Roosevelt Sykes is retired. He told me so when he was here playing a gig at the Blind Pig’s “blues basement.”
Now if Roosevelt, known to his old friends as “Keg,” really decided to retire, no one could blame him. He’s been playing the blues practically ever since he was born in 1906, down in Helena, Arkansas, and he was one of the first to record blues piano, way back in 1929 – a version of the famous “44’s” he learned from Lee Green.
But, though Roosevelt is the soul of truth, the statement that he’s “retired” was hard to take. How come, we asked him, was he still playing regular weekends at clubs in Houma, Louisiana (his home now), or New Orleans, or places like the Blind Pig? How come he went on his regular European concert tour? How come he had a couple of recording dates?
“Well, now, you can’t expect a man to just sit in a rocker all the time, just because he’s retired. A man could get all stove up just from doin’ nothin’!”
So Roosevelt Sykes, at age 67, is still workin’ the circuit. And if he doesn’t play bawdy houses, or rent parties, or juke joints, as he did as a young man before he carne to Chicago, with Little Brother Montgomery, both with a degree of fame from their records, it is not because he couldn’t. His touch is as light and sure as ever, his cigar is perched as jauntily as it ever was, his sense of humor is as bawdy as ever (but with that neat little twinkle), and it looks as if he could keep going all night long, if you just kept him in cigars and handkerchiefs to wipe the voluminous sweat from his forehead.
And this year it looked as if Roosevelt was trying to catch up with Lightnin’ Hopkins’ record for blues releases, the way the record companies have been putting out Sykes albums.
First there was a little gem from George Buck’s Southland label (teil your friendly record dealer to order it from P. O. Box 748, Columbia, S. C, if he doesn’t have it).
This one is called “Roosevelt Sykes is Blue and Ribald...A Dirty ‘Mother’ For You,” and it lives up to its name, with his famous “Dirty Mother For You, No. 2,” “Ice Cream Freezer,” “E. Z. Cherry,” and “It Hurts So Good” included.
Roosevelt has a little surprise on this album, too. For the first time on record, he plays a guitar, a hobby he’s taken up in “retirement,” from the ease of his front porch rocker.
The next album was from Stan Smith’s Jewel Label, out of Shreveport, and, aside from the fact that Jewel never bothers to tell you who’s playing backup (we’ll have to ask Roosevelt when he comes who played drums and upright bass in back of him on this one), this is a real gem of an album. Roosevelt is not only in fine voice, on such tunes as “I Am In Love With A Lover,” “Honeysuckle Blues,” and “Too Smart Too Soon,” he also shows his touch on four instrumentals, including “Shaking the Boogie” and “Roosevelt’s Mood.”
Last, and maybe best, of the new Roosevelt albums is one on Delmark, Bob Koester’s famous jazz and blues label from Chicago. And on this one Bob goes back to an older, and perhaps even more famous Sykes era, when he was working with a full band he called The Honeydrippers, back in the 40’s. Roosevelt’s influences during this period can be seen in quite a few of the early rhythm and blues artists, people like Fats Domino and Professor Longhair.
Koester got the very best to be with Roosevelt on this album. King Kolas plays trumpet, and Oett “Sax” Mallard, who played alto in the Honeydrippers, serves a beautiful turn on tenor. Dave Myers (of the Aces) backs up on bass, and the inimitable and irrepressible Freddie Below (also of the Aces) does his usual best on drums.
And, to top it all off, Roosevelt’s old friend, Robert Jr. Lockwood, supplies some of the tasty guitar he’s known far and wide for. (Those fortunate few who were in attendance at Roosevelt’s last night at the Pig remember how Robert Jr. and his wife came all the way from Cleveland just to sit in on one set, and how the sparks flew!)
Sykes and his new Honeydrippers really had a ball on this album, and you can tell it. It’s some of the best “get-down-and-get-on-it” blues sounds put on wax this year. Matter of fact, you wonder how the wax held up.
If you’d like to compare the new Roosevelt with the old, there’s another Roosevelt album just released, this one a Fantasy “twofer,” with one record of Roosevelt which is a re-release of the Bluestime “The Return of Roosevelt Sykes,” recorded in 1960, and the other record of his cohort, Little Brother Montgomery, from the same period.
For a man who’s retired, “Keg” has been a busy soul. We’ll bet that rocking chair has an inch of dust on it!