'I was singing the blues at 3½ years old, and I didn't know why'

'I was singing the blues at 3½ years old, and I didn't know why'
July 27, 2011
By Paul Freeman

John "Blues" Boyd, born in Greenwood, Miss., has been a Redwood City resident since 1984, but his whole life has been steeped in the blues.

"I've been hearing the blues all my life," said Boyd, who plays British Bankers Club in Menlo Park the first Wednesday of every month, and is also a frequent performer the Flight Lounge in at San Carlos.

"Just about all the Boyds could sing the blues. They always used to tell me that while my mother was carrying me in her stomach, my daddy played the blues all the time. My mother sang in the Baptist church choir.

"I was singing the blues at 3½-years old, and I didn't know why. I was just born with the music in me."

Boyd's family owned a baseball field used in Negro Leagues baseball. His cousin, Red Sox pitching great Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd, started there, as did Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

Young John Boyd loved sports, but it was music that was most ingrained in him.

"I used to sing out in the cotton field and walking to school every morning. You had to get up and get out on the corner and catch one of those contractor's trucks, and go pick cotton, because that's what it's all about in the state of Mississippi. If you didn't pick cotton, you'd be broke. You needed that money for clothes and cafeteria money."

At the local Elks Hall, Boyd was able to catch performances by blues greats B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Albert King, Joe Henderson and William Bell.

"I peeked through the window and got a chance to see my idol, Junior Parker. Little Milton was with him. I didn't have any money that night, so I couldn't get in."

In 1962, at 17, Boyd had a chance to sing with Bland. "He was asking if anybody in the crowd could sing the blues. My friends were all telling me to go up. But I was too shy about that kind of thing at the time."

In March of 1963, Boyd participated in a Freedom March.

"I was involved in all that stuff. I was walking down the street in Greenwood, after they killed John F. Kennedy, and I was talking loud. All those police knew me and my brothers already. So the chief told me to get out of town. They called all the civil rights people troublemakers. They didn't want us out there demonstrating and everything. They sicced their dogs on us, water hoses and all that kind of stuff. I went through it pretty good, being born back there in Mississippi."

Moving to Florida, Boyd became friends with Eddie Cornelius of Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose. Cornelius repeatedly invited Boyd to join him on stage to sing. But hernia pain, a childhood injury from lugging 100-pound sacks of cotton, kept Boyd from accepting.

He lived in several spots, including Chicago and San Diego, before settling on the Peninsula.

"I think there's a lot they've got to learn from the original blues people, the pioneers and the giants of the blues," said Boyd when asked about blues in the Bay Area. "But this blues scene right here, I like it. They can't do it exactly the way it should be done. But they're doing it real close and giving everything they got. And, God bless all of them. I love them. Everybody that loves the blues is all right with me, I tell you straight.

"The blues has the prettiest music of any. Why do you think people from rock 'n' roll and jazz and all of that come over and get with the blues? So they can learn the blues and go back and mix it with what they got, to try to help them sound better."

His hernia repaired, Boyd finally took the stage at the old Loading Zone club in Redwood City, 26 years ago.

"I walked in there one night and two pretty blonde ladies sitting in the corner said, 'Anybody else in here can sing?' I said, 'I can. I'm John 'Blues' Boyd from Greenwood, Mississippi. And I can do it the way it's supposed to be done.' I sang Big Joe Turner's 'Early Morning Blues.' The owner was there and he told the bartender to sign me up."

Boyd worked as a roofer for 35 years. He retired in 2007.

"That's how a lot of people come to see me now. They heard me singing a cappella on the rooftops."

He has sung many times with John Lee Hooker's nephew, Archie Lee Hooker, at venues such as Woodside's Pioneer Saloon and at the Mardi Gras and the Loading Zone in Redwood City.

Boyd jammed with Steve Ford and Elvin Bishop at The Little Fox. He has been backed by such great local guitarists as Geoff Stitch and Chris Cobb. Saxophonist Don Baraka is a staple of Boyd's sound.

With his emotion-packed, crowd-pleasing voice, Boyd said he has been invited to top clubs such as Slim's and The Boom Boom Room in San Francisco, but he hasn't played those venues yet. "My wife Donna has been kind of sick. She's diabetic and anemic and she had that congestive heart failure. That happened in 2005. So I kind of hang around the South Bay right now. I like to play close by. I'm not going any further than Sunnyvale. But she's doing much better now, so that's why I've started singing a little more, taking a few more jobs."

It took Boyd, who's been married for 46 years, a long time to start singing on stage. But now he cherishes every minute up there.

"I feel happy and relaxed and I just take care of it like it should be. If I'm singing a real pretty, slow, tear-dropper, I love to do those most of all. But when I sing, 'Flip Flop and Fly,' well, I tell you what, just wait till you hear me sing it! When I'm singing, I get the greatest feeling that you've ever felt. When I'm up there singing the blues, I'm as happy as I am when I'm huggin' and kissin' Donna."

With a collection of blues on not only CDs and vinyl, but on 78s, as well, Boyd has built a vast repertoire. "I sing those songs by the blues singers that have the prettiest voices, like B.B. King, Junior Parker, Bobby 'Blue' Bland, Percy Mayfield, T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Reed."

At 66, Boyd is just hitting his prime as an entertainer. "I've been singing all my life. And my voice is stronger and more powerful now than it was when I was 18. By me not always wearing my voice out, I didn't lose it. It just got better, because I didn't do like Bobby and B.B. and those guys. They burnt their voice out, because they were playing all over the place, making big money. And they didn't rest it much.

"I don't do it for big money. I do it because I love it. The people just love me, and I love doing it for them. If I can bring a smile over somebody's face and make them feel rejoiced, it makes me feel great."
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