| I admit that I was curious how anyone could pay an ensemble of that magnitude and keep everyone happy; that is, splitting the pie that many times and asked Jay what he could expect per performance. "No, we didn't really receive much. Hohner just put us up somewhere and took care of expenses that way. It was just a fun thing," he added.
About 1984, Jay felt he needed a serious change of scenery to clear his mind and took off with friends to California, ultimately landing on an Indian reservation where he started a little band. Now one doesn't necessarily think of California in terms of land set aside for Native Americans. But when I pulled the map out, sure enough there were at least two, the Hopland and Middleton, which are adjacent to where Jay eventually settled in northwest part of the state.
The associations there led him to a local character who prefigured Warner Williams in many ways. "Like Warner, this guy 'Chicken'[he never discovered his last name] who lived in a commune just never wanted to be discovered. I think he was Jamaican and he played the blues on a banjo. No kidding. It was unreal," said Jay. Headquartered in Clear Lake, north of the Napa Valley and Santa Rosa, this dynamic duo, Back Porch Blues, found work to be plentiful in mountain lodges and occasionally would venture south into Oakland. It was a partnership that lasted two years before "Chicken" just as mysteriously dropped out of the picture. But Jay had no regrets about the relationship because it would serve him in good stead to what was to follow.
When he returned, he rented an apartment in Rockville and after he related to his friends his escapades with this near mythical "Chicken," they suggested that he team up with an equally enigmatic itinerant musician who had a day job as a truck driver with Montgomery County's Parks and Planning Commission. "I suppose no one really knows his life story and even the guy [Barry Lee Pearson of the University of MD] who wrote the article in Living Blues (July, 2001) took five years just to come up with a few paragraphs," said Jay.
The seventyish Warner Williams, a native of the Carroll Ave sector of Takoma Park, came from a huge musical family, including brothers Elmer, Harold, Ed, Clayton, Raymond, and Russell, who could handle all types of stringed instruments from the banjo, to the mandolin, and to the guitar. In fact, his father with whom he also collaborated was a fairly renown fiddler. In his youth in the 40s, Warner claimed to have perfected his guitar skills by first taking the streetcar and then performing in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Long gone, now, this former segregated subdivision of tenement houses in the vicinity of 21st and E Sts NW was razed in the 60s and is now the site of the infamous Watergate apartments and the Kennedy Center. However, up until its demise, it was a musically active community which spawned musicians such as the Piedmont blues singer, John Cephas, the guitar half of Cephas & (Phil) Wiggins, who play in a similar fashion as Warner and Jay. Pretty much a loner who would just as likely show up at one's barbecue, fish fry, or any function at the junction and then play for a few dollars, he once accompanied an early D.C. area R&B standout, Sammy Fisher and the Famous Moroccos. But judging from his enormous repertoire, he also was just as equally at home with some classic C&W songs.
Anyone from this region could attest to the dominance of hillbilly music well into the 60s. But whatever the brand of music, for the most part, Warner was most content taking it to the streets.
Coinciding with Warner's fateful meeting with Jay was his vow to abstain from alcohol. Over the years his penchant for the bottle rivaled his reputation as a most prodigious musician. Indeed, after their coupling, people approached Jay wondering how he had finally tamed the beast.
Evidently, Jay on his living room couch had made a strong impression with his "audition," receiving a hard-earned "grunt of approval" from the invariably taciturn Warner. So, they both agreed to attend an open mike session(a format Warner was fond of) at Gallagher's Pub in Rockville and test the public response, which in time became overwhelming. "It was an off-night, too, and we had people lined up outside the door every time we'd show up. Finally the man in charge started giving us a regular gig," said Jay. Nick Spitzer of National Public Radio, who still hosts a musical roots show over WAMU 88.5 on Sunday afternoons, soon got wind of this act and opened the door for them at the various Smithsonian Folklife affairs. And through the intercession of Bill Danoff, Little Bit A Blues, performed as part of the 1992 inaugural gala for Bill Clinton at the Old Abbott Grill in downtown Washington, D.C.
Despite Warner's reluctance to record, their first cassette (through, again, Bill Danoff's munificence) was issued in 1994 and was a resounding success; so much so, that the 1500 or so copies quickly sold out. Reviewed in the American Harmonica Newsletter, it demonstrated the wide range of material with which Little Bit A Blues is conversant. From Jimmy Reed's "Big Boss Man" to Sonny Boy(John Lee) Williamson's "Good Morning Little School Girl" to Chuck Willis's "Cee Cee Rider" to Sonny Terry/Brownie McGhee's "Key To The Highway" and to the Floyd Dixon-esque "Hey Bartender," these gentlemen were quite comfortable with folk blues, R&B, and jump, an eclecticism which became their trademark. "People always say that's why they like us the most--because we always mix it up for them. We're likely to pull any number out of the hat," said Jay.
With the help of Joe Wilson of National Council of Traditional Arts, Jay and Warner were able to make the rounds of of several of the prestigious national blues festivals, including the Mississippi Valley in Davenport, IA, the Philadelphia River, the Lowell (MA), and the Western Maryland, held annually in Hagerstown (where they are scheduled to perform at this summer's incarnation). Locally, they appeared several times at the aforementioned Herndon, Baltimore Jazz Festival, and Alonzo's Picnic, on the Labor Day weekend, the latter under the auspices of the Baltimore Blues Society as well as for their "Blues In Schools" program. But, at least for the time being, their peregrinations must be confined to the continent of North America. "We've had offers overseas and even sold CD's in New Zealand [as a result of a review in Harmonica Weekly], but, you know the story. Warner won't set foot in an airplane," said Jay.
As far as the homefront is concerned, Little Bit A Blues has never lacked for work. Before it closed recently, City Blues on upper Connecticut Ave extended a permanent invitation as did the elegant Fleetwood's (where they appeared with Keb Mo) on the Alexandria, VA, waterfront before it, too, succumbed (despite Mick's efforts) to poor management. When not participating in special events, Warner and Jay, are regulars at Bill Danoff's Starland Cafe on MacArthur Blvd near Glen Echo.
About 1999, Jay decided that they needed a calling card in order to promote themselves and open a few more doors. So, he, with the the help of fan Tom Mindte, recorded a CD for Patuxent (CD-038). It recapitulated much of the earlier cassette but added a few new twists like the pop standard, "Shanty In Old Shanty Town," Kris Kristofferson's "One Day At A Time," and Washboard Sam's(Robert Brown) rollicking blues classic, "Diggin' My Potatoes." Well received by the public and reviewers, their latest album again displayed for all their marvelous versatility.
"I guess as long as I stick with Warner, we're never going to become famous. Heck, after 16 years, he won't even acknowledge that we're a team," Jay said somewhat frustrated. But, in reality Jay, himself, is almost as handicapped in this regard as his soul mate. At least, Warner is now retired and can hit the road if the spirit moves him, unlike, Jay, who as a Montgomery County Schools bus driver and a family man, has to carefully pick and choose his engagements to suit his calendar. And when I reminded him of these responsibilities, he quickly came to his senses. "I guess we'll have to just keep on playing the blues for the love of it," he confessed.
"Could you do it any other way?" I responded.