When I first met Art Lewis in El Paso in the early 1980s, I already had performed with a number of African-American bluesmen. This came about through growing up in Chicago, then going to the U of I in Champaign, Ill., moving to Kent, Ohio, and hanging out in Cleveland, then settling in El Paso and traveling the length and width of Texas and neighboring states performing.
I played with Hip Linkchain in Chicago, Blind Joe Hill in Akron, Ohio, CeDell Davis in Pine Bluff, Ark., and Long John Hunter and Art Lewis in El Paso. Hip and I played a couple graduation parties in the then ultra-white suburb of Geneva, Il. He’d look at those big suburban homes and ask, “Now Dan, how many families live in this house?”
I accompanied Blind Joe Hill at the Afterbirth Coffeehouse in Akron. He taught me how to keep it simple but effective. The first time I went to his house he was in the front yard underneath his car doing some repair work totally blind. It was actually a family member’s car, but he called it his.
CeDell Davis was crippled from polio but used a thumb pick on one hand and the heavy end of a butter knife on the other hand to play the blues. Nasty sound good though. I learned to bring a pint bottle of whiskey whenever I was going to visit.
I have a tape of Long John and myself playing a few tunes on KTEP, me on slide with him playing and singing.
I spent the most time, did the most gigs a dozen altogether with Art Lewis. A couple times I played in his band, but mostly I would hire him and bring him along to my performances. We worked well as a duo. I liked the contrast between myself playing guitar and him playing that smooth, fat tenor sax. With me he wouldn’t do the standard Art Lewis repertoire. I remember at a house party one of the guests saying, “I’ll give you guys 20 bucks if you play a Muddy Waters tune.” It was the easiest dough we ever made. I knew Muddy up one side and down the other, I was playing a lot of slide guitar then, singing too. I think we played “Honey Bee.”
A memorable gig was Art, Manny Flores on upright bass, I think Ace Patterson on drums, and myself accompanying poet Bobby Byrd live on KTEP. We practiced once in Bobby’s garage but basically winged it at the gig, coming up with sounds that went with his words. It was jazzy, off the wall stuff. I had a blast!
Thinking back, I don’t remember having too many in-depth discussions with Art. He seemed to enjoy the duo gigs, maybe because he could just show up and play. I would set up the dates and chauffer him back and forth. He could relax, just be “the guy playing with Dan.” At the gig it was my job to call the tunes; his only job was to find a groove.
He didn’t use me in his regular band. He told me I made too much money already.
I also remember him saying to me that he thought I was a real artist. Maybe he said that to everyone, I don’t know, but it made me feel good. I’ve always tried to inject my whole being into my playing, tried to put my stamp on whatever I’ve done.
I appreciated that he noticed.