I received the phone call I’d been waiting for. Joe Cuoghi, the owner of Poplar Tunes music store, had some good news for me.
“Eddie, my partner talked to a gentleman who plays at one of the clubs on Beale.”
“Yes. John says this man is willing to meet you.”
“Maybe he was surprised that I’m a white boy who wants to learn the blues.”
“You may be right. Anyway, he’ll be at the Purple Diamond on Beale this Saturday, and if you’re there around six before the crowds arrive, he’ll talk with you then. His name is Carl Ray Johnson.” He said the man’s name slowly.
“Ok. Let me write that down.” I scribbled 6, Sat., Purple Diamond and the man’s name in my composition notebook. “Thanks for arranging this, Mr. Cuoghi.”
“My pleasure, Eddie. Good luck and hope to see you at the store soon.”
My dad and I went to the club on Saturday night. I took my guitar with me to show Carl Ray. We approached the bartender and asked him to direct us to him.
“Hey, Carl Ray! Some guys here to see you!”
A Negro gentleman, around sixty, looked in our direction. “Give me a few minutes, guys,” he said to two other men who were also standing by the stage.
My dad and I walked closer to the end of the bar to meet him. Carl Ray was wearing a dark brown suit, a brown tie, and a bright yellow shirt. The handkerchief in his suit pocket was an even brighter yellow. He smiled widely as he walked over to us.
“Mr. Johnson, I’m Edward Paxton and this is my son Eddie.” My father shook his hand.
“Yes, sir.” I extended my hand to him but he didn’t take it.
“You got another name? Like a real guitarist’s name?”
I was surprised by that question. “Well, sir, my family calls me Junior.”
“Junior? Yeah, that’s better.” He shook my hand firmly. “Nice to meet you, Junior… What was it again?”
“Junior Paxton.” He rubbed his hands together and then straightened out his tie. “Getting better.” That’s when I noticed the thick gold ring with a large aqua gem on his right pinky finger. He reclined on the table next to us. “This here, your instrument?”
“Yes, sir. I practice a lot. But I wanna work with a professional.”
“That’s right, Mr. Johnson. I think my boy is good, but you know, he needs guidance.”
“Well, well, Junior Paxton, what have you got for me? Are you as good as your daddy says you are?”
I grabbed a chair from the table and sat down. Mr. Johnson straightened up and stood next to my father.
“First thing, you need a place to put your foot. You know, for balance.” He tapped on the bar and said, “Hey, Don, you got some phone books over there?”
“Sure do.” He bent down and placed two phone books on the counter.
Carl Ray grabbed them. “Here, put your left foot on these,” Carl Ray commanded.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Second rule. Don’t call me sir. We ain’t in no army. Call me…” He smiled widely. “Mr. Johnson.”
“OK, Mr. Johnson.” This guy was making me sweat.
“Ah, kid, I’m just foolin’ you.” He smiled that bright smile again. “If we’re gonna work together, we gotta be on the same level, you know. Call me Mr. Carl Ray.
“OK. Mr. Carl Ray. Sir.”
“Real funny, Mr. Junior Paxton, Sir.” He patted me on the back, and said, “Now let’s see what you’re made of.”
I took a deep breath and played my heart out. I strummed, and picked, and played the few blues riffs I knew. I played for a little over one minute, the longest minute of my life so far. When I was done, some men at the bar clapped.
“Well, well, it looks like you got yourself some fans already.”
“I told them my father would buy them a beer if they clapped for me,” I teased.
Carl smiled. “Well, beer or no beer, you deserve some applause.”
I sighed with relief. The men clapped again, and this time, my dad joined in.
“You’re a little sloppy, here and there, probably your nerves, but nothing ol’ Carl Ray can’t help you with.”
“So, you’ll be my teacher?”
“Yeah, why not? You seem like a good kid. But I’m warning you, I’m gonna work you hard.”
“I kinda got that feeling. But I’m ready.”
“All right, rule number…” He scratched his head. “What number was I on?”
“That would be three. Foot and don’t call you sir,” I said as I counted on my fingers.
“Good, good. I was testing you. Well, this one’s the real number one.” He punctuated the second one with his ringed pinky. “You gotta practice every day.”
“Now, don’t go skipping your schoolwork or nothin’. I don’t want you catching heat from your folks. But playing guitar is an art; you gotta work hard at it.”
“I know that, and I’m grateful for the chance.” I stood up and shook his hand.
“Now, I’m gonna talk money with the big Mr. Paxton here, and you…” he pointed at me with his gemmed finger. “Come back here next Saturday, five sharp. You know, before you go cruisin’ for chicks.”
“I’ll be here.”
“I’m gonna work you for about forty-five minutes or until your fingers bleed.” He finished the sentence with his big smile.
“I look forward to it, Mr. Carl Ray. Thank you and see you in one week. Sharp.” I pointed my pinky finger at him.
“You’re gonna need a fancy ring, you know.”
“I guess I’ll have to earn it, Mr. Carl Ray Sir.”
“I like you, Junior Paxton. I like you a lot.”
I grabbed my guitar and left with a smile almost as big as Carl Ray’s.
Blues City Cafe
Dyer’s Burgers on Beale Street, fried since 1912.
Find out more about this classic burger joint: http://www.dyersonbeale.com
Original Photography by Margarita R. Kurtz, 2013.