Baby, how long?
Celebrating 15 years of blues and sweet-potato pie with the Sacramento Heritage Festival
“Sweet-potato pie! Sweet-potato pie!” The blessed call goes out again, and the long, hungry line forms to the right. “Get yer Little Milton, Tommy Castro, Cafe R&B, W.C. Clark! Yer Bettye LaVette, Bobby Rush, Walter Wolfman Washington! Hey, here’s Phil Guy, Howard Tate, Shemekia Copeland, William Clarke, Omar Shariff, Buckwheat Zydeco, Magic Slim and Son Seals!” For 15 years, the Sacramento Heritage Festival has served the best blues and soul in the world, live in our Delta town—plus that secret ya-ya recipe of Southerned-up sweet-potato pie.
Big Mike Balma is the ringmaster chef to the social club that he and his volunteer band of sisters and brothers have worked hard to cultivate since August 1992. Southern California’s suave harp man Rod Piazza and Sacramento’s own Ray “Catfish” Copeland did the first show honors as Balma embarked upon his calling to pair blues “with either a New York steak or a barbecue chicken and all the fixins.”
The fledgling venture, with a hefty $17 ticket price, sold out in 15 minutes. “And folks were turned away at the door,” Balma recalled. Peers gave Balma’s not-for-profit enterprise little chance of success back then, but the years have ears. Many who come from as far as Reno, Nev., and the Bay Area now greet each other at Heritage Festival shows with backslaps and hugs. The 15th-anniversary show, on Sunday, February 12, is at a favorite locale, the Sacramento Horsemen’s Club. It’s a 1950s knotty-pine-paneled clubhouse with a chummy fireside bar, plus an outdoor heated “back 40” stage area nestled among the wise branches of towering old oaks.
Wise, too, and gnarly-voiced for sure, is the great legend making his way here as a headliner: “Mr. Superharp Himself,” James Cotton. He is one of the best-loved bluesmen alive, and his high-velocity harmonica style has lost nothing across 62 years of playing. Cotton went pro at age 9 in West Helena, Ark., under the tutelage of his hero, Sonny Boy Williamson. In 1954 at age 19, he was called into the urban bigs of Chicago when Muddy Waters came searching for him.
“I was over in West Memphis. Somehow Junior [Wells] had quit the band, and Muddy heard I was there,” related Cotton. “I had a job driving a truck, but they sat down outside the place I was working, waiting on me to show up. Muddy walked up to me and said, ‘Hello, my name is Muddy Waters.’ I yelled, ‘And my name’s Jesus Christ!’ ’Cause I didn’t believe him. He said, ‘I’ve come to give you a job.’”
For 12 years, Cotton helmed the harp spot and played on many of Waters’ biggest songs. That’s a wild Cotton breaking on through to the other side on the watershed live version of “Got My Mojo Working” recorded at the 1960 Newport Folk Festival.
There have been plenty of “get on the good foot” cathartic musical moments across the last 15 years. Back in late 1992, another brilliant harpist, William Clarke, jumped up and down so hard during an encore set that he crashed through the stage floor. In 1997, at a benefit showing of Robert Palmer’s film Deep Blues, the whole place got up shouting and dancing along with the movie!
For this Sunday’s event, Balma has assembled a blues armada. There’s Lucky Peterson, a triple threat (Hammond organ player, guitarist and singer) who has recorded with Cotton on several albums. There’s Earl Thomas, an excellent young soul singer from Memphis, and soul crooner Johnny Rawls. Also on the massive blues bill is San Francisco’s Joe Louis Walker, leading the SF Fillmore Blues Revue starring Frankie Lee, Fillmore Slim and Bobbie Webb.
As always, the good-blues-karma proceeds from each show go to fund a music-education program in a Sacramento-area public school. And remember to take home some extra sweet-potato pie to someone you love!