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High Hopes

The way Jimmy Baker sees it, he's still got time to become a star.

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Jimmy Baker, a gangly middle-aged man with a spidery mustache, a friendly smile, and no fingers, ambles north on State Street toward the Harold Washington Library. He lives in the New Ritz Hotel, a walk-up SRO about five minutes from the library, and he knows lots of people on State.

"Down here my name is Guitar Man," he says. "Down here I'm a legend. Ha, ha, ha. I guess that's somethin'. They heard me when I had it. They heard me play at the Daley Center, at nightclubs." He's wearing a corduroy cowboy hat with poker chips stuck in the band and a picture of Chuck Berry pinned to the crown. His jacket is covered with buttons, including one that reads "Jesus Is a Habit Breaker."

We pass a couple of guys. "Hey there, Guitar," one of them says.

"Hey, all right now," Baker says. "They live in the hotel too," he tells me. "Off and on. Check in and check out. It takes a lot in show business. It don't look like nothin', like I say, but show business ain't nothin' until you're on the stage. It's just like boxin', it's just like ballplayin'. You can see these ballplayers walk around downtown all day, don't look like nothin'. But if they're on the field they'll do it. Somethin' special."

Baker was once a blues guitar player. He was born in East Saint Louis in 1942, but grew up in Mississippi and attended high school in South Bend. He dropped out his senior year and went into music. He says that first year he appeared on two tele-vision programs, American Bandstand and a South Bend show run by the local Junior Achievement. When the music wasn't paying he worked in various automobile factories, including the Studebaker plant in Flint, Michigan. He says he's played at the Regal Theater, at Kingston Mines, and at lunchtime concerts at the Daley Center, as well as at the Apollo in New York, the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, and the Embers Club in Miami. He says he's appeared on-stage at one time or another with Sunnyland Slim, Eddie Taylor, Willie Dixon, Little Ester Phillips, Freddie King, Jackie Wilson, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. And he says he was getting ready to record an album when his manager, Sonny Thompson, died.

Six mornings a week, from ten o'clock to one, he's on the eighth floor of the Harold Washington Library. First he heads for the desk of the Visual and Performing Arts Information Center, gets a set of colored markers and some scrap paper from the clerk, and sits at a table in the back of the room. One day I find him drawing musical notes in different colors on a piece of yellow paper. "See, I don't have to turn a record player on to hear a record," he says. "If I want to hear James Brown all I do is think of James Brown. All his songs come to me. I can hear them just like they're on the record player. That's what's called hearing music. Hearing sounds. Everybody can do it. You can turn it off like ABC too."

He holds the markers in the stubs on his left hand and guides the paper with his right. All the fingers on his left hand look like they've been cleaved in half. He has half a thumb and half a forefinger on his right hand; the other three fingers are completely gone.

He says that in the winter of 1983 he was carrying his guitar and an amplifier from the Loop to the public-aid office on 21st Street. He wasn't wearing gloves, and the wind chill was way below zero. When he arrived his fingers were frozen. He couldn't afford to go to the hospital, so he simply ran his hands under cold water. When he finally went to the emergency room it was too late. A few months later the circulation in his fingers seemed to be gone--he couldn't feel them--and he broke them off. "For seven or eight years after that happened I'd go outside when it was cold and my hands hurt. Gradually they got to where they don't hurt no more. You know, like when you got burnt in a fire--you get burnt, then you get close to heat it burns, it hurts. I was like that with cold. I got to where it don't anymore, 'cause I stayed out there. Go out every year. Always unbearable pain until you get to where it don't do it anymore. Don't hurt no more like that. I got past the pain effect about two years ago."

He draws a harmonica under the musical notes, counting out the finger holes. "Eight. I think there's eight." He writes BLUES HARP--G on the harmonica in green marker. Above it he writes BLUES PLEDGEING. "It ain't as big as a piana. Carryin' it around ain't so much trouble. Don't get tired of playing the thing. The hard part is I didn't know what I was goin' to do when I found out I'd lost my hands. That's a hurt feeling when you're one of the best guitar players there ever been. So at the time I wondered, What in the world am I gonna do? I thought about somethin' I once did on the harmonica. The music just comes right to ya. I'm a better harp player than I was a guitar player."

Baker says he's preparing an album, which he hopes to record soon. He's rewritten the lyrics of ten Chuck Berry songs. "I've sorta taken the dust off the record. They're old-fashioned lyrics, and I've changed them until they're more relatable to today. I'm singin' about ball games and those type of things. The way that people go about doin' it now, different things--how they enjoy life, you know, and stuff like that. I'm gettin' it ready. You have to barbecue it first, the music, then you purify it, then you got to rehearse it till the magic gets on it. Once you know how to do it you can do it yourself. If you don't know how to do it the recording company will waste a lot of time after you get there. You got to be perfect before you hit the radio anyway. It's got to be. If someone's gonna put $200,000 behind your music it's got to be perfect. It's no joke at all. Just as serious as making a jet to put in the sky."

I ask him if he practices every day.

He takes up a pencil and starts scribbling in the background of his drawing.

"Every day, right. Anything is every day if you're gonna do anything with it. Ain't every day, there ain't nothin' to it no way. Anything is every day if there's anything to it."

After he draws a harmonica, he says, he can make music. He takes me to one of the library's music rooms, which is just big enough for a chair, a bench, an electric piano, and a couple of amplifiers.

"I'm goin' to show you how I play," he says. "The rest of them play like Sonny Boy Williamson. Just like a rat gettin' a new piece of cheese, once somebody's gettin' some new type of music, all of them are goin', tryin' to do somethin' new. Wear the idea out. I play the piano too." He laughs. "Just a little bit. I show you right here."

He sits down at the piano and moves his stubs over the keys, haltingly and awkwardly at first, but then picking up steam. He drills out a definite blues riff, then turns around. "Ha-hah! You wouldn't have thought someone with no fingers could play that! I'm somethin' like Ray Charles!" He plays another song much like the first.

"I couldn't do that," I say.

"See? Everybody else can do somethin' that no one else can do. See, people think you're a joke because show business is like boxing--you've thought they wasn't nothin' till they onstage. Hidden altogether, somethin' is hidden. But in show business it's not like boxing. Boxing, you forced to retire from age. This, if you 90 year old 'fore you ever had a good piece of music, if you got one it doesn't matter how old you is. It's just as serious as CIA or FBI or diplomat of state. People think it's a joke. Ha, ha, heh, heh, heh. It's not a joke."

He pulls a rusty-looking Hohner harmonica out of his jacket. "I hope it works right. Sometimes I gotta whistle to make it work. It's a G harp, made in Germany. Blues harp."

He blows into it, moving his stubs across the airholes and tapping out a rhythm with his foot. He breathes heavily. Every note seems like an effort. It sounds like he needs a new harmonica.

When he finishes the song he looks at my tape recorder. "You gotta turn that off. I don't want my style to get out. You'd be surprised that somebody can get your style." He plays another song, which he says is by James Brown.

I ask him if he'll play something from his album.

"No. You see, that's already done, and no one's gonna hear it until I record it. Let me play you this one. Jackson Five. You know it."

He wheezes through another song. "Heh, heh, heh. You remember that, huh? Yeah. All right. That's Michael Jackson." He plays "Sweet Home Chicago," then blows out a mournful melody. He starts singing in a beautiful gruff blues tenor and blows on the harp between verses:

You've got me peepin'

You've got me hidin'

You've got me peep, hide, hide,peep

Anywhere you want me

Let it roll

Yeah, yeah, yeah

You've got me doin' what you wan'me

And baby what you wan' me to do?

He turns, his eyes gleeful. "Ha, ha, you remember that? That was written by a guy called Jimmy Reed. Yeah, he was pretty good. I play better than that when I got my amplifier set up, but I laid off my music. I'm just practicing for my album, see? You get a little bit rusty, but the music come back."

I ask him again to play something from his album.

"Ain't no one who can hear my song. They don't have to do your song. They can write something like your song, around your song, and kill your idea. When you get ready to record it it's dead, the idea is dead. Say like "Love, love me do.' The Beatles. Say somebody else had wrote around them. When they got ready to record they couldn't use it then, because the recording company knew that ain't nobody gonna buy it."

He fingers his harmonica. "See, I play in nightclubs when I play. I have booking agents when I play. Some people, they make money in the nightclubs and on the street. But I don' mess with it. When I cut my album I'm gonna do it to my full ability, what I learnt from my manager "Long Gone' Sonny Thompson about makin' the album. It could be put on the radio. If you know what you supposed to know they gonna put it on the radio."

A few days later Baker's at the same library table drawing two harmonicas--one green and brown, the other blue and red--surrounded by musical notes. "Oh it's you," he says. "So. You ain't got much to do right now?"

"I guess not."

"That's good. My routine is freelance too. It's up to me. I ain't on a time clock. I'm like the president of the United States goin' from country to country. I been readin' the paper for about 20, 30 years. That's how I got where I am. I could run for the presidency with what I know. I could. Say, did that tape the other day turn out OK?"

I say it sounded fine.

"'Cause I thought about somethin' if I ever see you again. Your tape recorder is a little bitty one. I wish you had one of the regular size. What I wanted you to do for me, if you had one, is to let me record my album off of your tape machine. I could play it on mine, but mine won't record unless I had a microphone."

"I don't have a big tape recorder."

"You ain't got no microphone? Because that would help me very much. A microphone is all I need, then I could record into my own tape recorder."

"Don't they have microphones in the practice rooms?"

"I thought they had, but I talked to them yesterday. They used to have a recordin' place here, but they said it would be months now before they had it again. They gonna have it again, and I might just wait until then. But what I'm gonna do if I win the lottery--you know, I play every day. Last night I needed a nine to win. If I catch the lottery today at midday I'm gonna buy me a microphone, and I can record into that tape I got."

He finishes his harmonica drawings and writes BLUES HARP--G on each of them. On top of the piece of paper he writes A BLUES PLEDGE. Below it, in cursive, he writes, "is music for a good time. By Jimmy Baker."

He ponders his picture for a minute, then starts coloring the background yellow. "I could sell you this one for about four thousand."

"Four thousand dollars?"

"Yeah. Then I wouldn't regret it becomin' famous later." He throws his head back and laughs. "Made the painting look like garbage when I said that, didn't it? Certain people who got money, if a good price ain't on somethin' they won't buy it. If you sell it to somebody who filthy rich, if you say $10,000 they buy it right away. But if you say $500 they won't buy it. They want somethin' valuable to put in their house. Whether it's valuable or not, they want it to be valuable."

"Maybe $40 for me. Maybe $4."

"No-income people like us are semirich, you know? You can rent what a rich man can buy. You can go in debt, get a house, furniture, no money down. That mean you semirich. That's my interpretation. Everybody got their own opinion. Lot of people think they just straight-up poor. There ain't no such thing as poor if you think like I do. If you mess up your rentin' and credit power, then you poor in my book. I'm semirich. I ain't ever messed up my credit and rentin' power."

He pauses and looks thoughtful. "Of course I ain't ever used it that much either." He breaks up laughing.

We walk the five or six blocks from the library to the New Ritz, where his four-by-eight-foot room costs him $12 a day. He receives a government disability check and runs errands for other residents for extra money, which he uses to play the lottery. After leaving the library he usually goes to Woolworth's to buy lottery tickets. Then it's lunch in a diner, and he returns to the hotel to see if anyone wants him to run an errand, which usually involves buying food, booze, or cigarettes. "If they drinkin', they gonna drink. Somebody's gonna go make the money and get it for them. Might as well be me." He eats dinner in another diner and is usually back at the New Ritz by early evening.

We come to a red light, and since there are no cars around I move to cross the street. He tells me to wait. "I always stop," he says. "No need to rush. No need to make the police angry. Other people, they don't wait. But I do."

On a rotting wooden door the words "The New Ritz" are spelled out in black letters outlined with gold. The lobby is a couple of flights up. The desk clerk, whose nickname is Cueball, sits behind a cage window.

"Hey there, Cue," Baker says. "This here's my journalist. I'm just gonna show him the lobby here."

"Yeah, OK, Guitar. What you bringin' all these people in here for?"

"Show business."

"OK, then."

The lobby is a large dusty room with exposed pipes, peeling brown and yellow paint, and wooden chairs scattered around. A man in paint-splattered overalls sits coughing in a corner. Two other men watch a new color TV that's tuned to Maury Povich.

"Hey there, Guitar," one of them says.

"Hey!"

"You a little early today."

"I'm just here for a little rest." He turns to me. "It's a nice place to hang your hat, you know? Don't need to be payin' all that rent when I ain't got my wife with me."

He says he's been married twice and has two children by his first wife, who lives in South Bend. He says his second wife lives in New Orleans. "If she still alive. She was a lot older than me when I married her." He also has several brothers and sisters, though he's lost touch with them. But he still visits his mother, who lives in Memphis.

We sit down in front of the television.

"Every night I forgive my dad for not raising me, because when I got to be a young man I learned how life is. You can't all the times stay and raise a kid, because somethin' comes up. I sent them money, but that wasn't like bein' there. But you can't be there. Then you forgive your dad if he wasn't there. You smoke?"

"Go ahead," I say.

He sighs. "I don't mean do you mind. I mean can I get a real cigarette from you, that's all. Never smoked, huh?" He pulls out some rolling papers and a big wad of tobacco. He steadies two papers with his right hand, takes a clump of tobacco with his left, fashions a cigarette about the thickness of a cigar, lights it, and starts puffing away.

"I ain't never seen my grandkids yet," he says, dropping ashes in his lap. "I hope to see 'em before I die, before I perish. I got two kids that I know of. Them one-night love affairs." He pauses. "I'm 53. In show business you call that old if you ain't made it like you want to yet. Chuck Berry's still goin', but he's already established, see? It's different when you're already established."

Later I walk him back to the library. Again we pass lots of guys he knows. "Hey, now," he says to one.

"Hey, what's up, Guitar Man?"

"Gonna be in the paper."

"Huh?"

He points to me. "This the man gonna put me in the paper."

"Yeah? Can I get in there?"

"I don' know. It's a show-business clip."

We get off at the eighth floor and walk past the permanent display of Chicago blues greats. "Look at the pictures," he says. "They've got 'em all up there. Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Koko Taylor. They all there."

"What about you?" I say.

"Ha-haaaaaah! Not yet." He pulls out his harmonica and blows a note. "But I will be. That's a sure thing. Someday! Someday!"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Damien Lee.

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