Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Going Back Home: Chester D and Spain

Chester D. Wilson, cover art
by Spain Rodriguez. 1989.
Back in the late 1980’s before South Beach was populated by AT&T Park, million dollar condos and fine eats, it was a light industrial and working class neighborhood. There was a dive bar called Bouncer’s around Townsend and 2nd, that served up cheap burgers and beer to the ironworkers in the area, and a big helping of local blues every night.

My ex-husband Chris played blues guitar, and we owned an indie record label, Blue Jazz Records, which was a labor of love, primarily supported by my day job at Winterland Productions. We recorded blues & jazz bands that played places that are long gone, like the Last Day Saloon, the Lost & Found, the Blue Lamp, or the upstairs bar at the Paradise Lounge. The “big-time” gigs were the Fillmore, Slim’s, The Calalyst in Santa Cruz or Doc Ricket’s Lab in Monterey.

Chester D. Wilson (video) was one of our artists. When we were introduced to him at Bouncer’s, he was a 73 year old retired construction worker, playing country blues in the style of Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson.  It was Jefferson’s music that inspired Chester to build his own guitar as a young man and start playing juke joints around his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana. One night at a dance, a white man shot him in the left hand. Chester would always explain that although a white man took away his ability to play then, a white man also took him to the hospital and made sure he was taken care of. “We are all just people,” he would say, “everybody’s good and bad.”

Chester moved with his father to work in the shipyards during WWII, and stayed in the Bay Area, working as a laborer and in construction. At the suggestion of Sonny Boy Holmes, an old friend, Chester taught himself to play the guitar left-handed. It took him a long time, but he was dedicated and began playing gigs again. After he retired, he started to play more regularly, and would play at the 24th and Mission BART station just to get out and stay in practice.

Chester at the Fillmore! Poster by
Whit Clifton (Wolfgang's Vault)
In 1989, we recorded him live to 2 track analog tape at Sound & Vision, a small studio south of Market. Most of the songs were solo, with occasional backup from Peter Chase on blues harp and Gary Bergman on rhythm guitar (Waterfront Blues Band). We included short interview segments between the songs, so people could hear Chester's story in his own words. When we started talking about cover art, he said that he’d met an artist while playing at the BART station that promised him a drawing. So that’s how we got a beautiful portrait of Chester by Spain Rodriguez for the cover. At the time, we could only afford to release the album on cassette, giving half the batch to Chester to sell at his gigs. He loved Spain's art, and Spain gave him the cover drawing as a gift.

Around the time we were working with him, Chester had some fun gigs. He opened for Johnny Winter and John Mayall at the Fillmore, and he played the SF Blues Festival at Fort Mason. "All my songs are true," Chester said in 1989. "They are about traveling, mean-hearted women and tough times. With the death of legends in the Blues like Muddy Waters and Lighting Hopkins, there's not many left who play our style of the Blues anymore."

In the turmoil of my divorce and subsequent moving around, I lost track of Chester, the original tapes, and the mechanical of the cover art. If he’s still around, he would be in his 90’s now. I was honored to know him.

PDF of BAM Magazine review/interview and cover F&B | YouTube video 1990.