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Feature Articles

Apr 05

Part 2 - Roy Book Binder: Not Ready To Be Fenced In From Blues Beat Magazine By Rich Schneider

"He was a devout Christian and decided he wasn't messin' with the devil's music anymore. But he was human and would have a drink if you gave him one and occasionally loosen up and play a few blues, if Mrs. Davis wasn't there. One of my jobs traveling with him, was to keep the kids away from him who wanted to get him loaded. He would get drunk and sing nasty songs once in awhile, but he realized that wasn't appropriate. I intercepted many a bottle of scotch and threw it in the trash." Roy became good friends with the Davises. He took them shopping and to Church. Although Rev. Davis died in 1972, he remained close to Mother Davis and often visited her, right up until her death at the age of 102.

After their tour was completed, he returned to the City and took a job as a counselor at an orphanage in the South Bronx. He got the "orphanage gig" by noting on the application that he had recently been traveling with a minister. When contacted, Rev. Davis testified that Roy was "a good ole boy who never stole nothin' from him." High praise indeed. Roy played out regularly during this period at coffee houses and hootenannies and continued to hone his skills and develop his repertoire, which at one point only included four numbers. "When I played at my first hootenanny and felt the relation with the audience, I just knew that I was going to do this for the rest of my life. A friend of mine told me, 'You picked just about the only occupation that it's not advantageous to be a white man.'"

One of the artists Roy listened to during this period was Pink Anderson. He decided to see if he could locate him. "I had a Pink Anderson album on Prestige. He really wasn't a song writer; he did minstrel songs, and I liked the humor. Travelin' Man, He's In The Jailhouse Now, and I Got Mine, were very appealing tunes. I took a two week vacation from the orphanage, and I headed out for Spartansburg, S. C., where I heard that he lived. When I found him down there, he was in dire straits, and he couldn't believe anyone cared about his music. He was eatin' dog food. I looked in his refrigerator and found Gainesburgers, but Pink didn't have a dog. We became friends; it was nice. It was a people thing more than a music thing. Pink was working medicine shows up until 1961. When I met him, he had only one record on his table at home. 'So, where's the other two albums?' I said. 'I only made but one record for Mr. Charters,' he replied. 'You only got paid for one record; there were three!' I found them, and I brought them down the next time. Anyway, we started feeding Pink and got him going again and then took him out on the road with us."

In 1970, Roy decided that it was time to jump start his career and that England was just the place to do it. "I left the orphanage, and I left Gary. I had a friend, Robert Tilling, in the Channel Islands, off the coast of France, and he sent me some albums of British people playing country blues. I listened and said, 'I'm coming over.' There was a big scene there. They didn't have a lot of organized nightclubs like we have. It was better; a blues society so to speak. One night they'd have a folk club, and the next Saturday night they might have a blues club. They also had magazines; we didn't have blues magazines. The scene here was very loose in the 60's. There were big stars, and the rest of us did nothing. I thought if I could go to England and make an impression, if there's a thousand blues fans in England, they're all going to read about it. You could play New York and get a review in the Times, but outside of the City, nobody's gonna read about it. I saw this window of opportunity."

"I sold my car, bought a plane ticket, and went over on an open-ended adventure. Robert put me in touch with Dobell's Music, which had put out a great record of Reverend Davis. I had recorded one song for Blue Goose Records, which was put on an anthology in 1967, and the next year, I recorded three songs for Stephan Grossman's Kicking Mule label. So I had credentials; I was bonafide."

"Meanwhile, Jo Ann Kelly came to America. Nick Perls of Yazoo and Blue Goose Records had discovered her. She was the greatest female blues singer of her generation, a little blond girl who'd sit on stage with a bottleneck guitar and had a voice like Son House. She made such an impression in New York, that Johnny Winter's people wanted her to go on tour with him. She was fair-haired and light. They wanted to make her hair white, like Johnny Winter--she also played slide guitar. She was so pure, she wouldn't do it. And later on Canned Heat wanted her when one of their players died, but she wouldn't do that either. She stuck to her guns. Before she died, she said she regretted that. It would have paid her for life. I met her at Nick Perl's house, and her boyfriend, who was her manager, was there, and they said if you ever come over to England, look us up."

"I called them up from Heathrow Airport. She said, 'Oh my God, we're on our way to Belgium to go on tour.' Her boyfriend, Chris, got on the phone and said, 'Take the train to London, then take a cab over to our place,' and gave the address. 'We'll be here for another hour and a half.' I show up with my bag and guitar, and they're just ready to go out the door. Chris says, 'Here's the key to the flat. If you want hot water, you have to put shillings in the box; if you want heat from the heater, you have to put shillings in the box; here's the music magazine, Melody Maker, I circled all the folk clubs. Go down and introduce yourself and try to get a guest spot. We'll be back in two weeks. Goodbye, good luck, the grocery store is around the corner, and the bus is over there.' And there I was, in my pad. Things used to work in the 60's. They never even called during the two weeks they were gone."

"The next day I go into London, into Dobell's record store. It was like an old-time movie--he was in his office behind a glass door with venetian blinds on it. I knocked on the door and introduced myself. He said, 'Let's see what happens.' He looks out the window, 'Oh look, it's Ron Watts from the National Blues Federation.' He introduces me to him, and the guy says, Arthur Crudup was going to be at the Hunter Club the next night. 'You can open up for him; pays 15 pounds. Be there at 7:30.' I wasn't even over there for 24 hours, and I had me a gig and an apartment! I went back to the pad, put some nickels in the machine, and took a bath. I met Arthur Crudup the next night and opened the show, and the people went bananas. They liked the authentic way I did the music, and they liked my sense of humor. I got a review in a magazine that said something like: 'Not since Ramblin' Jack Elliott came over with his cowboy hat has anyone charmed London like Roy Book Binder.' I got quite a few gigs after that."

A few days later, Roy was booked to perform with Homesick James. "I walk into the lobby, and he's sitting there with his suitcase and guitar. I introduced myself, and he said, 'Take me right to the airport.' I said, 'We got a gig tonight.' He said, 'I've had it with this, I'm an old man. They took me to a gig last night, I drove three hours in the back of a truck, like a pig. I was frozen to death, and I got back here and probably got to sleep about 3 o'clock in the morning, and it's 6 o'clock in the morning, and they want to clean my room. I said I wasn't here long enough to get it dirty.' So I said, 'Look, I've got an apartment, you can stay with me (Jo Ann and Chris weren't back yet). Let's do the gig; I need the money.' After the show, the press came back to the pad, and he told them stories until three in the morning. It was his first trip to Europe. He had to get a passport, he'd never had one. They had to send down to Mississippi for his birth certificate, and he found out he was four years older than he was, so he had no business traveling around like that."

Armed with a weighty press kit, Roy returned from England in the spring of 1970, anxious to become a 'contender'. "I was happening!" He recorded his first album, Travelin' Man, for Adelphi Records, which became the first solo acoustic blues album to receive a five star review in Downbeat Magazine. Roy next hooked up with a slim, 17-year-old fiddle player inappropriately named "Fats Kaplin". After drawing rave reviews opening for Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, they hit the folk circuit for the next three years and recorded two highly acclaimed albums for Blue Goose. Eventually Fat's interests turned more to jazz, and they each went it alone.

In 1976, he gave up his pad in the Village, moved into a motor home, and scrambled about the country finding gigs where he could. It was not always an easy life, but it suited him just fine. In 1979, he recorded Going Back To Tampa for Flying Fish Records. He would not record again for almost ten years. In 1980, thanks to agent, Dick Waterman, who represented Son House and Bukka White among others, Roy went on an extensive tour up and down the East Coast with emerging star, Bonnie Raitt. The highlight of the tour was to be a free Mother's Day concert at the new Opryland complex in Nashville. A dispute concerning Bonnie's sound system, and allowing Roy, who was only an "opener", to use up valuable stage time, almost derailed the gig. After threatening to pack up, cooler heads prevailed, and Roy got his 15 minutes on the show. "The crowd went nuts, because I was playing hillbilly music." While Bonnie's rockin' performance was getting a less than enthusiastic response from the Nashville crowd, Roy was hanging out backstage with Roy Acuff and all the old Opry guys. "They're slapping me on the back saying, 'Golly, where'd you learn to pick like that?'"