picking abilities of the now late Piedmont exponent, Cootie Stark (born Johnny Miller), yet another unrenowned bluesman from the foundation’s roster. His curiosity piqued, Henry visited the website: and ordered the handsome book, Music Makers: Portraits And Songs From The Roots Of America, which is accompanied by a 22 track CD sampler. With an introduction by B.B. King and graced with scores of both Tim Duffy’s and German Axel Kustner’s award winning photos, the coffee table style tome, replete with perhaps 70-odd brief biographies, reveals but the tip of the iceberg of musicians of all sorts, Tim, for the most part, has rescued from obscurity—Piedmont paragon Etta Baker, Georgia gospel singer Essie Mae Brooks, Joe Lee Cole, an octogenarian Delta-style guitarist from the plantations of Clarksdale, MS, the late Albert Duck, a Mississippi blues fiddler, the Alabama-based singer/preacher/guitarist Cora Fluker, country harp player extraordinaire of North Carolina, George Higgs, Carl Rutherford, a white, Dobro master of mountain music, jazz pianist Cuselle “Mr. Q” Settle, recently late fife and drum bandleader, Othar Turner, Albany, NY-headquartered bassist and singer, Ernie Williams, and late steel guitarist of Newport News, VA, Elder Anderson Johnson, just to name a few. But some more familiar faces are represented as well— Jerry McCain, Pinetop Perkins, Taj Mahal, Robert “Wolfman” Belfour, the late Frank Edwards, Ernie K-Doe, Drink Small, and Guitar Gabriel.

For those with long memories, the latter two have distinct Baltimore connections. Guitarist Drink Small, now of Columbia, SC, scored a minor blues chart maker in 1959 with “I Love You Alberta” on the Savoy subsidiary label Sharp (#101) which prompted a “chitlin’ circuit” tour with a mandatory stop at the now sadly defunct Royal Theatre on Pennsylvania Ave, a venue with which he was already well acquainted as part of the Spiritualaires gospel group, which had recorded for Vee-Jay of Chicago in 1955. In the late 80s and early 90s he made a few forays into Charm City, most notably at Max’s on Broadway in Fell’s Point when the night club featured live entertainment. The late Guitar Gabriel’s (Robert Lewis Jones of Winston-Salem, NC) father, Sonny Jones, recorded a local hit, “Don’t Want Pretty Women” on Orchid (#1211) records at 1814 Pennsylvania Ave in 1950. In the late 70s, Guitar Gabriel (not to be confused with Louisiana’s Guitar Gable [Gabriel Perrodin] of Excello repute), himself, actually lived in the Congress Hotel on west Franklin St. and at times opened for a plethora of blues acts—Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Fenton Robinson, Wild Child Butler, and Son Seals—in the art deco Marble Bar located in the subterranean bowels of the same fabled inn.

Although Henry Slyker is probably too young to recall such factoids regarding such artists in the Music Maker stable, he was amply inspired by the book to likewise champion their cause. A sister who resides in Durham afforded him a convenient excuse to pay a call to nearby Hillsborough, the home [with adjacent studio] of Tim Duffy. Henry not only made a substantial monetary contribution to Music Maker but also offered his services as financial advisor (he works at H&R Block in Baltimore as vice-president of investments) which Tim readily accepted. Since then, he’s been a key addition to the nine person board of directors of Music Maker.

Henry’s expertise in pecuniary matters should not be underestimated. Although it’s true that in the dozen or so years of its existence, donations have mostly come in dribs and drabs, Tim has in fact received at least two separate checks of $100, 000 from a mysterious benefactor who has somehow managed to conceal his identity. And during one particular dry spell in 2000, Georgia philanthropist, Bill Lucado, stepped up to the plate and pledged a challenge gift, also of $100, 000 (which was met). So, it’s imperative that the foundation stay afloat with a “development strategy” (to use Tim’s words) without relying on fickle corporate sponsorships.  In the ongoing quest for self-sufficiency of this institution, Tim also wants to ensure its independence. Grants and subsidies are welcome as long as there are not any restricting obligations imposed--no strings attached.

But aside from Henry, yet another figure recently reminded me of the significance of the Music Maker Relief Foundation—Guy “L’Americain” Fay, my frequent overnight guest here and talent scout for Dixiefrog records of Retheuil, France, run by Philippe Langlois. Since Tim had been going overseas beginning with Guitar Gabriel in 1989 (and most recently with Cootie Stark, Adolphus Bell, and George Higgs), to engagements such as the Lugano and Lucerne Blues Festivals in Switzerland, the Nancy Jazz Pulsations, the Cite de la Musique in Paris, and the (this past summer) Cognac Blues Passions jamboree, it was only natural that he’d cross paths with representatives of serious European blues labels, eager to distribute such a marketable product. After hammering out an agreement with Tim, Guy and his boss Philippe listened to several hundred of recordings of Music Maker artists before ultimately selecting 38 numbers (over two and a half hours of music) that best reflect the diverse talents of this charitable association and then, after devoting almost as much time to the art work, presented to the public this past October a gorgeous two-CD package, Music Maker Relief Foundation: The Last & Lost Blues Survivors. With the twin CDs within resembling spinning LPs, the set had an immediate impact in France, selling over 10,000 copies (not a bad total for blues) and there were orders for this hot item also in Belgium, Holland, Germany, and England. In fact, the overall response was so favorable that Jacques Perin of the prestigious Paris-based quarterly, Soul Bag, awarded this double gatefold compilation with matching booklet its highest honor—Le Pied, a designation which is not easily earned. Incidentally, three of the cuts of this assortment serve as a tribute to beloved, one-armed harp ace, Neal Pattman, who hailed from Athens, GA, and who died this past May.

The story of the Music Maker Relief Foundation actually began in 1989 when Tim Duffy was completing his studies for a master’s degree in folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  One of the artists that he was documenting for the institution’s notable Southern Folklife Collection (which by the way is a repository of Eddie Shuler’s Goldband archives) proved pivotal. The late, much traveled, James “Guitar Slim” Stephens became a conduit to other like long forgotten musicians in the region and recommended that Tim get in touch particularly with the aforementioned Guitar Gabriel. After landing a substitute teaching job in a middle school nearby east Winston, he finally located the elusive guitarist at a watering hole for blacks, a typically run down “drink house,” on the outskirts of town and the two immediately hit it off, becoming business partners. Gabriel in turn introduced Tim to other colorful musical characters in the vicinity such as Macavine Hayes, Mr. Q., Willa Mae Buckner, Captain Luke, and many others of whom Tim made crude field recordings similar to John and son Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in the 30s and 40s and later Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie records in the 60s.

During that time frame, Tim’s father, a lawyer, had as a client audio pioneer, Mark Levinson, whom he represented and won a legal victory, allowing the engineer to continue working in the hi-fi industry. Mark eventually got wind of Tim’s humble on the spot tapes, and invited him to his stereo showroom in New York. After hearing the primitive “sessions,” as well as of the plight of these destitute musicians, he felt compelled to proffer his proficiency in this field. After Mark remastered the tapes, he and Tim collaborated on an eight-artist CD anthology of traditional North Carolina blues entitled, A Living Past. Tim’s relationship with Mark proved mutually beneficial in that Mark could now use the collection not only as a demo of his audio system but also as a vehicle to solicit funds from his colleagues to aid in the personal crusade of Tim. “The audiophile community was generous and by January 1994, I had seed money and a foundation to run,” said Tim in the introduction to Music Makers and he cannot give enough credit to Mark for both conceiving of its non-profit status as well as bestowing the name upon this high-minded venture.

Just two years later, N2K records became interested in Music Maker and offered Tim a position as producer for a new round of field recordings, an occupation which precipitated another lengthy peregrination of the Deep South with wife Denise in tow. This latter excursion also included the aforementioned motel session of Jerry McCain which was accomplished via Tim’s mobile recording equipment of that era.

This past summer, I volunteered to translate from the French a long interview of Tim’s with the aforementioned Soul Bag magazine in Paris during just one of his many junkets abroad and I feel it best encapsulates the true ideals of Music Maker. In short, by coming to the aid of indigent blues survivors, the organization seeks to become a comprehensive, protective umbrella, tending to all the fundamental needs of the musicians. “We are not content to just arrange tours for artists or secure recording sessions for them but also help them to the extent of buying their medications and monitoring their follow-up medical treatments if necessary,” said Tim, who, espouses a hands-on approach be it as their patron, agent, or social counselor. “Aside from serving in this capacity we also want to propagate a certain form of blues which is at a risk of disappearing if we let our guard down. We do this in order that these veterans and last inheritors of roots music can again express themselves and transmit their art to new generations,” added Tim, who has formulated a five pronged agenda to this end—life maintenance, tour support (escorts), emergency relief, visiting artists program, and instrument acquisition. As to the latter, for example, he has enlisted the support of National and Epiphone Companies so that they sell their guitars to Music Maker at cost.

Even at the outset, never bashful about either spreading the word about Music Maker or requesting donations, Tim cornered Eric Clapton in a Manhattan bistro in October of 1995. After informing him about the philosophy of the foundation, he also coaxed him to the studio to listen to the field recordings, after which Eric Clapton became a staunch supporter. Tim acknowledges that after Eric’s boost, his brainchild was truly launched, for without the backing of celebrities, any endeavor, despite positive press, would be doomed to failure. In fact, the current advisory board is composed of many an entertainment luminary—B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Levon Helm, Derek Trucks, Dickey Betts, Susan Tedeschi, Sue Foley, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and the Who’s Pete Townshend.  And it didn’t hurt the sales one bit of the French The Last &Lost Blues Survivors when Tim secured the hearty endorsements of Clapton, Taj Mahal, Morgan Freeman, and Rosanne Cash. To optimize publicity, a little star power goes a long way.

When I talked to Tim recently he as usual had his hands full (beside the children). A full plate doesn’t even begin to describe this labor of love. Not only is he deeply embroiled in raising and distributing monies for New Orleans musicians displaced by hurricane Katrina (Henry tells me that they’ve collected over $200,000 thus far) but also he’s pondering a lineup for the what is now the Third Congressional Blues Festival, a.k.a. “Blues on the Hill” in Washington, D.C., an event normally chock full of Music Maker headliners which is scheduled for June 21. And if such responsibilities aren’t enough, Tim also confessed that the number of dependents now on the rolls of Music Maker exceeds 200, up from 110 just six months ago. But despite these many preoccupations, Tim still hasn’t lost his enthusiasm and excitement for recording and, in fact, eagerly looks forward to new Music Maker releases by Sweet Betty, Lee Gates (his second), and an inaugural, long awaited CD by Adolphus Bell, an itinerant one-man band similar to the late legends, Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller and Dr. Isaiah Ross. And then there’s that “Treasure Box” of new efforts forthcoming, which in scope promises to rival the French (import) tour de force.

So, if you can’t reach down deep and make a cash contribution to Music Maker Relief Foundation, at the least buy a CD. It may be a tad higher price than you’d normally pay, but the proceeds will go to the best of motives—maintaining a rapidly dwindling coterie—all original sources of traditional blues. Because, if you do, it will, indeed, be a gift that keeps on giving.

Larry Benicewicz, Baltimore Blues Society, BluesArtStudio     
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