I love it when people talk about music–and blues music in particular. But that’s all it is, just talk. If you want to experience the blues in real time, live and gut level; mark your calendar for Thursday, January 24. Proud Mary’s in Kearny Mesa is planning a party to celebrate Tomcat Courtney’s 90th trip around the sun and you’re invited.
As most San Diegans know, Tomcat is a living, breathing national treasure and one of the few remaining bluesmen born in the Depression Era cotton fields of west Texas. His stories and songs reflect a life of hard work and hard times. But when the man takes the stage to play, there’s an emotional and personal connection that only the blues can narrate. You have to believe that it comes from surviving a life well-lived. Hello!…his name is TOMCAT!
Born in Marlin, Texas, in 1929, his family relocated shortly thereafter to Downsville. From his earliest memories, Courtney witnessed blues up close and personal. “My father had a little old joint; they had windows and they opened them up and I’d sit in the window.” As a child he saw a host of blues originators perform, including local Texas legend, Blind Willie Johnson. “Yeah, I knowed him,” Tomcat nods. “But I was small, you know? I saw him play. I saw Robert Johnson when he was playing in this little old place out in the country. Most of them people played in the fall of the year, when cotton work was plentiful. They had a little change rattling around in their pockets. Back then there wasn’t no money, man. Robert Johnson was playing in San Antonio and Dallas, that was about 1937 or ’38. Right after that he died, I remember hearing people talking about it, but I was just a kid about eight or nine years old.”
Perched in that window seat, young Tom would be exposed to the stars of the day. He remembers seeing everyone from Tampa Red and Lightnin’ Hopkins to Sonny Boy Williamson. But Tomcat says one stood out. “This guy had a washboard and inspired me more than all of them. They called him Washboard Sam.” (Robert Brown, known professionally as Washboard Sam was believed to be Big Bill Broonzy’s half-brother) Tomcat just smiles. “Them cats were something else, man. They were good.”
Were you drawn to any specific style of guitar playing? “I was more enthused about Lightnin’ than Robert Johnson. I didn’t think about it until years later. Robert was kind of a drunk; he wasn’t jolly…you know what I mean? He played [breaks into song] ‘Went down to the Crossroads, fell down on my knees…’ like tears all the time, but Lightnin’ was jolly. You know the spirit they put into it. I remember that and the boogie he put into it. He had that ‘don-ta-don’ [cadence] to it. He used that quite a bit more than he do on his records, ‘cause people’s dancin’.” Tomcat begins to smile as the memories flood back. “So then when I saw him, I wanted a guitar.”
How did you come by your first guitar? “Actually,” he smiles. “I got that guitar from a guy who had a garden. Everybody had big gardens and things back then. He had a Stella guitar, the kind Leadbelly and them played, but he had a big, nice one, but it had a little hole in it. I said, ‘I sure would like to have that guitar.’ He said ‘I tell you what, you help me get these weeds outta the garden and I’ll give you this guitar.’ Man, I pulled up every weed out there. I had a pile of weeds that high.” He raises his hand above his head. “He gave me the guitar and I put some old strings on it, and that’s how I started.”
Tomcat, can you describe the style of blues you play? “Well, I tell you what happened, after I really started learning the guitar, I kind of started basing it off of Lightnin’ Hopkins. I started singing and playing and wrote a couple of little songs and there was a guy who blowed a horn and he wanted me to play rhythm on the guitar but you gotta’ learn some chords. I played in G!” [laughing] “So he taught me a lot of chords and stuff, changes and tuning. He helped me quite a bit on guitar. There was another guy named Charley Lewis; he was the one I really based off of–playing by yourself, the foot thing, and all that. He had all that going, man. He never left the farm and died down there. He was old then, when I was just a kid. He kind of had a style like Blind Lemon Jefferson.”
When did you leave home? “In ’42… that’s when I left the farm. The same year they started drafting everybody into the army man, everybody! Anybody who could walk, they drafted them into the army. I was too young.”
It’s my understanding that you literally ran away with the circus? “You see, right from my house [He begins to draw out a diagram on the table.], we lived right next to the railroad tracks, and right up here was a cotton gin. The store was over there and the main store was where you bought everything. There was a creek and a train trestle. Well, one Saturday we went to Waco and I saw Bojangles dancing–Bill Robinson. You remember those medicine shows; you might have read about them. People selling snake oil, homemade wine, I don’t know what it was made out of. [laughing] It’s supposed to be medicine, but you’d drink it and get high, and lay down. [laughing] And you didn’t care! [laughing] Anyway he was dancin’ with one of those things, man. And I would go down to the train trestle and imitate Bojangles every day. I would go down there and imitate the train.” He mimics the sound. “‘Tcha-tcha, tcha…tcha-tcha, tcha.’ You know the train rhythm? ‘Cause there wasn’t nothing else to do, you know? I had my hook in the water and just danced on the train trestle. Then I got a job tap dancin’ in ’44.”
How did that happen? “Man, I saw a car coming out there, and you didn’t see many cars. And a guy come out there and said, ‘We’re looking for a kid called Tom, a tap dancer.’ They wanted to see me dance. Well, at that time my mother had passed and my dad, he was about dead then, you know? I wasn’t nothin’ but a teenager, 15 or 16, and when they saw me they said, ‘God damn! He can really dance!’ They offered me a little deal of a dollar and a half a night and they’d see after everything. My sister didn’t want me to go. I said, ‘I’m going anyway. They’re going to buy me some clothes!’ [laughing] My sister said, ‘He don’t need to go, he’s too young.’ She made the people sign a statement that they’d look out for me, and they did that. And I ain’t been back there since.”
What circus did you join? “It was called the Daily Brothers Circus and Minstrel Show. And they used to call me Red Flaps, not Tomcat, when I danced on that minstrel show.”
Texas Swing music was all the rage in those days; did you ever play that style of music? “When I started in a band, I played up-tempo music and some swing stuff. I just didn’t get into it that much. I was mostly into the boogie style. In ’48 or ’49, when John Lee Hooker put out ‘Boogie Chillen’ he’d just about taken over the country blues jukebox. And then Little John Jackson followed, around 1950, and put out ‘Rock Me, Baby.’
A lot of younger musicians look to you as inspiration and the awards and accolades have come fast and furious over the last 15 years…that must make you feel good! “Well, I felt alright, but I never paid no attention. I taught a lot of people, but people don’t know it. You know the Mississippi Mudsharks? Scott? Scottie Blinn–he’s such a good guy and I taught him. Man, he can play! The boy can play.”
Longtime friend and fellow guitarist, Blinn shared memories of the man and the musician. “I’ve known Tom for about 30 years.” Blinn says. “He has my utmost love and respect. I was 19 when I started learning and playing the blues with him, although he’ll tell ya I was 14. And to this day, when we are in town and have an open night, I’ll still go out and play second fiddle with him. There are so many stories to tell…one story was of a girlfriend he had in Waco, Texas, who ran a little house out on the range, and had bought him a Cadillac. One day she got angry with him and chased him through the house with an axe! He jumped out one of the third story windows, broke his leg, jumped in the Caddy, and drove as far West as he could–to Ocean Beach! Tom said, ‘Man, that woman was MEAN! She had a graveyard of her own!’”
Another San Diego musician, Eric Lieberman, of Blue Largo remembers, “I first saw Tomcat in 1978. I had just moved to San Diego to go to law school. A friend and I went to a bar in North Park called the Mandolin Wind. The King Biscuit Blues Band was playing and on this particular night Tomcat was filling in for lead vocalist, Ken Schoppmeyer. I still remember thinking this is a ‘real blues singer!’
Once I had my own band, the Rhumboogies, in 1988-1990, we played every Tuesday night at Winston’s in Ocean Beach, and more often than not we’d end up at the coffee shop in the Stardust Hotel in Hotel Circle, where Tomcat was a short-order cook working the graveyard shift. Since we were usually the only ones in there at two or three in the morning, the Cat would come out of the kitchen to hang with us, relishing us in his stories of when he was a kid back in Waco, tap dancing to T-Bone Walker and his band playing live, or hanging out with Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Over the next 30 years, Tomcat has come by to see our band every now and then, and whenever he got up on that stage with us, he always brought something that only a ‘real blues man’ could. You can’t really put that into words, but believe me; you know it when you see it. You know it when you hear it. And most of all, you know it when you feel it. I am grateful for having such a national treasure as part of our community and I’m looking forward to at least another decade! Thank you Tomcat.”
What do you think history will say about Tomcat Courtney? “I don’t know, man. I think about all these people like Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone and I hope they’ll think of me that way… He was a bluesman.”
Tomcat Courtney is San Diego’s direct link to the blues. Don’t miss the opportunity to celebrate and party with the man and his music. It’s not a real party unless there’s an all-you-can-eat Texas style BBQ buffet, cake, and special surprises! VIP packages are also available. It all happens inside the Madeira Ballroom located at the Ramada Inn San Diego North, 5550 Kearny Mesa Road. So bring your dancing shoes for Tomcat Courtney’s Birthday celebration at Proud Mary’s Thursday, January 24th starting at 6pm. Ask for a window seat.