Friday, April 30, 2010

Say No Mo' Than Chizmo

Chizmo Charles and the Rhythm Aces

OK, gang, who is he: He was selected as Pittsburgh's 1995 R & B Singer of the Year by the Blues Society, repeated in 1996, and won yet again in 1997. He was rated by the City Paper's readers to be among the area's top three bluesmen in 2004 & 2006.

He's played about every blues festival and club in the City from the Decade to the The Inn'Termission in his five decade and counting career. He's a recorded artist. Oh, he's also a member of the Pittsburgh Music Hall of Fame. He's known widely as "Pittsburgh’s Senior Statesman of the Blues" (although we prefer "Godfather of Pittsburgh Soul").

Give up? It's "Chizmo Charles" Anderson, still going strong after eighty plus years.

Anderson was born on the Allegheny River slopes between Polish Hill and Lawrenceville, weaned on the classic tunes of Billy Eckstine, Joe Williams, Lena Horne, Nancy Wilson, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Ray Charles.

But he wasn't interested in crooning like them; Anderson spent his early years as a hoofer, and was a renowned local jitterbug dancer into his late twenties. Though dancing was his raison d'etre, he would also sing along as he flashed his feet.

And pretty dang well, too. Guys would try to get him to join their bands, but he held off, unsure of his ability, until his bud, drummer Eugene Betts, got him on a Northside stage with his group. His first tune was the blues standard popularized by Joe Williams in 1952, "Everyday I Have the Blues." Chizmo never looked back.

Of course, he had a little learning to do; he didn't even know what key he wanted his songs played in. Heck, at first, he didn't even know what "key" meant. No problem; the musicians followed his lead, and Anderson carried on.

He said that he's sat in with every player in town, and at one point early in his career, he even sang for a country and polka band - there's a combo for ya - named Unity before finally making a name for himself in the blues and R&B scene.

He made the rounds on the local circuit, playing regularly at the Station Square Crawford Grill and the Blues Cafe and gigging everywhere from the Panther Room to the James Street to Paparazzis.

Chizmo has worked with Gene Ludwig, Bubs McKeg, Johnny Smoothe, Rodney McCoy, and Randall Troy among many others, and played with the Blues Orphans and the Mystic Knights.

His recording debut was in 1991, on the CD "Live Blues Breakout" with the Mystic Knights. That work included the song, "Spread Yourself Around," with a popular video of Anderson and the band in an Iron City Beer commercial featuring the tune. His first release as the star artist would come a few years later.

That was for Blue Leaf Records in January 1998, when he fronted the "Up All Night" CD, at the tender age of 70. It was reissued in 2003 by Dom DiSilvio on his Decade Records imprint.

You want to talk about some studio personnel who help pump out the sounds on that record? How about Ron "Byrd" Foster (vocals, drums); Dr. James Johnson (piano): the four-piece Midnight Horns, featuring Kenny Blake (alto & tenor sax) and Robbie Klein (tenor & baritone sax), and his Mystic Knight buds: Gil Snyder (keyboards), Jim "Doc" Dougherty (guitarist who wrote half of the songs & produced the album), Jimmy "The Penguin" King (harp), and Tom Garner (drums)?

Other players were bassists Bobby Boswell and Del Rey Reynolds, the late James King on harp, sax man Rick Modery, trumpeteer Danny Donohoe and background vocalists Chuck Beatty and Michelle Michelle.

"Bed Bug Boogie" was the hot track. It won high praise from Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records and Blues Revue magazine. The National Association of R&B DJ's selected the tune as one of the Top 50 Rhythm & Blues Dance Songs of 1999 (#33, actually).

Following the CD reissue, Anderson toured the northeast and got to open some nights for B.B. King. Hey, during one 2004 show in New England, the fans baked him a 75th birthday cake. He even got a small sip of radio love from WYEP’s Saturday evening blues shows and on "Nightflight: The Original Quiet Storm," aired on WLSW.

Chizmo's on a few other disks, too. He's got a couple of tracks on 2001's Blue Leaf "Leaflets V-1" compilation along with Gene Ludwig, and the 2003 BSWPA’s CD, “Blues from the Burg.” He even did a little work on Guitar Zack Wiesinger's initial album. Still, he's a vastly under-recorded artist, a familiar Pittsburgh tale.

Though you'd never know it from the fun-loving, wisecracking Anderson, life hasn't always been one big party. He was assaulted at the age of 75 during a home invasion and robbery in Homewood in 2004.

But Pittsburgh watches after its own. The Blues Society put together a concert for Chizmo, and what was initially planned as a benefit show turned into a night of tribute. Warren King and the Mystic Knights, Norman Nardini, Wil E. Tri and the Bluescasters, and The West End Project performed for Anderson.

It was only fair; not only has Chizmo paid his dues many times over, but he's been a mentor and friend to a huge cast running the gamut of local talent, people like Pittsburgh and guitarist Jim Hamel, blues diva Jill West, R&B man Billy Price, rockers Norm Nardini and Hermie Granati, plus countless more.

To understand the man, you have to catch him live. Virtually his entire career has been spent at clubs, not stadiums, and he has a presence the audience loves. To him, the stage isn't a destination, just a jumping-off point.

Sporting a trademark cap, Chizmo will wander along the bar, and stop at all the tables, singing ballads to lovestruck couples and then some R&B for the single girls (hey, he may be eighty something, but he ain't dead). All eyes are on him, and he has a rap that endears him to the crowd, slappin' skin as he makes the rounds. He owns the house.

Now he plays regularly with The Rhythm Aces at The Inn'Termission Lounge in South Side and with the Soul Merchants at the Rhythm House in Bridgeville, with gigs in between. And if you think it's hard for an old act to get a booking, try googling Chizmo; Old Mon got thirteen pages of hits, and 12-1/2 were announcing his showtimes.

(Old Mon thanks Julie Toye of the Herald-Standard, whose 2005 article on Chizmo is the definitive work on his career, and was heavily leaned on in this post)

Chizmo Charles - Angel Eyes
(Not Curtis Lee's pretty little, but the 1962 Dave Bruback tune)

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