The Bluesman is a short work of fiction dealing with what might have happened between the legendary Kokomo Arnold and a record studio executive. #Kokomo Arnold #bluesman #Decca records #Old Original Kokomo Blues #Sweet Home Chicago #crossroads #steel mill #Robert Johnson
The relentless August sun beat down on the blacktop of the steel mill parking lot. Neil Gorman could feel the heat penetrating the souls of his wingtip Oxfords. The hot black asphalt was going to leave marks on the souls of his shoes. They cost him more than he’d like to think about. The sooty, acidic industrial smell clung to the back of his throat with the taste of rotten eggs.
Neil spotted the old bluesman
Neil spotted the old bluesman sitting at the picnic table to the right of the loading dock. A Superman lunch box was resting in front of him. The last place on earth Neil wanted to be was walking toward the old bluesman on a hot summer afternoon. It made him feel like Dante visiting a circle in Hell to converse with one of the inhabitants. His job was to recruit these old bluesmen. They made the record company a lot of money across the pond, especially in England. Persuading Arnold to sign was the only way he was going to be given a chance at stealing the kid from Tupelo away from Sun Records. Man, could that cat sing.
What the record company wanted
A voice like the bluesman’s was what the company was looking for to produce more of that rock-n-roll crap the kids were wild about. Neil preferred a good Italian crooner like Sinatra or Tony Bennett anytime. The boss said he’d better not show up at the office unless Kokomo Arnold signed on the dotted line. He’d persuade the old guy to get with the program even if he had to lie through his teeth to get the job done.
When Neil was close to the picnic table, the bluesman glanced at him with bloodshot eyes. A million wrinkles on his face were caked with Chicago steel mill dirt. Neil had to resist the urge to reach into his pocket for his handkerchief and hand it to the guy. The soot hiding in those cracks disgusted him. Arnold wasn’t carrying around any excess poundage.
If Kokomo lifted his shirt
Neil imagined if Kokomo lifted his shirt, he’d be able to see the outline of his ribs. Life working at the steel mill would be hard on a man his age. This was going to be easy. The guy needed the money. Neil noticed the blues man’s hands were calloused from hard work and mangled from arthritis. He wondered if he could still play a slide guitar. It wouldn’t matter if he could sing the way he used to.
They needed the voice for authenticity. The company could always hire a studio musician to play on the recording. Those cats always jumped at a chance to work with a legend like Kokomo Arnold. There hadn’t been a recording since the 1934 Decca release of Old Original Kokomo Blues that matched the sound they were producing over at Chess. That song put the whole Chicago blues scene in motion. If Arnold’s blues was the sound the company wanted, Neil was the man to give it to them.
“Hello, Mr. Arnold. I’m Neil Gorman from MCA records. I’ve left several messages with your landlady. I was expecting you to give me a call.”
Arnold removed a pack of cigarettes
Neil extended his right hand, expecting the old bluesman to shake. Instead, Arnold reached into his pocket and removed a pack of cigarettes. He tapped the unopen box against the heel of his hand a couple of times before he took the red strip into his fingers and remove the cellophane.
He pinched one of the smokes with his fingers, drew it from the pack, and placed it to his lips before searching in his pockets for a light. Neil reached into his suit pocket and found his lighter. He rubbed his finger across the striker. As soon as he got a flame, he held it to the tip of the cigarette hanging from Kokomo Arnold’s mouth. The bluesman inhaled the smoke deep into his lungs before he blew it into the air. Neil couldn’t help worrying if the tobacco habit had taken a toll on the old guy’s voice. The record company needed the voice.
“I know who you are. There’s a reason I didn’t get ahold of you. I know what you’re selling, and I don’t want no part of it,” Kokomo Arnold said.
“Come on, Mr. Arnold”
“Come on. Mr. Arnold, wouldn’t you like to hear your music played on the radio again?” Neil thought it would be a good idea to put the ball in Kokomo’s court. The old cats loved it when you appealed to their ego.
“I don’t give a shit about hearing my music on no damn radio. The blues never gave me anything but heartache and misery. Now if you were talking about bringing back Prohibition, I might be interested. I made me a lot of green off my bathtub gin. The saddest day of my life was when they passed that Twenty-first amendment.”
“I believe you have a chance to make a substantial amount of money off this deal. MCA is an offshoot of Decca records. The people over there have a soft spot for you. They are talking about lining up a European tour.” Neil knew he needed to offer the old bluesman enough temptation to sway him into thinking about the offer.
Standing at the crossroads
He smiled when he considered he was playing the role of the devil standing at the crossroads with an ink pen in his pocket and a contract in the briefcase he held onto with his right hand.
“Muddy said people’s been talking about him going across the water. They claim a bluesman might get a little recognition over there. I’m older than Muddy. I don’t cotton to flying in no airplane. I’m too old and achy to try something new like that. I don’t have any interest in Europe.” The bluesman finished his cigarette and reached for another one. Neil was ready with a light before Arnold placed the smoke to his lips. “Out of curiosity, what does this record company want to do with me?”
Remake Old Original Kokomo Blues
“They want to start with a remake of Old Original Kokomo Blues. They’d take it from there based on how the session went.” Neil thought the old guy was leaning in his direction. The Blues Man had better make up his mind fast. It was hot out on the asphalt. The back of Neil’s neck was covered in sweat. He knew there were wet spots under his armpits. He could feel the moisture beneath his suit jacket.
“That song wasn’t even mine to begin with. It belonged to a fellow went by the name of Scrapper Blackwell. He said I could use it, so I did. Robert Johnson took it from me and turned it into Sweet Home Chicago.” Kokomo Arnold chuckled, “That song sure has been passed around more than an old whore with a bad habit.”
“Maybe she has it in her to lay on her back and spread her legs one last time.,” Neil said, certain he was about to seal the deal. He opened the briefcase and removed the contract legal made up before he left the office. A smile of satisfaction spread across his face while he searched in his pocket for a pen. “All I need from you this afternoon to get the ball rolling is for you to sign your name on this contract I brought with me. MCA wants assurance you’ll follow through with the deal.”
“No, sir. I don’t believe I want to be bothered with any of that nonsense today. There’s not much chance of me coming out a winner if I put a pony in this race. You record company people be lining your pockets with gold while I keep getting older and broke. The blues was my past, and that’s where it belongs. I got me a pension from this here steel mill in my future if I hang around a few more years. My name ain’t Robert Johnson, and this here parking lot ain’t the crossroads. I haven’t any notion to sell my soul to a devil wearing a business suit.”
Neil sat the contract down on the picnic table and loosened his tie. He lay the gold-plated pen his mother bought him for Christmas down on top of the paperwork. He didn’t know how he lost control of the conversation, but he knew the deal was getting away from him.
One avenue of persuasion left
There was only one avenue of persuasion left. He had to guilt the old man into falling in line. “Aren’t you concerned about future generations? The kids of tomorrow are entitled to hear the masters play the blues. What about your fellow bluesmen? This deal will fall through unless you agree to jump into the mix.”
The Blues Man laughed and stood to his feet. He tossed his lit cigarette to the ground and chuckled. “Jelly Roll Morton’s nephew lives over on La Salle Street. Why don’t you run on over there and bother him? I hear he’s interested in that sort of thing. As for me, I don’t want no part of what you got to sell. Like I said, the blues never brought me nothing but pain and misery. The answers no, and that’s all I got to say.
Neil watched Kokomo Arnold stand to his feet. The old man turned his hunched back and strolled toward the steel mill door. There was nothing to do but give it another try. “Mr. Arnold, isn’t there anything I can say to make you change your mind?” The Blues Man moved his right hand to the crock of his back and extended his middle finger. Seconds later, Kokomo Arnold disappeared through the factory entrance.
A long ride back to the office
It was going to be a long ride back to the office in heavy afternoon traffic. Neil was going to have to fabricate a good excuse to explain how he blew the deal. He knew how the Devil felt when a soul managed to escape his grasp and make its escape into heaven. For the rest of his career in the music business, Kokomo Arnold would always be the one who got away.
Who is Molly Shea?
Molly Shea is an accomplished fictional short story writer from Indiana, who writes short stories and novels about a fictional town called Tecumseh. To read more of her short stories and adventures click here.
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