Fire and fury
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."
Elmore James moved from Myers' native Mississippi--where, during the late 1930s, he shared stages with Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson--to Chicago in the early '50s. Sam caught him at a West Side club called Civio's. "Had Robert Johnson lived, he would have had to go electric," Myers insists. "Elmore's style was unique, but he was doing what Robert Johnson would have done if he lived. The 'Dust My Broom' slide lick--that was Robert Johnson's creation. It became Elmore's trademark, but he electrified it. That's what the deal was on that."
Myers was introduced to Elmore on break. "It was a bunch of guys playing, just like they do on open-mic night now. He needed a band to hit the road with his group, the Broom Dusters. None of the drummers there could make it. Odie Payne couldn't get time off from the post office. S.P. Leary couldn't go 'cause he was contracted by Chess [Records] for some sessions. So I told Elmore, 'I'm just outta school. I don't know who you want. I've got a lotta free time. Mind if I sit in? Tell me what you think?'"
Elmore was mighty impressed, and it didn't hurt that Sam was also from Mississippi. For the next decade, until Elmore James died of a heart attack in 1963, Sam Myers was his main drummer. Session credits are somewhat cloudy on these landmark recordings--including "Dust My Broom," "The Sky is Crying," "Shake Your Moneymaker," and "It Hurts Me Too," all of which have been covered by the likes of Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Even the session notes accompanying the 1992 James boxed set, King of the Slide Guitar, contain incomplete information about drummers on a majority of James' recorded output from 1959 to 1963--though they do note Myers played harmonica on only one track with James, "Look on Yonder Wall."
They also note that Myers played on at least a handful of tracks recorded at Cosimo Recording Studio in 1961, including "Shake Your Moneymaker" and "Mean Mistreatin' Mama." Myers insists he's the guy providing the backbeat on many of the other songs recorded in New York and Chicago, but one thing is certain: Sam Myers laid down some of the greatest blues drumming on record during his stint with James.
Blues drumming is the ultimate support job, out of the spotlight. It requires the drummer to put his ego aside so the guitarist or singer can shine. But listen to "Madison Blues" or "Talk To Me Baby," and you'll hear grooves that helped convince the teen-age Rolling Stones to choose blues as a job option. It's a style few white drummers have ever duplicated.
Myers explains it simply: "It boils down to a tight backbeat with a rhythm section--drums and bass locked together. When you got that, the lead player can go anywhere he wants, long as the guitar don't get outta tune."
"There's lots of snare roll when Sam plays drums," says Hash Brown, "almost a circus quality."
They used to call Sam "Schoolboy" back in the days at Chess studios, where he hung out at Willie Dixon and Little Walter sessions, sometimes acting as gofer. Since the session logs got lost through time, there's no telling how many "drummer unknown" credits were actually Myers or Odie Payne, the previous drummer with Elmore James and the Broom Dusters.
So, his interviewer asks him, what exactly does "Dust My Broom" mean?
"That means you gonna leave," Myers explains. "Get up in the morning, clean up your act, sweeping your tracks as you go. You gettin' out, leavin' town. It's an old saying."
For his own song inspiration, he tries to "catch it while it's hot." Myers recalls making a trip to New Orleans in 1959 only to find his friend wasn't home. "So I said, 'This has been another sad, sad, lonesome day.'" Time stood still when he spoke the phrase, and by night he had recorded for the Fire & Fury label a single called "Sad, Sad, Lonesome Day" at Cosimo's legendary studio in New Orleans.
Sam cut his teeth on the Southern chitlin circuit--the low-paying black juke joints, no whites allowed. "We got to play more places than now, and got to relate to the audience more," Myers says. "The reason they called 'em chitlin-circuit clubs was 'cause musicians played gigs for little money and some lunch--a plate of chitlins."
Yet Myers says the Broom Dusters averaged $125 per man each week, playing five to seven nights. "It was easier to live then than now. Rent was only 12 bucks a week. You had heavy drinkers and a lotta guys on drugs, same as now, but back then it didn't cost as much.
"I never discussed it, but me and Elmore had a side thing going. We made whiskey on the banks of the Pearl River in Mississippi. We never did get caught by Internal Revenue. The still was hidden in the woods. We made our own recipes from scratch. Some people come up and only want the first running we made--that's the first whiskey that you run off, wouldn't give it time to age or nothin'. That's what you call 'grade whiskey.' It would be clear in the jug.
"And we made rye. All of it was made from sour mash. We'd cull it with what we called 'charter chips.' We'd burn 'em till they get as black as that ashtray there, wash 'em off, then drop 'em in the jug with the whiskey, and the whiskey would turn out brown or solid red."
This was "quality stuff," he says, and at a mouth-watering 100 proof, Elmore and Sam's moonshine could knock you for a loop.
"Since it's all over and done with, I'll tell you. We had an in with a couple of cops from Jackson. We sold around the black neighborhoods--$5 for the clear moonshine, $7 for the red whiskey, and that rye, we got $10 a gallon. The still was runnin' 250 to 500 gallons a day. We used a Ford for deliveries. When we got off the road that's what we would do."
Myers says he earned more loot from whiskey than music. While the Broom Dusters toured, the burners were left off, letting the hooch age on its own. They gave up the still after four years, in 1959, after they had nearly been caught.
"There was a federal man, name of Sam Newman, white guy, sent a lotta people to prison," Myers recalls. "He'd say, 'If you're sellin' whiskey anywhere in the state of Mississippi, I'm gonna catch you.'
"One night I said, 'Elmore, seem like I hear a cowbell ringin'.' Elmore said there was no cows supposed to be out in that pasture. Then I looked up and saw a light flash in the trees. And he said, 'Yeah, I hear the cowbell now.' I said, 'We need to turn off the boiler and get outta here. That ain't no cow. That's Sam Newman with a bell'--him and his henchman, a black guy. I coulda picked him off with my Winchester, wouldn't nobody ever know it."
Myers, whose eyesight was much better then, spared the cow-impersonating Fed. Even though "a whole lotta people wanted to kill him," Sam says he died a natural death years ago, and that the henchman was killed in a craps game.
Like other elder statesmen, Myers bore witness to the extraordinary transformation of the blues audience, from black to white.
"It has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, blues has no color barrier," he says. "But somewhere down the road, blacks [who are ashamed of blues] have forgotten their heritage. They've lost something. And what they have lost, that is what the white person has gained."
These days, when not on tour with Anson and the Rockets, Sam Myers is the most eminent regular at Dallas blues clubs--particularly at Schooner's, which he walks to by himself, sometimes arriving in the afternoon. Many have witnessed his dirgelike trek from bar to stage when he's called up during a jam. Nonregulars who block the aisle or touch him risk getting elbowed upside the head, as he clears a path. But suddenly, a local blues jam becomes world-class the moment Sam Myers' deep, resonant voice welcomes the ladies and gentlemen.
Hash Brown, who runs the major blues jams in town, roomed with Sam for two years, and considers Myers "my father, older brother, and uncle." He tries to pit Myers with the best players. If someone doesn't cut it, Sam will berate the motherfucker midsong.
"There's a lotta guys never leave home, sit around and wait all day," explains Sam. "They're not pros. They never take their guitars out, never rehearse. But they come out for the jams. They think bitterly of me, because I won't play with them."
Last fall, Sam was jiving Cold Blue Steel guitarist Shawn Pitman at Schooner's, telling him to "play your guitar, asshole." Pitman's cousin charged onstage and cold-cocked the legally blind Myers and knocked him momentarily unconscious. The assailant escaped the bartender's tackle, and hightailed it out of the bar. The next morning, cops informed Myers they'd arrested his attacker, who was already scheduled to be incarcerated on other outstanding charges.
"If the cops hadn't found him, I was gonna have him killed myself," says Myers, who maintains his old Chicago underworld connections are still pistol-hot.
Seniority is often punished in the music business, but it would be a cultural loss if Sam Myers--an official American treasure--doesn't get the chance to record a solo album while his musical powers are still strong. "That would be the greatest thing I'd like to do," he admits.
He'd fly his old friend Robert Jr. Lockwood in from Cleveland to play acoustic guitar. From Chicago, he'd summon Chess drummer Odie Payne out of retirement, and gather his favorite old horn players. "I still have unreleased material I'd like to see on wax, tape, or CD, with my name on it," Myers says.
And what would this landmark album be called?
"Sam Myers' Contribution to Music.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.