With so many stories rolling around in his schizophrenic mind, you can never be sure whether bluesman Prentis Richardson is telling the truth—until he picks up a guitar.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
The myth floats amid the smoke of just about every blues club: You’re sitting there watching the band sleepwalk through the umpteenth version of some standard. Nothing, but nothing, is going on. And then—there’s always a then—some no-account loser steps up out of the crowd, grabs a shitbox guitar, and immediately transports everybody within range to some celestial place beyond the rafters.
It happened one night at Madam’s Organ, back in the summer of 1995, when the blues club stood at the crossroads of 18th Street and Florida Avenue NW. A six-piece band playing steady Chicago blues was shoehorned onto the cramped stage. Then—here comes the then—a plump, unshaven man walked in with a weather-beaten suitcase in hand. He ordered a pint of Rolling Rock, shuffled his feet to the music, and started talking nonsense into his mug. He mumbled incoherently about James Brown this and James Brown that. “That’s right,” he declared, turning to a stunning blond woman one stool down. “Played ‘The Payback’ for James Brown. You think they gonna play any James Brown?”
The blonde shriveled. A dozen other customers paid him no mind. He was, after all, really just talking to himself. And in case nobody understood why, he popped open the side latches of his suitcase to reveal thousands, thousands, of anti-psychotic pills, which overflowed and spilled out onto the pine bar. “Anybody like happy pills?” he asked in an offhand way.
The bartender was unamused. “Look, mister,” he declared. “We don’t need any more characters in here to give this place atmosphere. Know what I mean, old man?”
The spurned pill freak vanished into the swelling Friday night crowd. Hours went by before the guy reappeared, this time on stage. Somehow he had talked the lead guitarist out of his ax and stood ready to play.
At that moment, the myth took wing in the club’s cloudy air. The rest of the band swiveled its collective head toward the guy making the exquisite racket—and then toward each other, checking to see if what they were hearing was really coming out of the man they were seeing. People began to stand, necks craned, and the blond woman suddenly felt compelled to hoist herself up onto the bar to shimmy her own kind of solo.
As the club erupted, the guy worked it so hard that the crowd started dancing. When the band stopped, the ovation sounded as if it were coming from the roof. He seemed blithely unaware—at least, not surprised.
Handing back the guitar to its owner, he looked vacantly around, smiled to reveal a wide gap in the bottom row of his gleaming white set of teeth, and rubbed his distended belly as if all the fanfare were more than he could digest. A moment later, he was back at the bar talking with his mug.
I bought him a beer, and we dropped into conversation. He said his name was Prentis Richardson—but he had many nicknames. “They call me Huggie Bear, Mad Dog, Chillie Willie, and Casper the Friendly Ghost,” he said, taking a long, slow drag off his Newport 100, which sent him into a coughing fit. “You’ll have to forgive me,” he said, coughing up phlegm. “I tryin’ to stop smokin’, but I get too nervous.”
“Nervous” didn’t really get it: “I’m schizo,” he said. “I talk to myself. Talk to myself and talk to myself. Hear voices and talk back.”
He said he lived on a psychiatric unit at St. Elizabeths Hospital and was out on a weekend pass. Aside from playing guitar, he said, his favorite pastimes were sniffing glue and paint thinner, stealing cars, and robbing banks.
“I had no gun at all,” he said of his abysmal talents as a stickup man, which had led to two arrests. “Guns make people panic,” he added sweetly. “I’m bad, but I’m not that bad. I got some money, but I stuck it up my ass so they couldn’t get it out.”
All right, then.
“I’ve seen a lot of things in music over the years, but I’ve never seen that,” guitarist Kevin Murphy says of Richardson’s impromptu performance at Madam’s Organ. It was Murphy’s band, the Juke Joint Jokers, that let Richardson stand in that night. At first, says Murphy, he was nervous about letting the goofy old guy even hold his Stratocaster. But he quickly realized: Prentis Richardson may be a few ounces short of a pint, but when it comes to music, the man is all beer, no foam.
“I had two guitars on stage,” Murphy recalls. “One was in open, or nonstandard, tuning for slide, and the other one was in standard tuning. He goes for the one in nonstandard tuning, so I thought he was gonna play slide, but he didn’t. I just did the old Three Stooges double take, because this guy was fingering the fret board as fluidly and naturally as anybody who was good at guitar would play in standard tuning. That’s not something that you’ll see a lot of players do. It was quite complex. It was amazing.”
“It’s like navigating a completely different terrain,” Murphy says of Richardson’s dexterity. “The notes and the chords are in completely different places. To pick up a guitar in open tuning and play a blues-funk groove, which is what we were doing, and play the kinds of things, stylistically and conceptually, that he was playing, was very unusual, to say the least.”
Richardson had arrived at Madam’s Organ by a stroke of serendipity. He had heard about the place from Phil Huret, who ran a wood shop, Georgetown Refinishing, at 14th and T Streets NW. One day in early 1995, Huret was in the shop fooling around on his guitar when Richardson walked by and heard him playing. “I heard the bell ring and thought it was just another one of these freeloaders stopping by,” Huret remembers. “I open the door, and he says, ‘Boy, you play like a black man.’”
Richardson and Huret quickly struck up a musical conversation. “I said, ‘You play?’” Huret recounts. “And he said, ‘Yeah, I play a little here and there.’ And he told me how he played with the big dogs like James Brown and a few other big names. Then he proceeded to tune my guitar way down low to this godawful sound—but, man, when he put his fingers on it, it was ridiculous. It was the Delta blues, boy. The for-real shit. And he was living it, too. So I said, ‘You know, you ought to go up to Madam’s. They’ll put you on stage.’”
Indeed they did. “Everybody was blown away” by his chops, recalls Pete Beck, himself a gifted guitarist, who was the bartender at Madam’s Organ the night Richardson first appeared. Beck happens to be the son of Joe Beck, a top New York City jazz musician who played for James Brown as a session guitarist on three songs—”King Heroin,” “Funky President,” and “My Thang.” Richardson’s claims seem extravagant, but Beck heard enough of his playing to not dismiss them out of hand.
Beck did a little poking around, however, and found a gaping hole in Richardson’s story. Although Richardson remembers that he recorded “The Payback” with Brown, it is Jimmy Nolen and Hearlon Martin—not Prentis Richardson—who appear as the song’s two guitarists in the liner notes of Star Time, the comprehensive CD box set containing 30 years of James Brown’s music. The credits list one name that comes close, a Wallace Richardson, who played guitar on “Prisoner of Love” and “Out of the Blue,” recorded in December 1962 and March 1964, respectively, at Bell Sound Studios in New York. Prentis Richardson, however, says he is not Wallace Richardson. “I have a nephew named Wallace” is the best he can do. And he says he has no aliases, despite his felonious past.
Bill Duggan, the owner of Madam’s Organ, is always in the market for talented house musicians—and reliable dishwashers. He hired Richardson in late summer 1995, shortly after Richardson stole the stage at the club, to scrub pots and pans, and got an in-house guitar slinger to boot.
“He worked out well” as a dishwasher, says Mark O’Flahavan, the club’s cook at the time. “The kitchen was never cleaner. But his other egos didn’t like me. After I told him that he had to actually dry the dishes with a towel, he muttered something about me being a ‘mothafuckin’ white boy.’ And then I heard him say, ‘It’s a job, good job. Gonna get me some money. Gonna buy a nice guitar.’”
But whenever Richardson manages to get guitar money together, it doesn’t last. “I always pawn my guitars,” he moans to me on several occasions. “Why do I do that?”
In fall 1995, a bunch of players chipped in and paid Richardson to hang around after hours. They wanted to hear the old man play acoustic—the true litmus test of a guitarist’s abilities because the slightest mistakes are impossible to hide. Nobody had an acoustic guitar, so they put fresh strings on an old plastic piece of crap that had been collecting dust on a wall of the bar along with other yard-sale kitsch.
Upstairs, around the pool table, Richardson took the piece of crap and choked magic out of it. And the mastery of funk he had displayed paled next to his rendering of Delta blues. He made the guitar sing a duet with his rough-hewn voice.
The jam lasted ’til nearly sunrise, and it might have stretched longer had Richardson not busted three strings—something he does more often than most guitarists because he bends notes ferociously, three or four strings at a time. Seeing the horizon burn and brighten and sensing that the night was over, Richardson narrowed his eyes and settled his face into a shy smile. He was waiting for something—a lift somewhere, or maybe a place to crash. Instead, he flagged a cab—and that was the last anyone at Madam’s Organ saw of him for three years.
Even though he was gone, I wondered who he was. I called St. Elizabeths, but Richardson wasn’t there. I took a trip downtown to D.C. Superior Court early in the spring of 1996 and pulled the criminal case jackets for Richardson. The files showed that the guitarist was born on Oct. 3, 1946. He had two felony arrests—one for attempted bank robbery at the international office of the American Security Bank in 1985 and attempted auto theft from 1995.
The second file contained a summary from the D.C. Commission on Mental Health Services concerning a court-ordered examination conducted Jan. 25, 1996, by staff forensic psychiatrist Dr. Roy M. Coleman. The evaluation was ordered to determine whether he was competent to stand trial for attempting to steal a car from Marten’s Volvo/Volkswagen on Wisconsin Avenue.
“His abstract thinking abilities appeared seriously impaired,” Coleman wrote. “[He] was unable to interpret even a simple, common proverb. His memory for recent and remote events seemed vague. His judgment and insight appeared to be marred by unrealistic thinking….
“Mr. Richardson told me that he has a long history of serious mental illness and alcohol abuse,” Coleman’s report continues. “He said that he was first hospitalized for psychiatric illness at the age of eighteen, and that he has been hospitalized on and off ever since, sometimes for extended periods of time….He said that he is an ‘alcoholic,’ and added that when he has the money, he drinks ‘all day.’ He admitted using ‘weed, cocaine, and rocks’ in the past, but said that he had not used these drugs recently.”
The clinical record examined by Coleman confirms that Richardson had been “diagnosed as having schizophrenia, chronic, undifferentiated, and possible dementia due to chronic alcoholism or old syphilis….He admitted to visual hallucinations, seeing pictures on walls coming toward him; these hallucinations suggest the presence of organic brain disease.”
Back when he was arrested for attempted bank robbery in 1985, Richardson was given “time served” and transferred to the John Howard Pavilion on the campus of St. Elizabeths. In 1992, he moved to the Miller House, a “supportive independent living” group home for the mentally ill on Holmead Place NW. For the 1995 charge for attempting to steal a car from Marten’s Volvo, he was given time served—three months in jail—again and sent back to the Miller House.
The group home is a two-story dwelling on a street wedged between 13th and 14th Streets NW in Columbia Heights. The mentally challenged residents mill about on the front porch, hoping to bum cigarettes off passers-by.
When I started looking for him three years ago, Richardson was nowhere to be found. Several residents of the group home said that he’d gone to New York. As it turns out, the guitar man is a nomad. He returns home to D.C. whenever the voices in his head tell him it’s time to come back.
When he finally turned up again at Madam’s Organ in the fall of 1998, he was sitting at the bar in a T-shirt that showed five crocodiles nipping at the heels of Mickey Mouse. Instead of a whole suitcase full of pharmaceuticals, he had his small daily starter kit of the antipsychotic drugs Zyprexa and Haldol.
“I got some more meds,” he said generously. “You want some? I don’t like the Haldol. It’s taking my love of people away.”
I discreetly began to play back to him what I had learned about his past, trying to find out more. Richardson acknowledged that he’d swiped a Toyota from Marten’s Volvo. But he denied that it was his impish inner voices that had told him to hit the gas. “It was the car,” he said. “The car spoke to me. It told me to drive it away.”
“I used to steal a lot a cars,” he continued. “Nice cars. Brand-new cars. I stole me cars in Los Angeles. In Texas, I stole a Cadillac. I stole a Lincoln—hard to get gas in those cars, though. They put me in jail for stealing that car.”
After his legal ordeal for the car caper ended, he went back to his daily routine. But one day he got fed up with the group house. He walked down to the bus station and caught the first Peter Pan for New York. For more than a year, he told me, he wandered the streets of that city, sometimes sleeping in parks. But he wound up in the psychiatric care unit of Bellevue Hospital and was eventually transferred back to the Miller House. Upon his return to D.C. late last year, he recalled, he found that Madam’s Organ had relocated up the street. “I wondered where it went,” he said. “I just figured it was gone.”
But he stuck by the story about his musical resume.
“I did play with James Brown, though,” he declared, his voice full of charm and you-gotta-believe. He may have been crazier than a pair of waltzing mice, yet he seemed sincere in his insanity. He didn’t seem like a liar. And, Lord, he had the chops to back up his claims.
We hashed out his story for much of that night. Before that evening ended, he was on the Madam’s Organ stage again, unpacking his mind with his music and lighting the room on fire with an electric version of Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom.” It’s one of the most challenging old blues arrangements a guitarist can play. But Richardson didn’t miss a note—and played half the song with his teeth, Jimi Hendrix-style.
Richardson says he began to play guitar at a very young age, soon after his family migrated west to Los Angeles from Shreveport, La. His father was a janitor, and his mother, he says, “was something like a cook.” Some of his earliest memories are of jam sessions with his family and neighbors on his front porch in East Los Angeles. “My daddy could play,” Richardson recalls. “Oh, he could play real good guitar. And my brother Willie, he could play, too. Willie plays piano. I haven’t seen him since I left California. I don’t know where he’s at.”
The boy showed enough promise to merit lessons for $3 an hour at a local guitar shop—not a paltry sum on his father’s salary. Soon, Richardson was playing gospel music in Baptist churches and, later on, the nightclubs of Los Angeles. He says he was in several bands, joined the National Guard, got married, had “a son or two,” and landed a job cleaning airplanes at Los Angeles International Airport. He cannot seem to recall the names of his bands—or of his wife, or his kids, for that matter.
Later, he recants, admitting that he “was never really married” and has no children that he knows of. But he adds a new wrinkle: “I did have a lover. Dorothy Moore and some more girls from the church. She sang ‘Misty Blue.’” He is referring, of course, to the classic Southern soul woman who recorded her biggest hit, “Misty Blue,” in 1976 for Malaco Records.
Most of the past two decades, he says, has seemed like a waking dream to him. He was living in Los Angeles when the voices first began to haunt him, like Shakespearean ghosts. They told him to rob a bank, he says, and so he did. He says he got “three or four handfuls of money.” Soon afterward, the voices put him on board a cross-country bus to the nation’s capital. Here, again, he decided to rob a bank—the American Security Bank—without a gun.
The police officers who arrived on the scene at the K Street NW bank quickly realized that he was full-blown, batshit crazy when he made a vague threat to kill the president. Rather than prosecute him for unarmed robbery, the authorities dismissed the case and transferred him to St. Elizabeths, where he took up residence for seven years, traveling every day in a van that took him to and from his day program at the North Community Mental Health Center on Spring Road NW in Columbia Heights.
The grounds of the center are surrounded by prison-yard fences, but the gates are swung open so that patients can wander in and out freely. Nobody seems to go too far. They just do the old Thorazine shuffle all day long in search of the next smoke. Inside, Dr. Rhoda Ruttenberg, Richardson’s former psychiatrist, and his caseworker, Kevin Martin, open his file.
“We did try to look back and see if he has any relatives, but we didn’t find any,” Martin explains. “We asked many times if he knew of any relatives in California. From what it states in his records, he lived in California. But we can’t validate that he actually did come from California. Basically, it’s a lot of information passed on from one agency to another.”
According to his medical records from St. Elizabeths, details about his early life and hospital history were hard to obtain: “[H]e frequently responded to voices and laughed inappropriately throughout the interview.”
Richardson was committed to Camarillo State Hospital in Ventura County, Calif., on July 27, 1968, and then transferred to Los Angeles County General Hospital: “The patient reported finding keys to cars at L.A. International Airport, stating that it was ‘so tempting to steal because the keys were in the car.’ He utilized the stolen car to rob a bank. He stole a car in El Paso, Texas, in 1969 and was incarcerated in the Federal Prison System until 1971. In 1971, shortly after his release the patient was [again] hospitalized at Camarillo State Hospital. In 1976 he was hospitalized at Patton State Hospital after he attempted to rob a bank.”
Despite his rap sheet, Richardson is “completely harmless,” says Ruttenberg. “You know, he kind of made the rounds of jails and mental institutions,” she says. “He was in California; he was here; he was in New York; he was back here. I remember the first time I met him. He was talking about music and how he had a background in guitar or something. I think what happened was, he came in with an old guitar, and he was talking about playing with James Brown, and then he started playing. And he just amazed me—how good it was. And then, after that, we tried to find out how we could give him an opportunity, how we could get him a good guitar. But he’s not responsible enough to handle a really good guitar.”
I ask Ruttenberg whether she believes Richardson ever played with Brown. “We never know for sure,” she says. “A lot of times our patients will say things and we might assume that it’s some sort of a delusion, but sometimes it turns out to be true. And when he said that he played with James Brown, I thought it could be true. But I didn’t know.”
Ruttenberg notes that it is common for some schizophrenics not only to hear voices, but also to “confabulate”—to make up incredible stories—because they are unable to prevent the intrusion of previously acquired mental associations. So even if he never played with Brown, Richardson isn’t fibbing, she says, because “his associations with the music of James Brown may be so strong that he truly believes that he did play with him.”
At the Miller House, the Fourth of July is like any other day. There is no patriotism or celebratory hoo-ha, just Richardson and three other men sitting in the dimly lit living room watching Twelve Angry Men, a made-for-TV remake of the 1957 Henry Fonda movie on a fuzzy RCA television set.
Portraits of Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela hang in a frame above the TV, next to an old air-conditioning unit belching coolness into the room. On a couch, Richardson is all coolness, too, showing another resident a lick or two on a cheap old plastic Santa Rosa guitar that is missing its G string. Out of the five remaining strings, he somehow manages to pluck sublime, jazzy sounds as the other residents stare off into space, barely conscious of the movie or the soundtrack Richardson is conjuring.
Barbara Gibson, who serves as the executive director of the Miller House, says she became Richardson’s legal guardian after she received a call from Brenda Edmonds, a caseworker at St. Elizabeths. “She called me and said she had some patients and that I could go out there. And if I liked them, then I could bring them back,” Gibson explains in the house’s kitchen. “So that’s what I did. I went out to St. E’s. And there he was, playing the guitar. And I looked at Ms. Edmonds and said, ‘Who be playin’ like that? Because it sounded so good, I thought it was the radio. And she says, ‘Oh, that’s one of my favorite clients.’ And I said, ‘Oh, can I have him?’”
“He was like—he was a little toy or something,” recalls Gibson. “And she said, ‘Go ahead on, you can take him.’ And I could see that he was so happy. So he got up his bags and his suits. And, oh, this man could dress. I could see that he was very used to having very good things in life. He was very classy in his time—I could tell that. He would stand here and iron the creases in his pants. His shirts and his suit all matched….Then he’d sit out on the steps and get to stringin’ again. That’s his love, the guitar.”
“Everybody calls him the Guitar Man,” says Stan Blackwell, administrator of the Miller House. “You know, these aren’t the friendliest streets in the city, but he’s as safe as a baby in his mother’s arms here. Some of the guys out here—some of the younguns—will come by and see him and say, ‘Come on now, Guitar Man, play us some of that good ol’ jazz.’” When the boys in the neighborhood find him off his meds and wandering the streets, says Blackwell, “They say, ‘Guitar Man, don’t be out here. We wouldn’t want nobody to hurt you.’”
Gibson says she believes (or likes to believe) that Richardson played with Brown. “He can dance like James Brown, too,” she says. “One day, we took him out to a friend’s house in Maryland, and after eating ribs and everything, he slid all the way across the floor, back and forth. He looked like a cat dancin’ to James Brown. He danced across that floor. We looked, and he’s dancin’ back again. Real elegant.”
These days, Richardson’s universe is fairly circumscribed. Every couple of months, when he gets depressed or too scattered, he checks out of the Miller House and into the psychiatric ward of the Washington Hospital Center. And when he isn’t playing at Madam’s Organ, his only other gig is at the Greater Harvest Baptist Church, a small red-brick structure on the corner of Sherman Avenue and Lamont Street NW.
At Greater Harvest Baptist, Richardson uses the official church guitar to lay down gospel grooves behind the husky warble of the Rev. Ermine Johnson. With Richardson ladling in lick after lick behind him, Johnson doesn’t deliver his sermon so much as sing it. Two teenagers alternate on drums, and a little old lady in pigtails plinks out notes on the piano.
Johnson works Richardson into his sermon. “I met him on Holmead Place, when our church was over there,” the reverend tells his flock. “My wife was feeding the homeless there, and we also started holding services for the homeless on Saturdays. And Brother Prentis, even though he wasn’t homeless, would come over for a hot meal. And he’d come into the church, and somebody said, ‘Reverend, you ought to get Brother Prentis to play the guitar.’ And so he played for us on Saturday, and he also began to come on Sundays, too. I knew he could play guitar, because when he first showed up, all we had was a guitar with one string, and he could make that sound good.”
Johnson goes on to tell the congregation about a snowstorm one Sunday several years ago that shuttered most of the city’s churches. But Greater Harvest remained open for God’s business, thanks in part to Richardson, who helped shovel the church out. “Brother Prentis, he told me, ‘Reverend, the Holy Spirit got me bad.’ I’ll never forget that—he said, ‘The Holy Spirit got me bad.’ Can I get a witness? Can somebody say hallelujah?”
Johnson addresses Richardson directly now. “He said he used to play with James Brown. And who else did you play with, Brother Prentis?”
“I played with James Brown,” Richardson says, dressed in a tightly fitting sports jacket in a pew just to the right of the altar. “I played with Little Richard. I played with Billy Preston. I played with B.B. King and Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson.”
Nobody is surprised to hear Richardson claim he played with Brown. It’s the first thing he tells everybody. But this is the first anybody has ever heard of his gigging with the rest of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Two hours later, when asked if he ever played with King or Little Richard or Watson, Richardson squints and strains to think: “No, I don’t think so. I don’t ever remember playing with them. But B.B. can sure play pretty good. And Johnny ‘Guitar’ lived across the street from my mama.”
At the Sunday service, Richardson keeps all the musical cylinders firing, breathing pure soul into the gospel music. He doesn’t adulterate the church music by trying to sing; for the most part, he lets the choir handle the vocals. “I feel good,” the worshipers sing in unison. “I feel good…because I know…that the Lord will take me home.”
It ain’t James Brown, but Richardson is grateful for the chance to play a guitar that’s fully strung. “I’m the greatest, holiest guitar player at the church,” he says to me after the service. “By the way, you going to Madam’s tonight?”
For as long as I have known him, Richardson has stuck with his story about playing with James Brown. Other claims come and go, but the connection with Brown lies at the core of his identity. He uses it like a business card.
It has always been possible that indisputable evidence would surface someday that Richardson was one of the dozens of sidemen with whom Brown has played over the years. But absent that confirmation—or any other—the only way to verify his claim is to ask Brown himself. So when Brown comes to town for a summertime show at the 9:30 Club, Richardson agrees to go with me to meet him.
Unfortunately, he’s nowhere to be found at the Miller House on the day the Godfather of Soul rolls into town. A few days before, he was transferred to the Washington Hospital Center for one of his periodic tuneups.
I find Richardson in the psychiatric ward, twiddling his thumbs on a chair by the nurse’s station. “I’m gonna meet James Brown today,” he exclaims when I explain why I’m here to sign him out for the day. “I’m gonna meet James Brown. You think he’ll let me play with him?”
Somehow, I doubt it.
For two hours, we sit outside the nightclub entrance in the hot sun. Richardson’s forehead glistens with sweat as he waits for Brown to arrive to conduct the sound check. When a caravan of a tour bus, a minivan, and two white stretch limousines pulls up to the curbside, it’s clear that the Godfather of Soul has arrived. Still, Richardson seems oblivious to the scrum of big bodyguards speaking into their cell phones around him.
Brown finally emerges from his limousine in a mauve suit, a bleached blonde trailing behind him. But the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business takes no notice of Richardson. Moving across the sidewalk on a cushion of air, Brown barely glances at the decrepit guitar man.
“Mr. Brown,” I stutter. “This man here says he used to play with you.”
“Never played with me,” Brown replies, without breaking stride. And then he disappears into the club for his sound check, a phalanx of bodyguards behind him.
“I know it’s hard to believe,” Richardson moans, slinking to the curb as the air hisses out of his fundamental premise in life. “But I played with James Brown. I swear I did. But I don’t wanna go too far by saying I was in his band. He might get mad. And he got his own thing going. I’ll just say this—I say I played with James Brown and he say he don’t know me, so I’ll back down from it. It was one night and that was it, after a show at the Shrine,” he says, referring to the Shrine Auditorium and Exposition Center in Los Angeles.
“Everybody was goin’ out, and I asked him,” says Richardson. “I said, ‘James Brown.’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘I play guitar.’ So James Brown asked me to show him some. I played by myself, and then he backed me up with his regular big band.”
Perhaps the Godfather is mistaken. “I doubt Brown would remember him, anyway,” says Curtis Mailloux, a local guitarist and Delta blues aficionado who has jammed with Richardson on occasion. “But he definitely played with somebody, and he played with somebody who had a sense of musical dynamics where you build toward a crescendo. His intensity starts to build using tempo and dynamics, so that by the end of the song, everybody is shouting. And that’s something you learn only from the stage.”
It just may not have been a stage that James Brown happened to be on.
Whatever the case, Richardson, it seems, is doomed to labor forever in musical obscurity. He is never promoted in Madam’s Organ’s ads along with the bands he sits in with. He’s at loose ends too much to form his own band, and you never know whether or when he’s going to make a gig. Every other Sunday or so, however, it’s a good bet you’ll find him at the open-mike competition. It’s easy enough for him to borrow a guitar from one of the dozen or so other competitors there, and there is always the chance that he’ll win the prize that goes to the best player of the night.
Competing against a bunch of white boys in backward Starter caps isn’t much of a challenge. But Richardson connects them to old blues masters and is always willing to show a young guitarist a tricky lick or two.
Madam’s Organ owner Duggan offers a $50 bar tab to the winner of the open-mike competition but started awarding Richardson $50 in cash after Gibson called to request that he be given money instead. “He was figuring it into his weekly budget,” Duggan chuckles. “That’s how sure he is of himself. But we can’t have the same guy win every week. Nobody else would want to compete. Think about it,” says Duggan. “This guy can bring down the house. Plus, he has a face that nobody can turn down.”
Come Monday morning, when his weekend pass expires, Richardson is sitting on the front stoop of the Miller House waiting for the government van that takes him to his day treatment program at the Washington Hospital Center’s Behavioral Health Institute, in a small shopping center across from Trinity College.
“I wish I had a battery amplifier so I could play on the street, like this white boy I saw in California,” Richardson says. “He could play pretty good. It don’t snow in California, but I don’t like California. It’s too hard there. I like Louisiana. I’m goin’
When the blue van pulls up to take him for treatment, he says, “I’ve been going for eight months,” in reference to the program. “I don’t like goin’ there too much, though. I’d rather stay home. They almost got it fixed that you can’t quit. I’ve been tellin’ ’em I wanna quit, and they make me stay in the program.
“They don’t pay me nothing,” he complains. “And when I get back here” to the Miller House, “I’m tired. Then I gotta do my chores. I have to wash dishes today. I have to clean the bathrooms and do the hallways and front room. I have to sweep upstairs and downstairs. I don’t know how long I can keep that up. That’s a long way to go, and I can’t get nothing for it.
“I wish I had a guitar and an amplifier,” he pines. “And some clothes. I wish I had some fine clothes. And some money. I might try to get me some money, too. As much as I give people…” he says, mumbling the blues as he climbs into the government van. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.