Willie Pooch 1937 - 2010

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

Columbus blues legend Willie Pooch died in early May. Here's our 2006 profile of the beloved vocalist:

This story appeared in the April 2006 issue of Columbus Monthly.

Living the blues

Willie Pooch clutches the microphone stand with his right hand and sways slowly to the hypnotic melody as sweat streams down from under the brim of his cobalt blue hat. Eyes closed, Pooch belts out an Elmore James blues classic, singing, "The sky is crying, look at the tears roll down the street."

It's a Sunday afternoon jam at the Thirsty Ear Tavern in Grandview and the packed house is clearly mesmerized by the host band, Willie Pooch and the Upsetters. Pooch, wearing a blue-striped jacket, blue shirt and ballooning trousers over shiny black and white shoes, captures the crowd's attention with silky, dusky vocals. It sounds as if someone mingled B.B. King with Lou Rawls.

"Ain't nothing but a blues party," Pooch constantly reminds his audience between tunes.

Pooch himself has lived a storybook tale of the blues. A sharecropper's son raised by his mother in Tupelo, Mississippi, Pooch's early playmates included a young Elvis Presley. After the family relocated to Chicago, a teenage Pooch discovered the blues. The music was an intoxicating influence and he learned to sing and play at the feet of such masters as James, Luther Allison, Albert King, Magic Sam and Freddie King.

"Blues puts me on the top floor when I'm in the basement," says Pooch, now 69. "I get the same feeling I did when I sang gospel, a real happy feeling and the audience gets jumpy and happy. I love that, satisfying other people."

He made his way to Columbus in the early 1960s, where his talent was quickly recognized and he established an early reputation as a blues master that has endured for 43 years. "He's different. He's very unique," says York Proctor, the Upsetters' bassist who has played with Pooch off and on for three decades. "He's like somebody you create out of a story."

Last summer, Dee Ann Wallace, director of the Gahanna-based Creekside Blues Society, interviewed Pooch for National Public Radio's StoryCorps, an initiative to create an American oral history. The technicians in the mobile unit, which was parked on the Statehouse lawn, even gave her extra time because "they had not done anyone like him," she says. The interview has been selected to be on file at the National Library of Congress in the folklore section.

"He is our own blues icon," says Wallace. "This man is the real deal. He has lived the life and he is our living legend in Columbus. We are so lucky to have him."

By the time Pooch was 7, he was working 12 to 14 hours a day in the cotton fields on the Tupelo farm where he lived. His father already had left the family, and, he says, "My mom would get me up early, about 5:30, and I'd go out to the barn and put gear on the mule and plow sunup to sundown."

He became friendly with Elvis after he took a job at a mom-and-pop grocery store. "He lived three doors away," Pooch says. "I got Elvis and the guys to help me carry out these big, old Coke boxes to clean them up. Then I'd give them free pop."

He and Presley played baseball together, Pooch says, and he remembers seeing Elvis perform as a child at a talent contest at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. "He had a big guitar and was with a couple of other guys," Pooch recalls. "He was singing around the edge of gospel."

Elvis eventually made his way to Memphis and the rest is musical history. Pooch saw him a couple of times in the 1950s when Presley played in Chicago. "We talked about the South and reminisced about the cotton fields," Pooch says.

Music also issued an early siren call for Pooch, who was attracted to the sound produced by a guitar. The family had no money to buy an instrument, so he improvised by nailing four strands of bailing wire to the side of his wooden house. "I'd stand on the side of the house whooping on those strings and kicking dust," Pooch says. "Did it about every day."

When he was 10, the Gospel Travelers, who appeared at Pooch's church every third Sunday, noticed his voice as he sang along. They asked him to join and he began to sing spirituals regularly. "They'd have talent shows at school, but instead of doing poems, I'd sing a song," Pooch says. His sister, Mary Lewis, says their mother's love of all kinds of music influenced them, but he's the one who got the talent. "I admire him because I can't sing a note," Lewis says. "He feels it, he lives it and it surrounds him. It's just like a part of him."

When Pooch was in his early teens, his mother moved the family to Chicago's south side, where his grandfather lived. "It was exciting," Pooch says. "I got a brand-new pair of Brogan shoes and Wrangler jeans."

He worked a variety of jobs, including stints at a slaughterhouse, Spiegel and the Cook County Hospital. His first love was music, but gospel didn't hold the same sway in Chicago that it did in Tupelo. "It was hard to find young guys to sing gospel," Pooch says. As he got older, he set gospel aside and began to hang out at the nightclubs. That's where he met Luther Allison. Pooch sat as close to the stage as possible, singing along with the band.

He caught Allison's ear, and one night the blues guitarist invited him onstage. After performing, Allison suggested he drop some of his gospel influence when singing the blues. "I had a habit of using, 'Oh, Lord,' or 'Jesus,' when I sang," Pooch says with a gravel-rasped chuckle. "He said, 'Just remember, use "Honey" or "Baby" instead.' "

Allison invited him back, and eventually he met Freddie King. When Pooch saw that a girl he was crazy about was attracted to King's guitar playing, he took up the instrument. He later switched to bass, and one night in a club he was invited to sit in with Elmore James. The singer was impressed enough to invite him into the band, where he played for nearly four months before James got sick. "Elmore really got me deep down into the blues," Pooch says. "He taught me more respect about the blues and more respect about playing. Don't do it unless you do it right."

Pooch formed the Rocking Blues Trio, at first earning $5 a night playing 9 pm to 1 am. He performed all over the Midwest for a decade, traveling in a Chevy station wagon crammed with musicians and instruments. He hooked up with or opened for musical royalty along the way, including Chuck Berry, B.B. King and Bobby "Blue" Bland.

Born William Johnson, Pooch earned the nickname that would stick with him around 1960; his piano player heard a Winston-Salem, North Carolina, woman use the word "pooch" to describe his amorous attentions. "Willie Pooch" replaced "Willie Hair," earlier bestowed for the shoulder-length locks he once sported.

In 1963, he left the road, settling in Columbus after he was invited to play a regular gig here and fell in love with the city. He formed the Soul Twisters, a blues band that played locally and in the Midwest before breaking up in 1971. Pooch also worked for 30 years at Buckeye Steel, retiring in 1999; he's been married 27 years and has three grown children.

At the end of the 1960s, he met guitar master Dave Workman and they formed the Dave Workman/Willie Pooch Blues Band. They played together for nearly a decade and opened for the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Koko Taylor and Junior Wells. "Willie's vocal prowess has scared some of the big names we've opened for," Workman says. He refers to one act that "paid us not to open on the second night of a two-day gig. Willie smoked him that badly."

Workman eventually moved to San Francisco in 1984, but returns annually for a reunion with Pooch. After Workman left, Pooch played with various musicians before hooking up with the DeMarcos, a local blues band that lasted about five years. "He was the main guy in town who sang the blues," remembers former DeMarcos' guitarist John Boerstler.

Pooch puts everything on the line for a show, says Rick Collura, the guitarist in the Upsetters who also played in Workman's band. "If there are four people in the audience, he will play like there are 400," Collura says. "And he always looks like a million bucks. If Willie got the flu, you'd never know it."

One key to that success is Pooch's love of people, says Shelly Young, who until 1987 owned Stache's, where Pooch and his bandsmen often played. "Willie Pooch is the quintessential entertainer. He's much more than the Muddy Waters of Columbus, because he does R&B and soul and he makes music very contemporary and accessible to young people," Young says. "And he lets musicians shine. He gives everybody some."

The Columbus Blues Alliance-for the second time in three years-sent Pooch and the Upsetters to Memphis at the end of January to compete against 129 other acts in the 22nd International Blues Challenge. (The group advanced to the second round.) Pooch has cut four CDs, and he's also scheduled to be in the studio this year to do a fifth, this one on the Chicken Coup label, a new record company formed by Columbus's B-3 Hammond great Tony Monaco and Summit Records. Monaco says his overseas fans discovered Pooch through songs such as "Everyday I Have the Blues," which Pooch sang on Monaco's last CD, Fiery Blues.

"Now I want to help Willie get a national audience because we think his story is sellable," Monaco says. "He's worked hard his whole life and he's got that kind of magical sound that is not like an instrument."

And he has the contacts from playing countless gigs with real stars. "He's kind of old-school and he's played with lots of people," says Andy Robinson, the keyboardist for Pooch who competed on his own in Memphis as a solo act. "We've warmed up for Robert Lockwood Jr. and the Kinsey Report. He knows all these guys."

Ask Pooch about his most memorable gig, and you'll get a surprising answer: Ain't Nothing but the Blues, a concert last June in which he fronted the Columbus Jazz Orchestra at the Southern Theatre. "It was the first time onstage with that many people," Pooch says. "I felt like Lou Rawls. Everything was just there. I had to wait to be this old to do it, but that was my most exciting time."

The feeling was mutual, says Louis Tsamous of the Jazz Arts Group, the umbrella organization for the orchestra. "The crowd and the band loved him," Tsamous says. "When I think of Willie, he is the real deal. He represents the whole tradition from the way he sings to the way he dresses. He is an institution."

T.C. Brown is a freelance writer.