Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Workingman's Claws - The District

From the District Weekly (2/25/2009)

The era of the juke joint could not be further from current times. These days, a restaurant can’t let peanut shells fall from the table without warning incoming customers of the hive-inducing poisons littering their floor. But long before the House of Blues exposed a few nails and opened a franchise in Disney World, juke joints were the place to catch the dirtiest gut-bucket blues while sipping from a bar where offerings only were as specific as “beer” or “whiskey.” One of the men who witnessed the heartfelt sounds of that long-lost era was singer/guitarist/raconteur Curtis Jack Griffin.

Born in 1930, 35 miles outside of Shreveport, La., Griffin grew up on a plantation picking cotton, corn and anything else sprouting up from the dirt. “I first heard the radio when I was about 7 years old,” he recalls beneath the bare bulb illuminating his modest kitchen. “I’d hear the Grand Ole Opry and stuff like that.” It was in those fields, amongst the warbling waves of Ernest Tubb and Bill Monroe, that Griffin got his first taste of performing. Under the open sky, he became a blues chameleon, capable of mimicking virtually every guitarist he ever heard. From the slow picking style of Lightnin’ Hopkins to the electric peril of T-Bone Walker, Griffin can still summon it all from his gnarled, workingman’s claws with the history of the South clearly echoed in his impassioned shout. “I used to sing all kinds of songs out in the fields. I can tell you about anything you want to know,” he says. “I was there. I can tell you how to make syrup, pick cotton.”

But for nearly 60 years, he has traded the farm for the sounds of car alarms and objecting howls of neighboring dogs in residential Compton, where he moved in 1950 following a brief stint in Texas. “I had a close friend here in California. He suggested I come out. So he sent me a ticket, and I came.” And aside from a tour of duty in Korea, Griffin has been here ever since.

Despite closing in on 80, Griffin is still an imposing presence, with his broad shoulders filling in the football jersey that hugs his body. “Music for me was always secondary. Meatpacking came first. My father was a meatpacker. My grandfather was a meatpacker. But I can still play,” he reassures, after a careful tour of his weathered limbs. Unlike many of those who shared the stage pickled and penniless, Griffin was able to raise a family and keep the electricity flowing. “I didn’t get into the booze or drugs,” he says, with a hint of regret—“but the women! I’ve got like 840 kids!”

Griffin’s Los Angeles tales recount a who’s who of blues. Whether it was backing a pre-Apollo James Brown in San Pedro for a little more than $10 a night or his days with Lowell Fulson struggling for radio play, all of America’s great blues men passed his way. “I’ve played with all the big people. Bobby Blue Bland! Big Joe Turner! Albert Collins! Percy Mayfield! I’m the last of the oldest,” he proclaims.

These days, Griffin spends most of his time with his children and grandchildren. Retired and content, he is occasionally visited by well-wishers from as far away as Japan looking to soak in the stories of a fading past. An early publicity photo hangs on his wall, hidden in shadow, reminding him of those guitar-slinging glories. His enthusiasm for the blues is endless, and he is happy to share it with anyone who will listen. But Griffin does not take to the stage too often. “I play when I want to,” he says. And that is fine with him. But maybe not for everybody else.


Workingman's Claws @ the District

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