Florida Keys News
Sunday, October 13, 2013
Painting the Parrot (Bill) Blue

Every time veteran blues singer and guitarist Bill Blue plays the Green Parrot Bar, the venerable watering hole sends out a press release detailing Bill's early '80s arrival in Key West, basically penniless, driving a Cadillac, accompanied by a pretty girl and exhausted from 16 years of "road dog" touring.

"Oh, that old story," snorted Blue, who returns to the Parrot at 5:30 p.m. today to celebrate the release of his newest CD, "Mojolation." "I think the only true part of that story is that I was broke. I wish it was a Cadillac, that's for sure. And the girl...."

Embellished legends notwithstanding, Blue, now 67, indeed spent a good deal of time touring the U.S. and Europe. He also managed to create a few true Key West legends in the three decades since he decided to call this town home.

A native of Aberdeen, N.C., Blue (yes, that's his real name,) became interested in music as a child. He moved to Williamsburg, Va, at the age of 6, and eventually became a protégé of bluesman Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, who penned Elvis Presley's first single, "That's All Right."

"I met Elvis too," Blue said. "But that's another story."

Thanks to the blues revival kick-started by mid-1960s British Invasion bands such as the Rolling Stones, Crudup found his fortunes on the rise, and asked Blue to put together a band for him. With Blue singing and playing guitar the pair continued to tour together, until Crudup's death in 1974. During their partnership, Blue worked and played with such luminaries as Bonnie Raitt and B.B. King. Following Crudup's death, Blue carried on, and spent the rest of the '70s releasing a number of records for small, but respected blues labels like Adelphi and Feather.

As a young and ambitious road warrior, Blue first visited the Southernmost City in the halcyon days of '74, before Key West was KEY WEST, and only the locals knew who Bum Farto was. It wasn't until years later, however, that the Tele and Strat-strumming slide-player performed his first show here.

"My first gig in Key West was on the Fourth of July, 1980 at Sloppy Joe's Bar," said Blue, who moved into a houseboat in Garrison Bight in the 1990s. "My agent booked that gig. I decided I wanted to live here, so I came back in '82, and got a house gig there for the next 20 years. I've lived here, pretty much ever since, though I did move to New Smyrna Beach from 2000 to 2006, to help get my daughter through veterinary school."

Arriving in town just as Key West's modern tourist economy was taking off, Blue was the first musician to play the newly opened Green Parrot Bar. (Ignore that "Since 1890" sign.) He was also the first -- and last -- to play the legendary, now-defunct bar and shifty character hangout, the Full Moon Saloon. Blue's residency at the Full Moon was captured for posterity on the "Bill Blue and the Nervous Guys Live at the Full Moon Saloon" CD.

"I've seen a lot of changes on the island," Blue said. "Some good, and some not so good. But I have to say, that even with all the changes, this is still a better place to live than most, and I've been to a lot of places. Key West fits me like an old, worn shoe."

One day, about a year and a half ago, British music producer Ian Shaw, who had just relocated here, heard Blue playing at the Parrot. The pair struck up a friendship and before long Blue agreed to make a record with Shaw producing.

The result, "Mojolation," is an 11-song, live-in-the-studio, sonic outing featuring Blue's distinctive guitar, raspy vocals, and harmonica, a five-piece horn section, and stirring performances from locals Larry Baeder and "Caffeine" Carl Wagoner, on guitar.

Other local notables include bassist Dan Simpson, and drummer Richard Crooks.

"I really loved his voice and guitar playing," said Shaw, who lives on a houseboat just down the dock from Blue. "But I didn't like most of the recordings he'd made, and I wanted to help him make an album that would really capture who he is. I think it ended up being almost an historical project."

Blue agreed that "Mojolation," released on Shaw's "Warmfuzz" label, is probably his finest work.

"I'm extremely proud of this CD," he said. "It's better than anything I've ever done. Some of the [previous] albums just never really sounded like me. On this one, the quality is good. The musicianship is great. It's a really 'in your face' record."

After playing music for 43 years, what's left for Blue to do?

"Well, I've got a festival coming up, and we'll see what happens after that," he said. "We've sent the disc off to a number of reviewers and to some competitions, including the W.C. Handy Blues Awards. For now, though, I'm happy to be living here and playing at the Parrot...it's my home, and one of the best road bars in the country. I like being the old man of the blues."

tschmida@keysnews.com

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