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Worthy Causes: singing the blues for Kansas City Red

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Take out your false teeth, mama

Daddy wanna suck your gums!

The career of avuncular drummer Kansas City Red spans more than 40 years of Chicago blues history. Born Arthur Stevenson in 1926 in Drew, Mississippi, Red began his career in the early 40s playing behind guitarist Robert Nighthawk; eventually he became a member of the circle of musicians who gravitated around Rice Miller and played on the famed King Biscuit radio show in Helena, Arkansas. Red survived a number of scrapes with the law, women, and jealous boyfriends both down south and in California before he migrated to southern Illinois in the late 40s and began playing with the influential guitarist Earl Hooker. He finally made it to Chicago about 1950.

Along with Sunnyland Slim, Big Walter Horton, Honeyboy Edwards, and other delta expatriates, Red played a major role in transforming the blues from a southern tradition to a forward-looking urban form. He claims to have given Jimmy Reed his first Chicago-area gigs, lending his percussive sureness to Reed's rhythmic unpredictability and helping prepare Reed for his eventual role as one of the first blues superstars.

Red, meanwhile, never broke out of the local circuit. His personality, by turns guarded and easygoing, masks a vulnerability that may have been unsuited to the vicissitudes of blues life; he's been known to weep openly when singing "I Am a Prisoner," a song he wrote about spending time in jail in 1980. His drumming style--busy and eccentric, always threatening to jump ahead of the beat, punctuated by random cymbal crashes and reining itself in with marchlike rolls--is one of the most identifiable in Chicago blues. His signature in recent years has been his solo on "Freedom Train"--a barrage of tub-thumping pyrotechnics often inserted unexpectedly in the middle of a set of traditional shuffles and slow blues.

But Red's legacy transcends his musical contributions. He's owned and managed a series of popular blues clubs on the west side--the Boola Boola at Sacramento and Lake, the Shangri-La at Albany and Lake. More recently his Sunday-afternoon jam sessions--held everywhere from B.L.U.E.S. to the V and J Lounge on Kedzie--have attracted musicians and fans from all over the city. Red is a warm, amiable host, usually content to direct things from the sidelines--he emcees, and often walks through the audience leading applause. But he occasionally ambles to the stage to improvise some of his notorious lyrics (see above) and maybe take a turn at the drums. He's proudly aware of his role as convener of artists and listeners from diverse backgrounds. "Now we don't allow none of that in here," he once reprimanded a singer who'd made some racial comments from the stage. "We got black, white, yellow, and red up in here--and don't that make a beautiful flower!"

Kansas City Red has been hospitalized several times in recent months. This Sunday, the eve of his 65th birthday, his friends are throwing a birthday party and benefit for him at Rosa's, 3420 W. Armitage, at 3 PM. Willie Kent and the Gents headline; guests promise to range from Sam Lay and Jimmy Dawkins to Honeyboy Edwards and Barrelhouse Chuck. Cover is $3; for further information, call at 342-0452.

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