Cover Story: Jumping to Amazing Conclusions

Big Joe Duskin proves good things come to those who wait

Nov 17, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Dale M. Johnson

Big Joe Duskin performs at his CD release party on Nov. 13.

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"What's goin' on, Big Joe?" bass player Ed Conley asks. "Ain't nothing goin' on but the weather, time and old age," Big Joe Duskin replies.

With all due respect, Duskin's wrong. At least in this case.

There's plenty going on for Big Joe these days. One might be tempted to call it a comeback, but in order to "come back" you have to go away, and that certainly doesn't apply to the King of Cincinnati Blues, Big Joe Duskin. Besides, he knew about coming back years ago.

Duskin was born in Birmingham, Ala., on Feb. 10, 1921, to Perry (a Baptist minister) and Hattie Duskin. Some time later, Perry got a job with the railroad that brought him to Cincinnati.

There was a piano in the house, but it was to be used solely for church music. Joe began to pick out notes on it at a young age. By the time he was in his teens, he was involved in the thriving Cincinnati Blues scene of the era, as were Bluesmen like Walter Coleman, whose song "I'm Going to Cincinnati" goes, "Now when you come to Cincinnati, stop at Sixth and Main/ That's where the good hustlin' women get the good cocaine." Which probably comes as a shock — or a pleasant surprise — to today's Federal Building employees.

And back then, that kind of music — the "Devil's music" — was most certainly not the kind of thing your Baptist minister father wanted to hear, and Perry Duskin was no exception. If he caught Joe playing Boogie Woogie or Blues on the family piano, he didn't hesitate to beat him.

It's the classic "Blues Story" — the choice between God and the Devil. Between what you're supposed to do and what you feel you must do.

Some, like Blues guitarist Robert Johnson, supposedly sold their soul in order to play better. Others never quite worked it out and played both sides of the fence.

But Big Joe was different. He struck a deal with his father: When he was around 17 years old and his father was 79, Joe agreed that he wouldn't play the Blues until his father was dead and buried.

And, in a twist that makes the Devil seem downright reasonable and fair when it comes to bargaining, Big Joe didn't play the Blues for another 26 years. His father lived to be 105.

During the interim, Joe was drafted into the infantry to fight World War II in Europe. When he returned to the States, he became a Cincinnati Police officer and then worked for the Post Office.

His father passed in 1963, and Joe ironically found that he just couldn't recapture the Blues piano style he had as a young man, when he played in West End clubs and juke joints. But, when something is born into you, it has a way of rolling around again, much like a piano run in a Blues song.

For Joe, it rolled around again in the early 1970s, when Steve Tracy — Blues fan and later the author of Going to Cincinnati: A History of the Blues in the Queen City — hunted Big Joe down. Tracy got Joe playing again locally and in Europe, where Joe headlined Blues festivals to fans who wanted to hear and see traditional Blues, the roots of Rock & Roll.

Today, at the age of 83, Big Joe is as vital as he was back in the '30s and '40s, albeit a little slower but no less exuberant. Recently, I was struck by his performance of "Laughing Boy Blues" (popularized by Woody Herman's band back in 1938), a (literal) "laughing to keep from crying" number with several verses ending in a mournful belly laugh.

The laugh Big Joe supplied in his version was indeed rueful, but it also was run through with a half-crazy note that was both humorous and more than a little chilling. It was a laugh that said, "I've been there, done that, I've pretty much given up ... but I'm taking you with me."

Very few performers of any age can summon that kind of emotion in their lyrics, much less in their laugh. It takes an artist who's connected with the here and now — bringing along all their attendant history — that can provoke that kind of response in people.

Recently, what that particular guy has done is release the excellent CD Big Joe Jumps Again!: A Cincinnati Blues Session, which features such old friends as bassist Conley (a former co-worker of Joe's and King Records session player), guitarist William Lee Ellis (co-producer of the CD and late '80s bandmate of Big Joe's) and Larry Nager (co-producer of the CD and champion of Cincinnati music, especially the Blues). There's also new friends like vocalist Shawna Snyder, who has her own Alternative original band as well as being an expert classic Blues shouter, and Cincinnati resident Peter Frampton, a legend in his own right. King Records session drummer Phillip Paul rounds out the lineup and provides solid back up.

The session is a living, breathing representation of an artist with a big voice, fast hands and the instincts to reach into your soul.

It's been an amazing year for the Bluesman. Besides the new album, this past July, at the 2004 Queen City Blues Fest, Big Joe was given the key to the city and honored with a proclamation of "Big Joe Duskin Day" in Cincinnati. Last weekend he jammed at a crowded Southgate House to celebrate the CD's official release.

And now he's being inducted into the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards Hall of Fame for making significant and meaningful contributions to the Cincinnati arts and music community.

There's a lot more going on than the weather, time and old age. Here's to you, Big Joe. ©