For many musicians, their life is dominated by the pursuit of trying to earn a living playing music. Life resolves around booking gigs, writing songs, traveling to and from shows, honing their craft for those precious few hours when all of that effort finally pays off, when they can stand on stage, sharing their art with their fans, in addition to hopefully getting an adequate financial reward.
For guitarist Linsey Alexander, music has never been the dominating force in his life, at least up until twenty years ago. While he has played music all along, he did it at night or on weekends while holding down a steady stream of jobs that were his main source of income. But once he made the decision to retire, his passion for blues music took over, providing a wealth of career opportunities.
A fixture in the blues clubs on the north side of Chicago, Alexander is the consummate entertainer, thrilling blues fans and tourists alike with an energetic show featuring his deep vocals, biting guitar licks, and a batch of original songs that often examine modern issues with a welcome touch of humor. Watching him work the crowd with his broad smile can leave you in awe of the fact that he will soon celebrate his seventy-eighth birthday!
Born in Mississippi, Alexander grew up poor in a family that existed by sharecropping, a system that often kept rural African-American families in a perpetual form of indentured servitude. It wasn’t until he moved to Memphis with his mother and sister that the possibilities of life began to be revealed to a teenager looking for more from life.
“When I got to Memphis, it was the first time I had ever seen a bus, or a street car. That was where I had my first hot dog. I didn’t know what it was! I had my first hamburger later when I got to Chicago.
I got one at White Castle – man, that was good! I used to go down on Beale Street to hear people playing music outside, but I wasn’t old enough to get in the clubs”.
“I first started learning guitar from my friend Otis, who would come by the house and play some stuff on his guitar. I would listen to him. After some time, he started showing me some things, The thing was that he would go off but leave the guitar. So I could practice what he had shown me until he got back. That was how I started developing my hand skills. One day he came out, played some guitar, and then said I’ll see you later. I haven’t seen that guy since then! Later on, I pawned that guitar to get the money for a bus ticket to Chicago”.
Once he was settled in Chicago, Alexander took full advantage of all of the music that was going on in the clubs. He was now old enough to see artists like singer McKinley Mitchell, who was singing on 63rd Street, and later on, meeting singer Garland Green at a club called The Place Lounge, also on 63rd Street.
“I saw Otis Clay, and on Wednesday nights I would go see Howlin’ Wolf. On the weekend I would go hear Lefty Dizz and all of those guys. At the time, I was living on Ingleside on the South side. This one boy called himself a bass player. I knew I could play a little guitar. So he went and bought a bass guitar, then I bought myself another guitar. We found a guy to beat drums. Ended up calling ourselves the Hot Tomatoes! They used to have a talent show every Sunday at a club at 63rd and Champlain. We would sing this one song, “Let It All Hang Out”. We got pretty good at it!”
The band’s first drummer was married with two kids, which meant he could not get around as much as Alexander and the bass player. So they let him go and found a more experienced timekeeper. The guitarist noted that the band’s sound got better with the new member.
“Pretty soon, I let the bass player go and got me another bass player. In all of the years I have been playing, I have only had three bass players. The third one, Ron Simmons, has been with me for over forty years. His brother, Walter “Simtec” Simmons, had a hit record with his partner, Wylie Dixon called “Gotta Get Over The Hump”. That shit was hot, man! I was listening to Junior Wells and was good friends with Andrew “Big Voice” Odom, another great singer. My cousin, singer and guitarist L.V. Johnson, used to work with Tyrone Davis”.
Music was a second career as the guitarist worked a number of regular jobs to pay the bills. When he finally retired at the age of fifty-eight, music moved to the forefront. The band worked at Red’s, a club at 35th and Archer, over a ten year stretch, giving Alexander a chance to tighten up his live show. One night, opportunity walked through the door.
“A guy came, listened, then he said, what are you doing playing here? I said I would play anywhere. He told me he was going to get me out of there. I said, well, be my guest! He started coming to hear us every week, listening to what we were doing. Finally he took me out to get some photos taken, then we rode around to different places on the North side like Blues On Halsted. We went in, and I had a chance to sit in with the band. Doc Pellegrino from the Kingston Mines across the street was there. He told us he was ready to put me to work. He gave me nights, so I started working, and I ain’t never left the North side since then. I’ve been playing there at Kingston Mines for about seventeen years now”.
“I was out running around another night. I stopped in at B.L.U.E.S., a club on Halsted. Toronzo Cannon was playing, and Steve Wagner, recording engineer for Delmark Records, was there recording the band. Toronzo invited me to sit in. Afterwards, Steve handed me his card and told me to call him. Said, I think we want to record you. I tried calling him two or three times, but never could get him. One day I called, and Bob Koester, the owner of Delmark at that time, answered the phone. I told him who I was. He immediately told me to come on down there, that they wanted to record me. That’s how I got started with that label.”
Alexander already had some recordings out under his own name. He was quick to understand the financial advantages of producing and selling your own recordings. One of his band members, Ric Hall who has been Buddy Guy’s rhythm guitar player for a long spell, had a recording studio at his house. Alexander decided the time was right to cut a CD. The guitarist maintains some level of secrecy when it comes to songwriting. He might start writing some ideas down on paper, but the end product will only exist in his mind.
“I had got a settlement from the government because they had charged me too much money. They had to pay me triple the amount back. I asked Ric how much he would charge to cut a tune. I knew Ric could play most of the parts himself. He said we could do it for $1,000, so I said let’s go. We ended up getting four songs on that one. I still have some sitting in my garage – may have to give them away”.
“That one was called Blues ‘N’ More, from 1998. When I hit the North side, I was selling those discs for $10 a piece. I made so much money, I was scared! Then I started thinking big about buying a business, something like a car wash. Then I realized what better business is there than me, myself. Keep the money for myself and invest it in me”.
“So I made another CD called Someone’s Cookin’ In My Kitchen. That had ten songs on it, so I was selling it for $20 each. Oh man, did I make the right choice! Ric didn’t do the one after that, My Days Are So Long. There was a good group on that one. I had a female drummer, Jana Kramer, along with Chico Banks and Carlos Showers on guitar, Melvin “Pooky Styx” Carlisle also on drums, and Andre Howard on bass. It kept on selling and selling. Cd Baby took so many and a guy called me from China, he wanted so many. The next one I did with guitarist Pete Galanis, called If You Ain’t Got It”.
“Then Delmark picked me up. I figured they were looking at how much shit I was selling already. My releases for them are still selling. I think I ended up being the top seller in the joint. They were talking about hiring me to teach some of the other artists on how to sell CDs”.
“You have to relate to the people, you have to come to them. When I get off with stage, I grab the discs and go to the tables. If it is a bunch of guys, I will ask if they are interested in one. If they say no, I move on. If the next table has a couple, I tell the guy, a beautiful woman like this, you won’t buy her a CD? The wrong thing to do is ask the woman what she wants. She might not want him to spend no money. So I’ll tell him, if you buy this disc and hand it to this woman, she will gratefully take this CD that you bought her. And the woman will say, you know, that man is right!”
Following his three studio recordings for Delmark, Alexander has a new live recording, done over two nights at another famous Chicago blues club, Rosa’s Lounge, last year. It features Ron Simmons on bass, Sergei Androshin on guitar, Roosevelt Purifoy on keyboards, and ‘Big” Ray Stewart on drums. The leader is featured on nine tracks including five of his originals, and plenty of his rousing guitar playing.
“I was planning on doing a regular recording, but Delmark wanted to do a live one. So, what they want, they got it. They sat down and listen to everything to decide what tunes to use. It was great to work with Steve Wagner one more time. You couldn’t ask for a better engineer. On my last album, Two Cats, we were recording a song I had never sung in my life. Steve gave me a piece of paper, telling me to sing the song. I said, but I don’t know it. He told me to just sing off the paper. That was “Comb Over Blues,” about our President. It ended up sounding real good”.
The live release is Alexander’s first for Delmark since Bob Koester retired in 2018 and sold the label. The new owners, Julia A. Miller and Elbio Barilari, have made an impression on Alexander.
“They seem to be doing more for the artists, like getting the artists out there with advertising. I look at social media almost every day, and I see myself out there. The staff may be the same, but seems like we are getting more of a push. They are a great bunch of people. They do what they say they are going to do”.
Alexander is trying to stay positive, with a new release to promote, and no live gigs to play to support it. Perhaps it is the wisdom and experience gained over the years that enables him to maintain a healthy attitude.
“I don’t smoke or drink, and I try to get plenty of rest, so that helps. And protected by the Lord’s hand, so I’m doing good. If you stay in the house, you have a chance of surviving this virus. But I’ve got new cars and can’t go anywhere. Been on the same tank of gas for two months now. But this thing really doesn’t make sense to me. We can go to the moon, but we can’t find a vaccine for this. As great as we are, we can’t win at germ warfare. Something like cancer, if they catch in time, you can go through treatments and prolong your life”.
“Right now, as far as music, the clubs can bring a band in to play live, and they stream it. But there is no cover, no live audience. Just like playing pro football games without any fans. There’ s no money except what you get in the “Tip Jar”. I was asked about doing one at Rosa’s. I want to know what is in, because I will not take a chance on asking my band to come out and play for no money at all. I would have to pay them some money myself”.
“I think my enjoyment of the music is what’s keeping me alive. But the band hasn’t played together for two months. I hadn’t touched a guitar for a spell, so one day I grabbed one. I couldn’t hardly play the son of a bitch because my fingers were too tender. So now I play every day to keep my fingers in shape. They needed to get toughened up. I wanted to write some songs while we’re down, but I just don’t have the motivation right now. Where are you going right now – no where. But if the world gets straightened backed out, I can always come up with some more songs”.
Married at the age of sixty-two, Alexander has been raising his son, Nicholas, a fellow guitarist who is building his own career on the Chicago scene. His proud father has always been there to provide a helping hand.
“It is my first marriage. I had lived with a woman and we had some kids together. I stayed there and helped raise them until we couldn’t get along no more. I went my way, and she went her way, but I took care of the kids. Now Nicholas’s mom was on drugs. At one point, she took him down to Florida. I flew down there to talk with him. Before I left, I bought him a guitar. When I got back to Chicago, I told her to send him to music school to learn to play guitar. Send me the bill and I will pay for it”.
“That never happened. Then she got in trouble down there, so they told me to come get Nicholas. I had them put him on a plane to me, and I got him at the airport. I got him in school, and he was doing so well that she was deciding about moving back up here and supposedly was working on getting herself together. But he wanted to go back to her in Florida. I told him to go ahead. He has a mind of his own and it is his life. But they didn’t get along, so he came back to live with me. Then she passed away”.
“I have been taking him around to clubs. He plays his ass off! Has his own show and is a real entertainer. He sings too. I made him sing. It ain’t going to work just being a guitar player. You have to offer the people something. He’s a good-looking guy, and people like a guitar player that can sing. I even took a guitar lick from him for my song, “Going Back To My Old Time Used To Be,” which is on the new album”.
At the end of the day, Alexander is a musician with a simple plan for getting people to pay attention to his artistry.
“When you come to my show, you won’t have to worry about it being boring. I will always to my best to make you happy, keep you smiling, and get you excited. And if you are with a lady, I’ll help keep her dancing, with you I hope! I play some real serious blues, too, the kind that make you want to drink your whiskey down. I am who I am. I’m not trying to be B.B. King, or Freddie either. I do the best of me of anybody in this world!