Fire and fury

Blues hero Sam Myers is the Rocket in the pocket

In Sam Myers' East Dallas space-age bachelor-pad apartment, the bluesman keeps vintage 1950s LPs of Louis Jordan, Percy Mayfield, T-Bone Walker, and, of course, his old partner in music and moonshine, guitar great Elmore James. An honorary lifetime-achievement award from the Sonny Boy Blues Society and three W.C. Handy Awards sit atop the jumbo TV. Being legally blind for years, Myers prefers old radio shows on tape, favorites from childhood--Gangbusters, Captain Midnight, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon.

Myers, the greatest Mississippi-born bluesman in Texas, is at a crossroads. He moved here from Jackson 10 years ago this month to front, on vocals and harp, Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets. Having just turned 60, he's still not entirely sure he feels at home in Texas.

"Most players here like to do copy tunes, rather than develop their very own style," he shrugs. "You don't want to spend a lifetime doing that."

He has just gotten the call to begin work on a 10th-anniversary album with Anson Funderburgh. The record has been delayed, but finally it's a go. "I've been in this business a long time," he says, wearily drawing from a Camel. "A long time."

Myers wrote about half the material that appears on five Anson and the Rockets albums. One of his Handy Awards is for "Changing Neighborhoods," voted the best blues song of 1988. The lyric, he explains, is actually a metaphor for changing your life: "If you stay in a neighborhood too long, you start lookin' like the neighborhood," he says. "It start favoring you. You don't belong anywhere else."

In April 1986, Anson Funderburgh drove to Jackson, Mississippi, in a borrowed van and moved Sam Myers and all of his worldly belongings to Dallas.

"I'm glad he's with Anson," says local guitarist and bandleader Hash Brown. "Sam was workin' a mattress factory in Jackson at the time. It's pretty hard for a white blues band to get anywhere. The realism is not there. With Sam, they've got it."

"I love the old man," says Funderburgh, who performed two of Sam's songs before ever meeting him. "On a good night, there is no better singer I'd rather listen to."

"Personally, I've never really liked the harmonica," Sam says, an odd admission from a player who is easily one of America's 10 best. "I only blow with the Rockets to fill out the sound." With a Hohner endorsement, Myers says he plays harp as if it were trumpet. His belt holds seven Marineband harps, arranged alphabetically by key. Though he plays less now, he's having a new $400 belt custom made to hold 14, including his Chromonica Super 64.

It's said Myers' greatest notoriety is in Norway, a country he's toured often since first arriving in the '50s as a member of the Windy City Six. From Oslo to Trondheim, he's recognized in airports and followed by girls. One fan dubbed him "The King of Norway" with a special beer mug.

In America, however, distinguished musicians suffer constant indignities.
At last year's King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas, headliner Buddy Guy arrived in his Silver Shadow bus. Guy's entourage ordered James Cotton's bus out of the load-in area. And then, before his entrance onstage, Buddy's handlers demanded that other acts vacate the backstage area--including Anson and the Rockets, featuring Sam Myers, and festival honoree Robert Jr. Lockwood, Robert Johnson's stepson-protege.

"With that attitude, Buddy Guy will be pulled back down in a few years by those who put him there. He can't handle it," says Sam, who refused to budge. He then offers a bit of slightly askew philosophy: "The music business--and life--is like a luggage carousel at the airport. If you miss your bag the first time, it'll come round the next time."

Sam Myers was born in in 1936 in Laurel, Mississippi, a swampy terrain 80 miles south of Jackson. During the 1940s he attended Piney Woods Country Life School, a highly unusual integrated boarding establishment: "It was a country life that you lived," he says. "It was a trade school. You could learn carpentry, brick masonry, dairy, or farming. Whatever line of work you would like to obtain once you grew up, you could study. I started in general education and joined the school band when I was 7. My trade was music."

Sam began on trumpet, then switched to drums, with which he marched in a 139-piece band. He remembers visiting opera singers and big-band concerts at Piney Woods. "We had musicians in school qualified to play banquets and social gatherings. Never had to send off-campus for musicians from Jackson or New Orleans."

Sam's mother was a teacher, and his father laid track with a section gang for the L&N railroad. Myers received his master's degree from the American Conservatory School of Music in Chicago, having attended the school on a four-year scholarship. He met Marian Anderson there in 1954, when he was already a working blues musician. A big-city cousin who knew Anderson arranged for concert tickets. "Never dug opera till I saw it live," he says now.

Sam's cousin took him backstage after the concert. The famous black opera contralto worried whether the audience understood the music. "'We are here for you,'" Sam remembers telling her. "She thought that was one of the greatest compliments." Myers didn't dare invite Marian Anderson to one of his chitlin-club blues gigs. "But if she had stayed longer, some instinct tells me she would have come."

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