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House Party of the Blues

St. Louis Blues News
Cruisin' for a 'Bluesin'

By Tom Uhlenbrock

The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise is a festival at sea where blues musicians and passengers rock around the clock.

PORT EVERGLADES, Fla. - Most cruise ships rock a little. This one rocked a lot.

"It's the best party on the planet," Mike Sanders promised as the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise churned toward its first stop in the Bahamas.

Sanders, 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.

Chubby 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 later.

Surprisingly, 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.

"I hope the Lord is forgiving me for the stuff I'm doing down here," Perkins said later in the quiet of the piano bar.

The 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.

"It's 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."

Naber 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.

"The 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 cruises."

This 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.

Next 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.

Sanders, 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.

"We are not accustomed to your kind," he replied, then thought a minute to formulate the right English words. "Your people are very thirsty."

The Delta Force of drinkers

The 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.

The 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 liquor sales.

"The Germans, some of those Scandinavian guys - you're talking about the Delta Force of drinkers," said Doc Mullet, a veteran cruiser from Lincoln, Neb.

While 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.

Wilma "Willie" Moore of Melbourne, Fla., was making her eighth cruise. Moore, a retired nurse, age 70, was among the sprinkling of older people onboard.

"I 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

Taj 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.

The 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.

Hunt, 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.

"Man, that was like a tent revival," said Mullet, the Nebraska native. "Make an atheist go to church."

The 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.

Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers, plus the Bel-Airs - twin blues brothers from Columbia, Mo. - were flown in just for the land concert.

Naber, 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.

Keep the music coming

The 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.

Boarding 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.

The 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.

"She's 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.

Big 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."

Glen Cannon, an addiction counselor from Naperville, Ill., said he signed on for the four-day cruise after seeing an ad in a blues magazine.

"I 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."

The homeless and Hemingway

Cannon 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.

Both 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 - me.

We 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.

The 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.

Rockwell 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.

Huggins, 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?"

Huggins brightened when presented a six-pack of Budweiser.

"I'm 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."

After 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.

"There 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

The 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.

In 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.

"It's 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.

"And 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 road."

An 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.

Hunt 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.

"We're 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.

"I hope they invite me back. I don't want to even get off the boat."


If you go....

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.

What to bring: 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.

On the ship: 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.

Documents: 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.


Reporter Tom Uhlenbrock | E-mail | Phone: 314-340-8268


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