SPOTLIGHT

Got nothin' but the
blues

Chicago lost one of its best bluesman
when R.C. decided to come back home


By Amy Abern
Contributing Writer

Veteran blues guitarist R.C. has played to standing-room-only crowds who couldn't get enough of him. While on tour with Buddy Guy, R.C. grew accustomed to screaming fans, standing ovations and being held hostage on-stage until three or four encores exhausted the crowd. He earned their adulation by playing his butt off.

R.C. also has performed in half-full clubs to audiences more interested in the football game being shown on the large-screen TV than in hearing the blues. And still, R.C. plays his butt off.

R.C. lives by a simple philosophy. "I'm paid to entertain and to inspire an audience, not the other way around," he says during a recent interview. "I'm not an 'artiste'. 'Artistes' have day jobs."

A New Bedford, Massachusetts native, R.C. works 240 live music dates a year around Cape Cod, Southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. His band, Blues Alley, plays every Thursday night at the Kansas City Steakhouse on Jones Road in Falmouth. His website, www.bluesalley.net provides a listing of his whereabouts through the end of the year. It gets updated as gigs come in. And they do come in, because when R.C. isn't playing, he's hustling business.

"Don't get me wrong, I love the blues," R.C. says. "I love what I do - I wouldn't be doing it otherwise - but love don't pay the bills."

He learned that lesson at the age of 10. The oldest of eight children, he went out to get a job to help out with the family. R.C. worked in a bakery four nights a week, washed garbage houses, and played drums on the weekends. By the age of 11, he was playing percussion for the New Bedford and Fall River symphony orchestras. At 16, he played percussion on recordings with the Boston Pops, Bobby Hutcherson and Duke Ellington. It was around this time that he discovered jazz and R&B.

In his early teens, R.C. was playing drums regularly in jazz clubs with many of the older local musicians. He learned a lot musically, but more importantly, he learned early on not to give in to drugs and alcohol, as much a part of the club scene as the music.

"I would watch these great players screw up right and left on stage, because they were too drunk or stoned," he says. "Back in thoses days, when you played in a club, all the musicians could drink for free, all they wanted, all night. Most of them did. I saw what it did to them - how it ruined their short-term memory, their general ability to play, and I decided right then and there I wouldn't let that happen to me. I never even tasted alcohol until I was 29."

In 1980, a motorcycle accident wreaked havoc on R.C.'s wrists and hands, effectively ending his career as a drummer. A friend gave him a guitar to fool around with, and he found a way to work the instrument by setting it on his lap and playing slide. By the time he healed, R.C. had fallen in love with the guitar. In 1981, he took a job working as a sales manager and handling artist endorsements at the Washburn Guitar Factory in Chicago.

R.C. started making the rounds of the Chicago blues clubs and regularly participated in the "head-cutting sessions", cut-throat versions of open-mike events. A house band would be on stage, and the audience would be composed of 50 or so guitar players. The first 20 would get a chance to play. Each player would get to sing and play a 3-minute song. Half would be eliminated for the next round.

The remaining 10 players would get up on stage and play together. The first guitarist would play a solo, the second player would have to play exactly what the first guitarist played and the outdo him. The third would be required to outdo the second, and so on.

By the time two guitarists were left standing, it would be 4 in the morning, the club still packed. "This is where players pulled out all the stops, playing behind their heads, between their legs, with their teeth - whatever it took," R.C. says.

The winner would get a bottle of whiskey, which was passed around to all the musicians and usually empty in 5 minutes. R.C. won a few of those bottles. To this day he can p[lay a solo with his guitar slung behind him, or play the fingerings with his teeth.

During those sessions, R.C. caught the eye of some of the bigger blues names of Chicago: Big Daddy Hawkins, Roosevelt Booba Sykes, and Carey Bell. Gigging with them brought him to the attention of Buddy Guy. He toured with Guy as a rhythm guitar player; never got to solo. No regrets, though.

"Guy said to me, 'Listen, ... I don't give 100 percent, I give 200 percent. I expect 120 percent from you. If you can't give it to me, get ... outta here,' " R.C. says. "I took what he said to heart and still live by those words."

In 1990, R.C. returned to New Bedford when his father suffered a heart attack. For a year he spent his time taking care of family-related business. When his father was out of danger, R.C. decided to stick around. "I could have gone back to Chicago, but that would have meant starting all over, re-establishing myself," he says. "I just didn't want to go through all that again. Besides, I found I really missed being in this area. It was a lifestyle choice."

Over the next 10 years, R.C. would create the niche that would become his livelihood. As a steadily working blues man, four CD's under his belt, recently married for the second time, R.C. is a happy man. "Not much I would change," he says. "I could be making more money - like that's news."