In the name of St. Cecilia, holy patroness of music, may those who deny the terrifying power of your heavenly art be condemned to an eternity of open-mike nights at the New Vegas Lounge.
Let them hear the pathetic whine of despair from an off-key harmonica blown by a gangly college kid who displays all the rhythm of a Motorola pager.
Let them endure the interplay between his classmates on guitar and bass, as they struggle through a “blues” version of “Little Drummer Boy.”
Let them listen to a long-suffering lawyer shriek and shimmy and solo, as he provides irrefutable proof that for some people, a day job is where it begins and ends.
“The more you drink, the better we sound,” the evening’s host, a drummer named Bigfoot, tells the sparse audience that has straggled into the Vegas.
If only that were true. No amount of booze could work such a spell. Not even a professional musician like Bigfootalways outnumbered, even in a triocan salvage such a maddening racket. And St. Cecilia save the customers trapped in their seats when Bigfoot takes a breather and his own advice, heading to the bar to bum a Jack Daniel’s.
That’s precisely what has happened now, and Bigfoot smiles perversely at the shipwreck of sound he has abandoned on the stage.
His replacement, a long-haired grunge orphan, flails wildly at the drum kit in a tempo known only to him. The lawyer launches into the same solo, complete with the same miscues, that he’s been playing all night. Embarrassed by his predicament, the bass player clutches his useless instrument and stares at Bigfoot helplessly: Damn, says his pained expression, this is not what I signed up for.
Bigfoot shows no sympathy. A dose of humiliation is just part of the admission price at this Halfway House of the Blues, a purgatory where the penance is a two-drink minimum. If the blues is all about the public display of intensely private hells, this is the world headquarters, right here on P Street NW.
Hordes of aspiring musicians gather for these open-mike nights, open-ended gigs where anyone can plug in and jam. It doesn’t matter who you are, and it doesn’t matter if you can play. Lawyers, frat boys, television producers, government workers, psychiatrists, hearing-aid salesmen; name the occupation, you’ll find a Walter Mitty bluesman at the Vegas. They arrive here with unwieldy instruments that they may or may not know how to use. And even though their chops are suspect, most of them have would-be outlaw monikersNevada Newman, Skyshaw, Billy the Kiddlegends in their own minds. They come to be reborn under the hot red lights.
The New Vegas Lounge is a musty incubator of stale fantasies, where anyone can be his own instant mojo man. Anyone. Nobody knows this better than the club’s owner, a man who calls himself Dr. Blues.
“I’m broke, man.”
Skyshaw stands near the corner of 14th and P Streets NW holding a battered cardboard guitar case and a plastic bag. He’s bundled against the cold in a hodgepodge wardrobe: a shabby coat over a Georgetown Hoyas sweatshirt he found recently on a bus seat. On this miserable winter day the only hint of color in the gray haze pokes from the bag. A bright acrylic painting signed by Skyshaw, it’s a portrait of ’30s Delta blues legend Charley Patton, one of his heroes. He plans to sell it this afternoon to a folk-art dealer up in Maryland. First, though, he’s had to get a guitar out of hock at Sam’s Pawnbrokers over on 14th Street.
“Wanna see it?” He excitedly opens the case to reveal an ancient, cheap-looking guitar. The fact that it’s an anonymous piece of junk in no way diminishes its worth to him. “It’s one of those no-name guitars like the one Blind Blake used to play. It belonged to a street blues musician.”
Steepednear-possessed, reallyby the history and lore of the blues, Skyshaw (his nom de blues) takes his obsession to the stage as a guitarist and singer. He loiters for no apparent reason outside his longtime hangout, the New Vegas Lounge, a narrow brick bar squeezed between an abandoned building and the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind. He has played here hundreds of times on open-mike nights. Though he’s never made a dime, he’s had the chance to live out his wildest blues-crazed dreams.
He comes here because few are turned away, even those who’ve had every other nightclub door slammed in their faces. In fact, when Skyshaw made his debut at the Vegas, he was right off the street. “I was homeless when I first played here,” he says, staring at the darkened building. That was several years ago. Now he gets by in a group house, doing odd jobs and playing at the dwindling number of Washington clubs that still offer blues jam sessions. He always ends up at the Vegas. “This is the black hole of the blues,” he says. “It’s the bone yard of the blues.”
You’d think he was talking about some sort of historic shrine instead of a neighborhood joint marked by a crumpled Lite Beer banner flapping over the entrance. “I have a love-hate relationship with this place,” he explains carefully. “It’s like a cruel parentyou hate the parent, but you also love it and need it for sustenance. I don’t come here much anymore, ’cause I’ve either not had my guitars or I didn’t want to waste my time. It’s like a jinxed place to meyou know, bad juju.”
Skyshaw is so mystified by the Vegas that he believes the bar puts a curse on its vulnerable followers, sabotaging not only guitar solos but entire lives. He mentions a former regular, an aging musician named Frogman, who hit the skids: “The last time I saw him, he was high on crack, sitting in a car over there, eating chicken and spitting the bones out the window, just laughing and screaming. Frogman was a really great drummer at one time.”
Despite Skyshaw’s griping, the incense-and-Lysol-laced funk of the Vegas keeps beckoning him. Almost against his will, he returns.
A man saunters out of a side door of the Vegas Lounge. He’s a short, stocky fireplug in a sweater and corduroyspreppy but somehow still suave, elderly but definitely not old. He runs the joint, and he shows it. He surveys the sidewalk scene as if it were his lordly domain and Skyshaw a peasant interloper. They’ve known each other for years.
“Hey Jet,” says Skyshaw. “You having a jam tonight?”
The man gives no response, as if he doesn’t answer to that name. Instead, he fiddles with the front-door lock of the club.
“I’m getting my guitar out of the pawnshop,” gushes Skyshaw, continuing the one-sided conversation. “I’ll bring my guitar down tonight.”
Now the man is wedged in the doorway, the black void of the club looming behind him. He has little patience for this familiar routine. He nods his grudging approval of Skyshaw’s plans, even as he effectively blocks the entrance.
“See you tonight,” says Skyshaw.
The door closes.
The gruff, taciturn man is indeed known as “Jet” to friends and family. But to most, he’s the one and only Dr. Blues.
That’s Doctoras in M.D. Gave it to himself in the true self-mythologizing spirit of the place. One moment, he’s behind the bar fixing a customer a drink; the next, he’s behind the mike, shouting and doing the Jerk, forever transformed. What began as a lark has snowballed into the club’s biggest drawDr. Blues and the Out of Town Blues Band (all of whom are local,
The open-mike events are mere sideshows compared to these weekend spectacles, which have frat boys carefully parking their Range Rovers on 14th and coming in for what they take to be big-city blues.
Countless local acts have passed through the Vegas: Jimi Smooth and the Omen Band. The Chosen Few. Jackie Lee and the Stick-‘Em-Up Posse. Likewise, the club attracts its share of superstars looking for a place to relax after a big show somewhere else in town. Wilson Pickett maybe, or Little Richard, still pumped up and wanting to be Richard after some gig at the White House. (Semicelebrities also dig the comfy, place-to-bring-your-mistress vibe of the Vegas. Naturally, Roger Clinton has made several appearances, though his older brother has yet to be spotted.)
The backing bands and the slumming celebs come and go, but the biggest star at the Vegas remains Dr. Blues.
“I don’t know what Dr. Blues has got, but whatever he has, he should keep it, ’cause if he could put it in a bottle and sell it, he’d be a billionaire,” says Roosevelt Daniels, saxophonist for Mood Experience, an R&B band that often plays the Vegas.
Dr. Blues may not be a billionaire, but this blues salesman is doing just fine, thank you. Along with house drummer and kinsman Bigfoot, Dr. Blues casually packs the place. Everybody knows the routinegussied-up gutbucket blues and shouted invitations to party. The crowds generally obey, buying the good Doctor’s whiskey while they drink in his music.
“The Vegas is the closest thing to an old-time blues club in this town,” says Bill Wax, veteran DJ and host of the Blues Plate Special program on WPFW (89.3 FM) “It’s more of a honky-tonk, a down-home kind of place.”
“It’s the last little hole in the wall in D.C.,” says Danny Thompson, who books local R&B acts. “It’s really got the atmosphereno menus or nothing like that. I mean, this is a bar.”
Unlike the Washington clubs that dish out live blues strictly for dining ambience, the Vegas Lounge isn’t a restaurant masquerading as a music joint. Sure, you can get some chicken wings and something called a Jet Burger, but patrons definitely don’t come here for the food.
They come here to see the Doctor.
No matter what time of day or night, it always feels like midnight inside the New Vegas Lounge. An O’Doul’s beer clock on the wallbottle cap-shaped and apparently plugged inbears no relation to temporal reality, and a pair of small front windows allow only the most feeble light from the outside world.
Garish red lights and dark furnishings give the place a bordello-noir aspect, a sense that vice would rest comfortably in this room. The faded, honeycomb-patterned carpet (apparently once brownish, though it’s difficult to discern) long ago reverted to a more organic form; after decades, it has managed to creep greedily up the sides of the cramped corner stage, a double-coffin-size platform barely big enough for a drum kit.
The veneer-paneled walls are plastered with the usual array of souvenir beer signs from Bud to the Bull. No suds insignia, however low-selling or obscure the brand, shall be denied, as long as it’s complimentary. There’s a spiffy plaque in Spanish for Cerveza Lite.
Even more than your average nightclub owner, Dr. Blues has adapted in true Darwinian fashion to this perpetual-twilight world. His bulging peepersmagnified behind thick, old-fashioned-framed glassesresemble those of the grotesquely goggle-eyed fish that troll the depths of the oceans.
The club doesn’t open for hours, but he’s here overseeing a repairman who’s on the roof replacing the engine for the club’s exhaust fan. The Doctor says he’s at the Vegas most days anywayputtering around, mopping bathrooms and suchbut this is a bona fide emergency that just couldn’t wait. “That blower keeps the smoke out, keeps the funk out, pulls everything out,” he explains in his hoarse, often halting voice. “Some places, when you leave the club, you feel like you’re leaving a greasy spoon.”
Dr. Blues is proud of his place, from the black pressed-tin ceiling to the oval mirrors gleaming with crude line drawings of blues and jazz greats like Billie Holiday. “I did it all,” he says. “We put cushions on the sides, to make the sound stick to the wallit’s the best-sounding place you can find anywhere. It’s a warm placeit hits you when you walk in the door. All blues clubs are really, really warm. People come in this joint and feel like they’re at home. They sit back and say, ‘I know I’m gonna have a good time tonight.’”
He claims the Vegas is modeled after classic Chicago and New Orleans blues clubs. In fact, it more closely resembles what it actually isa neighborhood topless joint, circa 1979, slightly revamped with a timeless rec-room aesthetic. Dr. Blues doesn’t talk about that risqué era, and in general he doesn’t discuss the past at all; maybe that’s one of the reasons he sometimes calls himself the Future Dr. Blues.
A D.C. resident for nearly a half-century, he has operated various businesses, about which he’d rather not elaborate. But he will tell you he’s been a blues hound from way back. He saw an endless parade of R&B greats when they performed at downtown landmarks like the Howard Theater. In those glory days, 14th and U Streets NW formed the heart of an internationally renowned black arts and entertainment culture, boasting legendary clubs like the Blue Mirror and the Casino Royal, among many others. Even so, Washingtonhometown of Ellington, Marvin Gaye, and so many other immortalshas never had much of a blues scene.
The roots of the New Vegas Lounge lie in a more recent golden age of now-defunct D.C. culture: It’s one of the last remnants of the 14th Street Strip, a red-light district of go-go bars and porn shops and late-night deviltry that thrived up through the 1980s. When Thomas Circle began to clean up its act around 1990, the Vegas changed with the times. The dancing girls put on their clothes and danced no more, and soon there was a New Vegas Lounge.
During this period, the blues had become hip again, enjoying another cyclical revival. Dr. Blues knew a good thing when he saw it, and he could almost hear the cash registers already ringing: “I saw all the jazz nightclubs, like Blues Alley. They had the national acts, but there was nothing for blues, for local musicians. I thought the best thing to do was try blues, so blues just popped off. A lot of people really didn’t know what blues was, so they realized what it was when I kept playing the bluesthe real old stuff.”
One night he grabbed the mike, claimed his new title of Dr. Blues, and threw the past away. Just like thatThe blues is all right!as sudden as a religious conversion. It felt good out there jiving in front of the crowd, and nobody told him to stop. From then on, it’s been nothing but the blues. “Jet was just a nickname,” he snaps. “Now I’m Dr. Blues. I’m the one keeping the blues going in Washingtonif you want to hear the blues, you come to the Vegas Lounge.”
Make no mistake, though. The Doctor’s got his own particular notions about the blues. He peddles the sort of blues that fills the seats, so he cooked up his own extraspecial formulashow biz-style and heavy on the schmaltz. If you’re looking for authenticity, the Vegas isn’t the place. For that, you can always go check out some blues performance exhibit at the Smithsonian folk-life festival.
A fan instead of a purist, Dr. Blues’ idols include a motley crew from all over the map: ’40s jump-blues shouters like Louis Jordan and Roy Brown, boogie-woogie wild man Amos Milburn, soul man Wilson Pickett. He’s especially fond of Sammy Davis Jr.so what if the Candy Man was about as far from the blues as any black singer ever got?
One thing Dr. Blues makes perfectly clear: He doesn’t go for the real sad stuff. He digs the up-tempo, hip-shaking, house-rocking tunes. For him, blues is party music, because
customers come to have fun, not to cry in
Likewise, jazz and rock are banned from the New Vegas Lounge, by strict order of Dr. Blues. Even on sparsely attended open-mike nights, Dr. Blues has been known to pull the plug on a screaming guitar or some Coltrane disciple improvising on sax. There’s enough of that racket at all the other clubs in town. He simply won’t tolerate such foolishness. “I know what the customers want, and they want bluesthat’s what they come here for,” he says. “I don’t play to the audience, I play for the customers. If they want oldies-but-goodies, we give ’em that, too.”
Despite Dr. Blues’ bitter pronouncements against rock ‘n’ roll, one of the club’s famous friends and chief benefactors is none other than Stephen Stills. The fair-haired god of L.A. classic rock has dropped by the Vegas on several occasions to jam, drink a few cold ones, and socialize with Dr. Blues. A few years ago, Stills donated a brand-new Ludwig drum kit, a nice red set that gleams against the club’s decadently incarnadine decor. “He came in and seen this stuff I had on stage was raggedy and no good. Stephen wanted to help keep my thing going. He and I are good friends, and that’s what a friend is for. He’s good people, and he’s one of the best musicians ever to put a guitar in his hand.”
Dr. Blues is used to bigwigs and small fry alike stopping in from all over the globe. He knows he’s worth the trip: Why wouldn’t they want to get a taste of the Vegas? What else are they going to do during their visit, stay in the hotel and watch C-SPAN? “I get people from EuropeFrance, England, GermanyJapan, everywhere. These are international peopleall raceslike everybody’s a brother and a sister. They say, ‘We were told to come to the Vegas Lounge and holler at Dr. Blues when we come to Washington.’ The word is out, across the country and internationallythe Vegas Lounge is the hottest spot
The place may be jumping most weekends, but on other evenings, without Dr. Blues commandeering the stage, the place shrinks. After all, those sparsely attended open-mike jams aren’t high on many lists of Things to Do. That’s when the Vegas reveals its real blues side, not so much down-home as down-and-out.
But Dr. Blues can’t be bothered with that. He’s on a roll now and ready for some offstage showboating. Passing behind the bar, he lets out a growling refrain from “Stagger Lee,” the old blues song: “I was standing on the corner, when I heard that bulldog bark…” It’s a decently grizzled, rough blues voice, but certainly nothing special. Most importantly, it’s foghorn-loud, echoing throughout the empty bar.
He returns accompanied by a pair of yapping guard dogsa Rottweiler named Roxy and an Australian Dingo named Sandy. They live in the back of the kitchen, protecting the place from robbery attempts, which occur all too frequently. “They’re good fuckin’ dogs, man. They know their job. I wish I’d had these bastards upstairs last night,” he says, referring to a break-in at his daughters’ beauty parlor, which is above the bar. “Somebody was up there, but they didn’t take nothing.”
Trained to obey only Dr. Blues, these dogs love the blues, he claims, especially when he’s the one singing. One wonders why the dogs haven’t gone mad, enduring so many open-mike nights at the Vegas. There’s a knock on the front door, and they launch into a frenzy of barking. Some nasty call-and-response ensues, until Dr. Blues shouts the beasts into obedient silence. He leads them back into the kitchen and heads for the front entrance. There’s more business to take care of before show time.
I want to tell you a story about the Vegas Lounge,
The New Vegas Lounge.
Before you came here, you didn’t have nowhere to go.
You had the blues.
‘Cause this is where the blues begins
And this is where it ends.Bigfoot crooning a monologue over drums and wheezing harmonica to a handful of the faithful at the New Vegas Lounge
On some late weeknights, after an endless parade of open-mike shenanigans, Bigfoot steps out from behind the drum kit to serenade stragglers who’ve courageously stayed until last call. In a whiskey-soaked croak, he sings an a cappella version of “Goodnight Sweetheart,” the old doo-wop gem, or anything else that comes to mind.
When he’s in the right mood and had enough Jack, Bigfoot falls into a sort of trance, and his slurring, feedback-drenched vocals completely take over his limp, exhausted body. His falsetto cracks and finally swoops down into a guttural sound just this side of sobbing. Often, his bizarre, oddly moving performances are the closest thing to the mournful spirit of the blues you’ll hear at the Vegas Lounge.
A lean, wolfish man, Bigfoot performs with Dr. Blues and the Out of Town Blues Band on the weekends, but his main duty for several years has been hosting the open-mike nights.
Unlike his bosswhom he always respectfully calls Dr. BluesBigfoot is a garrulous charmer offstage as well as on. He fondly recalls the heady days when the old Vegas Lounge was packed with gyrating dancers instead of blues penitents: “He had the best-looking girls in town. They were topless, they were bottomlessand during that time, this was the only club doing that. A lot of people still come in here and ask, ‘Where’s the girls?’”
Bigfoot, who is Dr. Blues’ cousin, came to D.C. in the late ’60s, part of a “family migration” from North Carolina. He got his first drum kit for $200 at Sam’s Pawnbrokers on 14th Street, and he’s been a professional drummer for most of his life. After years on the road with various R&B bands, including stints abroad, he accepted a permanent job at the Vegas, just down the street from his house. “I decided, why do all this crap traveling around?” he says. “My first cousin’s got a big ol’ blues club three or four blocks from where I live. So I’m in for the long haul now.”
During his tenure as host of open-mike nights, Bigfoot has seen it all. “I’ve had more Jimi Hendrixes come in here than anything else. I had a guy come one nighthe had about 10 pedals. It took him about 20 minutes to hook it all up, and I said, ‘OK, your time is upyou haven’t played anything, but you just spent all your time hooking up all this Hendrix stuff, man. Jimi Hendrix is dead. Let him rest.’ So Dr. Blues said, ‘Look, let him golet’s see what he’s gonna sound like.’ But all you could hear was whhheeeeeoooorrrrr. This is one guy I hope don’t ever come back again.”
Mercifully, most of the truly incompetent don’t make return appearances. Every once in a while, the jam sessions veer out of mediocrity and can be fairly inspired, if never exactly professional. As Bigfoot points out, some “open-mike guys” turn out to be bona fide drawsand damn good for business. Since October, a Georgetown University student has been packing the house every Thursday (“college night”). A music major from Boston, he sports Duane Allman-style mutton chops that unfortunately make him resemble an Amish used-car salesman. Nonetheless, he’s a real prodigy on his white Fender Telecasterand for his age, surprisingly tasteful regarding solos. “I swear he brings down half of Georgetown with him on Thursdays,” says Bigfoot.
What has really sustained the open-mike events through the yearsmaking the Vegas the best place around for blues fanaticshave been faithful regulars like Skyshaw. In his case, steady attendanceat least at firstwas from necessity. “For a while, when I didn’t have a girlfriend or a place to live, the Vegas was my whole fuckin’ life,” he says. Back in the early days, he would often wait several hours before getting the chance to perform a couple of songs. Sometimes, when he had no guitar, he’d borrow the club’s house instrument.
Though he’s a somewhat unconventional guitarist and an often high-strung singer, Skyshaw is well schooled in urban electric blues: In his younger years he even made the obligatory pilgrimage to Chicago to hang out with the real bluesmen. His main problem may be that he takes the blues too seriously for his own good. “It’s very powerful shit. The blues is real mojo work; it’s very scary stuff,” he says.
For years Skyshaw kept a diary in notebooks and on cassettes of every single performance he gave at the Vegas. He meticulously annotated the musicians involved and the set lists as if these were historic recording sessions instead of one-shot jams on slow weeknights.
Skyshaw has played in some of the most godawful aggregations ever to take the stage at the Vegasand he’s made notes of nearly every one. “It could be the most incompatible musicians: a transvestite on saxophone who doesn’t know how to play, a fat redneck from Virginia on bass, an old, wizened-up crackhead on drums, and some smug college kid and a one-eyed dwarf on guitarsand then me.”
Or this doomed pickup band he chronicled: “The sweaty miasma of the Vegas makes it possible for a jammin’ ensemble to be playing in five different keys of C, and none of them quite have itsax, bass, guitar, harp, even the drummer playing in his own key.”
Naturally, sometimes it was simply personality conflicts that got in the way of the playing. “They had this real bitter young bass player who every time I saw him had a little more of his torso removed. He was shot and had his legs amputatedhe was still calling me an asshole from his wheelchair. But he played a thunderous bass, man,” Skyshaw claims.
However, once in a while, on that rare, unexpected night that could seem like any other, everything clicked, and the New Vegas Lounge transcended itself.
Skyshaw can still vividly recall (and often listens to a cassette recording of) what he considers his finest moment at the Vegas: March 29, 1992. It was a pickup band, featuring Ed on drums, a guy with a floppy leather Stevie Ray Vaughan hat on bass, Skyshaw on guitar, with Bigfoot helping him out on vocals in a cover of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Farther on up the Road.” The tape backs up his claim, right down to Bigfoot’s powerful singing. For the most part, it’s a rousing performance. “That’s what we aspired to every night at the Vegas,” says Skyshaw. “And it really only happened that one night, when everything came together and I felt like Earl Hooker’s ghost had possessed my guitar fingers.”
More often than not, though, such transcendencemusical or otherwisesimply doesn’t happen. The setting is too chaotic, the stage is too cramped, and there are too many musicians trying to stake their claim to a sliver of the Vegas’ spotlight. It can be hours waiting to get that three-song stint on the stage, if you even get that. Club policy, usually in the form of Bigfoot bellowing into the mike, now demands a two-drink minimum. It’s usually just a dreary night of blues and, he finally admits, it’s usually a pain in the ass.
Bigfoot says that Skyshaw could be a fine musician if he would just settle down and concentrate on the band rather than the entire history of the blues. “I’m always telling him not to be so excited, to calm down and play with everyone else,” says Bigfoot.
Despite his travails at the Vegas, Skyshaw is hooked. The moments of victorya well-executed solo or a vocal that hits the markare worth the humiliation. And in the right frame of mind, he pays his props to Dr. Blues, the father figure who often disparages him. “Jet is a very interesting guy,” he says. “In the broadest sense of the word, he really is like a Muddy Waters mojo man.”
Dr. Blues long ago made his own dire prognosis of the Vegas’ would-be prodigal son: “Skyshaw just plays for hisself,” he says, shaking his head. “You got to play for the audience, or nobody wants to hear you.”
Saturday night, ’round midnight. The Vegas Lounge is packed, a crowd stomping the honeycomb carpet. Everybody’s waiting for Dr. Blues.
All evening, the Out of Town Blues Band has been backing up a guest singer, Mr. Dee, a veteran local R&B vocalist. Mr. Dee usually performs over at Vicki’s on 9th Street NW, but tonight he’s doing a favor for his old friend and protégé, Dr. Blues. Resplendent in a razor-sharp, shiny stage suit topped by a black Stetson hat, he’s belting out Stax and James Brown hits with fervor. He’s the real thing for sure, right down to his gold front teeth, which flash every time he smiles at some woman in the audience.
Led by Bigfoot’s back beat, the band is hot; Mr. Dee’s even hotter, but the mostly white audience is still holding back, waiting for the host. Meanwhile, Dr. Blues discreetly makes the rounds, quietly shaking hands, bringing people drinks, waiting on tables, and generally staying undercover. As usual, he’s inconspicuous in a low-key sweater and casual slacks. When the band takes a break, though, he disappears back into the kitchen.
After a bit, the Out of Town Blues Band shuffles back onstage. One of the horn players grabs the mike: “The Doctor!” The crowd goes wild. “The Doctor!” Pandemonium. “Dr. Bloooooooooooooooz!”
From the kitchen, past the restrooms, and to the stage rushes Dr. Blues. He’s sporting a customized waiter’s jacketblazing bright redand dark tuxedo slacks. It’s a stunning look: part busboy, part matador. He’s already dancing before he gets to the front of the stage, where the crowd greets him as if he’s some sort of superstar.
“Hey everybody!” he roars. “Dr. Blues is
He’s completely wired, a different person from his normal, laid-back demeanor. He’s dancing, he’s shucking, he’s prancing; he’s all over the place, beaming like some kid at his birthday party.
For the next set, Dr. Blues takes the band through a furiously paced medley of blues songs, doing a few verses of each tune before deftly switching gears: “Caledonia,” “Bad, Bad Whiskey,” “Down Home Blues,” and others. It’s as though he has thrown a line from every blues tune into one stream-of-consciousness riff, celebrating what should be pure blasphemy. Is he trashing the blues or paying the ultimate tribute? It’s more the former, but his charisma carries off the charade. He often simply shouts a phrase over and over (“Hey! The blues is all right” being a favorite mantra), as if he’s forgotten the lyrics altogether. He doesn’t finish a single song, yet judging from the crowd’s ecstatic response, you’d think he was Otis Redding resurrected.
Mr. Dee, by far the better and more experienced singer, graciously takes his place in the shadows, providing backup vocals. He knows that not only is this Dr. Blues’ club, it’s his own private party, and Mr. Dee knows how to be a guest.
“Yeah, Mr. Dee,” says Dr. Blues. “Give him a round of applausehe taught me everything I know.”
By now there’s not a single customer sitting down, and most are dancing wildly. The scene resembles those frat-house frenzies of yore inspired by the antics of Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts, R&B court jesters for generations of Southern college kids. But Dr. Blues is turning a similar trick right in his own club, on his own terms. He’s not a guest on some lily-white campus, he’s the host of his own animal-house bash. Professionals, college kids, couplesall of ’emthey’re on his turf and he’s calling the shots. And they’re eating it up.
“It’s real interesting that there’s this black-owned, by appearance mostly black club, but it does a really good business with a white college audience,” says DJ Wax, who went to the Vegas for his bachelor party. “I think that’s an interesting phenomenon in this town. I don’t know of any other club that’s been able to draw such a mixed audience. It’s in an area of town that normally people would not be anxious to get into, but he’s lasted a long time and he’s doing a good job.”
After the show, Dr. Blues is mobbed by adoring fans. “Dr. Smooth!” shrieks a confused woman, her evening dress splotched with sweat. “Dr. Smooth! Dr. Smooth, I love you.” He greets the faithful, snagging business cards from customers who want him to perform at private parties.
Bigfoot nurses a Jack Daniel’s at the bar and watches the scene, which gets repeated week after week. “Dr. Blues is a custom-made man,” he sighs. “He loves his clients. He loves the people. That’s who everybody comes to seeDr. Blues.”
Dr. Blues sits languidly at the bar, munching on a fish sandwich and watching a boxing match on TV. On the stage behind him the blues is cranking, but he pays the noise no mind. That’s how it often is early on slow open-mike nights, when even the band members glance at the TV while performing.
It’s not supposed to be that way, not tonight, anyway. This is a special evening at the Vegas, celebrating the birthday of Billy the Kidd, actually a seasoned veteran of 42 who plays in clubs all around town. A local hotshot guitarist, Billy’s on the stage with his band, the Hired Guns. All sorts of musicians are expected to show upbut the place is nearly empty.
In a leather fringe jacket and black turtleneck, Billy the Kidd cuts an impressive figure, and he’s a flashy virtuoso as well. Swigging a Heineken, he launches into Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” to try to get something going. It’s an interesting version, full of strange chord changes, but it has no effect. Dr. Blues doesn’t even look up, and Bigfoot is similarly engrossed in the boxing match.
After the lackluster set, there are still only a few customers sitting in the back, so Billy the Kidd heads outside to cool off. He’s pissed.
Then Skyshaw rambles in. He senses the general inertia and decides to save the day. Some young guy slides behind the drum kit, and some barfly picks up the bass.
Skyshaw’s running the show now, and he addresses the nearly empty bar as if it were the packed southside Chicago blues joint of his dreams.
“OK, listen everybody, let’s have a round of applause for Billy the Kiddit’s his birthday tonight,” Skyshaw begins.
A few weak claps trickle from a back table.
“We’re here at the Vegas Lounge, the biggest little blues club in Washington.”
Without further ado, Skyshaw prods the creaky ensemble into an instrumental. More confused than inspired by his ad-libbed lyrics, the makeshift band desperately tries to get in tune. Then, as the band eases into the blues standard, “Sweet Sixteen,” something gels and Skyshaw catches fire, scattering all sorts of souped-up solos into the empty club. His face is contorted, he’s all bunched up like a crabhe’s possessed. He has claimed the tired old number for his own, mostly through sheer force of will.
The group closes the set with a blistering rendition of Junior Parker’s “Driving Wheel,” and by now even Bigfoot is watching the performance. Skyshaw winds up the song in a flourish of theatrical triumphin front of an audience of six onlookers, counting Bigfoot.
In the next half-hour, a couple of newcomers straggle into the Vegas, but it turns out they’re all musicians. There’s a James Brown impersonator (a shorter, squatter ringer for the Godfather of Soul around the time of his angel-dust rampage) and a band of porkpie-hatted, cigar-smoking suburbanites called the Resonators. In the meantime, two of the five customers have headed for the door.
Obviously mellowed by the break, Billy the Kidd returns to the stage for another set, but things don’t get much better, at least audiencewise. He’s clearly peeved by the low turnout and suddenly cuts the performance short. He heads back to the sound board, and an argument ensues. Minutes later, he’s packing up his equipment for an early exit. He doesn’t need this bullshit on his birthday.
When Billy the Kidd steps out of earshot, people start ragging on him. “He got simple,” says Bigfoot. “He messed with the sound equipment and you don’t do that. He said he was going to pack the place, and look at it.”
Dr. Blues is still glued to the TV screen, oblivious to the commotion. He might as well be in his living room, for all he cares. He’s apparently conserving his energy for next weekend’s big shows.
Skyshaw analyzes his performance and gives it a pretty high rating, especially after Bigfoot tells him he sounded great. Skyshaw is bowled over by the host’s praise.
“I always give it my best effort. My late father told me to never quit, never give up, and I remembered that. My old man didn’t have a whole lot to do with blues music, but he did have a whole lot to do with character, and even though he died a broken-down individual, he always kept trying.”
It’s barely 11 p.m., and already the Vegas is closing down for the night. No more blues for now, and the prospect is rather frightening. What the hell is there to do now? Skyshaw exchanges phone numbers with the James Brown impersonator (“if you ever wanna fill in on lead vocals for my band, Blues Museumnothing but soul blues”). Bigfoot tries to get somebody to buy him one last Jack Daniel’s. Dr. Blues pulls off his glasses, rubs his tired eyes, glances around the New Vegas Lounge, and yawns.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.