It's 11 p.m. on a Saturday and the parking lot outside the Speakeasy echoes with rough, jangly guitar. Inside the packed bar, Buddy Reed, all 5 foot 6 of him, in bifocals and a necktie, ostrich boots planted wide, runs his hand over a red 1956 Sears and Roebuck Silvertone guitar and calls over his shoulder to drummer Rick Ryno, who lets into a breakneck "Messin' with the Kid." The bartender nods his head in time as he works the soda tap, a man in a porkpie hat drums his hands on the bar and watches the band over the heads of the women sitting with him, and a couple dances a tight circle in the few square feet between the mic stands and the tables.
The band slows down for Chuck Berry's "No Money Down," with bass player Dennis Robinson singing and smiling beatifically into the mic as the harmonica stretches out like a long, wailing train. Reed takes his time on his solo, too, and it looks effortless, which is to say he doesn't milk it, only tapping his boot heel down and pulling up the guitar neck for a moment before laying out a languid note to end the bridge.
This is Buddy Reed and the Rip it Ups' only steady gig. After some 15 years in Humboldt, Reed's a fixture in the background, playing the annual Buddy Brown Blues Festival and coffee shops and bars here or there. But there was a time when Reed shared the stage with legends, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon among them, traveling on the road with Little Richard and Big Mama Thornton. Now, at the age of 70, broke, sober and relatively unknown outside a loose family of surviving blues musicians, Reed sees one more shot, going on tour and recording an album in Nashville, a chance at a little financial security and a chance to play the music he learned from blues giants on the guitar he credits with saving his life.
Reed's owlish white brows fan up from a pair of pale blue eyes behind bifocals. On his mechanic's shirt is a patch with his name and his forearm bears a tattoo of twinkling stars and his daughter Ruby's name. Below that are the names of his two grandchildren.
His grandfather Archie T. Carter was a country hoedown fiddler who taught Buddy's cousins and sister to play when they were kids in Rialto, in San Bernardino County. He bought Buddy a guitar when he was 6, but after learning one song and tearing up his fingers, Buddy put it aside. It took him a while to come to music. He'd get annoyed when his older sister would shut off his cartoons to play records after school until he discovered 1950s du-wop and black vocal groups like the Chantelles.
Like a lot of white Americans, it was British bands that brought him to the blues. Radio stations didn't play African American blues musicians but The Rolling Stones, which he loved, were on heavy rotation. A DJ he knew gave him some records that introduced him to the blues originators they drew from. And that was it.
Reed used to sit with a record player, tuning his guitar to match a Robert Johnson record — a tricky business, since sometimes the speed of recordings was off, altering the original sound and tempo. He and his band mates strove to play the music "note for note and play it as authentically as white guys can ... we respected it." Reed says he knew he'd never be one of his heroes. He laughs and holds up a knotty hand. "I'm a white boy from Rialto."
As much as Reed relates to the lyrics — hard times, love gone wrong, sex, loneliness and plain bad luck — it's the sound, the room for artistry within the 12-bar structure that moves him. Technical skill, he says, can't compare to the expressiveness of the masters. "Blues is a simple thing," Reed says. "And you open that up and," he trails off, closing his eyes, hands out.
While he admits Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Johnny Winter are great guitarists, "There's a thousand great guitar players playing a thousand notes." He huffs at the table in front of him. "I'm not schooled in music or anything. Let's say I've got some guy who can play upside down and inside out, every note. ... It's acrobatics. It's the mechanics as opposed to expression. ... Everybody's playing three chords. But Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters — nobody sounds like them."
Reed slaps his hand in a slow beat, swaying a little at the table. "When you play it 'black,'" as the blues musicians he played backup for used to say, "you lay that backbeat down at the last possible fraction of a second. [Most of the time] white players rush it."
Evidently Reed didn't rush it. He managed to impress some heavy hitters over his years playing guitar in the house band the George "Harmonica" Smith Blues Band (aka Bacon Fat) with Rod Piazza at The Small Paradise, or "Small's" on 53rd and Avalon in Watts in the late 1960s, backing up legends like Lightnin' Hopkins and whoever else came through. He toured with Big Mama Thornton — she of the original "Hound Dog" before Elvis packaged the song for white audiences — which took him onstage with Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and T-Bone Walker. "They loved us," he says.
He toured as part of Little Richard's 27-piece band, too, for a while. Reed's analog press kit is a scrapbook's worth of photocopied photos of him from back in the day. There he is, looking like a miniature Jeff Bridges with flowing hair and another 40 pounds, tuning his guitar backstage with Muddy Waters. There are stage shots of him with Bo Diddley, Canned Heat and Willie Dixon wearing a suit and a white brimmed hat. In one, 6-foot-tall Big Mamma Thornton (who used to hug him into her bosom onstage) towers over him in a fedora.
There wasn't a lot of money in playing the blues. Reed's then-wife Erika Reed Smith used to waitress at Small's and sometimes made more with tips than the band. Soul, rock and disco was filling clubs and a younger generation wanted to play something new that spoke to their times, instead of replicating what their parents and grandparents had listened to.
It was after a couple of decades in Phoenix, Arizona, fronting Buddy Reed and the Rocket 88s, that Reed first came up to Humboldt to stay with a friend in Orick. He fell in love with the beauty and solitude and ended his "road dogging" days traveling for gigs. He says he prayed his daughter and granddaughter would come up here from Southern California and they did, so mostly he's satisfied. And even if there wasn't much work, he could still play what he calls his "bastardized version of the blues and rock 'n' roll."
Rick Ryno has been playing drums with Reed for five years, but the two knew each other from battle of the bands events in San Bernardino in the 1960s. "We've played about 475 gigs together," Ryno says with certainty. When Ryno left Riverside and retired to Humboldt, he was surprised to hear Reed was playing here — and glad he hadn't sold his drums. "For two old guys who can't remember where they parked their cars, we can set up our stuff and blow people's minds." And Ryno is happy to stick to Reed's style. "That's who he is. In a real humble way," he says. "If he was a Top 40, show-off kind of guy, I wouldn't have stuck around."
Bassist Dennis Robinson, on the other hand, only started playing with Reed in January, and the 65-year-old postal worker isn't strictly a blues guy. "I'm from Detroit, so there you go," he says with a chuckle. Starting out, he wanted to play Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. "Now that I'm older I have a better appreciation for that (blues) music."
Asked about the mostly white musicians playing blues locally, Robinson, who's African American, says, "It surprised me in the beginning but, to me, as long as they do justice to it, it's fine with me," and Reed does a good job. Robinson also plays Hawaiian in the duo Aloha 808, so he is no stranger to playing music created by another culture. "When you play the blues there's a feeling ... it's hard to explain but there's a feeling — you can tell. Like Hawaiian music, if a Hawaiian person plays it, they made it and they have that feeling. If a black person or a white person plays it, it's hard to get that." He gives the example of Eric Clapton's cover of Robert Johnson's "Crossroads." "I'm not saying he doesn't do it justice but it isn't the same."
Unlike his band mates, Reed doesn't have a day job. He's grateful to the Speakeasy and the loyal regulars. But, he remarks, "I don't make ends meet." The generosity of friends, disability and Social Security keep him going, and the band recently scored a casino booking, which pays good money for a four-hour set in a smoky bar.
He feels like there's an audience in Humboldt but the venues "don't give a shit about the blues." This county, he says, could use "an honest-to-God road house." By Reed's desk is a stack of vinyl records and CDs he's played on. There are compilations on which he appears on tracks from Bo Diddley, Charlie Musselwhite, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Albert Collins. It has been hard for Reed to watch musicians like Musselwhite, James Harmon and Mark Hummel, whom he counts as peers and friends, touring, packing venues and festivals.
Even locally, Reed feels shut out. For years he tried to get into Blues by the Bay and the Redwood Coast Music Festival but couldn't. Last year, he was invited to play RCMF's blues night, but without billing, which puzzled him. He doesn't want to sound "whiny," he says, shaking his head. "I'm in good shape and I put on a good show. It's not a hobby to me. And that should be worth something."
Mark Jansen, who heads the RCMF band committee, says the festival lineup is "just a matter of who fits stylistically with who we have coming," and that out of town acts are prioritized because "It's very hard to charge people for festival tickets and charge people to see acts that they can see for free." Last year, Reed fit the bill with his traditional style and Jansen was surprised when a number of visiting musicians said they were excited to play with Reed again. But he agrees that Reed has been overlooked by local venues. Some of that might come down to promotion. Jansen says festival and small venue bookers alike look at Facebook likes, YouTube views and how much social media promotion a band does — anything that will help them fill the room. Reed, he says, is "more low key" than other acts. He adds, "Musicians in the area know him but I don't know how many people know and realize what he is."
The Arcata trailer Reed shares with his girlfriend Raia Ryan is partly obscured by a jasmine bush and, as the rain starts, the smell of it fills the wood paneled room. There are guitars clustered together in one corner with a few pairs of sunglasses. Ryan pops in for a moment to say hello, then leaves.
The two met four years ago when he was playing at Blondies. She watched for a while and asked if she could sing "Stormy Monday" with him. He rolls his eyes. "Everybody wants to sing 'Stormy Monday.'" But her voice moved him. "I really, really respected her as an artist," he says. Before long they were living together.
Reed has been sober for 35 years. He says he started drinking out of adults' beer cans when he was 8. "I never liked myself very much," he says, and he drank to forget that. Eventually he took methamphetamines so he could keep drinking, binging for days and blacking out. "When you're doing it, you're dealing with pain inside yourself and you don't give a shit."
Reed shakes his head at the green shag carpet lamenting the things he lost during his days on the road drinking and doing speed so he could keep on drinking. There was a pearl-handled Colt .45 given to him by his parents that he suspects was lifted by the junkies that wandered in and out of his place. Memorabilia and photographs from his years playing alongside his idols is scattered. And one night in Detroit, drunk after a gig, he leaned his 1958 Les Paul custom guitar against a building to take a piss and walked away from it without a second glance.
"I hurt people," he says in a quiet voice. "Physically and emotionally. ... Never thought twice about cheating on my wife." Ultimately, it was his drinking and infidelity that ended his marriage to Erika Reed Smith, though the two are still friends.
Reed Smith, in town from Rancho Cucamonga to pick up her granddaughter for a visit, wears a pair of aqua sunglasses and talks in a warm, deep, conspiratorial voice.
"It doesn't matter what you look like or how sloppy you are that day; if you're on stage, there are a lot of women who'll throw themselves at you." After their daughter Ruby was born, she couldn't see raising a child around the drinking, drugs and fighting, so she left.
Reed had a short fuse and substance abuse didn't help. "He'd go right off the stage," she says, hooking her fist in the air. "You have to understand," she says, "there are a lot of obnoxious people [in the music business]." She leans in, adding, "Especially harmonica players."
Reed admits it "didn't take much" back in those days. He glances to where Ryan stood earlier and says he's ashamed of the damage he did. "I caved a guy's ribs in with a pipe. What kind of man ...," he stops and runs his hands over his face.
Reed Smith has become her ex-husband's "memory keeper." For every box Buddy misplaced or had stolen, she has a cache of photographs, contracts and keepsakes from the first show he invited her to in 1970, when he opened for John Mayall at the Whisky a Go Go in Hollywood, to when she traveled with him as the only woman on the bus with Little Richard's enormous band. That memory serves her well on the U.S./U.K. blues radio show she recently joined, "Across the Pond," with Les Young and Reed's sometime band mate Bobby Jo Holman.
She'd like to see Reed make a comeback. "He's paid his dues. Every time you think you're gonna make it and you don't," she sighs. "It's his complete and total life. It's also been complete and total hell. And complete and total heaven."
At the height of his musical success, touring and playing, he still couldn't get past a certain point artistically. "My addictions kept me down," he says. As for the link between creativity and alcohol and drugs, Reed doesn't buy it. "It might give you a certain personality ... but those addictions sure don't make you better."
It was only after his daughter was born that Reed began to look for a way out. "I was able to quit because of her," he says, tears breaking over his cheeks. He'd warned he might get choked up "talking about this stuff," that along with having a temper, he's always been an emotional guy. "Fuck it," he says. "I'm grateful."
Reed's rock bottom came in the pre-dawn hours at a trailer park in San Bernardino. In 1982, the now sinewy 5 foot 6 Reed weighed 180 pounds, his health wrecked by methamphetamines and alcohol abuse. He'd woken up in tremendous pain, his finger, swollen around his fire agate ring, was starting to turn color. Reed grabbed a pair of wire cutters and cut the band — once it was off, he got down on the floor of the trailer and prayed, swearing he'd get clean. He still wears it as a reminder.
But it took a number of elements aligning for sobriety to stick. For one, a biker friend came into an extra set of wheels and offered it to Reed if he'd quit drinking or at least cut back. That gesture shook Reed. "I figured, shit, if somebody cares enough about me to do that." Finally, after a typical five-day bender, he woke up desperate to hear his 2-year-old daughter's voice and called Reed Smith. When she wished him a happy birthday and Father's Day, he broke down. He'd had no idea what day it was. "This would be a good day for me to stop," he told her.
Playing guitar, Reed says, saved him. Alcoholics Anonymous wasn't a fit so he white-knuckled it on his own, playing guitar when he wanted to use or drink. It helped coming to terms with the depression that runs in his family, too. "That depression thing is given to me as a tool," he says, to make him stronger. "It's not a curse; I feel like it's a blessing for me."
These days, Reed frequents the gym, trying to undo some of the damage he's wrought on his body or at least stave off its worsening effects. He blames the booze and meth for his spotty memory and the seizures he had a few years back. "It took a piece of me."
Several years ago, Reed says he found out he has a compressed spine from an old neck injury, which landed him on disability. It likely had something to do with hitting railroad tracks at high speed in a friend's car at 16, jamming his head against the roof and eventually tumbling out the busted door onto the road to "watch the tail lights roll away." It may have been exacerbated by years of riding his motorcycle or the blur of bar fights. But his ring and pinky fingers go numb now and then and he has to shake out his hands. "I can't feel the strings or the frets," he laments, but a lifetime of playing has left him able to manage. "I have good nights, I have not so good nights ... it don't affect my slide playing — only thing that affects my slide playing is not practicing."
A few months ago, Reed signed a pre-contract agreement with London-based Global Entertainment Media, one of the founders of which is his sometime band mate Bobby Jo Holman. The company's mission, Holman says, is to promote "people like Buddy, who was a legend guy but just never kind of hit it," and help market them to a wider audience in the U.S. and abroad. Operating like a cooperative, GEM plans to help artists put together a tour and record for a 6 to 7 percent booking fee and a recording contract. Right now, the plan is to re-release a previously recorded CD, Blues Sez it All, and for Reed to play shows en route to Nashville.
Once there, he'll hook up with producer Geoff Wilbourn and record at the historic Sound Emporium studio, where the likes of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Robert Plant and Alison Kraus, Alabama Shakes and Trish Yearwood have laid down tracks the old-fashioned way on 2-inch analog tape. "There's some things the pro tools can match but some things, like the drums, that they just can't pick up ... there's a certain warmth to the sound that they haven't been able to duplicate yet," Wilbourn says.
For his part, Wilbourn is excited to work with Reed. "He was on the chitlin circuit (clubs where African American artists could play during segregation) as a white dude, backing up all these artists," he says with a chuckle. And Reed's history is more poignant for him against the dwindling ranks of musicians from that era. "He played on so many great albums when he was younger. That was all traditional blues stuff." Wilbourn may bring in a little rock to broaden the album's appeal and he's hunting around for other artists to collaborate. "It's gonna be a hell of a lot of fun," says Wilbourn. "Get to Nashville and make this damn record."
Reed has been waiting months for the recording deal to move forward, wary of getting his hopes up. "I'm still in the game," he says, flexing his hands, shifting the thick silver chain on his wrist. He says he feels better now than when he was young and on the road. He's looking forward to going out and playing for new audiences and getting in the studio again. There are plans for a tour of small clubs around Europe in 2018, too.
"I'm counting on this new thing, but shit, man, I'm 70 years old." He won't leave town for a few months and he's hoping to add more Humboldt shows before then. He wants to get on the road and pay his bills, but mostly he just wants to play, to get in front of an audience and play three chords until he can't do it anymore.
"I gave my life to this," he says. "If it never gets no better than this, I'm OK with it."
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.