Music: Leaving This Ol' Town

Blues belter Bill Caffie steps out one last time

Maurice Mattei

Friends, family and many fellow musicians gahtered to remeber the late voalist, Bil Caffie.

The nightclub came to church to honor the life and style of Bill Caffie, then the church reconvened in the club to stomp the Blues in memoriam to the baritone who made his international reputation fronting the Count Basie Orchestra and his local one as a master who taught the youngsters how to groove.

Caffie's Bond Hill memorial service on Feb. 1 looked like a cross-pollinated family reunion in Jazz heaven, Cincinnati's version of Art Kane's "A Great Day In Harlem" come to life. The Reading Road service wasn't far from the bygone Jazz clubs Caffie frequented or from the V.I.P. Lounge where his final jam-band tribute played late into the night.

Caffie joined Basie in the early 1970s, maintaining the standard set among other Basie singers — Jimmy Rushing, Joe Williams and Leon Thomas.

Befitting an artist whose persona was as colorful, rich and deep as the low end of his foghorn-like baritone, the memorial to the downtown fixture was part Friar's Club roast/part concert tribute.

Elegant, outrageous and bittersweet tributes by Courtis Fuller, Wilbert Longmire, Steve Schmidt and Art Gore were interspersed between three exquisite musical sets by a revolving Jazz ensemble of Schmidt, Jim Anderson, Gore, Longmire, Gene Walker, Larry Kinley and Eugene Goss.

Jymii Crawford was preacher/ringmaster/MC, telling tales, singing and belting out the names of musicians in the audience of more than 200.

"Aurell Ray! Melvin Broach! Mike Wade!" he said, an impassioned sprinkler stabbing a finger at the musicians as he spun.

"They were all influenced by Bill Caffie."

Crawford regaled with stories of Caffie's bandstand command, of how he demanded audiences respect his performances and of Caffie's love for the Blues.

"Bill Caffie said the Blues was the foundation of it all," Crawford said, stopping to pull out a harmonica. "I'd rather drink muddy water and sleep in a hollow log," he sang, accompanying himself on the harp. The crowd clapped time.

The memorial reflected the jubilant pre- and post-service mood when folks — black, white, musician, childhood friend, old and college-aged — played catch-up, trading Caffie anecdotes.

Wade, a trumpeter and composer who played on Caffie's only solo CD, 2002's Leaving This Ol' Town, showed up with drummer Melvin Broach, who met Caffie as a 14-year-old West End kid backing the singer with guitarist Longmire.

"I had my first alcoholic drink because of Bill Caffie," Broach said.

On a set break the musicians ordered drinks. "I didn't know what to get," Broach recalled. "Bill Caffie ordered me a White Russian because I heard somebody else order it when I was playing, and it looked like milk."

But Caffie gave the drummer another grown-up assist. "Bill Caffie taught me how to groove," said Broach. "He said if you have all that (musical) knowledge all you have to do is put it in the pocket and just groove."

Before the service Caffie sang "Unforgettable" in a self-eulogy from the speakers. Schmidt, the pianist and arranger, said Caffie, 73, suspected death. After playing what would be his last gig on Dec. 11 at Simone's, Schmidt said Caffie took himself to the hospital on Dec. 14. Caffie left the hospital Dec. 20 but returned Dec. 26. He died Jan. 22 from complications from a kidney ailment.

"He was at home all Christmas week," Schmidt said. "He wasn't feeling good. I went down there (to his downtown apartment), brought him some food and cooked for him. I ended up taking him back to the hospital the day after Christmas. He was in good spirits. He wanted to get better.

"There were moments when you could tell he was feeling the burden of possibly dying. In those moments he'd say, 'I've had a good life.' Then he'd start talking about music," said Schmidt, who knew Caffie for 24 years.

"I got to be with him the whole time. It didn't feel like an obligation. It was an honor," Schmidt said.

"I feel satisfied."

Singer and educator Kathy Wade, sometimes the lone female presence in the city's male-dominated Jazz circle, said Caffie's was a "signature sound," one he imprinted on "Stormy Monday," also one of Wade's showstoppers.

"I think he probably had one of the richest vocal instruments to come out of Cincinnati," she said. "Once an original goes, you never get it back. The closest thing to (his voice) would be Joe Williams. The art and mastery of being able to tell a story is very difficult. Once you can do that, that's a signature sound. The only person who did that was Joe Williams, and that's not a comparison. It's a compliment."

Longmire said Caffie numbered among the great Cincinnati artists misunderstood because they return here after achieving national and even international fame.

"Bill Caffie went to New York and made friends with Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan, and they all loved him. But he had friends here," Longmire said.

"He was the blackest man I ever seen," said Goss, after singing "Peace." He added, "The ending "­est" of blackest is French for 'is.' He was 'black is.' Black people invented class in this country. When Bill Caffie walked in a room, he made you feel like he was going to serve you with adventure and fun. In the back room, Bill Caffie got you ready to do a second set.

"Thank you Bill Caffie for being 'black is.' "

Bill Caffie One-liners
Singer Bill Caffie was known as much for his voice and his colorful suits and shoes as he was for his one-liners. Thanks to Steve Schmidt, Art Gore, Mike Wade and Eugene Goss for remembering some.

"I'm as hungry as a timberwolf on Tuesday."

"I'm as cold as a Norwegian well-digger's dick on Tuesday."

"They've been sticking me so much, if I drank a glass of water I'd look like a sprinkler."

"... Ooowww!"

"I'm skinny enough to ride around on a rooster."

"You want your sugar now, baby, or later?"

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