Living and singing the blues

Living and singing the blues
October 15, 2010

Before Janiva Magness turned 18, both her parents had committed suicide, she had gone through 12 foster homes, lived on the streets and was a teenage mother who gave up her baby daughter for adoption.

Bill "Watermelon Slim" Homans was a Vietnam veteran who worked as a trucker hauling industrial waste, lost part of his finger while running a sawmill, dealt in illegal drugs and suffered a near-fatal heart attack.

Magness and Homans not only sing the blues for a living, they've lived it.

"It's more than a job for me, it's really my life," said Magness of blues music, which the 54-year-old Los Angeles resident has been singing since age 19. "I didn't choose the music, it chose me."

Homans, 62, said he started playing the blues harp at age 10 and has "been playing hard for 52 years as a minor-league amateur musician."

Magness and Homans will perform as part of the 13th Annual Blues Masters at the Crossroads concerts Oct. 22 and 23 at Blue Heaven Studios, 201 S. Eighth.

Magness will perform Oct. 22 in a lineup that includes Kansas-based Delta blues, folk and country duo Moreland & Arbuckle; Louisiana blues legend Lazy Lester; St. Louis-based blues guitarist Marquise Knox, who at age 16 opened for B.B. King at the Stiefel Theatre for the Performing Arts; and Bobby "Blue" Bland, a 1992 inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame whose 40-year string of hits includes "Turn On Your Love Light," "Further On Up the Road" and "I Pity the Fool."

Homans performs Oct. 23 in a lineup that includes a second performance by Bland; Clarence Carter, a blues guitarist who's been blind since birth and who recorded the classic rhythm and blues hits "Slip Away" and "Patches"; and Milwaukee-born blues guitarist Michael Burks, a W.C. Handy Award nominee in 2000 for Best New Artist.

"We set high standards every year, and every year we try to keep it up to the level of the previous year," said Chad Kassem, owner of Blue Heaven Studios and Acoustic Sounds and producer of the Blues Masters concerts.

'A lifeboat for me'

Born in Detroit, Magness was introduced to the blues by listening to her father's country and blues music collection and to the soulful Motown sound that originated in her home city.

After her parents' suicides left her adrift in foster homes, Magness said blues music served as "a lifeboat for me."

When Magness was 14, she snuck into a nightclub to see blues great Otis Rush perform. After watching Rush, Magness knew what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.

"(Rush) was so committed to everything he was doing -- the music, the songs and the performance," she said. "There was no jive, no B.S. or posing. He really meant every note he played on the guitar and every word he sang. It was a pivotal moment for me."

Magness began performing at age 19 and for the next few decades made her living as a backup singer, struggling musician and lead singer of her own blues bands. Times often were tough, she said, but she never regretted her choice of career.

"I would quit a couple of times, wash my hands of the music business, but then I came back," she said. "I couldn't stop singing."

Gotta pick great songs

Magness has recorded nine CDs during the last 25 years. Her latest album, "The Devil is an Angel Too," was released earlier this year.

In 2009, she received the Blues Music Award for B.B. King Entertainer of the Year, just the second female since Koko Taylor to win the award. She also has won the Blues Music Award Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year three times, in 2006, 2007 and 2009.

While Magness has been acclaimed for her charismatic and soulful blues performances, she said it's all about the songs.

"I pick good songs, great songs that move me, that I can connect with," she said. "People need connection. And that's what I believe my job is -- to look for songs that I can connect to people with. If I can't bring a piece of truth to a song, then what's the point?"

Cook sings the blues

Born in 1954, Homans was raised in North Carolina where he first was exposed to blues music by listening to his family's housekeeper sing blues tunes.

"She sang John Lee Hooker songs while she was cleaning and cooking," he said. "I heard the blues a lot because I was raised in the South and was partially raised by black women."

Homans attended Middlebury College in Vermont on a fencing scholarship, but dropped out of college to enlist in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam war.

While recovering from an illness in a Vietnam hospital bed, Homans, who already had taught himself blues harp, taught himself how to play the guitar using a $5 left-handed balsa wood slide guitar, a pick cut from a rusty coffee can top and his Army-issued Zippo lighter as the slide.

"It was the most crazy looking guitar you could ever imagine," he said.

Homan's first album, released in 1973, was called "Merry Airbrakes." It was a protest psychedelic blues-rock work containing songs later covered by folk-rock singer Country Joe McDonald for his anti-war projects.

In the 37 years since, Homans has remained on the fringes of the music scene while working as a truck driver, industrial waste hauler, forklift operator, saw miller (where he lost part of that one finger), funeral officiator and small-time drug dealer.

A real blues name

It was while farming watermelons in Oklahoma in 1980 that Homans reinvented himself as Watermelon Slim.

"I was in the middle of a field among watermelons I had grown with my own hand, and it was 105 degrees in the shade," Homans said. "I was eating a watermelon to stay hydrated, and I reached in my pocket and pulled out my harmonica. I looked at the watermelon, looked at the harmonica, and bam!, I had a revelation. I had a real blues name."

As Watermelon Slim, Homans performs everything from Delta blues to honky tonk country music. He considers himself just a journeyman musician, but said he's smart enough to surround himself with first-rate band members.

"Part of the benefit of my job is I get to play with great musicians," he said. "They made the path I'm walking on now considerably easier."

Homans said he's glad when audiences forget about watching him on stage and concentrate solely on listening to his songs.

"I'm pretty battered and beaten, and my face looks like a topographical map of West Texas," he said. "I want people to forget what they're looking at and leave thinking I'm one of the most dedicated artists they've ever heard. That's what I work for."
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