Cruisin' for a 'Bluesin'
The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise
is a festival at sea where blues musicians and passengers rock
around the clock.
EVERGLADES, Fla. - Most cruise ships rock a little. This one
rocked a lot.
the best party on the planet," Mike Sanders promised as
the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise churned toward its first
stop in the Bahamas.
a teacher at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg,
and his wife, Janet, are veteran blues cruisers. They were on
for the full 11 days, which gave Sanders plenty of time for
another avocation - he does a radio blues show. As we sat at
a table for a late breakfast on the pool deck, there was ample
interview material nearby.
Carrier, whose Bayou Swamp Band rocked the ship the most, joined
us with his girlfriend, Misty. Taj Mahal, wearing a huge straw
hat and smoking an equally huge cigar, was telling stories at
the next table. Koko Taylor, the "Queen of the Blues,"
looked a bit frail as she walked by with the aid of her daughter,
but she would put on a growling, rollicking performance hours
Pinetop Perkins, a few months shy of 90, was up and about despite
playing in a jam session that ended in the wee hours the night
before. It was 3 a.m. when I last saw him, singing "Big
Fat Momma" in a black fedora and sharkskin suit.
hope the Lord is forgiving me for the stuff I'm doing down here,"
Perkins said later in the quiet of the piano bar.
blues cruise is the brainchild of Roger Naber. He and his wife,
Julia, are co-owners of the Grand Emporium, the premier blues
club in Kansas City. The idea was to offer the dining and amenities
of a first-class chartered cruise ship, but with rhythm and
blues bands providing the entertainment.
a festival at sea," Naber said. "It's for people looking
for blues music in an intimate setting with the musicians. Basically,
everyone has a backstage pass."
and a partner, George Myers, offered the first blues cruise
in 1992. The string of cruises ended in 1998 with the death
of Myers amid financial and legal difficulties. The cruises
resumed last year under a new company.
fever was still there," Naber said. "We came off the
ship last year, and of the 800 paid passengers, 560 pre-booked
for this year before we announced the ship or the bands. I'd
say we have 300 or more people who have sailed on at least five
year, the seven-day cruise on the aptly named Melody, owned
by Mediterranean Shipping Cruises, sold out early with 1,060
passengers. Naber added a four-day preview "Bluesin' Blast,"
giving passengers the option of cruising for four days, seven
days or the full 11.
Feb. 7-14, Naber has booked the Veendam, a Holland America ship
that sails out of Tampa, Fla. The ship is an upgrade in size
(1,260 passengers) and accommodations (149 suites with balconies).
The cost for the seven days ranges from $1,100 to $2,600 a person,
based on double occupancy, with a $150 discount for booking
early. Airfare to and from Florida is not included.
the teacher and radio reporter, said the best quote he collected
on the 11-day cruise came from an attendant in the accounting
office who was making change. "What do you think of the
crowd?" Sanders asked the Italian crewman, who was dressed
in his starched whites.
are not accustomed to your kind," he replied, then thought
a minute to formulate the right English words. "Your people
are very thirsty."
Delta Force of drinkers
passengers on the blues cruise ranged in age from the late 30s
to closing-in-on 60, with a few exceptions. But don't let the
paunches, gray hair and creaky knees fool you. These folks have
spent a lifetime honing their partying skills. They were mostly
couples, some singles, a few children. California was the best-represented
state, and there was a delegation of European blues lovers.
daily scene on the blues cruise differed from the routine on
other ships. Hot tubs, sun decks and swimming pools were largely
empty until well past noon, while the cruisers caught up on
sleep. One of the two pools on the Melody had been converted
to an outdoor stage. The shore excursions seemed an afterthought.
What the casino lost in gambling revenue, the bars made up in
Germans, some of those Scandinavian guys - you're talking about
the Delta Force of drinkers," said Doc Mullet, a veteran
cruiser from Lincoln, Neb.
at dock last year, the patrons of a regular cruise line gathered
at the railing to watch the party going on next door. They were
welcomed with a full-moon salute.
"Willie" Moore of Melbourne, Fla., was making her
eighth cruise. Moore, a retired nurse, age 70, was among the
sprinkling of older people onboard.
like all kinds of music, but the blues affords me this wonderful
trip every year," she said. "Till the day I die, I'll
be a blues cruiser."
A national holiday in St. Croix
Mahal is considered the spiritual leader of the cruises and
is a fixture in the lineup. Also onboard with Chubby Carrier,
Koko Taylor and Pinetop Perkins for the four-day cruise were
Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers, Lonnie Brooks, Curtis Salgado,
Bernard Allison, Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials, The Radiators
and Kelley Hunt.
seven-day cruise had Tyrone Davis, Otis Clay, the Fabulous Thunderbirds,
Duke Robillard, Shemekia Copeland, Tommy Castro, Terrance Simien,
John Mooney, Ronnie Baker Brooks and Alvin Youngblood Hart.
who plays the keyboards like Marcia Ball and sings like Bonnie
Raitt, is from the Kansas City area and was a welcome discovery
for cruisers seeing her for the first time. A high point came
when Hunt abandoned the stage and microphone to venture into
the audience for a gospel-tinged song about rejoining departed
loved ones in later life.
that was like a tent revival," said Mullet, the Nebraska
native. "Make an atheist go to church."
seven-day cruise made stops in the Dominican Republic, Tortola
and St. Croix, which has declared the blues cruise arrivals
a national holiday. Government workers are given the day off,
and local bands join those from the ship for an all-day festival
at the baseball stadium.
Thackery and the Drivers, plus the Bel-Airs - twin blues brothers
from Columbia, Mo. - were flown in just for the land concert.
the promoter, makes a practice of bringing along several unannounced
special guests for the cruisers. Pinetop Perkins was one of
the surprises this year. "We want to give people more than
they're paying for," Naber said.
the music coming
Melody was tardy leaving Port Everglades, near Fort Lauderdale.
The passengers were assembled and waiting to board when police
cars roared up and the buildings were evacuated. Bomb-screening
equipment had detected two sinister-looking canisters in a bag.
resumed after authorities found the bag's owner, who disclosed
two containers of homemade beer. At the ship's farewell awards
party, he was presented an "Osama Beer Brewing" T-shirt.
ship finally was loaded, but the departure was stalled again
because planes carrying two of the headliners, Koko Taylor and
Lonnie Brooks, had been delayed by weather in Chicago. No problem.
As the crowd gathered in the balmy weather on the pool deck
and the sun set over Fort Lauderdale, Lil' Ed took the stage
in a silver-sequined shirt and fez, and his Blues Imperials
got the party rolling.
gone and left me, messed up my happy home," Ed sang. Later,
he jumped from the stage and demonstrated "The Alligator."
A pint-sized dynamo, Ed finished another raucous set playing
guitar from on top of a cohort's shoulders as they waded through
the crowd. Never missed a lick.
Mike of Alaska, another cruise regular, already was piling up
a tab as he attempted to make up for his runner-up finish in
last year's bar bill contest. "I lost to a couple!"
he exclaimed. "That doesn't seem fair."
Cannon, an addiction counselor from Naperville, Ill., said he
signed on for the four-day cruise after seeing an ad in a blues
thought, 'Blues and cruise, blues and cruise' - it was a no-brainer,"
Cannon said. "I could stay right here for the four days.
Just keep the music coming."
homeless and Hemingway
had a mission on the first stop of the four-day cruise at Port
Lucaya on Grand Bahama Island. He wanted to go emerald shopping.
Rocky Rockwell, a former IRS agent from Jacksonville, Fla.,
and I joined him. We planned to rent scooters but settled on
a pink topless dune buggie for $50 for the day. We ignored the
black clouds overhead.
Rockwell and I had spent time on the island's West End, so we
headed there first to revisit old haunts. The Jack-Tar Resort
was long gone, replaced by the Old Bahama Bay condos and a swanky
marina. As we headed back, rain starting pouring. Cannon, the
driver, hit a puddle, drenching the poor chump in the backseat
stopped for directions and cold Kaliks at Henry's Place, where
the islanders were listening to Bobby Vinton sing "Blue
Velvet" on the radio. Ominous clouds forced us to cancel
the search for jewels.
weather was better days later at the second stop, Key West,
where Rockwell had his own mission. He pulled a folded newspaper
clipping from his wallet. The story was from the Jan. 14 New
York Times and told of a growing number of homeless in warm-weather
cities such as Key West. A photo showed Curtis Huggins and his
shopping cart of belongings on a corner of Duvall Street.
wanted to track down Huggins, maybe buy him a beer. We found
the same corner and there he was, as if he hadn't budged since
the photo was taken a month earlier.
48, said he originally was from Cleveland and had been in the
Keys for 12 years. "I used to work construction, but I've
got a nerve disease - if I don't get a beer or something, I
start shaking like crazy," he said. "Hey, you guys
aren't cops, are you?"
brightened when presented a six-pack of Budweiser.
actually the new mayor of Key West - the nightmare," he
said with a crooked grin. "My only problem is the pigeons
on the ledge above my corner. They say if a bird craps on you,
it's good luck. I've got good luck all over the place."
a refresher at Capt. Tony's Saloon, which is the original Sloppy
Joe's, we decided to take in a popular Key West tourist stop,
Ernest Hemingway's house. For $10, we got to see the Spanish
Colonial bed where Hemingway slept, the carriage house-turned-studio
where he wrote and the descendants of the six-toed cats he favored.
are 61 adult cats on the grounds, and half have more than five
toes," said the guide. "Frank Sinatra is buried out
back. Papa named all his cats for the stars."
No prima donnas
performers on the ship are expected to be fan friendly. Prima
donnas are not booked. The stars participate in autograph parties,
pose for pictures, sign blues cruise posters and take part in
workshops. Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin, who played for a decade
in Muddy Waters' band, was another surprise guest and put on
a seminar about "the Hoochie Coochie Man" that included
an all-star cast of musicians playing Waters' hits.
return, the bands on the cruise not only get to meet one-on-one
with their audience, but with one another as well. After the
scheduled performances each night, various musicians showed
up on the lounge stage for jam sessions, some of which lasted
till dawn and produced the hottest playing on the cruise.
an opportunity to get away in the winter for some sea and sun
and be around the music that you love," Taj Mahal said.
"You're making contact with the guys that you've been listening
to on vinyl.
I like hanging out with the people. I've always been that way.
I don't have bodyguards. I wash and iron my own clothes on the
afternoon stroll around the top deck found Kelley Hunt, the
Kansas City singer, practicing her boogie-woogie in the piano
bar, which was empty except for her husband, bassist Al Berman.
was making her first cruise and had brought along her teenage
son, Adrian. Hunt was as wide-eyed as the next blues fan about
spending time with some of the legends.
isolated a lot - if we see another musician, it's usually 'Hi
and bye. Great show, gotta go,'" she said. "Night
before last, I met Pinetop. About had a fit. This is the first
time I've met Taj. We actually went out and listened to Chubby
Carrier and got to dance and wear ourselves out.
hope they invite me back. I don't want to even get off the boat."
Getting there: Passengers flying
to Florida for the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise are advised
to arrive the night before boarding to avoid potential flying
foul-ups. Next year's cruise, Feb. 7-14, will have an official
hotel, which may offer a discount price. Transportation can
be arranged from the airport to the hotel to the ship.
Food, but not liquor, is included in the cruise price. If you
bring liquor along, or buy it at the port stops, be discreet
and keep it in your cabin. Dress is casual, with lots of sandals,
Hawaiian shirts and T-shirts advertising blues bars and clubs.
Since the cruise dates are near Carnival time, bring beads and
a costume for Mardi Gras night. There is a parade and prizes
for the best costume.
No cash is used onboard. You will establish an account either
by credit card or cash deposit. Keep an eye on the bar tab!
It mounts up quickly. A gift shop on the ship sells CDs, band
T-shirts, commemorative posters, etc. You are supposed to have
an assigned seat and time for dinner. However, the blues cruise
is looser about this than other ships. We dined when we wanted,
with whoever we wanted.
You will need proof of citizenship, either a passport or a certified
birth certificate with a driver's license or other photo ID.
More information: Call 1-888-258-3746
or go to www.bluescruise.com.
Tom Uhlenbrock | E-mail
| Phone: 314-340-8268