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Gonzo Video

Clowning Around With the Blues

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Sister Buzzard ("Madame Buh-ZAHRD to you!"), the Louisiana voodoo queen ("I practice voodoo, hoodoo, and yoo-hoo!"), was getting dangerously angry. She'd come all the way to Chicago to appear on The Blues and More, on Cable Access Channel 25. Deejay Pervis Spann, the show's host, and his sidekick, comedian Carl Wright, said they wanted her to help him get even with a hustler named Big Money Willie, who they said had seduced Wright's 700-pound girlfriend Othella. Now Sister Buzzard was getting ready to fix Willie for good--"so he won't want no woman," as Spann had put it--but Wright didn't have the money to pay her.

She stroked her sorcerer's wand with sinister sensuality and glared at Wright cowering in his chair. "If I don't get my money," she snapped, "whatever's supposed to happen to him will happen to you!" Suddenly Wright's wrist went limp and he began to fuss in a squeaky falsetto and mince, batting his eyes across the set at Spann. Spann chortled and cut to a commercial.

Spann is a Chicago legend, one of the original WVON "Good Guys" who helped make the station one of the country's most popular and influential black-radio outlets in the early 60s. He currently hosts The Blues Man Show on 'VON (1450 AM) every Friday and Saturday, starting at midnight. Wright may not be as familiar to younger audiences but he's a show-business veteran who began performing more than 40 years ago as a tap dancer on the black vaudeville circuit.

Wright and Spann met in the mid-60s when Wright came to work as a comedian and emcee for the blues and R & B shows Spann promoted at Chicago's old Regal Theater and elsewhere, especially in the south. In the 70s Wright joined singer Tyrone Davis's revue, but he continued to work Spann's shows whenever he could.

Last January Spann came up with the idea for a blues-video TV show. Brokering the advertising himself, as he's done for years with his radio programs, he landed a slot on Channel 25's Showcase Chicago. He invited Wright for an interview one night, and the on-air chemistry between the two was an immediate hit. Soon Wright was a regular.

The Blues and More airs Monday evenings at 8:30; it's repeated Wednesdays at 8:30 and Fridays at 8. The videos range from rare footage of Howlin' Wolf to more contemporary clips of Johnnie Taylor, Tyrone Davis, Bobby "Blue" Bland, and others. But the bulk of the show has been given over to the banter between Spann and Wright. A photo of a hefty, scantily clad woman hangs on a wall behind them; for several months the ongoing saga of the lovesick Wright and his wayward rubenesque Othella has been the show's centerpiece.

Wright says the idea came about spontaneously on the air. "The conversation was about B.B. King, and how wonderful he was. He always has time for his people, don't make no difference whether they're ugly, beautiful, skinny, fat--when I said 'fat,' Pervis said, 'Watch out what you say about them fat people!' I said, 'I love fat women! I got one in Atlanta; she weighs 700 pounds!' From that point on, we started improvising on that."

Othella, so the story goes, is so big that she can't fit in a limousine or even a bus. When she came here from Atlanta, Wright had to have an Army construction crew at O'Hare to knock the sides out of a mobile home, hoist her on board, and bring her home to him.

Meanwhile the four-foot, seven-inch singer Kid Dynamite was called on to play the nefarious Big Money Willie, Wright's competition. The weekend after he first appeared--ostensibly via satellite from Atlanta, with a well-padded Othella perched demurely beside him--listeners called Spann's radio program to revile "midgets" and their treacherous ways.

Sometimes the show surprises even its hosts. The night Sister Buzzard--played with delicious fury by vocalist Holly Maxx--hoodooed Big Money Willie and the nonplussed Wright, she unexpectedly improvised an incantation that culminated with "You are a faggot!"

According to Wright, they received "two letters at most" from a gay viewer "from the north side or someplace--we don't know where he was from," protesting the use of the word "faggot." Spann delivered a mild disclaimer at the end of the next show. No offense was meant, he said; it was "all in fun." Wright and Spann's improvisations violate so many taboos that it's difficult to tell whether the pair are being deliberately confrontational or are just blissfully unaware of the issues.

A week or two later Kid Dynamite came sashaying in wearing red lipstick and a blond wig. He proclaimed that his name was now "Willie Mae" (which he subsequently shortened to "Wilma"). "I'm gonna rock your world!" he purred, snuggling close to a horrified-looking Wright. The two carried on in that vein throughout most of the hour-long show; eventually Spann, the crew, and even Wright were reduced to helpless laughter.

Finally, a woman stuffed into an outrageously bulky costume waddled in, claiming to be Othella. Nobody seemed to notice that she wasn't the same woman who'd been seen luxuriating in Big Money Willie's Atlanta lair only weeks before; nor was she the one whose picture had graced the studio for months. Wright melted into her expansive embrace with a satisfied smile.

Wright now says they're going to shelve the Othella routine for the time being, despite its popularity. "We've played that thing for months now," he says. "We're going to give it a rest and move in another direction."

The show's gonzo proclivities, though, will doubtless go on unchecked. "We can go into something else," Wright muses. "Make another vehicle for [Kid Dynamite], find another woman or somebody for him, or whatever--it can go on forever!"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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