Blues City: a benefit for Big Moose | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Blues City: a benefit for Big Moose 

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In his younger days Johnny "Big Moose" Walker was a jubilant free spirit of the blues piano, firing off rollicking Ray Charles/Professor Longhair riffs and barking out harsh R & B-tinged imprecations in a voice as rough as a Mississippi gravel road and as urgent as a Chicago after-hours joint on a Saturday night. He left his native Greenville, Mississippi, in the late 40s to tour throughout the south with artists like Lowell Fulson and Elmore James.

Encouraged by his mentor Sunny Slim, Walker arrived in Chicago in the late 50s. He quickly established himself as one of the more formidable younger pianists scuffling around the thriving local scene, working with luminaries like Mighty Joe Young, Earl Hooker, Otis Rush, and Junior Wells. Although he didn't record a solo LP until 1984, he did start performing solo in the early 70s with increasing frequency. Perhaps his greatest claim to fame, though, was the series of sessions he recorded with Elmore James for producer Bobby Robinson in the early 60s. In an interview with Juke Blues magazine in 1989 Robinson remembered Walker as an eccentric-looking character with an Afro so big that "I thought he had a basket on his head."

Despite Walker's flamboyance a sense of melancholy always lurked beneath the surface. As he's grown older this melancholy has become more dominant. It's reflected in his increasing emphasis on mournful slow blues and gospel-tinged ballads. His 1984 LP on Red Beans, Blue Love, perfectly showcases this latter-day style: the collection of ballads and slow blues accompanied by an easy-rolling piano accompaniment sounds as if it were recorded at 3:30 AM in a smoky room strewn with half-empty glasses and ashtrays full of lipstick-smeared cigarette butts. Yet there's an implied promise of redemption--a classic expression of blues optimism in the face of despair.

In person as well, Walker became increasingly introspective with only occasional flashes of his old showmanship. Draped in colorful western-style duds or wrapped in an old overcoat, eyes hidden by sunglasses and face hidden under a shaggy beard, he'd hunch over the piano like a blues Thelonious Monk and moan out sorrowful versions of ballads like "Drown in My Own Tears" or "One Room Country Shack." Only occasionally did he pick up the tempo and rock out on a novelty standard like Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'" or Ray Charles's "What'd I Say," and even then the hoarse weariness of his voice imbued the music with deep blues feeling.

Offstage Walker could still leave a circle of friends in stitches with ribald tales from his old days of hard living and fast hustling, but he increasingly seemed burdened by a haunted, irredeemable sadness. It didn't help that he suffered a series of strokes that almost silenced his once-thundering left hand. By the early 1990s he'd virtually become a one-handed piano player; his treble lines still sounded remarkably lithe and propulsive, but he seemed incapable of adding anything more elaborate with his left hand than a few sparse bass chords and an occasional weak boogie pattern. Still he carried on, holding down the Sunday evening gig at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted when Sunnyland Slim couldn't make it and occasionally leaving town for a brief tour.

By the beginning of this year, however, whatever demons had robbed him of his youthful ebullience had also begun to affect his dependability. He'd miss a Sunday or two then show up unexpectedly, looking distracted and disheveled, after someone else had been booked in his place. He became increasingly reluctant or unable to maintain communication with his band, and the music veered closer and closer to chaos. When Sunnyland Slim returned to reclaim his Sunday gig after a hiatus of several months, Walker found himself without his one remaining steady job. After a few halfhearted attempts to secure gigs at other north-side clubs, he disappeared from the scene.

It was widely hoped that he'd regain his equilibrium and find the strength to make a comeback. He'd pulled fadeaways like this before, sometimes resurfacing in Canada, where he said the responsive audience and racially tolerant atmosphere made him comfortable. But a few weeks ago in Chicago he suffered yet another stroke. He has yet to regain much ability to speak or move, and his return to music looks doubtful. Despite the difficulties of the last several years, he's fondly regarded; a benefit for him will be held at B.L.U.E.S., 2519 N. Halsted, on Sunday, August 9, starting at 6 PM (admission is $7). As might be expected the lineup is heavy on piano players. Sunnyland Slim will head the bill, which also includes Jimmy Walker, Pinetop Perkins, Erwin Helfer, and Professor Eddie Lusk. Singer Willie Buck, a close friend of Walker's, will also be featured. Call 528-1012 or 549-9436 for details.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.

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