'You don't think it's going to be a hard life for a long time' A Letter From New York

December 01, 1991|By RAFAEL ALVAREZ | RAFAEL ALVAREZ,Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Sun.

My willingness to follow the blues wherever they lead has taken me down good roads and bad, from the rough end of Baltimore's Clinton Street to tin shacks in the distant fields of Mississippi.

Not too long ago, I was drawn to a tiny apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where my path would cross once again with New York slide guitarist Robert Ross.

I took the night train to Manhattan as autumn began its fade toward winter. Folded between layers of underwear in my suitcase lay a newly written short story about miracles and a mythical bluesman named Fat Hatted Ned, and in a chill box at my elbow were five pounds of Chesapeake crab meat picked in the kitchen of my Highlandtown rowhouse.

I was ready for anything, despite knowing that every time I travel to New York I leave with gratitude for a safe exit, despair for the future of humanity and a note to myself that Gotham does not represent all of American civilization.

Says the bluesman Ross: "If you can't get the blues in New York than you're immune."

On this trip I would not, as I had on previous trips, be tracking people intimate with the Bronx killers of a Maryland state trooper or sneaking into the Helmsley Palace hotel to interview maids who might have watched the top aide to a Maryland Congressman leap to his death from the 24th floor.

This time around, Robert Ross would entertain a dinner party with music he learned the hard way, and I would follow him by reading a fable of truths gleaned from the kind of life Mr. Ross chose for himself while still a teen-ager.

Non-spiritual nourishment was provided by 29 lump and golden cakes of callinectes sapidus, delicacies shaped and bound with bread crumbs, eggs, Old Bay seasoning, mayonaise and the sweet meat of end-of-the-season female crabs bought back home on Highland Avenue.

On the street below the apartment where the gig was held, down off the corner of Stanton and Orchard Streets, people born in lands from around the world celebrated a sunny Columbus Day weekend buying and selling luggage and pork chops and neckties and chorizo; a colorful bazaar in daylight, but a deserted and frightening place after dusk when merchants bring down steel security doors and the shoppers retreat.

On this Sunday it was warm enough to throw the windows open, and the sounds of the street wafted into the party as Mr. Ross plugged his 1969 Gibson SG guitar into a parlor stereo, sat in a corner, and began to pick the Elmore James classic featured on his new compact disc "Rockin' the Rails."

"When things go wrong, so wrong with you, it hurts me, too," the bluesman wailed, his voice rough and pliant and booming through the $700-a-month closet of an apartment, no more than two postage stamps and a kitchen in a neighborhood that would pass for a slum in most other cities.

In a quarter-century of playing the blues for love and money, more than a few things have gone wrong for Robert Ross on his way to becoming a respected but largely unknown practitioner of the art.

On the good end, the 42-year-old has performed with some of the biggest names in the history of blues: Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Big Mama Thornton, Sam "Lightning" Hopkins, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Jimi Hendrix, Bo Diddley, Big Joe Turner, Sunnyland Slim, John Below, John Brim, Homesick James, Johnny Winter, Louisiana Red, Otis Rush, Wilbert

Harrison, Memphis Slim and a one-armed harmonica player named John Wrencher.

Mr. Ross has jammed for spare change in the Paris subway, taken the blues to shut-ins committed to nursing homes, been flown by big-shots to Switzerland for one-night stands at private parties and gigged in countless "amazing dumps" between Maine and Florida.

I first met him in April of 1981 when he accompanied the great J.B. Hutto at No Fish Today, the defunct and legendary Baltimore club on Eutaw Street destroyed by arson in January, 1982.

"There were nights when I was doing my own gigs and wasn't getting anything, a buck or two bucks a night," said Mr. Ross, recalling one road trip when a van's steering wheel came off in his hands while approaching a toll booth. "We slept in that van in Boston in the middle of the winter. It was a lot of fun, but mostly I remember being on the road and being cold, six degrees in Rhode Island and no heat, and we were dying. It's been a lot of disappointments, a lot of back-stabbing, a lot of embarrassment, and a lot of humiliation.

"When you're young, you think this isn't going to last long," he said. "You believe that any day now you're going to be rich and famous, and people are going to realize how wonderful you are. You don't think it's going to be a hard life for a long time."

The hard road remains his way of life, with his biggest payday in 1980 when a $793 royalty check arrived as payment for writing "Sitting in the Jailhouse," a rocking blues recorded by Johnny Winter on an album titled "Raisin' Cain."

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