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MUSIC BIG JOE DUSKIN : All Keyed Up : At 70, he is the king of boogie-woogie mainly because of attrition and good genes--he has outlived all the other players.

April 25, 1991|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Big Joe Duskin, the "King of the Boogie-Woogie Piano" who tore up the recent Ojai Bowlful of Blues, is coming back to the 805 area code for a show in Ventura and one in Santa Barbara.

Duskin, 70, is the king mainly from attrition and good genes--he has outlived all the other boogie-woogie players. There are plenty of other players, but none has Duskin's experience.

He still plays often in Cincinnati and does the blues festival circuit, goes to Europe and generally plays wherever and whenever. He's played Santa Barbara before, even Santa Paula, and this time will be backed by local blues dude Randy Norris and his band, Full Degree.

Duskin almost quit boogie-woogie before he really got going. It was pressure from a higher source--his father, a fire-and-brimstone preacher. When Big Joe's dad caught him playing anything but gospel music on the piano, it was Beat City.

So Big Joe, after a thrashing, made a deal with his dad: No more boogie-woogie as long as the old man was alive. This seemed like a better deal than Schwarzkopf and 14 points since the elder Duskin was almost 80. The old man lived to be 105, and Big Joe got a day job and quit boogie-woogie. But Big Joe is back.

Duskin learned his trade from the masters: Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis and Freddie Slack. They're all gone, but Big Joe will be here next week.

In a recent late-night telephone interview from Cincinnati, Big Joe discussed the life and times of boogie-woogie piano.

How often do you play?

Well, I play quite often. I play Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday in Cincinnati. And I go out on the road as often as people want me, which lately has been a lot. I guess they like me. Cincinnati is mostly a rock 'n' roll town, not too much blues--people like jazz. But the people that come to see me like me because I don't blues 'em to death.

How many records do you have?

Let's see . . . five or six. I got one from Germany. Another from Belgium. One from England that went to No. 6 on the charts about a year ago. They really dig my stuff in England--they don't want you to quit playing. I only have one album on an American label.

What is boogie-woogie?

Well, it's fast and jazzy with a lot of bass. It's all mixed up. Sometimes, there's singing, sometimes not.

Where did it come from?

I believe it came from a guy named Pinetop Smith. He was around in the '20s, made a very few records. I think he gave it the name boogie-woogie. Before that, it was called something like "the 12s." I don't remember, for sure.

How did you get started playing?

Well, I'd play at home on our piano. I'd play a while and my dad would say, 'Get that kid out of here.' Then my uncle would say, 'Let him alone. Let him play.' I listened to all those old 78s of Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and guys like that. My main man, the guy that inspired me, was this white guy, Freddie Slack. Later, when I was in the Army, I met and played with Ammons and Johnson and a bunch of other good players too.

What was the strangest gig you ever played?

One time I played with four other piano players, but I topped that another time when I played with six other guys. There were seven grand pianos all at once. That was really something.

Obviously, pianos are too big to carry around, so what do you do when you travel?

Well, I do carry one around in Cincinnati. It's a Yamaha PF85. That's what I like to have when I play. You can change in a split second; it sounds great. When you get it goin', man, the bass just talks to you. In California, I'm going to use a grand piano.

What's the best and worst thing about your job?

The best thing is when I can see the people sit down and listen or even sing or dance if they want to. The worst thing is if I don't get no place to play. Sometimes, I can't get no work, but lately, it's been good.

Is boogie-woogie getting bigger, smaller or just staying the same?

It's getting real good. People are starting to want it more and more. Rock 'n' roll and rap--that stuff is fading away. Blues and boogie is gonna get big.

Who goes to your shows?

Mostly white audiences. There are some great white blues players now--Bill Clarke, Charlie Musselwhite. These white guys are really taking to it.

What's the devil's music?'

My old man called everything that wasn't gospel music, the devil's music. That old man used to beat the devil out of me if he caught me playing the blues. One time I was playing the blues at this girl's house--Geneen, she's dead now. Anyway, he caught me and took after me with a bullwhip. I ran away and hid out for a couple of hours, but my mom got worried, so I went back home. We made this agreement that I wouldn't play any more of that music. At the time, he was 79, but when he got to be over 105, I thought "God, this guy is gonna live longer than Methuselah." When the old man finally passed away, I had quit playing, but this local guy named Steve Tracy got me going again.

Describe Big Joe music.

Well, it's very good. People seem to like the bass stuff I do. There's a lot of dancing.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Big Joe Duskin with Randy Norris and Full Degree at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Felix's Cantina, 525 State St., Santa Barbara, and for five bucks, such a deal. 962-1432. (Also Monday at Alexander's in Ventura at Harbor Boulevard and Schooner Drive. Call 658-2000 for information.)

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