Though he's one of the seminal figures in Cincinnati music history, Big Joe Duskin, legendary Boogie-Woogie pianist and bass-bottom vocalist, gets more attention in Europe than he does in his own hometown. Even CityBeat has never featured the man who inherited the Blues from such Delta-born icons as Muddy Waters and Memphis Slim, and brought it up to Cincinnati from the Deep South.
In response to this fact, Duskin, who turned 80 this year, replies with characteristic amiability: "Yeah, I'd like to get in there (CityBeat), so people can see what the old man's doing before he kicks the bucket."
Continental Europe isn't the only place where Duskin is better appreciated: Over the past 20 years, Duskin has built a cult following in Canada, the United Kingdom and other major metropolitan cities in the United States. At the Heritage Blues in New Orleans, the demand for Duskin, one of the last living Blues and Boogie-Woogie pioneers, resulted in a gathering of Olympian proportions.
"I went down there and played with some cats," Duskin says. "180,000 people was there that day. Ain't never seen that many people at a Blues festival in my life. They sound like a football game, and they get their hurrah up there after every song I done. Woo!
My ears be ringing all night."
Even Columbus, Ohio, brings down a bigger and more Blues-hungry crowd than we can muster here in Cincinnati.
"I went up last Thursday to the Thirsty Ear," Duskin says. "Boy, they really love me up there. I'll tell you we really had a grand time. The people didn't want to go, and they asked for an encore, so I got back up and did two more. I play up there quite often, and it'd be good for you to go, too."
So why does Cincinnati seem to care so little for our international music treasure?
"You know they like that Rap crap so much," Duskin says. "I don't know why."
As if there were some cosmic connection between Duskin's diminutive Cincinnati audience and the semantics of racial identity, Duskin continues with a few thoughts.
"Put this down, I want you to put this down: Big Joe Duskin say he's not a black Afro American," Duskin says. "He is an American-born Negro. He was born in the American United States. He don't know nothing about Africa or even been there. I can't be born in two countries; I was just born in one. I want them (the people of Cincinnati) to know that. Put that in there, for God's sake. I don't know where the hell they get black African from."
African American or not, Duskin is familiar with the trials and tribulations of having the wrong skin color. Born in 1921 in Birmingham, Ala., Duskin witnessed his cousin's lynching by the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. Apparently, his cousin was accused of stealing a sack of potatoes and a loaf of bread from a whites-only grocery. Getting strung up was his "just" punishment. Soon thereafter, Duskin's father, a hard-core Baptist preacher, gathered up their belongings and headed north to Cincinnati.
But that was before Duskin began to learn the bag o' tricks of the Blues catalog. Influenced by Southern juke joint players of the time — Roosevelt Sykes, Albert Ammons — Duskin found his niche in a burgeoning genre of piano playing in Cincinnati, where the South met Appalachia and the indigenous styles of each area collided to form what is now called Boogie-Woogie.
But developing musical skills wasn't easy for Duskin. He had his father's fire-and-brimstone preaching to get around. His father called the Blues "the Devil's music" and forbade him from ever digging the style. Undeterred, Duskin would ask a friend to stand by as he practiced to signal when his father was coming. When his father came within earshot, Duskin effortlessly switched from shaking-that-ass boogie beats to the traditional hymnal "Nearer My God to Thee."
His father caught him in the act more than a few times and would subsequently lash him with a bullwhip. Eventually, Duskin had it out with the Good Reverend, and they came to an agreement: As long as his father was alive, Duskin would never mix it up. Once he had passed on, Duskin would be free to play like a bad ass.
They made the bargain when the Reverend was 89, so Duskin thought he needn't wait too long.
"When he got to 99 and then over 100," Duskin says, "I went to Mom and said, 'God, the old man's living on my time, your time and everybody else's time. I can't play no piano till he's in the grave — he's got to be dead and gone.' It look like he'd done been in there by now, but then he got to be 103, then 104, then 105."
Duskin's father died in his arms in 1963. Basically, Duskin replaced jackrobbing with going postal, working at the Cincinnati Post Office from 1945 till 1971, at which time he met Steve Tracy, a local harmonica player, English teacher and music historian. Tracy encouraged Duskin to get back into music.
"If it wasn't for him, I'd have never gone back to piano," says Duskin.
Muddy Waters also goaded Duskin into returning. But, perhaps implying that Americans typically overlook our culture's music, Waters' enticement had dollar signs attached.
"Muddy Waters said, 'If you go back to playing, and you go over there to Europe, they'll love you every single time you go over.' " Duskin says.
Waters' sage advice panned out. After a gig at a Blues festival in South Bend, Ind., a German promoter approached Duskin to ask if he'd be interested in touring in Germany. Duskin said he would and the same day, the promoter booked a flight to Europe, where Duskin has been singing and playing once a year for the past 20 years to nothing but sold out crowds.
"We went to a place in Germany," Duskin says of his last European tour. "Crowd sold out. Went to another place in Frankfurt. That was sold out. Then I went over to England through the tunnel. They was sold out. Everywhere I went was sold out." ©