Some people associate blues music with the Mississippi Delta. Some people’s minds drift to Memphis, Tenn. Some think of John Hurt, Blind Lemon Jefferson, or even Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi dressed up as the Blues Brothers on a mission. But when Maurice Fields II thinks about the blues, he doesn’t think of any of those things – instead, he thinks about growing up in the 1960s in the Goldsboro district of Sanford.
“As a kid, we would run up and down the railroad tracks and see these old guys playing on the back porch,” Fields says. “Most of them didn’t have as many teeth in their heads as strings on the guitar.”
Fields, 54, was born and raised in Sanford, a sleepy Central Florida city whose downtown looks and feels like an easy blues riff, with First Street serving as a more modest version of Beale Street.
In the 1880s, his family, many of whom were farmers and railroad workers, settled in the city, which at that time was known as an agricultural town famous for its citrus (and later, celery). Modern history has not been kind to Sanford, which earned a national reputation as the location of the 2012 shooting of 16-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. But for those who’ve lived here, and for whom the city is in their bones and blood, Sanford is more than the sum of that tragic crime. It’s also a city with a rich history and musical tradition that once made it a vital part of the chitlin’ circuit, an unofficial network of clubs and venues, particularly along the East Coast, throughout parts of the Midwest and in the South, that were known to welcome African-American performers through the segregated 1960s. The chitlin’ circuit, named for the Southern soul delicacy of stewed pig intestines, was for the black community what the borscht belt was for Jewish performers.
Fields, who co-owned a blues club in the 1970s and has traveled up and down the coast playing as a guitarist in a bunch of bands, says his love of music was nurtured by Sanford’s old bluesmen. He says he and his friends would see old-timers jam on guitar while others played along on pots and pans. That sound was part of the fabric of the town in the 1960s, he says.
Fields recalls meeting a “little old black gentleman” named David Butler while riding a motorcycle down the street in Sanford one day. Butler noticed that Fields had a guitar strapped on the back of his motorcycle and asked if he played the blues. Fields said yes and returned the question.
“He reached down in his sock and pulled out the most dangerous-looking harmonica I have ever seen,” he says. “It was rusted, but he began to whoop on it. He was a one-man band with just that.”
Particularly in the heart of the community of Goldsboro, once an independent African-American city that was annexed by Sanford in 1911, a musical community flourished. Along 13th Street, Fields recalls, bars and clubs hosted all kinds of talent.
“[The chitlin’ circuit] was an undefined network of juke joints and clubs, mostly throughout the South and sometimes making its way up to the north,” Fields says. “[It] was made of itinerant musicians that would travel by either cars or old, renovated school buses.”
Buses full of touring musicians, a lot of them from Georgia, would roll into town around sunset, Fields says, pulling up to now-extinct joints like the Do Duck Inn, Perlie Mae Brown’s, Goldsboro Bar, Two Spot and others.
In the early to mid-1960s, the circuit was vital – racism and segregation made it hard for black entertainers to make a living, and it gave them a network of places to perform. But when Motown was founded and started to experience success introducing its sound to a wider audience, it transformed how blues music was perceived by mainstream Americans. It made blues music accessible to people of all colors, he says, and it proved wildly popular.
“It was new music for a new generation,” he says. “It crossed racial lines. At the time, it was needed.”
But even thousands of miles away from Motown’s home in Detroit, the mainstreaming of blues music (which was morphing into R&B) was having an impact. Black musicians didn’t need to travel the chitlin’ circuit to find work anymore, and blues music wasn’t just a niche interest.
As the elder generation died off in Sanford, Fields says, people weren’t jamming on back porches as much anymore. The stream of traveling musicians dried up. The old clubs and juke joints shuttered.
“Motown kind of killed the blues in a way,” he says. At least in small towns like Sanford.
In 1972, though, a blues revival of sorts began in a makeshift home studio in rural Lake County. Daytona native Robert Greenlee, who had played in high-school bands with Gregg and Duane Allman, had returned to his Florida home that year and turned his attention to music. He graduated from Yale in
1967 and received a bid from the Miami Dolphins to draft him for the team. He rejected the offer. Instead, Greenlee went to law school briefly. But his heart wasn’t really in it.
“Bob realized that he wasn’t cut out to be a lawyer and dropped out,” says Sonja Greenlee, widowed after Bob Greenlee died of pancreatic cancer in 2004. “He formed a New Haven-based band named Jim Ground and played all over the Northeast.” When they were done touring, Greenlee and bandmate Foster MacKenzie III (aka Root Boy Slim, whom we profiled in our May 7 cover story, “The legend of Root Boy Slim”), would return to Greenlee’s Lake County home and record in his studio. MacKenzie played with Greenlee in a college band called Young Prince LaLa and the Midnight Creepers, and later the two formed Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band, which became an underground blues sensation. “MacKenzie brought those tapes back to his hometown in Washington, D.C., where WHFS-FM 102.3, an independent alternative rock station, began to play them,” she says. Some of the songs, like “Boogie Till You Puke” and “You Broke My Mood Ring,” became cult hits despite (or perhaps because of) their unusual approach to songwriting.
Mrs. Greenlee says the songs her husband wrote with MacKenzie were surprisingly direct and brash. They covered substance abuse, mental instability (MacKenzie struggled with both substance abuse and mental illness) and politics.
In 1980, the members of the Sex Change Band parted ways. Greenlee moved to a house in Sanford built by his grandfather, a celery farmer named Roy Frank Symes. That house – or more accurately, an apartment above the garage – would soon become the home of King Snake Records, a label that helped put Sanford back on the blues music map again. Greenlee started the label because he had formed a band called the Midnight Creepers, Mrs. Greenlee says, named after his old college band. He tried to get the band some attention, but quickly grew frustrated because he wasn’t able to get a recording deal. So he built his own recording studio and formed his own label. “He dedicated his label to the music he grew up listening to on WLAC-AM 1500,” Mrs. Greenlee says. “The blues and roots rock.”
King Snake’s first release was Root Boy Slim’s 1984 album, Don’t Let This Happen to You. But it was Greenlee’s dedication to the dying art of Southern blues that really helped King Snake make a name for itself. Over the years, King Snake helped dozens of artists, some of whom had given up trying to make records, get their music before audiences. In an obituary written about Greenlee and published on the website WilliamVanDyke.com, international blues star Kenny Neal talks about how Greenlee traveled to Baton Rouge, La., to try to convince him to make a record with King Snake. “He believed in me more than what I thought I had in me,” Lee said at the time. “You just don’t get people too often who come to you and say you have a special talent. He meant that and he knew he wasn’t going to get rich off it.”
Over the course of 20 years that King Snake was in business, Greenlee worked with dozens of well-known blues artists. He recorded with the likes of Noble “Thin Man” Watts, B.B. King drummer Tony Coleman, James Peterson, Rufus Thomas, Raful Neal, Ernie Lancaster and more. On some of the records he made, he’d get guest appearances from high-profile musicians including James Taylor, Greg Allman, Johnny and Edgar Winter, Richie Havens and Taj Mahal.
“Between 1984 and when Bob fell ill in 2002, he produced over 100 albums at King Snake,” Mrs. Greenlee says, sitting outside on the front bench of the garage apartment that used to be King Snake. She has since renovated the second floor of the studio into an apartment again, but on the first floor, all things King Snake are stored.
“Lot of good times were spent outside on this bench,” she says with a smile. “Lots of funny smells going on.”
Like many fans of Southern blues music, Fields credits Greenlee with creating a place where struggling musicians – some of whom had yet to be discovered and others who had been all but forgotten – could gather, connect and record. During the ’80s, he sought out authentic musicians from the era of back-porch jams and old-school dives, and he also uncovered some unusual talent. In the same obituary in which Neal talks about Greenlee convincing him to record again, saxophone veteran Noble Watts gives Greenlee credit for reviving not just his career, but the entire Florida blues genre.
“I was in bad shape, and he revived my career,” Watts says. “I give him credit for keeping blues alive here, because it would have been dead if it hadn’t been for him.”
Fields says he thinks King Snake even developed its own particular sound – an authentic take on blues that combined the old sound with his own touch.
“It was funky blues,” Fields says. “[When I listened to something] I could just tell right away that it was a King Snake. Bob’s recording method felt more live than most blues albums. Others became so sterile and cleaned up. King Snake was earthy.”
In 2006, Mr. Greenlee’s achievements were posthumously acknowledged by the Florida Chapter of the Recording Academy – the same organization that awards the Grammys – for his contribution to the music world.
Without Greenlee and King Snake, the onus now falls on people like Fields and a handful of others to make sure Sanford doesn’t forget its connection to the blues.
Today, the best place to explore that connection is the Alley, a Sanford bar that sits inside a 1930s-era building on Park Avenue in Sanford’s historic district. The exterior makes it look like the kind of place where you’ll walk in to find dancing girls and guys playing three-card monte at the tables.
Inside, though, it’s got far more character than that. It’s a bar with tabletops and walls covered with words written in Sharpie marker that date back to its opening in 2004. The Foster Wallace Stage, named for a local musician, is the bar’s main focal point. Every Wednesday and Sunday night, Doc Williamson heads up a blues jam here where musicians can come to get to know one another and play together – just like they used to do on back porches in the ’60s and later at King Snake in the ’80s.
“Anyone can sign up,” Williamson says. “Doesn’t even matter how old you are or how bad you are – we are here to play music.”
Williamson, 62, was born in Iowa and moved to Seminole County in the early 1960s. He sits in with the makeshift band, playing keyboard. He wears a white fedora to match his long white goatee. There are years behind his voice and behind his playing.
“Ray Charles was it for me,” he says. “I heard that around 8 years old and it changed my life. I’ve been playing music ever since.”
The audience can tell that Williamson runs the show, not only because of the fliers that have his face superimposed on Uncle Sam’s, but his command of the stage and band.
The way Williamson sets up his blues jam is like most open mics: Sign up in a binder book and wait your turn for the stage. One of the factors that makes his jams so different is that people of all ages and all walks of life play together, some for the first time. Some of these people don’t know each other.
They don’t know all the songs. Some are still learning. But at the Alley, that just seems to be part of the show.
“We’ve had 12-year-olds on the stage, playing guitar beyond their years,” he says. “We also have singers in their early 80s belting out with amazing voices.”
Maurice Fields II and his 18-year-old son, Maurice Fields III, play at the Alley at least three times a week.
“My son grew up with this music in our house, from records to Pandora,” Fields says. “He was self-taught on the bass and drums at an early age. It’s up to the young generations to keep blues alive.”
At these blues jams, father and son can play with each other and also with people whose names they don’t even know. On one recent night, it was Fields and his son, a 17-year-old saxophone player from Winter Park, a middle-aged guitarist, a Canadian harmonica player in his 60s and Williamson.
Didn’t matter that they’d all just met for the first time. Didn’t matter that they didn’t know every song note for note. The blues is there. The blues comes out.
This is Sanford’s last blues bar. It could be argued that it’s even Central Florida’s last real blues bar.
“The Alley is a place where blacks, whites, bikers, rednecks and everybody else can come together,” Fields says. “It’s not black and white, it’s just the blues.”