Cincinnati has the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Country Music Hall of Fame has been a mainstay in Nashville for decades. Downbeat magazine has a Jazz Hall of Fame, which they maintain down in Orlando, Florida. And if you ever find yourself angled into Euclid, Ohio, you can take in all things oompah at the Polka Hall of Fame. Yes, there is a Polka Hall of Fame.
But if you wanted to visit the Blues Hall of Fame you’d be out of luck. Though the Blues Foundation has been inducting performers into the Blues Hall of Fame since 1980, there is no physical structure or facility in which the Blues Hall of Fame inductees can be honored.
With a campaign called appropriately enough “Raise the Roof,” the Blues Foundation is has plans to create a facility in Memphis, Tennessee, as a place to historically preserve and display mementos and artifacts of the lives and careers of blues greats, in addition to others who have contributed to and kept the candle burning for this distinctly American form of music. Besides viewing the modern-day archaeology of the blues and tribute to the inductees, visitors to the Blues Hall of Fame will have the opportunity to listen to and learn about the music that was crucial in the development of jazz and is the foundation of rock and roll.
To make this vision a reality, the campaign seeks to raise $3.5 million; a little more than $1.7 million has already been raised, with $2.5 million being the benchmark upon which construction can commence.
Helping to achieve this goal is San Diego’s own blues ambassador Earl Thomas. Kicking off his mission with a fundraising concert at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach on Sunday, July 7, Thomas plans a series of fundraising concerts across the country as part of his support for the Raise the Roof campaign. “The idea to do these benefit concerts came to me because so many artists want one of these awards; they want to be recognized by the Blues Foundation, but they aren’t interested in building the organization, doing their part,” says Thomas. Besides the concert at the Belly Up, he has three other concerts currently scheduled: one in Portland, one in Mill Valley, and another in Chicago, with other concert plans in other cities in the works.
“All these other concerts will feature blues artists,” says Thomas. “The distinctive thing about the San Diego concert is that it will feature all non-blues performers. I thought it would be an interesting thing to put together a concert of non-blues artists performing the blues. All the performers are friends on mine, most of whom are musicians who came of age at the same time I did. We all wound up getting signed to labels around the same time.”
The roster of performers for this month’s concert lists some of San Diego’s best singer-songwriters, rockers, and country performers, including Joey Harris, Sara Petite, Gregory Page, Rockola, Eve Selis, Lisa Sanders, Catherine Beeks, Bart Mendosa and True Lies, Mark DeCerbo and Four Eyes, Jeff Berkley and Berkley Hart, Steph Johnson, and Princess from the band the Rebel Rockers. At press time other performers were being added to the schedule.
Well over 100 musicians have been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. They include legendary performers, such as Jimmy Rogers and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Of course, such guitar masters as B.B. King, Johnny Winters, and Ike Turner have also been inducted. The list includes a few double honorees, who have been honored in other Hall of Fames. Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley are Blues Hall of Fame honorees as well as in Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Though my research was exhaustive, I didn’t find anyone in the Blues Hall of Fame who was also inducted into the Polka Hall of Fame.)
Spawned in the sounds of the sixties, True Lies, fronted by by lead singer Bart Mendoza, specialize in guitar-based power pop. Wearing his hair in a latter-day version of a Beatle haircut and making his way around San Diego on his scooter, he is dedicated to keeping all things Mod alive and well in Southern California. He maintains that rhythm and blues has been a large influence on the Mod sound and that artists such as Chuck Berry, a Blues Hall of Fame inductee, are part of the sound of True Lies. He says that the members of True Lies, like other rock bands, have spent time investigating the artists and the history of the blues. “We’re considered a pop or power pop band, but blues is the root of a lot of what we do,” says Mendoza. “Of course, we’ll never be mistaken for Muddy Waters, but the influence is there, sometimes in the chords, sometimes in the lyrics.”
One of San Diego’s preeminent singer-songwriters, Gregory Page, performs concerts all over the world. It was nonetheless a bolt from the blue when Thomas called him about performing at the benefit concert. “It was a surprise and an honor to be invited to be part of such a great event with a heartfelt, meaningful cause,” says Page. “As an American immigrant, this country welcomed me with open arms, a real melting pot of diverse cultures colliding together musically. The blues, I believe, is a great example of that. Just think of Porgy and Bess, which was written by two Jewish men.”
Page relates the humble background of his mother growing up in Ireland and his father’s Armenian heritage – how both families endured hardships and struggles and how music sustained them both. To Page, these struggles and their musical involvment are, in some way, expressions of blues music. Though he is not a blues performer, Page will sometimes incorporate soulful slide guitar into his songs or other themes and sounds of old-time Americana into his music. “I’m permanently inspired by blues roots music such as Mississippi John Hurt and Bessie Smith,” he says.
Back in the early nineties visitors to Balboa Park were witnesses a special treat. Among the face painters, tarot readers, and magicians appeared a blues band. The band was good – quite good – but there was something special about the singer. Tall and handsome, with enough moxie to sell Hummers to tree huggers, Earl Thomas commanded the attention of the impromptu audience.
Now, decades later, Thomas has moved beyond busking in the park and is now recognized as one of this generation’s true blues performers. He has released a dozen well-received and acclaimed recordings, with his songs performed by Etta James, Solomon Burke, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Thomas performs all over the United States and tours the rest of the world. Recent concert dates have included performances in Switzerland, San Francisco, and the Czech Republic. The morning I spoke to him he confessed that he was suffering jet lag, having just returned from touring in Norway.
Originally from the small town of Pikeville, a rural burg of no more than 2000 souls in eastern Tennessee, Thomas grew up in a musical family. He is quick to give credit to his musical inspiration: Ike and Tina Turner. Their performance in the late sixties documentary Soul to Soul left a lifelong impression on the future blues singer. A dedicated shower crooner, his lack of confidence for years kept him from performing in public until one night – exactly 30 years ago while he was a pre-dental student at Humbolt State College – a friend asked Thomas to accompany him to a jam session. He describes that night of participating in the jam as break-through, opening up his ability to perform in public.
Whether with a six-piece blues band or a single guitar player, Thomas always maintains a high level of energy, singing with his rough-hewn high-registered baritone. His repertoire includes standards of old blues, R&B, contemporary ballads, and original compositions. When he covers a popular tune, he rearranges it to suit his singing style. The Eagle’s “Take It to the Limit” gets a soulful treatment from Thomas. He has interpreted the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” as a full-tilt R&B number. He has also pared the arrangement down to a simple yet powerful duo of just him and a Dobro player.
Talking to Thomas is like surfing the Internet during an extreme coffee jag. He peppers his conversations with allusions and references to the American Civil Rights Movement, how people dress in Norway, the local music scene, growing up in a small town, and local music lore. As an African-American, he feels a special connection to the blues. “Blues is our only link to our ancestral past,” he says. “When you enslave a people for 400 years and take away everything they have – their language, their culture – what do they have left? They couldn’t take away their music.”
Thomas waxes enthusiastic for the upcoming show at the Belly Up. “It’s going to be interesting to hear what these musicians have to offer the blues,” he says. “And I’m working on the Chicago concert schedule. If we do one of these concerts a month, by the end of the year we’ll have a sizable contribution to the cause.”
Don’t miss Earl Thomas, along with Joey Harris, Sara Petite, Gregory Page, Rockola, Eve Selis, Lisa Sanders, Bart Mendoza & True Stories, Mark DeCerbo & Four Eyes, Billy Watson, Berkley Hart, Steph Johnson, Syreeta, Princess, Jesse Johnson, and Garbo, at the Belly Up (143 S. Cedros, Solana Beach) on Sunday, July 7, 7pm, as they raise the roof for the Blues Hall of Fame.