COMING YOUR WAY
Text and photos by Larry Benicewicz
Lake Charles' blues belter Big Ike invites comparison to
Baltimore's gentle giant of the blues, Jesse Yawn. Both started
their vocation in life with a strong gospel foundation and,
despite their obvious vocal talents, sang in relative anonymity
until well into middle age. And although both had flirted with
studio work throughout their careers, only recently have they
released an album they can proudly call their own, and both
projects being heartily endorsed by R&B superstars who had long
recognized their special gifts--John Lee Hooker and Bernard
"Pretty" Purdie for Jesse Yawn's Forevermore and soul chanteuse
Denise LaSalle for Big Ike. As a matter of fact, it was Bobby
Blue Bland, an act for which Ike opened many times, that not only
encouraged his undertaking but also suggested the title--Iz Ma Turn.
Another aspect which links these two consummate
professionals is that neither is a player and this perceived
"deficiency" has probably thwarted their efforts toward achieving
greater success. This writer was not aware of this popular
prejudice in the blues recording industry until he was made aware
by none other than Bruce Iglauer of Alligator records, after he
had been proffered a quality demo by Jesse Yawn a few years ago.
After politely and firmly turning Jesse down, Bruce said he
preferred a flashy singer who could turn the audience on with his
scintillating guitar work. On Jesse's behalf, I countered Bruce's
argument(to no avail) with names such as Jimmy Rushing, Jimmy
Witherspoon, and Bobby Blue Bland, who most certainly became
blues luminaries on the strength of their vocal abilities alone.
"The market has changed since these guys fronted big bands," said
Bruce(or words to that effect). But the fact remains, all the
great singers(and non-players) ever encountered by this author
including Jesse, Big Ike, and such great stylists as Arthur
"Country" Foy of New Orleans seem to have been hindered by this
"one dimensional" tag. Whereas, it is not expected that the
distaff side of the blues be players. Could one imagine an Irma
Thomas, Marva Wright, or Koko Taylor being refused by a record
executive for the same reason?
This writer was first apprised of this Lake Charles legend,
Big Ike, while sponsoring a zydeco band at the Fell's Point Fun
Fest of 1992. Both Joe Walker, the accordionist and leader of the
outfit, and his bass player, Pernell Babineaux, talked glowingly
of this blues shouter. And over the years, almost every musician
of note in South Louisiana spoke of Big Ike in almost reverential
tones. Although this writer visits Lake Charles faithfully at
least once a year, he had invariably come to a dead end in
locating him. Surely, everyone had heard of him, but no one knew
his real last name; so the telephone book was of no use. And he
never seemed to be performing when this writer was in town. Even
Eddie Shuler of Goldband, who had recorded virtually every Lake
Charles artist at his 50-year-old facility on Church St., was of
no help. Ike was probably the only bluesman who resided there who
had not availed himself of Eddie's studio.
The big break came when Pernell joined Ike's band on a
permanent basis and gave him this writer's business card. He
called soon after. "Hi, I'm Big Ike. Can you help me out? I heard
you promote the blues," he said. He wanted to go on the road in a
bad way and hoped I could prepare an itinerary. Needless to say,
this author was delighted to have made contact with this elusive
character, but, not having heard him sing, was still leery about
being his patron.
Subsequently, he sent a personal portfolio which included his
CD, (recorded a few years back) which showcased his fabulous
voice, but the biography was very sketchy and this writer
suggested an interview to set the record straight and improve the
whole package. Finally, after a six year wait, this past summer
this author was able to pay a call to the famous bluesman, take a
few pictures, and arrange for a tete a tete.
Big Ike is a man who obviously has his life together. He
lives in a suburban subdivision of neatly kept white brick ranch
homes and one room of which is a museum to himeself--a blues
shrine of posters, photos, and memorabilia of past triumphs in
the public arena. He's also a businessman with brief cases,
cellular phones, and readily available press kits on demand.
Outside, under a spacious carport, is a huge bus-sized van which
can accomodate a band of any configuration and appears ready to
hit the road at the drop of a hat. This man, as they say in music
parlance, is good to go. And already this author began to feel
confident about putting his faith in this literal and figurative
Big Ike was born Isaac Martin on July 28, 1949, in Lake
Charles, LA. One of his fondest early recollections was of his
mother and three aunts who, during the early and middle 50s, led
the congregation of the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church singing
spirituals. "They were my first inspirations and I couldn't wait
to start singing in the choir, myself," he confessed.
Later while attending Washington High School, Isaac succumbed
to music of a secular nature. "Yeah, soul music was really
big--Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Solomon Burke. I was learning
all that stuff off the radio," he said. Perhaps, his big break
came when his two-week-old pick-up band, the Episodes, won a
local talent show at the same school. "First prize was only $200,
but we beat thirteen other bands, some of which had been out
there a long time. It wasn't hard to convince the other boys to
stick together after the competition," added Big Ike.
The Episodes endured until 1976, when Big Ike changed the
name to the Lake City Show Band, a designation he retains today.
"I'll have to admit that we weren't playing a whole lot of blues
then. The blues had kind of fallen out of favor and we had to
sing what people wanted. I do remember that Al Green was big back
then and that disco was king. The only blues numbers we did were
by B.B. King," he confided.
Although the rest of the country was hit by the oil crunch,
in the mid-70s in Louisiana, the economy was fueled by profits
from the skyrocketing gas prices. There was money to burn by all
associated with the industry, including roughnecks who worked the
rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and then expected some entertainment
to be waiting whenever they received a furlough. The demand was
great and so was the supply. "There were a lot of bands in the
territory during those times. Seemed like a new one was forming
each day. It became a matter of survival and we did," said Ike.
Things changed dramatically for Big Ike in the late 70s,
almost concurrently with the name change. "Seemed like after we
became the Lake City Show Band, we started getting bigger
engagements. We were opening for Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight
& the Pips, and Bobby Blue Bland in grand arenas like Ball's
Auditorium and Jones' Fine Fox. No more of these little gigs like
the Bamboo Club out on Highway 14, where we used to play as the
Episodes," said the bluesman. At this point Big Ike's blues
repertoire was growing almost as fast as his ambition to finally
make a name for himself. "Once we got the reputation of warming
up the audiences for such big names, we left the disco joints
behind for good," added the bluesman.
In a few years, Big Ike felt ready to go into the studio.
First, there was a single for J.D. Miller's Mastertrack label in
1980, which went nowhere. Then came a promising vinyl album
recorded in 1985 in New Orleans for Tommy Tee Productions.
Tommy Tee, an enterprising huckster of souvenirs at musical
extravaganzas, had heard Big Ike open a show for Betty "Clean Up
Woman" Wright and Denise LaSalle in Port Arthur, TX, and was
immediately intrigued by this mystery man.
But, although he lent his voice, Ike never felt in control of
this project, titled I Found A New Love. "Tommy Tee could have
done a better job pushing it. Whenever it got airplay, the
phones[requests] jumped off the hook," asserted Big Ike.
According to Ike, it had that big full uptown horn sound of Z.Z.
Hill or Little Milton which made it a natural for Tommy Couch's
Malaco records of Jackson, MS. "I tried to contact Roger Redding
over there but a woman named Anderson wouldn't deal with anyone
but the producer, Tommy Tee. And that was the end of that," he
added. But every so often Big Ike hears reports of it surfacing
in some far off city in Arkansas or Alabama.
Some good did come out of this "learning experience," to use
Big Ike's expression. On the strength of "I Don't Hurt No More,"
one of the album's tracks with definite commercial potential, the
group was able to tour throughout the South, including stops in
Jackson, TN, Jackson, MS, and New Orleans. "I took that song
that was originally done by Buddy Ace[an artist on Don Robey's
Duke label of Houston] and did it my way and I'm proud to admit
that I got a lot of mileage out of it," said Big Ike.
But despite the great expectations, his first serious foray
into the studio would yield little more than a demo or calling
card that Ike would sell out of the trunk of his car, until all
the supply was soon exhausted.
This writer naturally assumed that with all the casinos in
and about Lake Charles that the Lake City Band would have always
been kept busy. But, this is not so, according to Big Ike. "I
played the Star casino once[riverboat] and never again. The
manager told me that once I got on the stage, people would stop
gambling to watch the show. I guess what they really wanted was
some band to blend into the woodwork, not some group that's gonna
cause them[high rollers] to dance and holler. It's just not my
style to sit back, I've got to go into the crowd and stir things
up," confessed Ike.
When asked where his favorite haunts could be found, he
still named the bigger venues. "We often appear at Magic City,
the Knights of Peter Claver hall, the H.Y.B.B. Temple, and the
Civic Center. For a while, I had a regular Thursday night gig at
the In Crowd, until I asked the man for a raise. He cut us loose
all right. But now the place is a ghost town," said Big Ike. But
the bluesman prefers not to play in his home town. "I save all my
antics for the road. These people have already seen me strut my
stuff and they expect it every night," added Big Ike.
Still, central and east Texas remain Big Ike's bread and
butter and hardly a week goes by when he isn't headed west to
some destination like Austin, San Antonio, or Beaumont. And he's
well prepared and ready to do battle with any Zydeco band which
happens to cross his path. "I got a girl in my band, Cacean
Ballou[daughter of renowned bluesman, Classie, who now lives in
Waco]. She's one hell of a guitar player but can also put any
Zydeco accordion player to shame. They don't even want to follow
us up onto the stage. As a matter of fact, I'm a headliner in a
Zydeco festival coming up in Silsbee, TX[a town north of
Beaumont]," said the blues shouter. When Cacean, a college
student, is not available, Joe Orsot, a keyboard player, ably
fills in and can rig the instrument to sound like a squeezbox.
"One thing that we can do that most of these accordion whiz
kids can't do is play the blues. And that's why we are
appreciated more by the audience. It's not the same old
chank-a-chank. We can really mix things up," said Big Ike.
Recently, Big Ike was in concert with Zydecajun star, Wayne
Toups, who paid him the highest compliments. And Ike considers it
a source of pride that he is forever banned from appearing at the
annual Labor Day Zydeco marathon in Plaisance, LA. "They're all
afraid I'm going to steal the show, again," he laughed heartily.
Like Jesse Yawn, Big Ike is already at work on his second
CD, entitled Dirty Laundry and it currently lacks but two tracks.
The bluesman confided that he had made mistakes on the first
album, mainly by not copyrighting his material, and he claimed
that some tunes were stolen by some area bands. Nonetheless,
now with all his proverbial ducks in a row, he seems genuinely
excited at the prospect of its imminent release. "It's gonna be a
killer. I can guarantee that," said the blues belter. But, he
also knows that it will open few doors if he doesn't hit the road
and promote it .
"Larry, I know all about those blues clubs and how they're
booked six months in advance. All I want is enough money to pay
my people and a place to stay. Just get me in whenever there's an
opening. I'd like to think I'm realistic. You've got to crawl
before you can walk," said Big Ike.
And with this kind of attitude, this writer thought to
himself, how can he not succeed? Here's a guy that will probably
wait until the next millenium, if need be, to get his foot in the
door. And when he does, look out!