Minnie Returns to the Blues
By Linda M. Rowland-Buckley
Excerpt from Said We Could Never Be
It was the billboard of a pepper plant for Yellow’s Black Pepper that caught her gaze first as she drove down Armitage. The mob outside Rosa’s was what made her pull to the curb. She only watched from her car window at the club where the Hot House Blues Band played eighteen years ago, now people descended the doorway for the latest musician to break onto the scene. This street she avoided like it disappeared from the map, until today; something drew her in, more than a billboard. With a draw on the car’s handle, she opened the door and stepped into the street.
As she neared the crowd, she realized it was actually a line to buy tickets.
“Who’s playing?” she asked the young bouncer.
“Is there an opening act? I’d love to get a peek. You see I played the circuit several years ago. Here in this club mostly with Cowboy Max and Blind Cat. I just can’t stay very long. I’d wait in the line if I could,” she said this having met his eye. His robust body held its stance in front of the door.
“Who are you again?” he asked.
“My name’s Minnie Gabrell. I played in the Hot House Band. And I would love to just spend a few minutes inside for old time sake. I know I’m cutting the line, but I’m not looking to stay. I just wanted to see the club. See if it’s changed. I don’t have the time to stay for James Cotton, not that I wouldn’t love to hear him play.”
“Lady I don’t know…I’ve got a line. Why should I let you in?”
She folded her hair behind her ear, and said, “If you really know this place, if you really love this place like I did, than you know on the wall behind the stage is a place where all the bands write messages to each other. I wrote a message to B.B. King in 1980 that he was a true master. And I hoped to meet him one day. He wrote back a year later, he thought Hot House was a classy act.”
The bouncer leaned in toward the door and twisted the knob, “It’s a pleasure to meet you Minnie. Take as much time as you like.” She heard hisses from the people outside as she entered, then the door shut. Nothing had changed. The deuces still ran the gamut up to the stage and a murky darkness resonated throughout the bar; the only difference was the stage was elevated with parquet flooring. An old blues man just plugged in his guitar. He wore a suit and a cigarette hung from his mouth. “My name’s Jimmy Jones and I’m going to play you all some songs on my guitar.”
Minnie moved her way to an empty stool at the bar, and slipped onto it never letting her gaze leave from Jimmy. His fingers picked over the wire, slid up the neck like melting ice. So cool—she almost forgot how much love exchanged between a guitarist and his child.
He introduced Esmeralda. “She has a few songs to sing,” he said. A beautiful plump black woman came out in a polka dot dress, and she pressed her hands gently around the microphone’s stand bringing it down to her petite height. Mesmerizing. That was the range of her singing. It brought tears to Minnie’s eyes as she cut the bar’s air with her raspy voice.
When Esmeralda’s set was finished, Minnie moved smoothly from her bar stool. Instead of heading for the door, she jockeyed along the bar stools toward the empty stage. The spotlight had ceased on the parquet flooring, and Minnie paced up the stage stairs. She directed her sight toward the back wall. It was plain as day. His writing. B.B. King’s writing. Underneath B.B.’s reply to Hot House was another, “A right time band.” She leaned into the wall with her palm at the signature: John Lee Hooker. Her forefinger touched his name like it was glass. Smoothed over the scrawl back and forth trying to imagine the day he crouched and thought enough of Blind Cat, Cowboy, Owen and her to sign his name to the wall of bands. If she hung in just one more year, would John Lee Hooker have bolstered Hot House? Given it the catapult they desperately needed? The deal she made with her husband came at such a high price, and as she stood here observing the crowd with support from B.B. King and John Lee Hooker, she knew a decision had to be made.