T O M M Y M c C R A C K E NThe Following Prologue was devoted to Tommy McCracken!
INTERNATIONAL VOCALIST & ENTERTAINER
Leader of the Force of Habit Band
How Blue Can You Get
A Night in a Chicago Blues Club
It is showtime at B.L.U.E.S., and Tommy McCracken—a hefty, biracial singer and showman in his mid-sixties and one of the hardest-working performers at the club—takes a deep breath and wipes his dripping brow under his colored jet-black hair. He motions his band to lower their volume as they play behind him with a steady drumbeat while the guitar follows a slow riff, and as they quiet down, he begins preaching to his attentive audience as a minister might address his congregation.
“It’s still Sunday, right? All right, I’ve got some things that I’ll need to wait till after Sunday to say…But you know, the branch never falls too far from the tree…and I believe…I believe that if I had some water, if was standing by the water, well then, do you know what I’d do?
He waits for the crowd to respond, and when they don’t, he shouts back:
“I said…Do you know what I’d do?!”
When the crowd finally reacts, he begins to chant softly—with feeling—
“Well, I’d pull up my pants, I’d roll up my pants real high, yes, I would…And I’d wade in the water…Yes, I’d wade, I’d wade…I’d wade in the water, oh Lord.” And he puts his hands up, palms out, and he raises his voice, shouting: “But you say, ‘Hold on now…Wait a minute…How can you do that, and sing the blues? How can you wade in the water… and still sing the blues?’” And he smiles: “Well, I’m a-gonna tell ya…”
Suddenly his band mates turn to each other with looks of puzzled trepidation, as if they are not quite sure what will come out of his mouth next, only to watch him abruptly interrupt his sermon and signal them to jump into his next number, an Earl Hooker cover—fast-paced, up-tempo—
“Have you ever…Have you ever seen a one-eyed woman cry?
Have you ever, have you ever seen a one-eyed woman cry?
She looks good, tears come out of one eye!”
The audience roars to McCracken’s shouts and hollers as he starts to move: shaking his hips, executing a decades-old moonwalk across the stage, and following it up with yet another 1980’s breakdance maneuver. Between lines he lets out a wail in his best James Brown imitation that just shakes up the room, and the eyes of his energized audience follow his awkwardly large body as he spins around, kicks down the microphone stand, and in a well-rehearsed turn of his foot, expertly lifts it back up as he comes crashing down on the stage floor into a split. Suddenly he jumps up, flexes the pectorals in his chest through his sweat-drenched shirt, and turns around, shaking his behind at the crowd to their hysterical cries. As the song comes to a close, he tucks the microphone into the front of his pants—just above his groin—and pulls his fists back and forth in time to the closing riffs, and finally takes a low bow as he thanks the audience while his band sharply slows down their tempo. Once again, he wipes the perspiration from his brow.
But the evening is not over just yet: McCracken has one more song to perform. His band is still with him, rumbling quietly behind him as he slowly starts to sway. He looks up at his audience, raises his palm, and once again, patiently resumes his role as a preaching showman: “Now here’s what you gotta do…When you get home, you gotta walk in the door, and take your mate, spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, husband, significant other, and sit them down…and tell ‘em, ‘Honey, turn down the TV, ‘cause we gotta talk.’ Tell ‘em how the kids are all grown up and in college, and you just want to sit down because you have to talk to them about something that’s been on your mind all these years…” And so he begins:
“I’ve been downhearted, baby, ever since the day that we met,
I’ve been downhearted, baby, ever since the day that we met,
And I want to know tonight…’How blue---can you get?’”
Strolling among the smiling members of his audience, he continues---
“I bought you a ten-course dinner, and you said, ‘Thanks for the snack,’
I let you live in my penthouse, but you called it a shack,
I bought you a brand-new Porsche, and you said, ‘I like Cadillacs…’”
And as the music grows louder, he starts jumping up and down in an emotional crescendo to the buildup of the B. B. King cover and belts out the rest of the lyric—again, with feeling—“I gave you seven pretty babies, and now you wanna give them all back!” and he gasps and cries, shouting, “I’ve been so brokenhearted baby, ever since the day, ever since the day that we met…
“And I want to know tonight ‘How blue---how blue---can you get?!’”
And the music grows louder and harder, and then suddenly comes to a grinding halt. With a flourish of this hand, his band stops playing, and in the silence of the club, he looks up to the audience and, as if to demonstrate just how blue he can get, resumes preaching: “Oh Lord…All the women in the house, say ‘Yeah!’” They respond to his plea, but he begs them for more, only louder: “Say ‘Yeah!!!’” After they do, he continues: “Well, all right…Now I want all you women to go back and remember what you learned back in grammar school, back when things didn’t seem so negative…And I believe that you had math class, and science class, and English class, and I believe you learned what we call verbs and adverbs, adjectives, nouns and pronouns…and there was a He, and there was a She…” and he continues to preach to the women---and the men---in his audience, imploring them to treat themselves better without giving up hope on life---“Remember, if its too high to get over, and too low to get under, and too wide to get around, then there’s just one way in and that’s to get through it…” ---and the band starts to crescendo as he buzzes, shrieks, and climbs up to a high-pitched wail----
“And I want you!” And in case the audience missed his cue, he throws his hand down fast as a signal to the band to drop a sharp yet cacophonous punch: Bang!
“And I need you…”
And I love you…”
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Beads of sweat rolling down his leathered face, he raises his hand up in the air as the band plays their final drumroll of the night, and he thanks the crowd, pleading with them, “Keep drinking what you’re drinking; keep thinking what you’re thinking!” and he bows down his head, arms flailing, fingers pointing in all directions, and a not to the band, who, with a slam of his hand, break into silence for the final word of the evening.
“How blue—can you get?”
And the band plays down the closing bars; the crowd is on their feet, cheering, applauding, toasting; an exhausted Tommy McCracken staggers aside and drops for a bow, at least for tonight, showtime is finally over.
Grazian, David. Blue Chicago, The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003: xvii-xix.
Bio Critique Audio Gallery Press