Author Terry Abrahamson’s infatuation for the Chicago Blues may have started in the 1960s, but since that time, the accomplished playwright, Grammy winning songwriter and blues education lecturer has obtained a blistering blues IQ that’s truly off the charts. Between signing books at the upcoming Blues Fest, and exhibiting 28 rare photos from his private collection, IN THE BELLY OF THE BLUES, at Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation, at Chess Records Museum, 2120 South Michigan Ave, Abrahamson clearly has his hands full, but he’s taken some time for the Examiner to discuss his favorite blues performers and why you shouldn’t miss his unique book.
Examiner: Take us back, Terry, to one of your earliest Chicago blues experiences.
TA: In 1969, my pal Abe called and said he saw in the newspaper that a local guy named Howlin’ Wolf was performing at the Quiet Knight and that he did “Little Red Rooster,” which we knew only as a Stones’ song. We thought it would be interesting to see how someone else did this song.
When they took the stage, I was surprised. When Wolf started singing, I was reborn. A light went on. I realized that this was where all the music I loved came from. When Wolf raised his hand, waving and pointing as he sang, I knew where Mick Jagger got it…not that I had ever assumed Jagger “got it” from anywhere. I will never ever forget Howlin’ Wolf’s performance. Seeing him that night was one of the great and defning moments of my life. I discovered the Blues, and I’ve never been the same.
Examiner: What was your reaction to two different versions of “Little Red Rooster?”
TA: Until that night, to me, it was a Stones song. And you know, in a way, it still is. They’ve earned a piece of it. But it was very consistent with not just their repertoire of the time but with their esssence…their name came from a Chicago Blues song, albeit one of the most “country” of the lot. But Wolf…he wasn’t just doing songs. With every note he sang, every gesture, every growl…the earth opened up, and we were sucked in, ground up, and spit out into some smokey, greasy cosmic plantation where they weren’t just growing cotton, they were growing rock n roll.
Examiner: You had taken many photos of iconic blues musicians and stored them in a box. Then Robert Gordon, the music historian, called you because he was planning to write a Muddy Waters biography. Would the photos still be in the box if this hadn’t happened?
TA: Probably. A few pix — of Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, Dixon, Thorogood, Taj Mahal and the Rolling Stones were on my walls in my office. And over the years, I’ve continued to write about the Blues for film, theater, TV and various other projects. But the photos were always considered to be my family photos, personal memories I never thought about sharing.
Examiner: How did you narrow down the number of stories and images used in your book?
TA: Remember: I am not — nor have I ever considered myself — a professional photographer. As a result, my shooting and developing skills were amateurish. The value of the pix is in the subject matter, shot with, as the curator of the Chicago History Museum tells it, “unique access.” Still, there was a lot of “focus-challenged” material in the collection. I used the pix that were usable, that reflected the years of my deepest involvement with the music and musicians, and used the stories relevant to those photos.
Examiner: What was your first impression of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger?
TA: I was backstage with Muddy Waters at the Quiet Knight, upstairs on Belmont and Sheffield. Between sets, Muddy says to me very quietly “Don’t say nothin’ boy, but the Stones is supposed to show up.” From that moment, my eyes were riveted to the dressing room door. Sure enough, a few minutes later, Ron Wood and Keith Richards walk in. Keith said nothing. His eyes found Muddy, and, without saying a word, he crossed the room to where Muddy sat, dropped to one knee at Muddy’s feet, took Muddy’s hand in both of his, and kissed it. That was some memory.
A few minutes later, Charlie and Mick came in with Mick’s wife, the Texas model. I remember my girlfriend having a fairly extensive chat with Charlie about Mexican food. As for Keith and Mick and Ron, I didn’t have much interraction. I basically watched and listened while they interacted — quite deferentially — with Muddy and Dixon. It was like a dream — the greatest rock and roll band of all time there in the presence of the guys who had given them their names and the roots of most of their music. Of course, I also remember thinking, “Man, did these guys get old!” And that was 38 years ago. But when they got up to play, they knew Muddy’s stuff and definitely appeared to genuinely feel it. They would’ve done just fine as his sidemen.
Examiner: How did your photos get included in the permanent collection of the RRHF?
TA: When my photos were used by Robert Gordon in his Muddy Waters bio book and accompanying DVD — both entitled “Can’t Be Satisfied,” they got a lot of exposure. Someone at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame saw them, contacted me to ask how many shots I had, and then offered to buy the negatives for the Hall’s permanent collection. This prompted me to actually investigate what the collection’s value might be. The unanimous advice of those whose opinions I trusted was to NOT sell the negatives. The compromise was to create the book of photos and stories, IN THE BELLY OF THE BLUES, which is now part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Examiner: How did you capture that special “you are there” quality in your shots?
TA: Just by being there. Fortuitously, Muddy Waters was the first of these guys who I got to know…using the backstage bathroom at Alice’s Revisited in 1969 when he performed in a coffeehouse so packed that I couldn’t get to the regular john. So, I climbed the foot-high stage before the first set, went behind the curtain, and there was Muddy. I asked if I could use the bathroom. He was regal and gracious. I then realized that he was fairly approachable, and took full advantage of it at every show, eventually gaining the level of trust that made it possible for me to start passing him song lyrics. Being a confidante of, and songwriter for Muddy opened a lot of doors. I just became part of the Blues scene and was pretty accepted.
Examiner: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Can you tell us about one specific photo and why it still speaks to you?
TA: Mick Jagger looking at Willie Dixon, who is seen in silhouette. Jagger is a showman… invariably seen doing his act. In this shot, there is no showbiz, no calculation. There is a genuine love in Jagger’s eyes as he looks at Dixon — I never forgot it. That picture is all you need to see to understand the Rolling Stones and the music that shaped my generation.
Examiner: You shot Muddy Waters with drummer Willie Smith. In your text, you have a story behind everything in the photo including a crutch and a bottle of champagne. What came first, the story or the photo?
TA: I took the photo knowing nothing about Muddy Waters’ car crash or his penchant for champagne. I found this all out soon enough, but the photo came first.
Examiner: Let’s say Keith asks you to show him a good time. Where would you take him?
TA: I would take him to see Marie Dixon, Willie’s widow. I know he’d be in the presence of someone he cared about, and that there’d be plenty for the two to share.
Examiner: Will you be doing book related events at the Chicago Blues Fest?
TA: Definitely. I am tremendously proud to be part of the Koko Taylor Celebrity Foundation booth, where I’ll be doing Blues teach-ins and book signings each afternoon between 3 and 5 pm. I’ll be sharing my memories, tellin’ the tales, and talking about the immortal artists who laid the foundation for the music that changed the world.
Examiner: Thanks, Terry.
Here’s the link to Terry’s book!
And, blues fans, don’t forget to check out this exciting new tribute to The Stones —