"Blind man, standing on the corner, cryin' out the blues..."
Darryl Prowell, almost as wide as he is tall, clutches his white cane in one hand and a microphone in the other as he moans out his trademark song. It's about one in the morning on Saturday night and the band's been playing for a little over an hour. Christmas lights strung across the basement ceiling flash on and off like strobes; the patrons are beginning to get warmed up, and a few squeeze their way through the tables and chairs toward the dance floor.
Though it's only been open for about six months, Midnight Players has a steady crowd, and the only people here are regulars or their friends. Located in the basement of a house in Austin, the club is set back from the sidewalk between a liquor store and a series of apartment buildings. You walk around to the back and ring the buzzer, and Eula the proprietress will come up to let you in. Down in the basement is one large room with a fully stocked bar along one side, a pool table off in the corner, and space for four or five tables around a dance floor.
Prowell, who sings here regularly, is the perfect entertainer for Midnight Players--nothing about him is exactly what it seems. Every-one concedes that Prowell is, in fact, blind--but exactly how blind is open to question. His glasses, thick as the bottoms of Coke bottles, are balanced on the end of his nose; to get around he peers over them and feels his way along with his cane; he's nonetheless able to recognize people all the way across the darkened room. He's a round little man whose soft, almost feminine plumpness belies the bullish power with which he sings.
Behind Prowell, Lacy Gibson and the Family Band grind out elemental Chicago blues, with rhythmic impetus provided by Dave the bongo player. Dave sometimes claims to be the long-lost son of harmonica master Little Walter. His eyes are piercing but unfocused; offstage they tend to glaze over a bit. Onstage, however, he's full of pep, slapping away at his bongos with a slack-jawed grin.
The Family Band, which has been playing here for about a month, was the house band until about a year ago of another blind pig. Ann's Love Nest, in the basement of a building near Lake and Western, was run by Gibson's wife Ann.
The only way you'd know if Ann's was open for business was if the Christmas lights were flashing in the window; for a dollar or two you'd be admitted through a ratty old curtain. Ann served beer, wine, and mixed drinks from behind a makeshift bar in the corner. The walls were cracked and dirty, adorned with pictures of dogs playing poker; the tables and chairs were rickety and prone to unexpected collapse; the chips were stale and the beer sometimes lukewarm; the pipes in the bathroom dripped ominously, and the stage looked as if it had been banged together from discarded plywood and tinker toys. Sometimes the entertainers seemed more interested in drinking or squabbling than playing.
Ann's Love Nest closed down about a year ago after an overenthusiastic nightclub owner from outside the neighborhood organized a west-side pub crawl and included Ann's on the itinerary. Neighbors who'd been putting up with the club's all-night guests finally drew the line at crowds of tourists showing up in buses. The authorities were called in and the place was closed down.
Ann has now teamed up with Eula at Midnight Players. Along with the Family Band, many of the Love Nest regulars have found their way here.
Things don't start jumping until after everything else in the neighborhood has closed, and the action is likely to continue way past dawn. Something of the old atmosphere--a sanctuary, a place where people could wander in from the night for a few hours of respite and warmth--has carried over as well.
Queen Terry, wearing a full-length raccoon coat and sporting a gold tiara, sits at a corner table wrapped around a drink and his newest young companion. Even in these easygoing surroundings they seem somewhat guarded, a little furtive. Terry, who's something of a fixture, is at least 60 years old; though generally pretty reserved, he nearly swoons with delight when Gibson introduces him through the microphone as "my sister," and he later engages in a bit of flirtatious banter with one of the musicians: "You're getting me upset! I'm getting upset!" The musician tickles him and then walks away.
Meanwhile, guitarist Little Sam leads the Family Band while Gibson takes a turn on the bass. Of all the blues musicians who've been nicknamed "Little" Sam might be the most deserving of the term. He stands barely four and a half feet tall, and if you ask him his weight he's as likely to say it's 75 as 104; his waist is as thin as many people's thighs. His usual guitar is nearly as big as he is, though recently he's acquired a miniature instrument that fits him perfectly.
Sometimes, when Little Sam has too many drinks he'll leave the bandstand and end up off in a corner, telling tales of woe to any woman who'll listen. Occasionally he'll solicit funds for an emergency trip back to Memphis, saying his mother just died, or his wife left him and he's so lonely he can't stand it anymore. His doleful face, gap-toothed and careworn, usually elicits a donation of some kind. Then, likely as not, he'll grab a beer can and chomp down on it, leaving a pair of vampire holes in the aluminum--to the stunned amazement of his benefactress.
This night Sam is sober and he's on fire. His playing is distinguished by that combination of sophisticated chording and overamplified aggression that characterized the great Memphis session men of the 50s. He leads the band with a crisp professionalism, covering for others' mistakes and occasionally cutting a song short if he realizes he's taken on something too complex for one of the sidemen. His voice is an astounding full-bodied roar that ascends into an ear-splitting scream reminiscent of James Brown. "It ain't possible!" a listener once mumbled, looking in wonderment at Sam's scrawny neck and chest. "He ain't got no throat!"
By 3 AM the party is going full-blast. The walls shake to the rhythm of the band, raucous laughter resonates through the room; hot soul food, including goat meat, fried fish, and boiled pig ears, cooks behind the bar. An unemployed drummer named Red--also nicknamed Buck because once at Ann's he sang a set stark naked--cadges spare change, then slips mysteriously out the door. Big John, a massive, slow-moving bass player who once shocked everyone by chasing his wife out Ann's door and almost halfway down the block, comes in and settles his enormous bulk atop a stool, cradling his instrument and taking in everything through sleepy eyes. Up onstage, Lacy Gibson grabs his guitar again, and the music's energy level picks up considerably.
Meanwhile, the waitress Dorothy cleans tables and keeps an eye on the floor watching for anything that's spilled or broken. Dorothy's a white woman of indeterminate age whose face is fixed in a pinched grimace. She doesn't talk about her past much, except to bitterly castigate her Louisiana family for disowning her years ago for the sin of dating a black man. She left home at a young age, and the years haven't been kind to her, though Ann certainly has. Several years ago Dorothy became a member of the aggregation Ann calls her "family." Dorothy's eyes soften only when she speaks of Ann: "That's my mother," she says. "The only mother I've got."
Gibson concludes a set of sizzling R & B and funk standards with his surrealistic jam "Zulu," as the band tries to keep up with his free-form explorations and Dave pounds away on the bongos.
Then after a short break Gibson returns to his bass; Little Sam hoists his guitar, and Darryl Prowell shuffles back to the microphone. He looks out over the rims of his glasses, his head turning slowly as he takes in the revelers. Suddenly he stops. "Hey now," he says, "there's a woman out there, she got some big ol' hips on her that just won't quit! And when hips start to messin' with these blind eyes of mine, you know they got to be some serious hips!"
The woman gyrates her ample middle in his direction as the crowd explodes into laughter. "Darryl!" people call out. "We thought you couldn't see!"
"I said I was blind, not handicapped!"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.