McCain to bring #8216;boogie#039; to Blues Fest on Saturday

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 26, 2006

 By Angie Long

 The harmonica, or harp, is one handy instrument. You can tuck it in your pocket and take it anywhere. And it has a special ability: it can &#8220bend notes,” sliding tonally right between two standard musical notes. It creates &#8220blues notes,” making it the perfect music maker for a bluesman.

One of the best harmonica-playing bluesmen out there, Jerry &#8220Boogie” McCain, will be showing off no less than 72 years of hitting licks on the harp during this weekend's Sweet Gum Bottom Blues Festival.

&#8220I started playing the harp when I was five. I'm 77 now,” McCain said in a phone interview.

It all started with some ‘que and some tunes.

&#8220My daddy had a barbeque place with a juke box. I would listen to all those old blues artists on that box. I decided I wanted to make me a record one day, too.”

Long before he first recorded any songs, McCain would play the harmonica with his friends on the street corners in Gadsden. &#8220Folks used to come up to me and say, ‘Jerry, can you play me one of those boogie tunes?' And that's how I got my nickname. I've been ‘Boogie' every since,” the legendary bluesman recalled with a chuckle.

In his teens he got a radio slot on WETO as front man for a jug band.

&#8220We didn't have no keyboard or guitar. We used a washboard and jug and I made a bass out of a five-gallon tin bucket with a board and some pieces of inner tube for the strings,” he explained.

Dreaming of that recording contact, McCain would save his money so he could visit a local recording studio. There he would make 78 rpm demos to mail to anyone who just might listen.

&#8220I sent a whole lot of those things just hoping somebody would give me a chance.”

In October 1953 he finally got that chance, recording four sides for Diamond Recording of Jackson, Miss.

Recording company owner Lillian McMurry drove a hard bargain with her artists.

&#8220People ask, ‘Was she good to me?' Well, I just say, I got a half-penny for every record sold. Took two records for me to make a penny. You be the judge,” McCain said wryly.

McCain went on to record for other labels, large and small, over the years, including a song for Rex Records that has become a blues standard: &#8220She's Tough.” The song was recorded by the Fabulous Thunderbirds of &#8220Tough Enough” fame in 1980.

Often he was &#8220swimming against the tide,” but he never gave up on his blues music - even when he had to resort to bounty hunting for a ten year-span from the late ‘50s to early ‘60s as a way to earn a living between gigs.

When the blues regained popularity in the 1980s, many music lovers started to rediscover country blues musicians like McCain. He began traveling overseas and playing festivals here and abroad. Here in Alabama, he's considered a state treasure - albeit one who has to deal back problems, &#8220arthritis and rheumatiz” these days.

McCain hasn't lost his sense of humor, though.

&#8220I just hope it don't rain this weekend, ‘cause I'm made of sugar and you know how that melts,” he chuckled.

Be prepared for an exuberant, in-your-face style and a very distinctive style of harp playing when Jerry &#8220Boogie” McCain, named Harmonica Player of the Year last year, takes the stage Saturday.

&#8220I play different than everybody else. Play with my nose instead of my mouth. You just don't mess with this old man when it comes to the harmonicaŠit is exciting. You will remember the Boogie,” McCain promised.

McCain will offer copies of his CDs, T-shirts and his very own barbecue aprons at the blues fest. If you love what you hear come Saturday, you are invited to join the club, the Jerry ‘Boogie' McCain Fan Club, that is, at P.O. Box 2234,

Florence, AL 35360.  E-mail manager Debbie Dixon at for more information.