Celebratin' the blues

Society, festival hope to raise awareness of Atlanta's blues artists

Perhaps you've heard the shop-worn cliché from some eager insurance salesman, predicting the future you'll suffer unless you by his product: "You didn't plan to fail. You failed to plan." In many cases, operating a blues music society is a slight variation on that theme: You have made a plan, yes, but one that's doomed to fail.

Consider this daunting proposition: Assemble a group of people with a common taste for spending time in bars, drinking and listening to blues, one of the least commercially successful music forms on the planet. Now, organize these individuals on a volunteer basis (in fact, make them pay for the membership privilege!) to plan and execute public programs and events with the intent of "keeping the blues alive," whatever that means. Build an organizational structure along the way, overcoming individuals' egos and private agendas. Then, leap through bureaucratic hurdles to obtain the precious nonprofit status that will more effectively enable you to apply for government grants and beg corporations for money.

Or, forget it all and have another beer.

The Atlanta Blues Society has taken on the challenge, made enormous progress in its five-year existence, and reaches a milestone Sun., April 22, with its third annual blues festival. Headlining the festival are Jerry McCain and DC Bellamy, from Gadsden, Ala., and Kansas City, respectively.

Singer/songwriter/harmonica player McCain, 70, is best known for his 1960 two-sided hit single, "She's Tough"/ "Steady" on the Rex label, and for his classic work on the Excello and Trumpet labels in the late 1950s. "She's Tough" (rechristened "She's Tuff") reached a wider audience thanks to its coverage on the Fabulous Thunderbirds' 1979 album, Girls Go Wild. A clever, original lyricist and blues harp ace, McCain later recorded for Jewel Records and the now-defunct Marietta-based Ichiban label. His most recent effort, This Stuff Just Kills Me, was released last year on the Jericho label to emphatic acclaim from the blues media.

Bellamy, a 52-year-old singer/songwriter/guitarist, is the half-brother of the late Curtis Mayfield (back in the day, the Impressions held rehearsals in his family's living room, according to Bellamy's PR). The Chicago native got his start at age 17, hitting the road with vocalist Betty Everett for a decade or so, and later working with everyone from Brooke Benton to Jimmy Reed. Bellamy released Water to Wine, his first CD, on the Rooster Blues label last year.

In addition to McCain and Bellamy, Atlanta artists slated to perform at the festival, in order of appearance, include the Electromatics; Frankie's Blues Mission; Liz Melendez and Donna Hopkins; Sammy Blue and Deacon Blues; Heaven Davis and the Aggravatin' Papas; Danny "Mudcat" Dudeck; Roger "Hurricane" Wilson; and Little Joey and Sweet Betty.

Last year's festival, held at the Tabernacle, drew a crowd of roughly 1,000, according to ABS president Gene Kreeft. This year, the event moves to the DeKalb/Atlanta Centre in the Plaza Fiesta Mall on Buford Highway, just north of Clairmont Road. The new site will offer free parking and easy access, Kreeft says, and should better accommodate the growing audience for the festival.

Kreeft, newly elected to the top ABS post, says that after the festival, the group will focus on obtaining the aforementioned federal 501c3 nonprofit status, which will aid fund-raising efforts.

Moving forward, Kreeft says he wants the ABS to serve more of the blues community than it has in the past, specifically "promoting Atlanta as a center for blues in the country." The talent is already here, Kreeft says, but few people outside of the metro area know about it.

One way to create that awareness, Kreeft says, is by developing local competitions for blues acts, with the top performer winning the right to represent Atlanta in national competitions, such as the International Blues Talent Contest, held annually in Memphis. The competitions would create a "fair and open process" that would give lesser-known bands an equal chance to compete, he explains.

Another ABS emphasis is the expansion of the "Blues in the Schools" program, in which local blues artists visit schools to create awareness about their craft. In the more distant future, Kreeft says he hopes the ABS will be able to provide marketing support, "an avenue to get [local artists'] CDs to the right people to be heard."

Time will tell how successful ABS will become. Sammy Blue — an Atlanta-area native and longtime blues bandleader who will appear at the festival — launched a blues society here in the mid-'80s that thrived for a short time, bringing to town such touring acts as Memphis Slim, R.L. Burnside, Koko Taylor and others.

Blue's experience as a musician, however, is that blues societies often are little more than "drinking clubs" which lack the music industry focus and professional acumen to actually benefit blues artists. But, in the absence of more support for blues from local government, Blue says he hopes the society will help bring "sorely needed" exposure, on a national level, to local performers.

"There are more good quality blues artists here in Atlanta, with CDs out, working right now, than there ever has been," Blue says, with exasperation, "and less facility to get them out [before the music industry] than any place I've ever seen. If the blues society can help expose that, then that's good."

The third annual Atlanta Blues Society Blues Festival takes place Sun., April 22, at the DeKalb/Atlanta Centre. Music begins at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance and $18 at the door. For more information, call 404-237-9595 or visit www.atlantablues.org.

Talkin' Blues is a monthly column on blues and related subjects, with an emphasis on local artists, venues and events. Please e-mail or send your blues news to Bryan Powell, 830 Josh Lane, Lawrenceville, GA 30045-3156.??