Today is the birthday of the great blues and ragtime guitarist William Samuel McTier, believed to have been born this day in 1898.
The world knows him as Blind Willie McTell and it’s possible more people are familiar with the Bob Dylan song honoring Willie than the Georgia native’s own music.
“Them charcoal gypsy maidens, can strut their feathers well
But nobody can sing the blues like blind Willie McTell…”
“When I first heard Blind Willie, I thought I was listening to two guitarists,” said Westminster blues musician Chris James, 44, of McTell’s “Piedmont” style. “There’s a lot of bounce to it.”
Adept on guitar, mandolin and banjo, James is a longtime member of the Baltimore Blues Society, which is strutting its feathers in celebration of the organization’s 35th anniversary, established in Crabtown in March of 1986.
The founders were the late Dale (“I’m an Albert King freak”) Patton, Donna Andrews, Ray Smith, Walter Lutz, Joanne Lutz Sisson and Linda Cole.
Patton was the group’s first president, back when some shows were held at the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Hall and Butcher Workmen on Harford Road.
Interviewed the year the society debuted, the one-time bartender at the Dead End Saloon in Fells Point said, “This is one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. The blues is the music that I love.”
At the time of Patton’s passing from cancer in 2001 at age 51, former board member Andrews (partial to harmonica player Kim Wilson) observed, “Dale had the ability to run a major corporation, but he didn’t do that. He ran the Blues Society instead.”
The society “has played a big role in my career,” said James. “My band won [the BBS] local blues challenge in 2001 and they paid our way to Memphis to compete in the international. Out of 50 bands, we made it to the top eight.”
Since 1986, the society has published an award-winning newsletter – BluesRag – and hosted a constellation of deep blue stars, including Otis Rush, Hubert Sumlin, Earl King and Lazy Lester.
Had Blind Willie not succumbed to a stroke at age 61 in Milledgeville, Georgia (the last residence of Flannery O’Connor), the society surely would have hosted McTell at a club, the Eubie Blake Cultural center, its annual Alonzo Bennett “Eat the Rich” picnic, or a VFW or Knights of Columbus hall.
Northwest Baltimore guitarist Charles “Big Daddy” Stallings – a blues society member since the mid-2000s – played more than a few of those shows, either opening for a headliner or backing one up.
“I seen Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player. He was a great guy. Pinetop Perkins, I met him too,” said Stallings of Muddy Waters’ and Earl Hooker’s piano man, who died at age 97 in 2011. “I’ll never forget Pinetop telling me, ‘You’re gonna make it, keep on trying.’”
And keep trying the 75-year-old former trucker does. Stallings has played house parties, Lexington Market before the pandemic and new construction canceled live gigs there, and has released five CDs – including “Call Me Big Daddy” – recorded at Bratt Studio in Woodlawn.
To relax, Stallings plays at home on Mortimer Avenue off of Reisterstown road, “just about every day,” he said, “to keep my fingers limbered up.”
All of this since he first heard Jimmy Reed (born 1925, died 1976) while growing up in Hobbsville, North Carolina near the Chowan River.
“We were so poor we didn’t even have a radio,” remembered Stallings. “One of the women my mother cleaned for in the 1940s gave her a big radio. When the sun went down on Saturday night you could tune in a show from Ernie’s Record Mart [WLAC-AM] in Nashville and boy, that’s when we heard the blues!”
Soon, Stallings’ teenaged brother and sister were listening to the blues and doing the “hand dance” – a precursor to what North Carolinians call “the shag” – in the living room. Little brother Charles was enthralled.
“You take the lady by hand and hold onto her through the whole song,” said Stallings, who, though divorced, is a grandfather several times over (the source, along with his size, of his nickname) and said it’s not such a lonely life when you have music.
“I loved blues the first time I heard it,” said Stallings, who remembered hearing early Jimmy Reed – known for the songs “Big Boss Man,” “Brights Lights, Big City,” and “Baby, What You Want Me to Do?” – at Friday night fish fry parties.
Praise the Lord, no more Arthur Godfrey!
To hear buckets of blues – much of it by artists profiled by society board chair Bradley Alston – tune in to “The Roadhouse,” blues society president Bob Sekinger’s Saturday evening show on 89.7 WTMD-FM. Like the fabled station out of Music City, USA that Stallings and thousands of others thrilled to as a boy, it comes on the air just about the time the sun is going down.
“The blues are the truth, the blues are the facts,” bassist and composer Willie Dixon (born 1915, died 1992) often said.
The facts of the blues for some time now, whether in Baltimore or around the world, is that fans – including most members of the Baltimore Blues Society – tend to be white. Big Daddy believes it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.
“Young people, black or white, don’t understand that whatever they’re listening to today came from the blues,” he said. “Old blues, hard times.”
Rafael Alvarez covered the Chicago funeral of Muddy Waters in April 1983. He can be reached via email@example.com