‘You know how to play the blues if you’re from St. Louis’ An interview with David Dee
Local bluesman David Dee is recognized both nationally and internationally for his contribution to the blues genre. “The blues is whoever it fits,” he says.
Dee is known for his hit song “Going Fishing,” and others such as “Give Me Some Air” and “Forgive Me Girl.” He has performed with many of the top blues acts that have passed through St. Louis. According to Dee, “My destiny was to accomplish something in music.” When not playing music he spends his time working for the East St. Louis Police Department.
In the week leading up to St. Louis Blues Week I had a chance to sit down with Mr. Dee for an interview at his East St. Louis home. His home rests on a peaceful two-lane street that is ideal for watching cars pass by while his over-grown tree shades you from the sun. It was the perfect setting for a talk on the blues. Here he told me what the blues means to him and what led him to find his own definition: “You feel good when you hear something about you. That’s the blues.”
Dannie Boyd: How did you first get started with the blues?
David Dee: I first got started with the blues by singing. I like music period. When I was 12 years old I was singing with a spiritual group. The spiritual group broke up by the time I was 15 or somewhere in there. What I did then was try to get something together and possibly sing the blues. I really didn’t get deep off into it at the time because I didn’t know too much about it, but I remembered the blues when I was a kid.
And as I got older, I left home around the age of about 16, and I moved to Chicago away from my mom. When I moved to Chicago I got me a job and bought a guitar. When I bought me a guitar I started trying to play the blues. At the time I remember meeting Nat King Cole back in the ’50s. He was the only black man that I saw in the ’50s, that I know, that had something worthwhile, in good shape of living. I remember Nat King Cole’s songs and him playing piano.
He was the only man that I knew that really showed success with his background by singing. This was one of the only black men I knew. I knew a lot that sung blues. But as far as show, luxury and money, a black man didn’t have that in the ’50s. Very few of them did. But he was one of them. So I made up my mind that I was going to get into blues, or get into music period. Playing music, singing music.
After I turned about 21 I was drafted into the service. I was in the paratroopers for a couple of years. While I was in there I had two or three fellas together. We use to sing a little bit. I got discharged in 1960 because I was drafted in 1958. After I got out of the service I had a little group in the early ’60s. It was about ’63 or ’64. I had a little group called David and the Temptations. Later on I met some guys that played instruments and I started singing with them and I kept on maneuvering into the music. I had a bass player who quit my band, his name was Keith, so I didn’t have a bass player. We had show coming up in two or three weeks so it was my thing to learn how to play bass and fill in the spot. I learned how to play bass good enough to play a gig with my group.
After that I met another guy called Little Dave. He played guitar. Me and him would go around singing a lot. He played guitar and I played bass. Luther Ingram approached us to play for him. I had a band so I refused to. I said, “We can’t go to no New York man” (laughs). I figured if you go to New York, you’ve got to have money to come back just in case things don’t go like you expected. So Luther, he went on and we stayed here down in East St. Louis. I heard a few months later that Luther Ingram left his band in New York. I said, “Well, I’m glad we didn’t go.”
Later we were playing in our own places, Edwardsville [Ill.], back in the old days, and Centerville [Ill.]. Albert King, he approached my band. He wanted us to go on the road with him, and I refused to go because I had my own group. I played bass with my own group for quite some time. We had a horn section, but at the time we didn’t have a piano player, so I played a little keyboard until I hired a guy called Orange [?] McGill and he played piano. Then we started running from here to Springfield, to Decatur and back down in East St. Louis. As a matter of fact I had a couple of horns also. My destiny was to accomplish something in music.
When I got to the ’70s, that’s when I got a family. My first daughter was born by my wife in ’72. She sings with me now. Her name is Lesley. My other daughter sings with me, Gina. We had six of them in a hurry. More than I was expecting. My wife wasn’t supposed to have that many kids. We were looking at two. Then I turn around and then we’re looking at three, and then four. Then we had a set of twins. When we had the twins at Barnes Hospital they had us on Channel 4 News, [reporting] that we had the biggest twins in so many years of this community. One weighed 8.5 lbs and the other weighed 8.6. That’s very big for twins.
Later in the years I was still playing music and doing different types of work, you name it I did it, and still working on music. I guess in the late ’70s I bought my guitar and I started playing guitar. I got somebody else to play bass. I been playing guitar since then.
My first song I cut was on a record label called Norman Records. I got hooked up with Oliver Sain, that’s later in the years when I came up with “Going Fishing.” When I wrote that I started traveling back around ’92 or ’93. Ever since then I been going back and forth. The guy that first got me hooked up with going overseas was a guy that use to handle a lot of guys overseas. He lived in St. Louis over there. He got me hooked up with Utrecht and we did a show over there [overseas]. We didn’t go back over there for a while.
Little Milton’s wife, she had a group overseas and she hooked me up in Paris. He called me and told me that I owe him some money for playing in Paris. I said, “No. You can’t get no money. That ain‘t going to work.” He said, “I’m the first one that carried you over there and I get a kickoff.” I said, “If I give everybody a kickoff of every gig I play and they didn’t book it wouldn’t make sense for me to play.” [He said,] “You do!” I said, “I don’t feel that I do and I won’t pay you a dime.” I paid her percentage of what she booked me for in Paris, so he got mad at me and we never talked since.
I’m my own man. I’m not going to do something that I’m going to be sorry for tomorrow and I can’t miss anything I never had. Therefore, I stand on the word that I say. I try not to misuse somebody because I’m not the one to say, “I’m sorry.” I think people use that word too much. I think they use that word purposely to misuse somebody because they think they’re always to be forgiven. If you don’t do a person wrong you don’t have a reason to tell a person “I’m sorry.”
As time went on I did most of my own bookings and traveled in the states and out of state. A guy called me from England to come over. When I got there he had more blues records than I saw in my life. Almost all of those were from this side of the water. It surprised me that he knew all the people I knew from way back in the olden days. If they hadn’t cut but one blues [song] he had it. In his house he had a library of blues. He showed me some blues records that go way back when I first heard the blues. It was called “Bad Bad Whiskey.” [Sings:] “Bad bad whiskey make me loose my happy home.”
That’s one of the first songs I ever heard. I took those words and I thought about it. “Whisky.” I never was involved [with alcohol]. I never could get involved. I couldn’t afford to lose anything because I didn’t have anything, my parents didn’t have anything. That’s the reason people called me a square, because I didn’t drink and get high.
Me and B.B. [King] had a conversation [on alcohol]. I think B.B. is the only one that I’ve never opened a show for or been on the stage with, but I know him really well. Me and him talk. I also found out that he wasn’t into that type of thing [alcohol and drug use]. Most musicians, I respect them, but I wasn’t the type to do the alcohol thing and the drug thing. When it comes to decision making I’m at a sound mind. Sometimes you have some people that don’t want a person with a sound mind. They want them so they can maneuver their minds.
What inspires your music?
What inspires my music? Like I said, Nat King Cole. He inspired me because of the finances and the access that he’d accomplished. When I was in Chicago I used to go out on 31st street, right off of State, and watch Elmore James. I wasn’t old enough to go in and play, but a lot of times I would go and stand outside and watch Elmore James. I like the way he played. Elmore James and B.B. King, they inspired me to play guitar.
Entertainment period started me having feelings that I would be successful in music. I liked the way James Brown danced on stage. Since I’ve gotten a little older I can’t do all the dancing I use to do. If the stage is big enough I’ll still dance. James Brown was my idol for dancing at that time. That’s all entertainment. I learned a lot about people, the public and the blues. I don’t have a problem with entertaining an audience. I don’t have a problem at all. I’m here to entertain. I’m not here to stand on stage and talk all day. You’ve come to hear some of the songs I wrote. This is my job, simply because I’m getting paid. Not only because I’m getting paid. It’s something I’ve done for years and I like what I’m doing. The dividends didn’t come all the time when they were needed. I did gospel when I was 12 years old, but you don’t get paid in gospel. Churches would try to hire me, but you don’t get paid in gospel.
Just about every singer I know that had hit records was singing the blues. You might put a different rhythm to it or a different beat. But the blues tells a story. It doesn’t always have to be a sad story. You can tell any type of story and it will fit somebody, you know what I’m saying?
I was working on an album, Oliver [Sain] called me one night and said, “Hey Dee, I’ve got a track over here. It’s a good but I ain’t got no lyrics for it. Come over and pick it up, and listen to it.” So I go over there and picked up the track. It was a decent track. It was a decent track. I remember cutting a song. It was a fast song. I cut a song back earlier called “You Got to Give Me Some Air.” This wasn’t the song that I was supposed to be singing because I need fans. I need somebody to buy a record right? I did the song “Give Me Some Air” and it didn’t sell any copies. It started off [sings], “You’ve go to give me some air baby, ’cause making all this love, hey baby, ain’t getting us nowhere.” Men don’t buy records. Men didn’t buy records back in the day. You ain’t saying nothing in favor of the woman so how are you going to sell some records?
I got ready to get some lyrics for that track that Oliver told me to take a listen to. I thought, “I can’t sing nothing for the men because they ain’t buying no records.” I said, “What can I say that makes a woman feel better about herself.” I thought and I thought. I thought about something my sister told me. She said, “I’m going fishing.” I said, “That’s dumb, to go spend your money to sit on a bank catching fish, wasting time when you can take half of that money and go to the fish house and buy you some fish and go back home.” She said, “I know what you saying, but I go fishing because it relieves the pressure on my mind.” [Snaps fingers.] So that popped in my head and that’s what gave me the theory to write the song “Going Fishing Baby.” I wrote that song and it took off like that. That particular song got me into a lot of doors that I wouldn’t have gotten into. The promotion on “Going Fishing” was very poor. The label that it was on, it wasn’t good at promoting. The guy that did promotions, he promoted the best he could but he wasn’t on any of the top stations. I wasn’t a top artist on a big label, so you don’t get free play. Back in the day, a lot of times you had to grease a person’s palm to get your music played. It got big, it hit a few big stations. That’s why I had overseas communication. That’s the way that happened.
How has blues changed since you first got started in it?
Well, actually, I don’t think so. It hasn’t. Blues is just a story. Now the music has kind of changed, but not that much. You can deviate from a routine but you still using the same lyrics you used back in the day. The same lyrics. You can upgrade the guitar picking, you can upgrade the rest of the instruments and change it, but you’ve still got the same words. That more or less helps make the blues, the lyrics. You tell a story and most people can find themselves into the blues category because it tells a story that hits their life. So there you are. A lot of people said, “I don’t like the blues.” But when they hear “Going Fishing” they buy it. You don’t be real with yourself. When you’re real with yourself you’ll find that you have a category sometime in life that fits some part of the blues.
A lot of people don’t understand that people feel good when they hear something about themselves. You feel good when you hear something about you. That’s the blues. That’s what the blues are. Some people, they live the blues because that’s the type of life, not have been picked for them, but that’s the type of life that they choose to live. That’s the most expression that I know about the blues, and I’ve been around quite a few years.
You’ve only got 12 keys on the guitar, you’ve got 12 keys on that instrument there (points to piano). Every instrument that I know only has 12 keys. It goes up to G-sharp and it turns around. People’s ages don’t turn around, they keep going. Your notes on your instrument turn around. You may have six or 12 stings on a guitar, each string has 12 notes on it. They’re the same notes. You can hit it high, low or whatever. That’s the same way the blues goes.
The blues tells a story. You can tell a woman, “I love you,” then you can turn around and say [sings] “I love you baby.” You’re still using the same words. “Oh I love you.” You can say it any kind of way. That’s the reason I never characterized my music. Certain people, they did that for me. Whoever did promotion did that. I don’t know what else you call the blues. It just fits a person’s mood. There’s no note on my guitar that says, “This is a spiritual note.” There’s no note on any instrument that says, “This is a jazz note” or “This is a country note.” There is no such things. You can make the guitar say whatever you like, but that note, that key, I don’t care what you play it in. That’s the way they categorize it.
Some people play music different. Sometimes you play it so different a person will say, “The words are all right, but I don’t like it.” And that happens. Everybody isn’t going to like how you walk. Some people you walk up to them and they don’t like the way you look. I can’t do anything about it. I have to live with it. That’s the way the music is. The music is there whether you play it or somebody else plays it.
If people see a blues band they think, “We’re going to hear some B.B. King or some Howlin’ Wolf.” They might not even say James Brown. They might not say Michael Jackson. They might not say none of these guys by their songs. But each one that I just named have played a song that anybody likes. Not everybody, but anybody. Because they produced something that fits their situation. And there it is. Whatever you want to call it. That’s what the blues is to me, whatever the people like. When I did “Going Fishing” you’d be surprised at people. “I normally don’t like the blues but I like that ‘Going Fishing Baby.’” Some people like jazz, country. That’s the reason my band is versatile. I have a couple of my daughters singing, and a couple of female vocalists because we do a variety of music. You can’t please 100 people if that’s the only group you’re playing for. It doesn’t work like that. I don’t believe there’s anything perfect. You have the majority, and the minority. Big and small.
Do you feel that today’s youth has a decent interest in the blues? How do you think the youth respond to the blues?
I have more feeling to the blues today than I use to. I guess I am more meaningful with the blues today than I was yesterday because you learn that it’s a life. There’s good things about it. You know what it’s about. You just can’t walk up to somebody and say, “You know I got the blues.” You feel more into what you’re doing. I got a song called “I Want to Get into You.” It’s on one of my CDs. It’s like I went deep inside your head. Well, who do you sing it for. You sing it for the blues. [Sings:] “I want to get into you baby, like deep down in your mind. Let your conscious be your guide.” This is the way the blues is. The blues gets into you because it fits some of your situations.
Do you think today’s youth has an interest in the blues?
Do you want to hear the truth? More white youth has an interest in the blues. They’ve got this fad going on now called rap. I can understand rap, but people want to be something, entertainers. They want to do some entertaining to entertain people. If you can’t sing what’s the next best thing to do? You rap. If you can’t rap or sing then you want to be a comedian, and so on. People pick out certain categories they wish to go into that they might be able to do to gain an audience. Mind you, people they were setup to make up lies to gain an audience. So the audience is important to a lot of people. There are some people that can’t even speak in front of an audience. So that’s where the blues or whatever you want to say, rap, comedians, all this occurs in people’s minds and the way they feel.
The blues just tells a story. Say rhythm and blues, the rhythm is faster. You’ve got two things that you might deal with in rhythm and blues. “Oh I like that fast beat. I can dance by that fast beat!” This is you right? “Oh, I never noticed the words.” They come to like the words and they’re in love with the record. So that’s what it’s about. The blues tells a story.
I believe in the reality of life. When you’re talking about the reality of life. [For example,] you put pontification on the back porch. You know, pretending. I’m into the reality of life and I feel great to be able to be doing Stevie Wonder’s song “Living for the City.” That was happening back before your time. If you analyze the lyrics of that, it’s the story of a young black boy back in the ’40s or the ’30s. The youngsters of today know nothing else. You see, the young blacks, they know less about our history than they do other people’s. They don’t know anything about their own culture and that’s bad. I’ve gotten hired to play more white grade schools for grade-school kids. I bet you I get [a ratio] of five to one. One black school out of every five white schools playing the grade-school kids the blues. They pulled me in and said, “Here’s somebody who plays the blues.” This is what those kids are interested in seeing. You go to a black school and you don’t get that. You don’t get that. It’s not my favorite issue.
Why do you think black kids don’t have as much of an interest and how can they benefit from being interested in the blues?
Well, the blues tells a story. It tells a story of the reality of life. They need to know that for real. This needs to be what they live with. Not the fantasy issue. The rap gives them a lot of hearsay, movie time. All the stuff that ain’t real. The blues is more or less a real story. Some kids like to hear phony, fictitious stuff. When you’re talking about what might happen tomorrow you’re not talking about what’s happening at this point in time. That doesn’t fit everybody. But sooner or later something comes through your life where that picture fits that part of your life. This is what I look at about the blues. The blues is whoever it fits.
Some people just listen to the lyrics and it does something for them. Some guitar players listen to the guitar, and it does something for them. “Why?” “Because I want to play guitar.” “Why you want to play guitar?” “I want to play like him. I want to be a blues player or I want to be a jazz player.” That’s where all the categories are named in that respect, to give people a profession at any level for whatever they do.
I think blues is not spreading around to black people. But the white people, a lot of them have feelings like, “I use to not like the blues but since I’ve come to listen to you all I thought it was amazing.” And you don’t know whether the person is lying or telling the truth. But you hear that. Therefore, blues is expressing who we are in life. You might not care to have the audience, but some people do. I think some of the youngsters get on the right track earlier. They learn a lot from the blues. But you can’t make them learn. They don’t care to learn. You never talk about 100 percent of anything, you talk about the big and the small. The small end having to fend for itself.
The blues is there, but it’s moving in a different segment of people. It’s moving out of our young black’s territory. But it’s moving into other segments of different nationalities of people. Whites, foreigners. You wouldn’t believe the kind of audience they have in England for blues singers. Some guys say, “The Temptations sang blues.” “Oh, no they don’t! No they don’t!” Yes, just a different blues. You can give me some lyrics and I can put them in any blues. Sing them different, but they’re the same lyrics. That’s the story of the blues. It’s a story. It makes sense if you listen you it. Some blues might skip from the second step to the 10th step, but that’s not normal blues. Normal blues tells you things step by step. A lot of people don’t understand that. You see, it fits a lot of people’s lives.
I remember a guy named Big Joe Turner back in the ’50s. He did one song I remember called “Flip, Flop, and Fly.” If you listen to the title, the lyrics have a story behind it. When you say a word it has a story behind it. Some people aren’t able to write the story that it has behind it, and sometimes it has more than one story behind it.
I was talking to a young lady at McDonalds somewhere, and somebody said something to me. This woman wasn’t anything to me. Some guy said, “Hey baby! Come here let me show you something.” I made a statement dealing with him, that I didn’t realize what I was saying. I know what I was saying, I said, “Hey! Don’t bother me when you see me talking to a beautiful young lady.” When I got through talking with the young lady, she said, “David, you just did a great title to a song.” Then I thought about it, and I wrote the song “Leave Me Alone While I’m Talking with My Baby.” [Sings:] “Leave me alone while I’m talking with my woman, you ain’t even got a phone call coming, leave me alone. My woman already says I don’t spend enough time with her. Now you want me to take up my time with you. You better leave me alone!” (laughs).
Back in those days you were beeping a sucker. You know, you beeped so you could get a phone call. “You ain’t even got a beep coming, so leave me alone when I’m with my woman.” It turned out to be a good song. That’s the way songs come about. A person has to detect what they’re saying and they’ll come up with a reality story that might fit them at the time. But it fits somebody else whether you know it or not. That’s the way these blues are.
Believe it or not I’m not a big fan of characterizing music. I got one song called “You Took the ‘V’ Out of Love and Left me Loe.” If you take the “v” away from the word “love” you’ve got “loe.” I don’t know whether you’d call it the blues or what. I also have a song called “Mega Bills and Many Bucks.” This fits a lot of people’s character in their situation, but they’ve never heard it because they don’t play it on the radio. I tell you why. Maybe they never started playing it on the radio because on the last verse I have a part in there where it sounds like I’m cursing. But it’s not. It says, [sings] “No sense of reaching but the heartless politician won’t ever give a pluck.” But by me saying “pluck” it sounds like I’m saying another word because I say the politician don’t give a “pluck.” A lot of other people would have used the “f word.” But it sounds like that, so I wouldn’t expect them to play it on the radio.
I’m planning on redoing it and changing that last verse. But it’s a very good song and people can relate to it. “Mega Bills” you’re talking about [sings], “Car notes, house notes, a thousand other notes all worry me half to death.” That’s the average middle-class person. “No sense wishing that the heartless politician gonna ever give a… .” That’s one that I can bleep out or do another whole song over it. It’s a good song because of the reality of life, especially at this point in time. It’s a hell of a song. But kind of a hillbilly song. Not necessarily a hillbilly song, but different from what you might consider blues when you’re talking about characterizing music. That’s why I don’t characterize music. I just say this is like so and so. As far as me trying to name and describe certain music, I can’t do it. And very few people can do it. You might put it in a certain type of category that you think it is, but somebody else might think it’s something different. That’s something you can discuss all day and you’d come to the same point.
How does St. Louis fit into the bigger picture of blues?
Let me see. It fits into the big picture. I think it starts from the olden days. There was a song called the “St. Louis Blues.” That was way back. The song got good and they started utilizing the St. Louis blues, as well as Chicago. Chicago was known for the blues way back in the late ’40s. I don’t know whether they had a song called the “Chicago Blues.” That was a big hit, “St. Louis Blues.” A lot of guys have made it from St. Louis. They got big. Most artists, when they left Mississippi the closest comfortable place they could come was St. Louis. All the blues singers, more or less, came from Mississippi. What part? All parts (laughs). Some come out of Memphis. I was born in Greenwood, Mississippi. I left there when I was about three or four years old. I came to St. Louis when I was about nine.
Can you talk specifically about the blues inside the city of St. Louis?
When they came here we use to have a place called Gaslight Square down on Olive. Gaslight Square had different kinds of clubs where guys played the blues. This was St. Louis. All the old people remember Gaslight Square. A lot of guys would come with their guitar and a can, sit down and play the blues. People would come and fill their can up. There wasn’t just one or two guys; there were a lot of people in that situation. That’s why when everybody was on their way to Chicago they [would] stop here in St. Louis and play the blues. A lot of times they come back.
I know just about all the blues singers that use to come through here. Sonny Boy Williamson, J.B. Lenoir. I know all them people. When Sonny came back my band played behind him. We use to have a club in East St. Louis called Mid Love [?]. St. Louis would close at 1 [a.m.] and everybody would come on this side of the river to East St. Louis. The Blue Note, the Red Top. All these places were blues. And this was in East St. Louis. A lot of times they don’t want to talk about East St. Louis, but that’s where everybody use to come when St. Louis closed. Back in those days we were open until four, five or six in the morning. They might have to close just to clean up. That’s the blues (laughs).
That’s were they were coming to do the blues at. They would hit that river bridge and come across to East St. Louis and that’s where they were doing blues at. Missouri had a lot of big blues stuff over there, but they would have to close at 1 a.m.. Over here they stay open all night long. That’s where St. Louis named the issue of “St. Louis Blues.” Most of the time you see it, the name St. Louis, and say, “Hey man, the young guy in town there is from St. Louis.” “Well we know he’s hot! we know he’s ready!” Because that was the issue in the city. You know how to play the blues if you’re from St. Louis. That’s the Midwest.
David Dee performs at BB’s Jazz, Blues & Soups on Saturday, September 2, as part of St. Louis Bluesweek, sponsored in part by KDHX.