On Derby Eve, there was plenty of excitement along Bardstown Road. Racing fans were returning from the Oaks, the restaurants and bars were packed. The traffic was bumper-to-bumper with cars cruising and limos headed to the evening parties. The sidewalks were filled with people walking and talking on this clear, cool night. The anticipation of tomorrow's Derby was in the air.
The 10th Street Blues Band has traditionally been a part of this scene, adding spontaneity to what makes this part of Louisville so weird. For the past ten years, weather permitting, this band has set up in front of Vault Liquors & Smokes at 1270 Bardstown Road near Mid City Mall to busk.
Webster's Dictionary defines a busker as "one who entertains by singing or performing on the streets," and busking they did, from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m., which caused people to pause and take notice of this group of five veteran bluesmen. Their total number of years of professionally playing music would easily exceed two hundred; the glass tip jar located on the brick wall in front of the band kept filling up with bills.
The only other local, annual appearance this band has made was the benefit at the Filson Historical Society, which happened last February. They occasionally have played at festivals and private parties, including an upcoming gig at the Bingham's on June 18.
On Derby Eve, the band included traditional guitarist Pen Bogert and Joe, Jr. on second guitar. Behind the drum set, with his name boldly lettered on the front, was Sonny Sitgraves. There was a tambourine perched on his top hat cymbal, a technique Sonny learned while briefly playing in Howlin' Wolf's band in Chicago. James Watkins, who regularly plays bass, was recovering from heart problems, so Dan Elliot stood in. The main man on harp and vocals was Billy Bird. Billy has been fronting the band since Fred Murphy got ill eight years ago. Their set included blues standards like "I Got My Mojo Working," "Hoochie Coochie Man," "Going' to New York," and "Stormy Monday."
A week later, Billy Bird and I sat down to talk about his musical experiences. Billy's real name is Robert Lee Bowdre. His mother was from Cold Water near Tupelo, Mississippi and his father, who had a Cajun background, came from Houston, Mississippi. They left Cold Water during the 1937 flood and came to Louisville. Billy was born in 1950. Robert became Billy Bird when he was fifteen years old. Some of his friends started calling him Billy Bird after a cartoon character that had a big, broad nose like Billy's. He liked it and it has stuck ever since.
Billy would listen to his father and older brother, Lawrence, playing their harmonicas around the house. Billy said, "My brother played the best I ever heard. He could hit the licks I never dreamed I could do. He would soak his harp so the wood reeds would swell up and use a razor blade to shave the swelling down and play in the key of B-flat. My brother always told me, you got to choke it (bending the notes) to learn how to play."
After his father and brother left home, Billy was hit by a car at fourteen that broke his thigh bone. This accident put him in bed for three months with casts on both legs. With all that time on his hands, he told his mother, "Get me a harmonica." Billy taught himself to play just from remembering how his father and brother sounded. Without any formal training he picked up his harmonica the wrong way so the lower (heavy) notes were on the right. In other words he plays his harp upside down.
When Billy was sixteen, his mother and stepfather made home brew beer, selling it in quarts. Fred Murphy would come by their house on Sundays to buy some brew and play the harmonica.
When Billy was eighteen, he met a fellow named Russell who played keyboards and amplified harmonica with Third World Edition. At that time, Billy was still pretty raw, with no knowledge of musical theory or what key to play in, but he learned to use a mike and pickup from Russell. It was hard to break into a band for Billy because no one ever taught him what to do.
In 1973 at the age of 23, Billy placed third in the Black Expo competition when he sang "City Country City" by War. Things began to change in 1984 and 1985 when Billy started going to Willie Bright's 537 Club at 28th Street and Garland. They had a talent show every weekend. Billy started playing with the house band, which included Fat Back on drums and Herman Anderson, who played both guitar and harp. Anderson took Billy under his wing and showed him how to play with a band, when to play and not to play and what key to be in.
Anderson later teamed up with Kush Griffith to form the Derby City Blues Review. Once Billy got interested in the blues, he listened to records by Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters and saw shows with Bobby ‘Blue" Bland, James Cotton and Buddy Guy. Billy once sat in with Phil Guy and The Blues Legends at the Back Stage. Guy told Billy after the show, "You weren't playing enough." Billy was just playing background and Guy wanted him to do some solos.
Billy was also a pool shark and in 1990 while hustling in a bar, he got in an argument. Billy got hit with a full bottle of beer which knocked his teeth out. He now wears false teeth and, without the gaps between his teeth, he had to learn how to blow all over again. Billy said, "I play now forty percent of what I used to."
Billy would often sit in with the 26th Street Blues Band until Fred Murphy would run him off. Billy said, "I learned a lot from Fred. Even though he wasn't the greatest harmonica player, the things he could do with it were unique. He couldn't read or write but he could make up songs and sound like a real song but it was made up in his mind." Fred often told people that B. B. King was his cousin.
During the mid-Nineties, Billy fronted his own band with Pen Bogert and another acoustical guitarist. The Billy Bird Blues Band played at the Bluebird and Cherokee Blues Club on Bardstown Road. Billy went into Artist's Recording Service on Barrett Avenue with Smoketown Red on guitar to do two demo tapes for a competition. Smoketown has one of the tapes and Billy let his tape get away from him. Billy also worked with John Gage during this time at Boy's Haven, teaching the kids to play harmonica while John showed them guitar.
When Fred Murphy got sick, he asked Billy to come help him out. They became good friends during that time. As a tribute to Fred, Billy always sings Fred's signature song, "I Ain't Goin' To Spend Another Night By Myself." Billy has several Fred stories, like the time the band was playing out of town and after the bucket was passed around Fred took all the fives and tens out and left the ones for the others. Once in Manchester, Kentucky, the band was served fried rabbit, which still had the fur on it, and Fred could eat that tough meat with his gums better than Billy could with his teeth.
Billy started playing with Silvertone harps because they were cheap but now he uses Hohners in the keys of A, C and D. "I Got The Blues This Morning" is an original song by Billy that he occasionally does with the band.
I asked Billy what makes the 10th Street Blues Band special? He replied, "We stick to traditional blues and play it in an old fashion way, with a hard driving beat." Stalwart musicians like Sonny, James and Joe stick to that. Billy said that as a teenager Pen played with Lighting Hopkins.
Billy is now on disability due to kidney failure. He gets dialysis treatments three times a week, four hours a day. He had worked as a correctional officer for five years at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, a medium security male institution near LaGrange. His job was to maintain inmates. As he said, "They must comply with the rules."
Billy has tried to instill an interest in music in his kids. His twenty-six-year-old son Raymond played the harmonica and is a minister in Clarksville, IN. Billy's younger son, David, may be the best bucket drummer in the world, performing for a living for over fifteen years on the streets of Boston. Check him out at Wickedbeats.blogspot.com. His video is amazing.
Billy intends to play with the 10th Street Blues Band until something better comes along. One of his goals is to learn how to play chromatic harp.