I can barely recall the first time I crossed the storied threshold of the old brick carriage house, back at the foot of Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown known as Blues Alley. But I do visualize clearly a noontime rendezvous in the darkened club, and meekly asking if I could speak a moment with Mister Willie. This would have been the winter of 1969. I had run away from home, and was feeling my precarious freedom by exploring places my parents probably wouldn’t approve me poking around. “Mister Willie” was the one and only Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith; one of the last working “Stride” pianists of the lost Har-lem Renaissance. The rotund gentleman appeared, and when I stuttered out that “I p-play the p-piano in Stride style,” he laughed and grasped my hands. His were plump, and the skin on them felt as smooth as chamois leather. Memory dims here, but I believe I stumbled through an etude of “Kitchen Tom” by Eubie Blake, and then the master himself flew up and down the keys in a private recital far more meaningful to this witness than any paid show the ‘swells’ might experience later that night. In any case, the day manager caught sight of my frayed blue jeans and said I wouldn’t be welcomed back.
With the passing of time, I can reflect on the keyhole listen- in I endured, not being able to pay the cover for an amazing Tower of Power show in 1989; the swelling of pride I felt when Buddy Guy comped me a barstool-eye view in 1990; the thrill of ringside views of Billy Eckstine and later Junior Walker at about that same time. (Who accompanied me was not that important; what WAS was the great blues!
By 2002, I had a pretty solid Blues band with a historic bent, “Blues Museum,” and we got to grace
the lofty Blues Alley stage three years straight. Since I have formed my New Orleans group ETUFE, my partner and I have been warmly welcomed backstage by Doctor John, Allen Toussaint, and the late Honeyboy Edwards and Hubert Sumlin! Now that even the non-historic live venue where my interim
combo “The Unforgiven” played (with and without my participation for a decade) up M Street has been
replaced by a men’s pants store, Earlier this year, DC City Coun- cil member Jack Evans introduced
legislation aimed at helping preserve Blues Alley. I can only hope the powers that be of DC will be
considerate enough of Blues Alley’s irreplaceable legacy (consider the club’s priceless Youth Orchestra and their exten- sive outreach to the philanthropic and educational community at large)
to keep the “Alley” open for business well into the future!