Mitty Andersen knows that rising blues star Bobby Tarleton didn’t die of a heroin overdose. He’d blown enough blues harmonica notes with Bobby to know that he would never let anything get in the way of his music. So when he gets the news in the middle of his blues set at Little Queenie’s, he suspects a cover-up—and he’s determined to put his ex-investigative reporter skills to work to find out what really happened.
Mitty hits the blues circuit with his “partner in chime,” Pete Bolden, and rounds up a posse disguised as a blues band. They gig the juke joints and blues bars throughout Southeast Texas and Louisiana, hoping to uncover the truth about Bobby T’s death. It doesn’t take long for Mitty to figure out that Bobby T just might be the latest in a decades-long string of serial murders aimed at eliminating “those who play the Devil’s music.”
Now Mitty must race against the clock to put an end to the madness before another harmonica player succumbs to a deranged psychopath who has managed to avoid capture for far too long.
“River Bottom Blues is a fast paced mystery of murder and the blues.” — James A. Cox, The Midwest Book Review, June 2012 Small Press Watch
“If you love blues as much as you love your crime fiction, this debut novel by Ricky Bush is one to look out for.”— Crime Fiction Lovers
“Not only were the stakes high, but the characters were interesting and memorable. The climax, just like with any great murder mystery, was hectic and nerve-wracking. All in all, I found River Bottom Blues an enjoyable read.”— Tiffany Cole, Reader’s Den
The last words J.P. Dillon heard before the ice pick slammed into his chest and pierced his heart were, “You’ll be playing with the Devil now, blues boy.”
Twenty minutes earlier, he held a mesmerized crowd of blues fans and harmonica aficionados in his grasp as he coaxed solid, soulful tones from his instrument for an encore at Rhoda’s Roadhouse. “His People,” as he called his fans, packed Chicago’s best known blues club to standing room only and yelled for more.
He blew the final notes of his signature tune, “Baby Get Your Head Straight” and stepped from the small stage and ran the gauntlet of back slaps and handshakes. A strong arm hooked his elbow and yanked him towards a table surrounded by music industry types. A French documentary producer, who had filmed the night’s performance, wore a smile as he towed J.P. along and yapped at him in broken English. J.P. understood every third word. He wriggled free of the foreigner and headed to the back door, followed by his drummer, Fat Frank, who was also yapping at him.
“Hey, J.P., don’t you think you should go over and talk with Frenchie and his friends? He’s gonna make you a star, man.”
Peter Stiml had been in Chicago for a month, documenting the city’s blues scene. European blues fans couldn’t get enough of Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker and other blues musicians. They had been touring overseas presenting a totally different style of music to sold-out auditoriums crammed with enthusiastic fans.
A couple of English chaps named Mick Jagger and Keith Richards formed a group called The Rolling Stones, named after Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone Blues,” recorded back in 1950. The band’s songs became major hits in the UK and their manager had them booked for their first U.S. tour. Columbia records signed Eric Burdon and his group, The Animals, who had built up a solid following in London by singing such blues standards like “House of the Rising Sun”. They also had their sights set on a summer tour of the States.
Stiml had his hand on a strong pulse and he wanted to chase the potential before it weakened. He rounded up a film crew to seek out the music on its own turf and bring the results back to his people. Nothing prepared him for the lack of appreciation the musicians suffered on home ground in the U.S. Musicians who were idolized in Europe were relegated to small clubs in America and few white people ventured into such places to hear le blues. He discovered a society of racial segregation, where Negroes could not share dining counters, drinking fountains or restrooms with white patrons. In Europe, these musicians stayed in the swishest hotels and ate in the finest restaurants. Venues like London’s Fairfield Hall were usually home to classical concerts, not music from Chicago and the Mississippi Delta, but the blues men were enthusiastically welcomed even there. They were featured on television and radio shows in London, Paris, Brussels, Hamburg, Stockholm and other cities throughout Europe.
This epiphany did little to dampen his enthusiasm and he found tonight’s show exhilarating. He had high hopes that his project would shine a light on the Chicago blues musicians and perhaps raise their status even in their own, largely indifferent country. He was sure his efforts would be handsomely rewarded back in Europe.
J.P. Dillon had been tapped to accompany the next group of Chicago musicians to tour Europe. J.P.’s first studio sessions last year had two songs that reached the top ten on the rhythm and blues charts in the UK, and Peter had bought a box full of the records and distributed them to friends in Paris and London, and the bluesman was beginning to gain a favorable reputation even before his arrival. Peter fell instantly in love with the sound of the blues harmonica—or blues harp, as they called it here—because it was the perfect, wailing vehicle to express the deep, often sorrowful, feeling of the music.
He was in the midst of authenticity at Rhoda’s Roadhouse on South Michigan Avenue, which had a reputation as the club that tolerated nothing but the blues. Proprietor Rhoda Williams had unplugged many an amplifier that dared to blast out anything but the real stuff. Her club could accommodate a little more than a hundred customers, or on a night like tonight, a hundred and fifty with standing room only. She kept it clean, because she wanted the ladies of the neighborhood to feel welcome.
“I’ve had enough of that stuff,” J.P. said as holy hell broke loose close to the stage. Someone was screaming “the devil did this,” “the devil did that” and raising a general ruckus. Both he and Fat Frank turned in time to see the club’s bouncer, Big Bo Bo, drag a slender, wiry black man across the top of a table, scattering long-neck beer bottles, mixed drinks, and alarmed patrons across the room. The bouncer had both arms of the instigator pulled back, but the man kicked over another table and yanked loose long enough to grab a beer bottle and smash it over Bo Bo’s head. The big man shook the broken glass from his hair, grabbed the trouble-maker around the neck and swiftly heaved him through the front door. When Big Bo Bo re-entered, tables were uprighted, and replacement beverages were issued.
“Guess the devil made him do it,” J.P. shrugged as he swung open the back door to a cool breeze that whipped the sweat from his brow. He carefully settled a Fedora on his head.
“You know, I do remember that cat sitting at that front table staring a hole into you,” said Fat Frank. Fat Frank had hopes of his own. He knew that if J.P. hit the big time that he would too and might get a chance to record some of his own songs for these funny French talking guys who loved the blues.
The wind whipped at the Fedora and J.P. grabbed his hat. “Those fellows are all nice and everything, but they drive me nuts with all the questions about how I play the harp and do this with it and that with it. I just blow, damn it! They want to know if Little Walter influenced me. Hell, no, he didn’t. We came up blowing at about the same time. I’ve got my own style. And who my mama and papa was is none of their cotton pickin’ business.”
“By the way,” Fat Frank said, “why’d you go and tell them how you picked cotton down in Mississippi? Hell, J.P., you were born in the 9th Ward of New Orleans just down the block from me. You ain’t never picked no cotton in your life.”
They had both moved up to Chicago together for one reason, and that was to play music. They were tired of playing on New Orleans’ street corners, with Fat Frank beating on cardboard boxes and trash cans to keep time and J.P. blowing his soul. A guitar player sometimes joined them and they’d really make a racket and draw a pretty good crowd, who would pitch nickels, dimes and quarters into their tip jar.
J.P.’s laugh boomed down the alley, “That’s the kind of crap they want to hear, so why should I disappoint them? Those guys that went over there in ’62 had to fight promoters to keep from having to suit up in farm overalls and straw hats. Have you ever seen me in a pair of overalls? Man, my suits are Brooks Brothers. You can see your face in the shine on my shoes. This Fedora on my head sure the hell ain’t made of no damned straw. But they think if you ain’t no share-cropping farmer from Mississippi, then you ain’t no bluesman.”
Fat Frank watched his, tall, skinny, life-long friend walk down the dark alley and asked, “Where are you heading?”
“I’m calling it a night. I’m walking over to cousin Leroy’s,” he said. Leroy’s place was only three blocks from Rhoda’s on 14th Street.
A half of block down the dark alley, J.P. heard the tap, tap, tap of shoes behind him and he turned, but he could see no one in the darkness. He walked on and the tapping resumed.
He stopped, feeling spooked, and said, “Who the hell is back there? Fat Frank?”
The voice that answered said, “We are here to help rid the world of the friends of Satan, who corrupt the innocent by playing his music on his instrument.”
J.P. could barely make out the man’s figure as he stepped in close enough for him to smell the whiskey on his breath. Another drunk idiot, he thought.
* * *
Fat Frank walked back into the club and forgot just how smoky it could get. He snatched one more beer from the bar and headed over to Peter Stiml’s table to offer apologies for J.P.—and a white lie that his buddy felt ill and had gone home to bed. The Frenchman smiled and said something, and Fat Frank had a harder time understanding him than J.P. did. But Stiml’s smile and a hardy handshake indicated that the excuse was accepted.
They filed out onto the sidewalk, and Frank was flattered to have the film camera in his face. Everyone turned when they heard a woman shriek. Fat Frank saw his childhood friend stagger towards him with bloody hands clutching his chest. The film crew captured the final moments of J.P. Dillon’s life as he collapsed into his drummer’s outstretched arms, with Fat Frank yelling, “Cut that damn camera off, Frenchie, or I’ll give you a reason to have the blues.”
Wild eyes, searching for an answer, looked into Fat Frank’s. J.P. opened his mouth and tried to say something. Frank whispered, “Shhhh. It’ll be alright, J.P. It’ll be alright.” He turned and shouted, “Has someone called an ambulance! Damn it! Someone call an ambulance.”
He pressed hard on J.P.’s chest, which was seeping blood and had soaked the white shirt. Rhoda gazed at them both in a state of shock. J.P. had played her club every Tuesday night for three years and she thought of the two men as brothers.
She tried not to look at the spreading crimson pool of blood around the two men as she put a hand on Fat Frank’s shoulder. “An ambulance is on the way.”
She looked into the wide eyes staring back at her, and J.P. said softly, “I see angels coming for me.”
J.P. Dillon joined the ranks of Sonny Boy Williamson I and Henry “Pot” Strong on a list of unsolved murders on the streets of Chicago—a list of blues harmonica musicians.