I was looking forward to using this “letter” to tell you more about Alligator’s adventures with Johnny Winter in the 1980s. Instead, like too many times before, I’m going to use it to talk about some old friends who left us in the last few weeks. This has been a year of way too many funerals.
Katie Webster was one of the most joyous, full-of-life people I’ve known. She loved performing more than anything else in the world; the spotlight was her natural home. Just like onstage, offstage she was always the center of attention, a bundle of energy, joking, flirting, teasing, gossiping, and spreading love to everyone around her. Her music, melding blues, R&B, swamp pop, gospel, ballads, soul and boogie woogie, was always wonderful and fresh and spontaneous. When we signed her in the late ’80s, she had already spent a 30-year career as a Louisiana studio player, Otis Redding band member, and as a solo artist with a well-established audience in Europe. Her three Alligator albums, and her string of U.S. concert and club appearances (including her exuberant contributions to the Alligator 20th Anniversary Tour) won her a huge following. If it hadn’t been for her tragic stroke a few years ago, Katie would have been one of the true icons of the blues. Instead, she spent the last few years of her life in the loving arms of her family (especially her daughter Betty and adopted son Vasti Jackson), still performing occasionally, but never giving up on her music.
During one of her late-night recording sessions, Katie and I wrote a song together, “Two Fisted Mama.” In it she sang “I took the blues from Houston, Texas and gave the world my soul.” Sure did, Katie. Thanks for sharing it with us.
Unlike Katie Webster, Brewer Phillips was never a star. In the first few years of Alligator’s life, he suddenly went from being an obscure disciple of Memphis Minnie, Jimmy Reed and Jimmy Rogers to being recognized as a cornerstone of Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers, Chicago’s happiest blues band. Playing bass lines the old way, on a Fender Telecaster guitar, switching off to scintillating, world-of-distortion solos, dancing through the audience with his guitar strung around his neck like a necklace and shirt tail hanging out, kicking up his leg when he bent the high notes, grinning through his broken teeth and hollering, “Well, all right!,” he was as much a part of the Houserockers as Hound Dog himself. His playing was extraordinary in its attack; he literally wrung the notes out of his guitar. His sound was nasty and dirty and wonderfully grungy; and it all came from his fingers and one thumb pick. Dozens of English blues rockers would have killed to get that tone; no pedal or device could ever duplicate it.
Phillip (almost no one called him Brewer) was not an easy man. He loved to argue and give people shit; it was almost a sport for him. More than once it got him into trouble; I remember standing between him and Hound Dog both with their knives out, trying to quell an argument that had started as fun and gotten deadly serious. Another time I wasn’t there and some bullets flew. Phillip was a hard drinker, and his mood swings could be dramatic. But if he was your friend, he was really your friend. We loved to give each other a hard time, often starting fake arguments in the audience at clubs between sets, throwing ethnic slurs back and forth until the crowd would back away for fear of a fight. Then we’d throw our arms around each other’s shoulders and he’d holler, “Won’t somebody take me to the bar?,” always resulting in our getting a few free drinks.
He saw me through some tough times, too. After Hound Dog’s death, I couldn’t do much to help Phillip get a gig. He and Hound Dog’s drummer, Ted Harvey, toured with J.B. Hutto, but J.B. couldn’t put up with Phillip’s personality for long. So Phillip went back to day jobs and South Side weekend gigs. And he wasn’t so happy with me because I couldn’t do much for his career. But one time outside of Florence’s, around 1981, I found myself being berated by another musician, because I hadn’t done anything for HIS career. I thought the musician was just “signifying,” but suddenly a knife was coming toward me, and equally suddenly someone was gripping the arm of my assailant. It was Phillip, still my friend when the going got tough.
In typical Phillip style, he showed up at my house a few weeks later. He announced that he had my potential murderer in the car outside, and I should get my “monkey ass” out to the car and talk to him. I couldn’t believe it. I remember saying, “You showed him where I live?!” But Phillip had convinced the knife wielder to apologize, and he wanted to make sure that I knew I was safe again at Florence’s.
Phillip’s solo career never quite got off the ground; he didn’t have the temperament to lead a band. He and Ted toured and recorded off and on with Cub Koda, and he made an album under his own name (with the help of his pal Aaron Moore) for Delmark in the ’90s. He was set to headline a small festival in Boston when he died alone, in his South Side apartment, a few weeks ago. He died as he lived, in obscurity, but he is still there in the hearts and memories of anyone who saw or heard Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers. And I miss his monkey ass.