Any musician linked to the blues comes to realize that his chosen path is sometimes a hard row to hoe. Not only is it fraught with hardships, but even the greatest success can sometimes leave the artist wondering how he’s gotten to the place he’s in.
Take Theodis Ealey as an example.
Born into a large, musical family that’s honored with its own marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail, he was raised on farm in Sibley, Miss., and could sit on the front porch and listen to his elder brothers and pouring out of the doors of the juke joint that faced their home along Hwy. 61 on the opposite side of the street.
Now in his mid-70s and based in the Atlanta suburbs, Theodis started playing bass and guitar as a teen and turned to the blues fulltime after serving in the Air Force. But it took four decades – during which he worked alongside some of the biggest names in the business – before his career literally exploded overnight in 2003 with the song “Stand Up in It,” turning him into an enduring star on the chittlin’ circuit almost by accident.
But as Blues Blast learned in a recent interview, the success he’s been enjoying has been a blessing on that front and something else entirely on another, sharing billing with Bobby Rush and others in major venues for large, primarily black audiences – something he loves, but also pretty much cut off from the white-dominated blues crowd that he adores, too.
“I was a bluesman years before I made ‘Stand Up in It,’” he insists. “And then, all of a sudden, they turned me into a Southern soul artist. But I’m a blues man!”
The youngest of 11 child among seven boys and four girls, Theodis was born in 1947. His dad, David Ealey Jr., was a guitarist, but didn’t own one, and his mother, Lucinda, was a member of the Sanctified Church, and only allowed spirituals to be played in the home. Their lives centered on her church.
But that didn’t keep her kids away from the blues. Eldest brother David – aka Bubba, – in 1927 – made a name for himself as an acoustic guitarist and was a fixture on the Oakland, Calif., blues scene for the final 40 years of his life. But before he left Mississippi, he schooled younger brothers YZ – that’s his given name – and Melwin on the instrument. Ten years older than Theodis and five older than Melwin, YZ passed down the lessons to his baby brother, too. At age 85, he’s still performing along the Gulf Coast today.
“Everybody in the family played a little bit — my sisters, too,” says Theodis. “They’d play (the Big Joe Williams classic) ‘Baby, Please Don’t Go.’ But none of ‘em would ever practice. Bubba was the first one to ever play out there in New Orleans – he played on the streets, fish fries and stuff like that. To me, he was a Lightnin’ Hopkins clone.”
And according to family legend he traded licks a little with Guitar Slim, too.
All of the Ealey boys cut their musical teeth across the street at Miss Willie Mae’s Juke Joint. Theodis started picking guitar at age four, and spent his nights on the porch, rocking to the beat as YZ and Melwin as they performed a few feet away.
“Lucinda didn’t want nothin’ to do with the blues,” Ealey recalls. “She called it ‘the Devil’s music.’ But all my brothers played it. And when it came time for me to do it, too, YZ talked her into lettin’ me come out to play bass for him. When I was seven years old, I went over and did my first performance with him.”
At 14, Theodis started gigging regularly as a member of YZ Ealey and the Merrymakers in a lineup that also included future Chicago blues sax player A.C. Reed and other prominent locals at one time or another. And they played several other jukes, too, including Haney’s Big House in Farriday, the most important nightspot in the region in its day. About a year after he started, Theodis began branching out, trading in his bass for a six-string as a member of another local favorite, Eugene Butler & the Rocking Royals.
The brothers are honored together with a Blues Trail marker situated 15 miles north in Natchez, because they played there often and went to high school there, too.
“There was no schoolhouse for black children in Sibley,” Theodis explains. “I went to school in my mother’s Sanctified church – it was either go there or at the Masonic temple. When it came to high school, we had to stay most of the school year with my grandma in Natchez and go home on the weekends.”
It was the practical thing to do for an education because it was the closest high school available for children of color.
Throughout the majority of his childhood in the Jim Crow South, Ealey grew up safe in the belly of his family and immune to the overt racism that existed around him. But he joined the Air Force as soon as he could after graduation at age 17 after experiencing multiple incidents of prejudice while working as a shipping-and-receiving clerk at a high-end department store during the break after his junior year.
It was 1963 – less than a year after a federal lawsuit forced the University of Mississippi to integrate and also a year prior to the Civil Rights Act being signed into law – and demonstrations and violence were the order of the day across the South.
Theodis regularly addressed the daughter of the store owner, a white woman about his age, by her name, Peggy – something that disturbed a black co-worker, who admonished him one day to refer to her as “Miss Peggy,” prompting Ealey to reply: “I’ll call her ‘Miss Peggy’ if she calls me ‘Mr. Theodis!’”
Not long after, he was walking down the street, delivering a package to another store and carrying it balanced on his head, when he crossed path with a white father and his very young son, who said: “Look at that n—–!” when they passed.
The final incident was the realization that he could buy a jelly biscuit or ice cream from a restaurant on a hot afternoon, but he had to do so at the blacks-only window at the side of the building to make the purchase instead of going inside and that he could order a hot dog at the counter at Woolworth’s, but it would automatically be wrapped to go.
“In my brain, I told myself: ‘You need to get outta here,” Ealey says. “I always had a bit of a stomach problem – and still do today. I told my mama: ‘My stomach’s botherin’ me again, and we have to pay every time we go to Dr. Dumont’s office. But if you sign these papers, I can go to Meridian (Miss.) and go in the Service and get a full physical for free.’”
From childhood when he worked in the family’s fields, Theodis had watched the jets streaking overhead and dreamed about being a pilot. “I didn’t have enough education to know that you have to be an officer with a college degree,” he admits. “I signed up, and when I went in and told ‘em, the guy laughed and said: ‘The only thing we got left if you wanna fly is aerial photography.’
“They gave me three choices: aerial photography, cook and Air Policeman (the precursor to what’s now known as the Air Force Security Forces). That’s why I don’t sign nothin’ today without readin’ – because he said ‘Sign right here’ and I did! Then, when I got outta basic trainin’, they told me I was an Air Policeman because they didn’t assign any blacks back then to anything but cook or Air Police.
“So Mississippi got me again!”
The bright spot was that he was given the opportunity to choose from three possible places for assignment, and he chose Hawaii. His entire outlook on the world and his place in it changed dramatically during the six years he spent there.
“I’d known nothin’ (back home) but goin’ to Sunday school and playin’ with my brothers,” he admits. “But they didn’t expose me to nothin’ either. They’d take me to the gigs and then go right back home.”
He formed his first band on the islands, married his first wife and fathered two daughters, before relocating to Oakland after his discharge, where both YZ and Melwin had established themselves on the blues scene. All three brothers spent service time with Big Mama Thornton, and YZ worked with L.C. “Good Rockin’” Robinson.
Theodis slowly developed his own playing style – which incorporates blues, country, soul and more — while sharing the stage with Johnny Copeland, Richard “Dimples” Fields, the Blues Brothers, Charles Brown, Little Milton, Johnny Copeland and vocalist EC Scott, with whom he’s recently been working on a new album that will raise funds for a charity.
Ealey spent 20 years in the Bay Area, making his recording debut with “A Christmas Wish” on the Banshee label and following that up with a succession of singles on the Chelan and Optune imprints. He also recorded a 45 with Little Richard’s sax player, Bill Hemmins, learned the inside-outs of the music business from legendary R&B producer Bob Geddins and founded his own label, IFGAM – an acronym for “I Feel Good About Myself,” too.
Always in demand because he was a guitarist who could sing, too, Theodis’ career got another boost when jazz organist Talmadge Grundy hired him for his group, The Triple Sounds, a trio that included percussionist Benny Bolton, best known for his work with the Edwin Hawkins Singers, then moving on to join Bobby Reed & the Surpize Band for a while before founding his own group.
He’s been based in Atlanta since 1994 – a move that he made with trepidation, but one that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Wife Linda – now a key part of his stage act — was on the verge of losing her job at AT&T after the company was forced to split into regional Baby Bells after the federal government had ruled it a monopoly. But her boss offered up a modicum of good news: there was a position waiting for her in Georgia if she wanted it.
“We weren’t goin’ at first,” Theodis says. “But then we got to thinkin’. She’d have to start all over and lose all the benefits she’d build up over 15 or 16 years. She said: ‘Let’s go there,’ and I said: ‘I can work anywhere.’
“We thought the move was for her. But a month after we got here, I was playin’ at Blind Willie’s (the city’s long-running home of the blues). They’d hire musicians to back me up, and, one night, they sent me this guy – Buzz Amato — who wasn’t really a blues player. But I heard him back there, tinklin’ on that keyboard – and we had so-o-o much fun!
“At the end of the night, he said: ‘Are you with a record company?’ I said: ‘No, I have my own label.’ We were sittin’ at the bar, drinkin’, and he said: ‘Well, I’m the producer for Ichiban Records. I don’t produce the blues, but my friend, Brian Cole, does. I’d like to bring Brian back to hear ya, and I’d like you to be the very first blues artist I produce. I like your playin’, and you’re more progressive’ and stuff.’
“I come to find out…Curtis Mayfield had just died, and he had been the keyboard player for Curtis Mayfield!
“I got signed to Ichiban after all those years of tryin’ (to secure a deal with a label),” he says. “In the universe, the move to Georgia really was for me!”
Founded in the mid-‘80s, Ichiban was a power player in the industry, recruiting top talent across the board as it specialized in all forms of black American music. In addition to Mayfield and The Chi-Lites, their roster included Clarence Carter, Eddie Floyd, Bobby Rush, Artie “Blues Boy” White, Gary B.B. Coleman, The Nighthawks, Bob Margolin, Tom Principato, Trudy Lynn, Clarence Carter, Gary B.B. Coleman and dozens more.
Beginning with Headed Back to Huntsville in 1992 and including If You Leave Me, I’m Goin’ Wit’ Cha, Stuck Between Rhythm & Blues and Raw and billing himself as either The Bluesman Lover or The Bluesman in Black, Theodis released four successful albums in six years, building audiences with a combination of electrifying stage presence, personal charm and original material loaded with sexual innuendo and witty double entendre.
“They started sendin’ me to Europe and all those places,” he remembers fondly. He appeared in the NBC-TV movie, A Kiss to Die For, starring Mimi Rogers and Tim Matheson, the Emmy-winning HBO special Miss Evers’ Boys, the movie The Fighting Temptations and commercials for Rooms to Go and and Cartoon Network. Among other honors, he was male artist of the year in the 1997 Mo’ Better Blues Awards.
When Ichiban closed its doors years after a 15-year run, Ealey started up IFGAM up again, infused a little soul into his act and released It’s a Real Good Thang in 2002. “But I wasn’t makin’ any money,” he says. “I was used to goin’ over to Europe and makin’ a decent livin’. But you gotta know the right people who know the right people, and (after Ichiban folded) I didn’t have the contacts.”
For Theodis, it was pretty discouraging – a feeling that was amplified at the time by the realization that many of his fellow black artists were “being run all over the country and playin’ with pickup bands” for $300 or $400 a night.
“I told my wife that ‘I’m not gonna run all over this highway, playin’ for little or nothin’. I’m gonna get me a day job,’” he says. “I wasn’t gonna quit (music), but I wasn’t gonna try to do it for a livin’, but play on the weekend. But before I do, I said, I’m gonna see if I can put this song together about ‘stand up in it.’”
Ealey co-wrote the tune with El’ Willie, a well-respected keyboard and sax player friend who also doubles as a producer and who handled the sequencing on the cut.
“I didn’t put it out, but I left it with a deejay in Natchez and didn’t do anything to promote it,” Theodis remembers. “About six weeks later, I get a call a friend, the daughter of YZ’s trumpet player. She was the manager of WTYJ in Natchez. She says: ‘Hey, man! I’ve been playin’ all your music, and you’ve got a hit – but you ain’t given it to me!’
“I’d given the song to another deejay, and YZ had told me not to release it because ‘our mother would turn over in her grave if I did’ that!”
Going against his brother’s advice, Ealey asked Mary to burn the song to disc for him, and he mailed it off. “A week later,” he says, “she called me back and said: ‘Hey, man! I’m gettin’ a lot of stations out of Jackson and all around who want that song.
“So I burned her another 50 copies. It spread from Natchez all the way to Frankie’s One-Stop (a firm that legally provides distribution and copyright protection for artists) in Shreveport, La. Frankie called me and wanted to know how he could get a hold of the record so he could sell it.
“I said: ‘I don’t know. I just burn a few CDs. I ain’t put it out yet.’ He said: ‘Ya know, blues don’t have no singles.”
Fortunately, however, young black artists in other fields had just started releasing what’s now known as maxi-singles: multiple versions of the same song targeted for different audiences, and Ealey quickly created Southern soul, club and explicit versions of “Stand Up in It.” Using their home computer, Linda burned copies and placed them in generic black CD cases purchased from Office Depot and then affixed a bar code that a friend had created to track sales.
“We cut a deal with him for 400,” Theodis says. “We sent ‘em on Monday, and on Thursday, he called me back and wanted 400 more. Not long after that, I was in my basement and got a call from Billboard magazine. It was the person who does the blues charts, and he wanted to talk about ‘Stand Up in It.’ He wanted to know what it was.
“I told him: ‘It’s not blues. It’s not soul. It’s just a good song.’ I come to find out that, when it came out, it charted No. 64 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles chart.”
Ealey had already established a pressing and promotion agreement with Alpine Records, the company run by Al Bell, the former deejay who produced hits at Stax in the ‘60s and eventually took over ownership of the label. Almost overnight, the song hit No. 1, a position it maintained for five consecutive weeks, during which it also debuted in the No. 5 spot on the blues chart. The song subsequently was honored a prestigious Jackson (Miss.) Music Award as its single of the year, and Theodis took home its Little Milton Award trophy as national blues act of the year, too.
“It was a real life-changer,” Ealey says. He followed it up with a full-length CD of the same name, working with producer Bruce Billups, filling it out with some of the tracks that appeared previously on It’s a Real Good Thang because, by his own admission, “it wasn’t doin’ nothin’.” Debuting No. 3 on Billboard’s blues chart, it stayed in the Top Ten for months.
“Some people today hear ‘Stand Up in It’ and say that I’m singin’ nasty,” Ealey says. “But I tell ‘em: ‘All I’m doin’ is singin’ about one of the very first Commandments that God gave to man: ‘And God told man to go forth, be fruitful and multiply.’
“’How you gonna be fruitful and multiply if you don’t stand up in it? (laughs)’”
He hit pay dirt again with the song “Francine,” which appeared on Makecents Records’ Bruce Billups Productions Southern Soul/Urban Mix compilation in 2006, quickly following it up with two more CDs, the self-produced Let Me Put the Head in It and I’m the Man You Need, and Live, a 2009 production of juke joint-style blues that featured a guest appearance from Latimore. His deep love for music country surfaced in 2013 with the soul-infused album, You and I, Together.
“I had a helluva lotta of hits,” he says. But a blues artist, it’s been both somewhat of a blessing and a curse. “The funny part about it is that all I was playin’ was for a long time after that was the so-called chittlin’ circuit at civic centers and stuff.
“Ya see, black people call Southern soul — Tyrone Davis and all those guys, Latimore, Clarence Carter– blues. But whites don’t consider that blues. If you listen to B.B. King’s (so-called) Bluesville on Sirius/XM, the only blacks you hear on there is the dead ones…other than maybe Keb’ Mo, Kingfish and Buddy Guy! You don’t hear Ronnie Baker Brooks – one of the baddest young guitar players I’ve ever heard. You don’t hear Kenny Neal too much.
“And there’s another brother outta Mississippi that they don’t play, too…Mr. Sipp. He should get as much play on Bluesville as anybody! Sure, my little brother Kingfish plays rock style, but he’s playin’ the blues. They call it Bluesville, but it’s more rock-ish now than anything else. It’s a shame the way they do that!
“Tune in and you’ll hear him now, but most everything else you hear is my young white brothers – which I love…don’t get me wrong! I’m not one of those blues musicians who say ‘if you’re white, you can’t play the blues.’
“I ain’t sayin’ that ‘cause I know some bad, ba-a-ad white players who can play the shit outta ‘em. Stevie Ray Vaughan is one of the greatest blues players I ever heard. He’s a clone of Albert King and Jimi Hendrix, but he’s the one who made (younger) white people start listenin’ to the blues.
“But, then again, I must be honest…but black people, a lot of ‘em wanna say the whites stole the blues from us. But the white people didn’t steal anything. They found it, and they liked it.
“The young white artists loved it and started playin’ it,” Theodis says. “They cultivated it. They started it out in small, old clubs and it grew up into festivals and stuff. And the blacks, we didn’t do nothin’ to keep it alive – somethin’ that I understand completely.
“Today, all the black folks have turned their backs on guitar-pickin’ blues. I used to be mad…angry about it. But it’s the truth!”
The bottom line, Ealey says, is that the success he’s now a star in the black community, but he’s pretty much cut off from the primarily white mainstream blues community that’s also been his home and that he loves. Having witnessed Theodis in action of prior to “Stand Up in It” at the Bamboo Room in Lake Worth, Fla., in 2001 while on the first date with the love of my life, this writer has seen it firsthand. Back then, he played to an adoring, overwhelmingly white audience who danced to his music all night long.
Today, he makes an occasional appearance on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise. But other than that, he’s playing 30-minute sets in six-artist showcases on the chittlin’ circuit across the South, shows that used to feature heavyweights Bobby “Blue” Bland, Denise LaSalle and other bonafied blues artists.
As time passed and artists of their generation crossed over, the lineups – and the music itself — changed dramatically. The younger generation that stepped up to take their rightful place have incorporated contemporary soul, hip-hop and rap elements, gradually moved farther and farther away from what most white audiences members would consider “true” blues.
As an example, the most recent time, this writer and Theodis crossed paths came in Charlotte, N.C., a few months prior to COVID-19 in 2019, when he was booked on what was billed as the third annual Queen City Blues Festival in a lineup that included two other longtime music veterans: Roy C, who was a star in ‘60s soul-blues, and Lenny Williams, who rose to fame as the lead singer in Tower of Power in the ‘70s.
Also sharing the spotlight that night were Calvin Richardson, a mid-40s artist who’s billed as The King of Soul and delivers a modern version of old-school stylings, as well as Lacee and Pokey Bear, neither of whom would fit into the concept “blues artists” that’s maintained by younger, white blues fans.
“You’d have to dig deep to dig Pokey,” Theodis chuckles. A powerful, larger-than-life performer who hails from Louisiana and stands under five-feet tall, Pokey’s version of “blues” comes in the form of intense, rap-infused lyrics delivered with backing from beats from a boom box instead of a live band.
“The reason I love country-and-Western music is that I grew up in Mississippi and grew up on it,” Ealey notes. “I think it’s one of the best musics that’s ever been made. But a black guy who lives in New York, he don’t wanna hear no country music. Pokey’s talkin’ that black street talk.
“But ’Stand Up in It’ is black street talk, too. I don’t understand it. It’s my biggest song. But when they put me on a festival, they ask me not to do it. It don’t make sense. Who’s comin’ to see me and don’t wanna hear ‘Stand Up in It’?
“It’s like tellin’ Latimore he can’t sing ‘Let’s Straighten It Out.’”
Ealey admits that he makes a decent living on the chittlin’ circuit, playing big, weekend shows and not having to tour the way he used to, but he misses hitting the blues crowds he used to play for on festival circuit and in Europe, too.
“I played the Chicago Blues Festival,” he notes, “and did the same show on the main stage there that I do on the chittlin’ circuit, me and Koko Taylor. And the people stayed in the rain when I played. I used to be angry about all this. But once I got to thinkin’. I finally realized the reason it’s so big now is (because of) my white brothers and sisters.”
Theodis remains grateful that he’s frequently called upon to perform on blues cruises – a relationship that began after Roger Nabor, who invented the franchise, caught Ealey in action at the Monterey Blues Festival in California years ago.
“He immediately started booking me,” Ealey says. “I notice do notice, though, when I’m on the lido deck (a large outside stage) in the (high-traffic) pool area, I always have a big crowd. But when I play the main showroom (inside), it’s different, and I think the reason is that most folks have never heard of me because of the fact that blues stations like Sirius/XM and all them, they don’t play me.
“But I thank Roger so much for the opportunity he’s given me.”
While it’s a blessing that he has a major following in the Southern soul scene, he’s also grateful to have fans on the blues side of the street, too. A deeply spiritual man despite the sexually charged themes of many of his tunes, he delivered a little homespun religion to close out the interview.
“I know that some people don’t believe in the Bible, but I do,” he says. “The last verse of Ecclesiastes reads: ‘Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.’ And I think you don’t have to be a Christian to do what those commandments ask us to do. They’ll fit any religion!”
Check out Theodis’ music and find out where he’ll be playing next by visiting his website:www.theodisealey.com