The Greatest Blues Singer of All Time
Mickey Fagan and his best talent scout, J.P. Wilson, sat at their usual booth. The Blue Note was a live blues bar and restaurant on the Southeast side of Chicago. Mickey owned the club. It was 1:30 in the afternoon on a Friday. The place was empty except for the two of them; a bartender; and the house band, backing up a young singer who was auditioning for Mr. Fagan. It was understood in Chicago that no one made it big in the blues circuit without first going through the formidable Mickey Fagan. He knew how to find new talent and knew how to capitalize on it. A large man, he filled half the booth with his 300-pound frame; his cigar smoke and his talent scout filled the rest.
It was a strange sight to see both men sitting completely still, not talking at all. The young performer was singing through several blues standards and impressed the hell out of Fagan and Wilson. The bartender certainly noticed the difference in their demeanor. He’d seen them hold auditions countless times … they usually talked so much it seemed they weren’t paying attention. Then they’d stop the singer, say a few words about how nice he sounded, and send him on his way.
Today, the two men were mesmerized.
Johnny Summers was singing the blues. He held the microphone as if it was a priceless, fragile heirloom. He appeared to revere it as if nothing was more important to him. It seemed he was emptying his very soul into it, and with each phrase, the small object was becoming more valuable.
Although no one could tell, Johnny was actually having an out-of-body experience, watching himself perform from above the stage. He was used to this phenomenon though; it always happened whenever he sang the blues.
Mickey didn’t dare speak. He couldn’t bring himself to interrupt the transferal of emotions taking place from man to microphone. He’d never witnessed this kind of performance. This was more than blues; it was blues with teeth. No … razor blades. J.P. was right about this kid. Unbelievable. Money in the bank.
J.P. Wilson was quietly crying. He’d waited all his life to find someone who could take the genre to the next level. His ship had come in. No one could touch this kid. He would redefine; even reinvent the blues.
Johnny Summers finished another song, returned to his body, and looked out toward the booth where his jury sat. Why weren’t they saying anything? He didn’t really know what to expect though; this was his first audition since he’d arrived in Chicago a week ago. He saw movement from the booth and then someone finally spoke.
“Um, okay then…” J.P. cleared his throat a couple of times, and then addressed the band members. “Great job guys. You can cut out. Mr. Summers, we’d like to talk with you.” With butterflies raging a war in his gut, Johnny crossed the room to the smoke-enshrouded booth. Maybe this was the moment he’d hoped for since he fell in love with the blues at age 13. Would he sign a contract after his very first audition? Was he that good?
“Mr. Summers! Pull up a chair, boy!” It was *the* Mickey Fagan! He couldn’t believe he was actually going to be sitting with Fagan and Wilson! Before he could sit down, a teenage boy ran up to the table, dropped off a manila envelope, and dashed out. “If you don’t mind, Johnny, we need to take care of some urgent business. Why don’t you head to the bar and have a beer. It’s on the house. We’ll be right with you. And hey, don’t go anywhere, okay? We definitely need to talk.”
Johnny went to the bar. His butterfly war raged on.
“Is this the background report? The one on Mr. Summers?”
“Yes. Sorry it’s late. Something about having to dig deeper than usual. I haven’t had the chance to talk to my man, but let’s see what he could dig up on our young phenom, Mr. Johnny Summers.”
J.P. emptied the envelope on the table and picked up a sheet of paper. Mickey waited.
“Shit.” J.P. said, his face going sour.
“What do you mean, ‘shit?’”
“You’re not going to fucking believe this!”
“Don’t tell me the kid’s in trouble with the law.”
“No, Mickey, it’s weird. Really weird. It says our young man had a normal, healthy childhood, Mick. It looks like this kid’s had the silver spoon his whole damn life. Listen to this! He grew up in Sarasota, Florida. Sarasota! Two loving parents. Upper-class neighborhood.” J.P. scanned further. “He was a fucking honor student, for god sakes. This can’t be right.”
“You’re goddamn right it can’t be right! No one sings the blues without living it. Are you telling me that this 24-year-old brat sitting at my bar and drinking my beer, just out-sang every fucking blues singer to come out of Chicago in the last 50 years, and he’s from Sara-fucking-sota? ”
J.P. didn’t answer. He was still poring over the report his investigator had prepared for him after he’d heard Johnny singing at Open-Mike-Nite, a weekly, anyone-can-sing event at the club. He’d watched Johnny as he proceeded to wrap the whole place around his little finger. By the time he’d made it through the first chorus of Walk A Mile in My Shoes, everyone in the place knew they’d witnessed history in the making. Now J.P. could feel his dream slipping away as he read page after page of squeaky-clean background information on the kid. He was even a licensed, clinical psychologist. Could things be any worse? He wouldn’t even mention the psychology tidbit to Mickey. No reason to throw gasoline on the fire. How could this have happened? No one sings the blues without living it. It’s always been that way. Always.
“Well, this has to be resolved, J.P. Get him back over here. Let’s find out if your man screwed up.”
Johnny finished his beer and saw J.P. waving him to the booth again. He was ready to do business now that his butterflies were enjoying some Samuel Adams. However, the two men seemed different somehow … less excited than before.
“Sit down, Johnny.” J.P. said. “We need to ask you some questions.”
“All right.” Johnny tried to see through the blue cloud. Was Mr. Fagan angry?
“Where did you grow up? Tell us about your childhood … your parents … your education. That sort of thing.”
Johnny Summers proceeded to tell the two men all about his past. The problem was, it was the same past as the one in the investigator’s report. He was for real. An absolute paradox was sitting at their table. A happy man who could sing the blues … and sing it better than anyone else. He could easily make a mockery of the genre if the media found out about him.
Both men were putting it all together as they listened to this happy-go-lucky young man lay his pathetic, little life before them. They could see the immanent interviews on the talk show circuit; the feature articles in Rolling Stone; the documentaries; the movies. The Blues would never be perceived the same way again. Anybody, anywhere, could be a blues singer … Johnny Summers proved it.
Mickey interrupted the kid. “I’m going to ask you another question, Mr. Summers. I want you to consider your answer carefully.”
“Yes sir. Okay.” Johnny was shaken by the forcefulness of Mr. Fagan’s tone.
The large man took a long draw on his cigar. The pause effectively added weight to what he was about to say. Johnny swallowed.
“Would you ever consider getting out of the blues arena? Seriously, Mr. Summers. Rock and roll … country … some other type? You’ve got talent, kid. Why sing the blues, anyway? There’s a lot more money outside of Chicago.”
What? Was he hearing this correctly? What was Mr. Fagan getting at? It must be a test! J.P. chimed in before he could answer. “Johnny. Think hard. We have to know where you stand. If we told you we could make you rich and famous as a rock singer, would you be willing to give up singing the blues?”
These questions were like hot knives, stabbing him from all sides. Sing rock and roll? They had to be kidding. It was a test. It had to be a test. He was deciding how to answer without offending them when Mickey leaned in again, smoke billowing around his chubby face. “Well?”
Johnny decided the best approach was the direct approach. “I’m not sure why you’re asking me about all this, but I only know I want to sing the blues. Rock and country don’t do it for me and I’m not in this just for money … I don’t think I could ever be happy if I wasn’t singing what I feel in my bones. The blues. My answer is ‘no,’ Mr. Fagan, I would not consider getting out of the blues. You can trust me on that. I sometimes think I couldn’t live without it”
J.P. reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a contract. He pushed it toward Johnny and then handed him a pen. “You can take a few minutes to read this over if you like. Sign it; then we’ll arrange a meeting to get you hooked up with some topnotch musicians. You’ll be headlining at the biggest clubs in town.”
Whew! Johnny scanned the contract. Everything looked right. He signed before the dream could end.
“I’ll be calling you as soon as I check my schedule. I suggest you go out and celebrate, Mr. Summers … you’ve just signed the Holy Grail of blues contracts.” He escorted Johnny to the door; they shook hands, and he watched him leave.
Once back at the booth, J.P. wanted to know why Mickey had given him the signal to present the contract.
“I don’t get it, Mick. We can’t let this kid play the club circuit. As soon as his background info makes it to the press, we’ll be finished in this city. All the great blues artists will think we’re stabbing them in the backs. How many times have you heard the blues rule recited to the press? Every blues star makes a point of saying it … You gotta live the blues to sing the blues. Johnny Summers will break that rule every time he opens his mouth to sing!”
“Calm down, J.P.” Mickey relit his cigar. He seemed quite relaxed. “Everything’s going to work out fine. Trust me.”
* * *
Johnny showed up for the big meeting two days later. It was at Fagan’s offices a few blocks from The Blue Note. J.P. wasn’t there. Instead, it was Mr. Fagan and another man he’d not met before. He was told to have a seat at a table. A piece of paper was placed in front of him. Johnny read it: No one sings the blues without living the blues.
A pop and a burning sensation in the back of his head, were the last two things Johnny Summers, the greatest blues singer of all time, experienced in his short, happy life.
© 2001 Jon Oren Nicholas. Jr.
Jon Nicholas spends his free time writing on his laptop in the kitchen. His kitchen is in Frankfort, Kentucky. That's also where his wife and kids live. In Frankfort, not the kitchen! Well, they sort of do spend a lot of time in the kitchen too. Anyway, he's 41 years old and enjoys other hobbies such as photography, singing, running an online writing club, and defusing nuclear warheads (weekends only).