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This bluesman knows whereof he sings

Artwork Jamal was convinced he'd become a famous entertainer or a music engineer. Then the voices of schizophrenia showed up. Now, 350 pounds and in ill health, he mesmerizes audiences singing about the travails that never seem to end.

May 31, 2011|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times
  • Blues singer Artwork Jamal performs at the Alexandria Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. The recognition he's received for his singing talent has yet to ease his hard-knocks life.I sing the blues. I live the blues," the 45-year-old says. Hes been living them and fighting them since he was young.
Blues singer Artwork Jamal performs at the Alexandria Hotel in downtown… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

Things were just beginning to pick up at the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard when in the private bar upstairs, the big man took the stage. His voice, deep and gravelly, rumbled through the room.

"If ya'll love the blues, let me hear you say, yeah!"

Soon, he had the room grooving:

Ah, oh, smokestack lightning, shinin', just like gold. Why don't ya hear me cryin'? Ah, whoo hoo!

When Artwork Jamal plays here — in a crisp white shirt and a lavender tie — the crowd is mesmerized. He falls to one knee and serenades the ladies. He hawks his CDs, "free — with a $15 handling fee." He sticks around after he's earned his $50 and enjoys prime rib on the house.

Then he's back to his tiny skid row studio and his mountain of pills — for diabetes, lung disease, congestive heart failure and for the voices that can creep into his head. Back to hustling for a buck to buy a taco.

At the pawn shop on Broadway, they know Jamal by heart: first name, last name, date of birth.

He shows up each month — 350 pounds in a motorized wheelchair — to hand over his speakers, his amplifiers, his computer, his wife's wedding ring. When things get really bad, he brings in his two guitars.

"That's the blues," said Jamal, 45. "I sing the blues. I live the blues."

He's been living them and fighting them since he was young.

It's how he was raised, never to give up.

::

His mother and grandmother weren't the kind to brook excuses. Artwork Jamal grew up in a Mid-Wilshire household where everything was meant to motivate: the books on the shelves, the posters on the wall, the chatter at the dinner table:

Get up, get busy, get active…. Nothing will take the place of persistence.... Always put your best foot forward.

Elizabeth Harris adopted him as a baby and named him Arthur Harris III. Six years later, she got him a little brother. With help from her mother, the Occidental College education professor raised Arthur and Nyles to shine.

They performed in talent shows and appeared in TV commercials. They were trained to sing and to play the piano and trumpet. One Christmas, Elizabeth got Arthur a keyboard synthesizer. The moment he saw it, parked in front of the tree, he fell in love.

For the first time, he could make up his own music. By 14, he was on his third band and determined to record a demo. His mother helped him make the pitch to Motown. "When the family attorney showed up with all these papers to sign, I thought I was ready to hit the big time," Jamal said. "I was ready to be Michael Jackson."

The deal, in the end, went nowhere, but it convinced Jamal that he could be a famous entertainer, or perhaps a top music engineer. After high school he seemed well on his way: He earned a spot at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.

It was then the voices showed up.

He started hearing them a few months before he was due to leave. Usually it was a man, issuing warnings. People were out to get him — on the street, outside his window. The neighbor. The cashier. The bus driver. When Elizabeth noticed, she rushed him to therapists, who diagnosed his illness as paranoid schizophrenia. They prescribed pills to help him fend off delusions at Berklee.

But the medicine hardly helped. He made it on a train only as far as Chicago before the voices got too strong and his mother had to fetch him. A few months later, he tried again. He was back within the week, on a plane ticket paid for with the semester's spending money.

"I said, 'Hey, I'm here,'" Jamal remembers. "I couldn't focus. I couldn't think. We knew then I needed to be close to home."

For nearly five years, starting at age 19, Jamal hardly left the house. He couldn't even make it to see Nyles graduate as high school valedictorian. He tried. He got into the car. But then he couldn't get out.

Get up, get busy, get active. His mother bought a thick book, "Surviving Schizophrenia: A Family Manual."

"That became our bible," Jamal said.

The only thing that hushed his head was music. He wrote songs and put them on tapes he labeled in neat letters: "Diary of a Schizophrenic," "Artwork's Faded Colors."

He dropped Arthur for Artwork, to express his creative nature. He later added Jamal in tribute to former Lakers star Jamaal Wilkes.

His childhood friend Thurman Green visited during those housebound days. "He was always focused on the music," Green said. "Like, 'Hey, listen to these tracks. Listen to these lyrics.'"

In his bedroom, Jamal had all he needed: a multi-track recorder, a mixing board, a computer, keyboards and speakers. He tinkered and practiced and, with help from magazines, taught himself the basics of record engineering.

At 25 he left home, the pills now keeping the voices at bay. He got a job at Paramount Recording Studios in Hollywood, making $8 an hour mixing tapes for artists.

Ten years later, he had his own little studio — Graphic Sounds Arts — with a staff of seven and a list of clients.

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