2018 Keeping the Blues Alive Award Recipients – (L-R: Peter Noble/Bluesfest Byron Bay, Brian Kelm, Tim Fik, Lucky Clark, Albertina Wassenhove, Davide Grandi/European Blues Union, Jay Meduri/Poor House Bistro, Sarah Petska & Don Hooker/Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival, Jonas Bernholm, and Mark Grubbs from the Blues Society of Omaha)
*Recipients not pictured: Gary & Gillian Atkinson and Rueben Williams
Gary and Gillian Atkinson own the independent roots music label Document Records. Based in the United Kingdom, it is known for specializing in the issue and reissue of early recordings of American blues, gospel, spirituals, jazz, and old-timey music, covering the complete recorded works of artists, presented in chronological order. Originally created in 1985, Document Records reputedly has the largest catalogue of its kind in the world. The Atkinsons continue to dedicate themselves to making this rich musical heritage available. With the enthusiastic help and support of collectors, writers, and historians around the world, their work has ensured the continuing accessibility of thousands of recordings, many of them extremely rare, that would have otherwise been lost or at the very least relegated to record-company vaults. The Atkinsons have donated the entire Document Records catalogue of more than 25,000 recordings to the Samuel and Ann Charters Archives of Blues and Vernacular African-American Musical Culture at the University of Connecticut’s Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. The donated works include previously unreleased music and other audio media produced between the late 1800s and the 1960s. The addition of the Document catalogue helps complete the Charters Archives’ holdings of traditional blues recordings. As the Atkinsons release new productions of early blues recordings, they will add them to the Charters Archives, continuing to help pass the legacy of blues recordings to future generations. The newly designed Document Records online store is also a valuable source of information for researchers and radio programmers, and does much to raise the recognition of the blues to its deserved position of prominence.
Jonas Bernholm, hailing from Stockholm, Sweden, has been instrumental in sharing blues music. An 84-day, 10-city field trip in 1968, focusing on bluesy Southern deep soul music, was life-changing for him. In Memphis — the high point — he was guided by Estelle Axton and visited recording sessions at Stax, American Sound Studio, Royal Studios, Sun, etc. Beginning in 1976, Bernholm started a number of record labels including Route 66, Mr. R&B, Stockholm, Bluesboy, Crown Prince, Saxophonograph, Jukebox Lil, Gospel Jubilee, and Earth Angel, among others. From 1978 through 1983, Bernholm arranged European tours for pioneers of Rhythm & Blues including Roy Brown, Charles Brown, Jimmy McCracklin, Ruth Brown, Roscoe Gordon, and Nappy Brown, to name a few. Throughout his years as a record producer, Bernholm made sure that his artists received royalties for their songwriting and performances. His record labels issued 178 albums during his career. One of his strongest labels, Route 66, featured reissues from the 1940s and 1950s showcasing the talents of Floyd Dixon, Wynonie Harris, Ivory Joe Hunter, Amos Milburn, Percy Mayfield, and many others. Bernholm is an avid record collector, and his 26,000 LPs, 45s, and 78s, as well as artist correspondence, have been on display at the Smithsonian Institution since 1996. In 2013 a documentary on his career was featured for four months at the Stax Museum in Memphis, and in 2016 Jan Kotschack wrote a 360-page book about Bernholm titled Resan Mot Rockens Rotter.
Bluesfest Byron Bay, held annually since 1990 in Byron Bay, Australia, features a large selection of blues and roots musicians from around the world, and is considered one of the world’s leading contemporary music festivals. Originally running for three days, it now runs for five days during Easter weekend, beginning on Thursday and concluding the following Monday. From an original crowd of 6,000 it now attracts annual audiences exceeding 100,000 music fans. Bluesfest has been nominated a total of eight times for Best International Music Festival in the Pollstar Awards; 2017’s nomination is its sixth in a row. Each year Bluesfest presents around 200 performances on several stages, as well as camping for over 6,000 people on-site. Past blues and roots artists who have been showcased include Mavis Staples, Trombone Shorty, Irma Thomas, B.B. King, Taj Mahal, Bo Diddley, Bonnie Raitt, Ben Harper, Buddy Guy, Joe Bonamassa, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and the Tedeschi Trucks Band, among many others. In addition to bringing some of the world’s best blues artists to Australia, festival director Peter Noble prides himself on discovering new talents before they become well known and introducing them to a very appreciative Bluesfest crowd.
What happens when your 5-year-old daughter, who was enamored of classical music, suddenly puts down the violin she has played for a year and exclaims, “Momma, don’t you know I was born to the blues?” The Blues Society of Omaha has an answer to that question. Its BluesEd program, a youth artists’ development program, has consistently promoted the live performance of blues to younger generations, ensuring that this precious art form will live on long into the future. Begun in 2001, the BluesEd program has grown steadily over the last 16 years. Today there are seven established bands in two cities, with more than 50 students. The bands, which regularly perform at Blues Society of Omaha events, numerous well-known local venues, and many events organized by local charities, are in high demand and enjoy state and regional recognition. In 2016, BluesEd bands offered more than 80 performances during their five-month season (April to August). In 2017, the number of performances increased to 104. BluesEd now has nearly 200 alumni, with many actively involved in the blues music scene on both the local and national levels.
Produced by Chesapeake Bay Events, a nonprofit organization founded in 1998, the Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival is held at Sandy Point State Park in Maryland each year. The festival features a strong lineup year in and year out, with past performers including John Lee Hooker, James Brown, Otis Rush, Robert Cray, Taj Mahal, Koko Taylor, Wilson Pickett, Buddy Guy, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Bonnie Raitt, Joe Bonamassa, Shemekia Copeland, Trombone Shorty, and the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Run by Don Hooker and his daughter Sarah, the festival donates 100 percent of its proceeds to charity, with neither leader taking any salary from their festival work. The event, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2018, has over the years raised more than a million dollars for deserving regional charities. The 2018 Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival is slated for May 19 and 20, 2018.
Music journalist Lucky Clark has been a champion of the blues in central and eastern Maine for 49 years. Although he has never written for a big-city newspaper or a major national publication, for nearly five decades Clark has done everything he could to spotlight blues artists in every one of the multitude of publications he has written for, interviewing blues artists and promoting blues events. Currently, he covers music for the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel (dailies out of Augusta, Maine, and Waterville, Maine, respectively). Clark is considered a key player in the success of the North Atlantic Blues Festival, and has supported virtually every club that has booked blues in Maine (and parts of New Hampshire) for decades. He has covered B.B. King, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Walter Trout, Odetta, Eddie Kirkland, John Mayall, Coco Montoya, Son Seals, James Cotton, Kenny Neal, Mark Hummel, Mary Flower, Tab Benoit, Sonny Landreth, Big Head Todd, all three members of Saffire — The Uppity Blues Women, Taj Mahal, Charles Brown, Pinetop Perkins, C.J. Chenier, Sue Foley, Koko Taylor, Corey Harris, Shemekia Copeland, Robert Cray, Selwyn Birchwood, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Since the mid-20th century, professional blues activists in nearly every European nation have been committed to championing blues music along with the artists who create it. Festivals, tour organizers, agents, specialized magazines, radio DJs, labels, distributors, clubs, etc., collectively took on the task of both promoting and preserving a truly dynamic European blues scene by bringing American artists to Europe while supporting the development of new talent within their own borders. Apart from a few scattered international partnerships between individuals, those active in promoting the blues generally worked alone within their native countries. In 2007 the Italian magazine Il Blues recognized this deficit and took the first steps toward organizing a pan-European network of blues activities, and in June 2008 the first European Blues Conference took place, in Parma, Italy, during Parma’s Rootsway Roots ’n’ Blues Food Festival. More than 70 participants from 18 countries attended the conference. In addition to typical conference activities such as networking, sharing ideas, and creating future business partnerships, those present also defined the conditions for the creation of a European Blues Union. These steps included creating a website to compile and administer blues contacts and activities throughout Europe, as well as the development of the Union’s statutes. In 2009 a delegation from four countries organized a second European Blues Conference during Norway’s Notodden Blues Festival, and in 2010 six charter members officially registered the Union in Brussels, Belgium, as European tradition would dictate. By 2010, at the third conference, in Hondarribia, Spain, the EBU presented its first European Blues Challenge, modeled after the International Blues Challenge and open to current EBU members. The EBU currently has members from 26 countries and is made up solely of volunteer, non-paid members.
An academic and teacher, Dr. Timothy J. Fik is a tenured associate professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Florida, where for the past 17 years he has been giving seminars and workshops on blues music while teaching a three-credit-hour course titled “Popular Music and Culture” focusing on the history of American roots music and the blues. His presentations spotlight the birth, diffusion, and meaning of blues music, and its importance as a catalyst for social change. Attention is given to regional styles and hybrids that emerged as the blues evolved and spread out from its geographic origin and epicenter, the Mississippi Delta and the fertile agricultural lands that supported the cotton plantations of the South. The distinguishing features of the various and recognizable subgenres of the blues are highlighted, including the Delta blues, classic blues (with attention given to the blues matriarchy), Chicago blues, Piedmont and country blues, Texas blues, Memphis blues/soul, jump blues, barrelhouse and boogie-woogie, West-Coast (cocktail) blues, Hill Country blues, blues-boogie, rockabilly, and early rock ’n’ roll. Performance attributes of these styles are discussed at length, with demonstrations given on acoustic guitar and electric guitar. In addition to infusing a love of the blues within the University of Florida student body, Fik is also a fervent supporter of Women in Blues and The Blues Foundation.
Since March 1980, when he was a teenager, Brian Kelm has been spinning the blues on KRCL in Salt Lake City, Utah — currently from 8 to 10:30 Monday nights on his show Red, White and Blues. He has broadcast live national artists at downtown clubs and live blues in the studio, and plays local and national artists, new, old, boogie-woogie, West Coast, swing, acoustic, electric, Texas and Chicago blues, and everything in between. As Utah Blues Society president, co-producer of the Utah Blues Fest, and Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise emcee, Kelm scours the globe to bring listeners the best in blues. He got his start in radio soon after moving to Utah from the Twin Cities to attend the University of Utah. Kelm, a Journalism and Mass Communications student, visited KRCL in the early spring of his freshman year after learning about its brand-new launch. “I told them I liked blues music,” he says, “and they asked what I was doing the next evening.” Kelm was given the slot for the last program of the night, during which he’d spend hours spinning his favorite blues records until he decided to shut the station down. “Sometimes I’d keep the music going ’til 2 in the morning,” he recalls. Kelm suspects that during his time at the helm of Salt Lake’s only prime-time blues radio show he’s listened to over 100,000 blues tracks and made handwritten notes on every track of most every blues album in the extensive KRCL library, noting the song’s rhythm or sound. His music preference leans toward the old blues classics but, he says, “I try to focus on living blues to support the touring musicians today.” And, as is the case with KRCL’s many learned DJs, he always has something to teach his listeners.
The Poor House Bistro, located in San Jose, California, opened in 2005 as a blues club and a New Orleans-style restaurant. Jay Meduri, owner and booker, hosts live blues at the PHB with both local and national touring bands seven days a week, every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas, including a School of the Blues jam on Sundays. The club now has two music venues on-site, the original outdoor stage, covered and heated for patrons and with no cover charge, and a newly opened Studio for special events. Often two bands are scheduled successively the same day, one inside and one outside. Many benefits are also held at the club for several worthy causes, both music-related and non-music-related, including for people affected by Hurricanes Katrina and, more recently, Harvey. Musicians who have played the PHB include Frank Bey, Elvin Bishop, Chris Cain, Rick Estrin and the Nightcats, Terry Hanck, James Harman, Mark Hummel, Nick Moss, John Németh, Danielle Nicole, Tail Dragger, Wee Willie Walker, Kim Wilson, and many more. The Poor House Bistro is definitely keeping the blues alive!
Albertina Wassenhove has been running her family’s business, the Midway Tavern in Mishawaka, Indiana, continuously since 1990. Her parents purchased the club in 1924, and Wassenhove grew up with the club as part of her life. She turns 90 years young at the end of 2017, and continues to operate the Midway and book its talent, featuring live blues music on the weekends. The signatures of Pinetop Perkins, Yank Rachell, Rod and Honey Piazza, Kim Wilson, Little Charlie and the Nightcats, and others remain among the masses collected over the years on the smoke-stained yellow walls that frame the stage. Wassenhove has featured local and touring bands such as Rockin’ Johnny Burgin, Doug Deming and the Jewel Tones, Deanna Bogart, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Bruce Katz, Mick Kolassa, Bryan Lee, Nick Moss, John Németh, John Primer, Jason Ricci, Brandon Santini, and Victor Wainwright, among many others. She continues to travel to festivals all over the country to find the next great artist to feature at the Midway. The musicians who have played the club have great love and respect for Wassenhove, as her priority has always been love of the blues over financial benefit, and she treats patrons and musicians alike the way she would like to be treated.
Rueben Williams founded the Thunderbird Management Group more than 20 years ago. Its primary mission is to develop artists and create long-lasting careers in the music industry for those artists. From the successful 20-plus-year career of Tab Benoit, one of Williams’ first clients, to the rapid rise of current artists like Devon Allman, Samantha Fish, and Mike Zito, Williams has clearly succeeded. Williams’ company has represented such artists as Cyril Neville, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Anders Osborne, the Royal Southern Brotherhood, Jonathon Boogie Long, the Honey Island Swamp Band, and others. Through those relationships, Williams has also been involved as executive or associate producer on over 25 records, many of which have been nominated for GRAMMYs® and Blues Music Awards. These accomplishments run concurrently with Williams’ and Benoit’s founding of and involvement with the Voice of the Wetlands, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization. Through VOW’s recordings, festivals, and educational outreach, they hope to bring public awareness to and create solutions for the coastal erosion in southern Louisiana. Part of this outreach occurred in 2006, when Williams and Benoit brought more than 50 New Orleans musicians to perform at the 2006 Democratic and Republican National Conventions.