Two recent benefits for members of Indianapolis's blues community were three positive things: 1.) an outpouring of solidarity and compassion for "its own" when they developed major medical problems (and corresponding expenses); 2.) significant and helpful philanthropic fundraisers; and 3.) outstanding displays of blues talent and musicianship. They were displays of Indianapolis's blues community at its best, outpourings of love, artistry and devotion from fans and artists alike.
The first, on Jan. 29, was for Sheena Rachell, granddaughter of blues legend Yank Rachell, and long-time bassist in his band. The Rachell family has long been held near and dear to Indianapolis's blues community because of Yank, the truly legendary "Blues Mandolin Man" of international renown, who also served as patriarch and mentor to the blues in Central Indiana, and seminal influence on many of its best performers.
When he died on April 9, 1997, at the age of 87, he was mourned not only in Indy, but also worldwide. Born March 10, 1910, on a farm outside of Brownsville, Tenn., he was a seminal blues mandolinist, singer and songwriter who played with Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon, and with Sonny Boy (John Lee) Williamson, and also had his own distinguished career as a solo artist and bandleader.
His career in the blues extended from 1929, when he first recorded with Estes in Memphis, to just a few months before his death. He was one of the blues' most distinguished artists, both in the prewar country blues and in the blues scene of the 1960s and later, and among those rarified few who were masters of the blues mandolin.
He moved to Indianapolis in 1956. But more than a great musical artist, he was also a gentle, courtly man greatly devoted to his family, a member of the Missionary Baptist Church, and a color-blind encouragement to anyone who wished to play his beloved blues.
This writer also felt that appreciation and encouragement from Yank directly. When I moved to Indianapolis in December 1979 and stayed at the YMCA, the desk clerk there was a friend of the Rachell family and helped introduce me to him. In May, 1980, Yank Rachell came all the way downtown to meet me at a restaurant/bar in a local hotel, and stayed with me for an hour, speaking earnestly and openly to this unknown white blues fan, and refusing to let me buy him anything.
Later, in 1987, I had the honor of writing the notes for the LP version of his album Chicago Style, which were carried over in edited form in the CD release of 1993. This was Yank's favorite album of all he recorded, and although Yank never played anything but the loping country blues of Tennessee, in his later years he preferred playing them backed by an electric band.
Chicago Style featured Yank back by such a band, comprised of major figures in the Chicago blues scene. Since his blues were not the tightly-structured city blues or R&B, he could be a hard musician for others in the band to follow, with the irregular chord patterns, but Sheena was one of those most adept at following him, and his favorite bassist.
Sheena Rachell was recently diagnosed with Wegener's Granulomatosis, a rare, debilitating lung disease with no known cause or cure. To help defray her bills, a benefit for her was held at Indianapolis's Mug Shots, at 65th Street and College in the Broad Ripple entertainment district, on Jan. 27, providing over eight hours of music, raffles and good times that raised nearly $1,500 for her. She was in attendance, as were her children, including son Frederick Rachell, who performed a special soul testimonial to his great-grandfather that he'd composed.
Performers at the benefit read like a Who's Who of Indianapolis's Blues Music Establishment, with such notables as the Circle City Blues Band; JB Deville; contemporary blues guitarist Harvey Cook; Karen and the Beast; Dwight Edwards, who had a #1 blues hit a few years back in Tupelo, Miss.; and several others, ending with a mandolin tribute to Yank Rachell.
Benefit sponsors included not only the club itself, long a regular Indy blues venue under present and previous owners, but also Yanksville Records, which will soon be releasing a Yank Rachell tribute CD; the Crossroads Blues Society, and JK Promotions. The benefit gig was well advertised, and drew a full house of enthusiastic patrons to enjoy the blues and express solidarity and support for one of the beloved of Indianapolis blues, Sheena Rachell, in her time of trouble.
The following Saturday, Feb. 2, another benefit was held in Indianapolis for another one beloved by the Indianapolis blues community, guitarist Fast Johnny Scharbrough, who had recently undergone heart surgery. This one was held at Locals Only, at 56th and Keystone on Indy's North East Side, a club renowned for its support of local artists and original music, and very musician-friendly.
Like the Sheena Rachell benefit, this one was also a marathon musical treat, seven hours worth of nearly continuous live music provided by top local performers but with a different lineup of talent than played for Rachell.
The evening for Johnny Scharbrough started with the Michigan Street Blues Band, a solidly rockin' group formed 20 years ago on Indianapolis's East Side as a jam session that featured Fast Johnny. The Michigan Street Blues Band has gone through numerous personnel changes since then, with only Harmonica Mike Gatto remaining from the original lineup, but the band has never ceased to rock, awe and entertain.
Present in the audience was Chubby Wadsworth, Indy's eminence grise of original music, who both formed the jam session that became the Michigan Street Blues Band, and also gave the group its name. He was long-time owner of Chubby's Club Lasalle, Indianapolis's pioneer venue for promoting local bands and original music, and was duly honored in the second set by acoustic guitarist Dan Welling, who'd composed a song in tribute to Chubby's Club Lasalle, and also ended his set with the political anthem the club inspired, "Legalize the weed! We're tired of being criminals, legalize the weed!"
The original country-rock of 19Clark25 followed, a vibrant change of pace, then came more blues and original music from Jethro Easyfields, his acoustic-electric guitar and vocals augmented by bass and drums for a nice folk-rock touch.
Fast Johnny was fit and chipper to play the next three sets, even sporting a new Fender guitar given him by a friend as a present. He first joined with his own group, the Circle City Blues Band, for a long set of soul and blues featuring Billy Gee Miller on vocals, and Billy's friend James Hester on sax. Billy Gee is a 40-year veteran performer of blues, soul and jazz whom this writer first introduced to Fast Johnny in 2004, and has been an integral part of this top band ever since, a band qualified enough to have been selected to open for Clarence Carter a few months ago.
James Hester added a fine additional touch with his supporting sax and scintillating sax solos. Indianapolis blues tends to be very much guitar driven, and secondarily guitar-and-keyboards driven, and has been weakest on utilizing horns. Hester showed well just how much good use of horns can add to already good music.
The Circle City Blues Band's fiery playing moved people in droves to the dance floor, the first time all evening. Fast Johnny then did an acoustic guitar duo set with his original mentor and influence, "Awesome" Dave Shadiow, with whom he played in the Cruisematics and other local bands, and was then part of the closing jam of blues and rock that brought up members from several of the bands that'd played that night. The music stopped just in time for last call, and had been going since 7:30 that night.
No cover was charged, but patrons were urged to donate at the door. This benefit had only been publicized at the last minute, but still drew a fairly decent crowd, although far fewer people that Sheena Rachell's benefit had drawn. Around $500 was collected to help Fast Johnny Scharbrough pay his bills, which he told me would help much for one month. He's tried to go back to his job as a stagehand and loyal member of the Stagehands' Union, but is still too weak to do so consistently.
Musicians doing benefits have always been part and parcel of the music scene, from helping local performers become sick to national and international efforts such as Farm Aid and Al Gore's recent worldwide benefit for the environment. This writer and blues/pop music fan is very, very proud indeed to have seen the Indianapolis blues community of both fans and musicians come so earnestly to the aid of those who've contributed so much to it, and now need a helping hand in times of adversity.
That hand was eagerly extended recently in Indy for both Sheena Rachell and Fast Johnny Scharbrough, to both philanthropic benefit and artistic delight!
George Fish can be reached at .