It was great to see a packed house on April 26 for the third annual concert tribute for Mai Cramer, who lost a battle with breast cancer in 2002 at age 55.
The show, at the Regent Theatre in Arlington, featured a rare live appearance by Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters - and an even rarer one by Jody Williams, an old-school Chicago bluesman who has dusted off his guitar after quitting in disgust three decades ago.
Described as a kind of blues “Rip Van Winkle” by Mai’s husband, guitarist Peter “Hi-Fi” Ward, Williams, 73, played and recorded with Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush, Jimmy Rogers, Willie Dixon, and many others before he gave it all up for a more steady gig as a Xerox technician.
In the heydey of Chicago electric blues, Williams - like many other black musicians – believed he was being taken advantage of by record companies.
So he quit.
But in 1999, he was coaxed by a Chicago music journalist to make a comeback. Williams performed that year with Robert Lockwood Jr., and in 2002, released a new album, Return of a Legend. That was enough to give him the confidence to return to the music he loves.
In his earlier days, Williams’ big hits were “Lucky Lou,” and “I Was Fooled.”
He still has it.
At the Cramer benefit he wowed the crowd with powerful electric riffs, up and down the neck on “Lucky Lou.” (I thought he had a slide, but didn’t.) A song from his new CD, “Life Long Lover,” was also terrific.
He was clearly enjoying his new found popularity, referring to his CD sale table as going to the “Jody Williams Benefit.”
The show also featured the great Tony Lynn Washington, pianist David Maxwell, and the 2120 South Michigan Avenue band, led by Peter Ward. (How many of you know that Hi-Fi was also a top-notch reporter for the Lowell Sun?)
His brother, bassist Michael “Mudcat” Ward was there, as well, backing up Williams’ band along with Neil Gouvin on drums, Sugar Ray Norcia on harp, Greg Piccolo on saxophone, and Shinichi Otsu on keyboard. The sidemen, all stars in their own right, were fantastic.
I even ran into Ann Ward, the boys’ proud mother, who was there with some friends. (I didn’t get to ask her about those nicknames, though.)
2120 South Michigan Avenue (the name is derived from the old Chess Records address in Chicago) featured Texas-born singer Sunny Crownover, looking marvelous in a satin teal dress and belting out tunes in a powerful voice.
The evening, which was a benefit for the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, was hosted by another Boston blues radio diva, Holly Harris, who worked with Mai on WGBH, and was a good friend.
Ronnie Earl, who opened the show, talked about his 18-year battle with substance abuse and depression, and his diabetes. Now recovered, he said he intends to do more live shows. He did several songs from his super new album, Hope Radio, and blew the audience away.
Many of us remember impatiently waiting for 9 p.m. on Friday to arrive, just to hear what great songs Mai would play, or who she might have in the studio for a live interview and set. She was extremely cool, and quite adept at making her guests comfortable. She also had unsurpassed taste in blues music.
I remember the first time I called in, during a contest. I correctly answered that a Sugar Ray and the Blue Tones song was playing. An enthusiastic Mai gave me free tickets to see John Lee Hooker at Jonathan Swift’s in Harvard Square. Outstanding.
Mai did that show, “Blues After Hours” on WGBH 89.7 FM for 24 years before succumbing to what was at first thought to be treatable cancer. Her death came as a shock to her fans. I still can’t believe she’s gone.
Raised in New York City, Mai grew up listening to mostly classical music – her mother was a classical pianist – but eventually heard blues on the radio, and sought out records in the back bins of record stores. She saw Muddy Waters at the Apollo Theater.
Mai moved to Western Massachusetts in the 1970s and was making films when she made friends with some radio folks. That led to a blues show in 1975 on WGRG, and later to the WGBH show.
I hope her spirit lives on, and that the annual tribute concerts continue to sell out.