Circumstance and Kismet: Big Jack Reynolds in the Toledo Blues Scene

 

Writer Roger LaPointe speaks with Glenn Burris, the director of That’s A Good Way To Heaven: The Music & Life Of Big Jack Reynolds.

 

After a big premiere night in Big Jack Reynolds’s old stomping ground of Toledo, complete with live performances by many a fan and protege, That’s a Good Way to get to Heaven, the documentary revealing a great but little-known blues master to the world is making the festival rounds. And Jack’s music is moving up the blues charts, thanks to the new CD compilation of the same title.

 

The Big Jack story has all the elements that blues archeologists search for. Burris talked about Jack’s “absolutely atomic blues” and the wild circumstances that made Big Jack Reynolds and kept the mysterious bluesman’s legend alive.

 

There’s the classic origin in the deep south, with the unexpected signature influence of “that ‘lypso beat,” a three decades old link of lost film footage found, and the love of the many musicians he influenced. There are even strange spiritual circumstances with Big Jacks passing.

 

The line that connects all those dots in the film is the love generated by Jack’s personality and dedication to blues done well. His crusty personality somehow kept a local scene together, and the stories of those he inspired carried on his legacy across stages and blues joints through the region.

 

“I mean every card seemed to be kind of against him. His career was marginalized, and he never broke out to become a star, like we all think he had the talent to be. On the other hand, he didn’t just wind up in the gutter someplace either. He stayed on his feet somehow,” Burris said.

 

“It’s one thing to say, ‘this guy was in the right spot, that he had the right look’,” Burris said. “But…He was good. He was really, really good.”

 

How has reception for the film and CD gone?

 

It's gone better than expected. The movie debuted in May, at a premiere in Maumee, which adjoins Toledo, and the attendance was very good. It made a great component of an evening because the idea was that you would hear live music performed before and after the screening and that music would be, to a certain degree anyway, Jack's music performed by people who are left to carry that torch, so to speak. And, that went over very well. People who knew Jack were very pleased with what they saw. I think the litmus test for me was people who I had never met before, and knew Jack, came to me after the picture and said how much they liked it.

 

The next big hurdle for something like this is whether or not someone who didn't know Jack at all would be able to see it and appreciate it. Well, in the couple of months since the screening, promo copies have gone to a lot of blues writers, magazines, bloggers all across the country, all across the world really, and we've gotten a number of good responses back from people who loved the music and found the documentary to be the kind of thing that made them appreciate the music that they heard on the album a lot more, which is a really great goal for the movie to have. Here's this 20-track compilation of a lost blues man, and with this 80-minute story you should find yourself digging that music a lot more.

 

We have, now, new opportunities to screen it in other markets. The first of those was an acceptance by The Jukebox International Film Festival, in Nevada.

 

How is the record charting?

 

Very well. I think number two was a chart high somewhere in Europe. Now, charts these days mean a lot of different things. But, in this case, I think it was a weekly or maybe even daily blues show someplace that got good feedback from its listeners, played it regularly, and ranked it as their number two release. The Living Blues chart, which is probably the most important one of the independent charts for this kind of music, I think the last number I saw there was twenty-four, which is pretty astounding for somebody who most people have never heard of. Those charts are usually living blues men, younger touring acts, so all that kind of stuff has really been remarkable.

 

The Nashville Blues and Roots Alliance connected me with a promoter there who proposed a screening at City Winery in Nashville. We’ve arranged a ticketed screening there on the 28th of September, using the same format that we came up with in Maumee. That is, a live music act will accompany the movie. In this case, it's Markey Blue and Ric Latina. They have a recent album called Raised in Muddy Water. It looks like they're getting ready to host a public television show in Nashville too. They're very good, and they're happy to accompany our movie. And, what's more, to learn one or two of Jack's songs. So, again, the same approach we had in Toledo.

 

It’s on a Saturday at lunch time, so you can eat lunch there, and you can see a movie that we hope people will find interesting and get a little information about it from myself and also see a popular, local blues act play some of their new songs. And I hope, too, that it gets into a little bit of an open mic situation, which is very common in Nashville.

 

Isn't that something that Big Jack would do?

 

Yeah, that's a really good point. Sit-ins are how he survived sometimes, passing his own cowboy hat after he sang.

 

Were you ever able to meet Jack?

 

Yeah, I've actually interviewed Jack. The performance you see in the movie was recorded at WBGU-TV, in Bowling Green, Ohio where I went to college. This was early 1988, I think. Obviously shot in a television studio, where Big Jack does “Down So Long” and “She's Must be a Millionaire.”

 

There was a program every week there called Art Beat. A friend of mine produced a blues-in-our area-themed episode of that show, and it was about the same time that the record that Big Jack made with Art and Roman Griswold, another great Toledo blues act, was being released. The first Blue Suit Records album, Hot As You Got. That was made by John Rockwood who still to this day owns Blue Suit Records. I actually don't know the real genesis of the TV show, whether somebody suggested that the program get made because of that release or it was just coincidence, I don't know.

 

So, that's the source for that part of the documentary, the only really complete live footage of Jack Reynolds. And because that material still existed and somebody found it, that's the entire reason the documentary got made. The initial idea was just to make a DVD with those two songs on it and add it to the album.

 

The only part I played in that 1988 show was to do the interviews with the artists, and the only artists were The Griswolds and Big Jack Reynolds. Big Jack I may have seen play before then, I can't recall. I know that I saw him play in the Longhorn Saloon in Toledo a couple of times, but I can't recall if it was before I met him or not. Anyway, I was told before I interviewed Jack, "Watch out, he can be a little crusty. Don't piss him off." All right, fine.

 

So, I was really congenial when he sat down, and I asked him a few perfunctory questions, and he couldn't have been sweeter. Really, really nice. And, I got the impression that he’d never been interviewed before. Certainly not for television. And that, I think, charmed him... I think he loved the idea that he was standing in front of a television camera, you know, answering questions.

 

When we went to put this movie together, I said, "Well, I know I interviewed him for at least 10, 15 minutes in the studio." And we went looking for that interview portion for a year. Scoured, had people looking through the vault in Bowling Green, the works, and that part is apparently lost forever. The only part that was saved was what was cut into the show, which was very little. And, in our movie, you'll hear my voice at one point go, "How'd you get the name Big Jack?" And, you'll see this one shot that you'll never see before or after where Jack explains how he got his nickname. And, that's it. Of the 15 minutes or so that I did, that few seconds is all that survived, which kills me to this day.

 

It's fifteen seconds or so?

 

Oh, thirty maybe. It's just that one clip. And that breaks my heart, because that would've been his only formal television interview ever, to my knowledge. And, I did it, which would've made it even more special to me, certainly, to use that and see that used in something.

 

But, anyway, that's one of the great disappointments. I interviewed the guy in probably his only formal television interview in '87 or '88 for about 15 minutes, I'd say. And, never in my wildest dreams would I have expected that 30-odd years later I'd be working on a movie on the guy, and also not able to acquire the only interview I ever did with him, or that probably anyone ever did in those circumstances. I mean, the odd-ball circumstances of that just really flips me out when I think about it.

 

Yeah, what are the odds?

 

You know, certainly the thought never even crossed my mind as a young person, interviewing him, that this would ever come to light. So, that's one of the weird, inside, connect-the-dots, kismet stories that goes with the whole thing.

 

These kinds of things, these bizarre circumstances about Jack... If not bizarre, at least, I don't know, bemusing? Seem to surround him in every possible way. There's a phrase, I think it's a song that Dr. John used to do, called “I Walk on Gilded Splinters.” You ever hear that?

 

That's what I think about with Jack. How he got in and out of these, you know, odd situations, how he managed to somehow keep singing and performing his music, even when there didn't seem to be any reason why he would continue past the next week, and yet once again, here he is again, somewhere in Toledo, somewhere in Detroit, performing his music until he couldn't do it anymore. I mean, I look at it this way, how many times did he piss off all of these people that stuck with him in Toledo to the point, and you can see it in the film, where they go, "I've had enough."

It's the continuous theme of the documentary.

 

Yeah. "I've had enough of this guy, I can't take anymore. I'm not going to do it anymore." And either he charms them back or somebody comes along and says, "Well, you know, you're not going to get a chance to play with a guy like this again, he's the real deal, as we like to say." And people took the abuse. It's just... it's stunning to me. I mean, every card seemed to be kind of against him, even his own, even himself.

 

And then, the odd thing of having a little program made about you for a public television show, and then having that turn its wheel slowly, decades later, into something that glorifies him beyond anything he ever would've dreamed of. It's just a really interesting tale in itself.

 

There aren't old blues guys like Jack still being found today?

 

Seems like they're gone. But then you do discover someone gone, but new to you. It does get rarer with each year, I guess.

.

Do you feel like people are looking at the Big Jack film that way, uncovering someone?

 

One thing I've discovered about blues fanatics is they're archeologists, or anthropologists. They're also always looking for the trading card that the other guy doesn't have. Everybody who's a serious music fan wants to say to somebody they know, "Have you ever listened to this guy?" You know, "Have you ever heard of this guy?" That kind of stuff. So, as a result, every blues connoisseur, every real fanatic is constantly looking for that next card that hasn't been turned over. So, you can find it, maybe first in your circle and say, "Hey, have you checked this out?" You know the "check this out" cache among music fans is an important thing. In the blues world I think doubly so. And, I believe that Jack is one of those. I believe it's a new thing that nobody knows about or hadn't heard about or uncovered, all that. And, for blues fans, they know that those guys are out there. They know there's still a deep well of the unsung.

 

And, I think that's one of the reasons that the Jack record has caught a little fire, that it's being invited to film festivals, that it's getting this screening in Nashville. And so, you see kind of a grass roots effort, taking somebody who's kind of been locked away in a little box for a long time, or his music has been, and making it a big thing.

 

Now, the hardcore blues fanatics...

 

They know who he is?

 

Oh, yeah. Serious collectors have been aware of him for a long time. But the average listener, no.

 

His music has been used in movies.

 

Once. I don't know of another one. You're talking about a movie called “All Is By My Side,” it's the Jimi Hendrix biopic from, I don't know, five, six, seven years ago. It's called Jimi: All Is By My Side.

 

How long did it take to put the project together?

 

Four years. And, let's face it, it does not look like it took four years, it wasn't a nose to the grindstone thing for four years. We'd go months without doing anything on it, especially in the first two years. It was, "Well, we want to do this, let's do it right. We need this content, can you find it?" We'd wait a long time to get an interview with someone. It was done with no budget, you know, basically pocket money. And I should point out, too, that it was supposed to be the very first release on Third Street Cigar Records. It's the sixth, I believe. And, John Henry at the label has said that thank god that's the case because you don't know how to run a record label until you do, obviously, a lot of things.

 

And they could because the Big Jack thing was in a slow gestation period. John was producing records by living artists meantime. Two releases for Bobby G., an archival release for Luther Allison, which is really, really great, and then signing Johnny Rawls, which is an incredible coup for the label. And the first release by The Good, The Bad, and The Blues, and so on. All of that built the distribution and brand, the grass roots network for the label. And, if we didn't have that, the Big Jack thing would probably sell some copies and get screened in Toledo and that would be the end of it. I mean, honestly, that's true. And, as a result, the difference now is, you know, there's a network of people who understand that the label has some cache and will pay attention to your release when it comes out.

 

During the time we were making the documentary, my wife had a serious health problem, and that took at least a year out of the whole idea. Even when she was recovering from her first surgery, I was sitting at her bedside, you know, going through the transcripts of the interviews we had done. These things take forever, you know. But, the stick-to-it of this really paid off.

 

There were times when I kind of wanted to go, "Oh, let's just stop it right here. Cut the thing to 20 minutes, make it a nice DVD bonus, and be done with it." But, at some point, I got over the hill and went, "You know what? I'm going to just stick it out, make it a feature length thing, and see if that pays off." Well, you know, thank God that we did, because it's been something important for all of us and we've seen things happen because of it that we didn't ever expect to happen. And I'm the one who said many times, "Okay, well, we'll make it, it'll get done, it'll be a nice thing to do, but I don't know past the local screening what'll happen, I'm not expecting anything." Well, the less you expect sometimes, the more you get.

 

And, I think this idea of taking a feature length film, a documentary of some interest, if you've got good stuff anyway, pairing it with good performing musicians and finding places to drop that into as a screening event, I don't know if we're pioneering anything but it's a pretty cool little package we're putting together. And, that alone is very encouraging.

 

Detroit’s Harmonica Shah is in the movie. Did Shah actually know Jack?

 

Yeah, he was one of the key interviews. His story about him is fantastic.

 

First of all, Shah is a wonderful storyteller. And, his story about Jack is about how Shah was an aspiring harp player, I think, at the time, who saw Jack play and said, "That's the guy I want to get to know." Really important. Dan Hubbs, the local harp player here, will tell the same story. Dan Hubbs is a wonderful man. Dan is just one of my favorite people, and he always says to me when we talked about it, "I knew that Jack could get me where I wanted to go. I knew if I was nice to him, if he befriended me, that I get good at playing harp."

 

I think Shah would say the same thing. Jack was good. I mean, that's one of the things, when I've done other interviews for the release of the movie, when we talk about it on the radio and stuff like that, I mean, people would say, "Well, what do you want people to know about Jack that don't know anything about him?" That he was really, really, really good is my answer. You know, it's one thing to say, "This guy was in the right spot." Okay? He was a guy from the south in Georgia or wherever, Arkansas, who can sing some blues, and he got some opportunity to play the blues in Detroit and in Toledo and all of that, and he had the look, you know? The old black guy who could play the blues and all that kind of stuff, which is just… That's just an affectation, I guess. You have to be able to do it right, do it convincingly well, to be remembered, or rediscovered.

 

The truth is, is this guy could turn it out. Shah wasn't kidding when he said that. Jack’s records are atomic. I mean, “Made It Up In Your Mind,” I've never heard a record like that before in my life. Never.

 

Yeah, that song's phenomenal.

 

Unbelievable. And that calypso beat, you know, that he uses, or whatever you want to call it... Where'd he get that from? And, here's another story about Jack that I don't think this made the cut in the movie. He told people in Toledo he had been in the Army during World War II or shortly thereafter. When they asked him where he was stationed, he said he was in Jamaica. Well, wait a minute. I mean, I've heard of people being stationed at a lot of places, but Jamaica?

 

That's a plum position.

 

You're telling me. Well, I looked it up, and the US military actually had a base on the south coast of Jamaica in the forties and fifties. Maybe they were worried that there was going to be Nazi submarine traffic. Or maybe they just wanted a garden spot for the brass to hang out on, I don't know, but they chose the south coast of Jamaica. Which would've been British territory at the time, I believe.

 

And, Jack said that's where he was. When he said that, nobody back then in the seventies, eighties, people hanging around with Jack, nobody would've been able to look it up and see if he was telling the truth or not. You either believed it or you didn't. And most people didn't. "Jamaica? What, are you kidding?" But it sounds like that might've been true, that he actually might've been in Jamaica. If he was there at that time, he would've heard Caribbean music, he heard island music, you know? Calypso music, that kind of thing, would've been what he would've heard.

 

And, of course, he ran in all the right circles. Everybody tells me that any other major blues man who was around this area, John Lee Hooker or whomever, and Big Jack's name was mentioned, "Oh, yeah, Jack. I know Jack." He knew all these other characters, he was part of that club. He wasn't famous, but he was part of that club.

 

And this, I think, is where, you know ... This thing has crossed my mind when I was getting to know Jack. So, he makes just this handful of records in the early sixties, one of which, “Made It Up In Your Mind”, is completely unique. So, what if somebody had actually properly produced it, and promoted Jack? What if somebody had said, "We need to sign you up with a real, honest-to-God blues label, son." That kind of thing. Who knows what would've happened?

 

Yeah, it's some record.

 

Then again, his timing was lousy. Because, he's in Detroit in the early sixties. Well, the Detroit blues scene is an amazing thing to read about and hear about and get to know, and they're some wonderful musicians, but then the entire thing gets blown up when two or three things happen. They decide that Hastings Street shouldn't exist anymore, they put a freeway there instead, which wipes out, as far as I can tell, the Paradise Valley and Black Bottom neighborhoods. Plenty of information about that in books and documentaries. That displaces guys like Jack. And then, of course, the riots come in '67 and '68 and make things even worse. But, also, what people don't mention is, look, Detroit became a place for young music, for new, young folks music based around the Motown sound. It all changed when Motown, I'm sure, showed up and became the dominant money-making thing in town. So, not only do these guys no longer have their beloved Hastings Street to play on and to sell their records on, and to hang out on or whatever, now you have a new commercial force that comes along and forgets about the blues. So, Jack’s timing there was just impeccably bad. And then, blues music gets sort of pushed around while psychedelic rock is going on and things like that, and then of course, the revival comes along. '69, '70, along in there, the Ann Arbor Blues Festival comes along, and all these kinds of things that saved people's careers begin, but the problem is, Jack's not there to get found. By that time, he's moved on to Toledo, and nobody sees him. His timing, over and over again, was just bad. And yet, like I've said before, on the other hand, there was an angel on his shoulder that he never wound up working in a shoe store or something and never playing his music again.

 

I've thought about the fact that he was illiterate. That probably kept him playing music. If Jack was able to read and write, if he was literate, he would've gotten a job, right? He would've gotten a job at Jeep or something like that, he would've gotten a job at one of the factories in Toledo. And then might have said, “I don't need to play music anymore. I'm getting paid a wage to work at this place." He could've gotten a union job. If he was literate, he very well might've succeeded in that and not just worked as a plasterer out of the back of his car every once in a while, to try and make ends meet. He might've worked as a tradesman, and that would be the end of it. I mean, a left turn here or a right turn there, there's no Jack Reynolds for us to even talk about. A left turn here and there's no Jack Reynolds at all, a right turn there and he's as popular as Otis Rush or whatever. Why leave Detroit and go to Toledo? Why not spend the extra bus fare and go to Chicago, Jack? If he had, he's working on the south side of Chicago, Checkerboard Lounge, and he's at least a local legend like, say, Big Daddy Kinsey. That's who he could've been. And, it's just amazing, those little pinball moves that he made one way or the other changed his life. It's that way for everybody, I understand that, but in Jack's case it's just, to me, kind of extraordinary.

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